Radical regionalism and democratic politics in England

The election result underscores the need for a profound rethink by the left in England: this should focus on regionalism and radical democracy. 

Paul Salveson
4 June 2015
'Yorkshire Sunset'. By Chris Combe. Some Rights Reserved CC BY 2.0.

(Photo: Christopher Combe Photography, 'Yorkshire Sunset', Some Rights Reserved, CC BY 2.0)

This article is a slightly rushed response to the election but builds on some of the ideas that developed in conversation with regionalist and community activists during and before the election campaign itself. The actual election results (see below) should force a fundamental re-think by many activists, particularly but not exclusively, within the English Left. A few months ago I sketched out some thoughts in an article called ‘Resources for an English Socialism’ for Soundings magazine. Much of the ideas in that article are still very relevant and form a dialogue with the ideas developed by Labour’s Jon Cruddas. It’s a tragedy that few if any of Jon’s ideas were not adopted by Labour in its disastrous election campaign. My own message is that we need to build a progressive alliance in England – with allies in Scotland and Wales – that is based around radical democracy of the sort first promoted by the Chartists back in the 1830s and 1840s and their co-operative and ‘ethical socialist’ succesors and made relevant for 21st century Britain. It means changing how we ‘do’ our politics, learning lessons from local community activists as well as campaigners elsewhere around the world, such as Podemos in Spain and ‘CommonWealth’ activists in the USA.

How was it for you? Not all bad….even in ‘England’

The results of the General Election raise a huge range of questions about the future of radical politics in Britain. The Labour Party suffered a humiliating defeat in Scotland but did reasonably well in London and parts of the North of England. Whilst there were one or two surprises in the south-east (e.g. Cambridge and Norwich) overall, the party did poorly in the South of England, and not that well in Wales. For the media, that translated into ‘Labour did badly in England’. For anyone involved in radical politics, there were some things that give cause to cheer, above all Scotland. At the same time, the Greens emerged as a significant force in many parts of England, offering attractive policies to a wider range of voters than Labour is now appealing to, at least in parts of the country. Plaid Cymru didn’t do as well as we hoped for but increased its vote in several areas, putting the party in a good position to do well in next year’s Assembly elections. Mebyon Kernow scored between 1 and 4% in the parliamentary elections and much higher in some local ward contests. The emergent Northern regionalist parties (Yorkshire First, North East Party, Northern Party) performed reasonably well in difficult circumstances. Launching into a general election when you’re a year (or less) old is unlikely to result in a major breakthrough. As with Mebyon Kernow, Yorkshire First scored some very good votes in parish and district elections whilst struggling to get above 1% in the parliamentary vote.

Labour’s dilemma

The Labour Party faces a big problem in retaining an appeal across the UK. It is seriously wounded in Scotland, and whether that becomes fatal remains to be seen. An even bigger problem is England, with a country split between a Tory-leaning south and a more Labour-inclined London and The North (at least in the urban areas). Finding a way forward that can appeal to each of these constituencies would test the judgement of a political Solomon and I’m not sure how you can do it. Turning to the ‘right’ , as most of the leadership hopefuls imply Labour must, would risk losing support in the North with little guarantee of getting any more support in ‘middle England’. But I suspect that’s the direction it will take, allowing UKIP, unless challenged, to offer a spurious but nonetheless attractive appeal to Northern working class voters. Unfortunately for Labour, it’s a very risk-averse and highly centralised party. This was amply demonstrated by its unimaginative election campaign which ignored the many good ideas that had come out of Jon Cruddas’ policy review and the slightly more maverick – but valuable – insights of Maurice Glasman’s ‘Blue Labour’. Labour failed to articulate a strong vision, instead offering what Cruddas dismissed as ‘transactional politics’, typified in the party’s promise to freeze energy prices and bring in the ‘mansion tax’. It wasn’t enough, it didn’t inspire. Labour could have put itself at the forefront of a new democratic settlement across the UK, based on devo-max in Scotland and Wales, regional devolution in England and a fundamental reform of the voting system based on an agreed form of PR. It still could of course but don’t hold your breath. It could go further and federalise itself, allowing the party in Scotland and Wales to become completely independent, and why not much the same for the English regions, with some shared common national and international goals? Even further, it could propose re-alignment with progressive Liberals, regionalists and Greens. Again, don’t hold out any strong hopes. Much of Labour remains centralist and tribalist to its core, both amongst its leadership and its rank and file.

