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Beware the clunking fist

Ignore the conventional wisdom. The combination of an improving economy and Gordon Brown’s sheer blo

Conventional wisdom is a poor guide to the future.

At the end of the 20th century, few would have thought that the coming decade would see the election of a black US president, a power-sharing deal between Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists, and the nationalisation of some of Britain’s biggest banks.

Yet, even in the face of such unexpected recent events, we still cling to the notion of political ­inevitability. It is now widely regarded as a certainty that Labour will lose the next election, with the Tories on course to form a large majority in the Commons.

A combination of sleaze, exhaustion and economic meltdown are said to have finished off the Labour government. Gordon Brown is seen as a political corpse. The only question to be decided at the polls, it seems, is the scale of his defeat.

But once more, conventional wisdom could be wrong. Labour might look doomed at the moment, in the febrile atmosphere created by the expenses scandal, but the picture could be very different next summer, if the worst of the charlatans have been kicked out of the cabinet and an economic recovery is under way. Moreover, a number of features of the structure of our political system are likely to benefit Labour in the run-up to the next general election.

Even now, in the midst of crisis, it is not all gloom for the government. On 21 May, Labour won a council by-election in Salford, the seat of the discredited Communities Secretary, Hazel Blears, whose conduct over her home allowances has been condemned by Brown as “totally unacceptable”.

Given Blears’s role at the centre of ­Scamalot, the Labour vote in Salford might have been expected to collapse dramatically, but it held up. Meanwhile, the Tory vote dropped, as the party’s candidate was overtaken by both Ukip and the BNP.

Indeed, the Conservatives have not been doing nearly as well in council by-elections as they should be for a party on the verge of government. In one poll at the start of May, in the Rossmere ward of Hartlepool, the Labour vote actually went up, while the Tories were consigned to fifth place.

The national opinion polls are, of course, bleak for the government, but then they also were at the time of the European elections in 2004, a year before Blair’s third triumph. The average Tory lead of 10-12 per cent in recent months might look healthy, but, in truth, if replicated at a general election, it would be barely enough to win. After three successive landslide defeats, the task facing the Conservatives at the next election is daunting.

Taking account of boundary changes, they have to gain at least 112 seats to form an overall majority in the Commons. That would require a 7.1 swing, the equivalent of an 11 per cent lead over Labour in the national British vote, far beyond the scale of anything achieved by a previous Tory opposition.

It is a remarkable historical fact that since the end of the Victorian age, the Conservatives have only once turned out a government which possessed a working majority in parliament. That occurred in 1970, when Ted Heath – defying conventional wisdom and the polls – defeated Harold Wilson’s government, though even then the swing was 4.7 per cent, significantly lower than that needed by Cameron.

Every other Tory victory since 1900 has been against a dying coalition or Labour government which had lost its majority, or never held one.

Nor do all of Cameron’s target seats appear to be in fertile territory for Conservatism. On the list are places such as Keighley, Dewsbury, Derby North, Rossendale and Dumfries and Galloway. It is difficult to envisage all of them turning blue, especially if the general election next year takes place against a backdrop of improving economic news.

When the Chancellor, Alistair Darling, announced in the pre-Budget report last year that recovery could start in the autumn of 2009, he was derided for his prediction. But this could be the reality. Such a recovery would not address the appalling state of the public finances, with levels of national indebtedness far worse than at any time in our history.

Yet it is unlikely that the ­question of the national debt will be a deciding factor at the next election. People will be much more influenced by their own job prospects and personal income. Most homeowners lucky enough to be in work have not suffered too badly in this recession because of the dramatic fall in ­interest rates. There is no sign that rates will increase over the coming year.

By next year, the impact of the expenses scandal and the Smeargate fiasco may have faded. All the opinion polls over the past two years demonstrate that Brown’s ratings improve when economic questions predominate. Again in defiance of conventional wisdom, the Prime Minister’s strange political personality might assist in Labour’s revival in the months before the next election.

His combination of bullying, indecisiveness, cowardice and lack of vision have rightly made him despised by large sections of the public. Yet his strongest trait, his aggressive partisanship, currently a vice, could in future become an asset to Labour.

Every decision Brown makes is dictated, not by the national interests, but by his narrow determination to outflank the Tories. This has led him to absurdities like his notorious pledge of “British jobs for British workers”, but some of his negative campaigning may prove more fruitful.

The stark warnings about “Tory cuts” will be pounded home relentlessly over the next 12 months, and this message is bound to find a receptive audience among two key groups of voters: public-sector workers and welfare claimants, both of whom have done comparatively well from Labour rule. Together, these two groups have more than 12 million votes.

Brown’s partisanship will ensure that every aspect of the political system is ruthlessly exploited to Labour’s advantage. Labour’s turnout will be heavily boosted by postal voting, which, as a series of fraud scandals have proved, is open to corruption by agents and activists. One judge, presiding in 2005 over a case involving a municipal postal voting fraud in Birmingham, said the scale of abuses by six local Labour candidates would have “disgraced a banana republic”.

Indeed, the Labour government cynically introduced postal voting on demand without safeguards in 2000 precisely because it knew the party would be the big winner from such a flawed method. At the 2005 election, 6.5 million people voted by post. The figure will be even higher in 2010 and the misrepresentation even worse.

Similarly, the government will indulge in a wealth of feel-good propaganda over the next year, dressing up pro-Labour publicity as consultation and information exercises. Already the government is by far the biggest advertiser in the country, with the Central Office of Information holding a budget of £400m. Marketing by other pro-Labour public-sector organisations will be added to the political spin.

We can expect schools, hospitals, regeneration projects, community groups and Sure Start centres to start putting up signs at their entrances explaining how much the government has recently invested in their sites. In the same way, the £2.3bn regional development agencies, which the Tories have pledged to abolish, will have everything to gain by launching expensive billboard campaigns telling us about wonderful economic success ­stories in their regions.

Conventional wisdom holds that there will be a big anti-incumbency vote at the next election because of public disillusionment over the current House of Commons. But the opposite may be true. Sitting MPs have two great advantages.

First, their casework means that they have had supportive contact with thousands of voters. The huge increase in staffing allowances in the past decade means that they can often employ two or three assistants in the constituency working on behalf of their local public.

In the 1980s, Chris Smith managed to hang on to a wafer-thin majority in Islington South partly through his assiduity in handling an epic volume of casework, most of them housing issues that should really have been dealt with by local councillors. His winning slogan in the 1987 election was: “Everyone knows somebody who’s been helped by Chris Smith.”

This will be a theme taken up by a host of Labour MPs in 2010. The second advantage is the £10,000-a-year communications allowance, which enables incumbents to spread the gospel of their devotion to their constituents through glossy newsletters.

The changing demography of Britain will also help Labour. The phenomenal increase in mass immigration over the past decade has not only transformed the make-up of our urban society, but has undoubtedly been a significant boon to Labour. All studies show that the overwhelming majority of voters in migrant communities tend to vote Labour. Eighty per cent of black voters back the party and at least 60 per cent of Asians.

Tellingly, many of the highest concentrations of ethnic minorities are in the swaths of marginal seats in outer London, the West Midlands and South Yorkshire. According to the campaign group Operation Black Vote, as many as 70 marginals could be decided by black and Asian voters.

Harriet Harman’s Equality Bill, with its legalisation of positive discrimination in favour of minorities, will be a strong campaigning point for Labour. The influence of the ethnic vote on Labour thinking was graphically revealed in the diary of Chris Mullin, where in January 2004, he lamented how little the government had done to tackle immigration abuses. “We’ve barely touched the rackets that surround arranged marriages. What mugs we are.” Then he added a comment to the effect that there was the difficulty that “at least 20 Labour seats, including Jack Straw’s, depend on Asian votes”.

Brown’s campaign in 2010 may be desperate, cynical, even deceitful, but that does not mean it will not work. Negative campaigning has worked in the past, most famously in 1992 when the Tories’ demolition of “Labour’s tax bombshell” led to John Major’s victory and one of the biggest upsets in history. A discredited government in the fifth year of its third term can stil

This article first appeared in the 01 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Big Brother

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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