Book review: Where Did I Go Right? by Geoff Norcott

Geoff Norcott is that rarest of breeds: a popular and funny right-wing comedian.

Whereas, even only a few years ago, most people would have struggled to name even one living British comedian with conservative views (particularly when the list is shortened further to exclude those who are not openly racist), Norcott has risen to fame largely on the basis of his appearances as the ‘token right-winger’ on the BBC’s excellent topic comedy show, The Mash Report. The show was cancelled earlier this year, largely as a result of concerns by nervous BBC execs that, Norcott’s contribution aside, it was too left-wing.

Some would doubtless challenge me for even agreeing to review this book and thus provide the oxygen of publicity to someone who is not only a self-confessed Tory voter and a Brexiteer.

To these people I would point out first that Norcott clearly represents the more acceptable face of the Right. He is clearly not racist at all and in 2019 was appointed as a member of a BBC Diversity Panel with the aim of ensuring the corporation represents a broad cross section of the public’s views. He is also, it must be mentioned, deeply sceptical about the leadership skills of Boris Johnson. This is a definite point in his favour, even if his scepticism was not quite sufficient to prevent him from helping vote Johnson back into power in the December 2019 General Election.

Secondly, I would argue strongly that we shut out voices such as Norcott’s at our peril. Nobody’s life is perfectly typical of anything, but Norcott seems to be a textbook example of the sort of voter Labour could once, perhaps complacently rely on to support them as recently as the 1990s and 2000s but who they have since lost with fatal consequences. With much of Norcott’s assessment of Labour taking the form of critical advice rather than flagrant attacks, he is certainly worth listening to.

By coincidence, me and Geoff Norcott are almost exactly the same age. He was born six days earlier than me in December 1976. Like me, his first ever experience of voting in a General Election as a twenty-year-old was for New Labour in May 1997. He describes his feeling on leaving the voting booth:

“It was probably the first and last time I ever felt total conviction about the party I voted for,” I feel the same. It was a combination of the perhaps misplaced certainties of youth. But it was also, I think, something about the political mood of 1997.

Like me, he returned, perhaps slightly less enthusiastically to voting Labour in 2001. Thereafter, our paths diverge. I came very close to voting Lib Dem in 2005, largely because of my opposition to the war in Iraq (I eventually held my nose and voted for my local Labour candidate who was anti-war, but lost her seat anyway). Norcott doesn’t mention his views on the war, but did vote Lib Dem, partly because like me, he admired their then leader, the late Charles Kennedy, but also as part of a slow journey he was undergoing towards the Tories. In the last four General Elections held since 2010, he voted Conservative. He also voted Leave in 2016.

In truth, Geoff Norcott, although from a traditionally Labour family had been showing conservative instincts from a young age. He had an entirely different upbringing to me. Mine was comfortable and middle-class, his was marred by both poverty and parental divorce. He is sceptical about the welfare system based on his own family experiences and is less enthusiastic than most people are these days about the NHS. He felt endlessly patronised while at Goldsmith College, London in the mid-1990s and has come away with a lifelong scepticism about left-wing middle-class liberals, many of whom frequently serve as targets for his humour today, (for example, on the marches for a second ‘People’s Vote’ on Brexit: “The idea that loads of liberals having a day out in London with chopped kale power salads and terrible chants in some way spoke for the country was laughable”). He has had some tough battles on Twitter. Critics of his appearances on Question Time have variously attacked him for either being rich and self-interested or too common to be on TV. He now seems to be convinced Twitter is a hotbed of left-wing sentiment. I’m not sure it is.

The book takes us through his difficult early years, a brief stint in media sales, his work as a teacher, his time entertaining the troops overseas, a series of personal tragedies a few years ago through to his final success as a successful and reasonably well-known comedian and now author, settled with his family in Cambridgeshire.

