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Jeremy Corbyn: “I think we have to think in terms of the disillusioned who didn’t vote”

Can Jeremy Corbyn really lead the Labour party? NS editor Jason Cowley meets the potential leader to talk campaigns, the media, and how he'd handle PMQs.

I was instructed to meet Jeremy Corbyn in a café at the Royal College of General Practitioners, close to Euston Station in London. I had asked for as much time as possible with Labour’s 66-year-old man of the moment but his aides had offered “no more than half an hour”. Three weeks earlier I would probably have been granted three hours in his company. Three months ago, when Corbyn was deemed to be little more than a stubborn, if principled, relic of Benn-era Labour politics, he would have been an unlikely candidate for a New Statesman interview, so predictable seemed his oppositionism and so complete his irrelevance.

But now, with the Labour Party traumatised by election defeat and “Corbynmania” gripping the left, the Islington North MP is inundated with requests for media interviews. Even his closest aides accept he could win the Labour leadership, having begun the contest merely content that their man had secured the necessary 35 MPs’ nominations to make it through to the final four.

“Things have gone crazy,” said a breathless member of his campaign team, which is being funded by Unite and other unions. “We weren’t able to give any time to the Financial Times and we could only give the Mirror five minutes on the phone.”

In the event, Corbyn, a veteran of the Stop the War Coalition, the anti-apartheid struggle and CND, arrives 30 minutes late for our meeting. With him is Simon Fletcher, a former chief of staff for Ken Livingstone who also worked for Ed Miliband as  a go-between with the unions. Fletcher is an old friend of the New Statesman and I assent when he asks to sit in on the interview, which ends up lasting 14 minutes longer than expected, before Corbyn is hurried away to catch a train to Bristol. (He actually missed his train because, as I learn later, he was mobbed at Euston by young fans wanting to have selfies taken with him. Such are the perils of being the flag-carrier for the radical left in Labour’s excessively protracted and increasingly bizarre leadership contest.)

We meet two days after a YouGov poll for the Times has confirmed what we had reported on our Staggers blog: that Corbyn, who began as the 100-1 outsider, leads the contest to be the next leader of the Labour Party. “I’m really enjoying it,” he says as he orders a mid-afternoon cappuccino. “Who wouldn’t enjoy it? It’s fascinating, the latent thirst that was out there for serious debate and serious politics.”

He pauses. “Oh, look, there I am in black and white.” He glances at a wall-mounted television screen on which a report about him is being broadcast on one of the news channels. I peer at Corbyn and then at Corbyn peering at himself on the screen – and the effect is disorienting, as if I have stumbled into some kind of parallel world in which this survivor from Labour’s most bitter conflicts in the Eighties has re-emerged as a serious leadership contender. But this is no hoax: it’s really happening – and in and to a Labour Party that seems to have lost all confidence and sense of purpose, having endured the disastrous leadership of Ed Miliband, and been routed in Scotland and defeated in England.

There is nothing smug or triumphalist in Corbyn’s manner. He is quietly spoken and, unlike other leftist renegades such as George Galloway or Ken Livingstone, unshowy. He is wearing an open-necked white shirt (beneath which is visible a thin-rimmed vest of the kind my paternal grandfather, a London bus driver, used to wear, even on the warmest days, under his stiff-collared, starched shirts) with one of his trademark beige canvas jackets. His grey hair and beard are clipped short. He looks pale and tired and has a heavy cold, which has deepened his voice. He resembles nothing so much as a red-brick sociology lecturer, circa 1978.

Because of his cold, I ask if the campaign is becoming too much for him. “Not at all,” he says. “I have put the case for anti-austerity economics. I’ve put the case for the kind of anti-Trident peace view of the world and I’ve put the case for Labour being a bigger, more community-based party, and it’s been very interesting the discussion we’ve had at the forums – sorry, the hustings.”

Most of the hustings have been oversubscribed and after each one Corbyn holds his own, separate event. “We went to the Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Festival [in Dorset] on Sunday after the London hustings and I wasn’t part of the main stage because the TUC are strictly neutral on this. But after the festival had finished we had our own event outside the Unison tent and we had 3,000 people there.”

Among his many ardent supporters is Richard Burgon, who was elected MP for Leeds East in May. “I was one of the first MPs to nominate him and I’m proud to have done so,” Burgon told me. “Jeremy has enthused tens of thousands of people who were sick and tired of the same old, same old Westminster bubble politics.”

Burgon denied that the Labour intake of 2015 is more left-wing than its predecessors. “There are a range of views among the new MPs. What I would say, though, is that most of us aren’t in thrall to outdated Blairism.” Corbyn, he said, is “not the favourite to win but he can win”. “It’s all to play for. The political establishment and parts of the media are out to get him. They don’t want people to opt for real change.”

