IT has been a horrendous week for our friends in the north as the all-encompassing virus plays havoc with public health and politics. Nor has it been easy for opposition parties in Scotland, as they try to mount an argument that lasts more than two days before it is undermined, often by their own party.

The north of England matters to me. I know more about some of the towns and cities of the north of England than I do parts of Scotland and I know that many friends feel caught between hell and hard place, unable to feel the surge of hope for change that seems to be in the air in Scotland. Watching the damage done to towns that were once landmarks on the journey of the northern soul scene is difficult to stomach. Many once vibrant towns feel let down by history, by de-industrialisation and increasingly by London’s failure to include regional city leaders in their plans. Manchester mayor Andy Burnham has even threatened to take legal action against

Boris Johnson as the Prime Minister plans to put his city and the wider Lancashire area into tier-three lockdown.

There is something exhilarating about watching the north fight back. I had a wry smile when a pub in the Wirral rebranded itself as the The Three Bellends with a fascia mocking Johnson, Health Secretary Matt Hancock and the widely despised Dominic Cummings. The rebrand came after the Liverpool city region was placed under tier-three coronavirus restrictions amid growing anger at the Westminster Government’s handling of the crisis. Liverpool is currently experiencing the toughest Covid restrictions of all but it’s a place I have always associated with the spirit of independence, a dogged refusal to be incorporated into the wider north of England, a muscular rivalry with nearby Manchester, and a deep resentment about the south and what its politics have done to a once great city.

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Liverpool’s anger is more than skin-deep; there is deeply felt indignation across the city about highly emotional subjects. The Hillsborough disaster still casts a painful shadow over the city and has provoked a lifelong boycott of The Sun newspaper for many and a visceral hatred of Boris Johnson, too. Few can forgive Johnson for his callous improvising, when he was editor of The Spectator and published comments that said Liverpudlians “see themselves whenever possible as victims”, blamed “drunken fans” for the disaster, and called the police “a convenient scapegoat”.

What a royal mess Westminster has become, incapable of being fair to the people of England let alone the restless nations of Scotland and Wales. I have friends in Liverpool who in a spiky way claim that they are not English but part of what they consider to be a different place, a city state which, like Scotland, does not have the powers it needs to succeed. At the height of the miners’ strike, you heard similar sentiments in the so-called socialist republic of south Yorkshire.

This emotional feeling of “independence” or a desire for greater power is an aspiration that the current political system seems unable to hear. On the edges of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties you periodically hear of the concept of a federal Britain with a full-scale realignment which transfers significant powers to nations, regions, and cities.

Disappointingly, it is not the policy of any major party and rarely comes up as a conference priority, which might lead people to think it’s not deeply felt. Even if it were to be favoured by a minority party, it would have to pass the recalcitrant route of the House of Commons and the unreformed House of Lords, and it would need to be a settled idea in the minds of people across huge swathes of the Midlands and the south of England, who are the dominant population centres of the UK. They have demonstrated no interest in the idea and you rarely even hear it discussed in public forums. The only politician who has consistently spoken out on behalf of federalism is Gordon Brown, but it seems more motivated by the need to pour cold water on Scottish independence by offering a magical alternative that is not even policy within his own party.

For Labour to rejuvenate in Scotland and the north of England they should begin by shedding myths. Earlier last week I read a lengthy feature on how Labour can reboot its prominence in the north which was almost entirely dedicated to the fantasy of the “red wall”, a much-repeated myth that claims that natural Labour heartlands stretch through Scotland and across the north of England. Although it is a favoured metaphor within political media it simply does not exist. Scotland has proven that heartlands easily evaporate, and walls come tumbling down.

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IF you were to drive from Burnley to Halifax, two towns that share a past in the textile trade, you would pass through Hebden Bridge, a town with more lesbian couples per head of population than any other town in England. It has a post-industrial economy and is peppered with vegan food shops, second-hand bookstores and craft workshops. Although Labour in decline still poll well there, so do the Greens and small-business Toryism.

Most importantly, it exemplifies none of the demographic trends that the “red wall” is founded on, a nostalgia forged by industry and the old working class. Increasingly, demographics are changing and a whole mix of factors, like lifestyle, social attitudes, the death of deference, the social mobility of class and the rise of environmental politics are realigning how next generations think.

The Labour party knows this, but shaking off old habits in Scotland and the north of England has proved more problematic than a leopard changing spots. They know they are ridiculed for looking like a branch office in Scotland but seem philosophically incapable of embracing their own independence to put ridicule behind them. Labour still consider the north of England to be winnable, but it is not clear if they have a prefect picture of what they are trying to win and for whom.

What is rarely said about the north of England is the extraordinary patches of wealth that are to be found there. If you were to drive further north towards the Yorkshire Dales National Park you would pass through the genteel towns of Harrogate, Knaresborough and on to Richmond, Yorkshire, the constituency of Rishi Sunak, the bankers’ pal and a free-market Tory who is currently deceiving some people that he is a charitable Chancellor of the Exchequer.

For much of the 20th century this part of the north of England has been irreducibly Conservative. It has never been part of the fictional “red wall”. The Tory party has occupied the seat for more than a century and it was once the fiefdom of former home secretary Leon Brittan, then former leader of the Conservative party William Hague, who kept the seat warm for Sunak to inherit when he moved the House of Lords. The only time Richmond has not been Conservative was when it was held by the old Unionist Party in the early 1920s.

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Drive 25 minutes further north on the A66, a road that Special Adviser Dominic Cummings knows well, and you arrive at Barnard Castle, the English heritage town which recently centred in a storm around Cummings breaking the Covid lockdown. Better still, drive south from Manchester and you come to the millionaire villages of Altrincham and Sale, which have the most expensive residential streets outside of south-east England, an area that has been safely Conservative since the constituency was designated in 1997.

Whilst Scotland has already forced change about the way it is discussed in public discourse, I am struck by how rarely the north of England is treated with the kind of analytical diversity and intelligence it deserves.

There are so many gaps and worn old bricks in the “red wall” theory, but political journalists and policy wonks seem welded to the idea. It is a failure of understanding which misrepresents the north and undermines Labour party thinking by clouding the idea of how it can win back lost ground.