Without a reckoning of our mistakes, we’ll never move on.

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People keep saying, “Don’t leave, organise? But we were organised. And look what happened to us!”.

But just looking at the reaction of the socialist left in the Labour Party – scattering in a thousand different directions – tells a very different story. We weren’t organised, at least not enough to withstand the attacks. And we must ask why.

At the heart of defeat is always failure. That is hard for us to listen to, because so many of us put our heart and soul into the Corbyn movement, but actually that isn’t the way to look at it. Failure is part of life and is almost always a collective responsibility. To learn, we have to analyse our failures, no matter what campaign, union or party we are in.

Of course, it’s always easier to blame others: external factors are definitely part of defeat too. We know, for example, that without Brexit, the political landscape would have been very different. But here’s the thing. Those external factors are often things we cannot change – they are the facts of political life: as socialists, the press will always attack us; as socialists, the people who hanker after a New Labour renaissance will always exploit our weaknesses; as socialists, the establishment will close ranks to us and engineer victories for the centre and right, precisely because it preserves their privilege and power. Those are, for the moment, unmovable objects.

But unless we think that things are beyond our control; that history is not to be written by the likes of us; that we have no agency – in other words, unless we despair, we have to have a serious and analytical discussion, across the movement, of where we went wrong. This is absolutely not about navel gazing, it’s what any genuine political project has to do to learn & make sure that next time, we’re stronger. The things we can do something about, that are in our control, no matter how difficult the process is. Without that self-analysis, we’ll leap from failure to failure, without even understanding why.

What that discussion requires is honesty. Currently, I’m not seeing that from many quarters. What I’m seeing is deflection, the burying of mistakes and a rebranding exercise. That’s not good enough. We lost. Our supporters are scattered, demoralised and abandoning the fight, and the response from many on the left can be summarised as “covering our own backs”. We have to be more mature, politically speaking, than that. We have to talk about why we suffered these defeats and that discussion has to be genuinely reflective.

I know people don’t like doing this. Honest discussion is difficult, it causes rows, it’s against our natural protective instinct to bury bad news and for a brand new, shiny “unity”. But there are some real, hard facts here: we will not move on and we will not rebuild until we have a serious reckoning of the last five years. Warts and all.

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Londonderry Airbrushed

Recently, a photo of the statue of Charles William Stewart or Lord Londonderry (1778–1854), in Durham city’s marketplace was posted in a local Facebook group. Someone commented that he “owned many of the coal mines in County Durham and spent lots of money to make them run better.” Astonishingly, it transpired that this particular piece of misinformation was taken from a website produced by the university for use in local schools. Not wishing to allow this go unchallenged, I responded by making a few factual observations and suggestions.

First of all, Londonderry was brutal even by the standards of his time. On the Tory benches in the House of Lords, he led the opposition to the Mines Act 1842, which among other things, prevented boys under the age of 10 years old from working underground. Thankfully, he failed, although he did manage to get the legislation watered down. Therefore, the often-heard claim that we cannot condemn historical figures because “people didn’t know any better at the time” simply does not apply. It is no exaggeration to describe Londonderry as a tyrant. In 1844, when miners went on strike, he evicted them and their families from their homes. He also issued his infamous ‘Seaham Letter’ which warned that any local traders who provided strikers with credit would be driven out of business. A few years later, he strongly opposed the 1850 Coal Mines Inspection Act which ensured that mines were subject to government safety inspections.

Unsurprisingly, given this record, Londonderry was not well liked by many colliers and their families in County Durham. It was his family who paid to have his imposing statue put up in the market square in 1861. So, like many of our public monuments, it was not put there by popular demand.

We are often told that these monuments are vital in order for us to remember the past. But given that none of this factual information is included on the statue, how can it be considered educational? What is more, why are we still celebrating someone who enriched themselves on the back of exploiting men, women, and children in County Durham? When someone is literally put on a pedestal it is difficult to argue that this represents some kind of neutral act of remembrance.

It would be far better to have a monument to a miner or a miners’ union leader such as Thomas Hepburn, who tried to put a stop to such brutalities. At the very least, some of this information should be included on the statue’s plinth so that the public can make an informed decision as to whether this statue should still take pride of place. Londonderry’s presence in Durham city’s centre demonstrates that in most cases, monuments of the ‘great and the good’ are not about genuinely educating people about history but celebrating our ‘betters’ and whitewashing history in the process.

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‘Red Wall’ Tories

80243005_10157496066439279_6835406435443015680_oAlmost by chance, yesterday, my attention was drawn to a tweet by a local BBC reporter, Fergus Hewison, which described Richard Holden’s response to an interview by Keir Starmer, where he talked of the constituency he now represents, North West Durham, as being “left behind” under its previous Labour MPs. Holden is the guy who beat Laura Pidcock in the election in December. I was working for Laura throughout her time as MP there.

Even on the most obvious level, it’s a nonsense statement, of course – the sort that politicians make all the time. Most fundamentally, if we’re going to describe North West Durham as being “left behind, the most important event has to be the closure of the Consett Steel Works by the then Conservative Government, led by Margaret Thatcher, in 1980. It’s both bizarre and economically illiterate to blame individual Labour MPs for the position that the constituency is in, whether that be Laura, or Pat Glass before her, or Hilary Armstrong before that.

