The Labour Party’s Rocky Road To Redemption, Part 2 – Pat Glass Edition

The Labour Party still shows no signs of having learned to stop hating half the country

Earlier this week, this blog looked at Tristram Hunt’s effort to combine feedback from various personalities within the Labour Party into a coherent narrative explaining why they lost the 2015 general election. As we saw, it hasn’t got off to the best of starts.

But quoting extensively from a failed parliamentary candidate who unabashedly declared that there is nothing good about British culture and power (as Tristram Hunt did when he quoted the losing Harlow candidate Suzy Stride) is nothing compared to the latest self-inflicted wound administered to the party by one of its own sitting MPs.

Next to enjoy her moment in the sun is Europhile Labour MP Pat Glass, who while campaigning in Derbyshire for Britain to remain in the European Union had some rather choice words to describe her encounter with a man who raised concerns about immigration.

From the BBC:

A Labour MP campaigning for the UK to remain in the EU has apologised after being recorded calling a voter a “horrible racist”.

Shadow Europe minister Pat Glass made the comments after an interview with BBC Radio Derby in Sawley, Derbyshire.

She said: “The very first person I come to is a horrible racist. I’m never coming back to wherever this is.”

[..] The man Ms Glass is believed to have been referring to said he had spoken to her about to a Polish family in the area who he believed were living on benefits, describing them as “spongers”, but denied being racist.

The North West Durham MP said: “The comments I made were inappropriate and I regret them.

“Concerns about immigration are entirely valid and it’s important that politicians engage with them.

“I apologise to the people living in Sawley for any offence I have caused.”

Let’s be honest – Pat Glass isn’t sorry that she made the remarks. She is sorry that she was caught making the remarks, which is very different. For just as surely as rich Californian donors bankrolling then-candidate Barack Obama understood exactly what he meant when he made his dog-whistle comments about backward Southerners clinging to their guns and religion, so Pat Glass’s intended audience knows exactly what she means when she recoils in mock horror after an everyday encounter with someone sceptical about immigration.

Because like the current Labour Party as a whole, Pat Glass’s audience is not the entire country. Her audience is not even everyone on the Left. And it certainly isn’t the “white working class”, with whom Labour now have such a fractious relationship. Pat Glass’s preferred audience is the same middle-class clerisy which cheered on Ed Miliband, whose sheltered home counties wishy-washy Fabianism renders them utterly capable of identifying with the hopes, fears and dreams of whole swathes of the country.

As is often the case, the initial reflex tells us everything that we need to know. And Pat Glass’s reflex on being confronted with the voter in question was not to attempt to understand their viewpoint and see the world through their eyes, but rather to high-handedly dismiss them as being beneath her dignity. Glass knows that both the EU and high net migration are both unabashed goods, and anybody who deigns to disagree with her is uneducated at best, or “racist” at worst. Why bother to hide it?

(Incidentally, Andrew Neil does a great job skewering Labour apologist Zoe Williams in the Daily Politics clip shown above, taking her to school on the difference between racism, xenophobia and bigotry).

We have seen this story play out before, and we will see it again. Mostly because it is how many Labour Party MPs and activists actually feel, and speaking the truth in an unguarded moment is a perennial occupational hazard in politics. Of course, under Jeremy Corbyn, Pat Glass can comfortably expect to receive no censure. Ed Miliband, obsessed with outward appearances, went too far the other way in the case of the Emily Thornberry St. George’s flag Twitter picture, purging Thornberry from his shadow cabinet.

But whether the Labour Party is breezily ignoring the issue or wildly overreacting out of concern for bad PR, the one thing that the party still shows no inclination for doing is actually reaching out to their scorned working class base and asking – pass the smelling salts – whether they might actually have a point? Until now, the best that Labour have managed to do in this regard is to put up a few spokespeople to say something along the lines of “of course it’s not racist to be concerned about immigration”. But this is then immediately followed by the pivot to “but here’s why they are wrong, and the EU / unlimited immigration is actually great”. In other words, the Labour Party are trying to tackle this gulf between the party leadership and the disaffected working class base as a problem of optics rather than a fundamental disagreement over policy.

