Friday, 31 July 2015

NDW - Palais Schaumburg

Now we come to the famous stuff. Palais Schaumburg were a Hamburg group who released three albums in the early 1980s and attracted some critical acclaim even in Britain. Their eponymous debut album in 1981 was co-produced by David Cunningham, which helped attract attention, as did the fact that one of the founder-members was Holger Hiller (though I think he'd left by this stage).

Anyway this is 'Wir Bauen Eine Neue Stadt', the first track from that album, also released as a single, and it's a fine piece of twisted white funk.


The group's name, incidentally, comes from what was then the official residence of the West German chancellor - the equivalent of an American band naming themselves the White House. 

Things are different today

They're not in love, it's just a silly phase they're going through. Kevin Meagher in the New Statesman points out that Labour Party members have always had a bad reaction to being in government, tending to fall out with each other, before pulling themselves together and trying again.

Meagher is quite right, of course. There is a depressing familiarity about Labour's behaviour during the current leadership election. So as they say on The News Quiz, I brought along some cuttings to make the point. These have been culled at random from a very cursory glance through the papers.

So here's Herbert Morrison in 1952, after the fall of Clement Attlee's government, being asked: 'Is it true that the Labour Party is torn by internal dissensions or feuds?' To which he replies: 'There are differences of opinion and many of them are in the process of being argued out. In a progressive party there is plenty of room for argument.'

Despite those 'differences', Labour did come back from the 1951 election defeat, though it spent thirteen years out of office first.

After Harold Wilson's government lost power in 1970, the period in opposition saw bitter divisions over Britain's membership of the European Community. Roy Jenkins and other pro-Europe Labour MPs defied the party whip and voted for Britain's entry, causing Tony Benn to write in his diary about the emergence of 'a new political party under the surface'. Roy Hattersley later reflected that Jenkins's rebellion 'was the moment when the old Labour coalition began to collapse'.

As the Daily Express pointed out in a leader column: 'The longer the feuding, the poorer grows Labour's credibility. That is not good for the country. Our parliamentary democracy demands a strong, vigorous opposition.'

Happily for Labour, the Conservative government of Edward Heath was so disastrous that the electorate removed it from office after just four years. It was a close-run thing though: the Tories got more votes in the February 1974 general election than did Labour.

And then there was the most divisive episode since the war: the fallout from the 1979 election defeat, with the rise of Bennism, the departure of the SDP and a full eighteen years in opposition.
So Kevin Meagher is perfectly right that, even if the Labour Party were daft enough to elect Jeremy Corbyn as its leader, this is (just about) in keeping with tradition. But it feels different this time. Different at least to 1981, the only occasion of which I have personal memories.

And I think Meagher may be a little optimistic is his conclusion: 'Ultimately Labour will survive - as it always has done before.'

I'm not entirely convinced by this. It's the most likely outcome, admittedly. But I've been saying for the last few years that the current political alignment was unsustainable, predicting that: 'New political forces will emerge, whether within the existing parties or outside them.'

Maybe it's the start of that re-alignment that we're now seeing.

Thursday, 30 July 2015

Up the hill backwards

The Labour Party has 232 MPs. To form a majority in the House of Commons, a party needs to have 326 MPs. So if Labour is to win the next election outright, it needs to take an additional ninety-four seats.

Of the ninety-four marginal constituencies where Labour missed out most narrowly this year, eight are currently held by the SNP, three by the Liberal Democrats, two by Plaid Cymru and one by the Greens. The other eighty are all Conservative.

It would be simplistic to say that the party needs to win these ninety-four seats to form a majority government, because it assumes that there will no boundary changes (which there will be), and that Labour should target its efforts purely on existing numbers (which isn't necessarily the case). But still, it's a rough guide to the task ahead.

So the question is: How is Labour going to take a seat like Gravesham in Kent (no. 91 on the list), where the Tories currently have a majority of over 8,000? The Lib Dems and the Greens are irrelevant here - there are no votes to be squeezed out of them. So Labour would need to take votes either directly from the Conservatives or from Ukip, who are in a strong third place with a 19 per cent share.

The same pattern is found right across the country. Not just the obvious southern constituencies of Crawley (no. 71), Milton Keynes South (83) and Thurrock (8). But also seats in the Midlands, such as Dudley South (55), Erewash (30) and Telford (11). And in the North as well: Morley & Outwood (6), Pendle (65) and Stockton South (47).

All of these and many others - most of those on the list - are held by the Conservatives, with Labour second, Ukip third, and no one else in sight. Winning these seats is Labour's only path to power.

By comparison, the general election this year was so much easier. Some four-and-a-half million Lib Dem votes went missing from the party's 2010 total. Which makes it all the more shocking that Labour's popular vote only increased by around three-quarters-of-a-million. Next time it'll be far harder.


Some things will change before 2020, of course. Ukip support may well fall away in the next couple of years, depending on how the referendum goes, which would make their votes more easily available for someone. But this is far from certain. It may be that Ukip actually increases its strength. Or it may split. Their vote is the great unknown in electoral arithmetic, but my assumption is that there's a stubborn protest vote in there that's not going to end up with either of the major parties.

Somewhat clearer than the fate of Ukip is the fact that surely the Lib Dems will do better in the next election than they did this year. In a very marginal seat, this might help Labour, since it could reduce the Tory share. But more generally, the Lib Dems will be on the rise and will be competing with Labour for new votes.

Maybe majority government is too ambitious a target for Labour right now. Maybe a minority administration, with support from other parties, is as good as it could get. But the challenge is still the same: How does the Labour Party take votes from the Conservatives and from Ukip?

NDW - der Plan

The Neue Deutsche Welle could be quite silly and childish at times. You can see it in the work of the Wirtschaftswunder, and you can see it in this video for the Dusseldorf band der Plan, like a low-budget Devo.

The point of the silliness, as I understood it, was that these were desperate times in West Germany. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were ramping up the Cold War rhetoric and there was much discussion of battlefield nuclear weapons. Germany was the battlefield. There was a real sense of fear in the air, a conviction that conflict was becoming more, not less, likely. And one response was to laugh at it all, to see the whole thing as being absurd. Again the note of Dada was not far distant. This is very definitely intended as art-rock.

Der Plan's debut album, the very excellent Geri Regi, was released in 1980. This track, 'Wir Werden Immer Mehr', is from the following year. There's a short introduction but the music starts twenty seconds in:

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

NDW - the Wirtschaftswunder

Of all the Neue Deutsche Welle bands, my favourite were the Wirtschaftswunder, a gloriously chaotic band somewhere between the Residents and the early work of XTC - a kind of Neue Dada Welle, if you will.

The line-up was international, with members from Germany, Czechoslovakia and Canada, while the singer, Angelo Galizia, was from Italy, which might explain why they sounded a bit odd - that's not a German accent. As their career progressed, they got more professional and the production values improved, but I don't think they ever improved on their messy debut album, Salmobray (1981), from which this song, 'Analphabet', is taken. How can anyone resist a chorus that just lists the vowels?

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

It's so strange the way he's talking

I think I should record the fact that I'm really, really enjoying the Labour Party leadership election.

Which is a bit odd. Because so far there has been not a single memorable moment, and because the candidates are so poor. I've written elsewhere about the best slate of candidates in a Labour leadership election, but this is surely the worst; there was more talent on display in 2007, and there was only one name on the ballot paper then.

But the whole thing's been transformed by the arrival in the spotlight - reluctant, blinking, bewildered - of Jeremy Corbyn, the longest serving member of the Left's chorus-line. Unheralded by the critics, never even an understudy, he's somehow turned a school nativity play into a hit show.

Or, more accurately, into part of a hit series, one more episode in a longer running story about the public's dislike of the political establishment.


