Michael Dugher speaking at Labour conference last year. Photo: YouTube screengrab
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"Too many pointy-heads and too few street fighters": Labour's Michael Dugher on what went wrong

Michael Dugher MP, who served as vice-chair of the party in Ed Miliband's top team, on identity politics, emotion over intellect, and "fucking up" the Scottish referendum campaign.

Michael Dugher was watching television at home in Barnsley, South Yorkshire, when the exit poll was released at 10pm on 7 May. Normally, he is willing to concede the remote control to his three children, who prefer the Disney Channel to politics, even when their father is on screen. But this was a moment he couldn’t miss. “It was quite a big shock,” Dugher says, wincing at the memory of the poll, which gave the Conservatives a firm lead. “It was genuine disbelief.”

He sighs. “And then we had the Nun­eaton result [a target seat, which Labour lost]. It’s funny, really. It’s like conceding loads of ­early goals and you know the rest of the game is over. I knew we were buggered.”

It can’t be easy for someone such as Dugher to lose control of the ball as spectacularly as Labour did that night. A veteran backroom operator, he is still known in Westminster for his time in Downing Street as Gordon Brown’s spokesman. After his election as MP for Barnsley East in 2010, he continued in the vein of a Brownite fixer for Ed Miliband’s team, becoming party vice-chair in 2011, doggedly attacking the government and keeping an eye on the grass roots.

But this formerly loyal figure now has something to get off his chest. We meet on the Commons Terrace the Monday after the weekend of shock and heartache post Labour’s defeat. I can see a Tory MP enjoying a bottle of champagne with his staff two tables away. Dugher is attempting to eat a collapsing burger from a polystyrene box. I can’t help commenting that at least it’s not a bacon sandwich. He grins, valiantly.

The Yorkshireman is back in parliament for the first meeting of Labour’s new shadow cabinet, in which he’ll remain shadow transport secretary (a position he has held since last November). He looks smart and ready for business, in a dark jacket, pale blue shirt and gold cufflinks. But his eyes, squinting against the glare of the afternoon sun, ­betray his exhaustion.

Unlike many of his colleagues, Dugher increased his vote share and majority. But Ukip still came in second in Barnsley East, with more than 9,000 votes. “I was one of the people in the party pressing for a stronger response against Ukip back in 2013, and was frustrated that it didn’t happen,” he says. “But I certainly did it in my own patch.” He is perturbed by Labour’s failure to connect with the white working-class population it used to represent. “Working-class voters are not core vote any more – you saw that in Scotland, you saw that in England,” he says. “When we fail politically, we fail the people that we came into politics to represent. I find that – being entirely self-critical – absolutely unforgivable.”

Labour’s vice-chair grew up in a pit village ten miles from his constituency, part of a family of six living in a three-bed house overlooking the colliery. It was his work in unions that landed him a job as a special ­adviser. Yet he didn’t manage to use his background to steer Miliband’s team.

“Like other aspects of our election campaign, we were a bit behind the curve on Ukip. To be honest, the party only really got it after May last year. But it had been frustrating, me and a number of colleagues, who had been . . .” he trails off. “There was a ­naive assumption, back in 2013, that, because Ukip was bad for the Tories, therefore it must be good for us. Whereas, it was really bad for the Tories but quite bad for us.

“We need to drill down and deal with that. These are basically white working-class people. All of us in politics have had blind spots and everything else, but I grew up in a pit village in the Seventies and Eighties, through the miners’ strike. That is the demographic I really do understand.

“Spend time in the real world,” he adds. “We do dwell in London, the Labour Party. And London has cheek-by-jowl poverty . . . but the truth is, there is more to this country than that kind of metropolitan, multicultural, liberal left that is a big part of London. I thought the best thing Ed did was about One Nation. And we just dropped that.”

Dugher admits that Labour’s campaign “didn’t have a wide reach” and is effusive about needing to appeal to the “aspirational middle class” – something recently voiced by leadership candidates Liz ­Kendall and Chuka Umunna as well as by members of the Blairite old guard such as Peter Mandelson. “Equally, you have to reach out to the alienated working-class voters,” he adds. “Aspiration is not an exclusive thing for middle-class voters. Working-class voters are aspirational.”

He places both hands over his heart as he says, “I know that, personally. If you’d have asked me aged ten what I wanted . . . I would have said I would’ve liked my parents to be able to afford a car; I would’ve liked us to go on a foreign holiday. We lived in a warm, loving house, but it was quite a small house for six people, and I might have liked my own bedroom. That’s working-class aspiration.”

