How Do We Reclaim the Northern Soul?

‘Industrial heritage’ can’t be the basis of northern politics.

by Craig Gent

21 March 2024

Kellingley Colliery, North Yorkshire, Britain’s last deep coal mine which closed in 2015. Andrew Yates/Reuters

On the morning of Saturday 9 March 2024, the road outside the 150-year-old headquarters of the National Union of Mineworkers in Barnsley, South Yorkshire, closed to allow hundreds of people to spill into the street. Commemorating the deaths of David Jones and Joe Green, two miners killed on picket lines during the 1984-85 strike, a small brass band played hymns as members of the congregation laid wreaths at the foot of a statue of a miner and his family. The plaque reads: “In memory of those who have lost their lives in supporting their union in times of struggle.”

Inside, the town mayor chooses to speak not in his ceremonial capacity but simply as Stowey, an ex-miner. He reads from the Ridley report, the Tories’ plan to smash organised labour as retribution for bringing down Ted Heath’s government. To murmurs of agreement, Stowey talks about how the police became militarised, how agent provocateurs stirred up trouble, how the deep state worked to undermine ordinary men who were striking for the future of their communities. He talks about how Jones, hit by a brick whilst trying to protect his car, and Green, dragged under a scab lorry, didn’t need to die, and might still be here today were it not for the Tories’ stated aim of waging war on working class collectivism.

On my way here from Leeds, I’d stopped at a petrol station for coffee. A billboard showing an aerial vista of the local area loomed over the forecourt, proclaiming that “Levelling up is here”. Superimposed location pins pointed to random buildings in the West Riding landscape. It occurs to me that few people ever acknowledge the fact that phrases like “levelling up” are really just government-friendly code for barely existing attempts to put things back together that were, in fact, deliberately torn apart within living memory.

Stowey outlines the events leading up to the so-called Battle of Orgreave, a police riot on striking miners who had set out to blockade the Orgreave coking plant. 95 miners were arrested and charged. Over 100 injured. No police officers disciplined or charged. It was Orgreave, Stowey reminds us, that led to the police-made Hillsborough disaster, causing 97 people to die. Both Orgreave itself and the decades-long denial of truth and justice that followed have become totemic in Barnsley and across Britain’s former mining belt, summarising in a word a sense of grievance and indignation that has gone unanswered for 40 years.

Yet it’s easy for the left to romanticise places like this without grappling with their contradictions. It’s especially easy for me because I grew up here. But, in truth, I didn’t think places – their history and their direction – mattered much to politics until, inarguably, they did.

Like many young people across the north of England, I couldn’t wait to leave my hometown. It was overfamiliar, lacked the sort of work I wanted to do (not that I knew what that was), and a temporarily vibrant local music scene had dried up. I’d grown into a young Marxist who wanted to help change the world. Naturally, I set my eyes on moving away to a middle-ranking university in the south-east of England.

University provided me with uninterrupted exposure to leftwing ideas and people who really cared about equality and injustice. At the same time, it insulated me from the significance of the place where I lived beyond its capacity to support the social life or part-time work of a bookish twentysomething. It’s an experience that will be familiar to most people whose active political involvement or commitments were honed at university.

But unlike many graduates who stayed in the area near their university or headed for London as though on a travelator, after higher education, I initially moved back to where I’d come from.

In the eight years since leaving, my town had seen an obvious surge in homelessness, the highest burden of local council cuts in the country, and had voted for Brexit to the tune of a 70% leave vote. It would be easy to say the referendum presented an opportunity to air decades-long grievances with Westminster. Those certainly existed. But it wasn’t unrelated that between the 2011 and 2021 censuses, the number of residents from Romania rose from fewer than 50 to 3,600 and the population born in Poland more than doubled. In the 2019 election, the town – once the beating heart of the miners’ strike – recorded the highest level of support for Nigel Farage’s Brexit party. Labour clung onto two of its constituencies largely thanks to a rump of Conservative-voters splitting the rightwing vote. It lost the other.

When I attended a Brexit party rally in one of Barnsley’s most deprived wards in 2019, Farage spoke to Barnsley’s contemporary character on two counts. On the first, he argued – to indignant applause – that Labour’s proposed second referendum was a message to the people of Barnsley that “you didn’t get it right the first time, you stupid little people.” Second was the outright and comforting, if inaccurate, reassurance that the town’s leave vote wasn’t motivated by xenophobia, but by pride and patriotism. More cheers of approval.

The resonance with which this combination of sentiments lands in Barnsley, and in many towns across the north of England, is a political problem for us on the left, not least as it has all but supplanted the solidarity and collectivism upon which local civic identity had been built for most of the twentieth century. We know what type of politics breeds in these conditions, and they haven’t gone away – whatever solace a 20-point national polling lead for Labour might give to distant onlookers. Indeed, the biggest risk of a Labour landslide at the next general election is that it provides a major distraction to tackling the twin evils of social neglect and rising social conservatism in places where Labour is already, for many people, the establishment.

