Labour Conference Blog
December 8, 2019
Like most high-profile occupations, politics looks different from the inside.
The TV news shows Labour Party conference as sound-bites from a packed conference hall. But for every high-profile policy announcement, there’s two dozen fringe events spread across Brighton, a hundred private meetings huddled around tables in hotel bars, and politicians and advisors scurrying around finishing speeches on a just-in-time basis.
Conference is always bustling, but the expectation of a general election added an extra spark. Chance encounters in the lift, handshakes in the lobby, catching people in the breakfast room. Late night conversations and early breakfast meetings.
Labour has long had a commitment to devolving powers and funding to English regions, and so with a General Election imminent, my team had set up a series of meetings with shadow ministers, advisors and other Mayors to discuss details.
The previous Friday, in Rotherham, Boris Johnson had offered me and the other Metro Mayors additional devolved powers. Readers will be wholly unsurprised to learn that my opinion of our Prime Minister is not high. As a matter of personal philosophy I’m always polite; insults say more about the insulter than the insulted. So I’ll simply say that questions remain unanswered about how Mr Johnson intends to deliver on his promises. But an offer is an offer, and it’s my job to secure the best deal I can for the people North of the Tyne.
It’s not just politicians at party conferences – I discussed economic growth with business leaders, devolution with the transport industry, green energy with the offshore sector, community development with co-op specialists, and I spoke at half-a-dozen think-tank events.
An emerging theme is the regeneration of Northern towns. Everyone recognises the problems of regional wealth inequality. Not so easily explained is the wealth difference between the affluent market towns, and the former industrial towns.
It’s as much about assets as jobs. Money flows into the wealthier towns, not because they have photogenic castles and walls, but because they are attractive places to live for people with significant private assets.
There’s been generations of landowners, people who are privately wealthy from shares, and people with large pensions. Combined, that keeps enough money flowing into a town to make its economy buoyant and keep house prices high. There’s a virtuous circle that supports the boutique stores, the independent cafes, and creates enough appeal for a professional services like estate agents, lawyers and vets to locate in these towns.
Contrast that with former industrial towns, where the population never held many assets. Industries were closed without any just transition, whole towns experienced brutal economic shock. These industries were wealth creators, but the assets and profits they created were never owned by the workers who did the mining or the welding or who staffed the production lines. All too often, they have nothing left but the chronic diseases from a lifetime of hard graft. The solution has to include developing small businesses and community owned assets.
On Tuesday morning, news came through that the court of appeal had confirmed that Boris Johnson had hit a new low: the proroguing of Parliament was indeed illegal, and Parliament was recalled. Two hundred MPs and assorted staff hurriedly recast diaries, rescheduled meetings, and re-booked trains.
Jeremy Corbyn’s speech was brought forward a day. Commentators across the board regarded it as his best and most confident – and why wouldn’t it be? He’s in striking distance of Number 10.
The next morning, the hotel breakfast room was like the Marie Celeste; the MPs and spads had disappeared.
This Monday I’m in Manchester, for a meeting of the M9, the enigmatic name given to the meeting of me and the other 8 Metro Mayors. We’d agreed to have it in Manchester at the same time as Tory conference, so we could collar some government ministers. But with MPs summoned back to Parliament, it might just be us.
This article was first published in The Journal on Monday 30th September 2019.