This was overlooked by Miliband’s top team, who were drawn from a narrow background. “I’ve always thought that politics is 90 per cent emotion. All parties need a combination of people with different talents and reaches. Ed was very intellectual, he had a brilliant brain; he felt that ideas were the most important thing in politics. And he’s right. But I sometimes felt that he surrounded himself with too many people who were socially just like him: all living within a stone’s throw of each other in north London, all had been to the same university, and all kind of intellectual ­academics . . .”

It is easy to say such things in hindsight, but did Dugher ever warn Miliband about his myopic circle of advisers? “Loads of times. It happened all the time,” Dugher nods. “He’s someone who listened. But he had other people who were more influential, closer to him. You know, you win some, you lose some. But that was always a worry I had. It was too many pointy-heads and too few street fighters.

“As a leader, you’ve got to surround yourself with different people. Ed had some of those people, so I don’t want to overstate it. But too many were just like him. And, for them, politics was 90 per cent intellectual. If the big thing out there is anti politics, you’ve got to show that, actually, you do get it, you are in touch, and you understand.

“When I say it’s 90 per cent emotional, the new axis we’ve got in politics now – the politics of identity – is all about how people feel. We’ve got to get wise to that.”

Dugher refers repeatedly to English identity. “In parts of my constituency, they do fly the flag. And they’re right to be proud of it. It’s as much about their pride and identity as it is a cry for help,” he says. “When they fly that flag, they say, ‘I’m proud of this country, I’m proud to be English, I’m proud of where I come from’; but also, ‘We haven’t gone away, and we deserve a voice, too’.”

With visible frustration, Dugher recalls speaking to Miliband before the Scottish referendum result. “I said polling day will be all about the Scots, but Friday morning will be all about the English. And we need to be out ahead of Cameron with a really serious offer to the English. In the end, it was Cameron who was on the steps of Downing Street. Now, his offer [English votes for English laws] was minuscule, and a threat to the Union; but we were slow off the mark.

“Because too many people didn’t get it, and because we’d incompetently scheduled our conference for the weekend after the referendum, the leadership wanted to close down the issue, and to go back to talking about the cost of living, or whatever it was. We should have welcomed that opportunity to lead that debate. Instead, it was a kind of ‘constitutional convention’, and a ‘regional tour’,” he grimaces. “Which I just don’t think did it.”

Dugher is even more despairing of what he calls Labour’s “annihilation” in Scotland. He blames the Better Together campaign. “Scotland and our approach to it was an unmitigated disaster. We totally fucked up that referendum campaign – and that would almost be a generous and kind interpretation,” he gives a hollow laugh.

“There was a highly visible elephant trap that the SNP set for us, which is that Labour and No would be for the status quo, for Westminster, for London, for the old political establishment and elites – and Scottish Labour all joined hands and they jumped into that elephant trap,” he says. “We shouldn’t have been in bed with the Tories. It was a complete strategic disaster. It killed us. It should have been a contest between two competing alternative visions for a changed Scotland.”

He reserves harsh words for the Scottish Labour MPs, all but one of whom are now out of a job. According to Dugher, many were apathetic about campaigning in their “safe” seats, and shut their English colleagues out of discussions. “You had the politics of neglect,” he says. “Not all – there are some great colleagues who worked extremely hard. But we also had a number of people who had not delivered a leaflet in decades. And there was always an attitude from some of our Scots [MPs] here, that they knew best. ‘Leave Scotland to us,’ they used to say. Well, that worked out well, didn’t it?

“At the same time as making a complete balls-up of Scotland, it had profound implications for England. They wanted to operate in Scotland without any reference at all to the impact on England. Every time they talked about further devolution, the English in the Labour Party were excluded from that conversation.”

Dugher is cagey about who can pull Labour out of this nadir. He does, however, recommend that the party takes its time. “I don’t think we should have a coronation. And it’s perfectly possible for us to chew gum and walk at the same time. We can have a thorough internal debate about our way forward while going after this Tory government.”

But one thing set in stone is that no future Labour leader will ever carve their pledges on to an actual stone again. “Every campaign has balls-ups,” Dugher sighs. “That was a kind of 12-foot, granite, marble, cock-up. But did it change the weather? Nah.”

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory triumph

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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era