My political journey
How a working class lad from South Shields failed to like Labour.
I write this mainly for Bill Cannon, the former South Shields’ man now living in Stockton on Tees, who seems terribly interested in the personal minutiae of myself and my family.
My political journey began, I suppose in the early 1960s when as a child I can remember the appointment of Douglas Home as Prime Minister and his subsequent loss to Labour’s Harold Wilson in the general election of 1964. I was born in South Shields in 1956 in John Williamson Street one of those “long streets” that Catherine Cookson eulogised over in her novels, into a community that consisted mainly of shipyard workers, railwaymen, and miners, with a sprinkling of “professionals” thrown into the mix. I was born into a family that had deep roots in this tightly knit community, and there were many relatives at close hand who had lived on the riverside for most of their lives.
I attended Barnes Road Infant and Junior schools before passing the exam to gain entry to South Shields Grammar and Technical School for Boys, located in a part of South Shields that I had never previously known existed! Much of my thoughts on my early years were recorded here and also here. Life back then, up to 1973, was very much as Cookson described in her books, and retelling tales to those who would listen in my later years often drew looks of incredulity from my listeners. It seemed to me that people living on the estates came from a completely different world, their world did not have cobbled streets, nor did it have outdoor toilets sharing the back yards with coal houses and washing houses, they could not comprehend how people could possibly wash their clothes in tubs with poss sticks and wring them with mangles, they had indoor bathrooms with running hot water, they had washing machines, fridges, and even gas fired central heating in some cases. Not for us such luxuries, and not wishing this post to sound like the old Monty Python Yorkshiremen sketch, but it is true that for some years we had a “black range” in the sitting room, a 12″ square stone sink in the scullery, a small gas stove, and a tiny gas water heater that provided hot water at about 2 litres per hour to fill a galvanized zinc bath in front of the fire! We had ice on the inside of the windows in winter and the whole family shared two bedrooms and a small sitting room, we had gas powered street lights, tea, pop, fish, and vegetables were often delivered by horse and cart, and a man made a racket at 04:30 each morning as he tramped up and down the streets rapping on doors with a big stick to ensure that the men at Readhead’s shipyard were out of bed in time for their shift.
You have to remember that South Shields by the late 1960s had already enjoyed many years of Labour control over the County Borough Council, and that in 1945 Major Dennis Healey (later to become a Labour Chancellor) had promised to build “a land fit for returning heroes”, yet here we were living in Catherine Cookson land more than thirty years later existing in properties so tightly bound together that even a rabbit warren might have been viewed as more spacious. Yes, the majority of these properties were privately rented from virtually absentee landlords, but as more and more developments continued to grow on the outskirts of the town it seemed that the riverside area of Rekendyke and the streets around Mile End Road, and behind Westoe Road in the town centre, had been overlooked as Labour went on a spending spree of council house building. Don’t get me wrong, moving into a council house nearer the town centre was a boon, but why had it taken over thirty years to fulfill Healey’s promise?
In the final period in John Williamson Street we had reached the stage where the miners had decided to challenge Ted Heath’s government, the oil crisis had hit, so they moved against the democratically elected executive at a very vulnerable stage, we were into the three day week and it wasn’t long before our electricity was rationed. Parts of South Shields were allocated slots during the daytime or evenings when the electricity would be switched on, so on top of the normal privations of life we found ourselves walking the winter streets in pitch darkness – I had learned by now that Socialism was a system for switching off the lights!
I was by now a teenager with a thirst for knowledge and an ability to independently think for myself, when Wilson was returned to power and the country was almost bankrupted under the Chancellorship of Dennis Healey (Britain had to go cap in hand to the IMF for a bailout loan), I discovered that he was only following a line of Labour Chancellors who had ran out of cash. I had already determined that the Labour Party cared more about power and position than it did about the plight of its core supporters, I had witnessed first hand the neglect shown to large communities in South Shields, but the party cared only for the occasional vote at local or national elections. I had also determined by then that the Conservative Party had a track record for putting right the financial and economic recklessness of previous Labour administrations, my mind was already forming my first strong opinions ready to use when my first chance to vote came along.
In later years I joined the Conservative Party for a time, as detailed in one the posts which I linked to above, I found no middle class or upper class “toffs” apart from a doctor and an accountant who were both as nice as ninepence, the rest of the local association was made of people who were just like you and I, working class – but independently minded. Just people who believed in different values, personal responsibility, the benefits of free enterprise and capitalism, the ability to grow yourself, your family, or your business without the interference of the state. Even now today, the members of the South Shields Conservative Association who I met during this year’s election campaign are the just the same as you or I Mr. Cannon. I can guarantee there are no old Etonians or old Harrovians in this town!
I have endured two periods in my life when I have been out of work (and I have been fortunate to be able to find work on both occasions), both during the years of Labour governments and both during deep recessions caused by budget deficits and profligate spending and borrowing, Labour just never learned how to manage other people’s money – but it was after all, other people’s, not their own! I still live in exactly the same type of terraced housing that I was used to down by the riverside, I do not have huge aspirations, I am still true to my roots, I love this town and I love the people who live here. I have many friends in the Labour Party and trades unions who have remained warm with me ever since those days of playing football on cobbled stones, they know that I have not deserted my roots. They also know my views, that the Labour Party for too many years after the last war took it’s voters in the north east for granted, it used us as little more than voting fodder to feed their ambitions, but left us with little tangible change until recently. The Blair years brought the whole of British politics onto the middle ground, you call it the centre right, Brown and Cameron continued this journey, so it should be no surprise that it aligns with my own political views, although admittedly mine are a little further to the right than Cameron’s.
Now, having read a little more about my background, perhaps you can start to accept that I am actually just a normal working class bloke (and I hate using these “class” analogies because I don’t see myself as being “tribal”), and that people with “professions” actually do some useful work for all of us, and that sometimes you will find someone who doesn’t feel the need to blindly vote according to tradition or custom and can think for himself. The fact that I believe in a different free market political philosophy is all that you really ought or need to know. I have not abandoned my roots at all, they are growing firmly under my feet, but the Labour Party was never the right gardener for me.
If you don’t mind, please try to steer clear of delving deeper into my private family life, otherwise I will close the comments to this post.