Photo credit: Wipeout Dave
Sedgefield has always had a special place in the history of the Labour movement.
The constituency cuts into County Durham, the mining – and by extension – Labour heartland of the north east. Ex-mining village Trimdon isn’t far away, the village that hosted Tony Blair as he came back from representing Isr– creating peace – in the Middle East to endorse Labour’s election campaign in 2010. It was also central to the formation of the Durham Miners’ Association in 1869.
Just down the road is Beamish, a reconstructed Victorian colliery village/walk-in museum where we’d dress up as primary school-age mining urchins in dirty Grandad shirts, waistcoats and flat caps, get shouted at by some Victorian schoolmaster and gobble the best cinder toffee in the country.
My mate’s Dad even remembers Tony and Cherie Blair attending weekly church coffee mornings in Sedgefield in his mysterious, faintly bearded period between becoming MP and then prime minister. Come 1997 and he was no longer to be seen. Just another whispered myth of modern-day Labour up north.
Current Sedgefield MP, Phil Wilson (who took Blair’s seat in a bye-election after the PM’s resignation) has now made his putsch to restore the heart of the Labour Party – a parliamentarian, trade unionist and north-easterner from a constituency that’s become a symbol of New Labour’s uncomfortable reconciling of its past with its future. His pamphlet, All the pits have closed, demands reconciliation at last.
“Tony Blair was Sedgefield’s MP for twenty-four years,” Wilson begins. “Some will say this pamphlet has been influenced by him. Probably. Others will say he was influenced by Sedgefield. That’s probably true too.
“All I know is: I was there before he arrived in Sedgefield and I am still there after he has left. I’ve lived it – all of it.”
It’s a moving read through a childhood and adolescence horizoned by pits and smoke, railways and Davy lamps. Throughout Wilson is making the distinction between “My Labour” (his Labour life experiences) and “New Labour”. Still, for a lot of the electorate the gap between these two grows with every election.
This is exactly what Ed Miliband needs to address as leader to save Labour’s spirit, but ultimately – and more importantly – to save it at the polls. Wilson is careful not to discard New Labour, with the argument it won elections, suggesting the party needs to listen and respond to the electorate and deliver on aspiration.
Like Wilson says in All the pits have closed, unless you were around in County Durham before the Seventies and Eighties (the time when manufacturing went from a third of our GDP to around just 12% today), now you’d be none the wiser as to where the old collieries, pits and shafts were, and the extent to which they covered the region.
This is something silent documentary The Miners’ Hymns, screened at this year’s Sheffield Doc/Fest, shows. A helicopter’s view of one patch of today’s County Durham shows an old pit site now covered by an industrial-sized Asda: the modern non-unionised services sector of the “post-industrial” working-class. It’s like an invisible scar on the north east that less and less people know about, covered up with a quick-fix scar-tissue that less and less people know is only temporary.
The pits might have gone, but their disappearance has opened up new problems. The exploitation of the workforce, a hire-and-fire job culture, unemployment, terrible youth prospects across society, non-unionised job sectors: these are real Labour issues and they’re happening now. Never mind what we’re told about living in a “post-industrial” or “post-class” society, it is not true. Labour needs to give up its hang-ups and awkward silences about its recent past (enter John Prescott: “We’re all middle-class now!”) and present itself to the electorate as a broad, progressive and modern labour movement that can tackle the Tories. Because it can.