Mark Reckless is no longer a member of the Conservative party. Photo: Rob Stothard/Getty Images
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Land of hopeless Tories: hen parties, Harwich and a Reckless spin room slip

Plus: why the Lib Dems are paying a teenager to deliver their leaflets.

That hen party favourite, Ed Miliband, is too busy posing for selfies to visit Labour Party HQ at Brewer’s Green. His corner office is usually empty. Shadow cabinet special advisers peer longingly through the glass. Eight desks for 40 aides have them elbowing each other for space. Every day there is fierce competition to arrive first and bag a seat by leaving a jacket on the back of a chair, holiday sunlounger-style. Noses were put out of joint, my snout says, when taped messages appeared announcing that chairs had been reserved for the staff of the chief campaign strategist, Douglas Alexander. If the Paisley polls are correct, they’ll be the only seats Dougie has on 8 May.

David Cameron wasn’t happy, an informant whispers, following his TV mauling by the BBC’s newshound Andrew Marr. The grumpy fox-hunting Tory refused to share a sofa with the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon during the usual end-of-show chat. In the past, Cameron has made a point of going into the green room to exchange pleasantries with his fellow guests. After Sunday morning’s mangling, Cam Sham departed without so much as a tally-ho. He’s a hunter who forgets his manners when cornered.

Bernard Jenkin is a Eurosceptic and a hereditary Tory MP who likes to drive around Harwich in a 4x4 blaring “Land of Hope and Glory” from his speakers. This nuisance on wheels is the son of a onetime Conservative cabinet minister. Jenkin the Younger’s noisy patriotism prompted a local Labour activist, Garry Calver, to compose a song, “Land of Hopeless Tories”, to the tune of Elgar’s original. The last two lines of the rewritten first verse – “God, we love the wealthy,/Make them wealthier yet!” – sum up Tory policy better than any speech by Ed Miliband.

The Lib Dems’ collapse in Hornsey and Wood Green has forced the Yellow Bellies into paying kids to deliver election propaganda for Lynne Featherstone. One former leafleter said she refused to distribute pamphlets after the Lib Dumbs jumped into bed with the Tories in 2010. Instead, the party pays her teenage son £10 for a little more than an hour’s work filling letter boxes. When the party claims that opportunity is at the heart of its manifesto, in north London it means the chance to earn pocket money handling rotten goods.

In the spin room at the Cameronless five-way TV debate, the defector from the Tories to Ukip Mark Reckless referred to the Conservatives as “us”. It was a telling slip of the tongue. It’s been a similarly tricky campaign for Jeremy Hunt. Asked if he was spinning for an absent Cameron, the Health Secretary replied, “Yes,” before quickly correcting himself: “No, I’m telling the truth.” Pull the other one.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 24 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, What does England want?

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Labour can be populist and English without copying Donald Trump

There's nothing deplorable about discussing the common interests of the people.

As Labour’s new populism gears up for Copeland and Stoke-on-Trent, it will be tested on voters who are, by a significant measure, more likely to see themselves as English. In the 2011 census, both constituencies scored "English" identity nearly 10 per cent higher than the English average and still 5 per cent higher than England outside of London.

It’s no surprise that both Ukip and the Tories have polled well in these places. In the 2015 general election there was strong correlation between feeling "English", or feeling "more English than British", and voting Ukip and Conservative. Indeed, amongst the "English not British" Ukip took about a third of the votes across England, and the Tories a fifth. Labour lagged below 15 per cent.

Labour’s problems may be getting worse. A recent YouGov poll, commissioned by the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University, showed "Englishness" gaining at the expense of "Britishness" in the year of Brexit. At the extremes, "English not British" rose by 5 per cent (from 14 per cent to 19 per cent), with ‘British not English’ falling by a similar amount. If past relationships hold, these voters will become harder for Labour to reach.

Although most people in England would favour an English Parliament, or English MPs alone voting on English issues, these have not yet become the political demands of an explicit nationalism as we might find in Wales, Scotland or Catalonia. Indeed, there’s no actual evidence of a direct link between feeling English and the way people vote. It well be that the underlying factors that make someone feel English are also those that incline them, overwhelmingly, to vote Brexit or to support Ukip.

