Losing North West Durham: one year on.

In general, I find writing cathartic. Having said that, it’s taken me a year to write this, partly because of the emotions involved. Many people have written detailed analyses of Labour’s 2019 General Election defeat and the campaign and they are enormously useful, but I wanted to do something different: to try to explore the political and emotional impact of that loss and how we might recover.

This time a year ago, members of the Labour Party were waking up to defeat. By the time polling day came, many had seen the writing on the wall: for weeks, the polls had predicted a sizeable Tory majority, but even as polls closed, there were signs that the gap might be closing. For those who invested so much of their time and energy into the socialist project within the Labour Party, the exit polls confirmed our worst fears and it came like a hammer blow. As the night turned into morning, the nightmare intensified.

The realisation of that defeat and what it meant was a strange thing. Much like grief, it came in waves. The first stage was numbness, which I realised later was a kind of denial. I remember driving home from the Louisa Centre, in Stanley, where the count for Laura Pidcock’s North West Durham seat had taken place. Counts are a special kind of torture, especially when you know that you have lost: the endless checking, speculation and estimation, and finally, the sinking feeling when you realise that it has slipped away.

Through the heavy mist that enveloped Stanley and Consett, I wound my way home. Even though the journey back to Durham City was one that I’d done hundreds of times, I felt lost. It seemed to take an age, desperate as I was to get home to a comforting hug from my wife and kids. When I got in, it was past 5 o’ clock in the morning. Everyone was asleep. I sat down and tried to take it in, but just felt numb.

I had been working for Laura since July 2017, starting not long after an election campaign that had a very different feel, when I’d been working for Jeremy Corbyn, as leader of the opposition. I’d known Laura for a long time and working with her so closely for two and half years had confirmed to me that she not only has incredible political instincts, but was also a genuinely good person, so the realisation that the working relationship had come to an end was also a massive thing to absorb.

A few hours earlier, in the enormous gym hall of the Louisa Centre, much of it had been about staying in control. In truth, even when the exit poll came in, my feeling was that we’d have done enough in North West Durham to buck the national trend. As a team, and as a wider group of activists in the CLP, huge efforts had been put into campaigning, both during the election period and in the years leading up to it.

After scanning the piles of neatly bundled votes already counted, I stepped outside into the cold and spoke to Laura on the phone and relayed the news that it was looking very tight. She was remarkably calm, as if this was the news that she had been expecting. She said that she’d come through to Stanley as soon as she could. Whilst the rest of the team watched the remaining votes spill out across tables and became increasingly fidgety – and understandably upset – Laura remained composed throughout.

It’s strange working for an MP, because there is one thing that you can never share with them, especially one that is as high profile as Laura Pidcock – and that is what it is like to be watched constantly, to be in the glare of the spotlight. Staff members might get a glimpse occasionally, when someone has a pop on Twitter – normally over something that you cannot, under the terms of your contract, answer. But really, that is small beer to what someone like Laura has had to put up with over the last four years, and so, those MPs who are under intense scrutiny almost have to train themselves to not show emotion, in public or online. Remember, in her short time as MP, Laura lost her dad, who was not only her rock and mentor, but also – as she said in her brilliant Miners’ Gala speech – her best friend. And, while being subject to almost constant bile from the right-wing tabloids, she also had a baby. These are no small things for anyone to cope with, but being in the public eye, it is an enormous pressure.

Clearly, for Laura as well as all of us packed into that gym hall – the office staff, the activists, the Labour members – and those watching at home on TV – losing North West Durham was a devastating defeat. Politically, because of the representative role that would now be in the hands of a free-marketeer, former Conservative Party Deputy Head of Press in a land decimated by Thatcherite policies. On a personal level, considering the commitment that Laura put into that role (right from the starting pistol of her Maiden Speech, which so signalled her intent), she must have felt that very intensely. Nobody expects hearts to bleed for MPs, Laura as much as anyone else, but having witnessed at first-hand what she went through between 2017 and 2019, the sense of personal loss and emptiness has to have been considerable.

People often think that people involved in politics – whether MPs or their staff – are machines. I can understand that and a lot of it is the responsibility of politicians themselves, at least those who trot out pre-prepared lines, or cloak themselves in the language of managerialism. But what that has engendered is a real lack of empathy from much of the public and genuine hostility to anyone who might show emotion, anger at injustice or – God forbid – make the occasional mistake. We say we don’t want robots, but when our representatives stray from the script, we nail them.  

Clearly, we all make mistakes in the course of our lives, and it is no different for people in politics. I’ve noticed a tendency amongst people, especially on social media, to treat politicians as if they are there simply to defend their records, as if it were impossible for them to learn, to reflect on their own mistakes and analyse defeats. People are still hammering Laura for losing a “safe” Labour seat, with no concept of how complex that question is – it is certainly not something that can be answered in 140 characters.

For the Labour Party to bounce back in the North, just as for Laura Pidcock or any of the brilliant candidates who lost their seats or didn’t quite make it, the key is to make an honest assessment of where things went wrong and to rebuild ourselves on the basis of those lessons. We need to dig down into the way we run our elections, at national, regional and local level, but also what we do out of election time, as a party, in our communities.

