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Voices from Labour’s Past

SteveBassam.jpgSteve Bassam reviews David Clark’s latest gem of oral history

David Clark’s new chronicle of Labour’s first generation of pioneers is a gem of oral history. Few parliamentary colleagues will know David as a writer but he has written extensively about the origins of the Labour movement in the North East and North West of England. His latest volume draws on the lives of eight activists born in the 1880's and 1890's.

There are common threads to the stories. Many were from non-conformist backgrounds, with most from poverty-stricken households. Their politics were born of necessity and forged by a vision of the change they might bring. They were often self-taught, helped by trades unions and the cooperative movement, and also through the political education afforded by the Independent Labour Party (ILP). For most, the First World War became part of a defining moment in their lives, especially those who were to become conscientious objectors.

David’s material is based on conversations he captured on tape during an enforced absence from Parliament in the 1970's. Oddly, given the outcome nationally, he won a seat for Labour in the 1970 general election only to lose it in 1974. One of those quirks of his political history.

The eight narratives paint a compelling picture of Labour in its formative years as a new fledgling party emerging from the trades union movement, Lib-Lab MPs and the emergence and decline of the ILP. What is striking about the stories is the lifelong commitment of the activists and their families to the pursuit of social justice, fairness in the workplace, and the communities they came from. Those early pioneers did not see their work as part of a career in politics, but a living breathing expression of their values in all that they did.

Take Connie Lewcock as an example. Born in 1894, by the time she was in her teens she became seized of the importance of women's suffrage and as an activist contemplated blowing up Durham Cathedral to highlight the cause. Fortunately, she had second thoughts. But her rebellious streak was channelled into taking on the male dominance of the teaching profession. It was this, and working in North East mining communities as a teacher that drew her increasingly into Labour politics.

Together with Will, a miner who became her husband, they became party organisers. They took their hard working values and principled commitments into the communities in which they worked. In time, they helped secure Labour’s great position of strength in Durham and Newcastle on local councils and with parliamentary elections. Connie herself eventually became a leading local councillor specialising in housing and representing Benwell ward in the West End of Newcastle – now Jeremy Beecham's patch.

What is fascinating is the way that the pioneers built up branches, developed the cultural side of our political heritage through socialist Sunday schools, cycling clubs, Women's sections and Labour clubs. These things helped our party take root in communities and gave us relevance to the everyday world of work and home.

David Clark's pioneers teach us much and remind us of our values. They also enable us to peer into the world from which Labour drew strength and helped generations of working people grow and aspire to a better life for all. We are indebted to David for setting down the people's history of our early activists told by them, not mediated and told for them. I found 'Voices' calling out for a bigger audience seeking to inform what we all try to achieve for future generations today.

Lord Steve Bassam of Brighton is Shadow Chief Whip in the House of Lords. He tweets @StevetheQuip

Published 10th March 2015

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