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.

Show Hide image

Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.