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The lesson of Hetton and the basis of a new vision for the British working class

hetton_lyons_Wheel2 copyI 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 2 , 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 man 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 on 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.

Lets 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.

Lets 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 two hundred thousand houses by insisting that huge swathes will be for rent at an affordable level and they will be exempt from resale. 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 out our 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 22nd 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.

Dave Anderson is the Labour MP for Blaydon. This article first appeared at LabourList following the local and European election results.and is reposted with Dave’s permission


  1. David Ellis says:

    `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,’

    I think I can see the problem.

  2. Gerry says:

    Dave – all the proposed actions you suggest are common sense/sensible ones, and yet I doubt if any of them will make it to party policy, or manifesto…why so? I think you know the answer…but here it is again.

    It goes back to the class turning point of the 1983 election, when a big majority of working class and lower middle class voters in the South, London, and the Midlands abandoned Labour (rejecting the bold socialist anti-EU manifesto) voting instead for Thatcher or the SDP/Alliance.
    It was this choice that created the political and economic landscape which still governs us today.

    Labour got just 38% of the working class vote that year (28% in total), and the Tories and SDP got 60% of the working class vote, their best ever working class support until John Major in 1992, who similarly hoovered up big % of working class votes.

    Since then the electoral focus of all parties has been on appealing to “centrist” or C2 voters, creating New Labour by 1997 which indeed did win enough of those voters for three elections.

    But because of this consensus Lib/Lab/Con politics (all voter surveys since the 1980s have seen a majority of voters self-describe as “moderate” or “centrist”), those left behind by the new managerial politics have either stopped voting or , like in your constituency, turned to UKIP.

    In other words, since that watershed in 1983 it is the electorate as a whole which has first forced the 3 main parties into this consensus, then complained that all 3 parties are now all the same, and then turn to UKIP or other non-consensus parties!

    Sad really..but why your sensible collectivist programme won’t run, I’m afraid.

    1. PoundInYourPocket says:

      You could view things in a different way. You could say that politicians and policies have converged not so much on politically “centrist” grounds, but on policies that assist corporate interests. This process started perhaps when Callaghan gave up in 79 after 5 years of market turmoil. Since 79 policy has been in one single direction, in favour of the markets. So, have people actually rejected the policies that Dave Anderson outlines above ? Or have they just never been given the choice, as we are all led to believe narratives such as “there is no alternative (TINA)” and “the markets won’t allow it”. The 83 Labour manifesto was rejected, but that’s hardly suprising as it was post Falklands, the height of Thatcher’s popularity and Labour were at war with themselves. Since 83 the electorate has never had the option to choose socialism or even a mild reversal of the neo-liberal direction of flow. So I applaud and support Dave’s excellent article and from the polls and surveys I’ve looked at (British Survey of Attitudes BSA30), people support nationalisation of rail/utilities, believe that society is unequal and that redistribution is the role of government. All socialist policies. So good luck Mr Anderson!

      1. Matty says:

        Excellent comment from PoundInYourPocket

  3. David Pavett says:

    “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’.”

    No, that doesn’t give me a warm glow at all. I think that if people vote the way I want them to on such idiotic grounds then their support will be ultimately unreliable – as has turned out to be the case. It is such a shame to hear an MP pining for support of this unthinking nature. That is a large part of the Labour Party’s problem. If the left responds to the onslaught from the right with this sort of “gut socialism” it can expect to get nowhere.

    “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.”

    That is not the solution. It’s the problem.

    I support all the practical meausures proposed by Dave Anderson but if he argues for them on the basis of his instincts rather than studying the arguments he must expect not to get beyond convincing himself of his rightness and pleasing only those who already agree with him.

    1. PoundInYourPocket says:

      I had a similar experience on the door step when a man shook my hand and said “I always vote Labour because my dad told me it was the party for the working man” I thanked him and walked away, but couldn’t help thinking “If only you knew the truth…”

      Although I think the ranks of the old Labour loyal have already diminished in most areas of the country, perhaps with the exception of the NE. I know I meet very few these days, so the continuation of this trend probably won’t make a great differeence.

      But, now that there is little left of this legacy vote, it’s now much harder to gain Labour votes, as you have to actively convince people to vote Labour. That’s infinitely harder than just appealing to a bygone class-loyalty. People now need a reason to vote Labour, and we’re not giving them that.

      It was easier when it was just a class issue.

      1. PoundInYourPocket says:

        I should have added, that I think you’re being hard on Dave Anderson, and perhaps he is being a little unfair on his constituents.

        As political hobbyists (or professionals) we like to think we argue the issues, but most of the electorate don’t operate that way as they are not political obsessives. When Dave knock’s on the door and chats about policy (if he does) it’s not the policy discussion that wins them over, it’s gut instinct. He sounds and I expect looks like one of them, they identify with him and trust him and may have heard good things about him. That’s why he gets their vote. Afterall this is about representation, so do they neeed to worry about policy detail ? Not many constituents are going to run through the policy minutiae before they make a cross. They’re not engaged or willing to invest that much time. This is about reflexive and instinctive decision making, not simple reasoning. My mild criticism of Dave is that he be unwittingly abusing their loyalty and trust, given some of labour’s policies.

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