They're not bitter, they're for Blair

In Barnsley, Labour tradition comes with your mother's milk. So is the party's new image as popular in Scargill country as it is among the Islington restaurant set? Simon Garfield finds out

Simon Garfield
Monday 08 May 1995 23:02

It is 175 miles from Walworth Road to Barnsley Town Hall, but sometimes the distance seems like nothing at all. Outside, on the tulip lawns, it is sweltering; inside, in the large office occupied by council leader Hedley Salt, there is not only coolness, but expectancy, confidence, faith.

Salt is clearing his desk, for this is his last week after seven years in charge, and he is unmistakably proud of his achievements. He says that he and his colleagues began changing Barnsley 10 years ago, and now look: civic pride, new small factories opening, capitalists working with socialists - the policy of a new, pragmatic Labour, free of the shackles, light years from the past.

They have locked the dial to Blair FM up here, and the modernists' message comes through static-free. Salt voted for the new Clause IV, calls Blair a nice, realistic chap, and is able to claim, in a not altogether ridiculous fashion, that his council began transforming itself "in a way that I hope was inspiring" several years ahead of the current Opposition leadership in London.

Walking around the pedestrianised heart of Barnsley in sunshine is indeed a delight, and the outward show of prosperity is reflected in many new shopfronts. We could be anywhere in Leisureland UK: only a shoe shop named Earnshaws gives the game away. Last Thursday, a couple called Chris and Dave opened up Regents Park, their posh new night-club in the middle of town, and the advert in the Chronicle said the dress code was "casual but SMART". Exciting news - unless, perhaps, you happened to be one of the thousands of miners in this area, or an unemployed garment or carpet maker, in which case spitting might not be considered an unreasonable reaction.

Hedley Salt's Labour is not one of Islington restaurants or Boss ties: it has no need to transform its image to appeal to the nervous voter. At last week's council elections, only nine out of 22 wards were contested; in the others, Labour candidates stood unopposed. Out of 66 seats, Labour controlled 62, the Conservatives two, the independents two. This has always been the situation: the tradition of voting Labour came in with your mother's milk. Barnsley's Labour has many hues, from deepest Scargill red (he was born here, his first job was in a local colliery and his shadow hangs heavy over the town) to the paler shade represented for many years at Westminster by Roy Mason, whose centrist leanings appealed to the middle class. Only if all the Labour candidates were found to be sleeping with relatives of Margaret Thatcher would voters ever dream of withdrawing their support.

Accordingly, election day was a bit of a non-event in Barnsley. In the council leader's office the bourbons arrived with the coffee the way one imagines they have always done, at 11.30am, and no one disturbed their consumption with the news of last-minute polls. The housing estates were not buzzing with bad tannoys, and you had to wait a good while on street corners to see a postered election car. The sign outside The Mount read John Smith's Bitter, but he needn't have been: apart from those in wealthy Peniston, almost everyone was voting solid red all day, and before midnight it was announced that the number of Labour seats had increased to 64. Clearly, this was neither Hanley-esque nor Fowler-ish mid-term disquiet.

There is disquiet here, but of a different sort. Most distrust the Tories, but some distrust the new Labour too. The new Clause IV and one-member, one-vote accounts for some of it, but walking the hilly streets a mile or so from the town hall one encounters more immediate concerns, needs not immediately met by the cavernous bowling alley and a new line in the Marks & Spencer chiller cabinet. Repeatedly I met people who said, "Oh it's nice here, but there's no jobs, no real jobs." This place closed, that place closed, the last mine closed last year.

Considering Barnsley's history, it is not surprising that Hedley Salt has had to come to terms with opposition from the left, if not the right. "We were vilified," he says. "Seen as selling out, sacrificing our heritage, getting into bed with those who destroyed our community. But it has paid off."

He also says he is not content with service-sector regeneration; he wants reindustrialisation. This appears to be slow in coming. It is true that modern Barnsley has changed much since the days when the boy in Kes carried his kestrel through town, but the modern food factories and high-fashion clothing emporiums are still no substitute for being at the very centre of the South Yorkshire coal seam, or for the glass, paper or textile industries.

