Why it’s all about winning (A view from 6-3 down)

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I recently finished on the losing side in a General Election for the sixth time in my voting life and I’ve learned a big lesson.

I was 18 when ‘Sunny’ Jim Callaghan’s minority Labour government, doomed by the Winter of Discontent, staggered to its close. My first vote was in the General Election of May 3, 1979. The choice: Callaghan or a dose of Margaret Thatcher Mark I.

I’d avidly followed Harold Wilson’s two Labour election wins in 1974, done history at school, devoured Ken Loach and Tony Garnett’s political dramas, such as Days of Hope and The Price of Coal, on the BBC. We had just been rehoused by a Labour council (by way of a slum clearance programme) and had a garden, a bathroom and an inside toilet for the first time.

It was natural that I should vote Labour — but I didn’t. Instead, I decided that Labour took the North-East for granted. The South Shields MP for years had been a grey man named Arthur Blenkinsop. His replacement was an outsider who had lost a by-election elsewhere and was, to my mind, being dropped into a safe seat. So I didn’t vote Labour. I voted for Llew Monger, a Liberal.

My vote was of no consequence. Labour’s David Clark took South Shields, Llew Monger came a distant third and I, for the first time, finished on the losing side in a General Election as Thatcher won with a majority of 43 seats.

In the 80s I reinforced my views: went to May Day rallies, walked part of a leg of the People’s March for Jobs, joined the Labour Party, went to miners’ strike benefit gigs, marched for Coal Not Dole in London, and had my opinions confirmed by Alan Bleasdale’s Boys From The Blackstuff.

Little did I know then that my adult life, from 18 to 36, would be lived under Tory governments.

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The People’s March for Jobs passes The Citadel in Carlisle, 1983

In 1983 Labour, under Michael Foot, fought the election with a manifesto titled The Labour Way is the Better Way, better known as “the longest suicide note in history”. In Carlisle, where I now lived, the Labour MP was Ron Lewis, who was then 83 years old. His final campaign leaflet was written in my living room. Not only did it not mention anything that was in the manifesto, it barely mentioned the word Labour.

Ron got in by 71 votes, then the only MP with a majority smaller than his age. Margaret Thatcher’s Tories won a landslide, their majority was 144.

By June 1987 I was in Darlington. Michael Fallon was the sitting Tory MP but Labour, under Neil Kinnock, was moving back towards the political centre, or centre-left. It had dawned on much of the party that winning from the far left wasn’t going to happen. Ossie O’Brien, who had lost to Fallon in 1983, again failed to take the seat. Nationally, the Tory majority was 102.

Somewhere after Carlisle I’d let my party membership lapse. I renewed it and helped select a bright young fellow named Alan Milburn as candidate for 1992. Milburn took back Darlington, the Tories, under John Major, won a fourth national victory in a row. I was beginning to think losing was inevitable.

Then came New Labour. The Major government limped into 1997. Labour had got its act together under Tony Blair and on the glorious First of May, almost 18 years after my first vote, I finally got to be on the winning side. Alan Milburn retained Darlington – one of a barely believable 418 Labour MPs. Blair’s majority was 179.

On that night, sometime between producing The Northern Echo’s 4am edition and dawn coming up on the South Bank in London as it rocked to the sound of Things Can Only Get Better, I wept tears of relief and joy. Mainly, I wept for my then 17-month-old daughter and the knowledge that she wouldn’t grow up under the Tories.

Labour won from the centre and the work of renewing a decaying Britain could begin. A focus on “education, education, education”. Schools renewed, NHS hospitals renewed. The NHS itself given new life.

A quirk of the Blair years, I discovered recently, is that Labour delivered the Freedom of Information Act (the work of David Clark, the outsider from 1979), a ban on fox hunting, a national minimum wage, and equal rights for part-time workers. All of those had featured in 1983’s “longest suicide note in history”. Dreamt up by the left, delivered from the centre.

I was on the winning side again in 2001 (another landslide) and 2005. Labour was in office for 13 years, finally being booted out in 2010. And this year the party again failed to convince the country. So I’m 6-3 down.

And what I’ve learned is that you help no one by being out of power. And you can’t, apparently, win from the left. But if you can win from the centre you can do some of the more radical things you want to do.

So I am finally, after the marching and leafleting and agonising and suffering defeat and disappointment, convinced that the next Labour leader has to employ a bit of pragmatism and take the party back towards the centre if I’m ever to finish on the winning side again.

