How the Government’s Treatment of Greater Manchester Has Exacerbated the North-South Divide in the UK

Donya Jeyabalasingham discusses the standoff between Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham.

Boris Johnson’s attempts to impose unpopular lockdown restrictions in areas of the north east without the necessary compensation has been an undoubtedly shameful moment for this government. Throughout the evening of 20 October, footage of Andy Burnham, the Labour mayor of Greater Manchester, reacting live to the Government’s announcement that Tier 3 restrictions will be imposed in Greater Manchester from midnight on Friday, was trending on social media. The government was only able to offer a financial package of 60 million, still 5 million under what Andy Burnham states is necessary to protect the most vulnerable in the Greater Manchester area. Many, including the Leader of the Labour Party, have drawn comparisons between the Governments more relaxed spending on a faulty Track and Trace system or even the failed London Garden Bridge project (which cost 53 million pounds), with their extremely reticent approach to giving an extra 5 million for a fully costed plan that will protect civilians from the financial blows of a Tier 3 lockdown. As Burnham says, the main difference between this set of lockdown measures and the ones we experienced nationally over April and May, is that this time it is happening during winter and there will be no help with household bills or mortgage holidays for those who are having their livelihoods threatened by these new measures.

It is hard to deny when looking at a map of which areas in the UK are in the higher tiers (2 &3), that (barring London), there is a clear north/south gradient in coronavirus cases and therefore also in where is experiencing tougher measures.  Over the weekend a leak revealed that Greater Manchester hospitals were moving towards running out of ICU beds, and it is also suggested that a similar pattern is showing in Liverpool where hospitals have had to send patients to other hospitals in order to get an ICU bed for them. In an interview with the New Statesman, Burnham explicitly called out the government from its London-centric approach to Covid-19 response strategies, and suggested that this pandemic has only scratched the surface in revealing the structural ways in which the government has acted patronisingly and neglectfully.

The realities of the north-south divide in the UK often must be considered with the class disparity between these regions as well. For example, when Labour lost the ‘red wall’ during the 2019 General Election, most understood this as a loss of both the ‘north’ but also as a loss of the working class support the Labour Party has often relied on in previous elections. In many ways, Keir Starmer’s entire leadership style is defined by this catastrophic loss. In order to swing back constituencies lost in the north west and north east regions, Starmer often chooses to target his appeal towards the older working class voter outside of London, rather than the more leftist branches of support left behind from the Corbyn era. 

It has become increasingly clear that BAME communities are hit worse by coronavirus in the UK. Whilst this is an important and worthwhile reading of how coronavirus affects different marginalised communities, it is also true that it is crucial that we understand how class and race intersect when it comes to how individuals are treated in a pandemic that magnifies the ways in which our systems of social welfare are flawed. In his online talk for Stand Up to Racism, Gary Younge argued “We are not dying disproportionately because we are Black and brown. We are dying disproportionately because being Black and brown has made us poor... It’s not the virus that discriminates. It’s society.”

It is now the time to have an honest discussion about how the prejudice and unfairness that is in our society and embedded in our social structures and Government is only going to exacerbate harsh divisions between who is going to financially survive this crisis and who won’t. This division may be a geographical one, like the north-south divide, or it may even be one that is more covert. What the showdown between the Mayor of Greater Manchester and the Government has shown us is that Westminster elitism, that will consistently turn its back on the North and on marginalised communities, must be removed immediately from the Government’s response strategy, lest they risk worsening the consequences of a second-wave that they themselves encouraged.

Donya Jeyabalasingham is a recent graduate from the University of Bristol after reading a BA (hons) in English Literature. She is currently a freelance writer and journalist with an interest in British politics and current affairs.

She tweets at @Donya_N_J.

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