The MP for Rochdale Simon Danzcuk has launched in to the newspapers today roundly condemning Ed Milliband for being unable to talk about immigration. It’s a strident piece that neatly ducks the long running (some would say ‘vicious’ ) tension between Rochdale’s ‘Danzcuk’-ites’ and the allies of the late Jim Dobbin MP next door. The article says many things but the one thing a Labour Lancastrian MP perhaps can’t say is that when you are fighting a by-election in the heartlands between Manchester and Liverpool, around Preston and across the Ribble Valley, the last thing you need is the South London drawl of Rachel Reeves, or Harriet Harman or that (fake) Yorkshire MP Ed Balls dropping in for tea and sympathy.
Soon after the 2010 election I was invited to a round table conversation on ‘Englishness’ in the Labour leader’s private conference rooms. It was an interesting discussion gathering Labour’s intellectual glitterati and Mr Milliband himself. I’ll never forget how the room looked perplexed when I made the suggestion that the problem for any political party was not now just ‘England’ but ‘London’ too. Not London simply as an electoral arena, or the place where Mr Milliband grew up, but London as perceived as the metaphorical gathering point of atomising liberalism, economic decadence, over-funded footie clubs, hard – nosed city dealers, expensive tickets for musicals; and socialists, Clegg-ites and Tories who have never had a ‘real job’. A London from where Unite the trade union is run making it more interested in bank rolling its own people than normal people not least by badly rigging selection processes in far – away Scotland. More painfully still London as the place where your kids go to get a ‘good job’ and come back seemingly embarrassed to spend time over a sausage lunch with gathered family on a Sunday, or with grandparents at the local club.
As I made the comment I was thinking of long conversations with proud skilled working class friends in the printing industry now making an income as taxi drivers and in retail. I was thinking of a single man I’d seen furious on a doorstep because he worked 100 hours a week as a security guard while his next door neighbour got more holidays on benefit with her kids. I was thinking about former Irish miners emerging from the coal pits in Kent to hand part of their salary to their Priest and part to the NUM. I was thinking of fishermen on the coasts stretching westwards from Lyme Regis. And above all else I was thinking of Heywood, Littleton and Warrington, Bolton and Ellesmere Port, Hyndburn, Bacup and the Ribble Valley. So, while Simon Danzcuk puts Gordon Brown’s condemnation of a ‘bigoted woman’ in his seat in 2010 down to Labour’s failure to talk about immigration many of us encountered that terrible error as symptomatic of a metropolitan snobbery of the Left as paternalistic and patronising as anything that might have once dropped from the mouth of an aristocratic Tory backwoodsman.
The last Labour government spent a good deal of time telling communities in the English North West, South West and Kent that they were ‘hard to reach’. Some Local Economic Partnerships and Vince Cable’s BIS still call them ‘far from the market’. And yet residents in those neighbourhoods get the bus there most days. And Wonga and Provident Financial – not to mention Primark – all seem to think these voters very close to the market indeed. Labour voters, Conservative voters and those so revolted that they could not bring themselves to vote all knew by instinct that codified in 1200 targets from Whitehall was a deep conviction of moral and technocratic superiority run by a system that had no real interest in their aspirations.
No wonder then that UKIP’s Paul Nutall MEP has made the capture by UKIP of the English North West his lifetime priority. No wonder then that a small business owning, father of two, could walk in to last week’s by-election and nearly walk away with victory. And no wonder that in Clacton the socially conservative Douglas Carswell connects with the rising anger of those that Labour especially failed.
The Conservatives have much more work to do if they too want to reverse their fortunes: Energetic calls to ‘aspiration’ sound shrill when not accompanied by an equal expectation of respect, duty, and responsibility to parents, grandparents, school friends and siblings who do not make the same journey. All-out war on benefit cheats provokes cross class fury when it ends up settling its attention on the enduringly ill, and especially on those with lifetime injuries after a fishing accident or mental ill health brought home from Afghanistan or other trauma.
David Cameron in full flow can appeal to English idealism. Nick Clegg can pull it off too not least by his passionate advocacy of parity of mental ill health in the NHS at the recent Glasgow Conference. But Ed Milliband, more than any other leader, only makes sense if he asks the big questions that his father would have done, takes responsibility for how Gordon Brown let so many of his own down, and breaks free of London to celebrate the country in all its hopeful diversity – even to including those that his frontbench, with notable exceptions, would never dare join for tea in a Weatherspoon’s.
For until all of our established political leaders find a refreshed language of vision with renewal, aspiration with social concern, internationalism with equity we will remain in crisis somehow leaving Nigel Farage and Paul Nutall as the standard bearers of hope in our time. For the question, Mr Danczuk, is not just immigration but the system.
And for Labour more than any other this is perhaps the deepest crisis for its front bench have, for swathes of England, become a ‘hard to reach’ community far away from the real market places of ordinary lives with not even an Eric Pickles , Patrick Mcloughlin or a Sajid David to hold up as a counter-point to the rule. Embodying ‘London’ rather than the country the party of the people is at risk of losing now even if it wins.