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Austin Mitchell: on sin and forgiveness

Austin Mitchell is as far as I know still a member of the Campaign Group of MPs, and in my recent experience is a nice enough bloke. He’s done stirling work in defence of council housing over the years when it was simply taboo in the Labour Party, and must deserve some of the credit for raising its priority so high in the party today. His efforts for the fisherfolk in his Great Grimsby constituency have included changing his name to Haddock. But you can’t get away from the fact that his latest intervention is offensive, not in the least funny, the work of a downright twit of a tweeter:

Shut up Menschkin. A good wife doesn’t disagree with her master in public and a good little girl doesn’t lie about why she quit politics”

He is pretty self-deprecating in retrospect (“Irony may be a low form of wit but it’s clearly above my level“) and getting it from all sides (“Wife,three daughters,one granddaughter and Labour press office all demand that I withdraw my tweet.No chance of front bench now“), but that’s not the same as an apology. I suspect that even the apology will be forthcoming on pain of the withdrawal of whatever benevolence he still receives from his numerous female family members.

As it happens, I am going to argue for some lenience and forgiveness to be shown to Austin. However, before doing so, I am going to ask for another offence to be taken into account.

Austin Mitchell started out as a Gaitskellite (which is not the offence by the way). And he may well now be regarded as on the Left of the party, having been a fairly frequent rebel for a number of years. He’s been a committed eurosceptic throughout — which is of course entirely compatible with being a Gaitskellite as well as a member of the Campaign Group. However, en route from right to left, he wrote the nastiest, most bitter and sectarian book about the Labour Left that I have read with the sole, but unsurprising exception, of The Far Left by Blake Baker, a Telegraph journalist (epigraph: “the condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilence”).

Entitled Four Years in the Death of the Labour Party, it is a paranoid conspiracy theory about Labour between 1979 and 1983 whose inaccuracy is not helped by its colourful language. In addition to Orwell’s “every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist“, Mitchell enjoins to the conspiring dramatis personaeMarxist, Trotskyist, Buddhist, Trotskyoid and Marxoid,” Green movements and green politics.

And its leader, its “eminence, increasingly grise” is Tony Benn, a philosopher “without the stigmata of the intellectual“, guilty of multiple changes of mind, from revisionist Gaitskellite through advocate of the “PR politics of Kennedyism” and “guru of technology” to “unconsumated Marxist” and a venerator of the working-class as only the upper-classes can be. This was of course the same Tony Benn who later became Austin’s comrade in the Campaign Group of MPs and , for all I know, is busily defending him tonight.

It is an inaccurate and unilluminating rant that lasts almost 200 pages. And do not be mistaken into thinking that it is its politics which turned me off . I can recommend other histories of the period by right-wing protagonists John Golding or Diane Hayter as reasonably accurate accounts albeit from a different standpoint from my own.  The best account, however, is that of Leo Panitch and Colin Leys (The end of Parliamentary Socialism), or, if you’re after a more populist account, David & Maurice Kogan’s The Battle for the Labour Party. Even at 1p, Austin’s book is not, Im afraid, worth £2.80 p&p.

That said, people change. We grow to see the better side. We can forgive. I no longer harbour any resentment against Austin for that book. So what of today’s serious error on his part. I’d argue for forgiveness for that too (subject to reasonable penance perhaps — but like all good atheists, I don’t believe in absolution).  Firstly, you don’t get independent-minded outspoken MPs without  the odd aberration. And secondly, there’s a generational issue. I’m not being patronising.

As a young 55-year old, I’m already aware of generational differences in experience which affect behaviour. And Austin Mitchell is 78. When I was at school, racist, sexist and hompophobic language was so routine that it was normally imperceptible even to a Jew routinely called a Yid and subjected to unfunny jokes about the meanness of Jews. Unless the interchange took place where there was some real imbalance of power, it went un-noticed. Not everyone experienced it that way, of course, and I have no doubt that the cumulative effect was very damaging.

I was lucky to be at University in the mid to late 70s when feminism was just beginning to have an effect on behaviour and attitudes in “Left” circles. It taught me to modify my language. I even attended a Men against Sexism group. Unfortunately, amongst other things, it operated creches and changing nappies 10 years before having my own children proved a step too far. But it helped. Austin did not have that benefit.

It’s not an excuse. It’s an explanation. But it should be recognised. Austin has been reprimanded and now he must be forgiven.

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