Speech to Blue LabourJuly 18th, 2015
I am the fifth generation of my family to be involved in Labour politics. This is something I am deeply proud of. From the party’s birth in Primitive Methodism through the General Strike and the Jarrow Marches through the many countless mining disasters, the history of the Labour party is my family history.
I can wax lyrical all day about my Labour roots in the West Cumberland coal mining village of Lowca where my family have lived for seven generations. The problem for Labour is that I am part of an ever-decreasing number of people who vote Labour because their family has always voted Labour.
For decades, Labour’s strength has been the love people have for the party. Voting Labour is not merely a transaction but an act of solidarity towards family and community. Traditional Labour voters don’t say “I vote Labour” but “I AM Labour”. It is part of who they are. But that sentiment is dying out and that is Labour’s problem.
To try to understand what we can do to rebuild it I want to talk about Lowca. Because, in many ways Lowca shapes my understanding of the Blue Labour philosophy. It also offers analysis of the existential crisis facing the Labour party in its core areas. Perched on a cliff overlooking the Solway Firth between the towns of Whitehaven and Workington, Lowca is as far from the Westminster Village as it is possible to get. Once upon a time, it had three coal mines, a brick works and a coking oven. Today it hosts onshore and offshore wind and a small bed and breakfast. There is a school with 70 children on role, a shop, a working mens club and an amateur rugby league club. The Anglican church is thriving but the Brethren and Methodist chapels have closed.
On that last point I am reminded of the first aspect of Blue Labour – that of faith. For the Labour party, this has always been a controversial topic but it need not be. As Harold Wilson famously said, the Labour Party owes more to Methodism than to Marxism. Primitive Methodism was the grandfather of the Labour party. Its method of training lay preachers gave ordinary working class men and women experience of public speaking which stood them in good stead in the trade union movement and the Labour Party. In the 1920s more than a fifth of Labour MPs were Methodist Lay Preachers.
I believe we forget at our peril the impact that Methodism had on traditional working class Labour communities. Not only did it create leadership opportunities, the theology of Methodism helped to foster a culture that valued hard work, community solidarity and civic responsibility. Often people lived those values by getting involved in trade union and Labour politics – or at the minimum, voting Labour. I don’t believe it is an accident that the decline Methodism in these communities was followed by the decline in trade union and Labour politics.
Clearly it is not for the Labour party to initiate a spiritual revival of Methodism. But I do believe it requires the Labour party to transform its attitude towards faith. I think we saw beginnings of that in the last parliament with the recognition of the great work of the Trussell Trust and other Christian organisations committed to tackling poverty. But I believe it must go much deeper than that. The Labour party must not simply tolerate faith but celebrate it as an essential part of its movement. It’s not for the Labour party to establish credit unions but we do celebrate and support their work in whatever way we can – often with Labour politicians at the forefront. In the same way, Labour must learn to celebrate and support the growth of religious institutions as an essential part of building a more decent society. One particular issue that I have noticed is the vast disparity in resources between wealthy and poor parishes. In Harpenden, small churches keep going because they have the money; in places like Lowca a similar church would quickly close. The values of wealth distribution are core to our party and these afford the Labour party an opportunity to show real vision.
It was Lowca’s Anglican Church that once offered a powerful symbol to me of the second aspect of Blue Labour politics – the Flag.
The church warden had been sorting out the church loft when he happened upon an England flag. It was in the run-up to St. George’s day so he decided to fly the flag from the church tower.
Because the church is an iconic coastal landmark, the flag could be seen for miles around – from both land and sea. The church was so overwhelmed by the positive feedback from the local community that a decision was taken to keep the flag flying. It was still flying a few months later when, on 2nd June 2010, Derrick Bird tore through West Cumbria leaving 12 dead, many more injured and a community in complete shellshock. In response, the flag flew at half-mast and it provided a potent symbol of community grief and solidarity.
The congregation like to find any excuse for a party, especially if it involves the Queen: a Jubilee, a Queen’s Birthday, a royal birth. There would likely be a“bring and share” meal with dancing and some games for the children. There are precious few republicans in these parts notwithstanding the rock solid Labour vote which saw the local Labour county councillor comfortably returned, even in Labour’s 2009 nadir.
Here, deep in Labour’s heartlands, there is a strong sense of national identity and pride – yet it was precisely these qualities that made it fertile territory for the BNP whose toxic ideology ripped through West Cumbria with just as much ferocity as Derrick Bird. Today, UKIP get a good hearing.
So how does Labour reclaim the flag and a strong sense of national identity? This is hard for a party that is ideologically internationalist. I believe the answer lies in reclaiming England’s radical heritage: the Levellers, the Diggers, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the Jarrow Marchers. These are the people we should celebrate and find inspiration from. In that sense, we should learn from the SNP whose conspicuous success is rooted in a powerful historical narrative that helped forge a compelling political vision.
Lowca also teaches me the meaning of “family values”. No, not a 1950s traditional Tory Shires kind of family values with mum, dad and 2.4 children. No, the Lowca family has never been a nuclear family. The Lowca family is tribe: not just mum, dad, brothers and sisters but cousins, uncles, aunts, great uncles, great aunts, second cousins all living close to each other and looking out for each other. I have so many relatives in West Cumbria that it was sometimes difficult to work out who I wasn’t related to. So the community became the family – and it was to the community that I owed solidarity.
This is the case in many communities that flirted with UKIP in May. For me the rise of UKIP is quite simple. Every aspect of modern life breaks up their family. Young adults leave the area to go to college and university or to get their first job. When Iain Duncan Smith tells people to move to get a job, he offends their family values. When the bedroom tax forces people to leave their community, people’s sense of common decency is offended. All of these forces result in families becoming spread across the country – sometimes the world. They aren’t there to watch out for each other but instead go onto lead their own fragmented lives.
I believe that upholding these peculiarly blue labour values demands solutions that come from a very different political tradition. They demand an active state involved in developing an interventionist one nation industrial strategy. We need an economic strategy that brings jobs to the people not people to the jobs. Investment in science, engineering, manufacturing and innovation, tax incentives for companies to relocate, re-established Regional Development Agencies, investment in radically improving our infrastructure. We need to make it possible for people to get great jobs and also stay close to their families.
More importantly, if we want people in all of our communities to feel positive about our global economy then we need to find ways to give people a stake in it – in just the same way that Thatcher’s sale of council houses and the sale of shares in the privatized utilities gave working class people a stake in the capitalist economy.
For example, children in remote rural and coastal communities do not have the same access to work experience at global corporations that their innercity counterparts do. This lowers their aspirations and narrows their horizons. We need to look at radical ways to transform our education so that all children have the opportunity to aim high. We then need to find ways to create the opportunities that enable them to aim high within their own communities.
Lowca has profoundly shaped my politics and today I have put the village on the political map. But the truth is, it was already there. Because I am not the first politician to come from a Lowca family. That honour goes to…………. Yvette Cooper MP. Indeed her grandparents were neighbours of my Great Auntie Elsie and they worshipped alongside me at the local Anglican Church. It has been said to me that Yvette Cooper’s politics is anti-Blue Labour. I think that is to misunderstand the issues facing communities like Lowca. Yes they need to reclaim their heritage and values – and Labour needs to help them in that. But Lowca also needs an active and interventionist state that will build roads, improve infrastructure and give them a stake in the global economy. Lowca’s mines may have closed and its identity as a pit village may be dying out, but Lowca’s desire for proper jobs involving hard labour is still alive. With an active industrial strategy, we can help them build their dreams. And with that, we can help to rebuild our party.