by Rob Marchant
It seems that, over the next two weeks, we are about to suffer a plague of elections: six by-elections, plus the rather-important PCC elections.
But the one which has the most compressed timescales of all – where candidate Sarah Champion was selected yesterday, with a mere two weeks until polling day and after a walkout at the selection meeting – is going to be the toughest, nastiest and arguably the most important of all.
Denis MacShane’s resignation a fortnight ago, over the falsification of invoices, was a tragic, shabby end to what was an otherwise rather admirable and productive career, including three years as minister for Europe and some brave work fighting anti-semitism. And whilst there was never any question of personal gain resulting from his actions, it was also clear that his behaviour was inexcusable and that he had to go, to avoid dragging out the pain for him, Labour and his constituents over a further half-parliament.
What has not yet been focused on, however, is the considerable headache that his departure gives Labour.
First, we are in a political climate where the conventional wisdom is that trust in established parties is at a historic low – and therefore the likelihood of major parties being punished is high. Although neither Respect nor the BNP are currently in particularly good shape, this is good news for both of them in all these elections.
Second, there is the obvious Rotherham-specific issue – the electorate will want to punish Labour for MacShane’s misdemeanours, despite it being a historically safe seat. In other words, like Corby but unlike, say, Bradford West – which we lost – the electorate has a legitimate grievance against the incumbent. If we couldn’t hang on to Bradford West, that’s not a great sign for Rotherham.
Third, its sizeable Muslim population lives mostly in the central part of the borough which is being contested. The Respect party, which has largely centred its electoral offering around appealing to Muslim voters, is already putting in the shoe-leather. Respect also now has a base in Bradford, less than an hour away, and if they are not sending activists every other day to leaflet in Rotherham, it’d be very surprising.
Fourth, MacShane’s work on anti-Semitism and his former leadership of Labour friends of Israel makes the seat the ideal venue for a “global American-Israeli conspiracy” story against Labour. No prizes for guessing which party is likely to suggest that story in their campaign: one supporter of Respect candidate Yvonne “tentacles of Zionism” Ridley has already been tweeting about that “Zionist Denis MacShane”.
And Respect are not the only ones with a long-standing grudge against MacShane: back in 2010, long before his resignation, MPACUK (Muslim Public Affairs Committee, one of a number of questionable organisations which purports to represent British Muslims) was calling him an Islamophobe and encouraging a sectarian vote against him. For the record, MPACUK also has one of its four core principles “reviving the obligation of Jihad”. Nice.
Now, Denis MacShane may have ended his career ignominiously over his parliamentary expenses, but let’s be clear: a sectarian, or a racist, he emphatically is not. Sadly, few will probably make this distinction in the heat of a by-election campaign – he will merely be the bad guy, the man who “fiddled”. Such nuance is impossible here.
Fifth, the thing that has, sadly, put Rotherham in the headlines more than anything this year has been the harrowing “grooming” case involving gangs of mostly British Pakistani origin targeting young girls. It is, predictably, a subject which the far right have delighted in exploiting; a disgustingly convenient “hook” for the EDL and the BNP to foment anti-Muslim and anti-Pakistani sentiment. The former recently demonstrated in Rotherham; the latter polled 10% of the vote in 2010, and is promoting their candidate at a rally this Saturday. Yuk.
So, the by-election is in an era where mainstream parties are relatively unpopular; where the local party is less than happy; a seat where the expenses scandal will particularly hurt Labour, the only one of those mainstream parties in with a shot; where there has been awful anti-Muslim bigotry from the far-right; where the local community is still in shock after the grooming scandal; and where Respect are moving in from their Bradford base to stir things up between Muslims and non-Muslims.
Yes, what could possibly go wrong?
This will be a clear test case for Labour: the extent to which it can learn from Bradford West and turn its back on old ways in the inner cities; and, of course, whether it can win, which is something else.
So, friends, comrades, colleagues: yes, we can fight amongst ourselves, but that’s letting these clowns win. If we do anything for the party this year, we might think about this: in Rotherham, Respect, and the BNP, are gaining strength, and Labour is self-evidently the only party in a position to stop them.
More importantly, of the two, Respect is the bigger current challenge to Labour, as we have seen in Bradford. This is a window of opportunity to weaken them further, stop them in their tracks while we can. If we cannot beat Respect and their fellow-travellers back now, while they are weak, we are unlikely to be able to do it effectively once they recover. They already have their hooks in the labour movement and, sooner or later, count on it: the result will be serious damage to our party.
Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour party manager who blogs at The Centre Left