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Black Country flag row: Wolverhampton MP Eleanor Smith defends stance in Commons

By Pete Madeley | Wolverhampton | Politics | Published:

Eleanor Smith used her maiden speech in the House of Commons to defend her stance over the Black Country flag row.

Wolverhampton South West Labour MP Eleanor Smith made her maiden speech in the House of Commons

The newly elected MP for Wolverhampton told the House she had concerns over the use of chains in the image because of their historic association with the slave trade.

She also questioned whether it should be 'the only brand image for the Black Country'.

The Labour MP went on say that her comments 'had been taken out of proportion' by the Express & Star and said she had received 'many abusive messages' over the issue.

The Black Country flag

Ms Smith replaced Rob Marris as Labour's candidate in the General Election and won with a majority of 2,185.

In her speech she also paid tribute to the people of her constituency, saying that it was a testament to them that their actions in voting for her had 'demonstrated how far they have come from the racial legacy of Enoch Powell'.

Here is Ms Smith's speech in full:

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"I'm proud to address this chamber today as the newly elected representative of Wolverhampton South West.

Whether they voted for me, or the Conservative, Lib Dem or Green or any other party, I will endeavour to represent them in this House to the best of my ability.

I wish to pay tribute to the former MP, Rob Marris, who stood down when the General Election was called. He was a conscientious and a much liked MP.

Wolverhampton is common with other cities across the UK. It has a drug problem. Drug use brings with [it] a set of associate problems.

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Crime, anti-social behaviour and other social problems with addiction. Broken homes, damaged people...all those in need of support by an increasingly underfunded and overworked social services.

A recent BBC3 report highlighted the use of the so-called legal highs in the city, and as such I welcome the latest legislation reclassifying these substance [s].

However, the things most adults need is help.

They need drug rehabilitations programmes to help them come off drugs. Substance abuse and addictions are problems which don't go away on their own.

We need a properly funded system to help them, because if more people can access drug rehabilitation services, providing education and employment possibility, addicts can more easily find a way out of addiction and abuse.

The scourge of drug use is associated with an underlying lack of opportunity for young people in Wolverhampton.

We should look to Europe models for ideas of how best to do this, rather than reach for the American style punitive solutions, which only drives the problems into our prisons where they become an epidemic, before they return as drug users back onto our streets to become another thing our hard-pressed NHS staff and police officers have to deal with.

I will now talk about my Wolverhampton itself.

Wolverhampton South West constituency was created in 1950. It is a repeated marginal and one of three constituencies covering the city of Wolverhampton.

Within its boundaries is the retail and business core of the city centre, Banks's Brewery, universities, schools, and the Molineux Stadium, home of Wolverhampton Wanderers.

And please God may I say that right.

The largest employer in Wolverhampton is local government. The constituency fans out from the city centre to include the western and southern western parts of the city.

Wolverhampton South West is a microscosm (sic) of the modern Britain. A jigsaw of places, names and postcodes.

It is a bellworth (sic) of constituencies, moving from Tory to Labour, with shifts in the economic and political moods.

There are huge inequalities of income. There are rich, poor, privileged and underprivileged.

Living only a few miles apart there is a diversity of culture. White British, Asian British, West Indian, Africans, Eastern Europeans and Kurdish, each with their own faith.

Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Hindus and Christians, which is one of my strong faiths.

Although Wolverhampton South West has only been in existence for 67 years, it has a surprisingly rich political history.

One which is relevant today.

It is known by some associated with Enoch Powell, its first MP from the 1950s until 1974.

Powell's inflammatory Rivers of Blood speech in 1968, warning of civil unrest if immigration went unchecked, was said there.

Its second MP was Nicholas Budgen, known as one of the Maastricht rebels, who first mooted the idea of a referendum on the European single policy and opposed all further integration with Europe.

But it was in 1997 that Labour won the seat for the first time, and that continued until 2010, when Paul Uppal, a prominent Sikh businessman, won it back for the Conservatives.

