Head North by Andy Burnham and Steve Rotherham

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Review by Rob Spence

When Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced in October last year that the multi-billion pound rail infrastructure programme HS2 would not, after all, be completed, leaving Manchester and the north of England out of the loop, he presented the U-turn as actually a good thing. This would free up funds to improve all forms of transport in the north, he said, benefiting the people far more than HS2, which hitherto had been touted as evidence of the government’s determination to “level up” the north. Inevitably, a new, glossy government programme was announced: Network North. This would use the money allocated to HS2 for much needed improvements in the north of England. The government department responsible, or their PR team, were quick to issue an advertisement in support of the new initiative. It boasted of how millions of the diverted funding could now be spent fixing potholes in…London. The ad was soon withdrawn, but the damage was done. Once again, the Westminster government had demonstrated that “the North” might as well be outer space as far as they were concerned. As one commentator pointed out, if the construction of HS2 had been begun in Manchester, there was no chance it would have been abandoned short of London.

The HS2 saga is the latest in the long series of examples of government indifference and neglect when it comes to the post-industrial heartland of England. In this new book, two Labour metropolitan mayors, Andy Burnham of Greater Manchester, and Steve Rotherham of Liverpool City Region, put forward their analysis of the problems, and offer a manifesto which amounts to, as they put it in their subtitle, “a rallying cry for a more equal Britain.” The authors share a lot in common: both hail from working-class families in the north-west of England, both went on to become Labour MPs, and both have a history of campaigning that goes beyond party political lines.

The book is partly a joint autobiography, detailing the development of their political views in the Thatcher years, as they witnessed the effects of her government’s policies on their communities. Both of them were young football fans at the time of the 1989 Hillsborough disaster, Steve Rotherham being in attendance as a Liverpool fan. That event has resonated through their lives, and led to the decades-long campaign, in which both of them were prominent, to secure justice for the families of the 97 fans who lost their lives. One of the central proposals in the manifesto is for a “Hillsborough Law”, which would enforce a legal duty of candour on police and public servants to tell the truth at the first time of asking, and to provide parity of legal funding for bereaved families where the state is involved. As the authors point out, not just the Hillsborough families, but those caught up in other scandals would benefit: the contaminated blood saga, Grenfell, Windrush, the Post Office IT affair, and many others.

In outlining how their life experiences shaped their political beliefs, the book provides a sound basis for the authors’ proposals. And the proposals are nothing if not radical: full UK devolution, a restructuring of the education system, parliamentary and electoral reform, a green economy programme to achieve net zero, and much more. The boldness of the vision is matched by the depth of the analysis. It is a persuasive mix.

I had one or two reservations about the format of the book. While it is sensible for both to reflect on their upbringing as crucial to the development of their political consciousness, I could have done without details of the first concerts they attended, or memories of key football matches. The style, particularly in those sections, is rather as if the reader is being presented with a lightly-edited transcript of an interview. The authors’ words are presented throughout in alternating sections, distinguished typographically, and that seems to make it more like a conversation. It’s chatty and digressive, whereas the final section, presenting the manifesto, seems much more direct and focused. It’s in that final section that the full impact of the book can be felt, as a resounding clarion call for sweeping change.

This is an important and up-to-date document that eviscerates the current state of the country’s governance. It deserves to be widely read, and its ideas seriously considered. 

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Rob Spence’s home on the web is at robspence.org.uk. He is also on Bluesky: @spencro.bsky.social

Andy Burnham and Steve Rotherham, Head North (Trapeze, 2024). 978-1-398719736, 264pp., hardback.

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