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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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.