John Harris

Journalist & Author

Archive for November, 2012

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Warm words for Labour as Corby voters say good riddance to Louise Mensch

Friday, November 9th, 2012

For the men enjoying a pint in a Scottish corner of Northamptonshire, the byelection to replace the Tory MP and media sensation can’t come soon enough

The HQ of the Corby Grampian Association suggests a small slice of urban Scotland, cut from its moorings and dropped hundreds of miles south of the border. In the ballroom, couples at a lunchtime tea dance swirl around an interior decked with miniature saltires – and on 30 November, St Andrew’s Day will be celebrated with the help of the association’s pipe band, a “Scottish disco”, and one Gerry Trew, “with his tribute to Rod Stewart”.

Founded in 1978, this place is a monument to the so-called Corby Scots: the thousands-strong tribe who first came here before the second world war to toil in the town’s then-vast steelworks. On the face of it, it is not the most obvious place to have a conversation about Louise Mensch, the bonkbuster novelist-turned Tory MP who briefly became a metropolitan sensation before marrying the manager of Metallica and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, announcing her exit from Westminster due to the pressures of raising her family and a transatlantic relationship, and relocating to Manhattan.

But Mensch was, if only briefly, Corby’s MP – and her resignation triggered the byelection next Thursday that will provide this parliament’s first solid indicator of the state of play between Labour and the Tories. In this corner of the constituency, they are not exactly sorry to see her go: when I mention her name to a four-strong crew of lunchtime drinkers, a volley of voices comes back at me, in a flash: “She let Corby down … She never liked Corby, as opposed to the more rural areas – the Conservative strongholds … Corby was too working class for her.”

Alastair Melville (drinking Fosters), who packs goods at a local Asda home-shopping depot, is 19 and will be backing Labour when he registers his first ever vote next week. Alan Kane (scotch), 55, and 57-year-old John Brown (Carlsberg) will be doing the same, thanks to apparently deep party loyalty. But 65-year-old Ken Gill (Carling Black Label) ended a lifetime of Labour voting by backing the Tories in 2010, chiefly thanks to his anger about the town’s then Labour MP and health minister, Phil Hope, paying back more than £40,000 in expense claims for furniture and fittings for his London flat.

Gill is now going to support Ukip, partly because of his feelings about immigration from eastern Europe. “I’m sure it’s keeping local people out of a job,” he says. “And I’m dead set against this European Union. We seem to be getting nothing out of it.”

I was last in this part of England five years ago. Mensch – then known by her maiden name, Bagshawe – had just moved here and begun campaigning, with her political efforts assisted by funds supplied by the Tory benefactor Michael Ashcroft. Hope, who would narrowly lose this bellwether seat on a Labour-to-Tory swing of 3.4%, was bemoaning the fact that his new opponent was “a millionaire, and she’s got the Ashcroft money behind her as well”.

Then, like now, I split my time between the brutalist centre of Corby, and a handful of the smaller towns and villages that seem to exist in a different world: Thrapston, Irthlingborough – and Oundle, the cutesy settlement built around the public school of the same name (and, weirdly, the one-time home of Billy Bragg, who wrote his enduring classic A New England at No 15 North Street, two minutes from the short stay car park).

The car park is where I find a small gang of Tories engaged in the briefest of walkabouts, led by the unmistakeable communities secretary, Eric Pickles, and their candidate, 55-year-old Christine Emmett – who, like her cabinet chaperone, is a throwback to the pre-Cameron era: a proudly state-educated Liverpudlian with a background in business, who was the first in her family to go to university, and felt the calling of politics when she “started throwing things at the television when Tony Blair was on”.

Her leaflets boast of her opposition to “the imposition of windfarms on the rural communities” – a conviction she repeats when I ask her how she aims to differentiate herself from the Lib Dem candidate (Jill Hope, who, to be blunt, has not a cat in hell’s chance), when the two of them are standing on the same two-year record. “There are quite a few points of difference,” she says. “I don’t agree with wind turbines. I want a negotiated exit from Europe … “

This is interesting. She wants out? “Eventually, at the right time.”

So she’s a wee bit off-message, as they may or may not say in Corby. “Am I really? People here need an independent-minded Conservative MP who’ll represent them, and do the very best for them. And that’s what I intend to do. I’ll be the best MP they’ve ever had.”