We have to understand what it means to be a campaigning organisation, why our roots may be shallow in the very local communities we need to win. It is not just a case of re-branding our local operation as “community organising”, it means re-evaluating how we do the basics: how we get to talk to people, how we engage with those who are already fighting for their communities and how we mobilise those who aren’t.

The lessons to learn from North West Durham are manifold. I can just touch on a few things here, but in all the constituencies we lost, we must have an honest, root-and-branch evaluation of why. Of course, Brexit was a major factor – both in the sense that we were on the wrong side of the argument for many working-class communities, but also because of the lack of clarity for many others. In North West Durham, I’m convinced that many people who could have been encouraged to vote Labour based on the other policies in our manifesto, turned away from us based on what they were reading in the papers – that Labour were, at heart, a Remain party that would overturn the referendum result.

At various public meetings held during the election campaign and in the months preceding it, people would have a go at Laura for that position. Once they had listened to her explain a much more nuanced position on Brexit, their stance softened considerably. Despite the mix of politics represented in those meeting, many used Bennite arguments about the lack of accountability of the EU and were surprised to hear a Labour MP agree with them on that. But you can’t, in an election period, convince people one at a time, in the face of a media which is painting a different picture (with the help of some within the party).

In this scenario, the Tory candidate – who had virtually no profile, either online or offline – was able to sit back, rely on the national media and newspapers do his work for him, and let the damage be done to his Labour opponent. I heard a rumour that Richard Holden spent quite a bit of polling day in his car, sat in a layby outside Wolsingham, basically keeping out of the way. I don’t know if that is true, but it would make sense, because the campaigning he had to do was minimal. Our battle was to cut through the media messages and talk about the issues that mattered to Laura’s constituents, not with a fairly anonymous Tory candidate.

In addition, there are incredible pressures on someone who is promoted to the Shadow Cabinet, like Laura was. This has an effect on what someone can say as an MP, especially on the controversial issues that tend to dominate an election. Again, I don’t say this to elicit sympathy, but these constraints are tough for the MP and their team. If you are an MP, there’s always an element of collective responsibility. You are, after all, selected by members of that party and act as a member of that party in Parliament, even as a backbencher. As a Shadow Cabinet member, that pressure increases hugely – and not just in the lines that you have to accept, but in the events you are expected to attend, taking you out of your constituency, and the endless round of media appearances.

Of course, there is an argument that socialists like Laura should forego Shadow Cabinet positions and focus on their constituency. Being a backbencher gives you a good deal more autonomy. But that discounts the fact that Laura and those MPs who did those frontbench jobs were committed to the socialist project represented by Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the party. It gave her and us as a team the chance to work with outstanding people like John Hendy and Keith Ewing to develop transformational workers’ rights policies that would have real impact in the community Laura was representing.

I think it’s a balancing act and it could well be that we got the balance wrong: certainly, there was an impression of Laura being a ‘high flyer’ and out of the constituency, pursuing her career – a false impression, as it happens, because she spent more time in her constituency and did more surgeries than most MPs. I have to say, too, that the talk of Laura as a ‘future leader’ of the party was possibly damaging locally. Two years in, people expected the focus to be on the constituency. It was (we had a rule in the office that anything we did had to be of benefit to the constituents, the movement or both). I was witness to Laura inviting some of her strongest local critics, those loudest voices on social media, into our constituency office, listening to them and trying to win them over – and often succeeding. Laura has never been a self-publicist, quite the opposite. She has strong views but is very grounded – anyone who knows her well will tell you that. Again, though, we were battling against a media perception, fuelled by social media outrage.  

With all of these things stacked against us, how could we have responded? I’ve never advocated a defeatist attitude to politics; I simply don’t believe that Brexit made it a done deal. Nor do I think that it is impossible to get your messages to people directly, manoeuvring around the media narrative. I do think, however, that it takes an enormous amount of planned, disciplined and hard work. Some of that work can be done by a good social media presence, but increasingly, I’m realising that we can’t rely on that: we have to go deep into communities and do the hard yards.

A lot of people will say that we did that. And of course, the amount of work that local activists have done over the last five years is exceptional, both during election time and the weekly campaigns that are run by volunteers who just want to change things in their communities. However (and this has been recognised by local activists in Broxtowe, for instance) there is a real issue with the way that we do this campaigning. My view – and I accept that this is part of a huge debate, so it is not fixed – is that it is time to reconsider some of the fundamentals: the door knocking; the reliance on leaflet drops; the standalone petitions on the high street and the way we do street stalls altogether.

One of my impressions of the campaign in North West Durham was that it was hard to get to talk to people, especially those who had seemingly made up their mind due to Brexit. Getting through to those exact people was key to winning or losing that seat. The Tories, as I’ve already noted, didn’t need to speak to them: the slogan ‘Get Brexit Done’ had already done its work. But we needed to talk to them, and it needed to be meaningful – not a snatched word on the high street, not ‘will you be voting for us?’ on a doorstep, but a genuine conversation, starting with asking and listening. Richard Holden, the Conservative candidate won by just over 1,100 votes. Winning some of those voters in this kind of political environment, plus encouraging other to get out to vote, wouldn’t have been easy, but neither was it impossible. But it would have required more, in depth conversations.

