Sadness and survival in Labour’s
BILL HARTLEY attends two strikingly different manifestations of Northern working class culture
Two annual events took place in the North of England this year. One was the Durham Miners’ Gala, the other the Lowther Show near Penrith. The former has been described as the last mass working class demonstration left in England, though as usual it struggled to attract senior representatives of the Labour Party. Ed Milliband made it in 2012, the first time a Labour leader had bothered to attend in 23 years. Alternative attractions this time included union bosses Bob Crow and Len McCluskey, after which it was downhill all the way into showbiz territory and the actor Ricky Tomlinson. As a demonstration of working class solidarity, the presence of a platoon of call centre workers hardly fitted in with the industrial heritage of the North East: the people who irritate us with cold calling walking behind the banners of the men who once toiled underground in dirty and dangerous conditions. These days the Gala is an enjoyable day out seasoned with a bit of nostalgia and a platform for class war enthusiasts. It might be more relevant to re-route the march through the nearby Beamish industrial museum.
June through to August is the season for country shows. The Lowther isn’t among the larger gatherings such as the Game Fair or the Great Yorkshire Show, with their numerous trade stands. Rather it lies somewhere between these big events and the homely village shows. A few manufacturers of the Land Rover and farming machinery variety show up but in the main the Lowther is about country sports; activities of the sort which presumably Labour would prefer to see confined to the dustbin. Yet the show is attended in droves by working class people of the white northerner variety, natural supporters of Labour you might suppose.
The local hunts are well represented, sending hounds to be submitted to the arcane judging processes which baffle the outsider. These aren’t the hunts of popular imagination. Up in the far North Country much hunting territory is just too rugged for gallivanting about on horseback. Going full tilt over dry stone walls on a horse would be a quick invitation to a broken neck. Instead the hounds on show belong to the fell packs. They hunt the fox on foot and followers need to be fit to keep up which is why the anti’s leave them alone; there are no horseboxes to provide a convenient focal point for demonstrators. Of course these days such activities are meant to be illegal but the Cumbria Constabulary seem to show little interest.
The people who attend the Lowther are an interesting mix: rural manual workers and tattooed townies with a seasoning of tweedy gentry types. A few years ago when the Lowther was still wedded to its origins as a carriage driving event with a country show thrown in, it wasn’t unusual to spot the Duke of Edinburgh mooching about among the working classes. These are the people whom the country writer Dickie Poole used to refer to as the “aboriginal English”. They come from all over the northern counties and what they have in common is an attachment to the land and country pursuits. Even in August their clothing is designed to deal with all vagaries of Lake District weather. The dogs that accompany them are an assortment of aggressive terriers and other working breeds, often giving a clue to the particular field sport which has brought the owner to the Lowther. Organisations representing different facets of shooting and fishing set out their stalls as do those bodies representing broader interests and allegiances. Service charities show up as does the Rugby Football Union. Even in far off Twickenham an effort is made to connect with the Cumbrian manual workers who play the game at grass roots level.
What links the Miner’s Gala and the Lowther is that each attracts the white working classes in large numbers. Whilst the Gala clings on to a heritage fast fading into history the Lowther in contrast reveals a vibrant culture which is wedded to field sports. In different ways neither gathering of the working classes seems important to senior figures in the Labour Party, perhaps because they can no longer communicate with the people who attend. Rather awkwardly the Lowther promotes some leisure activities which are ‘unacceptable’ to a party which claims to represent their interests. Perhaps it is easier to pretend there is a connection to the voters by settling for an allegiance to a football club on the basis that this provides sufficient common ground.
Labour politicians might find it instructive to observe those gentry types who mix with the working classes at the Lowther. Although well separated by education and social class from the mass of visitors, they have no difficulty in communicating with them because they share the same interests. It is safe to say that a Labour politician who came to the Lowther would meet people likely to show the old British value of tolerance and respect a willingness to look at both sides of the argument. It might help them better connect with the working classes too but just as they don’t much go to the Miner’s Gala you can be sure they won’t be at the Lowther show either.
BILL HARTLEY is a Yorkshire-based freelance writer