On Saturday 2nd May, up to 2,000 residents of Bedlington, Northumberland came together to make a “big noise” in protest at the declining state of their town in the face of job losses and Tory-ordered cuts. Protests like this in Bedlington are just the beginning of the fight against the Tories, their austerity, and the capitalist system they defend.
On Saturday 2nd May, as midday approached, up to 2,000 residents of Bedlington, Northumberland came together to make a “big noise” in protest at the declining state of their town in the face of job losses and Tory-ordered cuts. They gathered in the marketplace and converged around the raised stone monument to listen, firstly, to the organiser of the event, Wendy Reed.
Via her megaphone, Wendy said, “For the last 30 years we have seen the population of the town almost double. Sadly, however the infrastructure & facilities needed for this growing population have not materialised, despite promise after promise from the powers that be. We have watched helplessly as surrounding towns have had millions of pounds worth of investment ploughed into them in the form of leisure facilities, retail complexes and tourist attractions, whilst the facilities in Bedlington have declined until it stands here now as a boarded-up shadow of the vibrant, bustling town it used to be. Don’t get me wrong, the other towns in south-east Northumberland deserve the excellent facilities they have and continue to be given – but so do we!”.
Then at midday on the dot, and taking their cue from the pre-arranged church bells, Wendy lead the crowd in a 15 minute cacophony of pan bashing, cheering, hand clapping and whistle blowing; a very powerful din which, if they had been present to hear it, would have deafened the local Labour councillors. Instead, they chose to ignore the protest and, apart from one exception, have done themselves no favours at all by not being there. The unhappiness at the councillors and the Labour Party was tangible. Ian Lavery, at the time a parliamentary candidate and subsequently elected local Labour MP, braved the crowds and received a few verbal batterings from some of the protesters; but, as many remarked, at least he had the courage to talk to the crowd.
The permanent scar of Tory cuts
This once very proud town was once the home to the Northumberland Miners Picnic. Every summer, just like the sister event in Durham that still takes place, thousands of Northumberland miners and their families would line the streets of Bedlington and watch as dozens of brass bands and wonderful banners paraded past, and all would then converge at the bottom of the town at Atlee Park to listen to speeches from local union leaders and Labour politicians. Such was the power of the labour movement; the entire town, and surrounding towns too, were all solid Labour – solid working class.
However, the last few decades have not been kind to the coal mining industry and Bedlington was not immune from this. All of the local coal mines were shut down prior to or following the great strike of 1984-85. The miners of Bedlington, who still worked in the nearby collieries of Ashington, Ellington, Bates and Brenkley, played their full role in the strike, many of them staying out the full year. The militancy and proud fighting traditions of the miners and other workers of the town was the bedrock of the community which, like many of the towns in SE Northumberland, has withered on the vine.
Since the defeat of the miners there has been the gradual rolling back of industry with the closure and disappearance of the garment factories. Many women workers would supplement their family incomes by working part time and even full time in these large companies; but throughout the 90’s and into the new century. almost all of these jobs left the area for foreign lands where the bosses could exploit cheaper labour to increase their profits. The same fate would hit the neighbouring towns of Ashington and Blyth. Other jobs were also lost. The local large aluminium smelter, ALCAN at Lynemouth, closed a few years ago with the loss of another 600 jobs, and, following privatisations and cuts in services, this has compounded the situation even further.
The straw that broke the camel’s back
Now zero hours contracts haunt the area; unemployment levels persist at 6% across the entire county. Youth unemployment just won’t go away either, with those not in employment education or training at 5.3%. Low wages are a determining factor which has hit people’s spending power and which lies at the heart of the deteriorating number of shops and the final decision by Tesco to withdraw from the town square in April. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and comes following a spate of other shop closures, boarded up shop fronts and a general dishevelled look to the front street. This is the real face of Tory Britain.
“It was clear”, stated Wendy, “that people had had enough! We wanted to see our town restored to the place it had been before. A proud town where people could lead decent lives, with a busy and bustling high street.”
So, Make a Noise for Bedlington was launched. Using social media sites, in early March Wendy and her co-campaigner Brian decided to launch the campaign. Money was raised via small local businesses and charities for leaflets and posters, and a host of volunteers came forward to distribute them far and wide; even in the local remaining factories. It was clear, judging by all the comments on Facebook, that the campaign had struck a chord; that there was indeed a response and that the prospect of a big demonstration was on the cards.
On the day there was no disappointment. The mood amongst the 2,000-strong crowd was of jubilation and social solidarity. The din was tremendous as all and sundry contributed to the noise with whatever implement came to hand. Many of the older residents felt overawed, as they had not experience such a gathering in over 30 years, at least not since the days of the picnic, and for the youth (and there were a good few present) this was their first experience of protesting.
The aim of the demonstration was clear. Wendy stated, “We want the council to recognise the unhappiness which exists in the town and want to be treated fairly and with dignity. We want to meet with them to discuss what plans they might have to improve the town and its facilities. We do not want resources to be drawn away from other areas, but we want to know where the money has gone from the sale of the municipal golf course for instance and how the county council plans to regenerate the town.” These are very modest demands of course and should be met if the council is sincere in its general intentions, but Wendy and others are well aware that local authority budgets are very tight and that there may well be no desire by the Labour Group on the Council to fight harder to demand more finances from the government.
Only the beginning
Given these likely limitations, Wendy is in general agreement with Socialist Appeal that the campaign could be widened out to include other towns in the county if these simple demands are not met and recognises that all the towns in the county have seen cuts in services and the same kinds of deterioration down the years that Bedlington has experienced to one level or another.
Socialist Appeal also suggests that the campaign should adopt a socialist approach to the question. We believe the campaign should put pressure on the County Council in general, and the Labour Councillors in particular, to refuse to carry out further cuts. Now that we have a new majority Tory Government, the attacks are likely to increase against local authorities, with a further threatened 60% in cuts to come. A real dilemma faces the Labour Councillors in this new atmosphere. Do they continue on the current course and implement further Tory cuts and find further rationalisations? Or do they use the anger and energy of campaigns such as the Make a Noise protest to mobilise a mass movement to resist these attacks? The mood of the protestors was clear: Labour councillors must stop acting as effective agents of the Tories and their rotten system. For Socialist Appeal supporters the answer is clear!
This campaign has shown clearly that working class people are prepared to fight and they are prepared to turn out in big numbers to make themselves heard. The next stage is to get organised, to firm up on future plans. As Wendy says,”We will not go away…We will continue to fight for the people of Bedlington as far as we can!”
Socialist Appeal supports the aspirations of this movement – a movement which should not stop. In fighting for the working class in Bedlington, they should also speak for the thousands of working class people across Northumberland – indeed, across the entire UK and even across the world; workers who are fed up with the capitalist system, are fed up with cuts to their living standards, fed up with long hours and low pay, fed up with high rents and ridiculous mortgages. They are fed up with cuts to services, fed up with attacks on the NHS and fed up with the rich who continue to bleed us all for every last drop of blood.
Protests like this in Bedlington are just the beginning we believe; the beginning of the end of the capitalist system.