The spectators of poverty

John Mann MP

Early on a cold morning this April, hundreds of my constituents gathered to see the demolition of Harworth pit tower. The pit was opened in 1913 and since 1989 the tower, overlooking the A1, had been a local landmark telling people: ‘You are home’. Explosives were set off and a remote-controlled machine was sent in to demolish the remaining foundations, but the tower did not fall. It was only 24 hours later that it could be brought down.

A few weeks earlier, Hillary Clinton had told a town hall in Ohio: “We’re going to put a lot of coalminers and coal companies out of business, right?” In 2012 Barack Obama won Ohio by three percentage points. Trump used Clinton’s coal comments and took the state and its 18 electoral votes by nine points.

A Hillary Clinton presidency would almost certainly have done more for coalfield communities than Trump’s will. She had a $30 billion pledge to bring in better broadband, infrastructure and green jobs – exactly the sort of projects I constantly harangue the government here for. Her careless comments, however, struck a very real nerve: that there is a sneering elite dictating policies and a way of life that bear little relation to the communities they affect.

The land on which Harworth pit tower once stood will be used for business space and 1,700 new homes. We are in need of both. But whilst coal is no longer mined and the tower is gone, people still feel that they live in the coalfields. It is common on the left to assume that people who live in these areas, be it in Bassetlaw or an Ohio coal town, feel that a left-wing London, New York or Washington politician knows any more about their lives and the challenges they face than someone on ‘the right.’

This is the fundamental weakness of the Labour party that requires attention. So much of our party leadership experience life solely in London. The capital is different and is seen to be different by the rest of the country.

This is not simply a swipe at the current leadership. It is largely true of them, but it was also true of Miliband and of Blair. It is also not to say that poverty is confined to the coalfield communities – of course there are high levels of deprivation in Hackney and Islington. The deprived of Hackney and Islington are, however, less represented in the party and its membership than their better-off neighbours.

My constituency is the size of Greater London. There are more restaurants within two minutes of the London room I rent than there are in the whole of Bassetlaw. More bookshops. More delicatessens. More swimming pools within 10 minutes than within an hour in Bassetlaw. There are as many cafes on Lower Marsh in Waterloo as there are in any one of the towns I represent. And more clothing shops. And market stalls.

I can get to half a dozen accident and emergency departments by public transport in London as quickly as I can to the one, threatened with closure, by ambulance in Bassetlaw. Our choice of secondary schools: three, maximum four. Cinemas – well, we have one. Theatres? Islington has received more arts funding since the inception of the National Lottery than have the entire former coalfields in England, Scotland and Wales.

When, as a candidate for the Labour leadership, Owen Smith pledged that under him Labour would vote against article 50 unless there was a second referendum or a general election, it went down rather badly amongst my constituents. They heard the same overtones as Ohio voters heard from Clinton: we know better than you. You are too stupid to understand.

The only reason that the EU result was a shock to Westminster was because few MPs actually knocked on doors during the referendum. I did, but I also carry out regular online surveys. That is how I know, for example, that even among those in my area who voted to stay in the EU, most people want stricter controls on immigration. That is also how I knew we were headed for Brexit, which I predicted to within half a percentage point.

In reality, most people have zero interest in the various factions of the Labour party. They do, however, pick up on signs that they are being ignored; that their concerns, priorities and views are regarded with unease or contempt by the powers that be. They can see the retreat to the safety of the party’s own echo chamber. Far too many people in the Labour party benefit economically from the policies of a Conservative government. They are the spectators of poverty. Labour’s language, across its political divides, is about our policies to help you, rather than our mission to empower you. This disconnect with the working class is the biggest challenge we face and it is not being addressed. In reality, too many people in the party are disdainful of working-class voters and afraid to listen to them because they are unnerved by what they will hear.

The lesson from the US is that somebody always wins an election. If you close your ears, spectating from the sidelines will not be enough.

Image: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

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This article originally appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of the Fabian Review.