Book review: All In It Together, by Alwyn Turner

How soon is too soon to write about the history of a particular time and place?

Following on from his earlier three excellent volumes which took us from the start of the 1970s to the dawn of the new millennium, Alwyn Turner’s new book picks up the English story at the time of New Labour’s second massive General Election victory in 2001 before dropping us off again at the time of David Cameron’s surprise narrow win in 2015. The stage is set for the divisive Brexit battles of the last five years and for the divisive leadership of the Labour Party by Jeremy Corbyn after 2015, but the narrative clearly stops before getting to either. Turner’s book is packed full of reminders of this eventful and turbulent period. Who now remembers Pastygate? Cleggmania? Russell Brand’s dialogue with Ed Miliband or Robert Kilroy Silk’s thwarted battle to take over UKIP? Viewed from the perspective of the current Coronavirus pandemic which, writing in July 2021, has thus far totally dominated the third decade of the 21st century, Turner’s social history of this busy and already seemingly historically quite distant fourteen year period already seems very welcome.

It is not all about politics, of course. As before, Turner takes a good look too at changes in society as viewed through the prism of TV, literature and other developments. No doubt he will one day have much to say about the recent Euro 2020 Finals and subsequent race row. Here, for example, we get a thorough comparison between the different styles of comedians, Jimmy Carr and Roy Chubby Brown. Both are edgy and deliberately tackle sensitive subjects for their humour. Carr, is however, middle-class and Cambridge-educated while Brown never conceals his working-class origins. Carr is frequently on TV, while Brown, although popular, is never allowed on. But, as Turner points out, it s not simply a matter of class. Carr is deliberately careful, firstly never to go too far or to appear as if he is endorsing any (or most) of the dark things he talks about. Brown is much less cautious. He frequently pushes his jokes into genuinely uneasy territory and occasionally seems to be making crowd-pleasing anti-immigration points which totally lack any comedic punchline. Whereas Carr clearly has a carefully constructed stage persona, it is unclear where the stage Roy Chubby Brown begins and ends.

Class comes up a fair bit in the book. Turner identifies a definite resurgence in the popularity of posher folk in public life during this period. Some are obvious: TV chefs such as Nigella Lawson, Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, Chris Martin of Coldplay, the rise of Boris Johnson or David Cameron, the first Tory leader to come from a public school background in forty years. Others are less obvious: musician Lily Allen was privately educated as were Gemma Collins and some of her other The Only Way is Essex companions. Even Labour’s Andy Burnham went to Cambridge.

The underrated Russell T. Davies 2003 TV drama, Second Coming in which Christopher Eccleston’s video shop assistant surprisingly claims to be the Son of God and then even more surprisingly actually turns out to genuinely be him. The phone hacking scandal. The London 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony. The rise and fall of George Galloway. The London riots. The Jimmy Saville affair and other scandals. The TV show, Life on Mars. All these topics are revisited by Turner in intelligent and readable fashion.

Other interesting nuggets of information also come in the footnotes. “By 2009 over 9 per cent of Peterborough had come to the city from overseas.” Alexander Armstrong was the first man to play David Cameron in a TV drama in 2007’s The Trial of Tony Blair (aired during Blair’s final months in office). We also get reminders of some of the better jokes of the period in this manner. Frank Skinner’s “George Osborne has two types of friends: the haves and the have yachts.” Or the late Linda Smith’s take on the 2005 Tory election slogan: “Are you sinking like we’re sinking?”

We are also kept informed of the main biscuit preferences of our political leaders, an issue Gordon Brown, a brilliant man, but always uneasy with popular culture, characteristically messed up answering.

There is less about music, although Turner does at one point suggest that the Spice Girls “might have been the last group that really mattered, that meant something beyond record sales and outside their own constituency.”

