A local candidate for local people
‘Walkout over Labour candidate choice’ is the headline screaming from the BBC website, with similar stories of a Labour leader rocked by the mass desertion of local party activists. Except this wasn’t Wakefield on Sunday, but Rotherham in November 2012 when 80-plus Labour members walked out of the meeting which selected Sarah Champion to fight the by-election. She won with a majority of over five thousand and the Tories came fifth.
A staged walk-out by 80 members is a bit more serious than the handful who flounced off in Wakefield on Sunday. I’m going to take at face value their claim that the casus belli was that a ‘local candidate’ did not appear on the shortlist of two. A cynic might think that the fact the news was first broken by a Corbynite blogger and amplified by Diane Abbott on social media could point to an ideological motive, rather than a simple desire to see someone with the right postcode.
Anyway, Jack Hemingway, who the walkers-out wanted to see as the Labour candidate for this vital by-election, was deemed unsuitable because of his stance on antisemitism. Personally, I would add to the charge sheet his judgement that Jeremy Corbyn would be a successful Labour leader and that Rebecca Long Bailey was the best person to replace him. On both counts, Cllr Hemingway has showed disastrous political acumen and must live with the consequences of these positions.
But why this obsession with being ‘local’? There is a strange strain of thought within Labour that to represent a parliamentary constituency one must have deep roots there. Why? Was Keir Hardie less effective as MP for West Ham or Merthyr Tydfil because he came from Lanarkshire? Was Tony Benn a dud as MP for Bristol and Chesterfield because he was born in Westminster? Thinking about the past few Labour leaders — the people the members have placed their upmost trust in — none represented a seat where they were born and grew up.
Corbyn famously was born in Wiltshire and raised in a manor house in Shropshire. Miliband represents Doncaster but comes from north London. Brown represented a seat over an hour away from the place of his birth. Blair was born in Scotland and lived in Islington, although he had connections to County Durham. Callaghan — born in Portsmouth, represented Cardiff. Wilson — born in Huddersfield, represented seats in Merseyside. Clem Attlee was born in Putney and sat for Limehouse then Walthamstow.
There are a few MPs out there who can say they were born in their constituency. Hazel Blears was always proud to be Salford born and bred. Some, like Claudia Webbe, can point to roots in the city or town. But is anyone seriously suggesting that west Londoner Alan Johnson was less effective as a Hull MP because he wasn’t born with the smell of the fish docks in his nostrils? Or that Harriet Harman hasn’t been a fighter for Peckham just because she was born in Marylebone?
I certainly don’t want to return to the days when Labour MPs lived in London and visited their constituency every few weeks, or even months. We know the stories of MPs arriving once a year, expecting a brass band and a red carpet, before returning to north London to work on their dairies, biographies and speeches. Those days are thankfully over.
I expect Labour MPs to live in their constituency, use local services, shop in the local Co-op, and be part of community life. But we should not fetishise local-ness over talent, or use local-ness as a cypher for ideological loyalty. For a start, it excludes the many excellent current and former MPs who were born abroad: Peter Hain, Catherine West, Patricia Hewitt, Rushanara Ali, Feryal Clark, and many more. It also has a whiff of blood-and-soil about it, and goes against our values of openness and welcome to people regardless of where they are from.
Most of all, it fails utterly to recognise the realities of modern society and the labour market, where people move away from the family home and seek out work and opportunities across the UK and abroad.
The dozen-or-so people who walked out in Wakefield were wrong. It was a silly and self-indulgent performative act. Now, I hope they stay away from Labour’s campaign and allow the overwhelming majority of the party to get on with beating the Tories. Some perhaps had their arms twisted, and may want to reconsider their positions. Others, we are better off without. Like the Rotherham protestors a decade ago, their protest will be soon forgotten.
As I have said before, winning Wakefield won’t be easy, so we need all people of good faith to get behind Simon Lightwood. He joined the Labour Party 20 years ago in — guess where — Wakefield, and will make a great MP.
Paul Richards is a writer.