So where now? The left, far left and democracy

The far left is in an even bigger quandary than Labour, refusing to accept that the majority of people in England at least have decisively rejected classic ‘left’ positions. The menu of centralism and state control was offered by the TUSC which received an even smaller vote than regionalists accrued. There is political space out there for radicalism, demonstrated by the SNP and Greens, but it is a very different sort of politics than that espoused by the traditional left. The missing element is radical democracy linked to devolution ‘all round’ – not just to the regions but to localities, coupled with a strong push on voting reform. Let’s not forget that the greatest mass movement this country has ever seen was over the demands for the ‘six points’ of the People’s Charter launched in 1837. It was a programme based on radical democracy, not state ownership of the means of production. The Chartists understood that democracy was about meeting the needs of working class people, by giving them a voice. But it was the mobilising power of democratic populism that engaged tens of thousands to march, demonstrate, petition and – in some cases – take direct insurrectionary action.

In Britain, most of the left has little interest in democratic struggles, though it’s notable that the tiny Communist Party of Great Britain advocates a federation of the nations and regions, with proportional representation. And in some ways the CP’s old mantra of a ‘broad democratic alliance’ has lots of relevance, if you strip away the old Stalinist ‘democratic centralist’ structure that continued to act as a ball and chain on Harry Pollitt’s once-influential party. The question is, who would make up that broad democratic alliance? (but lets’ call it something different, please) and how could it articulate a radical politics that is democratic, progressive and – populist. We need to get away from the idea that ‘populism’ is inherently bad. You can have good and bad populisms, radical and reactionary versions. It depends on the content that you imbue it with. The SNP succeeded magnificently in developing a radical populist appeal which gave them a position of hegemony in Scottish politics and culture. I can only assume that quite a few SNP’ers stayed up late at night reading the work of Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci who articulated the concept of ‘hegemony’ in the context of 1920s Italy. Put simply, Gramsci’s idea of hegemony was about achieving an overwhelming supremacy not just in terms of votes but in ideas, culture and aspiration. It’s about a narrative that becomes the received wisdom/common sense of the day. Cameron may have achieved that in some parts of England but it is nothing like as total as the SNP’s hegemonic position across Scotland. Labour signally failed to achieve that anywhere, and arguably the only time it ever did was in 1945.

More recently, Ernesto Laclau (e.g. On Populist Reason) has developed an interpretation of Gramsci’s thought which has some considerable relevance to the position that radical activists find themselves in. He effectively says that radical politics needs to take up the cause of ‘radical democracy’ and that could be done through nationalism, and in effect regionalism. His point, sometimes obscurely expressed, is that ‘nationalism’ could be picked up either by a reactionary or progressive politics and propelled in quite different directions. Farage’s UKIP and Sturgeon’s SNP are very good examples of how that can play out.

Is ‘socialism’ dead?

One of the debates I had when writing my book on radical regionalism in the North was its title. I ended up calling it Socialism with a Northern Accent (published by Lawrence and Wishart, 2013) though I was always a bit unsure. I have to admit that if I wrote a new edition I’d find a different title. Why? The term ‘socialism’ has become a barrier to attracting people to progressive politics and can mean very different things to different people. If you asked a Labour – or even Communist Party member – back in the 1950s what socialism meant to them the answer would be fairly predictable. It would include ‘public ownership of the means of production’, state-provided healthcare and welfare benefits, a publicly-provided transport system, municipally-owned housing and so on. In other words, it was about the state national or in some cases local) providing pretty much everything. The politics that went with that were predictable: a ‘we’ll deliver it for you’ approach based on a passive population which, every so often, would be given the privilege of voting for their ‘representatives’. Can anyone seriously argue that that model of ‘socialism’ still has the remotest relevance to the problems facing people and society in 2015? Yet for many people that description of socialism still applies, either positively (e.g. TUSC and a few old-fashioned members of the Labour Party) or – in the case of most people – negatively. You can try and wriggle round the problem and call yourself a ‘libertarian socialist’ or a ‘decentralist socialist’ but you are still stuck with the ‘S’ word. Maybe ‘social democracy’ is better, and I argued that recently. But that brings its own baggage as well with a social democratic practice that wasn’t all that democratic to be truthful and delivered the sort of paternalistic, transactional politics that people like Cruddas have rejected. Maybe a new interpretation of ‘social democracy’ is possible but I’m not sure. When I floated the idea to a colleague from the progressive Liberal tradition it didn’t go down well, and we must appeal to potential allies amongst Liberals, Greens – and (whisper it) Conservatives. So suggestions, please. My gut feeling is that we ditch the ‘isms’ and be more creative, like ‘Podemos’ (We Can!).

