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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