It is a testament to the people of Wolverhampton South West that their actions at the ballot box demonstrated how far they have come from the racial legacy of Enoch Powell by electing a Sikh MP and now they have taken another historical step forward by electing the first black woman in the West Midlands to Parliament.

In electing me, a nurse from a working class background, a trade unionist and a first generation immigrant, the people of Wolverhampton South West are saying they want a change.

They are saying they liked the Labour manifesto. They have had enough of austerity.

They don't want anymore cuts to the public service. They want a proper funded education and social services, protecting the old and caring for the weakest in our society.

They have said, give us a Brexit that works for all, and the young people said give us something that can improve our lives...for the future and give us hope.

And they all said, save our NHS.

I hope I'll be able to play my part in the coming years in making a difference in my constituency for the youth unemployment and homelessness.

This is a blight of our society. Wolverhampton has one of the highest jobless rates for 16-24 year olds.

According to the studies published in 2016, youth unemployment of Wolverhampton was 27 per cent - amongst the highest in the country.

I pledge to work with all those in Wolverhampton who want to see and help and care for those who have dropped through the increasingly threadbare safety net this country offers.

The other issues I will be involved with are those I have been working on all my life, 40 years in the NHS, working for the conditions of the low paid workers.

The one line Government statement on the NHS in Her Majesty's gracious speech, was short on detail, with no real ideas on how to improve the NHS and to rescue it from the conditions they have put it in.

It would be bad enough if the results were barely ignorance and mismanagement, but it isn't.

It is the results of the policies that have been pursuing for the last years...seven years altogether.

This Government should read the recent Labour party's manifestos to learn what the NHS urgently needs.

It's all in there. Investment, education and training, and much more.

I need to say something else as well.

A statement about a row that has broken out concerning my comments about a Black Country flag that was created in 2012 after a competition organised by the Black Country Living Museum.

This flag has a link of chains as its primary image.

I have had concerns about the connotations of this image for two reasons. First, its historical associations with the slave trade.

Second, whether this should be the only brand image for the Black Country.

An article appeared in the local press saying I thought the flag was racist and should be scrapped. My comments have been taken, and missed out of proportion.

Misrepresented. I believe in the free press, but the reporting must be done responsibility (sic) in a fair and honest way.

I have received many abusive message[s], and I have been on the receiving end of the kind of threatening behaviour which many of my colleagues in this House have received and recently discussed.

And I have learned the hard way how difficult it is being an MP.

But I'm much better than that. I'm proud of the social culture and industrial and economic heritage of Wolverhampton and the wider Black Country.

I'm proud of the contribution made by the Black Country's industries to begin the Industrial Revolution, which revolutionised the lives of people all around our planet.

Above all, I'm proud of the tolerance, equality and social cohesion, which the people in the Black Country and Wolverhampton South West and of the wider UK enjoy.

As a Member of Parliament I will endeavour to work to promote and elevate these great aspects of the people of Wolverhampton South West and the Black Country.

I stand by them and for them.

Thank you for allowing me to speak today, Madam Deputy Speaker. I commend this speech to the House."

Labour group backs MP

The Wolverhampton South West CLP said it had full confidence in Ms Smith to lead the party locally in the next election, although a statement issued by the group prompted confusion among Labour members and politicians in the city by wrongly stating she had the largest mandate since 1990.

Meanwhile, Labour campaigner Bob Simm has told how his wife Clare ‘was constantly undermined to the point where she felt harassed and bullied’ when she acted as an agent for Ms Smith during the General Election campaign.

In a post entitled Labour in Wolverhampton on his blog The Lonely Trade Unionist, Momentum member Mr Simm wrote of his concerns of the impact that ‘factionalism’ was having on the Labour party.

“In the last General [Election] though I fell afoul of some of the worst aspects of factionalism,” he wrote. “I was routinely accused of being right wing by a group of which I was a member. It just doesn’t seem to have occurred to them to ask.

“My wife was acting as agent for the MP candidate and she, too, was constantly undermined to the point where she felt harassed and bullied.” No allegations have been made against Ms Smith.

