Fascinating development yesterday when Jamie Reed, a fervent critic of the current leadership of the UK Labour, announced he was leaving politics and his Copeland seat in the very remote north-west of England.
Many of us will have passed by the constituency on our way to and from Stranraer, but unless you holiday in the western Lake District or have family there, it’s likely few of us have ever been. It starts inland in Keswick spreading out towards the sea and the fishing port of Whitehaven.
Despite a narrowing 2,564 (6.5%) majority at the last election, and even a significant majority for Brexit, Reed was thought to be in a good local position. The seat (and its predecessors) hasn’t returned anything other than a Labour candidate since the 30s.
It’s probably significant too that Reed came through from working at the Sellafield Nuclear Plant, which would likely bolster local confidence in the face of Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-nuclear energy stance.
It demonstrates that the rift (drift is probably a better word) in the party is not simply internal, it’s between the party and its traditional voters. One so deep it clearly pre-dates Corbyn’s accession. That’s certainly what one small group which calls itself Blue Labour thinks.
I went to their conference in Manchester last month, largely because I had the opportunity to go. As it happens, one of the presenters Rachel Burgin told a story about her experience as a governor of a small Church of England school called St Bridgets in the constituency, which illustrates this drift.
The issue was that the school in Tower Hamlets could see how the Cumbrian children could learn from the relationship but they couldn’t see how children from Tower Hamlets could learn anything from being twinned with a school in Cumbria.
Right there is the first problem with the current diversity narrative. It lacks reciprocity. Diverse means African, Indian, Japanese, Middle Eastern. But it doesn’t mean Cumbrian. Participating in Bhangra dance is cultural, but not taking part in a Barn Dance at the village hall.
Religious Education means visiting a mosque, a synagogue, a gurdwara – or even a cathedral. But it doesn’t normally involve visiting isolated rural chapels that are living legacies of the Wesleyan and Primitive Methodist revivals.
A child may learn about important community events such as Vaisakhi or Diwali – but never have the opportunity to participate in a village fete. Or learn about the central role that cricket plays in many rural communities or rugby league in our northern heartlands.
And we end up in the absurd situation where kids from inner city London can apparently learn nothing from the landscape that inspired William Wordsworth, Beatrix Potter and Melvyn Bragg – along with countless artists and musicians.
The impact of this is not obvious. It is subliminal. People cherish deeply their community, their culture and their identity. It shapes who they are. If we don’t share in that, we give the impression of being detached, out-of-touch.
We neither understand nor care about their lives. We may not say we hold them in contempt but it can sometimes seem that way. When unscrupulous UKIP politicians say we hate Britain, they are wrong and what they say is dangerous. But they can find an audience.
This is not, as is often suggested by its many critics actually a rightist view of the party’s historical mission, rather they are centrists with a keen sense of the importance of the party’s engagement with its own working class roots.
Wigan MP Lisa Nandy’s keynote was a warning to any present thinking Labour needs a culture war between metropolitan liberals and the party’s blue-collar base. But she noted, the party is struggling to unlearn its mistakes of the past:
Trouble is that it still struggles to recognise anything it must learn in defeat. Ed Milliband entertained Maurice Glasman’s radical ideas on immigration but, as Beth Rigby puts it, he just “toyed with it, and then put it in his “too hard to do” box”.
It was “too hard to do”, because it ran in the face of the orthodoxies of the Blairite right, and the Corbynite left.
Blue Labour was then, and still remains a small part of Labour’s internal constituency, but it seems to be one of the few parts giving space to new thinking and controversies.
For many their willingness to dance so close to the precipice (inviting UKIP MEP and serial controversialist, Rod Liddle to Manchester was just too much for some honest Labour soldiers).
And yet, just last year Labour was Scotland’s major voice in Westminster. Now they’ve been reduced to the same comedy side role, previously assigned to the Conservatives and Lib Dems.
Although the desertion by a centre-left electorate (Greens went up from 2 to 6 seats, Labour lost 13, and the Lib Dems held at five) for the culture war of nationalism has been crippling but seems only to have been felt as mild ripples in London.
Polls, which historically consistently underestimate the strength of the right, are now loudly clanging their alarm bells in England too. In a Blue Labour style collection of essays called Labour’s Identity Crisis, editor Tristram Hunt offers this:
“Labour needs to work much harder at understanding England as it is, not how Labour imagines or wants it to be. If we can diagnose the problem, begin to see the country through the same eyes as it sees itself, then there is no reason why we cannot begin to rebuild the trust needed to prescribe the solution.”
It’s a thread which runs right through the Blue Labour project. Glasman regaled the audience in one session saying that it takes an average of 8 seconds for Labour canvassers in his area to tell voters why they were wrong. His replacement method:
Glasman’s humour (which pours out of him liberally) points towards another distinguishing feature of what’s driving Blue Labour underneath; that is an understanding of the paradoxical (as opposed to strictly rational) character of human nature.
As a Jew, he also feels that Catholic social teaching has an ecumenical and secular value in recentering political values in moral judgement rather than the use of ethics in the form of automated forms of justiciable rights. A shift which has opened a tragic gap between the centre and the edge.
My old friend, John Pollock suggests some of the blame for this lies in the way the diversity agenda was captured and politicised by the New Left…
…making people feel ‘policed’ about difference is unproductive. Helping people understand variation as a mathematically proven way to succeed – well, that’s worth talking about. That way lies progress for all
Back to Copeland. No one seems sure why Reed is jumping. Stephen Bush lays out a credible account for why this Labour fiefdom in the far north has become Theresa May’s to lose at a point in the electoral cycle when it is the Government, not the Opposition, that generally loses byelections.
It may be hard for some of the losers in the last two summers internal elections to admit, but Corbyn’s poor man‘s leadership is a symptom, not a cause of this drift. Changing the leader is the least it has to do.
Losing Copeland would be the first in a line of dominos. On top of large electoral defeats across England, the Tories’ profoundly antidemocratic decision to cut seat numbers whilst the UK population grows, will make recovery even more gruellingly hard work than it already is.
Copeland will be no more at the next general election, further enlarging the distance between this isolated community and the UK’s economically privileged centre of economic and political power in London. Time to listen maybe: there’s no impenetrable red wall to save them.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty