Thursday, 23 October 2014

Labour now has a northern discomfort to add to its southern discomfort

For some time, people have spoken about Labour’s “southern discomfort”: its seeming difficulty in making any headway in the critical marginals of the South-East.

As the dust settled after the by-elections two weeks ago, it became clear that the net results were as bad, if not worse, for Labour as they were for the Tories, who had never really expected to hold onto Clacton anyway. But in Heywood and Middleton, Labour only narrowly held on to a seat in its northern, industrial heartlands.

Labour’s conclusion seems to have been a vague realisation that “we need to do something about immigration”. We might be thankful that, so far at least, it has not turned into a sop to the dumb, emotional argument of the populist right, that migration is generally is some kind of social and economic bad, when the reverse is true.

But it is also tempting to apply a nationally-uniform explanation for UKIP’s electoral success, where it does not fit. That is, it is important to look at the North and the South separately.

The caricature of UKIP is that it is gaining votes from Little Englanders, who traditionally have a mistrust of foreigners and Europe dating back, quite probably, to 1066. And there is a lot of truth in that: in the South.

In Clacton, where UKIP won its first by-election, the percentage of the population which is
92.8% “White British”. While one imagines that enough of its voters might have sufficient mistrust of immigrants from outside Europe, as well as inside it, to vote UKIP, the “outside Europe” part signals a mistrust largely born of ignorance. By definition: there is clearly not a great variety of skin colour to be seen on Clacton’s Victorian sea-front.

However, in the old mill, steel and coal towns of the M62 corridor, the story is different, many have large Asian populations. Voters in different communities form opinions of others not through ignorance, but through the knowledge of living side-by-side, in what have sometimes become parallel, rather than integrated, societies.

Labour has correctly clocked that UKIP has changed tack from “Europe” to “Europe and immigration”. But that message has resonated in the North for reasons that it has still not fully understood, to which we now turn.

Heywood and Middleton, it was little remarked over recent weeks, forms part of the Metropolitan Borough of Rochdale.

Now, if we are to get to fully understand the Heywood result, we need to think about how Rochdale has appeared in the national news over the last two years.

Last week, further evidence emerged regarding the abuse carried out by former MP Cyril Smith, and others, at Knowl View special school between forty and twenty years ago. Smith had abused in various locations “all in the Greater Manchester area”. As John Mann, tweeted last Thursday: “it is becoming clear that the child sex abuse cover up is much, much bigger than anyone could ever realise”.

Rochdale, it is clear, has had a poor history with regard to protecting children. As it seems many councils have had in that area, Rotherham being another recent example. However, there are two aspects to this effect, both of which affect Labour.

The first is that when “the authorities” let you down as a citizen, your natural reaction is to want to punish them at the ballot box. The Establishment in these Northern towns is almost exclusively Labour, so it is natural that they might bear the brunt of such feeling. However, there are mitigating factors: Smith was a Liberal and the abuse happened a long time ago. In the case of Rochdale, its current Labour MP Simon Danczuk has commendably left no stone unturned in surfacing abuse cases, no matter how awkward this might prove for today’s politicians. These things help.

But the second is a much more pernicious effect, and one open to manipulation by Labour’s opponents. It is undeniable that the most important contemporary manifestation of child abuse across those same Northern towns is from gangs of almost exclusively Pakistani-heritage men. In 2011, Rochdale was pretty much the first town to see this issue brought to public attention.

This year, Rotherham showed there was a
pattern. Even before the child abuse investigation was published, Lewis Baston noted in Progress magazine that the only council by-election UKIP had so far won in the metropolitan boroughs since May 2013 was Rawmarsh ward in Rotherham, in June 2013. A coincidence? It seems unlikely.

Today, one suspects, we might not have won the Rotherham parliamentary by-election so convincingly, and there is certainly good anecdotal evidence suggesting that UKIP might be deliberately targeting seats where such gangs are an issue.

Most importantly, it is inconceivable that this subject will not still loom large in the minds of Rochdale’s parents and yet, apart from the tireless Danczuk and a couple of others, it is still practically a taboo subject for Labour, as we saw during the Heywood campaign. Jack Straw was practically crucified when he first
raised it three years ago.

It was not taboo, of course, for UKIP, as their election leaflets

In fact, we left them an open goal. It could paint Labour not only as the party of incompetence, or even cover-up, with regard to child abuse. It could paint them as the out-of-touch local hegemonists; the blindly politically-correct governing party, so tight with the local Pakistani
clans that it would never do anything to upset the applecart.

In short, Labour failed even to mention the one subject uppermost in many voters’ minds. As an anonymous Labour MP delicately put it to the

“Ukip has been making inroads because our party is unwilling to address difficult issues. In Heywood & Middleton we have been unwilling to talk about the child abuse scandal, which has given Nigel Farage’s party a clear opportunity. The party needs to give candidates freedom to discuss local issues, no matter how difficult. We have to let go of the reins.”

It is not difficult to extrapolate across the North – even to the Midlands, where the Trojan Horse scandal is creating a comparable opportunity for UKIP to paint Labour as deaf and blind – and see that we need to look to our laurels with regard to the core vote in many of these industrial towns. Add in reasonable concerns about strain on public services caused by immigration, and you have the recipe for a backlash against Labour.

