As the world looks again to the North East to understand the political earthquake of the general election, I would like to share a few thoughts, as candidate to be Tees Valley mayor next year, about how we begin to turn the tide back to Labour. We lost three Labour MPs to the Tory party in seats which just a few years ago we would never have dreamed could turn blue. But after the last lot of local elections in May where we lost all but one council and a Conservative win in the mayoral race in 2017, maybe the writing was on the wall.
Our history is steeped in heavy industry, steel-making, ship-building and, more recently, chemical production. I love this place and I am proud to call it home, but over the years we’ve seen industry declining,a transport system stuck in the dark ages, drug use, health inequalities, alcoholism and poverty rising and a failure by many governments to listen or even understand.
The outcome of this is a deep sense of powerlessness and a genuine identity crisis, particularly within our working-class communities and a sense of being ignored for too long by the political class.
It is against this backdrop that a message rooted in British national identity and taking back control became so powerful. It spoke deeply to the pain and lack of power that people feel here. To cling to an idea of a powerful nation makes you feel less powerless. To ‘BeLeave in Britain’, as the Brexit campaigners put it, is seductive, when you have little else to believe in. To have a strong sense of national identity when your local or personal identity is being shaken makes sense.
But it hasn’t seemed to make sense to a Labour party that that prides itself (rightly so) on its deep sense of internationalism, yet at times fails to understand the complexities of national identity. It doesn’t make sense to a movement that seems much more comfortable with hierarchies and top-down control than it does with genuine grassroots democracy. lt doesn’t make sense to a party where election results have been the only game in town.
What is happening here in Teesside has similarities with what’s been happening in Scotland since the independence referendum: somewhere along the line, we lost a genuine and deep relationship with our working-class communities. And now the Labour party looks increasingly out of touch with its core vote. So what do we do?
First, we must develop a shared sense of identity with our communities. We should look to embrace ideas of regionalism and localism. My campaign has a sense of strong regional pride. I offer a vision for a new Teesside – one that doesn’t cling to its past but bravely faces a new future. This new sense of identity and belonging seems to be working in places like Liverpool, which have not seen the Labour losses many other post-industrial areas of the North have.
Second, we must build power in our communities and workplaces. When the current Conservative mayor won in 2017, by around 1,000 votes one of the main contributors to his success was his promise to save our small local airport. It might not seem much to those elsewhere, but people felt proud of the airport and there was a huge campaign to save it. It gave the people campaigning a sense of power, of taking back control.
In places like the Tees Valley, community organisers are absolutely vital. We need to be campaigning with communities seven days a week, from bus services to school uniform prices and from the need for more play and community green spaces to climate change. The more we can be the party that offers a sense of power, the more people will connect to us once again.
My campaign has people-powered democracy at its heart. We are developing a people’s manifesto, not a policy book made by politicos in dark rooms, but a document bursting with ideas from people all across our community. We are also setting up various citizens’ assemblies, which will continue to hold politicians to account on the delivery of these ideas.
Third, we must offer visible hope in our communities. Once upon a time, the Labour movement set up social clubs and youth clubs, food banks and other public services. We then turned to securing the state delivery of many of these services, or we saw them led by civic society and charities. In so doing we lost our connection with those communities. My first staff member on this campaign is a community engagement worker. Her role is to mobilise the Labour movement within our communities, organising events and community campaigns, getting people trained up on community organising basics and setting up a citizens’ blog.
If we get active, get out and about, get busy representing hope and change, then we may just stand a chance of turning the tide.
Photo credit: Joel Felipe/Unsplash