THE FURORE AROUND THE RECENT ELECTIONS for local councils, city and regional mayors, police commissioners and a parliamentary constituency in England has subsided. Politicians and much of the media have interpreted both the unexpected and the foreseen according to their own devices and desires.
Vox pops have invited mockery and aroused despondency because unchallenged stereotypes have informed so much of the debate. Now is perhaps the time to reflect upon the virtues of place and – dare I say it – to stand up for the virtues and the challenges which are inherent in provincialism.
There is a pitch of sneer – a batsqueak audible to the attuned ear – which may be heard when the ‘Red Wall’ towns of northern England are under discussion. These places are often spoken of but rarely understood. They have become shorthand for communities which have long voted Labour, feel themselves let down by Labour and are carelessly categorised as being unsophisticated and bigoted. The people of the post-industrial, rugby league towns are often patriotic, admiring of the military and the monarchy and sometimes a little too eager to present themselves as rough-spoken realists with no time for nuance or for acknowledgement of ambiguity. The caricature induces wincing among those who consider themselves more sophisticated and broad-minded. They have also been seen by some politicians as window dressing for their own advancement and will, I suggest, be dropped and disregarded when they have served their purpose. It really stretches the imagination to expect Dehenna Davison to hold Bishop Auckland at the next election.
Some of these voters, rightly fed up with being thought insignificant for so long, show clearly that social conservatism runs deep in their communities and that these may sometimes be places where cultural Labourism and Ukippery button up round the back. I grieve for Workington. But at least the town’s current representative is a Wukkiton lad born and bred.
This matters because the tendency to parachute in the kind of candidate whom party leaderships think will do the job may well work in the short term. However, It also tends, particularly in areas which previously had a strong Labour culture, to alienate local party activists who, election by election, have done the hard work on the streets and who are generally perfectly capable of choosing a home grown candidate. There has long been a significant fissure between working class Labour voters and members and those whom they consider to be ‘latte-sipping metropolitan intellectuals’ or some similarly dismissive and inaccurate epithet.
If Labour is to cohere, both these factions must learn to listen to each other with respect and to draw on each other’s experience in framing and legislating for a progressive and just future. I know from my own experience as a former Labour activist formed in provincial northern English socialism and educated – not without some discomfort – into that stratum of the Left which espouses internationalism and social liberalism, how painful this can be for both sides and how uneasy it may make us. A knowledge of the power of shared place is essential if this process is to bear fruit. It is well to remember that people who have a different language or who have been formed by different stories love their places too. This is both seed and fruit of patriotism and fraternity. It is in this manner that local loyalty has the potential to bind us in solidarity. To ignore this is perhaps to betray our own roots, whatever those may be.
The deep sense of place which is found in those who have spent most of their lives in one locality should not be held in contempt. At its best, it speaks of commitment and a strong sense of mutuality. To know a place through generations is to know something of its history, its strengths and weaknesses, not simply as ‘book learning’, but as somethng in the bones. It is in the shared story that people build their identities and to hold it lightly is to tear at so much which should unite us and assist us to mend wounds which we do not need to have.
Geology, flora and fauna, architecture, customs and speech are all a part of this relational knowledge and those who have never had it – or for whom the currents of life have carried far from their founding place – should have that in mind. A deracinated politics is a blinkered, cruel and ultimately futile politics.
Jill Segger (England) is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, The Catholic Herald, Tribune, and The Friend, among other publications. Her acclaimed book Words Out of Silence was published by Ekklesia in 2019. She is an active member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and has a particular interest in how spirituality influences our social and political choices. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. Jill became an honorary associate director in 2010 and works on editorial issues. She is also a musician and has been a composer. Her recent columns are available here and her pre-2021 articles can be found here. You can follow Jill on Twitter: @quakerpen