This does not, of course, mean that Labour needs to get into debates about limiting numbers of migrants which our economy needs, or hinting that we “understand” UKIP’s lowest-common-denominator responses. That way lies madness.

But neither must it ignore realities. It is easy to see how speeches like
Miliband’s to the PLP do not remotely address the concerns of Rochdale voters:

“Mr Miliband did not set out any new immigration policies, but spoke about the “need to take action against the undercutting of wages, the need to take action to make sure people integrate more, the need to make sure people learn English, the need to make sure there are not unfair recruitment practices.”

This just will not cut it when people perceive – quite wrongly in most cases, but in good faith – that the very lives of their children might be put at risk by a Labour council, or a Labour government, sitting on its hands out of political correctness.

No, Labour needs to lose its dangerous paralysis when discussing touchy subjects, especially those which affect different ethnic communities asymmetrically. It seems that identity politics, that corrosive force which drives us to categorise people according to the characteristics which divide, rather than unite us, always gets in the way.

Yes, there are a number of reasons why we might have alienated our core vote. But this is surely one of the most powerful in those northern towns. And, in conclusion, there is something which one finds it strange even to have to say about the Labour Party, the party of equality.

It needs, simply, to demonstrate convincingly to voters that it treats all people equally, regardless of their religion or the colour of their skin. No better and no worse. No special treatment for anyone. The same.

At the moment, it seems clear that a number of our prospective voters don’t feel that’s the case.

This post first published at Labour Uncut and selected for What We're Reading by Progress Online

Friday, 10 October 2014

Leadership challenges: a coda

The other day my friend John Rentoul helpfully pointed out an Australian counter-example to my last piece on leadership challenges: that Bob Hawke had won on the back of a usurpation (and, I now realise, was later usurped himself by Paul Keating), and it hadn’t done him any harm, in fact he went on to win four elections.

In fact, I had been talking about Kevin Rudd’s last-minute unseating of Julia Gillard last year, but it was an interesting thought nonetheless (I had never realised so much rampant usurping went on in Australia, for a start).

So, successful last-minute bids do happen, if infrequently. I would also argue, though, that Australia’s ALP has a more highly-developed tradition of back-stabbing, I mean, er, rough-and-tumble politics than exists in our mostly-cuddly British Labour Party. And that tradition also makes it more acceptable; I am not sure that British voters (not to mention party members) would react in the same positive way to such goings-on on this side of the world.

The other point to note is that Hawke’s win was under highly unusual circumstances: the incumbent PM had disastrously called a snap election thinking that the previous opposition leader, Bill Hayden, would be running and not the more popular Hawke. He was then, I presume, gobsmacked to find that in the intervening hours, Hawke had taken the crown from Hayden. Not all, but part of Hawke’s success story was to ride that fluke wave into office.

Finally, a second thought: when in power (as were Hawke and Gillard when ousted, not to mention Thatcher, although later) it is surely easier to make a transition, in the case that the public broadly likes your party running the country but is a bit sick of the leader.

It’s not the same as opposition, where the leader is largely untested and unknown - aspiring candidates have not had the benefit of years in a heavyweight job in the public eye, or at least not recently. So in the current situation a last-minute leadership bid is even less likely to be successful, because we're in opposition rather than government.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Leadership challenge? You can’t be serious

It is always a little unwise to make predictions, as us bloggers occasionally find some time later, to our shame and embarrassment.

But perhaps we can venture one now. If there is a silly season within conference season, it is surely within Lib Dem conference. And this year, a few MPs and journalists have used its abject pointlessness as an excuse to take a break from serious politics.

And, indeed, from reality altogether: they have convinced themselves that a Labour leadership challenge is in the air, as these pieces from the
Telegraph and the Mail show.

Only it’s not. Or, at least, it’s incredibly unlikely.

Oh, that’s not to say that some aren’t thinking about it, some even vaguely seriously. It’s always good to check where one’s political stock is, and a dip in the polls is an attractive time to do so.

But there are a lot of good reasons why it is merely fanciful thinking – more a crying into one’s beer in a Manchester hotel bar than a serious, credible campaign briefing.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Human rights? Nah. I've got a party to placate.

While it seems Labour are busy doing all we can to leave the centre ground to the Tories, as the FT's Janan Ganesh pointed out yesterday, they seem to be doing the same to us, in a bizarre "after you, Claude, no, after you, Cecil" stylee. 

This is nothing that new (in fact, I wrote about it a couple of years back) but, this close to an election, it just reinforces the impossibility of calling which way it will go.

The example of vacating the centre ground given by Cameron's speech this week is on the imbecilic dumping of the Human Rights Act, to replace it with some kind of Bill of Rights (it remains to be seen whether that will be the same, or weaker, than the existing European Convention). 

The main point being, he is positioning this as a precursor to "reform" of the ECHR (or rather, pulling out of it, although he dare not say so). If Britain can't cherry-pick which rulings it follows, then the explicit threat is that it will pull out altogether.

In other words: unless you other forty-six signatories do just as I say, I'm taking my bat and ball home. Assuming that the rest of Europe will tell Britain where to stick it and not allow it to destroy the Convention altogether through such a precedent being set, we are out.

Now Cameron gave a decent speech, has had a good week and may yet have secured a post-conference bounce in the polls. But this is a move, for short-term political considerations, which may yet reverberate down the years as a particularly foolish one.

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