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  1. Labour leadership race
3 February 2020updated 04 Sep 2021 3:51pm

How Labour is being held back by its fixation on the problems of the 1980s

A recent spat over Tory MPs attending the Durham Miners’ Gala highlights Labour’s outdated image of the working class.

By will Cooling

There’s a scene in Two and a Half Men where Charlie Sheen’s character has finally begun to feel his age after a bad break-up and a health scare. His younger brother manages to make him feel young again by taking him to a seniors disco.  Lately I’ve taken a similar solace in the Labour Party.

Despite having been following politics for decades, even I was out of step with the Eighties nostalgia that infused both Labour’s general election campaign and the opening salvos of the party’s subsequent leadership contest, as shown in the videos produced by both the departing leadership and the likely leader to come.

Both were inspired by the titanic clash between Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government and the National Union of Mineworkers. A 48-second advert released with less than a week left of the general election campaign used Thatcher’s infamous “enemy within” speech to buttress a narrative that the Tories are fundamentally opposed to working people. A month later, a former miner narrated the first minute of Keir Starmer’s leadership campaign launch video, explaining how as a lawyer Starmer supported him and other trade unions during the Eighties and early Nineties.

That it’s old-fashioned to place such an emphasis on a dispute that ended nearly 35 years ago can be seen in the recent argument over whether Tory MPs should attend the Durham Miners’ Gala. Its organiser, Alan Mardghum, told the BBC that if County Durham’s new Tory MPs ignored his wishes that they not attend, they should arrange for police protection at the event. Much has been made about the intimidatory nature of his comments, but the responses from the MPs are more telling. In short, they laughed at Mardghum, reminding him that the Tories now hold more of County Durham’s seats than Labour and boldly promising to see him at the event. It’s a far cry from when Thatcher had to mobilise the nation’s police and army to defeat the NUM.

Rather than being indignant at the Tories wanting to crash their party, the Labour movement should think about why they want to be part of it. In other Western democracies, mining areas have become a conservative or far-right stronghold as a dying industry aligns with plutocrats or racists to beat back environmentalists.

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Not for nothing could a Tory MP boast that he represented more working miners than any other MP. That isn’t a sign of false consciousness on behalf of the voters, as if Labour means what it says about a Green New Deal then what little mining industry Britain has left won’t survive the next Labour government. Indeed, it barely survived the last one, thanks to new Labour promoting greater use of natural gas in electricity-generation as it tried to meet its Kyoto targets for cutting carbon emissions.   

It’s the Labour Party that is suffering from false consciousness if it thinks that it can demand Britain is carbon-neutral by 2030 while also bemoaning the closure of coal mines nearly 40 years ago. It’s apt that Ed Miliband was the Labour leader who ended the 23-year hiatus in attending the Durham Miners’ Gala; rather than highlighting work towards decarbonisation as the energy and climate change secretary, he mimed re-embracing an industry that helps to burn the planet, solely to differentiate himself from new Labour. But neither he nor any other leading Labour figure has developed better ideas to support today’s working class than were implemented by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, ie using legislation to improve minimum standards for all workers regardless of union status in areas such as pay, leave and dismissal.

These achievements are too often ignored by a labour movement whose default is to talk about the decline of traditional industries when asked about the problems being faced by working people – when they should be talking about the lack of strong unions in the ever-growing services sector. Across the world we are seeing workers in personal service, hospitality and catering fight for better pay and working conditions. Their success is the best chance the left has of rebuilding the industrial power that the right managed to diminish in the Eighties and Nineties and of securing well-paid and rewarding jobs for non-graduates.

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Rather than grapple with how it can overcome its longstanding inability to empower workers outside heavy industry or the public sector, the labour movement would rather see veterans spin warm stories from its defeats in the 1980s whilst youthful pretenders promise success using the same tactics. But ultimately reality catches up with us all at some point. After all, even Charlie Sheen had to ultimately admit he wasn’t actually winning.

Will Cooling is the co-host of the political podcast It Could Be Said