Needless to say, I don’t agree with him on many things. He believes the Blair and Brown governments spent too much: I don’t think they did particularly, and even if they did, this certainly does not explain why the credit crunch happened. His main criticism of people like the Milibands and Keir Starmer seems to be largely based on the fact that they are middle-class and cannot claim any link to working-class people. In my view, this is true but is surely dwarfed by the facts that the their opponents men such as David Cameron and Boris Johnson were born into lives of such immense privilege to the extent that these leaders have no knowledge or interest in reducing poverty at all. I suspect, at root, like many right-wing people, Norcott thinks there is something hypocritical about anyone with money having a social conscience about anything, while his tolerance for rich leaders who openly don’t give a toss about society is much greater. This has never been my view. My horror at the Tory record on homelessness, unemployment and underfunding of the health service has always been sufficient to drive me away me from ever voting for them, particularly when combined with the frequent right-wing tendency (not shared by Norcott himself) to either be racist or to blame many of the weakest and poorest in the world for many of society’s ills.

Geoff Norcott is, of course, now successful enough to be considered middle-class himself and undoubtedly has many left-wing comics amongst his friendship circle. None of which should detract from this sometimes funny, enjoyable and often useful book which is packed with useful phrases such as ,”when you demonise a voter, you lose them forever” which many of us would do well to remember.

Book review: Where Did I Go Right?: How The Left Lost Me, by Geoff Norcott. Published by: Octopus. Available: now.

Book review: The Sultan of Swing – The Life of David Butler

Okay: admittedly ‘The Sultan of Swing’ may sound like a rather flash title for a biography of the 20th century’s foremost election statistician: ‘Sultans of Swing’ was the name of a Dire Straits album. But David Butler was a seemingly permanent feature of the BBC’s TV election coverage for nearly thirty years. He not only largely created the science of Psephology (the study of balloting and calculating election results) almost from scratch but perhaps did more than anyone else to make the complex world of electoral science accessible and easily understandable to the general public. Although he has always been too modest to admit it, he effectively invented the familiar General Election night device of the Swingometer. He is now ninety-six years old. The long story of his life is worth telling and the veteran writer, journalist and broadcaster, Michael Crick does so very well in this biography, published in 2018.

It is quite eye-opening (at least, it was for me) to learn just how primitive election coverage was when Butler started out in the 1940s. Although BBC TV was established in 1936, the organisation remained extremely wary of providing decent coverage of elections or indeed any aspect of British political life for the first twenty years of its existence. Fearful that the government might accuse them of political bias and use this to restrict their powers (admittedly, a very real risk today), the broadcaster imposed strict rules on itself. The monumental 1945 General Election night was thus covered on BBC radio only: admittedly, perhaps not such a huge issue as very few people owned TVs then anyway. In 1950 again, the BBC did not allow itself to cover any election canvassing during the campaign itself. It did, however, tentatively allow a programme covering the results for the first time in which the handsome young dark-haired and very self-assured Oxford graduate, Butler made a favourable impression. He would become a fixture of the BBC’s election night coverage during the next nine General Elections held up to 1979, often appearing as part of a sort of double-act with friendly rival, the Canadian, Bob McKenzie. Butler would adopt spectacles and see his hair grow grey in the ensuing thirty years but his contribution would prove no less vital.

The book opens with a scene in 1950, in which Winston Churchill, at that point Leader of His Majesty’s Opposition and plotting his own return to Downing Street summoned the young Butler to discuss the possibilities the new science of opinion polling offered for predicting election outcomes in advance. It is a good start: the political titan nearing the end of his long career meeting the young talent at the start of his own. In general, though he seems to have been slightly left of centre politically, Butler strived to remain impartial, something which generated occasional tensions with his lifelong friend, left-wing Labour MP, Tony Benn who he met at university. Butler, in fact, had a very distinguished family background and was the cousin of the leading Tory politician, R.A. ‘Rab’ Butler.

Michael Crick chronicles the details of Butler’s many books, innovations, his travels in America and his success in exporting many of his techniques to Australia and India alongside his personal life. This includes two very sad elements\: the death of his wife, the very successful academic, Lady Marilyn Butler in 2011 after many years of happy marriage in 2011 following a struggle with Alzheimer’s disease and the death of one of their three sons, Gareth following a sudden heart attack in 2008, aged just 42.

But, in general, this is a well-researched and highly readable biography of a life well-lived.

