Magazine article The Spectator

Why Would the English Working Class Consider Voting Labour Again?

Magazine article The Spectator

Why Would the English Working Class Consider Voting Labour Again?

Article excerpt

It's lovely to see the former geographical entity Lindsey back in the headlines, a fleeting visit from a ghost from the past. Lindsey was one of the three subdivisions of the great county of Lincolnshire, if you remember, along with landlocked Kesteven and dank, flat, blustery Holland. It was abolished in 1974, simply swept away -- the bit in the news became part of something called Humberside, but with a Doncaster postcode, neither one thing nor the other.

Ghosts from the past: I swear, on my evening news this week, I saw at Lindsey a picket standing on a picket line beside a brazier in the swirling snow, shouting things at scabs -- all things which one imagined had been made illegal by the end of the 1970s, except for the scabs of course. Then there was the language of the picket interviewed: he referred to the gastarbeiten, the foreigners taken on by the oil company Total and to whom the pickets strenuously objected, as 'Eyeties and Portuguese'. I haven't heard anyone being called an Eyetie for 30 years either. You could feel the union man groping for a derogatory phrase for the Portuguese but the trouble is that back in the 1970s we didn't feel the need to call the Portuguese anything, we just ignored them. So he had to call them 'Portuguese' which I daresay he thought damning enough by itself.

Total's Lindsey oil refinery is situated next to a town called North Killingholme, which is a few miles from the important deep-water port of Immingham beside the Humber. There was a sympathy strike outside the old ICI Wilton chemical plant on Teesside, more pickets and braziers, and also at Grangemouth in Scotland. These are not very pretty places, to be honest. That plant in Teesside for example, was once the site of the biggest chemical works in Europe and just two miles from what was formerly the biggest steelworks in Europe. There was a residential area nearby, under a baleful thing called 'Warner's Chimney', which was named the most polluted square mile of housing in Europe. All these superlatives. The Tees, along with the Rother (the Yorkshire one, not that effete southern dribble), was one of the most polluted rivers in Europe; fall in and your skin would slough off, the rumour had it.

At one point, in the late 1960s, Teesside produced more than one fifth of Britain's total GDP and it was proudly claimed that Middlesbrough was second on the list of places to be nuked by the Russkies on account of its industry and skilled workforce. The quid pro quo for people living within this chemical haze, beside the steel furnaces, nestled among the glue factories (where, very briefly, I once worked) was that there would always be skilled labour required; you live in this s**t, we'll make sure you're employed. But the unspoken contract was always broken, always. British Steel is now only a tiny fraction of what it once was, owned by the Indians; and hundred of jobs along the Rother and the Tees were cut last week.

These places are grimy and maybe grim -- not for nothing are Middlesbrough's football supporters known as the Smog Monsters -- because they are among the very last towns in Britain where we still make stuff -- and the skilled workforce is being told to get on its bike once again, this time by a Labour government. That sticks in the craw a little.

At Lindsey, Total -- a French firm -- has taken on 100 (soon to be joined by a further 300) Italian and Portuguese contractors who are housed on a barge floating on the water at Grimsby. The contract is worth an estimated £200 million. Lord Mandelson warned the strikers against 'xenophobia' and insisted that the British workers had not been discriminated against. It usually takes ages to discover that what Peter Mandelson tells you is false in some way, and usually it requires government inquiries and even police involvement and maybe a resignation or two. But on this occasion he was proved to be demonstrably wrong within the hour, which saved us all a lot of time. …

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