Monday, 31 August 2015

Debagging

One of the things I write is a game called Who's in the Bag?, which is a simple - but effective - little thing. There's a bag full of cards, on each of which there are three names and, without actually speaking the names themselves, you have to get your team-mates to guess who they are. There's a timer as well. It sells well and has done for a couple of decades now.

Every few years, though, it has to be updated to allow for changing tastes and fashions. Some people - say, Winston Churchill, Jane Austen, Stevie Wonder - are likely to stay in every edition. But others pass their sell-by date and have to be dropped. Robert Kilroy-Silk, for instance: he was thrown out of the Bag some time ago. Liam Gallagher more recently. For other reasons, Max Clifford and Rolf Harris won't be in the Bag this time. And meanwhile some new people will have emerged since the last version, who need to be added.

I'm now working on a new edition of both the main game and the add-on pack of cards. Which means I have to come up with over 1,200 names that I can reasonably expect to be recognised, or that are possible to guess even if they're not recognisable. Donald Trump, for example, is an easy name to convey, even if you've never heard of him. (Lucky you.) Similarly, Mary Beard, Nicola Sturgeon and Paddy Power.

The other factor is that this will probably still be in print in 2020. So there's an element of prediction here. Will Ed Sheeran still be a thing in five years time, or will he have faded in the same way as - oh, I don't know - Jake Bugg seems to have done? What about Harry Kane? Jennifer Lawrence? Will Katie Hopkins become big enough to warrant being put in the Bag?

It's a bit like a low-budget version of Madame Tussaud's selection process. I mentioned in my book A Classless Society that we knew Iain Duncan Smith was doomed as Tory leader when Tussaud's said he wouldn't get an effigy. 'He is not in the papers very much and you never hear his name,' said a spokesperson. 'We are not sure if our visitors will recognise him.' It was a damning verdict.

And the question that's currently troubling me is the parallel case of the Labour leadership. Whoever wins gets put in the Bag, of course. But the losers? If Andy Burnham doesn't get to be leader, is he going to become a household name? How about Jeremy Corbyn? Flavour of the month now, but if he fails to win this election, how big will his public profile be in a couple of years? Politicians generally aren't instantly familiar, as Pointless discovered a couple of years ago.

Much safer is the process of discarding people. Amongst those who I've thrown out of the Bag this time are Ed Balls, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Rebekah Brooks, Nick Clegg, Abu Hamza, Harriet Harman, Martin McGuinness, Peter Mandelson and Ian Paisley. These are, in my estimation, yesterday's men and women. There's a dangerous sense of power that comes with writing this game...

Any suggestions for people who have become famous in the last three years would be most appreciated.

Theatricals - Anthony Newley

Anthony Newley's extraordinary and wondrous life is too big a story to be told here. But the idea that a cockney kid from the East End could take on the musical, the most American of art forms, and make it his own, without compromising his origins; that he could turn himself into a major international star, commanding the respect of Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr et al - this is truly inspiring. His achievement in conquering Broadway with Stop the World - I Want to Get Off (1961) is in some ways more impressive even than the British Invasion of the Beatles and the Stones.

This song, though, is from a much later date. By the mid-1970s, Newley's career was drifting, and he seemed an increasingly isolated figure, a leftover from an earlier era of entertainment. In particular, the musical was seemingly moribund, with his own latest attempt - the 1975 film Mister Quilp - failing to revive the genre. And there had been no new records since 1972's Ain't It Funny.

It'd be nice to say that his 1977 album The Singer and His Songs reversed that trend and re-established him as one of the key players on the world stage. But it didn't. It largely went unnoticed, so much so that, as far as I know, it's not been released on CD. It was, however, perhaps the finest collection of songs he ever recorded. And this - 'The Man Who Makes You Laugh' - is the last track on the album.

This live performance was recorded in cabaret at Monte Carlo, and it's fabulous. Newley's sense of the theatrical requires no make-up or costumes; he just lets the character take over his body.

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Powerpop - Robyn Hitchcock

Well, you don't need me to tell you that Robyn Hitchcock is one of the finest songwriters Britain ever produced, or that his group the Soft Boys (featuring Kimberley Rew on guitar) were the best band of the post-punk era. These things are obvious - simple statements of fact.

So rich is Hitchcock's back catalogue, however, that there are some overlooked gems in there. And none of them are greater than this song. In 1984 Hitchcock released a 12-inch single on which the lead song was an okay copy of the Byrds' version of 'Bells of Rhymney' (lyrics by Idris Davies). And hiding behind it was this swooning piece of autumnal melancholia, 'Falling Leaves'. Honestly, it's gorgeous.

Saturday, 29 August 2015

Powerpop - the Flamin' Groovies

For those of us who were still in primary school when the Flamin' Groovies released their classic albums Flamingo and Teenage Head, and weren't hip to that kind of thing, the first track we ever heard by them was their 1976 single 'Shake Some Action'. And nothing would ever be as good again. Of course we then explored the back catalogue and marvelled at the menacing garage rock of 'Comin' After Me', 'Teenage Head' and 'Slow Death', but 'Shake Some Action' remained in a class of its own, a masterpiece that took the spirit of 1965 and reinvented it for a new era.

Slightly overlooked, though, was the B-side of that single. For most bands, 'Teenage Confidential' would have constituted their highest achievement, a stunningly beautiful piece that's all jangly guitars and vocal harmonies, like the Byrds taking on Big Star. The song's a little slight in itself, but this recording is a masterpiece: Dave Edmunds's production positively shimmers, while the modulation to the minor key, two minutes in, during the instrumental outro, is a stroke of genius.

Like the A-side, 'Teenage Confidential' was co-written by group founder Cyril Jordan and by Chris Wilson, who'd come in as a replacement for Roy A Loney. Wilson, of course, went on to join the Barracudas, of whom more yesterday.

Friday, 28 August 2015

Teresa Gorman

In memory of Teresa Gorman, who died yesterday, I thought I would post an extract from my book A Classless Society about the Maastricht rebellion, in which she was such a prominent feature. Apart from anything else, it's good to remember that both major parties have had long-standing dissidents, who party managers feel probably shouldn't be allowed out in public too much.

The attempt to get Maastricht ratified in the Commons dominated politics in the first half of 1993. In a series of votes a stubborn group of Conservative backbenchers fought every line of the Bill, often siding with the Labour Party in what John Major called ‘a mad-hatter coalition’. The ensuing bitterness soured the party for years to come. ‘In the voting lobbies it was not unknown for one Conservative MP to spit at another,’ remembered Michael Spicer. ‘Physical violence occurred during the course of one or two crucial votes.’ He also recalled a senior MP being dragged by his hair into the government’s lobby. 

Spicer was a key figure in the rebellion, but one who insisted on maintaining good relations with the whips and the leadership. He was also reluctant to attract attention to himself at a time when the open voicing of dissent guaranteed publicity. Indeed, Maastricht made media stars of several backbenchers who would otherwise have languished in obscurity.

Chief amongst them was Bill Cash, whose slight frame, unflattering pinstripe suits, greying hair and glasses made him look like Major’s Eurosceptic doppelganger. He was ‘the biggest bore in the House of Commons’, according to his colleague Julian Critchley, though another Tory MP, Teddy Taylor, disagreed: ‘I am the biggest Euro-bore there ever was.’ Cash managed to vote against his government forty-seven times during the Maastricht debates, with a further thirteen abstentions, and did what he was told just twice. 

He was rivalled in coverage only by Teresa Gorman, the MP for Billericay whose vocal enthusiasm for hormone replacement therapy, never knowingly understated dress sense and tattooed eyebrows (to conceal the fact that her real ones hadn’t grown back after being shaved) were matched only by her splendid quotability. ‘The Conservative establishment,’ she once announced, ‘has always treated women as nannies, grannies and fannies.’ 

There was an equally oddball supporting cast, with notable contributions from the married couple Ann and Nicholas Winterton, dismissed scornfully by Michael Heseltine as having a knack for stumbling upon ‘a populist cause waiting for a voice’. Their fellow MP Nicholas Soames was less restrained: ‘You’re cunts,’ he told them after one Commons rebellion, ‘and ugly ones to boot.’

