The Bickerstaffe Record

Being Labour, The world beyond West Lancashire

Conservatism crystallised

05.26.09 | 11 Comments

 I wouldn’t normally be too bothered about the story, picked up by Bob Piper, with some excellent internet delving, then at Liberal Conspiracy by Unity and  about a young Conservative from Tamworth in dispute with his Labour MP about whether he’s had a reply to his letter yet. Set in those terms. it’s hardly gripping news.What makes the story interesting is the reaction of the forces of Conservativism, or at least those represented in writings, entries and comments I’ve looked at over the last couple of days. Let’s consider them in turn.First of all, there’s the young Conservative himself, who as far as I can see has not had too much to say beyond his ill-judged letter to his local paper, in which he claims he’s not had a reply. I’m not that fussed about him, if I’m honest. Labour commenters are having a go about his dishonesty in not admitting to being a Conservative activist in his letter, but I take a more charitable view; he’s just trying it on, trying to score a cheap political point against the Labour MP, and he’s been found out. No big deal.

Indeed, as a passing mea culpa, when I’d just started to become party politically active seven or years ago I sent a letter to my local paper suggesting my local Conservative County Councillor wasn’t doing a very good job, without bothering to mention that I was a member of the Labour party and just starting to think about getting really stuck in. Part of the problem was that explaining exactly who you are before getting onto the matter in hand is hardly conducive to getting printed in the local paper, but that’s hardly an excuse.

In fact, the Labour MP in question could learn a lesson from that Conservative councillor (who I now know is a decent enough bloke), who simply replied to my letter pointing out what he was doing and then suggesting that I had an ‘ulterior motive’ for my letter. Fair enough, because I did, and nowadays, having developed my political understanding and beliefs somewhat I’d be a lot clearer about it.

That brings us to Brian Jenkins, the Labour MP in question. For the record, I agree with Unity at LibCon , and indeed with Iain Dale, that sending a letter to the young Conservative threatening legal action is inappropriate as a reaction. Having had been subject to not dissimilar correspondence in the past as a result of what I have written, it strikes me that the threat of legal action is almost always made by those with the financial and institutional resources to carry it through if they so wish, and more often than not it is directed at people who do not have comparable resources.

I might find the views of a young Conservative obnoxious enough, in that he is thoroughly in favour of maintaining a society where financial and institutional clout enables people also to exert unfair power through the state’s legal system, but in this instance he is the one on the receiving end of that power; the fact that by dint of his Conservatism he supports such a state of affairs does not make it any the less wrong for a Labour MP to exert that power.

Quite simply, it is not appropriate for an MP of the Labour party – a party supposedly devoted to equality not just in terms of and social and economic opportunity but also the way people are treated by the state’s key institutions – to behave in this way. The young Conservative’s action was a political action, and should have been responded to politically. It would have been legitimate, and much more effective, to have written a rebuttal letter to the paper, and then got a leaflet out (in local government candidates’ names, exposing the Young Conservative’s tactics as ‘cowardly’ for example, and the said YC would have got what he deserved.

Then there’s the mother of said young Conservative, who wrote to the Prime Minister, with a copy to Conservative blogger Iain Dale, complaining about her son’s treatment at the hands of the MP. Bob Piper lays gleefully into this aspect of the story, keen to create the image of Tory Boy, dependent on his mummy to help him out when things turn out wrong for little diddums. While that’s certainly good fun, it is maybe a bit unfair on said diddums, as there’s no evidence I can see that he’s actually asked his mother to write to the prime minister, and it’s really quite possible that he’s currently squirming with the embarrassment of a young man treated like this by an overbearing mother. Certainly, I think I would be, but I’ve never been a Tory Boy – maybe they think it’s ok.

What really interests me is the way the mother of the YC sets her son’s and the MP’s actions in the context of a) the fact that he’s doing his exams at Cambridge; b) his father’s just gone to serve in Afghanistan, and then – even more interestingly as an insight into the mindset of an influential Conservative commentator, how Iain Dale absolutely laps this up:


‘Mr Clegg is a student at Cambridge about to sit his finals. His father has just gone to serve in Afghanistan. Now Warren Clegg’s mother has written to the Prime Minister to protest at this letter.’

‘What on earth’ I thought to myself when I read this, having followed the link from Bob’s story ‘ have those two facts got to do with the matter in hand?’

Then I started to read the comments aplenty on both Dale’s site and back on Bob’s, and I realised what this is really all about. For Dale and his readership, the fact that this YC is doing his finals at Cambridge, presumably as opposed to another university, is actually an important aspect of the story. For Dale and his readership, the fact that this young man, who has acted of his own volition in sending this letter, is from a military family, is vitally important. These two features, for these people, do actually make him more worthy of their sympathy, and the actions of his MP more heinous. Who this YC is, and who his family are, are actually more important than what he has or has not done.

As readers will know, I talk a lot about tradition in party politics, principally with reference to the Labour party because that is what I know about. Here, it seems to me, in Iain Dale’s recounting, and in his followers comments, is laid bare the real tradition of the Conservative party, in which ‘breeding’ really, not that far deep down, really does count for more than merit.

I must be a little naive, because I’m actually just a little bit surprised at the way Iain Dale has fronted up this mindset – I had actually thought he might be one of those new age Conservatives whose values are close to the rhetoric the whole ‘decontaminated’ party uses about opportunity for all.

But this little episode really does seem to show that beneath that veneer of ‘class-free’ rhetoric, the old party and its old values of privilege, and attachment to the interests of its own class, are strong still. Thus its stance on inheritance tax is less about promoting enterprise and hard work, whatever the rhetoric, more about maintain class interests through the generation.

What does this insight mean for how the Labour party responds, not least in the context of the disastrous attempts at highlighting class in the Crewe and Nantwich by-election.

I think it’s important to be clear on the difference between the two situations. In the case of the by-election, the strategy failed for two main reasons. First and foremost, it failed because it didn’t put a serious argument to voters about how Edward Timpson’s upbringing might make it difficult to understand their real issues and concerns ; instead it relied on silly theatre, and ended up patronising voters. Second, and more fundamentally in terms of politically legitimate action (in the eyes of voters), Edward Timpson did not, as far as I’m aware, ever seek to convey a message that he was the best person to be an MP for Crewe and Nantwich as a result of his upbringing, that is, because he was a better person as a result of his upbringing.

In this case of the YC and his letter, that is exactly what the YC’s mother, Iain Dale and his acolytes are doing, and it is absolutely legitimate for the Labour party and the left to point it out, shouting from the rooftops that these are the same old Tories, buoyed by this very real textual evidence, that is precisely what they are – at base, an unreconstructed party whose followers operate in a tradition which has it that Cambridge attendance, and being from a military family, accords you greater privilege in life than the rest of us.




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