A pretty determined bastard

A studious Christian who speaks fluent Mandarin is an unlikely political hero. But Kevin Rudd looks

When Margaret Thatcher was taking on the miners, Australia's Labor prime minister Bob Hawke was forging a decade-long compact with the unions and industry. While George Bush Sr was fighting Saddam Hussein, Paul Keating was planning national competition and welfare-to-work policies that became international models. At the start of the 1990s, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown visited Australia and saw how a market-friendly, mildly redistributive social democracy could dominate the political centre ground.

Yet, for the past decade, the Australian Labor Party has been in the wilderness. John Howard, the 68-year-old Liberal prime minister, has created a devastatingly effective combination of economic liberalisation, social conservatism and noisy nationalism. Australia has enjoyed 16 consecutive years of economic growth, at among the highest rates in the OECD. In the country's federal system, every state and territory government in Australia at present is held by Labor. But nationally, Howard, dismissed by the left before and after his 1996 victory, came to appear invincible. Now that may be changing.

By the end of this year, there has to be an election, and Howard has hit trouble. The worst drought for a century has strained the economy and contributed to rocketing public concern about climate change. Until this year, Howard steadfastly refused to endorse the Kyoto Protocol or recognise the scientific consensus on climate. His recent industrial relations reforms have also been deeply unpopular, heightening a sense of insecurity among key groups of voters carrying record personal debt.

At the end of last year, Kevin Rudd wrested the Labor leadership from Kim Beazley, an honourable but floundering veteran of the Hawke-Keating years. Rudd, 49, won by teaming up with 45-year-old Julia Gillard, a rising star of the left in Victoria and now deputy leader. Rudd is the party's fourth leader in a decade. When he challenged Beazley, it was widely assumed that the coming 2007 election was already lost for Labor. Since the beginning of this year, the party has maintained a landslide lead in the polls.

Rudd has been through a political maelstrom, fighting to control Labor's and the media's pre-election agenda. He has had the kitchen sink thrown at him by a government desperate to regain the initiative. He has been attacked on his character, honesty, economic credentials and political inexperience. But the polls stubbornly refuse to shift, and the Australian media and establishment are now preparing for a sea change.

Born to share-farmer parents in rural Queensland, in the subtropical north-east of Australia, Rudd is married to Therese Rein. They met at university and have three children. Rein has combined parenting and support for her husband with founding and running a highly successful group of companies providing rehabilitation services to the long-term unemployed.

Rudd's early life was deeply marked by his father's death after a road accident, and the subsequent economic insecurity faced by his family. The young man who emerged acquired a level of personal discipline and a seriousness of purpose that have given him extraordinary momentum. On achieving the party leadership, he described himself as a "pretty determined bastard". Since then, he has demonstrated just how determined. He is, in many ways, an unlikely Labor figure, coming neither from the world of unions and labour law nor from the factional heartlands of New South Wales and Victoria. He has been characterised as a nerd. He is slight, studious and intense. One newspaper cartoonist draws him as Tintin, the Belgian comic-book hero.

Self-deprecating

In a country where politics is often viewed as a blood sport, full of vicious parliamentary exchange, his trademark approach might seem out of place. In April, he opened his speech to Labor's national conference with: "I'm Kevin. I'm from Queensland. I'm here to help."

Rudd has learned to use his own identity, including self-deprecation, to project a distinctive quality to voters. He is a centrist and a social conservative and after years spent carefully studying Howard's tactics and the success of others, including new Labour, he has built an approach that is neutralising the government's usual lines of attack.

He has carefully narrowed party differences on national security and the economy, using a "hit-and-run" approach to policy and communication, connecting with underlying public anxieties about Australia's place in the sun by focusing on declining productivity growth, petrol prices and mortgage stress. In doing so, he has paved a road for transition to a set of long-term challenges that Australians know have to be tackled: China, climate change, and prosperity beyond the long mining-fuelled boom.

Federal politics is Rudd's third career. After excelling at high school, he studied Chinese at the Australian National University and joined the department of foreign affairs and trade, where he was posted to Stockholm and Beijing. Rudd speaks fluent Mandarin, and has assiduously built friendships in China. If he becomes prime minister, he will be the first western leader with such a level of understanding.

In a speech to the Brookings Institution in Washington in April this year, he argued that "we in Australia and the United States are now at a critical juncture on how best to shape the future characteristics of the regional and inter national order". During his American trip, Rudd made a ritual visit to Rupert Murdoch, who showed his enthusiasm for the challenger.

Rudd has a further layer of professional identity: in the late 1980s, rather than climbing to the top of the embassy ladder, he became chief of staff to Wayne Goss, then campaigning to become Labor premier of Queensland by toppling a 32-year-old country conservative regime. After Goss's bruising victory, Rudd transferred to become, at the age of 35, director general of the New South Wales department of premier and cabinet, a pivotal role in Australian state governments. The experience helped convince him to enter federal politics, and in 1998 he won the Queensland seat of Griffith at the second attempt.

This combination of deep international and strategic knowledge and hard-edged public management experience puts Rudd closer to Gordon Brown or Nicolas Sarkozy than to Tony Blair at the start of his premiership.

Work ethic

Rudd regularly cites Christian faith as a source of political motivation. In an essay, he described the German pacifist and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed by the Nazis in 1945, as "the man I admire most in the history of the 20th century".

He went on to attack the conflation of Christianity with conservatism in contemporary politics, and argues that a core, continuing principle "should be that Christianity . . . must always take the side of the marginalised, the vulnerable and the oppressed". While he does not easily embrace the language of the left, there is no doubt that he sees the role of the government in terms of social justice. His main policy emphasis is, not surprisingly, on education.

Rudd has plenty of critics. His intellectual capacity and ambition have been experienced by some as arrogance, and his ferocious work ethic can translate into extreme demands on others. In a recent interview, he said: "I've never worked in a bureaucratic or political environment when it hasn't been really tough. I've never arrived in a show where everything's up and running . . . It's always hard. So you get bred hard."

This intensity and determination help explain why he has got this far. But Rudd has to build a culture that can be sustained in government. His natural tendency to punch home the advantage will be tested in the second half of the year, as the Liberals go all out to protect Howard's legacy and new-found supporters swarm around Labor.

The election is far from won. Howard has come from behind before, and the electoral geo graphy is difficult for Labor. But there is a scent of change in the air.

Australia is the industrialised nation most exposed to climate change, and most sensitive to China's rise. It must work out how to sustain prosperity for a more diverse population, on a more fragile planet, in a region that will shape the 21st century.

The pressure is on Kevin Rudd.

Tom Bentley is a director at the Australia and New Zealand School of Government

Wizards of Oz

Illustrious sons and daughters

Rupert Murdoch (b 1931 in Melbourne) is the most powerful media executive in the world, controlling an empire that started when he inherited the Adelaide News. His UK ownership of the Sun is widely held to have helped Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair to power.

Kylie Minogue (b 1968, left) had a role in the Aussie soap opera Neighbours that launched a stellar pop career ("I Should Be So Lucky") lasting decades. After a battle with cancer, she made a triumphant live concert return last year.

Peter Singer (b 1946), is a philosopher who intellectually underpins the animal liberation movement.

Joan Sutherland (b 1926, Sydney) is one of the greatest sopranos ever. She was hailed around the world as "the voice of the 20th century".

Barry Humphries (b 1934) is a comedian and satirist more often seen as his stage and TV alter egos Dame Edna Everage and Sir Les Patterson.

Howard Florey (1898-1968) won a Nobel Prize for his development of penicillin. A peer and the first Australian president of the Royal Society of Medicine, Florey appears on the A$50 note.

Clive James (b 1939) is a television critic and broadcaster with a voice as well known as the Queen's. A former president of Cambridge Footlights, he describes himself as a member of the "proletarian left".

Nicole Kidman (b 1967) grew up in Sydney to become the world's highest-paid actress, starring in Moulin Rouge, Eyes Wide Shut and The Hours (for which she won an Oscar). A Companion of the Order of Australia, its highest civilian honour.

Cate Blanchett (b 1969) is an award-winning actress, acclaimed since her first high-profile role in Elizabeth. Listed in 2007 among Time magazine's 100 most influential people.

Shane Warne (b 1969, left) is a cricketing legend, raising eyebrows on and off the field. One of Wisden's top five cricketers of the 20th century.

Germaine Greer (b 1939) is a writer and academic. Her 1970 feminist tract The Female Eunuch was hugely influential. Has strong views on everything from underwear to art.

Peter Carey (b 1943, in Victoria) is now living in New York. He has twice won the Booker Prize, in 1988 for Oscar and Lucinda and in 2001 for True History of the Kelly Gang.

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The most important protest of our time

Chris Ball/UNP
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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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