I went to the Durham Miners’ Gala on Saturday, as I’ve done most years since I was a child growing up in nearby Consett. For me, the soul of the gala isn’t at the city’s racecourse, where an assortment of Left-wing speakers, including Len McCluskey, addressed the crowd. Instead, the beating heart of the occasion is in the parade of banners and brass bands through the most beautiful city in the country, each representing one of the pits in the once-mighty Durham coalfield.
I went to celebrate the culture of the North Eastern mining communities that the region is steeped in. My grandad worked as a pitman in the Durham coalfield, one of the most back-breaking and dangerous jobs imaginable. I went to pay homage to the men and women of these tight-knit villages and to the values of hard work, community and solidarity that kept mining communities together during hard times.
For many years, the link between Northern mining communities and the Labour Party was cultural, some would say unbreakable. For Labour leaders from MacDonald to Kinnock, the gala was a red-letter day in the calendar. When the Labour government vetoed British membership of the embryonic European Union, Herbert Morrison’s reasoning was that the “Durham miners won’t wear it”. That symbolised the deep reverence felt for working-class communities among the golden generation of Labour’s leaders. Voters in pit villages tended to return the favour.
That’s changed dramatically in the past few decades. The upper echelon of today’s Labour Party is utterly disengaged from working-class voters. Although Ed Miliband made a token visit to the gala last year, the first by a Labour leader since 1989, there was no Shadow Cabinet presence this year. On policies ranging from Europe to welfare and immigration, Labour and its traditional support base have drifted apart. Miliband and Balls are far less interested in the views of the grandchildren of the Durham miners than Attlee and Morrison were. The Labour Party now represents the lawyers of Islington more than the ordinary working people in Durham.
That new reality is reflected in the voting figures. Only 57 per cent of skilled working-class voters voted at the last election, compared with 76 per cent of middle-class voters. The level of detachment from today’s Labour Party is illustrated by the fact that only 29 per cent of the skilled working class voted Labour – it was well over 50 per cent for Tony Blair’s first two victories.
Ordinary working people have fallen out of love with a Labour Party that has relinquished any claim to be the People’s Party. This has created a massive opportunity for the Tories, and they need to be brave and bold to broaden their appeal in a way that will strengthen Conservatism for decades. In particular, they must take measures to overcome the widespread perception that the party stands for the rich and big business, not ordinary people.
David Cameron has already made good progress. Education reforms designed to improve the life chances of the poorest, lifting the lowest earners out of tax altogether, freezing fuel duty and the Regional Growth Fund should all be warmly welcomed. But the Conservatives still have work to do if they’re to convince working people that they’re entirely on their side.
The rising cost of living is a massive issue for working people, meaning that real incomes for the vast majority of the population have seen the biggest sustained fall since records began. The fuel duty freeze by the Government is particularly welcome and there should be an aspiration, within the realms of affordability, to continue to freeze or even cut fuel duty further over the next few years. The Government should also build on the raising of the income tax threshold and consider other ways of helping to boost real incomes, such as whether employers’ taxation can be reformed to increase the minimum wage without costing jobs.
Of course, to many living in places like the North East, the Tory brand is still associated with negative memories of deindustrialisation and unemployment. The damaging social effects of pit and steelwork closures continue to be linked with the party and they should acknowledge that. They must be associated with job creation, particularly in areas that have suffered from high unemployment and its associated social dislocation for decades. By accelerating the City Deals and devolving power over planning to the Northern conurbations, and taking further steps to tackle unemployment, we could make sure that these cities are at the heart of a private sector-led Northern economic renaissance with which the Conservative Party needs to be associated.
Conservatives also need to remember that there are seven million trade union members in the UK and almost as many public sector workers. Two thirds of public sector workers are trade unionists, and the majority of Tory target seats have an above-average proportion of public sector workers.
Just as the Left-wing speakers at the Miners’ Gala do not represent the views of those who attend to celebrate their heritage and communities, so the Left-wing union bosses don’t represent their members. This week, the GMB union said they only expect 20 per cent of their members to volunteer a political levy to the Labour Party. More trade unionists did, after all, vote for Margaret Thatcher than Jim Callaghan in 1979.
Tories should remember that unions can be very conservative institutions. What’s more conservative than the celebration of hard work, family, community and what Nye Bevan described as “the most conservative of all religions – ancestor worship” of the Miners’ Gala? Trade unionists might be crucial voters in target seats in 2015. Conservatives should be careful not to let over-the-top rhetoric, such as the condemnation of Ed Miliband for attending the gala last year, put off trade unionists who are potential Tory voters.
Mrs Thatcher galvanised an organisation called “Conservative Trade Unionists” and now might be the time to follow her example, as well as offering discounted Tory membership to trade unionists, as proposed by the MP Robert Halfon. The Conservatives have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform British politics, particularly by attracting the working-class voters abandoned by Labour. Today, I’m launching a new group, Renewal, to help generate ideas about how the Conservatives can take this chance to broaden their appeal. By championing consumers and hard-working people, the Conservatives can become the new workers’ party.
First published in the Daily Telegraph, 14th July 2013.