Article published: Tuesday, May 29th 2012
Named after the suffragette, socialist and Independent Labour Party activist, the Hannah Mitchell foundation was launched to campaign for “democratic socialism in the North”, rooted in “ethical socialist traditions of mutuality, co-operation, community and internationalism.” Andrew Bowman caught up with the foundation’s general secretary Paul Salveson to explore their ideas for devolution in the North of England of the UK’s notoriously centralised state.
We describe ourselves as ‘an ethical socialist campaign to promote debate around elected regional government for the North’. Hannah Mitchell was an amazing working class socialist, feminist and co-operator who embodies what we stand for in terms of an ‘ethical socialism’ which is inclusive, down to earth and radical. Hannah was born in North Derbyshire and moved to Lancashire in her teens and was active in the early socialist movement and as a suffragette. She was elected onto Manchester City Council and represented Newton Heath Ward for many years. In Hannah’s time ‘regionalism’ wasn’t really on the agenda though she was passionate about northern culture – we took a leap of the imagination in naming the foundation after her, with the agreement of her grandson, Geoffrey.
MULE: What kind of devolution are you advocating? Do you mean complete independence of the kind which Scottish and Welsh nationalists are pushing for?
No – we want to see substantial devolution of powers to the North whilst remaining ‘English’ and part of the UK. Within the foundation we have differing views as to how far that could go, including people advocating federalism. As a minimum, we would want substantial powers over key areas including transport, education, health, strategic planning and the economy, with additional tax raising powers. This kind of regionalism fits well with models of regional governance in many parts of Europe.
MULE: How does the UK’s current political system disadvantage the north of England?
In lots of ways – I think above all the immense political power of London creates a mindset where nothing much matters outside the capital – it sucks in people, investment, talents. The UK political system as such is edging towards federalism, with strong devolved powers for Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and even London. England – outside London, ironically – remains very centralsied with decisions made about the North being taken by civil servants in Whitehall who no little and care less for the region. I find it absurd that decisions about my local rail service in West Yorkshire are being made by people 200 miles away!
MULE: How would devolution solve these problems?
By bringing a strong strategic focus to the North as whole. There are a wide range of issues which unite Yorkshire, the North West and the North East where a common approach would work – transport is an obvious example, but so too higher education and strategic economic development. I would like to see the economies of the North much more strongly linked, sharing resources and expertise rather than seeing neighbouring areas as competitors.
MULE: Is there a danger that devolution could be a bit retrogressive by undermining cooperation in the common interest and instead creating greater competition amongst regions and the entrenchment of exclusive identities?
What co-operation? It doesn’t really exist at the moment and – as I’ve said above – strong regions can encourage co-operation within the region between towns and cities, as well as co-operate with other regions – as well as Wales and Scotland. The North has a lot in common with Scotland and a strong ‘Northern Assembly’ would want to work positively with the Scottish Parliament.
MULE: As some people in Scotland are now saying, doesn’t devolution entail entail the danger of losing a degree of control over how the concentrated wealth and power in London is distributed?
I’m not sure which people in Scotland are saying this – it isn’t an argument I’ve heard.We don’t have any control over how the wealth and power of London is distributed. We want to develop a strong Northern economy with greater control over its resources, not having to go begging for crumbs to London all the time.
MULE: In your book Socialism with a Northern Accent you talk about the distinctiveness of the socialist tradition in the north of England. How strong do you feel this tradition is today?
It’s there, but not as strong as it was, or as it might be in the future. It’s there in the grassroots of the Labour Party in many areas, amongst many Greens and non-aligned socialists, co-operators, trades unionists and community activists. It is often difficult to define – it’s more of a sensibility than a nailed-down manifesto! It isn’t, and never has been, diametrically opposed or diffrent to socialism in London, South Wales, or Scotland – I would like to see a distinctive Northern Socialist identity emerge which celebrates its past but which is forward-looking and incusive, recognising the reality of ‘The North’ today and seeing other socialist traditions across the UK as friends and allies from whom we can all elarn and collaborate with.
MULE: Who is going to be able to successfully push for this change? It’s a big ask!
We have to make a start. The Hannah Mitchell Foundation is a small organisation which sees itself as a catalyst. Maybe a wider, and more inclsuive body which is less overtly socialist than ourselves – A kind of ‘Council for the North’ is the way to go in the next few years, a kind of shadow Northern Assembly which brings in all sestions of the Northern community.
MULE: While the Conservative party will likely always be thought of as the party of the south and wealthy elites, Labour, particularly under Blair, have distanced themselves considerably from the interests of the northern industrial cities and aligned themselves with metropolitan interests. What position would you envisage them taking on this?
I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how open many senior Labour politicians have been towards Northern devolution. The strongest resistance has come from the London-based ‘policy elite’ – maybe they don’t like the idea of moving to Manchester or Leeds! Within the Foundation we have several patrons who are Labour MPs, as well as John Prescott who is still a very highly respected figure in the party. Our president is Linda Riordan, MP for Halifax – and she is a treasure (as well as our treasurer)! However, we are not purely a Labour Party organisation and want to involve a wider cross-section of people across the centre-left. We’re holding a parliamentary reception on June 26th in London so it will be interesting to see who comes along.
MULE: Finally, how well recieved has the campaign been so far, and where do you see it going from here?
Remarkably well! In fact we’ve been a bit overwhelmed by the response. When we held our launch in Bradford in March we expected about 30 or so – and over 120 came! We are getting a steady flow of new members and we’re in the position of needing more resources to handle the admin involved as well as the more important job of campaigning across the North. We want to involve many more young people, with different ideas and ways of doing things than 50-somethings like me.
More information is available at www.hannahmitchell.org.uk
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