...Labour was struggling to counter the BNP’s advance well before the recession struck.Thankfully, this article is refreshingly free of the ‘this is all the fault of Thatcher!’ subtext that you might expect from that description.
This is a former coalmining community where 15,000 men were employed in 16 pits as recently as the 1980s, and whose economy and raison d’être collapsed when the last of those pits was closed in the early 1990s.
Those mines have now vanished beneath shopping centres, industrial estates or country parks, and the handsome stone building that houses Mr Scargill’s once-mighty National Union of Mineworkers is occupied by little besides ghosts.
But many of Barnsley’s 220,000 inhabitants remain wedded to “old Labour”, and feel betrayed by a “new Labour” Government that has — they believe — forgotten its working-class roots and ceased fighting for the underdog as its members milk the public purse.The problem is deeper than that – they haven’t ‘ceased fighting for the underdog’ at all. They’ve simply chosen new underdogs to fight for – minorities of every other race and creed and gender and sexuality.
This isn’t a picture of Labour as depressed husband sinking into despair and refusing to communicate with the wife or do its share of the washing up – this is a picture of Labour as philandering cad ditching the faithful wife for a spending spree with a succession of newer, younger, more exotic mistresses:
The town’s deprivation is obvious in the downmarket shops — though it does have a wonderful market — and ubiquitous groups of unemployed youths loitering on street corners. There is little industry left. The council and hospital are the biggest employers. Outside the public sector, employment is mostly in minimum-wage retail or service jobs. A quarter of the workforce is economically inactive and on some form of benefits, and the town has one of the highest rates of obesity — 10 per cent — in England.And I’d venture to suggest that Barnsley isn’t unique in the North, or even in the UK as a whole.
This is a snapshot of a lot of large urban conurbations, and is going to get more and more familiar around the country as the recession takes hold. It’s the sign of an society feeding on itself – what ‘work’ there is comes increasingly from the State in all its many guises, and as the pool of productive industry from the private sector shrinks, it becomes increasingly unsustainable.
There are signs that the tipping point has already been reached in Barnsley:
The council’s £300 million plan to demolish and rebuild a quarter of the town centre, part of its ambitious regeneration programme, has been put on hold. A small mountain of rubble in the town centre marks the spot where Barnsley College was recently demolished, but the Learning and Skills Council — a government agency — can no longer afford the £42 million it promised for a new campus.As the famous quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin (though disputed) goes “When the people find that they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end of the republic.”
Indeed it will, but it can only work as long as there is money to be had from the productive sector; in a recession, it can’t work for long.
Barnsley’s Labour-run council has made strenuous efforts to revive the town’s fortunes in recent years. It has built a new £22 million transport hub and a digital centre for start-up businesses, converted the old Civic Hall into an arts centre, persuaded the University of Huddersfield to open a satellite campus in the town and will soon start rebuilding all its 14 secondary schools in the biggest programme of its kind in Britain.Notice what gets built under the title of ‘regeneration’ – none of it is productive, wealth-creation industry – it is all (with the possible exception of the ‘transport hub’ unless that is heavily subsidised) public sector or diversion schemes for the unemployed.
It is offering under-18s free transport and free swimming, and has frozen the council tax for the elderly. “It’s a way of saying we’ve not forgotten you, no matter what the BNP says,” Steve Houghton, the council leader, tells The Times. But such measures seem to count for little when set against the savagery of the slump and the Government’s bungling.
And when the money runs out, well, what then?
Robert Cockroft, editor of the Barnsley Chronicle, believes mainstream politicians must start engaging, not ostracising, the BNP. “We get letters from Labour councillors calling them names, but these days that’s not sufficient. They have to engage in the arguments,” he says.They can’t, Mr Cockcroft.
Because they know what the answers are, and they can’t bring themselves to offer them, because they will then invalidate almost all of their previous positions and upset their favoured pets, who will respond by withdrawing their votes. . .