In all the hullabaloo that has followed the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, we have had the inevitable avalanche of instant punditry: forgetting Harold Wilson’s famous dictum that a week is a long time in politics (after all, who would have thought six months ago that Corbyn would be where he is now?), the boys and girls in the bubble talk ad nauseum about ‘how it the Tories will be in power for another ten years’ etc, etc.
Attention on our party has been strangely muted. Granted, the Westminster elite never liked paying us much credence anyway and have probably convinced themselves that we will now fade from the scene after the disappointing General Election result and the recriminations that followed. However, it is surely UKIP that stands to gain most from Labour’s debacle: as Lord Ashcroft recent polling shows, tribal hatred of the Tories runs deep in Labour voters and most Labour voters who switch to the Tories feel very bad for doing so, whereas once they switch to UKIP they never switch back. This is particularly true in Labour’s Northern working class heartlands, and surely now we have a golden opportunity to rebuild momentum in these areas.
However our party will only prosper in working class Northern areas if it acts altruistically and not opportunistically: it must offer the North a genuine and very radical vision, formed from a deep empathy and understanding of the area’s history and culture, that is likely to address very deep-rooted problems and subsequently lead to long term success. We must go beyond the shallow flim-flam and disjointed ventures of Osborne’s cynical Northern Powerhouse initiative: it’s not enough to promise better transport links or the odd enterprise zone, or piecemeal devolution: we must aim much, much bigger than that; we must aim at nothing less than the North’s cultural transformation into a pro-capitalist economy.
The cultural question
It is often thought that culture simply follows economics, but in fact the relationship between the two are inextricably intertwined in a chicken-and-egg way. Economic seeds planted on poor cultural soil will eventually wither and die.
The major issue is that much of what was once the industrial North distrusts capitalism very deeply. Memories of exploitation by callous mine owners and industrialists run very deep, and in recent years these have been reinforced by the humiliations of the Thatcher period and – as they see it – the destruction not just of their industry but of their whole way of life. Since then, we have had New Labour’s cynical sovietisation of Labour core areas, with the public sector taking up fractions of the local economy not out of place in the old Communist Eastern Europe. Following that we had the recent banking crisis, which shook the faith of even the most ardent supporters of capitalism while appearing to vindicate the prejudices of those who always distrusted it.
As a result of this process of constant psychological reinforcement, capitalism is seen by many in the North – as it is in Scotland – as an alien, “Southern” idea that it strongly associates with its exploitation and cultural humiliation. Unless something is done to break the cycle, then the North will continue to underperform and become ever more alienated from southern England. Last year, thousands of people marched in favour of a union with SNP-dominated Scotland. Although it is hard to imagine a break-away Northern English republic, that demonstrates the scale of the problem. Above all else, UKIP mustn’t underestimate the attractions Corbynism could have on this deeply embedded mentality.
The cultural answer: owning the process
The only way the post-industrial areas of the North can ever become comfortable with capitalism is if it is allowed to own the process of its own development from start to finish, building its own version of capitalism so that it can act as its own semi-autonomous region. Because our times are so completely dominated by London, we tend to forget how at one time each of great industrial cities had very proud and dynamic traditions. In his book English Journey, author J.B. Priestley claimed a city like Bradford was indifferent to London. Who could say that today?
Politicians always talk of localism but in practice do little once elected to power. To revive the regions UKIP must offer a true localism vision, and that critically, means starting with revenue collection: in their book The Plan, Daniel Hannan and Douglas Carswell suggested replacing VAT with a local sales tax. Current VAT revenues, at circa £104bn, match almost exactly local government spending at £103bn. Local councils would have complete control over the setting and collecting of its local sales tax. Currently we have the most centralised system of government and revenue collection in the Western world, with local government in charge of only a small fraction of the revenue it spends. Of course, this is not a perfect solution because poorer areas would still have a revenue shortfall compared to spending, but it would do a great deal to introduce genuine local autonomy as well as tax competition between the regions.
Part two of Andrew’s piece will appear tomorrow.