Saturday Night in Darlington

D.A.N. Jones

Darlington is not like Bermondsey: it has not been ruined yet. In Bermondsey you could see the local community industry, the dockland, turned into a building-site – with the traditional community leaders and politicians quarrelling fiercely over the future of this land: older and younger members or ex-members of the Labour Movement were at each others’ throats in an extreme local version, a microcosm, of the national split. You could see the blocks of council flats – many of which have housed the families of young dockworkers quite happily – boarded up, scorned and despised: for the young men and women have moved away. You could see older small houses, once workmen’s cottages, now extremely desirable for young professional people. In came a bright young professional man as candidate for the Social Democratic Party, cutting between the quarrelling ‘socialist’ factions, and boosted by the London media-men (conveniently near at hand and poised to foment and exploit the Labour quarrel). This candidate scooped the pool, assisted by the votes and abstentions of elderly Bermondsey people bewildered by the ruin and general beastliness, not sure why good old Bob Mellish was being so rude to nice young Peter Tatchell. The vicious graffiti about Tatchell were gleefully reported: not so the more libellous graffiti about Mellish.

None of this applies to Darlington. Here the Labour Movement, left and right, finds it quite easy to remain united – though members fear the national split and its effect upon their voters and trade-union members. It has never been exactly ‘a safe Labour seat’ – as compared with other towns of the North-East – but just marginal enough to indicate that it is a good place to live, neither too suffering nor too smug. The trouble with safe Labour seats, from a resident’s point of view, is that some of them are over-populated with the miserably poor and others have a Labour Party so strong that it attracts ‘right-wing’ members – the naturally authoritative, antiprogressive, self-seeking and smug, the sort who would join the Tories if they lived in ‘a safe Conservative seat’. But Darlington is not like that at all. The Labour Movement is still paternal, the Big Daddy of the town, usually (but not always) in command of the Borough Council, the natural party of government, perhaps, but always on guard against possible overthrow.

The community industries have not gone yet. Unemployment, by North-East standards, is relatively low – though every active Labour man fears and fights for the threatened coke-oven plant of Fishburn, the steel of Wolsingham and, most important, the British Rail engineering workshop at Shildon. Twelve days before the election, a huge, dignified processional march encircled the compact town in support of the maintenance of Shildon’s efficient and valuable work-place – in a town with little alternative employment for its people; moreover, something like a third of the workers come from Darlington. That Saturday, the Conservative candidate told me, rather impatiently: ‘All the Labour Party talks about is the declining industries.’

You don’t see deserted council flats in Darlington: the desirable small houses are still owned by ordinary working people and all the council is building, at present, is housing for the elderly. The older people in the town still seem to me divided, fairly amicably, between traditional local Tory and Labour teams – as if they were local rugby clubs; it was the younger people, thinking in terms of national economic policy and the national Labour split, who struck me as most likely to welcome the newcomers, the completely non-local organisers from the Social Democratic Party – who are much more interested in creating a national movement than they are in Darlington or the North-East. When I last visited Darlington, 11 days before the election, there was none of the bad feeling of Bermondsey, that fatuous ‘bully-versus-sissy’ campaign that left the SDP with an opening. The voters were positively enjoying their election – and I felt that both the Tories and the SDP needed a ‘cry’, a gimmick, to make a hole in Labour’s majority. But I write on the day before the Budget and I daresay that, by the time you read this, gimmicks will have been found.

The media in the North-East are far more fair and reasonable than the London-based sensationalists who stirred the muddy pool of Bermondsey. The Northern Echo and the Darlington and Stockton Times are both Westminster Press Group papers, with a liberal, rather pro-Liberal stance: the politicians of Darlington hold that their media-men (like most British media-men) lean towards the SDP and they point to the fact that Michael Foot’s huge overflow meeting attracted less press wonder and applause than Shirley Williams’s. But to a Londoner, these local papers seem pretty fair and accurate – stating but not overstating the obvious fact, recognised by the Telegraph papers in London, that the Labour man, Ossie O’Brien, is by far the most able candidate.

