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Labour Movement for Europe nominated Labour candidate for Barking, Darren Rodwell, examines the European question in his borough of Barking and Dagenham and the UK
The European Question
The Europe question - are we in or out? - has taxed us ever since William of Normandy set foot in Hastings in 1066.
By 1067, William had set up camp in Barking as work got underway on his new palace, later known as the Tower of London. The arrival of the Norman court at Barking Abbey brought inward investment not unakin to the relocation that the three markets of London and two new film studios promises today.
We may have stopped launching attacks across the Channel, but 900 years on Europe feels as distant as ever - you only have to ask those families queuing for hours trying to catch a ferry from Dover.
Part of the problem with our relationship with Europe is that it has been settled through the false prospectus of internal divisions within the Conservative Party rather than a wider debate about Britain’s interests. The Irish and the Scots would vouch for this.
Barking & Dagenham is a bit of the north in the south. Although we trace our manor to the Abbey in 666, we were latterly known for making cars and equal pay - you may have seen Made in Dagenham. Along with other towns up and down the country, we didn’t create new jobs or opportunities in response to our new, post-imperial, deindustrialising economy in the latter half of the twentieth century.
David Cameron and George Osborne’s pursuit of austerity, attempted to mimic Thatcheronomics Thatcher herself never pursued (Thatcher may have hated the rates but never dreamed of cutting local authority budgets by a third). This has left our public services in tatters as well as failing in its prime objective of balancing our books - when Theresa May pronounced austerity was over, she meant Osbornomics was finished.
My own political journey began around the same time Cameron took the keys to Number 10 in 2010. That year I was elected to the council in Barking & Dagenham. We had just seen off the British National Party. They would have taken control of the council just 4 years earlier had they mustered enough candidates. Our success was based on a huge re-engagement exercise focused on building trust in politics as a force for good as much as voting Labour. Our counterparts in the Lib Dems and Conservatives wanted us to win.
What lay behind their support was Margaret Thatcher’s flagship policy, right to buy, which had halved the number of council homes available on the Becontree Estate and, crucially, they were not replaced because of it. Resentment grew as new arrivals, predominately black British working couples from other parts of London, secured mortgages in a booming housing market (the BNP called it Africans for Essex). A once thriving and homogenous if unchanging community became the fastest changing in the country. There was no rich man in his castle and poor man at the gate – depending on ability to access housing and dependency on public services, almost overnight haves and have nots lived next door to each other.
Globalisation, including our membership of the European Union added to this mix, but was not the cause of it although it was blamed. As the decade progressed, Eastern European sounding-voices from Poland, Lithuania, later joined by those from Romania and Bulgaria, created a crucible of diversity in a well of growing social tension.
By now public distrust over the European Union was a feature of our daily lives. In part, this was fed by the nightly televised assaults on the Channel Tunnel near Sangatte by refugees from the makeshift Red Cross camp outside Calais. The legacy of this today is Suella Braverman’s jingoistic jibes about small boat crossings. By the time Cameron called the referendum in 2016, the genie was already out of the bottle. If the cause of discontent was being left behind, the cure was Brexit.
Brexit was voted for under a false prospectus but Brexit it is.
Since becoming Leader of the Council in 2014, we have created and procreated new services, from community solutions to a new locality model with community and family hubs at the centre of our people strategy, and a council-owned development company, Be First, driving our growth.
That means huge intervention in the local economy. Since 2014, we have secured more than £4bn worth of investment in Barking & Dagenham. Today we are the biggest council housing builder in London – responsible for one in five affordable homes in the capital. We’re putting our industrial past to good use - with Beam Park and Dagenham Green the site of much-needed new homes, parks, and schools.
You had to be born in Victorian times to see a new train station opened. Unless you live in Barking Riverside where one opened last year. Offering new schools, shops, leisure facilities, and riverside walks, it is London’s newest neighbourhood. It even offers a boat service into the city so you can leave your car keys at home. We’re already home to the UK’s largest data centre, and a research facility that is designing the cities of the future. And did I mention the markets of London - Billingsgate, Smithfield, and New Spitalfields?
But we must not turn our backs on Europe. Not that everything is a bed of roses on the other side of the Channel. Not a month goes by without a worker’s rally running through the streets of Rome. Macron had better think again if he thought he had pension reform in the bag. And Germany’s declining birthrate risks the future of its healthcare system.
The illegal war waged by Putin in Ukraine looms large continuing to keep energy and food prices high. It is a reminder that global conflict comes with a price. Whatever happens next, we need to trade with Europe, and we need sustainable growth to see us through.
The trouble with we English is we have short memories. Two centuries after William set up shop in Barking, Normandy claimed independence from his ancestors. As those people who celebrated Brexit toasted the result they forgot one thing, Normandy has been celebrating its independence from us for 700 years.
Darren Rodwell is Leader of the London Borough of Barking & Dagenham and Labour’s Parliamentary candidate for Barking