Book review: The Long And Winding Road by Alan Johnson

alan-johnson-book-jacket-the-long-and-winding-roadImagine history had panned out differently. Alan Johnson might have become Labour leader in 2010. Labour might have won power in 2015 and the disaster which is Brexit might not now be happening. The pound would be strong, Ed Balls would be in government, Corbyn still on the backbenches while the Foreign Secretary might actually be someone who is capable of doing the job. Perhaps without Brexit to inspire him, Donald Trump would have lost in the US. We can dream anyway…

Perhaps this was never likely. Johnson never ran for the leadership and lost unexpectedly to Harriet Harman when he ran for Deputy. But as this, the third volume of his celebrated memoirs reminds us, Labour’s last Home Secretary is that rarest of things. Like Chris Mullin, he is a politician who can write.

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Book review: Speaking Out by Ed Balls

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Honestly. What a missed opportunity. The comic possibilities of a potential title for former Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls were seemingly almost endless.
Here are just a few: Balls Revealed, Balls Exposed, Balls Up, Balls Out, Iron Balls, New Balls Please!, Strictly Come Balls, Golden Balls, Better Ed Than Dead.
Instead, this book published by Hutchinson has the extremely dull title, Speaking Out: Lessons in Life and Politics. One just hopes when the time comes for his wife to reflect on her political career, she is more imaginative.
May I suggest, It Shouldn’t Happen To Yvette?
Perhaps Ed didn’t want to look stupid. He was a serious contender as recently as last year after all. Labour’s defeat and the loss of his own seat were a big personal shock to him. He is probably the most capable post-ear shadow chancellor never to make it to the position of Chancellor himself, along with John Smith.
The book is not in chronological order but linked thematically. He talks frankly about his stammer, the hard years under the brilliant but volatile Gordon Brown, his eventual falling out with Ed Miliband, his support for Norwich City (yawn!) and his running. He has a sense of humour too. Let us not forget his response to George Osborne’s claim in 2012 that the Chancellor had delivered a “Robin Hood Budget”. Balls charged that on the contrary, Osborne “couldn’t give a Friar Tuck.”
A good book then, but what a shame about the title. After all, if he really doesn’t want to look stupid why is he currently appearing on Strictly Come Dancing, attracting more attention than ever before, by making himself look like a total pranny?
As Lord Heseltine once said: it’s not Brown’s. It’s Balls.

Strictly Come Dancing 2016

Book review: I Never Promised You A Rose Garden by John Crace

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If, as is often said, a week is a long time in politics, then ten months must be a lifetime. For back in November 2010, when this humorous book was published,.Ed Miiiband was not just another unshaven backbencher but a party leader widely reckoned to have a real shot at being Prime Minister. What’s more, the Tories, then in something called “a coalition” with a party, apparently the third party in Britain back then, called the Liberal Democrats, were looking quite vulnerable. Many still had high hopes for Nigel Farage and UKIP back then too. They don’t now. Fewer expected the post-referendum SNP surge to last, perhaps not even their new leader elected in that month, Nicola Sturgeon. What’s more such luminaries as Douglas Alexander, David Laws, Vince Cable, Charles Kennedy, Danny Alexander and Ed Balls were all still members of parliament. The last figure, indeed, had reasonable hopes of becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Jeremy Corbyn? He is not mentioned here at all.

How times have changed! This is not to criticise this funny, informative and still highly enjoyable book though. Guardian writer Crace must have known this book would always have a brief shelf life but this is still well worth a read. Crace is funniest in constructing imaginary conversations between political figures and is refreshingly even handed. He is as harsh on Miliband’s automaton type ways as he is on Cameron’s gaffes (why on Earth did he appoint Andy Coulson? What on Earth was Andrew Lansley’s health care reforms supposed to be about? Why do Michael Gove and iain Duncan Smith have to exist?).

Excellent.

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I Never Promised You A Rose Garden: A Short Guide to Modern Politics, the Coalition and the General Election. Published by: Corgi, 2014 by John Crace

Book review: Five Year Mission: The Labour Party under Ed Miliband by Tim Bale

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Five Year Mission: The Labour Party under Ed Miliband by Tim Bale

The Miliband years are never likely to be viewed with much nostalgia by Labour supporters.
The rot began early with the reaction of David Miliband’s supporters to their candidate’s surprise defeat by his younger brother Ed in September 2010:
“Rather than pulling themselves together or else walking away and sulking in silence, they would begin badmouthing ‘the wrong brother’, telling anyone who would listen, that his victory was illegitimate, that it had been won only by cosying up to the unions and telling the party what it wanted to hear, and that Labour had made a terrible mistake…”
Thus the legend of the “wrong Miliband”” was born with David’s reputation grossly overinflated most commonly by the Tory newspapers who would undoubtedly have savaged him every day had he become leader.
As Tim Bale notes in this excellent account of Ed Miliband’s leadership “anyone who thinks David Miliband would have proved a model of decisiveness and a master of political timing probably did not work very closely with him in the Brown government.”
Nor did it seem to matter that Ed had been elected wholly legitimately, David suffering from an arrogant tendency not to take his brother seriously. The next five years would be a struggle. Ed Miliband’s spell as Opposition leader was probably the most difficult since Iain Duncan Smith’s disastrous tenure a decade before.
It certainly wasn’t all bad: Ed enjoyed successes during the phone hacking scandal and in the battle of energy prices. He also fought a generally good election campaign (although this book stops before then). Before the exit poll on election night, Cameron and his entourage were gloomy, almost universally anticipating some form of defeat.
But Miliband undoubtedly failed to convince the public he was up to the job of national leadership. This was partly the fault of the hostile media but he must take a fair amount of the blame for this failure himself.
His worst failing was his almost total failure to defend the generally good record of the Blair-Brown years. As Bale notes:
“…it is certainly true that Brown, with the help of his Chancellor, Alistair Darling, actually handled the truly terrifying possibilities thrown up by the global financial meltdown as well as – maybe even better than – any other world leader”.
But Miliband, keen to distance himself from the past allowed the reputation of one of the most successful governments since the war to be wrecked.
The Labour Party will live with the consequences of this for some time to come.

Published by: Oxford University Press

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Book review: Closet Queens: Some 20th Century British Politicians by Michael Bloch

Closet Michael Bloch

As of May 2015, there are more openly gay members of parliament than there have ever been before. But how many are still “in the closet”? And what about those who kept their sexuality under wraps in the past, perhaps before the homosexual act itself was legalised in 1967?

Michael Bloch’s book is extremely gossipy but also highly informative revealing that far more of the British politicians who shaped the last century were gay than was commonly thought. In some cases, it was just a phase: Roy Jenkins and Tony Crosland’s very intense early relationship fizzled out into mere friendship by the time both had began their careers as Labour politicians. They later became fierce rivals. The still homosexual Crosland was bitterly disappointed when the now keenly heterosexual Jenkins was appointed Chancellor in 1967. Jenkins felt the same when Crosland became Foreign Secretary seven years later. Jenkins left to become Head of the EEC. Crosland, a heavy drinker, died soon afterwards. But it was Jenkins who as Home Secretary oversaw the legalisation of homosexuality. Bloch points out many of the key architects of the change in the law, in fact, had secret homosexual pasts themselves. Bloch even suggests the bisexual Lord Boothby may have blackmailed the notoriously homophobic Home Secretary David Maxwell Fyfe into permitting the Wolfenden Report which urged legalisation in the Fifties.

What about Downing Street? Bloch repeats the rumours that the 1890s Liberal Prime Minister Lord Rosebery may well have been gay, rumours which ultimately wrecked his career at the time. As for Edward Heath, one of only three bachelor Prime Ministers, Bloch re-enforces the growing conventional wisdom that Heath (a misogynistic mummy’s boy) was essentially homosexual but chose to suppress his sexuality as he knew it would destroy any chance of a political career. This throws an interesting angle on the brief coalition talks Heath went through with Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe in 1974. Heath knew from the security services that Thorpe was gay and indeed that the younger man was already in difficulties with the Norman Scott affair which would ultimately destroy him. He kept his knowledge to himself, however.

Some might raise eyebrows at the inclusion of Winston Churchill in a book entitled “Closet Queens” though. Yes, Churchill reportedly had a low sex driver, was a misogynist and enjoyed a number of close friendships with young men. This does not, in itself, make him a “closet queen” and this chapter should have been expunged from the book.

