Book review: Why We Get The Wrong Politicians, by Isabel Hardman. Published by: Atlantic Books.
As British voters prepare to go to the polls for the fourth time this decade, it is well worth bearing in mind: the way we select our politicians is awful.
You don’t actually have to be rich to become an MP, but as Isabel Hardman’s book highlights, the process of standing for parliament is so expensive, time consuming and arduous, it’s a wonder anyone ever does it in the first place. Most candidates in the current general election campaign will never become MPs. And even if they do, the labyrinthine world of Westminster offers so little support to new members, that many of them will find themselves falling victim to alcoholism or marital breakdown. Of course, many also often find themselves subject to personal abuse, on Twitter, on nastier versions of blogs like this or in what is sometimes referred to as “the real world”.
Hardman (the Deputy Editor of The Spectator) admits to some well-intentioned sleight of hand here. Despite the book’s title, she is not actually attacking politicians as a class. She does not pander to the popular stereotype that all or even most MPs are lazy, out of touch or corrupt. Although she is not afraid to recount examples of abuse, she reminds us that the vast majority of MPs are hardworking, dedicated people. Attending regular surgeries and hearing constituents’ problems arguably puts them more in touch with ordinary people’s problems than the average person.
Hardman’s argument is that the current system is deeply flawed, often resulting in unsatisfactory laws.
It is an excellent book and a difficult argument to refute.
Book review: Comrade Corbyn by Rosa Prince. Published by: Biteback.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has divided opinion like no other British political leader since Margaret Thatcher. To his admirers, he is above reproach, the flawless, bearded, living embodiment of socialist perfection: any criticism of him can only suggest insidious bias by the right-wing mass media. His detractors, in contrast, see him, in the words of Rupert Murdoch’s The Sun as “a friend of terrorists who’s ready to open our borders and hike up taxes.” In short, they portray him as an unpatriotic, unprincipled, malevolent, Marxist bogeyman. Neither characterisation is accurate and neither does the real Corbyn any favours. The reality, of course, lies somewhere in between these two extremes. Jeremy Corbyn has now led Labour for three years, a period exceeding that of John Smith and Gordon Brown. Rosa Prince’s biography, Comrade Corbyn: A Very Unlikely Coup was the first comprehensive biography of Corbyn to emerge, appearing in 2016. Rosa Prince is online editor for the Daily Telegraph and many thought she was an odd choice to write about the Labour leader. But as Prince herself says, this is “not a hagiography but nor is it a hatchet job”. She is right. The Guardian attacked the book as “spiteful” which is entirely unfair. The book has its problems, but judging by this third edition (two supplemental epilogues update us of events since Corbyn became leader), this is a thorough and fair account of the Opposition leader’s life so far.
By and large, he comes across as a decent and principled man, an eternal campaigner, who genuinely seemed to have no ambitions or expectations beyond being an apparently excellent constituency MP for Islington North and a back bencher even as recently as the 2015 General Election. The story of his astonishing triumph in the 2015 Labour leadership contest (partly, though certainly not entirely, a consequence of disastrous campaigns by the three other contenders, particularly a chronically indecisive Andy Burnham) is thoroughly and vividly recreated. There is nothing at all to suggest any anti-Semitism in Corbyn: quite the opposite. Corbyn has speculated openly in the past that he himself might have some Jewish heritage. The worst that can be said of him is that he has been too relaxed about meeting various dubious figures with terrorist connections in the past, mainly in the 1980s, He is certainly not pro-terrorist, however and these past acts are unlikely to cause serious issues in the future. Another valid charge against Corbyn is that he has also grown so used to constant media hostility that he can no longer tell whether any criticisms of him have any validity or not. The press is indeed relentlessly unfairly brutal towards him, as one would expect they would be towards anyone on the Left. Corbyn has a genuine element of greatness within him, for all his failings. This should worry the Tories and the Tory press even more.
