I’m currently working on an article focused on ‘Hampshire In Government’. If you are in London this may make you smile. But in the North West of the county we have the distinguished Leader of the House, Sir George Young; in the North there is Maria Miller and in the South the able Treasury Minister Mark Hoban. Drop in to Eastleigh and Chris Huhne is sometimes there while in the New Forest there is a veritable cluster of activity around the Prime Minister’s PPS and the home of Mrs Vince Cable who is a well known and liked local Liberal Democrat. In the North East James Arbuthnot is doing a top notch job chairing the Defence Select Committee while from Southampton Itchen Rt Hon John Denham MP, Shadow BIS Secretary, has been laying pro-active blows on both the government’s higher education and business agendas. Then, of course, there is the South East of the county where one finds David Willetts. It was to his Havant constituency that I journeyed the other day to explore what the locality of Hampshire means to his national outlook.
At the low point of Tory misfortunes Havant was Britain’s most working class Conservative outpost. Strikingly, the seat’s demographic makeup is more like chunks of the Midlands than it is similar to the leafy realms of the county. Embracing as it does manufacturing and increasingly high- Tec enterprises Havant’s well known firms such as Kenwood and Colt are experiencing rapid changes. The seat used to include the HQ of Tambrands – makers of Tampax – but that source of jobs has relocated abroad. Swathes of this area of Hampshire are not then the ‘wealth’ conjured up in some rhetoric about the North-South divide.
For example, nestling in the centre – West of the seat is the large estate and community of Leigh Park. Until the Berlin Wall came down locals used to describe ‘the Park’ as ‘Europe’s largest state built housing complex’. I knew the area as a child and while there was never much money around – Leigh Park was housing for families who might be on low or no wages - that did not stop proud parents encouraging their kids to ‘get on’. However, today Leigh Park faces fresh challenges which include industrial change, is impacted by the decline in military spending after the Cold War because the forces used to generate many support jobs, and reflects the inflexibility of much state based welfare provision. More intensely still its residents can often face not only radical job insecurity but also more than their fair share of mental health challenges not to mention the emergence of second and third generations to live only on social benefits. Such challenges though do not dull fierce local pride when it has the space to emerge. You can still find immaculately kept gardens, and the local Churches are encouraging social enterprise. Meanwhile, just up the road a new ‘public service village’ which co-locates many services is emerging, and the two district councils have pooled their CEO role to cut costs. No wonder no one sees community organising campaigns as the quickest route to civic confidence important though such strategies are in London.
Talking to David Willetts it became fully clear that the experience of defending, supporting and representing Leigh Park, as part of the wider constituency, has had a profound impact on his view of the need for strong communities and of a compassionate yet robust ‘civic Conservatism’. ‘In a village’, he says, ‘community may be clearer because the community runs until the lights end and the fields and the dark at night starts …..But if all you can see are orange sodium lights stretching out beyond your view then the idea and practice of community needs a new language and argument’. Passionate about the need to build ‘one nation’ he then says that ‘linking Leigh Park to wider progress is essential’. With this starting point he has been a key intellectual power-house behind what is now the government’s ‘big society’ vision. His book The Pinch, just out in paperback, seeks to apply such thinking to the question of inter-generational relations, the needs of the elderly and the relative insecurity of the young. This likeable man is by no means the demon that Oxbridge Professors reportedly opposed to ‘markets in education’ (except the philanthropic one that they dominate to subsidise their extraordinary overheads) have made him out to be with their fear of acountability.
Now, Willetts is a convinced Conservative but as he talked I could not help but be reminded of the enthusiasm of another ‘communitarian’ just at the front end of helping to pick his broken party up from the dustbin of electoral history and seeking to renew its outlook and direction, namely Jon Cruddas. It is little noted that Cruddas actually spent his most formative years in South Hampshire. Specifically he went to school in Willetts’ Havant seat and not Dagenham in the miles away metropolis which he now represents. A student at Oaklands School his classmates would have included scores of folk up on the school bus from Leigh Park – but also from wealthy Rowland’s Castle and mid-ranking Waterlooville. Cruddas, of course, also wants a society in which places like Leigh Park are linked into the mainstream, have access to secure work and are inspired by families and values which encourage kids to get on.
Might it just be that exposure to ‘the Park’ , to a very particular place in the South , is more important to refreshing ideas of community across both the main parties than some national bluster has had us believe?
And might such a ‘laboratory’ – there are others in Southampton, Basingstoke, Andover, Portsmouth, Aldershot in Hampshire alone – be actually more useful (or at least a useful addition) to national critical reflection and learning than Blue Labour’s love affair with inner London Boroughs, or Red Tory reaches for GK Chesterton? Much as most Tory MP’s will never have visited Castlemilk in Glasgow, Ellesmere Port in the Wirral, Bacup in Lancashire or Ushaw Moor in Durham these Hampshire neighbourhoods are large areas of humanity often unknown to the Labour rump (perhaps with an occasional exception such as Douglas Alexander who has been spotted sneaking into Hampshire to visit the in-laws).
In David Willetts we have robust thinking re-grounding the Tory idea of ‘one nation’. Perhaps Jon Cruddas’s exposure to the same patch might make him the putative champion of a new approach to Labour politics that arranges extended visits to Hampshire, the Solent, wider Wessex and The Thames Valley for its core vote MPs and Councillors so to help Labour (re) discover its concern for the whole nation. Perhaps David Willetts could give them a talk on what he found well outside the Labour comfort zones. Thus could Ed Milliband refresh and reposition his cause at the forefront of a unifying ‘One Nation Labour’ if he really does believe this is a British time of division rather than a marching opportunity for a limited number of public sector trade unions.
And thus might we have the healthy political situation where, over the years, every county will have the chance to vote for parties that wanted to build bridges across divides and undertake work in every kind of locality. Learning from ‘Hampshire in Government’ provides the seeds of such a wider civic and national renewal.
** ‘Hampshire In Government’ will be published in the August edition of Hampshire Life Magazine