In recent years, the north of England has become a blank slate for whichever stereotypes the London-based media wants to foist on it. Whether the topic of debate is the “red wall” or “left behind” voters, there is usually an assumption that northerners are socially conservative (patriotic, Brexit-y, even a bit racist). “Northern safari” media features, in which journalists parachute into former mining villages to gather vox-pops from disgruntled, often elderly voters, have tended to back up the point.
Now, a new political movement, the Northern Independence party (NIP), has started to make the case that the north can and should be a place of radical potential rather than a reactionary backwater.
From its origins as a bedroom Twitter account, NIP has rapidly developed into a bona fide political party (though official registration by the electoral commission is still pending). Now it plans to stand former Labour MP Thelma Walker in the Hartlepool byelection in May. Most bookmakers are placing NIP in third place behind Labour and the Conservatives (ahead of both Reform UK and the Liberal Democrats).
In spite of the gathering hype around NIP we should be realistic about its electoral prospects. Britain’s archaic first-past-the-post system makes it extremely difficult for smaller parties to establish a foothold in Westminster – even when, like Ukip for much of the 2010s, they have bags of money and several million voters.
As yet, NIP has none of Ukip’s advantages and most of its limitations. Barring an astonishing breakthrough, it will struggle to make much of a dent in the two-party system, and in the short-term it will probably do little more than split the Labour vote in Hartlepool.
But for all its shortcomings, the rise of NIP might just be the start of a more general realignment in British politics. The rise of a left-populist party, however small, exposes a major weakness in the strategy of the Labour party under Keir Starmer. It proves that Labour cannot simply take for granted the votes of the younger, idealistic demographic that swung so decisively behind the party under Jeremy Corbyn. Labour has no chance of gaining power unless it manages to retain some, if not all, of the leftist voters and campaigners who helped it secure more than 3.5m more votes in the 2017 election than it managed in 2015.
Given Labour’s dismal recent polling, and a general mood of apathy and bitterness among its grassroots members, the arrival of a new leftwing party shows that unless Starmer makes some conciliatory moves to regain the trust of this faction – and fast – his political project will be in serious trouble. If even a minority of disaffected Corbynite northerners get behind NIP, and if its example inspires other left breakaway parties elsewhere in the country, Labour’s downslide will accelerate.
But there is another side to the NIP narrative, which goes beyond Labour party factionalism. At a time when debates about the constitutional future of the UK are gathering pace, NIP’s social media campaign shows how matters of regional identity can be explored in an engaging way.
In spite of a decade of government rhetoric full of buzzwords such as “northern powerhouse” and “levelling up”, the north of England is still – in far too many areas – the poor relation of its southern counterpart. NIP’s social media graphics have highlighted the key statistics that demonstrate this ongoing north-south divide.
In experimenting with the idea of total autonomy for “Northumbria” (a nod to the Anglo-Saxon kingdom stretching north of the Humber) NIP is seeking to open up conversation about how England could be reorganised more fairly. In this context, and despite its claims to the contrary, NIP’s demand for “national” northern independence is more of a provocation than a practical goal.
But this earnest politicking comes with a more impish public face. This is a project that is mindful of the risks of cliche and nostalgia when it comes to defining the northern cause. Instead of pious avowals of northern identity, NIP’s social media pages reclaim and refract stereotypes about northern culture with stylised portraits of whippets and tongue-in-cheek calls to nationalise Greggs and ban Dominic Cummings from Barnard Castle.
This approach to party politics will no doubt irritate some. But in an electoral landscape dominated by the blue-rinse nationalism of Boris Johnson’s Conservatives on the one hand, and a cautious, businesslike Labour party on the other, NIP’s tactics are a challenge to established parties that need to raise their game and reconnect with younger voters who don’t seem to feature much in the political debates of the 2020s. One of the latest NIP mottos states: “We joke but we’re serious”. They might just be on to something.