Across our District, much more so than in Britain as a whole, the June 2017 general election result represented a clear return to class politics.
Labour took over 51% of the total vote in the District, winning in nearly all of the traditional working class areas. The Tories are now largely the party of the rural constituencies; and, with just a small number of exceptions, all other parties have been reduced to the status of bystanders.
The demand for change was reflected in the massive attendances at rallies in the North East addressed by Jeremy Corbyn. While the Tories did gain a significant proportion of the former UKIP vote, the dynamism of Labour’s campaign, and the clear class message of the manifesto, For the Many, Not the Few, won back large numbers of working class votes for Labour, particularly in key marginal seats such as Bishop Auckland, Hartlepool, Darlington, Barrow and Lancaster & Fleetwood.
Indeed, Labour’s vote could have been even higher but for the lack of ambition of the Labour North machine, and the efforts by some of Jeremy Corbyn’s parliamentary critics to distance themselves from him and the Manifesto policies. A further general election remains likely within the next two years, and Labour will need to make efforts to win Middlesbrough South & East Cleveland, Carlisle, Copeland and Morecambe & Lunesdale.
The situation created by Labour’s advance creates new opportunities for developing the class struggle in our District. While the Tories are still in office, thanks to their unprincipled deal with the DUP, and are acting as if it is business as usual on austerity, they will be vulnerable to pressure on the ground, as the impact of their failed policies continues to work through.
Indeed, there is already anger as Wales, Scotland and the English regions have been left short-changed by Theresa May’s £1bn deal with the DUP. It means an extra £244 per head in Northern Ireland each year, to be spent on services such as schools, hospitals and major transport schemes. That is over 10 times as much as going to the Tees Valley Combined Authority and 16 times what was offered to the North East Combined Authority (NECA) in the failed so-called ‘devolution’ agreement.
A major factor in turning voters against the Tories was the crisis in state education, over which the NUT in particular ran a very successful campaign. Latest figures show that North East schools will be over £123m worse off by 2019/20 than in 2015/16; in Cumbria the figure is over £23m; while for the Lancaster, Morecambe, Heysham and Carnforth area the cuts come to £7.5m. In the worst cases, there are schools in Durham and Northumberland facing cuts per pupil of over £3000 per annum. This translates into larger classes, and many teachers’ jobs lost.
In the National Health Service, the secretive Sustainability and Transformation Plans (STPs) are threatening the closure of hospitals, wards and accident & emergency departments. In Cumbria, all the in-patient beds at the Maryport, Alston and Wigton cottage hospitals are set to be slashed, with Alston’s already gone due to “staffing shortages”. The Lancashire and South Cumbria maternity unit faces closure, while consultant-led maternity care at the West Cumberland Hospital is under review.
In South Durham and Teesside, A&E and maternity units at Darlington Memorial Hospital and the University Hospital of North Tees are facing closure or downgrade. Further north, an “alliance” between South Tyneside NHS Foundation Trust and City Hospitals Sunderland plans to move all acute services to Sunderland, which will then make South Tyneside A&E unsustainable. In Northumberland, in-patient beds at Rothbury Cottage Hospital have already been closed “temporarily”. Three urgent day centres at Hexham, Wansbeck and North Tyneside General Hopitals also shut down overnight “temporarily” in December 2016; but, as of June 2017, 24-hour working had not yet been reinstated.
Across the District, nearly 73,000 households were on social housing waiting lists at the last count. Yet, in 2015-16, only 197 council homes were built in the District, of which 80% were in North Tyneside, and 16% in Northumberland. At the same time, government policy is forcing councils to allow planning permission to private developers building less affordable housing.
People are being driven into the private rented sector, where average ‘3-bedroom’ monthly rents are £695 in South Lakeland, £650 in Newcastle, £625 in Lancaster and £500 in North Tyneside. For single adults such as students, average ‘room’ rents are over £300 almost everywhere in the District, peaking at £390 in Allerdale, and £368 in Eden and County Durham.
Buy-to-let landlords are snapping up more properties in the North East to take advantage of high annual yields. The scale of this issue in 2016 was demonstrated by the revelation that private company Jomast had let 155 red-doored properties in Middlesbrough to G4S for housing asylum-seekers.
The Grenfell fire disaster has raised major questions not only about fire safety in social housing tower blocks, but also about the impact of government austerity policies on fire services’ ability to react, and on safety inspections and prevention measures, and about the loss of democratic control and means of expressing tenants’ concerns when properties are transferred to social landlords and arms-length management organisations.
