This week saw the Young Fabians host their first of many events in the north-east, titled ‘What about the north-east?’: a question-and-answer session discussing the economic and political future of the region. The event was attended by a group of around ten to fifteen people interested in discussing the future of the north-east with three panelists made up of Chi Onwurah MP, Shadow Business, Innovation and Skills Minister, Cllr Simon Henig, Leader of Durham County Council and Graeme Henderson, a research fellow at IPPR North.
The event kicked off with the three panellists discussing their own take on the economic and political issues that the north-east faces. The argument was raised that if we don’t get the politics right, then we won’t get the economy right. The three panellists all agreed that the north-east had some positive economic stories, such as a thriving tourism industry (an estimated £4 billion of the north-east economy comes from the tourism sector alone) and pioneering low-carbon manufacturing with the new Nissan Leaf being built at the Nissan Plant in Sunderland.
Yet the feeling was that the region was going to go through a prolonged period of pain and struggle. It was raised by the panel that the Tory-led coalition was cutting spending in the north-east disproportionally compared to other regions in the UK – something that has been public knowledge since David Cameron’s infamous Paxman interview in 2010. With a fragile economy, the highest unemployment rate in the country and the ever growing chasm of the North-South divide, the panel agreed that the north-east would be the last UK region to come out of this Tory-driven double dip recession, and would suffer the greatest long-term impact as a result.
The panel then took a wide spectrum of questions from the floor, ranging from the impact of Scottish independence on the north-east to how to develop regional infrastructure, such as Newcastle Airport, to help the economy. One young member raised the issue that the north-east needs more access to capital to help support small, start-up businesses, along with a new culture within the education system to help develop and nurture the next generation of young entrepreneurs.
Discussion moved from the economic future of the north-east to the political, with questions such as how a Labour administration in 2015 can help local authorities in the north-east become stronger in dealing with local issues. It was felt that the Tory-led government has no real mandate to implement the cuts and disastrous economic policy on the region due to their lack of support and the dominance of Labour MPs in the region. This led to a question on whether the debate on regional assemblies should re-opened. Panellists were reluctant to endorse any new elected bodies because of a general feeling that there was no public appetite in creating a new home for more politicians, whose popularity is at an all-time low. A counter-argument was raised that people were not one hundred percent behind the idea of devolved government back in the late 1990s, but that now citizens are calling for further devolved powers to go to Holyrood and Cardiff. The groundwork may have been laid for regional devolution to become a reality, but the prevailing argument was that the North-east needed stronger local authorities rather than a further layer of bureaucracy and a separate legislature.
The event was wrapped up with final comments from the three panellists who all believed that in order for the north-east to succeed both politically and economically, the Labour Party had to regain a strong sense of its core values and identity. This process is already underway, with Labour seeking to address the widespread apathy towards politics felt by many in the region. Ed Miliband’s speech at the Durham Miner’s Gala was one clear attempt to re-engage the disillusioned core voters of the Labour party, and should encourage further efforts to revive interest in politics among the locals.
The key lesson learnt at the event was that for Labour to be truly effective in 2015, it must strike a balance between winning back the South and not forgetting about the north-east, and the north more broadly. For a 2015 Labour manifesto, we must propose policies that will not only bring new voters into the fold but also those five million core voters we lost since 1997 as a result of disillusionment with New Labour.
Daniel Robert Tye is a Young Fabians member