Crewe by-election: Farce War, not Class War
The Labour Party’s nasty campaign in Crewe and Nantwich exposes the petty, personalised and chauvinistic strain in contemporary politics.
When a New Labour MP and former minister tells the BBC that his party’s campaign in the Crewe and Nantwich by-election has been a ‘little crude’, you know that low-life politics just went a little bit lower (1).
Tomorrow’s by-election in Crewe and Nantwich, in north-west England, was triggered by the death on 17 April of the local Labour member of parliament, Gwyneth Dunwoody. Dunwoody represented the constituency since it was created in 1983, last winning it in the 2005 General Election with a majority of more than 7,000. So it has always been a safe Labour seat – but many predict that will change tomorrow. As a result of Labour prime minister Gordon Brown’s increasing troubles, it is widely predicted that the Conservative Party will snatch the seat, or at least shrink Labour’s majority (2).
The degradation of public and political life has been on full display during this unpleasant by-election. Politics used to be about allowing the electorate to choose between alternatives. In the Crewe and Nantwich ‘contest’, there has been little attempt even to discuss matters of doctrine, never mind political differences over substantive issues.
Arguably, the absence of serious policy differences is nothing new. In numerous electoral contests recently, thoroughgoing political debate has been confined to the margins. Occasionally, at meetings of party activists, individuals will stand up and rhetorically defend ‘party ideals’ – but such ideals are rarely the focus of public campaigning. However, what is striking about the Crewe and Nantwich electioneering is that politicians are not even going through the motions of promoting public discussion.
The by-election is a testimony to the Americanisation of British politics. ‘It’s all about me’ – that is effectively the motto of the New Labour candidate, Tamsin Dunwoody, daughter of the former MP Gwyneth Dunwoody. Her campaign seems to be about complacently demanding that everyone ignore wider political issues and instead embrace the politics of personality. ‘I am just a single unemployed mother of five fighting hard for a job’, she boasts. The word ‘just’ is significant. It communicates the idea that Tamsin is nothing special – what they used to refer to in America as a ‘regular guy’.
Her plea for ‘a job’ is an attempt to say that since she is like everybody else, then everybody should vote for her. And since so much energy has been invested in cultivating Tamsin’s populist persona of dreary ordinariness, her campaigners have little choice but to vilify her Tory opponent, Edward Timpson, as an alien from a different world who is unlike the normal constituents of Crewe. Her team has used the politics of insult and denigration towards Timpson, presenting him as a ‘Tory con man’ who is so devoid of human sensibilities that the electorate has a moral obligation to run him out of the constituency.
Some commentators have discussed New Labour’s lamentable ‘anti-toff’ campaign in Crewe and Nantwich as an attempt to revive old class-war tactics. Clearly, the relentless references to Timpson’s wealthy upbringing are designed to breed resentment towards the Tories. But this attempt to talk the language of ‘them and us’ frequently breaks down into a very personalised counterposition between ‘you and me’. Preferring to talk about herself rather than any political issues, Tamsin Dunwoody declared: ‘I am not posh, just stroppy.’
The term ‘I am’ is a striking testimony to the failure of the ‘anti-toff’ campaign to evoke any wider sense of solidarity in Crewe and Nantwich. It is worth noting that Tamsin’s mother Gwyneth was also frequently described as ‘stroppy’. However, Gwyneth Dunwoody used her strength of character doggedly to pursue causes that she held dear. As a quite formidable and independent politician, she stood out as someone who actually believed in something. The striking contrast between mother and daughter personifies the difference between the politics of solidarity of the past, and the ‘It’s all about me’ approach of today.
New Labour’s ‘anti-toff’ crusade in Crewe and Nantwich is only a caricature of old-fashioned class politics. Traditional class politics was not simply about targeting the rich – it was also about providing an alternative vision of the world, where what your family did for a living need not determine your destiny. This class-based politics promoted and argued for a real and positive vision of the future. The current anti-toff campaign, by contrast, simply encourages resentment towards the better-off.
It is actually about targeting those who are different or who are outsiders. So it is perhaps not surprising that New Labour activists have not only targeted toffs in Crewe and Nantwich but have also tried to foster local chauvinism against Polish immigrants in a scare campaign about ‘uncontrolled’ migration. In this sense, far from being in any way progressive, the anti-toff campaigning has much in common with current attempts by populist politicians to politicise antipathy against immigrants and outsiders.
Yet this is not genuine populism at work. Rather, Labour’s nasty Crewe and Nantwich campaign is a project dreamt up party hacks and professionals in a vain attempt to rebuild links with ordinary folk. What they have come up with is populism that enjoys little popularity.
Mick Hume attacked the cheapening of democracy evident in the local elections and saw in the celebrity mayor show a snapshot of contemporary politics. He said the Labour party died 25 years ago, and you can’t revive a corpse. Tim Black found local election posters patronising. Rob Lyons noted the crisis-ridden nature of Brown’s Labour government. David Chandler asked whyGordon Brown hates politics. Or read more at spiked issue British Politics.
(1) Tories set to crush Labour as Crewe lead hits 13 points, Independent, 20 May 2008
(2) See the Politics forum and blog.
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