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by Margaret Taylor
05 September 2023
Barney Crockett: 'There has been no contact at all with the North East about the political positions of Labour'

Barney Crockett: 'There has been no contact at all with the North East about the political positions of Labour'

As politicians’ offices go, Barney Crockett’s is a tiny bit grand. Okay, so the Aberdeen Town House extension it is housed in is more than a little dated – the corridors are lined with 1970s wool wallpaper – but the room itself is the size of a small classroom, the conglomeration of desks has enough space for an entire political group, and the massive windows bathe the place in the Granite City’s endless summertime light.    

Crockett is clearly pleased with his environs and what he has done with them, amassing a collection of furniture that could hold its own in a late 20th century design museum and lining the walls with books upon books upon books, political biographies jostling for space alongside tomes on everything from Christianity to architecture to Russian history. But then, Crockett has had the run of the place. Having quit the Labour Party at the beginning of summer, he has effectively been banished to the building’s empty top floor, where he’s been free to choose any office he wants and to fill it with whatever pieces of furniture he can scavenge.

Crockett could wax lyrical on the Town House, and indeed does when we go into the council chamber. Those fancy leather seats the members sit on? Original Herman Millers, bought in the 1970s when the city and shire were awash with oil-industry cash. That golden orb that looks like an oversized Terry’s Chocolate Orange? A gift from Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev when he was given the freedom of the city in the nineties. It’s not the building, Crockett’s office, or their contents we’re here to discuss, though, but rather how he found himself in such glorious isolation in the first place. 

Crockett has been leader of Aberdeen City Council’s Labour group on more than one occasion and has served stints as both Lord Provost and leader of the local authority, but he has always been something of a divisive figure in the city. SNP Westminster leader Stephen Flynn said he honed his own oratory skills across the chamber from Crockett in the Aberdeen “bear pit”, and the representative for Dyce, Bucksburn and Danestone has certainly picked fights in high places, famously falling out with Alex Salmond in 2013. The Aberdeen Labour group had wanted the Salmond government to cut funding for the Scottish Open because Royal Aberdeen Golf Club, which was preparing to host the tournament in 2014, did not at that time admit women – a policy it ultimately revoked in 2018. With tensions running high as the country geared up for the 2014 independence referendum, the then first minister accused the Aberdeen administration Crockett led of behaving in an “extreme manner” and taking a “totally insane, indeed kamikaze, position” in relation to the funding arrangement; Crockett said Salmond was “totally out of control” and branded his comments as “the despicable actions of a natural bully”. A year later Crockett was ousted as leader of both the Labour group and the council after colleagues colluded behind his back, with replacement Jenny Laing going on to either lead or co-lead the local authority until last year.

But Crockett’s ties to the city are deep-rooted and longstanding. He has been on the council for close to two decades and, bar the five years when he and his fellow group members were suspended for forming a coalition with the Tories – something banned by the party at a national level, but which Crockett says is unavoidable in local politics – has always been a proud Labour man. That all changed in June when, angered by confirmation that the party will block all new domestic oil and gas developments if it wins power – and UK leader Keir Starmer’s promise to base a state-owned energy company in the political capital of Edinburgh rather than the energy capital of Aberdeen – Crockett quit the party in disgust.         

“The Labour energy policy has been launched without any contact with the North East at all,” he says when I visit Aberdeen Town House in mid-July. “I’ve always said that the distinctive feature of Aberdeen is that nobody listens to it – Aberdeen has a stronger voice in Brussels or Houston than in Edinburgh or London. Energy cities tend to have a strong voice in their countries – Stavanger in Norway, Houston in the US – but Aberdeen has been uniquely ignored. It has been for a long time, but this was so extreme and so blatant. 

“There has been no contact at all with the North East about the political positions of Labour; no dealing with the issues that come out of that. It’s quite emotional for me, to be honest, because it’s so extreme. They say they’re not doing what Margaret Thatcher did [Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar said the party would not mothball the oil industry like the former prime minister did the mining industry] when they’re doing a lot worse. It’s a spectacular failing in the UK context because the oil and gas companies are going to discontinue their work in the UK and the North Sea. I’ve been pushing for an energy transition for 15 years, but it has to be a controlled transition, and gradual. Labour has said most of the investment for the energy transition will come from the private sector, but they are not going to speak to them or deal with them. It doesn’t add up.”