There are a few errors in the book. Harold Wilson did not call a General Election in October 1966 (p29), Ed Miliband was not elected “under the electoral college system which had been in place since 1980” – it had been reformed in the meantime, notably under John Smith (p192) while Chris Mullin’s A Very British Coup was about a Sheffield steelworker who is unexpectedly elected Prime Minister and was not “inspired” by the career of Anthony Wedgwood-Benn (p71 and p308). By far the worst flaw in the book, however, occurs in its early stages. Like many on the Right, Rosa Prince seems incapable of comprehending the fact that anyone who has any wealth might aspire to work towards improving society as a whole, rather than simply to consolidate their own position. Prince thus marvels endlessly over the not unusual fact Corbyn’s background was relatively comfortable but that he nevertheless became a left-winger. She simply can’t get over it. Indeed, every time someone privileged appears in the story, we are told “they were not an obvious socialist” or that they were an “unlikely radical”. Even the fact that this occurs time and time again in the narrative, does not seem to provide her with any sort of clue. Prince seems completely unaware that there has always been a large cohort of middle and upper-class support for the Left in general and for Labour specifically. Think of: the Milibands, Michael Foot, Tony Benn, Clement Attlee, Shirley Williams, Hugh Gaitskell, George Orwell and others. They were no more “unlikely” socialists than those from relatively humble backgrounds such as John Major, Margaret Thatcher, Richard Nixon or indeed Adolf Hitler – who became figures on the Right, were “unlikely conservatives”. Classics scholar Mary Beard is also described as “outspoken” (she isn’t) while Prince seems slightly obsessed by Corbyn’s 1970s relationship with Diane Abbott. Still, we should remember: Rosa Prince writes for the Telegraph. Perhaps we should be grateful there is only one mention in the entire book of the Duchess of Cambridge? These blind spots (admittedly common to many Conservative Party supporters) flaw an otherwise thorough, well-written and well researched biography of a man who may yet one day lead Britain.
Punch & Judy Politics: An Insiders’ Guide To Prime Minister’s Questions by Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton. Published by Biteback.
Iain Duncan Smith was terrible at it. William Hague was great at it, but it got him nowhere. Theresa May is not very good at it. Jeremy Corbyn is better although is a dull performer. Harold Wilson drank a bottle of whiskey, (sometimes two) to prepare for it. Margaret Thatcher had her notes for it, produced in large print. She felt wearing reading glasses would look like a sign of weakness.
It is, in fact, Thatcher who we have in many ways to thank for the ritual of Prime Minister’s Questions in its current form. Although Prime Ministers have had a designated time slot for answering questions since the early 1960s, it was Thatcher who transformed it into a major event – or rather two events – by choosing to answer every question herself. It was also around this time – although through not her doing – that parliamentary proceedings began being broadcast on the radio from 1978 and then TV from 1989. The modern ritual of PMQs would not be the same without this.
On taking office, Tony Blair reduced the sessions from two to one a week. Some criticised him for this, suggesting it proved his “contempt for parliament” but in fact it seems like a very sensible move indeed. Thatcher reportedly spent eight hours a week just preparing for her two weekly sessions. Something had to give.
Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton are behind this well-researched and thorough guide and clearly know their stuff. Both have experience as political advisers and spent years briefing Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband behind the scenes for their own sessions with, as they admit, somewhat mixed results.
Prime Minster’s Question Time a bizarre ritual, a genuine ordeal for the leaders on both sides and almost useless as a means to both ask and get an answer to a question, involving a lot of improvisation, preparation and second guessing. The sight of 600 paid representatives bawling and groaning at each other in a crowded chamber on a weekly basis, probably puts more people off politics than anything else.
It does serve a function though and as the book reminds us, has provided scenes of rare humour and drama. William Hague, though a largely unsuccessful Tory leader was a master of this strange art and like the late John Smith could often be very funny.
Even Hague, could come unstuck though, as he did filling in for David Cameron when Harriet Harman stood in for PM, Gordon Brown in 2008.
