Taking the support of working-class northerners for granted is no longer an option for Labour, if it ever was, warns Jim McMahon
The working classes of the north of England are industrious and ambitious. We are deeply proud of our roots and of the honest graft of earning to provide a decent standard of life for our families. Nonetheless, we want the next generation to have better chances than we did. Hard work and determination are the hallmarks of our world. Built on community and a shared aspiration to get on in life, we live by unwritten rules of contribution, fair play and everyone doing their bit. There is little appetite for nonsense or excuses. Straight-talking, honest politics certainly is not new – up here, we have always called it as we see it.
Nevertheless, the world my grandparents grew up in now feels like a very different time.
Oldham once stood proud as the largest cotton-spinning town in the world, its 365 mills and 16 million spindles making it famous as the King of Cotton. After decades of steep decline, the last cotton mill closed in 1998.
There was Platt Brothers, employing 15,000 people. It graced the Werneth skyline as one of the largest engineering plants in Europe, at over 85 acres, making world-leading textile machinery. It was important to the town and to the world. Important enough to warrant a visit from George V and Queen Mary, a great source of pride for Oldhamers. The works still stand in part, but the giant that was Platt Brothers closed in 1982.
And Oldham was also home to the world-famous Lancaster Bomber which made its mark as the Dambusters flew to victory. At its peak in the 1970s, the factory in Chadderton employed 20,000 people in decent, well-paid jobs. If your dad or uncle worked there you had a decent chance of a good word being put in for you to begin working life there as an apprentice. Tears were shed in 2012 when BAE Systems closed the gates of the Greengate factory for the final time.
Why does any of this matter? The world moves on, so should industry and communities need to adapt. But you do not need to tell that to anyone in the home of the Industrial Revolution, nor anyone who has lived through the collapse of industry and engineering. They had no choice but to adapt. But they have done so in spite of their government turning its back.
During the last Labour government, we saw significant achievements, most notably investment in schools and healthcare. We were less successful at building decent social homes or creating a strong manufacturing and engineering sector which many working-class communities not only rely upon but are exceptionally good at.
Instead, as manufacturing declined, jobs were replaced one for one by growth in public sector employment. At the time that made sense – it helped deliver on our commitment to public services and provided good quality jobs which paid well, gave security and were a real source of pride.
So when the crash of 2008 came, it was not casino bankers who paid the price but the same communities which had been sold the story that manufacturing and engineering jobs leaving Britain would be to our benefit as we reformed ourselves for a modern service industry.
Now the same people were faced with a harsh reality – while they were not responsible for the crash, the burden would once again fall on their shoulders.
Thousands of public sector workers in my town have lost their jobs at the local council, in the police and fire services, in the courts and in many locally based branches of central government departments like Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the Department for Work and Pensions.
Successive governments have embraced globalisation at the cost of decent jobs in our heartlands. We have seen solid industry replaced with insecure, poorly paid jobs, and, to make matters worse, competition for those jobs is fierce.
When you have only known hard work driven by a desire to provide for your family, anything or anyone that threatens that will not be welcomed.
People have a right to ask ‘Who speaks for me?’ and ‘Who is working in my interests?’ That is not the consumerisation of politics: that is the basic contract of trust and representation we enter into in a democracy.
During the referendum campaign, we were rightly setting out the case for Britain in Europe, but there was little discussion about trade tariffs, the impact on the pound or even our place in the world. There was, however, plenty of talk about how ‘those lot down there’ were selling us out and letting China crush what industry we had left through the dumping of cheap, lower quality steel. People watched as the British government seemed indifferent to the scale of the problem, both in terms of the further loss of well-paid jobs and in terms of our becoming even less of a nation, not strong enough to stand up to China.
During the campaign local people wanted to know why we were unable to build our own power stations, instead relying on the French and Chinese, and why other countries can protect industry but we seem unable to. My response was simply to say: ‘It’s a choice made by our own government.’
Family came first and the best way people could show that was to vote to stop further change. When the United Kingdom Independence party spoke of ‘getting our country back’ it appealed because the certainty the past had provided was better than the uncertainty offered by an ever-changing future.
When I first came into elected politics, I had a good piece of advice which has stuck with me ever since; that in politics, perception is truth.
We might blame the lack of decent social housing on the government’s failure to plan for the long term, swallow its pride on borrowing and fund a significant housebuilding programme. But you cannot blame people for feeling concerned at new arrivals taking the few homes that are available.
We might blame the lack of employment protection and unscrupulous employers stripping away secure contracts which pay well in favour of a race to the bottom and zero-hours contracts. But you cannot blame people for believing that employers can only do that because new arrivals are willing to undercut them.
Empowering people, distributing power from the few to the many, should be a Labour idea, but we are not currently committed to it in any meaningful sense. There is no compelling vision for how we should govern Britain and it feels as though we are content to lurch from one constitutional crisis to another.
But this goes deeper than who governs whom. It speaks to identity and how people form a collective idea of who they are through culture, behaviours and traditions. When people are so uncertain about their future they will cling to the past because it provides comfort and, although it might not have been perfect, there was some kind of order, rules of fair play and contribution.
For many the rules of fair play are not judged solely on how those not playing by the rules are dealt with, but, more than that, whether the rules themselves are fair or not.
It is little wonder when you consider that in the past five years 530 people have served prison time for non-payment of council tax, yet not a single senior banker responsible for the 2008 financial crash has even appeared in court for the collapse of our banks.
In a fair society the rules are made for the greater good, not the privileged few. And those commonly accepted rules of fair play and decency are applied without fear or favour.
It barely matters if Ukip disappears post-Brexit because another group will replace it. When Labour fails to provide a vision for a better Britain where hard work pays and contribution and fair play are the cornerstones of our society and economy, then we leave the field wide open to others. It does not have to be that way. But taking the support of working-class northerners for granted is no longer an option for the Labour party, if it ever was.
Jim McMahon is member of parliament for Oldham West and Royton
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.