The below is a transcript of shadow levelling up secretary Lisa Nandy’s Orwell Memorial Lecture, delivered on 6 December
At a time when we appear to have lost sight of who we are and our place in the world, when we seem to have lost even any sense that real change is possible, I want to talk to you about the country ‘that lies beneath the surface’ and why it is time for that country to take charge of its own destiny. As we head into the hardest winter – with hope, trust and inspiration in short supply – it might be tempting to retreat and play it safe; simply to defend what is left after a decade of decay. But there are moments in history when the longed-for tidal wave of justice can rise up and a sea change is upon us. This is one.
In 1937 my town in Wigan – a town that stood at the centre of the world, powering the country through dangerous, difficult work in the pits – came to symbolise the case for change when George Orwell documented the grinding poverty and squalor that so many working-class families endured. A few years later, the working-class men that Orwell had come to so admire returned home from the devastation of war unwilling to accept those conditions any longer. And the Attlee Government responded by building more council houses than any other in British history and bringing public services into common ownership for the common good.
Nearly a century later we found ourselves at the centre of political debate once again. In a proud industrial town buffeted by waves of globalisation the smoke signals went up. Falling voter turnout, a dramatic rise in support for UKIP, the vote to leave the EU. The alarm bells had been sounding for a decade but the political system couldn’t or wouldn’t respond. In the 14 years since the economic crash we’ve taken all the wrong cues from those uprisings. Unable or unwilling to hear that roar, as George Eliot puts it, that lies on the other side of silence. Perhaps this is why as the storm clouds have gathered, nothing new has emerged.
Britain opened up to globalisation in 1997 in order to lead the world, not leave it. It gave us an open economy and influence in the world. And there were many winners. The decision to invest in “education, education, education” equipped so many young people with the skills and resilience to adapt and retrain, to grasp opportunities and to make their home in places that in turn reaped the benefits of this open, global Britain. But while those with knowledge, skills and assets thrived, others were left to count the cost. The places that were, as Tony Blair put it, “swift to adapt, slow to complain, open, willing and able to change” pulled further and further ahead while others were left to fall further behind.
As good jobs moved elsewhere, the base of the local economy crumbled. Young people who could, grasped the opportunities opened up to them and moved away to go to university, often for the first time in their family history, and to find better paid work. And with the loss of those jobs went spending power, taking with it the bus networks, thriving high streets, post offices and pubs – and the close-knit families – that make up the social fabric of the place. This began a political consensus that lasted for decades built on an economic model that drove investment into sectors and places that were already thriving in the belief that the benefits would trickle down and trickle out. The people who had powered the world became recipients of growth, not contributors. No longer deemed to have a contribution to make, they became the beneficiaries of redistribution.
When that redistribution ended under the Cameron government it fuelled a powerful backlash. The effect has been whole swathes of our country have been written off and written out of the national story. So now the Minister for Eastern Germany tells me: ‘we’ve taken two countries and turned them into one. You’ve taken one country and turned it into two’. In every part of the UK there are an army of people who are told their contribution simply doesn’t count. Orwell wrote of these different universes that people inhabited in the years ahead of the second world war. He could have been writing yesterday.
He writes of the miners laid off when there was no work, who went unpaid when machinery broke down, forced to pay out for daily lamp hire from their hard-won wages.When the great campaigning journalist Ros Wynne Jones came to Wigan nearly a century later she found the same story – about the care workers of modern Britain on zero hours contracts, denied payment for travel time and forced to buy their own PPE. But this time instead of telling their story for them, through the Road to Wigan Pier Project, she made sure they told it themselves.
Just as in 1945 we had to confront the reality that a country that writes off its own people cannot rise to the moment. A country that tries to move forwards by the few, for the few, will never succeed. It takes a nation. Britain is almost unique in trying to power a modern economy using only a handful of people in a handful of places in a few small parts of the country. And even the “winners” are losing.
Forcing more and more people into our major cities to find work and decent wages has left us with a housing crisis. A food crisis. An energy crisis. A mental health crisis. It’s created waves of political upheaval – the votes for leave and yes were people calling time on an economic model that had destroyed the things that mattered and a political system that didn’t respond. The result – 52/48 – left us with only a mandate for compromise. But our politics failed us again. In the angry debate that followed we found endless ways to divide ourselves from each other.
But the tighter we pulled, the tighter the knot was tied. And a house divided cannot stand.
As we turn to face new challenges – an energy revolution that will leave none of us untouched, a rapidly aging population that creates huge pressure on public services – we can no longer continue to write off the assets, talent and potential of most people and most parts of the country. It has left us completely unable to respond to this moment. That’s why I’ve come here today to say that we need a great rebalancing of power in Britain. A great national mission, that can include all our people in every part of Britain, not just some.
But to rebuild our country politicians have to live in it, understand it and respect it. To lead this country, you have to like it. The experience of too many people still now is to be routinely dismissed, patronised and insulted. Orwell was no stranger to this. He is controversial in Wigan for his characterisation of our way of life. His landlady Mrs Brooker is described as slovenly, lazy, unscrupulous and dirty – just as after the leave vote we were pilloried for being little Englanders, too stupid to understand the implications of leaving or too racist and xenophobic to care.
None of this is who we are. We are a proud industrial town that within living memory powered the world. A town shaped by waves of immigration from Ireland and Scotland that has always looked out to the world and looked out for our people at home.
