Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.
Tesco Extra Car Park, Consett
What a fortnight it has been. Last week, as Westminster wound down to an early recess, the talk from colleagues and the phone and email chatter from constituents was the same: “bet you didn’t think this would be what we/you would be dealing with three months after being elected.” They’re right. I didn’t imagine that we’d be staring down the barrel of a global pandemic as we passed the first 100 days.
Members of Parliament are almost all naturally social creatures ,and when they return to their constituencies for most it feels like returning to be with friends: cisiting local businesses, holding surgeries, popping round to see people. Instead, this time, I’m making a couple of notes for my column while sat in a car park with a boot full of shopping as I socially distance from the people who elected me, for at least the best part of a month and almost certainly much longer.
There is a sense that life has taken an odd turn. But while the flood (we’re seeing three or four times as many) of emails from constituents doesn’t cease, there is a strong sense of something different here is the constituency compared to when I was in Westminster last week.
“What do you feel is different about North West Durham, compared to other places in the country?” is something I’ve been asked since I was elected, as another way of political people and journalists asking: “why did it swing so hard away from Labour in your neck of the woods?”
Now we’re in a real national crisis, a part of an international crisis, that question is one I reflected on as I perused the (pretty full, except for dry pasta) shelves of my local ‘big’ Tesco – as any fan of AFC Consett will know there’s also a little one in Blackhill.
Here, on the ground, away from the jostling for position and the ‘flavour of the month’ nature of the Westminster and London bubble, things are different. The aspiration is for success for yourself and for your family, but there is a broader aspiration for your community to succeed, too. Ours is a pretty inclusive largely civic community based on place. Somewhere where you can belong not only to a friendship group or network of mutual interests, but also to a community, a place, a county and a country.
The local response to Coronavirus reflects this, too. It’s not just about you or even you and your family getting through, it’s about the whole of local society coming through it together. Dozens of local community networks sprang into action before central organisations even considered volunteering. That’s not to say that there’s no-one who isn’t totally isolated – there are – there are just fewer, due to the nature of the community.
There is also a sense of something else, too, that is cutting through, especially since the broader social distancing measures a week ago. The nation feeling like it is coming together. There’s a commonality and national feeling about Downing Street for the first time in a very long time. A clear view of our national NHS getting resources to where there is need now, like the large temporary hospitals, in the knowledge that they will come to us if (more likely when) it gets worse in our area too.
What was astonishing to me last week was that, after repeatedly coughing across the dispatch box towards the Prime Minister, Health, Scottish and Home Secretaries on Wednesday, Jeremy Corbyn didn’t get it. At a moment when communities are stepping up, when the country and our NHS are stepping up to levels never seen before, Corbyn stepped into it.
His departure interview with the BBC showed a level of unearned self-regard and distain that I haven’t seen since I was a swaggering intellectually and morally superior teenager myself. It was probably the worst television interview I have seen a politician give: attempting to use a moment of not only national crisis but of national fear to talk himself up left me dazed. Adrian Mole with no redeeming features. Here was the leader of the party who had recently lost an election saying that the people were wrong and he was right.
Opposition should be so easy. In crisis setting, you show you’re up to governing and support the Government where you can. When you’re not in crisis, when the Government does something wrong or inept you show you’re better than them. It’s simple.
However, Corbyn and his fellow travellers need to be right all the time. It’s why they don’t understand the communities they represented for so long. In order to get along as part of a local community or even a family, you’ve got to be willing to get along with people and win people over who you might often disagree with to a common cause. For Corbyn and his acolytes, the common cause is their own sense of righteousness and no-one can be won over to that.
Within a month, we’ll have a new opposition. Politically, if this crisis has shown anything so far, it’s that the governing party understands the people who elected it a damn sight better than the opposition who it rejected do. To take over as an opposition leader at this time will be very challenging, but it will change the whole domestic dynamic. We’ll see if the new Labour leader is able to put himself or herself into the shoes of their average voter Labour lost across North of England – they’ll either sink or swim pretty quickly. If it’s the latter, politics will be very different when we emerge from this crisis.
Finally, given my mum is currently working in an small community hospital and is having to self-isolate from my dad and grandma (dad’s her carer) I’d just like to add a little tribute to those who are working in the caring professions and ask everyone to #StayHomeSaveLives.