A poll which suggests the Conservatives are on course to take Hartlepool from Labour in the upcoming by-election puts the fledgling Northern Independence Party in third place, albeit with just 2 per cent of the vote.
There is a long legacy of independence parties entering British politics, some with more success than others.
And while the Conservative government says it is focussing on levelling up the whole of the country, in the latest iteration of Westminster’s nods toward the north-south divide, the pandemic has brought the issue into sharper focus for many.
While its critics describe it as a ‘glorified joke’, partly due to its often-sarcastic tone on social media, the Northern Independence Party says it is “dead serious” about addressing the north-south divide.
What is the Northern Independence Party?
The Northern Independence Party launched in October last year, and has already amassed a significant following on social media, as well as almost 2,000 members at the time of writing.
The party describes itself as “democratic socialist”, with a particular focus on addressing over-centralisation in London and the north-south divide.
While its overall goal is for the North of England to declare independence from the United Kingdom, an early draft of its manifesto shows the party also wants to legalise cannabis and reduce the pension age, among other policies.
So far the party seems to have attracted support mainly from younger, left-leaning people, some of whom were supporters of the Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn but feel increasingly alienated by Sir Keir Starmer’s leadership.
Founder Philip Proudfoot is from Durham, but currently lives part-time in Brighton due to his work as a lecturer at Sussex University.
Because of the party’s claim to represent the North of England, Mr Proudfoot’s living arrangements have attracted criticism from some.
However, he says this issue - younger people having to leave the North of England to find work in cities, predominantly in the south - is a symptom of the north-south divide which the party wants to eradicate.
The party has also been criticised over its tongue-in-cheek logo, which features the silhouette of a whippet, a breed of dog which is traditionally, or stereotypically, associated with the North of England.
Speaking to NationalWorld after the party’s launch, Mr Proudfoot said: “The North has its own culture, traditions and history, if it was independent and able to form its own policies, well, surely that’s worth a shot? Nothing has solved the north-south divide so far.”
What does the Northern Independence Party stand for?
The party eventually wants to see the North of England declare independence from the United Kingdom, although for now it sees its role as being analogous to the SNP in Scotland, or UKIP prior to the EU referendum.
The NIP intends to stand candidates in elections in the North of England at national and local level, and has announced a candidate in the Hartlepool by-election, although its official application to the Electoral Commission has not yet been approved at the time of writing.
An early draft of its manifesto, which was leaked to HuffPost earlier this month, showed the party wants to see cannabis legalised, utility firms brought under local government control, a 15 per cent pay rise for nurses, and a reduction in the pension age.
It would also offer referendums on a number of issues, including maintaining the royal family and the use of the pound.
A spokesperson for the party confirmed that the document published by HuffPost is an early draft of its manifesto, which is not yet complete.
A party source told NationalWorld that the full manifesto will be approved by members this week.
They said: “You can expect bold solutions to the problems we’re all facing, the sort of policies we need to make a fairer north for all.”
Is the NIP standing in the Hartlepool by-election?
The party announced in March that it would contest the Hartlepool by-election, but the Electoral Commission has said it will not be able to process their application in time to be registered for the May elections.
This means that the NIP’s candidate, Thelma Walker, will officially be on the ballot as an independent, though she is backed by the party and will campaign as an NIP candidate.
Mrs Walker is a former headteacher who worked for ten years in the neighbouring town of Stockton, and served as the MP for Colne Valley in West Yorkshire between 2017 and 2019.
A spokesperson for the NIP told NationalWorld that they’ve got “no money,” but have “the best candidate in the race by a mile”.
They said: “Six months ago, we didn't exist. Three weeks ago, no-one had ever heard of us. We've got no money, the political establishment hates our guts, and the media thinks we're a joke.
“But here we are with the best candidate in the race by a mile, beating the Lib Dems and the Greens and whatever UKIP are calling themselves this week, and all our members in
Hartlepool haven't even hit the streets campaigning yet.
“Just you wait. We're going to win this, and Thelma's going to be a cracking MP for the people of Hartlepool.”
They added: “The Northern Independence party is going to rebalance this country and reverse the North-South Divide for good."
READ MORE ON THE HARTLEPOOL BY-ELECTION:
Who is backing the NIP?
Much of the party’s support so far has come from people on the left who previously backed Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour party.A number of media figures associated with Mr Corbyn’s leadership have expressed public support or given positive coverage to the party, including Guardian journalist Owen Jones, and Novara Media’s Ask Sarkar and Aaron Bastani.
Writing in the New Statesman, economist and former advisor to shadow chancellor John McDonnell, James Meadway, said that the NIP’s “shouldn’t be taken entirely literally, but it has to be taken seriously”.
Whereas, writing in the Times, a former head of communications for Wansbeck MP Ian Lavery, described the party as a “glorified Twitter joke”.
James Matthewson wrote: “The Northern Independence Party is the best (by which I mean worst) example of the fetishisation of Northern working-class culture by privileged, middle class hard-left ideologues.”
Many within the Labour party have criticised the NIP for seeking to split the vote, while the Jewish Chronicle has highlighted the party’s leader Mr Proudfoot’s old Tweets about being able to identify colleagues as “actual Zionist”.