People won't vote for northern robots any more than they will for southern robots. Photo: Flickr/Paul Stevenson
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It's patronising to say the shadow cabinet needs different accents – we need different ideas

The Labour MP Simon Danczuk, who himself has a northern accent, finds leadership candidate Andy Burnham's call for more regional accents in the shadow cabinet patronising.

There can’t be many Members of Parliament who talk about the "Westminster bubble" more than I do, but it seems that Andy Burnham is on a mission to catch up. Andy now drops the phrase in at every opportunity as part of his campaign to persuade people he’s the leadership candidate who can reconnect with an electorate that’s increasingly disillusioned with politics.

I certainly agree with Andy that Labour has a huge image problem. Too often we appear to be representatives of a distant elite who are more at home in think tank seminars than in working men’s clubs. It’s damaging Labour as voters turn to anti-establishment parties to vent their frustration at the political class.

However, while we share an appreciation of the problem, I remain unconvinced by Andy’s proposed solution. His main idea so far seems to be that we need more people with regional accents within the shadow cabinet. This comes across as patronising, and it’s not enough to win back people’s trust. Promoting people based on accent rather than ability is a recipe for disaster.

As I see it, there are two major problems we need to address. The first concerns the way the Labour party communicates with voters. We still seem wedded to a command and control style of political communication based on hammering home the message of the day in a robotic fashion. This approach stifles authenticity, which is increasingly becoming one of the most important qualities in politics.

Even worse, the public can see straight through people who are reading from a script and immediately switch off. This may have worked in the Nineties, but in an age of increasing media exposure and direct access to politicians through social media it’s clear this way of communicating has passed its sell by date.

Different accents are not the answer here, people will not vote for northern robots any more than they would vote for southern robots, we need to let our politicians speak more freely and develop their own authentic styles of communication.

This points to a bigger truth that’s driving mistrust in politics. When I talk to people who are frustrated with the system, one of the things that gets raised time and again is the belief that political leaders don’t understand how policies will actually impact on their lives. The remote worlds of Westminster and Whitehall seem completely inappropriate places to be making decisions about what’s best for places like Rochdale. Again, the solution is not more people with different accents around the top table but a radical devolution of power down to local communities.

Labour needs to learn to let go of its centralising instincts and trust that local areas will be able to better deliver services that are tailored to the unique challenges they face. We could start by following Liz Kendall’s plan for a more localised work programme and allowing local authorities to keep more of their business rates revenue.

Importantly this radical devolution of power has to go past local government and give more power directly to patients, pupils and parents. This means we should explore personal budgets in healthcare and, yes, be more comfortable with the idea of parents getting involved in the education system.

This is where Andy begins to come unstuck. He has made some noises about devolution recently, but his track record is not brilliant. His opposition to devolution of health spending to Greater Manchester was indicative of the kind of "we know best" attitude that Labour has to move away from.

If we’re serious about reconnecting with the electorate then we’ll need much more than a few different voices at the top. I’m all for people with regional accents having more power, but I want it to be people on the ground in our towns and cities, not stuck in meeting rooms in Westminster. Gesture politics won’t cut it any longer, we need new ideas more than new voices.

Simon Danczuk is Labour MP for Rochdale.

Simon Danczuk is MP for Rochdale.

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Britain has built a national myth on winning the Second World War, but it’s distorting our politics

The impending humiliation of Brexit is going to have a lot more in common with Suez.

The Crown, Peter Morgan’s epic drama covering the reign of Elizabeth II, ended its first series with a nemesis waiting just off-stage to shake up its court politics. In the final episode, Egyptian president Gamal Nasser gives a rip-roaringly anti-imperialist – and anti-British – speech. The scene is set for the Suez Crisis to be a big plot point in Season 2.

Suez has gone down in history as the great foreign policy debacle of postwar Britain. The 1956 crisis – which saw Israel, France and Britain jointly invade Egypt to take control of the Suez Canal, only to slink off again, nine days later, once it became clear the US wasn’t having any of it – is seen as the point at which it became clear that even the bigger states of Europe were no longer great powers in the world. “President Eisenhower’s humiliation of Britain,” Jack Straw wrote in his 2012 memoir, “had been total.”

