Labour's acting leader Harriet Harman speaks at the party's HQ on May 18, 2015. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Labour's week of crisis: the inside story

How acting leader's Harriet Harman's stance on welfare cuts became a battle for the soul of the party. 

When Labour MPs gathered for their weekly meeting in committee room 14 at the House of Commons on the evening of 13 July, the mood was grimmer than at any point since the party’s general election defeat in May. Five days earlier, they had watched George Osborne triumphantly deliver the first Conservative-only Budget in 19 years, which included policies such as a “National Living Wage” and an apprenticeship levy on firms – measures considered but rejected under Ed Miliband. The Chancellor’s political opportunism was a reminder, as one shadow minister told me, that: “Being in opposition is horrible.”

In the days after the Budget, unease grew as Harriet Harman, the party’s acting leader, and Chris Leslie, the shadow chancellor, signalled that Labour would not oppose Conservative policies such as the 1 per cent cap on public-sector pay rises for four years and the reduced benefit cap of £20,000 (£23,000 in London). The tipping point came when Harman announced on 12 July that the leadership would also abstain on the welfare reform bill and would not reject the two-child limit on tax credits. To their fury, neither the shadow cabinet nor MPs had been consulted in advance.

“It’s gone to her head,” a senior figure told me of Harman’s ascension to leader of the opposition following Ed Miliband’s resignation in May. “She wants to teach Labour a lesson.”

After arriving at 6.10pm – ten minutes late – at committee room 14, Harman began by telling the meeting that as soon as the exit poll was published on election night, she knew that her constituents would “take a thumping” under the Tory government. Yet she reaffirmed her view that Labour could not credibly resist all of the government’s welfare cuts. “If we oppose everything, people will not hear those things we are opposing and why,” she said. Harman recalled that in the last parliament, Labour voted against all 13 of the government’s welfare bills but only its rejection of the “bedroom tax” registered with the public.

The acting leader was described by one Blairite MP as having been “mugged by reality”. Harman believes that Labour will only return to power if it explicitly repudiates its Miliband-era positioning on the deficit and welfare. When at a shadow cabinet meeting on 6 July Andy Burnham, the leadership front-runner, cautioned against embracing austerity, Harman acidly replied: “But Andy, we lost that argument. You may have noticed that we lost the election.”

In committee room 14, one MP after another rose to rebuke her. Of the 25 who spoke, just five defended Harman’s stance. One rebel, Andy McDonald, warned that she was tolerating the policies of “Mao Zedong and King Herod” by refusing to oppose the two-child tax credit cap. Frank Field, the work and pensions select committee chairman, began by praising Harman’s performance as acting leader, declaring that he would vote to give her the job permanently. He ended, however, by berating her refusal to table reasoned amendments against the cuts to tax credits. Keith Vaz, the chair of the home affairs select committee, quipped that he never thought he would see the day when Harman was attacked “from the left” by Field.

Midway through the meeting, the former party leader Neil Kinnock emerged. “Not much,” he replied disdainfully when asked what he thought of Harman’s speech. His son, Stephen, the MP for Aberavon, had earlier remarked that the two-child cap was “awfully reminiscent of some kind of eugenics policy”. Support for Harman came from the Labour leadership candidate Liz Kendall, who praised her for “a great speech” as she left the room. (Kendall’s rivals – Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Jeremy Corbyn – were absent from the meeting.)

At an uneasy shadow cabinet meeting the following day, Labour’s senior figures were “completely divided”, in the words of one of those present. Some, such as Leslie and Rachel Reeves, the shadow work and pensions secretary and Burnham’s shadow chancellor-in-waiting, endorsed Harman’s call to abstain on the welfare bill. Others, such as Cooper, suggested tabling reasoned amendments. Three, including Burnham, argued that Labour should vote against the bill. The decisive stand taken by the shadow health secretary has helped his campaign. “This could be the day that he won,” one shadow cabinet minister told me afterwards.

Labour’s left is in despair at an acting leadership that it regards as needlessly austere. The right is in despair at a party that it regards as recklessly profligate. Yet their angst has points of crossover. Many MPs confess to being unenthusiastic about the party’s leadership contest and concede that Labour will likely lose the next election. One senior figure told me: “Nobody is interested in the leadership campaign. I liken it to one of those albums that people release and no one buys. They’ve printed loads of albums, all the sales teams are really into it – but no one is buying the record. It’s really quite serious now. We are falling outside of the affections and the interests of the people.”