Book review: This Land, by Owen Jones

Five and a half years ago, Jeremy Corbyn achieved the seemingly impossible. An amiable left-wing backbencher of some thirty years standing, his victory in the contest to succeed Ed Miliband was one of the most astounding political occurrences of the past fifty years. Yet four years later, his leadership ended in bitter defeat.

This insider’s account from the talented left-wing writer Owen Jones, one of the first people to champion Corbyn’s campaign in 2015, tells the story of this failure We will all have our own views of Jeremy Corbyn. However, this is a review of Owen Jones’ book not of Corbyn himself. And Jones is frank about Corbyn’s failings. He could be stubborn and badly organised. He totally mishandled the Brexit issue and the antisemitism row, two issues which totally derailed his leadership.

On the other hand, Jones does not mince words on how Corbyn was betrayed by those within his own party and how less surprisingly he was brutally misrepresented and maligned by Britain’s conservative media. Owen Jones’ book is a thoughtful, well-written, balanced, intelligent and accessible account of a revolution which failed.

This Land: The Story of a Movement, by Owen Jones. Published by Allen Lane (2020)

Book review: Diane Abbott – The Authorised Biography

Probably no one in British public life has been as unfairly reviled as Diane Abbott MP.

In the six weeks leading up to the 2017 General Election, for example, 45% of all abusive tweets directed at female MPs were aimed at her. Much of this occurred as a direct response to an LBC interview with Nick Ferrari in which she was unable to provide figures on how much 10,000 police officers would cost. As Shadow Home Secretary, this was undoubtedly an error, but the ferocity of the media response was disproportionately fierce. Abbott conducted seven interviews that morning: only the LBC one went awry.

As it happens, Prime Minister Theresa May also did a bad interview on that day. Criticism of May’s performance on the comments section of YouTube suggested that “she is not strong and stable, she is uncaring and arrogant” or that “she obviously doesn’t care about poor people.” The criticism of Abbott was notably different in tone. She was described as a “racist bint,” “a communist anti-white bitch” a “stupid racist dumb bitch” and “a retarded liberal woman.”

Twitter hostility to Abbott almost invariably has a strong racist and sexist undercurrent, often also focusing on her weight and the Cambridge graduate’s supposed lack of intelligence. Much of it spells her name wrong (for example, ‘Dianne Abbot’). Much of it threatens her with sexual violence. The print media is similarly vitriolic often obsessing about her past relationship with Jeremy Corbyn. The so-called ‘quality press’ is often no better. “It’s not racist to point out that Diane Abbott is a bungling disappointment,” Zoe Strimpel wrote in a notable personal attack in the Telegraph. “Without descending into nasty comments about her voice, her expression, or her odd mixture of seeming cluelessness and arrogance, it’s worth simply reviewing a few of the mistakes that have made her campaign such a disaster.”

We should remember: Diane Abbott has put up with this sort of thing for her entire life. Born to Jamaican parents in London in 1953, at grammar school, one English teacher refused to believe she wasn’t copying her essays from somewhere else. Although consistently bright and hardworking, she was told “she wasn’t up to it” when she enquired about applying for the Oxford and Cambridge entry exam. She was one of the few black students to attend and graduate from Cambridge in the 1970s. There are not many black students at Cambridge University even today. On arriving at the May Ball shortly before graduating, she was greeted straight away by a man who said, “oh great, you must be here to wash up.”

In 1987, she became the first ever black woman to be elected to parliament. She has been an MP for longer than any other black person and for longer than any serving woman Labour MP except for Harriet Harman and Margaret Beckett. On first arriving in the Commons, she repeatedly had to prove she was an MP to officials sceptical that a black woman could actually be a serving member of parliament.

She has been re-elected by her Hackney constituents seven times. She has spoken on and taken action frequently against poverty, austerity and racism amongst many other issues. An outsider during the Kinnock, Blair and Brown years, she stood in the 2010 leadership contest. She has served on the front bench and in 2019 became the first black person to speak at the Despatch Box in Prime Minister’s Question Time.

This thoroughly researched book by Robin Bunce and Samara Linton which completely ignores Abbott’s personal life should go some way to restoring the reputation of someone whose life should ultimately serve as a rich source of inspiration to many people.

