28th October 2016
-By Paddington Baby-
What Happens When Labour Is In The Wrong?
So the moratorium on Labour party meetings ended with the leadership conference and the sense of dread began as to what came next. At least I made it to the London Labour reception up in Liverpool on the same day, and found reassuring evidence that Jeremy Corbyn was not universally fawned over. He arrived and got up to speak and only a handful of those present bothered to come forward and pay attention. The rest of us carried on with our conversation, leaving the newly re-elected leader to try and be heard over the top of all the talking and laughter as he was widely ignored!
“Would this be happening if Tony Blair was speaking?” someone asked me. Perhaps not.
A couple of weeks later I went to the first meeting of my CLP and there were difficult matters to address as we made our way through the agenda. The chair invited comments on the leadership election and inevitably there were calls for members of the party to desist from criticism of the leadership as some present regarded that to be against the interests of the party. In their eyes it was those of us making the criticism on social media who were at fault for destroying our electoral chances.
But hang on a minute! When were we expected to go along with all the words and actions of our previous leaders without question? Surely even in the case of our greatest and most successful leaders such loyalty would be disadvantageous to those who need us most: the people.
On the 21st October this year the people of Wales and the rest of the UK united to remember the tragedy of the Aberfan disaster. One hundred and forty four people died, mostly young children, under the slurry of pit waste being stored on the hillside which fell upon the school and surrounding houses.
“Not a single NCB official was ever sacked or reprimanded over Aberfan.”
The whole nation joined a tiny Welsh village for a minute’s silence – to remember the lives of the 144 people who died when a rock slide hit Pantglas Junior School
Excuse my ignorance, as I was born some years later, but before now I had never heard of the terrible events of 50 years ago and I was struck by disbelief that waste was being stored this way in the first place. But then the full story came to my attention.
A disaster fund was set up with generous donations coming in from around the world, and after many protests prior to the disaster that the waste tip be cleared, the work would finally be done. However, the then Labour government under Prime Minister Harold Wilson should have forced the National Coal Board to foot the cost. Instead, they took the money from the disaster fund.
The first ever full academic study of the Aberfan Disaster – which claimed the lives of 144 children and adults – is published.
To my mind, this new discovery for me is perhaps the most shameful act of any Labour government. The people certainly did not come first, but it was justified on the basis that as the National Coal Board was nationalised the taxpayer would then have to bear the expense. I could add that such reasoning was not the best advertisement for nationalised industries either, so hardly helpful to support Labour party policy.
Then was certainly the time for the Labour membership to criticise the leadership. And I say that as someone who admires so much of what Harold Wilson achieved as a leader and someone who could actually win elections and improve the lives of people. That makes this episode all the more disappointing.
Ron Davies was a Labour member at the time and remembered the taunts he endured as a result of the actions of his party in government. He went on to become the Welsh Secretary in 1997 under Tony Blair and he ensured that the money was returned as he recognised the cruelty that the action had inflicted on the families of Aberfan.
I remember when Margaret Thatcher died, and receiving another revelation.
Tories appeared on television to say that Labour from Harold Wilson’s time onwards had closed more coal mines than Margaret Thatcher’s government. I checked and it was true. For all I have read about the miners’ strike of 1984-85 I’m left at a loss at to why the National Union of Mineworkers didn’t do more to protest at Labour, especially in the light of Aberfan.
Statistical data set. Historical coal data: coal production, availability and consumption 1853 to 2015
I have read and understood why mines were closing and it is a difficult case to argue with. Some suggest that the fury was rightly directed at Margaret Thatcher because she was swiftly killing whole communities. Well, many of those who lived in one particular community were killed in just one morning, and the National Coal Board and the Labour government should have been held accountable for anything they failed to do to prevent it, and for any actions they took afterwards.
Perhaps politicians in 1966 were not as forward-thinking about public relations as we are now, but there is no excuse for Labour party members now to fail to understand.
What our leaders say and do really matters and we have a duty to always remind them of that.