“You had to explain yesterday that you dress in accordance with wherever you go – you wear a helmet to a building site, you wear Indian clothes to Indian parts of your constituency,” he began, then attempting a joke. “Presumably when you go to a cabinet meeting you dress as a clown.”
Against all expectation, Harriet Harman then wiped the floor with him:
“If am looking for advice on what to wear or what not to wear, I think the very last person I would look to for advice is the man in a baseball cap,” she said.
By common consent, PMQs is currently going through a dull patch. Jeremy Corbyn covered up his initial experience well by using questions from the general public. Today, he is much better and no longer resorts to this clever tactic. But he is not a spontaneous performer even as he consistently outperforms Theresa May.
It was David Cameron who called for “an end to Punch and Judy politics” when he became Tory leader in 2005. He was not the first or last leader to express such sentiments and was not referring to PMQs specifically anyway, a ritual which he generally proved pretty good at.
But a few years later, he admitted the folly of this pledge. For calm down, dear! He was the future once, his Day Mayor and your Night Mayor.
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).
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.
As a party member, I voted for Jeremy Corbyn a year ago. He was the best of the candidates available at the time. But a year on, one thing is clear: it’s not working out. The party has been in perpetual crisis ever since. It has been behind in the polls for his entire first year as leader, the first time this has happened in my lifetime I think and I am in my late thirties. Even under Michael Foot, Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband, Labour were ahead sometimes. Now they never are.
It cannot go on like this. There has to be a change. Owen Smith isn’t great but if he does well, someone else will move into the contest to lead the party. I am not expecting this to happen. I am expecting Jeremy Corbyn to win.
But what reasons do people give for supporting him?
He is moral and decent: I believe this. I don’t trust Virgin Trains in the matter this week for a moment. But Clement Attlee was moral and decent and led us to victory where we achieved great things. Michael Foot was moral and decent and led us to electoral disaster, leaving Margaret Thatcher a huge majority with which to do as she wished. Being moral and decent is not enough in itself.
He has already won a huge mandate from his party: True, but that was a year ago. A lot has changed since then. This is a new contest. Saying “he won the leadership before” is not an argument for backing him again.
The media are hostile to him: The press certainly are. But they always are to Labour. That isn’t really the problem.
Many MPs never supported him from the outset: This is true and certainly isn’t too their credit. I will certainly support Corbyn if he wins. I hope MPs do the same. Pro-Corbyn members should stop going on about purging their enemies within the party too. Enough is enough.
Labour MPs should represent the majority of their members’ views: No. This has never been the case. MPs should vote for whoever they wish.
Winning isn’t everything: No, but it’s essential if we are to accomplish anything. The Tories have their smallest majority since 1945. Victory is achievable but some of us act as if we don’t want to win, as if to win is the same as becoming a Tory.
Had we followed this approach in 1945, we would now have no NHS or welfare state. If we had done the same in 1964, homosexuality and abortion would never have been legalised, the death penalty abolished or comprehensive education introduced. And had we not won in 1997, there would now be no minimum wage, Good Friday Agreement or devolution.
We owe it to our people to win power. And we cannot do so, under Jeremy Corbyn.
It has now been a full decade since Britain voted 53 to 47 to leave the European Union.
Opinion polls now indicate that over 75% now regard this as a bad decision with many of the architects of Brexit such as the former Prime Minister Lord Cameron expressing regret at the move. It is unlikely Cameron’s seven undistinguished years in Downing Street will be remembered for much else. Like Thatcher before him, his premiership both began and ended with severe economic recession.
The pound began dropping before the celebrations had even ended. Cameron and his Chancellor George Osborne were able to briefly use the cover of the mounting economic crisis to cling to power into the new year. He was assisted in this by the ructions in the Labour Party with Labour MPs using the excuse of the referendum defeat as an excuse to blame and overthrow their leader Jeremy Corbyn.