If we were to date the start of this story, I think we'd go back to the elections of Martin Bell in 1997 and of Richard Taylor in 2001 as independent MPs. Bell was ably assisted by the Labour machine, so perhaps he doesn't really count, but certainly Taylor - who took the safe Wyre Forest seat from Labour on a Health Concern ticket - was a shot across the bows of the establishment. As I wrote in A Classless Society: 'At a time when political parties were losing support at an unprecedented rate, they could not afford to ignore the spectacular success of a genuine independent.'

Then there was the election of Respect's George Galloway as the member for Bethnal Green and Bow in 2005 and Bradford West in 2012. This year, of course, Galloway emulated Shirley Williams's unenviable record of losing a seat at two successive general elections, but meanwhile the Scottish National Party was gleefully sweeping the board in Westminster.

In between, there was the brief flurry of Clegg-mania in 2010 and, more significantly, the spectacular rise of Ukip. It may only have one MP, but the vote Ukip achieved in the general election was substantial: 3.9 million people turned out to support the party, more than the Liberal Democrats and the SNP put together. I think it's reasonable to point out that many of those people were voting in anger at the failings of the other parties, rather than to express their total support for Ukip's platform.

And now we have the Corbyn insurgency. Napoleon once said that every corporal carried a field-marshal's baton in his knapsack, but no one realised that his comments should be taken literally.

Every one of these developments since Wyre Forest seems to have come as a complete shock to the Westminster commentators. And partly this is because the new political class and the media have become as one.

There's always been an overlap between politics and media, but since the 1990s it has reached absurd proportions. Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, Ed Balls, Yvette Cooper - all of them journalists or ex-journalists. It feels as though the two groups have interbred to the point of imbecility, and are now apparently unaware of anything happening outside the Strangers' Bar and a handful of decent restaurants within earshot of the division bell.

With some honourable (sometimes very honourable) exceptions, political commentary has descended into a kiddies' Kremlinology, with little titbits about whether George Osborne has the tactical upper-hand over Theresa May in the race for the Tory succession.

The Blairite-Brownite saga was the model, a dispute that was rooted entirely in ego. 'There is but a cigarette paper between the politics of Brown and Blair,' Polly Toynbee wrote in 1996, but 'most of politics is far more about personal rivalry, jealousy and suspicion than usually gets reported.' Now that's pretty much all that gets reported.

And then, from time to time, the cosy consensus is disrupted by the public demanding that their voice be heard as well. And those interruptions to business seem to be turning up with every greater frequency.

So we have the hugely entertaining spectacle of columnists trying to work out why anyone would take Corbyn seriously. He's not part of the inner circles. He's not a player. He is, on the other hand, a man who's been on virtually every demonstration for the last thirty-five years (or on the counter-demonstration if the original one wasn't appropriate). He may not have figured in the media very much, but his long service is known and admired by a great many of those who will vote in the leadership election.

Corbyn represents the outsider at a time when insiders are deeply unpopular. A vote for him is a vote against the establishment (however loosely or widely that is defined). Just for the record, I still don't think he's going to win the leadership, but then the SNP didn't win the independence referendum last year and it didn't seem to do them much harm.

And talking of referendums, that's the next episode waiting to be written in the story of Britain's disillusionment with Westminster. At some point in the next two years (sooner rather than later, if the reports are to be believed), the political class is going to have to put itself up for approval by the population of the country. The ostensible issue is our membership of the European Union, but it'll be surprising if that's the sole item on the agenda.

Now that one's going to be really enjoyable.

NDW - Grauzone

Grauzone were actually from Switzerland, but they were still considered part of the Neue Deutsche Welle. Well, it was a broad church. This is 'Film 2', the opening track on their eponymous debut album in 1981, and it's an excellent instrumental, slightly more upbeat that it sounds like it's going to be

It's also, in my opinion, the best track on the record, and therefore the best thing they released, since there was no second album. But I should acknowledge that some people prefer their hit single 'Eisbaer'.

Chummy

One day someone should get Pete Frame to do a family tree of the New Labour spadocracy. This is an early attempt to make sense of the connections by the excellent Dan Atkinson, writing in the Guardian on 6 April 1995, long before they all became household names:
We know communitarianism is the vogue, but the Blair and Brown bunnies may be taking things too far. Ed Balls, he of endogenous growth and adviser to Mr Brown, is seeing Yvette Cooper, who has worked for Harriet Harman and is now on Gordon's payroll, too. Yvette is chummy with the fragrant Liz Lloyd, a researcher in Tony Blair's office. Liz's main squeeze is another Ed - the younger Miliband. He has also just started working for Gordon (if you want to rile the office, just ring and ask for 'Ed'). and his brother, David Miliband, is Liz's boss. The office politics must be worse than the real sort.

Monday, 27 July 2015

It's 1983 again (again)

Returning to 'the longest suicide note in history', the 1983 Labour Party manifesto raised a serious question: if those policies were so obviously doomed to failure, how did they get through the party machinery? It's a subject I addressed in my book Rejoice! Rejoice!
By this stage the Left had already suffered serious setbacks: the 1981 defeat for Tony Benn in the deputy leadership contest had been followed at the 1982 conference by a clutch of right-wing victories in the elections to the National Executive Committee.
Benn himself had lost the chairmanship of the NEC's home policy committee, which he had held for eight years and which had been the base of his power within the party. He had been replaced by John Golding, an MP who was also a senior trade unionist and very much on the right of the party - he was said to regard political theory as being 'in the same league as crossword puzzles'.
Which left a query about why the manifesto, this 'list of meaningless promises,' as Peter Shore called it, was so readily adopted by the new regime.
And the answer appeared to be that, along with most of the country, Golding realized that the election was lost even before the polling date had been announced, and had concluded that the strategic interests of the Labour Party were best served by blaming the defeat on the Left: 'why not lose it on Benn's terms and teach him a lesson?' as he said to Roy Hattersley.
I was reminded of this episode when reading Dan Hodges in the Daily Telegraph, arguing that Blairites should vote for Jeremy Corbyn because 'it's time to call the Left's bluff'.

And it might be worth remembering that the defeat of 1983 was followed by fourteen years of opposition.

NDW - P1/E

The Neue Deutsche Welle of the early 1980s didn't travel very well. The aftermath of punk saw a massive explosion of bands in Germany, but few of them were heard much in Britain. Einsturzende Neubauten and X-Mal Deutschland, of course, and to a lesser extent die Krupps and DAF. And then there was Trio with wonderful 'Da Da Da'. Not much more than that, though.

Nonetheless, I liked a lot of this. So I thought I'd revisit some of the great tracks of my youth.

And I wanted to start with '49 Second Romance', the 1980 debut single by P1/E, a band fronted by Alexander Hacke, later to join Einsturzende Neubauten. They played at the first NDW gig I went to and were the best of the six acts on that day, so I bought their record and got Hacke to sign it (not pictured). It's a fantastic piece of deadpan electronica that's rooted in trashy 1960s pop - in live performances, Hacke had a tendency to slip in the chorus from Bobby Freeman's 'Do You Want to Dance', and it fitted perfectly.

Hacke returned to this song later in his career, and there was a 2004 remix, but the original version is still the best.


More NDW to come...

Naive, well meaning and behind the times

Ed Miliband's victory in the Labour Party leadership election of 2010 seems a long time ago now. (In fact, Ed Miliband seems a long time ago.) And the defeat of David Miliband in that contest seems to belong to a different world entirely.

