A New Marshall Plan for the Working Class?

Good sensible stuff from Pat McFadden. It got me thinking.

First we need to remember that the Marshall Plan was really the brainchild of a chambermaid’s illegitimate son from Somerset, who left school at twelve. Who, unlike the current leader of his union, saw an under-performing Labour leader who didn’t stand up to fascism, and made him history…  And as we think about what Pat’s said, we need to build on, and not rubbish, the work of the Blair and Brown Governments.

Throughout the Blair and Brown years, and long before, I worked in regeneration, first in a local authority, then at Yorkshire Forward and finally at the the HCA. It was a fantastic and positive period. Things really got better. What we achieved was immense, and one of the reasons that I can never bring myself to work in the field again is the huge lie at the heart of policies since 2010.

I know the resources that John Prescott committed to programmes like New Deal for Communities, and parallel commitments in education and health. Nothing since has even remotely compared, and nothing expresses more clearly the fact that on disadvantaged communities, the Tories do window-dressing and deckchair rearrangement, and the Liberal Democrats, with essentially meaningless stuff like the pupil premium, can’t contemplate taking resources from well-heeled rural areas that might vote for them. If the pupil premium and free school meals were so important, why didn’t Lib-Dem County Councils find the resources to fund them themselves?

As Pat suggests, education is key, and we need to bury the idea that we don’t need participation in higher education. We do, although I’d argue that much more of it needs to be part-time, as part of employer-funded apprenticeship programmes leading to degree-level qualifications. With 600+ applicants for 30+ places, my old local authority, Wakefield, could have asked for 5 A’s at GCSE for any of its apprenticeship programmes. They led to higher level qualifications, and in many cases people who’d started on the tools in their teens had degrees and management qualifications by their late twenties or early thirties. This kind of approach is still par for the course with good employers like British Aerospace, the Armed Forces, many local authorities and RSL’s like Wakefield District Housing. It needs to be universal.

We need to be clear that in an increasingly complex world, with developing technology, 5 good GCSE’s, including English, Maths, a Science and a modern foreign language are the entry level qualifications for the labour market, and Labour politicians need to be honest with their electors. Children who don’t hit the standard are neglected children, and parents who don’t go all-out to support their children in achieving them are failing parents. Yes, some pupils will have specific learning difficulties that prevent them getting there, but we need to be honest about that, be clear about the learning difficulties, and identify other pathways, rather than hiding behind platitudes about little Jimmy being ‘more practical’.

Little Jimmy, because he doesn’t read well, write clearly and grasp maths (including stuff like algebra) is not safe on his own in a modern workplace. Simple as. Tractors have GPS these days, and modern production lines work with one person, able to diagnose and fault-find problems with machinery worth millions. We need to stop lying to kids and their parents that there’s some ‘practical’ alternative to academic achievement. Those days are dead and gone. And sorry, we don’t need hairdressers. Ever. They don’t export anything. I haven’t used one in ten years. Try it – you won’t regret it. Give the money you save to something genuinely useful, like XH558, Black Mike, the People’s Mosquito or the DPS.

We also need to be clear that regeneration needs to be holistic, and look at localities in their totality. Pat discusses the problems of poor infrastructure and historic dereliction. Colleagues were involved in English Partnership’s Coalfield Programme. It did clear up some appalling cruddy polluted sites, and former coalfield areas often look pretty darned bucolic these days. And, as well as wonderful parkland, it created lots of sheds where Poles, Bulgarians and Romanians now work in logistics… It didn’t bring a single STEM-led HE institution to any coalfield town. And, where higher level opportunities for coalfield residents are increasingly in cities like Leeds, Manchester and Sheffield, it fostered delusions that places like Leigh or Rotherham could compete with them.

Crucially, we need to look at its success in creating electrified commuter railway… Meters electrified? 0. In the pit village where I catch a train, it’s still a Pacer. Kiveton’s got a lovely country park, but the trains are still Pacers, and Leeds is still an hour away. What actually matters?

Finally, we need to be honest with people about where work is. In the 1880’s, the pit villages where I worked in Yorkshire were full of people with Staffordshire accents, who’d left there to work in the new deep mines in Yorkshire, in places like South Elmsall or Kiveton. Seams in places like Dudley or Bilston were worked out, and miners moved. There are huge opportunities now in places like London and the M11 corridor, and some local people take them up, but they invariably involve sleeping in a Travelodge, a Premier Inn, or a van during the week.

Dave Douglass, the veteran Yorkshire NUM activist writes about leaving a pit on the Tyne on Friday and starting at Rossington on Monday back in the sixties1. Council housing, and a huge nationalised industry with a personnel function allowed that to happen. Making it happen now means assaulting the huge edifice of embedded class-privilege that is the London Green Belt, and NIMBY planning policies across the Greater South East. If there are jobs in the south-east, working people in the North and Midlands should be able to take them up, and they should be able to bring their families. If the majority of local housing isn’t affordable to a couple on average wages borrowing three times their combined income, a local authority should not be allowed to refuse residential planning permission. For anything. Ever. Unless it’s a SSSI or a National Park. Otherwise, the socialist approach should be Build Baby, Build, Greenbelt Inferno…

The corollary is that people have got to be willing to move. As a Rugby League fan, and someone who’s had a soft spot for the London professional team ever since I watched Fulham play at the Polytechnic Ground in the mid-1980’s, I’ve always been struck by the fact that it’s been easier for London to recruit Australians and New Zealanders than Northerners. We need to get people from places like the Yorkshire coalfield to recognise that Sunday lunch does not have to be eaten at Mam’s, and that children can be looked after at nurseries, not just by mothers and aunties.

As an Ulster person, I left home for University in Leeds in 1980, and thereafter I saw my parents twice a year. Suck it up. You’ve got mobiles, Skype, Whatsapp and e-mail. I queued at a coinbox…

1. [Douglass, D. (1977). The Durham pitman. In R. Samuel (Ed.), Miners, Quarrymen and Saltworkers (1st ed., pp. 205–296). London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.]


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