Tag Archives: The Labour Party

A Perfect Storm

In 2020, I started to write up several essay type blogs on my thoughts on what was happening in North-East politics and in particular the Labour Party.

This in turn was building on a blog I wrote back in 2017 concerning Labour and the North East (here), I got bored, and then Hartlepool came along in 2021. This is the introduction to about 5-6 pieces, depending on editing, which I wrote last year providing a personal assessment as the root cause of Labour’s woes in the North East and what can be done to tackle it.

But before we get started, I’d like to thank Dave Lee, a writer, director, producer, and self-appointed arsehole from Hull (my late Dad’s birth city). While we may disagree on the details, I believe we share the same belief that the interests of working-class people will never be served by the Conservative Party. So thank you, Dave, for the humour, suggestions and candour when starting out on this little project last year.

I was born in Labour’s industrial heartlands, Stockton North, which now neighbours a host of Conservative Party constituencies, Hartlepool, Darlington, Stockon South and Sedgefield. Unthinkable a few years previously. 

As with Hartlepool, Stockton North returned a Labour MP in 2019 mainly due to the pro-Brexit vote split between the Conservatives and the Brexit Party, which allowed Labour to squeeze through. This luxury, of course, will not be available to the incumbent Alex Cunningham next time round.

Alex and I have a little history. We had both campaigned to be nominated as Labour Party candidate for the Stockton North parliamentary seat. The seat had potentially become available when the mandatory reselection process had been triggered against the sitting MP Frank Cook. We failed, of course, and Frank went on to win another term.

I then fled to pastures new (with much relief to all concerned, including myself). Alex stuck around, and in due course, was crowned Frank’s replacement.

The simple point I’m seeking to make here is that I not only know the North East from my heritage, given I was born there. I was educated there. I was brought up in a council. My first job for 7 years was working in a foundry, where I joined a union and participated in strikes and campaigns for better conditions and pay. I also spent a decade as an elected Labour Party councillor on the local authority.

I’m immensely proud of my North East DNA. Something most people have been abundantly aware of as I’ve moved around the country due to work, Lambeth, Greenwich, Salisbury and of course Bristol.

Up until the pandemic, I’ve also been a frequent visitor to my home town and region. Quietly, as an observer, witnessing the subtly changes, the frustrations and undercurrents eroding political foundations.

To suffer an election as Labour did in 2019 hurts. I recall the same feelings during the 1980s and hoped that I would never endure those emotions again. It was not the loss, this time, but its magnitude and manner.

In February 2020, I started to write a series of essays about my personal opinions on how Labour was managing to get it so wrong in the North East amongst mainly white working-class communities. My thoughts, of course, carry no more weight on this subject than anybody else. I guess my frustration, like others, is that we saw what was coming, but nobody was prepared to listen until it was far too late. So I write these words from the heart and personal experience because hearts need to be won back.

The 2019 election in the North-East was a perfect storm. An inadequate campaign, twiddling core vote, a feeling of being forgotten and taken for granted. The region had been in pain since the industrial collapse of the 1980s. It badly needed something different. Something it could believe in, which touched its nerves, its self-doubt and help rebuild its confidence, identity and restore a sense of pride, of power.

Its political class was more than adequate at reflecting its hurt. Though often impotent at constructing a compelling vision offering the economic and social stability enjoyed by other regions. A clear vision passionately advocated by leaders they could believe in.

The 2019 Conservative Party election campaign was specifically designed to correlate with a broad set of concerns, which had been vibrating away in the North East for some time. These concerns may have been packaged around Brexit and the personality of the Labour leader. However, the dark forces at play were changing the Conservative Party too.

The old elitists in the Conservative Party born from traditional capital, wealth and hereditary power declined. Those with new money with greater adherence to radical libertarian principles were in the ascendency in the Party of Wealth.

The traditional Conservative Party, last led by Theresa May, and its Christian traditional value base has been subjugated. It is now led by a new political class with close ties to American right-wing agitators and institutions.

Johnson is nothing more than a public puppet who initially thought Brexit and exit from the Single Market wrong. Having sold his soul to those who view democracy as a dictatorship of the majority, he is now effectively held hostage. During my near 20 years of working in London local government, including the period Johnson was Mayor. His administrations were viewed with embarrassment, and rumours were frequent of nepotism. However, he does not have a monopoly on this front.

He was good at portraying an interest in people. Often shadowed by a hapless adviser whose sole role seemed to be capturing the endless promises he inadvertently would make. Johnson is not only a serial truth twister. He also has sociopathic tendencies, who enjoys being popular though riddled with self-doubt and confidence when challenged. He gave the impression of being prepared to say absolutely anything to bolster his fragile ego and shore up his endless desire to be liked.

The Jennifer Arcuri incident and the allegations of preferential contracts were no surprise, like the outrageous PPE contracts during the pandemic. As an old colleague who worked in City Hall at the time said to me, “same shit, just a bigger pie.” He is more of a Del Trotter than a cunning mastermind of Black Adder proportion.

A political Del Trotter, wheeler, dealer, laughed at but nonetheless admired by working-class people. The little man struggling against the odds as he dodges a little rule here, giving a cheeky wink there, all rolled up in his bumblingly self-made caricature. It was a caricature able to exploit the fractures in social coalitions increasingly prevalent in North East white working-class communities.

Labour are losing seats in areas where it had once dominated the political landscape. Although recovering in Wales recently, the truth is Labour’s core vote has been in decline throughout its traditional heartlands (Scotland, the North East and the Midlands) for two decades. The dark forces of nationalism, for many years, yes, have been at work. Still, they don’t account for the misfortune the Labour Party is enduring.

During the peak popularity of the Corbyn period (2017), Labour still failed to convince a majority of people to vote the party into power. No amount of belly searching, the suggestion of inner-party sabotage. Having the benefits of being the most extensive political Party in Europe can hide that fact, Labour lost.

They lost against a disastrous Conservative election campaign, appropriately recognised as one of the worst election campaigns in modern history, with a PM losing credibility every single day of the campaign. Still, in 2017, Labour lost in total votes, and the Conservatives still out-performed Labour in many vital constituencies. A large chunk of the 30 seats gained in 2017 was to be lost in 2019.

On the surface, it would also seem the most significant benefit in the collapse of the UKIP vote (down nearly 10.8%) in 2017 was Labour (up 9.5%). The underlining argument being, if Labour had maintained its Brexit policy of respecting the vote to leave the European Union, then it would have fared better in the 2019 election. I’m not convinced.

Between the 2017 and 2019 general elections, Labour had lost almost 10% of its voting base. Looking further back, neither Blair’s (1997) or Corbyn’s (2017) election results have managed to eclipse the level of votes the Labour Party was enjoying 6 decades ago.

The Beast of Bolsover, Denis Skinner, did not lose his seat simply because of Brexit in 2019. His 1997 majority (close to 30,000) had been chipped away bit by bit, and like an eroding coastline, it finally collapsed. Brexit may have been the final straw that pushed matters over the edge.

Bolsover, like Sedgefield, is the very constituency where a set of growing resentments and social changes were taking hold in predominately white working-class communities.

The 2019 Conservative election campaign had no guarantees. It was high risk, although devastatingly designed to breach the mythical red wall. It was a mixture of luck and strategists targeting northern working-class concerns, grievances, albeit with the irony they had been the architects of many of these grievances. More importantly, from the Trump textbook, they began to learn how to exploit these grievances.

It was a campaign confident enough to believe Blyth Valley residents (17,700 Labour majority in 1997) were able to be persuaded to vote Tory for the first time in their lives (712 Tory majority in 2019). However, the Conservatives were safe knowing that Tory marginals would never vote for a Corbyn led Labour Party.

Ultimately, Johnson is an opportunistic shapeshifter. He will be difficult to dislodge in the North. It can be done, but to do so needs an understanding and acceptance of how we got here in the first place. 

Next up, born and breed.

Foundations for Walls

Having been a member of the Labour Party since  I was 16 years old it does not come down to who was/is the leader that would not change my reason for being a member, which has more to do with the values I believe in.

As a party, which seeks to be in government, we only win when we think of ourselves as a family of 12 million forging alliances with like-minded people beyond our family rather than focussing in on what our membership thinks, regardless if its 100,000 or 500,000 members. As far as the north goes it’s not simply about building political alliances but social networks. It’s also not just about rebuilding a red wall but understanding the foundations, which that wall needs to be built upon.

