Barry Sheerman's "small English rant"

Why does a Labour MP think it is in the interests of his constituents to attack eastern Europeans?

We've all been there: late for a train, starving, and so you're forced to buy some over-priced slop from a sandwich chain on the station forecourt. You're in a hurry, and so is the hard-pressed, minimum-waged shop assistant.

In the muddle that follows, they mess up your order. Annoying, yes – but for Huddersfield's Labour MP, Barry Sheerman, this was a chance to take aim at foreigners. On 23 April, he tweeted:

"Just had worst coffee and bacon bap in London at Victoria Station. Why can't Camden Food Co employ English staff?"

When asked by one of his Twitter followers if he was being xenophobic about the "eastern European" woman who served him, Mr Sheerman – who once explained his opposition to a ban on fox-hunting “because I don't like the persecution of minorities” – replied:

"We are all allowed a small English rant on St George's day aren't we?"

Followed by:

"I am not a xenophobe. I am an MP and I represent the good folk of Huddersfield not Gdansk!"

Mr Sheerman later told the Huddersfield Examiner that unemployed people in his constituency should have "first crack" at jobs "rather than someone who has arrived from eastern Europe yesterday" and that "high levels" of immigration also "put pressure on housing, hospitals and our schools".

Yet if Mr Sheerman really was motivated by concern for his hard-working Huddersfield constituents, perhaps he can explain why it was in their interests to:

 

  • Grandstand on “foreign” competition for jobs when we are in the middle of a crisis caused by the banks and made worse by the coalition's failed economic policies?
  • Spend 13 years supporting a New Labour government committed to a “flexible” labour market with some of the harshest anti-union laws in Europe, under which inequality of income rose, and where some argue that the free movement of labour was used as a “21st-century incomes policy”?
  • Vote for an Iraq war that precipitated a major refugee crisis?
  • Vote for anti-terrorism measures that have treated British Muslims as a problem community and a potential “enemy within”?
  • Acquiesce to the removal of compulsory language GCSEs, making it harder for British workers to compete in the international jobs market and increasing the hostility mono-lingual English speakers feel when they hear foreign languages spoken in public?
  • Choose St George's Day to have an “English rant” when some of his Labour colleagues are trying to “de-toxify” English nationalism, and when Kirklees, the borough in which his constituency is located, is only just free of BNP candidates for the first time in 12 years?

Mr Sheerman is absolutely right that we should be able to talk about difficult issues without fear of “pernicious political correctness”. Perhaps he can start with the above. I'm sure his constituents – including the ones for whom English is not a first language, or whose families originate overseas – would love to know.

A bacon sandwich. Ethnic origin of the pig could not be confirmed at time of going to press. (Getty Images.)

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

“We can’t do this again”: Labour conference reactions to Jeremy Corbyn’s second victory

Overjoyed members, determined allies and concerned MPs are divided on how to unite.

“I tell you what, I want to know who those 193,229 people are.” This was the reaction of one Labour member a few rows from the front of the stage, following the announcement of Jeremy Corbyn’s victory at the Labour party conference. She was referring to support received by his defeated contender, Owen Smith, who won 38.2 per cent of the vote (to Corbyn’s 61.8 per cent).

But it’s this focus on the leader’s critics – so vehement among many (and there are a lot of them) of his fans – that many politicians, of either side, who were watching his victory speech in the conference hall want to put an end to.

“It’s about unity and bringing us all together – I think that’s what has to come out of this,” says shadow cabinet member and MP for Edmonton Kate Osamor. “It shouldn’t be about the figures, and how many votes, and his percentage, because that will just cause more animosity.”

Osamor, who is supportive of Corbyn’s leadership, is not alone in urging her colleagues who resigned from the shadow cabinet to “remember the door is never shut”.

Shadow minister and member of Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) Jon Ashworth – not a Corbyn loyalist, but focusing on making the shadow cabinet work together – shares the sentiment.

Standing pensively in front of the now-empty stage, he tells me he backs shadow cabinet elections (though not for every post) – a change to party rules that has not yet been decided by the NEC. “[It] would be a good way of bringing people back,” he says. “I’ve been involved in discussions behind the scenes this week and I hope we can get some resolution on the issue.”

He adds: “Jeremy’s won, he has to recognise a number of people didn’t vote for him, so we’ve got to unite.”

The former Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett, another MP on the NEC, is sitting in the audience, looking over some documents. She warns that “it’s impossible to tell” whether those who resigned from Corbyn’s shadow cabinet would be willing to return, and is concerned about talent being wasted.

“We have a lot of excellent people in the party; there are new people now in the shadow cabinet who have had a chance to show their mettle but you need experience as well as ability,” she says.

Beckett, who has urged Corbyn to stand down in the past, hopes “everybody’s listening” to his call for unity, but questions how that will be achieved.

“How much bad blood there is among people who were told that there was plotting [against Corbyn], it’s impossible to tell, but obviously that doesn’t make for a very good atmosphere,” she says. “But Jeremy says we’ll wipe the slate clean, so let’s hope everybody will wipe the slate clean.”

It doesn’t look that way yet. Socialist veteran Dennis Skinner is prowling around the party conference space outside the hall, barking with glee about Corbyn’s defeated foes. “He’s trebled the membership,” he cries. “A figure that Blair, Brown and Prescott could only dream about. On average there’s more than a thousand of them [new members] in every constituency. Right-wing members of the parliamentary Labour party need to get on board!”

A call that may go unheeded, with fervent Corbyn allies and critics alike already straying from the unity message. The shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon is reminding the PLP that, “Jeremy’s won by a bigger margin this time”, and telling journalists after the speech that he is “relaxed” about how the shadow cabinet is recruited (not a rallying cry for shadow cabinet elections).

“If Jeremy wants to hold out an olive branch to the PLP, work with MPs more closely, he has to look very seriously at that [shadow cabinet elections]; it’s gone to the NEC but no decision has been made,” says Louise Ellman, the Liverpool MP and transport committee chair who has been critical of Corbyn’s leadership. “That might not be the only way. I think he has to find a way of working with MPs, because we’re all elected by millions of people – the general public – and he seems to dismiss that.”

“If he sees it [his victory] as an endorsement of how he’s been operating up until now, the problems which led to the election being called will remain,” Ellman warns. “If we’re going to be a credible party of government, we’ve got to reach out to the general electorate. He didn’t say anything about that in his speech, but I hope that perhaps now he might feel more confident to be able to change direction.”

Corbyn may have called for cooperation, but his increased mandate (up from his last stonking victory with 59.5 per cent of the vote) is the starkest illustration yet of the gulf between his popularity in Parliament and among members.

The fact that one attempt at a ceasefire in the party’s civil war – by allowing MPs to vote for some shadow cabinet posts – is in contention suggests this gulf is in danger of increasing.

And then where could the party be this time next year? As Osamor warns: “We should not be looking at our differences, because when we do that, we end up thinking it’s a good thing to spend our summer having another contest. And we can’t. We can’t do this again.”

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.