Turner does well to retain a position of political neutrality here and is especially good at retracing the early machinations on the Labour Left and the Eurosceptic Right which in seemed irrelevant at the start of this era but which by the end of it came to seem very important indeed. It is, indeed, a very depressing period for anyone on the liberal left. In 2001, the Lib Dems under their dynamic young leader, Charles Kennedy seemed poised to become the nation’s second party. By 2015, Kennedy was dead and the party wasn’t even registering in third place in terms of either seats or share of the vote. In 2001, Tony Blair won a second huge landslide majority, seemed to have the world at his feet and was one of the most highly regarded political leaders of recent times. Furthermore, no one serious in political life was even remotely contemplating withdrawing from the European Union.

What changed? Read this endlessly fascinating book to find out.

Book review: All In It Together, England in the Early 21st Century, by Alwyn Turner. Published by: Profile Books. 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: 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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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 and her decision in 2011 as Home Secretary to abolish control orders. He also advocated electoral reform. He was forced to defend his own lack of support for his 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” and by his general manner and unusual views on police wages and the value of woman Labour MPs.

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.

October 2017 update: Results of June 2017 General Election in Exeter

Candidate/party Votes
Ben BradshawLabour 34,336
James TaghdissianConservative 18,219
Vanessa NewcombeLiberal Democrat 1,562
Joe LevyGreen 1,027
Jonathan WestIndependent 212
Jonathan BishopIndependent 67

Ben Bradshaw won his sixth victory easily with more votes, a bigger share of the vote (62%) and a wider margin of victory than ever before (his Tory opponent won 32.9% of the vote). Turnout in Exeter was 71.7%, the highest since 1997, the year of Bradshaw’s first win and higher than the average UK turnout in 2017 (68.8%).

Mr. Bradshaw’s prediction that the Tories would substantially increase their majority in parliament turned out to be wrong. The Tories have lost their majority. In fairness, he certainly wasn’t the only one to predict this incorrectly.. He has now adopted a more pro-Corbyn position.

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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.

General Election memories 4: 1992

Peterborough,
April 9th 1992

Britain's Prime Minister John Major waves to the c

The world changed a lot between 1987 and 1992.

The Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union collapsed, ending the Cold War in the process. Nelson Mandela was freed in South Africa, but a new threat emerged in the Middle East in the form of Saddam Hussein.

In Britain, there was less change. I was fifteen now, but Britain was still under the same government as it had been under when I was two years old.

But even there, there had been change. By 1990, the Tories finally recognised that Margaret Thatcher (by then intent on promoting the Poll Tax and inclined to speak about herself using the royal “we” as in “We are a grandmother”) was far more unstable than anyone on the supposed “loony left” had ever been. Keen to avoid certain defeat, they brutally dethroned her. A necessary measure, certainly, but one the party does not seem to have ever fully recovered from, even now.

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Instead, we now had John Major of Huntington, Peterborough’s neighbouring seat as Prime Minister: a far more agreeable choice. Amiable and pleasant, Major would turn out to have no aptitude for leadership whatsoever, but we didn’t know that in 1990. He hadn’t been tested. Even with a recession on, the Tories surged from a position of certain defeat under Thatcher to the point of being virtually neck and neck with Labour under Major. But this still represented Labour’s best chance in my lifetime, up to that point. Labour were about 2% ahead of the Tories throughout the 1992 campaign. At least, that’s what the opinion polls said.

Of course, as mentioned, I was now fifteen, not ten, so was undergoing a bit of change myself. My voice was wobbly and would often break at the end of sentences. I drew, swam and cycled less. I still read comics (now, arguably more grown-up ones like 2000AD: I had two letters published in the Galaxy’s Greatest comic at around this time). I was also starting to move onto “grown-up” novels like 1984 and Catch-22 although still mostly read Terry Pratchett books, meeting the great fantasy author himself during a book signing in Queensgate shopping centre. I ignored his younger friend completely: someone called Neil Gaiman. I’d also helped write a comic (“Flob”) with some friends. My contributions were I think mostly Viz-like and I doubt they have stood the test of time very well.

