The North-South divide is one of the great red herrings

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The Independent Culture
OVER THE next couple of days, Tony Blair will leave the comfort of Downing Street to make a pilgrimage northwards. As he ventures into Merseyside and Manchester, his mission will be to heal the wounds caused by the "North-South divide".

Mr Blair is ever alert to potential pitfalls, and his journey is timely. Unquestionably, the Government has a political problem on its hands. Even Mo Mowlam got a battering the other week when the BBC's Question Time came from County Durham. The most popular member of the Cabinet, representing a constituency in the North-east, was heckled persistently as she suggested that Government policies were addressing the North-South divide.

The television exchanges underlined other evidence, such as the appallingly low turn-out in the Leeds by-election this summer (in spite of an excellent Labour candidate), that in some of the party's traditional heartlands voters are far from thrilled with the Government's performance. But - as we know from elections in other parts of the country - this is not a problem confined to the North of England. Perceptions of an apparently indifferent Government are possibly stronger in Manchester, Merseyside and beyond, but that does not make them any more rational.

Over the next two days, Mr Blair - and the rest of us via the television and radio reports of his visits - will hear vox pops in which the main sentiment will be: "There are those rich southerners and the poor neglected ones in the North... The high pound hits manufacturing in the North and helps the economy in the South." All of which is a nonsense; there are many poor southerners, and the economic consequences of the high pound are, to say the least, ambiguous. The North-South divide is, as it has always been, one of the great red herrings in British politics.

It is a red herring partly because there is not a great deal the Government can do to remedy distinct economic problems in any particular region. I am not one of those who dismiss all that passed under the name of "old" Labour, but previous governments' well-meaning interventions to save ailing industries were a disaster. When Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan headed north, they often came bearing gifts in the form of massive cheques for bankrupt industries. So did Ted Heath. The old corporatist approach meant that money was poured away fruitlessly, postponing the day when the axe landed with an even greater brutality.

Nor will the introduction of regional assemblies make a great deal of difference. Would companies based in the South relocate at the news that those who had run local government incompetently for decades were now in charge of a spanking new assembly? We shall probably never find out. The prospect of regional assemblies is fading with the reputation of John Prescott, their only great evangelist in the Government. Last summer, virtually unnoticed, his co-evangelist Richard Caborn was moved from being Minister of the Regions to the DTI, one of several nails in the coffin for regional assemblies. Revealingly, most of the cabinet ministers from the North-east - Blair, Mandelson, Byers - oppose the idea. The shrill arguments for an assembly in the North-east (there is indifference in the rest of the country) do not seem to amount to more than "Because Scotland has its Parliament, the North-east of England must have an Assembly." Why?

The red herring of the North-South divide is also highlighted by a Cabinet Office report this morning which shows that some of the worst deprivation is in London and the South-east. "There are considerable gaps between 'haves' and 'have-nots' within every region, which Government policy is seeking to address," the report concludes.

The first half of that sentence is indisputably true; the second is more contentious. Poor housing, terrible transport, bad schools and grim hospitals are as much a problem in the South as in the North - in some cases more so. So is finding work in some coastal towns in the South. As today's report suggests, a tour of London that included parts of Newham, Hackney and Tower Hamlets would kill off perceptions of a North-South divide.

In some ways the Government is, as the Cabinet Office report claims, tackling the more fundamental divide between the haves and have-nots across the country. Indeed, it is doing so more effectively than is often recognised. Welfare to work, the minimum wage, the working families' tax allowance, childcare assistance, increases in child benefit and allowing councils to build affordable homes once more (though not enough of them), have all been significant innovations. More widely, we are in the novel situation of approaching an election with a Labour Government presiding over a buoyant economy, rather than one heading for the rocks. This gives ministers much more leeway to help the worst-off.

But there is only limited comfort for ministers in proving that wealth disparities are greater within regions than between them. For another gap has arisen that partly explains why Dr Mowlam was heckled in County Durham and would probably have been heckled in Cardiff, London or Birmingham - the gap between Treasury caution on public spending and the wide consensus that much more needs to be spent. Even right-wing newspapers have become part of that consensus: rarely does a day go by when the Daily Mail and even The Daily Telegraph are not calling for billions to be spent on transport and on nurses' pay. Nor will anyone, including the Tories, complain if the prudent Chancellor breaks his own spending-limits and invests more in run-down schools and hospitals.

Gordon Brown, who is driven above all by a desire to reduce poverty levels, has in fact earmarked some of the additional cash for specific run-down areas. But he has not been generous enough. He and Tony Blair have performed a political miracle in creating a climate in which a Labour government is trusted to spend public money. But, as is often the case in politics, those who have sought to create the climate do not always realise when it has arrived.

Part of the Government's framework aimed at helping the worst off to help themselves must surely include thriving public services. Indeed, this is one of the clear objectives of the Government. It seeks a public sector that the middle classes wish to be part of, thereby enriching it in every sense of the word. This is a hugely ambitious task, bringing the middle classes back to the state schools and hospitals and, you never know, forcing them out of their cars and on to trains.

The battle over the future of the public sector will be a great political divide at the election. The division between private affluence and public squalor remains almost as marked as it was under Margaret Thatcher.

It is this divide that the Government needs to get to grips with, not mythical geographical divisions that are fuelled by inverse snobbery among those who live in them.

The writer is political editor of the 'New Statesman'