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OP-ED: A tale of divided aspirations

  • Published at 09:57 pm May 10th, 2021
uk labour conservative

The Labour Party must make its stand clear, once and for all

In the early hours of the morning of May 2, 1997, newly elected prime minister, Tony Blair, arrived at party headquarters in his constituency of Sedgefield in the North-East of England to make his victory speech. 

I was living in the area at the time and managed to get a ticket to this historic event. When I arrived at the venue it was swarming with journalists and TV crews from all over the world. The Trimdon Labour Club, where the event took place, was a building of two halves shaped like the letter “L.” 

I entered one half of the complex and spotted immediately that it was the wrong half. 

Inside seated at rows and rows of long tables were scores of middle aged and elderly men (I didn’t see any women) drinking beer from pint glasses and playing dominoes. Above them floated a cloud of choking cigarette and pipe smoke. They seemed indifferent to the media circus just a few yards away outside the door. 

I retraced my steps and made for the other leg of the building. Once inside, a very different scene awaited. The air was clean, the only drinks on show were white wine spritzers. In place of the ancient gnarled miners next door, were young men in smart Armani suits and Canali ties.

In one half of the Club then, the old, working class Labour of Wilson and Bevan, in the other, Blair’s youthful, aspirational, middle class New Labour.

I was reminded of this last week when the news came through of Labour ’s massive defeat to the Conservatives in the by-election in the neighbouring constituency of Hartlepool. Hartlepool is a rundown, depressed seaside town that has, for the past five decades, been a Labour stronghold. 

The prospect, at the time of Blair’s election and for a long time after, that the town could be anything other than Labour was unthinkable. The years of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership during the 1980s and early ‘90s had had a massive impact on Hartlepool and on the North-East in general. 

The mines and the traditional heavy industry that the region had been famous for since the start of the Industrial Revolution had gone to be replaced by, well, not very much. To have openly admitted that you were a Tory voter back then would have been regarded as an egregious betrayal not only of your class but of your family.

But memories fade, and many of those former miners and shipyard workers are no longer with us. The younger generation has never experienced what the North-East was like in its glory days of relative prosperity and near full employment. 

But, while the collective memory of those times has gone, the effect of the region’s decline is still felt, particularly by the young. Decades of chronic under-investment, the absence of good, well-paid jobs, and a generally low level of education of its children has impacted the whole town. 

I remember Hartlepool back in the 1990s and 2000s being full of budget supermarkets and charity shops. Little seems to have changed. The region of the North-East as a whole and especially smaller towns like Hartlepool, have long felt itself abandoned by London. It is no coincidence that Hartlepool recorded the highest percentage in the UK of those voting to leave the EU in 2016, with nearly 70% of the town opting for Brexit.

So when the Conservatives, under Boris Johnson, promised to “get Brexit done” and then did get it done, he won over many of these former life-long Labour supporters. When he promised to “level up” the economy to ensure that northern England shared in some of the prosperity enjoyed by its southern neighbours, he found that many in the town were only too willing to believe him.  

But Boris Johnson cannot take all of the credit for the Tories’ spectacular victory in Hartlepool, the Labour Party contributed just as much towards their own defeat, if not even more. For years, the Party’s politicians and councils have taken their voters for granted. When I lived in the area, it was a standing joke that if you pinned a red rosette on a monkey standing in a traditional Labour stronghold, it would still get elected.

Well, not any more it seems. Northern voters are tired of being taken for granted, tired of being ignored. For many, the Party seems to have lost its connection with its working class and trade union roots. Instead, it is seen as interested more in city dwellers with their woke-ful concerns of gender equality and political correctness and whatever other politically fashionable trend was agitating the young of London’s wine bars. 

Indeed, many former Labour voters feel that middle-class metropolitan Labour members view them with contempt for their traditional values and principals. Many older, working class members tend to be patriotic, to support the monarchy, and are suspicious of many of the changes that have taken place in their country in recent years. 

They feel -- probably with some justification -- that university educated members of the party look down upon them. Take for example the tweet from one prominent Labour activist, Jane Gray, the day after the election result was announced, “Yep, as expected the working class love a bit of nationalism and racism. Well done Hartlepool, you turkeys. I have never been and I never will.”

For years now the Labour Party has found itself on the horns of dilemma. On the one hand it has feared upsetting its traditional working-class supporters by opposing Brexit, on the other it couldn’t risk alienating its more liberal-leaning, remain-supporting city-dwelling members. 

Instead of opting to come out on one side of the divide or the other, the leadership of the Party decided to say nothing and sit very firmly on the fence. It was the start of this split that I witnessed first-hand all those years ago in Sedgefield and it has continued to grow as has the problem for Labour in how to deal with it.

Britain needs a strong opposition. Labour needs to make its mind up whether it wants to return what it was originally founded for, and be a defender of working-class values and aspirations. Or else find its place as a politically right-on party supporting all of the right causes. 

As the by-election result in Hartlepool showed clearly, it cannot continue to do both.

Kit Fenwick is a freelance writer and historian.

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