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Hartlepool

The election results in Britain are not surprising, but for someone who has been a lifelong socialist, they are depressing beyond words.

The north east of England is a strange mixture of wonderful countryside and coast, glorious old towns like Durham, but also of utterly depressing deprivation and decay in all the former centres of mining, steelworks and shipbuilding. I remember passing through Hartlepool a few decades ago, on my way to stay with people in nearby Redcar, where the steelworks were not yet closed but where already there was an atmosphere of doom. It was not an attractive or cheering area to visit.

Suffering and protest in the north east is nothing new. Remember Jarrow in 1936? The Jarrow march to London to campaign against unemployment and poverty was one of the factors that paved the way for amazing reforms of the post-war Attlee government. Since the war the north east has produced politicians like Mo Mowlam, MP for Redcar, and a woman to be admired for her efforts to promote peace in Northern Ireland. Indeed, even one of my heroes, Beveridge, was an MP in neighbouring Northumberland.

The history of the north east has been tied up with the history of the Labour Party. But no more. Hartlepool is just the latest brick in the so-called red wall – the heartlands of historical Labour Party support – to fall to the Tories.

Now begins the depressing exercise of analysis and blame. Already Corbyn and Momentum on one side – and some rather soggy members of the party on the right have started the public infighting which tear apart the Labour Party yet further.

Why has the working class switched allegiance? Will the Labour Party find its support reduced to the educated, the young and dwellers in big cities such as London? Do people in these old red heartlands really prefer to be ruled by the charlatans headed by Johnson?

Well, I have not lived in the UK for twenty years and it is fifty years since I last lived in England. But old habits die hard: I still browse through the Guardian (with increasing dissatisfaction) and have recently subscribed to the Economist. So here, for what it is worth, is a list of reasons Labour lost Hartlepool, in no particular order.

This is Brexit country and the political polarisation that this produced appears to continue. I can’t explain why traditional Labour heartlands should have voted for Brexit because it still baffles me. Given this, I find it extraordinary that Labour should have chosen a candidate known locally as a leader of the Remain campaign, rather than someone more discreetly neutral.

The north east has been badly hit by Covid and people associate Johnson with the success of the vaccine campaign (don’t get me started on that one), so much so that they appear to have forgotten the woes of last year’s less than brilliant management of the pandemic.

While Johnson has benefited from the high profile Covid has given him, the Labour Party’s stance seems to be treated with contempt, and according to one programme I watched, a large number of people in Hartlepool did not even know who Keir Starmer was. I also heard quite a few still associating the Labour Party with Corbyn – and demonising him.

The Labour Party perhaps mistakenly has concentrated on exposing Tory sleaze. It appears that the voters do not see this as important and instead consider politicians of all parties as being just out for themselves.

Beyond Hartlepool, people seem to make little distinction between local and national politics, voting by party rather than issue or candidate. There have been quite a few interviewees who have suggested that it was a good thing to their local council run by the same party as the Government – perhaps more chance of getting support for jobs and local development projects.

And therein lies, I fear, a fundamental problem for which nobody has come up with a good solution: how on earth do you revitalise regions which have lost all their old industries, how do you create employment for the millions without jobs and sadly without the skills to enable them to flourish in a more technocratic economy? I don’t know. The Conservative Party is counting on its Northern Powerhouse strategy – pumping cash into the north east infrastructure – will somehow bring new jobs there. Certainly it seems to have convinced a lot of people.

Meanwhile the Labour Party seems to be involved in endless debates and forums, without getting many messages across other than that it ‘cares’. I do know that there is a ‘jobs promise’ plan, with an emphasis on creating green jobs and ones in health, social care and education. All good Keynesian stuff, but they need a modern day Beveridge to get over a plan people can understand.

Of course it has the dilemma that all parties of the Left have: do you make yourself more electable by keeping away from scary stuff like nationalising industry or do you stick to your basic principles, and produce a manifesto like Corbyn’s? (The man was a disaster, but the manifesto was really interesting, an ambitious programme of public expenditure, not unlike what Biden is now proposing.)

Whichever direction the Labour Party takes, I am pessimistic about the outcome. It is as if all the issues I spent my teenage years campaigning on are still no nearer success sixty years later. All that time on CND demonstrations and we still have nuclear weapons and the money guzzling Trident missile. Those weekends on Anti Apartheid marches, and we still have racism. The time spent in Young Socialist meetings, and we are even further away from a socialist society.

I have been a socialist all my life. Parents, grandmother and brother were all Labour councillors, in my early years my father worked (I can hardly call it earning earned a living) for the Labour Party and Fabian Society. But I have always found it difficult to decide exactly where I stood in the eternal struggles between the ‘left’ and ‘right’, or social democrat, side of the Labour Party.

I actually resigned my membership in 1997 when I saw that Blair and Brown were not planning an ambitious enough programme of public expenditure on things like health, education and employment, and were resisting the associated need to raise income tax. I suppose that is at the core of what I mean about being a socialist: for me the most important principle is “from each according to his means, to each according to his needs”. It embodies ideas like fraternity, caring, and indeed avoiding unequal distribution of wealth.

There is nothing new about this principle, which has been worked on by all sorts of people, including Karl Marx. Harold Wilson, in 1964, argued we should live by it rather than “a system of society where making money by whatever means is lauded as the highest service”. The trouble is that Wilson, and those that followed, were not able to put flesh on these noble ideals. The working class vote started its slow process of abandoning ‘its’ party and the party itself grew ever more divided.

Of course living here in France I am struck by how what has been happening in Britain is repeated across Europe. In France the left is withering away, its decline exacerbated by the divisions between its different factions. So much so that next year’s elections promise to be a fight between the right and the extreme right.

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