A new radical politics needs to address the many real problems people face today. Capitalism is every bit as much in control as it was when Marx wrote Capital. There is poverty on a huge scale, with millions of people starving and the continuing shame of food banks in Britain. Climate change, fuelled by greedy corporate businesses beyond any sort of real control, poses huge threats to the survival of humanity. I could go on. There’s plenty to be angry about and most if not all of the traditional wrongs that ‘socialism’ was set up to ‘right’ still exist, with a few more added in. The solutions will not be based on state ownership or top-down politics, but on a much more complex response which addresses inequality, builds genuine forms of mutual ownership (based on our great co-operative tradition, corrupted by getting too big) and creates communities of active citizens. It has to recognise big issues in the workplace, not just ‘zero hours’ contracts but the growing stress imposed on workers at all levels through remorseless demands from a management which is in turn under huge pressure from remote shareholders. Democracy is the key, and getting back to smaller, accountable and engaging ways of doing things, is the way to deliver it.

Flatpack democracy: going local

It’s essential to integrate the debate on the future of Britain, its nations and regions, with the growing importance of ‘the local’. Many towns and villages in Britain are developing radical, community-based action often using traditional structures such as parish and town councils. John Harris’s recent article on ‘The People’s Republic of Frome’ (Guardian May 23rd) is just one example of a very positive new development which probably has its most revolutionary example in the small Spanish town of Marinaleda. Other less-publicised examples include the independently-run town council in Settle and the success of independents in the Holme Valley North ward of Kirklees, who also control Meltham Town Council. Independents running local councils is nothing new, but what is different is that these independents are bringing a much more radical, but inclusive, approach to their politics. In the past, the independent label often meant little more than ‘conservative’. The complexion of the Frome independents, for instance, is much more progressive and green. It might not meet the exacting criteria of the far left but what it is doing is shifting the ground towards a much more bottom-up, progressive kind of politics that goes beyond the old certainties of left and right and can appeal to a broad cross-section of the community. It has potential to go beyond the village boundary and develop friendly and informal links with similar projects across the country. Potentially, the new approach of ‘networked independents’ could link up with regional movements providing the regionalists avoid the temptation to become like the established parties with a centralising agenda.

A new sort of regionalist politics?

Yorkshire First is the only political party that subscribes to the ‘Bell Principles’. You can see why no other party, even the Greens, have been able to do that as some of the principles undermine the very notion of a classic political organization. Above all, one of the principles commits representatives “to be free from the control of any political party, pressure group or whip”. This might seem to rule out the very existence of a political party but it doesn’t have to be so if a flexible approach is taken. Like the ‘Independents for Frome’, Yorkshire First asks its candidates to agree on a basic agenda. In the case of YF it obviously includes support for an elected assembly for Yorkshire – and adoption of ‘the Bell Principles’. Beyond that, candidates have considerable scope to tailor their appeal according to local needs and demands, and their own conscience. My own manifesto for Colne Valley in the General Election included some issues (e.g. anti-Trident and Austerity) that some other candidates might not want to adopt. But that was supported by local supporters of Yorkshire First, some of whom wanted the manifesto be much more radical. At the end of the day, it was about achieving a platform which local supporters were broadly happy with and didn’t contradict Yorkshire First’s own wider policies which focus on regional devolution. Following the election, in which YF averaged round about the 1% mark in the parliamentary election, but often got much more in the few parish and town elections where it stood, there is a need to think through some innovative ways forward which avoid the trap of going down a centralist road. Could Yorkshire First, and other similar emerging regionalist parties, develop as a network of essentially local groups (e.g. Yorkshire equivalents of ‘Independents for Frome’) and affiliate to the regional body? It seems to me that would be the right way to go, avoiding YF becoming another conventional political party competing in a highly unequal political battleground. There is nothing stopping local people getting together – as the people of Frome, Settle and several other towns have done – and build their own ‘people’s republics’. At the same time, those struggles need to link into a bigger problem – the future of the UK itself and above all the problem of England.

The problem of England

There has been growing debate about reviving the idea of ‘home rule all round’ with Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England each having their own devolved parliaments. It’s a non-solution, and a cursory reading of Leopold Kohr’s classic work The Breakdown of Nations will tell you why. Within any federal arrangements you need a degree of equivalence between the partners. In a federal UK with a single ‘England’ that is impossible. Scotland has a population 5.3 million, Wales about three and Northern Ireland 1.5m. England has 53 million. Such a difference would make a truly equal relationship between partners impossible. What is currently happening is that English cities are getting a bastardised form of devolution based on indirectly-elected ‘combined authorities’ which might end up with directly-elected mayors. Few commentators have challenged this, despite the very obvious difficulties it gives rise to. Instead of a devolutionary settlement in England that has synergy with Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and – don’t forget – London, there will be a mish-mash of bodies which could well end up being at war with themselves. Greater Manchester’s ten districts are mostly Labour – controlled but don’t bank on the assumption that a Labour mayor would get elected. Remember Doncaster?

The obvious solution is the one that none of the mainstream parties want to contemplate – directly-elected regional assemblies, elected by PR with similar powers to those of the Scottish and Welsh devolved governments. This would immediately solve the ‘West Lothian Question’ and the ‘English votes for English laws’ issue. All domestic functions would be devolved leaving a federal government responsible for defence and international affairs and ensuring a financial balance between what is currently a very unbalanced Britain. Not only would it solve some obvious constitutional issues, it could lead the way to a closer relationship with the Republic of Ireland after a century (and much more) of stupid and counter-productive policies by a ruling English elite.

If the existing nine English regions (apart from greater London, stripped of most of their functions since 2010) were used as a starting point, no single region or nation would dominate though the South-east would still be the biggest with 8.6 million closely followed by Greater London with 8.1 million. However, the federal principle of equal powers regardless of size would mean that the North-East (with 2.6 million) and Yorkshire – with roughly the same population as Scotland – would not be dominated by the south. The potential for creative alliances between traditionally excluded regions with Scotland and Wales would be enormous.

A progressive alliance based on a new ‘People’s Charter’?

It’s easy to speculate about possible solutions but the problem is how to move forward towards an agreed goal, within England. The embryonic ‘Northern Citizen’s Convention’, holding its first meeting in Huddersfield on June 20th, offers a way forward and should be copied elsewhere in England. The Scottish Constitutional Convention of the 1980s offers a possible model but I’d like to see the debate being taken much wider and deeper, with cities, towns, villages and neighbourhoods having their own citizen’s conventions. It should not be dominated by ‘the great and the good’ but reach out to community groups, trades unions, small businesses and faith groups. It needs to go beyond traditional left/right and develop a progressive populism based on democratic rights. It needs the political parties but must go beyond Labour, the Greens and the fringe left and regionalist groups and attract Conservatives, Liberals and people who don’t identify with any of the main parties.

A few weeks ago, at the annual Blackstone Edge Chartist Gathering I sketched out what a modern ‘People’s Charter’ might look like. Following suggestions from people there, the list extended from six to ten (see annex). Could that form some sort of basis for a wider discussion and a modern-day ‘People’s Charter’? The way forward for progressive politics in Britain, and in England particularly, isn’t to shift to the right and accommodate the Tory (and UKIP) narrative but to re-discover a radical democratic politics, distrustful of bigness, statism and centralism, which can encompass our great co-operative tradition. The bits are all there in the flatpack.

This article was first published at Paul Salveson's website.

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