However, with the wealth of biographical information on the likes of such characters as “Chips” Channon, Bob Boothby, Tom Driberg, Harold Nicolson and Peter Mandelson and the like, this is a useful book even if you choose to ignore the bits about their sex lives.

Closet Queens: Some 20th Century British Politicians by Michael Bloch. Published by: Little, Brown

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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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Great myths of our time: Why Ed did not stab David Miliband in the back

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“That helps to explain why the history of socialism is littered with appalling personal betrayals, from the murder of Leon Trotsky to the smears and lies of Damian McBride… Ed Miliband’s excuse for knifing his brother was that it was the only way to ensure his beloved Labour Party was led by a true believer…” Toby Young, Daily Telegraph blog, 2013

“Younger brother Ed was the deceptively geeky assassin with the bow. He snatched the job David thought was his birthright…” Richard Pendlebury, Daily Mail, 2013.

“Do you regret stabbing him in the back or not?”TV audience member question to Ed Miliband during March 2015 BBC Three debate.

In 2010, Ed Miliband beat his older brother David for the Labour leadership. Of the many myths to arise out of the contest, none is more persistent than the argument promoted by the Tory press that Ed “betrayed”, “assassinated” or “stabbed his brother in the back” to get the job.

And guess what? It is absolute nonsense.

The September 2010 contest was won by Ed Miliband fair and square. In addition to David, he also beat Ed Balls, Andy Burnham and Diane Abbott. Were they “stabbed in the back” too?

David Cameron beat David Davis to win the Tory leadership in 2005. Davis was initially the favourite to win.Did Cameron “betray” him by standing against him and winning? Of course not.

The term “assassinate” is sometimes appropriate in politics if one leader is overthrown by another. Margaret Thatcher arguably politically assassinated her leader Edward Heath by standing against him and winning. Although he never became Prime Minister himself, Michael Heseltine politically assassinated Thatcher herself fifteen years later in 1990. But David Miliband has never been leader.

But the difference is that the Milibands were brothers! How could Ed so cruelly deny his brother the job that was so rightfully his?

This is a strange argument. I repeat that Ed Miliband was elected in a free and open contest. Why should we assume David is more entitled to job than he is, when he lost the actual election?

Is it because David Miliband is older than his brother? Since when was this the rule? We are not talking about the royal family here. Both men had Cabinet experience too. In this, they were both more qualified for leadership than both Cameron and Clegg were on assuming office in 2010. Neither had

I actually very much doubt that David Miliband ever thought the leadership was his “birthright” either despite what the Mail claims above. If he did, he was supremely arrogant to think so. It was a bruising contest and I don’t doubt that David was upset to lose. But I doubt very much that he thinks there was anything constitutionally wrong with his brother beating him in a fair fight. If David had won would we now be accusing him of betraying his brother Ed? It makes no sense.

What about the unions who played such a role in Ed’s victory? Well, that is another issue. The leadership vote is divided equally three ways between Labour MPs, party members and union members. David won narrowly in the first two and lost narrowly in the third. David knew all three of these groups were crucial to the verdict. Ed won fair and square overall and contrary to tabloid myth has consistently taken a tough line against the unions from his leadership victory speech onward.

Five years on, despite endless relentless attacks from the Tory-owned press, Ed is close to David Cameron in terms of personal popularity. With Labour neck and neck with the Tories in the opinion polls, he stands a very good chance of becoming Prime Minister.

The Tory press who today attack Labour for electing “the wrong Miliband” as their leader are natural enemies of the Labour Party. Had David Miliband won in 2010, they would be attacking David Miliband with all the venom with which they now attack his brother.

Top 10 David Cameron cock ups

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Cast iron guarantee

As Opposition leader in 2009, Cameron said this of the Lisbon Treaty:

Today, I will give this cast-iron guarantee: If I become PM a Conservative government will hold a referendum on any EU treaty that emerges from these negotiations.  No treaty should be ratified without consulting the British people in a referendum.

The treaty was ratified. Cameron became Prime Minister in 2010. There has never been a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. Voters should perhaps treat any future election promises from Mr Cameron with caution.

Election loss

Many Tories have never forgiven Cameron for failing to win the 2010 election.

