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September 13, 2021updated 23 Mar 2023 12:35pm

Mayor Ben Houchen and the “Houchenist” manifesto

The mayor of Tees Valley in the UK is implementing a new kind of Tory agenda that mirrors global economic shifts.

By Jonny Ball

In 1980 – less than a year into Margaret Thatcher’s time in No 10 – 17,000 Teesside steelworkers went on strike for 13 weeks. British Steel, then a publicly owned corporation, had made a pay offer of 6%. It was an increase that the trade union, the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation, found derisory – the rate of inflation that year hovered around 18%.

The redevelopment of Middlesbrough railway station is one of Ben Houchen’s projects. (Photo by Dave Charnley Photography/Tees Valley Combined Authority)

After three months on picket lines, workers returned to their stations having been placated with a 15.5% increase. But that same year, 3,000 steelworkers were made redundant – British Steel had lost millions during the strike, and eight years later the company would be privatised.

It was a small episode in the history of British industrial relations that encapsulated the decline of the UK’s traditional industries. At the time, local MP James Tinn was a former coking plant worker, branch secretary of the National Union of Blastfurnacemen, and a fierce defender of strike action. While nearby market towns like Darlington had switched between Conservative and Labour MPs, Redcar, one of the centres of the British steel industry and home to several large chemical plants, was solidly Labour.

To the north, Hartlepool had once flourished as County Durham’s coal port and been a shipbuilding town. It could also be relied upon to return Labour MPs to Westminster.

Middlesbrough, the largest conurbation on Teesside, was similarly red, having once been represented by Ellen Wilkinson, a former revolutionary communist and one of the leaders of the Jarrow March of unemployed workers in the 1930s.

In the north-east, the institutions and political cultures of the organised working class held significant sway. These were the bricks that made up what has come to be known as the “red wall”.

But in 2017, at the nadir of Jeremy Corbyn’s popularity and before the Labour surge of that year, Ben Houchen, the Conservative candidate for mayor of the Tees Valley Combined Authority, narrowly won a surprise victory to become the metropolitan area’s first executive mayor. This year, he was re-elected by a landslide 73% of the vote – a higher proportion than Andy Burnham in the Labour stronghold of Greater Manchester.

On the same day, a Conservative candidate was elected in the Hartlepool by-election for the first time since the seat was established. In 2019’s general election, Conservative candidate Jacob Young, a process operator at a local chemical factory, beat Anna Turley, the privately and Oxbridge-educated Labour incumbent, to take Redcar.

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Out with austerity, in with public investment

These shifting political allegiances in the Tees Valley have been accompanied by shifts in the old rhetorical and ideological terrains of the Conservative Party, perhaps best illustrated by the case of Mayor Houchen and his curious policy programme. James Meadway, director of the Progressive Economy Forum and former economic adviser to the former shadow chancellor John McDonnell, has christened this “Houchenism”.

“You’d call it a kind of red-green Toryism,” Meadway tells Spotlight. “At least rhetorically.”

In 2018, Houchen nationalised Tees Valley Airport. The move was opposed by a local Labour MP, who described the plan as “fanciful”. (That MP – Phil Wilson – has now also been replaced by a Conservative, with his seat of Sedgefield turning blue for the first time since the Great Depression.)

The Mayor has explicitly distanced himself from the austerity pursued by David Cameron and George Osborne, criticising the “Notting Hill set’s 2010 vintage” as well as their “slavish devotion to the Green Book” (the rules that limit government spending that are often blamed for the Treasury’s notorious parsimony). Houchen is unapologetic about supporting public investment in green industries, using the power and fiscal might of the state to create skilled working-class jobs in high-value manufacturing and the burgeoning renewables and green tech sector.

It is, Meadway says, “really a bit out of kilter with how the Conservative Party has conducted itself for at least the last ten years, and probably a lot longer”.

The Teesside mayor himself was not available for an interview before the issue of Spotlight went to print, but much of the basis for Houchen’s local agenda and political philosophy can be gleaned from a 2020 article penned for Conservative Home. This is no dyed- in-the-wool, Thatcherite throwback.

