Five of the nine regions of England registered a Leave vote of over 55% on the 23rd. But why did voters in both Midlands regions, the North East, Yorkshire and East Anglia vote so strongly against the European Union?
Much of the discourse in elements of the media and online has revolved around this idea of voters in Northern England and Wales being more easily ‘manipulated’ by sinister Leave campaigners. The implication has been that regions where The Guardian is not widely read and Waitrose shops are few and far between could never make as informed a decision as the rest of the country. But why were they manipulated so easily? Does the stronger beer make a difference? Of course, to argue that the leave vote was the result of voter manipulation is to continue the sidelining of problems in these regions that both parties have indulged in for decades. It is true the EU referendum was only partially a vote about membership of a trading bloc with a certain amount of legislative powers. It was also a referendum on the political establishment. And voters in the North conclusively voted against the status quo. So, what is wrong in the Midlands and the North and how can we fix it?
Both parties have neglected the North in the last decades, the Conservatives largely ignore a region they were never likely to win many seats in, and Labour condescended to an electorate they felt they could rely on unwavering support from. Many areas here have not benefited from the same boom in prosperity as other regions of the country. My home county of Nottinghamshire has abysmal rates of progression to university, with the percentage of students progressing to the top universities being around 1/4th that of the highest ranked area.
When The Guardian and like-minded outlets write about Northerners and Midlanders being ‘lower educated’ as if that equated to intelligence or critical thinking capabilities, a crucial aspect of the narrative of Northern knuckle-draggers taking the enlightened folk down with them, they would do well to remember the vast inequalities in our education system reducing opportunities for those who grow up in these areas. It is true that ‘immigration’ is often used as a code-word for economic stagnation in discourse, but the problems caused by population growth on already strained public services and infrastructure only add to these problems. Many have emphasised EU investment in Wales and South Yorkshire, but these tend to be in limited areas and in any case, a few better roads and sports grounds makes little consolation to all these other problems.
So why has nobody done anything about the chasm that has opened up at the Watford Gap? Both parties have failed the North but more blame should perhaps be laid at Labour’s feet. It has been a generation since the divisions riven by Thatcher and the desire in some places to refight those battles rather than look forwards is wearing thin. Labour has grown complacent with a strong ‘tribal’ vote keeping them in office, especially from those who were alive in the 1980s. This has resulted in many Labour councils being hopelessly corrupt and many Labour MPs being second-rate. Although many Northern Labour MPs fight the corner of their constituents honestly, Graham Allen and John Mann are good examples from Nottinghamshire, far more do not.
A good deal of Labour candidates are ‘parachuted’ into safe seats by the central organisation, a good example is the way in which Ed Miliband found himself an MP in Doncaster, a town he had no prior connection with. Councils have often made cuts in such a way as to gain political capital, rather than to minimise damage to public services. And under Corbyn, Labour’s problems are only getting worse. In Corbyn, Labour have a leader with virtually no appeal outside his core support, a core support that is actually very weak in the Labour heartlands. The current Tory ideas of a ‘Northern Powerhouse’ sound well and good, but are overwhelmingly centred on Manchester and Newcastle, relatively prosperous cities, with little consideration for the many small cities and rural areas that are often sidelined.
So having considered why the electorate in the Midlands and the North have rejected the political establishment, and with all major parties agreeing on the same issue in the referendum, what solutions are there? Firstly, a split in Labour is inevitable. Corbyn’s Labour cannot co-exist in the same party as many MPs from Labour’s core regions. However, none of the current political parties are fit for purpose in representing Northern and Midland interests. What is needed is some new party that can put our regions, the Backbone of England, first, irrespective of ideological arguments, to make sure the region is fairly represented in Westminster.
Furthermore, Brexit, whether you supported it or not, provides great opportunities to take power away from Westminster and give it to the regions. As Whitehall finds itself responsible for a huge amount more decisions, once issues previously delegated to Brussels come crashing back, it would almost be an act of charity on the beleaguered civil servants to devolve powers to county and city councils. Many of the issues affecting our region, such as education and the North/South divide, are too complex to be given justice here but can all be seen through this prism of needing to do away with the stagnant Northern political class.
Brexit is an opportunity to reform our politics to serve the regions better and properly counterbalance the excessive influence of London and the SNP in our national politics, but it is an opportunity that could be wasted all too easily.