Chris Hood sent me this ‘Story of the Haswells Community Party’ last week. I publish it in full to offer you an alternative to the farce that masquerades as democratic process which currently dominates the media:
The saying goes that you could stick a red rosette on a passing dog in some parts of the North East and it would get elected. Analysis of the last six General Elections shows there is plenty of truth in that often-heard phrase.
Well in just 13 weeks, nine people came together with their family and friends to help generate a 40% turnout out of voters, the third highest in County Durham, and complete a clean sweep in the Haswell Parish Council elections, replacing the entire council and its chairman – a standing Labour county councillor.
All in a place where there hadn’t been a parish council election for over a decade.
Haswell Village and Haswell Plough are neighbouring villages in County Durham that both make up the Haswell Parish. They are about 6 miles east of Durham City and are part what was once the safest English parliamentary seat for Labour – Easington.
Since the 2015 General Election this has fallen but with a majority of over 14,000 votes, you can easily say that Labour had no worries here. This part of the world was once “dyed in the wool” Labour. A place where the distain of the Conservative Party, and its former leader Margaret Thatcher, was palatable. County Durham and the Labour Party went hand in hand.
Haswell was also the home of the world’s first coal mine as we know it, being the first in the world with a steel cable down its mine shaft. This revolutionised the coal mining industry back in the 19th Century. But in the last 70 years, there has been decline and reduction throughout the villages. Despite being condemned as a Category D village in the 1960s – doomed to wither on the vine without financial aid – Haswell refused to lie down and die.
However it was still for Labour. Labour was the party of the people, the working class, those most in need – people that made up the majority of East Durham.
The Haswells were part of District of Easington Council which was abolished as part of the 2009 structural changes to local government in England. This council along with several others came together to create Durham County Council – the second largest unitary council in England. But in the past 4 years, since the last Durham County Council election, there has been a huge shift in the way that people who live in the county felt about the Labour Party at both a county and parish/town level. Many of these town and parish councils were dominated by Labour party members, and most often chaired by Labour Party County Councillors.
And this is the crux of the matter. They were led by county councillors who voted for many highly emotive issues which deeply divided people across the county. Issues such as the proposed sacking then re-employment of Teaching Assistants on a 23% pay cut. Issues such as the closure of the Durham Light Infantry Museum – a county treasure, a reminder to our heritage and the final resting place for memorial plaques of many a Durham soldier. Issues such as increased charges to County Durham pensioners for Community Alarm Systems, cuts that led to the closure of day centres, youth clubs, closed leisure centres and care homes, cut library opening hours and slashed school transport funding and cuts that will see severely disabled people across County Durham paying £1 million more for their own care.
All whilst having over £500 million in reserves.
The Haswells Community Party came about because of two emotions: frustration and disagreement. Frustration at lack of opportunity and disagreement in the way the parish council was being ran. A group of people came together due to an unhappiness at how a village and its people had slowly drifted away from contentment and optimism. We may not have been the most affluent but even though the village lacked hard cash it was always believed it was the richest in neighbourhood unity and community spirit……just like all the others in County Durham.
These negative emotions were a result of the effects of a Labour-led County Council which, in the past, would never had seen such brutal policies against working people. Haswell Parish Council was chaired by one of these county councillors, Alan Liversidge, and vice-chaired by a labour party member. The other county councillor for the area, Eunice Huntington, had decided to not only stand for re-election to county hall but also for election to Haswell Parish Council.
In the parish, people were unhappy with decisions that had been made in their name – even though there had not been an election for over 12 years. Their parish councillors were unelected and unopposed.
Rewind back to late November 2016 and there was a vacancy for a parish councillor published on the Haswell Parish Council website. As it was within 6 months of the next election in May 2017, the post could co-opted, meaning no by-election need to take place. I felt like I could make a difference in a village which I called home. I work full-time in the villages, was married in the local church St Paul’s, and both my children, my wife and myself were christened there.
However, I didn’t receive a response. I then decided to stand as an independent candidate when the parish elections were due to come around in May 2017. I thought I’d flip the saying – “if you can’t join ‘em, beat ‘em.” but was (rightly) advised that if elected, it would still be trying to work with 8 other standing councillors. Councillors who the villages didn’t really know or believed in. I had to find other people who felt the same.
The first person I spoke to was Olwen Gray, who raised her family in The Haswells, lived here her whole life, is hugely passionate and felt the same as me. She was a convenor and an active TUC member. I told her my idea and she was immediately in. So the one became two which then soon became four. I spoke to Hayley Milburn, a social worker whilst Olwen spoke to Joanne Cook who runs her own successful business. Hayley spoke to her sister Kerry Welch, a regional manager for a day care company while Olwen spoke to George Dunstone, a retired prison officer. Finally I spoke to Sandra Hartley, who works at both a charity and a school, Elaine Major, a former school governor and Billy Ramsay, a local farmer.
Everyone of us has family who live in the villages. Our ages range from 29 to 83. We live and work here and all felt the same – it was time for a change. We therefore decided to stand together as independent candidates.
However, for one of our meetings we invited Susan McDonnell from The North East Party to come along and advise us. Susan, who stood in the 2015 General Election against Labour’s Grahame Morris in Easington, was a former Labour party member and keen advocate of independence, individual voice and local people. She advised that, due to a lot of independent names being on the ballot paper, and therefore creating the chance of splitting each others votes, we might want to form our own party so people could recognise us all under one cause.
We agreed so then became a constituted group, followed by registering ourselves as a minor political party with the Electoral Commission. The Haswells Community Party was born.[In the May 4th] election Labour narrowly maintained its majority at Durham County Council despite losing key cabinet members. In an election which saw more than 30,000 votes cast, the party saw its seats plummet from 94 to 74 including several in heartland areas including ours.
However, in the parish and town elections there was a huge shift, especially in the Haswells. We overturned the whole parish council, had all of our 9 candidates elected and prevented two standing county councillors from being elected onto the parish.
The people spoke because we were prepared to listen and act. We had a different approach and promoted democracy in the way be believe it ought to be carried out – by listening to the electorate and doing what they want, not a party policy or whip.
For this to happen in a Labour dominated area such as the District of Easington, in a parish that has had no one standing for election for over a decade and had a Labour County Councillor s it’s chairman, and with no real previous desire to vote, we believe that this is a story that is worth being told and the people of The Haswells now want to be heard.
At the beginning of the 13 weeks, we as a group decided that our ethos should be underpinned by a quote that we all liked. It is on all of documents and even in our manifesto. The Haswells Community Party goes by one simple saying, and where we feel it is best to leave this story:
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead, 1901 – 1978
Thanks for listening.
Chris Hood on behalf of the Party.