Maybe the Labour Party will struggle along all the way through until the next general election without resolving the inherent tension between the multiculturalist direction set by the leadership and the more nativist attitudes held by those of their supporters who drifted away to UKIP or stayed home during the 2015 election. But unless Jeremy Corbyn or someone else steps forward with a concerted act of leadership, effectively “choosing a side” once and for all, the party will continue to be embarrassed in the polls when sneering Labour MPs accidentally reveal their true feelings about the working classes.

As this blog recently put it:

First, Labour must learn simply to tolerate the country again – to look upon the white working class and others of their former supporters not as godless infidels who spurned the One True Faith and threw their lot in with the genocidal Tories and racist Ukippers, but as decent and rational human beings who simply don’t like what the Labour Party is currently selling.

Meanwhile, Labour shadow ministers and the army of activists who knock on doors and deliver leaflets need to dial down the moral sanctimony from 100 to about 50, and accept that maybe they, rather than the electorate, made the mistake on May 7 (and the days leading up to it) last year.

At present, whether it is Pat Glass or the Labour In For Britain crowd in general, the scorn and contempt heaped by major party figures on otherwise natural supporters who fail to toe the correct line on immigration and the EU speaks volumes. The people are not stupid. They know when they are being mocked, and they will not buy the subsequent walkback and fake expressions of contrition.

So perhaps this is a split which needs to happen. Just as the Tories desperately need a cleansing fire to purge their ranks of all the wets and panting europhiles post-referendum, maybe the Labour Party needs to split into two new parties – one comprised of middle class luvvies who think they know best about what the working classes need, and another new party comprised of actual working class people who do not need sanctimonious young Corbynistas, Hampstead dwelling champagne socialists or the likes of Pat Glass to defend their interests.

Right now, this is an open question. But the antics of people like Pat Glass are making it a slightly less difficult one to answer.

 

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The Labour Party’s Soul Searching Exercise Is Off To An Unpromising Start

Finally, a glimmer of self-awareness from within the perennially self-satisfied Labour Party. But there is a long, difficult road ahead if Labour are serious about reaching out to their legions of disaffected former voters, and it is far from certain that senior party figures have either the stamina or the humility to make the journey

 

What makes us great as a country is not our culture, it’s not our wealth, and it’s definitely not currently our footballing abilities.” – Suzy Stride, Labour Parliamentary Candidate for Harlow, 2014

 

Apparently Tristram Hunt has been filling the time freed up through refusing to serve in Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet by having a good, long think about why the Labour Party imploded quite so badly under the hapless leadership of Ed Miliband.

Hunt’s principle contribution to this process of soul-searching has been to assemble and edit a book of essays by various people within the party, each one ruminating on the cause of their defeat. The common thread which emerges, unsurprisingly, is the profound extent to which the increasingly metropolitan, middle-class core of the modern Labour Party has diverged from the “white working class”, to the extent that the Labour leadership (and many activists) had almost nothing to say to Britain’s strivers going in to the 2015 general election.

Hunt previews this new book – “Labour’s Identity Crisis” – in an article for the Guardian, and it makes fascinating reading, though probably not for the reasons that its author would like. For it reveals the absolute mountain which Labour has to climb just in order to appear relevant to those voters who have deserted the party for UKIP or the Tories.

Hunt begins:

“I’m a white working-class Englishman who isn’t on benefits, Labour isn’t for people like me.” That was the brutal message that confronted the Labour party candidate Suzy Stride on a doorstep in Harlow, Essex, during last year’s general election.

It was a sentiment repeated across the country: Labour didn’t speak for England. Worse, in that remarkable tweet from the Islington MP Emily Thornberry  – picturing St George’s crosses adorning a semi in Rochester – we seemed to mock it.