Where could those conversations be had? It’s hard, maybe even unlikely, to be able to do this in the confines of a short General Election campaign. Firstly, people will assume that the conversations on the doorstep are not genuine, because the canvassers are “just trying to win votes”. There’s some truth to this. Secondly, by knocking on people’s doors, or stopping them while they are doing their shopping, we are immediately intruding on their private space. Immediately, the relationship is skewed. They want to get away, you want to engage them in conversation. Unless you are the best communicator in the world (and some Labour Party members are brilliant at this, no doubt), you are going to struggle to get anything meaningful out of that situation. We need to rethink this.

The answer lies in community organising: not a superficial, branded version of it, but a real, long-term commitment to working together with communities in all their diversity, to build relationships based on trust and respect. It should also foreground winning victories – small at first, but with the aim of increasing people’s confidence. Because, at the moment, many people don’t feel like they can win – and if we’re serious about community organising, we have to understand why and how we can change that, not by imposing ourselves on communities or individuals, but by being part of their struggles.

The community meetings Laura called around the North West Durham constituency were important, and we didn’t have the time to do enough of that. These public meetings didn’t have an agenda or a theme. The idea was that people could raise whatever they wanted, and Laura would answer. They were tough sessions, and tense at times because clearly people were angry. But also, they were some of the most genuine conversations that we had (outside of the surgery meetings), where Laura could listen and respond and there could be dialogue. It didn’t take too much for some common ground to be found. Of course, there are other ways to do this: we could try to revive Labour clubs, like they have in Wakefield; or we can get involved in small, community campaigns and initiatives which opens the door to talk to people in a less adversarial space.

Either way, I think it’s important to discuss this seriously, because it’s not just about the way we run our election campaigns better, it’s the way we rebuild the party and the left within it. We can’t do that until we make genuine inroads into working class communities. Ask yourself where the gaps are? Often, or at least in many constituencies, it is the working-class areas. That coincides with those people being attracted to some easy solutions offered in the form of slogans on behalf of the Brexit Party and the Tories. When it comes down to it, that’s not about people being inherently xenophobic or racist (though that does clearly exist) but being alienated by a political class that has not listened to them for a long time.

We have to reverse that alienation, and that means being brave. It also means questioning what we’ve always done. We cannot rely on raising our banners, writing our manifestos, delivering our leaflets and having our meetings and hoping for the best. Fundamentally, this is about getting stuck in – into the messy world of conflictual, but real, politics. Until we do that, with honesty and self-reflection, I think we will struggle to win back Red Wall seats like North West Durham in any meaningful way. Because it’s not just about winning elections, it’s about winning hearts and minds in the communities that have the most to gain from the redistributive, socialist policies that we all advocate for.


‘Red Wall’ Tories

80243005_10157496066439279_6835406435443015680_oAlmost by chance, yesterday, my attention was drawn to a tweet by a local BBC reporter, Fergus Hewison, which described Richard Holden’s response to an interview by Keir Starmer, where he talked of the constituency he now represents, North West Durham, as being “left behind” under its previous Labour MPs. Holden is the guy who beat Laura Pidcock in the election in December. I was working for Laura throughout her time as MP there.

Even on the most obvious level, it’s a nonsense statement, of course – the sort that politicians make all the time. Most fundamentally, if we’re going to describe North West Durham as being “left behind, the most important event has to be the closure of the Consett Steel Works by the then Conservative Government, led by Margaret Thatcher, in 1980. It’s both bizarre and economically illiterate to blame individual Labour MPs for the position that the constituency is in, whether that be Laura, or Pat Glass before her, or Hilary Armstrong before that.

The closure of the Steel Works, and the fact that there was no plan beyond the closure, the fact that associated industries closed along with the steel works, created a vicious spiral that made Consett and the surrounding areas an unemployment black spot for decades afterwards. When the jobs did come back, they were often unskilled and insecure, and often outside the immediate area. These aren’t controversial opinions; they are backed by the long-term analysis.

Most people in North West Durham understand this history. They’ve seen the real meaning of being “left behind”, as it has played out in their families, in their communities, in the high street. While unemployment levels have dipped over recent years, the constituency has a real issue with low pay, with some of the lowest average wages in the North East, as well as the country. Consett’s story is intimately bound up with the economic story of UK PLC: the decline of heavy industry, the abandonment of manufacturing and its replacement with low paid, service-led, insecure employment.

But there’s something else going on here. Holden’s statement isn’t simply a lazy mistake, it’s an attempt to embed a very different narrative and that requires some explanation. In December in County Durham, three so-called “Red Wall” seats fell to the Tories. Bishop Auckland, North West Durham and Sedgefield are very different types of constituencies, but all are long-standing Labour seats which swung dramatically from Labour to Conservative in December. This isn’t the place to discuss why, but those are the facts.

