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The University of Southampton
Centre for English Identity and Politics

Gerald Vernon-Jackson

“English Issues in 2015 General Election”

18 January 2016

University of Winchester

Gerald Vernon-Jackson, Leader, Portsmouth City Council


This is an uncorrected transcript of talks given at the ‘English Issues in 2015 General Election’ seminar held at the University of Winchester on 18 January 2016. Please do not quote without seeking permission from the speaker.

I’m sorry I don’t have pretty pictures of beautiful Portsmouth for you.  In some ways I’d have thought we are the last people to ask about what people were saying on the doorsteps about Englishness.  Because as candidates my experience is that people are terribly nice to us all the time, and all political parties have systems to be able to look to see what people have said on the doorstep, particularly to candidates, and take it down a notch or two if not twenty.  Because people are generally nice and they don’t want to tell you they’re not going to vote for you, so we are often the last people I would have thought to be consulted on this.  But just a couple of pennies worth, a little bit about Portsmouth South, I stood in Portsmouth South, which had been a Tory seat from 1918 when it was created until the by-election in eighty-four when Mike Hancock won it for the Alliance, the Tories won it back in eighty-seven and then Mike won it back for the Lib Dems in nine-seven and we held it until 2015 where we lost it.  The Tories won the seat back in 2015 with 35% of the vote, the Tory vote went up very slightly by one and a bit percent, the Lib Dem vote went down, the Labour vote went up, the UKIP vote went up, the Green vote went up and we ended up with a Tory MP.  And that’s just how first past the post electoral politics works, that if the anti-Tory majority divides you end up with a Tory, and that’s just how things work.  So, and Portsmouth politics is a strange place, the Lib Dems ran Portsmouth Council for eleven years up to 2014 where we were replaced by a minority Conservative administration backed by Labour and UKIP, so there was a joint Conservative, Labour and UKIP budget at the Council and they happily work together.  One of my questions I wonder about politics now is that Mike Hancock won, a flawed character but Mike Hancock won the seat, and maybe he’s a voice that’s no longer possible in British politics, a guy brought up in kid’s home, a Barnardo’s boy, no educational qualifications, an engineer, bright as anything and yet being replaced increasingly by middle class professional politicians.  And I’m not sure that’s particularly good for British politics.  So Portsmouth South is an interesting constituency, in the heart of it it’s very high levels of deprivation, life expectancy is ten years lower in the heart of Portsmouth than just three miles away.  We’ve very poor housing, very poor educational attainment, but the home of the Royal Navy so the military bit is enormously important, on Remembrance Sunday we have more people who come to that than anywhere outside of London.  And where I had some problems because it’s traditionally been the free church is the Anglicans, the Catholics and the Synagogue, and when I suggested we have somebody from one of the mosques a real problem.  Even though millions of Muslim fighters and soldiers, sailors, airmen died fighting in the war that was a bit of an issue, we have EDL marches on a regular basis.  So and we’re also an island, and being an island is enormously important and lots of the population do not leave the island, people stay on the island their entire lives.  So my neighbours I think the furthest they’ve moved is three miles away, so we’re quite strange.  And did the English question come up on the doorstop? I have to say not a lot, as a Lib Dem we lost for two reasons.  We lost the tactical voters, the people who had voted Lib Dem to keep the Tories out in Portsmouth South after 2010 wouldn’t, and probably rightly.  Their argument was that we had voted for you to make sure there wasn’t a Tory government and you put them in.  Actually, what they got was a Tory MP and now they’re seeing some of the things that have come out of it, but we lost large numbers of people who voted.  And people had waited absolutely desperate to vote in 2015 to show how angry they were about the Coalition and what the Lib Dems had done.  We also lost swing Tory Lib Dem voters and I think Lyndon Crosby’s campaign worked very well and people were scared about the economy, people were scared about debt, they were scared by Miliband and they were scared by Scotland.  And that was very, very powerful in moving people across.  And I think we need to say that that Conservative policy of fear worked, and I think I have a concern about how well it worked because will that influence elections for the future.  And I think it is the fear that is defining people as Other, and you react and you vote against Other, and the Other changes over time, so we were pushed to vote against the Scots ruling the UK because they were Other.  I think the Prime Minister’s speech today is saying we need to view Muslims as Other and be scared of them.  I think the EU campaign, the campaign to bring us out of the EU will say that we need to be scared of foreigners because they are Other.  And so it seems to me that Englishness is defined as different to the Other, I don’t find a real view of what it is as Englishness, it is just I am not one of them.  And I think that’s a… but that’s a tactic that politicians have used for generations, not just in this country but around the world, it is much easier to campaign against something and somebody people don’t like than in favour of something.  And in our electoral system where you only have to keep 40% of people happy it’s a really tempting thing to do, cos 40% wins you a majority in the House of Commons and you can tell people to stand on their heads twice a day, and everybody has to stand on their heads twice a day, however illogical it is, because the House of Commons can do illogical things.  I think we all know in politics that lots of elections are run to try to stop something and people don’t positively for, they vote to try to stop something that is worse than the other options, so that I think it happens a lot.  So I think the outcomes are interesting, I think the response in Scotland to David Cameron’s statement the day after the referendum was enormously important, out of victory he took defeat, and I think it is now, I think there are few people who now expect Scotland to be part of the UK within the next ten, fifteen years.  He will have driven them out, and because the Labour Party has collapsed in Scotland and the SNP have taken it then I think that is an outcome, and where the Scots go the Welsh will follow and we will see the Balkanisation of the UK.  And that works perfectly well for the Tories because if it’s just England left they rule forever, and I think the more I see of politicians, particularly in the House of Commons, the more short-term they are.  I’m doing work, cos I do work for the Government Association, trying to work back why the Tories are trying to get rid of social housing, because it’ll mean less development and higher welfare costs, because selling off council housing to fund the selling off of housing association housing it just doesn’t hit any of those targets.  But actually, the costs don’t happen in this Parliament so the MPs and the Ministers don’t care because it’s after the next election.  So my worry is that we often define ourselves as against, so either in class, we’re working class or we’re upper class, in geography we hate the south east or we hate Scotland, in term of Europe some people don’t like foreigners but some people don’t like the idea that we’re being pushed into something that feels old-fashioned and withdrawn.  So I think people are very tribal, I think the real issue is the huge numbers of people who are disenfranchised from politics.  I’m sorry I was late but I was delivering and knocking on doors in Portsea, a hugely deprived area, and as people say ‘Why bother to vote, the Council always wins, why bother to vote, the government always wins.  There will be government and there isn’t that much difference’.  So the number of people who are disenfranchised are very high, and I think Polly’s got a good point about it being blokes.  So I think we have real issues of people looking to identify something to be against, I think we have real issues of people being disenfranchised and I fear that the Englishness thing is used for that. 


Thank you.


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