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Northern soul: Socialism with a Northern Accent

Socialism with a Northern Accent, by Paul Salveson. reviewed by Michael Calderbank

September 2, 2012
5 min read


Michael CalderbankMichael Calderbank Red Pepper co-editor and parliamentary researcher for trade unions. @Calderbank


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It seems fitting that a book that ends with the challenges facing contemporary Bradford – home of the Independent Labour Party since 1893 – should have been published just weeks before Ed Miliband’s Labour Party faced a humiliating by-election defeat by a candidate who claimed to speak up for the traditional values that the party has now abandoned. Here was evidence for all to see that the national and local leadership could lose touch with precisely the sort of northern community that Labour is accustomed to consider its natural territory.

Paul Salveson’s book examines a distinctive northern working class sensibility characterised by a strong ethical core, grounded in co-operation and solidarity at a local level, and pragmatically concerned with improving our common lot. Labour histories in Britain all too often displace the importance of what Raymond Williams termed ‘structures of feeling’ in favour of organisational narratives that frequently privilege the official accounts of leaders and spokespeople in the metropolitan centre ahead of the lived experience of communities in the regions. In standard accounts of the emergence of the Labour Party, for instance, the role of the Fabians in particular is exaggerated, as their presence outside London was limited.

Salveson’s account offers a useful corrective to such a perspective. But it still runs the risk of implying that the Independent Labour Party (ILP), which provided a home to this more inchoate libertarian, ethical socialist view of the world, was no more than a valuable staging‑post towards the emergence of a Labour Party for which winning representation in Westminster was the primary aim and which duly incorporated the spirit of its predecessor, even though the latter would be ultimately lose ground to a top-down centralising vision of social democracy.

Consider the diversity of the traditions from which ‘northern socialism’ emerges: trade unions and labour guilds, radical liberals and pacifists, co-operatives, mutual aid/friendly societies, the women’s movement, democratic reform movements (from the Chartists to the Suffragettes), the Marxist Social Democratic Federation (SDF), religious non-conformism, humanism, and the whole romantic reaction against the ugly realities of the industrial revolution.

Does the Labour party really have a monopoly as the sole and inevitable inheritor of these influences? Haven’t other traditions drawn as heavily from these influences, if to somewhat different ends? You’d be hard pushed to get as much from the foreword and blurb (by the Lords Prescott and Glasman respectively), who still exhibit a proprietorial attitude to this ‘Labour territory’.

To his credit, Salveson is more pluralist in his approach, and recognises that feminists, environmentalists, anti-war activists and community organisations also continue to draw upon this distinctive sensibility.

So, too, he is careful to avoid a romantic, backward-looking nostalgia for a bygone world, and he is not out to celebrate the flat-cap and whippet culture of stereotype. Rather, tradition can be a resource in negotiating the challenges we face in a modern, diverse Britain in the 21st century. It is a potential source of strength, not something, as it was for Tony Blair, to be cast off in a relentless push for modernisation.

Indeed, many of the principal characteristics of the northern socialist tradition Salveson describes will surely be central to any modern-day emancipatory politics. Hence, for instance, there is an emphasis on practical, solidaristic, community-based politics and alternatives, on the critical importance of an actively engaged civil society and workforce empowered through forms of mutual ownership (the co-operative movement) and industrial democracy. So too there is a concentration on values embedded in common institutions prefiguring a richer cultural life – local newspapers, consumer co-ops and romantic poetry.

There is a clear emphasis on the value of the environment and public space as common entitlements, as typified by the mass trespass of hikers demanding rights of access. And, just as importantly, concern for the politics of place and locality doesn’t imply parochialism. Rather, we see the emergence of a rooted internationalism – whereby egalitarian values saw northern workers famously enduring hardship when workers refused to handle cotton from the slave-owning south in the US civil war.

In short, this tradition still has rather a lot to offer people in towns like Bradford across the north (and beyond) today, far more than the rootlessness of post-Blair Labour.

But while such an agenda would surely find ehoes in the South Wales valleys or north of Hadrian’s Wall, it remains a world away from a governing philosophy with its roots in the English home counties. Westminster continues to take away decisions on investment, planning and infrastructure from the regional level, to the benefit of London and the south east and detriment of everywhere else.

The second half of the book makes a timely and eloquent case for a devolved assembly based in the north, giving communities real power of local decision making along the lines of devolution in Wales and Scotland. The time for such an agenda might be with us sooner than we currently think.

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Michael CalderbankMichael Calderbank Red Pepper co-editor and parliamentary researcher for trade unions. @Calderbank


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