But despite sweeping to victory in those seats, the Tory MPs elected into those seats will know they are not secure. The underlying economic factors noted above, added to the fact that all three seats are ill-prepared to deal with another economic downturn caused by a combination of Brexit and COVID-19, make it quite likely that these new MPs (Richard Holden in North West Durham, Dehenna Davison in Bishop Auckland and Paul Howell in Sedgefield) are going to have a rocky ride between now and the next General Election.

The cold, hard truth is that these ‘Red Wall’ Tories, for all their bluster, are going to find it hard to represent their constituents in the traditional sense. This Government’s deregulatory, small state, free market agenda – a continuation of Thatcherism with some Steve Bannon-style populism thrown in – isn’t exactly designed for constituencies that desperately need support, whether that is investment, or a strong support networks via the social security system. So, what can they offer, instead?

Well, that’s where the this attempt to muddy the waters about the role of an MP comes in. To these Tories, if they bring a Metro line (doubtful), or a retail warehouse to the constituency through their contacts, that’s the job done. Actually, the reality is that any investment that comes into a constituency is complex and will have more to do with the economics of the region and sub-region, planning done at a county, national or even international level, than the actions of any MP. MPs are not Mayors, nor are they heads of local authorities. They can have an impact, but it will mostly be in a supporting role.

But, as has been illustrated over decades now, presentation is all in right-wing politics. And if they can’t deliver on those transport links or the big investments, they can at least make an awful a lot of noise about them. If these ‘Red Wall Tories’ can present an image of themselves in a business role – or as an ambassador for their brand, they may kid people that they are bringing economic regeneration, even when they are not. In essence, it’s a recasting the role of an MP as the CEO of a company, with the Tory PR machine behind them.

On a deeper level, however, this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of a Member of Parliament. As an MP, your primary role is to represent people. Of course, it’s incredibly complex in practice, but the number one function has to be a democratic one. That is what you are judged on at election time. Yes, of course, sometimes as an MP you can make an impact locally. You can support local growth, you can involve yourself in projects that develop communities and local economies, but central Government always holds the purse strings and will always have far more influence than any individual MP.

As an opposition MP, this is even more the case. Many Tory MPs are seriously rich, and even where they are not, they have connections to money, through the Tory Party, big business or the old private school network. Of course, that can bring benefits. It can deliver shiny things. For Labour MPs, especially those who’ve come through the trade union route, or low paid jobs without a lot of influence, the challenges are different, as is the role. In opposition, no Government is going to send investment your way (in fact, quite the opposite).

For an opposition MP like Laura Pidcock, the role was clear: (a) to help people with issues on an individual level the best you can; (b) to represent your constituents in Parliament – by both exposing the faults in the system and (c) by campaigning on their behalf to create a better society – which is what Labour’s transformational programme contained in the two manifestos of 2017 and 2019 was all about. But, at the heart of that role – until you go into power, is the knowledge that central Government ultimately hold the cards. That is a political reality, and that needs to be spelled out to those constituents.

I suspect that the representative, democratic role of an MP will increasingly become a nuisance and a distraction to these new ‘Red Wall’ Tory MPs, because they know – as ideological right-wingers – they can’t deliver on that. Some of that is already coming out, for example, in Richard Holden’s declaration that his Facebook page is not a place for “political debate”. They can’t change the political direction of this Government; they can’t campaign against its decisions and they will find it very hard to make a case for regional investment based on the last 10 years.

So, the PR job then becomes an attempt to throw around myths about that democracy and representation is. Labour “let the North East down” plays nicely into broader grievances and the wider perception of MPs not doing enough for their constituencies (and too much shouting about them). It also taps into a popular scepticism about how politicians behave.

I’ve lost count of the time I’ve heard the phrase: “why can’t we knock some heads together and get you all to work together”, as if this was a dysfunctional corporation, not politics with different ideological views of society and our world. But that myth is strong – and Tory MPs play up to it equally strongly, while all the time forcing through a clear, free market ideological agenda on our country. It’s sleight of hand and fertile territory for the Tories. The Red Wall Tory MPs will get fluff pieces in the press proclaiming their local successes and, boy, will they milk them – as a means of distracting from the democratic deficit.  As a party, we must not stand by passively, normalising this spin. We have to challenge it, explain and educate, every step of the way.


Friend! Loneliness and friendship in the Palace of Westminster


I think I’ve got it. Finally, after months of scratching my head over what the hell the Westminster bubble was on about, I’ve realised. It’s not Laura Pidcock they don’t understand, but the entire meaning of friendship. This epiphany has made me understand why Laura’s seemingly innocuous, ‘of course I’m not going to go for a pint with a Tory MP after a hard day’s work’ words were met with such outrage, confusion and even apoplectic rage in certain, high octane circles.

Because I’m telling you, those of us on the outside of those walls were genuinely shocked by the volcanic reaction to that simple concept: that I’m not going to sup with the people who are actively hurting my community, my friends, my family. To us, that seemed pure common sense, but what I’ve realised since, having viewed Westminster from an anthropological perspective (I still see myself as an outsider even though I’m now inside the walls), is that it is a case of two distinct, common senses colliding, and as such it needs unpicking. At first I thought it was faux outrage, now I realise that it is part of a deep dysfunction.

