How do you solve a problem like Austin the attention-seeker?

24th August, 2014 10:03 am


Last week Austin Mitchell popped up in the Mail on Sunday (perhaps the most virulently anti-Labour paper there is) and went on the rampage. In his sights, ostensibly, were All Women Shortlists – but in his desperation for attention for his cause, it appeared he would windmill anything else whilst he was there. Female MPs? “apart from obsessive feminism” Mitchell believes they are “more amenable and leadable and less objectionable”. Women in politics, meanwhile, were described as “apparat-chicks”. (We can talk about the rise of the special adviser and the party staffer as candidates if we like – it’s an important issue. But it’s only fair to point out that Mitchell was far from a horny-handed son of toil before he became an MP – he was an academic and TV presenter.)

If Austin Mitchell was trying to do damage to female MPs, the AWS system, or Miliband’s office, he has managed the remarkable feat of achieving the opposite on all counts. Instead he has merely confirmed the suspicions held by many in the party that he is an arch-attention seeker. For years that was as charming as it was infuriating (changing his name to “Haddock” to draw attention to the plight of fishermen in his constituency, for example) but in recent years it has developed a darker tenor (such as his sexist attack on Tory MP Louise Mensch, and his comparing a corporate takeover with rape – both of which earned him a ticking off from the chief whip, neither of which resulted in an apology).

This weekend, Mitchell has returned to the scene of the crime with another assault on the party. This time – in what is beginning to look like a vendetta of sorts – he’s claimed that Miliband’s Political Secretary Anna Yearley told him Northerners are very backward”.

Now as a Northerner, I take such accusations seriously. The idea that the North is a “backwards” place is one that I’ve had thrown at me – sometimes jokingly and sometimes seriously – for as long as i can remember. it couldn’t be more wrong of course – but it’s a damaging stereotype nonetheless. If I thought Miliband’s team were bandying around such tropes I’d be apoplectic. I’d be calling for heads to roll.

Except I don’t believe it for a second.

I’ve only met Yearley a handful of times, but I simply don’t believe that she is remotely anti-Northern. For starters, if she were, she’d be unable to get her job done – take a look at the number of Northern MPs in the PLP if you don’t believe me. And other AWS seats selected in recent years have been in places which are about as far from Northern as you can get – including two in Brighton. AWS isn’t anti-Northern, it’s a laudible attempt to bring much needed gender balance to the PLP where everything else has failed.

But whilst Mitchell is clearly aggrieved, he’s made a crucial error when it comes to how AWS seats are chosen. They aren’t plucked out of a hat by Miliband and his team, they’re voted on by the party’s important (and often contentious) Organisational Sub-committee. Johanna Baxter expertly demolished Mitchell’s arguments on that score earlier this week, but it’s worth repeating – because Mitchell is lambasting a system without getting some of the basic facts right.

Unfortunately, in his final year in an institution which he clearly loves, Austin Mitchell seems hell bent on leaving Parliament by tearing down the Labour Party behind him. He won’t succeed, of course. But how many more chances will be be given? How many more ill-informed attacks on the party must appear in the papers, drip-drip-dripping their way through to election day?

Austin Mitchell is being cut a great deal of slack because he’s stepping down in less than a year – but he’s now using that slack to damage the Labour Party in an election year. Withdrawing the whip for attacking the party would be an unsuitable solution – that’s a slipperly slope that no-one should encourage the party to embark on – but frankly he should have received such a punishment for previous offences.

The best approach would be to ignore him. Alas, the problem with attention seekers is that whether you confront them or ignore them, they tend to treat both reactions just the same, and get louder regardless. Instead, I’ve decided to donate to Mitchell’s successor Melanie Onn in Great Grimsby. On Mitchell’s watch, that seat has gone (in a matter of years) from safe to marginal – falling from 7,654 to just 714 in 5 years. Onn’s task – not helped by Mitchell’s media appearances – is to retain the seat for Labour.

