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  1. Politics
26 May 2021

When red walls come tumbling down

Why “take back control” was on people’s minds long before Dominic Cummings.

By Robert Colls

I once heard a clergyman preach against walls. Halfway through, he got the kids to build a wall of polystyrene bricks right across his nave and then to climb up and look over to see (lo, on a sudden!) that we on our side were exactly the same as them on their side. He did this, I may say, standing in front of the heaviest, the reddest, thickest, medieval-est sandstone walls you’ve ever seen. On my way out, I asked him if he locked his cathedral door at night.

The sermon was about “human dignity” and I remembered it recently when Jon Cruddas launched his new book, The Dignity of Labour. Cruddas, the MP for Dagenham and Rainham, thinks it might save the Labour Party from oblivion or (same thing) from giving up its working-class credentials. Unfortunately, although it is timely, the book doesn’t speak of anything anyone in Dagenham might talk about. In search of the higher mysteries of the Marxist labour theory of value, Cruddas spends half the book looking for something that doesn’t really exist. The value of labour, and the historic dignity that underpinned it, is not going to be found in a “labour process” or any other economic abstraction.

Cruddas is a hard-working MP, but after Blair and following Corbyn he went back to his books. Calling for “a conversation” (always a bad sign) about Labour’s future, he wants to know what we do in an AI world without work or, more to the point, what we do with an economic system that degrades workers. He calls for more thinking about “Good Work” and ways of promoting it, and he wants the party to think again about industrial relations along the “pluralist” lines pioneered by the “Oxford School” in the 1960s. Fair enough, but I lost interest once we got into how “the historical progress of the material productive forces conditioned the actual social relations of production, and not the other way around”.


I’m looking now at an old family photograph that shows men sitting on beer crates in South Shields marketplace one fine Saturday morning in 1948. They are all well-dressed and ready to get on the bus for a day at the races. Over the way is the Tyne Dock Engineering Company, locally known as the Market Dock, where they work.

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These men, whose labour value was of the most direct kind, drilled holes in steel plate and were paid, like the other shipbuilding trades, by the piece, in their case by the depth and diameter of the holes they ground and reamed and tapped and threaded in and out of a ship. For the SS Fauvette, for instance, on 21 August 1955, they billed the company £84, 1s and 11p for 318 hours of tapping bolts and punching rivets. Jobs came in all sorts and sizes – from keel and hopper-side to tank top, punch-out, up-over and sink – and by controlling entry into the trade, they were able to bargain these jobs and thousands more. In other words, they built a wall. No wall, no drilling; no drilling, no rivets; no rivets, no ship. Some of the older (moustachioed) men at the back are retired but still see themselves as “tradesmen” and can remember when drilling was by hand. Some of the younger (clean-shaven) men, my father included, have served their time and shown their worth not only to themselves but to the squad. Only grafters made good money.

Let’s step back and catch the moment. Labour is in power and has just embarked on two huge wall-building projects – National Insurance and a National Health Service. On the outskirts of town, the local state was building thousands of homes with gardens front and back. Then as now there was a housing crisis. Soon, Shields would be ringed with “council estates” of high-quality, low-rent, new-build houses. People used to walk up there on Sunday mornings to be dazzled by the three bedrooms, hot water, white tiles and modern kitchens. We lived in a flat with a tap in the yard, but it was only a ten-minute walk from the river and part of an established community that knew how to support itself.

[see also: The rise of the new Toryism]

In my drawer I have the gold medal of the Amalgamated Society of Boilermakers and Shipwrights presented to my grandfather Brother George in 1971. There would be no gold medal for my grandmother from a Female Society of Menders and Moulders, but mending and moulding is what Sister Doris did, turning wages into nourishment. That the streets were safe was largely down to the women. “Community”, a word they never used, captures something they made anyway. Many women did waged work too, at Jackson the Tailors and Vidor Batteries, and all sorts of serving and skivvying, but a life of labour that was much less organised and therefore much less valuable than the men’s wasn’t honoured as much. As Linda Colley argues in her 1992 book Britons, Britishness was as much a material benefit as a political relationship. The men in the photograph and the women at home (whom we might assume weren’t sitting on beer crates), had reason to believe, as they did believe, that this was the best country in the world.

Even so, not everything was resolved. Bosses were always on the lookout to break union walls and unions were always on the lookout to repair them. Most powerful here was a culture of association – all those unions and societies, amalgamations and confederations, equitables and mutuals that bound labour together to do the things it wanted to do in ways it wanted to do them. Take the Cooperative Wholesale Society (CWS), one of the biggest retail organisations in the world, chaired by a man who lived in a terraced house in Rochdale. Or take the friendly societies – by far the biggest working-class organisation, with millions of members and a growing influence in government circles. Maurice Glasman describes this growing culture as making “a home in the world”; in 1894 a Royal Commission on “Labour” was set up to see where it was all heading. The first day was spent interviewing the Durham Miners’ Association (DMA). Slowly, the commissioners learned that if the mining village with its dense networks of common life was by no means a communist paradise, it certainly wasn’t a capitalist hellhole either. Ragged-trousered philanthropists? Ragged-trousered associationalists more like it.


Political labour was only a sprat at this time, but best of all from the point of view of the Labour Party – founded in 1900 – was the movement’s increasingly positive relationship with the British state. Successive Liberal governments after 1906 confirmed legal immunities and protections for working-class associations, introduced old age pensions, and inaugurated an early version of national insurance for workers in volatile labour markets (such as shipbuilding). Inside their own inner walls of trade and community, and the state’s outer walls of national sovereignty, and insurance, you were at liberty to be as political or non-political as you wished. Not everyone had to be a Cooperator in order to cooperate. You simply had to join and follow the rules. Chairman Mitchell (who was a Liberal) told his critics that as an organisation capable of producing and consuming its own value, the CWS intended to eat its way into capitalism. When the DMA decided to dignify its labour with a gala day, it decided to have it in Durham, capital city of bishops and coal masters. Here they marched and the banners said it all. When the union decided to build a headquarters, it built it here, high on a hill.