***

Jeremy Corbyn was born in 1949 in Chippenham, Wiltshire, and attended Adams’ Grammar School in Shropshire, followed by North London Polytechnic, from which he dropped out, never completing a degree. His parents – his father was an electrical engineer and his mother a maths teacher – were both peace campaigners, as their son would become, too. Corbyn has at various times worked as a journalist, teacher, union official and councillor. In many ways he conforms to a north London leftist stereotype: ascetic and parsimonious, he is a vegetarian, does not drink alcohol, has his own allotment and does not own a car. His brother, Piers, is a controversial weather forecaster and climate-change denier. Corbyn has been married three times – his present wife is a Mexican, Laura Alvarez, who imports fair-trade coffee – and it has been widely reported that his second marriage ended because his then wife wanted to send one of their three sons to a selective grammar school, as indeed she eventually did. The truth, I was told, was more complicated, as marriage break-ups inevitably are.

How seriously should one take the Corbyn surge? There is certainly much enthusiasm for his uncompromising socialism among the young – “the more we hear about Jeremy Corbyn . . . the more people seem to like him”, wrote the NS blogger Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett – and among many former Labour supporters who became disaffected with the party during the Blair years. “Today,” another New Statesman contributor wrote to me, “I paid money over to Labour for the first time since I was a party member in the early Nineties. Why? Because Jeremy Corbyn has given me hope that the party can return to its roots.”

But which roots are these? From its earliest beginnings, Labour has been an uneasy coalition of socialists and social democrats, of radicals and pragmatists, of workers and professors. It has always sought accommodation with rather than aspiring to replace capitalism. Yet, along the way, there have inevitably been ruptures and splits. In 1951 Aneurin Bevan, Harold Wilson and John Freeman resigned from the Attlee government because they wanted the party to “Keep Left”.

But how left does left need to be?

A serial rebel, Jeremy Corbyn has spent much of his long career since he was elected to the Commons in 1983 defying the party whip. Throughout the Eighties he was close to Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness in Sinn Fein; and, as a vigorous opponent of what he calls “Israel’s occupation policies”, he has nurtured alliances with the Islamist terror groups Hamas and Hezbollah. “Look, you don’t make peace unless you talk to everybody,” he says now.

He supports the abolition of the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent (“nuclear weapons are immoral”) as well as withdrawal from Nato (“I’d rather we weren’t in it”) – issues that contributed to the Labour split in 1981. A hard Eurosceptic, he told me he had not “closed his mind” to Brexit – so I was slightly surprised to read on 29 July that he had issued a statement arguing that Britons should not “walk away” but “fight together for a better Europe”.

“Taken slightly historically, the turning point in the EU was actually the Single European Act, the Thatcher/Maastricht-era stuff, which was turning the EU into very much a market system,” he says. “Setting up an independent European Central Bank, which then promotes the euro, and I think the sheer brutality of the way they’ve treated Greece, makes me question an awful lot. The other side of it is, I think, that Labour should be making demands about working arrangements across Europe, about levels of corporate taxation across Europe. There has to be agreement on environmental regulation . . . Why are we leaving it all to [David] Cameron, to put together a statement, when he’s had no negotiations with anybody?”

He returns to the plight of Greece. “Look at it another way: if we allow unaccountable forces to destroy an economy like Greece, when all that bailout money isn’t going to the Greek people, it’s going to various banks all across Europe, then I think we need to think very, very carefully about what role they [the EU] are playing and what role we are playing in that.”

He is a republican, but abolition of the monarchy can wait, because “my priority is social justice”. He supports the removal of the charitable status of independent, fee-paying schools (“I’m not saying we’re going to get rid of them straight away”) and he would force state-funded academies and free schools to return to local authority control (“I would bring them back into the orbit of local education authorities”).

***

Corbyn knows what he knows and has known it for as long as he’s been in politics: he articulates his strident positions without stridency but also without compromise, and he seems comfortable in his own skin as Ed Miliband never did.

Miliband’s public performances were invariably tortured, as he triangulated and equivocated. For whatever reason, he never successfully reconciled the radicalism of his rhetoric about “predator capitalism” with the incrementalism of his retail policies; his cerebral style of book-learned Hampstead socialism with the pragmatic need to convince the electorate that he and his party could be trusted to run the economy more efficiently and effectively than the Tories.

By contrast, Corbyn is an unembarrassed advocate of big-state socialism – high taxes on business and the rich, public ownership of the railways and essential utilities, strict regulation of markets, the abolition of tuition fees, a benign, non-interventionist foreign policy and so on – and is happy to speak of the influence of Marx on his political thought.