If Mitchell’s comments have annoyed you, why not send a cheque to Grimsby Labour Party, 12 Cleethorpe Road Grimsby DN31 3HW. I’ll be sending one today.

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  • swatnan

    I think Stella put him in his place, filed under has-beens.

    • jaime taurosangastre candelas

      Largely because your only source of value to the Labour Party is as a source of cash. They certainly don’t want your opinion, as they already have one.

      It will be the same in any political party.

      • gunnerbear

        Yep…the parties want envelope stuffers, donations and door knockers but that’s it.

  • Quiet_Sceptic

    There’s some rather selective use of quotations here which make quite a difference to what’s being discussed.

    Austin is quoted in the DM article as claiming “Ms Yearley said Yorkshire and Northerners are very backward when it comes to choosing women and something had to be done about it.”

    Which is rather different from a general claim that “Northerns are very backward”.

    Austin Mitchell isn’t the only one making mischief.

    • Ben Cobley

      I agree. I’ve been surprised to see such outright nastiness towards someone, anyone, as I’ve seen on LabourList towards Austin Mitchell – far more than any Tory. The language used against him – as a ‘misogynist’, ‘sexist’, etc, has been well out of order, and way beyond what he said (which has been supported today by his feminist wife). Some of his opinions may be doubtful, but they are at the very least interesting – and I think there’s some truth in them. If there wasn’t, and if these views weren’t meant to be suppressed, his views would’ve been ignored or laughed at:

      • gunnerbear

        Exactly…if AMs comments were total s**te then the Red Mob leadership wouldn’t have gone mental.

  • nana

    as a northerner i find the allegations against ms anna yearley,if true,disgusting.she should seriously think of resigning.perhaps she should see what labour mp’s are in northern seats.her boss for is condescending.if yearley wants members to ‘toe the line’ my i remind her that we are not in north korea.the attacks on austin mitchell by the women in this party shows how women hold a grudge.if they are as nasty like this to colleagues what do they think of the electorate.northerners are sick of being treated by the london so called elite as thick.many long term labour members have resigned,not hastily,long time activists.then you wonder why long time,decades voting labour switched to ukip in may.calling them racist bigots,inferring those voters outside of london are racist,ill educated or can’t use the internet.both these individual are mp’s in london.and may i remind new women mp’s they no nothing about the real world at all,all they know is their little marshmallow world that is the wetminister bubble.and may i remind them,and ms yearley .you meet the samepeople on your way up as you do on your way down.remember too who leaflet,stuffs envelopes,work on telephone banks,work on street stalls.insulting northerners like this.not agood career move for yearley,or women mp’s.

  • This is a fantastic article written by Austin’s wife in the Daily Mail. However we can pretend that none of the points she made are valid and carry on as usual.

    If that photograph is what diversity means than I think the Labour Party has a big problem.

    • Tim Mullen

      I’ll make a suggestion of where there is a fundamental flaw in the article: Melanie Onn is portrayed as Ed’s “chosen one” and Katie Ghose as the glorious outsider riding to the rescue as the person prepared to slay the Leader’s Office dragon. Which is kind of confusing given that when Ms Ghose sought to fill the seat being vacated by Joan Walley less than two months ago she was, variously, a “Mili-pede” a “Head Office plant” or “Stoke Labour aren’t capable of choosing their own candidate”. That’s one heck of a transformation in eight weeks. So which is she – Ed’s obedient “babe” or the gutsy outsider prepared to defy Ed?

  • mouthOfTheUmber

    I don’t think anybody has claimed AWS is perfect, but it works.
    There are many naysayers regards AWS, but none have come forward with anything better that can be shown to work.
    I have been in the position of being against AWS on principle, but in favour in practice as it works. Therefore I implemented it as Sec. of N.Lincs LGC.
    I would still like to see a better system of getting more minority groups selected as candidates at all levels of democracy, but until that time comes AWS is the solution that works.

