If Durham County Council (DCC) don’t sort out this utter mess with the Durham Teaching Assistants (TAs), their Labour councillors are risking electoral catastrophe in May 2017. It’s that bad for the Labour Party, not just because of the votes of 2700 Teaching Assistants and their families, but because of the reputational damage the party are suffering in what should be their heartlands. It’s quite poignant thinking of the mess that Labour councillors have created just a few months after the death of Davey Hopper, the Durham Miners’ leader. The Durham Miners’ Association have always understood the meaning of “looking after your own”. They did it for years, with their lodges and what we now call “community organising”, but they just saw as second nature.
Recently, I’ve spotted exactly the same determination and rootedness amongst the TAs and it reminded me of what we’ve lost as a party. To say it can’t be combined with the modern Labour Party is rubbish. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been holding social media workshops in the People’s Bookshop. The enthusiasm and teamwork of the TAs social media team (the ‘Twitterati’ as we’re calling them) is something to behold. These are people who will give up every night of the week for this campaign, on top of their exhausting work and family responsibilities. But it would be nothing if they weren’t so concerned to represent their fellow TAs and their communities. This is old school organising, brought right up to date.
DCC just don’t get it. I’ve been told that the backlash from the TAs caught them on the hop. It shouldn’t have done. Imagine taking a 23% pay cut when you’re already on some of the lowest wages for Teaching Assistants anywhere in the country. If you corner an animal, it will fight back. And these women, as Aditya Chakrabortty has so eloquently explained, are lions. Durham’s Labour councillors have continually shown themselves to be incapable of learning the lessons. Yesterday, they added fuel to the fire of this dispute by sending out a deceitful letter to Heads which implied that 2 out of 3 unions had accepted the deal. In fact, one of those unions, Unite, has one member as a TA and the other, more or less 200 if local union officials are to be believed. Out of the other, the GMB, only 67 of those balloted voted to accept the compensation package. In contrast, over 1,300 Unison and ATL members voted to reject. If DCC want to portray this as a mandate to carry on with this ‘fire and rehire’ policy, then more fool them, but I have to warn them that if they carry on in this self-destructive mode, the consequences for the party locally will be dire.
At a Durham City CLP campaign meeting in June I had the audacity to suggest that Durham County Councillors were out of touch with their communities. There was an audible gasp. Some of the councillors gathered at the meeting even formally objected that they had been “offended” by such words. I say that if those councillors had been in touch with their communities, they would never have approved these savage cuts to pay in the first place. I say that if they had been in touch with the roots of the community, and actually spoken to some of the TAs, they would have found a solution despite the legal obstacles. I say that if they really care about the long term welfare of the Labour Party, like I do, they will get on the phone to Simon Henig, the leader of the council and start objecting to this fait accompli, this ticking time bomb. Like the TA campaigners, they could show some independence and bravery – and challenge the technocrats who are making these disastrous decisions for them.
Ultimately, if councillors really want to continue to bury their heads in the sand and destroy the last few links we have with local communities up here in Durham, that’s up to them, but they won’t do it in my name. I have worked closely with these Teaching Assistants over the last 6 months and I can tell you they are exactly the sort of women who should be at the heart of the Labour Party. They are brilliant campaigners, they represent their communities superbly and they are fearless. I’d even venture as far as to say that they would make very good councillors themselves. There’s possibly even an MP in there, somewhere. You heard it here first.