If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Monday 3 May 2010

Our Labour Candidate

I've been a bit hesitant about posting this, for reasons which will become clear, but I am mightily intrigued by the Labout leaflet that dropped through my door a few days ago.

First point, I suppose, is that the leaflet says practically nothing - vague promises about the future being safe under Labour, putting local people first, making work pay, and so on. It's only a 4-side A5 sheet, so there's not a lot of room to start with, and of course everything has to be in both Welsh and English, so that halves the space available for text anyway.

Second is the colour they have chosen for the banners and sidebars. It's red, of course, but they seem to have picked a particularly bilious shade of deep blood-orange as the main colour, and then overlaid it with a very slightly lighter orange to create a background design, behind the text. Perhaps it's the Labour rose, who knows, but the two shades of orange are close enough to make it look like a poor-quality print.

But it's the candidate who is the most intriguing. She's called Mari Rees (good Welsh name, and proper Welsh spelling), and she lives in Milford Haven. The leaflet claims that her family have lived in the area for "hundreds of years". This is very important in Pembrokeshire, which has a powerful sense of identity: very Welsh where it counts, but also slightly separate and distinct from Wales itself, as the county - or at least the populous Southern half - has been mainly English-speaking since the Middle Ages, and many local people take pride in the fact that they are not the same as the Welsh 'up the line'. The Tory incumbent, Stephen Crabb, is a local boy (although Scottish by birth, he lived in a council house here when he was a child and went to the local comprehensive).

So far, so good. But I can't help thinking that most people will read the candidate background, and then scratch their heads when they see her picture. For, not to put too fine a point on it, Mari Rees is black.

Before anyone jumps down my throat for pointing this out, I would say that this isn't a problem for me, and I doubt if it would be a problem for most people in Pembrokeshire. There isn't a lot of racial diversity here (read: not many black faces) but that doesn't mean that the people are intolerant. In fact, I once taught IT to an unemployed black guy from Bradford when I was working for a training company, and he said that he loved living in Pembrokeshire because it was the only place in the UK he had lived in where he encountered no racial prejudice at all. If Pembrokeshire takes leave of its collective senses and votes Labour on Thursday, Mari Rees's colour will not make one iota of difference. Equally, if they return Stephen Crabb, it won't be because of some innate racism in the Pembrokeshire psyche. It will be because Labour have forfeited the respect and support of the population.

In fact, I think Labour are to be applauded for her selection. Preseli Pembrokeshire is (I think) 14th of Labour's target seats (Tory majority just over 600), so it's not as if they are putting up a black candidate in an overwhelmingly white but unwinnable seat to score diversity points.

But there are two things that puzzle me. One is the phrasing of "the Reeses have lived in Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire for hundreds of years". That's a pretty remarkable claim when you think about it. It would make her more 'local' than most of the people who live here. I doubt if more than a handful could claim Pembrokeshire ancestry for that length of time. Anna's family are regarded as 'Pembrokeshire born and bred', and they moved to the area from the Valleys in the middle of last century.

Is it perhaps possible that Labour are just a little too keen to prove her local credentials? Is there a sub-text that says "look, we know she's black, but she is as local as you are"?

The other puzzle may be just a trick of the printing process, but of the six photographs of Ms Rees in the leaflet, the two main ones show her as being much paler in complexion than the others. A search of Google images shows a lady who is quite dark-skinned, and yet the main photos are of a person with a pale coffee complexion.

I may be making something of nothing here, but is this deliberate? Taken with the 'hundreds of years' thing, does this suggest a failure of nerve on the part of Labour? Do they think that Preseli Pembrokeshire will not vote for a black person unless she is somehow made less black?

I don't know. I'm a little uncomfortable posting this, as I know that some people will see it (as they see every reference to race or nationality, however innocent) as racist. I will state clearly that I will not be voting for Ms Rees, but it is because of her party's record in government, not because of the colour of her skin.

I do wonder if there is some slightly racist thinking behind the leaflet, though. "Let's challenge a white male Tory with a black woman, but she musn't be too black or too exotic. Just lighten up the main pictures and stress the local connections, will you?"

If so, I think her backers have done Ms Rees a great disservice.

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