Diane Abbott – The Authorised Biography. By Robin Bunce and Samara Linton. Published by: Biteback.

Book review: Beyond The Red Wall

Once upon a time, seemingly about in about 1935, but actually only about nine months ago, there was a General Election. It seemed very important at the time, but most of us have now probably forgotten all about it.

The Conservatives, under their new leader, Boris Johnson did surprisingly well in the snap 12 December election. Having never once managed to win a substantial majority in any of the seven previous General Elections held during the previous thirty years, they won a majority of eighty, easily enough to keep them in office until 2024. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, in contrast, did very badly.

A notable feature of the results was that the Tories made substantial inroads into the so-called impenetrable ”Red Wall’ of sixty or so traditionally Labour old coal, steel and manufacturing seats stretching from the Midlands, across to the north of England and up into Wales.

In this book, pollster Deborah Mattinson interviews a range of people from within previous ‘Red Wall’ constituencies which succumbed to the Tories in December 2019. The book should make for fairly depressing reading for any Labour supporter, with many of the voters interviewed, feeling no connection at all to the party which is supposed to represent them. Predictably, the intense unpopularity of Jeremy Corbyn was a major factor as was disenchantment over the party’s Brexit stance. The Tory slogan, “Get Brexit done” seems to have resonated strongly with many voters.

Some voters conclusions seems bizarre. One, depressingly seems to think the NHS was created by the Tories. In reality, of course, it was Labour’s crowning achievement. Others speak favourably of Trump or suggest Tim ‘Wetherspoon’s (the controversial businessman, Tim Martin) would make an ideal Prime Minister.

However, let us remember: no cowards should flinch from this book and no traitors should sneer at the views expressed within (apart from the one about Tim Martin). Labour has a historic mission to save the nation from the dishonesty and chicanery of the Tories. In 2019, despite a dismal Tory record in government over the past decade and a weak, lazy and all too vulnerable Tory leader in Boris Johnson, Labour completely failed to unseat them.

Only by gaining an understanding of why the election went the way it did, through reading books like this, can we hope to understand and thus begin the process of preventing this from ever happening again.

Book review: Beyond The Red Wall: Why Labour Lost, How The Conservatives Won and What Will Happen Next, by Deborah Mattinson. Published by: Biteback. September 15 2020.

Exeter 2019 General Election Hustings Debate

With the General Election just ten days away, around 300 people chose to brave the cold December Monday evening air to see four of the six candidates competing to be Exeter’s next MP answer a selection of selected questions submitted by the general public inside Exeter Cathedral.

Two of the candidates were absent: Former pantomime star Daniel Page who is running as an independent and the Brexit Party candidate, Leslie Willis did not attend.

The Liberal Democrats (who performed very poorly in the 2015 and 2017 elections in Exeter) also did not attend as they are not fielding a candidate in this election. The party agreed to step aside to the give the pro-Remain Green Party candidate Joe Levy, a clear run. The Labour candidate, Mr. Bradshaw is also very pro-EU. However, Labour’s overall position is seen as less unambiguously pro-Remain than the Greens. (This paragraph has been amended as of 8th December 2019).

None of the candidates are women: the first time this has been the case in Exeter since 1987.

After some initial sound problems, proceedings began. Although each candidate answered each question individually, I’ll deal with each candidate, one at a time:

Ben Bradshaw (Labour)

This is the seventh election in Exeter for Labour’s Bradshaw and as he won his biggest ever victory in 2017 with 62% of the vote, it must be assumed he is the favourite to win again his time. He performed strongly on questions ranging from climate change, homelessness, transport, Brexit and the party leadership. He lamented the fact that Labour’s successful record on reducing homelessness had been completely undone by the Tories since 2010 and complained that environmental targets would be threatened by us leaving the EU.

He resisted attacking the Labour leadership or predicting a heavy Tory win nationwide as he did in 2017 and provided a convincing defence of Labour’s proposed nationalisation programme. He criticised the First Past the Post system which he campaigned to reform in the 2011 referendum. He argued that the best way to stop Brexit was by electing as many Labour MPs as possible and followed Green candidate Joe Levy’s lead in deriding the notion that a Tory win would mean a quick and easy end to Brexit as a nonsense. He also asked voters to judge him on his record as MP for Exeter since 1997.