To be in government Labour needs to win in Scotland, the North, Midlands, as well as further afield.  So my fellow Labour Party friends, think very carefully when choosing our next leader because we will determine if Labour is in our out of power for 5 or decades.

This can be done if we once again think of ourselves as that wider family forging those alliances with like-minded people. BUT after such a devastating defeat, it is often best to show humility, listen, reflect, learn. Then come back stronger. More determined. Hurling abuse, blaming others, taking no accountability are symptoms as to why we lost in the first place.

Anger is an energy. Please use it wisely.

Man in Labour

Sitting behind the bluntness of North East folk and our landscape of gradually diminishing industries was a sense of identity, connectivity; some would say community and others would say solidarity. My parents, like their parents before them, were driven by a natural desire of love that is shared by parents from across the globe, for their children to live a better life to which they had experienced. It was a generation that had witnessed at first-hand war on home soil, the effects of absolute poverty, created a welfare system and the movements to resist the unacceptable forces of privilege. Politics for my parents evolved from the experience of actual daily life rather than top-down, textbook theories, but organic, imperfect, slow and at times frustrating. It was a pragmatic type of socialism that built social spaces. Social spaces with stable job’s, the council house I was brought up in, The Worker’s Education Association where I took evening courses, the working men’s club my father frequented, the bingo hall my mother enjoyed, the annually planned visit to the seaside and the Christmas pantomime by a local club.

Yes, there were those amongst us who held views and opinions that were considered aberrant, but sadly these type of people exist in all walks of life, cultures, and classes. Those from outside an immediate community often have a self-interested tendency to point the finger elsewhere to avoid attention to their behaviour and to reinforce their imaginary stereotype. In our social spaces, aberrant views could be challenged, filtered, and the values of respect, individuality, social justice and responsibility became interchangeable meanings and refined haphazardly through discussions and blunt observations.

Growing up in the 1960s & 70s in these industrial heartlands the Labour Party, its wider shared values held influence in everyday life. My decision to join the Labour Party in 1977 at age 16 was not in reaction to the election of Margaret Thatcher, far from it. It was in my DNA and a decision born out of my class, but it has not been a journey without frustration or questionable loyalty. At its worst, it can become self-indulgement and eat itself with voracity, but at its best, it is a force for good and can change lives for the better. It is a journey that has witnessed me join picket lines. Enabled me to forge everlasting friendships, participate in endless meetings on the most microscopic detail. Deliver leaflets, be elected as a councillor, play a small part in improving the lives of the people I represented, seek nomination to become a Member of Parliament, become a silent member and witnesses the neverending cycle of highs and lows revolve on its axis again, and again.

No Class, Seriously?

Since the 1990s the Labour Party has seemed more comfortable with an increased emphasis on the politics of identity rather than the profound inequalities between the wealthy and poor. As a result, inequality increasingly became a technical statistic to be measured and benchmarked. The flesh and bones relationship between people and their role in society, which focuses attention on class seemed to become unfashionable.

Some political thinkers even went as far as to suggest that class no longer mattered and that we were moving towards a classless society. There is little doubt that this thinking informed the emergence of ‘new’ Labour, which central ethos was one of pursuing ‘aspiration’ which slowly withered credibility given the lack of progress in turning around the economic misfortunes in Labour’s heartlands. Immigration and the free movement of people across international borders have had a further detrimental impact on the plight of working-class communities, but to raise any concerns immediately draws criticism of being intolerant, thick and racist.

It is working-class communities who have historically and continue to be the point of integration for those seeking new homelands. It is also working-class communities faced with the consequences of the under-resourcing of resettlement, which are subject to the draconian effects of austerity.

Given this can it be any surprise that a minority within working-class communities who wrap themselves in a life of bigotry and self-loathing are easy pickings for the dark forces of the extreme right peddling their lies that people from far away land with dark skin are grabbing local jobs and sponging off the welfare system. The fact that the richest countries in the world have historically been the recipients of immigrants should be enough to dispell the lie, but racism and bigotry are not logical. The industrial heritage of the North built on work, skilled trades, production, and selling goods runs deep. Town centres and villages, which were devastated following the collapse of manufacturing genuinely hoped that ‘things can only get better’, but increased expenditure in public services was not, is not, and never will be an adequate replacement for stable employment and a fair wage.