In 1878, just down the coast, William Gray & Co of West Hartlepool launched more ships than any other yard in the country. Its last ship hit the slipway in 1961. Now that Hartlepool has gone, it is perhaps worth bearing in mind all the other labour landmarks that have gone with it. Deindustrialisation might be said to have begun with the entry of China into the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 2001. In fact, it began long before that, with what Jim Tomlinson in the Economic History Review calls “declinism” – a gathering but largely unsubstantiated belief from the 1960s that our decline as an industrial nation was inevitable. Never very keen on trade unions anyway, the Tories set about tearing down the walls. First came the railwaymen, steelworkers, shipbuilders and miners. Arthur Scargill was wrong on many things but he was right on this. Once the walls were down and capital started to move, and immigration started to rise inexplicably, and inexorably, there was no controlling the labour market. Everybody knows about cheap labour and the “shit jobs” that go with it, but if you want to know more about working for Uber and Amazon, try Ken Loach’s film Sorry We Missed You or James Bloodworth’s book Hired. “Take back control” was on people’s minds long before Dominic Cummings.

It’s true that Labour always had its bourgeois socialists, but Westminster kept in touch with working-class Britain by its thick, organic cords of connection with the trade unions. MPs understood that not everything, not even contracts, can be contracted for. There has to be trust, and trust is nothing without a history. So, when the cords began to rot and New Labour defined itself as free of all that history, in the race for globalisation, everything that was once seen as normal – countries roughly defined by borders, states roughly congruent with nations, a general belief in security as well as liberty, and so on – was not only put to one side but redefined as “discourses” of the right, not the left.

[see also: The collapse of Labour’s Red Wall owes more to age than class]

In this reverse world, the revolutionaries were now the global elites, and the reactionaries – those who wanted to save their communities – were cast as “populists”. As John Gray observed in this magazine: “The possibility that movements derided as populist might be responses to the ideological excesses of centrist governments like [his] own did not occur to him.” The “him” was David Cameron, but for centrist revolutionary Comrade Dave, read centrist revolutionary Comrade Tony, or Ed, or Keir, Yvette or Chuka.

Respect for country remains the big idea, way beyond party. These Labour tribunes of the people still don’t quite understand how their attempts to derail Brexit were seen by those who take a more direct view of such things. They won’t be easily forgiven by former Labour voters tired of being told that Brexit was never “in or out” when they know it was, that free movement of labour is good for them when they know it isn’t. There’s more to representation than this of course. They resent being told that the country is “systemically racist” and they know that Churchill wasn’t a Nazi. On the contrary.  “Something is deeply wrong [inside the Labour Party] and the public senses it,” writes the editor of this journal. And he should know.


What can Labour do to save itself? The short answer is probably nothing, but the clue is in the name. Entitlement to political liberty goes deep in this country, but so does the sense of belonging that stems from security at  work and in the community. Liberty and belonging are not opposites. They work together.

Insecurity at work or in housing hasn’t gone away since 1900, or 1948. If anything, we are in a new and bigger wave. There’s plenty that could appeal equally to web designers and freelance TV producers as delivery drivers and care assistants, but first hope comes from an unexpected quarter. Hillary Clinton, arch-neoliberal, recently told Chatham House that we needed “to rebuild our own supply chains even if that requires us a certain level of subsidised industrial productivity”. Chew on that, globalisers.

Second, Labour has to promise to take up wall-building again, and a good place to start would be to reduce working-class anxiety about care in old age at one end of the spectrum, and immigration at the other. Third, it has to promise to raise the value of labour as against land and capital. This is where Cruddas comes in. Local authorities used to build houses. Let them do it again in alliance with the housing associations. Fourth, it has to promise to raise the dignity of labour by German-style vocational training. Fifth, it needs to talk about strategies for specific places. Here, the so-called “Preston model”, a municipal form of economic wall-building that keeps turnover in, and extraction out, stands as a valuable experiment in the new mutuality. Sixth, there has to be an enormous signal that this is not just talk. Moving ministries north is a great idea. Why didn’t we think of it? 

Seventh, Labour has to show it believes in the people by finding effective ways of inviting them back into the public square. Street-level policing would be an interesting place to begin. Eighth, Labour has to do what it did not have to do in 1945: offer a compelling story of national achievement that finds plenty of room for ethnic minorities and (shock horror) even Tories, who, I’m reliably informed, are people who lived here too.

Scotland is another matter. Scottish Labour needs someone with the charisma of Charles Stewart Parnell and the salt wit of the Proclaimers. Apply within.

We live in shaky times. Labour has been wrong-footed by a Tory party quicker to sense the direction of travel. What can Labour say against big-state, big-tax Toryism? Bigger state and bigger taxes? And as Johnson pushes back against woke, is Labour with or against him? “With” is tricky. “Against” will be fatal. The marriage between left-utopians and labour-realists is breaking down. They have stayed together for the electorate, but now that the electorate is leaving home, separation looks possible. If it has to happen, let it. 

Robert Colls is the author of “This Sporting Life: Sport and Liberty in England, 1760-1960”

[see also: In Blair-world, tech is the bright new progressive cause. But he ignores the real reasons for change]

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This article appears in the 26 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The new Toryism