On a fleeting encounter, Barnsley resembles its football club. There is progress and promise, but as yet it still can't quite make the Premier League. There is too much baggage: visiting supporters still laugh at Barnsley, Barnsley the concept, a town of whippets, they think. But ultimately it is Barnsley's own players who have not quite made it to the play-offs, for they are very worried about putting a foot wrong.

And so it is in the non-sporting world. Michael Stokes, the chairman of Barnsley Trades Council and secretary of the local branch of the Transport and General Workers' Union, says: "The present leadership are so terrified of activists saying or doing the wrong things that they're exercising a degree of Stalinism that limits open debate." It begins at the top in Westminster, with the sidelining of Tony Benn and Dennis Skinner, but he says that many of his own previously vocal members are also less audible than before.

Stokes is not a hothead. He has been in the party for 30 years, and sees his ideology as somewhere between Marx, JS Mill and Elizabeth I, "the first to articulate the view you had to have that trickle-down, so that them at the bottom got summat."

Like the majority of his union, he did not support Blair's Clause IV reform, believing it to be a move towards social democracy and away from socialist democracy. "Change is inevitable," he says, "but you don't evolve from a socialist party into a quasi-Liberal party in order to survive - because then you haven't survived, you've died, and your views have become extinct."

In his union meetings it is clear that his steel workers and HGV drivers do resent what they see as the PC-ing of the Labour Party. "I'm liable to get into trouble if I talk about this," he says, keen to distance himself from a recent motion his members put forward to the union's conference in July. The motion stated: "The middle class have infiltrated the Labour movement and imbued it with an obsession for race, sexuality and homosexuality." His branch believed that "it would be fatal for the Labour Party to enter the next general election with a commitment to a Ministry for Women and homosexual equality, and that, should it do so, Blair 1998 may be Clinton 1994."

This is the old Labour speaking, a voice we do not hear so much these days; unlike Blair's modernisers, old Labour does not feel that the pain of moving to the right is insignificant compared with the need to get rid of the Tories. Stokes suggests that almost anyone who calls for good, old-fashioned socialism - be it a return to full employment or renationalisation - is viewed as a militant, and any form of militancy is frowned upon.

What of the true Militants? Last Thursday on the streets of Worsborough, a poor area about a mile from the centre, their candidate Celia Souter and a few friends were trying to rally support for what she called her "fighting" party. She talked in soundbites. "You can't get a cigarette paper between the policies of Blair and Major ... Blair has let a lot of working-class people down ... you know what happens when foundations begin to crack ..." She said that she was standing to show that traditional values haven't been swept aside, "even if they have by Blair". She stood as a Militant Labour candidate against Fred Wright, a popular Labour traditionalist, and she lost decisively.

Her campaign trail took her past the Swaithe Working Men's Club, a squat building topped with barbed wire to prevent another break-in. Inside, an ex-miner called Frank said that Souter had as much chance of winning a seat "as a donkey has of winning bloody greyhound derby".

Frank would have reached retirement age three years ago, had not the pit closures got him first. There is nothing round here, he said, only mindless violence. He said he was glad he had a council house with no mortgage; he said things were only getting worse, and that he saw no prospects of prosperity during his lifetime; he said that everything Scargill predicted would come true, has. But he still believes that Blair offered the only chance, and he'll vote for him as soon as they let him.

John and Mick, ex-miner, ex-carpet worker, said similar things. Only one younger man was prepared to speak out against the changes, and he didn't want to give his real name. "Sid" used to work at the Grimethorpe pit; he believes Labour should not mess with its inherited values. "It's like Scargill said," he explained. "Rules are rules and you don't break 'em." He is in his forties, but he doubts he will ever see work again.

The Swaithe club has already undergone its own small-scale modernisation. Elderly women have been admitted into the next room to play bingo; their old venue was knocked down when it failed to pay its way. As I left to talk to them about the new Labour (it turned out they were almost all Blairites too), I was tugged back at the sleeve by Frank. He had some advice: I could chat to them all I liked, so long as I kept it simple. "Don't ask them about Clause IV," he explained, as the pre-modernisation days came rushing back, "because them women won't bloody understand."

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments