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 detailing 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 and the story of that period as related 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 only one small majority in any of the last six General Elections. 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. O’Farrell often felt conflicted defending the Blair Government as a Guardian columnist in the early 2000s particularly after Iraq. 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 an unimpressive Opposition frontbencher called Theresa May. But the disintegration of Labour under Brown and Miliband was hardly a joy to behold 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 with out of context quotes from his first book. By 2016, with O’Farrell despairing of the Jeremy Corbyn 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 as 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 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 and Iain Duncan Smith as their party leader.

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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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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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

The Labour Party Hold Their Annual Party Conference - Day 3

“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.

Is it 1992 all over again?

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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 of complacent gestures like the overblown Sheffield Rally unlikely.

Despite this and their quite small lead, the electoral arithmetic favours Labour far more. The Tories need to win by over 10% to win a majority. Labour only need 2%.

David Cameron is not John Major: It is also true Ed Miliband is not Neil Kinnock. Kinnock was slightly more popular than Miliband but had already suffered defeat in 1987. But Major, though ultimately weak, was untested and novel in 1992. Cameron has been Tory leader for over nine years.

Ultimately, the combination of UKIP and Coalition politics, in fact, means Labour’s chances this year are better than they have been in a decade.

Could it be Clinton Vs Bush in 2016?

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Could the next US presidential election end up being fought between the wife of one former president and the brother of another? Very possibly, is the only answer.
To start with, Hillary Clinton is currently the overwhelming favourite to be the Democratic nominee and is probably the general favourite to win overall. We have been here before, of course, but this time there seems no obvious signs of a charismatic Obama-type sweeping in to deny her the nomination as occurred in 2008. Indeed, her previous opposition to Obama probably stands her in good stead in the light of his recent unpopularity. Clinton’s main hindrances are likely to be her age (she is 67, and would be the second oldest elected president ever if she won in 2016), concerns over her health and the rich array of baggage she has inevitably accumulated during her twenty years as First Lady, New York senator and Secretary of State. Refreshingly, even though no woman has ever been nominated as a presidential candidate by either of the main parties, nobody seems very bothered that she’s a woman any more. It is as if the world has got used to the idea. Yet a lot still rides on her shoulders. For if Hillary failed (or even didn’t stand – she is yet to formally announce her candidacy), when would a woman get another chance as good as this?

Former US President George H.W. Bush(2nd

The prospects of Governor of Florida Jeb Bush, son of former president George HW and younger of President George W. look less good. Bush has always had a more competent air than his brother, but is far to the left of many in his party. What’s more, while Hillary can point to a largely successful Clinton presidency, the first Bush presidency ended after one term and the second was a total disaster. Jeb will be lucky to get the nomination. Though if he does, Republicans will be praying he can perform a reversal of the 1992 result when Clinton outfoxed Bush. A third president would be a first for any family.
There are a number of cases of political dynasties taking the highest office in the US, mostly in the 19th century. But despite our hereditary monarchy, Britain rarely does the same when it comes to elected politicians. There have been a long line of Churchill’s either Winstons or Randolphs in the Commons but only one has achieved glory. There have also been a number of Benns and Hoggs in Parliament over the decades but none in Downing Street.
Elsewhere, one wonders if a more clearly defined fixed four year presidential system might have prevented the disharmony caused by the two Miliband brothers competing for the Labour leadership in 2010 or the potential issues arising from the fact that both Ed Balls and his wife Yvette Cooper are both seen as potential future contenders for the party leadership.

Jeb Bush

DVD review: Tony Benn: Will and Testament

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Director: Skip Kite
Cert: 12
Running time: 95 minutes
Praslin Pictures

Labour politician Tony Benn was many things to many people. To many on the Right (many of whom are clearly far more class obsessed than Benn or anyone on the Left has ever been) he was the ultimate hypocrite: a peer of the realm who dared to turn on his own class and embrace socialism. In fact, Benn famously renounced his hereditary peerage as soon as he could after a monumental battle with the Establishment in the early sixties. A father of three and barred from the Commons, Benn was frequently left dejected and depressed by a battle which despite public support, often didn’t seem to be going his way.
To others within his own party, he was sometimes a hindrance. Harold Wilson, Labour leader during most of the relatively short period Benn held office (about eleven years) famously remarked that Benn “immatures with age”.
But to everyone Benn was something of a phenomenom, the longest serving Labour MP ever and a man who dutifully recorded the events of the second half of his life.
Skip Kite begins this film, made with Benn’s cooperation during the final two years of his life with the old man reciting Shakespeare’s “To be or not to be” speech from Hamlet. And though, it jumps around a little (being thematic rather than strictly chronological in order) and features an odd recurring Narnia-like lamp post visual motif, it does accurately portray the Seven Ages of Benn (my own idea, not the director’s):
The schoolboy who once met the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and Ramsay MacDonald (and who, in later life, would never stop reminding people of this).
The wartime pilot.
The young ambitious Labour MP of the fifties diverted by the battle with the Lords.
The modern technocrat of the sixties. Widely seen as the future of the party and perhaps Benn at his best.
The increasing leftist “Most dangerous man in Britain” of tabloid infamy. Agitator but always respectful and good natured.
Switching remarkably quickly from youthful rising star, to the lisping white haired veteran of the Kinnock and Blair years: increasingly less powerful but never less interesting.
The old man we mostly see here, still in genuine mourning for Caroline his wife of nearly fifty years and increasingly a much loved national institution (whether he liked it or not).
This is an excellent documentary and a fitting monument to one of the greatest British politicians of the 20th century.
Bonus features include a Christmas message from the elderly Benn, a selection of photos (mostly covering his early life) and Benn’s final interview.
He will be missed.

Why Labour must unite

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There is no point pretending this has been an easy week for Labour. The Lib Dems may be quailing in the face of electoral Armageddon while many Tories still resent Cameron for both failing to win in 2010 and probably leading them to defeat now.
But it is Ed Miliband and Labour who have been making headlines this week.
Is this fair?
Ed Miliband has never had tremendously high personal ratings. Until this year, however, few people had a good answer as to why this was. Miliband’s stance on press and energy reform were well received.
There have been gaffes in recent months though, notably missing mention of the deficit from the conference speech. Holding a copy of The Sun in public was also an error as was the decision to allow himself to be photographed eating. Miliband looks no weirder eating than anyone else. But the press are not Labour’s friend. Pictures can always be selected to look bad. Nobody looks good when they are half blinking.
Does any of this really matter? Well, no. They are presentation issues essentially.
Would David Miliband now be going through the same ordeal were he now leader? There is no doubt. Look at the fuss that was made over him holding a banana in public (not even really a gaffe).
Unlike the Tories, Labour have a number of potential future leaders lined up: Andy Burnham, Chuka Umunna. Yvette Cooper.
But this isn’t the time.
Let us remember:
Ed Miliband is substantially older and more experienced than Caneron and Clegg were in 2010. Miliband has cabinet experience. They did not.
Ed Miliband has adopted a respectable policy on press reform rather than Cameron’s cowardly dishonorable one. Unfortunately, this is why the press hate him more than most other Labour leaders.
Cameron has proven extremely gaffe-prone appointing Andy Coulson despite a rising tide of evidence against him, introducing the absurd bedroom tax and u-turning on everything from the pasty tax to the privatisation of national parks.
The Tories simply cannot be trusted on the NHS. Labour can.
Britain needs to stay in the EU. Only Labour can ensure this.
And Labour are, despite everything, still set to win, probably with an overall majority.
The party must remain united in these crucial last six months.

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