We may identify the drivers of English identity - the declining power of the idea of Britain, the assertiveness of devolution, rapid migration and the EU - but we know little about the idea of England than lies behind these polls. There’s almost certainly more than one: the England of Stoke Central imaginations may not be identical to the Twickenham RFU car park on international day.

One of the most persistent and perceptive observers of alienated working class voters sheds some light on why these voters are turning towards their English roots. According to The Guardian’s John Harris:

"When a lot of people said ‘I’m English’, they often meant something like, ‘I’m not middle class, and I don’t want to be…. I’m also white, and coupled with the fact that I’m working class, I feel that somehow that puts me at the bottom of the heap, not least in the context of immigration. But I am who I am, and I’m not apologising for it.'" People who said "I’m English" seemed to be saying, 'I’m from somewhere' in a ways that politicians and the media did not."

Given Labour’s history in seats where support is ebbing away, it’s reasonable to think that the party’s target must be the voters who Martin Baxter of Electoral Calculus describes as "left-wing nationalists". In this definition, "left-wing" attitudes tend to be be anti-capitalist, hostile to business, generous on benefits, support the welfare state and redistributive taxation. "Nationalist" attitudes are seen as isolationist, against immigration, disliking EU freedom of movement, thinking British means "born here" and that Britons should be put first.

For many in Labour, those nationalist attitudes might bring "a basket of deplorables" to mind.  In recent days both the Corbyn left, and centrist MPs like Alison McGovern and Wes Streeting, have warned against meeting these voters’ concerns. Progressive Labour populists must also calm those fears. But Labour will be doomed as a party of government it it can’t reach these voters (even if it does hang on in the forthcoming by-elections). The obstacles are formidable, but with the right language and framing, Labour may find an appeal that could cut through without alienating the party's more liberal support.

Just acknowledging that England, and the English, exist would be a start. The reaction to Birmingham mayoral candidate Sion Simon’s appeal to England in a campaign tweet simply emphasised how much of Labour prefers to say Britain, even when they mean England. We don’t need a swirl of St George crosses at every event; we just need to use the word in normal everyday conversation. At least we would sound like we live in the same country.

The defiant cry to be recognised and heard should trigger another Labour instinct. The demand that the nation should be run in the common interests of the people runs deep through radical history. Jeremy Corbyn reached for this with his talk of "elites rigging the system". But no ordinary English conversation ever talks about elites. Instead of "mini-me Trumpism", English Labour populism needs careful framing in the language of day-to-day talk. Labour's target should be not be the wealthy per se, but those powerful people whose behaviour undermines the national interest and by doing so undermines the rest of us.

This language of national interest, both conservatively patriotic and politically radical, meets the mood of the moment. The select committee challenges to Amazon, Google, Philip Green and Mike Ashley struck a chord precisely because they revealed something deeply true and unpleasant about this land. We can defend the national interest without invoking a racist response. Why are our railways sold to other governments, and our companies sold abroad for quick profit? Why should it be easier for a foreign gangster to buy a house in Surrey, and hide their ownership overseas, than for an English family to get their own home?

By asking what any change means to the people of England, we might bridge the divide on immigration. If the impact of migration is exacerbated by the pressure on housing and service, let Labour make it clear that the rate of immigration should not exceed the pace we can build homes for those already here, as well as any newcomers. The government must be able to expand services to meet additional needs. If every policy should work in the interests of the people of England, migration which improves our services, creates jobs and grows the economy is to be welcomed. It is hard to see a genuine liberal objection to posing the migration challenge in that way. With the exception of refugees, immigration policy cannot be designed to benefit the migrant more than the resident.

Let the test of every policy be whether it works in the interests of the people of England, or works only for a few. That’s a simple test that would appeal to widely shared values. It could be the foundation of a genuine Labour populism that speaks to England.


John Denham was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010. He is Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University