British politics feels like a pretty dark place at present. But a shaft of light might be about to break through.
This Thursday, leaders from across the North of England will gather in Newcastle for the first Convention of the North. Finally, both sides of the Pennines are uniting to speak with one clear voice on the issues that matter and, as a result, rebalance the country’s political focus.
I say finally because, in all my time in politics, we have failed to do that and I accept my part in that failure. Between us, the North’s political representatives have considerable political muscle if we could only manage to flex it. Sadly, we have never punched our political weight. The North has not been able to get sufficiently organised to challenge an over-centralised Whitehall and Westminster system which, under governments of all colours, has been programmed to prioritise investment inside the M25. And, more recently, as the devolved voice of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has strengthened, Northern England has found itself lost somewhere in the middle.
Maybe, just maybe, that is about to change.
You would be making a mistake, though, if you think the Convention of the North will be one long Northern whingefest. Sure, there is bound to be many a mention of our under-performing trains and creaking rail infrastructure. But what unites all of the leaders from all parts of the North is our optimism about its positive potential to build 21st Century industry. The Convention won’t be a political talking-shop either, seeking to score cheap points. In Newcastle, we will be joined by leaders from all walks of life - business, civic, academic - adding authority to a non-partisan call on the Government to work with us to get the idea of a Northern Powerhouse back on track.
I firmly believe that this is the right response to what the public were telling us at the EU referendum. What found its voice in June 2016 was the deeply-held sentiment in large parts of England that the political system of Westminster and Brussels combined has neglected it. People voted with anger and frustration against that status quo, amongst other things.
As Westminster created Brexit, it cannot, by definition, be the answer to it. If “taking back control” is to mean anything, it should be substantial devolution of power to all parts of England.
In the age of social media, people are seeking to influence change from the bottom up. Persisting with an antiquated, over-centralised political system will never be able to answer that call.
Devolution is the best antidote to political disenchantment. It is an opportunity to change how we do politics. By pushing power closer to people, we can involve them more in the decisions that affect their lives.
This is what we are doing in Greater Manchester. We are using devolution to do things differently and do them better and faster. We are all committed to ending the need for rough-sleeping here by 2020 and, through our Homelessness Action Network, we are involving the voluntary, business and faith communities in designing the policies to make it happen.
But, in other areas, we don’t have the devolved control that we need. Northern leaders have just been through a frustrating summer where our train services collapsed and we all discovered we simply do not have the regulatory levers to get a grip on these problems.
Like transport, skills is another issue which Whitehall has never done well but which is now urgent. The Government is rightly proposing the concept of Local Industrial Strategies. The simple truth is that you can’t have a successful Local Industrial Strategy without a Local Skills Strategy to support it. But this is an area where Whitehall is reluctant to loosen its grip.
Steve Rotheram, Mayor of the Liverpool City Region, has rightly called for the regions to have more control over the £1.3billion unspent Apprenticeship Levy. It needs to be the start of a move to devolve much greater local control over of all aspects of post-16 skills.
So the North is ready to take responsibility for sorting out the challenges that we face and that’s our call on the Government: let us get on with it.
If the Government doesn’t listen, I don’t see how else it is going to inject renewed energy and confidence into the post-Brexit regional economy. The worst of all worlds would be to allow the English regions to suffer from the inevitable uncertainty that comes with Brexit but unable to do anything meaningful to counteract it. Devolution in England wasn’t devised as the best response to Brexit but it now should be embraced as such.
Around the world, cities and city-regions are emerging as the engines of the 21st Century economy. There are global networks of cities driving innovation in digital and green technologies. But, London and possibly Manchester apart, English cities don’t yet have the clout to join this club.
Manchester was the original modern city and there is no reason why we can’t be a leader in the 21st century. With the right investment and powers, cities with the rich history of Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield and Newcastle can make their presence felt on the world stage. And we won’t be just be enabled to succeed individually. We will be empowered to collaborate and build for ourselves the Northern Powerhouse we were promised.
Vibrant, proud, confident English city-regions can break through our political deadlock and growing national uncertainty.
The referendum result was a clear call for a big re-set of our political system. But instead of responding to it, Westminster has turned in on itself. The two main parties have been consumed by febrile internal arguments.
By contrast, the Convention of the North will face up to the big picture and offer a path towards a more balanced, healthier politics. Britain cannot succeed after Brexit unless it fully unlocks the potential of the North. But the good news is that the North of England is getting organised and is ready to rise once again.
Andy Burnham is the Mayor of Greater Manchester