Why Novara Media Now Has a North of England Editor

Place matters in politics.

by Craig Gent

23 January 2024

Craig Gent, Novara Media’s north of England editor. Photo: Against the Grain

The night of the 2019 general election result is one few on the British left would care to relive. At Novara Media, the exit poll marked the beginning of an all-night broadcast on YouTube. Behind the scenes, guests were dropping out continuously. Some turned up and promptly left upon entering a sombre green room in which others sat inconsolable, unable to gather their composure to go in front of the camera. As part of the production team on the night, I recall ad-hoc corridor meetings with my colleague, Charlotte England, in which we deliberated how to fill gaps in the schedule and – awkwardly – how to ask the most upset attendees to leave because they were putting other guests off.

At first I’d been shocked to see those around me quite so sideswiped by the result. After all, Labour had run a bad campaign: offering a ‘route to remain’ in the EU that patronised its own leave-voting seats in England’s former mining belt; focusing on marginals like Putney in London, before a last-ditch (and somehow even more patronising) ‘come home to Labour’ manoeuvre that sent battle buses off ‘up north’; and learning the hard way that mass membership doesn’t make a party more grassroots, and that roots have to be grown in places.

Then I realised that the election campaign had looked different across the north of England – where I live – than it had in London, on left Twitter, and perhaps even on Novara Media.

I was criticised for writing, in the days prior to polling day, about the uphill battle Labour was fighting with disillusionment in the so-called ‘red wall’. But I’d seen the Brexit party groundswell in Barnsley for myself. I’d argued with the former striking miner in Outwood who was voting for the Tories for the first time, 35 years after he’d fought them with hunger, now reasoning that the miners’ days had been numbered anyway, regardless of anything Margaret Thatcher had to do with it.

People who’d been stunned to tears on election night decided remarkably quickly why a leftwing Labour party had lost the election so badly. Yet across the divisions that emerged – on Brexit, on a second referendum, on Momentum, on Jeremy Corbyn himself, and who should succeed him – the closest thing to a unifying resolution was for the left to get back to community organising.

But it didn’t happen. Instead, much of the British left (especially in London) remained content with harking back to the Black Panther party’s free breakfast programme of 50 years prior rather than learning from the unsung community organising efforts of today: 0161 Community holding a free Santa’s grotto in Oldham, or working-class mums building mutual aid in Barrow-in-Furness. It was easier not to go. As Dan Evans put it, commenting on the online reaction to anti-immigration protests in Knowsley: “The left have this thing of, ‘Why doesn’t someone organise people in Knowsley, why don’t we organise in Knowsley?’ It’s like […] well, you’ve got to live there.”

2024 will more than likely see another general election. Labour is around 20 points ahead in the polls, and most commentators expect it to form a government that will finally oust the Tories after 14 bleak years. Yet few could say the working class is poised for any sort of power. Much of the left is shut out of Keir Starmer’s party, which seems intent on sticking with the Conservatives’ economic programme, and despite the sacrifices of 2022’s ‘hot strike summer’, victories have been few – something the left has scarcely examined.

Since its inception, Novara Media has aimed to address the political uncertainties of our times. It’s not a political vehicle in itself, but it is a people-powered media project that aims to facilitate a dialogue between the left’s ideas and aims on the one hand, and the political events and realities around us on the other. Big ideas and the big picture.

If we want to understand British politics, we need to ensure our ideas are in conversation with things that are happening across the country and across the working class. Whilst there’s no escaping that London is the biggest city, few could say it provides – or is the best lens on to – the biggest picture. The disparity between geographical standpoints in 2019 should be evidence enough of this. And this year, of all years, we can’t afford not to look beyond the south east.

That’s why, thanks to our supporters, Novara Media now has a north of England editor. The role’s remit is to draw and make visible the connections between the organisation of life, work and politics across the north of England, and to find stories and connect them to important questions for the left: how injustices occur, how solidarity is built, how Britain’s deindustrial divide steers our politics, why a generation of union faithful seem to have turned rightwards – and what lessons we can learn from that.

The role will be a project in its own right. Rear of house, it will also be about increasing our coverage in Scotland and the rest of Britain. There’s always more work to do, but we’ll aim to build on what we create, beginning here in our existing Leeds office.

This isn’t a parochial turn. No-one at Novara Media pretends London’s streets are paved with gold while in the north they were never paved in the first place. Nor is Novara Media rushing towards localism; we remain a primarily national outlet. But it is about ensuring our ‘big picture’ is richer and more detailed – something the best regional and local journalism always aims to do. I’m interested, above all, in the way the organisation of life and work changes for working-class people over time, and what it means for the political forms we need to take to bring about change – something we don’t see much of elsewhere in the media.

Too often on the left, analysis skews towards what’s ‘structural’ in an under-examined way. But being concerned with the root causes of political problems doesn’t mean finding the root that all things share. Place does and should matter to our politics. It certainly matters to the right. And it isn’t a coincidence that in the 25 years preceding the 2019 general election, few on the left saw fit to check on the bricks in the so-called ‘red wall’ – especially those organising in and around the Labour party. 

If that defeat should teach us anything, it’s that the left can’t afford to place itself on a hill in the south east of England and make assumptions about what’s happening over the horizon. The complexities of our society – of class society – require closer scrutiny than ever, especially when it means challenging our working assumptions.

If you are in the north of England and have a story for Novara Media, contact Craig at [email protected].

Craig Gent is Novara Media’s north of England editor and the author of Cyberboss (2024, Verso Books).

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