This group of mavericks and misfits – a hard core of around twenty-five, with a similar number on the fringes – were undoubtedly motivated by high principle, albeit in some cases only recently discovered. This, however, was neither the first nor the lasting impression they made on a television audience. Every time they conducted yet another round of interviews on College Green, they came across as slightly strange, obsessed with an issue that simply didn’t feel like a priority to most of the electorate. They were not, for many viewers, very endearing...

Powerpop - The Barracudas

The Barracudas were a fabulous band. They started out playing surf music, which was at least distinctive in London in 1979. Bizarrely, they got signed to EMI at a time when the record industry was at a loss to know what was happening to music, and they even had a minor hit single with 'Summer Fun'. Shortly afterwards, however, they abandoned surf in favour of 1960s psych-punk, and decided to become one of the world's legendary cult garage bands instead - a bit like the Flamin' Groovies perhaps.

Consequently their debut album, Drop Out with the Barracudas (1980) contained not just the bouncy summer stuff that was expected of them, but also a cover of 'Codeine' and originals like 'I Saw My Death in a Dream Last Night' and 'We're Living in Violent Times' (I used the latter as a chapter title in my book Rejoice! Rejoice!). EMI clearly figured that, whatever it was that was happening to music, it probably wasn't this, and let them go.

At which point the Barracudas really did turn into one of the legendary cult garage bands, particularly in light of them recruiting Chris Wilson, who actually had been in the Flamin' Groovies. This was, after all, the man who'd co-written 'Shake Some Action', and now he was playing with the Barracudas. The best fanzine of the time, Bucketfull of Brains, quite rightly loved them.

They carried on gigging and eventually re-emerged on Closer Records with two excellent albums, Mean Time (1983) and Endeavour to Persevere (1984). This track, 'Shades of Today', comes from the first of those, and it's a nice piece of Byrds-influenced garage pop.

I have to say, though, that it would have been more obviously poppy in the hands of another singer. Canadian vocalist Jeremy Gluck was a truly wonderful live performer, and never gave anything less than a fully committed performance, but his voice wasn't really the most subtle of instruments. Which was part of their ragged charm. I liked them a great deal.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

There'll Always Be an England

As a contribution to the growing fascination with early-eighties leftist politics and culture, I thought I'd post here my review of David Pinner's 1984 novel There'll Always Be an England. I wrote this some fifteen years ago for a site called Trash Fiction, which is now preserved under some dust-sheets in the attic:

David Pinner was originally an actor (he starred in The Mousetrap) before becoming a writer, principally of stage-plays such as Lenin In Love and Potsdam Quartet. He also, however, wrote the novel Ritual, which became the legendary film The Wicker Man in 1973 with a script by Anthony Shaffer. And he wrote this curio from the 1980s. I don't know anything about his politics but I suspect he's a traditionalist Labour man, since the temporary (as they turned out) successes of the left in the Labour Party of the early-1980s clearly scared the Bejesus out of him.

The whole of the novel is a diatribe against Trotskyist infiltration into the Labour Party and the inability or unwillingness of mainstream Labour to defend itself. The protagonists - old-school MP Roy Hampton, and Militantesque Terry McMasters - exist as mouthpieces for political positions rather than as characters, and the same is true of just about everyone else in the book. This, for example, is Hampton's ex-girlfriend engaging in dinner conversation with a clergyman who makes the mistake of saying that Marxism and Christianity have a lot in common; she's explaining where he's gone wrong:
For instance, Marx wrote an article called On The Jewish Question, which reminds me of another 'great' German's credo. For in this particular article Marx affirmed: 'What is the secular basis of Judaism? Self-interest. What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money. We recognise in Judaism, therefore, a general anti-social element of the present time.' And the Great Man ended his particular tirade with a sentiment which would have done credit to Hitler and Stalin, who as you know, Vicar, were both dedicated anti-Semites. For Marx proclaimed: 'Once society has succeeded in abolishing the empirical essence of Judaism - huckstering and its preconditions - the Jew will have become impossible!'
I don't know people who talk like that over dinner. Considering that Pinner is primarily a dramatist, his dialogue is a little clunky. After a couple more drinks, the same character makes her - and the book's - position perfectly clear:
...although I would be the first to admit that Thatcher's authoritarian right-wing Toryism is potentially dangerous, it's the totalitarian left wing of the Labour Party which is the greater threat to the continuance of our democracy. If the hard left ever come to power in this country, which they may well do in the next ten years or so, they will be much harder to remove from office than Mrs Thatcher's present administration.
Of course, it turned out we didn't need to worry. The hard left was so damn unpopular that it couldn't even have got elected in 1997. But if you want to revisit the nightmares Tony Benn inspired in the 1980s - before he became the venerable old democrat that we pretend he is today - then this is just the book for you.

Powerpop - Bram Tchaikovsky

Bram Tchaikovsky (not his real name) was the guitarist in the Motors, of 'Dancing the Night Away' and 'Airport' fame. He left them in 1978 for a solo career that didn't really take off as it might have done. His most celebrated single was 'Girl of My Dreams' (1979), a fine piece of powerpop that was a top 40 hit in America, but it was a hit to which he never found a successful follow-up.

His best moment, though, was 'Sarah Smiles', the solo debut released in 1978, which is all about him: his songwriting, vocals and guitar. Well, him and Nick Garvey, also of the Motors (and formerly of Ducks Deluxe), who contributes the slightly odd production. Garvey clearly doesn't like to leave a sound untreated, so everything blends together into a breathless rush. And it's lovely - there are echoes, I think, of the kind of noise that Eno made on Here Come the Warm Jets. Apart from everything else, it features one of my favourite things: a guitar solo accompanied by wordless backing vocals.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Powerpop - the Autographs

Back in 1977 there was a band called the Stukas, who released a couple of singles, most famously 'I Like Sport' (produced by our old friend Pat Collier). In a parallel universe, this is earning its writers a fortune as the theme tune to a hugely popular TV game show.

Anyway, one of the Stukas was singer Chris Gent, who'd been knocking around the music scene for a couple of years, sometimes under the patronage of Mike Batt. If you remember the Milk Marketing Board's advertising campaign 'There's a Humphrey about', you may conceivably also recall 'The Humphrey Song' written by Batt and released under the name the Mad Hatters in 1976 - that was Chris Gent.

It was another pop mogul, though, who gave Gent what should have been his big break. The tycoon of teen Mickie Most - trying to find himself a niche in this era of punk and new wave - saw a Stukas gig, and liked the material, particularly one of Gent's songs 'While I'm Still Young'. He wanted to sign the band, but it was too late: they had already decided to split up and this was their final gig. So Most signed up Gent and guitarist Raggy Lewis, who then recruited guitarist Jim Ward, bassist Dave Spicer and drummer Pete Tulley and named themselves the Autographs.

Released on Most's RAK Records in 1978, their debut single, 'While I'm Still Young', came with still further pop pedigree, being produced by Richard Hartley and Tommy Boyce - the former was the original musical director of The Rocky Horror Show, the latter co-wrote all the best Monkees songs.

Obviously my perception of this single is shaped by when I first heard it, but I don't know any record that captures the unfocussed hormonal rush of adolescence with quite such joyous energy. I'm convinced it's one of the great pop classics and should've been a massive hit. But it wasn't, and the Autographs never released another single.

Chris Gent himself went on to become lead singer of Will Birch's band the Records, in time for their third album, Music on Both Sides, but he's probably heard most often as the saxophonist on Secret Affair's debut single, 'Time for Action'.

Harvey Proctor - a footnote

In the Harvey Proctor piece I posted yesterday, I included a Daily Mirror front  page from the time of his 1987 trial. Excluded from that image for reasons of space was this bit from the top-right hand corner of the page, which I think illustrates public attitudes of the time towards homosexuality and towards Proctor's travails:
You see what they've done there? They've got a photo of him passing a clothes shop and they point out - sniggering and chortling - that the sign says L'Uomo Elegante. Well, that may be Italian for 'the elegant man', which 'aptly described the dapper MP', but it also sounds a bit like 'homo'. And that's apt as well. Because he's a homo, isn't he?

You might care to bear in mind that this is the Daily Mirror, the more enlightened of our tabloids in the 1980s.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Harvey Proctor

It is not easy to feel sorry for Harvey Proctor.

In 1987 he stepped down as a Conservative MP when he was charged for gross indecency, having been caught in a tabloid sting that involved flagellation games with rent boys. At the time, the age of consent for male homosexual practices was twenty-one, and the evidence was clear that Proctor genuinely believed that his partners were not only consenting but of age. They weren't, though they were over sixteen, our current age of consent.