Margaret Thatcher and John Major in 1991

Home life had changed little. My older brother was about to get married and my sister, also now in her twenties, was close to the same situation. I was so self-absorbed at this point, I’m surprised I even noticed.

We had an Amiga computer and a Sega Game Gear. But this was 1992. Unlike teenagers today, I had never been online, sent an email, written a text or played a Wii. If you had told me I would one day be a blogger or work on a DVD magazine, I would not have not have understood what you were saying. A better, simpler life? No. It was rubbish. For one thing, if I wanted to know who directed Flight Of The Navigator, today I could find out in seconds. In 1992, I would have to go to the library (assuming it wasn’t a Sunday) and look it up in Halliwell’s Film Guide. And yes, that is the sort of thing I like to know sometimes (it’s Randal Kleiser, incidentally. He also directed Grease).

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Change was not a key feature of life in my secondary school either. The Third Year became Year 9 (my own year) but that was about it. The headmaster was very traditional. We were required to stand every time he entered the room until he told us to sit down again a few seconds later (presumably we would have got in serious trouble if we’d refused to stand? Nobody ever attempted this).

Our school’s founder Henry VIII stared down at us from his expensive Holbein portrait in the dining hall. We were not a public school but there was a boarding house nearby mostly filled with the sons of those employed on nearby airbases. These jobs mostly no longer exist. Homework was called “prep”.  The arrival of “short sleeve order” was occasionally announced in assembly. God knows what it meant. I never understood. It may have actually been called shirt sleeve order. I don’t remember getting in trouble over it anyway.

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The school was hardly very representative of Peterborough’s large Indian and Pakistani population either (the Polish influx had not yet arrived). David Lammy (later a minister in the Blair and Brown governments) had been the school’s first black head boy a couple of years earlier but he had been exceptional. There is barely a brown face in any school photos at the time.
School election: 1992.

I did not excel in my new secondary school environment doing badly early on and quite well by the Sixth Form. I was in between these two points in 1992 and was doing okay. The school Mock Election held a week before the actual one piqued my interest although I would have been far too self conscious to stand myself.
Our school was relatively small: about 750 pupils. About 600 or so voted. In reverse order of success, the candidates/parties (people’s names are changed) were, as far as I remember:

The Meritocrats: A silly novelty party fronted by the older brother of one of my friends (I don’t think the younger brother even voted for them). They had funny posters featuring identical pictures of the candidate over a statement saying: “Ian cares for the environment” or “Ian cares for babies.”But the “silly vote” was entirely swallowed up by the Revolution Party (soon to be discussed) and this one only got about 25 out of six hundred and something votes.

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Labour: The Labour candidate was actually a friend of the Tory candidate in my 1987 junior school election. I was incredibly socially awkward at this point but I attempted to hang out with her and a couple of boys who were running their campaign. I didn’t contribute anything meaningful. I attempted to submit some cartoons of John Major (about the only politician I could ever draw, then and now) but these weren’t great and understandably were not used. I couldn’t colour in and am not sure the jokes worked anyway: one was an attempt to parody the famous ‘Labour Isn’t Working’ poster from 1979.

That said, the posters they DID use – “hilarious” ones featuring a photo they had found of the school Tory candidate standing next to a wheelie bin beneath the legend “Is this man looking for a new job?” were crap too. Presumably they were suggesting he was looking for a job as a bin man? Of course, standing next to a bin wouldn’t achieve this. And he didn’t need a new job anyway? He was still at school. It didn’t work. That said, the Labour lot were an intelligent well-meaning bunch but my school was always overwhelmingly, hopelessly Tory. My younger brother who was at the school later confirms that the Conservatives even won heavily at the school in the mock election of 1997. Yes, even in 1997! I don’t think Labour got even a tenth of the vote in 1992.

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The Lib Dems: A boy from a lower year whose name I’ve forgotten. He did well as a candidate and got about 120 or so votes I think. I’m doing pretty well to the remember the campaign as well as this, to be honest. I doubt many other people can, probably not even those who were actually candidates at the time.