Immigration

In 2010, Cameron made a “no ifs, no buts” election pledge to bring net migration – the difference between those arriving and those leaving the UK – to below 100,000. The figure for the year up to September 2014 was 298,000 – some 54,000 higher than when he took over.

Queen gaffes

Cameron apologised last year after joking that the Queen “purred” down the phone to him. He had to apologise again soon after for revealing indiscreetly that he had corrected the Queen over the identity of a portrait,

NHS

Despite denying any such plans during the 2010 election, a major “reorganisation” was announced by Health Secretary Andrew Lansley soon after the Coalition came to power. A humiliating failure, the plans were sidelined two costly years later

Andy Coulson

Cameron was warned by figures as diverse as Lord Ashdown and even the Palace, not to appoint Coulson, as his communications director. Coulson had already been sacked as editor of the news of the world under suspicion of phone hijacking. Coulson inevitably resigned from Downing Street too and was ultimately imprisoned. Cameron has also been close to former Sun editor Rebekah Brooks who he once leant a horse and initially defended his friend Jeremy Clarkson during his recent controversy. By any measure, Cameron’s judgement on these matters has been awful.

Syria/Europe defeats

Cameron’s leadership has also witnessed numerous u-turns on everything from the selling off of national parks to a proposed “pasty tax”.

All this and World War II

Cameron claimed Britain had been a “proud ally” of the US in 1940. The US did not enter the war until December 1941.

Debate cowardice

Cameron’s desperate attempts to avoid having a head to head TV debate with Ed Miliband made Cameron a national laughing stock earlier this year.

Third term

Cameron inadvertently kicked off a possible post-election leadership contest when instead of merely stating that winning the 2015 election was his immediate priority at the moment, he inadvertently answered an innocent question by completely ruling out a third term completely. Cameron then compounded the error by naming George Osborne, Boris Johnson and Theresa May as possible successors.

This change of leadership may happen sooner than he thinks.

How NOT to call a General Election

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Thanks to the new fixed term arrangements, the days of a Prime Minister calling an election whenever the political weather seemed favourable are gone. But while Thatcher, Blair, Macmillan and Eden took full advantage of this privilege, other Prime Ministers made a real mess of it…

Calling the election too early

June 1970 (Harold Wilson)

Few would blame Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson for calling an election almost a full year before he had to for June 1970. After a rocky few years, the economy was recovering and Labour was ahead in the polls. The pipe-smoking northerner Wilson was always more popular than the somewhat stuffy Tory leader Edward Heath too.

But the polls were wrong. On election night, the Tories won a majority of thirty. A low turnout and unexpectedly poor trade figures did for Labour. Labour had branded the Tories “Yesterday’s Men”. Now it was their turn to be consigned to history.

February 1974 (Edward Heath)

Under different circumstances, Prime Minister Heath fell into the same trap s Wilson during the Three Day Week crisis a few years later. With a six percent lead in the polls, Heath called an election on “Who Governs Britain?” the government or the unions? The result was inconclusive. The Tories got more votes but slightly fewer seats. Heath who didn’t even have a house to move into after Downing Street (a friend put him and his piano up) moved out after Hung Parliament negotiations with Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe failed. Wilson was back and he was returned to power again with a small majority in a second election in October. Heath’s leadership of the Tories ended with his shock removal by Margaret Thatcher in February 1975.

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Clinging to power

October 1964 (Alec Douglas Home)

Just as calling an election too early can be calamitous, a leader clinging to power until the very last minute hardly suggests great confidence either. Alec Douglas Home did indeed lose narrowly for the Tories after holding out for a full five years until October 1964. With Home focusing on Labour’s apparent inexperience in foreign policy, however, Home may have wished the election had been a day later. With news of China exploding its first H-bomb and the Soviet leader Khrushchev suddenly being toppled on the day after polling, the new international uncertainty might well have persuaded voters to stay in the Tory camp had news of them broken slightly earlier.Leader of Britain's ruling Labour Party,

Pretending to be about to call an election and then not doing so (James Callaghan, 1978. Gordon Brown 2007)

“Can’t get away to marry you today, my wife won’t let me!” Labour PM James Callaghan surprised everyone at the TUC Conference in September 1978, by not calling an election and singing this ancient music hall ditty instead (he had been born in 1912). Although leading the less popular Mrs. Thatcher’s Tories in the polls, the cautious Callaghan feared a 1978 election might end in a dead heat and preferred to wait until 1979. The decision was a disaster.

