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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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 Miiband was not just the unshaven backbencher he is today, 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. Guardian writer John 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

General Election memories 8: 2010

New government starts

Exeter, May 6th 2010

A few things changed in the next few years. I moved inevitably from my late twenties into my early thirties. My social life in Exeter prospered. Despite not knowing anyone in Devon at all on my arrival, I soon met loads of people through both my shared house band my job at DVD Monthly magazine. The job was very enjoyable too. I am a huge film buff and got to see tons of films and even got to interview a fair few stars.

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2007 was the year Tony Blair (still then viewed as a very successful Prime Minister) bid the nation a fond farewell as leader and I left the magazine for a less glamorous but theoretically more secure job on the local paper. Still more crucially, that was also the year I met the love of my life Nicky. We moved into a small rented house in Exeter together just before the 2010 General Election.

Welsh Conservative conference

In the meantime, things had started to go less well for everyone thanks to the global economic slump which began in 2008. I myself lost my job on the vulnerable property section of the paper at the end of 2008 (the DVD magazine went under after nine years at almost exactly the same time) and I would be either unemployed or in slightly unsuitable temporary non-journalism jobs for the next two years or so. At the time of the 2010 election, I was working at a solicitor’s in Taunton. The other employees (mostly trainee  solicitors) were all very nice (I had got the job through one of them, an ex-housemate) but I was ill suited to the work and the car share arrangement to work from Exeter to Taunton each day was awkward, particularly as I didn’t have a car and could not drive.

My hours were long and although I knew the job would be ending soon, I felt slightly as if I was missing the election. Exeter had an excellent Labour MP called Ben Bradshaw. He had served in the Brown government and had been an MP since 1997 but in 2010 was looking quite vulnerable. I wanted to help more.

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For Labour were clearly heading for defeat nationwide, of that there was little doubt.  History will probably judge Gordon Brown kinder than we do. He stopped Britain from entering the Euro and later probably prevented the recession from becoming a full blown depression. The global slump had nothing to do with government overspending. Virtually nobody claimed this at the time simply because it was self evidently not true. Government spending did not seriously escalate until the banks needed bailing out, something the Tories supported at this point. Indeed, the chief Tory complaint at this time was that the markets were overregulated: the exact opposite of the truth.

Brown, was, however, temperamentally unsuited too leadership in some ways and though very much a Tony Blair wannabe, the new young Tory leader David Cameron did at least look the part.

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Nicky and I did our bit; Nicky holding some Labour balloons for Ben Bradshaw (who thankfully retained his seat) even though she actually ended up voting Liberal Democrat. We also both went to see Lord Prescott speaking in the street in Exeter during a campaign visit.

Perhaps this election is too recent to view with any real historical perspective. But to summarise in case you’ve forgotten:

Nick Clegg, the previously unknown Lib Dem leader blew everyone away during the TV debates and briefly, amazing as it now seems, became the most popular leader since Churchill. Yet on election night, the Lib Dems in fact did only about as well as normal. Cleggmania now seems like a myth.

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The good news, however, was that the people hadn’t forgotten how bad the Tories were and they fell well short of real power, yet again. They hadn’t managed to secure a majority since 1992. Thank God (2017: no longer true. Will do a follow-up piece soon).

The subsequent Tory-Lib Dem coalition was a surprise but there didn’t seem much point Labour clinging onto power. We had clearly lost. But this was new uncharted territory.

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Book review: Jeremy Thorpe by Michael Bloch

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Since the Second World War, two third party leaders have been in a position to determine the balance of power in a Hung Parliament. Five years ago, Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg secured his party a position in government but ultimately failed to achieve a proper cabinet position for himself or any of his party’s aims in office.

Liberal leader Jeremy Throrpe in February and March 1974 antagonised his Liberal colleagues (notably Chief Whip David Steel) by negotiating with Tory Prime Minister Ted Heath without consulting them first. Thorpe ultimately rejected the trappings of office and emerged with his reputation enhanced.

