After being chased from a pub at the weekend by protesters, Nigel Farage sought a more welcoming setting earlier this week when he visited Middleton in Greater Manchester. The area rose to prominence last October when UKIP came within 617 votes of beating Labour at the Heywood and Middleton by-election. Labour was defending a majority of 17,000.
The result underlined what some in the Labour Party had begun to notice: the risk UKIP poses to Labour in the North. It was noteworthy, then, that Farage selected Middleton to launch his party’s economic vision for the UK.
The vision set out a number of spending commitments: £3bn a year for the NHS; foreign aid reduced to £2bn per year; and raising the personal tax allowance to £13,000. Surprisingly, given where Farage was making the announcement, he announced UKIP would scrap the “vanity project” that is HS2, saving at least £3bn a year between now and 2020.
Farage has spent a great deal of the time since October talking up UKIP’s chances in the North, but his latest announcement seems to run completely counter to that goal. So why did he do it?
True, HS2 does not enjoy universal approval. However, council leaders in the North have got behind the project with the formation of One North, a Northern transport group led by the city regions of Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and Sheffield to develop a coherent strategic transport plan integrating HS2 with the existing rail network.
To date, we haven’t really heard how UKIP proposes to help boost economic growth and prosperity in the regions. Moreover, this puts the party at odds with the Conservatives who, under George Osborne, have loudly committed to establishing a Northern Powerhouse.
Oddly enough the Northern Powerhouse agenda has left Labour on the back foot on the issue of English and city devolution. Just last week the party had to perform an embarrassing u-turn, admitting that it would not retract Osborne’s policy of devolving the £6bn health and social care budget to Greater Manchester, after Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham initially said he would.
Labour has, though, set out its own agenda for devolution if it gets into government. Rather quietly in February, the party released a report in which it set out plans to devolve £30bn of funding over the next Parliament. The party is also committed to introducing an English Devolution Act. The Conservatives have yet to make such a promise.
Whereas the Conservatives and Labour will be vying over who has the best offer on regional devolution for the North, it’s unlikely UKIP will be carrying such a message on devolution.
The interesting point here is that despite not having a detailed offer on regional devolution, UKIP could still come second to Labour in a large number of constituencies across the north by harnessing a lot of non-Labour voters, those who feel disengaged from the current political parties.
The potential success UKIP could enjoy in the North highlights two things. First, devolved power is not a door step issue, which is why Farage has probably decided to stay away from it. Second, the Conservatives, and in particular George Osborne who has invested heavily in the Northern Powerhouse agenda, may see little return on that investment. A strong UKIP performance in the North will only lead to further questions about what the Conservative Party has to do to refresh its brand in the North of England.