I’ll let you into a guilty secret: I’m a sucker for brass bands. As a Yorkshireman who grew up about thirty miles from Durham, and a Labour activist with half my family from South Wales, I am still stirred by the solidarity thing. I probably have as good a nerdy appreciation of the last hundred years of Labour history, of Keir Hardie, Bevan and Bevin as the next member. I have even been known to shed a tear at party conference (I kid you not).
And I heartily agree with Mark Ferguson that Westminster has a real job understanding the North, and it needs to get out more (he’s also right about the closing of the regional development board One North East which, incidentally, I wrote to the Northern Echo about in 2009). These things are important.
My own biggest worry about Ed Miliband attending the Durham Miners’ Gala was a simple one: that, especially in the wake of the GMB-Unison-Aslef-Progress row, it would end up being a similar media car-crash as had been his appearance at the 26th March demo last year. It wasn’t.
Thanks to good organisation (barring the bizarre decision to put him speaking directly after Mark Serwotka, the Respect-supporting leader of the union PCS – someone tell me who thought that was a good idea?), a complete absence of idiots bent on violence, an accommodating crowd despite their ninety-minute wait, an uncontroversial message and union leaders on good behaviour, it was by all accounts a harmonious occasion. Above all, the idiocy of Sayeeda Warsi in trotting out a breathless, tedious response along the lines of “blah blah Red Ed blah blah militant blah blah union paymasters blah blah” ensured the opposite: that the media story was really of how this was no big deal and that things had changed since the old days. Good.
In truth, in the absence of a row, the media seemed only mildly interested. The reaction of the commentariat could probably be summed up thus: “In a historic first, we had Ed speak to the rest of the Labour movement, rather than the public, and there was no blood on the floor. Hooray for us!” – Labour blogosphere. “Miliband spoke to a union meeting and, er, it went ok…(contd p.94)” – mainstream media. But there is another, deeper story, so bear with me.
When I was a teenager, I loved Neil Kinnock (I love him a little less since the divisive “we’ve got our party back” nonsense, but I still greatly appreciate what he did for the party). I desperately wanted him to win, and was devastated when, in 1987, he didn’t.
Trouble was, there was a world of difference in the way they presented themselves which always seemed so unfair to me: Margaret Thatcher would appear in a TV studio or on the steps of Downing Street, in regal and stateswomanlike pose, surrounded by advisers and film crews, delivering a speech which, despite the harshness of the message and a certain lack of personal warmth, made her look serious. In contrast, Kinnock would inevitably then appear on a platform in some outside broadcast, his hair gently blowing in the breeze – remember, this was the era of the outside platform king Arthur Scargill, who really was the far-left bogeyman that Kinnock was not – and inevitably looking like the leader of a protest movement rather than a Prime Minister-in-waiting.
I was not at the Gala. However, like last year’s demo, not being there gives you a small advantage: you can see it like the rest of the world sees it (you can watch the same BBC clip here).
What did I see? A decent, earnest Miliband promising not to leave Britons without work, in outside broadcast against an overcast Durham sky, with dubious sound quality and all intercut with banners and marching bands. For me, for you, for all of us used to that sort of thing, it was heart-warming. It was Northern, trade unionist, cultural: a family day out for many. It’s a colourful, often moving tradition, and one which should carry on for many more years.
Then I tried to look at it through the eyes of someone living in the South-East. Not some stockbroker-belt type, but an ordinary member, if you like, of the “squeezed middle”. I wondered truly how they would connect to it, because their traditions are different. Their lives, outlook, weather – dammit, even their beer – are radically different from what I grew up with. There are no pits there.
And there’s an important point: we might talk about One North East, but there is more than one North East. There is a vibrant, entrepreneurial North East outside the mining tradition, perhaps not so represented at the Miners’ Gala. Look at it through their eyes too, not just our Labour eyes.
And through those outside spectacles it looked – well, nostalgic. The Gala clip looked like historical documentary. Tony Benn was there, smoking his pipe, just as he did in my youth. People looking on with mild interest at the speakers. And – here’s the rub – it could have been Kinnock on the podium, for the polite applause and for how far removed it looked from the image of a prime minister on the steps of Downing Street.
That was the real issue: not the disaster avoided. There is nothing wrong with wooing one’s base. But neither is it wrong to care about presentation. Just because we ourselves may not like everything about the last fifteen years does not mean voters are secretly yearning for a party of protest, either, or that we should stop presenting ourselves as the party of the future.
That was the real, brutal reason why a Labour leader had not been there in twenty-three years. Not because they were scared of a public bust-up (after all, leaders continued going to the TUC every year). Because, simply, to the uninitiated – that is, everyone outside our little labour movement bubble – it can look like a throwback to the unhappy Seventies. Not Her Majesty’s Opposition, so much as oppositionalists.
Warsi tried and failed to convince the world that Miliband was taking us back to the age of Kinnock, and she misjudged it: because few people really believe in Red Ed outside the Tory party. And probably so few voters saw the footage – outside the North East, that is – that it didn’t matter. But we tried hard to prove Warsi right with that little vignette of us sent into their living rooms, we really did.
Conclusion: we may have helped to sooth the internal rifts which threaten our body politic – good. But we weren’t speaking to those outside the labour movement and the party’s heartlands. Come on. We weren’t.
And if this is to be the tone of our news clips in opposition, and we are serious about government, we really need to work on them. A lot.
Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour Party manager who blogs at The Centre Left