London-centrism and a manifesto the size of a novel: a Labour candidate on what went wrong

Labour's Penrith and the Border candidate reveals a catalogue of errors.

On 4 September, the Tory MP for Penrith and the Border Rory Stewart rebelled against Johnson and lost the whip. The same day, the Labour Party’s general secretary Jennie Formby sent out an email asking for members to put themselves forward to be parliamentary candidates. 

I’m from a town called Wigton in Penrith and the Border. Its the largest constituency in England, spanning the lake district.

Its been Tory since its inception in 1950, with only one wobble. In 1983 Willie Whitelaw’s move to the Lords forced a by-election – annoying the local Tories – and the Liberals came within 500 votes of taking the constituency.

I thought the prospect of a popular independent conservative candidate plus a Johnson endorsed runner, may make for an interesting election. 

I filled in my form and sent it off, apart from an email acknowledging receipt, I heard nothing more, until some two months later (5th Nov) I received a call from Labour North informing me that I’d been selected.

I was somewhat surprised and asked for time to think about it – I was given ‘a couple of hours’, as Labour’s National Executive Council were meeting in the morning and their endorsement was needed.

I spoke to family and friends – I knew there was no real chance of winning and that for the next 5 weeks I would be staying away from my home in London and back with my family in Wigton. 

With my family’s support, I decided to accept the constituency labour party’s selection and became the parliamentary candidate. I was excited by the idea of the campaign and I looked forward to conversations on the doorstep and I thought I might give the arrogant Tory yes man Neil Hudson a bloody nose. 

I had campaigned in the constituency in local elections where Wigton had managed to buck the national trend and increase their number of Labour councillors but, during that campaign, I had seen and heard just how angry voters felt about their Leave votes not being honoured and that they were being painted as ignorant or racist (or both).

Whilst this may, to some extent, actually be true (BNP HQ is in Wigton), there are many Leave voters who cannot be categorised in this way. During the local elections, I was able to reason with the Leavers that this was a local election, and they were mostly willing to engage. 

The activists in the constituency are the most hard-working, honest, clever and caring group of people that I have ever met. But, what became apparent on the doorstep during my campaign is that there were a proportion of the electorate who would not engage. They were not willing to listen to any Labour message – they only wanted to ‘Get Brexit Done’. 

It was difficult to judge the percentage of voters who fell into this category, those who were enchanted by a very simple but powerful message. The entire nation is sick of hearing about Brexit and the thought that it will be over and done with by the end of January is a very compelling one – a totally spurious falsehood of course, but still, just the thought that it might be and we can ‘Move On’ is a seriously difficult message to oppose.

Especially when we had a manifesto the size of a novel – at one of the Hustings I looked for our key message on the NHS, our strongest area and there was not one bullet point I could state to the audience, of course I know the NHS is safe with Labour, but how was I to explain this to the floating voter, what key message was I to give?

We needed – there aren’t enough doctors – we will, there aren’t enough nurses – we will, adult social care – we will? It needed to be snappier easier to understand.

In the weeks running up to the election, each policy announcement felt more and more like we were at a panto and Aladdin was rubbing the magic lamp – I know our manifesto was costed blah blah but it came across as fantasy, it was written for the activist, for the members, for the politics students (perhaps even by them).

Most people aren’t that involved, they want to know the big picture the big offer – not the detail. 

The short fallings of the Labour Party were epitomised when I went to meet the Labour bus in Carlisle (a neighbouring constituency) – Carlisle was considered a marginal so had glamorous visits from The Bus – no such attention was or is ever given to Penrith & the Border.

I heard about the visit so popped along. Ian Lavery was on the bus, he was with two young women whom he introduced to the frozen, windswept crowd – Lara McNeill, young labour representative on the NEC and Grace Blakely – described as economic commentator. 

Lara went first and gave a long speech in a southern accent, reading from her iphone about what workers in the ‘north’ needed, followed by Grace, who did much the same. I was aghast, “a couple of posh birds telling us what to do” was one comment afterwards.

A huge and legitimate criticism of the Blair era is that we parachuted PPE grads into safe northern seats – David Milliband to South Shields, Mandelson to Hartlepool etc., the list is long.

This hasn’t changed in the Corbyn era, the power is all in London and is dominated by privately educated Oxbridge grads who’ve never lived or worked anywhere near the north of England, but nevertheless feel entitled to tell us what we ‘the workers’ need.

Lisa Nandy has been saying this for ages – she hasn’t been listened to. Unions must take responsibility for their role in the decline of Labour – far too much time is spent in conference echo chambers listening to each other, while workers continue to have precarious employment and little knowledge of unions and what they can and should be doing. 

I have already read much comment on our Brexit position, even with the benefit of hindsight, there is no binary or simple ‘fix’, if we had kept to our 2017 position we would have lost seats in metropolitan areas. 

We were in an impossible position – the PLP as divided as the nation. Small solice can be found in the fact that it is the Tories who will own the inevitable destructive mess that is to follow. 

An extremely unpleasant aspect of the campaign was repeatedly having ‘Corbyn is a terrorist’ shouted at me – clearly this is not true, but plenty of people believe it. We can blame the media, but once this idea had traction, we really needed to act.

The lowest moment was when I went to neighbouring constituency Workington to help get out the vote on election day. Firstly, the sheets we had had data from 2010 – this is a key marginal and there isn’t data? 

We were literally knocking on Tories’ doors and reminding them to vote. Second, on our way into a café for lunch, a man in his 40s, on seeing my 76 year old mother’s red rosette balled ‘fucking terrorist’ at her. 

On the doorstep, Corbyn went down like a bucket of cold sick. I voted for him, I like him, the electorate do not – we needed to realise and act sooner – not by creating more factionalism and division, but by Corbyn himself backing a unity candidate to take over. 

Things may have turned out differently had this happened sooner, it needs to happen now. 

Sarah Williams is a Musicians Union and Labour activist. She came second in Penrith and the Border – 18,000 votes behind the Tories.

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20 Responses to “London-centrism and a manifesto the size of a novel: a Labour candidate on what went wrong”

  1. nshgp

    We needed – there aren’t enough doctors – we will, there aren’t enough nurses
    The NHS is centrally planned. Why did the NHS not train up Doctors to meet its needs?
    This is a complete failure of the NHS and the people who do its planning.

    On Corbyn, he’s a terrorist sympathizer. That lost Labour massive numbers of votes.

    On Brexit, that was Labour’s choice. You should have said, the public have decided, and we will implement what we have been told. Instead you decide to say, sorry we don’t do orders. That your entire existence is built around ordering other people around, and screwing minorities with your for the many, not the few says it all.

    Even your own talk of violence against others says why you are not fit to be an MP.

  2. Eric Walker

    To NHSGP On Corbyn, he’s a terrorist sympathizer. ??? Give a fact or two on which you base that statement? I am not a Labour Party member and I did not vote Labour in my deep blue constituency

  3. peem birrell

    It’s basically the medical profession who control the numbers of doctors trained via university places for medicine. Their motivation is to keep their pay up by making sure we never have too many doctors. But of coure since may who qualify never practice, leave the NHS, go abroad etc the result is a permanent shortage.

  4. Tom Sacold

    Nothing wrong with most of the manifesto. It is the current leadership of the party that’s the problem. Our party is now dominated by metropolitan, middle-class, champagne socialists.

    Until we reconnect with our old traditional British working-class supporters and address their interests we will have electoral problems.

  5. Chester Draws

    Until we reconnect with our old traditional British working-class supporters and address their interests we will have electoral problems.

    But the traditional working class are patriotic — and hence “racist” — and care far more for Britain than they do for Palestine. Squaring that with the London champagne Socialists isn’t going to be easy.

    The working class aren’t just “Leave”, they really don’t care about other countries. They don’t mind them, they just aren’t interested in them. So you have an issue with the London elite’s desire to integrate completely with Europe.

    The traditional working class care how much they pay for electricity, petrol, heating etc, and very little for doomsters telling them that they are causing Thermaggedon. Squaring that with the Greta loving champagne Socialists isn’t going to be easy.

