The Right Honourable Chi Onwurah, MP, became the newest guest speaker for Newcastle University’s RW Mann Insights Public Lecture series.
Leading a lecture on the importance of productivity, investment and a progressive industrial strategy in post-Brexit Britain, Onwurah began by putting the focus on some of the North East’s most successful innovators and business leaders. Drawing attention to past engineers who developed the North East, the representative for the Newcastle Central constituency highlighted a lack of competitive advancement in the north of England, a striking example being the absence of a higher rate of growth than southern regions since the establishment of the Council of the North in 1472.
The Shadow Minister for Industrial Strategy suggested several reasons for the economic difficulties faced by the North, notably emphasising the “devastation” of communities during the 1979-1987 period of deregulation and state cuts. Onwurah did, however, also include the 2008 financial crisis. The ‘Uber-isation’ of certain sectors which followed the crash, whereby desperate workers become more vulnerable to exploitation and decreased security whilst being self-employed, has now also become a contributing obstacle to the achievement of a high wage, high security and high productivity economy.
In order to work against this pattern, which she determined a “race to the bottom”, Onwurah advocated an economic system which promotes “lifelong learning” and continuous improvement in training.
In an interview following the lecture, Onwurah added that this could tie in closely with the role of Newcastle University as a “civic” institution in the city. As a number of departments could use their extensive resources in order to help build and connect communities. She went on to emphasise that such a partnership could be of particular importance to the area in the years ahead, with the vote to leave the European Union being a divisive and potentially damaging decision for the region.
Whilst accounting for the contrast between the many constituencies in the North East which voted to leave, and Newcastle Cental which chose to stay, the former engineer suggested that “specific technology” could provide a “tool for engagement” and discussion across various social groups. Onwurah conveyed that this could be crucial when attmepting to provide a soution to the issues which caused people to vote for the leave campaign.
Pointing out that some of the most prominent Brexit leaders, naming Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson, were not representative of the experiences of many people in the North, Onwurah said these voters should not be blamed for the negative effects of Brexit. A message which the MP pointed out has often been repeated by the media in the wake of the controversial referendum. Rather, their feelings of being “left behind by globalisation” and its consequences, should be recognised and attempted to be rectified.
When asked about the challenges which the Labour Party faced, Onwurah reurned to the issue of the disillusionment of the working class groups. Whilst commenting that politicians must not pretend that UK society has moved beyond being class-based, she stated that the government should work to reverse the disadvantages which have been seen to take hold in previous years, such as the one third of North East residents aged 16 and above, who do not have qualifications beyond secondary school. Drawing attention once more to the “North East gap” being “particularly acute”, in comparison to other regions of the country.
Perhaps most interestingly, Onwurah went on to confront the more negative aspects of Labour’s recent performance, having been publically critical of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership over the past 18 months. The MP plainly stated in the interview that her party could be doing more to be an effective opposition, citing troubles with the new Conservative budget and her sustained view that Britain should remain part of the European single market. Onwurah also extended her analysis to the rest of Parliament, addressing the different pressures for women in a workplace with a considerable gender imbalance. Yet, the speaker remained hopeful for the future, expressing that real change could be brought about with continued open discussion and debate.