Hilton Dawson: This is the time to bring challenge and change to the North East

Journal columnist Hilton Dawson draws on his own successful campaigns to become an MP to find new lessons for the North East in election year

Hilton Dawson
Hilton Dawson

Last week, flicking through that esteemed South East Northumberland newspaper, the News Post Leader in search of something else, I eventually reached page 68. There, amongst the adverts for holidays and cars was a report of Tony Blair’s recent visit to a local school.

Certainly ‘there’s nobody as ‘ex’ as an ex-MP’ but it was quite a shock to see that the saying is apparently also true of ex-PMs.

While in eight years I never actually persuaded Tony to set foot in the Lancaster & Wyre constituency, I’m sure that our local media would have given him a front page colour spread. Of course, that was in those heady days of New Labour, which now seem so long ago.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the 1997 General Election recently, particularly as I’ve travelled around the region talking with small numbers of enthusiasts, in out of the way places, about some big ideas.

The day I was selected as Labour candidate in 1996, the representative of the National Executive Committee wondered why I was jumping around because ‘we’re never going to win here.’ Of course he had a point, the Conservative majority was 11,000 and even at a time when ‘New Labour’ was sweeping the opinion polls, a victory would make local history.

However, I had talked myself into boldness by declaring that we could win. Just as now with Combined Authorities, I chafed against the ‘realism’ of colleagues settling for what we could do with the council; putting up with second best.

The Parliamentary campaign therefore was different; outside the normal party structures, meeting in the back of a rural pub which was central for the large constituency yet miles from anywhere, nevertheless attracting people with different ideas and energy.

Some of them were new to politics, let alone the Labour Party, all of us keen to make a difference, to engage.

A kind woman put up the money for a ‘listening’ leaflet, printed, disconcertingly, in blue. We turned up in places where Labour had hardly been seen and took up the real issues that no–one else had even heard. We told a good tale with humour and passion.

Esteemed academics gave us no chance; seemingly every farmer’s field wore its Tory billboard. Five days before General Election 1997 the Labour Party confirmed what we already knew and sent the van load of posters we’d needed for months. We won - and four years of dire predictions later – we won again.

Of course we benefited enormously from New Labour and Tony Blair, but we were never ‘on message.’ I think it was the spirit of the time; people’s desire for change, over and above the works of Peter Mandelson, that produced such overwhelming national election victory. In Lancaster & Wyre, it was our approach to community politics and local accountability which gave us the fourth smallest majority in the country rather than narrow defeat.

I loved Parliament for a while, but left of my own volition, above all wanting to implement real change. Parliament is full of faults. However, when I talk to people about how I could help them fight a General Election I think of all I learnt from those good folk campaigning in Lancaster & Wyre. I’m so encouraged by the human decency and warmth of those who rightly have faith in the ability of our democracy to change lives.

In truth there are good people in all political parties but there is a widening gap between people’s real lives and a Parliament made more remote because our representatives are so unaccountable.

The reporting back of MPs is negligible, the silly propaganda is insulting. Complacent in ‘safe seats’ where they’ve never actually fought a proper election, politicians of all parties are comfortable with low turn outs, ever reliant on the dwindling number who will always vote for them.

Unfortunately, the increasing lack of participation in democracy won’t result in some sort of glorious, politician-free anarchy but actually risks some clown, who few would actually want, laying down rules for us all.

At this stage the forthcoming General Election seems utterly unpredictable. Can the Lib Dems avoid ‘meltdown’? What about the impact of Ukip on the Tories and Labour? Will Scotland go overwhelmingly SNP? The handful of good people with whom I’ve been talking over many months and all this past weekend have the big idea that we in the North East would be better taking more responsibility for ourselves. They are committed to a principle that politicians should act independently in the best interests of the people who elected them rather than a party machine.

They are coming up with bold policies which require debate, rather than having weasel words handed down to them for the next sound bite or slogan.

Small in number and low in funds. Precisely because they will bring challenge to places where there’s been no change for decades many will try to dismiss or ignore them.

Standing up for North East England?

I’m going to be the first to say it.

In times like these they can win.

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