On re-reading the newspapers of the time, however, I find that it's not that different at all - indeed much of it could come from today's news reports. Here are some quotes from David Miliband himself during the 2010 campaign:
Strong opposition, while necessary, is not sufficient. Simple opposition takes us back to our comfort zone as a party of protest, big in heart but essentially naive, well meaning but behind the times. This is the role our opponents want us to play.
I will tell you what the choice is very clearly. I am the person who can fire the imagination of the public as well as the party. I can unify the party. I'm the person who can lead us to beat the Tories in the battle of ideas. And I'm the person who is the most credible prime minister.
Unless we start wining back the Milton Keyneses, we'll never win power. We've got just ten seats out of 212 in the south, excluding London.
The tragedy of the 2010 election is that we ceded the mantle of progress and reform: the former on the issues of political change and inequality, the latter on public services and the economy. Despite huge achievements in government, we were trapped by Labour's demons of the 1980s when politics has moved on. 
Never again must Labour come to offer more and more but demand less and less. We must never again let the Conservatives claim the inheritance of the co-operative movement, mutual societies and the self-organised groups who built the Labour movement. we must be not just the defenders of the public sector, but its reformers.
That first quote, incidentally, about being naive, well meaning and behind the times was understood - correctly - by everyone as an attack on his brother, who was seen as a return to the good old principled days of Labour. Ed was the left insurgent back then. Didn't stop him from winning, of course. As I've said before, what a waste of five years that turned out to be.

And it's worth asking two questions: Would a Labour Party led by David Miliband have won the election this year? And would that have been a better option than a Conservative victory?
Just in passing: The 'comfort zone' line is being directed at Jeremy Corbyn right now, and I don't know that I care very much for the phrase. Particularly when it's coming from Tony Blair, whose life seems to me to be somewhat more comfortable than anything Corbyn will ever manage, even if he lives seven lifetimes. (Not that I'm saying he believes in reincarnation.)

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Powerpop - The Boyfriends

To complete a Pat Collier trilogy, following his productions for Knox and Kimberley Rew, here he is in performance mode.

The Boyfriends were the band Collier formed after leaving the Vibrators, with him as the frontman. They released two singles in 1978, which were okay, but 'Last Bus Home' in 1979 - the third and final single - was their best work. It's a melancholic little song that proclaims its Britishness from the opening line: 'It's late, it's dark, it's raining.' Obviously it doesn't hurt, in this respect, that it shares a title with an episode of Hancock's Half Hour.

This was produced by Martin Rushent, who was on something of a roll at this stage, having just produced the first Stranglers album and the soon-to-be-released Buzzcocks debut/

Fracture

My five-star review of Philipp Blom's new book Fracture: Life and Culture in the West 1918-1938 was published in yesterday's Daily Telegraph. It's one of the best history books I've read in a very long time, and I'd recommend it strongly. Indeed I did: 'an enthralling masterpiece, epic in scale and human in detail,' I wrote.

Saturday, 25 July 2015

Gradually learning?

Good news from Tristram Hunt on the state of the Labour Party. Writing in the Daily Telegraph, the shadow education spokesperson says that Labour has already 'learnt some early lessons' from the 'catastrophic' election results.

And those lessons are: 'We are no longer in favour of a 50p higher tax rate; we support a referendum on our continued membership of the EU; we back the expansion of Heathrow; and we did not - despite the rebellion of some - vote against welfare reform.'

Yes, well, I'm not entirely sure that these are necessarily the lessons that the electorate were hoping would be learnt, but there we are. At least Hunt's proud of them.


Of these achievements, the new position on the EU referendum is irrelevant - the vote's going to happen, whether Labour 'support' it or not. And the reconsideration of the top tax rate and the welfare reform is supposed to wave a white flag, to send out signal that the Tories have won the arguments about wealth creators and deficit reduction.

The one that I find a bit odd, though, is the Heathrow business. Because that's a huge commitment for a temporary leadership to make. And it's one where the Labour position actually does matter. If for example, the party said that it would never support a third runway at Heathrow and would cancel the project without compensation if they were to be elected, that would cause the government serious problems. I'm not saying they should say that, merely pointing out that this is a long-term undertaking. Why worry about it now?

More broadly, there's something I don't entirely follow with this approach that the interim leadership of Harriet Harman is taking, this attempt 'to show the party has listened to the electorate'.

I know Labour didn't win, but a lot of people voted for the party, and their voice is being ignored. If they'd wanted to vote for MPs who agreed with the Conservative manifesto, presumably they would have voted Tory. Surely they didn't return Labour MPs in the hope that all policies would be abandoned on entering Parliament?

The lessons that can be learnt from the electorate should be about areas of policy, not the policy itself. If, for example, people are worried about the benefits bill (and I think they are), then it's Labour's job to address those concerns. But not simply by adopting Tory proposals. That's silly.

Similarly if they're concerned about immigration (and I think they are), then Labour needs to engage with that issue. Which could mean defending open borders, if that's what they believe in. But the lesson is that the party should talk about it. Hunt mentions in passing that Labour were seen as being 'lax on immigration', but sadly he has no good news to impart on this subject.

One other point that annoyed me in Hunt's piece. (He's always capable of annoying me.) He writes: 'a vote for the SNP did what it has always done: let in a Tory government.'

I know this is a standard Labour line, but I wondered: is it true? So I did what any concerned citizen would do, and looked up the figures on Wikipedia. This graph shows the share of the vote won by the four main parties in Scotland between the election of October 1974 and that of this year.


The purple line is the SNP vote. They did well in 1974, coming second in an election that was won nationally by Labour. Then their vote slumped for the three elections won by Margaret Thatcher. The share didn't change between 1992 (narrow Tory victory) and 1997 (Labour landslide), but fell a little for Labour's two successes in 2001 and 2005.

In other words, there's no truth whatsoever in the idea that an SNP vote helps the Tories. It makes no difference at all. Presumably Hunt is speaking here in his capacity as party hack, rather that of historian.

Powerpop - Kimberley Rew

What a very strange career Kimberley Rew has had. His best known work came with Katrina and the Waves, who gave us 'Walking on Sunshine' in 1985 and the last-ever British winner of Eurovision, 'Love Shine a Light', in 1997. But for the likes of you and me, of course, he's most revered for his epic guitar-playing with the Soft Boys, one of the great live bands of the post-punk years.

Somewhere between those two groups, he also released some solo stuff, starting with the 1980 single 'Stomping All Over the World'. And it's one of my favourite-ever records: a perfect, classically constructed pop song with slightly skewed lyrics that builds into an irresistible hook. Two minutes and ten seconds - that's all you need.

Like Knox's 'Gigolo Aunt', this was produced by Pat Collier at the Alaska studio.


This is one of a series of posts celebrating the poppier end of the post-punk period in Britain. Much of this stuff was neither cool nor popular at the time, but it was what I was listening to, and I worry that too much of it is being lost to history.

Friday, 24 July 2015

Yesterday once more

There's a lot of talk about the 1980s, all of a sudden. Particularly about the 1983 general election, when Labour went down to a crushing defeat. And since it's been a long time since I put a graph on this blog, I thought I'd remedy that with a chart showing the opinion polls conducted by Gallup on a monthly basis right through the 1979-83 Parliament.


There are, as Sherlock would say, a couple of points of interest.

When James Callaghan relinquished the Labour leadership in November 1980, he left the party on a 47 per cent share of the vote, more than 10 points ahead of Margaret Thatcher's Conservatives. Michael Foot maintained that position for a few weeks, but then it all went catastrophically wrong.

In January 1981, Labour stood at 46.5 per cent. By December of that year, support had crashed to half that level, on 23.5 per cent. It still stands, I believe, as an all-time calendar-year record. And this was the year, of course, that Tony Benn challenged Denis Healey for the deputy leadership of the party, a particularly nasty and divisive contest.

So spectacular was Labour's decline that it tended to eclipse, then and afterwards, the appalling performance by the Conservatives in the same year of 1981. They started in January on 33 per cent, and ended in December on 23 per cent.

To present the figures like this, however, is not entirely honest. Because, as you can see on the graph, December 1981 was something of a rogue poll, showing a massive spike in support for the newly formed Liberal-SDP Alliance. The existence of a third force was the main cause of the decline in support for both major parties that year, but the Alliance was never to get anywhere near those dizzying heights again.

If we go to the poll published in April 1982 - the last one conducted before the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands - the figures stand at: Alliance 37 per cent, Conservatives 31.5 per cent, Labour 29 per cent. In other words, the Tories had remained fairly constant, and the Alliance had primarily taken its support from Labour.

Victory in the Falklands, combined with an economic recovery, saw the Tories end the Parliament back on track: they won 42.4 per cent of the vote in the 1983 general election, just 1.5 points down on the 1979 election. And behind them, virtually neck-and-neck, came Labour and the Alliance.

The standard explanation on the Left, obviously, was that the SDP had split the anti-Tory vote, gifting Thatcher a landslide that was simply not supported by her share of the vote. The bitterness - and lord, was there bitterness - was directed primarily at Roy Jenkins and David Owen for having led the breakaway from Labour.

My own interpretation is to lay the blame entirely at the feet of Labour MPs, who chose Michael Foot rather than Denis Healey as leader. With Healey as leader, life in the party would have been chaotic and vicious for a while (as it turned out to be anyway), but the SDP would not have come into being. At least not in that potent form, though Jenkins may have tried to start a new (unsuccessful) party. And Thatcher would probably not have won in 1983.

Because leadership is important. Tony Benn's constant refrain was that issues not personalities are what's important in politics. But he was wrong. People vote on personality, as we've just seen in this year's general election.

Labour lost because the electorate, having given Ed Miliband a cursory glance, didn't believe he was up to being prime minister. Just as, in 1981-83 the electorate didn't think that Foot was up to the job. It's not primarily about the policies, it's about character.

Powerpop - Knox

The missing link between the Vibrators and Pink Floyd. Sort of. This is the debut solo single by Knox, former frontman of the not very fashionable punk band, covering the Syd Barrett song 'Gigolo Aunt'.

Released in 1980, it was recorded at the Alaska studio and produced by Pat Collier - just like the Soft Boys' Underwater Moonlight album. To make it even more of a companion piece to that masterpiece, it features Matthew Seligman of the Soft Boys on bass, while Robyn Hitchcock plays guitar on the b-side, another fine cover, this time of Jimmy C. Newman's cajun-rock classic 'Alligator Man'.


This is one of a series of posts celebrating the poppier end of the post-punk period in Britain. Much of this stuff was neither cool nor popular at the time, but it was what I was listening to, and I worry that too much of it is being lost to history.

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Pass the parcel

Jeremy Corbyn's status as a grass-roots favourite in the Labour Party is a recent phenomenon. In 1992, following a shock defeat at the hands of the Tories, twenty-three people stood for election to the national executive committee in the constituency members' section. Only the top seven were voted onto the committee, and the results were:
  1. Neil Kinnock (533,000 votes)
  2. David Blunkett (531,000 votes)
  3. Gordon Brown (523,000 votes)
  4. John Prescott (446,000 votes)
  5. Robin Cook (426,000 votes)
  6. Tony Blair (387,000 votes)
  7. Tony Benn (354,000 votes)             
  8. Dennis Skinner (306,000 votes)
  9. Bryan Gould (179,000 votes)
  10. Ken Livingstone (145,000 votes)
  11. Alice Mahon (57,000 votes)
  12. Diane Abbott (49,000 votes)
  13. Dawn Primarolo (46,000 votes)
  14. Jeremy Corbyn (22,000 votes)
  15. Paul Boateng (18,000 votes)
  16. Michael Meacher (7,000 votes)
  17. John Spellar (5,000 votes)
  18. Clive Soley (4,000 votes)
  19. Eleanor Young (3,000 votes)
  20. Andrew Yunge Gordon (1,000 votes)
  21. Graham Metcalfe (1,000 votes)
  22. Mike Stokes (1,000 votes)
  23. Andy Whitfield (1,000 votes)
You can see which way the wind was blowing. In his heyday, Tony Benn - who'd been on the NEC since 1959 - used to come top of this annual poll; now he was barely hanging on to his seat. (And indeed the following year, he would lose it.) Meanwhile, Bryan Gould and Dennis Skinner were voted off in favour of two newcomers: Gordon Brown and Tony Blair.

In this context, it's perhaps not surprising that Corbyn didn't make the cut, but even so, it hardly suggests he was setting the membership alight at the time. Benn came in last of the winning group with 354,000 votes; Corbyn managed only 22,000. He was fourteenth overall, but more relevantly, of those considered at the time to be on the left of the party, he came eighth, behind not just Benn, Skinner and Gould, but also Ken Livingstone, Alice Mahon, Diane Abbott and Dawn Primarolo. Those last four, incidentally, all entered Parliament after him.

But that was then and this is now, so why am I bothering to drag this up?

Well, it's just to make again the point that Corbyn didn't enter the current leadership race with any intention - let alone hope - of winning. He knows he was never cut out for leader. So much so that he wasn't even a leader on the left. When Dawn Primarolo, of all people, gets twice as much support from party members, you can hardly take that as a vote of confidence in your ability to inspire the rank and file.

But, with the exception of Abbott (who had her go at the leadership last time), Corbyn's the last one available to stand. The rest are too old, too dead or no longer in Parliament. And so it fell to him. It's not that the Ugly Duckling turned into a swan, more a case of Pass the Parcel.
A month or so back, after the first television hustings, I suggested that Corbyn shouldn't be dismissed as lightly as he was being: 'When he talks of principles of fairness and equality, of community and public services, he resonates in a way that Ed Miliband never achieved.'

I think that's become very clear in recent weeks. But he's still not a leader.

When you think of the major left figures since the war - Nye Bevan, Tony Crosland, Michael Foot, Tony Benn, Ken Livingstone - some of them were great thinkers, some orators, some had presence. All were able to deploy humour, which goes a long way when trying to persuade the British voter of the virtues of left thinking. Corbyn lacks all of these gifts.

In the last election, Ed Miliband didn't lose because he was too left-wing. He lost because he was Ed Miliband. The same problem - mutatis mutandis - would be even more manifest with Jeremy Corbyn. Which is why he's not going to be elected leader.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Like any other man

Jeremy Corbyn has been attracting a lot of press coverage in the last few days. Which is somewhat new territory for him. He's been in politics for nearly four decades, but he's never been much of a media favourite, not even on television and radio, where the lack of humour makes him a somewhat unengaging character.

When he did attract press attention, it tended to be hostile - as indeed it is this week as well - and sometimes very hostile indeed. This, to take just one example, is a Daily Mirror editorial in 1984 describing him as:
a stupendous mind-bending idiot. A man so insensitive to the decent feelings of others as to be completely numb. He wouldn't understand why voters have drifted in their millions from supporting his party. He wouldn't know how difficult he and his kind make it for their leader to win those votes back.
Well, it's a point of view. It may or may not be worth noting that, six months before this was published, the Daily Mirror had been bought by Robert Maxwell.

And the winner is...

I'm more than two months late, I know, but I think I should put on record the results of the Holborn and St Pancras constituency in the general election. This is where I live and I wrote about the candidates in several blog posts (links to the various entries are here).

And the results are (with number of votes and percentage change, where applicable):

  1. Sir Keir Starmer (Labour): 29,062 votes (+6.8%)
  2. Will Blair (Conservative): 12,014 votes (+1.5%)
  3. Natalie Bennett (Green): 7,013 votes (+10.1%)
  4. Jill Fraser (Liberal Democrat): 3,555 votes (-21.4%)
  5. Maxine Spencer (Ukip): 2,740 votes (+3.9%)
  6. Shane O'Donnell (Cannabis Is Safer than Alcohol): 252 votes
  7. Vanessa Hudson (Animal Welfare): 173 votes
  8. David O'Sullivan (Socialist Equality): 108 votes

So no great surprises there, then. Except that I really expected Jill Fraser, who I still maintain was a very good candidate, to do a whole lot better. But she was crushed in the anti-Lib Dem landslide and - this being Camden - her votes were split mainly between Natalie Bennett and Sir Keir Starmer. This offset any loss that Sir Keir may have suffered as a result of being a new candidate; presumably our departing MP, Frank Dobson, had built a personal following over the years.
Whether Sir Keir will be a good constituency MP we shall see. I wrote to him ten days ago, asking for his help, and I haven't heard back from him. But maybe he's busy abstaining at the moment. I certainly expect him to be a prominent member of the new Labour front-bench once the leadership question has been sorted out.

Of the others, I'd hope that Jill Fraser will get back onto Camden Council in due course, because she ought to be there, and I hope that Natalie Bennett eventually does the decent thing and resigns as leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.

And I wish Will Blair well. I suggested before the election that this was just a trial run for him and that he'd end up with another constituency, one where he might stand a chance of winning. I hope he does, if only because I was told yesterday that he was given a copy of my book Rejoice! Rejoice! for Christmas, so he's clearly a man who's blessed with fine family and friends.

Monday, 20 July 2015

It's that man again

Silly Season has started well this year. On Saturday the Sun ran a fabulous front-page picture of the present Queen as a child in 1933 giving a fascist salute in her back garden. Since Adolf Hitler is thus thrust back onto the news agenda, I thought it'd be worth looking through the newspapers to see what impression he made on the British press when he was first noticed. So here are some extracts from 1923:

'Already the so-called Bavarian Fascists - the National Socialist Workers' party, under Herr Adolf Hitler - are dreaming of "an army of revenge" which, according to Herr Hitler, is to "restore Germany to her former greatness".' - Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer 16 January 1923

'Hitler is known to be a very energetic person, and has long been known to be preparing a "putsch" against the Berlin government.' - Gloucester Citizen 23 January 1923

'In unoccupied Germany the chief manifestations of madness occur in Bavaria, where one Adolf Hitler, a house painter by trade, has found a large and dangerous following whose objects, apart from revolution, are not much clearer than those of the Italian Fascists, whom in general they would like to copy. If they succeeded, Germany, like Italy, would be in the hands of a military dictator.' - Manchester Guardian 30 January 1923

'The political prophets are in a better position. They benefit by the anti-Republican sentiment of the authorities, and are enabled to carry on their propaganda unmolested. The most successful is Dr Adolf Hitler, the "Bavarian Mussolini". But his influence is beginning to decrease, for after three years of agitation he has accomplished nothing beyond holding reviews and designing emblems.' - Daily Express 15 February 1923

'At last night's Fascist rally in the Crown Circus, half an hour before the proceedings began the large hall was filled, and on his arrival, accompanied by his usual bodyguard of storm troops, the Fascist leader, Adolf Hitler, was given a reception that a returning victorious general might envy... The deliberately provocative attitude of Hitler's storm troops, who swagger truculently about the streets of Munich, is becoming more noticeable every day.' - Times 13 April 1923
'The Bavarian Nationalists, of whose leader, Adolf Hitler, a portrait appears on our "Personal" page [above], recently held a great demonstration at Nuremberg. They had adopted the swastika as a badge for banners and armlets. Their aim is declared to be to overthrow the Republic, restore Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, eject Jews from Germany, and prepare for a war of revenge against France.' - Illustrated London News 15 September 1923

'Dr Gessler, the Minister of Defence, was yesterday appointed Dictator of Germany by President Ebert... Great nervousness prevails in Munich. According to reports in the Berlin newspapers, Adolf Hitler intends to let loose the forces which he commands. If he does so it is certain that the "Putsch" would not be confined to Bavaria, and it is probably with this knowledge that President Ebert has issued his decree.' - Daily Mirror 28 September 1923

'"He who fights and runs away lives to fight another day" is evidently the motto of Herr Adolf Hitler, the commander of he Bavarian National Socialists. The fact that he did not press his objection to the Commissioner-General's ban so far as to hold his much-advertised fourteen meetings last night, has severely shaken the prestige of the Fascisti leader, and it will probably take some time he recovers from the blow.' - Aberdeen Journal 29 September 1923

Why don't you do it again?

Following Labour's  massive defeat in the 1983 general election, the party began the long, painful march back to electoral success. A new leader, Neil Kinnock, was elected, senior figures stepped back from the front-line, and policies associated with the 1983 manifesto began gradually to be dropped.

And, just fourteen years later, the Conservative Party was finally removed from government.

The election defeats in 2010 and this year are not on the scale of 1983. Not quite. But there are, I think, echoes of the 1980s to be heard. In particular, there is an attitude within Labour that harks back to that long period of opposition.

In my book Rejoice! Rejoice! (available in paperback from all good retailers), I argued that the radicalism of Margaret Thatcher 'threw the left on the defensive, so that the Labour Party seemed constantly to be fighting rearguard actions, seeking to protect a status quo from which support was fast draining away.'

Every change made by the government, I said, was 'opposed until it had been implemented and had been seen to win popular approval, at which stage Labour accepted it. The impression given was that the party was hidebound and dogmatic, and yet paradoxically lacking in principle.'

And that, I fear, has been the impression that the party has again given in recent years. Because, under David Cameron, the Conservatives have rediscovered a Thatcherite zeal for reform, and Labour still hasn't worked out how to respond.

Those on the left often cite the achievements of Clement Attlee's government, the great changes that were wrought even at a time when the nation was in massive debt and struggling to cope with the aftermath of the Second World War. Against all the odds, and against conventional political wisdom, a new world was built. 'We were, as Winston Churchill said, a bankrupt nation,' reflected Nye Bevan, 'but nonetheless we did these things.'

The same may one day be said of Cameron's governments. In the face of a huge economic recession, the coalition set about the radical restructuring of the NHS, of education and of the benefits system. And Labour's reaction has been, as in the 1980s, simply to oppose every change that is mooted, to denounce it as unnecessary, vindictive and wrong, possibly evil. After which, the truth is gradually acknowledged - too late to be of any use - that maybe change was necessary after all.

Put another way: If a Labour government were to be elected in 2020, how many of the Tory reforms to education and welfare would it actually reverse? Precisely.

As acting leader, Harriet Harman (elected to Parliament in 1982) has at least tried another tack: of accepting large swathes of the government's benefits agenda as soon it was announced. Inevitably this has caused some tension in the party, with both the front-runners for the leadership - Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham - distancing themselves from her approach.

They're probably right to do so. Apart from any question of morality and principle that Labour might wish to articulate, this isn't normally a successful political course to steer. When in opposition, the cry of 'me too' does not tend to get heard, no matter how loud you shout. This is particularly the case in the immediate aftermath of an election defeat, when no one is listening.

But there is an alternative. It starts by recognising that change is necessary, that there are no sacred cows and that things are going wrong. Which can be controversial, but shouldn't be.

To suggest that the NHS is failing to deliver the service that it should deliver is not the same as demanding that we abandon the institution entirely. It's merely to point to an obvious, if not often articulated, truth: the NHS isn't good enough. It really isn't. Its efficiency and patient care could be considerably improved, and the public has a right to expect better.

And the same is true elsewhere. Educational standards in the state sector are not high enough, and the public has a right to want improvement in the performance of Britain's schools. The benefit system has developed too many flaws to be allowed to continue unchallenged, and the public has a right to feel that its tax contributions could be better targeted.

When William Beveridge and the other great reformers of the 1940s set out to change society, they identified the five giant evils as squalor, ignorance, want, idleness and disease. Progress has been made, but you'd be hard pushed to claim that these giants have been slain.

Reform is necessary and inevitable. But by simply adopting a defensive position, Labour has - in the post-Attlee years - chosen not to participate in shaping that reform.

There have been exceptions, of course. There was James Callaghan as prime minister, for example, launching his great education debate in the 1970s, though it was a subsequent Tory government that actually made all the running, culminating in the Education Reform Act of 1988. Better yet, there was Frank Field, with his thinking-the-unthinkable transformation of the welfare state, which Gordon Brown point-blank refused to fund.

That latter case illustrates Labour's problem. If the entire system of benefits needed to be re-examined - and it did and does - then it's important to have the Labour Party coming up with some ideas. Because if it doesn't do so, then it simply hands over the whole thing to the Tories to make whatever changes they deem necessary. And the Conservatives may not have the same priorities. Which leaves Labour bleating on about Iain Duncan Smith's 'hated bedroom tax'.

The problem with not accepting the need for change - and therefore failing to initiate new thinking - is that it passes the agenda to your opponents. And it can take an awfully long time to recover from that.

I don't know if you remember Ed Miliband's speech to the 2011 Labour conference. Possibly not, though it was said to be enormously significant at the time: 'the most radical analysis of Britain's plight offered by any Labour leader since 1945,' according to the post-match punditry of Patrick Wintour in the Guardian. It was the speech that was going to reframe the public debate of capitalism, with its distinction between predators and producers.

But perhaps the most striking section of that speech was when Miliband dwelt on the past. There had been speculation that he was going to apologise for the mistakes made by the last Labour government. But he had much older fish to fry. 'Some of what happened in the 1980s was right,' he told conference. 'It was right to let people buy their council houses. It was right to cut taxes of 60, 70, 80 per cent. And it was right to change the rules on the closed shop, on strikes before ballots.'

Thirty years on, and Labour was still trying to get over its failed strategy in the 1980s. Before straightening its tie and going out to make the same mistakes all over again.

Saturday, 18 July 2015

News in Brief: Sturgeon presented to Queen

'The Queen has accepted an offer of a six-foot sturgeon, weighing three and a half stone, which was landed at Grimsby on Saturday by the trawler Eroican.' - The Times 10 May 1954

Friday, 17 July 2015

I wish it could be 1983 again

The longest suicide note in history. Gerald Kaufman's description of the Labour Party's 1983 election manifesto is one of the great modern political cliches. And like so many cliches, it's become so familiar that it can sometimes conceal the truth.

So it's worth asking: Was that manifesto really the most ludicrously left-wing platform ever put to the British electorate? What did it actually say?

Obviously, there's the famous stuff about nuclear disarmament, withdrawal from the European Economic Community (as it then was), and abolition of the House of Lords, but what else was in there?

Well, the document starts with what it calls 'an emergency programme of action', centred on these pledges:
  • to make 'a major increase in public investments, including transport, housing and energy construction';
  • to 'begin to rebuild British industry, working within a new framework for planning and industrial democracy'
  • to raise child benefits and pensions, 'and give special help to one-parent families and families with disabled dependents';
  • to 'promote women's rights and opportunities, and appoint a cabinet minister to promote equality between the sexes';
  • to 'act to improve the environment and deal with pollution'.
It's not perfect, and you or I may not agree with everything, but it's a coherent and reasonable set of priorities. (It helps, of course, that thirty years have passed, and ideas like having an equalities minister no longer sound like the loony left nonsense they were depicted as at the time.)

Also quite reasonable is the call for greater investment in industry, partially funded by North Sea oil, and the threat that if the major banks did not play their part, 'we stand ready to take one or more of them into public ownership'. That was considered extreme at the time; not so much now.

The document goes on to say that:
Our proposals add up to a considerable increase in public spending. Our programme is thus heavily dependent upon the achievement of our basic objectives: namely, a large and sustained increase in the nation's output and income and a matching decline in the numbers out of work. It is this that will make the resources available for higher public spending programmes and cut the enormous cost of unemployment.
Elsewhere it explains that 'It would be wrong to finance the initial boost to spending by increasing taxation', and that therefore: 'Like any other expanding industrial enterprise, we shall borrow to finance our programme of investment.'

(It's probably worth noting that at the time it didn't seem so heinous to say you were in favour of borrowing; Keynesian economics was still a plausible option.)

And it goes on. And on, and on. For there was a major problem with the document in that it didn't confine itself to the big themes. By attempting to shoe-horn everything in, it lost focus. (Perhaps, on sober reflection, a policy on angling wasn't entirely necessary.) Kaufman's use of the word 'long' wasn't entirely inappropriate: it's not the word count, so much as the number of subjects covered.

But I would suggest that perhaps Kaufman's phrase was simply too memorable, and that it has misshaped our perceptions of the time. It lays the blame in the wrong place. Because - and I don't think this is simply in retrospect - it wasn't the manifesto alone that resulted in Labour's worst electoral performance since the war.

Not when there was so much else that was wrong.

Austin Mitchell's excellent book on the 1983 election, Four Years in the Death of the Labour Party, for example, documents some of the appalling incompetence that marred Labour's campaign that year. There was no organisation, no planning, no idea what the hell was going on. The party leadership, lacking strategy, just lurched from one day to the next.

And at the supposed head of this dysfunctional operation was Michael Foot, a good and gracious man who should never have been chosen by Labour MPs to be their leader. It wasn't a role for which he had any qualities.

The press, of course, were merciless. Clive James in the Observer called Foot 'a floppy toy on Benzedrine,' the Sunday Telegraph referred to him as 'an elderly, ranting pamphleteer waving a stick in Hampstead,' the Sun said he was 'an amiable old buffer, his jacket buttoned too tight, his collar askew, his grey hair falling lankly'. The Sun also ran a cruel and devastating headline: 'Do you seriously want this old man to run Britain?'
With all the excited froth at the moment about Jeremy Corbyn's chances of winning the Labour leadership election, there are repeated references back to 1983 (when, as it happens, Corbyn first entered Parliament). The Labour Party took such a beating that year that its soul was scarred, and it's been living in fear of being labelled 'left wing' ever since. The longest suicide note in history casts an even longer shadow.

I'm not sure that the party should be so afeared. There were many other reasons why Labour lost in 1983.

There was the split that produced the SDP, there was the Falklands factor, there was the start of economic growth (after monetarism had been quietly buried in an unmarked grave). And, above all, there was a lack of unity in the higher reaches of the party, no sense that any of Foot's senior colleagues were interested in following him or agreeing with each other.

Oh yes, and there were the policies. But they only come in at about number five or six in the list of reasons why it all went so horribly wrong. They need to be kept in proportion.

Probably the one huge strategic mistake in the manifesto was the commitment to leave the EEC without a further referendum. Allow for that  - admittedly major - change, and then imagine that this manifesto had been presented to the British public in 1997 by Tony Blair, when he was at the peak of his persuasive powers and the Tories were on the ropes. I believe Labour would have won handsomely.

This is not to say that it's all about presentation. But it is to say that, when it comes to winning elections, policy isn't anywhere near as important as politicians and commentators believe it to be. Broad positions count, leadership and unity count, detail doesn't.

And concepts of 'left' and 'right' don't matter much either. Most people don't think of themselves in those terms. At various times, Labour voters will switch to Ukip, Conservative voters to Labour, and Lib Dem voters to just about anybody...

There are other lessons Labour needs to learn from the 1980s, and I shall return to the subject. I think it might lead somewhere.

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Leader of the gang

There's been a lot of very excited comment in the last day or so about how Jeremy Corbyn is on course to win in the Labour Party's leadership election. Round these parts, however, we try not to get over-excited. As The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy used to advise: Don't panic. Corbyn will not be the next leader. So who will?

Back in early April, I predicted that - following its inevitable defeat in the coming election - the party would opt for a female leader and choose either Yvette Cooper or Rachel Reeves. Since Reeves isn't standing, I'm going to have to stick with my other suggestion and predict a Cooper victory in September. She won't lead on first-preference votes, but I expect her to come through the middle and win in the third round.

She is not, in my opinion, the best choice that the Labour Party could make. But none of the three outsiders I nominated - Gloria de Piero, John Mann, Ben Bradshaw - took up the challenge, and we have instead the current dull slate of candidates. Of whom Cooper is probably the least poor.

