Stop Painting Northern England as a Land of Reactionary Proles

Labour’s dismal polling for today’s Hartlepool by-election show its awkward, flag-waving nationalism isn’t convincing anyone. Too bad Keir Starmer won’t stop playing on the Right’s terrain and start offering working-class voters real economic populism.

Polling signs are seen at a pub converted into a polling station in Hartlepool, northeast England, as the public cast their votes in local elections on May 6, 2021. (Oli Scarff / AFP via Getty Images)

Barely a year since Labour’s so-called “red wall” of ex-industrial seats crumbled in the December 2019 general election, the North of England is again center stage. With a by-election in the northeastern port town of Hartlepool — and the strange emergence of a Northern Independence Party (NIP) looking set to take votes from Labour — we have been treated to any number of intrepid political safarists taking the several-hour train ride out of London to brave the wild and untamed “regions.” The North of England, often seen as one of Britain’s rust belts, and the former home of many of the industries that turned Britain into the workshop of the world, is today widely used as blank slate on which people of all political positions can draw whatever conclusions they wish.

But what, exactly, is “the North”? For a term used so freely, it’s a slippery concept. We could look at geography: the North is that land that lies to the north of Crewe in the West and the Humber in the East; W. H. Auden’s “Never-Never Land” beyond Crewe Junction, that “wildly exciting frontier where the alien South ends and the North, my world, begins.” But what connects prosperous and bucolic Harrogate and the deprived former mill town of Oldham, other than a motorway and the vagaries of the English landscape?

Perhaps, then, the North is defined by its culture: but unlike the regional nationalisms of the Basques, Catalans, Quebecois, or even Britain’s Celtic fringes, there is no separate linguistic unity, and nor is there an independent public sphere of the kind enjoyed by Scotland, which has its own newspapers and cultural production. Beyond the stereotypes of flat caps and whippets, or the more modern Oasis and gravy-soaked chips, no one is really sure what Northern culture is. If, as Benedict Anderson said, a nation is an imagined community, then the North’s requires a rather giant mythical leap to summon it forth.

If it’s nothing so concrete as place or culture, could it be class? When the North is spoken of today, it’s often as a stand-in, tout court, for the “left-behind” and a synonym for a particular form of working-class life. In this way, it becomes something like Britain’s Appalachia. And just as in Appalachia, the North has its own Hillbilly Elegy myths.

In his 2017 book The Road to Somewhere, British centrist commentator David Goodhart defined a key fault line in British political and social life as one between two groups: the “somewheres” and the “nowheres.” While the latter are the well-educated, urban, mobile, cosmopolitan liberals who gather in cities and drink flat whites, the former are less educated, rooted in a specific place or community, usually a small town or in the countryside, nostalgic, socially conservative, and almost always white. Goodhart cites a poll from 2011 that asked respondents whether or not they agreed with the proposition that “Britain has changed in recent times beyond recognition, it sometimes feels like a foreign country, and this makes me uncomfortable.” 62 percent agreed, and 30 percent disagreed.

Social Conservative?

The Brexit referendum, and then, three years later, the general election that saw the end of Jeremy Corbyn’s time as leader of the Labour Party, would seem at first glance to bear out Goodhart’s analysis. The answer for the Left would, on this reading, be to champion a new social conservatism that, combined with an economic radicalism, can win these Somewheres back. Keir Starmer’s Labour Party has certainly taken this lesson to heart. A leaked policy document from the party in February this year advised Labour to make “use of the [union] flag, veterans [and] dressing smartly,” embracing the Little Englandism of the Somewheres to win back the red wall for the party. Former Labour MP Gareth Snell said, in response to left-wing critics of the party’s new strategy, that:

If we’re going to align ourselves with a more patriotic platform, it has to be more than skin-deep, it has to be properly understanding why is it that places like Stoke have a particular support base for the armed forces and traditional values.

Why Labour should be pursuing this strategy, though, is left unsaid. There is a long history of a certain kind of working-class Toryism in Britain, and undoubtedly, some among the poorest Britons harbor a range of reactionary views. But that only explains so much. A recent study showed that those with wealth were more likely to vote for Brexit, and while Brexit wasn’t by any means a purely reactionary vote, many were attracted to it by Nigel Farage’s xenophobic vision of an Island Alone. Yet anyone with even a passing familiarity with the North will know that the tales of crippling poverty and seething reaction are only half the story. Britain’s stagnating and deindustrialized towns are a very real issue, and one that need urgent work to assist. But they are also, as a recent article in the Economist said:

often surrounded by gleaming new suburbs: a British counterpart to the American dream, where a couple on a modest income can own a home and two cars and raise a family.

