What can the Lib Dems do about the Coalition’s ‘Northern problem’?

by Stephen Tall on June 26, 2011

Andrew Rawnsley in today’s Observer highlights a key issue for both Coalition partners, in particular — the Tories’ failure to make any kind of advance in the north, and the Lib Dems’ difficulties in retaining our popularity there.

With the exception of William Hague, Eric Pickles and two Lib Dem Scots, the cabinet is a very southern English affair. This may not have been much noticed by the south, but it is very evident if you look through the other end of the telescope. Viewed from Leeds or Manchester or Newcastle, Westminster is more remote than ever. It also seems increasingly hostile. Northern England has a growing – and often legitimate – grievance that it is getting a raw deal compared with the rest of the United Kingdom. There is the historic complaint, sharpened by public spending cuts which will bite hardest in the north, that they are discriminated against by power brokers concentrated in the south. To that is now added a creeping realisation that they are also losing out in money and influence to the devolved governments in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland – particularly the latter. …

The disappearance of the Tories from much of the north turned the Lib Dems into Labour’s main competition. The Lib Dems’ northern councillors were obliterated at the local elections. Nick Clegg has confided to friends that he was slow to realise how much visceral hostility towards the Tories there was in the north, nor had he foreseen how it would be displaced on to his own party through guilt by association. It is reasonable to suppose that this trend is going to continue into the future, splitting the country between a Labour north and a Tory/Lib Dem-supporting south. This is not a happy prospect, this future for England in which it becomes ever more starkly divided into two political nations.

The problem for the Lib Dems was highlighted by the most recent set of local elections, which were especially devastating in the northern metropolitan cities, and in Scotland. But Scotland highlighted the problems for all three major parties: voters did not desert the Lib Dems for Labour, but for the SNP, which it was quite logically felt would best protect the interests of Scotland. Such is the power of devolution in offering voters a more powerful voice (a voice which was stifled by north-eastern voters when they voted down John Prescott’s imperfect regional assembly).

The question remains: is there anything the Lib Dems can do to address our northern problem? Eleven of our 57 MPs are Scottish, with many others representing northern constituncies. What are the practical steps the party can take in the four years of this parliament which remain to demonstrate we’re listening, and shore up our support?