As the dust begins to settle from last week’s election I have written an article for Byline Times on where politics should go after Labour’s defeat and Liberal Democrats failure to make a big impact. And also why Conservative victory is not as decisive as the Parliamentary arithmetic shows. You can read it here.
There are no deep coal mines in the UK. There are no coal miners. There are no brass bands attached to a living colliery and there no new union banners for new pits. And soon, under new environmental rules, the sale of domestic coal, except for smokeless fuel, may be banned.
So one would think that an event called the Durham Miners Gala would be consigned to our nostalgic past with a few old men having a pint down the local working men’s club.
But the facts contradict this. A new film released on Friday The Big Meeting by director and producer Daniel Draper two years after the last pit closed in the UK in 2016, shows the very opposite with a thriving modern festival in the City of Durham attracting over 200,000 people. It is a tribute to the almost eternal traditions of community, solidarity and fraternity that lives on long after the last mine closed.
It is warm almost affectionate appreciation of one of Labour’s major festivals seen partly through the eyes of a diverse group of individual participants, including a 19 year old Oxford undergraduate who runs a local left wing bookshop in her vacations; a Waspi group of middle aged women campaigning for their pensions and a woman who plays in a brass band.
The film itself interweaves the past and present with split screen and colour and black and white clips contrasts the old celebrations with the new. It has clips of Prime Ministers like Clement Atlee and Harold Wilson addressing the meeting from the balcony of the Durham County Hotel when the National Union of Mineworkers was a major force in the land to today’s political participants including a video from presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders in the States to Jeremy Corbyn, the current Labour leader.
It shows how the country has changed. One black and white sequence shows young lads and lassies (well before the contraceptive pill) cavorting in the fields and woods round Durham – as the festival was the place where young miners could meet people of the opposite sex. This is contrasted with today’s festival highlighting gay rights.
There is very raw emotional coverage of the music of brass bands – which, if anything, have expanded – with bands from places like Bristol which never had a pit to the US band players– participating with bands that have survived their pit closures. And there is in an interview with a woman who still makes these huge union colliery banners and is both reviving old lost ones and making new ones.
There is also clips of current pop artists who attend the event including Billy Bragg.
The climax of the festival is a service inside Durham Cathedral with the brass bands that have marched through the streets converging on the city’s huge place of worship.
This is the film that both tells the history of a 135 year old event and captures the spirit of it today.
As the director said: “I don’t think words can do justice to such an occasion – I feel like the Gala is a living and breathing organism, something not static, but immovable – a celebration of working-class life, not just today, but almost as if it takes place in the past and future simultaneously. I suppose this film is an elaborate explanation of something wonderful and beyond words.”
The BIG MEETING. On release from September 6 and shown first in South Shields, Newcastle, Glasgow, Durham and Halifax. It is produced by the independent Shut Out The Light company
Contributers: Jeremy Corbyn, Dennis Skinner, Ian Lavery, Richard Burgon, Angela Rayner, DBC Pierre, John Irvin, Paul Mason, Margaret Aspinall, Selina Todd, Robert Colls, Ross Forbes, George Robson, Heather Wood, Heather Ward, Stephen Guy, Charlotte Austin, Laura Daly, Lynn Gibson, Mike Jackson & Brett Haran (LGSM), Ben Sellers, Liam Young, Emma Shankland, Robert McManners, Jake Campbell-Morris.
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Chris Mullin, the former Labour minister and MP, last night told an audience of MPs and peers that he did not believe that the Establishment would seek to undermine a future Labour government led by ” saintly” Jeremy Corbyn .
His riposte came a month after Sir Richard Dearlove, the former head of MI6, expressed worries that Corbyn had not ditched his left wing views, had met people who were not friends of Britain and said he was worried about him becoming PM. The charge has been made also by Sajid Javid, the home secretary who describes Jeremy Corbyn as ” a threat to our national security.”
Chris Mullin was giving a talk as part of John Bercow’s Speaker’s Lectures series after the publication of his autobiography Hinterland, which describes his life as a war journalist. Mp and minister and a chair of the influential home affairs committee.
He is most famous for his novel written in 1982 ” A Very British Coup” which became a BBC TV series describing how a left wing Labour MP with strong views on disarmament and an ally of the trade unions wins a general election with a landslide victory only to be undermined by the security services, the Establishment and the Murdoch Empire.
Although written some 33 years before the sudden rise of Jeremy Corbyn the novel is now seen as prescient of events that did change the direction of the Labour Party. At the time it was written Tony Benn not Jeremy Corbyn was seen as the great danger.
But despite the novel’s gloomy prognosis Mr Mullin does not see this happening should Jeremy Corbyn win the next election.
” I think MI5 has been cleaned up in the last 30 years “, he said. He was not so certain about MI6 after the comments of Sir Richard Dearlove.
Mr Mullin himself was branded as part of the ” loony left ” by the right wing media particularly as he championed the cause of the six Birmingham bombers who were found guilty of blowing up two pubs killing 21 people and injuring 182 others but had their convictions quashed 16 years later. This was one of the greatest miscarriages of justice.
He disclosed that although he was on the left of the party he had not voted for him as party leader as he did not agree with all his policies. He described Jeremy as a ” saintly person” who has always stood by his beliefs.
He also had a surprise for his audience. He is a writing a sequel to A very British Coup which covers the current Brexit crisis. It is to be published on March 29 next year – the day Britain is due to leave the European Union.
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Beyond the media hype of the Brexit battle between Boris and Theresa May this year’s Conservative Party conference was a heart searching and navel gazing spectacle.
Clearly still rattled by the result of 2017 election where Theresa May lost them their overall majority – by far the biggest topic on the fringe was how can they woo back droves of people under 45 who have deserted them for Labour.
Unusually for a party in power there were strident calls to develop new policies to win back these lost voters. Usually parties in government can take the initiative as they have the reins of power and can produce plenty of fresh ideas.
But the Tories at this conference were behaving like a party in opposition – a huge navel gazing exercise in a desperate search for new policies. Tory MP Chris Skidmore, policy vice chairman of the party, virtually gave the game away at a reception for the Conservative Policy Forum – when he alluded to the great revival of ideas by Sir Keith Joseph, which propelled Margaret Thatcher into Downing Street. But that was the 1970s when the party had lost power after Edward Heath’s disastrous performance.
David Cameron also tried to soften the image of the party – again the new ideas came when the party was in opposition in 2008.
So what are they trying to do? One of the more illuminating debates came at the Centre for Policy Studies fringe with the intriguing title, Today’s Millenials, Tomorrow’s Conservatives?
Chaired by Times columnist, Rachel Sylvester,it was platform for two potential rising stars, Sam Gyimah, the universities minister and a late replacement, Guy Opperman, the pensions minister.
The two were remarkably honest about the dilemma. Sam Gyimah admitted they were used to 18-21 year olds being left wing radicals but not the 25 to 45 year old age group. whom would be in work and bringing up families.
He blamed the continual war within the Tory party over Brexit as putting off young voters.
Guy Opperman admitted that they would not win by negative campaigning against Corbyn ” We won’t win by portraying Corbyn as an insane antisemitic Hamas supporting, Cuba loving, terrorist” he said.
That message did not seem to have reached the Tory party platform where Sajid Javid , the home secretary, warned of the security risk of having Corbyn as Prime minister and May devoted part of her speech to denouncing Corbyn over antisemitism, supporting Russia, decrying Nato and appearing on Press TV.
What did they want. Well, without a real trace of irony, it was the need for momentum without the capital M.
Energy, drive, policies that were inclusive, equal pay for women, responsible capitalism, support for the NHS and more and more housing. In olden times, it would be called progressive conservatism. Guy Opperman as pensions minister, was asked by one member of the audience whether to remove parts of the triple lock on pensions to assuage the plight of the young. He was remarkably silent on this saying he did not want to make manifesto commitments at this time. Pressed afterwards he said he liked to get away from always talking about pensions.
But what was missing was any big idea on how to tackle the issues that Labour was pushing – the failure of private firms running the railways, over crowded classrooms, police and prison service in crisis,giving workers a bigger stake in private companies. They will have to offer real alternatives to wean voters away from Labour. Their only big point was that Corbyn hadn’t the money to do anything about it without ruinous taxation and borrowing.
It is all predicated on Britain entering the sunny uplands once we have left the EU and can plan for a post Brexit society. If Brexit turns into chaos it will further alienate that target age group.
Labour should not be complacent about the dilemma the Tories face. At the Conservative Policy Forum reception there was a strong rallying cry for people to set up constituency wide policy groups to try and draw up more attractive policies and to reach out to non Conservatives – I expect aimed at that 25-45 year age group – to participate.
Just before I left I had a word with George Freeman, Conservative MP for Mid Norfolk, one of the most active MPs seeking new Tory policies to appeal to the younger voter. Surprised to find that a hack had sneaked into the reception to hear about their plans, he jested I was only there for the drink. More seriously he asked:
” Why don’t you join the Conservative forum and help us devise new policies?”
I politely declined, made my excuses and left.
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The performance of UKIP in the polls has been pretty disastrous for some time now. But if the party dies this weekend which other party is going to benefit from its demise.
After losing their only MP at the general election the party performed very badly at local level and is continuing to do so. And ironically Britain’s departure from the European Union will destroy its biggest base which is in Brussels. So by 2019 when we leave it is possible that UKIP will have completely disappeared from the political scene. It is very much a case of don’t get what you wish for.