Thirteen Group, which manages 20 high rise blocks on Teesside, has confirmed that one block is partially clad with combustible material, while Gentoo has removed cladding from 5 blocks in Sunderland. In Newcastle’s, Gateshead’s and South Tyneside’s social housing, the cladding appears not to be flammable, but tenants have rightly voiced anxiety over the lack of sprinkler systems and some ill-fitting fire doors. Meanwhile it has been revealed that at least one student block in Newcastle has combustible cladding.
Local authorities are still reeling under the impact of central budget cuts. Newcastle proposed, and then was forced to drop, a plan which would have cut the pay of one third of its staff; and, having lost 90% of the revenue for its parks and open spaces, is proposing to hand management of them to a charitable trust. Durham also threatened to cut the pay of its teaching assistants. The £90m emergency cash awarded to the 7 ‘North East’ councils for extra social care costs over the next 3 years has been criticised as a ‘sticking plaster’.
While Tees Valley councils jumped at the government’s bogus ‘devolution’ plan, getting back a small proportion of the axed funds in return for conceding a ‘metro mayor’, and the implementation of local austerity, a majority of councils in NECA wisely decided not to go down that route. But Northumberland, North Tyneside and Newcastle are still hoping to get a smaller combined ‘deal’ from the government.
Although the official unemployment rate within the District has fallen, that in the North East region is still among the highest in Britain, at 6.0%. Scandalously, the North East is the ‘zero hours’ contract capital of Britain, with 3.7% of all workers (44,000) on such contracts. In the area covered by NECA, just under a quarter of the working age population is economically inactive, 2.8 percentage points higher than in England as a whole. Public services, transport and manufacturing make the largest contribution to Gross Value Added, but the fastest growth has been in parasitic sectors such as real estate and financial and business services, with the overall growth rate continuing to lag behind the English average.
Comparable figures are not available for the Tees Valley area; but, while recent employment growth has been over 2,500 per annum, the closure of SSI steelworks is a step back. The planned closure of Boulby Potash Mine will make things worse. The Combined Authority states that “It is inevitable that a proportion of employment growth will be in lower paid and less secure employment”.
The Cumbria and Lancaster economies remains heavily dependent on “advanced manufacturing” (ie Trident submarines) in Barrow, the nuclear industry at Sellafield and Heysham, public services and tourism; but Barrow remains an area of relatively high unemployment.
The drastic impact of benefit cuts and Work Capability Assessments was graphically displayed by Ken Loach’s film, I Daniel Blake, set within the heart of our District. For too many working class people, reliance on food banks has become a regular part of their lives. Following the bedroom tax, and the benefits cap, the roll-out of Universal Credit, already in place in Newcastle and (for single adults) North Tyneside, will dramatically increase the number of people experiencing real poverty.
Until the recent general election, and except for the resistance by the NECA majority to a directly elected ‘metro mayor’, most Labour-controlled councils have done little to oppose government austerity policies. That, and the constant undermining of Jeremy Corbyn by the Labour machine, together with the attempted coup by Labour MPs in 2016, contributed to the low opinion poll ratings for Labour in 2016 and the early part of 2017, and the setbacks in the 2017 local elections, particularly in Northumberland and for Tees Valley mayor.
The Brexit vote should have been a wake-up call to Labour politicians and trade union leaders in the region. Although, in their majority, they campaigned for ‘Remain’, with claims that the North East gained from EU membership, the vote across the District went solidly for ‘Leave’. Of all local authority areas, only South Lakeland (47.3%) and Newcastle (49.3%) voted to stay; and the ‘Leave’ votes were highest in the solid working class areas of Hartlepool (69.6%), Redcar & Cleveland (65.5%) and Middlesbrough (65.5%), where the impact of SSI’s closure was fresh in people’s minds. It was a message that working people were being ignored by the Westminster consensus. Since then, unfortunately, some Labour MPs have not yet got it; and there is confusion, particularly among young people won to vote Labour in 2017, about what the EU really represents. Labour’s decision to vote against the government’s Brexit Bill may cost it votes in Northern working class areas as the nuances of its position may not be fully understood.
In the wake of the referendum, far-right groups such as the English Defence League have sought to capitalise on working people’s disillusionment with mainstream politics, and on other issues, such as the outcome of a recent trial in Newcastle. There has been effective campaigning against the far right by organisations such as Newcastle Unites, but much more remains to be done.
