Ashfield’s MP, Lee Anderson, hit the headlines again last weekend when it emerged that he had been in contact with Boris Johnson and several other Tory MPs whilst Covid-19 positive. Mr Johnson is now having to self-isolate during a crucial week for his government.
While we wish Mr Anderson [and his wife] a speedy recovery, it does occur to us to wonder if perhaps he could take a little more care. The pictures in the press of his meeting with Johnson last week showed them standing close together with nary a mask between them. Mr Anderson’s wife is a diabetic, double-lung transplant recipient and, as such, falls into the clinically extremely vulnerable category. She is also now Covid-19 positive.
Mr Anderson generally acts to suit himself and his chosen tribe. For an MP who is supposed to represent all parts of their community, this is a problematic stance and it remains to be seen how his constituents will judge him.
It is not difficult to see why Ashfield elected Anderson in the first place. To this ex-mining, strongly pro-Brexit community, this ex-miner and strongly pro-Brexit local man must have looked just the ticket. Anderson does at least have the virtue of local authenticity (unlike, for example, Robert Largan in High Peak and Sarah Dines in Derbyshire Dales, both of whom were dropped into their constituencies for the December election).
His Facebook page is full of little videos. He constantly portrays himself as the champion of the ordinary people of Ashfield, fighting back against elites, nuisance tenants, ‘thuggish Black Lives Matter’ protestors and ‘Remoaners’. If you watch a few of these, you can see how well they play to his base.
But video doesn’t always work for him. He is perhaps most well-known nationally for the incident during the election campaign last year when he was caught on video setting up a fake door-stepping interview with a friend, who was made to appear as a genuine constituent. All this done in front of Daily Mail journalist Michael Crick and his team who gleefully made it public.
Anderson started in politics as a Labour councillor and office manager for Gloria Del Piero (Labour MP for Ashfield until 2019). Always an ardent supporter of Brexit, he eventually discovered that he couldn’t “be true to himself” in the Labour party and in 2019, he defected to the Conservative party, in order to deliver the result of the 2016 referendum.
This sounds good (if you’re pro-Brexit) and taps into his local authenticity. But it doesn’t tell the whole story.
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Anderson, in fact, had a troubled history with his local Labour party going back some years. In 2018, he was suspended from the council and investigated for racism, after dropping boulders across the entrance to a camp site to deter travellers from setting up there (characteristically, he described the offence as ‘fly-tipping’).
As well as acting against the travelling community, Anderson regularly sounds the anti-progressive dogwhistles that make him a shoo-in for the current Conservative party. The Tories were investigating him for antisemitism even during the last election campaign. During the same period, he posted a Facebook video suggesting that the solution to nuisance tenants is forced work camps. He has defended his use of the racist trope ‘All Lives Matter’ and refuses to pay the BBC licence fee.
It is, therefore, not surprising that the Conservative party welcomed him with open arms in 2019. He is typical of the former red ‘wall’ of new Tory MPs for whom the only essential qualification is an unquestioning enthusiasm for Brexit. His general behaviour just confirms his suitability. Along with the other red wall sheeples, he has dutifully voted against regular Covid-19 testing for NHS staff and against free school meals for poor children.
The question is, how do his constituents feel about him now that Brexit is nigh? The end of the transition period will do nothing for the job prospects of the ordinary people in Ashfield. The mooted free port area around East Midlands airport (even should it come to pass) is unlikely to help. Brexit is rapidly becoming a tarnished brand, with public enthusiasm for it at an all-time low, even in the East Midlands. Anderson campaigned on a manifesto of getting Brexit done and not much else.
It is presumably with that in mind that he has joined Jake Berry’s new Northern Research Group (NRG). In the end, his political survival may depend upon how well the Conservatives manage to level up Ashfield. If I were him, I would be feeling unhappy, right now. When Boris Johnson spoke to the NRG on Monday, he denounced devolution as a ‘disaster’. He was, of course, talking about Scotland but there is, so far, little evidence that he feels any differently about regional devolution in England. Genuine ‘levelling up’ requires more than pretty words from an habitually dishonest prime minister.
Lee Anderson claims that his plan for Ashfield is to create a level playing field for local people. Unfortunately, he appears to mean only those local people that he likes. The rest of his constituents – the NHS staff, the poor families, the black and Jewish communities – can go whistle.
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