The closure of the Steel Works, and the fact that there was no plan beyond the closure, the fact that associated industries closed along with the steel works, created a vicious spiral that made Consett and the surrounding areas an unemployment black spot for decades afterwards. When the jobs did come back, they were often unskilled and insecure, and often outside the immediate area. These aren’t controversial opinions; they are backed by the long-term analysis.

Most people in North West Durham understand this history. They’ve seen the real meaning of being “left behind”, as it has played out in their families, in their communities, in the high street. While unemployment levels have dipped over recent years, the constituency has a real issue with low pay, with some of the lowest average wages in the North East, as well as the country. Consett’s story is intimately bound up with the economic story of UK PLC: the decline of heavy industry, the abandonment of manufacturing and its replacement with low paid, service-led, insecure employment.

But there’s something else going on here. Holden’s statement isn’t simply a lazy mistake, it’s an attempt to embed a very different narrative and that requires some explanation. In December in County Durham, three so-called “Red Wall” seats fell to the Tories. Bishop Auckland, North West Durham and Sedgefield are very different types of constituencies, but all are long-standing Labour seats which swung dramatically from Labour to Conservative in December. This isn’t the place to discuss why, but those are the facts.

But despite sweeping to victory in those seats, the Tory MPs elected into those seats will know they are not secure. The underlying economic factors noted above, added to the fact that all three seats are ill-prepared to deal with another economic downturn caused by a combination of Brexit and COVID-19, make it quite likely that these new MPs (Richard Holden in North West Durham, Dehenna Davison in Bishop Auckland and Paul Howell in Sedgefield) are going to have a rocky ride between now and the next General Election.

The cold, hard truth is that these ‘Red Wall’ Tories, for all their bluster, are going to find it hard to represent their constituents in the traditional sense. This Government’s deregulatory, small state, free market agenda – a continuation of Thatcherism with some Steve Bannon-style populism thrown in – isn’t exactly designed for constituencies that desperately need support, whether that is investment, or a strong support networks via the social security system. So, what can they offer, instead?

Well, that’s where the this attempt to muddy the waters about the role of an MP comes in. To these Tories, if they bring a Metro line (doubtful), or a retail warehouse to the constituency through their contacts, that’s the job done. Actually, the reality is that any investment that comes into a constituency is complex and will have more to do with the economics of the region and sub-region, planning done at a county, national or even international level, than the actions of any MP. MPs are not Mayors, nor are they heads of local authorities. They can have an impact, but it will mostly be in a supporting role.

But, as has been illustrated over decades now, presentation is all in right-wing politics. And if they can’t deliver on those transport links or the big investments, they can at least make an awful a lot of noise about them. If these ‘Red Wall Tories’ can present an image of themselves in a business role – or as an ambassador for their brand, they may kid people that they are bringing economic regeneration, even when they are not. In essence, it’s a recasting the role of an MP as the CEO of a company, with the Tory PR machine behind them.

On a deeper level, however, this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of a Member of Parliament. As an MP, your primary role is to represent people. Of course, it’s incredibly complex in practice, but the number one function has to be a democratic one. That is what you are judged on at election time. Yes, of course, sometimes as an MP you can make an impact locally. You can support local growth, you can involve yourself in projects that develop communities and local economies, but central Government always holds the purse strings and will always have far more influence than any individual MP.

As an opposition MP, this is even more the case. Many Tory MPs are seriously rich, and even where they are not, they have connections to money, through the Tory Party, big business or the old private school network. Of course, that can bring benefits. It can deliver shiny things. For Labour MPs, especially those who’ve come through the trade union route, or low paid jobs without a lot of influence, the challenges are different, as is the role. In opposition, no Government is going to send investment your way (in fact, quite the opposite).

For an opposition MP like Laura Pidcock, the role was clear: (a) to help people with issues on an individual level the best you can; (b) to represent your constituents in Parliament – by both exposing the faults in the system and (c) by campaigning on their behalf to create a better society – which is what Labour’s transformational programme contained in the two manifestos of 2017 and 2019 was all about. But, at the heart of that role – until you go into power, is the knowledge that central Government ultimately hold the cards. That is a political reality, and that needs to be spelled out to those constituents.

I suspect that the representative, democratic role of an MP will increasingly become a nuisance and a distraction to these new ‘Red Wall’ Tory MPs, because they know – as ideological right-wingers – they can’t deliver on that. Some of that is already coming out, for example, in Richard Holden’s declaration that his Facebook page is not a place for “political debate”. They can’t change the political direction of this Government; they can’t campaign against its decisions and they will find it very hard to make a case for regional investment based on the last 10 years.

So, the PR job then becomes an attempt to throw around myths about that democracy and representation is. Labour “let the North East down” plays nicely into broader grievances and the wider perception of MPs not doing enough for their constituencies (and too much shouting about them). It also taps into a popular scepticism about how politicians behave.

I’ve lost count of the time I’ve heard the phrase: “why can’t we knock some heads together and get you all to work together”, as if this was a dysfunctional corporation, not politics with different ideological views of society and our world. But that myth is strong – and Tory MPs play up to it equally strongly, while all the time forcing through a clear, free market ideological agenda on our country. It’s sleight of hand and fertile territory for the Tories. The Red Wall Tory MPs will get fluff pieces in the press proclaiming their local successes and, boy, will they milk them – as a means of distracting from the democratic deficit.  As a party, we must not stand by passively, normalising this spin. We have to challenge it, explain and educate, every step of the way.

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