I write this as the immensely proud Member of Parliament for Blaydon. I write it in the aftermath of what has been described as a political earthquake and I write it based on four decades of activity in the Labour movement alongside 36 years of working in coal mining and as a care worker in a local authority.
I believe that the worries and hopes that I express are based on the real experiences of day-to-day life of ordinary men and women across this nation. I hope that, if nothing else, it reaches those who can really change the direction in which this nation is being driven by right wing ideologues.
I spent the best part of thirty years in Hetton le Hole, known to us all as simply Hetton, a small typical mining town in County Durham. It was the part of the world where my father and my wife were both born and brought up and it shaped everything about the man I am and the beliefs I hold. It was a town that grew up in the early years of the Industrial Revolution and when I went to work there in late 1972 the mine was nearing its 150th anniversary.
Like many Durham mines it had seen better days but the coal we won from its narrow, wet seams was of very good quality and it helped to improve the mix of other easier won but poorer quality coals. It was that which kept us in work at Eppleton Colliery until 1986 when, in the aftermath of the Miners Strike, the mine was closed and 721 men and their families were cast to the wind. To many outside mining the release from that work would seem a blessing but to most of those employed they knew that their place in life, their sense of who they were and their opportunity to take care of their family and their community was changing forever.
Many people ask why the miners fought so long and hard in 1984/5 for a job that many wouldn’t do for a King’s Ransom, but we feared then, and we have been proved right since, that losing our job wasn’t just a inevitable consequence of working in an exhaustive industry but was also the destruction of a secure way of life based on common interests and shared experiences. If that isn’t understood, politicians will never grasp the desperation that has led to so many people turning to extreme alternatives that would have been seen as abhorrent a generation ago.
Our jobs were tied into our communities, we had good access to adequate reasonably priced housing, most of us lived near to our workplace so transport costs were negligible, we socialised in our pubs, clubs and welfare halls with the men with whom we worked and the women who they were married to, many of whom we had known since childhood. Our children went to schools where we believed they would be educated sufficiently to successfully enter the world of real work and live a better life than we had in the same way as we had inherited from our parents. Our streets weren’t paved with gold but they did feel safe and welcoming.
Perhaps mining communities were more inclined to this way of life than other working class areas but I genuinely believe that villages and towns where cars were built, where steel was rolled and where ships were launched shared a similar sense of direction and purpose. Most of us didn’t spend our time talking about Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin, we were more likely to talk about Groucho Marx and John Lennon, but we knew that it was the belief in collective provision that held us all together. Taking care of each other was second nature at work and at home.
The destruction of those communities and workplaces has left huge swathes of people lost in a not so brave new world. We don’t know who our neighbours are or where they went to school or where they go when they go out to work at all times of the day or night. And we don’t know the reasons why, as George Osborne points out repeatedly, some of them don’t get up and go out and, sadly, we don’t feel able to sit down with them and ask why.
The decent things in life that we took for granted, particularly since the end of World War Two, have disappeared from our consciousness. We have become the isolated individuals that Margaret Thatcher always wanted us to be. She really did understand the strength of solidarity and unity.
The things that bound us together have either disappeared or changed beyond recognition. Our unions have merged, disbanded, been emasculated or all three. Our social structure has fallen apart as less and less people volunteer to run our social and sports clubs. Our cultural history fades as we no longer have the collective resources to fund our Brass Bands. Other jobs that were supposed to fill the void have been outsourced to the developing world.
And our political party has gone off on the hunt for middle England; for Mondeo Man, Worcester Woman and Galaxy Man. Focus groups have replaced doorstep campaigning. SpAds represent us in Westminster instead of the men and women with whom we grew up. And they all say that they understand our pain and our suffering as they continue to fight for the marginal seats in other parts of the nation. A manifesto becomes little more than a shopping list without any real understanding of the impact on the daily lives of men and women who are lost in a world that they have had no say in shaping.
I understand that it counts for little that I almost doubled my majority in Parliament in 2010 when we lost 100 seats and that we probably won’t win next time around if all we do is focus on the plight of former heavy industrial regions like mine. But we must listen to the alarm bells that are now ringing out. Failure to reconnect with the good people of Hetton shouldn’t just be looked at as a simple matter of numbers. No doubt the number crunchers will be saying that we can still win up here even if we do lose thousands of votes to other parties offering simplistic platitudes. That may be true short-term, but I have a deeper worry.
