Train on fire

The attitude on arriving late at Latitude and the perils of reading AL Kennedy. Scotland's foremost

I’m sure you’ve already guessed this – the most stylish possible way to arrive at a summer festival is on board a burning train. So my trip to Latitude was pretty much perfect. As the smoke billowed, we were detained at Berwick for more than an hour. This was “…due to the driver carrying out safety checks.” As matters progressed, we learned that a) train announcements will always avoid mentioning “Fire !” and “Brakes !” even if – or perhaps especially if - the train is on fire in exactly that rather important brake area and b) that trains with hot wheels trigger a hitherto unguessed-at system of restraints which then hold them for random intervals, no matter where they go.

Still, no one was hurt - or even alarmed – many of us enjoyed bonding and grumbling, and my reading was cancelled for the coolest reason ever “A.L.Kennedy cannot be with us tonight – her train caught fire.”

And Latitude – once I got there – proved infinitely more enjoyable than I had imagined four days in a big park with increasingly unwashed strangers might prove to be. Given that I had imagined it would make me beg for death by lupus, I’ll clarify – audiences were friendly, the reading was rescheduled, deck chairs were free, the pies were fantastic, the events imaginative and Robin Ince’s Bookclub was entirely magnificent - you can only imagine my delight at being on the same variety bill as a man who puts forks up his nose and a lady who tap dances while eating swiss roll. Just excellent, lovely people.

I’m used to communal events involving blockades, policemen and occasional rumpusses, so it took me a while to relax and savour the sight of adults just wearing whatever the hell they wanted and/or possibly pretending to be someone else, while almost all the toddlers present generated a massive, wobbly-indie-dancing sub-culture with a rudimentary monarchy.

Sadly, I was unable to successfully propagate the rumour that an elderly man had been dragged into the lake by swimming tapirs, or to persuade the entire audience for Blondie to yell in unison, “You’re not bad for your age!” in an appreciative manner.

Happily, I may well take a tip from Debbie Harry and bind my upper arms tightly from now on - perhaps using lengths of drainpipe - instantly firming an area that slumps so troublingly in the maturer lady. Oh, and according to a festival Tarot reader, I’m quiet, although I sometimes talk a lot, I’ve been working hard, or I’m about to, and love will find me in October. Yeah. Right.

Meanwhile, it has come to my attention that some of you, having found these blogs sometimes give the impression that I am an amusing writer, have been considering buying my books. Now, while my volumes are occasionally funny – particularly if you are, may I respectfully suggest, slightly twisted or the tiniest bit unwell - I wouldn’t necessarily recommend them if you’re – say – vulnerable, unless you want to have perhaps a slightly bruisng giggle.

So maybe flick through one in a bookshop as a tester. Or, better yet – given that a recognisable continuum from stern to pliant is suggesting itself here - wait until you see another, compatibly dominant or submissive reader browsing nearby, then hook up and give each other the thumping good read you deserve. Not that I wish to intrude. Your reading pleasure is my only aim.

Next stop, the Edinburgh Fringe, The Stand and a month of comedy – so there’s a show to polish, iron tablets to take, black shirts to count and soon August will be shining up ahead like a glorious, burning train.

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After a year of division, a new centre is emerging in Labour

Clive Lewis, Lisa Nandy and Jonathan Reynolds show how factionalism is being transcended. 

On 26 September, Clive Lewis sat onstage at Labour’s conference in Liverpool and puffed out his cheeks in exasperation. He had just been informed that a line in his speech as shadow defence secretary committing the party to Trident renewal had been removed by Jeremy Corbyn’s office. Such was his annoyance that he was said to have later punched a wall in anger ("I punched no walls," he told me when we recently met). 

For Lewis, however, the feud proved to be a blessing. Hitherto hostile MPs hailed his pragmatism and deference to party unity (he is a long-standing opponent of Trident renewal). The former soldier also affirmed Labour’s support for Nato and for collective self-defence. “The values that underpin Nato are social-democratic values: liberty, democracy, freedom of expression,” Lewis, an early Corbyn ally, told me. “Let’s not forget, it was Clement Attlee and the New Deal Democrats who initiated and set up Nato. It’s about being in it to win it. It’s about winning the arguments inside Nato and making sure that it’s a force for good. Some people would say that’s impossible. I say you’ve got to be in it to be able to make those changes.”

