For Louise Mensch, Corby was nothing more than a stepping stone

Labour are poised to take control of a constituency where voters feel duped and used by their previous MP's time in office.

"If I had to sum up Corby in a single word, pride is the one I would use." So said Louise Bagshawe - now Mensch - in her maiden speech to Parliament. Two years later, with Mensch having left Northamptonshire for New York and a by-election called for this week, that word, pride, is absent when I meet with two young Corbyites to chat about their former MP.

“She was voted in off the back of people demanding change – Phil Hope was caught up in the expenses scandal – but we never saw that,” says Patrick Tierney, a 22-year-old politics graduate born and raised in the town. “From day one, people saw that she wasn’t committed. She seemed distant, and then for her to be so visible in the media, that didn’t go down too well. You’d overhear conversations in the pub or at the bus stop, people saying, ‘What does she think she’s doing? She’s a laughing stock’. She’d use buzzwords on Twitter, talk about Corby’s Scottish heritage, but when it came down to the nitty gritty there wasn’t much of a connection made.”

Liam Keith, a 27-year-old who works at the local video shop in town, agrees. “For a backbench MP that nobody had heard of before, she became very famous, very quickly. She was on Have I Got News For You and embarrassed herself a bit sitting next to Jonny Rotten on Question Time, but there was never any mention of what she was actually doing for Corby,” he says. “I followed her on Twitter. She always talked about ‘Corby Pride’, but she didn’t really understand the people of the town.”

“I never once saw her in the flesh,” he adds. “Most people feel that she was very much only here when she had to be.” This feeling of disconnection runs deep through Corby. One of David Cameron’s A-list candidates, Mensch, Oxford graduate, author of chick lit and prolific user of Twitter, was, you feel, always going to find it hard to fully relate to a working class new town built on heavy industry and hard work. High youth unemployment and yet more job losses at the steelworks this January didn’t help her cause either. Her resignation has aroused suspicions about why she became an MP in the first place. “She used Corby as a stepping stone, used it well to publicise herself,” Liam tells me. “I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s got a new book out by the end of the year.”

When she resigned from her seat in August, Mensch said she was doing so for family reasons. Yet in a recent interview with The Sunday Times Magazine, her husband, the rock band manager Peter Mensch, said that his wife had stood down because "she thought…she’d get killed in the next election." Mensch has denied this, but the fact remains that she has left a key marginal seat, midway through Parliament, with a slender majority of just 1,951. Labour are ready to pounce. “Ed Miliband was straight over here as soon as she resigned. I’ve had two people canvassing my door in the last week – they were Labour, both times,” says Keith. This push seems to be working – everyone I spoke to in the town said they were going to vote Labour.

The people I spoke to in Corby – proud, hardworking and down to earth – feel duped and used by Mensch’s time in office. They were hoping for a young, dynamic MP who would serve their interests well in parliament. The reality, many feel, was a lot different. On the day news of her resignation was made public, Mensch took to Twitter: "It has been an incredible honour serving the people of #CorbyEN." The feeling, according to Keith, is not mutual. “People wouldn’t miss her now she’s gone.”

 

Louise Mensch. Photograph: Getty Images
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How the mantra of centrism gave populism its big break

A Labour insider reflects on the forces behind the march of populism. 

For just under a quarter of a century, British politics has been dominated by what might be called, paradoxically, a “theology of centrism” - the belief that most people were more concerned with what works than ideology, and that politics should principally be the art of improving the delivery of public goods. It was a theology that, for all their policy differences, united Tony Blair and David Cameron. Anyone who thought electoral success could be won anywhere but from the centre was either naïve or fanatical, or both... but definitely wrong.

Now, populism is on the march across the West. In Britain, as elsewhere, the political class is unnerved and baffled.

So what happened? Partly, as with all revolutions in politics, the answer is: “events”. Unsuccessful wars, economic crashes and political scandals all played their part. But that isn’t enough of an explanation. In fact, the rise of populist politics has also been a direct result of the era of centrism. Here is what has taken place:

1. A hollow left and right

First, the theology of centrism was the culmination of a decades-long hollowing out of mainstream politics on the left and right.

In the mid-20th century, Conservatism was a rich tapestry of values – tradition, localism, social conservatism, paternalism and fiscal modesty, to name but a few. By 1979, this tapestry had been replaced by a single overriding principle - faith in free-market liberalism. One of Margaret Thatcher's great achievements was to turn a fundamentalist faith in free markets into the hallmark of moderate centrism for the next generation of leaders.