John Gray (Conservative)

The Conservative candidate began with an interesting question. How many of the audience had actually read the Conservative manifesto? Very few hands were raised. This would doubtless have produced a similar response if he had asked about the other party manifestos too. But it was a welcome piece of audience participation in an evening which generally did not involve much audience response, aside from clapping and occasional grumbling. Perhaps it would have been a different story if the pantomime man had turned up?

Elsewhere, Mr Gray gave decent, worthy answers, some of which were undermined by the government’s record. He was predictably negative about nationalisation, although not very specific on why and gave good answers on the environment. He argued, as the UKIP candidate did, that the 2016 Brexit vote represented the will of the people. His claim that an overall majority for Boris Johnson’s Tories would lead to a quick and easy end to Brexit was derided by Joe Levy and Ben Bradshaw. His portrait of a Labour government torn apart by coalitions and confusion was similar to the ‘coalition of chaos’ arguments deployed by Tories in 2015. Some in the audience might have reflected that the decade since 2010 has been spent almost entirely under Tory rule and yet has been almost entirely spent in coalition or/and hung parliaments. The last three years particularly have seen more political chaos than anyone can remember.

Later, he was laughed at by many in the audience after he asserted that “a vote for Labour is a vote for Jeremy Corbyn, while a vote for me, is a vote for a Conservative government.” Bradshaw and others were quick to note his failure to mention Boris Johnson at this point. Later, he attempted to endorse Boris Johnson again. It did not seem entirely convincing. However, in general, Mr. Gray performed well.

Joe Levy (Green Party)

As in the 2017 campaign, Joe Levy, though still in his twenties stood out as one of the most impressive figures in the debate, making a convincing case for such concepts as the introduction of a universal basic income and, of course, the urgency of the need to combat climate change.

He drew particular applause for his passionate advocacy of EU membership, arguing his grandparents had supported it for the simple primary reason that they remembered the Second World War.

He also made a mockery of the general Conservative claim that a Tory win will automatically lead to a simple straightforward Brexit. Mr Bradshaw, picked up on this, agreeing that it was one of the biggest and most persistent lies of the Tory campaign.

Duncan Odgers (UKIP)

Arriving slightly late, Mr Odgers annoyed many in the audience, by asserting early on that contrary to popular belief immigration is a major problem in Exeter, in fact, largely explaining why house prices are high. Elsewhere, he performed well on other issues, even acknowledging climate change exists. He argued against nationalisation and argued Exeter (which voted 55 to 45 to remain in the EU) should respect the will of the nation as a whole on Brexit even if the city mostly did not support it itself. He spoke of Brexit as if it was something destined never to happen now and called Jeremy Corbyn’s position of neutrality on the issue, “a disgrace”. Occasionally, he rambled slightly. He blamed overpopulation for many of our environmental problems, but did not say what could be done about it.

A persistent charge, which many would agree with, was that many people today have lost faith in the current crop of politicians. A wider issue which wasn’t addressed was whether the upper ranks of UKIP who have included the likes of Nigel Farage and Paul Nuttall in the past are really any more trustworthy.

Chris Hallam has written A-Z of Exeter: People, Places, History and co-wrote the book, Secret Exeter with Tim Isaac. Both are published by Amberley and are available now

Fifty years of Tory leadership contests

Margaret Thatcher and John Major in 1991

It is easy to forget amidst all the current Labour leadership hoo-hah, that it is fifty years this month since the very first Conservative leadership contest. Generally more unpredictable than their Labour equivalents, let’s recall this and every such contest since…

1963: Tory Prime Minister Harold Macmillan resigns on the eve of the party conference. The resulting chaos convinces most that the “magic circle” process of consultation needs to be replaced by an election of MPs. Macmillan’s successor Alec Douglas-Home resigns as Tory leader after losing the 1964 General Election and begins devising the mechanism for the first Conservative leadership contest to be held amongst MPs.

1965

Heath 65

Edward Heath beats the favourite, former Chancellor, Reginald Maudling to win the leadership. Enoch Powell comes third.

The right choice?: Probably. Heath at least won the 1970 General Election. ‘Reggie’ Maudling ultimately fell foul of his business connections and resigned as Home Secretary. Powell with his inflammatory 1968 ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech (and his 1974 pre-election decision to urge voters to support Labour) proved ill-suited to frontbench politics.

1975

Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher

Former Education Secretary Margaret Thatcher unexpectedly deposes Heath (now back in Opposition) and proceeds to beat Geoffrey Howe, Willie Whitelaw, Jim Prior, Hugh Fraser and John Peyton for the top job. Heath descends into “the incredible sulk” for the next thirty years.

The right choice?: Undoubtedly. Whatever else she may have been, Thatcher was a boon to the Tory party, ultimately delivering them three landslide election victories. This wasn’t obvious in 1975, however, and Heath’s popularity with the public continued to outstrip hers until the early Eighties.

1989

Margaret Thatcher resigns, Guardian front page 23 November 1990

Unknown pro-European back-bencher Sir Anthony Meyer (dubbed “Sir Nobody” by the press) mounts a “stalking horse” challenge to Prime Minister Thatcher’s leadership. He loses, but the number of abstentions is high, a fact largely overlooked at the time.

The right choice?: Could the brutality of Thatcher’s departure have been averted had she gone a year earlier? Who knows?

1990

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - APRIL 9:  British Prime Minister John Major (L)  and  his deputy  Michael Heseltine answer questions at the morning election conference, 09 April in London,  as sleaze promised to dominate the 22 days left to May 1 elections after local party bosses thumbed their noses at the national leadership and retained   MP Neil Hamilton accused of taking bribes. Mr Major said that Mr Hamilton had the full support of the Conservative Party and hoped he would return to the House of Commons to carry out his work,    and he called on the voters of Tatton to stand behind    Hamilton and elect him as their MP at       elections.  (Photo credit should read JOHNNY EGGITT/AFP/Getty Images)

In a hugely dramatic coup, Margaret Thatcher is challenged by her former defence secretary, Michael Heseltine. She technically wins but not by a wide enough margin and reluctantly resigns. Little-known Chancellor John Major beats Heseltine and Foreign Secretary Douglas “too posh” Hurd in the second round.

The right choice?: In the short run, yes. Major replacing Thatcher saved the Tories from certain defeat in 1992. In the long run? Perhaps not. Thatcher – a woman with no interests outside politics – became a perpetual thorn in Major’s side and the scars of the contest took many years to heal.

1995

John Major PM talking to journalists in Downing Street before leaving for Waterloo.

By now perpetually embattled PM Major pre-empts ongoing leadership controversy by resigning as leader and inviting people to “put up or shut up” and challenge him. He defeats former Welsh secretary John Redwood but only narrowly beats the own private target set by himself below which he would have resigned. Bigger guns Ken Clarke, Michael Portillo and Heseltine again, thus do not enter the contest, as might have been expected otherwise.

The right choice?:  It seems doubtful anyone could have saved the Tories from electoral disaster in 1997 by that stage.

1997

Image

Little-known 36-year old former Welsh secretary William Hague beats Clarke, Peter Lilley, Redwood and Michael “something of the night about him” Howard after the party’s devastating election defeat. Heseltine’s heart condition rules him out. Portillo famously loses his seat, preventing him from participating in the contest.

The right choice?: Probably not. Hague proved an inexperienced and inadequate leader. Voters would have preferred the more effective and experienced Ken Clarke.

2001

Iain Duncan Smith beats Clarke in a ballot of party members. Michaels Portillo (now back in parliament) and Ancram all lost out early on in a ballot of MPs as did David Davis.

The right choice?: Definitely not. IDS was a disaster as leader and was deposed in favour of an un-elected Michael Howard in 2003. Any of the other candidates would have been better. Clarke’s election as Tory leader might also have prevented UK involvement in the Iraq War after 2003.

2005

In the year of Ted Heath’s death, David Cameron beats David Davis for the leadership. Liam Fox and an ageing Clarke lose out early on.

The right choice?: Probably, yes. Cameron finally delivered victory this year. their smallest post-war majority, yes. But a win is a win.

cameron