There has been no contact at all with the North East about the political positions of Labour; no dealing with the issues that come out of that.

To say that Labour’s energy strategy did not go down well in Aberdeen is an understatement and a half. Oil tycoon Sir Ian Wood, who spent decades transforming Aberdeen-headquartered engineering company the Wood Group into a global energy leader before more recently turning his attentions to diversifying the local economy and advocating for the energy transition, said the mooted ban on future oil licences is “very concerning”, “environmentally damaging” and will risk “tens of thousands of jobs”. “It makes absolutely no sense to reduce our reliance on domestic oil and gas production only to increase imports from overseas and place in jeopardy tens of thousands of jobs, and yet this is exactly what will happen if this approach is taken,” he said. “What we need is a managed and just transition that protects jobs and that should prioritise supporting our oil and gas industry to make the investments required that will in turn help us accelerate toward new and green energies.”

The local chamber of commerce was equally robust in its response, with policy director Ryan Crichton saying that while Labour’s “big ambition on renewables, grid infrastructure and de-risking new technologies is hugely welcome”, its stance on oil and gas “is not grounded in the realities of the energy transition and will drive away the very companies they want to partner with to make the UK a clean energy superpower”. “Their failure to meaningfully engage with the people, companies and regions delivering the energy transition is evident in this naïve policy, which has now placed jobs, investment and energy security at risk,” he said.

Following the row, it was reported that Starmer and Sarwar would visit the North East “later in the summer” to talk to business leaders about their plans but, despite joining the campaign trail in Rutherglen and Hamilton West last month, the UK leader has not yet made it beyond the Central Belt and it is not clear when he plans to do so. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, meanwhile, used a July trip to St Fergus to announce his government’s backing of both a carbon-capture project and over 100 drilling licences. With a quarter of the UK’s energy needs to be met by oil and gas even after net zero has been achieved, it was, Sunak said, “absolutely the right thing to do”. A Survation poll published by advisory firm True North at the end of August found the Scottish public back Sunak’s position at a rate of two to one.

Once viewed jealously from other parts of Scotland for the riches oil bestowed on it, Aberdeen is a city that has been greatly chastened in recent years. Covid and the cost-of-living crisis have added insult to the injury caused by the oil downturn of 2014 to 2016, when an estimated 100,000 jobs were lost in the local area. The oil price has recovered significantly in the years since – devastatingly as a result of Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine – but the North Sea remains an expensive basin to produce in and, combined with the volatility of the past several years and a hardening of the rhetoric against fossil fuels from the Scottish Government in particular, confidence in the industry remains muted and the North East feels like an area stuck in a kind of limbo. Amid all the talk of the region standing ready to lead the energy transition there is plenty of concern that there is not yet anything particularly tangible to lead. For Crockett there is a real fear that if the process is not handled correctly – if the ramping down of oil and gas is not done in tandem with the ramping up of alternatives – Aberdeen will revert back into the kind of city it was in his past.

“I grew up in Aberdeen when it was the poorest city in Britain and I grew up in the poorest part of it,” he says. The part of Aberdeen he is talking about is Footdee – known to locals as Fittie – and, as is clear from the aerial pictures Crockett shows me of the tenement he grew up in, it was about as far from salubrious as it is possible to imagine. A stone’s throw from the harbour, the building was sandwiched between a chemical works and a gas works, with the street passing in front gleaming white from all the sulphur that was dropped on it and the one to the rear dyed black with coal. “We played in chemicals and in coal,” Crockett says. 

The Fittie Crockett knew no longer exists – it was bulldozed to make way for the oil industry buildings that started springing up in the seventies – but along the harbour the enclave now known as Fittie, but which people of Crockett’s generation called Auld Fittie, gives an idea of the place in which his left-wing politics were formed. Fishers have long since been replaced by artists and the series of squares have been gentrified to the degree that there’s an upmarket fish restaurant round the corner and busloads of tourists can regularly be found ooh-ing and ahh-ing at the area’s quirks. But looking at the tiny houses squeezed in cheek-by-jowl to fend off the worst of the North Sea’s squalls, it’s not hard to imagine how tough life was in pre-oil Aberdeen, when the city was a remote, down-at-heel fishing town.