If Labour is no longer capable of understanding this and more importantly be competent to do something about it through a robust industrial strategy, then why should working-class communities invest their faith in a party that does not invest in them? The seed that Labour was fast becoming southern, London-based, out of touch with its working-class communities and more interested in defending the plight of specific interest groups was not difficult to sew. The political vacuum in working-class communities has created a breeding ground for a toxic mix of rightwing, nationalistic, hate-filled and reactionary politics. The myth that class no longer exists is quite staggering given in 2017 we live in a world that has never been so unequal regarding wealth, power, food, safe shelter, education and security. This level of inequality between the wealthy and poor has not happened by accident.

A systematic programme of economic, social and environmental policies have deliberately destabilised and eroded a whole way of life, as well as forcing a wedge between people who only have their labour to sell be they a computer programmer, street cleaner, bricklayer, or nurse. Divisive policies designed to pit families and communities against one another in an endless downward spiral of competition. Those pushed to the sidelines have their lives constantly disrupted by the state through an onslaught of ever-changing benefit rules, skills retraining, housing and welfare programmes, which are deliberately designed to disempower and humiliate.

Local to global

The industrial working class is a global, fragmented and impoverished phenomena. According to The United Nations, Human Development Report, the richest 20% receive 86% of the world’s gross product. The middle 60% get 13% while the poorest 20% receive 1%. Meanwhile, more than 20,000 people a day die from hunger-related diseases, yet we produce sufficient food to feed everybody on earth.

In the UK the poorest fifth of households has 6% of national income after tax, while the share held by the richest top fifth is 45%. So regardless if employed in the sweatshops of Indonesia, assembling mobile phones in China, a technician in a UK nuclear power, or whatever social position, you place yourself, the reality remains that if your economic existence depends on you selling your labour, then homelessness is only a handful of paychecks away. These extremes in poverty are not only tolerated but are now part of the natural order of managing economies.

Destabilise, isolate and instil fear

The dark forces, which our grandparents and parents fought against now cast their shadow across the globe into working class communities regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, disability or faith. It is an insatiable machine of greed, which knows no bounds. Its only purpose is to absorb as much resource as possible for those it serves, who are increasingly becoming the new elite citizens of the world, able to move across borders with impunity with their capital in search of safe tax havens, secret banking arrangements and minimum regulation. Their only nemesis is being held accountability and the risk of losing their wealth. It is the same dark forces, which are once again turning their attention to home shores under the guise of populist and nationalist movements, partly due to the instability they have caused in far away places, which has facilitated popular resistance on one hand or fanatical faith-based terrorism on the other.

Organisation’s capable of threatening their status must be owned, controlled or destabilised be it, political movements, The European Union, trade negotiation bodies, or even the United Nations. Elected government, which should provide a platform of accountability increasingly resembles a game show where politicians can sliver with ease from the responsibilities of a nation to dance routines on light-entertainment programmes, while a Member of Parliament is shot dead on our streets by a political terrorist. Hate based entertainment is parading the poor through ghoulish poverty porn shows filled with a never-ending diatribe of stereotypes to be laughed at and repulsed. We have increasingly become immune to the horrors of disasters, and even the footage of dead children being washed up on the shores of Europe like discarded litter is the new undeserving poor.

The optimism initially offered by social media to bring people together has turned into a self-indulgent pantomime of pouting selfies, sexualisation, food envy, cats, dogs and throw away memes celebrating trivia. Political exchanges through the likes of Twitter often slide into derogatory language, death threats and degrading images feeding a narrative that nobody cares or should be trusted if they are in need, different or vulnerable. Protected behind the unaccountability of the keyboard prejudices are recycled time and time again, like a windmill grinding away, unable to move from the foundations it is anchored.

A report by US psychologists suggests that more than two hours of social media use a day doubled the chances of a person experiencing social isolation. The report claims exposure to idealised representations of other people’s lives may cause feelings of envy. The research team questioned almost 2,000 adults aged 19 – 32 about their use of social media. Professor Brian Primack, from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, said: “This is an important issue to study because mental health problems and social isolation are at epidemic levels among young adults. We are inherently social creatures, but modern life tends to compartmentalise us instead of bringing us together. While it may seem that social media presents opportunities to fill that social void, I think this study suggests that it may not be the solution people were hoping for.”

Resistance is not futile, but it needs alliances

Every single life affected by poverty is a stain on our humanity, but we increasingly look as if we are willfully surrendering to blind materialism while declaring ourselves powerless as poverty levels creep up, homelessness increasing and the dark hand of hunger is once again knocking on the doors of many families in the UK. Those prepared to challenge this continuous drift into the abyss are looked upon with suspicion or denounced as part of the liberal elite.

Politics and social attitudes, like an economy, works in a cycle. Alliances come together when people experiencing poverty or injustice can align with people who are naturally compassionate, alongside those who intuitively know when something is far from fair. The conditions for change then become prevalent. The economic uncertainty caused by Brexit, the ongoing degradation of local services like parks and open spaces, care for our elders and vulnerable young, libraries, the current crisis in the NHS and the growing levels of poverty in the UK these conditions should be ripe for the forging of alliances. While no single political party has a monopoly on caring, and after almost a decade of austerity, the Labour Party should be at the helm of forging this alliance. It is not.

Oh, Labour were art thou?

At the moment the Labour Party is obsessed with talking to itself and in danger of becoming fixated with its membership of 600,000 rather than being a champion for 15 million people. The left of the Labour Party continues to recycle the narrative that increased industrial strikes, grass-roots campaigns and local councils refusing to set legal budgets will somehow ignite and build the working class resistance to fight back against capitalism. This narrative represents the type of politics, which in 2017, is more likely to repel most working people given they are not the uniting force they were 50 years ago.

While seeking to tackle tax evasion will always be popular trying to create an alliance on the back of just committing to increase public sector borrowing, spend and state ownership is not likely to attract sufficient support for two reasons. The first and most difficult is that for a lot of people their experience of and loyalty to the public sector is not positive. The second is the perception of economic mismanagement caused by too much borrowing by the last Labour Government.

Poll after poll, beyond any, reasonable doubt has indicated that Labour is not trusted economically even in working-class communities, but like a broken record stuck on maximum volume, those on the left resemble a Victorian missionary with little to offer outside the scripture and doctrine handed down to them.

Those on the right of the Labour Party are equally constrained given they have swallowed and continue to eat the economic principle of the deregulated free global market. The very economic policy, which has destabilised, so many working-class communities.

Blurred vision

A manifesto based on theories and a historical perspective is unlikely to rebuild the Labour Party’s fortunes and restore trust north of the border. The fundamental problem runs much, much deeper given neither wing of the Labour Party can look, think and breath beyond the shadow of Tony Blair and New Labour. No debate can be entered into without, in due course, reference back to Blair regardless if he is considered a demon or saint. Lord Peter Mandelson (a new Labour advocate) has been reported to say that he works every day trying to overthrow the current leader of the Labour Party.

The Labour Party, for good or ill, needs to live with its recent history, understand it, learn from it, leave it behind, stop talking about it and focus on the present and future. After all, why should the general public believe in a party that does not believe in itself? The truth is there is no easy way forward for the Labour Party, or indeed a centre-left perspective given there is nothing to give traction for the holding of a broad alliance together outside the anti-austerity agenda and that alone is not sufficient.

Life

Maintaining and encouraging a mixed market economy, which promotes enterprise, protects the environment, delivers robust public services and tackles innate economic and social inequality should provide the foundation, but the thinking needs to go outside the usual comfort zone of the Labour Party. Socialism in 2020 cannot simply be about the refinancing of public services, delivered through monolithic state-run departments with professional bureaucrats sitting at their helm. It must be about the design of personal services, tailored to the needs of the recipient who must hold the decision-making.

To achieve this requires coherence in leadership, able to paint a compelling vision, communicate it and then forge the necessary alliances to make it happen. Being honest, principled and decent are virtues all leaders should possess, the norm, alone they are not enough.

Not since the 1940s has there been a need for a coherent political response to the current state of affairs. Speaking like this at the moment to my fellow Labour Party members can at time feel like being in labour.

Meanwhile, Prime Minster Theresa May, aware of the tipping point taking place has nudged the Conservative towards appealing more directly to a minority of traditional Labour voters and thus building her alliances across social classes. Her stay is likely to be short given the obstacles she will need to steer the Tories through their European dilemma and waiting in the wings are far more sinister and reactionary forces. If these forces see the light of day then working-class patriotic nationalism will be stirred up in places like the north. If this happens then it will be a whole different political world the Labour Party will find itself in.