Coalfield and cod
BY-elections tend to take place in Labourheld constituencies, because Labour MPs are more likely than others to die of old age, to get highly-paid jobs in the Common Market, or to go to prison. As a result, the student of by-election campaigns spends little time in southern England, Northern Ireland or the agricultural shires, but he gets to know places like Stechford, Workington, Walsall and now Ashfield and Cirimsby which go to the polls next week. Both these Places are off the tourist track but nevertheless are revealing of modern England. The Ashfield constituency includes nine Pits of the prosperouS Nottinghamshire coalfield, as well as such hosiery factories as Pretty Polly, one of the world's largest producers of tights. At Sutton-in-Ashfield to 1811, the Luddites destroyed 200 stocking frames, and in 1817 one of their number, Jeremiah Brandreth, was hanged. However his name lives on in the Brandreth Heating `-0, as well as in Gyles Brandreth, the gifted young publicist, who accompanied Lord Longford to the stews of Copenhagen, and Industry. is now a prominent man in the Jubilee The most famous man born in this constituencY was Lord Byron, who made a fine speech in the House of Lords on behalf of t, he Luddites, and whose name is preserved M.the Lord Byron Bingo Hall. Many of the Miners here, whom one sees in their cloth caps with whippets to heel, go to work at astwood, the site of Sons and Lovers and the birthplace of 'its author, the ghastly u. EL Lawrence.
Industry thrives in Ashfield, a blessing attributed to the M1 Motorway, and
nen1PloYment is negligible. The coalfield 0.ne of the few that turns a profit, conditions underground are not bad, and the miners are 'moderate' when compared to their colleagues in Wales or Yorkshire. But whatever they may think of this government, miners remain loyal to Labour and should keep it in power in a seat with a 22,000 rrlajority. The previous MP, David Marquand, resigned for a cushy EEC job. i At these by-elections, one gets a depressing insight on the horrors of modern England. One specific horror was brought to candidate by a remark of Tim Smith, the Tory oa,ndidate, when he was canvassing at an ,t1,121 folks' home. 'It's curious,' he. remarked, _nal Yesterday morning we canvassed a flew housing estate where the average age, e,c.luding children, was about twenty-five. alvhis Morning we're meeting people whose i,,,e,rage age is about seventy-five.' It is not -"'al extraordinary but monstrous that modern town planners have brutally and deliberately parted the generations, thus
depriving the old of their family environment, and at the same time depriving the young of help with the children.
As we went into the old folks' home, Mr Smith asked an assistant if he had 'brought the matches,' which turned out to be book matches, emblazoned with Smith's face and name, for distribution to the electorate. 'We think it's a first, this use of matches,' said Mr Smith, a bouncy young Old Harrovian, who does business in this constituency. It seemed to me that matches were not the ideal gift for old folk who would only be reminded that their pensions do not stretch to tobacco. Moreover I thought of those terrible fires that break out so often in homes like this. Strangely enough, only a. few minutes later the fire alarm went and the staff literally ran upstairs to lead or carry the old people down to the assembly area. 'They're using your matches already,' I said to the candidate, who muttered something like, 'Just you print that!' The Labour candidate, Michael Cowan, is an important man in Nottingham politics. 'He's well known in the constituency, and hated,' I was told by a local journalist, who went on to explain : 'He's bloody rude and reduced one of our girl reporters to tears.' The Labour Party prefers to refer to its candidate as 'abrasive.' The Socialist Worker candidate, a local lady, is said to be worried about what will happen when coal runs out. The National Front candidate, a local man, will campaign on law and order since there are not enough immigrants to make that an issue. The Caravan Owners candidate, a local lady, has now withdrawn from the contest.
At Grimsby, on the other side of the East Midlands, a candidate is standing for the Malcolm Muggeridge Fan Club. The Labour candidate, Austin Mitchell, who is fighting to hold the seat made vacant by Anthony Crosland's death, is well known from his frequent appearances on local television. He has a marked and disturbing resemblance to Jonathan Miller; so much so that I found myself wondering when he was going to drop the Yorkshire accent and start mimicking someone else. He is smart enough to admit (unlike some Labour politicians) that even the workers are grumbling about their income tax but it was sad to hear his argument that 'high taxation means more government spending, which means more jobs.'
The Conservative candidate, Robbie Blair, is an Aberdonian but he has worked at Grimsby for thirty years in the food processing industry that supplements fishing. He seems personable and shrewd. Much
depends here on the Liberal vote, which in the two elections of 1974 was 24.0 per cent and 20.6 per cent. The present candidate, Andrew de Freitas, is a white Guyanan of Portuguese ancestry and, although a Grimsby councillor,does not quitefit in to this very clannish town. Given the present despondency of the Liberal Party, it looks as though much of their vote will go to the Conservatives.
Two local issues confuse the campaign and may cause some odd switching of votes. The success of Ireland in getting a proper fishing limit, followed by Britain's failure to do the same, has all but ruined the local industry. By contrast to Hull, whose fleet fishes the distant waters, Grimsby specialised in medium waters like Iceland and in the North Sea waters now plundered by Russians and others. On the fishmongers' slabs where you once saw fat, grey cod, you now find an array of baby plaice, coley and weird creatures with huge heads full of alarming fangs.
All three parties want a fifty-mile limit but it was Labour that took us into the Common Market and Crosland himself who botched the negotiations on fishing limits. However, Mr Mitchell carries the most conviction about the threat of Common Market fishing vessels, because he wants Britain to get out of Europe.
The other local issue is the Local Government Act, by which Great Grimsby, as it is strictly called, has been torn out of Lincolnshire and merged with Hull into something called Humberside. Of all the changes wrought by the dreadful Peter Walker, this was the most flagrantly idiotic. Although, or perhaps because they are both fishing towns, Grimsby and Hull in Yorkshire regard each other with real dislike. Referring to Mr Mitchell, the Labour man, a Grimsby Ratepayers Association said they had 'a bellyful of being ruled by Yorkshire.' The Tory Mr Blair points out that he wrote an article at the time describing the Act as a 'very bad mistake'; but the fact remains that the Act was passed by a Tory government. Do the leaders of the Consei vative Party understand to this day how much that Act depressed and enraged their members in the provinces?
PS. With reference to my opening paragraph. The sad death of Sir Peter Kirk (rather absurdly described in The Times as a 'dedicated and enthusiastic European') shows that the pressure of work in the Common Market, that helped to kill Crosland, can prove as dangerous to Conservatives.
PPS. If by-elections take one to drab, soulless parts of industrial England, so too does diplomacy. One reads that James Callaghan has invited President Carter to Washington, Co Durham, the heart of that region corrupted and ruined by T. Dan Smith, Andrew Cunningham and their friends in the North-East Labour Party. President Carter and the accompanying journalists will get an accurate picture of English life under Labour.