Because it’s only when you win that you can help people.

I’m rejoining so I can have my say.

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Brass and banners

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I’M on the train to Durham for the 130th Miners’ Gala – the Big Meeting. Across the aisle are four Yorkshiremen. One wears a T-shirt with a slogan which won’t be topped during the day — “Druids against fracking”. Their conversation is about the iniquity of employers (and why not, on today of all days?) not allowing time off for religious festivals, such as Beltane, Samhain and Imholc. It’s more Peter Tinniswood than Monty Python. Then one alights upon the signs on the door to the rear of the carriage. “There’s first class,” he observes. “But why in’t there space for working class.” They’re going to be getting off at Durham.

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The new St Hilda pit banner, paraded at the Big Meeting on July 12, 2014

It would be a cliché in a film but you really can hear the sounds of brass bands tuning up as you emerge from the station.

And by the time you reach the city centre you can sense the occasion. People started arriving before 8am. By 11am bands and banners are queuing many hundreds of yards back from the County Hotel – where the day’s fraternal guests gather – in three directions.

There’s a press of people, some waiting with the bands, some squeezing by, inching their way towards the County and onwards to the Racecourse, some with something else to do and caught up in this unique day. The streets of Durham weren’t built for festival and impatience.

And it’s not all about mining any more. It is, after all, 20 years since the last coal was wrenched from underground in the once great Durham coalfield. So the first band I see isn’t brass or silver at all. It’s a pipe band, from Morpeth, in Northumberland. But brass is all around.

The steps at the bottom of Saddler Street, as you go down to Elvet Bridge, have become an impromptu grandstand. A group of men have decided the best protection against the rapidly warming sun are little paper cooks’ hats, courtesy of Krispy Kreme, the doughnut people. Two dancing women dressed for a summer night in Tenerife are demanding a tune from the nearest, patiently waiting, brass band. Eventually the conductor gives in and rewards them, not with an anthem but with Rock Around The Clock.

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The rear of the St Hilda banner, depicting the causes of the 1839 disaster and the subsequent adoption of the safety lamp in the mines

The party is in full swing. Arms full of tins (here rarely called cans) are carried and handed round. It is, apparently, even acceptable today to drink wine from the bottle. Why not, it’s a celebration. Of something.

Halfway down Elvet Bridge I find a banner representing St Hilda pit in South Shields. It’s the pit I think my great-grandfather George worked in, before he went off to the war that began 100 years ago this year. He worked underground, then spent three years in the Hell that was France. And he didn’t come home. He survived it until July 1918 and lies in an unvisited grave in a place called Crouy. What a life.

St Hilda closed in 1940 but, wonderfully, this new banner has been created in commemoration of the men who worked in it and those who perished in the disaster of 1839. The front bears a picture of the South Shields pier, which helped create safe harbour for the ships taking coal to the South. The rear tells the story of the disaster, which killed 51 men and boys, the youngest aged nine. Out of tragedy, it is a thing of beauty.

In among the miners’ lodges are other trades unions. The Rail, Maritime and Transport workers are here to mark the passing of their leader, at the age of 52. They wear T-shirts proclaiming “Bob Crow. RMT. Legend.” Unison are here, fighting to protect public services from austerity cuts. The teaching unions are here, postal workers, firefighters. And sword dancers. And a primary school from a one-time pit village, keeping their heritage alive. And a group of men from the Rhineland, I think, in smart blazers and the most marvellous pillbox hats with tall white plumes.

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The Boldon banner passes the balcony at the Royal County Hotel

On the balcony of the Royal County Hotel the leaders of what is left of the Durham Miners’ Association and their guests look down from above a sign for Starbucks Coffee – one of the current great Satans of the left for its history of avoiding UK tax – as the bands each play their party piece.

And down on the Racecourse, normally home to Durham University’s cricketers, what a scene. Imagine if you will, a fairground, thrown to the edges of a field, with all the light and colour and noise that entails. In the centre, a political rally, with rabble-rousing orators. A crowd of thousands of the committed and the curious.

And in amongst it the casualties of the beating sun, and the early start to drinking. Never have so many slumbered through so many speeches for so long. And all the time, turning pinker.

It’s here that I spot my second favourite T-shirt slogan of the day. “Labour,” it says. “I preferred their early work.”

If you’d like to know more about the Gala, or Big Meeting, try http://www.durhamminers.org