Over the winter, relations between government and unions broke down completely. Memories of the so-called “Winter of Discontent” would poison Labour’s prospects not just in 1979 but for decades.

Gordon Brown’s attempts to capitalise on the short-lived “Brown bounce” just after he became Prime Minister in 2007 backfired horribly too. Brown’s dithering ensured that the party never recovered from “the election that never was” and led to its actual defeat in 2010.

10 reasons why the last Labour Government was great

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The Blair-Brown government achieved a lot of good, so why are Labour politicians so afraid of defending it in public? Here are ten reasons why it was a success…

  1. A lasting peace in Northern Ireland

By 1997, the peace process began under John Major had stalled, partly because the Tories were reliant on the Ulster Unionists to prop up the Tories in parliament during the Major Government’s final days. It took a new government, a new Prime Minister (Tony Blair) and a dynamic new Northern Ireland Secretary (the late Mo Mowlam) to deliver the Good Friday Agreement and the enduring peace which continues to this day. Blair and Mowlam succeeded where thirty years of previous governments had failed.

  1. The economy…stupid!

There are countless Tory myths about the last government’s economic record. Did Labour overspending cause the slump? Clearly not, there was a severe recession throughout the western world: Britain would have been hit anyway. Only the effort to bail out the banks (supported by the Tories) once the slump was in progress put the economy in debt. Should Labour have regulated the markets more tightly? Yes, but again the Tories at the time were arguing for LESS regulation of the markets not more. Did Brown’s actions prevent a recession becoming a depression? Undoubtedly yes. Brown stopped the UK entering the Euro as Chancellor and as PM, his quantative easing policy was widely credited with saving the global banking system. Historians are likely to judge Labour well for dodging the recession which hit many countries at the start of the century and coping well with the global deluge when it came. Should Labour have prepared a “rainy day fund” to prepare the economy during the boom times? In retrospect, yes. Has any other government ever done this? No!

  1. Tough on crime…

The crime rate fell by 44% between 1997 and 2010. Will this continue under Cameron with police numbers being slashed? It seems doubtful. Even Cameron in 201 admitted crime had fallen under Labour making a mockery of his “broken Britain” slogan.

  1. Labour saved the NHS

A disaster area in 1997, Labour bailed the NHS out, leaving it in a good state and with record user approval ratings by 2010. Once again, the Tories have squandered this inheritance and the NHS is in crisis again.

  1. Education, education, education

The period saw huge strides in education. By any measure, standards rose dramatically.

  1. A minimum wage

Fiercely opposed by the Tories at the time on the grounds that it would lead to mass unemployment (wrong!), the minimum wage introduced by Labour is now universally accepted by everyone. The living wage promoted by Ed Miliband is the next step.

  1. Things did get better

Homelessness fell dramatically (under both Thatcher, Major and Cameron it rose dramatically). Civil partnerships were introduced. The House of Lords was reformed. Devolution was introduced for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The gay age of consent was equalised. Britain got better.

  1. Less social division

Labour were never affected by the endless wrangling over the EU that has blighted both of the last Tory Governments. Nor did the government actively seek to turn the public against itself as the Tories have with the public and private sectors.

  1. What will Cameron be remembered for?

Compare his achievements with those listed above. What springs to mind?  Austerity. The Bedroom Tax. Gay marriage – a real achievement but only accomplished with Labour’s help. The massive rise in student tuition fees. Cameron’s record has been abysmal.

  1. Win. win, win

If Labour were so bad in office, why did the public elect them three times? The Tories were hated in 1997, leading to the biggest majority achieved by either party being won by Labour (179). After four years in power, the people wanted more. Labour’s 167 seat majority in 2001 was second only to their 1997 one in post-war scale. Neither Attlee or Thatcher ever won such big majorities. In 2005, their majority fell to 66. Even then, this was a big majority, the eighth largest win of the 19 elections held since 1945. No disgrace at all. Even in 2010 under the unpopular Gordon Brown and during a major slump, Labour still did well enough to deny the Tories a majority.

It is a record to be proud of. Labour should not shy away from defending it.