Magazine article The Spectator

The Great Divide

Magazine article The Spectator

The Great Divide

Article excerpt

National politicians no longer has anything to say to the north of England. The results are frightening.

My career in po l i t ics near ly ended the day it began, when I was almost run over by a gang of Nazis in a Mini-Metro. Not a very butch car to be hit by, I know, and a rather pathetic substitute for a Panzer tank. But it was the early 1990s, and supporters of fascist government in Britain had seen their resources dwindle a bit over the decades.

I was 14, and attending my first political demonstration, an Anti-Nazi League protest against the BNP in Halifax. I became separated from the crowd. There were some hooligans from the other side screeching around in a car yelling abuse and doing handbrake turns and, as I ran down a street away from them, they drove the car up onto the pavement behind me. I thought I was about to be mown down, but at the last minute they swerved back on to the road and roared past. Several pasty-looking middle fingers were extended in my general direction.

It was an interesting introduction to the strange politics you can get in some small northern towns. You get weird politics when people don't know where to turn - and I think that's what's going on up north at the moment.

David Cameron inherited lots of political baggage from the 1980s which makes it tough for the Tories to win a hearing in northern cities. The Liberal Democrats used to run in the north of England in opposition to complacent Labour councils. Now they are trying to avoid being minced for joining the coalition. And after the recession and the debt crisis Gordon Brown left behind, northerners don't feel so enthusiastic about Labour either.

Hence, politically, some strange things are happening. First George Galloway gets elected in Bradford. Then John Prescott didn't get elected in Humberside - even though it's a traditional Labour heartland.

This week we learned that Rotherham council thinks it's OK to take children away from foster parents because they support Ukip, and the subsequent row has further poisoned an already nasty by-election. Labour is locked into a dirty tricks row with the farleft Respect party, after Asian areas were targeted with leaflets claiming Labour were 'closet racists'. In the run-up to the vote lurid stories about grooming and 'Asian sex gangs' have stoked tensions between communities, creating the perfect opportunity for the rabble- rousers of the BNP and EDL.

Even within Labour, there are tensions. Many local party activists in Rotherham wanted to select a councillor called Mahroof Hussain as their candidate. But he was excluded from the shortlist drawn up by Labour's national HQ, which says it wants a 'clean break' with the history of local politics in the area. Perhaps because, in the Bradford by-election, Labour had picked a popular local councillor - and George Galloway then used his links with the council to pummel him. This time, Labour doesn't want to take any risks.

It isn't just Rotherham where voters are feeling distinctly unenthusiastic about the main parties. The two seats with the two lowest turnouts at the last general election were Manchester Central and Leeds Central. In fact, of the ten English seats with the lowest turnout, nine are in the North.

There's huge cynicism about politics everywhere in the country, but its potency in the North is something Nick Clegg, David Cameron and Ed Miliband are struggling to deal with.

For example, an almighty 83 per cent of northern voters think that 'politicians don't understand the real world at all'. Only 16 per cent of northern voters think that Britain's future will be better than its past, while 60 per cent disagree. The concerns of Westminster politics can seem very distant. The majority of northern voters (but not southern voters) think that 'so-called green policies are mostly a waste of money'.

The Labour government of 1997 was freighted with huge expectations everywhere - but nowhere was the subsequent disappointment greater than in the North. …

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