The final days of the last Parliamentary session resembled the end of term in a failing school. A June away-day in the North-East had not improved things. Discipline was collapsing. Students who should have been excluded hadn’t been. Prefects were running amok. The teaching staff appeared increasingly inept and incapable of controlling the class. Two had resigned. Everyone was falling behind on delivering the syllabus.
The Prime Minister responded by beginning the recess with a Grand Tour starting with a visit to Hartlepool. The purpose of this sally had something to do with a hard Brexit. Exactly what was unclear. Were the people of Hartlepool meant to understand that a hard Brexit was a bad idea, that the Prime Minister would carry on bravely producing fudges unacceptable both to the EU and to her barmy back-benches thus making a hard BREXIT more likely, or did she mean ‘crashing out’ would be better than a bad deal? Don’t ask me.
And why Hartlepool? This is a genuine question – not a touch of Londoner north-of-Watford disdain - which yields an interesting possible answer. Hartlepool voted 69.9% for Leave on a 65% turn-out. (The national figure was 52% on a 72% turn-out). Nearby Redcar and Cleveland voted 66% Leave on a 70% turn-out, Middlesborough voted 65.5% Leave on a 64% turn-out, and Stockton-on-Tees 62% on a 71% turn-out. Only Darlington was less enthusiastic for BREXIT with 56% for Leave on a 71% turn-out. Put these towns together and you have the new Tees Valley Combined Authority, created two years ago, a product of north-eastern devolution with a Mayor, innovative and expanding businesses and some big problems. Plus a population of 680,000 significantly more pro-Brexit that most other regions. If Theresa May could convince them of her intentions, whatever they are, she could convince other Leave voters.
Sorry to deploy these figures but facts in Brexit discussions are as rare as diamonds in an Arron Banks South African mine. The Tees Valley’s problems are reflected in Hartlepool having, between April 2017 and March 2018, the highest urban unemployment rate in the country. Not a natural Tory Party stronghold you might say, and you would be right. All five towns have Labour Party seats. Peter Mandleson, no longer “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich provided they pay their taxes” used to represent Hartlepool.
In 2017, in the face of the Tees Valley’s economic and social plight, the Combined Authority produced an investment plan and economic strategy which aimed to take advantage of its new devolved status and a small pot of money that gave it a modicum of planning power. The 2017 strategy pointed up the interlocking needs of the North-East if sustained economic growth was to become a reality.
For the period until 2020/1 the Tees Valley Authority budgeted £464 million of investment. It planned to spend £220 million on Business, Growth, R&D, Employment and Skills. Of this nearly half, would be coming from European Union Funding. The Authority has also been establishing funding streams extending beyond this period including £173 million from ESIF, the European Structural Investment Fund. All this money will be lost in March 2019 as Britain leaves the European Union.
To sum up, the majority of voters in the Tees Valley region voted in 2016 to eliminate funding that might, with competent planning from the Local Authority and Labour MPs, have boosted the local economy and created decently remunerated employment. Are we really expected to believe that this is what they intended?
Commitments, pledges and guarantees from government abound. Yet further unfortunate facts abound too: nationally most schools are in chronic debt; the NHS is getting future top-ups but not enough to sustain current level of service; our police are understaffed; our transport systems and utilities are in bad shape; our army, navy and air-force are pared back to the minimum for national security, and our energy future is in jeopardy owing to commissioning of French nuclear reactors that are flawed.
So - excuse the sarcasm – the North-East has no need to worry. A Tory government in the inevitable post- Brexit crisis will prioritize stumping up the money from a non-existent Brexit dividend to compensate five Labour Constituencies in the North East for loss of European funding. Really? Multiply this implausibility across hundreds of different contexts, agricultural, cultural, prisons, and so on, add new needs created by a decade of austerity throughout the UK. It is likely the North-East, and to a lesser degree all the UK, is in for a bad shock.
So will Mr. Corbyn cast aside his ideological purity and demonstrate that he is a member of the Labour Party not a socialist sect, and now call for a second referendum? Two of the Tees Valley Authority Labour MPs, Anna Turley and Dr. Paul Williams, have courageously put their constituents before their own political careers defied the whip and voted to stay in the Common Market. Will the people of the North-East be given the opportunity to change their minds now they know that BREXIT means the economy of the North-East will be damaged. Will Mr. Corbyn speak out for the poor and disadvantaged whom Brexit will make greatly more poor and disadvantaged in the North-East and elsewhere? Or will he just sit and hope that the Tories implode so he can, just possibly, inherit the position of Prime Minister in a ruined Britain?