Northern powerless... Why Westminster does not speak for the regions

PUBLISHED: 08:00 21 June 2019

With the majority of the cabinet coming from the south, has the Northern Powerhouse lost a lot of the power they might have had? Picture: PA/Tim Ireland

With the majority of the cabinet coming from the south, has the Northern Powerhouse lost a lot of the power they might have had? Picture: PA/Tim Ireland

PA Wire/PA Images

With the majority of the cabinet coming from the south, has the Northern Powerhouse lost a lot of the power they might have had?

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MPs in the House of Commons. Photograph: House of Commons/PA Wire.MPs in the House of Commons. Photograph: House of Commons/PA Wire.

Does June 23 ring any bells? Of course it does… June 23, 2016, the date of what was hopefully the second last referendum in the history of the UK's relations with Europe.

But there is another June 23 event, two years earlier, that could, and should, have been just as impactful. It was certainly meant to be when the chancellor of the time, George Osborne, stood on a stage in Manchester and told of a "hard truth" - that London dominates the UK's economy and that it was time for the north to become "a powerhouse for our economy again".

The plan was to connect the economies of the great northern towns and cities into one "Northern Powerhouse". The phrase itself has become part of our political language but not yet alas, part of a transformed economic landscape, perhaps suggesting the Cameron-Osborne duopoly was better at devising slogans than delivering real change.

The June 23 event of 2016 has certainly had the greater impact, most of it for the worse, the prospect of prime minister Boris Johnson but the latest in a long line of negative consequences combining to signal worrying national decline.

Osborne did at least represent a northern seat, Tatton in Cheshire, but once he was told by Theresa May to "go away and learn about the party", he was replaced by Philip Hammond. Could there be a more Home Counties seat than Runnymede and Weybridge? It's in Surrey. Need you ask?

So, a combination of austerity, a government focused on nothing but Brexit, and a cabinet almost all from the south has combined to ensure the Northern Powerhouse has lost a lot of whatever power it might have had. Theresa May, MP for Maidenhead, Jeremy Hunt, South West Surrey, Michael Gove, Surrey Heath, Chris Grayling, Epsom and Ewell (that's in Surrey by the way), David Lidington, Aylesbury, Sajid Javid, Bromsgrove, Amber Rudd, Hastings and Rye, Stephen Barclay, North East Cambridgeshire, Penny Mordaunt, Portsmouth North, David Gauke, South West Hertfordshire, Matt Hancock, West Suffolk, Damian Hinds, East Hampshire, Liam Fox, North Somerset, Greg Clark, Tunbridge Wells, James Brokenshire, Old Bexley and Sidcup, Jeremy Wright, Rugby and Kenilworth, Tory chairman Brandon Lewis, Great Yarmouth.

The northernmost English MP in the cabinet is Rory Stewart in Penrith and the Border; over the border Scottish Secretary David Mundell represents a Dumfriesshire seat, Welsh Secretary Alun Cairns the Vale of Glamorgan, and Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley in Staffordshire Moorlands.

As for the list of ministers not in the cabinet but who attend cabinet, step forward Liz Truss, South West Norfolk, Mel Stride, Central Devon, Geoffrey Cox, Torridge and West Devon, Claire Perry, Devizes in Wiltshire, Caroline Nokes, Romsey and Southampton North, Chris Skidmore, Kingswood South Gloucestershire.

Finally I find chief whip Julian Smith - let's hear it for Skipton and Ripon. And remember that if the Leave campaign's Liar-in-Chief does become PM, Uxbridge gets added to the map of power.

Of course, politics is not the only source of power, and cabinet not the only source of political power, but take a look at the map… with one Old Etonian up in the Borders, and the government enforcer in Yorkshire, that is it… it doesn't just reveal a democratic imbalance; it exposes indifference bordering on contempt for the north.

It is a different form of contempt which underlines much of the London media's caricature of northerners as one-dimensional characters in a Brexit soap opera, ever willing to meet the latest television crew up from the capital for the day to say "we're angry… we just want to get on with it".

The northern papers are doing their bit, but beyond half a mention on a review of the newspapers otherwise dedicated to the Tory leadership race, I saw very little southern attention given to their 'Power Up the North' campaign. Some 30-plus regional newspapers led by the Yorkshire Post and the Manchester Evening News came together to make the point that the north's economy is larger than that of Scotland and Wales, yet their voice is not heard in the same way.

It is partly because of these twin imbalances - the lack of attention paid to the north, and the portrayal of northerners as some homogenous mass of angry Brexiteers - that the People's Vote summer campaign is being launched in Leeds this weekend, and alongside it People's Vote North, part of a broader campaign to give all regions a greater voice in the fight for a final say referendum. The climax of the campaign will be a march in London in October, as the latest Brexit deadline under a new PM nears, but meanwhile there will be big events all around the country.

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In a recent podcast conversation between Ed Miliband, my daughter Grace and myself, I suggested relocating Westminster to the north. OK, perhaps I was pushing it in saying the new parliament should be in Burnley, but I was serious. Ed pointed to the absurdity of the current refurbishment of parliament, that MPs move out, megabucks get spent on renovation, and they all just move back in "like there is no need to change anything".

Only when it is acknowledged by MPs, particularly those whose constituencies are in London and the south east, that the current relationship between London and the rest of the country is unhealthy, might change start to happen.

For even before we consider factors relating to economic development, there is a more fundamental question about democracy and the gap between people and the decisions taken over their lives.

Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the seeming acceptance of the process under way to choose our next prime minster. Only 13% of Conservative MPs deciding the two who go through to a vote of members represent constituencies in the north. Only 17% of the Conservative members, who then decide which of these two will reside in 10 Downing Street, are from the north.

This does not even take into account that Conservative membership is just 0.25% of the population, and that a good chunk of those are UKIP and Brexit Party infiltrators.

What power is this to the people of Knowsley or St Helens, Warrington or Wakefield, Sunderland or Stockton-on-Tees? How wide the gap between people and the decisions taken about their lives if this person, most likely Boris Johnson, then imposed a hard Brexit without a real mandate for it?

How wide the gap if the mortgage they could not pay because of the job they have just lost because of a destructive Brexit deal that nobody voted for, was imposed on them by a prime minister nobody among the 99.75% who aren't Tory members actually voted for?

It is this growing gap between the people of the north and the decisions which impact on their lives that is responsible for the growing sense of frustration - not so much Northern Powerhouse as Northern Powerlessness.

Combine this with the reality that a no-deal Brexit would hit the north first and worst, with the value of goods and services in the north east dropping by 10.5%, in the north west by almost 10% and almost 9% in Yorkshire and Humber. What damage would this cause in a region where people are 20% more likely to die young due to social and economic inequalities?

The likes of Boris Johnson with his billionaire backers, and Nigel Farage with his £450,000 handouts from Aaron Banks, will not be worried about.

The only way forward is to reduce the gap between people and the decisions taken over their lives. This is why so many are now calling for a final say referendum. Democracy has to be given back to the people. It is why the message of 'Let Us Be Heard' will be taken out of London.

It is why people from all across the north will be in Leeds this Saturday with a message to Johnson, Farage and Co: you were not voted for by us, your no-deal Brexit was not voted for by us, and above all, you do not speak for us.

And it is why I hope lots of you sign up for the June 22 event, the day before the 3rd anniversary of Brexit, which still hasn't happened, and never should without the outcome going back to the people.

- Saturday's rally takes place at the New Dock Hall, Armouries Drive, Leeds, LS10 1LT. Doors will open at 11.30am for a 12.30pm start. The event will last for approximately one hour.

- To register your attendance, and to find out more, visit the People's Vote website

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