Many of those who might have supported him, as the victim of press intrusion and of an unjust law, were reluctant to do so, since his attitude to race and immigration had already alienated most of civilised society. And many of those who had previously supported him precisely because of that attitude - well, they were now alienated by the revelation of his sexual proclivities.

Daily Mirror 21 May 1987
So, not many people have ever sympathised with Harvey Proctor. Nonetheless, it is worth reading the statement he issued yesterday, denying any involvement in an alleged child-sex ring at Westminster.

In the statement, he quotes extensively from what he says is 'the police disclosure document given to my solicitors two days before my first interview with the police'. And when you read the allegations as bald statements, you can see Proctor's point: 'My situation has transformed from Kafka-esque bewilderment to black-farce incredulity.'

Because it is alleged that the circle of abusers included a (current or former) prime minister, home secretary, head of MI5, head of MI6 and chief of the general staff. These men would gather in private houses where they would rape, torture and kill young boys.

I wouldn't deny that there have been, and are, men who take sexual pleasure in the torturing to death of children, but they are vanishingly few in number, surely? For so many of them to have reached such senior positions in society simply defies belief. They didn't manage to do so in the Third Reich, but they did in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s? It's implausible that the holders of these posts were all homosexual, highly improbable that they were all paedophiles, and frankly impossible that they should all be homosexual, paedophile, sadistic murderers.

The only way of believing such a thing is to go the full distance and claim that the establishment is staffed by an alien species with an entirely different sexuality to that of human beings.

Yet even that wouldn't explain why this circle, if it did exist, would welcome the likes of Proctor. He himself admits that 'Edward Heath despised me', and adds: 'As an ex-secondary modern school boy from Yorkshire, I was not a part of the establishment.'

This is surely true. He was just about tolerated on the Tory backbenches in Margaret Thatcher's second term, but even there many regarded him as being an unpleasant oik. It's difficult to see such an impressive cast of grandees inviting Proctor into their homes in the first place, let alone encouraging him to join them in 'punching and kicking' a young boy to death.

The allegations are self-evidently absurd. And they run the risk of making all enquiries into old cases of paedophile abuse seem absurd by association.

There certainly were paedophiles in the upper ranks of the establishment. I wrote about the case of Sir Peter Hayman, for example, last year. And certainly things were covered up. But however appalling we find paedophilia, it is still in a different class of behaviour to child-killing. And however shocking we find it that action was not taken, averting one's gaze is in a different class of behaviour to participating in a murderous orgy.

The police, it is said, have a duty to investigate complaints, and obviously this is a sensitive area and a difficult time. Even so, this sort of nonsense surely shouldn't take too long to dismiss. Instead Proctor has had the allegations hanging over him for months, allegations that he personally murdered two children, and connived at the killing of a third. He has twice been interviewed at length over the claims.

It's not easy to feel sorry for Harvey Proctor, but for once in his life he deserves sympathy.

Postscript: I posted this just as Newsnight started, which included an interview with Harvey Proctor. There is perhaps one thing that should be added. He was asked by Evan Davis why he thought his name had been mentioned in the allegations, and he replied that perhaps it was because he was homosexual and had once pleaded guilty to indecency charges, albeit for offences that are no longer offences.

Well, yes, but there is the nature of the offences as well. He admitted paying teenage prostitutes, less than half his age, so that he could beat them. If I were concocting a story of sadistic pederasts in 1980s Westminster, his name might well come to my mind.

It's still nonsense, of course. Even more so. If he had access to twelve-year-olds who he could rape and murder to his heart's content, why was he still playing Trivial Pursuit with nineteen-year-olds and spanking them when they got the answers wrong? That's a different psychology entirely.

But it's worth bearing the facts in mind when he protests that the police are pursuing a 'homosexual witch hunt'. Because that's a daft claim as well.

Powerpop - the Favourites

I don't hold with the revisionist view that Abba were one of the great pop groups. They weren't really very good at all. We knew that at the time, and we were right. They were very competent at writing catchy melodies, but there was no fantasy, no glamour, no fun - just efficiency. Which means that they made a couple of decent singles and that was it.

The best of those singles, by a country mile, was their 1975 hit 'S.O.S.', which is a perfectly decent song. Better than the original, though, is this 1979 version by Nottingham band the Favourites, which treats it as a piece of punk-pop and makes the most of that minimalist guitar riff. It was Annie Nightingale's record of the week on Radio 1, but sadly wasn't a hit.

Fronted by Darryl Hunt, the Favourites released one further single - 'Angelica' (1979) - and then split up. Hunt himself had formerly been a member of Plummet Airlines, who'd released a very fine record 'Silver Shirt' on Stiff Records (1976), though it got completely lost, possibly because it was sandwiched in the Stiff catalogue between Richard Hell's 'Blank Generation' and Motorhead's first single. Difficult to get an elegaic pub-rock song heard in that kind of company.

After the Favourites, Hunt went on to become a member of the Pogues. But I still think this is his finest moment.

One Nation

'Anxious as we are to reduce taxation, we have no intention of slashing the social services. We believe in them as great national and human assets, and are prepared to make sacrifices to preserve them.'


R.A. Butler, chancellor of the exchequer in the Conservative government of 1951-55, speaking in 1953.

Monday, 24 August 2015

Powerpop - The Photographs

I know nothing about the Photographs' 1979 single 'Second Best', except that I bought it in a job lot at the Our Price shop round the back of Finchley Road tube station the year after it came out. Ironically, given their name, it didn't even come in a picture sleeve, so I have no idea what they looked like. They were a Bristol band, who - as far as I'm aware - never released anything else, and the Do Not Bend label was presumably their own, since it also never released anything else.

The production is sketchy, to say the least, the female vocals are flat, both in tuning and attitude, and the chord sequence is hardly a revelation. Despite all of which, I think it's lovely, a proper pop song that's all the better for being flawed. It's like the Chiffons would've sounded if there'd only been one of them, and she'd grown up on a 1970s council estate, before becoming the first in her family to go to university.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

In addition to my duties in this House


I shall continue writing this blog, but recently I've also started putting together another site, Lion & Unicorn, to which I would like to draw your attention.

This is still at an early stage, but I have high hopes for the venture. The intention is cover aspects of England and Britain - political, cultural, economic, sporting - in a slightly more reflective manner than the media generally has time to do.

Which doesn't mean that it will avoid the news agenda entirely. So, for example, there are currently to be found several pieces that explore aspects of this season's excitement, Jeremy Corbynmania. Sam Harrison writes about who or what is responsible for Corbynmania, Dan Atkinson examines Corbyn's policy of people's quantitative easing, and I blame Tony Blair for his lack of faith in politics. I also engage in a little light mockery of the whole phenomenon.

As I say, early days yet, and we haven't officially launched the site (whatever we mean by that), but it's starting to come together. Lion & Unicorn - bookmark it, bear it in mind. Now you know where we are, don't be a stranger.

Powerpop - Ian Gomm

So I was playing some post-punk powerpop a few weeks back before I got distracted. And now I return.

Ian Gomm was a member of pub-rock band Brinsley Schwarz, and I think this was his first solo single under his own name. It's Chuck Berry's song 'Come On', as covered by the Rolling Stones for their debut, but a complete re-imagining of the piece - a slightly disturbing, paranoid version that borrows from the kind of new wave reggae associated with Elvis Costello at the time. Around a minute into it and a terrific echo-dripping guitar riff comes in, after which it gets even more tense.

Gomm had an American hit with his next single, 'Hold On', and wrote some good songs, but nothing was ever as stunning as this record.


Friday, 21 August 2015

The Labour leadership

Should I have the right to vote in the Labour leadership election? I've never been a member of the party. I have voted for it on several occasions, but then on other occasions I've voted for around half-a-dozen other parties, plus a couple of independents. It's not just that I'm not tribal; it's that I wouldn't actually call myself a Labour supporter.

But that's what I am now. I paid my three quid and I'm officially a registered supporter of the Labour Party. I had to declare that I agreed with the aims and values of the party, of course, but that wasn't too hard, since the new Clause IV introduced by Blair was deliberately mushy and meaningless. Do I approve of a world 'where we live together, freely, in a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect'. Yes, that sounds quite agreeable. Who's going to argue? (Apart from the likes of Nick Griffin, Robert Mugabe and Donald Trump.)

So it turns out that I do have the right to vote. Morally and politically, Labour may have been daft to sell me that right, but I've got it now. And I'm doing my best to use it dutifully, because - as Clause IV says - 'the rights we enjoy reflect the duties we owe'. And I've promised Labour that I'm in agreement with that.

I'm taking this vote seriously. Over the last fortnight I've written around fifteen thousand words as I've worked my way through newspaper archives, trying to get a clearer picture first of each of the candidates for deputy leader, and now those contesting the leadership: Liz Kendall, Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Jeremy Corbyn.


My aim has been to identify the candidates who I think are best for the Labour Party. Not, you'll notice, for the country. And certainly not for me.

Because I'm shallow and easily bored. I like to see Westminster as a soap opera and I like big storylines.

In an ideal world, my preference is for all four of the major national parties to break up and to regroup in a different arrangement. The current set-up isn't working. Better than that, I'd like to see proportional representation so that we could have more parties, For a start, in my new improved system, there'd be four Labour parties, one each for Scotland, Wales, England and London.

But that's not on offer. And anyway I think it would be dishonest and dishonourable of me to abuse my place as a guest of the party by trying to trash the place. So I shall be respectful, and be guided by the consideration of who will stand the best chance of helping Labour rebuild and go on to contest a general election.

Not that I think any of them are in with much of a shout of winning in 2020, so steep are the odds against the party. But denying the Tories a majority is well within Labour's grasp, and even a minority government is a reasonable aspiration.

In that process, I don't believe that policy is particularly important. Broad direction and philosophy count, but detailed policies don't.

And, one final consideration, I know that it's not a very inspiring slate of candidates. As I've said before, it's probably the worst in my lifetime - worse even than in 2007, when there was only one name on the ballot paper and that belonged to Gordon Brown.

But still, despite all the limitations, despite everything, a choice has to be made.

And my decision is that I shall cast my vote for Liz Kendall.

Which has come as a surprise to me. She was probably in third place in my mind when the deadline for nominations arrived. But the more I think about the state of the party, the more I think that she's the only one who might stand a chance of winning the seats that Labour needs to win.

She's ludicrously inexperienced and has yet to display the kind of leadership that she would need, but I think she has the potential to do so. Certainly she seems to be the only one capable of thinking new thoughts and arguing for a new position. Neither Burnham nor Cooper have distinguished themselves in this campaign.

The only other serious candidate is, bizarrely, Jeremy Corbyn. Not for anything he's done, more for the campaign that has grown up around him. There is an argument to be made that he stands far and away the best chance of bringing back some nationalist voters - those who opted for UKIP or the SNP in the general election - and might get a few Greens on board. There might also be a rise in turnout in safe Labour seats. Those new recruits, however, would, I'm convinced, be massively outweighed by a voting collapse in the South and the Midlands, precisely the areas where Kendall would be strong.

I don't believe that the surge in membership is stable or sustainable, and I suspect most of the new recruits will melt away regardless of the outcome of this election. Nor have I seen any evidence that Corbyn's supporters have the ability, or even inclination, to persuade doubters. There is also the impression of disunity that would be given by Corbyn's parliamentary colleagues. This may not be the direct consequence of Corbyn's actions, but it is the political reality. And I cannot see how he could command support in the country if he couldn't get it in the Commons.

And talking of reality: I recognise that Kendall isn't going to win. I understand you can get odds of 100-1 against her doing so, which in a four-horse race isn't too impressive. Which means that, as things currently stand, I think the Tories will win the next general election.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Fuck the rich: a portrait of Jeremy Corbyn

'We have to address the problems of society by redistributing wealth,' explained Jeremy Corbyn at a 1997 rally, before getting down to the real nitty gritty of his message: 'Fuck the rich.'*

I quote from that speech, because it's both characteristic and unusual. Unusual because it's rare to hear him indulge in coarse language in public; but characteristic because he never was much of a phrase-maker. 'Fuck the rich' is as pithy as he's ever got, and it's not a startlingly original phrase.

Jeremy Corbyn differs a little from the previous eight candidates who I've written about over the last fortnight - though not entirely, since he's similarly done nothing but politics from an early age. He is, however, considerably older (born in 1949) and he doesn't have a degree: he went to the North London Polytechnic to do trade union studies, but left before completing the course. Instead he did a couple of years voluntary work in Jamaica and returned to become an official with the National Union of Tailors and Garment Makers (quite a big union at its peak, but long since merged into the GMB).

There was some surprise, incidentally, when Corbyn revealed at a hustings last month that he'd never smoked cannabis. But it was typical of the left of his generation: there was an austerity that verged on the puritanical. He may have been at a poly in the 1960s, but that didn't mean he was to be confused with a load of bourgeois hippies.

He was elected to Haringey council in North London in 1974 and stayed there till he entered Parliament in 1983 as the MP for Islington North. In that election, he beat not only the Tory and SDP candidates, but also the former Labour MP, Michael O'Halloran, standing as Independent Labour.

Even before he arrived in Westminster, Corbyn was well known in Labour politics, described in The Times as 'the veteran left-wing campaigner for squatters' rights'. The paper further pointed out that he'd be difficult to expel from the party: 'Mr Corbyn, like Mr Livingstone, is no "entryist". He has been a Labour Party member since his youth.'

The early 1980s were exciting times for the left in London, for while the party was floundering nationally, it was making substantial headway in the capital. And Corbyn was a key part of that. He was never the front man, but he was the kind of figure that anyone who encountered the left at the time would recognise: the man who worked indefatigably in the back office, emerging only to sit through interminable meetings, the one whose corduroy trousers bore telltale signs of Gestetner ink from hours of duplicating newsletters.

His greatest contribution to the cause was running London Labour Briefing, the journal that effectively coordinated the left's capture of the capital in the 1980s. Unusually for a socialist publication of the era, Briefing concerned itself with tactics not ideology, and concentrated on local government, where the resistance to Margaret Thatcher's government was at its most effective. It was a clearinghouse for information, not a theoretical journal. Ken Livingstone's coup against Andrew McIntosh to take control of the GLC in 1981 was plotted in the pages of Briefing.

The same year the journal published an article by Peter Tatchell, arguing: 'We must look to new, more militant forms of extra-parliamentary opposition which involve mass popular participation and challenge the government's right to rule.' And it was Michael Foot's hysterical response to that article that turned Tatchell briefly into the tabloids' favourite leftie villain.

The Tatchell episode ended in farce and failure, but mostly Briefing was an impressively successful enterprise. The politics of diversity that it championed were denounced at the time as loony left, but they seeped into alternative culture and have since taken over the mainstream.

Corbyn went on every demonstration, and he normally spoke, but he was no orator like Tony Benn. He supported every strike, but he was no firebrand like Arthur Scargill. He attended every meeting, but he was no thinker or innovator like Ken Livingstone. In short, he was one of nature's corporals. And he was very good at it. The fact that he currently has the best organised campaign of any of the leadership candidates should come as no surprise at all: it's what he does - those rallies don't organise themselves, you know.

In Parliament, he was a keen defender of the Bennite principles enshrined in the 1983 manifesto, but it was immediately obvious that the party, under the leadership of Neil Kinnock, was moving in another direction, particularly after the defeat of the miners' strike and Kinnock's conference speech denouncing Militant.

'What is clear,' observed Corbyn in 1988, 'is that the Labour Party decided a long time ago, in 1985, that the official party policy was a vote-loser and that something had to be done about it.'

He and the rest of the left were increasingly isolated under Kinnock, then under John Smith and most notably under Tony Blair. Throughout, Corbyn could be found voting according to his conscience rather than following the whip.

When he got reported - which was seldom, for the media found nothing of interest in him - he tended to be speaking against party policy. 'Most people are not opposed to raising the top level of tax,' he said just before the 1997 election, even as Gordon Brown promised no income tax rises. 'And those who made lots of money under Thatcher should pay more.'

He was also attracted, and lent his weight, to any cause that seemed to be opposed to the British, American or Israeli states. This led him, and much of the left, into some very dubious company.