Unfortunately, even people on Emmett’s own side seem doubtful about her winning next Thursday (a day that will also see contests in the Labour-held seats of Manchester Central and Cardiff South and Penarth, as well as 41 contests for would-be police and crime commissioners, with three more byelections a fortnight later). Whereas he enthusiastically bankrolled her predecessor, Ashcroft has this time spent money doing detailed polling in Corby and has concluded that Labour may be leading the Conservatives here by as many as 22 percentage points.

On that evidence, Ed Miliband’s people would retake the seat on a 13% swing. “I spoke to Lord Ashcroft and we’ve agreed that he’s wrong,” says Emmett, but on the Labour side, his findings seem to have led to a visible spring in people’s step.

Midway through its time in power, Labour got in the habit of running byelection campaigns on recurrently shrill themes: immigration, crime, “yobs”. This one, helmed by the Midlands MP Ian Austin, is very different, if a little myopic: the issue that dominates all the party’s campaign bumf is the future of Kettering hospital, which serves the most populous parts of the constituency and is the subject of a review of health provision across this area, along with Northampton, Milton Keynes, Luton, Dunstable and Bedford.

One option apparently being considered is a cut in Kettering’s bed numbers from 658 to 143, and the downgrading of A&E and maternity services: the Tories say the paper that makes this suggestion is a mere “working document” and that arguing about bed numbers is tantamount to believing that “a hospital is a museum”, but Labour clearly think banging on about the hospital is a political no-brainer.

Their candidate, Andy Sawford, 36, seems to have little of his Conservative’s opponent’s zeal and vim. A quiet and very measured operator who works for a thinktank-cum-membership-group called the Local Government Information Unit, he’s the son of the one-time Labour MP for Kettering, Phil Sawford. Perhaps the single most remarkable thing about him is his recent weight loss: whereas most of his leaflets show him as a somewhat rotund figure, he seems to have lost at least three stone – a matter, he tells me, of “working really hard”.

Maybe it’s left him knackered, but when we talk in the backroom of an ad hoc campaign office in the small agricultural town of Thrapston, he answers most questions using standard-issue candidate’s boilerplate. Why, I wonder, does he fancy being an MP? “I’m a local person. I’ve been around this area my whole life. And I think it’s really important that there’s someone to fight for services here, and jobs in this area … .”

What about the fact that his dad was a local MP? How does he feel about suggestions of nepotism? “What people care most about is the kind of job I’m going to do for them if I’m elected as their MP. They want to know that you’re going to go down there and fight their corner. I think people are judging me more on what I’ve done. …”

Today, the Eric Pickles to Sawford’s Christine Emmett is David Miliband, who leads a walk around Thrapston’s shops and market stalls, popping into a local salon (”Hairdressers for Labour!” he exclaims), inquiring about the state of demand for fresh fish (well down, it seems), and fielding questions from a local BBC crew about the arrival in the ITV jungle of Nadine Dorries (”MPs should be in the political jungle, not the Australian jungle”).

As he sees it, the Sawford campaign is a case study in the kind of pavement politics Labour is going to have grasp if it’s to improve its fairly miserable levels of representation in the south of England, a point he sums up in a typically Milibandian flourish: “As we offer our support to campaigns the community cares about, when we run campaigns, they’ll be more likely to support us. That requires us to change the Labour party, so it looks outwards and forwards, not inwards and backwards.”

They’ll surely take the seat back, but Labour insiders claim to be nervy, reckoning that suggestions of a 20-point lead underestimate how many votes will go to other parties (including the English Democrats, Democracy 2015, and the good old Elvis Loves Pets party), and that one of their key jobs will be getting core supporters out to vote.

But back at the Grampian Association, at least one of the lunchtime drinkers has words that will warm their hearts. “I’m maybe still living in the world of 20 years ago, but I’ve always thought that if you don’t vote Labour, that’s one the Tories have won,” says Alan Kane. “So that’s what I’ll be doing.”

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Why I’ll spoil my ballot paper in the police commissioner elections | John Harris

Tuesday, November 6th, 2012

The lacklustre candidates and the lack of interest in these elections make any meaningful vote impossible

Some news from the sticks: across England and Wales, 41 elections for police commissioners will take place in just over a week, but the buildup to this supposedly watershed moment is stupefyingly quiet.

