General Election memories 3: 1987

(FILES) - A picture dated Ocotber 13, 19

Peterborough, June 11th 1987

The Tories seemed to be doing rather well in 1987. Mrs Thatcher had beaten the unions, the Wets and the Argentines. She now seemed set to do the same for her third Labour electoral opponent, Neil Kinnock just as she had thwarted both Jim Callaghan and Michael Foot before. The economy was enjoying a brief economic boom. Thatcher, apparently invincible but not yet obviously unstable, looked unstoppable. The NHS, crime and homelessness figures were all far worse than they had been, but no one was worrying about this then.

Labour, though much more polished than in 1983, thanks to the red rose symbol and other behind the scenes innovations by the then largely unknown Peter Mandelson, were well on the road to becoming New Labour, this would propel it to a massive victory a decade later. But in 1987, the party still looked vulnerable as did the Alliance led by the “two Davids” Owen and Steel. In Peterborough, Brian Mawhinney seemed safe against his Labour foe Andrew MacKinlay (who would later be MP for Thurrock between 1992 and 2010).

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But as Lt. Col. Oliver North frequently said in the Iran-Contra hearings at about this time: “I was not aware” of all these things.

I was ten. I was in my third year (that is, Year 5) of my Junior School. I liked Whizzer and Chips, Buster and Oink! comic (none of these are still going) and books like The Demon Headmaster and The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tyler. I used to draw and write my own stories, sometimes in cartoon form, on Peterborough Development Corporation paper which my dad would bring home from work. He is retired now and the PDC no longer exists, so I hope my revealing this, doesn’t get him into trouble..

I liked riding my BMX round the park and swimming in the Regional Pool (not the Lido so much, as that was freezing). I could very nearly swim and cycle by 1987, though not simultaneously. I was never fat but disliked sport. I loved history. I was not the film buff I have become but I was already a big Blackadder fan, even though it was often unsuitable for a ten year old. I used to play very slow Atari 800XL computer games and fight with my younger brother (six). My older brother was just finishing his time at Reading University while my sister, just two months off being old enough to vote was then finishing her A levels.
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This was the first election I was aware of. I was not hugely impressed by any of the parties and had not yet developed any feelings of loyalty towards them. I found Mrs. Thatcher’s affected way of speaking rather grating, as indeed my mother did and still does. But Neil Kinnock seemed boring when he appeared on Wogan. The Alliance roused no strong feelings within me either. I understood bar charts well enough from my Scottish Maths books to see that the Tories were going to win.

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My third year teacher Mrs. Field (not her actual name) organised a mock election.The Tory candidate, a bright promising girl, was something of a favourite. As in all subsequent elections, I became emotionally involved but didn’t make a speech or do anything that involved work. Speeches were made by anyone, not just the three main candidates. I think the Tories would have won the mock election anyway but Mrs. Field was hardly an impartial arbitrator. Generally everyone made meaningless speeches e.g. “The Conservatives will build lots of houses” or “Look up “liberal” in the dictionary and it means…” or “Labour will make the schools better”. If someone spoke up for Labour though Mrs. Field would sometimes interject with something like: “but how will Labour pay for all this? With higher taxes!” Taxes sounded evil to our childish ears then. Even though, in retrospect, they might have got us a proper classroom rather than the mobile one we were then sat in.

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These interjections prompted a few people to defect from Labour to Tory, ultimately pushing them into third place. The Labour candidate was a decent boy and a friend. I regret to say for the first and only time I VOTED CONSERVATIVE MYSELF.

Yes, I know it wasn’t a real election and I admitted it at the time before I did it. My family weren’t impressed, but knew I was only a child. In time, I would be the only one of us to become a Labour Party member. But in 1987 I probably just wanted to back a winner.
But I’m not proud of myself.

The Tories won a 100 seat majority nationwide and the first plans for the Community Charge were announced soon afterwards. John Major won Mawhinney’s neighbouring seat of Huntington for a third time too. He won his first position in Cabinet straight after the election, became Foreign Secretary and Chancellor in 1989 and finally Prime Minister just three years later in 1990.
The Tories won in the class Mock Election comfortably too, the Tory candidate later becoming an actress. Mrs. Field died about twenty years ago and most people involved, now like me, fast approaching forty, have probably forgotten about the school election completely.
But by the next election in 1992, I would be fifteen. Still not old enough to vote but by then firmly in the Labour camp.

2017 update: I no longer regret not voting for the Labour candidate. I’d not seen him in years and he recently put a horrendously racist joke on Facebook. I de-friended him.

Politics - Thatcher Conservative Party Conference - 1988

 

 

Thirty years of Spitting Image

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John Major was entirely painted in grey. Home Secretary Kenneth Baker was a slug. Future Prime Minister Tony Blair was portrayed as a wayward child while Edwina Currie was a malevolent Cruella Deville figure. The puppet-based comedy Spitting Image first appeared on our screens thirty years ago in 1984 and ran until 1996. There had never been anything like it before and has been nothing like it on British TV since.  It made its mark on the times in a way that no other comedian, TV show or satirical cartoon of the time could ever have managed.

Perhaps it could only have started in 1984, a time when the forces of conservatism seemed perilously close to absolute victory. Margaret Thatcher, simultaneously the most loved and loathed Prime Minister of all time, had won a second landslide election victory the year before and was now taking on the miners, a battle she would ultimately win. The unions were in revolt, unemployment was sky high. People were angry and yet the Opposition which was split between Neil Kinnock’s Labour and the Liberal-SDP Alliance had never looked weaker.

There was something of a political comedy void too. Mike Yarwood, a huge star in the Seventies, was far too gentle (and troubled) an impressionist to continue through the Eighties. By 1984, his career was in freefall, perhaps partially because he was unable to convincingly “do” Margaret Thatcher. Yes Minister, meanwhile, was a brilliant political comedy, but it was set in a fictional and non-partisan political landscape (Jim Hacker was never identified as belonging to any existing party). Meanwhile, Not The Nine O Clock News which had lampooned many public figures during the early Eighties (while rarely actually impersonating them) had ended in 1982. Smith and Jones had begun their own largely non-political sketch show while Rowan Atkinson was now in Blackadder. NTNOCN producer John Lloyd would be instrumental in launching Spitting Image for the ITV franchise Central in 1984.

The project was hugely ambitious: it was the most expensive light entertainment show of the time. In retrospect, we should be less surprised that the results were patchy (and they were) than by the fact that Peter Fluck and Roger Law’s puppets were nearly always easily recognisable and that Spitting Image not only managed to be produced so close to transmission time (some scenes were even broadcast live) but that the show was so often on the mark, highly topical and frequently very funny.

Some public figures will be forever linked with their puppet counterparts. To some, Norman Tebbit will always be a leather jacketed yob, Michael Heseltine a swivel-eyed loon vocally denying any intention of standing against Thatcher for the Tory leadership while simultaneously wearing a sign saying “Vote for Heseltine” on his back while, for many, Kenneth Baker, as mentioned, will always be a slug on a leaf.

Some caricatures required less imagination,  however, with US president Ronald Reagan (voiced by Chris Barrie, later of Red Dwarf and The Brittas Empire fame) always portrayed as a moron, as in this fireside chat with Soviet premier Gorbachev (whose distinctive birthmark always took the form of a Soviet hammer and sickle):

Gorbachev: Ron, do you know what I see when I see when I look into those flames? I see our two nations living in peace and harmony… what do you see?

Reagan: I see a little doggy, a bunny wunny and a big hippo on a broomstick. Hell, this is fun!

Margaret Thatcher herself, meanwhile, was usually portrayed (rather sexistly) in a man’s suit (something which may actually have helped her image). John Major, her successor, initially appeared as a robot being secretly controlled by Thatcher before becoming the totally grey figure he is now remembered as, complementing wife Norma on her peas (“Very tasty”) while secretly nursing a childish crush on colleague Virginia Bottomley (prompting Major’s cabinet colleagues to taunt him by chanting “John loves Ginny!”).  Major’s earlier affair with Edwina Currie was, of course, at this stage not known to the general public or to Spitting Image’s writers.

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Currie, in fact, undeniably benefited from the publicity her puppet generated. She was, after all, a junior minister and never in the cabinet. How many junior ministers can you name today? This was not solely Spitting Image’s doing, but it surely helped. The same is true with Labour frontbencher Gerald Kaufman. He was never exactly a household name but got attention simply because Spitting Image claimed he went around saying creepy things such as (inexplicably) “sweaty palms”.

Others liked the attention less, though many like to pretend otherwise. Liberal leader David Steel  openly claimed that his image was harmed by the impression he was in SDP leader David Owen’s pocket. It is doubtful Roy Hattersley (who has a genuine speech impediment) enjoyed his depiction spluttering spit everywhere (notably spitting out the words “Spitting Image” during the title sequence) either.

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It wasn’t just the politicians, of course. The portrayal of the royals was always controversial. An early episode saw the Queen “christening” Prince Harry (who had an unflattering puppet from birth) by smashing a bottle against the side of his pram. Elsewhere,  Jeremy Paxman (one of the few figures still in the public eye both now and then) memorably began every broadcast with a sneering “yeeeeeeeeeeeeesss” while the late newsreader Alistair Burnett was seen as being in love with the Queen Mother. Rupert Murdoch, meanwhile, was seen as a crude figure constantly breaking wind while all journalists were routinely portrayed as pigs.

It had to end one day, of course, and in 1996, it did. Tony Blair was initially portrayed as a schoolboy because of his relative youth. He soon became a super hyperactive figure on becoming Labour leader in 1994. But while both he and successor Gordon Brown had puppets, the show didn’t get to see New Labour in power.

The programme never received much critical acclaim but effectively launched a thousand careers with Ian Hislop, Clive Anderson, John O’Farrell, Ben Elton and Red Dwarf’s Rob Grant and Doug Naylor (authors of The Chicken Song) amongst the numerous writers and Chris Barrie, Steve Coogan, Harry Enfield, John Sessions, Rory Bremner, John Culshaw, Alistair MacGowan, Steve Nallon and Hugh Dennis all amongst the vocal talent.

Could it happen today? Animated copycats like 2DTV and Headcases both proved failures although Round The Bend, almost a kids’ version of the show with puppets by Fluck and Law enjoyed some success in the Nineties.

But in the age of Boris Johnson and Nigel Forage perhaps we need a Spitting Image now more than ever?

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Book review: Shirley Williams The Biography by Mark Peel

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Baroness Shirley Williams appeared as a guest on BBC Question Time last Thursday. To say that the Liberal Democrat peer, at eighty-three, is universally admired throughout all parties for her good nature and superior intellect is true but sounds a little patronising. Giving sharp, concise and well thought-out answers, she is still clearly  a force to be reckoned with suggesting fellow panellist TV chef Anthony Worrall Thompson “go back to the kitchen” after the TV chef had unleashed a rambling anti-Liberal Democrat tirade.

But how different history could have been…

Back in 1981, Williams was one of the founders of the ‘Gang of Four’ who broke away from Labour to form the Social Democratic Party. The SDP’s early triumphs make UKIP’s recent “success” look all the more risible. The SDP actually won by-elections and had MPs sitting in parliament. By the end of 1981, (before Thatcher’s 1982 post-Falklands War comeback) they commanded over 50% in the opinion polls, way ahead of the two traditional parties, both then at the extremes under Margaret Thatcher and Michael Foot.

Before that, Williams was a leading figure in the Wilson and Callaghan Governments, frequently talked of as a possible first woman Prime Minister.

But this never happened. Margaret Thatcher born to a much humbler background five years before her beat her to it in May 1979. On the same day, Williams lost her Hertford and Stevenage seat as an MP, an upset similar in terms of prompting widespread surprise to Michael Portillo’s defeat in 1997.

What went wrong?

Williams was undeniably from a privileged background. She was born in 1930 as Shirley Vera-Brittain-Caitlin, the daughter of an academic and frustrated politician and Vera Brittain, the author of the celebrated First World War memoir, Testament of Youth. With her parents both vocal left-wing critics of the Nazi regime before the war (they were later revealed to be on a Nazi “Death List” and thus would have been in extreme danger had Hitler invaded Britain), Shirley and her brother spent most of the war in the United States. Throughout her early life and at Oxford, she seems to have dazzled and impressed almost everyone she met with her charm and precocious intellect. An early serious relationship was with the future four-minute-mile champion Roger Bannister. Despite her many qualities, she faced a struggle to enter parliament winning only after four attempts in 1964.

Did Williams’ privileged background count against her?

Margaret Thatcher certainly made play of it in a Conference speech made when Williams was in government and the Tory was Opposition leader in 1977:  “People from my sort of background needed grammar schools to compete with children from privileged homes like Shirley Williams and Anthony Wedgwood Benn.”

But in truth, it is unlikely Williams’ background did her serious harm. She has always possessed a classless quality which has broadened he appeal to the electorate

Was she then a victim of sexism? Peel mentions here that despite a good relationship with Jim Callaghan, she was never offered any of the major offices of state. Yet this no less true of Thatcher who, like Williams, was in charge of Education, in Thatcher’s case under Heath. Neither woman was a huge success in this role. Williams regards her promotion of comprehensive education as her proudest achievement but it remains controversial. Thatcher, in contrast, was reportedly embarrassed for herself that she closed more grammar schools than anyone else in that post.