So, let’s start from the beginning. We know that, until recently, the route into politics, on both sides, was fairly standard, a well-trodden path: a hugely disproportionate number of MPs came from public schools, or elite universities, especially Oxbridge. Not all, of course – there were other routes, (e.g. through trade unions or as a ‘self-made’ business people). But, certainly amongst those who ‘made it’ to higher office, there was a very specific culture. Anyone who has spent any time amongst those who have been incubated in those ‘elite’ schools and universities, know that alongside a very prominent sense of entitlement, there is also a culture of competition, a slightly dysfunctional concept of friendship and a deep sense of loneliness.

Parliament, in many senses, is a mirror of that bizarre culture, with all those facets of competition, unstable alliances, and loneliness. Spend a week in Parliament and you will feel the alienation – it’s tangible. Imagine then, that you’re a young, northern, working class woman, who went to a comp and Manchester Metropolitan Uni, with very a different culture and values. To anyone from the culture and history that most of us inhabit, the atmosphere of Parliament – not just the tradition, rules or the building, but the transient human relationships, the proximity of gossiping journalists in almost all parts of Westminster and the enclosed, privileged spaces – is absolutely alienating, if not hostile. As Laura said, it’s the strangest workplace anyone of us has ever inhabited. To find it normal in any sense, you must have emerged from a very different reality. That different reality is the privileged bubble of the elite, as educated inside the cloisters of Oxbridge and comfortingly expensive private schools.

Of course, people say: ‘but Tony Benn was great friends with Enoch Powell’ and it’s true that he did spend time in the House with the old racist, as he did with Ian Paisley. Reading the diaries, there is no evidence that their friendship extended much beyond Westminster. I doubt Caroline would have allowed it. Benn did, however, attend Powell’s funeral and allegedly told worried New Labour spin doctors that he would be going because Powell was “his friend”. I didn’t know Tony well enough to quiz him on that concept of friendship and what it meant to him, but I do remember him talking about Powell in similar terms to Thatcher: that he hated his ideology, but respected the fact that he was, in his terms, a signpost rather than a weathervane and he admired that. Is that friendship? Is that as deep as the friendship he had with Dennis Skinner, Joan Maynard or Eric Heffer. I suppose we can only guess, but my own view is that, because he was from a privileged and politically pluralist background, Benn had learnt the Parliamentary game. That doesn’t mean that he and Powell were the greatest of friends, only that in the lonely rooms of the Palace of Westminster, they shared some common personal ground, just as Attlee and Churchill did.

Obviously, Laura Pidcock’s case is different as are her ideas about friendship, which is her right. In amongst the feather spitting, one small sentence uttered by Laura has been completely missed, but it offers a clue to the real issue here. She said: “I have friends I choose to spend time with”. That isn’t a deliberate, provocative dismissal of the people she is now surrounded by in Parliament, but a genuine sentiment, and those of us who aren’t career politicians will recognise it as such. Friends aren’t people who we share chit-chat with on the Terrace or in Strangers Bar. It’s not a journalist who we ‘hit it off’ with over a coffee in Portcullis House, someone we exchange jokes about how bad Arsenal were at the weekend – and definitely not someone we say ‘hi’ to as we pass them in the corridor between votes. It isn’t even someone we find common cause with, or chat over an issue with (whatever party). None of that is friendship, at least not the way we conceive it.

Close friends are people who you share your home with, your darkest secrets and most fanciful ideas. They are people who’ve seen you through weddings, break ups, who’ve seen you be sick, who’ve laughed at your disasters and frailties. People you’ve cried with, who understand your very soul, despite the jokes that might permeate that bond. To many of us, friendships are permanent, binding contracts. If we want to talk about unconditional friendships, that’s where politics don’t matter. Values do, but not formal politics.

I have friends who don’t share my politics, but I love them dearly. For people to confuse that and the kinds of relationships we are offered in Parliament is absolutely bizarre. They aren’t the same thing. So, back to the Pidcock furore: what are you going to answer, when a journalist asks you, in this place, in this context, whether you’d be friends with a Tory MP? The same Tory MPs who you’ve just faced across the Commons floor, and watched them cackle and whoop at benefit cuts. Are you being serious?

It won’t just be Laura, or her staff who will feel like this: it’s a natural expression of the changing Labour Party. New Labour MPs, whether new or not, whether young or old, would slot into the expected culture a lot easier than those who come from the outside in, as it were. If the 2015 Labour intake included many people from outside the political bubble, then the 2017 intake took it one stage further. One of the most incredible consequences of the unexpectedly good result in June 2017 was the entry of a new generation of MPs, which almost accidently ended up being exactly what the Labour Party needed: MPs like Marsha de Cordova, Laura Smith and Ruth George are a huge breath of fresh air, blowing like a wind through the Westminster corridors.

Obviously, we should all expect political capital to be made out of any sense that the mould is being broken. There are many people in that place with a real interest in preserving the status quo. So, the zealous right-wing press, licking their lips, helped by a strengthened hard right on the Tory benches, have attempted to portray this quiet revolution, this slow gathering of MPs who are truly representative of the population at large rather than a political establishment, as something sinister.

Irony died when the Express bemoaned the “politics of hate” seeping into Westminster. You’ve got to admire the chutzpah, if nothing else. Those purveyors of hate, the Daily Mail, the Sun and the Telegraph joined in, whipping up a real storm, almost betraying their fear in the process. The media are central in this, because they are as much of this dysfunctional culture as the politicians themselves. They hang around the cafes and bars like a set of charming, ingratiating hyenas. And they have a deep interest in perpetuating these paper thin, fake friendships of convenience. The truth is, though, that they wouldn’t know the true meaning of friendship if it smacked them in the face.

So, in some ways, the whole Pidcock #Torygate furore is nothing more than a terrible miscommunication. What they meant to ask Laura, and other working class MPs elected over the last three years, wasn’t “are you going to be friends with Tories?” Literally, who cares about that? No, what they meant to ask was, “are you going to conform?”, “are you going to bow down to the status quo” to the power of the media and the mush of centrism? And the answer to that (the real question that the journalists wanted to ask) I’m pleased to say, is a firm ‘no’. And what a refreshing, nourishing and inspiring thought that is.


What does ‘representation’ actually mean, anyway?

Laura Commons breathe

One of the broader issues raised by Laura Pidcock’s comments about not befriending Tory MPs is that it’s clear that many people just don’t get representative democracy. This has also come up over Brexit. I don’t think it’s people’s own fault, but a symptom of the bland, centrist politics encouraged by our political establishment (including New Labour) for many years, which is now getting a big kick up the arse by a more combative politics represented by the 2015-17 intake of Labour MPs and a more polarised political culture.

Because of that polarisation currently happening, the idea of representation is now back on the agenda. How do our MPs actually represent us? But because of the almost depoliticised atmosphere generated by the middle in British politics, confusion reigns – about what party politics means and how our representatives do their jobs.

Three things feature.

Firstly, people see Parliament (or rather, the corridors of power at Westminster) as the arena where policy is “thrashed out”, or negotiated. They often compare it to a work place. So, of course, the story goes, you need to view your fellow MPs as “work colleagues”. What sort of person would seek constant argument and confrontation at work? This idea connects very strongly with liberal, British, middle class sensibilities: that the project, in life and in politics, is to seek compromise, and work towards the best outcome – which will always be the moderate outcome.

But Parliament isn’t a workplace, not in that sense. It’s is an arena, sure, but a place where competing ideologies, mandates and political manifestos are represented. The really clever move by the centrist politicians who have dominated over the last 20 years or so was to hide that fact and present it as common sense. The result was that private financial interests, the backbone of those centrist politics, were represented very well, thank you. Post-2008, and in the era of Bernie and Corbyn, that clearly does not wash any more.

Secondly, and related, there is this idea that politicians are there to represent the views, very directly, of their constituents. This is a bit more of a tricky one, because in some senses it’s true. MPs do represent every one of their constituents. They can’t, realistically, select only those who voted for them to represent. But it very much depends on what you mean by “represent”. If that means the MP taking on, uncritically, the majority view of their constituency on every matter, then no. That would be an entirely different model of democracy (and practically, would have to depend on referenda on each of those issues to ensure accuracy).

Representative party democracy works in a very different way. A candidate in an election, stands on a policy platform, ideally presented in a clear manifesto, but also by what they say during the campaign. A party candidate stands under that party name, associated with a set of policies. Their job is to explain those policies to the electorate during the election campaign. If enough people trust what they say and enough people put a cross a cross next to their name, that candidate becomes the MP – on that programme. That’s the deal.

The idea that MPs are there just to uncritically reflect every individual issue in the constituency is wrong. That’s not representative democracy. No MP in the history of Parliament has ever done that. A Labour MP, voted in on a clear Labour manifesto, needs combine that policy programme with the interests of their constituents the best they can. Ultimately, they will be judged on how well they do that at the next General Election, when everyone gets the chance to vote them in / out again.

Thirdly, and again linked, is a real misunderstanding of the function of parties. I remember sitting in a local pub a few months ago with a bunch of Labour socialists. We were talking about getting our message out through social media, when we noticed a guy listening in. He was clearly itching to say something. He told us that he was appalled by what we were saying, and that somehow we were ‘manipulating’ ordinary people, who should just be left alone to “make their own minds up”.

Apart from the very obvious point about the influence of the media, it struck me that this is symptomatic of the way many people see politics, that they are a little frightened of what they see as “confrontational” politics, based around ideology. Again, some if this has been fostered by the anti-politics of New Labour (at a national and local level), but also by a suspicion of political ideas generally. This hasn’t always been the case. Both the Winter of Discontent and the Thatcherism which followed brought to the fore a more combative, working class grassroots politics, but it was muffled by Kinnock and Blair. I think the rise of Corbyn and the movements around him is changing this, but we still have a long way to go.

