Last week I had the pleasure of attending the Northern Stage theatre in Newcastle to see ‘Red Ellen’, the new play detailing the remarkable life of Ellen Wilkinson MP.
Ellen of course was the famous Labour MP for Jarrow who led the inspirational Jarrow Crusade to London – and the change for a better world.
Ellen Wilkinson led an extraordinary life. She was a pioneering trade unionist, war correspondent, and the only female cabinet minister in the 1945 Clement Attlee-led Labour Government.
For Ellen, the march of unemployed local men to London, which became famously known as the Jarrow Crusade, was the culmination of her life’s work as a highly-active campaigner.
She used the Jarrow Crusade to launch a media campaign against mass unemployment. That it became the iconic image of the English depression of the 1930s is due largely to her leadership.
A strong socialist with a burning desire for social justice, Wilkinson criticised the politics of austerity, a phrase we are all only too familiar with today and condemned what she saw as the Government’s inability to address the plight of the north.
Wilkinson was the only woman who marched, and she even organised a bus to carry supplies to help the marchers achieve their goal. The petition itself had 11,000 signatures. Although Parliament and the Conservative Government at the time did not greet the Marchers with great respect or respond positively to their pleas for employment, the Crusade’s lasting legacy is still alive to this very day.
The play quickly reminded me of the history of struggle that this area has faced in the past, and of how, despite being generations apart, the struggles of unemployment in the 1930s are prominent in many people’s lives today.
Today we see economic and social circumstances that would not look out of place in the 1930s.
Throughout the 1930s, so many suffered socially as a result of grinding unemployment with many left to survive on a significantly lower income. When I look at people’s livelihoods now and the withdrawal of vital support and rising food and energy prices, it feels like history is beginning to repeat itself.
When society grappled with the issues faced by 1930s unemployment, which peaked at 80% in Jarrow, the national Government targeted the poor through the means test.
When this country faced the unprecedented economic effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, this Conservative Government chose to inexplicably withdraw the £20 increase to Universal Credit.
All those actions, past and present, have had a massive effect on the working class, and we will always continue to keep up the fight against any cuts forced through by this callous Government.
It really is fantastic to see that, in our local area, the Leader and Deputy Leader of South Tyneside Council, Tracey Dixon and Joan Atkinson, the MP in my neighbouring constituency in South Shields, Emma Lewell-Buck MP, and the local Police and Crime Commissioner Kim McGuinness are positions all represented by women and all doing a fantastic job representing this area.
The Jarrow constituency is full of outstanding, brave and inspirational women, from doctors and nurses in our NHS to volunteers in our food banks, from teachers in our schools to workers in our shops, and in so many other positions both voluntary and paid. Women contribute so much to our communities, led by wonderful icons such as Ellen Wilkinson.
Wilkinson, like so many before and after her, remains an inspiration to people fighting for justice.
We still live in a world of deeply widening inequality and great injustices so Wilkinson’s fight all those years ago is, sadly, still relevant to this very day.