The itinerary for this week’s Northern Powerhouse conference is all about the boys. Kate Fox has called bullshit and will be protesting against the middle-aged-maleness of it all. In hi-vis and a hard hat.
It’s the blindness of it that gets me. Did nobody look at the 2014 picture of the 10 male council leaders, plus George Osborne, signing agreements for councils in the North to have more powers, and say: “I feel like there’s something missing here. But I just can’t put my finger on what”?
Did none of them think “Our identical local government man-styling will get the public excited about this Northern Powerhouse stuff”? I’m not suggesting they should have got Beyoncé in. But maybe just some people who were not blokes wearing identical blue polyester man-suits and ties? Women, I believe they’re called.
I remember, on a trip to Finland once, being astounded when I saw pictures of city councillors. There were loads of women and young people. It really jarred. Councils are just middle-aged blokes, right? No wonder young people are disengaged from politics.
The Northern Powerhouse conference, which takes place in Manchester this week, sent out a press release highlighting its 15 main speakers who all happened to be men. Only 13 out of 98 speakers are women. The organisers acknowledge that it’s not good enough but blame companies for not putting women forward.
As well as ignoring the many women political and business leaders in the North with something to say about its future, this reinforces the idea that the North is all those things that the Southern media likes to say it is. Sexist and stuck in the past. Though of course Trump is having a good go at bringing overt sexism bang up to date.
The Northern Powerhouse is former Chancellor George Osborne’s big idea to try to get skills, transport and the economy in the North of England to compete with the giant money-sucking engine that is London and the South East. No other country in Europe has as big a gap between the economy of the capital city and the economy of its regions as Britain.
London gets six times more spent on transport than the North, for example. There is twice as much funding given to the arts in London than to the rest of the country combined. There is no doubt that there needs to be a more balanced deal for the regions (not just the North). This stuff is even more important now that EU money, which used to fund all sorts of projects in the regions, is going to be pulled out.
“Somebody said they thought the word ‘Lass’ could be putting ourselves down, but I said it’s not often you get a pun that riffs on gender, class and Northern English regional identity all at once.”
Deep-rooted problems and inequalities, however, need much more than men from firms with shiny foyers chatting to other men from firms with shiny foyers.
The North doesn’t just suffer a socio-economic gap, which means that students move away and the deprived areas of the North are some of the most deprived areas of the country. It also suffers a representation problem. It’s historical.
Sometimes you have to define yourself as one thing by defining something else as not that thing. So Southern England gets to be rural, beautiful, middle-class, productive, refined, forward looking (even though lots of it isn’t) and Northern England is seen as industrial, dirty, working-class, barbaric, old fashioned (even though lots of it isn’t). It extends to how people are represented too.
There’s no objective reason that there’s never been a national news bulletin reader with a Northern accent (well, apart from Wilfred Pickles who was put on air during the second world war to “confuse the Germans”, but taken off again because Southerners objected to his flat vowels). However Northern accents are seen as less authoritative and “serious” than Southern ones.
I’ve done research that found national newspaper reviews mention and comment on the voice, body and appearance of Northern comedians far more than those of Southern comedians. The last thing Northern women need is to have their voices left out of even more things that directly affect them.
“The last thing Northern women need is to have their voices left out of even more things that directly affect them.”
Tomorrow (Tuesday 21 February), me and some fellow women will be putting on our man-suits, our ties, our hi-vis jackets and hard hats and making like those men who get in all the Northern Powerhouse photos.
We’ll stand outside the conference centre and point at things importantly, stride up and down and sign things while looking smug and manly. We’re calling ourselves ‘Lass War’. Somebody said they thought the word ‘Lass’ could be putting ourselves down, but I said it’s not often you get a pun that riffs on gender, class and Northern English regional identity all at once.
Basically we just need to remind the blokes that any visions of how to heal the North-South divide need to involve everybody.
Women are half the population so that’s a good place to start, but they’re also failing to give a platform to ethnic minorities, LGBTQIA people, disabled people, creatives, millennials, students – all of whom have so much to offer a new vision for the North.
These are confusing times. We need to be united under the banner of an exciting, forward looking, diverse North (though we’ll be spoiling this image somewhat when we get rid of the EU citizens who contribute so much to our economy). They need to put us in the picture – but if they don’t, we can do it ourselves.4057 Views
Standup poet who's been poet in residence for Radio 4's Saturday Live, Glastonbury Festival and the Great North Run.