If you follow the general election, it feels like a circus travelling from town to town: political leaders, TV crews and pundits from Westminster going from one place to another but delivering the same performance.
That may be a mistake. One of the big challenges for government and politics is the sense that what happens in Westminster and Whitehall isn’t connected to regional Britain. That even the reporting of it still sounds like a conversation in a bubble.
We’ve seen some powerful exceptions. We’ve been working with the UK2070 Commission, publicising research which shines a light on two big issues: the deep-seated inequalities between the different regions of Britain, and the role that decades of government policy – even the shape and location of government – may have played in making it harder to tackle those inequalities.
The Commission’s recommendations (informed by the work of university researchers) has struck a chord across the north because they have acknowledged two of the most significant factors in politics and life in general: our sense of identity and our pride in place.
Crudely, if you read national media reports of what Westminster does, they will usually be stories of what Westminster says. However, if you read reports about politics by Jen Williams, of the Manchester Evening News, you will see stories about the impact of what Westminster does on grassroots Britain. Sometimes, they’re painful tales of deprivation. Often, they are accounts of remarkable pride and regional self-belief.
In the Yorkshire Post, you can hear the impatience of its editor, Jay Mitchinson, railing against Westminster’s tin ears. Like the MEN, the YP has long been the voice of a distinctive regional culture – one which isn’t willing to sit back and accept manifestos cooked up in London.
It isn’t okay to dismiss these reports as the last shout of the regional media, or to characterise it in a cliched northern accent. This is committed journalism delivered by professional teams who know the people they speak for; a wiser Westminster should be listening hard. We see the same on our own home turf in Nottingham, where Mike Sassi’s Nottingham Post/Notts Live has asked searching questions about homelessness.
Our work regularly takes us round cities like Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool, Newcastle and the places in between. Theses journeys go through towns and villages crying out for investment in basic facilities (not least decent, working infrastructure). But we still see striking manifestations of the civic ambition which, in the past, meant the cities of the Midlands and the North were powerful forces for progress. Not for nothing, is Salford the home of MediaCity (home to 5 Live, BBC Sport and BBC Breakfast) and Leeds the new HQ of Channel 4.
If you speak to regional leaders like Judith Blake in Leeds and Andy Burnham and Sir Richard Leese in Manchester, you see serious regional ambition at work. Follow the Twitter feeds of city CEOs like Tom Riordan, and you’ll notice the big announcements interspersed with stories of community progress.
For the most part, these stories are not being told on the national stage. There are notable exceptions: for example, Andy Bounds, the Northern Correspondent of the Financial Times, Helen Pidd, the North of England Editor of the Guardian and David Collins, Northern Correspondent of the Sunday Times spend their lives criss-crossing the Pennines. The BBC’s Head of North, Rozie Breen, actively promotes the region. So does Stuart Thomas in the Midlands. But they are exceptions, and political perspectives in national media are usually formed in a particular part of London.
Distance is a key factor in trust. People trust what appears in local newspapers far more than they do, say, on Facebook or in the national media. They feel that national media treats them as homogenised, as if the answers to life’s challenges can be one-size-fits-all. The evidence suggests otherwise, and when trust in institutions is at a historically low ebb, people will trust their own tribe most – including the local media.
The political story of Britain is about much more than Westminster and general elections. And while it’s not for us to pass judgement on the rights and wrongs of regional policy, we do think government as an institution would have better visibility of regional perceptions if it rebuilt its own regional eyes and ears.
Our own business, communications, is a contact sport. When we do projects in Liverpool, we’re in Liverpool. Work for clients in Manchester is in Manchester. It’s the same in Birmingham, Leicester, Leeds, Coventry, Edinburgh, London. These relationships are critical.
Government can’t be everywhere. But it could so easily get closer. It would mean more to more people if it did.