This is painful for northern leftists precisely because the north’s history was, until fairly recently, one of modernism and progress in spite of a wider England that fetishised its ancient establishment and hierarchies. Now, the north seems to be regressing, reduced to “trading on dimly-lit former glories, and seemingly unable to reinvent itself”. So says Alex Niven in The North Will Rise Again, newly released in paperback and one of three recent books to raise the question of the future of politics in the North.

At its heart, Niven’s book pairs the inequality and historic mistreatment of the north into conversation with a far seldom discussed, but nonetheless ascendent tendency, in the northern social fabric: the self-destruction and self-loathing brought about by the collective despair and social death of deindustrialisation. “Whereas in the past [northern bitterness] might have given rise to more coherent forms of radical rebelliousness,” writes Niven, “now, in the ageing, weary communities of the 21st century North, a lethal combination of petit-bourgeois narrow-mindedness and genuine ‘left behind’ grievance simmers under the surface.”

These twin aspects, each one half of the deindustrialisation coin, are central to the kind of constitutional turn The North Will Rise Again advocates, in both senses of the word. Niven couples the need to address the corruption of the north at the hands of the opportunists and individualists – its inner constitution – with the need to overhaul Britain’s political geography more firmly than has ever been attempted before through national constitutional reform.

The latter project is the focus of Head North by Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram, mayors for Greater Manchester and the Liverpool City Region respectively. Part memoir, part manifesto, it’s a book containing some surprisingly radical proposals, such as the abolition of the parliamentary whip system, undeniably setting its authors apart from the current Labour programme. The key argument is that inequality and injustice can’t merely be solved through good policies because both are in fact sewn into the British constitution. Speaking to me for Novara FM, Burnham says: “The north-south divide is no accident; it’s been UK national policy for our lifetimes, basically.”

“If you do want a genuinely equal country, you need to rewire it wholesale … the north of England, in my view, will never get justice and fairness from the current political system in the UK.”

If this sounds abstract, the most moving parts of the book bring this project down to earth. The Hillsborough disaster was an avoidable, man-made catastrophe perpetrated by a police force that had been radicalised by the miners’ strike. Burnham had close friends who were there. Rotheram was himself there, and narrowly avoided being penned into the Leppings Lane stand by a chance ticket-swap prior to the match.

But while the disaster itself might have been a police scandal, if an extreme one, the cover-up that followed was injustice manifest. For decades, different branches of the establishment closed ranks, trading on quintessentially English geographical bigotry and class prejudice, to deny justice to the families of 96, later 97, killed football fans. Head North argues that this could only happen because the present system enables a concentration of power, an absence of accountability, and gives cover to vested interests. It isn’t even just about the north. It’s a brutal reality of British state power that can befall us all. “The Post Office scandal,” says Burnham. “Contaminated blood, Hillsborough, Bloody Sunday, thalidomide, Grenfell … Orgreave.”

But if the book has a singular achievement, it’s that it makes a persuasive case for why a range of doorstep issues – especially those that speak to regional inequality – are in fact constitutional problems, and can’t be addressed without revolutionising what is an overcentralised political system.

Burnham and Rotheram cite the way the Treasury’s Green Book – its algorithm for assessing the cost-benefit of government spending – bars areas from investment if they don’t already have a strong economic base as in the south east. Long-term prospects are simply not part of the equation. In the book’s most enraging passages, it details the way Johnson’s government tried to get away with paying workers in Manchester a furlough of just 67% (compared with 80% everywhere else) during its two months in tier 3 lockdown restrictions, the government only changing course when London went into extra measures.

Head North makes the case that in light of these deep-seated, hard-wired inequalities, formal constitutional change should be the bulwark against contingencies of government and leadership. Following a commission by Gordon Brown, the authors advocate for the abolition of the House of Lords and its replacement by a proportionally-elected, geographically-balanced second chamber named the Senate of the Nations and Regions. They also argue for a German-style Basic Law to enshrine the right of all parts of the UK to expect equal living standards and opportunities. It remains to be seen whether these are priorities to be reflected in the Labour party’s general election manifesto, yet Rotheram writes: “We feel we are now firmly on the road towards … vital constitutional reform.”

Niven is less sure. He tells me the northern revival is on something of a hiatus politically. I put to him the recent intervention by Burnham and Rotheram. “It is very heartening,” he says. “The argument of my book is that you do need a kind of radical constitutional reform to address the northern question. You can’t have these endless schemes, you know – ‘northern powerhouse’, ‘levelling up’, ‘[urban] renaissance’.”

