A culture war having been declared, I proceeded straight to the front line: the former Yorkshire Coalfield, peopled by the bigoted ex-miners of metropolitan columnists’ fever dreams. These are the people who are to be expelled from the Labour coalition of the future, not least because they cannot be won to the Remain cause, it seems. So I thought I should pay a last call before they went.
Thus a summer visit to a community centre in a village between Doncaster and Wakefield, in a parliamentary constituency that has returned Labour MPs for a century, yet voted nearly two-thirds for the Brexit Party/Tories/Ukip in the European Parliament elections in May. They did not, of course, oblige the stereotypes of day-tripper pundits who imagine them fulminating into their beer about migrants. Apart from anything else, their union tradition is too strong for that.
Instead, they described the post-coal labour market in their communities. A brand-name retailer established a warehouse creating around a thousand jobs – but few if any are advertised in the local job centre. Instead, the work is subcontracted to a labour agency that recruits exclusively in Poland. The same agency then secures vacant properties in the surrounding villages to accommodate the Polish workers at maximum capacity (and, doubtless, rent).
Other jobs pay little more than miners secured in the 1980s, and some working families depend on the ubiquitous foodbanks. Talking to ex-miners it seems clear that New Labour’s biggest failure (“apart from Iraq”, of course) was in labour market regulation. It turns out a radically extended free market in labour power works no better than it does in anything else.
My interlocutors acknowledge Labour’s challenge. “It’s a national party, Jeremy has to balance London and the north. People up here want the same things, they like Labour’s policies,” I was told. I ask them, when local people voted for Brexit, what problem did they think they were solving? “Everything.”Could Labour win here as an out-and-out party of Remain? “We don’t know.”
This will be my last front-line visit for a while, laid low as I have been by a heart attack and bypass surgery. Spending significant time in the superb care of the NHS gives you another take on the new labour market. Most of those nursing me back to health have come to Britain from elsewhere – although not for the most part from within the EU, according to my informal researches.
Here, too, the shadow of setbacks to 20th-century socialism hover. Wearing a “Born in the NHS” T-shirt produced by the Philosophy Football company, one medical assistant indicated her approval, but added that few countries had such a service now, “although we used to in my country”. This turned out to be Uzbekistan, and she was referring to the Soviet times she grew up in. “It was a good place to be young in – education and health all good.”
What went wrong? “Corruption and money, money, money.” Of course, she added, in those days, “There was no open gate” – there would have been no chance in the Soviet era that she would have been looking after me in Barts Hospital. I was glad she was here. She was regretful she could not still be in Samarkand.
At least NHS staff are covered for the greatest part by union organisation. The importance of this, to the new society championed by Labour, cannot be overstated. Following the TUC’s annual congress from my hospital bed, I was cheered by the speeches from Jeremy Corbyn and the inestimable Laura Pidcock, pledging a major extension of union and workers’ rights, and the overdue end to the Tory anti-union laws, the indulgence of which was New Labour’s greatest sin of omission. There couldn’t be anything more important for the next Labour government; from strength and security at work, so much else flows.
Plums from the Corbyn allotment have been speeding my recovery further. A hospital visit from Jeremy and his wife, Laura, attracts a lot of staff attention but no special treatment. As it shouldn’t.
This will be only the third Labour Party conference I’ve missed since my first in 1978, when old Labour was in office and the tensions of a political era coming to a close perspired from the walls of the Empress Ballroom in Blackpool’s Winter Gardens. More than 40 years on, a socialist government is once again in reach. I have tried to chart the long route from then to now in my new book, The Fall and Rise of the British Left. It is a story about how the neoliberal offensive – of which the Callaghan-Healey embrace of IMF-mandated austerity was the harbinger – broke the left, which had seemed so powerful then; and how a reconfigured movement for change has arisen as neoliberalism lost its mojo post-2008.
I was inspired to write, in part, by the failure of the entire political commentariat to see the 2017 general election result coming, with the huge popularity of Labour’s radical manifesto and the great advance in the party’s vote. These things are explicable if one considers the longer movement of political trends, and if one doesn’t lose oneself within the system one’s writing about.
My book launch has had to be postponed, but the conference will certainly be one of a risen left. Little being written by political pundits suggests that “Corbynism” is not a bubble about to burst any moment, but instead a deep-seated movement for egalitarian change that has found its expression in what was once the most neoliberalised social democratic party in the world. That is not to say it can’t be tripped up – writing off those ex-mining villages would be one way to do so. I can’t believe that will happen.
“The Fall and Rise of the British Left” is published by Verso
This article appears in the 06 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Out of control