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Editorial: Northern Research Group’s calls show ruling class contradictions

BORIS JOHNSON’S signal success in corralling a critical number of northern English votes for his Commons majority can be read as presenting a serious problem for Labour. 

Indeed it was, but it is also turning out to be something of a problem for the Prime Minister, who faces all manner of critics on his own side, even if he has had at times something of a free pass from the official opposition.

The Tory election victory was only made possible after Labour’s now well-chronicled divisions over Brexit undermined Jeremy Corbyn’s undertaking to respect the referendum result, causing the swift dissipation of Labour’s early 2019 opinion poll lead. 

The significance of that turning point in electoral politics is that New Labour’s neglect of, even disdain for, the desires and hopes of working-class communities has not been overcome. 

This and the disappointments of last year have extracted a big price and now compel Labour to find a way of connecting again to people who really have no material interest in the election of a Tory government.

The problem for the Tories is that if they want to hang on to their bridgehead, they have to deliver on the expectations raised by electoral advance.

However, the kind of investment in infrastructure and development that is needed to make a difference is unlikely to be easily granted by Chancellor Rishi Sunak, who is already displaying a distinct reluctance to part with the kind of cash that local government leaders in the north of England — a Labour heartland — want and demand.

How, then, to understand the letter the mischievously named Northern Research Group has collectively written to Boris Johnson which calls for a “roadmap out of Covid”? 

If this sounds something like the tentative proposals that Sir Keir Starmer advanced when, early on in the coronavirus crisis, he entreated the Prime Minister to come up with an exit strategy, they are reluctant to acknowledge authorship.

But the key element is not their bovine insistence on a formula for an early exit from Tier 3 lockdown conditions — only the delusional, devious and daft now think that this virus will be suppressed by piecemeal measures — but rather their fear that the costs of combatting the pandemic “could be paid for by the downgrading of the levelling-up agenda.”

This, they argue, “would threaten to undermine the government’s hard-won mandate in December, at a time when the political and economic case for the levelling-up agenda we have been elected to deliver has never been more essential.”

The so far subterranean conflict between the austerity economics of the traditional Tory and fiscally conservative elements most closely connected to big business and the City and these northern MPs — who mostly come from outside Establishment circles and may not have expected to be elected and are highly conscious of their precarious majorities — is bursting out into public.

A deep analysis of contemporary British capitalism in its movement and development and in its global context is properly the business of the working-class movement as a whole. 

This collective intellectual effort needs refocusing on a renewed alternative economic strategy that would be the basis of a renewed appeal to working people and the policies of a new Labour government.

If it is unlikely that this would emerge from within official Labour, it must come from without. 

A study of the contradictions with the ruling class — most clearly displayed in the Brexit controversies and by no means completely resolved — and in their political machinery of party and state would enable us to more fully understand the class enemy.

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