Yes, representation in politics is important. But more than that, Labour's lost voters deserve a leader who understands that the North isn't one homogenous land of flat-caps and piesby Rik Worth / January 4, 2020 / Leave a comment
Some of them have publicly thrown their hat into the ring, and some haven’t yet; but many of us already know where we’d like them to be from.
This election has been framed as a Labour failure rather than a Tory success and prompted critics—including myself—to call for the next Labour leader to be northern.
This idea has faced fair criticism from northern and southern journalists alike, who point out despite representation being good, there is a condescending element to this approach—and besides, being from London is one of the few things not portrayed as a failing of Jeremy Corbyn. These are both true. Obviously, Northerners won’t just vote for the first candidate who calls them “duck” and, though I may be banished from the north for admitting this, there is nothing inherently wrong with being from “that London.”
But here is the issue: for whatever reason, Corbyn was unable to sell his ideas to the north. Winning elections requires you to sell your program for government to people and that’s easier if people like you. In that sense, it’s as much about selling the candidates as it is the policies.
Psychologically, we’re all predisposed to prefer people with similar accents, the same background and a similar upbringing. It’s a series of observable principles known as “unconscious bias.” This means Northerners, at least at a surface level, without knowing people or their policies intimately, prefer people from the North. It’s our “in-group,” to use the technical term.
Now, this doesn’t mean we automatically vote for people like us, but if it were to come down to it, it makes them a lot more palatable. It’s not so much condescending to think Northerners will vote for a Northern leader—rather, it’s cynical and calculating. And for good reason: don’t forget, Bury North, a Conservative gain in Greater Manchester, had the tightest margin in England of only 105 votes. In fact, eight of the 29 seats with a margin of less than a thousand votes where in the north.
Could a more likeable candidate have flipped non-voters, or tempered Tory votes, here? You have to accept that as a possibility. If so, why wouldn’t Labour members and supporters use that possibility to their advantage?
Even without going into the psychology of it, we know the value of candidates’ backgrounds. It’s why local MPs sit for local seats. But while recognise this at a constituency level, we seem to fall down at the national level. The Northern seats that turned blue did so for local, Northern MPs.
Twenty-seven of the 58 new Tory seats were won in the north, with a smattering across North Wales—which is economically and geographically similar to many parts of Northern England—then a few more picked up in the Midlands and a few in the South West.
There is lot’s going on here—and whatever that is, it’s happening more in the North. Surely some Northern representation goes to fighting that swing? If that comes at the cost of London votes, I’ll eat my words—but if that’s the case, there must be some value to regional representation. If there isn’t you don’t lose anything.
Yet even if Labour does decide it needs a Northern voice, for novelty or tactical reasons, Northerners aren’t exactly identical. Really the only thing everyone up here shares is a mild distrust of the south, geographical proximity and a regional variation of Rugby we invented because rich people didn’t like poor people being good at sport (no, really.) And we even argue about those.
We have an identity but don’t really qualify as a single group; our church is too broad for that. Scousers clearly aren’t Mancs, Geordies and Mackems couldn’t more different—or so they say—and Loiners seem to hate everyone who isn’t from Leeds.
The rows between urban and rural are there, too. To understand the North, you have to understand each county is like a miniaturised version of England. Each has one or two major cities following the same trends as London: they’re younger, more ethnically diverse, richer and more left-leaning, while the surrounding towns have older, and in most cases overwhelmingly white populations. Yet while BAME communities are concentrated in just a few places like Manchester and Bradford, they are no less Northern than anyone else up here.
When we discuss the north, what we usually end up imagining is just whatever is opposite to London. In that sense, the south-west, the Midlands and Wales are all part of that discussion too—they’re just hidden behind the image of rough bloke in a flat cap.
We need more nuance—and that could start by changing our politics. The north is a big area. We wouldn’t lump in cockneys with the Cotswolds—but everything above Birmingham gets treated as some singular political lump with a chip on its shoulder fit for mocking. Up here we know there is more to the north that. A Northern leader, whatever form they would take, wouldn’t be a fix-all solution to UK politics and the north has its own problems. But right now, it’s a least a new start.