Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones is a fascinating character. He’s clearly a very able marketing man, being the driving force behind Kettle Chips, Loyd Grossman’s sauces and, of course, Black Farmer sausages. The latter is a fascinating case study. A black man who bemoans people playing the “race card” yet who has carefully crafted a brand out of his ethnicity. He isn’t, by his own admission, actually a farmer (he prefers the euphemism “gentleman farmer“) and it appears doesn’t even breed the pigs for his products on his estate. Nothing especially wrong with that per se, but it does make him an unlikely champion to drive the spin merchants out of politics.
Emmanuel-Jones the political brand is, superficially at least, a lot like the Black Farmer. Over the last few years the Conservatives have frequently encouraged coverage in leftwing newspapers on the basis that he represents the living embodiment of the modern Cameronian Conservative brand, yet in those articles the candidate himself is at pains to talk his ethnicity down. Yet the stories persist. Last year, the Independent got terribly excited about the idea of the BNP “targeting” Chippenham because Emmanuel Jones was standing. Nonsense of course – the BNP are no hopers there – but it did press all the right buttons, all but making the moral case for all progressively minded voters in Chippenham to vote Tory out of principle.
It took a couple of months before the real target of these articles emerged. The Telegraph covered the same story from a somewhat different angle. In this, Emmanuel-Jones is quoted as saying:
“The Lib Dems have been very sly,” he told Mandrake at The Spectator’s 180th anniversary party, at the Hyatt Regency hotel, in Marylebone. “They have sent out leaflets saying: ‘Don’t vote for the Devon farmer.’ They clearly want to portray me as an outsider and are planting the seed in people’s minds that I am not local. Yes, I have a smallholding in Devon, but I’m no less of a local than their candidate.”
The Tory, who has launched a successful range of sausages and sauces under the name “The Black Farmer”, adds: “I haven’t had any trouble from the BNP. They put up a candidate, but, unlike the Lib Dems, he hasn’t made an issue of where I am from.”
This is echoed in The Observer’s interview with him this weekend:
“The Liberal Democrats have been very clever. Their favourite slag-off is to say I live 200 miles away. Their strategy is: foreigner, outsider. It’s not exactly racist, but ….”
(as an aside, it does annoy me how interviewers can sometimes be co-conspirators in spin, wittingly or not. In a real conversation you wouldn’t be able to get away with trailing off like that and not having the person you are speaking to ask for clarification – so why the sudden incuriosity of Rachel Cooke here? It’s a serious allegation which she lets just hang)
We’ve been here before. For a long time after his victory in Cheltenham in 1997 I recall Nigel Jones frequently being accused of running a racist campaign against John Taylor. The allegation is familiar: by emphasising that our candidate is local and their candidate is from outside the area we are making a dog whistle signal about their ethnicity and “foreignness.” For such a tactic to work of course, Chippenham voters would have to be racist themselves.
There are four tests however we should apply. Firstly, is the “not local” claim true or not? Secondly, is it a reasonable criticism? Thirdly, would a white rival candidate get the same treatment? Fourthly, is this tactic unique to the Lib Dems?
In the case of the latter two the answer is, respectively, yes and no. Over the past year or so we have had three Parliamentary by-elections and on each occasion the Tories have made an issue out of the Lib Dems’ candidate’s lack of local credentials. This was true for Steven Kearney, a Southampton councillor standing in Henley, and for April Pond, Norwich resident standing in, um, a different bit of Norwich (and it was true for Tory candidate Chloe Smith one of whose opponents – long time Uzbekistan resident Craig Murray – went to the extreme of employing birther tactics to imply her non-Norwich ethnicity).
But is it a fair criticism? I’ve repeatedly said that I think the parochialism of modern politics is pernicious and that the Lib Dems must accept their share of responsibility for the current state of affairs, but while it is not the be-all and end-all there is no question that being local is a positive trait for an MP and while UK politics is as centralised as it is, it will be a bigger factor than it need be for the foreseeable future. Politicians who are rooted in the area they live in – regardless of where they originally came from – pick up local issues every time they walk outside of their front door; politicians rooted elsewhere are dependent on their surgeries and mail sacks. For the typical voter who doesn’t want to have to constantly engage with their MP about every little issue, that is a positive boon.
If I were a Chippenham resident, my key concerns about Emmanuel-Jones would be twofold. Firstly, not only is he not based in Chippenham but when it comes to describing Devon he responds with “I suppose you could say it’s my soul.” That doesn’t exactly suggest that the welfare of Chippenham will be at the top of his priorities, does it? Secondly, there is the question of how much he actually really wants to job.
I follow both of Emmanuel-Jones’ twitter accounts, theblackfarmer and wilfred4change. The former is a highly personal, friendly stream, clearly written by Wilfred himself and broadcasting someone who really loves his job. The latter might as well be churned out by a robot. The former has been updated 703 times and has 317 followers; the latter has been updated 151 times and has 94 followers. There’s no question that Emmanuel-Jones is a British success story, but that doesn’t automatically make him a good MP or the right man for Chippenham. In an ideal world he’d be standing in Devon and have a chance of winning even over and above sitting Tory MPs. But that would involve a different electoral system, something the Conservatives have set themselves against.
But my biggest concern is that in many respects this squalid innuendo about the Lib Dems running a squalid innuendo-laden racist campaign against Emmanuel-Jones is getting their excuses in first. Is Emmanuel-Jones being used by CCHQ as a patsy? They’ve done a great job at convincing journalists that, all things being equal, he is a shoe-in for the job, but all the evidence suggests otherwise. Chippenham, a new constituency, does in fact have a notional Lib Dem majority. Of course, four years on, you could argue that the Cameron effect changes all that. Yet in a year where the Lib Dems did badly overall in the South West, we won both the most councillors and the largest share of the vote in June. Last week we won two by-elections there.
None of these Conservative defeats had anything whatsoever to do with the colour of their parliamentary candidates’ skin. The worry is that an unthinking media, steeped in churnalism, is going to end up being complicit in branding a blameless Lib Dem MP a racist for years to come simply for committing the heinous crime of doing a better job.