June 30, 2021

What do the following words have in common: sleazy, tawdry and shoddy?

For a start, all three indicate low standards: sleaze in the realm of morality; tawdriness in the realm of good taste; and shoddiness in the realm of workmanship.

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However, delving into the etymology reveals a less obvious connection: originally they all referred to low quality fabrics. Thus sleazy may have been a mangling of Silesia, a region from which a type of thin cloth was imported. Tawdry was a corruption of “Saint Audrey’s lace” — a cheap version of a luxury product. As for shoddy, that was the name for a heavy woollen fabric made out of old rags.  

The relevance to tomorrow’s by-election is that shoddy manufacturing began in Batley. For its time — the early 19th century — the processing technology was cutting edge. A machine that could turn a waste product into a useful and affordable material was a wonder of the age.

Today we’d recognise the shoddy industry as an example of advanced recycling. We’d also recognise its geographic concentration — in towns and villages to the south of Leeds — as an example of economic “clustering”. Indeed, the Heavy Woollen District was the Silicon Valley of its day — which makes Batley the Palo Alto of West Yorkshire.  

Sadly, there’s no doubt as to which sense of “shoddy” best applies to the campaign for tomorrow’s by-election. Tawdry is an equally fitting description. As for sleaze, there are some searching questions to be asked. For instance, how did a bogus leaflet purporting to be from the TUC in support of Labour come to be produced?

Then again, one shouldn’t have too much sympathy for the Labour Party, not after a shameful leaflet that it definitely was responsible for. This one combined allegations of “whitewashing Islamophobia” and not caring about human rights in Kashmir with a photograph of Boris Johnson meeting the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. 

Playing politics with the nuclear-armed tensions of the subcontinent is blatantly irresponsible — and so is trying to turn it into a domestic issue.

There is nothing wrong with British voters taking a special interest in foreign policy issues in parts of the world where they have family connections. For instance, I’m half-French and thus take a special interest in the politics of France. It’s equally understandable that someone of, say, Pakistani heritage would take a special interest in South Asian politics. 

However, to link an entire community to an overseas conflict — and politicise the association — is not acceptable. It’s especially dangerous when so many voters in Britain naturally take the other side of the conflict, for equally valid reasons.

The Labour leaflet has been widely condemnedLabour Friends of India called for it to be withdrawn; George Galloway, spotting an opportunity to stick his oar in, described the controversy as the “fruits of identity politics.” Meanwhile, Owen Jones is warning that, in the event of defeat, “supporters of the [Labour] leadership are preparing a narrative that Muslim voters are disillusioned because they’re homophobic, antisemitic bigots.”

I’ve no idea whether Jones is right about that, but identity politics is a dangerous game. Even if you play it with best of intentions you may be surprised where the ball ends up. To use a phrase popular five years ago, Labour risk “unleashing demons” in their desperate attempt to shore up support.

In all the discussion on what the different candidates think about Kashmir or Palestine, almost no thought is given to the dangerous consequences of focusing this by-election on just one part of the constituency’s population. It’s not that the Asian voters of Batley and Spen don’t matter; but how are the other 80% supposed to feel about being sidelined?

Indeed, how is any local voter — whether white, Asian or other — supposed to feel if their main concern is for where they live and its economic future? What has a party wrapped up in identity politics and foreign policy issues got to say to them? As with so many other seats in Labour’s disintegrating Red Wall, there is no real answer. 

At the outset of the by-election campaign, the conventional wisdom was that the constituency is not like Hartlepool, which Labour lost to the Tories in May. But in many ways, Batley and Spen is very much like Hartlepool — and scores of similar constituencies across the North of England. 

For all their individual distinctiveness, they share an urban-but-not-metropolitan geography that isn’t found to the same extent in most other parts of the country. They exist in such numbers in the North because of the industrial revolution, which as well as creating new cities also transformed villages into a dense patchwork of towns. 

If the industrial revolution haunts the North, it’s not because of nostalgia, but because the North is still made in its image. This may have become a cliché of political reporting, but that doesn’t make it any less true. 

A cliché that isn’t true, however, is that, before Brexit, these sort of seats were solidly Labour. In fact, the unbroken Red Wall that stretched from Lancashire to Hull was first breached in the 1980s. There were some seats that the Tories won back then (and later lost to Tony Blair) that not even Boris Johnson has managed to regain. 

One of them is Batley and Spen, a Conservative marginal from 1983 to 1997. Throughout this period, its MP was Elizabeth Peacock — who bore a superficial resemblance to another Tory blonde of the era, but was very much her own woman. In fact, she was well ahead of her time, being an independent-minded northerner with socially conservative but economically interventionist views. She was, for instance, a determined defender of the mining industry, not something that could be said of the prime minister at the time.

Today, the equivalent politics may differ in the details, but there’s no doubting its popular appeal, or that the Tory party of the 2020s is closer to Peacock than to Thatcher.

If you take a chart and measure people’s economic views along one axis, and their views on Authority versus Liberty on the other, then you produce four quadrants. According to research findings tweeted out by Tim Bale, a remarkable 60% of 2019 voters put themselves in the Left-Authoritarian quadrant. By way of contrast, only 2% took the opposite Right-Libertarian position. 

This doesn’t make the British public quite as Stalinist as it sounds, nor does it make them raving populists — it just means that they support the National Health Service and national borders — and expect their politicians to defend both. 

There is, however, a divergence of opinion between our MPs and the people who vote for them. Labour MPs are more socially liberal than Labour voters, while most Conservative MPs are closer to George Osborne in outlook than Elizabeth Peacock on economics. The difference is that Tories find it much easier compromising with their voters on economic issues than Labour do on social ones; for Labour, progressive beliefs about the crusade against racism, sexism, homophobia (and now transphobia) are sacred causes. These issues cannot be compromised over, and because they are sacred activists inevitably push them to further extremes. As for the Tories, all they have to do is appeal to the median voter against an absent, divided opposition, while appearing less obsessed with strange, niche obsessions. In other words, they don’t have to try very hard. 

They don’t even have to offer concrete details of how they’d propel northern towns back into the economic fast lane. The pits aren’t going to re-open and nor are the shoddy factories, and it’s a long time since anyone has expected that they would.

A competent opposition would therefore press the government on the specifics of renewal. A clever opposition would drive a wedge between our free-spending Prime Minister and his tight-fisted Chancellor. Once you divide the amount money that the Conservatives are willing to invest by the number of communities they’re promising to level-up, just how much difference can it make?

But perhaps that’s Labour’s cunning plan, to lose so many constituencies to the Tories that levelling-up fails by a process of dilution.

More likely though is that the opposition is neither competent nor clever nor cunning. Instead it’s hamstrung, a victim of its own longstanding, lazy use of identity politics. If Labour lose yet again tomorrow, they only have themselves to blame.