We’ve covered the habits and fallacies of the Miserablist Left on ConservativeHome before – here and here, for example. The most glaring example (quite literally) is Ed Balls, whose squirming in the face of good economic news has been a joyful sight to behold. But it’s important to remember the pessimistic trend extends beyond the Shadow Chancellor and, indeed, beyond the bounds of the Labour Party.
The Guardian presented a monumental example of miserablism at the weekend, declaring the North East of England, which includes my home town, to be “teetering on the brink” of becoming “Britain’s Detroit”.
The article provoked a furious response from across the North East – understandably, given that it had been rubbished simply in order to make an attack on “Tory cuts”, regardless of the truth of the matter or the harm it might do to the already under-rated North East.
Those of us who grew up there spend a good portion of our time correcting people’s misapprehensions, which are largely borne of 30-year-old news footage and re-runs of Our Friends In The North. It’s a source of eternal frustration that whole tracts of the country think of smoking slag-heaps and strikers when the reality includes the nation’s most beautiful countryside, Granger’s glorious sandstone architecture, massive redevelopment and car plants which turn out more vehicles each year than the entirety of Italy.
To see how badly wrong The Guardian got it, it’s worth checking out the response in Newcastle’s Journal – as well as a broadside from the Institute of Directors’ North East Chairman, Graham Robb, the paper has duly updated ‘100 Reasons Why It’s Great Up North‘, a feature it first ran ten years ago.
The furore re-opens a wider question about the North East, and particularly its place in England’s politics. It’s a debate that should have been properly considered when The Journal published its first list of 100 Reasons…, in 2004. That was the year of the North East Regional Assembly Referendum, the earthquake Westminster forgot.
Faced with mounting rejection of regionalisation, John Prescott cancelled the planned referendums in Yorkshire and the North West. Only the North East, assumed by Labour to be an obedient heartland which would do whatever they told it, was to be asked if it wanted a regional assembly. That decision itself tells you much about the exploitative relationship between the Labour Party and the North East.
It backfired. Told that an assembly would mean the voice of the North East would be heard in Westminster, people not unreasonably asked why they weren’t already heard, given that Tony Blair and numerous Labour ministers supposedly represented North East seats. Offered another layer of politicians, voters looked at what they already had and said “No, thanks.”
The result exposed the idea of North East subservience to Labour as the myth it was.
The Left hasn’t learned the lesson. Labour still takes its “heartland” for granted, and their allies in the press still talk it down by raking up unfair stereotypes in the hope of scoring points among a Southern audience.
Sadly, though, the national Conservative Party hasn’t studied and learned from 2004, either, though. A short-termist system which focuses only on winning the next election simply writes off much of the North East as unwinnable (and, sadly, pays too little attention to the marginals which could and should be Tory-held right now). The referendum result – and, in a smaller way, the strong reaction against The Guardian’s slander – showed that the red rosettes of the North East are remarkably flimsy.
The area may not be over-brimming with love for Toryism right now (even though it has far more Tory voters than many would assume), but it is a disastrous mistake to think that means it holds any huge enthusiasm for the Labour Party which has let it down for so long. Why would it? What have the Islington human rights lawyers and poe-faced miserablists of the modern Labour Party got to offer a place founded on hard work, innovation, community and wry humour?
A Conservative Party which valued long-term success would have realised that, with the right message and the right machine, Labour can be rocked in what they arrogantly consider to be their fiefdom. It wouldn’t be easy, it wouldn’t be quick – and in particular it would mean working through the painful issues of the 1980s, including recognising where we got things wrong. But it would be worth it.
If Conservative high command refuses to try on the basis that it’s too big a hill to climb for 2015, they do a dis-service to both the people of the North East and the Conservatives of 2030. We had an opportunity to start the climb in 2004 – that opportunity was passed up, and ten years on we are still waiting. How much longer are we going to leave it?