Book review: Things Can Only Get Worse? by John O’Farrell

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Things Can Only Get Worse? Twenty Confusing Years In The Life Of A Labour Supporter by John O’Farrell, Published by: Doubleday

In 1998, John O’Farrell published, Things Can Only Get Better: Eighteen Miserable Years in the Life of a Labour Supporter, 1979-1997. It was an enjoyable and genuinely funny political memoir of O’Farrell’s life from his teenage defeat as Labour candidate in his school’s 1979 mock election to the happy ending of the New Labour landslide in 1997. Eighteen years is a long time: by 1997, O’Farrell was well into his thirties, balding, married with children and thanks to his work on the likes of Spitting Image and Radio 4’s Weekending, an established comedy writer.

The book was a big hit. But now twenty years have passed again since Blair’s first big win. The story of the two decades since as covered  in this sequel is rather more complex.

On the one hand, New Labour won yet another landslide in 2001 and a third big win in 2005. The Tories have never really recovered from their 1997 trouncing, winning a  majority in only one of the last six General Elections and even then a very small one (in 2015). And as O’Farrell says, things undeniably got better under Labour, with the government “writing off the debt of the world’s poorest countries…transforming the NHS by trebling health spending and massively reducing waiting lists…the minimum wage, and pensioners getting free TV licences and the winter fuel allowance…peace in Northern Ireland… equality for the gay community…all the new schools…free entry to museums and galleries…” The list goes on (and on).

John O'Farrell, Labour's prospective parliamentary candidate for Eastleigh

On the other hand, as O’Farrell admits, there are certainly grounds for pessimism too. O’Farrell often felt conflicted defending the Blair Government as a Guardian columnist in the early 2000s particularly after the build-up to the Iraq War. He had a bit of a laugh campaigning as the Labour candidate for the hopelessly Tory seat of Maidenhead in the 2001 second Labour landslide election running against a notably unimpressive Opposition frontbencher called Theresa May. But the disintegration of Labour under first Gordon Brown and then Ed Miliband was hardly a joy to behold, either for him or anyone else who backed Labour. O’Farrell’s candidature in the 2013 Eastleigh by-election in which he came fourth, was less fun too with the Tory tabloids attacking him by using out of context quotes from his first book. By 2016, with O’Farrell despairing after a year of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, the Brexit result and the election of Donald Trump, the celebrations of victory night in May 1997 start to seem like a very long time ago indeed.

Thankfully, O’Farrell is always a funny writer, remaining upbeat even when for others, things would only get bitter.

After all, even at their worst, Labour have never been as bad as the Tories. Yes, the Tories: a party who supported the Iraq War far more enthusiastically than Labour did (and indeed, whose support ensured it happened), a party who fiercely upheld Labour’s spending plans in the early 2000s at the time (rightly) only to attack them endlessly (and wrongly) later, a party whose membership enthusiastically chose Jeffery Archer as its choice for London mayor in 2000 and Iain Duncan Smith as their party leader in 2001. The Conservatives were, are and will always be “the Silly Party.”

This is an excellent book. And thanks to Theresa May’s calamitous General Election miscalculation, it even has a happy ending.

Sort of.

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Exeter 2017 General Election Hustings Debate

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Exeter Boat Shed, Tuesday June 6th 2017, 7pm

Which candidate will win Exeter in the General Election?

On the evidence of yesterday’s hustings debate at the new Exeter Boat Shed on the Quayside, it should be another win for Labour’s Ben Bradshaw. Bradshaw has represented the seat which was previously a Conservative stronghold for twenty years winning it five times since 1997. He may well be on course for a sixth win.

A good crowd turned out at the Exeter Boat Shed, a promising venue despite the current lack of toilets and shortage of seating. Devon Live editor Patrick Phelvin was adjudicating.

All six candidates standing in Exeter were present:

Jonathan West (Independent): A single issue candidate, Jonathan West’s candidature is entirely based around securing a second EU referendum. This position may have attracted some sympathy from the audience, as 55% of Exeter voters opted to “remain” in the 2016 Brexit vote. After a short introductory statement, Mr. West by prior arrangement, did not take part in most of the debate.

Vanessa Newcombe (Liberal Democrat): A former city and county councillor, Ms. Newcombe gave a fine, if occasionally too muted performance. She connected best with the audience in advocating electoral reform and in relating her own experiences of sexism during her political career.

Ben Bradshaw (Labour): By the simple technique of standing up to answer every question, Mr. Bradshaw gained an easy advantage over his rivals. He also gave the most well informed and punchiest answers reflecting his years of experience. Noting that the very first question, supposedly on national security was neither a question nor on national security (it was, in fact, a statement opposing UK foreign aid), Mr. Bradshaw attacked UKIP for not fielding a candidate in Exeter and thus effectively helping the Conservative candidate. The questioner (who claimed some theatrical experience) had admitted to being a former UKIP member and had made several factual errors in his statement. National security is a sensitive issue currently and a second question (this time an actual question) was asked. This debate was postponed from May 23rd due to the temporary suspension in all campaigning due to the Manchester Arena bombing. Later, Mr. Bradshaw performed well, attacking Theresa May’s stance on Brexit and her decision in 2011 as Home Secretary to abolish control orders. He also advocated electoral reform. He was forced to defend his own lack of support for his leader Jeremy Corbyn, a potentially dangerous issue for him especially as Mr. Corbyn has grown more popular recently. Unusually for a Labour candidate, Mr. Bradshaw reaffirmed his view that the Conservatives are likely to win nationwide with an increased parliamentary majority.

James Taghdissian (Conservative): Although always competent and articulate, the well-spoken Mr. Taghdissian was playing to a tough crowd. His view that the Prime Minister is a better leader than Mr. Corbyn found little favour here despite the fact nationally, even after the recent slump in her personal ratings, polls indicate most Britons agree with him on this. A strong performance though Mr. Taghdissian might have benefitted from delivering punchier, less rambling answers. He fully conceded Ms. May had abolished control orders when she was Home Secretary.

Joe Levy (Green): A younger, soft spoken though always audible candidate, Mr. Levy made a good impression on the audience. Potentially a rising star, Mr. Levy could well be a man to watch in the future.

Jonathan Bishop (Independent): Although undeniably highly qualified academically, Mr. Bishop may have lost audience sympathy with his rude insistence on butting in to answer one question as he was “the only member of the panel qualified to answer it” and by his general manner and unusual views on police wages and the value of woman Labour MPs.

Currently, Exeter is a lone island of red in a sea of Tory blue in the south west. Will it stay that way? After tomorrow, we’ll find out.

October 2017 update: Results of June 2017 General Election in Exeter

Candidate/party Votes
Ben BradshawLabour 34,336
James TaghdissianConservative 18,219
Vanessa NewcombeLiberal Democrat 1,562
Joe LevyGreen 1,027
Jonathan WestIndependent 212
Jonathan BishopIndependent 67

Ben Bradshaw won his sixth victory easily with more votes, a bigger share of the vote (62%) and a wider margin of victory than ever before (his Tory opponent won 32.9% of the vote). Turnout in Exeter was 71.7%, the highest since 1997, the year of Bradshaw’s first win and higher than the average UK turnout in 2017 (68.8%).

Mr. Bradshaw’s prediction that the Tories would substantially increase their majority in parliament turned out to be wrong. The Tories have lost their majority. In fairness, he certainly wasn’t the only one to predict this incorrectly.. He has now adopted a more pro-Corbyn position.

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The Liberal Democrats: A poem

Britains-Deputy-Prime-Minister-and-leader-of-the-Liberal-Democrats-Nick-Clegg

Do you know what we are for?

We’ve no idea anymore.

Progressive change was once our mission.

Before we joined the Coalition.

Do you remember 2010?

“Cleggmania” was all the rage back then.

We soon held the balance of power.

But this was not our finest hour.

On election night, everyone failed to win,

The Tories needed us to get in,

Did Clegg thus demand safeguards for the nation?

Or to protect the NHS from “reorganisation”?

Did he do all he was able,

To get a seat at the cabinet table?

Today the record says it all,

The Lib Dems have achieved sweet sod all.

Face facts voters, to our shame,

If your library’s closed, you’re as much to blame.

The sad conclusion to our story,

Is that you might as well have voted Tory.

Top 5 finest British political TV dramas

Political thriller Secret State has now come to an end. But what other series deserve a place amongst the best British TV political dramas of all time?Image

The Deal

Year: 2003

The plot:  It’s 1983 and when a newly elected young Labour MP Tony Blair finds himself sharing an office with a hardworking Scot Gordon Brown (David Morrissey), he soon recognises his dour companion could one day be a future Prime Minister. But as the next decade rolls on it is Blair, not Brown whose populist instincts gradually put him ahead and by 1994, the two friends are forced to make a tough decision concerning their own, their party and their nation’s future.

The series: The first of Peter Morgan’s “Blair Trilogy” starring Sheen, before the film The Queen and the later (somewhat inferior) Special Relationship. At the time, critical attention actually focused more on David Morrissey’s uncanny portrayal of Brown than on Sheen’s Blair. Other interesting casting included Dexter Fletcher as Charlie Whelan and Frank Kelly (Father Ted’s drunken Father Jack) as Labour leader John Smith.

Remade? No. Peter Morgan’s next project The Audience will focus on the different relationships the Queen has had with her various PMs during her long reign.

Basis in reality?: Clearly based on reality. Although Blair and Brown have both denied any deal (namely that Blair agree in advance to stand down in favour of Brown after an agreed time lapse) was ever made.

A Very British Coup

Year: 1988

The plot: Former Sheffield steelworker Harry Perkins (Ray McAnally) has been elected Labour Prime Minister in a landslide. The Establishment (the Civil Service, media, MI5 as well as the CIA) do not like this one bit and soon conspire together in the hope of triggering Perkins’ downfall.

The series:  Based on the novel by onetime Labour MP Chris Mullin and discussed more thoroughly in my recent blog entry. The excellent McNally tragically died soon after playing Perkins.

Remade? In the UK as The Secret State starring Gabriel Byre. Chris Mullin enjoyed a brief cameo as a vicar but the plot – which centred on the aftermath of the disappearance of a Prime Minister as his plane flew over the Atlantic – was very different.

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Year:

The plot: Charismatic Trotskyite Labour politician Michael Murray (Robert Lindsay) has taken over the council of a northern city and soon calls for a “Day of Action”. This soon turns into a very personal battle with local schoolteacher Jim Nelson (Michael Palin) who resists. But Murray has more than a few skeletons in his closet (notably a traumatic childhood incident) and various figures on the Right are soon seeking to frame him for a series of racial attacks.

The series: Alan Bleasdale’s series initially portrayed Murray as a clear villain, then a figure of fun (a sequence in which a twitchy overstressed Murray attempts to acquire condoms is hilarious) before ultimately becoming a very sympathetic and somewhat tragic figure. Julie Walters, who plays Lindsay’s wife in their next Alan Bleasdale drama Jake’s Progress, here plays his elderly Irish mother. In reality, she is slightly younger than him

Basis in reality? Derek Hatton, the former Militant leader of Liverpool  City Council criticised the series claiming it was based on him, a charge Bleasdale fiercely denied. Although ultimately an attack on the Right and the extreme Left, many critics at the time seemed to think Bleasdale had turned his fire on the Kinnock Labour Party.

House of Cards

Year: 1990

The plot: When scheming Chief Whip Francis Urquhart (the late Ian Richardson) is passed over for promotion by the lightweight new post-Thatcher Tory PM Henry Collingridge, he soon decides to use his own insider knowledge and an attractive young journalist Mattie Storin (Susannah Harker) to plot for the leadership himself. A gripping story which benefits hugely from Richardson’s brilliant performance, his tendency to speak directly to the camera and elements of Shakespearian drama incorporated into the action.

The series: Adapted from Tory insider Michael Dobbs’ novel (which ends differently to the TV version) by Andrew Davies, this spawned two sequels To Play The King, in which PM Urquhart overthrows a Prince Charles like monarch and The Final Cut.

Remade? A US TV remake starring Kevin Spacey will appear early in 2013.

Basis in reality? The timing of the first series was uncanny, with Margaret Thatcher being challenged and overthrown by her old rival Michael Heseltine before being replaced by John Major exactly in parallel to the progress of events in the four part series on TV. Later series got so popular that Urquhart’s evasive catchphrase “You might very well think that. I couldn’t possibly comment” was soon being jokily quoted in parliament. The last series was criticised by some for featuring Lady Thatcher’s funeral.

Our Friends In The North

Year: 1996

The plot: Four friends travel from youthful optimism to middle age from thirty years from the year of Harold Wilson’s first victory and the Beatles in 1964 to the advent of New Labour and Oasis in 1995.

Nicky (future Doctor Who Christopher Eccleston) a keen Labour supporter drops out of University to assist local politician Austin Donohue (Alun Armstrong) but becomes implicated in civic corruption, briefly becomes drawn into counterculture terrorism before enduring a horrendous stint as a Labour candidate in 1979.

Geordie (future James Bond Daniel Craig, then largely unknown) flees a broken home only to find an ill chosen surrogate father figure in East End gangland boss Benny (Malcolm McDowell).

Tosker (Mark Strong) seeks pop stardom, has an unhappy marriage before becoming, despite being in many ways the stupidest and least likeable of the four,  the most successful, establishing himself as a keen Freemason and Thatcherite.

Mary (Gina McKee who is also in The Secret State) is caught up in an awkward love triangle between the unsuitable Tosker and true love Nicky. She later becomes a New Labour MP.

The series: A wonderful sprawling series this had a long gestation period, originally as a play with the action only going up to 1979.

Remade? No, although there has been talk of a US remake.

Basis in reality? Although fictional, this drew heavily on real events. Austin Donohue’s character was based on real life corrupt city developer T Dan Smith, while a character played by future Downton Abbey author Julian Fellowes owed a lot to Tory Home Secretary Reginald Maudling. Revelations concerning police corruption, 1970s anarchist movements and events during the Miner’s Strike of 1984 also played a major part in the story.