Opinion

John Bird: I hope Simon Danczuk gets a chance to fix the problems in Rochdale

"Simon Danczuk is not simply winning his spurs off the reputation of a now dead reprobate. He is putting the record straight"

Occasionally Rochdale gets into the news. Its newish MP put the cat among the pigeons when he suggested there was a recent rottenness at work in his constituency. That the small town he came to represent, just beyond the overpowering influence of neighbouring Manchester, had something moldy at its heart.

The two most famous Rochdalians have gone from Rochdale, and from the world. Both were entertainers.

Gracie Fields brought enormous happiness to millions through music and film, made her money and exited to Capri – and lived there in resplendent, luxurious exile.

The other entertainer, for he was an entertainer among other things, was Cyril Smith – once the most popular, notorious and joyful MP who had made it into the 20th century chamber. He made many people happy, a massive roly-poly giant of a man who kept his Rochdale feet firmly on the ground. Who never married and when once mayor of Rochdale had his mother as his First Lady and Lady Mayoress.

The two faces of Cyril Smith could not be more different. One, the ever-friendly, helpful son of the people; the other, a violent, abusive sexual pervert

The problem, though, was that behind the scar tissue of a northern poverty beginning in the hungry ’30s was a predatory homosexual paedophile.

The two faces of Cyril Smith could not be more different. One, the ever-friendly, helpful son of the people; the other, a violent, abusive sexual pervert. Jekyll and Hyde could have been written specifically for him.

He was a beast who kept boys and young men under his sexual thumb. The boys’ homes and children-in-care regime was ideal for a man who could present himself as a saviour of the needy, while at the same time abusing them.

And no one could say a word about it all. The usual story of compliance happening because no one would ever believe the story that ‘lovable Cyril’ would be abusing those he pretended to help.

Smith died in 2010 and the eulogies from the very top of his Lib Dem party were gushing. But the smile was knocked off of everyone’s faces in 2012 when MP Simon Danczuk (pictured above) outed the vile practices of the supposed oak tree of goodness. Taking his political future in his hands, he burst the biggest bubble imaginable when he went on to publish Smile for the Camera, a book about Smith’s regime of fear and misuse. It is a nasty book that sends shivers through you as it excoriates the reputation and memory of the previously unassailable Smith. I have to express an interest here. I knew Danczuk when he was a young man making his way in the world.

A working-class boy with a mountain of early problems to overcome, a warehouse worker after school, he ended up working for The Big Issue in Manchester. And in 2010 he became the MP for Rochdale.

I met Danczuk recently when he and I were up for an award for books we had written. He got his award later; I still await mine. I remembered his exposure of Cyril Smith and only then did I remember some of the creepy people who hung around boys’ clubs when I was a boy. Did I once expose them? No, they were a part of the system that exists above the young and needy.

Smile for the Camera – co-written by Matthew Baker, former editor of The Big Issue in the North, is a sympathetic read. The writers are intent on giving chapter and verse of Smith’s abuses yet set it against the enormous privations and problems that he had.

A mountain of a man who was formerly a mountain of a boy. Living in abject poverty, brought up by a mother who did not always inspire him, he nonetheless climbed to the top of the Rochdale pile.

Such a struggle was a worthy subject for a book. Illness, hunger, neglect pepper the early pages of his life. Yet he survived, and grew in stature and authority. And once he had grasped that authority he never let go of it until the day he died. Even when he was old and infirm they would still carry his vast bulk out in his armchair to sit and talk to people in the streets.

All of this is in the book. But this fairytale rise from underneath to local and then national prominence is countered by the enormous network of abuse he created for himself. A network that allowed him to get away with it, that allowed people the chance to look the other way; as with other recent revelations.

But Simon Danczuk, I believe, is not simply winning his spurs off the reputation of a now dead reprobate. He is putting the record straight, and took great risks with his political future by so doing. Now his wife Karen, a local councillor, has joined him in the spotlight, with recent allegations about being abused as a child by an elder brother. Her supposedly revealing ‘selfies’ on Facebook drew much criticism.

Thatcher’s broom of the 1980s brought further decline, not a respite or a new dawn. Neglect and defeat seemed the order of the day

Rochdale needs rescuing, according to their MP. It is, he believes, one of the strongest communities in the UK. In spite of being an ex-mill town, it still thrives. The fact that it has problems that don’t exist in the rosy South should not hide the fact that enormous potential exists in its people and in its geography. It is surrounded by some of the most stunning countryside imaginable. It has all of the building blocks of a new way of doing business.

It has a large Asian community that has little of the separation of other communities. But Rochdale does suffer because it has become a place where problems have been dumped

Danczuk is one of the few Labour MPs who will talk about the difficulties of immigration – for instance, with the people who head to Britain seeking refuge and asylum. Danczuk says Britain must be “proud” to offer asylum but that the burden must be spread. There are more than 600 people seeking asylum in Rochdale. A recent report claimed this amounts to one in 41 of all asylum seekers in Britain. Because of the poor nature of some of its housing stock, poor people will come.

On the slopes of a Hampstead Socialism that seems to dominate the Labour Party, according to Danczuk, you can view immigration academically. But to Rochdale it works against the poorest in society. Wages can always be dropped because there is always some new ‘arriver’ who will do the job cheaper.

And having more than 600 asylum seekers must influence the social mix.

It is an enormous job to want to reverse a number of things at the same time. To reverse wherever possible the effects that a recent abusive office-holder has done to your community.

To reverse the damage done when your community becomes a dumping ground for asylum seekers. And to reverse the underinvestment in new industries and new forms of work.

And possibly to reconnect with the feisty history of former times when the ‘Rochdale Pioneers’ led the fight against poverty and malnutrition through the creation of the co-operative movement. Rochdale, once the Mill Town par excellence, producing some of the biggest fortunes ever held in 19th century Britain, declined as the old industries became the new millstones. Thatcher’s broom of the 1980s brought further decline, not a respite or a new dawn. Neglect and defeat seemed the order of the day.

And among it all the local representative was destroying the lives of many young boys and men.

It is a Herculean task that Simon Danczuk has set himself. He does not want to just be a man who got a seat. He has great plans for a revived Rochdale. But first he has to see off the opposition in the upcoming general election. And he has to pay particular attention to Ukip, who are busily ingratiating themselves into the lives of the constituency now that the general election is almost upon us. Stealing some of Simon Danczuk’s radical clothes in the process, no doubt.

There are many lessons to be learned from Rochdale. About ditching the rose-coloured glasses. About investing in people and places left behind by the onslaught of new industries and the decay of the old ones. About the need to expose former corruptions.

I hope its MP gets a chance to continue to teach us them, in his hoped-for revival of Rochdale’s fortunes.

Smile for the Camera: The double life of Cyril Smith is out in paperback (Biteback, £9.99)

John Bird is the Founder and Editor in Chief of The Big Issue. Email him: john.bird@bigissue.com or tweet: @johnbirdswords

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