These areas may, in general, be poorer than those in the prosperous South East and London, but they also contain some of the highest rates of homeownership in the country, spurred by relatively low housing costs and easy access to mortgages, and equally high rates of car ownership, with commuters in red wall seats more likely to travel to work by car than anywhere else in Britain. The Economist article quotes Richard, a resident of the town of Cramlington in Northumberland who earns just £28,000 a year; together with his partner’s part-time income, adding another£12,000 a year, this is enough for a four-bedroom house and two cars. As he says, “if I’d moved to London and got a graduate job, I’d probably be renting a shitty flat and I doubt I’d have two kids.”

As Will Davies recently pointed out, the current model of capitalism pioneered by the Conservatives in Britain is one where the appreciation in the value of assets, primarily homeownership, has come to replace stagnating wages as the engine of growth. What we then have is a system “in which houses appreciate in value but people don’t,” which, alongside a decade of austerity, has led to a withdrawal from the public realm and into the private. If, then, the conditions that create Tory voters are having a mortgage on a suburban home, commuting by car, and managerial-level employment, then it’s very cheap to be a Tory in the North. And while articles like the one in the Economist do much to dispel the myths of the stagnating and reactionary white working class of the political safarists, it falls into another trap, which we might call the “Essexification of the North.”

In 1990, the Sunday Telegraph journalist Simon Heffer coined the term “Essex man” to describe a new type of voter in British politics who was used to explain the success of Thatcherism. Akin to America’s “Reagan Democrat,” Essex man was white, born into the working class but now lived in the outer suburbs, a homeowner, and someone who harbored reactionary and xenophobic opinions. Thus Essex, the county to the east of London that was once home to many artists and political radicals who fled London for the freer air of the coast, soon became a synonym for the new, brutish, and crassly consumerist nouveaux riches that changed the nature of British politics in the 1980s.

Where Essex man was, so the red wall Tory remains. As journalist Tim Burrows says, Essex became “shorthand for the way the whole country seemed to be changing, for the emergence of a brash and crass new individualism,” just as today, the collapse of the red wall and the shift of the North from Labour to the Conservatives is seen in the figure of the reactionary white working-class man in England’s rust belt who flies a Union Flag from the window of his suburban semidetached house.

Stopping the Rot

The reality, though, is more prosaic. As NIP’s puckish social media has done much to highlight, the North is more deprived than its southern counterpart, with poorer health outcomes and declining living standards. Britain in the twenty-first century is the most economically divided country in Western Europe, with the bloated and financialized South East offers a stark contrast to the deindustrialized rust belt of the North. The result of all this is not a stagnant economy, but an increasingly regionalized one.

Labour’s decline can be attributed as much to the fragmentations of the working class under neoliberalism, the crushing of trade union power since Margaret Thatcher, and the rise of poorly paid and unorganized service work that filled the gap left by the decline of industry, as it can be to either suburbanized northern Tories or the blanketly reactionary white working class. Add to that the severe cuts to the public sector and Britain’s crumbling infrastructure, both of which have hit the North harder than the rest of the country, and the sources of Northern discontent are obvious.

Faced with this situation, Jeremy Corbyn often found it difficult to cut through. As Tom Hazeldine says in his book The Northern Question, while the millennial left based mainly in cities was able to galvanize their grievances under Corbyn’s Labour, for those in “smaller, older, more isolated working-class communities . . . it strained credulity that a degraded public estate and a labour movement in organisational recession for a generation could deliver” on Corbyn’s promises.

NIP may find it nearly impossible to break through politically in Britain’s archaic electoral system that denied more than a single seat in the House of Commons to the right-wing, pro-Brexit UK Independence Party in its 2015 heyday, when it attracted nearly 4 million votes (12.6 percent of the total votes cast). But already, in its short life, it has shown that a new vision of the North, based on a commitment to a new socialist and egalitarian vision, is possible. Labour under Starmer, with its emphasis on flag-waving nationalism over radical social and economic policies, has no answers.

The North may be in decline, but it’s not dead yet. Against the idea of it as a monolithic bloc made up of either Tory suburbanites or reactionary proles, the North is a varied and often contradictory mix of both economic deprivation and relative affluence. The answers to the deep questions it poses will be difficult to find. But one thing is certain: only a revived socialism has any hope of winning the red wall back for the Left and stopping the rot at the heart of the British economy.