Andy Burnham is the boring and unexceptional option, Jeremy Corbyn is the fascinating and catastrophic choice, and Liz Kendall - well, I don't know. I just don't get Kendall. In print, her arguments have some validity, but her delivery is as about as convincing as a student teacher. I simply can't picture her as a party leader, let alone prime minister. And I can at least see Cooper as a leader.
But Labour should have learnt at least one lesson from the last five miserable years. When the electorate tell you that your leader has a problem with credibility and image, then you should listen to them. Every single poll showed that Ed Miliband's popularity trailed that of his party. And Labour's response was to give us more Miliband, as though it were our fault: we simply hadn't understood how wonderful he was.

He wasn't. He was dreadful. And since his colleagues couldn't summon up the courage to remove him, they should have insisted on the next best strategy: don't focus exclusively on the leader.

The party would be wise to do so this time. Cooper is not a great candidate, by any means (though she's a huge improvement on Miliband), and she's not surrounded by the best generation of politicians in Labour's history. But then, the government - with a couple of exceptions - ain't much cop either. Collectively, Labour don't look any more incompetent than the Tories.

Here's a potential shadow cabinet line-up, with their counterparts in the real cabinet shown in brackets:
  • Yvette Cooper - leader (David Cameron)
  • Chuka Umunna - shadow chancellor (George Osborne)
  • Alan Johnson - foreign affairs (Philip Hammond)
  • Rachel Reeves - business (Sajid Javid)
  • John Mann - home affairs (Theresa May)
  • Keir Starmer - justice (Michael Gove)
  • Hilary Benn - health (Jeremy Hunt)
  • Caroline Flint - education (Nicky Morgan)
  • Andy Burnham - work and pensions (Iain Duncan Smith)
  • Gloria de Piero - energy and climate change (Amber Rudd)
  • Liz Kendall - transport (Patrick McLoughlin)
  • Dan Jarvis - defence (Michael Fallon)
  • Michael Meacher - environment and food (Liz Truss)
  • Stella Creasey - communities and local government (Greg Clark)
  • Chris Bryant - culture, media and sport (John Whittingdale)
  • Emma Reynolds - women and equalities (Nicky Morgan, again)
  • Chris Leslie - shadow first secretary (Greg Hands)
  • Jeremy Corbyn - international development (Justine Greening)
  • Rosie Winterton - chief whip (Mark Harper)
  • Ben Bradshaw - leader of the house (Chris Grayling)
Well, you can juggle them around a bit - even choose a different leader - but, member for member, I think Labour's line-up is probably stronger than that of the government. So the party should play to its strengths and emphasise the whole team. Don't just put the spotlight on the leader.

A couple of other things left over from Ed Miliband's doomed leadership.

The change in the rules for the election of the leader was a mistake. The idea of one-member one-vote was fine, but there should be some way of whittling down the cast-list before it goes to the vote. Much the same as the Tories do, where the MPs choose two candidates who are then put to the party membership. The point is that a leader spends most of their time working with parliamentary colleagues; if they can't command support there, then they stand no chance, regardless of what the party in the country thinks.

I know this doesn't always work smoothly in the Conservative Party. There have been two leadership elections since William Hague introduced the system, and one of them resulted in the absurd elevation of Iain Duncan Smith. I also know that Labour has a rule that a candidate needs the nominations of 20 per cent of MPs - but in the cases of Diane Abbott and Jeremy Corbyn, we have seen how flawed this would-be filtering mechanism is.

And finally, the one thing that Miliband did get right was his promotion of new talent. In 2011 I noted the appearance on consecutive days on Question Time and Any Questions of Gloria de Piero and Rachel Reeves, both of whom had only been elected the previous year and both of whom were already in the shadow cabinet.

'These are the potential stars of the next parliament being given a chance to get a bit of exposure and experience,' I wrote. I added: 'The unmistakable impression, however, is that Labour's given up on the idea of opposition for the immediate future and is building for the world after the next election.'

That world's now arrived, and Miliband's investment in apprentice politicians may now pay off.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Lost Labour leaders

The post-War history of the Labour Party is littered with the best leaders it never had. In the context of a Labour leadership campaign, I thought I'd re-post this list that I wrote on another blog back in 2012. Note that the names are in chronological order.

1. Aneurin Bevan (1955)
After Clement Attlee led Labour to a second successive general election, he stepped down as leader. In a three-way poll, Hugh Gaitskell won an outright majority on the first ballot, defeating Peter Mandelson’s granddad, Herbert Morrison, and Nye Bevan. In terms of previous jobs, Bevan was the least experienced – Gaitskell had been chancellor, and Morrison had been both home and foreign secretary – but he had created the NHS, which gave him a certain weight. He’d also written In Place of Fear, one of the great works of British socialism and still a source of inspiration. But he was seen then, as leaders of the left so often are, as a divisive figure and his failure to carry his fellow MPs with him set a pattern that was repeated over the years.
2. Roy Jenkins (1971)
In the debate over British entry into the Common Market (as we used to call the future European Union), Jenkins led a dissident group of Labour rebels into the ‘yes’ lobby, defying a three-line whip even though he was the party’s deputy leader. Labour was then in opposition and its leader, Harold Wilson, was far from secure. The possibility existed for Jenkins to resign on the European issue and challenge directly for the leadership. He would have been good at it as well, and would have done far better at the subsequent election. Mind you, Britain would have been much more engaged in Europe, which may or may not be a good thing, depending on your views.
3. Tony Crosland (1976)
What a field of candidates there was in the election to replace Wilson as leader and therefore as prime minister. Jim Callaghan won eventually, but first he had to see off Michael Foot, Roy Jenkins, Tony Benn and Denis Healey. And the future foreign secretary Tony Crosland, who got barely five per cent of the MPs’ votes. Given that he died less than a year later, it was probably not too catastrophic for Labour that Crosland didn’t make it, but he would have been a decent choice: a social democrat intellectual who was capable of adjusting and evolving his thought in the light of circumstance.
4. Denis Healey (1980)
The choice of who should replace Callaghan after the disastrous election defeat of 1979 was so obvious and so stark – Denis Healey versus Michael Foot – that only the Labour Party could screw it up. So they did, rejecting the most popular politician they had, the one man almost guaranteed to beat Margaret Thatcher. Choosing Healy as leader would have caused major problems in the party, but since those problems came anyway, it’s hard to see how much worse it could have been. Most importantly, the SDP would never have been born.
5. Tony Benn (1981)
Largely thanks to Benn’s efforts, the franchise was widened for the election of party leader, allowing affiliated trades unions and constituency parties a say. So Benn stood for the deputy leadership, to try out the new system, he said. It was a bit of a cop-out, and a direct challenge for the leader’s job would have been more engaging. He would have lost, of course, but had he won, he might well have done better in the 1983 election than Foot managed; the press abuse could hardly have been more vitriolic, and Benn did genuinely inspire some of the people some of the time in a way that Foot simply didn’t.
6. Peter Shore (1983)
The inevitable defeat of Labour in 1983 saw the equally inevitable replacement of Foot by his protégé Neil Kinnock. Trailing a very poor fourth in the election (beaten even by Eric Heffer, embarrassingly enough) was Peter Shore, an intriguing figure who no one could ever quite place within the left-right spectrum. He campaigned against membership of the EEC, argued against restrictive practices in the trade unions and, as shadow chancellor, was one of the few successes during Foot’s doomed leadership. I always rather liked him as a politician: he was thoughtful, intelligent and courteous. He also had very messy hair, though it was nowhere near the chaotic state achieved by...
7. Shirley Williams (1987)
This is pure fantasy time, since Our Shirl was already long gone from Labour, having left to co-found the SDP in 1981. But if she had still been around when Kinnock failed to win the 1987 general election, she would have made the perfect replacement. And a perfect foil for Margaret Thatcher. In the words of a Times leader: ‘Mrs Williams talks to the British people in their own accents, sometimes muddled, often courageous, always human and always kind.’
8. Bryan Gould (1992)
In a straight fight between John Smith and Bryan Gould to replace Neil Kinnock as leader, the Labour Party once again got it wrong. On the single most important issue of the day – British membership of the European exchange rate mechanism – Smith made the wrong call and, had there been any such thing as natural justice, would have been as discredited as John Major when Britain got kicked out of the ERM on Black Wednesday. Gould, on the other hand, had always stood against the tide, arguing for policies based on the real economy rather than monetarist dogma. He was a true moderniser with a sound grasp of economics that shamed the young turks Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. And, of course, he didn’t die in 1994, as Smith did, so that Blair might have been kept in his box.
9. Robin Cook (1994)
After Smith’s death, there were just three candidates for the leadership: Tony Blair, John Prescott and Margaret Beckett. Unsurprisingly Blair won at a canter, since the other runners were clearly so implausible. The man who didn’t stand was Labour’s strongest performer in the Commons, Robin Cook, a brilliant and principled politician with twenty years as an MP. He decided against going for the leadership on the grounds that he was ‘too ugly’ to be prime minister, but he was wrong: there was far too much character in his face for him to be unattractive. And anyway, given the state of the Tories by 1997, a monkey on a stick could have won that general election.


