Looking back, moving forward

Which of the party leaders will have the biggest impact on the way you cast your vote on Thursday? Maybe you agree with Nick and have decided to support the Liberal Democrats, Cameron might be your choice to clean up the economy, or perhaps you’ll vote for anyone just as long as it means getting Gordon out of Number 10.

For some people there’s another political leader who weighs heavy on the mind when they step into the polling booth and the pencil lingers over the ballot paper. But it isn’t one of the big three, nor is it Nick Griffin or Lord what’s-his-name of UKIP.

We’re talking about someone who in one two-syllable word represents for many the biggest disaster to befall Britain since the Second World War. Thatcher.

As I mulled this piece over before sitting down to write I kept coming back to the phrase ‘ghost of Thatcher’, and each time I had to remind myself Maggie is still with us. Today the Iron Lady inhabits a strange place in the national psyche, existing in the space between reality and legend, a sacred relic for the Tory party and a bogeyman for the Left.

My thoughts turned to Thatcher last week after receiving an invitation to join Labour’s Dover parliamentary candidate Gwyn Prosser on the campaign trail with John Denham, the Secretary of State for Communities, at a community project in Aylesham.

The press release was pretty standard campaign fare. Minister descends on constituency to meet those helped by the government, smiles for the cameras and then moves on to the next imperiled marginal.

But it was the prepackaged quote from Mr Prosser which really caught my attention, and particularly the first paragraph. Unlike most election material it neither touted some grand election promise or any great successes of the Labour government. It read:

“The Aylesham centre was built out of the ashes of the village’s High School which was shut down by the Tories at Kent County Council shortly after Mrs Thatcher closed down all the pits in the East Kent Coalfield throwing thousands of people out of work.”

Why was the thrust of his message focused on events almost a quarter of a century ago? As I set out for our destination, the Aylesham and District Community Workshop Trust, I resolved to ask Mr Prosser why in 2010, during an election in which a key theme has been change and renewal, did he want to talk about the past?

The centre itself is an impressive project which has grown out of the darkest period in Aylesham’s short history. During the late 1980s and early 1990s the community lost not only its dominant employer, when Snowdown Colliery closed, but it also lost its secondary school, a sequence of events which villagers describe as ‘ripping the heart out of Aylesham’.

Derek Garrity, the general manager of the project, explained something had to be done to tackle the staggering rates of youth unemployment caused by the closure of the pits.

“That was our college,” he said. “Lads went straight there from school and learnt a trade.”

So the community took over the old school, and now around 130 people are employed on the site which provides training for young people, childcare for local families and work space for businesses. Mr Prosser, who played a part in getting the scheme off the ground in his days as a local councillor, quite rightly describes what has been achieved there as inspirational.

After touring the centre and meeting some of the people working there, I sat down with Mr Prosser over a cup of coffee to talk about why the facility is so important for the village and why it is such a symbolic success story.

“It has grown out of the ashes of Aylesham School,” he explained. “The Conservatives shut down the school against the wishes of the community, but through grass-roots initiatives led by people like Derek Garrity and Helen Bartolo they took over the school. The result is what you see today.

“It has become the heart of the community and some 130 jobs have been created. It shows what can be done when local people have got the will and inspiration to succeed. The important thing is having the helping hand of government.”

On our walk to the cafe where we sat talking, we passed many artefacts saved from the colliery and now proudly displayed on the walls of the old school building. I asked Mr Prosser why he feels the need to look back to the 1980s, why is the Thatcher era still relevant when there are parents at the pre-school across the courtyard who weren’t even born during the Miners’ Strike?

“This was a mining village and it always will be a mining village,” he said. “Alongside modern facilities here we have got memories of yesterday, like the pit target board. The tradition will always be there.

“The reason we look back is that the village would not be here if it was not for the coalfield. Collective memories are important for communities like this. New people are moving in but the old miners, and many of their widows, carry on the tradition.”

But will there ever come a time when this anti-Conservative rhetoric will become a thing of the past, especially in places like Aylesham? Mr Prosser was unequivocal in his response:

“People will always remember the past even though they are looking to the future. People will remember the way Thatcher threw people out of jobs and they dont want to go back to that.”

This was a campaign event in one of the most solidly Labour areas in the south east, and Mr Prosser knows the value of rekindling these old memories to his political advantage. But he is also tapping into very real emotions.

During the visit I couldn’t help but think back to an afternoon I spent with a former miner at his modest home, seemingly unchanged since the days of mining in the Kent coalfield, when we talked about his life in Aylesham and his work at the colliery.

Now an old man, proud yet frail, he talked with great passion about the poverty of his childhood, the incredible sense of togetherness in his community and the dark days of the Miners’ Strike.

When he spoke about the closure of the pits he was visibly shaking, as the emotions stirred by the memory of those events, which at a stroke destroyed almost every constant he had known in life, gripped his body.

Then he broke down in tears. We sat in silence for a moment, probably lasting just seconds but which felt like minutes, and for the first time I began to understand just how the loss of the mining industry struck right to the heart of this community.

The thought of that interview reminded me that as an outsider it is easy to dismiss Mr Prosser’s approach as backward looking and negative, relying on the pain of old wounds rather than promises of what’s to come. But for so many people in communities like this up and down the country, which lost industries and lost jobs on a devastating scale, what some may see as history in fact informs everything they do today.

Derek Garrity put it best: “We know where we’re going, but we’ll never forget where we’ve come from.”

Report by Rhys Griffiths and pictures by Phil Medgett

For an interview with John Denham see this week’s Dover Express, out Thursday.

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