“Zooming out to the wider picture, although the immediate future doesn’t seem like it has much room for manoeuvre, I think these things can suddenly change quite quickly.”

Niven grounds the unequal status of the north today in the geographic marginality that gave way to the centralisation of power and institutions within England over the centuries. Yet while in the past it was this same marginality that prompted the creation of a collectivist, northern counter-culture, stripped of the associative life once given to northern towns and cities by heavy industry, many such places now appear to be stuck in the cul-de-sac of individualism.

Reclaiming northern culture from this dead end is a core part of the project of re-empowering the north as Niven sees it. Yet although “culture is a sort of infinite repository of creative, political and imaginative potential,” he says, overhauling the constitutional structures of the country would “achieve a kind of hard, substantial basis for the revival and regeneration of the North”. Simply put, we can’t revive the north with culture alone, and yet must at the same time engage with northern culture as a way of combatting collective despair. The challenge, Niven wagers, is how to do this beyond shallow “Mancuniana”.

It’s a salient point, because if there is such thing as a rose-tinted fetishisation of the north, it will be found foremost in Manchester. It’s a twisted irony that the civic emblem of the worker bee has become omnipresent in the city at the same time as rents have gone up, wages have slowed, and jobs have become more precarious. Indeed, so ubiquitous is this symbol of humble industriousness that visitors could be forgiven for wondering if Manchester is actually keen to get back to the industrial revolution. Certainly, where once London was the Manchester of the south, Manchester is now the London of the north.

And yet when I speak to Isaac Rose, an organiser with the Greater Manchester Tenants’ Union and author of The Rentier City, a landmark study of the space and politics of Manchester seen through the lens of housing and land, the idea that much of the left habitually overlooks the detail when it comes to place is self-evident. Although thinking about production – the organisation of work – is important, he says, “the social reproduction of working-class communities … the reproduction of political cultures is often very bound up in place.”

The Rentier City’s approach to this problem is to present a longue durée examination of Manchester, from the city’s 19th century political battlegrounds to the present frontiers of gentrification. It’s an impressive study that leaves no stone unturned in its attempt to draw a clear-eyed sketch of a city that once gave the world both capitalism and Marxism, and which over the last 30 years has used its unparalleled ability to “tell a story about itself” to attract both government subsidies and private investors to its ever-expanding, sky-scraping property market. It’s a strategy we have seen imitated across so-called northern regeneration projects from Liverpool to Middlesbrough from, as Niven reminds us, the Blairite urban renaissance to George Osborne’s northern powerhouse, and more recently the Johnsonite levelling-up agenda.

But, Rose says, changes in the way capital now circulates – and in particular the way it moves through property and rentierism – means we are confronted with an unavoidable contestation between those who want to sell the ground from under our feet (to see it rented back to us) and those who want to recover a shared sense of public living. It’s a struggle that’s intensely consequential for political culture, Rose argues: “Associative life is the basis of movements, and that’s always bound up in a particular place.”

The “Manchester model”, Rose writes, was first constructed in the 1980s and continues to attract serious financial involvement from the likes of the Abu Dhabi United Group. Simply put, it combines a practical friendliness and frictionlessness for developers and rentiers at the level of local government with a boosterist narrative that trades in the culture of Manchester as a city, both its contributions to music and sport as well as its reputation for industriousness and hard graft. It’s a combination that sucks in money, hand over fist, often before exporting profits overseas. It’s further enabled by sweeteners such as local politicians waiving Section 106s – the mechanism that’s supposed to allow them to claw money back for social housing.

Rose’s analysis points out that this is really happening at the level of the local Manchester City Council, but the approach has in turn led to Manchester becoming the darling of Westminster outside of London. A complicating factor came in 2017 with the creation of the role of the Greater Manchester metro mayor atop the combined authority, of which Manchester City Council is just one player. Burnham’s election almost immediately created friction when he pledged to take tough action on homelessness – a move that, Rose writes, put him into conflict with Richard Leese, the long-established leader of the council.

Not that Burnham has escaped scrutiny. Whatever his public commitments, Rose writes, an FOI request by the journalist James Graham revealed that half the £400m mayoral housing investment loans fund went to one developer, Renaker, a key player in building up the Manchester skyline, which campaigners have accused of contributing to the city becoming segregated. At the time of publication, the combined authority is expected to approve another £140m. I ask whether the crux is really the political impetus at the local and regional level. But Rose explains that central government has been a key driver behind the story, regardless of any intentions more locally.

“The national planning policy framework basically means developers have to make profit to be seen as viable,” says Rose. “In Scotland, they have been able to devolve much more substantial housing powers, like they’ve abolished right to buy … as long as the English state, or British state in England, retains this overarching neoliberal framework, local government wouldn’t necessarily be able to push back as effectively.”

Rose wants to see land and planning being more democratic. “In Manchester, Labour becomes almost an extension of the local state,” he explains. “This leads to closed-door politics. All politics in Manchester happens in party organs rather than organs of the local state. It compromises democracy.”

I put it to Rose that this might weaken the case for constitutional reform. If Labour is likely to be the inheritor of further devolved powers, and yet seems impervious to political pressure, then might a constitutional overhaul have the unintended effect of creating fiefdoms rather than a more vibrant regional politics?

Rose points out that the determining influence of national policy within the present set-up can’t be overlooked. For one thing, we haven’t yet experienced devolution inside England without austerity. George Osborne championed the northern powerhouse at the same time as cutting local funding. Rose says this is all the more reason to turn political conversations towards the places where decisions affect people’s lives. “The latest round of devolution seems sort of a cover for this much longer story of the destruction of local government’s real political capacity to act,” he says. “I think that’s why the long history is useful. Local democracy seems pretty far away in somewhere like Manchester where a lot of the politics happens inside the Labour party. I think reducing it to ‘the local state can solve everything’, particularly in the context of massive economic imbalance in England, is pretty wishful thinking. It would require the national state to change.”

It’s a change that could well be on the horizon. Niven says that even in the current political impasse, there is at the very least a weight of expectation that something has to give. “[There was a] wider motion set in train around the 2019 election, from all parties, that you had to start tackling the northern question or returning to it.”

It’s curious, then, that despite the shadow of the 2019 election defeat still looming large, there is so little discussion of northern – or regional – politics on the English left. It’s hard not to conclude that this is at least in part because of its own Londoncentrism. Confronted with this in 2019, there were repeated calls to get out of London, to return to community organising, even for London-based graduates to move back to their hometowns. It didn’t happen. Paying close attention to the vicissitudes of Keir Starmer instead seemed more pressing and Twitter-friendly.

Meanwhile, what Westminster’s levelling-up project elides, even if it were ever to materialise, is that the process of northern decline was always social as much as industrial. People also feel they have seen it all before, especially in respect of piecemeal gestures to reindustrialisation. In this context, the promise of bringing green jobs to the north does little to cut through jadedness. Jobs alone don’t restore power to places.

Sharon Graham, general secretary of Unite, has a voice that stands out in the Miners’ Office in Barnsley. Not because she’s a woman – commemorations of the miners’ strike have always paid tribute to the women of the strike – but because she has a strong London accent. It’s something that’s all the more apparent to me because I’ve spent much of the morning translating broad hyperlocal dialects for my partner. I’m proud to welcome her into this side of Barnsley, so seldom seen by outsiders, the room adorned with beautiful old colliery banners and speakers relaying stories of true struggle and solidarity.

That is, until I overhear an ex-miner in the next row. Relaying a story to his neighbour, he makes a disapproving comment in passing about a man who was Jewish. What he says is not in itself offensive, but his choice to mention this irrelevant piece of information speaks to a reactionary hypervigilance about who is and is not from around here. In truth, it’s something I know all too well about my hometown, which is in fact adopted; having moved here aged eight with a clear southern accent, it was bullied and teased out of me until I reached the muddy approximation I voice today. I don’t think my partner – who, as it happens, is Jewish – actually hears, but in any case I’m mortified that a gathering entirely founded on solidarity could contain within it such a contradiction.

Graham is speaking about how working class power comes from outside the corridors of government, how “power is made in rooms like this”, how there is “no shortcut to renewal”. I’m reminded that the renewal we need is somehow even bigger than the constitutional basis of the British state, and that even if we could make it a priority – which we should – there’s no shortcut to reclaiming the soul of the places where we live. To the triumph of collectivism and unity over individualism and narrow-mindedness. There is no constitutional fix, no political figurehead, that can restore the social fabric of a place, after all.

It’s reactionary nativism that wants places like Barnsley, and rooms like this, to be a museum. It’s bourgeois boosterism that takes that principle and financialises it in cities like Manchester. Industrial heritage can’t be the basis of a resurgent northern politics.

“Thousands of miners knew what [Thatcher] knew,” Graham continues. “That this fight was about jobs, but it was also about power … The real project here is the project to generate power that we take into our towns, our cities, in our pubs, our workplaces, in our community centres, piece by piece.” This is a constitutional movement of the other kind. A reminder that the places we inhabit are less important than what we do in them. A reminder of a union, the plaque outside tells us, that people died supporting.

The North Will Rise Again: In Search of the Future in Northern Heartlands by Alex Niven is available at Bloomsbury.

Head North: A Rallying Cry for a More Equal Britain by Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram is available at Orion Books.

The Rentier City: Manchester and the Making of the Neoliberal Metropolis by Isaac Rose is available at Repeater Books.

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

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