I speak as a voter resident in Avon and Somerset – until now, a territory familiar only to the cops – who so far has received just two items of bumf in the post: my polling card, and an A3 flyer from the Lib Dems, who assure me that their man understands “what needs to be done to keep communities safe”, and that he wants to put victims of crime “at the heart of our policing strategy”.

Radical stuff, that: his Conservative, Labour and Independent opponents haven’t yet deigned to put anything in the mail, but a quick check of their online profiles shows an abundance of similar bromides. “I will listen to your views and take action,” says the Tory; the Labour candidate promises to “develop a long-term, strategic vision for policing in Avon and Somerset that meets the needs of the public throughout the forces [sic] area”. The latter has a CBE and “over 40 years of business experience”. Really, what’s not to like?

The fact that elections are not happening in the capital presumably explains the national media’s lack of interest. But what’s remarkable is the absence of support from the Conservative politicians who dreamt up this dire wheeze in the first place. In order to cut costs, there are no free mailshots for candidates – which, given that we’re still some way from the advent of true e-democracy, means most people are barely aware that anything is happening. And precious few senior Tories seem minded to do anything to whip up public interest: give or take a quick prime ministerial trip last week around Bedfordshire and Leicestershire, most front-rank Conservatives seem to have concluded that the elections were over before they’d even begun.

The whole thing will cost £75m, which would pay for a lot of schools, hospitals, social workers, and, come to think of it, police officers: strange, perhaps, that the party in such a lather about wasteful public spending has created such a surreal case study in it.

Worse still is the makeup of the candidates: 82% are men, 15 areas have no female candidates, and contrary to early claims that the elections might smoke out non-politicians who fancied overseeing the police, the vast majority of aspiring commissioners look like standard-issue political hacks: to quote the Guardian’s Simon Rogers, “the majority are either former members of parliament, members of the European parliament, Welsh assembly or former councillors.”

And Labour’s participation gives off a very questionable whiff, as a smattering of politicians of a certain age from Westminster – John Prescott, ex-solicitor-general Vera Baird, former Parliamentary Labour party chair Tony Lloyd, and Tony Blair’s Welsh secretary Alun Michael – eye up new jobs in what some people call the regions, like soviet apparatchiks hurrying off to run power stations in Tajikistan and Moldavia. The party’s candidate list also includes Michael’s son, Tal, who’s standing in North Wales: a one-man advert for meritocracy, pledged to make sure local people and police “are working together to solve problems” (who writes this stuff?).

Such are the reasons behind predictions of turnout as low as 10%. We have the prospect of 41 hapless people taking “power” with no legitimacy. What, really, was so wrong with local police authorities? Isn’t the washed-out language used by most of the candidates proof that electoral politics doesn’t really belong here?

And what kind of election takes place in a complete informational vacuum? “There’s no campaign here, no leaflets, no coverage,” went one recent post on the Spectator’s Coffee House blog. “Nothing but the ballot forms. An election with no coverage is not democracy. You can’t (well, I can’t) vote for someone if you don’t know their history, their qualifications, their plans. It should be called off.”

It should, but it won’t. Thus far, the only halfway convincing argument for voting in these elections has revolved around the danger of woefully low turnout letting in such “extremists” as a co-founder of the English Defence League, and those saloon-bar rightwingers, the English Democrats. But in most places, the truth is simple and unavoidable: to register a preference for any candidate in these woeful, unnecessary, meaningless elections would be to run the risk of the government taking your vote as some kind of indication of approval (Not, incidentally, that approval or disapproval seems to count for much with this lot: the case for elected mayors may have been resoundingly defeated in the summer’s referendums, but that staunch democrat David Cameron is now indicating that if he gets in next time, he’ll just legislate to introduce them anyway).

With some justification, the former Met commissioner Ian Blair is advocating a boycott. But the other week, I spoke to senior Welsh politician who said she could see no other option but the spoiling of her ballot paper, which struck me as by far the most sensible option: much as one must always glumly troop to the polling station thinking of the Chartists and suffragettes, the lack of convincing options and pathetic efforts at raising awareness mean that in the case, any meaningful “x” is impossible. So, that’s what I’ll be doing.

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