For Labour politicians, grumbling about the infamous North-South divide has become a staple - honed over decades into the meaningless soundbyte we have today. It wasn’t always meaningless, during the 1970s and 1980s there was a huge decline in Northern fortunes. It seems broadly forgotten today but Ted Heath and Harold Wilson closed far more uneconomic pits and mines than Margaret Thatcher.
But, as the rhetoric goes today, the North is once again being left behind as the South (and London in particular) surges ahead into a futuristic age of prosperity and safety. Politicians from all major parties are jockeying to appeal to concerned Northern voters. The Coalition has made a positive response to Labour’s bitterness (I understand that under Ed Miliband, Labour MPs have been banned from droning on about the North-South divide as it alienates Southern voters, whose votes Labour will need if they ever want to win again) and we’re seeing policies designed to foster Northern industries. HS2, enterprise zones and thousands of new apprenticeships to name just a few - and now Osborne is trying to kindle a debate about further transport links in the North.
These are tremendous and worthy policies - no part of our country should be left behind as Labour’s bank-busting deficit is eased. But voters in London and the South are quite right to be bemused by all the talk of their glittering palaces and mountains of hoarded gold. Here are the stats for unemployment from the ONS (2012):
North*: 1,321,605 (8.9%)
Midlands: 830,813 (8.2%)
South: 1,938,910 (6.9%)
While the rate of unemployment is lower in the South than in the North, due to the population difference, there is a significantly greater number of people looking for work in the South. Here are the figures for poverty** from Poverty.co.uk:
North: 3,407,720 (22.8%)
Midlands: 2,387,070 (23.6%)
South: 6,164,998 (22.0%)
Again, the rate of poverty in the South is slightly lower than in the North or the Midlands but there are almost twice as many people living in poverty in the South than in the North. Almost half of these are in Greater London, where prices are notoriously much higher - a salary may be decent by Coventry standards (for example) but would get you much less in London. This means the problem is even more exaggerated in London than the figures show (the poverty rate in London is 28%).
My point is not that we should forget the North, quite the opposite. We need to see a sustained industrial strategy for revitalising Northern business and bringing new tech to the North but this can’t come at the expense of other regions, including Scotland, Wales, the Midlands, London and the South.
* Northern figures represent figures for North East, North West and Yorks & Humber. Midlands figures represent figures for East Midlands and West Midlands. Southern figures represent figures for South East, South West, East of England and Greater London.
** Poverty defined as people living in households below 60% of median income after deducting housing costs