Our unemployment in the North East is the highest in the country, and has been for years.
Figures released last week show that our unemployment rose by 1,000 last quarter – at a time when it fell across the rest of the country. This should be a major issue, taken seriously by our government, but all we get is deafening silence on the matter. Perhaps the North is just too remote from the trendy London suburbs.
Newspapers across the North of England were right to point out that the North is forgotten in the wake of the Scottish ‘No’ vote to independence, but how do we take power away from the London-centric Westminster bubble?
Not through a regional Parliament, surely – that idea was rejected by 78% to 22% in a referendum by voters in the North East in 2004.
I think the last thing people want at a time of such high unemployment is yet another tier of elected politicians (as a member of the European Parliament I’m a turkey voting for Christmas – I’m campaigning to be put out of a job for the right reasons and bring power back to this country from Brussels).
But we certainly do need the views of the North to be heard loud and clear. Does anyone seriously think that if our Westminster politicians had to use the A1 regularly, it would still be single-lane in so many places?
If we were the other side of the Scottish border, our children wouldn’t have to pay tuition fees and we’d all get free prescriptions. We’d get more state funding spent on local people. But as it is, we’re just ignored – to the extent that London gets 24 times as much spent per person on infrastructure as we do in the North East.
Our politicians don’t seem to care that their policies are pushing energy bills higher and higher, which doesn’t just mean pensioners are choosing between heating and eating – but our manufacturing industry, so vital to us but forgotten by London, is being kicked whilst it’s down. 40% of their operating costs often go in energy bills, and it’s just pushing work out to India.
We’ve got to stop our obsession with high-price wind power. And Labour’s ridiculous idea of forcing firms to freeze energy prices is a nonsense – they’ll just front-load price hikes to take effect before the legislation comes into force, leading to another huge increase in domestic bills.
We certainly need to bring more power back to local people, and I welcome the debate about how best to achieve that. But where’s the political will to stand up for the North East?
We’ve all heard talk about the potential for forming an English Parliament, and I find myself wondering whether if that happens the Parliament should be situated somewhere like Newcastle, Sunderland or Middlesbrough.
If our politicians spent any length of time up here, they might actually start to care about the North East and not treat it as ‘desolate’ as the Conservatives’ Lord Howell described us last year.
At their Conference, the Labour Party started talking about introducing a minimum wage of £8 per hour. I wonder whether they even stopped for a moment to consider the impact that will have on the North East? Our unemployment is already far too high and there’s no sign of it falling.
Will businesses still struggling (the country may have come out of recession on the back of a Southern-focused recovery but that doesn’t reflect the local picture here) be able to cope with a substantial increase in wage bills, or will it just lead to more businesses going bust and more unemployment?
At UKIP’s conference this week we’re unveiling a range of policies in our outline manifesto, but of course we’re well known already for one policy which would achieve the same benefit for those on low incomes. Our ‘no tax on minimum wage’ policy (raising the tax threshold to the equivalent of a standard working week on minimum wage) would help local people - without leading to even more people losing their jobs. It would also, of course, leave those already on £8 per hour paying less in tax.
Jonathan Arnott is UKIP MEP for the North East.