So, when Laura Pidcock comes into Parliament and says that she is there to represent her community and her class, not play Parliamentary games; when she declares that she will not give the Tories a moment to breathe, she’s not only coming up against the sneering of the right-wing establishment, but a more general cynicism about politics: that somehow there’s something inherently suspicious about someone who has a clear ideological standpoint. The former is to be expected, and welcomed. It’s good that the Tories and their chums in the media are upset. The latter is our real challenge.


#Torygate: ten things that Laura Pidcock didn’t say, and five that she did.

When Laura Pidcock said, quite casually, in an interview with Skwawkbox, that she had “no intention” of being friends with Tory MPs – the same MPs she’d witnessed cheering welfare cuts over the summer – she was castigated in the mainstream media, on social media accounts belonging to political commentators from the liberal left to the hard right. Not just once, but relentlessly, for weeks and months. The ferocity of the attacks, and the wild misrepresentation of her words, was a bit of a shock – especially when directed at an MP of just a couple of month’s standing. But it shouldn’t have been: because the political-media nexus which dominates Parliament cannot allow a challenge, not when they’re this insecure and frightened. The slippage from the specific point about the cosy Westminster club to an attack on all Tory voters, on women, on people’s family members, was all very deliberate – a brazen attempt to twist a perfectly natural reaction to entrenched power into something sinister, aggressive and threatening. It has been a brilliant case study of how the political establishment protects its own. Thank you for the lesson, friends and comrades, it’s been most educational. But to set the record straight, here are ten things that Laura Pidcock has never said, and five that she did. Just so we’re clear.

1. “I despise the 40% of the population who voted Conservative at the last General Election.”

The first thing to say, on a point of accuracy, is that 40% of the British population did not vote Conservative on June the 8th 2017. If you take those eligible to vote, only 29% voted Conservative. If you take the British population as a whole, it is 21%. However – and this is the important point – Laura never said she despised anyone, never mind the Conservative voting public. Not 40%, not 29% nor 21%. Never said it. It would take something to have been gone through a selection process, a hard election campaign, get down to Parliament and give a large slice of your potential electorate the middle finger. Sounds ridiculous? That’s because it is.


2. “I hate Tories, viscerally”

Laura’s comments have been carefully and skilfully conflated with some moral outrage over the so-called “politics of hate”. It’s a model of media and political spin. Normally this “hatred” is deliberately confused with some fairly robust criticism of the Tory government from activists who are on the sharp end of Tory cuts, but occasionally it does stray into pure bile. No doubt this is not helpful, no matter how understandable it is. But let’s just be clear: none of those things have come from Laura, though the press (liberal and hard right) have had a pretty good go and making that one stick.

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3. “I think the Tories are evil.”

People have the right to employ quasi-religious labels to describe their political enemies, rather than discuss structural inequality, policy and the ideological trajectory of the Tory Party. But Laura never did. In his extraordinarily offensive article in the Times, where he tortuously tried to link Laura’s words to the Stasi, Daniel Finkelstein deliberately blurred those lines by complaining: “it’s never nice to be thought evil by someone.”. The problem being that Laura never did call Danny or anyone else “evil”. Again, this is another attempt to muddy the waters of what was said to nail a new MP. It’s totally transparent and pretty reprehensible.

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4. “I will not represent Tory voters in my constituency.

This is the most pernicious slippage that we’ve seen: because it calls into question Laura’s professionalism, not to mention political judgement. 16,000 people voted Conservative in North West Durham in June. No matter what we might think of that, an MP has a binding duty to represent those constituents. Not to agree with them, but to listen, to communicate with them and to take up case work on their behalf. As an MP, Laura has never even suggested that she would vet constituents before representing them. Categorically.

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5. “I won’t speak to a Tory MP.”

Not speaking to fellow MPs would not only be immature, but make Laura’s job very hard indeed. This includes sharing a joke, smiling, being polite to MPs on the other side of the House.  All of these things are separate from being “friends”, unless you have a very superficial view of friendship. So the next time she is pictured talking to a Tory, or asking a question of David Gauke, or taking part in an all-party group or select committee, this is not “hypocrisy”. Because she never said it.

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6. “It’s not ok to be friends with a Tory”

In the wake of Laura’s comments, the liberal press in particular was full of hand-wringing articles about whether it was ok to be friends with a Tory. It was good click-baity, media fodder, but pretty irrelevant to the context of saying that you wouldn’t spend your time in Parliament socialising with Tory MPs. I don’t know if anyone has realised, but Parliament is not a normal workplace, nor cultural space. Your Tory-voting mate, uncle or gran hasn’t been spending the last 7 years forcing through austerity, sanctions, the Bedroom Tax, Universal Credit & the Trade Union Bill. Surprisingly, Laura Pidcock, Labour MP for North West Durham, has no opinion on who you socialise with. In fact, during the interview with Emma Barnett on Radio 5, Laura revealed that she has a Tory-voting aunt whom she loves a lot. People who were surprised had completely missed the point.

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7. “It’s not ok to kiss a Tory”

In one of the most astonishing spinning exercises known to humankind, I spotted a well-shared tweet of a picture of two men kissing at Manchester Pride, with Laura tagged in. What made it worse, was that it seemed to be coming from a Labour account (albeit a prominent Progressite). On what level of liberal logic would someone not wanting to spend their social time with Tories in Parliament (the vast majority of whom have done everything they can to block equality legislation over decades), equate to stopping two gay men snog over the political divide? The inference was clear, but it was pure bullshit


8. “Screw the kinder, gentler politics.”

