15 October 2011

What I did on my holidays

My view from the health spa

Like many others stung by the perfect storm of general inflation and a terrible exchange rate, a trip abroad for our holidays was ruled out this year in favour of a road trip to a caravan resort in Devon.

The South West of England is not a part of the world I spend much time in. Apart from a couple of exploratory visits trying to organise a union on a tile factory in 2002, a trip to the English Riveria was a real novelty and, as it turned out, very agreeable.

I am pleased to report I steered clear of any political exchanges and even managed not to explode when confronted with some casual racism in the communal hot tub.

But the political landscape of wherever I go on holiday always fascinates an anorak like me - this time especially as I holidayed in the heart of what can only be described as Coalition heartland.

The South West is an almost entirely Labour-free zone (except for a handful of four MPs) with 36 of the 55 Westminster seats in the region held by the Tories with Lib Dems incumbents in the remaining 15. UKIP boasts two of the six MEPs for the region. Although Labour has always been historically weak in rural areas, it is fair to say that electorally speaking the South West of England is the most depressing piece of the UK for socialists.

I had largely bought into the notion that the cuts are heavily politically loaded towards Labour areas in the poorer English north and midlands and that the Tories are always historically good at looking after their own leafy enclaves from the worst economic ravages they unleash. While it is largely an accepted truth that the Labour supporting north is being hit far harder than the Tory-loving south in terms of public spending cuts, it was depressingly surprising for me to see the wider economic situation in the beautiful south is just as dire and disastrous as elsewhere in England.

One evening I watched a deeply demoralising edition of BBC Spotlight - regional news for Devon and Cornwall. The big item on youth unemployment had a regional angle showing how bad the situation was facing young people in ostensibly well-to-do seaside resort areas like Torbay. This was followed by a feature on how private sector rents in North Devon are higher than in major cities like Birmingham or Manchester, and an item on how Plymouth Council is set to make another £8 million of cuts in the next budget.

But the most devastating feature was about the Central Devon town of Okehampton losing yet another factory and 90 jobs into the bargain. Okehampton hit the headlines last year when it was reported that many local people subsisted on food parcels to survive after a severe rash of job cuts and factory closures in the private sector. The item on Spotlight featured comments from the food bank volunteers predicting yet more demand from local residents forced to turn to charity handouts simply to fulfil the most elementary human need to eat.

Like the recent news of countless thousands of highly skilled BAE and Bombardier jobs being lost in the north of England, Okehampton is also suffering from the exact opposite of what the government tell us should be happening. The abject lie that the private sector has been somehow 'crowded out' by the public sector and will come in and rescue us all from spending cuts is being well and truly nailed here.

Local Tory MP Mel Stride appears not to have yet commented fully on the latest blow to the Okehampton economy. Searching his website, it seems that Stride’s economic masterplan for the town is to be “positive”, scrap Sunday car parking charges and urge individuals to set up B&Bs.

His vague and almost comical advice to effectively just ‘grin and bear it’ sums up the entire Coalition government policy when it comes to the economy.

This is not a cheap party political point - New Labour stood by and let entire manufacturing industries flee abroad when they were in power. But at the time they were able to at least point to lower levels of unemployment and alternative jobs being created elsewhere – even if they were lower value and more insecure. The same certainly cannot be said now.

Instead we see the Coalition effectively putting their hands up and saying there is “nothing we can do” when they are faced with the reality of private sector meltdown - a clear and damning admission of defeat as we enter what is going to be an even more damaging recession and financial collapse.

I cannot help but fantasise that the people of Okehampton will punish their elected political representatives– almost every single one of which is a Conservative – at the next elections and return radical new councillors and MPs to send a message that enough is enough. Okehampton Labour is on Twitter and has set itself the goal of returning a Labour county councillor for an area it describes as a “sea of conservatism”.

Sadly this fantasy is tempered almost immediately by the embarrassing lack of any serious radical job creation programme policy coming from the national Labour Party to assist those brave activists. The inspirational occupation of Wall Street seems a universe away from the Coalition-controlled south west of England. It beggars the question - if people have no jobs and cannot even afford to eat yet they still return Conservative representatives, what hope is there for England?

No comments: