Sunday review on Thursday: The Labour Movement in Westmorland by Dr David Clark, Lord Clark of Windermere

by Jonathan Todd

Emily Thornberry, who cut her teeth as a Labour parliamentary candidate on the challenging terrain of Canterbury, finds that her computer seeks to autocorrect the word “unwinnable” to “unsinkable”, which she considers apt. David Clark – the long serving MP for South Shields turned Lord of Windermere – has written a history of the Labour movement in Westmorland that supports this view.

“This was only a start”, said Reginald Burnett upon his defeat as the first person to contest the parliamentary seat of Westmorland for Labour in 1924, “but they were going on until they had made Westmorland a safe Labour seat”. Sadly, notwithstanding Burnett’s confused tenses, this has not come to pass.

The hills and lakes of Westmorland are epically beautiful but hardly the Big Meeting, Durham. Still, just as the beach is beneath the paving stones, so too some of Labour’s proudest and most evocative roots have been cultivated in the most unexpected of circumstances. Everything the movement has achieved in Westmorland has been achieved in the face of indifference or hostility, which makes these achievements all the more admirable.

The year after Burnett’s defeat Frank Parrott, a headmaster at a school in Westmorland, received an unexpected visit from “two well-dressed ladies in large hats”. They indicated that they had come to collect their subscription. As he was recently appointed and an “offcomer”, this was perplexing to Parrott, who enquired to what he was supposed to subscribe. When told “the Westmorland Conservative Association” Parrott demurred to offer his subscription or his support. He was rebuked: “But you must Mr Parrott, all headmasters in Westmorland subscribe to the Conservative Association”.

This gives some sense of the entrenched conservatism that has always confronted the Labour in Westmorland. But Parrott went on to be a long-standing Labour councillor. In so doing he was following a trail blazed by Rev Herbert V Mills, who had become the first Labour member of Westmorland County Council in 1892.

Around this time Mills also established a “colony” in Westmorland whose basic purpose was to show that it was possible to rehabilitate individuals who had fallen on difficult times by introducing them to work on the land. This venture received the endorsement of John Ruskin, an early socialist, pioneer of the arts and crafts movement and resident of nearby Coniston.

While Ruskin was a popular lecturer, even he would have been pushed to draw crowds in Windermere, Ambleside, Pooley Bridge, Glenridding, Milnthorpe, Arnside, Holme, Burn Banks, Shap, Appleby, Kirkby Thore and Temple Sowerby. But this is what Evelyn Short, Labour’s parliamentary candidate in 1935, achieved in the days leading up to the election. That many of these places are tiny settlements underscores the view of Parrott expressed in the 1970s that the 1930s were the best period for Labour in his experience in Westmorland. He remembered the 1935 election with particular fondness “when the wife of the Unitarian Minister named Short contested. She was an amazing candidate”. And remains the only female from any party to have ever contested Westmorland.

In the same year George Blamire was elected as a Kendal councillor and went on to serve for almost the next 30 years. George’s son Jim drove me around the constituency as our candidate in 2010, retracing the footsteps of Short, drawing much smaller crowds. Jim was such a diligent and popular councillor that he secured 87 per cent of the votes cast in a council election in 1999; an extraordinary level of support for a Labour candidate in Westmorland. Even though he was long retired as a councillor by 2010, Jim still retained a capacity for doorstep patter and persuasion when I campaigned with him.

Jim was amongst a group of activists whose tremendous warmth and support I will always be grateful for. Others included Maureen Colquhoun, who had been Britain’s first openly lesbian MP as the representative for Northampton North in the 1970s, and the author of this inspirational study, who, as he did last year in campaigning against the privatisation of our forests, has excelled himself.

I remember David driving me to a hustings at which Tim Farron deployed “yes we can” rhetoric to not so subtly compare Nick Clegg with Barack Obama. This was a very different time, of course, not long after the first televised leaders’ debate. In 2005 Farron became the first non-Conservative MP to hold Westmorland since 1910 and added almost twelve thousand votes to his majority in 2010. These achievements depended upon convincing Labour voters that only the Liberal Democrats could save them from Conservative representation.

Now, of course, Farron’s votes support a Tory-led government and the CLP in his constituency goes from strength to strength. A local branch of the Fabian Society was recently formed and Maurice Glasman has been amongst the speakers that it has attracted. Not even someone as well-read as Glasman can have appreciated prior to this study the richness of Labour’s history in Westmorland.

While Glasman may be one of the intellectual architects of the next Labour government, it will stand on the shoulders not only of Bevan, Bevin and Blair but Burnett, Blamire and generations of Labour activists in Westmorland who have stood up to be counted when it would have been easier to sit down with a pint of Hawkshead.

Jonathan Todd is Labour Uncut’s economic columnist and was Labour’s Parliamentary Candidate in Westmorland and Lonsdale in 2010

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One Response to “Sunday review on Thursday: The Labour Movement in Westmorland by Dr David Clark, Lord Clark of Windermere”

  1. swatantra says:

    And continually rejigging the boundaries doesn’t help much. Historical and geographical links are broken and the electorate haven’t a clue which constituency they are in and who their MP is these days.

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