John Mann: 30,000 people stood up to the Blackshirts on Holbeck Moor, we need to learn from that

John Mann was 16 when he gave his first political speech.

By Geraldine Scott
Saturday, 2nd November 2019, 5:45 am
John Mann, former MP for Bassetlaw. Photo: PA
John Mann, former MP for Bassetlaw. Photo: PA

It was on nuclear power in Bridlington, and Arthur Scargill sat in the front row, he got a standing ovation.

But even as a teenager, he had already learned six years earlier how to run a committee room, taught by his grandmother and five generations of political involvement.

Now, as he stands down from the Commons to enter the Lords - the first person to go straight from one chamber to the other since 1892 - he says political debate has become “dismal”, especially in the last two years.

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Now Lord Mann of Holbeck Moor in the City of Leeds, who was MP for Bassetlaw for 18 years, said: “Parliament has ceased to function.”

He criticised outgoing Speaker John Bercow, who he said “couldn’t plan anything”.

He said: “Every day you had no idea what the business was. The Government always had too much power in setting the parliamentary agenda in my view, but this time it just shifted over to the Speaker.

“So, you prepare for a debate, for that debate to be squeezed into an hour instead of the six hours that was allocated, purely by his arbitrary decisions. That isn't democratic, and that's not good practice.”

And he said the Commons was stuck talking about the same thing.

“Some people have made the same point on Brexit, literally hundreds of times. Now there's a consistency. But it's incredibly boring. That's not debate. And it's just the worst kind of politics, Parliament needs to grow up.”

Now going into the Lords, Lord Mann said he hoped he could eventually vote himself out of a job.

He said: “I hope I'm healthy enough to be able to contribute to such extent over the years that I end up voting for my own abolition. I think the Lords needs radical reform, it needs doing properly. Simply electing it rather misses the point.

“That's a crude election because you've then you'd have even more paralysis in politics, you'd have two houses that never agree with each other. So I think it needs more thought than that. But I will vote for modernisation, change.”

But he would also spent his time serving as an independent adviser to the Government on antisemitism, a post he will hold for five years.

Lord Mann said: “If you're Jewish, you are under greater threat in this country than if you're not. The problem is increasing.

“And there are Jewish people leaving the country because they don't see a future in this country. I have got to turn that around by getting Government, but not just Government, beyond government political parties, employers, civic society, to do something about it.”

And looking at his own party, Lord Mann said: “Jeremy Corbyn has done his best to destroy the Labour Party, driving out good people, driving out the vast majority of Jewish members, because in Yorkshire especially Leeds Jewish members were part of that formation.

“That intertwining of the Jewish community and the Labour Party has been there all along and to see so many Jewish members, including Jewish MPs, being driven out, is abhorrent to every value that I have.

“And my last act here is to write to Jeremy Corbyn telling him why I was not prepared to go on the doorstep as a candidate look people in the eye and say please vote for me because it means voting for Jeremy Corbyn and I’m not prepared to do it.”

He said: “The one thing I can assure people with my role is those in power will not be able to avoid [facing up to anti-Semitism] while I'm in post. People will not have the choice of ignoring what's going on.”

He added: “The title I’ve taken is rather important in that context, Lord Mann of Holbeck Moor in the City of Leeds. Two weeks before [The Battle of] Cable Street, [Oswald] Mosley and the Blackshirts tried to march through Leeds and 1,000 of them assembled on Holbeck Moor.

“30,000 local people turned out and physically drove them out of Leeds. Mosley himself was hit by a brick and injured.”

Lord Mann said there were very few press reports and he had not managed to find any eyewitnesses.

But he said: “So 30,000 people stood up to the Blackshirts. Just as fascism and intolerance was at its height crossing from Germany, and nobody wrote books about it. Nobody passed on the stories.

“What that says to me is, these were 30,000 normal people going about their everyday lives, who in a very matter of fact way said it's not normal and usual to have fascists march into our area, we're not having it, so they stopped them and then went back to their everyday lives.”

He added: “We need to learn a lesson from that, that when people stand up, in their own very matter of fact way against intolerance, they should tell people, they should speak out more about it, because that will encourage others to do the same.”

Now Lord Mann has left his Bassetlaw constituency, it is one of those which would be in focus for the Tories and the Brexit Party.

But Lord Mann said who wins which seats in this election would be “luck of the draw”.

He said: “There will be very varied results in different parts of the country. The other thing is I think the share of the vote of winning candidates will drop significantly. And so some people will win by luck because of the split between the other parties.”

He added: “And I don't see how it's not going to be about Brexit.”

Those who would win out, he said, were those who took care of their constituents rather than serving their party.

He said: “If I got your father, as I often did, the drugs from the NHS that he was being refused, your family is going to give me the benefit of the doubt in this election. And that to me is very rational and it's actually very good that people will do that.

“So, that normally is not that important. I think in this election, it will be far more important.”

And he said that was his favourite part of being an MP, and the part he missed the most.

“The best bit is not being in Parliament,” he said. “Actually the best bit is, you have the ability to use your position and power for the good for individuals or individual families or communities.

“And so, if someone comes to you, and the system is against them and has done them over wrongly, you have the power to do something about it.

“And that is incredibly empowering for those people.”