However, like many other Northern towns and cities, we are undergoing a crisis of political identity.
Two things entirely beyond our control and yours underpin this. Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader in September 2015. There were plenty of Labour supporters here who welcomed the choice of a hard-line left-winger promising to stamp out any trace of Tony Blair’s New Labour, which they conveniently forgot brought about the party’s largest landslide victory in 1997.
Then, less than a year later, in June 2016, Barnsley voted overwhelmingly to leave the European Union. The concerns the EU referendum raised, from immigration to imperial measures for fruit and veg on Barnsley market, overwhelmed the nuances of party-political opinion and made traditional party allegiance almost irrelevant.
It’s more complicated than you think, isn’t it? It’s not enough, any more, for Labour to trot out promises on the NHS and education, although of course people do want to be assured that both would be safe in your hands.
You’re dealing with a disenchanted and disassociated electorate who feel cast adrift by the party that their parents and grandparents most likely voted for out of habit.
As you conduct your party conference in Brighton, please put towns like mine to the forefront of your mind. Your future – and the future of the Labour Party – depend on us.
I’m in Barnsley East, so my MP is Stephanie Peacock. A mile up the road is Barnsley Central, the constituency of Dan Jarvis, who announced recently that he will step down from his post as South Yorkshire Mayor to concentrate on his Parliamentary role. Listen to him, and I mean really listen. His first-hand experience of constituents’ concerns should be treated as election-winning information.
At the 2019 election, Mr Jarvis held onto his seat with a massively-reduced majority. Just a few thousand votes stood between Barnsley becoming another smashed so-called Red Wall constituency. Meanwhile, a few miles to the west, Miriam Cates took Penistone and Stocksbridge, a former Labour constituency.
She is campaigning heavily to improve train services through her constituency. You need to watch and listen closely to her too. She is speaking from personal experience of the delays and frustrations of living in South Yorkshire, so close to major cities such as Leeds and Manchester, but feeling cut off and ignored.
The same could be said of thousands of long-standing and potential Labour voters across the borough of Barnsley. I’ll count myself as one of them. One of the first things you must understand is that we’re not all the same.
You should know that although we uphold pride in our industrial past, we’re a diverse bunch. There are trade unionists here for sure, and also retired and former miners and steelworkers, like my own father, but please don’t assume one size fits all.
If you went into the town centre tomorrow and took a straw poll – that’s not a bad idea by the way – you would find a huge range of people who would like to vote Labour. However, you would also find that many of them – teachers, healthcare workers, students, small business owners – feel that you don’t understand them or care about their views.
If you really do want the party you lead to win hearts and minds, and then the next election, please make it a matter of urgency to understand these people.
You were last here in August 2020, I think, as part of your first trip to Yorkshire as Labour leader. Visiting colleges, businesses and community groups, apparently. If you can spare the time to come again, do get in touch.
I’ll show you the £178m regeneration of the town centre, for sure, but I’ll also take you to the streets just a few steps away where families are living in abject poverty.
These people should be your natural supporters. However, I’d wager that if you knocked at their door many of them wouldn’t even know how you were. This must change, and quickly.
You’re a lawyer, trained to ratify abstract concepts. There is nothing wrong with this but Labour needs to reconnect with the people it should be championing. You won’t do that from a desk in Westminster, or even a podium in Brighton.
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