But the destruction of UKIP at the moment appears to be more of a problem for Labour than the Tories. It is a considerable dilemma for Jeremy Corbyn on how he handles Brexit and suggests he, as well as Theresa May, is caught between a rock and a hard place over this issue.
Younger Labour Party voters – particularly in London and the South – are very strongly pro Remain – welcoming the diverse nature of the UK and enjoying the reality of visa free travel across most of Europe.
But Labour voters outside this group – in the North, Midlands, East Anglia and parts of Kent- are pro Brexit. And furthermore the former UKIP voters are obviously keen for Britain to leave.
So for Labour to get back these working class voters it has to be seen to be both supporting Brexit and sympathising with Remain at the same time. It also means the party – which has had success particularly at the last election – has highlighted domestic issues like the NHS, education, transport, housing and student loans rather than Brexit.
Labour’s dilemma is shown up in a scattering of local council by-elections across the country this month. Of course one should not put too much score on local election results – because of low polls and because simply that they are local.
But one trend has emerged where UKIP had a previous strong showing.in local areas and either doesn’t stand or puts up a candidate who is trashed by the electorate.
What appears to be happening is that both Labour and the Tories are gaining votes – but the Tories are getting the lion’s share. This means that either Labour cannot win the seat or as in Bolton last night – they lose a seat to the Tories.
The results in Thanet in Kent – a former UKIP stronghold where they got control of the council – is a case in point. It has seen the Tory and Labour vote go up – but has allowed the Tories to retain their seats with a bigger majority. Roughly two in three former UKIP voters seem to have switched to the Tories compared with one in three supporting Labour.
In Bolton where on a nearly 30 per cent poll – the Tories took a seat off Labour – the result again showed both the Tories and Labour gaining votes – but the Tory share of the vote went up 16.7 per cent to take a seat in a safe Labour Parliamentary constituency. Again UKIP had polled very well in the ward in the past.
Similarly in Newport Pagnell, a council seat on Milton Keynes council where UKIP had got a big share of the vote last time – the Tory share jumped over 15 per cent – while Labour jumped just under 12 per cent. UKIP got nearly a quarter of the votes last time but didn’t stand.
These actual votes may explain the closeness in the polls between Labour and the Tories – the Tory vote is simply being buoyed up by former Kippers. It may also explain why William Hague, the former Tory leader, would like to see UKIP wound up as the best chance for the party to stay in power.
It is also quite clever of Boris Johnson to raise the issue that the NHS would get even more money after we leave the EU – it is aimed at those people keeping faith with Brexit believing the country will enter a Shangri La once we are out.
I personally don’t believe a word of it – but to my mind it does suggest to me that Labour should not take the next election for granted. They have to continue to work on these voters by offering a much fairer society. But it also leaves them with a very delicate balancing act over Brexit.
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There has been much debate about populist slogans from Brexiteers about Britain needing to take back control of the country from so called Brussels bureaucrats when we leave the European Union in 2019.
The very same MPs are remarkably silent about a decision taken seven years ago by the UK Parliament to set up an independent committee to take back control of how the government can present its legislation to Parliament.
Put it very simply we are supposed to live in a Parliamentary democracy but in fact MPs allow the government to monopolise and control Parliament through the Whips system without so much as a whisper of discontent.
The fact that nothing has been done was highlighted ( though you won’t have read in mainstream media) by John Bercow, the Speaker, in an address given in Parliament to the Hansard Society this week. You can read the full speech here.
In 2010 a committee chaired by Tony Wright, a Labour Mp who did a very good job scrutinising Whitehall on the public administration committee, proposed a series of reforms to allow MPs to take back control of the running of Parliament from the government. One reform giving backbenchers a greater role in debates got through. Another reform giving Mps much more control over government business was also approved – but guess what the government did nothing about it.
As John Bercow said in this extract from his speech:
” It is missing in action, confined to something akin to parliamentary purgatory. Nailed to its perch.”
He goes on in this longer extract:
” As a matter of basic democratic principle this will not do. The House decided to back the concept of a House Business Committee along the lines of the Wright Committee recommendations. One of three courses of action should follow. The House should have its decision implemented. Alternatively, it should be consulted on some other design for a House Business Committee. Or the House should determine in a vote that it has changed its mind on the issue. It should not be side lined in this fashion. It is quite wrong for there to be a vacuum. This is as inappropriate as, for example, legislating to hold a referendum on a major question of the day and then simply ignoring the outcome. The longer that this state of affairs persists the more profoundly unsatisfactory I believe it to be.
“The Wright formula, to remind enthusiasts in the room for such detail, was very balanced. It did not seek to defenestrate the Whips Offices. It recognised that the Government of the day had a right to have its business tabled. Elections would be rendered impotent affairs if this were not the case. Ministers are, therefore, in my view entitled to a majority but not a monopoly on a House Business Committee. The legitimate issue for the House as a whole is the balance of allocation of time across the various measures that constitute a legislative programme. The Wright Committee also underlined the importance of the Official Opposition – and other opposition parties – being given more say on scheduling their business, and envisaged, I am reliably informed, the House Business Committee as the forum for such discussions. I dare venture that some of the recent tensions over scheduling Opposition Days or more accurately not scheduling Opposition days, might have been avoided if there had been a House Business Committee to hand.
“Any such Committee should be chaired by an independent figure. Wright suggested the Senior Deputy Speaker. It should have a backbench component as well as representation from the smaller parties. It would also be desirable to link the chamber to the select committees perhaps via the presence of the Chair of the Liaison Committee. Finally, if not instantly but over time, it should include the direct election of the backbench members in the spirit of the various other reforms which Wright offered to the House more than eight years ago and which the House chose to adopt.”
Now you might say -particularly after this long extract – why should I be bothered about this arcane Parliamentary stuff? You should for two reasons.
First though she won the most votes Theresa May did not win enough Parliamentary seats to have a majority in Parliament but is ruling – because of the deal with the Democratic Unionist Party – as though she does using every statutory wheeze to try and stay in power for five years.
This measure will put Parliament as a whole in control as it will give greater bargaining power to Jeremy Corbyn, Vince Cable, the Scots Nats and the solitary Green MP – to influence how the government timetables its legislation and how Opposition Mps and backbenchers can get issues debated.
Second whatever your views on Brexit the government is planning to try and by-pass Parliament by using the Brexit bill to take power to change all sorts of laws and regulations by ministerial diktat – the ” so called Henry VIII clauses ” – named after the monarch who dissolved Britain’s monasteries – with little chance of debate.
These could be used to change rights for the disabled, curb worker’s rights to holidays , drop environment protections , cut benefit entitlement and amend health and safety protection, – like for example reducing safeguards on working with asbestos ( this has actually been suggested by one Tory).
This will affect you in your daily life and Parliament needs to defend itself by making sure that ministers can’t avoid being challenged by manipulating the Parliamentary timetable.
So what we need are some bolshie backbenchers of all parties to put up a motion to set up this committee. From what was said week they would get a fair wind from the Speaker.
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The Tory conference was supposed to be the point when Theresa May announced a raft of policies to challenge Jeremy Corbyn’s wooing of the youth vote.
If she had left the main platform of the conference and slipped into a packed Adam Smith Institute fringe meeting at the Manchester conference she would have been sorely disappointed.
The meeting chaired by a young Times journalist ,Grant Tucker, was meant to be a discussion on what the millennial generation want and how they can get young voters away from Jeremy Corbyn.
Predictably it was hostile to any Corbyn programme of rent control and nationalisation but what was extraordinary was the hostility to the May announcements earlier in the week.
The meeting was heavily dominated by the housing crisis facing the young Tories – almost to a man and woman – all privately renting and paying up to 50 per cent of their monthly post tax income for small rooms in shared flats.
The £10 billion put aside to massively expand the Help to Buy programme was universally condemned from both the platform, by Madsen Pirie from the Adam Smith Institute, and by the audience as exactly the wrong thing to do.
They saw it as putting up house prices even more beyond reach and doing nothing to aid the supply of affordable homes. Nor did they want a big council house building programme.
What they wanted was a liberalisation of the planning laws and a mass release of land to allow not a few thousands but a million, yes a million, homes built in three years to totally change the affordability of housing and bringing back mass home ownership.
Nor were they impressed with a £1.2 billion spent freezing student loans at £9250 and raising the pay back level to £25,000. What they wanted was instead the abolition of the new 6.1 per cent interest rate on loans, pointing out that this could add £5000 to payments soon after students graduated.
So how has May got this so very,very wrong. The answer was plain to see. The Tory leadership is not listening to them. What came over to me was that thus young strand of the Tory’s future had no influence on what their leaders did and were very frustrated and even angry about it.
Unlike at Labour where it is clear that young people – as members of the party had an input – these young people seemed to be treated as election fodder to get the mainly elderly Tory vote out.
There was other thing I noticed at this gathering.There was not a black or brown face to be seen, they were universally white, again unlike Labour. Yet they were not all from the Tory shires, some were from multiracial Bristol, and another from Camberwell and Peckham. Given what diverse place this is, I was surprised there was no ethnic minority representation. I had seen a more diverse audience at an earlier fringe organised by Westminster council.
What this augurs for the future of the Tory Party is not good for them. Their membership is already elderly and falling. If they don’t take any notice of their young membership they are doomed to oblivion – just as Tory campaigner John Strafford said earlier this week.