Mr Simm says he joined Momentum two years ago and is also a member of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) and Left Unity. Last year he was elected as Labour membership secretary in Graiseley.

He added: “I am a firm believer in fairness and unity within the Labour movement. It is how I conduct myself as a rep for my union and as a Labour member and it upsets me when factionalism brands people like me and my wife as being the enemy.

“As I previously stated our only enemy is currently in Government and us dividing into infights will only help them. We should have factions and we should have debates but the Labour partyI am a part of is not a place for division, backstabbing and, to be frank, bullying tactics. Let’s work together again. It’s in this spirit I am going to become more involved with local factions, to try and heal the rifts a little and maybe to grow a little more, too.”

Momentum campaigners played a major role in Ms Smith’s successful election campaign, and the group is said to be increasing its prominence in the city’s Labour party in recent months.

Ms Smith, who is from Birmingham, replaced Rob Marris as the Wolverhampton South West candidate prior to the June 8 election.

The former president of Unison has been backed by her local party, which says she will make a great constituency MP.

In a statement, Wolverhampton South West CLP secretary Dick Scroop said: “Eleanor Smith has just been given [the] largest mandate by the electorate of Wolverhampton South West since 1990 and Wolverhampton South West CLP have full confidence in her to lead us into the next General Election.

“We believe she will make a great constituency MP who is already helping the local residents with their issues and concerns.” But the statement was met with bewilderment by some Labour members and politicians in the city, who pointed out that there was no election in 1990. Among them was Councillor Ian Angus, who tweeted: “Largest mandate since 1990? There wasn’t a GE in 1990.”

The biggest Labour mandate in the constituency in that period came in 1997, when Jenny Jones won with 50.4 per cent of the vote and a majority of 5,118.

Ms Smith’s majority stands at 2,185 after she polled 49.4 per cent of the vote.

Mr Scroop’s statement was later deleted.

He told the Express & Star that there had been a misprint in the statement, which should have said ‘the largest mandate since the 1990s’.

Poll on flag controversy passes 30,000

The number of people taking part in a poll asking whether the Black Country flag is racist has surged past the 30,000 mark.

It makes it the biggest online news poll the Express & Star has ever run.

Dudley reacts to Black Country flag racism row

And readers have overwhelmingly dismissed Wolverhampton South West MP Eleanor Smith’s view that the flag has ‘racist connotations’.

A total of 95 per cent (30,400) of 32,000 voters said the flag was not racist, while 1,600 backed the stance of the MP.

Ms Smith told the E&S that she wanted to see the flag changed as it had racist connotations but later said her comments had been misrepresented.

She went on to say that she was uneasy about it becoming a brand for the Black Country on the grounds that it associates the region with heritage industries rather than modern ones.

The issue has prompted a passionate debate on the E&S website, with hundreds of people airing their views. Commenting on the poll, Anthony Belwood wrote: “But she still wants it changed whether she believes it racist or not, which is bad enough. Britain is not allowed a heritage anymore.”

IB Dove wrote: “Sometimes is better to keep your views or opinions by yourself. Slavery was long before of chains made in Black Country by the way.”

Richard Simcox wrote: “To ignore our heritage and history leaves us awash and ungrounded and unable to learn from the few mistakes and unable to celebrate the many successes.”

Bobby Brewster wrote: “The trans-Atlantic slavery trade was abolished by act of Parliament in 1807. The manufacture of chains in the Black country started in about 1830, adapted from the existing nail factories.

“IThe slave trade may have continued illegally for a while but it’s a stretch to say that the Black Country is implicated in this. Chains are not inherently evil. They may have been used at a horrible time in history by evil people.

“But you might as well say that about ships and sailcloth. Taken to it’s logical conclusion you could say that auctions were associated with slavery so lets ban Bargain Hunt.”

Pete Madeley

By Pete Madeley
@P_Madeley_Star

Political Editor for the Express & Star. Responsible for local and national political stories, opinion, comment and analysis.

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