Time to move on from the politics of victimhood

"Labour appear frustrated that they can no longer stoke the furnaces of industrial resentment for votes." Damian Barr on the old and new divisions in Scottish politics

Labour losing Glasgow City Council is like the Wombles losing Wimbledon. The morning after the local elections the Telegraph crowed: “Tories win seats in Scotland’s poorest areas and even former site of Ravenscraig British Steel plant.”

I, son of one of the thousands of steelworkers thrown on the scrapheap by the Tories when they closed the Craig in 1992, actually despaired: the furnaces went out again and the cooling towers came crashing down once more.

But then I began to feel glad. Because the final stage of grief is acceptance. Critically, accepting is not the same as approving. It remains true that Thatcher, then Major lied to the workers and their families, making promises they knew they could, but would not, keep. A dozen men, representing the tens of thousands dependent on the Craig, walked from Motherwell to London to plead with Thatcher for their future. She was too busy to show her face when they arrived on her doorstep.

My dad’s internal clock ticked as if he was still making steel – he’d wake up for shifts that were long over

Decades after he was laid off, my dad’s internal clock ticked as if he was still making steel – he’d wake up for shifts that were long over. He still smells faintly of coal and sparks. Betrayal made many men like him bitter and I don’t blame them. But you can’t build a future on bitterness, and it’s a toxic basis for politics. If they are not to be completely wiped out, Labour must finally reject the self-defeating politics of victimhood. They must look forward, as their opponents are doing, while also honouring the past. They must stop guilting the electorate.

Interviewed by the Sunday Post, Nathan Wilson, the newly elected Conservative and Unionist (that bit’s important hereabouts) councillor for Motherwell South East and Ravenscraig said: “I don’t remember Ravenscraig being demolished. But it feels like I do sometimes because it’s an issue here. It has been part of my formative  political years.”

He is 23. Down the road his 25-year-old Tory colleague Meghan Gallacher won Motherwell West, celebrating her victory in a pair of glittery Union Jack heels. So much for apathy. I realised with mild horror that Gallacher went to the same school as me but, of course, 20 years later it’s not the same, any more than I am or the constituency is. We must all be allowed to change.

The area, like the economy, has changed almost beyond recognition

Where the Craig once towered, glowing night and day, there are now ‘bought’ houses. Ravenscraig is no longer a factory – it’s an estate, built on broken promises. Some of the people living in those houses voted for a Tory. That’s a slap in the face for men like my dad. It wouldn’t be my choice either but the area, like the economy, has changed almost beyond recognition. Around £200m has been spent building a sports centre, a shiny new college and roads.

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Some locals still nurse their wrath but many – clearly an electoral majority – have moved on. They feel taken for granted by Labour who in turn appear baffled and frustrated that they can no longer stoke the furnaces of industrial resentment for votes. Newport, another former steel town, is set to go blue for the first time since 1983. Nobody wants the mines reopened or steelworks back – they want biotech and engineering and financial services. Jeremy Corbyn continues mining a seam of resentment that’s almost exhausted.

Meanwhile, the Tories exploit those afraid of IndyRef2. “There’s been a massive realignment in Scottish politics,” said Wilson. “The new divide is: are you a Unionist or are you a Nationalist? I think there’s a lack of clarity from the Labour Party just now on where they stand on the Union. I think people are unclear on Labour’s position.” Corbyn brings to Unionism all the certainty and style he brought to Remain.

There’s a lack of clarity from the Labour Party on where they stand on the Union

The Unionist/Nationalist divide is not new in the West of Scotland. Growing up with a Catholic mum and a Protestant dad I was taught to say I supported Motherwell, rather than Rangers or Celtic, because it got me looks of mild pity rather than a kicking. Earlier this month shocking footage emerged (shocking only if you’ve never seen Old Firm fans in action) of rabid Rangers supporters chanting: “We hate Catholics, everybody hates Roman Catholics.” Waving Union Jack and Northern Irish flags they sing to the tune of Tiffany’s I Think We’re Alone Now and climax with: “Then you put your arms around me and we stumble to the ground and we say we hate Catholics, everybody hates Roman Catholics.”

Poor Tiffany. Sectarianism is a resurgent political force as the red, white and blue Conservative AND Unionist party hijack Unionism. There are bigots on both sides and they are a minority but by exaggerating that ‘AND’, the Tories profit from division, carpetbagging hate that will fester long after June 8.

May’s strong and stable façade has been cracked by her social care U-turn, and the polls are tightening, so it may be more of a competition than a coronation. However close it is, the outcome seems set. On June 9 we must accept, without approving, so we can begin to move on. Just as the residents of Ravenscraig have.