By 2017, unemployment was over two million (it has never been as low since) and both the facts that the country had a huge deficit and the Tories had a tiny majority suddenly became hugely relevant. As under John Major, the economy suffered both severe recession and Tory civil war. The Queen expressed concern. Cameron fell. For all his sub-Churchillian rhetoric, his gaffe-prone successor Boris Johnson proved no more able to cope with the slump than Cameron had. Nor could Chancellor Michael Gove.
Ten years on, unemployment is again back to 1980s levels, permanently over three million. Immigration has increased dramatically, the illusion that we could control our own borders on our own dramatically exposed as a pipe dream. UKIP, against expectation, remains strong although less strong than the resurgent pro-European Liberal Democrats. Any democratic gains achieved by Brexit seem to have passed most people by, unnoticed.
The newspapers, fierce cheerleaders for Brexit at the time now condemn it as an “historic mistake”.
The Prime Minister, encouraged by the support of former US president Hillary Clinton, is thought to be contemplating a new bid to apply for EU membership as soon as soon as the coronation is over.
From the outset, there were doubts about the Labour leader’s left-wing agenda:
“Withdrawal from the Common Market. Import controls. Public control of finance, including the pension and insurance funds. Abolition of the House of Lords, the honours list and the public schools…’consideration to be given’ to withdrawal from NATO…there was even a paragraph about ‘dismantling the newspaper monopolies’”.”
Jeremy Corbyn in 2015? No, Harry Perkins in 1989, the fictional Prime Minister created by Chris Mullin in his 1982 novel, A Very British Coup. Perhaps it’s no surprise following Corbyn’s victory that Mullin has announced that he is considering writing a sequel.
The book tells of how the new government, despite winning a landslide election win soon finds itself under collective attack from an extremely hostile media, intelligence services (at home and in the US) and the establishment in general.
Perkins’ dress sense is different to Corbyn’s but even on the night he becomes Prime Minister, it is unconventional:
“He was smartly dressed, but nothing flashy. A tweed sports jacket, a silk tie, and on this occasion, a red carnation in his buttonhole”.
The press reaction to Perkins’ emergence as leader is all too familiar too:
“Despite their firm belief that a Labour Party led by Perkins stood no chance of winning an election, the press barons took no chances.”LABOUR VOTES FOR SUICIDE” raged the Express. Even the Daily Mirror traditionally loyal to Labour, thought the choice of Perkins was the end… (even The Guardian and the Financial Times) conceded that the election of Perkins would be a catastrophe”.
There are differences too. It currently seems most likely Corbyn may face a coup not from the ruling elite but from his own MPs many of whom seem wholly uninterested in the simple fact Corbyn has been elected entirely, fairly and democratically within the rules of the party, indeed by a huge margin.
Perkins is also clearly not Corbyn. He is a younger man and an ex-Sheffield steelworker. He bears no resemblance to the aged intellectual Michael Foot who led Labour at the time the book was published. Nor is he anything like Tony Benn, who the book’s author Mullin and Corbyn himself were both close to.
One character at the end of the book “is said to spend his evenings writing a book about what really happened to the government of Harry Perkins. There must be some doubt, however, as to whether it will ever be published”.
Is Harry Perkins then, supposed to be Harold Wilson, the dynamic young Yorkshire Labour leader whose once promising premiership ended in a sudden and mysterious resignation amidst rumours of an MI5 plot against him in 1976? Even their names are quite similar. ‘Harold’ is the very nearly the same as ‘Harry’. ‘Wilson’ is as ordinary sounding a name as ‘Perkins’. But Harold Wilson was never as left-wing as Perkins is (or Corbyn). Ultimately, Perkins is a fictional character.
Soon, in the book, Perkins’ right-wing enemies are crowing, “There’s been nothing quite like it since the night Allende was overthrown in Chile,” says one, referring to the CIA coup which led to the deaths of 3,000 people under General Pinochet.
Another boasts: “everyone should feel proud…there had been no tanks on the streets. No one has gone to the firing squad…it was a very British coup.”
Let us hope, whether in power or opposition, that Jeremy Corbyn can escape the same fate.