In our latest interview with influential Labour figures from across England, Sam Stopp speaks to Leeds City Council Leader Judith Blake. Read more interviews here.
The late September sun streams into the lobby of the Brighton Metropole hotel where I am waiting to meet Cllr Judith Blake, the Leader of Leeds City Council. It is the penultimate day of Labour Party Conference 2017, and the warm glow emanating from the pale blue English sky offers some comfort after three consecutive days of liquid Socialism.
Cllr Blake arrives and, in classically English fashion, we manage to get confused about the best way to greet one another. I go to shake her hand and she goes in for a hug. Eventually we settle on a hug, I apologise for the awkwardness and she laughs reassuringly. We head through to an outside bar, which is noisy with the chatter of Labourites and press hacks.
I begin by asking Cllr Blake the obvious – why does she support the English Labour Network? In her soft, but purposeful, Leeds delivery, Blake tells me that, post-Brexit, “we really need to consider why people voted the way they did … there is a real disconnect with Parliament nationally. We’ve got to come up with a narrative and a real understanding of how we capture the desire for identity.”
Blake links this explicitly to Labour’s electoral prospects. She says that, to win again, Labour needs to link English identity into “the bigger picture.” I ask whether she feels Labour has a problem in Leeds with being seen as unpatriotic. Blake says people in Leeds see their English identity through a Yorkshire lens. “We have to frame Englishness in Leeds in a Yorkshire context.”
This interests me, because Yorkshire’s identity is, of course, far more pronounced than many other variations on the theme of Englishness. In my experience, Yorkshire folk always make a point of talking about Yorkshire – its beauty and the achievements of its people. Lately they have reminded southerners like me that Britain’s success at the last two Olympics has rested largely on Yorkshire’s gold rush. When they call their home “God’s own county”, they’re not always being tongue-in-cheek.
Blake says that Labour in Yorkshire, as it has elsewhere, has lost its ability to communicate its affection for Englishness. She says Labour is “nervous about expressing pride in England … and we therefore struggle to convince people that we are on their side.”
I move the conversation onto devolution. Blake says she “absolutely” supports greater devolution. She explains that “it’s the only way we will get the power and the resources we need. The current devolution deals don’t go nearly far enough and don’t give us control over local finances and local decision-making. Devolution has begun, but it is a far-from-finished product.”
And what about the dichotomy which some try to present between being supportive of Englishness and welcoming diversity? “Leeds has a great tradition of welcoming people in”, says Blake. “We have a proud tradition of working together and we have a lot to offer in terms of explaining how migration and integration can be beneficial.”
Another apparent dichotomy, I say, is between Labour’s Leave-voting supporters, and its Remain-voting backers. How does Blake propose reconciling this divide? After all, most Labour constituencies voted to leave the European Union last year, but most Labour voters wanted to remain. “Whatever we feel about the vote”, says Blake, “we have to make the strongest possible case that Brexit must deliver for the people in our communities.”
This sounds like realism to me and, importantly, a forward-thinking strategy, rather than a conservative attempt to deny what the country voted for last year. Blake says we need to make sure money sent to the EU needs to be repatriated back to the communities that need it most, like those in Leeds, rather than back to Whitehall, which she fears may happen. Blake says we need to frame the whole debate in terms of “rebalancing the economy.”
On the subject of Englishness itself, Blake tells me that she doesn’t think people in Leeds actually think about their English identity a great deal. She says there isn’t a cohesive sense of where people are rooted, and that we have to accept there are regions underneath the English umbrella that can support the English proposition, but can’t be subsumed into it. Yorkshire has a very strong identity, Blake adds, and this couldn’t have been artificially imposed by boundaries imposed from Whitehall.
I ask, therefore, whether Labour can learn from the cohesiveness of Yorkshire’s identity. Blake says we need to understand that Yorkshire has remained Yorkshire despite all of the changes in local government boundaries. This proves that identity is something that is organic, rather than something which can be artificially constructed. By implication, I suggest, this is a reminder that the Labour Party exists to give power back to people, rather than to impose it upon them.
On an upbeat note, Blake suggests that sport is something that often brings people together around a shared identity. When the Tour de France arrived in Yorkshire in 2014, it brought people together and emphasised their Yorkshireness, says Blake.
I mention that Tony Blair was apparently “obsessed” with getting Celtic and Rangers to play in the English Premier League in order to bring England and Scotland together – a pre-occupation that I find, in this regard, somewhat naïve. Yes, sport can unite people, but it’s usually around a shared identity they already own. Britishness is an identity separate to Englishness and Scottishness. But in Cllr Blake, at least, Leeds City Council seems to have a Leader who understands that a Yorkshire and an English identity can co-exist. And, more than this, they can prosper side by side.
As I finish my pint and we wrap up our conversation, I brace myself for another all-consuming night at conference. But I leave this conversation with the firm conviction that Labour could do with a few more local leaders like Cllr Blake. Local leaders who understand that people are a mixture of identities, with Englishness no less important than the rest.