The gains made by Ukip are nothing compared to the gains made by the people who are saying “To Hell with you, none of you are worth voting for.” Because that is where generational disengagement with politics and the democratic process seeps in. Anyone who has been on the doorsteps across this nation will tell you of the warm glow you get when told: “I always vote for your party, because my mam and dad did”. What are we going to do when people say: “I’m not voting for any of you ‘cos my mam and dad didn’t.”
And if we continue as a party to scrap over the little bits in the middle and neglect our core people, and, critically, their core values, we will reinforce the view that we are all the same. Farage gets that, and even when we finally hold his feet to the fire and expose his right-wing agenda as Thatcher’s heir, it won’t change people’s view of us as Labour but, rather, compound the “you’re all the same” line.
What do we need to do to re-engage the people of Hetton and similar communities? Start treating them with respect would be a good start, show them that we value them as much as those in Harlow and Hendon. Why not give them back their belief in collectivism by introducing a few policies that tap into that strength.
Let’s start by telling the Civil Service that we will reintroduce check off for union subscriptions when we next get in. And tell other employers that they have to provide the same service for their workforce if they choose it. It doesn’t have to cost the employer anything but it is a positive thing to do.
Let’s link up with church groups and credit unions to open up opportunities for the less well off to borrow money at reasonable rates. Who knows we could even see the reinvigoration of a co-operative form of banking?
Let’s develop the commitment to build 200,000 houses by insisting that huge swathes will be for rent at an affordable level and they will be exempt from re-sale. We can help people move out from them as they want to move on but the core housing would remain available for the community.
Let’s bite the bullet and agree to feed all our children free of charge at school. It is worth the cost for the assurance that our next generation is both well nourished and learning the lessons of healthy eating.
Let’s take the disgraceful abuse of zero hours contracts head on and ban them outright. No one should be exposed to such exploitation.
Let’s start a programme of public works based on the example of the American New Deal in the 1930s.
Let’s complete the school building programme so cruelly halted by Gove and his clique in 2010.
Let’s look again at HS2; is it really value for money? And what real difference will it make and what can we do with the billions that would be released? And, crucially, do we really think it will be a conduit bringing work and prosperity out of London and not just a very expensive rat run that will suck things southwards?
And let’s stop the nuclear arms race. We can’t afford any longer to have kids going to food banks and pensioners turning their heating off while we spend tens of billions on something we hope never to use.
Let’s get control of utilities in this country once again. It is nonsense that in a nation with every possible energy resource on Earth people can’t afford to put their lights on. We should be bold and develop a genuinely integrated energy mix in this nation from coal to solar via wind, tidal and, yes, shale gas. Let’s stop being timid and show faith in our brilliant engineers and scientists to develop the safest energy system in the work in exactly the same way that we led the world in developing the safest coal mines in the world.
And through all of these threads there is one huge benefit. All these initiatives need workers. And that takes us full circle. The real reason that the people of Hetton gave me the shock of my life when they nearly elected a Ukip councillor on May 22 was because since the loss of their main stay of work they have lost the security that decent, hard but secure work brings.
And it’s that insecurity that far right agitators will always exploit. If we have more work than workers the fear of immigrants will wane because we will genuinely need to welcome them in; for God’s sake we have done exactly that for centuries in this country and we could do it again.
We need to give people hope again. We need to be, once again, a party of visionaries and not technocrats. The needs of the people who turned to Labour over the last century were easily as huge a challenge as that which faces us now. We can’t allow them to be left to the vagaries of the present Government who are dismantling every part of the society that gave our people a voice and a place in our country. And we can’t allow those who will try to make this a simplistic debate about money to win.
If we should have learnt anything from the recession in 2008 and since it is that ordinary men and women need no lessons in economics from the ever failing capitalists who really control the current world order.
And the other key ingredient in following this agenda is that it wouldn’t just appeal to working class families. How many middle England families would turn away from the chance to get their children into a decent house, or get their kids well fed at home or see a raft of projects that would create work for millions?
If the people of Hetton and thousands of other similar communities are ever going to put their faith fully in Labour again we have to give them the belief that things can be changed and that not only can we do it, we will do it.
And we have to have belief in ourselves and our party that we are up to the challenge. The great people of this country deserve nothing less.