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.

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The Brexit outlook for Theresa May isn't good

Getting from today's headlines to a successful deal will require an impressive feat of statecraft.

Good morning. Give me what I want or I shoot myself: that's the gambit that worked for the sheriff in Blazing Saddles, but it may not fly in the Brexit negotiations.

Theresa May has invoked Article 50 and Britain is heading out of the European Union. She attempted to strike a more conciliatory tone yesterday than she has hitherto, but the message that has drawn the headlines is the government's "threat" on security: that no Brexit deal means no British co-operation in Europol and in EU-wide counter-terror measures.

Gianni Pittella, the leader of the Socialist bloc in the European Parliament says it was "not a smart move" and "feels like blackmail", and Guy Verhofstadt, parliament's representative in the negotiations, is also using the B word, after a fashion: "I tried to be a gentleman towards a lady, so I didn't even use or think about the use of the word blackmail."

"Trading Blows" is the Mirror's splash, while "May threat to EU terror pact" is the Times' does-what-it-says-on-the-tin frontpage. "EU warns: don't blackmail us" is the Guardian's. The Sun has turned the jingometer all the way up to 11 this morning: "Your money or your lives" is their splash.

David Davis hit the airwaves this morning to reassure people that the government's intention was not to invoke security as a threat in the Brexit talks. My understanding is that the intention was to show co-operation and highlight the importance of Britain's continuing relationship with the EU. In Brussels, not everyone read the letter as a threat. The European Parliament is more "highly strung" as one Brussels official puts it, but don't forget: they get a vote on the deal too.

That the mood music from Downing Street and much of the British press has been so relentlessly anti-Europe means that feelings are running high. While most of the British political class doesn't have German or French, most of the political class does have English. The frontpages of the Sun, the Express and the Mail travel a lot further than their equivalents elsewhere in Europe, which will increase the pressure domestically on May's opposite numbers to sign a bad deal.

All of which can be navigated by an astute diplomat. As to the question of whether that diplomat is May, however, it's worth taking a look at that "100 per cent commitment to Nato" that she secured from Donald Trump, which even a generous marker would struggle to get to 60 per cent. Trump has yet to appoint a Nato ambassador and his Secretary of State is still sounding equivocal about standing by Nato members who don't pay up.

Getting from today's papers to a good Brexit deal is going to require an impressive feat of statecraft. Past performance isn't necessarily an indicator of future returns. But the outlook for May so far isn't good.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.