“Fittie was a really rough area,” Crockett says. “I’m 70, so we’re going way back, but we were compulsorily washed every week. We were marched to Aberdeen Corporation baths in Hanover Street and were scrubbed by a man with a big brush – the boys were in one room and the girls were in another and the same man went in to scrub the boys and the girls. We had a very left-wing council and we got free breakfasts too, which I didn’t take, but we had the opportunity for that.

“When I was about 10, we moved across the harbour to Torry; I came on a lot in Torry. We had the lowest proportion of kids going to senior secondary school in Scotland but we had a very progressive council. I failed the 11-plus but I still went to higher secondary school because they had an appeal system. The leader would go through the papers of the kids from the poorer areas who had failed, interview their mothers – it was always the mothers – and if they were supportive they’d be put through. I went to Aberdeen Academy, which was very much geared towards kids from council estates, then on to study history at Aberdeen University. I wanted to be a teacher because I felt that that would please my parents. A huge proportion of first-generation kids at university became teachers.”

On leaving university Crocket did a number of jobs – processing fish, delivering furniture, and collecting debts door-to door – before finally getting a teaching place. A stint as a dishwasher on the rigs gave him an insight into how unsafe life was for oil workers in the pre-Piper Alpha era. “Piper Alpha [the platform that exploded and sank in July 1988, killing 165 people on board as well as two rescue workers] changed everything, but at that time there was no health and safety at all,” Crockett says. “Then, if the rig was busy the stewards would sleep in Portakabins on the deck – they weren’t fixed down – and smoking was allowed. In the morning we’d wake up and the Portakabin would have concertinaed because of the wind so we couldn’t get out.”

His teaching career began in 1978, with stints at Speyside High School and as headteacher at Farr in Bettyhill as well as in Orkney and Shetland. He came back to Aberdeen in the early 1990s to run Grampian Regional Equality Council then, after standing unsuccessfully on a number of occasions, finally won a seat on the council in 2007. Interests in education, housing and diversity have all coloured his time in office, but the oil industry – and how the city would prepare for and emerge from its ultimate winding down – has been his main preoccupation.

“I’ve spoken about the energy transition on four continents,” Crockett says. “I’ve been in Japan and Houston and last year was the only UK politician at the ONS Foundation exhibition in Norway [not-for-profit organisation ONS brings together politicians and industry figures at biennial events aimed at facilitating the energy transition]. European politicians were thronging at it because energy security had become such a big issue but there was no one from the UK parliament or the Scottish parliament. They are scared of the issue, but we have to talk about the issue. [Politicians] have to talk to the oil and gas companies if they are being expected to provide most of the investment for the transition and enter into a strategic partnership with the public sector.

“Labour’s policy is no new exploration but that will have a devastating effect on the existing fields that are being run down. If you don’t have new ones, they’ll diminish more quickly – it will go to 100 fields in the North Sea rather than 283 at the moment. Then there’s the windfall tax. It’s at 75 per cent at the moment and Labour say they will make it much higher but it’s not conceivable to go higher. I’ve also been taken aback at the level of hostile rhetoric about oil and gas companies, which is not acceptable if they are going to be your partners in the transition. ‘Profiteers of war’ [in May shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves told BBC economics editor Faisal Islam that energy company profits are the “windfalls of war” and “war profits”] – who wants to be the partner of someone who calls you that?

“I felt I had to do something. This is a city that nobody has been listening to. I might not get the message across but I will do everything I can to try. The ironic thing is that my message is about the energy transition, not the oil industry.”

Crockett has never spoken to Starmer and says that, even within the Scottish party – and even in the UK party under Gordon Brown – interest in the North East has been limited. The recent Gers figures – which highlighted how dependant Scotland still is on energy industry revenues – and the True North poll – which found that three-quarters of Scots want the oil and gas the country will need even after net zero has been achieved to be produced here rather than imported – might change that, though Crockett isn’t holding his breath. Despite that, should the Labour leader come good on his promise to visit the North East he’ll find the door to that top-floor office standing open. He might even be treated to the Town House tour. 

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