Hilton Dawson – North East party leader

It seems that Hilton Dawson has a history of triumphing against the odds.

The native Northumbrian has twice overcome substantial Tory power bases at council and parliamentary level to get into office.

That was in the North West where he lived and worked for around 20 years.

Now back home, he hopes to repeat his David and Goliath act at the next general election in May with the North East party he helped form and is chairman of.

And this time three of the four seats his party are contesting at Easington, Redcar, Stockton North and Newcastle North are held by Labour with who he was a member for 30 years.

But he doesn’t see it as a betrayal of his political roots, just loyalty to his personal roots.

“There isn’t anyone who stands up for the North East directly,” he said.

“My experience of parliament and working with national policy makers is that huge decisions are made in London by people who don’t know about the region.

“We need to get these big decisions – about jobs, housing, health, wellbeing, transport – made here.”

To do this, it aims to secure devolved powers similar to those enjoyed by Scotland and Wales.

“We want real powers to borrow and invest, which will produce high-quality integrated public services,” Hilton said.

“In Scotland in particular, they have far better public services than we do a few miles south over the border.”

The idea for it was born out of a debate in 2013 at the Newcastle Lit & Phil Society about whether it was time for ‘Wor Party’. A lot of people attending thought it was.

The North East Party was officially registered last May. It had its first annual general meeting in June then in December after a three day meeting it thrashed out its manifesto.

Read what you will into the fact these discussions took place in a room above a funeral home in Shotton Colliery.

“Very salubrious surroundings,” laughed Hilton at the memory but he is very pleased with the result and hopes to cause as much of a stir as his first attempt to change things as an eight-year-old schoolboy.

Born in Mona Taylor’s Maternity Home in Stannington, his parents were both teachers. He was raised in Newbiggin-by-the-Sea where he was a pupil at Moorside First, locally known as the Colliery School.

It was there he recalls he became second in command in a pupils protest about the state of the school’s food.

The soup was particularly terrible that day,” said Hilton.

“We marched up and down the playground all over dinner time. We all really enjoyed it.”

The Head, Mr Kirsopp (none of the kids knew his first name, of course), “emerged lugubriously at the end of lunch time” recalled Hilton.

We looked at him with some trepidation then he ceremonially rang the bell and we went inside. Nothing more was said about it.”

This obviously whetted his appetite. After later completing his studies at Ashington Grammar School he gained a place at Warwick University to study philosophy and politics.

“Philosophy to understand the world and politics to change it,” he said.

Hilton recalled Warwick as a bit of a political hotbed in the 1960s with plenty of sit-ins and protests.

It was after his first year there he married Susan, who he met at school.

After graduating they went to stay for a time on a Kibbutz in Israel.

“We wanted to experience a collective way of life. We had idealistic expectations of it. The work was very hard but rewarding.”

Then they returned home as Susan was pregnant with their first child, Catherine.

He found work at the Choppington Social Welfare Centre, moving into a council house in Scotland Gate.

“It was one of the most educational experiences of my life,” said Hilton.

“I worked with the people of the community on many fantastic things. I was part of this rough, tough, incredibly warm hearted community organising anything from play groups for youngsters to events for the older residents, working with the people there to make things happen.

“At different times I would run the bar, put three tons of coal in the central heating, paint the walls, but most important of all I learned how to talk to people.

“The teachers’ son grew up an enormous amount.”

Having worked with social workers on projects there he became interested in the profession, getting a job at Bedlington.

“The attitude of people on the estate changed straight away. While they were still friendly it was a case of you’re a social worker now, there’s a difference.”

Hilton said he worked with a fantastic team determined to make a difference to the community and it was when he became involved in mainstream politics, joining the Labour party in 1978.

The university anarchist saw at Choppington what a group of dedicated local politicians were doing for the community,” he said.

Hilton got onto a well respected course at Lancaster University.

“It was the top place to go,” he said. “It had the Centre for Youth Crime and The Community.”

He and wife Susan packed their bags and with daughter Catherine headed to the North West.

Soon after his second daughter Helen was born.

“She always says you lot speak funny. She is from the North West the rest of us are from the North East,” said Hilton.

He got heavily involved in child care and child protection issues, managing children’s homes as well as fostering and adoption services.

He worked his way up to social work manager, on call 24 hours a day.

“I could be called out at any time of the night dealing with all sorts of matters – a child on the roof, what are we going to do about it. Six kids who need housing now at 2am. It was stressful but I loved the job.”

His job resulted in a lot of community involvement and he decided to stand in the Lancaster City Council elections for the Ryelands ward in 1987.

“It had always been Tory and no-one ever understood why – it had a huge housing estate on it,” said Hilton.

The penny eventually dropped that while Tory supporters would vote come election day, hardly anybody from the estate ever did.

After much canvassing, that changed.

It was one of the most seminal moments of my life,” said Hilton. “A huge phalanx of people came out of the estate to vote, knocking on doors as they went to persuade other people to vote.”

Hilton won the ward for Labour.

Then 10 years later in 1997 he stood for parliament in the Lancaster and Wyre constituency, formed after boundary changes from the old Lancaster constituency.

Since the Second World War Lancaster had been won by the Tories at every election bar the 1966 poll.

No-one expected us to win,” he said.

The media, even an eminent professor of politics. told me I had no chance.

“But I’d learned if you just engage with people, have a clear message and work hard at the grass roots you can win,” he said.

After winning the seat after a re-count he became well known for his championing of child related issues – he was named the 2004 Children’s Champion in the House of Commons – however it led to run ins with party bosses.

He objected to its policies on asylum seekers suggesting they be refused benefits would see their children left destitute.

Hilton described it as “immoral” in a Commons debate.

And then there the Iraq war – “a terrible time,” he recalled.

Hilton was one of the Labour MPs who backed a rebel backbench amendment that the case for war with Iraq was “unproven”.

So while he loved his first four years in Parliament, his enthusiasm waned considerably after he was re-elected, again after a recount, in 2001.

By 2005 he had decided it was time to move on and quit before the general election to return to children’s services.

He became CEO of Shaftesbury Young People which works for children both in care and in need and later chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers.

In the meantime he had returned to his native North East, he and wife Susan buying a house in Warkworth which boasts a spectacular view of Warkworth Castle.

“I found I was able to commute to London from Alnmouth which is on the East Coast mainline.”

He also found time to fight for the Lynemouth and Ellington seat in the 2008 Northumberland County Council elections.

“It was the only safe Labour seat I have ever fought – and I got whupped,” said Hilton ruefully.

“I had the arrogance to think I could do it all in a month thinking I could repeat what I did in Ryelands over a much shorter period of time.

“It proved a very important political lesson.”

Source –  Newcastle Journal, 31 Jan 2015

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