It also allowed some notable omissions. There's a revealing entry in one of Tony Benn's diaries in 1989 when he goes on a protest against the massacre of students in Tiananmen Square, and notes: 'It was the first time I had ever spoken in public against a communist government.' You have to say that he left it a bit late; this was only five months before the German people began to dismantle the Berlin Wall.

Corbyn's associations with groups like Sinn Fein/IRA and Hamas will undoubtedly come back to haunt him, should he be elected leader. And I don't think there's any mileage in the leftist argument that it's all about trying to find peaceful ways forward, because it's not true: the motivation was and is political, not humanitarian.

In the run-up to the 1992 election, Conservative Central Office commissioned an analysis of Labour MPs and their expressed support for 'extremist views'. It concluded that in joint first place were Bill Michie and Bob Parry, but Corbyn came in an honourable third place, level pegging with Harry Cohen and Dennis Skinner, and just ahead of Tony Banks, Eddie Loyden and Max Madden, followed by a further group of Harry Barnes, Tony Benn and Alice Mahon. (Congratulations, by the way, if you recognise all those names - you'll do well if they ever introduce a politics spin-off from Pointless.)

None of this has done Corbyn any harm in Islington North, where he is reckoned to be a good constituency MP. During his thirty-two years there, the constituency has changed completely, gentrified beyond recognition, but it's turned out that the newly arrived affluent liberals rather like him; he's become as much part of the Emirates era as he had once been of the Highbury years. The majority of 5,600 that he inherited had risen to over 21,000 by the election this May.

As the reforms of the Kinnock years became embedded, he warned that the abandonment of ideology was damaging Labour's membership. This is him in 1990:
People are not coming into the party, fewer people are coming to meetings, and there is a very low level of public activity in general. The party has not got a healthy base. It is all very shallow. We do our opinion polls, find out what people want and say, 'Okay, you can have it,' without asking what kind of society we have now, and what kind of society we want to replace it.
Just to make the point again that Corbyn was no inspiration as a wordsmith, compare this with Austin Mitchell's rather more striking formulation the previous year, saying that Labour had become: 'a mass party without members, an ideological crusade without an agreed ideology, a people's party cut off from the people.'

But Corbyn worked hard. And that work is reflected in his current standing. A lot of people have a great deal of respect for him, in trade unions and campaigning groups around the country, and particularly in London. There are also tens of thousands who marched with him on demonstrations over the years but who didn't stay the pace, and gave up on political activism, burnt out and disillusioned; many of these have returned to Labour in the last few weeks.

He is not the leader that anyone would have chosen. But, as I've discussed here before, he was the last man standing when the left decided it should try to field a candidate in the contest, in the seemingly absurd hope of having a say on the future direction of the party. And once he got up and running, it turned out that he had more support than anyone had imagined.

His effect on the campaign has been transformative, changing entirely the terms of the debate. And it has been for the better. This discussion - essentially over the legacy of New Labour - needed to be had, however painful and disagreeable it is. When he was leader, Ed Miliband was praised for keeping the party together, but it seems that he just delayed things for five years.

Corbyn himself has improved over these weeks. He's still no great speaker, but he looks like he's relaxing a little and consequently communicating better. He's developing some ability at handling the media that has never been apparent before. (Perhaps he's been getting tips off Ken Livingstone or Diane Abbott.)

Most importantly, he's found a winning formula, offering socialist authenticity as the man who never compromised his beliefs, but also indulging in terminology so vague that it might be mistaken for the theme song to Neighbours. Socialism, he says, is simple: 'You care for each other, you care for everybody, and everybody cares for everybody else. It's obvious, isn't it?'

Obvious perhaps, but still it's quite a long way from 'Fuck the rich'. Maybe the man's mellowing with age.

At the time of writing, Jeremy Corbyn is the clear favourite to be elected leader of the Labour Party next month. And that sentence represents, I think, the single most extraordinary political fact that I have ever recorded.


And that concludes my round-up of the four candidates for the Labour Party leadership, drawn - as ever - from newspaper reports. Tomorrow I shall stop procrastinating and decide who I should vote for.

* Additional note: After the 'fuck the rich' speech was repeated in Newsweek, following this post, a message was tweeted by the TimesArchive Twitter account:

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Human till she talks: a portrait of Yvette Cooper

One of the standard jokes at the start of the current Labour leadership election was that Yvette Cooper's judgement has to be suspect: after all, she did marry Ed Balls. Not very funny, I know, and also deeply unfair, because on the plus side they chose Eastbourne for their wedding, she wore Vivienne Westwood for the ceremony, and they went to Euro-Disney for their honeymoon. Which deals with the lack of judgement charge.

In general, of course, it's unfair to reflect on a politician's partner, but in the case of the first husband and wife team to serve in a British cabinet, it's kind of inevitable. For nearly two decades, they've been seen as a single force. As a magazine pointed out in 1998, Cooper and Balls were 'New Labour's It Couple, the zenith of everything it stands for.' A Daily Telegraph profile of the pair the same year was headlined: 'Will this couple make it to Number 10?' Or, as the Guardian put it, they were 'the Posh and Becks of the Labour Party'.

Born in 1969, Yvette Cooper studied PPE at Oxford and went on to become an adviser to John Smith and to Harriet Harman. (My apologies for the repetitions in this series of portraits, but there really is a shocking lack of variation in the backgrounds of the candidates.)

She also worked for a while in journalism, as a leader writer and as the economics correspondent for the Independent. She was perfectly okay, and occasionally wandered out of her field. This is her on the supposed crisis in masculinity that was such a big media deal in the 1990s:
The only thing these men really have to adjust to is change itself. No, they can't have a job for life anymore. But so what? Few women ever had one. And no, they can't invest their entire identity in the firm they work for: the company might not be there in two years. And if they are too frit to visit their GPs they had better reconcile themselves to early avoidable death.
No tolerance for the nanny state here, then; you sink or swim according to your own efforts.

Her articles tended to be broadly supportive of the Labour Party in opposition, but even she struggled to put a positive gloss on Tony Blair at times, and had to concede that his borrowing of Will Hutton's 'stakeholding' concept was little more than, in her word, 'waffly'.

Her ambitions, however, lay in Parliament not Fleet Street. Under the patronage of Gordon Brown, she attempted to become the candidate for the safe seat of Don Valley, where she lost out to Caroline Flint, before securing the nomination for the even safer Pontefract & Castleford, where she beat both Hilary Benn and Derek Scott (Tony Blair's economic adviser, who later wrote Off Whitehall).

She was one of ten Labour MPs elected in the 1997 landslide who were still in their twenties, and was clearly marked out for early advancement.

When Brown announced that he was handing over control of interest rates to the Bank of England, it was Cooper - just four days into her parliamentary career - who was sent onto Newsnight to defend the move to Jeremy Paxman. 'With that one step,' she wrote, 'the government has done more to achieve economic stability than anything any British government has done for years.' She brushed aside suggestions that the move was an affront to democracy: in characteristic New Labour style, managerialism was more important than politics.

Shortly after the election, Cooper and Balls - the archetypal North London couple - moved from Hackney to the New Labour heartland of Islington, though they later moved again, this time to upwardly mobile Stoke Newington. For expenses purposes, this was, of course, their second home, entitling them to a subsidised mortgage. When such things began to provoke outrage, it was reported that between them they had 'racked up more than £300,000 in expenses' in 2006-07, considerably above the national average for MPs.

From a whip's perspective, her behaviour in Parliament was exemplary, largely - one suspects - because she was a genuine believer in the Blair-Brown 'project'. The Demon Ears column in the Observer concluded that she 'isn't that bad for a New Labour MP, even though she does dream on message'.

By October 1998 she was being offered a minor government post, though she turned it down in favour of remaining a member of the intelligence and security committee. It proved to be only a short delay: the following year she took on the public health portfolio, becoming the youngest minister in Blair's administration. She then went on to become the first minister to say she'd once smoked pot and, admirably, didn't claim not to have liked it: 'I did try cannabis while at university, like a lot of students at that time, and it is something that I have left behind.'

In her new role she was partly responsible for the cross-departmental project Sure Start, widely seen as one of the better initiatives of New Labour. Its fanbase was wide enough to include, slightly oddly, a children's TV favourite: 'Peppa Pig is a well-known fan of Sure Start children's centres,' it was revealed in 2010.

Less successful was the idea of a crusade against teenage pregnancies under the slogan 'It's OK to be a virgin'. Cooper had sufficient political nous to reject that in favour of 'a straightforward campaign which gives teenagers the facts and is aimed as much at boys as at girls'.

She moved to the Lord Chancellor's department in 2002, then to environment, transport and the regions, where she became minister of state for housing and planning.

The latter portfolio did not count among New Labour's great achievements: during Blair and Brown's period in office, an average of 562 council homes were built each year, compared to the annual average of 41,343 during Margaret Thatcher's premiership.

Cooper did little to improve this woeful record, but she did do some things. She relaxed the regulations on householders installing small windmills and solar panels, and she piloted the chaotic introduction of Home Information Packs. She also faced criticism for allowing more house-building on flood plains. And she suggested that middle-aged couples in social housing should be encouraged to move out of cities when their children left home, to free up housing stock. Her concern here was over 'underoccupied' social housing, an issue later addressed - in somewhat more heavy-handed manner - by the Coalition government's bedroom tax.

When Gordon Brown became prime minister, she remained as housing minister but was given a new right to attend cabinet meetings, and then, in 2008, she made the cabinet proper as chief secretary to the Treasury. Just in time for the credit crunch, though happily she didn't stay very long. As Brown's government descended into a farce of resignations, her loyalty was rewarded with a further promotion, and she served out the rest of the New Labour years as work and pensions secretary, inheriting the agenda set by her predecessor James Purnell.

She spent most of the Ed Miliband era as shadow home secretary, one of the easiest jobs in politics, since there's always something going wrong in the Home Office to provide you with ammunition. This was, famously, where Tony Blair had made his name in 1992-94 in his 'tough on crime' days. But Cooper failed completely to make the same kind of impact and was largely invisible. 'Home secretary Theresa May was fighting for her political life last night as she was engulfed by the border checks scandal,' read the papers in 2011, but Cooper failed to exploit the situation, and of the two you'd probably bet on May being the one to make it to prime minister.

Perhaps, though, that job was a waste of her talent, which is much more obviously focussed on the economy. As shadow chancellor, she would have made a trickier opponent for George Osborne than did her husband.

Beyond economic matters, there has been much talk of women's issues, though sometimes this has been seen as being somewhat narrow in scope. Arguing, for example, in support of cuts to single-parent benefits in 1997, she displayed little interest in those who wished to concentrate on parenthood: 'It's a question of priorities. If we put resources into childcare and helping people back to work, we will raise the standard of living for the poorest.'

Similarly, she has repeatedly claimed over the last few years that 'David Cameron has a real problem with women'. This is an over-simplification, seeming to imply that women can be seen as a homogenous, metropolitan, professional block, somewhat in the image of Cooper herself.

The reality is that age is as big a factor as gender. At the election this year, according to Ipsos-Mori, Labour had a 20-percentage-point lead over the Conservatives among women aged 18-24, but trailed by 18 points among women over the age of 55. Unfortunately for Labour, which clearly has a real problem with older women, there are considerably more of them, and they're more likely to vote.

Cooper considered standing for the leadership in 2010, and Balls said that if she did so, he wouldn't stand himself. She decided against it, however, because she wanted to spend more time with her children. Five years on, and it was inevitable that she would be a candidate. By any normal standards, she really ought to be the front-runner, the one that the others have to beat. But that's not how it's worked out.

In 1997 she condemned - with complete justification - the Conservatives for their remoteness: 'They took politics far away from normal people's lives.' She points, with some justification, to Sure Start as her contribution to changing that, but as a politician, she herself doesn't seem to connect. There's something that isn't quite right. Perhaps Simon Hattenstone put his finger on it in the Guardian in 2010. 'It's funny that Cooper seems so human till she starts to talk,' he wrote, 'while Balls seems so monstrous till he starts.'


This is the third in a series of profiles of the four candidates in the Labour Party leadership election. Yesterday: Liz Kendall. Tomorrow: Jeremy Corbyn.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition

The word that keeps coming up in the profiles I'm writing of the Labour candidates is 'loyal'. Of the nine candidates for the leadership and deputy leadership, eight have repeatedly been described as loyal. And in this context, loyalty means voting as the whips tell you. By contrast, the ninth candidate is Jeremy Corbyn, best known for ignoring the party whip on hundreds of occasions, and therefore being disloyal.

But this is a very limited version of loyalty. Traditionally, it was loyalty to the party that was cherished, rather than simply walking into the right lobby at Westminster. And, traditionally, it's been the political right that has been far less loyal than has the left or the trade unions.

The clearest example was the creation of the SDP in 1981, led by Roy Jenkins (who'd previously led the great parliamentary rebellion to ensure British entry into the European Community). When the right had control of the party, the left went along with it, even if they did grumble and moan. As soon as the left seemed to be in the ascendancy, the intellectual right split from Labour altogether.

The arrival of the New Labour right added a new dimension. Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson simply plotted endlessly. Blair tried to get John Smith to stage a leadership coup against Neil Kinnock. Then, when Smith did become leader, Blair and Mandelson schemed against him as well. And eventually, they all descended into plotting against each other. Despite the supposed iron discipline of New Labour, there was no loyalty at all to individuals, leaders or the party.

Jeremy Corbyn, on the other hand, has been an MP for thirty-two years, for perhaps thirty of which he has been in a beleaguered minority. He may not have always done what he was told, but he never threatened to leave if he didn't get his own way, and he has never (as far as I'm aware) plotted to stage a coup against the leadership.

This is relevant, of course, in terms of the current leadership election. Should anyone but Corbyn win, there will be demands for unity, discipline and loyalty. Should Corbyn win, don't expect the right to display any loyalty whatsoever.

You don't give up: a portrait of Liz Kendall

When Liz Kendall was asked recently if she would step down from the Labour leadership election in an attempt to unify the anti-Jeremy Corbyn forces, she bristled at the very suggestion. 'You don't give up fighting for what you believe in,' she insisted. 'I love the party too much to see us lose again.' The echoes of Hugh Gaitskell's 'Fight, fight and fight again' were presumably not unconscious.

Born in 1971, Liz Kendall (not to be confused with the similarly named girlfriend of American serial killer Ted Bundy) studied history at Cambridge. She then followed the conventional path and - like David Miliband and James Purnell - went to work for the Institute for Public Policy Research, one of the many left-wing think tanks of the time that between them produced more ministers manqué than government initiatives.

While there, she co-wrote a 1994 pamphlet on the virtue of citizens' juries, a kind of state-approved focus group that would 'bring the voice and experience of ordinary citizens into the political process'. It was a neat idea for expanding democracy, borrowed from Germany, but of course it never materialised, and I can't find a reference to it in the last twenty years.

As soon as Labour was elected in 1997, she was recruited to become a special adviser (alongside John McTernan) to Harriet Harman at the department of social security, where she concentrated 'on women's issues especially lone mothers'. Unfortunately, it was a cut to single parent benefits, ordered by Downing Street, that precipitated the first great rebellion of the Tony Blair government, and cost Harman her job. Kendall left Whitehall at the same time and went back to the IPPR and to work in the charity sector.

She was put on the national list of candidates, but failed to secure the nomination to succeed Tony Benn in Chesterfield, where the Labour candidate was, said the Guardian, 'virtually guaranteed a seat in Parliament' in the 2001 election. (Actually it fell to the Liberal Democrats.)

She moved on to the charity Maternity Alliance and became in due course a special adviser to the health secretary, Patricia Hewitt, perhaps the only politician to be name-checked in a David Bowie song (in 'The Gospel According to Tony Day', the 1967 B-side to 'The Laughing Gnome').

In 2010 she was finally elected to the House of Commons, taking over Hewitt's old seat in Leicester West. She was thirty-eight, which by New Labour standards was getting on a bit, but she was singled out by John Curtice in the Sunday Telegraph as one of the party's rising stars of the new Parliament, along with Tristram Hunt, Rachel Reeves, Chuka Umuna and Gloria De Piero.

She did have a position under Ed Miliband, as shadow spokesperson for care and older people, but you'd be hard pushed to notice her make any public impact. Nonetheless, when Miliband resigned following his election disaster in May, she was the first to declare her candidacy, the speed of her decision seeming to wrongfoot others who might be considered to be on the Blairite wing of the party.

She herself, for obvious reasons, tends to disown the Blairite tag, but there is something in it. As Blair himself admitted, he never came close to completing his public sector reforms, to achieving a reorientation towards users; Kendall talks a strong case on the subject. She's also spoken of the need to meet the Nato target of 2 per cent of GDP to be allocated to defence. And she's almost as harsh on Jeremy Corbyn as Blair himself, suggesting that, even if he were to win the leadership, she wouldn't want to see him as prime minister.

The implication of that, of course, is that she would rather see a Conservative government than a Corbynite Labour one. And that has attracted a great deal of abuse from the left. It is, though, a legitimate argument for any but the most tribal. If you believe that it is essential to have a strong economy in order to provide public services, and if you believe that Corbyn would severely damage the nation's economy, then it is logical to conclude that you'd rather wait your turn, in the expectation that there would still be something worth taking over in five years time.

If that seems silly, then it's indicative of the foolishness of the current party alignment. Somewhere, in a parallel universe, the Tories lost the general election badly and Bill Cash is currently the front-runner to become Conservative leader. He's a man of principle, not afraid to speak his mind, offers hope for the future, at least you know what he believes in etc etc. And Ken Clarke and Michael Heseltine are issuing statements that he'd rather see a pro-EU Labour government than for their own party to win under Cash.

Since her abrupt arrival on centre stage, Kendall has been profiled often enough in the papers for us to learn that she went to school with Geri Halliwell, that she's a fan of Public Enemy, Dr Dre and Eminem, that's she's a keen runner, and that she had a lengthy relationship with the comedian Greg Davies. None of which has done a single thing to project a personality, or to change the public perception of her as something of an enigma: someone who clearly wishes to be the leader, but exhibits no obvious sign of leadership.

In person, it's acknowledged, she is warm and charismatic. (Mind you, that's what they always said about Ed Miliband, as well.) She is also reckoned to be extremely determined, steely and committed, though this hasn't come across at all in the hustings thus far. Presumably, however, it explains why she considered it appropriate to stand for the leadership at all, with only five years in Parliament behind her and no time in government.

In that lack of experience, as in much else, she resembles nothing so much as a Labour version of David Cameron. Both have the same desire to accept aspects of the modern world that don't sit easily with traditionalists in their parties, in her case in relation to the public sector and social security. And perhaps if Kendall were in the same position as Cameron in 2005 - if her party were coming off the back of three election defeats, rather than just the two - she might have been better heard and made more impact.

But that's not where Labour is right now and, though she may well be back, it wouldn't be surprising if she left Parliament altogether. She could probably have far more impact campaigning outside than she would in a shadow cabinet led by Yvette Cooper, and certainly more than she would grimacing on the backbenches behind Jeremy Corbyn.

In 1974 Margaret Stewart wrote a fine book titled Protest or Power? A Study of the Labour Party. In that divide, there is little doubt about which side Kendall stands on.


This is the second in a series of profiles of the four candidates in the Labour Party leadership election. Yesterday: Andy Burnham. Tomorrow: Yvette Cooper.

Monday, 17 August 2015

A football man: a portrait of Andy Burnham

'Have you never felt the lure of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll?' Mary Whitehouse was asked. To which she replied: 'It depends on what you mean by sex; otherwise not.'

Back in 1993-94 the Observer used to run a feature called Any Questions, in which they told us who their interviewee would be next week and invited readers to send in their queries. And, as far as I can tell, this represented Andy Burnham's first appearances in the national press, with questions to Ian Botham, Graham Gooch and indeed to the ever fascinating Mary Whitehouse.

Sadly the names weren't attached to specific queries, so we'll never know whether Burnham was the one who asked Whitehouse about sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll. Probably not. Given his love of sport, he's more likely to have been the one who asked her: 'Do you regret not having had a professional tennis career?'

Born in 1970, Andy Burnham studied English at Cambridge University and followed what was rapidly becoming the conventional path into Labour Party politics: he worked as a researcher for Tessa Jowell and as parliamentary officer for the NHS confederation, before getting a nice job administering the Football Task Force that had been set up by Tony Banks, minister of sport in Tony Blair's first government.

The aims of the Task Force were to combat racism in football, to encourage disabled access, to help 'players to act as role models in terms of behaviour and sportsmanship', and to give fans a voice, particularly in terms of 'ticketing and pricing policies that reflect the need of all on an equitable basis'. As the new Premier League season gets into its stride, you can judge their successes for yourself.

From there, it was but a short step to becoming a political adviser to Chris Smith, the culture secretary, and thence a safe seat in Leigh, though his parachuted arrival was not to the taste of everyone in the local party. 'This is jobs for the boys,' one member complained. 'It stinks to high heaven.'

Duly elected in 2001, he became known as one of the most loyal of new Labour MPs and was swiftly rewarded with promotion into the lower tiers of government. Not that he agreed with the leadership on everything, of course; it's just that he didn't like to advertise the fact. 'I'm not someone who has aired my differences with the party in public,' he says. 'I'm a football man. I do that in the changing room. On the pitch I tend to play the team game.'

In 2006, as Blair began the process of winding up his leadership of the party, Burnham's was one of the names he cited as the future of Labour, alongside those of Douglas Alexander, Ed Balls, David Miliband, Ed Miliband, James Purnell and Pat McFadden. Of those seven, four have now departed from the House of Commons, while another has already had his chance at leadership and blown it: the future isn't working out as planned.

By that stage, Burnham was making his way through the ranks, spending a while as a health minister, where he described his first week as one of mixed blessings: 'It's probably my worst nightmare to find out that my first parliamentary appearance would be winding up on a debate on deficits in the NHS,' he observed, though on a positive note: 'my week had begun on a high with Everton winning.' (He's rather partial to football, in case it had escaped anyone's attention.)

Following time spent in other jobs - Europe minister, chief secretary to the Treasury and culture secretary - he returned to the health department as secretary of state in 2009, and subsequently made the portfolio his own, serving as shadow health spokesperson during Ed Miliband's leadership.

In 2007 he called for the launch of an NHS constitution to spell out the institution's core values and 'to settle a new consensus around the NHS as the right model for Britain's healthcare needs for at least the medium term, if not for the longer term'.

He has also been campaigning for many years for the integration of health and care provision, proposing the creation of a National Health and Care Service. For a politician who claims to like 'doing things that are bold, important, setting a big agenda,' this has been his big idea. It hasn't, though, really sparked into life, and no one discusses its implications: what it means, how it would work. It's quite possibly a very policy indeed, but it sounds dull the way he tells it, and it hasn't caught the public imagination.

His bland, if not blind, loyalty in government led him into some more controversial areas. He was a keen advocate for the issuing of compulsory identity cards, he defended the PFI schemes for the building of new hospitals, and he suggested that the government might need to act to prevent alcohol being sold too cheaply. He was also called upon to implement the decision to scrap the plans for a so-called super-casino in Manchester, Gordon Brown's one distinctive repudiation of the Blair years.

And then there was the Stafford Hospital scandal. He set up the official enquiry into problems at Stafford immediately he became health secretary, but some still felt that there were outstanding questions, and that, in the words of The Spectator, 'he'll never be able to win a Labour leadership contest until he has a proper answer to those questions'.

Elsewhere, he has been dismissive of 'the educated, articulate, letter-writing people' who 'have no idea of what it is like to bring up a kid on a very low income and the pressure that creates and the difficulties that occur'. And he has been keen to stress the value of competitive sport: 'Competitiveness teaches good life values, winning and losing and taking in your stride, teamwork, discipline and a sense of obligation.'

In his time as secretary of state for culture, media and sport, he trumpeted his love of The Royle Family, professed himself - like Stella Creasy - to be a fan of the Wedding Present (particularly, and predictably, their 1987 album George Best), and claimed that 'Jeff Stelling epitomises standards in broadcasting'. He also mounted a robust defence of printed newspapers, arguing that that their 'heritage means something and can help people navigate a world where there is an ocean of shite on the internet'.

The great mystery about Burnham is why he's been talked up for so long and promoted so young. He gives the impression of being competent and personable, but largely uninspiring; an able lieutenant, perhaps, but no commander. He is the only leadership candidate this time who also went for the job in 2010. On that occasion, he finished fourth in a field of five, which was a little unkind - he was probably the third best option.