The press is even more important now that radio and television are so influential, since it is the pressmen who supply the opinions that the more modern media promulgate: the SDP candidate is the nearest his party has to ‘a local man’, on the grounds that his face is familiar as that of a local television presenter – but presenters are not known for expressing opinions and handling questions. It happens that Tony Cook is exceptionally weak in these skills and his national organisers have been trying to shield him from the press. Even if he were better at it, he would still have to suffer the prejudice against his trade: ‘He can’t say anything without an autocue.’

Though I am a Labour man, I am conservative enough to want to conserve Darlington. When I was a soldier at Cattcrick, Darlington was one of our Saturday-night-out towns and I associate it with drinking and dancing among exuberant Geordie-type working people. It seems quieter now (and I recognise it’s much more Yorkshire-style than ‘Geordie’), and on my Saturday-night tour of the town, going round the clubs in middle age, I was amused to see how carefully the big daddies have tucked away the teenage discos, out of earshot. In the council’s large, popular Arts Club (which the Tories want to close), the ‘Heavy Irony’ disco was right at the back of the handsome old building (once a Church-owned college), away from theatre, concert, craft-centres – and residential neighbours. It was the same at the rugby club: the bar was for grown-ups, enormous second-row forwards, celebrating Saturday’s victories: no ‘Disco Members’ were allowed in here. This club is based on the old boys’ club of the old grammar school, so it was not exactly packed with Labour Party activists. They were ready to rib and rile my friend Frank Robson, a Labour councillor, rugby hooker and referee, but seemed to think of Labour as the big daddy whose tail must be twisted – and also the power-centre which they wished to influence.

They knew Ossie O’Brien well enough to jibe that his house was too nice for a socialist’s (being a local man has its disadvantages), but that merely offered the opportunity to remind them that he was brought up in poverty in a Darlington industrial slum, now cleared, and of his achievements in becoming such a well-educated man, a director of studies at an internationally-linked Co-operative Movement college, an influential Darlington councillor associated with the late Labour MP, the revered Ted Fletcher, in schemes of proven worth for introducing new industries to the town ... I met Ossie, that same evening, in another club, the Darchem Social Club (named after Darlington Chemicals) where he had strolled in (without press attention) to chat to men and women (all over fifty, I’d say) gathered for bingo and dancing. Fortunately, he arrived during the quiet concentration of the bingo, so that I had the chance of a talk with him before his little walkabout and the subsequent dancing. A silver-haired man in his fifties, of the ‘inspiring schoolmaster’ type, he needs no autocue, no notes. I told him what the Tory candidate had said to me and he smiled with an opponent’s pleasure. ‘Not much of an economist, is he?’

Ossie O’Brien, of course, has Labour achievements to point to, while the young Tory, Michael Fallon, can only criticise those achievements and make promises, predicting something called ‘a more favourable economic climate’. What does ‘productivity’ mean to young Fallon? Can he persuade the voters that it means something more than ‘fewer workers’? Fallon told me – rather carelessly, unguardedly – that ‘productivity means changing union attitudes.’ That is not what productivity means to us literary men – though it might serve as a sort of vague slogan: ‘Productivity is about getting a grip on the unions.’ Fallon thinks Labour in Darlington has spent too much ‘ratepayers’ money’ in provision for leisure: he thinks Labour has encouraged industries in the wrong way, leasing land which should be sold. As for the old community industries, he thinks Labour’s hope of maintaining them is doomed. Investment? ‘New investment must be matched by increased productivity,’ says Fallon.

But O’Brien, quickly, quietly, not disturbing the bingo, raps out: ‘You don’t need evidence of productivity before investment ... It is investment that increases productivity ... Of course, we encourage small businesses – we set up an industrial forum, to help employers who don’t plan ahead – but to think small businesses are the answer, that’s just crazy ... We need reflation, incentives, public works ...’ O’Brien has an unclouded view, a confident policy: his statistics are not memorised and then forgotten or confused, like Fallon’s – they are a part of his thinking.