Conversation frequently turns to who could lead the party after another defeat in 2020: the former paratrooper Dan Jarvis; the shadow business secretary, Chuka Umunna (who withdrew from the race after just a few days); the former director of public prosecutions Keir Starmer; even David Miliband. The question, an insider said, was whether the party was electing “Iain Duncan Smith or Michael Howard” – someone who will take the party backwards or someone who will achieve modest progress.

The only leadership candidate who has had consistent momentum is Corbyn, the 66-year-old left-winger who was elected in 1983. When the Islington North MP first made the ballot, after colleagues nominated him to ensure a “broad debate”, many dismissed him as a token contender. Now, almost all in the party expect him to finish ahead of Kendall and some predict that he will come second. It is a prospect that has caused alarm. Umunna told me: “In this leadership contest, there are no free hits when you’re voting. People have got to consider very carefully what message the result on 12 September will send to the public.

“It’s not just about who wins this contest, it is the shakedown of the results.”

At the time of writing, Corbyn had been nominated by 41 Constituency Labour Parties, putting him ahead of Kendall (5) and Cooper (30). One MP warned of “1980s-style entryism” as the left grew in strength. An aide to Cooper, however, told me that CLP meetings represented “a fraction of the membership”, adding that this was not “a panic situation”. The irony of Corbyn’s ascension (to the point where an increasing number ask whether he could win), one source said, is that "He doesn’t want to be leader, he was very open about just wanting to influence the debate. It would ruin his summer, it would ruin his life."

 

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Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters are satisfied that he has already shifted the terms of debate leftwards on issues such as the 1 per cent public-sector pay cap – which all of the candidates oppose – and the child tax credit cuts. Some MPs believe that Harman’s intervention was an attempt to halt this trajectory.

In the Kendall camp, there is anger that Burnham and Cooper have not rejected Corbyn more forcefully. John Woodcock, a member of Kendall’s campaign team, told me: “We all shared a view, the mainstream of the Labour Party, that advocating Jeremy’s route as a party spells sure-fire marginalisation and electoral defeat. But of all the people who are involved in this leadership race, Liz is the only one saying it. Are the others not saying it because they have changed their mind? Do they believe the basic approach of the Labour Party since Kinnock was wrong? Or are they not saying it out of misplaced tactics or convenience?”

Among MPs, the view is that Kendall recklessly positioned herself as the “New Labour” candidate, guaranteeing defeat among a selectorate that lies to the left of that of 2010. Umunna, who endorsed the shadow health minister after withdrawing from the race, told me that the “modernising part of the party” was “identifying the right problems” but was “wanting in coming up with the solutions”. He added: “We are using the vocabulary and concepts that were being used in the late Nineties and early Noughties when we’re heading towards the 2020s and the 2030s. I think we’ll know that we are ready and have successfully rebooted and are ready to govern again when we are actually using a different vocabulary and have new concepts to offer.”

Although many MPs predict that Cooper will ultimately triumph on second preferences as the least divisive candidate, her team concedes that Burnham remains the front-runner. Some believe the presence of Corbyn in the race has helped Burnham by making it harder to paint him as the creature of the left and the trade unions (it was Corbyn who won Unite’s nomination). And to the relief of the Blairites, Burnham has distanced himself from Cooper by apologising for the pre-crash deficit under the last Labour government. It is a stance that some suggest the shadow home secretary will not countenance, because it would amount to disowning the position of her husband, Ed Balls. A Cooper aide, however, told me that “Andy had set traps for himself” by ­“playing into Osborne’s hands” on the issue.

All of this does little to distract MPs from the defeat of 7 May and the defeat that many fear the party will suffer in 2020. Umunna describes Labour as still being “in shock and grief at what happened”. Even at the lowest moments of Ed Miliband’s leadership, a route back to power appeared open. Now, there is no consolation available, including of the false kind.

“We’ll be here all over again in five years’ time and probably the five after that,” one MP concluded. Labour, they fear, is once again the natural party of opposition.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Motherhood Trap

Chris Ball/UNP
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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

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Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

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Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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