Was Shirley Williams just unlucky? Was, as some have suggested, just in the wrong party at the wrong time? Luck does of course play a part in anyone’s political destiny. Labour were in fact in power for more than half of Williams’ thirties and forties. This is again similar to Thatcher and the Tories (in fact, Thatcher spent longer as an Opposition MP before 1979 than Williams did). And Thatcher raised the Tories from a very low ebb indeed in 1975.

Shirley Williams was, however, less lucky in her marriage than Margaret Thatcher. This is not to be sexist. A good marriage can be as crucial to male political success as female. Only Edward Heath has made it to Downing Street since the war while still unmarried and only Sir Anthony Eden became Prime Minister with a divorce behind him. Shirley’s first marriage to philosopher Bernard Williams ended in 1974. She married presidential historian Richard Neustadt in 1987 (both men in fact died very close together in 2003). She thus lacked a soul mate at a critical juncture in her career.

Biographer Mark Peel cites a certain scattyness and lack of political courage at crucial moments (notably her failure to stand in the Warrington by-election a decision perhaps fatal to her own career and to that of the SDP) which did for her.

Journalist Robin Oakley summarised her thus: “she really is one of the warmest, nicest people in politics, ever open to reason… She has a first rate-brain and a burning sense of justice… But the great drawback is her fatal indecisiveness…The flaw, some say, is that she likes being liked and making decisions makes enemies.”

Few of the tributes to Lady Thatcher earlier this year cited her warmness, niceness, first-rate brain or sense of justice. Clearly, the late Prime Minister totally lacked these qualities.

And maybe Shirley Williams lacked the necessary harshness and killer instinct to be Prime Minister. But she is perhaps the better person for that.

Labour can win without David Miliband

Rebuilding Peace and Stability in Afghanistan: David Miliband

Poor David Miliband.

In some quarters, he was seriously considered as a possible successor to Tony Blair in 2007. But he was barely forty then. The general consensus then was that he was too young and inexperienced for the top job.

However, now only six years later and having come within a whisker of the Labour leadership in 2010, he seems to be leaving British politics forever. He is standing down as MP for South Shields and leaving for a job with a leading charity in New York. As Michael Foot once said of another notable David (Owen): “He’s passed from rising hope to elder statesman without any intervening period whatsoever.” The problem is not, of course, the former Foreign Secretary’s age – he is a year younger than the Tories’ “rising hope” Boris Johnson – but the fact that he lost, however  narrowly in 2010, and worse, lost to his brother.

The sibling rivalry element to the story complicates everything and probably explains why David Miliband’s chosen to leave the political scene now. There is no reason at all why a defeated candidate cannot seek the leadership again – Harold Wilson, James Callaghan and Michael Foot all became leader on their second attempt – but this now seems unlikely to happen.

There is an element of mythmaking about the Miliband Saga, however. The Tory press will tell you, Labour made a historic mistake in September 2010 akin to their error in electing Michael Foot over Denis Healey in October 1980.

This is absurd. We are not now in a spring 1983 scenario. Labour has not split or plunged into the civil war which traditionally plagues it after being ejected from government. Ed Miliband is not obviously leading Labour to a crushing defeat as Foot was by this point in his ill fated leadership.

The truth is David Miliband is no Denis Healey nor is Ed Miliband, Michael Foot.

Ed Miliband vanquished fears that he might be in thrall to the trade unions in his 2010 acceptance speech. The “Red Ed” nickname did not last. He responded to the News International Scandal well. His “One Nation” speech last autumn won widespread plaudits from the public and media. And perhaps most importantly, thanks in no small measure to UKIP, Labour are likely to be in power (perhaps as the lead party in another Coalition) in a little over two years time.

Would they be doing better under David Miliband? Probably. The older brother comes across better on TV, a fact not insignificant in the media age. But let’s not get carried away. Like his friend Hillary Clinton in 2008, he fatally supported the Iraq War and acted as if the leadership was his almost by divine right in 2010. He also has mild image problems too and dithered fatally over whether to support Gordon Brown at the height of his leadership troubles in office.

Make no mistake: the same Tory press which heaps praise on David Miliband now would be lambasting him were he actually Opposition leader.

It is sad to see him go, yes. But he is not Denis Healey. Labour can win without him.Image