It was good to see him doing his walkabout in the Darchem club, quite naturally. The Tories and the SDP were also doing the rounds – but they haven’t the entrée and think they can wear rosettes in non-partisan environments and make speeches in impartial clubs.

The next morning I went round with Labour Party canvassers in a marginal area of Eastbourne, the Bank Top ward. A beautiful sight in the sunshine among those pretty little houses was a mountainous man on a very small bicycle with his cycling children, all in Salvation Army uniform. The big Salvationist stopped and told us: ‘What, canvassing on a Sunday? You are disturbing people. You will lose votes. Leafleting on a Sunday is all right – but not canvassing.’

‘We’ve had no complaints, Ray,’ said my friends. ‘No objections at all.’

‘You’re getting an objection, now,’ he said, with a fake-menacing grin. ‘I shall raise it at headquarters.’

And the big Salvationist cycled off, en famille, picturesque in the sunshine. He is a County Councillor – Labour, of course. It is interesting to note that the Labour MP for Bishop Auckland, Derek Foster, is also a Salvationist. They’re not fools, you know, not all pie-in-the-sky. Derek Foster has been playing a large part in this election and is responsible for an excellent booklet about the threatened Shildon railway works, written in collaboration with the shop stewards, arguing for its conservation and development, explaining its difficulties in terms of the Government’s determination to hamstring Shildon financially and encourage competitors.

As we canvassed, I saw why this little-house area was ‘marginal’: these streets are the sort I know in South London, with people of similar income and unpredictable bias. One nice old lady is quietly Tory; her neighbour is quietly Labour – ‘I’ve never met Mr O’Brien but I knew his parents and his grandparents ...’ Next is a young housewife: ‘Oh yes, I’ll have a poster. Railways, you know, British Rail.’ Next is an Echo compositor, a Tory. ‘I know you,’ says a Labour canvasser. ‘We were at school together ... Good God, haven’t seen you for forty years.’ Another middle-aged man, more Tory than Labour: ‘Look, we’ve got to have investment. You must get that across ...’ Labour is well in the majority, so far. Now here comes a boyish old man, chortling to meet his Labour opponents. Almost dancing towards us, he raises a clenched fist, chanting: ‘The Iron Lady, the Iron Lady!’ We ask: ‘Can we rely on your vote for Ossie O’Brien?’ He’s happy to cry, ‘No! No! The Iron Lady for ever! Down with the unions and the militants!’ – before he dances back to his house, mad about his team. His quiet neighbour takes a Labour poster, nodding seriously, and grins silently when we urge him to put it up, if only to annoy Mr Pickwick next door.

But the ones who worry me (as a Labour man) in these pleasant streets are the thoughtful men in their thirties who say, ‘Well ... I don’t know ...’ – and then talk about the state of the Labour Party. The voters in these Darlington streets are much like their equivalents in South London – except that they have more to say on the doorsteps: they don’t treat strangers like strangers, not so much as we do in the South. ‘I have always admired Tony Benn,’ says one, ‘and I have always admired Shirley Williams.’ This is exactly where the national split counts. It has nothing to do with Darlington: it has a great deal to do with the splitting of loyalties, seeing a team, a coalition, a national fraternity broken up by feud. These people are a long way from London. Frank Robson, like many Darlington people, has a respect for the national politicians about whom most of us Londoners are rather blasé. He thinks Tony Benn is ‘electric’. The people of Darlington were enjoying the political contest: they were pleased to meet Callaghan and Shore in the market, they overflowed halls to hear Michael Foot – and Shirley Williams.

If the SDP does well, it will be a national event. This is a national movement of adventurous newcomers, elbowing the local Liberals and their own headquarters out of the way. They have efficiently taken over a shop for their own headquarters. ‘The local Liberals and SDP are very nice, but ...’ says a rather patronising SDP activist from London University. ‘We’re not really interested in Darlington, of course,’ he admitted. I’m afraid that’s true – and I’m also afraid that the SDP might do rather well.