Wednesday 8 February 2017

Labour Could Be Driven Out of County Durham, by David Lindsay

Late last year, Durham County Council’s Teaching Assistants, without whom primary schools in particular simply would not function, went on strike twice.

Theirs was and is the most important industrial dispute in Britain today. When was the last time that two thousand people in this country went on strike, and that twice in three weeks?

They had faced being sacked at Christmas and reappointed on a 23 per cent pay cut. That, despite being paid far less than their counterparts in neighbouring areas.

Meanwhile, the Council had written off its loan of £3.74 million to Durham County Cricket Club, which provides the most powerful Councillors and Officers with a private box.

The late Davey Hopper of the Durham Miners’ Association gave invaluable support until his sudden and untimely death last July. That Association retains considerable clout both locally and in the wider trade union movement. It continues to be central to the struggle.

The fabulous Durham Miners’ Hall has hosted rallies of a size and energy not seen since the Miners’ Strike, and the Teaching Assistants marched in their hundreds, to tumultuous applause, at last year’s Durham Miners’ Gala.

That is the largest festival of working-class culture in Europe, and 2016’s was itself the largest since the 1960s, with at least 150,000 present. The Teaching Assistants’ cause was endorsed from the platform by speaker after speaker, including the rapturously received Jeremy Corbyn.

All of this has led to a stay of execution. Fresh negotiations are ongoing, with those affected at last in the room. But the fight goes on, with enormous political ramifications.

Durham County Council was the first local authority of which Labour ever won Overall Control. That has never been lost, in more than 100 years. The Labour Group on that authority is the largest in local government.

But that Council is now the Mike Ashley of the public sector, and the twenty-first century version of Margaret Thatcher’s National Coal Board. This May, it should be taken to No Overall Control.

Very large numbers of Labour Councillors have absented themselves from the votes on this issue. But enough of them have attended to ensure that the Teaching Assistants have been betrayed.

The Councillors, all of them Labour, who have thus voted ought all to lose their seats to whoever was best placed to remove them, very preferably activists in the Teaching Assistants’ remarkable campaign.

Several have already announced their “retirement”, in one case at the ripe old age of 23. There will be more.

The Liberal Democrats and the Independents have been stalwart supporters of the Teaching Assistants. Therefore, they deserve to be re-elected. That leaves only the Labour absentees, plus a mere four Conservatives who abstained.

Whoever the new Leader and Deputy Leader of Durham County Council were to be, they must not be members of the Labour Party.

The Teaching Assistants’ flag, which is now ubiquitous in County Durham, must fly from County Hall every day for the following four years, at least.

This victory will rank alongside the election of Ken Livingstone as Mayor of London in 2000, the election of George Galloway (a strong supporter) as MP for Bethnal Green and Bow in 2005, Galloway’s election as MP for Bradford West in 2012, the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Leader of the Labour Party in 2015, and Corbyn’s re-election in 2016.

Or, if you prefer, it will rank alongside any of the great Liberal Democrat by-election victories, or the election of Douglas Carswell in 2014, or his re-election in 2015, or the election of Mark Reckless in 2014, or the election and re-election of Caroline Lucas in 2010 and 2015, or the result of the referendum on EU membership.

That is not hyperbole. Labour’s loss of this unitary authority for half a million people would be very big news, and it would set the scene for the 2020 General Election.

For reasons that will by then be 25 years old, but which retain currency, I shall be contesting the new seat of Durham West and Teesdale, most of which is where Pat Glass MP will be retiring.

I shall be doing so without any party designation, not even the word “Independent”. I am not a member of any political party, but I am part of numerous overlapping networks of political interdependence, not least the Teaching Assistants’ campaign.

Since he has taken to reasserting himself in British politics, I challenge Tony Blair to declare that he is the Labour candidate for this open seat here in his old County Durham stomping ground. Either that, or to shut up and go away.

It is imperative that Grahame Morris, who has given the Teaching Assistants stalwart support, be re-elected at Easington. But there has been no such support from any of the other MPs who intend to stand again, all of whom are Labour.

Likewise without any description next to their names, candidates from among the Teaching Assistants, the Lions of Durham as once there were Lions of Grunwick, need to stand against those MPs, and they need to be sent to a House of Commons that their presence would transform.

A similar dispute is ongoing in Derby, where the former MP Chris Williamson needs to return to Parliament for whichever constituency he chose, and where, again, Teaching Assistants or their supporters need to be elected on this same basis for every other seat.

The Liberal Democrats are on course to deprive the Conservatives of dozens of Remain-voting constituencies in the South.

Aside from this dispute, at parliamentary elections in the North, Labour’s support holds up enough to win under First Past the Post.

That system will also secure the SNP’s continued strength in Scotland. Wales will still be pretty much as it has always been. All bets are now off in Northern Ireland.

A hung Parliament in 2020 is a very distinct possibility. I fully intend to be there. We should all want the Durham and Derby Teaching Assistants to be there.

Let’s make it happen.

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