Since our last District Congress, junior hospital doctors, university lecturers, Durham teaching assistants and rail workers in RMT have waged bitter industrial struggles, winning support from the rest of the trade union movement. The first two were ground down by obdurate government or employer resistance; but the Durham teaching assistants did achieve a negotiated settlement which was a significant improvement over the council’s previous position, though still leaving a number of TAs facing possible pay cuts.. The RMT campaign against driver-only operation remains ongoing. Disgracefully, Northern Rail secured an order against the RMT regional organiser for the police to impound his phone and laptop to investigate potential breaches of the Trade Union Act 2016.
Public sector pay looks like becoming a major area of union activity, as members face yet another year of real-terms pay cut. The additional sums offered to the police and prison officers are intended to be divisive, but are in any case derisory.
The North East and Teesside People’s Assemblies Against Austerity have continued to do sterling work in highlighting the impact of austerity and privatisation policies, and in mobilising for local demonstrations on health and in support of the junior doctors, and for the national demonstration at the Tory Conference in Birmingham in 2016, the #ourNHS and #ToriesOut demonstrations in London in 2017, and the Tory conference demonstration in Manchester in October 2017. Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader in 2015, and subsequent developments, however resulted in a significant number of People’s Assembly activists giving their attention to the Labour Party and to Momentum. While the strengthening of Labour’s campaigning potential is to be welcomed, the broader issue of building a mass anti-austerity movement has suffered, and political alternatives are not being posed clearly enough.
Working in part with trade unions, Keep Our NHS Public North East acts as a local campaigning unit for the umbrella group Health Campaigns Together. 999callfortheNHS activists in Darlington were the first to highlight the threat to the NHS from the STPs, through their Footprints March for the NHS in 2016; and since then local groups have sprung up to keep open Maryport and Rothbury Hospitals and to stop the downgrading of South Tyneside Hospital.
Women’s equality remains a key issue, particularly with the disproportionate effect of austerity policies on working class women. The International Women’s Day event in Newcastle in 2016, organised by our Party on behalf of the National Assembly of Women, was a positive development, but there is still much to do in developing the influence of the NAW, particularly in the labour movement.
Trades union councils have continued to play a significant role in mobilising solidarity for workers in struggle, pointing to the connections between the various issues faced by working people, and organising such events as Workers’ Memorial Day and Tyne & Wear May Day. They should take the initiative now in examining individual chapters of Labour’s manifesto, and campaigning on what they would mean for local communities. In November 2016, Newcastle TUC was one of the co-sponsors of the Lucas Plan 40th Anniversary Conference in Birmingham, and since then successfully charted a motion on arms conversion through the Northern TUC Biennial Conference and the Annual Conference of Trades Union Councils. The motion was selected as the single one to go to the Trades Union Congress in September, where it was agreed overwhelmingly.
The Durham Miners Gala remains a pre-eminent event in the local and national labour movement calendars, and has become an important platform for Jeremy Corbyn over the last 3 occasions. The work of ‘Marras’ – the Friends of the Gala – needs promotion and support, particularly in the wake of the sad loss of Durham Miners’ Association general secretary Davy Hopper.
While Labour has now become a genuinely mass party, and a magnet for many on the left, the case for a bigger and more effective Communist Party has actually been strengthened.
The size and influence of the Communist Party cannot be separated from Labour’s strength and the levels of class struggle, class consciousness and general political understanding. Labour’s manifesto was a very welcome step forward, but it still contained many weaknesses, for example in relation to NATO, nuclear weapons, imperialism and the state. It remains a social-democratic programme, though more to the left than for a long time. In the fight to get Labour elected to government, and in the subsequent mass battles to defend it and its programme against the onslaught of the ruling class, organisation and political and ideological clarity will be essential.
Through wider circulation of the Morning Star, the sales of Party pamphlets and Communist Review, public campaigning work – including public meetings and local election work – the Communist Party can provide that Marxist analysis and clarity. In line with the Communist Renewal process, that requires all our branches to develop their own campaign plans and political programmes, with a role for every member. Communists active in the labour movement and progressive campaigns will then be able to help build organisation, political understanding and working class solidarity.
In the immediate future the Party within the District needs to take a lead in promoting the case for a ‘People’s Exit from the EU’ and in celebrating the significance of the centenary of the Russian Revolution.
Congress commends the Campaigning and Organising Plan produced by the retiring District Committee, as a living plan, to be continuously updated in line not only with local and national developments, but with the Communist Renewal process and the Executive Committee’s What Is To Be Done.