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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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, her decision in 2011 as Home Secretary to abolish control orders and in advocating electoral reform. He was forced to defend his own lack of support for his increasingly popular 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.”

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.

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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: Hinterland by Chris Mullin

chris-mullin-book-jacket-newAll politicians are supposed to have a hinterland: a realm of interest and experience beyond the Westminster Bubble, which they typically in Britain, inhabit. The late former Labour Chancellor Denis Healey, for example, with whom the term is often associated, had a huge range of experience and cultural and classical knowledge outside the political sphere and was much the better and more rounded a figure for it. Margaret Thatcher, in contrast, although in many ways more successful than him politically, had almost  no interests outside politics and thus had a boring and miserable retirement, often spent making a nuisance of herself.

Chris Mullin shouldn’t have this problem. Though his twenty three years as an MP for Sunderland South are now over, he entered parliament late in life (age 39) and as this memoir confirms, he did much before, during and since. He achieved ministerial rank under Blair and has perhaps subtly shifted from a position once regarded derisively as the “loony left” to a not uncritical position of support for Blair. He is rightly a cheerleader for the underrated Blair-Brown Government’s achievements, achievements unsung often by the governments themselves, particularly former members such as Ed Miliband.

“Loony MP Backs Bomb Gang” was The Sun’s unhelpful angle on his campaign to free the Birmingham Six. His three volumes of diaries on his political career make for fascinating  reading as does his novel A Very British Coup, a tale of a Corbyn-esque leader elected to power (it was published in 1982)) who is ultimately destroyed by the conservative political establishment. The book has been dramatised for TV twice, the second time, massively altered as The Secret State.

This is another fine book: a compelling story of a life well led.

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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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A song for UKIP

(Actually, more of a poem than a song…)

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Right wing chumps of the world unite!

It’s time to take a stand and fight,

It’s time to desert the sinking ship,

Leave the Tories: join UKIP!

Follow your heart and not your head,

Maggie would back us (were she not dead,)

Listen to the Mail, Telegraph and Express,

Say no to EU bureaucracy and excess!

Are you racist to a small degree?

We’re less scary than the BNP!

If the PC liberals had their way,

Everyone in the world would be gay.

The EU is far too large.

Vote for an Englishman named Farage.

Join the UKIP throng as we march today,

Towards a glorious yesterday!

The rest of us on Planet Earth,

Should cheer on UKIP for all our worth,

For like in 1983,

They’re splitters like the SDP.

For Farage and his doltish band,

Are giving Labour a helping hand,

The bigger the split grows on the Right,

The better things look on election night.

So if you are a lefty liberal type like me,

And value the NHS and BBC,

And don’t blame the poor for being poor,

Or lay all our ills at the immigrant’s door.

If you don’t want to make life a misery,

For the poorest and weakest in society,

Then pray that UKIP win some seats,

And help Labour into Downing Street.

Chris Hallam.