He is an enthusiastic backer of free ports – low-tax, zero-customs and duty-free areas set up to encourage trade and private sector activity – but his vision for the north-east’s new special trade zone is of a manufacturing and engineering hub, including a “clean steel making plant”, rather than a financialised tax haven or a glass-and-steel Singapore-on-Tees.

This will, he says, lead to the “reshoring of some of our long-lost manufacturing activities”. Houchen advises the prime minister to “double down on levelling up” and commit wholeheartedly to a “Green Industrial Revolution” – a policy mirroring Labour’s.

His environmentalism is inseparable from his desire to create a boom in the kind of well-paid, high-productivity jobs that have steadily leaked away from areas like Teesside since the 1970s. It is a world away from the “bizarre publicity stunts” of Extinction Rebellion or the “hug a husky” stunts of the Camerons.

Spending is at its highest since the 1970s

As part of “a general shift of the UK’s centre of economic gravity in a more northerly direction”, the mayor gives enthusiastic backing to plans to move parts of the civil service north (this was proposed by John McDonnell in 2019), including Rishi Sunak’s pledge to move Treasury staff from Whitehall to Houchen’s Darlington. The idea of transferring powers and spending to big cities “like Manchester” is out of the question – it’s the smaller cities and towns of Houchen’s domain that are now in vogue.

For Meadway, Houchen’s new Tory interventionism is Teesside’s local manifestation of a global trend. The international economic centre of gravity is shifting away from the laissez-faire, small-state, low-tax, free-market approach of the past four decades, one defined by increasing globalisation and a policy agenda in which the centre-left and centre-right shared a consensus of the benefits of deregulation, privatisation and cyclical bouts of austerity.

“Look at the wider international shifts,” explains Meadway, who is credited with helping to build much of the Corbynite policy programme during the veteran left-winger’s time as the leader of the opposition. “There’s now a US administration whacking up corporation tax for the first time seriously in 40 years or so – they’re talking about $3.6trn and upwards of infrastructure spending, they’re talking about increasing trade union rights. In the EU there are plans to reform state aid so that governments can intervene more easily in their economies. All of this is centred around competition with China. So globally it’s shifting and the Conservative Party is part of that.”

Houchen would be viewed as an outlier set against the annals of recent Toryism, but he’s not implausible as a poster boy of the contemporary national party. After its election in 2019, in which it swept up seats that had not returned Conservative candidates in generations, the government introduced a budget that increased capital spending to levels not seen since the 1970s.

When Covid-19 hit, the spending splurge increased even further. The government recently voted to raise corporation tax against opposition from Labour, which at the last election had the pledge as a key revenue-raising policy in its manifesto.

The Department for Transport has announced the creation of a new public body, Great British Rail, which will increase the state’s role in rail delivery more than any time since privatisation. Sheffield Forgemasters has been nationalised. Treasury spending is being reformed to incentivise investment beyond London and the south-east (yet another 2019 Labour pledge), and cuts to the NHS, schools and policing budgets made since 2010 have been reversed.

“There’s much more economic nationalism, much more interventionism, much more willingness to say that government can change the outcomes of an economy in a way that for 30 to 40 years in Britain we just haven’t seen,” says Meadway.

That this statist turn is being taken by the Conservative Party “isn’t unusual in the whole Conservative history”, he adds – think of the post-war paternalism of Harold Macmillan or the crusades against free trade by Joseph Chamberlain – “but it is quite striking relative to the last few decades”.

As the party attempts to shore up its hold over new “blue wall” constituencies, “Houchenist” rhetoric is sure to remain part of its public relations. But if the reality is to match the expectations, then nothing short of a new industrial revolution will be required – one that transforms areas like Teesside and rebuilds a broken labour market and economy built around low pay, low productivity and low investment.

The days of post-war industrialism, state-owned and coal-fired heavy industry, and the associated mass trade unionism that went with it, are over. Whether a new industrial era can be forged on Teesside remains to be seen.

This article originally appeared in Spotlight‘s latest policy supplement.

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