    The traditional working class want their schools to be better, and aren’t that worked up about how that is achieved. But the Labour Party oppose any reforms to the old state run comprehensives, so it will be goodbye to Academies etc, in the interests of ideological purity. The workers want the NHS to be better, but if that means some services are let out, then so be it. Again ideological purity runs up against pragmatism.

    It’s a circle that can’t be squared while the leadership of Labour refuses to engage with anyone of the right wing of the party. As long as they exclude any Blairite types from it, it will never win election again.

  6. Julia Gibb

    Your voters went to the Tory Party, the Brexit Party and in many interviews praised Tommy Robinson.

    Do you really need to ask what went wrong? A Rightwing England celebrating English Nationalism!

  7. The_Magnet

    The NHS is the architect of its own problems – this will be controversial but making the NHS more family friendly means that women are training as Doctors and practising for a few years then moving to part time work if they continue to work at all (, immediately reducing capacity, but adding admin and other costs to the system and losing talent. The NHS is basically a monopoly employer it needs to increase training spaces and say that part time work is not truely compatible if further on going training, skills maintenance is then needed by part timers who then practice even less.

  8. Dave Roberts

    Chester Draws. Succinctly summed up as always, I have no criticism of your analysis.
    Eric Walker. The question of what is a terrorist is quite a broad one and Corbyn quite clearly falls within it as he encourages and gives the oxygen of publicity and whatever credibility he has to Hamas and Hezbollah. He has never once withdrawn or amended his statements in relation to these terrorist groups. Which bit of that don’t you understand?

    For the larger picture Labour is now paying the price for all of the years of patronising and insulting the working class. Imposing, as has been mentioned above, well connected PPEs as candidates above better qualified local people. Refusing to discipline people like Livingstone for the drink fueled fantasies of importing and refining oil from Venezuela to run London Transport. Allowing the Kenster to openly support a crook like Lutfur Rahman in Tower Hamlets against the official Labour candidate because of the alleged support that both had in the Muslim community which represents a vote bank that Labour wants whatever the price. And on and on. We are probably looking at two terms of Boris Johnson and it’s all the fault of the left.

  9. Michael McManus

    Those who wonder why Corbyn is called a terrorist sympathiser must have been asleep these past years. The ‘friends’ in Hamas and the comfort given to Iran’s evil regime (the origin of Hezbollah) on their TV? The invitations to the IRA?
    I’ve had a lot to do with people from the middle east who have suffered from the sectarian wars there and can tell you that you have to be pig-ignorant of history even to think the Palestinians are victims of anyone but themselves, or deserving our support.

  10. Kersti

    I see it as you do. If we’d kept the northern seats, we’d have lost the metropolitan areas and vice versa. The split in the party mirrors the split in the nation. Dealing with that, somehow, is the job ahead.

  11. Shaun Halfpenny

    I’m a Penrith & The Border Labour activist and not only was Sarah Williams by far and away the most intellectually capable, sharpest, wittiest and honest candidate for the constituency, her observations are acute and ring very true but the “Corbyn is a terrorist” rhetoric from NSHGP is absolute nonsense… false news again.
    The main reason we lost the election was we lost the argument in the media.. we were always playing catch up and it was impossible to by pass the anti Corbyn bias and fixation. Remember Laura Kuensburg even criticised and mocked his trousers shortly after he took over as Leader…. real gutter journalism!
    HIGNFY must also take the lion’s share of the blame for giving Johnson a platform in the first place and portraying him as an “enfant mechant” or a naughty mongrel a la the Afghan, “What a Mess”
    What all Labour Party members must do, including the Kinnocks of this world, is stop the blaming and start the healing.
    Finally, we must not let the Leadership election become a media circus which is both dictated by and dominated by, self serving journalists on the look out for cheap by lines. Let us not have American style debates with non-party members planted in an audience to throw curved balls. Let the membership decide!!

