By Jayne Dowle:
Modern politics is not a friendly place. It’s a cut-throat world where decisions which seem to defy logic are made on our behalf and reputations are ruined through the anonymous means of social media. It is easy to forget that there are actual people involved.
The forthcoming General Election is no exception. Too much of what passes for debate seems to be going on in the background rather than on our own doorsteps.
It’s no exaggeration to say that many of us are so disillusioned by politics and politicians we’re not even listening. I don’t have the space to list all the reasons why this might be.
The words “trust”, “honesty”, “integrity” and “understanding”, and a lack of all of the above probably covers it.
However, I’m excited because my own constituency, Barnsley East, has a new Labour candidate, regional GMB officer Stephanie Peacock.
At the time of writing, there has been no confirmation of candidates running for other parties here.I assume they are taking the time to pick their strongest card.
This is a safe Labour seat. It’s never been anything else. However, this General Election is different. Local supporters are seriously divided over Jeremy Corbyn as leader, and we’ve never had a woman before. This shouldn’t matter, but it will. And Ms Peacock is young, not even in her 30s.
There will be misogyny. There are still men around here – with impeccable left-wing credentials – who believe that a young woman’s place in politics is making the tea and taking notes.I hope she is ready for this. She will need to find a way of both giving and gaining respect when she comes across an old miner with coal dust and bitterness in his veins.
However, she sounds ready for the challenge. Ms Peacock is hailed as a Labour rising star with heavyweight backing. She’s the partner of influential party figure Tom Watson, and is hailed as the best doorstep campaigner ever by Michael Dugher, the outgoing MP. For now, I can only speak to her, but other candidates should take heed.
Who knows where the pieces will fall on June 8, but here is a chance to do politics differently. All contenders should see the battle in Barnsley East as a big picture of political engagement overall. Instead of counting potential votes, they should regard each constituent as an individual, with their own concerns and worries. Rather than trotting out dogma, they should practice listening, properly. Not listening was the biggest mistake made by politicians in the run-up to the EU Referendum. And look where that got us.
The first thing to know is that we’re complicated. Barnsley East abuts the town centre – where the Barnsley Central seat will be defended by Dan Jarvis, still hailed as a potential Labour leader – but it stretches towards Doncaster and Rotherham. In doing so, it passes through village after village where coal was once king. It is 30 years since the last pit closed. The landscape, once scarred by heavy industry, is returning to rural beauty – very beautiful in some parts. In economic terms, however, these communities are nowhere near recovery.
There have been notable inroads; new industrial estates where call centres and logistics provide work. However, there is no magic solution, no major industry offering jobs for all, and precious little support for entrepreneurs and small businesses. The candidate who can bring not just hope, but practical solutions to the issue of employment and economic growth, will do well.
However, no candidate can rely on the impressions of a casual observer. They must delve beneath. For instance, anyone driving around Barnsley East will see thousands of “council houses”. Some might equate this with “poverty” or “lack of aspiration”.
Behind every front door though is an individual story. One hard-working family might have bought their own house on a mortgage, another could be struggling to put food in the fridge. Yet another person might be struggling to care for an elderly relative and suffering from mental health issues themselves. A skilled politician will find a way of addressing the concerns of each and every one of these people.
They will also recognise what it is like to see a child struggling in a failing school, or to wait for months for a hospital appointment or be turned down for support even though they are too disabled to have a full-time job. Neither will they will dismiss concerns about crime and anti-social behaviour with talk of “initiatives” or refuse to discuss immigration. I told you it was complicated.
Ms Peacock has already hit the nail on the head with one public observation: “The Tories… have no idea what real life is like in places like Wombwell or Worsbrough [or] Kendray or Cudworth.”
I live in Worsbrough. And I agree. I’d like to see Theresa May telling the teenagers who hang around outside our local supermarket smoking and drinking about her strong belief in vicarage values. However, above all, Ms Peacock should not assume that a simple matrix of Tories bad/Labour good will wash with people round here. And neither should any other candidate.