The Tories: Another boy from my year, a Scot, a Christian who despite my fledgling socialist and atheist tendencies, I was on friendly terms with. He came a good second and now, I believe, has a politics-related job.

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The Revolution Party: Peterborough was teetering very close towards electing a Labour MP (potentially its first woman MP too), one Julie Owens, just as the national election seemed poised to give Labour the keys to Downing Street. But my school was not very representative in this respect. A debate on banning fox-hunting in one class ended with a clear vote opposing any ban: pretty unusual for any group of urban British 1990s teenagers then, or I would suspect, now. The news that Margaret Thatcher had fallen in 1990 was greeted by concern amongst some classmates that Labour might get in by many, some fearing this would lead inevitably to a nuclear war. In short, most pupils like their parents, were Tories. But they were still teenagers (mostly) and there was a hint of rebellion in the air. The general feeling was that our traditionalist headmaster who was widely assumed – quite wrongly I later learnt – to be a Tory and would be most annoyed by a silly gimmicky party hijacking the election. This last bit probably is true.

So this is what happened. Fronted by a Sixth Former, the Revolution Party had the best election poster (which stated simply that “Lenin was a chap”) and used cheaply bought stickers featuring the dog Odie from the Jim Davis Garfield cartoon strip as their symbol. Although hardly very anti-capitalist in retrospect, this really took off as a gimmick. For about an hour or so during one lunchtime, I got slightly carried away and briefly wore an Odie sticker on my maroon lapel myself. But I didn’t repeat my 1987 betrayal.

I still voted Labour. I wasn’t that disappointed when Labour almost came last though. The real result during the school’s Easter Holidays would be different, I knew. Peterborough would fall to Labour and Neil Kinnock would lead Labour back into power.

John Major in 1992

The real election.
I did not stay up to watch all the results for some reason: a fortunate move in retrospect, although my younger brother, by now eleven but still indifferent to the result, camped out in our back garden in a tent. This wasn’t because of the election. It was just something he liked to do. Apparently some people still like to go in tents for fun today.

Like most people I expected Labour to win narrowly. While as the ITV puppet-based comedy Spitting Image pointed out, “You can’t hate John Major,” the Tory campaign seemed weak at the time. Initially Major began with staged unconvincing “informal chats” with party supporters. “What would you say to younger people to warn them of the dangers of a socialist government?” was typical of the challenging questions the PM met with. The Tories thus soon resorted to the “Major standing on a soapbox in the street” strategy. This is now remembered fondly. But even this was attacked at the time notably by Edwina Currie, in retrospect, probably vengeful after the end of her affair with Major in the Eighties. She complained Major looked more like an Opposition leader than a PM on his soap box.

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The great irony of Labour’s Neil Kinnock’s career was that having effectively saved the Labour Party from destruction in 1983, he had now become their biggest obstacle to power. John Smith, Robin Cook, Margaret Beckett, Jack Straw, Jack Cunningham, Bryan Gould, Gordon Brown, Tony Blair: the frontbench otherwise looked hugely talented in 1992. Kinnock meanwhile seemed to have greatness within him but was flawed. He was a great orator on occasion and as with Ed Miliband tabloid attempts to smear him as “devious” never really seemed convincing. But he rambled too much and basically didn’t inspire confidence.

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And the polls were wrong. The Tories won again.

Ultimately, even the news that the architect of Tory victory Chris Patten had lost his own seat in Bath (and unlike Portillo five years later had the decency to look thoroughly miserable in public about it afterwards) was no real comfort. “It’s a Tory Major-ity!” punned the pro-Tory Peterborough Evening Telegraph above a picture of grinning Brian Mawhinney who had also unexpectedly won again in Peterborough. Julie Owens would never become an MP while the father of a friend standing for the Liberal Party (which, like most people, I endlessly confused with the new Liberal Democrats) came fourth.
I was already developing an interest in US politics and switched my attention to Governor Bill Clinton’s increasingly promising campaign over there.

For Britain seemed lost. If Labour couldn’t win during a recession when could they win? I was going through changes but the nation wasn’t. The Tories seemed destined to rule forever.

But, in fact, almost the opposite would turn out to be true. I was 15 then. Now I am nearly 38. And it is the Tories not Labour who have failed to win a single General Election in the twenty or so years since.

As John Major would have said: “Who’d have thought it?”

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Book review Revolt On The Right by Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin

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Revolt On The Right: Explaining Support For The Radical Right In Britain

Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin

Published by: Routledge

It’s official: the right-wing really are revolting.

Once upon a time, it was the Left who were most effective at endlessly shooting themselves in the foot in this way. In 1983, for example, the combined Labour/SDP alliance vote in the General Election was almost 68%. However, as these parties were a) not working together and b) hampered by the first past the post system, the end result was actually the biggest ever post-war win for Mrs. Thatcher’s Tories and a majority of 144.

Little wonder then, that there was plenty of ambitious talk at the time of the Millennium of this being “the progressive century” with Lib Dems and New Labour working together.

How dated such talk looks now! For now, it is the Right who are split. Under normal circumstances, one would expect a moderate Tory leader like Cameron presiding over an economic recovery and facing an unpopular Labour leader to be cruising to an easy win similar to Sir Anthony Eden in 1955.

This isn’t happening. Current polls give Labour a smallish poll lead of about 4%. This isn’t huge, but would give Miliband a win on a similar scale to Tony Blair’s third victory in 2005. This is partly due to the outdated boundary system which currently favours Labour (the Tories would actually need to be several points ahead of Labour even to get the same number of seats as them).

It’s also largely down to UKIP: currently in third place and polling somewhere between 11 and 15%.

Ford and Goodwin’s book is good on the twenty year history of UKIP. Mired by division and infighting, they briefly threatened to become significant a decade ago before the support of has-been daytime TV personality Robert Kilroy Silk descended into a bitter  and acrimonious power struggle. With much of UKIP support coming from a similar uneducated, elderly working-class base, the BNP also threatened to eclipse them before Nick Griffin’s party effectively imploded at the end of the last decade.

The leadership of Nigel Farage, a man who somehow manages to be both posh and blokey at the same time, has generally been a boon to the party, gaffe-prone though they remain. I am not at all convinced that much UKIP support comes from disillusioned Labour supporters. People who want to leave the EU or who are preoccupied by immigration haven’t generally been supporting Labour for a long time now, if ever. People with such views were either BNP supporters or Tories.

Much of UKIP’s support is based on ignorance. “In the days of Clement Attlee,” UKIP spokesman Paul Nuttall argues,”the Labour MPs came from the mills, the mines and the factories. The Labour MPs today… they go to private school, they go to Oxbridge… and they become an MP.”(P136). This is palpably nonsense. Middle class Labour support is nothing new. Clement Attlee himself went to a public school and to Oxford. For all that it matters, a large number of Labour MPs have always come from privileged backgrounds. There is also a nasty side to UKIP who, in the words of one UKIP activist appeal to those who (supposedly) “lost their job in the pub because of a nice looking girl from Slovakia” (P96).

But let’s not be too harsh. If UKIP succeed as they seem to be doing in denying the Tories a parliamentary majority next year, they will undoubtedly have (quite unintentionally) done this nation a great service.

Book review: Roy Jenkins, A Well Rounded Life

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Roy Jenkins: A Well Rounded Life.

John Campbell.

Published by Jonathan Cape, London.

Watching Nick Clegg being soundly beaten by UKIP leader Nigel Farage n the recent radio and TV debates was a dispiriting business. Some may have felt inclined to hark back to an earlier age when the European cause had more eloquent and effective debaters on its side. For example, Roy Jenkins.

Of course, Roy Jenkins (or Lord Jenkins of Hillhead as he was by the end) died in 2003 and would doubtless be horrified to learn that our continued membership of the European Union is now in doubt once again at all. As for the current Coalition Government, this would doubtless shock him less. He was keen on coalition governments long before it was fashionable.

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There are many myths about Roy Jenkins. One is that he was “nature’s old Etonian”, posh and clubbable despite coming from a Welsh mining background. In fact, though this is true (his father was falsely imprisoned for his role in the 1926 General Strike), Jenkins’ background was much more privileged than was generally realised. His father did, after all, serve in the Attlee Government.

Another myth which Campbell convincingly dispels is that Jenkins was lazy. He most definitely was not that, combining a busy social life (including a string of extra marital affairs), with a distinguished career as a biographer and historian in addition to being  Labour’s most successful ever Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer. He was also the first British President of the EEC and co-founder of the ultimately unsuccessful Social Democratic Party.

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During his comparatively  brief spell as Home Secretary between 1965 and 1967, Jenkins transformed more lives for the better than most Prime Ministers have succeeded in doing, sponsoring the legalisation of abortion and homosexuality. He is sometimes credited (or blamed) with launching the permissive society, an exaggeration even if one ignores the fact that the abolition of National Service and the death penalty had already been delivered not by Jenkins but by the Tories. He was no less successful as Chancellor. Sadly, like Tony Benn, the 1970 unexpected Labour General Election defeat of 1970 led his leadership prospects to fade, albeit in a wholly different way to Benn:  Jenkins alienating his then Eurosceptic party through his support for European unity. He was, in fact, perhaps too reluctant to challenge for the leadership and by 1976 when a vacancy finally arose with Wilson’s resignation, it was too late. The SDP, despite huge initial opinion poll success in 1981 and (unlike today’s UKIP) actual by election wins failed to break through although contrary to myth, probably didn’t ensure Tory victory in 1983 either.

This is a superb biography from distinguished author John Campbell. Despite being a self confessed SDP supporter (he actually wrote an earlier biography of Jenkins at the height of the party’s ascendancy), Campbell certainly isn’t blind to either Jenkins’ or the party’s failings.

It is a long book and there are a few errors, mostly ones of chronology. The SDP were formed in 1981 not 1982 as he states on page 9 (though the detailed account of SDP history later in the book makes clear Campbell obviously knows this). Jenkins was also first Home Secretary from 1965 to 1967, not 1966 to 1967 (p1). Tony Blair’s reform of Clause IV did not come “half a century” after Gaitskell’s attempt but only about thirty five years later (p208). Gaitskell attempted this in 1959-60. Blair’s more successful attempt was in 1994-95. Was Sir Stafford Cripps ever referred to as the “Iron Chancellor” as Campbell states (P310-P311)? Maybe he was. The nickname is more usually applied to Labour’s first ever Chancellor Snowdon, however, or sometimes Gordon Brown (and originally to Otto von Bismarck obviously). Finally, the Westland Affair peaked in January 1986 not January 1985 (p642).

But these are quibbles. This is a superb well rounded biography of a well rounded man. It is indeed a biography Roy Jenkins himself would have been proud to have written although he may have struggled to pronounce the title.

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Book review: Shirley Williams The Biography, by Mark Peel

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Baroness Shirley Williams appeared as a guest on BBC Question Time last Thursday. To say that the Liberal Democrat peer, at eighty-three, is universally admired throughout all parties for her good nature and superior intellect is true but sounds a little patronising. Giving sharp, concise and well thought-out answers, she is still clearly  a force to be reckoned with suggesting fellow panellist TV chef Anthony Worrall Thompson “go back to the kitchen” after the TV chef had unleashed a rambling anti-Liberal Democrat tirade.

But how different history could have been…

Back in 1981, Williams was one of the founders of the ‘Gang of Four’ who broke away from Labour to form the Social Democratic Party. The SDP’s early triumphs make UKIP’s recent “success” look all the more risible. The SDP actually won by-elections and had MPs sitting in parliament. By the end of 1981, (before Thatcher’s 1982 post-Falklands War comeback) they commanded over 50% in the opinion polls, way ahead of the two traditional parties, both then at the extremes under Margaret Thatcher and Michael Foot.