Through the second world war, the tough years of the miners’ strike and a decade of austerity we have been unswervingly patriotic, pragmatic and principled.
My experience as a city-born MP in an industrial town a remain campaigner in a community that voted by 2:1 to leave and as the youngest MP elected to represent a constituency that has aged as young people have moved to major cities has convinced me that we can transcend these divisions in Britain if we seek to respect, like and understand all of the British people.
It is precisely because I have represented a town buffeted by globalisation, at the epicentre of waves of political upheaval, that I have been able to understand how badly change is needed. The last 12 years has changed me and changed my political outlook. Allowing me to drive and shape the debate that has followed. Like me Orwell was changed by the people he met in Wigan. He makes no secret of his admiration for the miners.
“Their lamp lit world down here,” he says, “is as necessary to the daylit world above as the root is to the flower.”
He came to see, as I have, that the people who drive our buses, deliver our mail, work in our shops, who care for our families, are the real wealth creators and the foundation of our economy. They were the people who sounded the alarm on an economic model that is broken and a political system that was incapable of responding – and they were right.
And while rentier capitalism has been allowed to run riot, a quiet patriotism has been at work in every community in our country spurring them on to build a country that works. It is curious to me that there are those on the left who dismiss and belittle this quiet patriotism. Believing in years past that it was acceptable to wave the flags of so many countries bar our own.
When I look at the battle raging in a divided Tory Party right now, a bitter turf war to pit the so-called red wall against the so-called blue it reminds me there is no future for political parties that become so consumed by their own identity that they lose sight the country in front of them.
“One cannot see the modern world as it is unless one recognises the overwhelming strength of patriotism, national loyalty” Orwell writes. “In certain circumstances it can break down at certain levels of civilisation it does not exist, but as a positive force there is nothing to set beside it.” That sense of being part of something bigger than you are, the belief that you have not just a right but a duty to contribute, is Britain’s great untapped asset. That by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone.
So when love of family, community and country spurs people on to build, create and invest – whether it’s the NHS workers celebrated by Danny Boyle, the young England footballers championed by Gareth Southgate or the ordinary, extraordinary people quietly rebuilding our communities – we should celebrate it and support them.
In the Road to Wigan Pier Orwell recounts the story of a man he has just met, a miner, half blinded in “this most useful of professions” he is forced to brave the wind and cold daily to draw his pension. He has no ability, says Orwell, to demand the pension which is his right. “A thousand influences press a working-class man into a passive role. He does not act he is acted upon. He feels himself the slave of a mysterious authority and has a firm conviction that they will never allow them to do this that and the other.”
Almost a century later, on the day of the referendum, I heard those exact words from an elderly man in Wigan town centre. “It doesn’t matter what we vote for” he told me “because they’ll never allow it.” I argued with him that day. Three years later as we went round in circles trying to overturn the result, I realised he was right.
Through all of this runs a system that strips people of their agency and the contribution they have to make. This is a paternalism that has run right through modern politics, summed up for me in 2019 when the choice was between a Conservative leader promising to “deliver on the priorities of the British people” and a Labour leader promising to “transform society on behalf of the British people”.
This is the gulf between the people and the political class that Orwell came to rail against. To lead this country you have to believe in its people and see the contribution we make. We don’t want to be passive recipients of economic growth. We want to contribute to it and share in the country’s success. Contribution not redistribution. This was Orwell’s journey. It must be ours.
That is why we should tilt the balance of power back to people so that the country that is only just beneath the surface can take charge of its destiny. So we can harness that quiet patriotism – that great force out in the country and turn it to the common good.
Labour was forged out of the traditions of mutual self-help that led to the creation of cooperative societies, burial societies and the trade unions. We’ve lost something of this in recent decades. We should remember it again. So that we can smash up a century of centralisation because rebuilding the national economy begins with the local. So we can hand back power to communities to take decisions in their own neighbourhood, and to councils and mayors through real powers over housing, transport, skills. So they can build thriving local economies and vibrant places, for all not just some.
Too often these are the people who have to fight the system to achieve meaningful change when they should feel the whole system pulling in behind them. Only by trusting communities and giving people the opportunity to contribute will we be able to rise to the challenge of national renewal, restore trust in our political institutions and rebuild bridges across our divided nation. None of the challenges we face can be solved from the centre. It will take a nation, drawing on all our assets. Every place must be able to make a contribution again to our national prosperity.
This is the core of my political beliefs. And it is why, in one of the most centralised countries in the world, in which the contribution of most people has been written off and written out of our national story, we will push power outwards and put power back in the hands of the people who are already rebuilding Britain the only way we can – together.
There are as Harry Pitts says “those on left and right who luxuriate in the flames licking at the sides of liberal democracy”. They know that a representative democracy that fails to give representation cannot survive.
Only yesterday as we gathered in Leeds to set out the driving mission of a Labour Government, to affect the biggest transfer of power, wealth and opportunity out of Westminster in British history, some journalists suggested that this is a world away from what people care about. They couldn’t be more wrong. Because I have learnt that those with a stake in the outcome and skin in the game, work harder, try longer, think more creatively and do more because they can do no other. And it is only by tilting the balance of power back in their favour that we will once again build a country that works.
Writing during the Blitz with the fate of the country in the balance Orwell said “nothing ever stands still. We must add to our heritage or lose it, we must grow greater or grow less, we must go forward or backward.” In these stormy times when so much is broken and nothing is certain, we will rise to this moment and carry the torch forwards and we will do it the only way we can – together.