Politics and alcohol

One Tory backbencher of my acquaintance always made a better speech after he had consumed a bottle o

Having been brought up and remained a practising Methodist I have always had a healthy suspicion of the power of alcohol. Rather like the Methodist Church (which it seems these days stands for not much that John Wesley would recognise) and unlike my Octogenarian Mother I have long since abandoned my teetotalism and enjoy good champagne when someone else is paying and a glass of port or two after your average City Corporation Dinner. However never underestimate the influence of alcohol in the Political World.

Ignoring Party Conference week where every Politician worth his salt drinks far too much and no one worries about it, except one Tory Activist who objected rather loudly to a very drunk Conservative MP putting his hand down the young man’s trousers.

Threats of a complaint to the Party Chairman ensued.

Alcohol is playing an increasing role at times when in my view it should not.

I vividly recall going on an official trip to Cyprus when one Labour MP had to be physically helped off the plane by a colleague when he arrived at Larnaca as he was too drunk to stand and on a previous trip one corpulent now former Scottish Labour MP who failed to attend any of the official meetings but somehow managed all the dinners!

There are of course well known tales of alcoholic overload in Politics stretching back to George Brown as Foreign Secretary and encompassing infamous incidents involving Alan Clark and Sir Nick Scott.

One Tory backbencher of my acquaintance always made a better speech after he had consumed a bottle of red wine at dinner. Indeed it is debateable whether Brandy assisted Winston Churchill in winning the Second World War.

However things have changed, the advent of a 24 hour media has meant politicians are required for instant comment and woe betide anyone who tries a live interview after three gin and tonics.

In emergency situations where office-holders, spokesmen and women are required to give instant responses or make key decisions the fact that certain politicians are unapproachable after lunch does not inspire confidence.

The Governance of London is a case in point. It is well documented that the former Transport Commissioner Bob Kiley is an alcoholic and indeed his ineffectiveness and ultimate removal were not unconnected to his patronage of off licences in Victoria.

The Met Commissioner has appeared somewhat the worse for wear at a number of official functions, most notably the London Mayors’ Association Annual Dinner where he needed assistance from his protection officers to manage the stairs.

These indiscretions reflect the alcohol-fuelled administration of City Hall. Mayor Livingstone’s’ two well documented run-ins with the Standards Board (the Party incident at Tufnell Park and the Evening Standard Nazi jibe) have both involved significant amounts of red wine and those of us on the inside of City Hall know that abstemious is not a word in the Mayor’s dictionary .

Gordon Brown has promised to the relief of local councillors across the Country to review the liberalisation of the licensing laws.

Perhaps he should bring his Scottish Presbyterian views to the attention of some of those closer to home.

Brian Coleman was first elected to the London Assembly in June 2000. Widely outspoken he is best known for his groundbreaking policy of removing traffic calming measures
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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times