Before that, Williams was a leading figure in the Wilson and Callaghan Governments, frequently talked of as a possible first woman Prime Minister.

But this never happened. Margaret Thatcher born to a much humbler background five years before her beat her to it in May 1979. On the same day, Williams lost her Hertford and Stevenage seat as an MP, an upset similar in terms of prompting widespread surprise to Michael Portillo’s defeat in 1997.

What went wrong?

Williams was undeniably from a privileged background. She was born in 1930 as Shirley Vera-Brittain-Caitlin, the daughter of an academic and frustrated politician and Vera Brittain, the author of the celebrated First World War memoir, Testament of Youth. With her parents both vocal left-wing critics of the Nazi regime before the war (they were later revealed to be on a Nazi “Death List” and thus would have been in extreme danger had Hitler invaded Britain), Shirley and her brother spent most of the war in the United States. Throughout her early life and at Oxford, she seems to have dazzled and impressed almost everyone she met with her charm and precocious intellect. An early serious relationship was with the future four-minute-mile champion Roger Bannister. Despite her many qualities, she faced a struggle to enter parliament winning only after four attempts in 1964.

Did Williams’ privileged background count against her?

Margaret Thatcher certainly made play of it in a Conference speech made when Williams was in government and the Tory was Opposition leader in 1977:  “People from my sort of background needed grammar schools to compete with children from privileged homes like Shirley Williams and Anthony Wedgwood Benn.”

But in truth, it is unlikely Williams’ background did her serious harm. She has always possessed a classless quality which has broadened he appeal to the electorate

Was she then a victim of sexism? Peel mentions here that despite a good relationship with Jim Callaghan, she was never offered any of the major offices of state. Yet this no less true of Thatcher who, like Williams, was in charge of Education, in Thatcher’s case under Heath. Neither woman was a huge success in this role. Williams regards her promotion of comprehensive education as her proudest achievement but it remains controversial. Thatcher, in contrast, was reportedly embarrassed for herself that she closed more grammar schools than anyone else in that post.

Was Shirley Williams just unlucky? Was, as some have suggested, just in the wrong party at the wrong time? Luck does of course play a part in anyone’s political destiny. Labour were in fact in power for more than half of Williams’ thirties and forties. This is again similar to Thatcher and the Tories (in fact, Thatcher spent longer as an Opposition MP before 1979 than Williams did). And Thatcher raised the Tories from a very low ebb indeed in 1975.

Shirley Williams was, however, less lucky in her marriage than Margaret Thatcher. This is not to be sexist. A good marriage can be as crucial to male political success as female. Only Edward Heath has made it to Downing Street since the war while still unmarried and only Sir Anthony Eden became Prime Minister with a divorce behind him. Shirley’s first marriage to philosopher Bernard Williams ended in 1974. She married presidential historian Richard Neustadt in 1987 (both men in fact died very close together in 2003). She thus lacked a soul mate at a critical juncture in her career.

Biographer Mark Peel cites a certain scattyness and lack of political courage at crucial moments (notably her failure to stand in the Warrington by-election a decision perhaps fatal to her own career and to that of the SDP) which did for her.

Journalist Robin Oakley summarised her thus: “she really is one of the warmest, nicest people in politics, ever open to reason… She has a first rate-brain and a burning sense of justice… But the great drawback is her fatal indecisiveness…The flaw, some say, is that she likes being liked and making decisions makes enemies.”

Few of the tributes to Lady Thatcher earlier this year cited her warmness, niceness, first-rate brain or sense of justice. Clearly, the late Prime Minister totally lacked these qualities.

And maybe Shirley Williams lacked the necessary harshness and killer instinct to be Prime Minister. But she is perhaps the better person for that.