It’s very interesting that Tristram Hunt should kick off his article with a quote from failed 2015 Labour parliamentary candidate for Harlow (my hometown), Suzy Stride. Because this is what Stride had to say about the country which gives her life and liberty back during the 2014 Labour Party Conference:

“What makes us great as a country is not our culture, is not our wealth, and it’s definitely not currently our footballing abilities. What makes us great is that we have the dignity to care for those who are most vulnerable. So when did it become acceptable to make parents queue for food at foodbanks?”

This is someone who stood before the electorate asking for their vote only months after boasting on television that she believes there is nothing special about her country, its culture, history or achievements, and that the only thing which we on this rainy island have to be proud of is the fact that we confiscate ever more money from the most productive people in society and blast it indiscriminately at anybody declared by the Labour Party to be “vulnerable” (currently hovering at around 50% of the population, in terms of net welfare recipients).

And yet up pops Suzy Stride in Tristram Hunt’s book, acting as though the seeds of her defeat were sown not by her own contemptuous attitude toward her country, but rather by the mistaken priorities and poor leadership of the national party. The man who went on to beat Stride by 8,350 votes, incumbent Conservative MP Robert Halfon, understands that in fact our culture is great, as is our history, our wealth and global power. And while he is far from being a Thatcherite right-winger, Halfon at least appreciates that the greatness of our country is more than the sum of our public services. Faced with a choice between the two candidates, it was no contest for the voters of the bellwether constituency of Harlow.

Tristram Hunt quotes Stride again, at the end of a long passage on immigration:

For too many voters, we were still the party that had once dismissed Gillian Duffy as “bigoted” for raising the question of mass migration and cultural change. Labour still has a long way to go to acknowledge the post-2004 influx as one of the most dramatic demographic surges in the history of England. As a result, England has changed in cultural and ethnic composition with an intensity many voters understandably find deeply unsettling.

For at the same time as new migrants found work, manufacturing was laying off workers in the face of increased global competition. There was no direct link between the jobs gained and those lost, but the conjunction of immigration, globalisation and job losses left a toxic political legacy: industrial communities in England saw their way of life change under a Labour policy for which democratic consent was never sought, let alone given. Even worse was an unwillingness by Labour activists to acknowledge the problem. According to Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London, eight out of 10 Labour party members think that immigration is good for the country. This is not the case on most doorsteps in Labour areas. And when, in 2015, English voters raised cultural concerns about changes in language, dress and social norms, we answered with crass, material responses. “Many middle-class Labourites scoffed at such views,” according to Suzy Stride in Harlow. “Where would the NHS be without immigrants?” was a common response from canvassers, she said.

This is actually a very good passage, and is the closest we have yet come to anything approaching contrition for the way that the New Labour government of Tony Blair waved through an unprecedented influx of immigrants without so much as mentioning it to the British electorate, let alone seeking their permission. Whether one is generally pro or anti-immigration (and this blog is very much pro), we should all be able to agree as democrats that such a significant national change, brought about by stealth, was an unconscionable act of arrogance by the Blair government. The fact that many Labour activists still have to be coaxed ever so gently toward this realisation is itself a sign of how much atoning the party still has to do.

Tristram Hunt then gets to the core of it:

A failure to appreciate the value of Englishness played an important role in our 2015 defeat and nothing Corbyn has done as leader has changed this. Indeed, his cosmopolitan views on immigration, benefits, the monarchy and armed forces are likely to have exacerbated the disconnect.

As George Orwell put it: “In leftwing circles it is always felt there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution, from horse racing to suet puddings.” He was right: in no other progressive European tradition – from the French Socialist party to Spain’s Podemos – do you find a similar reluctance to fly the flag.

