Review of Sally Gimson’s ‘Building Bridges’

What do you do if you win a hard fought parliamentary selection campaign, only to have it snatched it away ten days later on spurious grounds? That’s what happened to Sally Gimson in Bassetlaw in 2019. Labour went on to lose Bassetlaw, badly, even by the dismal standards of that election. The answer, if you’re Gimson, is to write a cogent, deeply researched, Fabian pamphlet about the seat so that we can get ready to take it back. It’s a deep-dive into a Red Wall, ex-mining, semi-rural constituency, setting out where Labour went wrong and what we can do to win in Bassetlaw again.

Gimson doesn’t dwell on the injustice of the NEC’s decision to remove her as a candidate shortly before the election, which speaks to her character. She is more interested in Bassetlaw itself, what is successful about the local Labour activists and what a Labour government could do to improve the lives of the people there. 

Bassetlaw is older than the national average and much of the employment there comes from what Gimson describes as “large shed” industry: warehouses and distribution centres. The work is often low-waged and low-skilled and at risk from increasing automation. Gimson sets out a vision for Bassetlaw as an energy-producing constituency, building on its historic mining roots by converting power stations to green-energy producing projects. I’ll admit that I didn’t know that the history of mining in Bassetlaw was also a history of immigration, with workers traveling from all parts of the Commonwealth to meet the demand for workers. Gimson writes about working with the countryside charity CPRE to forge stronger links with BAME communities that traditionally have felt excluded from the vision of rural England. 

Gimson is persuasive on the need for a rural offer for Labour. Building on the historic radicalism of the countryside – the first English trade union was made up of agricultural workers that went on to become the Tolpuddle Martyrs – Gimson writes movingly of the beauty of Bassetlaw and the opportunity for Labour to build strong policy proposals on sustainable food and biodiversity. 

The rural proposals brings me to broadband (oh dear, that again). The 2019 Labour manifesto offer on broadband was widely mocked as an example of a policy that made Labour look, well, unserious, and Gimson includes a vivid reference from Deborah Mattinson’s book Beyond the Red Wall to a focus group recalling the “free wifi for all” and the whole room breaking into laughter. Gimson offers a more sensible sounding full-fibre broadband at affordable prices through a public-private partnership and points to Spain for a successful example. The absence of good connectivity, and the inequality that it can perpetuate, will be compounded unless we have a robust strategy to properly connect all of our people in the green and pleasant land. 

And so to towns. Bassetlaw has two: Worksop and Retford, with a third new town growing at a former colliery. Currently, the inadequate public transport to the towns discourages people from staying later because they might miss the last bus and driving means you can’t have a drink. Gimson’s proposal is simple: more, better, buses that are affordable and eco-friendly. This would go a long way to connect the towns and the countryside. Gimson suggests ways of keeping towns alive through culture and creating more affordable housing within towns to boost nightlife (remember that?). 

The whole theme of the pamphlet is connection. A connection between highly-skilled work and better pay, a connection between places and people, physical and digital connections and a connection between our roots and our future. If we as Labour, want to reconnect with the Red Wall, this pamphlet is a good place to start. 

Rachael Agnew is a public sector lawyer and Labour activist based in Waltham Forest. She tweets @rachagnew

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