This was, though, a fairly limited sort of humiliation. Britain was not invaded or occupied; there was no sudden collapse in living standards, let alone a significant body count. Our greatest national debacle is nothing more than the realisation that Britain could no longer do whatever it wanted without fear of reprisal. As humiliations go, this one’s up there with the loss of status men have faced from the rise of feminism: suddenly, Britain could do what it wanted a mere 80 per cent of the time.

The Crown begins in 1947, when Prince Philip gives up his Greek and Danish royal titles and becomes a British subject, so that he can marry Princess Elizabeth. That year saw another British foreign policy debacle, one on which the show remains oddly silent. In the partition which followed India’s independence from the British Empire, 70 years ago this week, upwards of a million people died; in the decades since, the borders drawn up at that time have been the site of numerous wars, and Kashmir remains a flashpoint.

All this, one might think, might count as a far bigger regret than Suez – yet it doesn’t feature in the national narrative in the same way. Perhaps because partition was about the withdrawal of British forces, rather than their deployment; perhaps it’s simply that it all happened a very long way away. Or perhaps we just care less about a body count than we do about looking bad in front of the Americans.

I think, though, there’s another reason we don’t talk about this stuff: the end of empire is hidden behind a much bigger part of our national myth. In the Second World War, Britain is undeniably one of the good guys; for 12 months, indeed, Britain was the only good guy. Never mind that it still had the largest empire the world had ever seen to fall back on: Britain stood alone.

The centrality of the Second World War to the national myth warps our view of history and our place in the world in all sorts of ways. For starters, it means we’ve never had to take an honest account of the consequences of empire. In a tale about British heroes defeating Nazi villains, British mistakes or British atrocities just don’t fit. (Winston Churchill’s role in the 1943 Bengal famine – death toll: three million – by ordering the export of Indian grain to Britain rarely comes up in biopics.) In this dominant version of the national story, the end of empire is just the price we pay to defeat fascism.

More than that, our obsession with the Second World War creates the bizarre impression that failure is not just heroic, but a necessary precursor to success. Two of the most discussed elements of Britain’s war – the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the Blitz – are not about victory at all, but about survival against the odds. The lesson we take is that, with a touch of British grit and an ability to improvise, we can accomplish anything. It’s hard not to see this reflected in Brexit secretary David Davis’s lack of notes, but it’s nonsense: had the Russians and Americans not arrived to bail us out, Britain would have been stuffed.

Most obviously, being one of the winners of the Second World War infects our attitude to Europe. It’s probably not a coincidence that Britain has always been both one of the most eurosceptic EU countries, and one of the tiny number not to have been trampled by a foreign army at some point in recent history: we don’t instinctively grasp why European unity matters.

Once again, Suez is instructive. The lesson postwar France took from the discovery that the imperial age was over was that it should lead a strong and unified Europe. The lesson Britain took was that, so long as we cosied up to the US – Athens to their Rome, to quote Harold Macmillan – we could still bask in reflected superpower.

Until recently, Britain’s Second World War obsession and national ignorance about empire didn’t really seem to affect contemporary politics. They were embarrassing; but they were also irrelevant, so we could cope. Brexit, though, means that hubris is about to run headlong into nemesis, and the widespread assumption that Britain is a rich, powerful and much-loved country is unlikely to survive contact with reality. India will not offer a trade deal for sentimental reasons; Ireland is not a junior partner that will meekly follow us out of the door or police its borders on our behalf. The discovery that Britain is now a mid-ranking power that – excepting the over-heated south-east of England – isn’t even that rich is likely to mean a loss of status to rival Suez.

Morgan says he has planned six seasons of The Crown. (This looks entertainingly like a bet the Queen will be dead by 2021; if not, like Game of Thrones before it, he might well run out of text to adapt.) It’ll be interesting to see how the show handles Brexit. It began with the royal family facing up to a vertiginous decline in British power. As things stand, it may have to end the same way. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear