General Election memories 9: 2015

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron and his wife Samantha wave as they return to Number 10 Downing Street after meeting with Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace in London, Britain May 8, 2015. Prime Minister David Cameron won a stunning election victory in Britain, overturning poll predictions that the vote would be the closest in decades to sweep easily into office for another five years, with his Labour opponents in tatters.   REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

Exeter, May 7th 2015.

Some of you may have spotted the occasional hint of pro-Labour bias in this blog. From this, you might very well have concluded that I would have been more than slightly disappointed with this election’s result.

You would be right.

What is more, while you may, for all I know, be reading this at some point during Boris Johnson’s second term as Prime Minister in 2024, I am writing this in the same month the election actually happened. So be kind please: the wounds are still raw.

That said, I am at least fortunate not to be a Liberal Democrat. I was never keen  on the idea of a Lab-Lib coalition bin 2010, not because I disliked what was then the third party but because I felt Labour had so clearly lost that it would look a bit desperate for Gordon Brown to attempt to cling onto power. It was a Rainbow Coalition, after all. And there can be no Brown in a rainbow.

I have mixed feelings about what followed. Nick Clegg proved both hopelessly naïve and horrendously cynical: naïve for not getting more out of the Tories when they needed him so much, cynical for ditching the pledge on tuition fees so shabbily.

They all suffered for it in the end anyway. It gave me no joy to see good anti-coalition types like Simon Hughes lose their seats in 2015. It couldn’t have been nice for Nicky’s old MP Paddy Ashdown (who I had briefly met a few years earlier in his old seat of Yeovil) to see his life’s work unravelling so fast before his closed eyes on election night either. Yeovil by now under the decent although essentially Tory Lib Dem David Laws went blue. Indeed everywhere except Exeter in the south west is now blue. 25% of the parliamentary party are now running against each other for leader. Neither contender looks even vaguely promising. Another 12.5% of the party is actually ex-leader Nick Clegg. It will take them decades to recover.

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But Exeter had survived. I had been photographed with Exeter MP Ben Bradshaw two weeks before the election. I had just completed my postal vote and by chance was the first proven Labour voter to be found by the Exeter Labour doorknockers. Bradshaw is a hugely popular MP and thus managed to triple his majority in the city even as everywhere else swung to the Tories. He is now running for Deputy Leader. His local campaign was very well organised and Bradshaw is a hugely motivational figure.Had the swing in the UK been replicated in Exeter, it would now be a Tory seat.

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My hometown of Peterborough had been less lucky. I had been slightly involved in the campaign of the excellent Labour candidate Lisa Forbes and we seemed in luck: Tory MP of ten years Stewart Jackson seemed intent on showing how unpleasant he could be. He began the campaign with a damaging gaffe in which he essentially insulted a homosexual constituent. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-cambridgeshire-32128877

Some people would defend him if he had punched a baby or announced his support for Hitler: “Fair play to Jackson for standing up to the tyranny of political correctness etc etc etc ad infinitum”. But in fair play to the constituents of Peterborough, most people didn’t like it and there was a marked swing against Jackson although sadly not enough for him to lose the seat. However, he then proved those who had supported him decisively wrong with the least gracious victory speech ever.

http://www.peterboroughtoday.co.uk/news/politics/politics-news/re-elected-mp-stewart-jackson-in-controversial-victory-speech-1-6733039

Of course, this was not a good night for Labour overall. Cameron despite a lacklustre start to his campaign dominated by his cowardly avoidance of a TV debate and his possibly accidental announcement that he was planning to stand down before 2020, seemed to revive half way through.

Ed Miliband meanwhile fought much better than anyone expected. But at the end of the day, the Tories won fair and square. The expected Labour-led Hung Parliament became a Tory majority of 12 (actually their smallest ever post-war majority, although still a majority, unlike in 2010, or indeed any election in 23 years, in the Tories’ case).

(L-R) Ed Miliband the leader of the Labour Party, Leanne Wood the leader of Plaid Cymru, Nicola Sturgeon the leader of the SNP and David Cameron the leader of the Conservative Party and Britain's current prime minister take part in the leaders televised election debate at Media City in Salford in Northern England, in this April 2, 2015 handout picture provided by ITV.  REUTERS/Ken McKay/ITV/Handout via Reuters

I was as surprised as anyone, as indeed, was Cameron. So what went wrong for Labour?

  1. Miliband: Ed Miliband fought a much better campaign than expected. But there was always an image problem there. I am not convinced by the “wrong Miliband” argument which seems to be mainly espoused by the Tory press. David Miliband (who I voted for as party member in 2010) seems too arrogant and is barely less geeky than Ed. I genuinely doubt he would have done any better. That said, image shouldn’t matter as much as it does. Would Lincoln and Attlee have won today? Perhaps not. But it does matter. And there was clearly an image problem with Ed. He never looked or sounded like a winner.
  2. Labour in government spent too much on hospitals and schools and this caused the global slump. Absolute nonsense of course but the Tories said it so often that everyone believed it. And worse: Labour never attempted to deny it.
  3. The economy does seem to be doing well even if most people don’t seem to be feeling it.
  4. The SNP breakthrough. Nicola Sturgeon is great and Labour wouldn’t have won even if they had won every Scottish seat. But it didn’t help.
  5. The press waged a vicious campaign on Labour and Miliband. To be expected, of course, but not helpful.

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Now my story ends. Labour will return and we will face the future together once again.

I am 38, now, bearded and married. I show no signs yet of declining into Toryism in middle age.

Speak to you all again soon!

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Book review: Funny Girl by Nick Hornby

Funny Girl

Perhaps no British sitcom is more fondly remembered than Barbara (and Jim). The comedy series which enjoyed a popular four series run in the mid-1960s made a star of lead actress Sophie Straw and changed British TV forever.

Except of course, it didn’t, for convincing as this enjoyable novel by Nick Hornby is, neither Sophie Straw and Barbara (and Jim) ever existed. In fact, we first meet the fictional Sophie when she is still going under her real name Barbara Parker, poised to win and ultimately reject the title Miss Blackpool 1964. For while she is pretty, Barbara is also determined to be known for being funny like her heroine, US TV star Lucille Ball. Setting her sights on London, Barbara (now known as Sophie) dazzles a crew of jaded writers as she auditions for a hackneyed TV pilot going under the dubious title Wedded Bliss? Recognising they have discovered a   major talent, the sitcom is transformed, Sophie is coincidentally given her own real name back for the main character and the show becomes a monster hit, acclaimed for its edgy depiction of modern family life. But before long, inevitably, the show loses momentum. With the lead coupe saddled with a baby (a disaster as far as many sitcom writers are concerned) it is ultimately squeezed out by an edgy newcomer To Death Us Do Part: a comedy which could hardly be more dated today.

Writing about a fictional comedy star and sitcom isn’t easy. Hornby avoids mentioning real life female comedy stars of the period such as Joan Sims, Hattie Jacques or Joyce Grenfell and the Carry On films are never mentioned. Yet the creation of Barbara (and Jim) is utterly convincing even if a later storyline in the novel about the Funny Girl being reunited with her estranged mother adds nothing to the book.

Hornby also manages to dodge the usual “fictional comedies are never funny “issue. We hear surprisingly little of the dialogue from the sitcom yet the interaction between Sophie and the show’s three male creators off screen really sparkles with energy and wit. Hornby has written several well received screenplays now notably An Education based on Lynne Barber’s memoir. Hornby’s own “education” is starting to yield real results.

A fine funny book and a return to form for Nick Hornby, the novelist.

8 things which tell you you are watching a Coen brothers’ film

Chris Hallam's World View

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Thirty years ago, a small violent crime drama was released.
The film was Blood Simple and it was the first of the many twisted tales to come from the ingenious minds of Joel and Ethan Coen. Thanks to the likes of Fargo and The Big Lebowski today virtually everyone seen at least one Coen brothers’ film. But just in case you’re in any doubt, watch out for the following…

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1. Crime
Almost every Coen brothers’ film involves crime of some sort usually interspersed with some dark humour. Kidnapping is a particular favourite as in Fargo, The Big Lebowski, The Man Who Wasn’t There and Raising Arizona.

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2. Frances McDormand is in it
Best known for her Oscar winning performance as the amiable pregnant police officer Marge Gunderson in Fargo, McDormand has been in five other Coen brothers films including Blood Simple and Burn After Reading. She is married to Joel…

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DVD review: American Sniper

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Director: Clint Eastwood.

Cast: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Kyle Gallner, Cole Konis, Ben Reed

American Sniper is based on the story of Chris Kyle, the Navy SEAL who served four tours in Iraq and became the most prolific sniper in US history.

Brought up in a strict God fearing, gun-toting Texan family environment, Kyle (played as an adult by Bradley Cooper) has nevertheless rather gone off the rails by the time we meet him in adulthood, wasting his time on booze, bucking broncos and broads. The solution? He decides to replace his Stetson with a helmet.  Intensely patriotic, Kyle enrols as a Navy SEAL and is soon going through the rigours of an intense beefing up programme, catching the eye of future wife Taya (Sienna Miller) along the way. Soon Kyle is in Iraq, engaged in numerous hugely dangerous combat missions, often involving shooting potential terrorists from great distances.

Kyle’s efforts soon earned him the nickname “Legend” amongst his colleagues, but to its credit, Clint Eastwood’s film does not attempt to glamorise Kyle’s unpleasant, hazardous and ethically dubious work. The real difficulties of family life for a warrior are also laid bare with Sienna Miller excellent as the long suffering wife and mother back home. Cooper is also impressive as Kyle, an inarticulate but apparently moral man who often seemed more at ease in terrifying combat situations than he did with his family on leave back home.

This is a well made, memorable film which continues Eastwood’s latter career as a great director. It would be an incurious soul who did not have a few doubts about the film’s political position though. For example, Kyle is seen first going into Iraq only two scenes after he and his wife witness the 2001 World Trade Centre attacks on TV. The casual viewer would be forgiven for thinking Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was actually responsible for the attacks, hence making the US intervention in Iraq logical and necessary. This myth is, of course, believed by many to this day: perhaps Kyle believed it sincerely himself. But the reality is Iraq had nothing to do with September 11th whatsoever. It is difficult to feel Kyle’s actions, however brave they may be, are wholly necessary when the reasons for the US being in Iraq were so dubious in the first place.

Similarly, few non-American viewers could watch this without being struck by the crazy attitude towards guns. Kyle himself is shown being encouraged to use a gun from childhood, he does the same with his own kids. At another point, in what is supposed to be a playful scene, Kyle even jokingly points a (presumably unloaded) gun at his wife, ordering her to “drop her drawers”. His wife is as amused by this as he is; it isn’t even a cautionary scene. But without wishing to spoil anything, the proliferation of guns in US life leads directly to one personal tragedy during the course of the film. This in fact presented as more as down to pure bad luck: the fact that it would never have occurred if the populace were not so heavily armed, is totally glossed over.

Yet despite the politics, American Sniper is a genuinely excellent film, a worthy addition to Clint Eastwood’s directorial portfolio and featuring at least two first class performances from Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller.

DVD extras: One Soldier’s Story: The Journey of American Sniper (30 minute documentary)

Running time: 132 minutes.

Rating: 15.

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Great political myths of our time

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  1. “The chief problem with MPs today, is that too few of them have held a job outside politics”.

Saying this sort of thing is an easy way to get a big applause on Question Time with. But is it really such a problem? Anyone who wants to get on in politics is surely well advised to start pursuing their ambitions early. Even in the past, many of those who did pursue other careers first (Margaret Thatcher was briefly a chemist, Tony Benn was a pilot and worked for the BBC) ultimately seem to have been biding their time until they got into parliament anyway, just like David “PR exec” Cameron and Tony “lawyer” Blair. But why is it assumed that MPs who have done other jobs first are necessarily better quality? Remember: or every Winston Churchill or Paddy Ashdown, there’s a Jeffery Archer, Robert Kilroy-Silk, Neil Hamilton (an ex-teacher), a Robert Maxwell or an Iain Duncan Smith.

  1. “The Tories only won because the electoral system is unfair.”

Nonsense! They won because they won more votes and seats. The parliamentary boundary system is skewed towards Labour if anything. 36.9% of the vote might not sound like much, but it’s about the same as Cameron did in 2010 and Blair did in 2005. You had your chance to reform the electoral system in the 2011 referendum anyway. Did you vote in that? I doubt it. Did you vote yes? I expect not. Well, it’s too late now. The Tories may not have been expecting or deserved to win. But they did win, fair and square. Get over it.

  1. “The Labour Party today has been taken over by the middle classes who have moved it to the right.”

Again, this isn’t the problem. Labour has always had lots of poshos in it from Clement Attlee to Hugh Gaitskell to Shirley Williams. It’s wrong to assume posh people are necessarily more conservative anyway. Tony Benn and Michael Foot after all came from privileged backgrounds and they were hardly pseudo-Tories. Nor were James Callaghan or David Blunkett, exactly rampant lefties despite being of working class stock.

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  1. “Labour is obsessed with class”.

Actually, if you look at the tabloid press, it is clear the Right are far more intent on class war, attacking anyone on benefits as a “scroungers” and anyone not to their political liking with money as “hypocrites” or “champagne socialists”. Ignore them!

  1. “Rupert Murdoch likes to back a winner

Wrong! Murdoch will only back those who share his own right wing outlook. Hence why he backed losers like John McCain and Mitt Romney in the US and backed the Tories even as they appeared to be heading for defeat in May 2015. Remember this, next time you pick up The Times!

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Is it 1992 all over again?

Prophetic…sort of

Chris Hallam's World View

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It is General Election year and the Labour leader remains unpopular. After years of attacks from the Tory press, he was lucky to survive a direct challenge to his leadership before Christmas, when many suggested an older man should replace him as leader. Despite this and some evidence of economic recovery, Labour remain narrowly ahead in the opinion polls. A Labour-led hung parliament is seen by many as the most likely outcome in the General Election.

Ed Miliband in 2015? Or Neil Kinnock in 1992? The older John Smith was the potential older alternative leader in 1991, Alan Johnson last year. The parallels are uncanny and not encouraging to Labour who, of course, ultimately suffered a shock defeat to John Major’s Tories in April 1992.

But, let’s not get carried away. There are numerous differences…

Labour actually seem less confident now than Kinnock’s party were then. This makes a repeat…

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General Election memories 8: 2010

New government starts

Exeter, May 6th 2010

A few things changed in the next few years. I moved inevitably from my late twenties into my early thirties. My social life in Exeter prospered. Despite not knowing anyone in Devon at all on my arrival, I soon met loads of people through both my shared house band my job at DVD Monthly magazine. The job was very enjoyable too. I am a huge film buff and got to see tons of films and even got to interview a fair few stars.

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2007 was the year Tony Blair (still then viewed as a very successful Prime Minister) bid the nation a fond farewell as leader and I left the magazine for a less glamorous but theoretically more secure job on the local paper. Still more crucially, that was also the year I met the love of my life Nicky. We moved into a small rented house in Exeter together just before the 2010 General Election.

Welsh Conservative conference

In the meantime, things had started to go less well for everyone thanks to the global economic slump which began in 2008. I myself lost my job on the vulnerable property section of the paper at the end of 2008 (the DVD magazine went under after nine years at almost exactly the same time) and I would be either unemployed or in slightly unsuitable temporary non-journalism jobs for the next two years or so. At the time of the 2010 election, I was working at a solicitor’s in Taunton. The other employees (mostly trainee  solicitors) were all very nice (I had got the job through one of them, an ex-housemate) but I was ill suited to the work and the car share arrangement to work from Exeter to Taunton each day was awkward, particularly as I didn’t have a car and could not drive.

My hours were long and although I knew the job would be ending soon, I felt slightly as if I was missing the election. Exeter had an excellent Labour MP called Ben Bradshaw. He had served in the Brown government and had been an MP since 1997 but in 2010 was looking quite vulnerable. I wanted to help more.

Bradshaw

For Labour were clearly heading for defeat nationwide, of that there was little doubt.  History will probably judge Gordon Brown kinder than we do. He stopped Britain from entering the Euro and later probably prevented the recession from becoming a full blown depression. The global slump had nothing to do with government overspending. Virtually nobody claimed this at the time simply because it was self evidently not true. Government spending did not seriously escalate until the banks needed bailing out, something the Tories supported at this point. Indeed, the chief Tory complaint at this time was that the markets were overregulated: the exact opposite of the truth.

Brown, was, however, temperamentally unsuited too leadership in some ways and though very much a Tony Blair wannabe, the new young Tory leader David Cameron did at least look the part.

2010

Nicky and I did our bit; Nicky holding some Labour balloons for Ben Bradshaw (who thankfully retained his seat) even though she actually ended up voting Liberal Democrat. We also both went to see Lord Prescott speaking in the street in Exeter during a campaign visit.

Perhaps this election is too recent to view with any real historical perspective. But to summarise in case you’ve forgotten:

Nick Clegg, the previously unknown Lib Dem leader blew everyone away during the TV debates and briefly, amazing as it now seems, became the most popular leader since Churchill. Yet on election night, the Lib Dems in fact did only about as well as normal. Cleggmania now seems like a myth.

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The good news, however, was that the people hadn’t forgotten how bad the Tories were and they fell well short of real power, yet again. They hadn’t managed to secure a majority since 1992. Thank God (2017: no longer true. Will do a follow-up piece soon).

The subsequent Tory-Lib Dem coalition was a surprise but there didn’t seem much point Labour clinging onto power. We had clearly lost. But this was new uncharted territory.

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