So there are obvious reforms for Labour to pursue: an English Labour party; a referendum on an English parliament; radical devolution to cities and counties. Alongside that, we have to be careful during the EU referendum campaign not to alienate those millions of Labour voters opting for Brexit. But more than that, what these tales from the 2015 campaign expose is Labour’s need to shed its metropolitan squeamishness about England. It needs to express its admiration and love for the people and culture of this great country.

An admirable sentiment, but at present a futile hope. As Hunt himself admits, the election of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the Labour Party has done nothing to change the core of the party’s disdain for that bulk of people lumped together under the umbrella term “white working class”. While this blog hailed Corbyn’s leadership bid not because of his odious foreign policy opinions but because of the opportunity he represents to inject some real partisan choice back into our domestic political debate, there is sadly little evidence that the army of new members Corbyn helped attract to the party hail from outside the urban, middle class clerisy first identified by Brendan O’Neill as the Labour Party’s new de facto rulers.

You see the effect in Jeremy Corbyn’s immediate U-turn on the European Union the moment he became Labour leader. Corbyn had always held a principled eurosceptic stance and had voted to leave back in the 1975 referendum, and yet here he is in 2016, chanting the praises of Brussels. Why? Because while the Labour party membership will forgive many things (including supporting the IRA, as Alex Massie reminds us), the one thing they cannot abide is a failure to support the mindless, anti-democratic pseudo-internationalism of the EU, or the failure to take a firm, unapologetic stance in favour of unlimited immigration. Those things are simply non-negotiable for Labour activists, most of whom can scarcely conceal their disdain for anybody who fails to hold the “correct” view on immigration in particular.

And that’s the problem. Too many Labour activists actually hate the people of this country – or at best they view those not already convinced of Labour’s righteousness as dangerously ignorant, as Tristram Hunt goes on to explain:

Jamie Reed, MP for Copeland, in Cumbria, takes the analogy further by suggesting that, if Labour fails to embrace Englishness, it will face in northern towns and villages the same fate as the Democrats in the US south: a failure to connect “culturally” with a socially conservative working-class electorate, increasingly willing to vote against their own material interests.

Jamie Reed presumptuously declares that it is the cultural issues surrounding English identity which make natural Labour supporters spurn the party and vote against their own material self interest. But this lazy “what’s the matter with Kansas?” attitude is itself part of the problem – the arrogant assumption that people are voting Tory or UKIP despite rather than because of their right wing economic policies, and that of course they would see that good old fashioned socialist policies would be much better for them, if only they were a little more educated.

The headline of Hunt’s piece in the Guardian is “There’ll always be an England – and Labour must learn to love it”. But from all the evidence currently on display, aspiring for love is setting the goal far too high. First, Labour must learn simply to tolerate the country again – to look upon the white working class and others of their former supporters not as godless infidels who spurned the One True Faith and threw their lot in with the genocidal Tories and racist Ukippers, but as decent and rational human beings who simply don’t like what the Labour Party is currently selling.

Meanwhile, Labour shadow ministers and the army of activists who knock on doors and deliver leaflets need to dial down the moral sanctimony from 100 to about 50, and accept that maybe they, rather than the electorate, made the mistake on May 7 (and the days leading up to it) last year.

If these extracts from “Labour’s Identity Crisis” – and the behaviour of Labour supporters in the year since that fateful general election – are anything to go by, the party has a lot of unresolved anger toward the British electorate. If this were a marriage, couples therapy would most definitely be in order. All of which is quite ridiculous, because it is Britain which has every right to be angry at the Labour Party, and not vice versa.

The white working class and many others spurned the Labour Party in 2015 not because they are morally defective, but because the centre-left, urban, woolly Fabianism of the Miliband era had absolutely nothing to offer them.

And what remains uncertain, despite a radical change in leadership and a plucky first attempt at introspection from Tristram Hunt, is just how the Labour Party ever expects to win a future majority when they continue to hold such a large segment of the population in open contempt?

 

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In Defence Of Tristram Hunt, In Praise Of The One Percent

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In qualified defence of Tristram Hunt

Was Labour MP Tristram Hunt wrong to call for the top one per cent to assert their leadership in the Labour Party?

Lots of people seem to think so, at least judging by the online hysteria now picking up steam following Hunt’s address to the Cambridge University Labour Club last week.

From the Independent:

Labour-supporting students at one of Britain’s two elite universities have been told by a Blairite MP to lead a campaign of “dissent” in the wake of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership victory.

Tristram Hunt, the former shadow education secretary, told students at Cambridge University Labour Club that they were the “top one per cent” and needed to show leadership within the party.  

“The way you serve the Corbyn leadership is to be as dissenting and creative as possible,” he told the students, according to the Cambridge University newspaper Varsity.

“You are the top one per cent. The Labour Party is in the shit. It is your job and your responsibility to take leadership going forward.”

But the truth is a little more complex than an outraged headline in the Independent or an angry Facebook post. And ultimately, it depends on what 1 per cent Tristram Hunt was talking about.

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The Curiously Brittle Bonds Of Left Wing Patriotism In Britain

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People of all political stripes sometimes say things they don’t mean, or come to regret, in the heat of passionate argument, either out of anger or just for dramatic effect.

The Sun newspaper once famously warned the last person fleeing Britain in the event of a Labour election victory to “turn out the lights”. Every Labour Party campaign in living memory has warned voters that they had only “24 hours to save the NHS”, though somehow it never seems to disappear in the Tory years. Paddy Ashdown said he would eat his hat if the Liberal Democrats did as badly in the 2015 general election as the exit poll predicted (they did worse).

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, angry liberals threatened to move to Canada when George W. Bush was re-elected, while social conservatives – high on passion but lacking in international awareness – responded to the Supreme Court’s ruling legalising gay marriage by themselves threatening to move to Canada, that well-known bastion of homophobia and social conservatism.

So rhetorical hyperbole is not restricted to any one political party or any one type of outlook or worldview. But there is a certain type of political argument to which those on the political Left seem to resort far more often than their opponents on the Right.

When faced with electoral defeat and years in political opposition, those of a conservative mindset tend to lick their wounds for awhile and then set about the business of trying to re-acquire power and influence, however angrily or unsuccessfully. However, when those of a left-wing mindset are faced with rule by the other side, they are far more likely to view the situation as intolerable to the extent that even remaining part of the same country or political structure becomes undesirable.

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The Opportunity Labour Is Failing To Grasp

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As their uninspiring leadership contest rumbles on, the Labour Party is in the process of missing a massive opportunity, an existential moment which could very well determine whether the party of Keir Hardie exists at all in fifty years time.

Tristram Hunt – one of the real intellectual and political heavyweights who realised that Labour’s renewal could not be completed in time for the 2020 election, and decided to keep their powder dry for the next leadership contest – admits as much in a revealing interview with the Guardian today.

From the piece, entitled “Labour needs a summer of hard truths“:

Rather than developing detailed policy on childcare, housing, or education, Labour’s debate should be about how government can help people to tackle massive economic, technological and social change.

“The party should be arguing for a progressive and interventionist state to support citizens and communities in confronting the challenges of globalisation. What are we for? We are for giving people the capacity to deal with a period of incredible socio-economic change and the advent of digital technology, migration flows, global capital flows.”

As the Tories trim back the state, they fail to address such questions. “Representing Stoke-on-Trent, you see the seismic change of the last 30 years. It is almost anthropological in terms of the taking away of traditional systems. The role of a Labour party and social democratic parties is to help communities get through that and thrive on the back of it.”

Here, in a nutshell, is the leadership contest which the Labour Party should be having, but is not. Watch any of the hustings or listen to the bickering between the candidates and their badly behaved proxies and you will soon see that (with the partial exceptions of Liz Kendall and Jeremy Corbyn respectively), and you will be struck by two facts about the conversation taking place in the party:

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