Many political commentators tried to tie what Laura said to the disintegration of Jeremy Corbyn’s call for a “kinder, gentler politics”. Firstly, some of this has been subject to slippage in the first place: a deliberate misunderstanding of what he meant. It wasn’t about the continuation of the Blairite mush in the middle, of consensus politics made in Westminster, without much reference at all to the world outside that bubble. It was about respect, not making bitter, personal attacks and a focus on policy. What it categorically can’t be about is letting Tory MPs off the hook for those policies which have destroyed so many lives and communities. Unless Jeremy became a liberal while no one was looking. Anyone who has met Laura personally will know that she is one of the most courteous, friendly and respectful people around. She just doesn’t want to booze with Tory MPs. Deal with it.

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9. “Tory women are my enemy”

Again, it’s important firstly to establish where the conflation is happening here. A clear-cut context, talking about Tory women MPs specifically, and their culpability for the cuts they have voted through, promoted and cheered, is misreported, time and time again, as describing all Tory women. That enables the liberal and hard right press to portray Laura as an “anti-feminist” (with dollops of hard left / Corbynista ice cream from the likes of Guido Fawkes, of course). A further confusion is added by rolling in the personal angle, when Laura had clearly been describing these Tory MPs as her ideological enemy. But in fact, she was making a political point: that she wouldn’t be doing her representative job if she didn’t view them as ideological enemies. Turn it on it’s head: Tories who’ve inflicted such misery on North West Durham are my ideological friends. Really?

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10. “I won’t ever work with politicians from other parties”

Lots of things are going on here. Firstly, an MP will always seek to work collaboratively. In collecting signatures for the Universal Credit letter to Gauke, Laura sought the support of Tory MPs whose constituencies were affected by the rollout. None responded positively, and this was before #Torygate kicked off in earnest. But what this is really about is alternative theories of power. Many people within the Westminster bubble, across the political spectrum, still believe that the real business of politics is done at Parliament, by persuading MPs from opposing parties that your view is just and moral, thrashing out a deal. There is another view of power: that it lies in building and organising our movement, our unions, our communities and expressing that power through representation and government. It is the difference between enacting the manifesto, and Labour Party policy decided at conference, and the “middle way” designed in the private rooms of Westminster by New Labour. Laura Pidcock has firmly nailed her colours to the mast. And that’s why she is being hammered.

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Five things that Laura Pidcock did say:

1. [talking of her women Labour MP colleagues]: “We have a WhatsApp group! They’re all really supportive, answering questions about anything from procedure to women’s issues.” She wouldn’t, however, “hang out with Tory women” who she tells me are “no friends of mine” and “an enemy to lots of women”. Article: http://www.refinery29.uk/2017/08/167058/female-mps-2017

2. [again, talking about Tory MPs]: “Whatever type they are, I have absolutely no intention of being friends with any of them. I have friends I choose to spend time with. I go to parliament to be a mouthpiece for my constituents and class – I’m not interested in chatting on.” Article: http://skwawkbox.org/2017/08/11/one-of-labours-new-rising-stars-talks-class-westminster-and-the-enemy/

3. [talking about the Government] “I feel disgusted at the way they’re running this country, it’s visceral – I’m not interested in being cosy. I hate those Tory questions that start with ‘Does the PM agree with me..?’ – when one Tory MP stood up and asked one I told him I think those questions are disgraceful. His response was ‘you mustn’t be a very good MP‘!” (article above)

4. [talking about the Government]; “The idea that they’re not the enemy is simply delusional when you see the effect they have on people – a nation where lots of people live in a constant state of fear whether they even have enough to eat.” (article above)

5. [in response to initial outrage being generated by the comments above]; “Just to be clear, I represent everyone regardless of who they voted for. I don’t ask and don’t care who people voted for if they need help from us, they will get it. I have reached out to the Tory MPs several times already and also asked them to sign my letter asking for a pause to Universal Credit, no response. Of course I will work with a Tory if it is going to benefit the people in my constituency, my point was that I have no intention of being their friends. We are ideological opponents. It would be disingenuous to suggest I can happily sit there and have light hearted chats with people who are ambivalent to the suffering of my constituents, any relationship is purely functional.”

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And that’s the point. Laura Pidcock, just like Jeremy Corbyn, is more than happy to defend what she actually said. It would be pretty dishonest not to, wouldn’t it? If you check the interviews since #Torygate, you’ll see that she hasn’t once backed away from what she said or what she believes. But what we should never accept are the blatant lies, slippages and spin of Tory MPs, their chums in the media and their cheerleaders on social media – it’s a form of bullying. Not particularly sophisticated or clever, but an intolerance based on privilege. If we’re going to change British politics, we are going to have to confront that establishment power – to look it in the face and tell it to screw itself. To do otherwise is to take a step back towards New Labour and defeatism, and we’re better than that.