As you listen to him, it can all seem so gloriously uncomplicated, as if socialism in one country were eminently achievable, even in age of integrated global capitalism. It’s hard not to respect his conviction and candour even if you disagree with his policies. His zeal and confidence contrast markedly with the caution of Yvette Cooper and the opportunism of Andy Burnham, who this past week joined in the chorus of Labour self-flagellation by announcing that the party today would never have been able to establish a national health service.

The changes to the rules under which Labour elects a leader – implemented by Ed Miliband as part of a new settlement with the unions to diminish the power of the block vote – means that anyone who registers as a supporter and pays £3 has a vote in the leadership contest. Under the revised rules, which have reduced the role and influence of MPs, the party has made itself vulnerable to entryism and outside manipulation. Unite, which supports and funds Corbyn, is also working assiduously, using phone banks to encourage its members to register as “affiliated” supporters so that they can vote in the contest – for Corbyn, no doubt. Leading members of the shadow cabinet such as Chuka Umunna have said that they would not serve under Corbyn. Meanwhile, the Tories are sitting back and watching all of this unfold with ill-concealed delight. Labour has not felt this divided since the early Eighties, when moderates from the right of the party broke away to form the SDP.

***

The radical left likes to convince itself that Labour lost in 2015 because it was not sufficiently socialist, as if the people of England are yearning for a more egalitarian society, if only the right leader would emerge. Yes, 50 per cent of Scots voted in May for the SNP, which positioned itself to the left of Labour and won 56 of the 59 Westminster seats; but Scotland, in the grip of nationalist fervour, has become an altogether different country from England, which is why so many Scots want to end the Union.

So, how does Corbyn propose to win in southern England and the Home Counties? I remind him that, south of the metaphorical Severn-Wash line, excluding London, Labour holds 11 out of 197 seats. But he says: “Let’s erase the line for a moment and talk about the whole of Britain, where 36 per cent of the electorate didn’t vote . . . the registration system mitigates against young people registering. And so I think we have to think in terms of the disillusioned who didn’t vote. We can grow the electorate: the Obama strategy, actually, that’s a lot of what Obama did.

“Secondly, is it wrong to appeal to every­one and say, ‘Actually, your society and your interests are better served if we have a fully comprehensive wraparound health and adult social-care service, if we have a comprehensive benefits system that doesn’t subsidise low wages and high rent; but instead, we do something about both of those things,’ and that we have a strategy which actually removes the worst vestiges of poverty in Britain? I don’t know about you. You travel around a lot, I’m sure, as I do, it’s absolutely – I’ll put this in black and white now – it’s absolutely disgusting, the level of serious poverty in Britain.”

I ask Corbyn if he is serious about winning. He smiles. “We’re doing this as a serious point, and it’s a serious operation and it’s going very well. I’m putting forward a different economic agenda. And my strong view is that we lost in 2015 particularly, but also in 2010, because essentially we were offering people slightly less hardship than the other side was offering people. It wasn’t very attractive to a lot of Labour voters. Compounded by the vote on the welfare bill, this has put Labour on the wrong side of the feelings not just of the people on benefits or who might be on benefits but a lot of other people who think, ‘Actually, there’s a lot of poverty in our society, which the Labour Party should be concerned about.’”

Does he fear the party could split if he won the leadership, especially as he would have to command the kind of loyalty from colleagues that he has never shown?

“Well, loyalty is about the party and the movement . . . if you want a better and more effective party, we’ve got to open ourselves up much more to our membership and our supporters. And that is what has happened in this election. It’s much more open than any previous contest . . . I think a lot of the people who have joined the party since the election – I’ve met a lot of them – are anti-austerity. They’re people who have joined to do something. Maybe they saw also that the other, very small left parties like Respect and Left Unity just didn’t get anywhere.”

How would he feel about being leader of the opposition? Would he have the stamina to take on David Cameron at Prime Minister’s Questions, week after week?

“I’ve got lots of stamina, don’t worry about that. I cycle every day – it’s OK.”

He wouldn’t win and then resign? “Why would I do that? Who says that? There have been some amazing statements that have come out about me in the past few days. Apparently people know what’s going on in my mind so I don’t need to think any more. I just read the papers.

“Listen, if we win this election, we’re in it for the long run.”

So he’d fight the general election in 2020?

“Well, let’s take one thing at a time. We haven’t been elected yet. We might not be. But I hope the party would want to hold together and I’m sure it would. I hope the party would recognise that the most democratic election we have held has produced an important result and has mobilised more importantly a very large number of people. I’ve never seen so many people at Labour Party meetings.”

We digress briefly to discuss George Galloway of the Respect Party. In March 2012, when Galloway won Bradford West in a by-election from Labour, Corbyn tweeted his support for his old friend even though he had defeated a Labour MP – but now he says they are no longer close. “No doubt George and I will come across each other somewhere . . . I thought the tactics he used against our candidate [Naz Shah, who won Bradford West back for Labour in May] were appalling. I was quite shocked; it was appalling.”

Simon Fletcher interjects. Our time is up and Jeremy Corbyn has a train to catch. Before departing, he says: “I have an issue with the New Statesman. In 1968, when
I was living in Jamaica, I sent a poem to the Statesman for publication. I never heard ­anything for months – and then it was eventually rejected.”

Would he like me to publish the poem, I ask?

“Yes, I would,” Corbyn says. He seems pleased and his shrewd eyes brighten.

Fletcher intervenes. “We’d better see what’s in it first,” he says, and then, gesturing towards the street, he leads his man away. On the nearby television screen, a clip from a recent Labour leadership hustings is being replayed. The camera closes in on Corbyn as he gestures and expounds. He seems suddenly everywhere – an unspun, pre-internet politician who has become an unlikely icon of the social media age, an inspiration to the idealistic young, nothing less than the man who would be leader of the British left. But here’s the question: can the surge last?

 

Q&A: Scotland, Israel and WikiLeaks

Jason Cowley Your favourite Tory MP?

Jeremy Corbyn Well, there have been a lot of them. The most amusing is Peter Tapsell. He was just totally historic. He said he had been in parliament so long, he kind of knew it all. I mean, I’ve obviously known a very large number of them. Often extremely patriarchal, right-wing Tories.

NS And favourite Labour MP?

JC Over the years? Well, it would have to be Tony Benn. Because he was an original thinker, and also I think very bravely published his diaries, which showed his developing original thought. And yeah, he got the most amazing attacks and was ridiculed throughout his life but ended up a much-loved, old-school institution. Tony was a legend, in many, many ways.

NS The historical figure you most admire?

JC In Britain or anywhere? That’s a very tough question. Well, there are so many. I think in English history a very interesting character is John Lilburne. Very interesting character, because of the way he managed to develop the whole debate about the English civil war into something very different. And there is a report that I can’t find any proof of one way or the other, that in late 1648 he had a three-day parley with Cromwell at the Nag’s Head in Islington. I can’t find the record of it. But I wish I could get it. Then I could get a plaque put up for it.

NS Is there a historical figure you most identify with?

JC The historical figure that I would seek to identify with is probably Salvador Allende, because I think he was a very interesting guy in many ways. Very thoughtful, deep man.

NS Did you meet him?

JC No, no. I’ve met many people in Chile but unfortunately not him. He was brought down by the CIA, with the help of the British.

NS Do you support Scottish independence?

JC I think they’ve got the right to a referendum if they want one. I would be much happier if they had their autonomy in the way they’ve got it now.

NS Do you still support Julian Assange, of WikiLeaks fame? Do you still think he’s “imprisoned” in the Ecuadorean embassy in London?

JC He’s taken himself into the embassy because he felt that, had he been taken back to Sweden, he would be taken forcibly to the US. The Swedish are unclear about what would happen to him in Sweden. I think it would be much better if the Swedish authorities investigated the case against him, decided whether there was a case for a prosecution or not, and dealt with it that way, while guaranteeing that under no circumstances would he be extradited to the US.

NS Would you abolish the charitable status of public schools?

JC I would look at that, yes. It’s very difficult to do, and I’m not into saying we’re going to get rid of them all straight away. I want to empower local education authorities much more. I’m actually more worried about the role of free schools and academies, which are largely unaccountable.

NS Are you worried about entryism from the far left?

JC I would want the registered supporters to become party members. I am of the view that we should lower the membership fee and increase the membership.

NS Would you abolish the monarchy?

JC Listen, I am at heart, as you very well know, a republican. But it’s not the fight I’m going to fight: it’s not the fight I’m interested in. I’m much more interested in rebalancing our society, dealing with the problems, protecting the environment.

NS Do you regret seeking to build alliances with Hezbollah and Hamas and other terror groups?

JC Look, you don’t make peace unless you talk to everybody . . . There has to be a conversation. Over Hezbollah and Hamas, yes, I’ve met [the Hamas leader] Khaled Meshal. I’ve met people from all these groups, actually, with a number of other people; Tony Blair has [too].

NS Do you support Israel’s right to exist?

JC Yes.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 30 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double

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.

***

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.

***

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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