Tuesday, 6 October 2015

While Labour shouts, the real battle is in the Tory Party

Somewhat unfortunately I found myself in an argument with an ‘ultra-leftie’ Corbyn fan the other night, one who clearly hadn’t got the memo about a kinder politics from his Dear Leader. He thought it was reasonable to illustrate a graphic explaining ‘How Tory Welfare Reforms Work’ with an image of a Swastika, claiming it was merely ‘a diagram’. When I suggested this was a fairly offensive comparison to make, I was taken to task. The implication was that if anyone implied that this 'diagram' might be unfairly tainting the Conservative Party with Nazism, then it was the viewer's - in this case, my - fault. Clearly, he had not managed to grasp the power of semiotics. 

For merely questioning his taste I was accused of being a Tory. And this is where the Labour Party now find themselves; unreasonable people railing against the world, convinced their own view is the one true view, accusing those who might question them of apostasy. The vast majority on the left, the thoughtful, kind, principled but pragmatic, have been rendered dumb by the earthquake that has occurred beneath their feet. Until Corbyn and his shadow cabinet emerge with a package of coherent policies, the official Labour Party is something of an irrelevance, failing to provide a decent opposition.

Meanwhile, in the real world, George Osborne has been busy donning a cloak of moderate sensibilities and set about stealing some of Labour’s best policies and there is barely a whimper of protest – or indeed claims of ownership – from Jeremy Corbyn and his shadow cabinet. Lord Adonis, whose talent for ideas and getting things done was such that he was close to Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband, has been left flailing in the wind and, given the opportunity to resurrect his idea of an infrastructure commission, leads it with George Osborne’s blessing. For a party serious about forming the next government, losing the talents of Lord Adonis is little short of criminal.

Other ideas Osborne has pinched or developed include the devolution of business rates, grand-parental leave, the abolition of non-dom status and the national ‘living wage’. And remember the city academies idea – chaotically attacked by the last shadow Labour cabinet – was the brainchild of a certain chap called Andrew Adonis when he was a part of a Labour government.

George Osborne’s pitch is part of the real battle currently going on in British politics; who will succeed David Cameron. The PM has reiterated this week his intention to last the full five years of his second term, but, as I have written before, this simply isn’t practical or honest. If Cameron isn’t to stand for election again – and there is time for him to find a way to renege on this pledge – he has to leave office giving his successor sufficient time to outline his or her vision for the country before the 2020 general election.

The Shadow Chancellor, who, inevitably as he is the one ordering ‘austerity’ across the country, has a reputation of being the hard man of the government, the hatchet man. To counter this, he has, without any shame, turned into a magpie and is happily stealing good ideas from wherever he can find them, trying to present himself as the possesor of the common ground, a man not attached to a particular political dogma and above the day-to-day political fray. For now, until when or if there is an economic downturn, he remains the Tory Party’s lucky chancellor and a supreme tactician.

Theresa May, on the other hand, has, with one speech, jeopardised her chances of succeeding in her campaign to become next leader. Ignoring the government’s own statistics (see this excellent James Kirkup piece here), she painted a fearful picture of a Britain being held back and divided by immigration, warning about how we must protect our borders from the hordes outside and, by doing this, remain strong, a ‘beacon of hope’. It’s not a million miles away from the vision created in the film of Children of Men. 

The motives for her speech are curious. This vision might appeal to some grass roots Tories, timid and fretful of the outside world, comfortable in their shires, but it's a weak pitch for leadership. The government has failed to hit its own targets at reducing immigration. Logically, the only way to get net migration to the tens of thousands is to bar European Union migrants and the only way of achieving this is to pull out of the EU to end the freedom of movement. (Her refusal to even acknowledge the migration crisis affecting Europe is a discussion for another day).

Unsurprisingly, this has prompted a ferocious backlash from business groups who find themselves on the same side as refugee groups. Simon Walker, the Director General of the Institute of Directors, said:

‘We are astonished by the irresponsible rhetoric and pandering to anti-immigration sentiment from the Home Secretary. It is yet another example of the Home Secretary turning away the world’s best and brightest, putting internal party politics ahead of the country and helping our competitor economies instead of our own.

‘The myth of the job stealing immigrant is nonsense. Immigrants do not steal jobs, they help fill vital skill shortages and, in doing so, create demand and more jobs. If they did steal jobs we wouldn’t have the record levels of employment we currently do.’

With such a response from what is supposed to be part of their core constituency, May’s speech and stance is very hard for any other minister to defend though some will foolishly try. A rattled Prime Minister later gave it a go on the BBC.

I have never much rated Theresa May’s chances to succeed Cameron; a long-serving Home Secretary yes, but she gives the impression of being too hard and too unsympathetic. She first warned of the Tories being seen by too many as the 'nasty' party and yet, here she is the one reviving the image. Combined with simply being factually wrong on the impact of immigration and annoying large swathes of business, I think her chances of becoming leader have slumped further.

The other much-touted contender, Boris Johnson, didn’t hurt his chances at the Conservative Party conference. He is the conference darling, his speech was packed with jokes and he presented a vividly more humane Tory alternative. But he is way behind Osborne at the moment, to such an extent the Chancellor can happily say he would be ‘very surprised’ if Boris didn’t make it to the top team under Cameron. He didn’t add ‘if he’s a good little boy’ but was probably thinking it.

Monday, 5 October 2015

Bye then Illtyd

I don't really know what to say about Illtyd, who died last week at the age of 84, as I know anything I write will fail to do him justice. As with all good teachers, Illtyd would say, with his soft, lilting, lyrical Merthyr tones - which could click seamlessly into hilarious, poetic, fluent and startling invective - you can always aim higher.

He was a man of immense and huge kindness; generous with his mind and money. He was an idiosyncratic  writer, his words threaded with wit and often irascible venom, and he was blessed with an infectious humour which made his wealth of stories - frequently about Labour politicians doing something in their youth that they shouldn't - sparkle.

Several times a week, he would limp his way into the Camden New Journal offices where I used to work, clutching books marked with the yellow paper - paper I have never seen anyone else use - upon which he wrote his columns and book and theatre reviews. Again, as with all good teachers I have known, his handwriting was appalling; knowing this, he would sit down and patiently dictate his words to one of the several young hacks there. It could be tricky, particularly if it was after lunch; his voice could get fainter and fainter and you'd be grasping to catch it, like the song of the lark as it soars higher and higher.

He was a nurturer. He wanted to help us all, to nudge us to success. He was always interested in our lives, concerned about our families. It was lovely that he made the time to come to my wedding more than ten years ago. His words of advice were affectionate and well-considered; though he wasn't shy of telling anyone that he or she was being an idiot if the moment required.

Illtyd, with a newly trimmed beard, at our wedding, with a long haired me
Often, after delivering his lines to whatever young Turk he encountered in the office, Illtyd and I would slink off to a nearby pub where we'd discuss the politics of the day; he had very little time for Tony Blair's New Labour and left the party over the invasion of Iraq. He also had a deep mine of stories from the Labour Party; older figures such as Barbara Castle, Marcia Falkender and Ken Livingstone would mingle with Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson.

I remember once he was opening a Camden New Journal jobs fair and, bizarrely, there was a stall representing the security services. Illtyd opened the fair in typically respectful fashion before turning with unveiled fury on the unfortunate officers at this stall, demanding they show him his MI5 security file. I don't think they returned to the fair in subsequent years.

Illtyd at the Gay Hussar, by Martin Rowson
Illtyd loved the conspiratorial nature of his tales. Similarly, he loved the gossipy atmosphere of the Gay Hussar, where he could take his huge range of friends, from politics, journalism and acting, for lunch. During a meal he could wave and greet old friends as well as scowl, with a menacing glint in his eye, at old foes, while regaling those present at his table with his stories. And, yes, I have never known a better swearer. Maybe there is something about the Welsh timbre which can enable the foulest language to sing like poetry. It was a naughty delight to hear Illtyd suddenly crackle with explicit glee, condemning some dull New Labour apparatchik in the most unrepeatable manner.

These lunches could take a while. I believe my then editor did wonder where I'd gone on those Friday afternoons. I remember one occasion when we were dining on the first floor of the Greek Street restaurant; at 5pm, I was still getting the brandy from behind the bar to top up our glasses. 

The great love of his life was Christopher Downes, the theatre dresser and Camden New Journal theatre reviewer. Together they ran what ran what Peter Mandelson called the 'trattoria'. Talking after his death in 2003, Mr Mandelson told me:

'I remember spending Saturday afternoons in the pub with them and their friends, and we would go back to Lea House (Illtyd and Chris's house), which I used to call 'the trattoria', and Chris would make and assortment of tasty and hearty dishes.' 

Homosexuality was illegal for some of the time they were together. In an interview for BBC Wales in 2008, his nephew, actor Richard Harrington, asked how the relationship had been possible, especially considering Illtyd held public office:

'We did it openly. There were lots of men and women like us. We didn't advertise, putting a sign up - we just got on with our lives.'

With Chris, they mixed with an altogether more glamorous crowd than mere politicians; thus, their encounters with Hollywood stars would be liberally sprinkled in their tales. Illtyd and Chris were together for over 50 years and Illtyd felt his loss deeply.

The day after Illtyd's death came news of the death of Denis Healey, a huge Labour figure. Illtyd was denied a chance to be an MP and a member of the House of Lords by machinist politicians who feared his variety and intellect, and Healey, likewise, could be said to have missed out on the top job for similar reasons. But both were part of a generation of post-war Labour politicians whose wider personal experiences, knowledge of a genuine ideological divide, informed their politics. Compared to the politicians of today, whose career trajectories are frequently dull and confined within the walls of Whitehall, this generation had 'hinterland' and knew personally of the real struggles people have to contend with in their daily lives

During one afternoon at the Gay Hussar with Illtyd, I recorded our conversation, many of his stories and his reflections on New Labour; it really is about time I dug up the recording and transcribed it.