Not knowing the country in which they live

A by-election earlier this month saw the Labour Party hold an overwhelmingly working class constituency in the North of England with a substantial majority. This came as a great surprise to most political commentators, who had managed to convince themselves that a very different result was likely: a very close result and perhaps even a UKIP win. Given the first sentence of this post you might well wonder how this could be possible – surely anyone with a basic knowledge of British politics would be dismissive of the idea that Labour would have much trouble in a by-election in Oldham West whilst in opposition absent a really, really bad local scandal? – and you would be right to wonder given that political knowledge is what most of the people in question are employed to provide. After giving the matter a small amount of thought, I have come up with an explanation: most British political commentators, journalists and so-called ‘experts’ do not actually know or understand the country in which they live in at all well. I shall demonstrate this with a few choice examples.

Let us begin with one of the most absurd examples. Rafael Behr – who I strongly suspect would have difficulty finding Oldham on a map – claimed that Labour is in crisis in Northern England (a curious assertion given Labour’s continued electoral domination in the region in the General Election: but why let pesky facts get in the way of grand narrative, eh?) because the people of the North believe that Labour has become “poncified”. I have never heard this word before in my life and probably neither have you. I suspect that no one in Oldham has ever used it either and certainly did not when speaking to Behr. In fact almost all of the top hits for the term on google either link or reference Behr’s article. Presumably Behr used the (can we call it a word?) because he assumes that’s what Northerners think, because apparently they are all obsessed with manliness (even the women) and say ‘ponce’ at least three times every hour. This means that they obviously prefer UKIP to Labour because Farage drinks vast quantities of beer and is therefore not a ponce. This is lazy stereotyping (presumably every other voter in Oldham also owns a whippet?) masquerading as serious analysis and is utterly contemptible.

I’m not quite done with Behr yet, as he also claims that:

If defeat is averted, it will be down to McMahon’s local record and support in the constituency’s south Asian population. Around a fifth of the electorate is of Bangladeshi or Pakistani heritage, and Labour canvassers say their vote is holding up best in areas where that community is concentrated. Local elections in May point to a stronger turnout in those wards.

Pity that the general tendency in Oldham is for voters from Asian ethnic backgrounds to vote at about the same rate as the rest of the population (there are also substantial differences in the voting habits of the Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities, who do not live in the same parts of the town and who certainly don’t view themselves as forming one solid block of the population), and it would in any case be impossible to win a 70% white constituency without winning the votes of a lot of white people, but why let facts get in the way of poisonous pseudo-psephology? Once again we see the fruits of ignorance paraded around as if they were facts.

Did someone say ‘poisonous pseudo-psephology’? Enter arch bullshit meister Ian Warren! I won’t focus too much on the statistical ‘analysis’ upon which this article of his was based as it has been discredited enough by the election results themselves, but on some of the commentary that he attached to it:

Unfortunately for Labour, both these white working-class groups have reasons to despise Jeremy Corbyn, which is what they are expressing on doorstep after doorstep. Blue-collar households think he’s soft on immigration and welfare and a republican pacifist. Disaffected voters either don’t know who he is, in which case he’s “just another politician”, or hear him speaking about socialism and solidarity and wonder what he’s blathering on about. Both groups will know full well what his and John McDonnell’s views on the IRA are. Both groups aren’t shy in hanging St George’s flags from their windows, as Emily Thornberry might note.

This bizarre screed has little relationship with the reality of working class political attitudes in Oldham or elsewhere – though doubtless tells us a great deal about Warren’s views – and on reading it for the first time I was perplexed that it was published; surely baseless rants have no place in ‘analytical’ articles? Alas the answer here is fairly clear: the relevant people at the Grauniad probably think that Warren was writing an accurate summary of the views of White Working Class people in The North (who are apparently are not individuals but a vast hive mind) rather than writing pernicious rubbish. Isn’t that a depressing thought? Similar assumptions can be found in this absurd chin-stroking thinkpiece from The Economist, whic probably deserves to win a prize for comical overanalysis.

Of course an awful lot of pre-poll nonsense about the by-election was written from another perspective entirely, one that wanted to see evidence of a structural crisis for Labour in Northern England because this would be great news for the Tories. A good example of that can be found here. I may be wrong and engaging in gross stereotyping of my own but I suspect that Sebastian Payne is not terribly familiar with working class Northerners and their political priorities.

How to conclude? Perhaps by noting that it is not actually that hard to familiarise yourself with places that you have no personal connection to, but that in order to do this it generally helps to avoid assumping that crude stereotypes are the wellspring of all useful knowledge.

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