In October, Lewis was replaced as shadow defence secretary by Nia Griffith and became shadow business secretary. Many regarded the appointment as a punishment. “Do I think there was an ulterior motive? I’ll never know,” Lewis said. “I’m confident that the reason I was moved – what I was told – is that they wanted me to be able to take on a big portfolio.”

Whatever the truth, Griffith has since said that Labour’s next general election manifesto will include a commitment to Trident renewal and will support multilateral, rather than unilateral, disarmament.

Many MPs had long feared that the divide between them and their leader would prove unbridgeable. Some contemplated standing on bespoke manifestos. Yet with little drama, Corbyn has retreated from a conflict that he could not win. Labour’s conference, at which the largely pro-Trident trade unions hold 50 per cent of the vote on policy and which the leader has vowed to respect, would never have endorsed unilateralism.

“Jeremy Corbyn deserves credit for that,” Lewis said. “Everyone understands that his position hasn’t changed. He still believes in unilateral disarmament . . . But he’s also a democrat, and he’s a pragmatist, despite what people say.”

In policy terms, at least, Labour will contest the next general election as a less divided party than many anticipated. As Corbyn’s team has long emphasised, there is unity around issues such as opposition to spending cuts and support for rail renationalisation. A new centre for Labour, embodied by Lewis, is emerging.

“When I became an MP,” the 45-year-old told me (he was elected in Norwich South in 2015), “to be anti-austerity, to say that cuts don’t work and they’re bad economics, meant you weren’t in touch with reality, and that you had no interest in winning elections. Within the space of 18 months, there’s now a growing consensus that cuts aren’t the way forward and that we need an industrial strategy.”

Theresa May’s support for new grammar schools and “hard Brexit” has given Labour MPs other issues to unite around. After Corbyn’s second landslide leadership victory, many of his opponents have reached the final stage of grief: acceptance. Others, as Lewis noted, are imbued with “an eager enthusiasm to make this work”. Contrary to some predictions, more than half of the 63 frontbenchers who resigned last summer have returned.

An emblematic figure is Jonathan Reynolds. The Liz Kendall supporter, who resigned as shadow transport minister in January 2016, has rejoined the front bench as shadow City minister. Earlier this year, Reynolds backed the introduction of a universal basic income, an idea that is now being explored by John McDonnell’s team (and that Barack Obama has called for “debate” on). In July, Reynolds and Lewis wrote a joint piece in support of proportional representation (PR), warning that without it “a more equal, democratic and sustainable society is less likely”.

Another advocate of PR is Lisa Nandy, the former shadow energy secretary and a friend of Lewis (on 26 October, along with Reynolds, they called for Labour to stand aside in the Richmond by-election to aid the Liberal Democrats). In the view of some, the defining divide in Labour is no longer between left and right but between open and closed. On one side are pluralists such as Lewis, Reynolds and Nandy, while on the other are tribalists such as Ian Lavery (pro-Corbyn) and John Spellar (anti-Corbyn).

The division stretches to the top, with McDonnell in favour and Corbyn opposed. “It’s a work in progress,” Lewis said of his efforts to convert the Labour leader. “There’s a growing movement of MPs who now either support PR or understand the growing necessity for it. They may not be quite there themselves, but they’re moving in that direction.”

At times since Corbyn became leader, the parliamentary party’s divisions have appeared to many to be insurmountable, even as the party in the country has grown and been inspired by Corbyn. Yet a new consensus is being forged in the PLP: anti-austerity, pro-Trident, pro-Nato and, increasingly, committed to political and constitutional reform. If there is any consolation for a becalmed Labour Party, it is that its European counterparts are faring little better. In Spain, France and Germany, an already divided left is further fragmenting.

But Labour is likely to both fight and survive the next general election as a united force. If Lewis can retain his seat in Norwich (he has a potentially vulnerable majority of 7,654), he could one day act as the bridge between the party’s “soft” and “hard” left. After a year of factional skirmishes, the common ground in which Labour’s future will be shaped is emerging.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage