How COVID-19 has intensified inequalities in Northern England

This week, IPPR North’s report The State of the North has confirmed what many Northerners have known since the height of Thatcher’s term in office. With Brexit and COVID-19, the North-South divide has grown dramatically – to a point that the gap between South East England and North West England could be akin to that of West Germany and East Germany prior to reunification.

Before last week, one of the few things that set Northern England apart from the South East of England was consigned to history forever. If you wanted to know where the North of England really began, it was at the most southerly terminus of a rail service that was served by Class 142 Pacer units. With franchised buses as part of a fully integrated transport system, Greater London feels like another planet compared with Greater Manchester.

There are parts of Greater London that have the same miserable health statistics as parts of Greater Manchester. At this time of writing, Sadiq Khan’s city is in the Second Tier of regional lockdown tiers yet has a higher coronavirus R (reproduction) rate than Greater Manchester. Greater Manchester is in Tier 3 and saw a massive drop in its R rate during England’s second lockdown.

In the greater scheme of things, Northern England has had the highest COVID-19 death rate in the UK. Since March, the North West of England’s death toll stands at over 10,000 – a sixth of UK figures, akin to the population of Mossley.

As to what may have caused the deaths is far from clear cut. Pre-existing medical conditions is one; obesity, poor diet and smoking is another; also poor housing – cramped housing where social distancing is impossible. The industrial nature of Northern England is another – particularly industrial fields where working from home is impossible (i.e.: nursing, bus driving, food processing, and welding). Then you have the furloughing of staff and insecurity which has seen mental health take a hit with some people.

As well as social exclusion, it is argued that the Government’s centralised system of controlling the pandemic (which blatantly bypasses several years of local public health experience) is a factor. Despite news of a forthcoming vaccine by Pfizer, the government’s test and trace remains shambolic. Local lockdowns have been weighted towards Chairman Alexander de Pfeffel’s neck of the woods instead of Messrs Burnham and Rotheram. If they listened to Andy Burnham, we might be having a more normal Christmas thanks to leaving Lockdown 1.0 later and refusing to dine out on 2 for 1 offers.

As the pandemic has progressed, it was assumed that licensed premises were more dangerous than supermarkets and schools. When R rates rose in advance of second lockdowns in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the pubs and restaurants were seen as the scapegoat. It is clear that most of the rise came from schools, universities and superstores – places where social distancing cannot be as rigorously enforced as any public house. With or without substantial meals.

So, where does Northern England fit into this equation? Since the Tories’ decimation of the steel, coal and manufacturing industries in the 1980s, the service sector was hailed as a saviour. Instead of being Shop Steward at Cortonwood Colliery, you would work on the tills at the Morrisons store which stands on the site of that colliery.

At one end, the service sector means IT support, web design, telesales and providing consultancy services. Your workplace, pre-pandemic, would be an office in a business park or a central location. Post-pandemic, there’s a good chance you might be able to work from home on a full salary. At the other end you have checkout assistants, lone workers at your local bookmakers, baristas, hotel porters, bartenders and parcel couriers. There’s a good chance you may be furloughed or, worst of all, lose your job.

Controlling the pandemic would have been made easier without the Tories’ cuts to the public sector over the last decade. There isn’t enough police to stop every single person who is not wearing a mask from entering the superstore. The Tories have also turned to the army to undertake functions previously done by NHS staff. Likewise with COVID-19 testing, which could have been administered more frequently (and free at the point of delivery) in local hospitals and clinics.

Yet, the public sector has had bear the biggest burden of the pandemic. Ten weekly claps have failed to give NHS staff a pay rise that better reflects their hard work. Some have paid with their lives after treating patients. Teachers have had to self isolate with forms or entire year groups having to do the same. Partly because some schools haven’t allowed them to wear appropriate PPE.

With the unfavourable industrial climate, social exclusion and lost classroom hours, schoolchildren have lost more than the opportunity to see their friends. They have lost access to cross-curricular activities that give them joy such as live performance or playing a musical instrument. Support networks have whittled away. If their parents have lost income because of being furloughed or the derisory rate for Universal Credit (as well as the five-week wait and sanctions regime), there is untold damage to their mental health.

At national level, the cherry on the top of this nightmare is a lack of clarity and leadership. The real opposition to Her Majesty’s Government is coming from Local Government (our Metro Mayors, even the odd councillor from the County of Kent over its Tier 3 status) and Marcus Rashford.

The Powerhouse Postponed?

The pandemic has laid bare Northern England’s divide, one that is (at worst) akin to comparing North Korea with South Korea, or West and East Germany before reunification. Since many Northern English voters lent their vote to the Conservatives, any promise of levelling up the North of England has been put on the back burner. Many voters may have fallen for the Get Brexit Done tagline with talk of sunlit uplands from ‘taking back control’ from the EU.

As things stand, the cliff edge of No Deal Brexit® is looking ever more likely. Unlike Frank and Betty’s Morris Minor in an episode of Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em, there appears to be no salvation. What is no laughing matter is that we may be reduced to shouting “Phew! That was close” if we do get a bad deal. (Anyone familiar with The Young OnesSummer Holiday episode would remember what happened next).

Post-Brexit, The Wonderful World of Beef Tariffs will increase our shopping bills dramatically, and those traffic light systems in ALDI and TESCO might be useful for next year’s bread queues. All that money spent on losing our freedom of movement could have been spent on powering up the North. Like Northern Powerhouse Rail, improving our broadband networks and free music tuition for under-18s.

Carfin Calling

Here’s where Scotland enters the equation. There has been much praise for the Scottish Parliament’s handling of the pandemic due to a transparency and clarity. Since the pandemic began, support for Scottish Independence rose dramatically.

The Tories’ handling of Brexit and the pandemic hasn’t only boosted support for Scottish Independence. It has inspired the formation of the Northern Independence Party. Headed by Philip Proudfoot, it is at this moment in time a limited company. For many people, regionalist parties are tarred with the same brush as broad-based British and English nationalist parties on the right-wing of politics.

The Northern Independence Party’s aims are more akin to the Scottish National Party in being left-of-centre as well as its most obvious stance. Its aim is to have a referendum in the secession of Northern England from Westminster rule. It proposes the renaming of Northern England as Northumbria – a partial return to its roots as the Kingdom of Northumbria.

There has been previous attempts to form a Northern English political party. The Northern Party was one, formed by Michael Dawson (the nephew of ex-Labour MP Hilton Dawson) and Harold Elletson (ex-Conservative MP). This group lasted a year from 2015 to 2016 and adopted the Norse raven as its symbol.

More successful attempts at creating a regionalist political party have come in the form of the North East Party and the Yorkshire Party. Founded by ex-Labour MP Hilton Dawson, the North East Party holds three ward seats in County Durham. The Yorkshire Party (who dropped the original Yorkshire First name to avoid confusion with a certain far-right group) has eight ward seats and is led by Bob Buxton.

The Northern Independence Party aims to be a more broad based regional party, covering a vast area from Berwick-upon-Tweed and Carlisle to Malpas and Congleton. Its position on EU Membership is neutral, though EU monies have contributed to regeneration projects in Northern England via the European Regional Development Fund and European Social Fund. Most notably the regeneration of Albert Dock, Liverpool, and Greater Manchester’s Metrolink system.

Facebook and Twitter likes and followers:

How the Northern Independence Party stands among similar contemporaries. Twitter follower numbers are denoted in brackets. All figures correct at the time of press.

  • Scottish National Party: 325,214 (297.3k);
  • Northern Independence Party: 3,399 (15.8k);
  • The Yorkshire Party: 7,179 (4,710);
  • North East Party: 1,503 (377).

IPPR North’s State of the North report

Key to IPPR North’s recommendations is its four tests which are as follows:

  1. A Fairer North: a productive, low carbon economy that raises living standards;
  2. Better Work, Health and Pay: decent work, pay and conditions for everybody in the North of England – making for happier, longer and healthier lives;
  3. A Jobs-Led Recovery: sustainable employment and greater access to employment opportunities, and a reduction in child poverty;
  4. An Empowered North: improved engagement and democratic participation – and trust in political decision making.

It is fair to say that IPPR North’s four tests favour a fully integrated low-carbon transport system that connects people with places effectively. All of which under public control as part of a devolved Northern English assembly. It allows wriggle room for anything from an elected assembly to Northern English independence and possible European Union membership. According to the Northern Independence Party website, Northumbria’s economy is roughly the size of Sweden with a Gross Domestic Product slightly smaller than Japan.

Under the A Fairer North chapter, it shows how gross value across the UK is unequal. A map shows the gap in gross value between Slough and Dundee. In Northern England, there is quite a gap between Cheshire East and Wensleydale. Seven out of ten parts of Greater Manchester have a lower gross value figure than that of Trafford, Salford and Manchester.

Another part of IPPR North’s first test is decarbonisation. This could be achieved by improving energy efficiency across existing housing stock. Also by eliminating diesel trains and buses in favour of all-electric rolling stock which could make for cleaner towns and cities.

The second chapter, Better Work, Health and Pay looks at how all three regions of Northern England have lower hourly median wages than the rest of England. This is indicative of the low-paid nature of Northern England’s service sector jobs – many of which precarious, part time and non-unionised. With the public sector being a major part of Northern England’s labour market, pay and conditions have been squeezed thanks to over ten years of pay freezes and below-inflation wage rises.

With low wages comes increased dependence on DWP benefits, which have also been cut in real terms. What was ‘just getting by’ in 2010 has become a binary choice between ‘heat or eat’ ten years later. Even more so since the sanctions regime and changes to Housing Benefit has depressed incomes.

Thanks to the pandemic, more people have had to get to grips with the benefits system. Some of which haven’t signed on since the last Labour Government, never mind under the previous Prime Minister. They have been shocked by how draconian the Claimant Commitment is with Universal Credit (you can now lose your out-of-work benefit for up to three years with a Higher Level Sanction). Most of the rises in unemployment have been in cities and coastal towns.

In Northern England, this is further to the long term issues of its higher than average unemployment figures. That of low educational opportunities, lack of suitable work, family friendly working hours and being unable to afford the bus fare. Party to its third point, A Jobs-Led Recovery, is improved connectivity and a diverse labour market. One where s/he doesn’t have to find skilled work in London, or drive to the next town because the first bus leaves too late for their shift.

In IPPR North’s report, it argues that a stumbling block to Northern prosperity is the centralised nature of the United Kingdom. One where the balance of power is returning to London, as has done since Chairman de Pfeffel furloughed the concept of a Northern Powerhouse. One where England’s Glorious Leader has threatened to undermine – or abolish – Welsh and Scottish devolution.

An Empowered North looks at the discrepancies between central and local government. Whereas Northern England has five Mayoral Authorities, devolution is a patchwork affair. One that could be addressed by a Northern English Assembly with its Parliamentary House in Harrogate or Huddersfield. (Perhaps Yeadon Airport City could be a suitable power base in 2060).

Due to the concentration of power being contained in London and government-enforced spending cuts on local authorities, election turnouts remain low. The report also states how areas with local devolution (elected mayors) have benefited from higher turnouts, particularly in Greater London.

As seen with Andy Burnham, Steve Rotheram and Sadiq Khan, Metro Mayors can influence central government policymakers. One case in point has been Andy Burnham’s influence in the furlough scheme. He was vindicated when parts of Southern England got into higher COVID-19 control tiers.

Power and influence

In all, a strong regional voice should call central government to account. As we have seen with the Tories’ handling of the pandemic, Britain left its first lockdown at a time that was too early for Northern England though fine for London and South East England.

With the continued concentration of power we not only disenfranchise swathes of our country. We deny sections of our community and regions a voice. What chance has Oldham Community Radio got in setting the news agenda compared with BBC Radio 4? What if the 1990 Broadcasting Act didn’t exist, meaning that Granada Television and Piccadilly Radio would have the same clout as LBC does today?

Besides Marcus Rashford and our Metro Mayors, HM Government’s official opposition can come in the form of our regional newspapers. Especially so with Reach Media’s titles, including the Manchester Evening News and the Liverpool Echo. The investigative journalism of Jennifer Williams has helped to put a spotlight on Greater Manchester’s poverty in a way that Charles Dickens would have been proud of.

As we speak, the future of Northern England lies at a crossroads. Part of it rests on the UK’s exit from the European Union, which would have a great effect on Northern English prosperity. It would give the Tories greater control to remodel UK plc as a low-tax, low-regulation economy which would do nothing to help our public services. It would mean a continued race to the bottom with pay and conditions.

Northern English prosperity is built on its diversity, from the descendants of Vikings to Irish people that built our railways and Bangladeshi communities that have kept our services running. Also its creativity, invention and warmth.

If independence is floated as a panacea to levelling up the north, what kind of independence shall it be? Will it be the flag-waving one that would make a mockery of our Global Britain due to the lack of trading partners? Or could it be an outward, pro-European one with a new version of Northumbria that offers frictionless trade from Dublin to Stockholm without additional paperwork at Holyhead and Hull with democratic socialism?

Perhaps we should get the popcorn ready. Whether we are part of a post-Brexit Britain, a new Northumbria, or a Northern English assembly in a UK that has rejoined the European Union, there is no excuse for ignoring the North of England. IPPR North’s report should be acted upon without compromise, condescendence or half measures.

S.V., 08 December 2020.

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