“For the first time since they had arrived, Mary Curtis woke without surprise. She knew that when she opened her eyes, she would be in the hotel bedroom and not at home.”
Thus begins an unpublished novel my father wrote some time in the 60s or 70s. I’m not sure which, I didn’t turn up until 1987. Dad was in his sixties by then. It is a sensation I am all too familiar with, waking up without knowing where you are. My parents were separated before I was born, I travelled back and forth between homes so much, I got used to never being quite certain where I will wake up. Mum moved around a lot, I’d lived in so many houses by the time I was 11, I couldn’t really describe any of them to you. Dad lived in the same little house that his family had lived in since it was built.
We’re a few days past the election now, and I’m having that same sensation. It takes me a few moments to remember something has changed. For a lot of people, things haven’t changed. The distinction between the coalition government of the past and the conservative government of the future will be subtle, but painful. While we are all gradually waking up to the reality of one of the most surprising elections in years, I am forced to think of things a little closer to home, because in a world of unexpected changes, the things that happen the closest can often be the most surprising.
Most people probably haven’t heard of Morley. First mentioned in the Domesday Book, these days it is a mostly unremarkable town that made the papers after Ed Balls was narrowly ousted by Andrea Jenkyns after a lengthy recount that finally concluded at 8 in the morning. It was, we heard, a stunning condemnation of Labour’s economic policies by the nation, a clear support for the Conservatives, one more blow against Labour, one more seat in a Tory majority. The papers have dwelled on Andrea Jenkyns, the peasant that toppled a giant, but little has been said about Morley, and just how remarkable a switch this has been.
You might be mistaken for thinking that Morley’s only significant contribution to British politics was being the birthplace of H. H. Asquith. Certainly, if you’ve lived in the town for any significant period of time, it’s easy to get that impression. Asquith lends his name to a prominent street, and his birthplace is a fairly prominent location. Spawning the Prime Minister best known for leading Britain in to the First World War is certainly no small achievement, but often overlooked is Morley’s role in the development of the early Labour Party. As part of the small cluster of Yorkshire Textile towns, Morley and its people were there at the start. Founding member of the Independent Labour Party, Ben Turner, represented Morley twice during the 20s and 30s, and together with Batley, Bradford and a number of smaller towns and communities, they formed the foundation upon which the modern Labour Party would be built.
Socialism runs in my family. When my Dad was a boy, he noticed my Grandfather kept a small book hidden in his jacket pocket, and was careful not to let other people see it. My Dad was surprised, because he had been under the impression my grandfather couldn’t read. When he got chance, he snuck a look at the book, finding a copy of Robert Tressel’s 1911 political novel The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists. The novel, a detailed examination of capitalism and a call-to-arms for socialists, was widely distributed among the working class. Often discreetly, for fear of reprisals. Of course, my Dad didn’t know that at the time. For years after, he assumed the book was pornographic.
With people like my grandfather in the electorate, the Conservatives didn’t stand much of a chance. The last Conservative MP was Wilfrid Wills, soldier during both World Wars and a member of the Wills Tobacco family. Wills left office in 1935, and for the next 80 years, Morley had Labour MPs as its representatives.
So what changed?
Like a lot of other towns in the North, Morley gradually lots its purpose. Traditional industry was hurt in the 70s and 80s under Thatcher, the same as the rest of the North. The repurposing of Leeds for predominantly financial sector businesses changed the makeup of the town, but the killing blow came in the construction of the White Rose Shopping Centre in 1997. Championed as a boon for the local economy, it bolstered New Leeds but slowly ate away at businesses in Morley until everyone but supermarkets and charity stores gave up entirely. Today Morley isn’t much more than a shell, a quiet place to live for people working in Leeds and the surrounding areas.
This is where Andrea Jenkyns comes in.
I couldn’t tell you much about Andrea Jenkyns. Not many people can. She’s fairly new to politics and what there is to know mostly comes from her campaign. Born in 1974, she left school to work in retail, starting as a Saturday girl to management level. She worked in retail for fifteen years, before doing a variety of things including a modest singing career, self-employed music tutor, and a short stint as a councillor in Boston before being removed for maintaining a second job. Her only connection to Morley is a brief stint as a retail manager at the White Rose Centre at some point in the 1990s.
In many ways Andrea Jenkyns is a missing piece of the puzzle. She doesn’t live in Morley, but she represents so many of the people who do now. Career retail managers commuting to the centre, financial sector professionals travelling in and out of Leeds. As the Labour party lost its identity in the 1980s, so did Morley, and as its traditional community moves on or passes away, it ceases to exist as anything more than a point on the map between three cities. And a place like that can’t be a safe seat for any party. In the New Morley, it seems oddly fitting that she should be Labour’s replacement.
In January 2014, my Dad died a week before his 88th birthday. He died within walking distance of the home he was born in, owning little else but the house I grew up in. For me, he became the final condemnation of the British class system. A man who wrote beautiful poems, and drew wonderful pictures. Who studied dictionaries and encyclopaedias and maps. He was one of the cleverest, kindest people I ever knew and he lived and died on the bottom rung of the ladder, proud to say he never stepped on anyone to get a little higher.
I have always been what you might call a reluctant Labour voter. I turned 18 in 2005, after two wars and a few years before an imminent expenses scandal. I lived through New Labour. My Dad was not so easily shaken. He voted in every election, every time, and he voted Labour. Not because he approved of New Labour, but because he’d seen Labour almost from the start, and feared for a Britain without them. When he died, Labour lost one of its safest voters, and while one pensioner could not sway an election, I can’t help connecting the two in my mind.
This year the Greens used a slogan “Labour isn’t Labour Anymore.” It’s probably true. But then, how could they be? The places where Labour was born no longer exist and voter turnout is at an all time low among the demographics Labour was created to represent. After all, Morley isn’t Morley anymore. Not for me, anyway. And if working class communities exist, like those my Dad was raised in, I don’t know where to find them.