  12. Michael McManus

    Shaun – are you really saying that the allegations about Corbyn’s sympathy for Islamic and IRA killers is pure invention? He’s not articulate about his views but he has been filmed questioning Israel’s right to exist and laying a wreath at the grave bestial killers of the Israeli Olympic team. Do you associate with people like that? Would you go on Iran’s TV – a country held hostage by perverted clerics with a taste for whipping, raping and hanging young women – and back their view that Israel is the cause of terror in the region? Please don’t say you would do it in the furtherance of harmony. You might as well say stroking a hyena was a worthy act.

    As to the membership. They have got Labour into this mess. Candidates like Burgon and Long Bailey are being considered. Fine job they’ll make of it.

  13. Shaun Halfpenny

    Well Michael McManus, if that is your name. If you must use a pseudonym you would be advised not to choose an Irish Catholic monika; it reveals your game far too easily. You are of course trying to invent history. Disagreement with israel’s foreign policy and its allowance of the illegal settlements on the West Bank should not and indeed cannot be construed as support for terrorism. I do not support terrorism and neither does Jeremy Corbyn. You are trying to perpetuate a myth by putting political constructions on innocent and well meaning statements. Indeed, your the rhetoric of your language is violent itself and incites violent thought. I have no sympathy with killers and terrorists and neither does Jeremy Corbyn. I maintain he has sympathy with the victims of terror and war and has spoken out against those conditions, policies and politicians which have allowed terrorism to flourish. There is little to praise in the leadership of Palestine, Hamas in particular, or of Israel in the last thirty years. Similarly bombings, shootings and murders carried out by the IRA, UDA and others in Ireland must be condemned but we must never excuse the politicians who created and deliberately maintained the status quo where violence can flourish. This forum is far too small for this debate and I will finish by asking you to reflect on your inflammatory language. The membership of the Labour Party is the Labour Party and you reveal your non membership by stating “They have got Labour into this mess”. You can of course disagree with my sentiments but as we do live in a democracy allow me to have them. Your contribution, sadly, comes over very strongly as that of a bigoted bully. There is hope for your redemption but you must shed your aggression. Who is Burgon by the way? I have never heard of him /her. I advise you to check the competence of whoever is drip feeding you your information.

    I’ve never stroked a hyena but I have been within three feet of a pack of them…scary beasts they were too. Funny, but some appeared to have had a distinct blue tinge and others purple…..

    There is an old Welsh proverb which you would well to heed; “If you dine with the Devil, eat with a long spoon”

  14. Michael McManus

    Your convoluted response is unenlightening. I used no bullying language but merely pointed to bits of film of the Great Helmsman’s meetings and statements that are in the public domain. To think you can achieve anything talking with Palestinians is naïve. There’s a reason no Gulf state will help them or take ME refugees and Kuwait, which did, paid a heavy price for it in1990/1 in the atrocities they committed. They elected terrorists and are committed like much of the ummah to the elimination of Israel – having collectively cleansed north Africa and the ME of Jews over several centuries. It is the Jews who have the right of return to their ancestral lands not arabs, You can’t illegally occupy your own territory whatever the corrupt and useless UN says (remind me, which countries have chaired the HRC in recent years? saud? Zimbabwe …)

    As to my name. I’m sometimes confused with another who is author of a biography of Heath but most often mistaken for the long-dead wrestler. I’ve had a lot to do with overseas visitors. Almost the first thing Arabs bring up is the meaning of names. (Few people noticed the significance of the brit terrorist, now posing as a victim and attracting sympathy from useful idiots who called her son Jarah which has aggressive connotations.) Most revealing of faulty stereotypes was the response from Jamaicans who had not spent their childhood on golden sands and azure seas but watching black and white film of wrestling bouts in Leeds Town Hall.

  15. Michael McManus

    Shaun Halfpenny, if that’s your real name. here’s the well-known right wing editor of the New Statesman.

  16. Gary

    It was the Parliamentary Labour Party ITSELF that destroyed it’s own chances. FOUR YEARS of briefing against Corbyn and spreading smears about him to the press and right wing blogs and otherwise trying to oust him using fair but mostly foul means. After doing that the same people think they can complain about the result being Corbyn’s fault? Kier Starmer could barely contain his glees when interviewed about Corbyn’s departure. People like him, Jess Phillips, Ruth Smeath and Wes Street to name but a few have nigh on destroyed the party in order to get Corbyn out and, they hope, to drag it back so far to the right that it’s nearly Tory.

    Through not listening to their own people, never mind the voters they have now, it seems, lost Scotland permanently. It looks like the North of England has now gone the same way.

    The PLP is the tail that is wagging the dog, the problem is they are killing the dog…

  17. nick w

    the argument about JC is past the fundamental issue we seem to have forgotten is that he has fought and lost two elections, clinging on in the hope a “mini me” version will arise and keep the left in control is not the way forward, neither is the hobsons choice of north London lawyer or er….north London lawyer,
    what is needed is a candidate who have three core values, the values that the party needs now more than ever, decency, honesty, and integrity, JC is yesterdays man lets not kid ourselves he was robbed or cheated by a press cabal, by his own admission he has been on the left of politics all his life, the trouble is the vital thousands of swing voters who decide elections are not thats the fact of life we need to accept. My only issue with JC was the constant speaking to the safe constituency of voters who would always vote labour in any event, there was no effort to reach out, and thats what we need to do next

  18. Nicola Key

    An insightful account. Added into the mix is the rise of populism, fueled in part by social media which allows the genuine elite (upper class) to claim shared territory with the working class against the mythical “liberal, metropolitan, elite” (the latest variant of the previous lesser-spotted “Champagne socialists”), by which is really meant middle class people who live in urban areas and have acquired cultural capital via education (oh the horror!). In part I fear this is exacerbated by a culture on the Left to distance itself from anything smacking of ‘middle class’, created a double-whammy of middle class shaming from within and without. We see this as leadership candidates scrape together their stories of working class authenticity, from Emily Thornberry and her tale of her childhood family cats being PTS due to not being able to afford to feed them (really? they couldn’t give them to an animal shelter?), to Keir Starmer keen to stress he’s not from the London elite as he grew up on the Surrey/Kent borders (lol) and that his education was paid for by his toolmaker dad. None of this should really matter in terms of leadership.

    There is nothing wrong with being middle class, or from making your living from academic qualifications or educational attainment in the cultural sphere. Education is a good thing. Yet this is jeered at by populist sentiment that considers the middle classes ‘up themselves’, perhaps too well-spoken, too full of progressive ideas that threaten social change or undermine tradition. It all ties in with the general growing suspicion of ‘experts’ (aka paying attention to people who have actually studied what they are talking about).

    All this of course rests on the question of what, in fact, is ‘working class’ in a largely post-industrial society? Again, many will identify as working class when in fact social statisticians would rank them as ABC1.

    Instead of allowing London to be presented as ‘out of touch’ to the pro-Brexit, supposedly pro-British electorate, it needs to be repositioned as ‘our great capital city’. To despise it and all who live there should surely be thought an ‘unpatriotic’ move? Likewise, the middle class urbanites are part of a long tradition of British culture, that has produced great ideas politically, economically, socially. Further, 90 percent of the population lives in towns (Chipping Norton set, anyone?) and cities, whilst only ten percent live in rural areas. In addition, the majority of the UK population is actually middle class, so any party that genuinely favoured such a group should be well-placed to win an election. It seems these tribal factions are largely based on a fantasy of self-identification and stereotyping, yet hold sway in the ballot box. To treat the tribes as ‘real’ would be a mistake. Instead we must either slay, or tame, the dragons in the fairytale.

  19. Nicola Key

    In addition, Boris promised shiny things and went around with mugs of tea and hard hats, doing photo ops with welders and lorry drivers. It wasn’t all pictures, either. He was offering regions that have lost industry and identity new free trade ports / zones post-Brexit, which, it’s suggested, will bring thousands of new jobs, opportunities and wealth to these neglected areas. The fact one of the main traders in such a set up is Brazil, currently plundering Amazon rainforest at a rate of knots, and that international trade on that scale is going to come at a high environmental cost is neither here nor there to a lot of voters, who may pay ‘oh dearism’ lip service to David Attenborough talking about oceans choked with plastic, but when it comes to voting are more concerned with their local economy, and restoring a sense of identity and pride to their area.

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