I’ve just finished reading William Woodruff’s ‘Beyond Nab End’, the sequel to his bestselling ‘The Road to Nab End’ – I thoroughly recommend both books to anyone seeking an antidote to the cynicism of our age. The first book is a moving account of Woodruff’s childhood as a Lancashire lad who grew up in the poverty of Blackburn in the wake of the First World War, the son of a weaving family. The follow-up continues his story as he moves to London and works in a foundry in the East End before, with a little help from sympathetic figures in or around the labour movement, he studies at night school and earns a scholarship to Oxford where his studies are interrupted by war.
One of the reasons why I adored these two books (and thanks Marcus for the first one!) was it took me back to some of the long conversations I enjoyed with people of Woodruff’s generation during my teenage years. Coming from a Lancashire (former) weaving town myself I had heard much about the struggles that went on during the depression years for the cotton industry – struggles in a collective sense and a personal and family context. As a young Labour Party member I spent hours talking to veteran Lancastrian socialists who cut their teeth politically in the 1930’s – men who took the temperance ‘pledge’, men who taught in Workers Education Association classes.
I heard of the men who died in Spain as volunteers and I spoke to men who fought against fascism and in defence of their country in the Second World War. I heard of the clubs and the socialist Sunday schools that organised picnics in the country and study groups. Those conversations shaped my political outlook and I like to think that the core principles I gleaned from those men remain with me now. Later, when I had chance to study the early years of the labour movement in Lancashire I read the newspaper reports of meetings attended by hundreds of workers discussing everything from pay deals to philosophy and all manner of international issues. Imagine trying to organise such meetings today.
Many of these men held religious beliefs, others took a godless but nonetheless deeply ethical socialism as their guide but together their confident class and community pride produced a generation of men and women who had a firm moral outlook allied with a genuine belief in the capacity of man to change the world for the better.
Although my home town was one of those to be dubbed ‘Little Moscow’ class warfare of the Marxist-Leninist kind never took root in Lancashire nor of course in many other working class communities in Britain – the militancy was always connected to a reformist agenda for realistic yet radical change.
It was that spirit of the labour movement which encouraged working men, like Woodruff, to educate and ‘better themselves’ while never forgetting their roots and never leaving their people behind. The collective struggles through the unions for pay and conditions and through the Labour Party for broader social benefits were allied to a commitment to give the next generation a chance to enjoy greater social mobility and those aims bore fruit with the 1945 Labour government. These roots are what still bind so many of us to the Labour Party no matter how often we may feel it’s governments have failed to live up to expectations.
It is easy to drift into a nostalgia for a lost era but I strongly belief that the spirit of those times needs to be refound by the modern left. What strikes me most in revisiting some of those conversations, prompted by Woodruff’s beautifully told accounts, is the pride of working people and the sense of morality of the men and women of those times. Morality is a word that brings smirks or surprised frowns when raised in conversation these days, largely because the term has been over-associated with sexual issues, but morality is of course, about much more than codes of sexual behaviour.
We in the wealthy west live in times where a strange form of hedonism or selfishness has gain hegemony, where making assessments about right and wrong is considered to be ‘judgmental’. We are told that other people’s behavior is none of our concern – if it is to be discussed it is in the abstract – rarely do people intervene to deal with problems in their communities. To its shame the left has allowed morality to become a term associated with Tories who blather about ‘Victorian Values’.
Of course, New Labour initially looked to ‘ethical socialism’ as a creed that could hold together its repackaged agenda but despite the occasional references to the idea in conference fringe-meetings and think-tank papers, the key task of reintroducing the moral dimension to local and national political life appears to me to have been sidelined by the day to day cut and thrust of politics and power.
But it is the idea that can reinvigorate the left and give it new purpose. The break up of working class communities and in many senses the break-up of the traditional working class itself have left many atomised, rootless and with no other goal in life then self-benefit. The state is expected to sort out the problems beyond our doorsteps, yet the state bodies (particularly at local level) are losing their legitimacy and therefore the ability to carry out their tasks effectively. Politicians are the ones who are supposed to deal with society’s many challenges, yet respect for politicians is at a low. In contrast to the active communities of the past we have handed over our responsibilities but we have little interest holding to account those who we have given the task to. Perhaps we should take our responsibilities back from them.
Yet to do so requires a political outlook which has vision and, dare I say it, a sense of morality. We need to abandon the cynicism that has gripped us and refind the ethical outlook and evangelical spirit that inspired movements for change in the past. There is no reason why scourges such as lingering poverty, drugs, violence, crime and prejudice cannot be dealt with by active citizens of vibrant communities. And how can we expect to tackle global challenges if we aren’t even interested in our own streets and squares?
If the left really does want change, if it believes in the ability of ordinary people to carry out that change then isn’t it about time we tried activating our towns and cities?