In a series of posts, Uncut writers look at the constituencies featured in Labour’s Identity Crisis, England and the Politics of Patriotism. Here, Jonathan Todd gives his perspective on Copeland.
“Under leaden skies and beneath the ground a culture of solidarity, independence, community self-reliance and ambition was forged,” writes Jamie Reed of his constituency, Copeland, where I grew up.
Whitehaven, the town where I was born, Reed notes, “was north west England’s most important centre of early Methodism as John Wesley used the town as the starting point for his travels to Ireland and the Isle of Man.” While Whitehaven is a rugby league town, I was more football than rugby league as a child, watching matches both at Holker Street, home of Barrow AFC, a non-league club since the 1970s, and Brunton Park, Carlisle United’s ground, a lower league club for much of its history.
Nowhere does Labour more need to listen and change, according to Reed, than, “in our rugby league towns and lower league football cities, in the places most people have heard of, but never been to.” In places, in other words, like Whitehaven, Barrow and Carlisle.
“Daily life looks and feels very different in our de-industrialised towns, struggling rural villages and smaller cities and these communities are now engulfed in a quiet crisis – not just in the north of England, but in every part of our country.”
We picketed a County Council meeting when I was at primary school to keep the school open. While tiny, the school remains. Two pubs, two banks, and two petrol stations have departed the village or thereabouts in the intervening period. “These jobs are going boys and they ain’t coming back,” as Springsteen sings in My Hometown.
In the sense that the primary school was threatened 30 years ago, we might react to Reed’s ‘quiet crisis’ by asking, if localities are perennially threatened, is it a new crisis so much as an ongoing, inevitable way of life in an ever more urban country?
Equally, the closed pubs, boarded up banks, and rusting petrol stations have more of a sense of ‘quiet crisis’ about them. When set in longer history, this feeling deepens. The shrivelling of amenities over my lifetime is a fraction of that witnessed by my grandmother, who was born and lived over 80 years in the same village.
Perhaps if the drip-drip of decline persists for long enough, something snaps; the ‘quiet crisis’, finally, gives way to a howl. In the towns that Springsteen sings about, they are voting for Donald Trump. “Make America Great Again!” Like we used to be, says the subtext of his snake oil campaign.
“Ultimately,” claims Reed, “the politics of gimmickry and easy answers are bound to fail.” Presumably, therefore, he is not anticipating a President Trump. The guttural roar that Trump has inspired, from the underbelly of the American dream, seems too visceral for me to be entirely relaxed about where it is heading. America’s ‘quiet crisis’ is dicing with deafening implications across the globe.
Like Trump, UKIP trade on perceptions that we are not what we were. Immigration is a touchstone issue for both Trump and UKIP. Perhaps at least as much as a signifier that social decay is among us as fear of the other or racism.
It remains to be seen whether UKIP can feast on the ‘quiet crisis’ as fulsomely as Trump has. Nigel Farage, beaten and bruised in Thanet South, does not stride as confidently as he did. Alex Salmond had, though, many ups and downs in securing the SNP’s dominant position in their Kulturkampf against Scottish Labour. Farage may yet astride “our rugby league towns and lower league football cities”.
Certainly, the ‘quiet crisis’ needs some anti-Labour vehicle if it is to smash through Labour citadels as the SNP have further north. It would be dangerously complacent if Labour were to look at the inadequacies of UKIP and dismiss the possibility of the ‘quite crisis’ extracting a political price from our party.
We might take a lesson from how Ruth Davidson, Scottish Conservative party leader, has responded to the SNP. Davidson is comfortable in her own skin. Defiantly of her party but in no way constrained by it. She embodies a contemporary Scottishness and Conservatism.
Davidson was not hewn from CCHQ. Labour’s answer to the ‘quiet crisis’ won’t come from Westminster either. If it is to come, it will come from places like Whitehaven, Barrow and Carlisle themselves. Walking their walk, talking their talk, seeing the world as they do, and casting a beacon on a better tomorrow at the same time. From local leaders that are as Labour as Davidson is Conservative, while also being as unhobbled by party affiliation and easily authentic – a real person from a real place – as Davidson.
A new culture of solidarity, independence, community self-reliance and ambition won’t be found in the towns and villages that animate Reed by the “London-centric Labour Party” that he derides. But it just might be by a new generation of Labour leaders in these communities, living out these values.
Jonathan Todd is Deputy Editor of Labour Uncut