Few politicians would wish to emulate Jeremy Thorpe today, however, as Michael Bloch’s excellent biography reminds us. Indeed one wonders if the real reason future Liberal Democrat leader Jeremy Ashdown changed his name to “Paddy” was to avoid comparisons with the earlier Liberal? Today Thorpe, who died last December, is chiefly remembered for scandal and for being accused and found not guilty in a notorious murder plot. It was one of the biggest political stories of the Seventies and totally destroyed Thorpe’s career. Although only fifty in 1979, he was practically invisible for the last thirty-five years of his life which were also made worse by Parkinson’s disease.

The contrast with Thorpe’s earlier days could not be more striking. Thorpe was a dazzling figure who seems to have charmed almost everyone he met . Born in 1929, he joined the Liberals at the time of their great post-war crisis when they came close to extinction around 1950. Thorpe nevertheless determined to one day be Prime Minister, used his boundless energy to secure a seat in parliament in 1959 and obtained the party leadership while still in his thirties in 1967. As leader, he was always popular with the public (seeing the party through blows the 1970 election which coincided with the death of his first wife Caroline in a car accident) and highs (almost getting into government in 1974).

Ultimately, it was Thorpe’s compulsive risk-taking and his numerous homosexual liaisons which proved his downfall.

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Jeremy Thorpe

Michael Bloch

Published by: Little Brown

The Liberal Democrats: A poem

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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.

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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This is the future: 2013-2030.

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I am certainly no Nostradamus (although let’s face it: neither was Nostradamus). Had I written this a few years ago, I would probably have predicted David Miliband would now be Prime Minister and Hillary Clinton in power in the White House. But just for fun, let’s see what the next few years up to 2020 might have in store…

Scotland will vote to remain within the UK (2014).

The next General Election will have almost as the same outcome as the last one (2015).
I am fully aware this prediction will please no one. But while Labour are currently projected to win a substantial majority, I would expect this to change simply because Ed Miliband remains relatively unpopular and is hated by the press. At the same time, Tory hopes of winning an outright majority seem like overly optimistic wishful thinking. And if no one wins a majority, the Lib Dems in their current form seem unlikely to go with anyone other than the Cons simply because the Lib Dem leadership is basically Tory. So, sorry folks. We may be in for more of the same until 2020. Although there will be a new and slightly amended Coalition agreement, for all the difference that makes. Maybe Nick Clegg will remember to ask for a proper government department this time.

Yvette Cooper will be elected leader of the Labour Party following Ed Miliband’s resignation (2015)

Hillary Clinton will win the US presidential elections (2016).
She will beat Republican Paul Ryan in a close contest. She will be the first woman US president.

The UK will stay in the European Union throughout this decade (2010-2020).
UKIP will do well in the 2014 European elections but will fail to win a single seat in the 2015 General Election. Cameron will somehow dodge having the promised in-out referendum. The issue will contribute to his downfall in 2018.

Boris Johnson will become Prime Minister (2018).
Yes! Horror of horrors! This could actually happen. Start packing your suitcase now!

King Charles III will attempt to disestablish the Church of England (before 2030).
I don’t want to make morbid predictions about the likely mortality of the Queen. But I would guess Charles would be on the throne before the end of the next decade and some move towards reform from him in this quarter.

Book review: 5 Days In May: The Coalition and Beyond by Andrew Adonis

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Some people got very angry with the Lib Dems after the Coalition was formed in 2010. They felt the party had betrayed its progressive roots for a sniff of power.
This is very unfair. The inconclusive election result virtually guaranteed the Lib Dems a shot a role in the next government whatever happened. As Labour’s Andrew Adonis reveals, they had betrayed their progressive tradition long before then.
Nick Clegg and David Laws were, to all intents and purposes, Tories from the outset. Had they not been passionately pro-European at a time when (then as now) the Tories were tearing themselves to bits over the issue, they would doubtless have joined the Tories on entering politics in the Nineties.
Laws, the author of the main previous account of the Coalition talks, 22 Days in May has been candid about his admiration for George Osborne.
He also openly complained:
“Many Lib Dems were as disenfranchised with Labour as they had earlier been with the Conservatives….the endless centralising and micromanaging, the failure to embrace radical constitutional reform…and the lack of progress on social mobility and improving public services…”
Adonis is rightly astonished by Laws’ words. The Lib Dem seems to have forgotten the revival of the NHS, the thousands of new teachers and nurses, the introduction of devolution, reform of the House of Lords, civil partnerships, the introduction of the minimum wage. Labour in fact had much to be proud of during their thirteen years in office.
But Laws and Clegg weren’t interested in all that. They had no intention of fulfilling their promise to abolish student tuition fees either. They went through the charade of talks with Labour only to fatally undermine them by issuing bogus reports of “bad body language” from the Labour side, a charge which is impossible to verify. The Lib Dems in truth wanted to be with the Tories all along.
Some on the Labour side did their bit too, former cabinet ministers David Blunkett and John Reid each publicly doing their bit to make it harder for a Lib-Lab pact to work. As in 1950 and 1978, Labour did not fight hard enough to keep hold of the reins of power. Once they had relinquished it, it was easier for a new government to trash their record while in office.
But the Lib Dems are the real villains here. To add insult to injury, Clegg dealt his party a very poor hand in negotiations with the Tories, failing even to secure a department for itself.
The end result is that we effectively have an undiluted Tory Government committed to an austerity budget which isn’t working. This is compulsive reading, particularly for anyone contemplating a Coalition with the Lib Dems in 2015.
You have been warned.

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Why I hate referenda

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Hurrah for David Cameron! He has promised an In-Out referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union if he wins the next General Election.

Hurrah? Well, no. Not really. For one thing, Cameron has bad form on this. He famously made a “cast-iron” pledge to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty when he was Opposition leader back in 2007. Writing in the Murdoch-owned Sun newspaper, Cameron said:

“The final reason we must have a vote is trust. Gordon Brown talks about “new” politics.  But there’s nothing “new” about breaking your promises to the British public. It’s classic Labour. And it is the cancer that is eating away at trust in politics.  Small wonder that so many people don’t believe a word politicians ever say if they break their promises so casually.  If you really want to signal you’re a break from the past, Prime Minister, do the right thing – give the people the referendum you promised.

“Today, I will give this cast-iron guarantee: If I become PM a Conservative government will hold a referendum on any EU treaty that emerges from these negotiations.  No treaty should be ratified without consulting the British people in a referendum.”

Of course, this time it was Cameron who eroded the public trust. As some of you may have noticed, Mr Cameron IS now PM and er…no referendum has ever happened. Cameron broke his promise. He may well do so again.

But perhaps this would be a good thing? Referenda are bad. And here’s why:

1.       Referenda are never held for anything other than party political reasons.

David Cameron knows it is not in our national interest to leave the EU. He is doing it for two reasons: to shore up his own support and to undermine the (exaggerated) threat presented by the UKIP lunatic fringe. It has worked, but don’t think for a moment his motives on this are honourable. Likewise, the first national UK referendum which was held on Common Market membership in 1975 was intended purely to keep the Labour Party from splitting, while the 2010 one on electoral reform was held purely to keep the Lib Dem grouping in the Coalition happy.

2.       In referenda, nobody ever votes on the issues at stake.

Perhaps because we are more familiar with General Elections, voters nearly always end up voting for some party political reason. Last time, it was to piss off the unpopular Nick Clegg. In 1975, Britain voted overwhelmingly to stay in the Common Market (as it was then known) largely because a) the press were overwhelming pro-EC back then (yes, really!) b) because they were told it would be impossible for the UK to pull out anyway and c) to anger the unpopular anti-EC Labour Government. Margaret Thatcher, the new Tory leader, was then a keen supporter of the European ideal.

3.       Don’t we elect MPs to make decisions on our behalf?

If the Tories want to pull out, they should go into the next General Election saying so! Labour did this in 1983 (and subsequently suffered their biggest post-war defeat). Why bother having a referendum as well?

4.       No one knows when to call a referendum or not.

No one has a clue. There are no set rules on it. There have only ever been two national referenda in British history in 1975 and 2011. Generally, they are usually called for when the public already clearly want the change which is being proposed. In which case, why not just pass the law anyway if it’s good? If there isn’t a clear majority supporting the motion (as in the case of electoral reform), everyone whinges and says it’s a waste of time and money.

Here is a list of developments since 1945, none of which the public had a direct vote on. Some of us might feel they would like to have had the chance to vote on a few of these things:

Joining the UN.

Joining NATO.

The end of National Service.

The onset of Commonwealth immigration.

The abolition of hanging.

The legalisation of abortion.

The legalisation of homosexuality.

The closure of grammar schools/introduction of comprehensive education.

The stationing of Cruise missiles in the UK.

The reduction in trade union power.

The Single European Act/Maastricht/Amsterdam/Maastricht etc.

The abolition of fox hunting.

The decision to invade Iraq.

5.       Not every issue is easily resolvable in a simple Yes/No debate.

6.       Referenda rarely satisfy anyone.

I may well take part in the referendum “Yes” campaign assuming it ever happens. I did the same for the last one on electoral reform (which ended in heavy defeat). This isn’t hypocrisy. There is little point arguing against a referendum which is already happening.

But the 2011 referendum was not a happy experience. I can accept that most people didn’t want electoral reform and never would: the margin of defeat was heavy. But the whole affair was highly unsatisfactory for both sides. The victors hardly seemed hugely triumphant arguing that the whole exercise had been a pointless and expensive distraction. There were also lots of silly false rumours about expensive counting machines being needed if the Yes vote won (the reason why was never explained). The No team also enjoyed saying how expensive the changes would be, typically including the cost of the actual referendum in their calculations. The referendum, of course, was already happening and would cost the same regardless of the outcome.

The Scots/Welsh referenda on self government in the late Nineties were more justified although annoyed some English who wanted a say on the issue too. The EC vote in the Seventies left people dissatisfied too.

Both Clement Attlee (who I liked) and Lady Thatcher (who I didn’t) called referenda “the device of demagogues and dictators”. This is perhaps a bit strong in this case. But even if David Cameron is telling the truth this time, I’m not excited.

Why this clumsy Coalition of clots isn’t working

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The oddest thing about Britain’s Coalition Government is that so few people saw it coming.

Coalitions are quite rare in the UK, it’s true. No party has won more than 50% in a General Election since 1931 but the First Past the Post system is designed to almost guarantee big majorities. Yet occasionally, as in 1974, this doesn’t happen. It happened again in 2010.

I’m not blaming anyone but it also seems odd that so few people anticipated the eventual Conservative/ Liberal Democrat Coalition. Most people seemed to assume either that the Tories would win outright or that the third party would fulfil its usual role of backing Labour. Until the 1920s, Labour would generally support the larger Liberal Party in Hung Parliament situations. When their roles were reversed, the Liberals generally did the same for Labour as with the 1977-79 Lib-Lab Pact.

This wouldn’t have made sense in 2010. The arithmetic did not favour it. The right decisions were made. The problem is that the current situation pleases nobody.

Tory supporters are just frustrated that they didn’t win outright. The Conservative agenda is frustrated by the fact that the people clearly didn’t really want them back in power. Every u turn is blamed on the Lib Dems. In truth, David Cameron is starting to look like a weak leader anyway.

Labour supporters aren’t happy either. They are glad not to be part of the Coalition. But they are still denied power.

The Lib Dems are also unhappy. The party leadership is guilty of treachery in many supporters’ eyes. The party has failed to fulfil any of its own desires (such as electoral reform or changes to the House of Lords). Nor is it adequately restraining the usual excesses of a Tory Party in power. The Lib Dems more than anyone else risk annihilation in 2015. Nick Clegg looks increasingly vulnerable as leader.

But who is to blame? Normally the wishes of the electorate can be summarised in one sentence e.g. 1979 people had grown weary of strikes and slow growth and wished to give Mrs Thatcher a chance or  1997 with the Tories hopelessly split and damaged by sleaze, the public flocked to New Labour.

But what verdict did the 2010 result send out? People don’t like Gordon Brown but don’t really want the Tories back either?

Ultimately, the country was ready for change in 2010, but even after thirteen years in Opposition, the Tories had still failed to transform themselves into an appealing alternative government.

The Tories have failed democracy and failed Britain too.