10. David Miliband (2007)
Why, oh why, were the Labour Party so stupid that they chose Gordon Brown to replace Tony Blair? More to the point, why were they so craven that they didn’t even have an election? Brown clearly stood no chance up against David Cameron, but his fatal flaw – his indecisiveness – was sadly echoed in the person of David Miliband, his most plausible challenger. By the time Miliband had screwed his courage to the sticking-plate, it was three years too late and Ed came through as the ‘Stop David’ candidate. 

Monday, 13 July 2015

A fine day for haymaking

Today is the sixtieth anniversary of the hanging of Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be executed by the state in Britain. This is an extract from one of the best pieces of journalism I know, written by William Connor (better known as Cassandra) and published in the Daily Mirror on 13 July 1955:

It's a fine day for haymaking. A fine day for fishing. A fine day for lolling in the sunshine. And if you feel that way - and I mourn to say that millions of you do - it's a fine day for a hanging.

IF YOU READ THIS BEFORE NINE O'CLOCK THIS MORNING, the last dreadful and obscene preparations for hanging Ruth Ellis will be moving up to their fierce and sickening climax. The public hangman and his assistant will have been slipped into the prison at about four o'clock yesterday afternoon.

There, from what is grotesquely called 'some vantage point' and unobserved by Ruth Ellis, they will have spied upon her when she was at exercise 'to form an impression of the physique of the prisoner'.

A bag of sand will have been filled to the same weight as the condemned woman and it will have been left hanging overnight to stretch the rope.

IF YOU READ THIS AT NINE O'CLOCK, then - short of a miracle - you and I and every man and woman in the land with head to think and heart to feel will, in full responsibility, blot this woman out.

The hands that place the white hood over her head will not be our hands. But the guilt - and guilt there is in all this abominable business - will belong to us as much as to the wretched executioner paid and trained to do the job in accordance with the savage public will.

IF YOU READ THIS AFTER NINE O'CLOCK, the murderess, Ruth Ellis, will have gone.

The one thing that brings stature and dignity to mankind and raises us above the beast of the field will have been denied to her - pity and the hope of ultimate redemption.

The medical officer will go to the pit under the trap door to see that life is extinct. Then in the barbarous wickedness of this ceremony, rejected by nearly all civilized peoples, the body will be left to hang for one hour.

IF YOU READ THESE WORDS OF MINE AT MIDDAY the grave will have been dug while there are no prisoners around and the Chaplain will have read the burial service after he and all of us have come so freshly from disobeying the Sixth Commandment which says 'Thou shalt not kill'.

The secrecy of it all shows that if compassion is not in us, then at least we still retain the dregs of shame. The medieval notice of execution will have been posted on the prison gates and the usual squalid handful of louts and rubbernecks who attend these legalized killings will have had their own private obscene delights.

Entry requirements for the British Establishment

My friend John Flaxman recently found some old copies of The Twentieth Century, a long vanished monthly journal, which he passed on to me. This is an extract from an article by the great historian AJP Taylor, published in October 1957, in which he discusses what had recently become known as the Establishment (though he prefers to call it the Thing):

'In a truly democratic society the rulers would be chosen by lot for short stretches. Failing that we should at least postulate that every citizen have an equal chance of reaching the top if he wants to get there. This does not apply in any known community, not even in Switzerland, the country that comes nearest to democracy.

'Everywhere the potential ruler has to pass some test other than ambition and ability. It may be birth, money, class, colour, religion, even (as in old China) capacity to pass exams. But some test there will be. The minority that emerges will constitute the power elite from whom the actual rulers are chosen. What we call democracy is merely a system by which the members of this power elite receive an occasional popular endorsement.

'The requirements for entering the British power elite are fairly well known. You must be white in colour; male; wear collar and tie and a dark suit; and able to spend most of your life indoors sitting down. You must also be able to dictate reasonably grammatical English. Oratory - once highly regarded - is no longer required. Anyone capable of reading from typescript can go to the highest place. These are the bare essentials.

'The right parents are a considerable asset. It is still best to come from "the nobility and gentry", though it is probably a mistake to be the eldest son of a peer. Parents from the professional class are good, particularly if they pay surtax. Rich business men, oddly, are not at all good.

'If you are so foolish as to be born into the industrial working class, then you must get out of it by winning a scholarship to a grammar school or, failing this, by becoming either a trade union official or a WEA [Workers' Educational Association] tutor. If you are born of an agricultural labourer, you should give up at the start.

'The right education helps. It is of little moment what you learn, though Latin is still probably the most useful subject and any form of science a handicap. The important thing is where you learn. Eton remains by far the best bet; Winchester runs it close in the Labour Party. Otherwise prefer a first-rate grammar school to a minor public school; and run away to sea rather than go to a secondary modern.

'Oxford and Cambridge are so obvious a requirement as hardly to need mention. Any other university can be valued only for the instruction it provides.

'As to accomplishments, it is no longer necessary to ride a horse, shoot, fish or even play bridge. In fact, the less accomplished you are outside your work the better. And even at work it is wiser to seem devoted rather than clever. Otherwise you are in danger of becoming a "character", and that is hard to live down.

'The picture drawn here differs little from that of the power elite in Washington or Moscow. Religion, however, provides a distinguishing mark. I use the word to mean morality and rules of conduct, not acceptance or denial of any theological dogma. You may choose anything from Roman Catholicism in its English version to "humanism" - that is, unassertive atheism. But is must be broadly within the tradition of liberal Christianity. Fundamentalism, aggressive atheism and of course adherence to any non-Christian religion other than Judaism, exclude.

'In other words, the members of the British power elite observe the standards created by the nineteenth-century public schools.'

Saturday, 11 July 2015

Books and Bookish

I've been absent from this blog for over a week, largely because I've been busy writing. Which is going very happily, thank you.

In addition, I seem to be getting a bit of book reviewing at present. My review of Charlotte Higgins's rather fine book on the BBC is here.

I also had a trip to Blackpool, as mentioned earlier, which was very enjoyable and introduced me to a musician of whom I had never previously heard. Leo Chadburn soundtracked the movie at the centre of the exhibition in the Grundy Art Gallery, and he closed proceedings with a performance of a piece inspired by the correspondence between Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. It was fabulous, almost touching the genius of Scott Walker at times - and by that, I obviously don't mean the melodic Scott Walker, but the creator of Tilt and The Drift.

Leo Chadburn also performs under the name Simon Bookish and I'm gradually exploring his work. This album, Everything/Everything, in particular, is stunning, like the Decca-era David Bowie covering Slapp Happy's Casablanca Moon, accompanied by the Fires of London. (There's one for the teenagers.)

This is Mr Chadburn/Bookish, wearing a shirt that Robyn Hitchcock would have been proud of in 1985: