Lords Diary: Lord Bassam of Brighton
Labour Peer Lord Bassam of Brighton on his week in politics
Social media is sometimes a terrible thing. It can consume time and people, facilitate hatred, and have tragic consequences. Something highlighted by the sad, recent death of TV presenter Caroline Flack – and which certainly made me reflect on the negative side of modern communications.
At the same time however, it has made me think a little more about the positive side of social media, when for example providing information or education. For example, in how it makes history – one of my abiding passions – feel relevant.
During half term recess, I visited the People’s History Museum (PHM) in Manchester to celebrate its first 10 years at Spinningfields. I am privileged to co-chair the board of trustees. Challenging and fun, we describe ourselves as an ‘activist museum’ – neither standing still nor afraid to take on interpretations of modern democratic history. Next year we will examine migration, working with a wide range of organisations to curate. Unsolicited contributions are welcome, as they often bear fruit.
Indeed, I was recently offered a fascinating addition for the PHM archive – a copy of the official result of the famous Labour win in Brighton Kemptown at October 1964 general election. Dennis Hobden edged this by just seven votes in a two-horse race against the Conservatives. Folklore has it that Hobden emerged victorious after seven recounts, with each result going back and forth between the two parties. By the seventh count, his rival and agent were alleged to have been a bit worse for wear and unable to continue.
The significance of this local result was that Labour could form a government for the first time in 13 years – and the rest, as they say, is history. The important reforms of race relations, decriminalisation of homosexuality, and abortion laws followed. The 1960s changed Britain forever, and we moved on from the social repression of the Profumo years.
So, voting changes lives. I’ve met many activists down the years who claimed they personally delivered the votes “what won it” and helped put Labour into power. The truth is that they all did.
One great thing about the PHM celebrations was how we attracted significant numbers of young people – excited by the activist nature of our offer. This bodes well, as people see us as a home for making history that looks to shape what happens next. We give context to events such as the 1888 Match Girls strike and its relevance to modern struggles led by women for equal and fair pay.
This week’s political agenda has focused on the Labour leadership elections, the disappearance of Boris Johnson during a national flooding emergency, and arguments over the best legal framework to tackle terrorism. Rumblings about the impact of new immigration controls in a post-Brexit UK together with the Home Secretary’s fallibility with a security briefing also give me pause for thought. When my party’s new leader eventually emerges, we need to quickly rediscover our relevance.
One area where progress must be made is in making the case for the places that have felt left out of the economic strengths our cities exhibit. The government has rightly attached much significance to a town deals programme, which if approached positively could be genuinely transformative for the areas it covers.
Getting the best from local authorities, responsible businesses, local economic partnerships and local MPs will be challenge. But the community responses to the floods speaks volumes about local resilience – particularly where the best of our public services have performed so well. With the coronavirus now illustrating that no country can be immune from such diseases, many of those same services are likely to find themselves tested again in the near future.
A big parliamentary majority does not mean you should expect to solve all your political problems. If Boris Johnson didn’t recognise that truth already, he will be forced to do so once bids for public spending mount up and commitments made during the election find willing advocates across the political spectrum. It’s also rather ironic that the Conservatives Brexit-based election victory, in bringing issues back from Brussels, makes the role of the UK state more critical than ever. Successes and failures will be more acutely and immediately felt.