    • gunnerbear

      Yeah….AWS works….until someone’s husband needs to be crowbarred into a seat……

  • jaime taurosangastre candelas

    Is Austin about to become an Unperson in Labour eyes? It would seem so.

    I like him. He has character, and heart, and when you strip out the rhetoric he uses, and those who attack him also use, some good insight. He has been a better servant of the Labour Party than many of his critics.

  • Ray Sutton

    As Austin’s chair I am appalled by the way the Party has been treating him. I have been arguing that the 2010 Equality Act simply does not allow for discrimination on any of the nine protected characteristics. It’s as demeaning to those discriminated for as to those discriminated against. Why can’t we have this debate in a democratic Party? Do we not stand for free speech? Swathes of the electorate here in NE Lincolnshire are well educated and aware of the Act and the ridiculous and anachronistic parliamentary exception. They simply wonder what the Labour Party and those still promoting AWS are about. Party officials and colleague MPs have some way to go to convince me of the openness and transparency of these discriminative practices and of their implementation. Have I joined a Party where hierarchy counts and some members are more equal than others. What price socialism?
    If monitoring gender reveals unequal representation then, as several female spokespersons have said this week, there are many other ways of raising awareness, influencing the culture, and supporting women to take part. In the last couple of days I have heard two separate debates on radio about gender imbalance. In neither case were the women concerned suggesting that discredited discrimination was the answer. One was about film directors. The conclusion? Freelance females are too timid of career leaps and selling themselves at the same very high salary levels as men. Career coaching is the answer. The other was about the very low media coverage of women’s sport. I didn’t wait for the answer but there was some excellent positive imaging about the progress, popularity and success of both genders in mixed rugby. The answer certainly wasn’t to impose sports coverage quotas on newspapers and TV.
    If we follow the current line old men like me will soon need to self identify and we will need a special men’s day prior to Conference and a special ‘oldies’ outing to Bournemouth or Blackpool! Is the Party in the process of excluding talent, skill and ability? I think it is and I think most of us who don’t tick the right boxes will simply drop out of active politics. The less scrupulous will look for a Party that has MPs, officers and bloggers who are more amenable to the old and the masculine and more respectful of an MP’s 37 years of service to parliament and constituency.

  • Doug Smith

    Austin Mitchell? Ah well, I suppose this non-outrage can be puffed-up into a distraction and be used to prevent focus on Blair’s catastrophic Middle East legacy and Miliband’s support for the disastrous intervention in Libya.

  • Nick London

    Staggering we can waste time abusing and twisting the words of a life long labour member because his view doesn’t fit with the leadership on a controversial party issue rather than focussing on issues that actually matter to the country and to our standing as a party. Shouldn’t we be thinking: what does a government in waiting prefer to think about? Austin shows that we are not, yet at least, quite a party of mindless drones. Thank god for that. Who is he taking headlines from anyway? Our leadership are completely invisible. Isn’t that a bigger concern?

  • markfergusonuk

    There was another article in yesterday’s paper (Sunday – the day this piece came out).

    And there’s nothing wrong with responding to someone’s views – especially if they’re pushed publicly, and you disagree with them.

    That’s what being a free country is…right?

  • ChrisC

    I don’t doubt your enthusiasm, but if Austin Mitchell’s criticism of AWS is “an insult to ….all those excellent MPs chosen by this route” would it be fair to say that those selected by that route who are less than “excellent” could be supporting his argument? What’s sauce for the goose…..

    And as for “help create a Socialist labour Government in 2015”, I’d be interested to read a statistical analysis, but my impression is that those selected via AWS were disproportionately uncritical in their support of the decidedly non-Socialist aspects of 1997-2010. (With honourable exceptions, obviously.)

    But I agree that attacking aspects of Labour policy in a Mail group newspaper in the run up to an election is ridiculous.


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