Above all, though, as he never ceases to remind us, he's a football fan. 'The Burnham family are a close-knit mob and there are three organisations that matter to us,' he once remarked: 'Everton Football Club, the Labour Party and the Catholic church - in that order.'


This is the first in a series of profiles of the four candidates in the Labour Party leadership election. Like the pieces I posted about the candidates for deputy leader, these are drawn entirely from the media, so they could be riddled with errors. Tomorrow: Liz Kendall

Sunday, 16 August 2015

A throw of the dice

Throughout this Labour leadership contest, I've been predicting a victory for Yvette Cooper. Indeed I was predicting it in April before the general election. I don't like to change my predictions, so I won't. Despite everything, Yvette Cooper will become the leader of the Labour Party.

I am aware, however, that this is - to put it mildly - a minority position. And that I have no evidence for it whatsoever.

In fact, if I'd been paying attention to myself, I would have concluded that Jeremy Corbyn, currently the red-hot favourite, was the likely winner. 'New political forces will emerge, whether within the existing parties or outside of them,' I wrote in 2012; 'things are about to change quite radically.' I added last year that UKIP weren't that change. But maybe Corbyn is the catalyst for this change.

So let's assume that that I'm as wrong now as I was when I placed money on Peter Hain succeeding Tony Blair, the issue is whether Corbyn will be any good as leader.

There are three basic tasks for the opposition. First, that they oppose government policies by producing alternatives. Second, that those alternatives change the terms of the debate. Third, that by changing the debate, there comes at least a reasonable chance of winning the next election.

The first is where things have really gone wrong for the Labour establishment. Losing the election was disastrous, but Harriet Harman's call for MPs to abstain on welfare reform added insult to injury. It smacked of democratic centralism, implying that since the Tories had won the election, then their policies had to be accepted. The decision to abstain made no difference whatsoever to the outcome of the vote, but Harman has been around long enough that she should have got the grasp of symbolic gestures by now. And yet she blew it, and no other single event has done as much to strengthen Corbyn's cause.

Frankly, Corbyn couldn't make a worse fist of opposition than Harman already has.

His MPs, however, could make it much, much worse. If a significant number of them effectively refuse to accept the party's vote, then he will fail from the outset. And they may well do so. They could quote Tony Benn at a meeting of the shadow cabinet in 1970: 'When the boat is sunk, you can't exactly rock it.'

Assuming, though, that he could assert his authority of the parliamentary party, could Corbyn re-frame the national debate? Yes. Is it likely? No. He would have the entire media against him; not just the usual suspects, but the whole of what some like to call the legacy media.

And maybe in there is the hope: that social media and the revival of public meetings can bypass the newspapers and the broadcasters. Maybe Facebook and The Trews will eclipse the Daily Mail and the Ten O'Clock News as the source of political information. I'm not convinced. Not in the short-term. So it would require an active mass membership - in real life, not on the internet - to counteract media hostility. Again I'm not convinced. Nor do I see any sign of Corbyn supporters seeking to persuade, rather than to assert.

Could he offer the possibility of an election win? Well, very probably not. But honestly, you never really know. Labour winning in 2020 is such an uphill task anyway. Someone on Twitter (I apologise for forgetting who - let me know it was you) suggested that, if this were a dice game, Labour needed to throw a six to win, and that Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall could only manage threes and fours. Corbyn, on the other hand, offered the chance of either a one or a six.

Maybe. It is possible that Corbyn (Corbyn, of all people!) could build a People's Army that would massively outnumber Nigel Farage's following, a crusade that stretches far beyond Parliament. How this works within the existing Labour Party structure, however, I have no idea.

I have a fear that a Corbyn-led Labour might echo the miners' strike of 1984-85. There sprang up then a national network of support groups that was really quite extraordinary. It was, said the Financial Times, 'the biggest and most continuous civilian mobilisation since the Second World War'.

If you were involved, even in a peripheral way, with this movement, it was almost impossible to credit the opinion polls which showed the majority of the public firmly on the side of the government and against the NUM. But that was the reality. Most people didn't support the miners, and the result was one of the left's most celebrated of heroic defeats.


Back before Corbyn declared himself a candidate, I wrote: 'The task of choosing a new leader is to find someone who can articulate a sense of hope for the future, to persuade somewhere around a quarter of the electorate that he or she can help us build a better society.'

At the moment, there's only one candidate who's being seen in those terms. But I suspect there's only one six on his die (if that) and that the other faces are all ones. And I fear that Labour might actually need a double-six anyway.

I have yet to decide who to vote for. Over the course of the next week, I shall look back over the careers of the four candidates as a way of clarifying that question for myself. And I shall start tomorrow with Andy Burnham.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

The Labour deputy leadership

Where do we stand in the Labour Party deputy leadership election? Having spent some time wandering through the newspapers and around the internet, looking at the careers of the candidates, I now have to decide who to vote for.

These are the runners, pictured from left to right: Caroline Flint (age 53), Angela Eagle (54), Ben Bradshaw (54), Tom Watson (48) and Stella Creasy (38).


So what can we say about these five? Well, first, that they don't actually make for a bad field, and second, that they do have a great deal in common.

In particular, they're all unashamedly professional politicians, with only Bradshaw's previous incarnation as a radio reporter departing from the normal career path. (And that wasn't straying too far: the separation between media and politics was barely discernible in the 1990s.) Their time in Parliament has mostly been characterised by loyalty, though Watson and Flint did separately resign from government, seemingly in would-be coups aimed against, respectively, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. And all are, insofar as such distinctions mean anything any more, on what would have been see as the right of the party in the 1980s. At least, though, they were all educated at different universities.

Given that the deputy leadership position is not of the greatest significance - Denis Healey once said it was worth only 'a pitcherful of warm spit' - perhaps one shouldn't spend too long deliberating. Apart from anything else, it's hard to see the final choice really attracting much attention, given the Jeremy Corbyn story that'll be breaking one way or another at the same time.

But still, it does matter. At the very least, it 'sends a signal', as politicians like to say. And in the context of the Corbyn story, the signal might actually mean a little more than usual this time.

A victory for Bradshaw or Flint would indicate that the smooth operators are still with us. And I don't think that's where the Labour Party should be heading. They're the kind of politicians who remind me of a great line in one of Hugh Trevor-Roper's letters: 'In general, actors have no minds, only memories and poses.'

Elsewhere, I struggle to see Watson as anything other than a burly bruiser with authoritarian tendencies. Again, he seems to me to represent a politics that Labour should be leaving behind.

But both Eagle and Creasy are good, strong candidates. Electing either one would send a strong signal that Labour is a serious, radical party.

Judging entirely by media coverage (which is all I have), I'm impressed by Eagle's consistency, commitment and decency. I know she studied PPE at Oxford, and Lord knows we've had more than enough of them in recent times, but sometimes we have to overlook youthful mistakes. More importantly, she's retained an unusual degree of individuality for someone who navigated the New Labour years more or less successfully. Maybe it's the early role models standing her in good stead; when asked her favourite book, she rather splendidly nominated Mae West's autobiography Goodness Had Nothing to Do With It.

It's hard to resist that, and I hope Eagle gets a very senior position in the new shadow cabinet. But as my first choice for deputy leader, I think I've concluded that Stella Creasy is the better option, for the following reason.

One of the great myths peddled by Blair was that the Labour Party could achieve nothing unless it were in government. He was wrong. And since the Labour Party has spent most of its existence in opposition, and there's a good chance that the next decade will add to that record, it's important to recognise that he was wrong.

At its best, the Labour Party has been able to transform people's lives at the grassroots, even when it hasn't occupied Downing Street. It was built on a sense of mutuality and community self-help, the sense that, in Harold Wilson's words: 'The Labour Party is a moral crusade or it is nothing.' Many of the old traditions have died, of course, victims of affluence and neglect. But if the party is to have any hope of rebuilding, it needs to do so from the ground up, rediscovering the fact that power is not the preserve of Westminster.

Creasy seems to me to be the one who sees that most clearly, and has thought most carefully about the future. And, talking of signals, I like the fact that she is one of only twenty-four Labour and Co-operative MPs, having been endorsed by both parties.

She is, of course, absurdly young, and has little experience of life or parliament and none whatsoever of government. But she does at least look as though she's ready for the long haul, and will still be there on the other side.


This concludes my look at the deputy leadership candidates. Next week I shall go through the leadership hopefuls to try to work out who to vote for in that election.