It is a similar story on the left. In the mid-20th century, the left was committed to the transformation of workplace relations, the collectivisation of economic power, strong civic life in communities, internationalism, and protection of family life. By the turn of the 21st century, the left’s offer had narrowed significantly – accepting economic liberalism and using the proceeds of growth to support public investment and redistribution. It was an approach committed to managing the existing economy, not transforming the structure of it or of society.

And it was an approach that relied on good economic times to work. So when those good times disappeared after the financial crash, the centrism of both parties was left high and dry. The political economic model of New Labour disappeared in the first days of October 2008. And when a return to Tory austerity merely compounded the problem of stagnant living standards, public faith in the economic liberalism of the centre-ground was mortally wounded.

2. Fatalism about globalisation

Second, Labour and Tory politics-as-usual contained a fatalism about globalisation. The right, obsessed with economic liberalism, welcomed globalisation readily. The left under Bill Clinton in the US and Blair in the UK made their parties’ peace with it. But globalisation was not a force to be managed or mitigated. It was to be accepted wholesale. In fact, in his 2005 Conference speech, PM Tony Blair chastised those who even wanted to discuss it. “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation," he said. “You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer. They're not debating it in China and India.” (I bet they were, and still are.) The signal to voters was that it was not legitimate to fret about the pace and consequences of change. No wonder, when the fretting began, people turned away from these same politicians.

3. A narrowing policy gap

Third, the modernising projects of Blair and Cameron ended up producing a politics that was, to use Peter Mair’s term, “cartelised”. The backgrounds, worldviews and character of party elites began to converge significantly. Both parties’ leaderships accepted the same external conditions under which British politics operated – globalisation, economic liberalism, sceptical acceptance of the EU, enthusiasm for closeness to the US on security issues. The policy space between both main parties narrowed like never before. As a result, economic and class divisions in the country were less and less reflected in political divisions in Westminster.

The impression arose, with good reason, of an intellectual, cultural and financial affinity between politicians across the main divide, and between the political class and big business. This affinity in turn gave rise to a perception of “groupthink” across the elite, on issues from expenses to Europe, and one that came with a tin ear to the concerns of struggling families. It may be misleading it is to depict all politicians as snug and smug members of a remote Establishment. Nevertheless, social and economic convergence inside Westminster party politics gave populists an opportunity to present themselves as the antidote not just to Labour or the Tories, but to conventional politics as a whole.

4. New political divides

Lastly, the populist moment was created by the way in which new electoral cleavages opened up, but were ignored by the main political parties. The last decade has seen a global financial crash that has restored economic insecurity to frontline politics. But at the same time, we are witnessing a terminal decline of normal party politics based fundamentally on the division between a centre-left and centre-right offering competing economic policies. 

Of course economics and class still matter to voting. But a new cleavage has emerged that rivals and threatens to eclipse it - globalism vs nationalism. Globalists are economically liberal, positive about trade, culturally cosmopolitan, socially progressive, with a benign view of globalisation and faith in international law and cooperation. Nationalists are hostile to both social and economic liberalism, want more regulation and protection, are sceptical of trade, see immigration as an economic and cultural threat, and have little time for the liberal international order.

The factors that drive this new electoral divide are not just about voters’ economic situation. Age, geography and education levels matter – a lot. Initially both main parties were tectonically slow to respond to this new world. But populism – whether Ukip, the SNP or Theresa May's Tories – has thrived on the erosion of the traditional class divide, and sown seeds of panic into the Labour party as it faces the prospect of sections of its traditional core vote peeling away.

Centrists thought their politics was moderate, pragmatic, not ideological. But signing up to free market liberalism, globalisation and an economistic view of politics turned out to be seen as a curious kind of fundamentalism, one which was derailed by the 2008 crisis. The exhaustion of the theology of centrism did not create populism – but it did allow it a chance to appeal and succeed.

Those on the left and right watching the march of populism with trepidation need to understand this if they are to respond to it successfully. The answer to the rise of populist politics is not to mimic it, but to challenge it with a politics that wears its values proudly, and develops a vision of Britain’s future (not just its economy) on the foundation of those values. Populists need to be challenged for having the wrong values, as well as for having anger instead of solutions.

But calling for a return to centrism simply won’t work. It plays precisely to what has become an unfair but embedded caricature of New Labour and Notting Hill conservatism – power-hungry, valueless, a professional political class. It suggests a faith in moderate managerialism at a time when that has been rejected by events and the public. And it tells voters to reconcile themselves to globalisation, when they want politicians to wrestle a better deal out of it.

Stewart Wood, Lord Wood of Anfield, was a special adviser to No. 10 Downing Street from 2007 to 2010 and an adviser to former Labour leader Ed Miliband.