The long history of working class Tories and Labour paternalism

If anyone who does not come from Newcastle upon Tyne has heard of Walker it will probably be as the birthplace of the singer Eric Burdon of the Animals, and possibly their song “Gonna take you back to Walker” which was a metaphor for serious punishment (i.e. being sent to a very run-down area next to the shipyards).

My first council by-election in 1963 was in the Walkergate Ward. The Young Liberals were helping and I remember a young woman in tears coming back from canvassing on Walker Road, shocked by a string of Conservative voters in some of the least salubrious housing in the city.

As in many parts of the north, there has always been a core working-class Tory vote. It rarely elected Conservatives because for decades in working class wards Labour defeated the Tories on the basis of a “vote for us on polling day, we have the right ideas and we will look after your interests” strategy. This paternalistic, top-down approach has reached the end of the line. Thus, the Tories have exploited a political vacuum in many areas and got elected. Whether they can work with local people to make a difference to their communities and their individual lives is another matter.

I said this in Tuesday’s Guardian, where with others I was responding to a piece by John Harris, who had suggested that the seeds of Labour’s renewal lie at the grassroots. Many Yorkshire Lib Dems know that the Eccleshill Ward where I have been a councillor since 2010 is one of the most working-class three member Lib Dem wards in Yorkshire and the Humber. So I finished my letter by saying:

My own working-class ward has returned Liberal Democrats since the turn of the century, apart from a one-term Labour councillor in 2011. In a sense, any political group prepared to work hard on the ground all year round could have occupied the space – working with people and explaining why they do what they do. John Harris may believe that the seeds of Labour’s renewal lie at the grassroots, but political seeds can only grow when watered by sheer commitment from people who are sustained by visions that can keep them going in tough territory.

The Guardian somewhat prissily removed the “bloody” between “sheer” and “commitment, which I am sure is what the late Lord Greaves would have said!

Personally I think Labour would have structural and historical party problems to overcome if they were to try to do what successful Lib Dems do on the ground.

Meanwhile there were two amusing dimensions to my bit of newspaper correspondence. My letter followed contributions from Brighton, Norwich and Oxford, so it was good to end with a word from a northern city, which inspired the letters headline “Top-down approach has been Labour’s downfall”. This echoed the Guardian front-page headline “Labour has talked down to voters for too long”. Lest anyone should think Angela and I were singing from the same hymn sheet, I must insist that I was offering analysis, not advice. I have no desire to interfere in private grief.

* Geoff Reid is a Bradford City Councillor and a retired Methodist Minister.

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9 Comments

  • Sorry … the front page headline started with “Rayner:…”

  • And……… If you want to know about snake oil salesmen Tories it’s in tonight’s Guardian

    “Cameron does not deny using Greensill’s private jet to fly to holiday home in Cornwall.,,, but has said he was paid “far more” as a part-time adviser to now-collapsed Greensill Capital than when he was prime minister. He told MPs he had had a “big economic investment” in the finance company, including shares. But he insisted he was not motivated by money when he lobbied ministers on behalf of the firm – and he believed he had acted in the national interest.

    and …….. Johnson took a short helicopter flight from London to the West Midlands to promote a local bike hire scheme, despite the train from London taking just more than two hours. Riding a bike with Andy Street was a televised stunt….. but the helicopter was not shown.

  • Walker, was that part of Newcastle upon Tyne Central?
    Almost my first by-election experience, autumn 1976 with Andy Ellis as candidate who came second.
    Quite an achievement for that year!
    Geoff’s letter and comments tie in with my experience of Labour. One Labour councillor was reprimanded for reporting a faulty street light outside his ward, which happened to be opposite his house!

  • Michael Bukola 14th May '21 - 10:41am

    I spent my student days in Newcastle during the late-90s. I visited friends living in the Byker wall when I lived in Shieldfield, next door to Walker. The deprivation then was clear and Labour’s neglect obvious. I went back 10 years later to campaign in the 2010 General Election in the Newcastle North constituency where the city council was Lib-Dem controlled with almost 50 councillors.

  • David Evershed 14th May '21 - 11:40am

    Geoff. How do your working class voters respond to the “something for nothing” idea of UBI?

  • Andy – Walker has always been in East where I grew up, but it is certainly the most deprived bit of the constituency. I knew Andy Ellis well however.
    David – I don’t really think it has been on people’s lips in the pubs of Eccleshill! It’s never been trailed in our surveys. But your question encourages us to think about it further. Alas a large number see the daily lottery ticket as the way out of poverty.

  • David Howarth 15th May '21 - 11:44am

    After graduating from Newcastle Polytechnic in 1978, we lived in the East end of Newcastle and I took on fighting the St. Anthony’s seat in Newcastle Central which was the top end of Walker and the bottom end of Byker. Having come within 100 votes of winning in 1980 against Sir Stuart Bell, and replacing the Tories as the alternative, a year later in 1981 I took the County Council seat in a straight fight off the notorious David Abrahams, who was tied up in the Blair donorgate scandal in the nineties. We pushed up the turn out from around 35% to over 50% as people realised that Labour could be beaten. 12 months later Labour abolished the seat in boundary changes and in 1986 Thatcher abolished the council. All of the Labour councillors at the time lived in the same street in leafy Gosforth. Having pushed the Tories out of the way we certainly exploited the vacuum, but with traditional Liberal Community Politics, a candidate living locally, a dedication to casework, and a young team of activists who could deliver 9,000 Focus newsletters over a weekend! My good friend Henry Gallagher, who back then knocked on my door as an 18 year old and asked if he could join, is a Newcastle City councillor.

  • Peter Martin 17th May '21 - 9:48am

    Sure, the Labour Party is guilty of ‘paternalism’.

    The definition of which is:

    “the policy or practice on the part of people in authority of restricting the freedom and responsibilities of those subordinate to, or otherwise dependent on them, in their supposed interest.”

    This is the big problem in the Leave voting areas at the moment. Many formerly Labour, and incidentally some Lib Dem, voters don’t like being told by their supposed ‘betters’ they got it all wrong over the EU.

    Incidentally they mainly don’t go off and vote Tory, The ultra low turn out in Hartlepool of 42% suggests they are more likely to not vote at all.

  • Peter Hirst 25th May '21 - 2:42pm

    The soft Tory vote is there for grabs. It can only be gained however by moving above the tribal politics of the past. Covid and Brexit have given us the opportunity to appeal to that large section of the elecorate that retains an allegiance to values such as honesty, integrity and the common good.

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