Guest Comment: Labour’s Matthew Pennycook has mislaid his manners over Brexit

Guest Comment: Labour’s Matthew Pennycook has mislaid his manners over Brexit

Let’s talk about Greenwich and Woolwich. Because we shouldn’t need to talk about Greenwich and Woolwich, but reports from the doorstep suggest we do.

Labour canvassers in this solid Labour seat tell of people saying they can’t possibly vote for Jeremy Corbyn – primarily in the east of the constituency, we hear, but the issue pops up all over. But in the west they are complaining about Brexit and apparently have no problem telling incumbent Matthew Pennycook so to his face.

The problem is that when many of Pennycook’s London peers defied Labour’s whip on Article 50, voting against allowing Theresa May authority to trigger the two-year Brexit countdown, Pennycook fell into line. His argument, made to many impassioned constituents, was that the country voted to Leave and he didn’t feel he could go against that. Other Labour MPs decided to represent their constituents’ views rather than create the impression in parliament that the whole country is peachy with Brexit.

Perhaps Pennycook has a point. After all, Greenwich as a borough voted Remain by 56%, far less than some of the neighbouring boroughs (Lewisham voted Remain by 70%; Lambeth by 79%). On that count, Greenwich was closer to the national split than London as a whole.

But if we look closer, it’s the wards towards Eltham that raised the borough’s Leave vote – and they’re not in the Greenwich and Woolwich constituency. The wards that make up Pennycook’s seat voted 64% Remain. Greenwich West ward actually went 76% Remain. That’s not quite at the Kate Hoey level of misreading your electorate, but it has pissed a lot of people off.

An accusation levelled at Pennycook is, in the words of one constituent, that he has behaved like a “condescending dickhead” on Twitter to people who were concerned – to the point of desperation – about the Article 50 vote. Photographer Jamie Drew wrote to him asking him to vote against and also got in touch on Twitter. Drew says Pennycook emailed back citing “the will of the people”, but the exchanges on Twitter are cringeworthy.

There’s this, in which Pennycook responds to a constituent begging him to represent the local view, since he’s the local MP, with “not sure where to even start with that one”. Drew argued that the referendum was a consultation rather than being legally binding, but was met with with a brushed-off “it really wasn’t”. Full Fact has a wider take on that. Pennycook is doing himself a disservice by refusing to acknowledge the broader picture and dismissing his constituent.

Drew is wary of writing Pennycook off completely with the risk of splitting the progressive vote “like we have a tendency to do on this side of the political spectrum”, but the MP’s tone is worth noting. I’ve written here before about this election being one where we should consider the kind of person we want representing us .

There’s also some local criticism of Pennycook that perhaps his Article 50 decision was made more for his career than his constituency or principles. Since 2016, he’s been a Shadow Minister for Brexit. He’s gone about it with a certain fervour: in January, he warned that “people would take to the streets” if Article 50 were blocked.

Is there enough animosity towards Pennycook to unseat him? He has a near 12,000 majority. But what if the Labour vote splits over both Brexit and Corbyn? What if the Liberal Democrats revive at his expense?

It’s likely that Pennycook benefited from the Lib Dem collapse two years ago (2015 Lib Dem vote: 2,645; 2010 Lib Dem vote: 7,498). Evidence that Tim Farron’s party is regaining its old strength is limited, but with hard Remainers in this seat seeking any port in a storm its attractions might well increase.

The Conservatives came a distant second in 2015, but London-only polls show them closing the gap on Labour and the absence of a UKIP candidate this time should be to their advantage: UKIP won nearly 4,000 votes two years ago and all recent evidence suggests that most of those will move into the Tory pile on 8 June. The Lib Dems are very unlikely to win. But if Pennycook loses ground to them and the Tories top up their support, this race could be tighter than expected.

Yes, he will probably hold the seat for Labour. But if Greenwich and Woolwich turns blue he will have scored the biggest own goal possible.

Epilogue

I contacted Matthew Pennycook for comment, as is common courtesy when writing pieces like this. I expected a response along the lines of “I understand Brexit is an issue for some people but hope constituents will understand my point of view” etc etc. What I actually got back was a piece of needless antagonism.

I look forward to reading about the reports you’ve had from local canvassers (all of whom I’m sure have been happy to go on the record with their observations) in your piece as I’m afraid they don’t reflect my general experience over recent weeks. Indeed, somewhat to my surprise, Brexit has not come up as frequently on the doorstep as I had expected at the outset of the campaign.

I’m sure Pennycook has knocked on more doors than any other canvasser, and I’m willing to accept his assertion that he hasn’t heard much about Brexit. But the snarky condescension about sources is, frankly, uncalled for. Given what appears to be a pattern of thin-skinned sniping, I’m sure you can imagine what might happen to anyone who went on the record, even though observations were being made out of surprise rather than malice.

Anyway, Pennycook’s written to all households about his Brexit decision (which you don’t do if you think it’s not going to be an issue), stressing that he’s going to carry on pressing for a good deal and will vote against the final deal in parliament if he judges it doesn’t deliver. It’s not an unreasonable position. It just probably needs to be delivered with better grace.

Rachel Holdsworth is a former political correspondent with Londonist and is now a freelance writer and editor. Follow her on Twitter.

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