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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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage