“People are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them.”– James Baldwin
A personal response to the May 2015 election
On election night, two constituencies, both close to my heart, always receive prominent coverage in the media. Houghton & Sunderland South, the first to declare its results for the last six consecutive elections and Basildon, which has become, for many, representative of the ‘state of the nation’.
Election night is always a peculiar experience for me because of my very personal connection to both places. My parents came down to live in Basildon New Town from Sunderland in the 1960s, shortly before I was born, when my father got a job at the Marconi factory. They lived in a temporary building on a farm off the Arterial Road, whilst their new home was being built. Like many who migrated to the New Town, they doubtless came in a spirit of optimism. Lewis Silkin, Minister of Town and Country Planning in 1948 said, “I want to try to build something here which you people deserve – the best possible town that modern knowledge, commerce, science and civilization can produce.”
Now, over sixty years later, the sense of hope that surrounded the town has dissolved. Basildon and its inhabitants are often targets of mockery. The reality TV show The Only Way is Essex has crystallised the stereotypes. Essex Girl is seen as a young peroxide-blonde whose orange-toned skin is the result of too many hours on the sunbed. She wears white stilettos, false eyelashes and gel nails; she dances around her handbag. Essex Man does not fare much better. He was first written about twenty years ago by Simon Heffer in the Sunday Telegraph as a bit “brutish”, “culturally barren” and “breathtakingly right-wing”.
Importantly, since the nineteen fifties, Basildon has returned results in line with the national trend at every general election. As a result, the pollsters look to it for an election night snapshot of what is to come. It was really catapulted to fame in this context in 1992. When the Basildon result was declared early and David Amess, a Thatcherite Conservative, kept his seat, the political pundits took this as confirmation that Labour was done for. If Labour could not woo Basildon Man, they figured, then they surely could not woo the rest of the country. Social scientists Dennis Hayes and Alan Hudson have argued that the town “… is a barometer for the mood of the nation … it is Middle England territory, a town dominated by skilled manual workers … whose habits, values and preferences are believed by both left and right to hold the key to electoral success.”
I left Basildon in 1985 to go to university, but I still have close connections to the place. My Mam (who has never lost her North East accent) still lives there and I am a frequent visitor. Having left, I often feel like a bit of a chameleon, slipping into different roles, my own accent shifting depending on who I’m with. And there’s still a part of me that feels like a bit of a Mackem. So last night, when the result from Houghton & Sunderland South was announced, I felt a swell of pride when Bridget Phillipson, a strong Labour woman, won her seat. Not only did I agree with her politics, but her voice resonated as the voice of ‘home’: that pull of ancestry lent me a peculiar sense of belonging and as I watched on TV. I felt as if I was in the room, wearing my red rosette, cheering with her supporters.
When Phillipson’s victory was followed by that of two more female Sunderland MPs, it felt like a victory for working people everywhere. It is never lost on me that my ancestors were ship builders from that part of the world; there’s a blacksmith in my lineage too and an innkeeper who made his way down from Scotland after the Highland clearances. I’m of good solid working class stock and it’s something I never forget. So the words of Julie Elliot in Sunderland Central resonated: “People want representatives that stand up for working people and their families… to put the interests of working people first.”
But I knew that my euphoria wouldn’t last long. It was unlikely that Basildon would return a result that was equally pleasing to me; we’d heard about the exit polls after all and I haven’t met many Labour voters in my years in Essex. All the same, I wanted to believe that people from my home county would do something different this time around.
So David Dimbleby cuts to presenter Samira Ahmed. He gets her name wrong. Not a good start. It’s a surprise, because Samira is an old friend, but one I haven’t seen for years; she was at Oxford with my husband; she attended my wedding with all of my relatives from Basildon. Now she’s there to report on the election outcome. Before I know it, I’m distracted from the events in Basildon and tweeting with Samira. ‘It’s like ‘Friends Reunited’ she says. And it is.
It’s a welcome diversion, but it’s too early for the Basildon result and I’m left guessing at the outcome, fearing possible UKIP gains and wondering why working people, seen as so ‘typical’ of us Brits have chosen successive Conservative MPs. My own Dad used to vote Tory and he died before I had the chance to ask him why.
When Dad moved to the New Town, there was no stigma around Essex. He was never an Essex Man, always retained that strong North East identity, whilst mine is so much more fluid and uncertain. When I was young, I had very few political beliefs. I was brought up to believe that politics was somehow dangerous; something best avoided. I still remember the day, aged sixteen, when I saw an exhibition on Hiroshima at Basildon’s Towngate Theatre. I picked up a CND badge and wore it home. Dad was watching the Sunday afternoon Western, absorbed in the drama, his left leg cocked over the arm of the chair, a lighted fag in hand. Everything was peaceful… until he spotted it.
‘What’s that? That badge? You can take that off right now.’ His mantra was simple: ‘Don’t get involved in politics.’
Several weeks later, he backed up his argument with the help of a made-for-TV movie starring Sissy Spacek and Henry Winkler. Katherine, set at the time of the Vietnam War, was based on the life of Diana Oughton of the Weather Underground, a revolutionary student organisation. Oughton died in the 1970 Greenwich Village townhouse explosion when a bomb she was building accidentally exploded. The moment of her death was portrayed in the film and whilst I was still reeling from the shock of it, Dad turned to me, a small smile crossing his lips: “That’s what happens when you get involved,” he said. “I rest my case,” he might have added. “Avoid rebellion. Don’t question the status quo.”
When people ask me to describe my childhood, I tell them I grew up without a sense of history. Living in a New Town, no history surrounds you. Like many living there, I was cut off from my roots, but did not know what I lacked; my own ignorance did not really concern me. It was only in later years that I understood the implications of the absence of history in my early life. And sometimes I wonder if that’s it – if that’s at the root of the divide. Those in the North East know about their working roots, they live with a sense of historical struggle; whereas – is it possible – that many people brought up in new towns have lost sight of that? They live in the ‘now’ and ask questions about the now. What will most benefit me? Who is stopping me from getting a job? If I want to succeed, what is the measure of that… money? And if it’s money, then the Tories are the party of economic success, right?
No doubt I oversimplify and am at risk of perpetuating the stereotypes I so seek to avoid. But I grew up without a sense of history and it is something I deeply regret. I know that a better historical and political education would have helped me, but it wouldn’t have given me all the answers. Even now, I still don’t understand why working people vote Tory. Last night, as the Basildon result came through, I wish I had asked my father that question. Without history, we are lost.