Alexander Stafford, who became the MP for Rother Valley in Yorkshire on 12 December, has travelled quite a distance in his six years as an elected politician. Stafford, 33, is a suburban west Londoner, who grew up in Ealing and was educated at a local independent school. There, he attained the position of deputy head boy before going up to St Benet’s Hall, Oxford. In 2014 and again in 2018, Stafford was elected to Ealing Council. But do not be misled by this elite metropolitan upbringing. Stafford is a professional northerner.
By ‘eck, he’s authentic. Did you see him on that Twitter t’other day? Give it straight to some MP from Down South, ‘e did: “Maybe if you leave metropolitan London once in a while and speak to real voters you might get a little surprise.” That’s telling them, Alexander, lad!
Ah well. We should, perhaps, be gentle with young Stafford, who is the first Conservative ever to represent Rother Valley and will know as well as anyone that holding on to this prize brick in Labour’s shattered “red wall” might not be easy, even though he is a staunch backer of Brexit.
As his maiden Commons speech showed, he’s diligently prepped his local history and is working hard to overcome any threat to his parliamentary future that might be posed by his possession of a southern accent. And while his Twitter barb – directed at council house-raised East Ender Wes Streeting, by the way – was entirely absurd, it was useful for distilling much of the government’s “levelling up” spiel in a single sentence.
Stafford’s proposition that London’s registered electors are not “real”, should not, of course, be taken literally: he is presumably aware that the electors in the capital who have provided 73 of his parliamentary colleagues (most of them Labour) with their jobs are not phantoms. Rather, it is his tweet’s insinuation that London’s voters are, purely by being Londoners, living in some sort of artificial social construct that insulates them from, and makes them ignorant of, the honest-to-goodness, plain-spoken, everyday reality of everyone else in the country – especially the North of England – that merits closer inspection.
Being anti-London in some shape or form is all the rage of late, and politicians of more than one party have sought to profit from the sentiment in different ways. Nigel Farage’s “independence” pitch fed wistful depictions of London as overrun by immigrants and rendered un-British as a result. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour, despite its upper ranks being dominated by London MPs, played a different anti-London card, sending forth John McDonnell to do his folksy scouser bit about the capital hogging all the investment during the election campaign. Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, nurtures that same populist theme for his own parochial purposes.
And now, of course, Dominic Cummings, the man who runs the national government for Boris Johnson, is on a mission to liberate the nation from yet another version of “London”, the one that serves as shorthand for a mindset he believes explains the sclerotic aspects of the civil service. If only more of them lived in Mansfield, and so on.
Such are the message threads Alexander Stafford has cottoned on to, presumably calculating that “levelling up” rhetoric and promises to bring prosperity to “left behind” towns in the North (there are no such places in the South, you understand) will sound more credible if framed in opposition to a pampered “London” of alien values, gargantuan greed and undue economic dominance. Let “London” take the blame for things his constituents dislike. Farage hailed Brexit as “a victory for real people“, effectively dismissing Reamainers as, in the final analysis, treacherous, illegitimate and false. Stafford’s tweet mined much the same seam.
I’m not suggesting that this product of the Queen of the Suburbs and grandson of a man imprisoned in a Siberian gulag had sinister motives, or that he dreams of a Britain as misanthropic and pernicious as the one Farage would like to see. Rather, let’s regard his little tweet, a throwaway though it might have been, as opening a small window on the soul of not only his Rother Valley survival strategy but the mentality of the government whose majority his victory helped deliver – a government that treats London and much of what it is deemed to represent as its national project’s enemy.
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