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.

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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