Trouble in Manchester

The RSA's Matthew Taylor on the whispering cabinet minister, an antagonisic local and the train that

Sunday was just one of those days. I was booked to chair a fringe meeting for the New Statesman at lunchtime and so got to Euston in good time for the Manchester train. That’s when it all started to go wrong. The train ‘wasn’t ready’ which, given that Virgin had presumably had since Saturday night to prepare it, was hard to understand.

When we finally did board the train it was chronically overcrowded. There were three announcements from the buffet (or ‘shop’ as it is now called)) one to say it was opening late, another to say it couldn’t take charge or credit cards and a third to say it had closed down due to ‘unforeseen’ problems.

The train then stopped and we were told it would arrive at least an hour late. But at least something was working; the air conditioning in our carriage was set so high that people were scrabbling around in their luggage for woollies.

I arrived in Manchester far too late for my meeting but in time to run to the Piccadilly Sports Bar and watch the last five minutes of my beloved West Brom losing to Aston Villa. Thoroughly grumpy and miserable I walked the streets of Manchester. Eventually I found a pub with the Chelsea v Man United game but distracted by the match I accidentally picked up someone else’s drink at the bar.

As the rather large person in question was remonstrating with me Chelsea equalised an event in which I could immediately tell he somehow felt that I as a Londoner was somehow implicated. I beat a hasty retreat.

Of course, I could have gone to the conference but ever since the Observer printed a tendentious piece two weeks ago suggesting I had been appointed to advise David Cameron I have been getting funny looks from my old comrades.

Eventually it was time for the RSA World at One fringe meeting at the Raddison Hotel. The room was packed and hot and the audience having to be patient as we had pushed back the start time by half an hour to accommodate David Miliband.

Our first speaker was supposed to be Ben Page from IPSOS MORI but for reasons best known to them, the Social Market Foundation had taken his pass and despite my pleadings were utterly indifferent to the fact that he was stuck outside the security cordon with minutes until our meeting.

As the minutes ticked away Ben kept phoning to say the police were getting increasingly suspicious of his story and he was starting to worry about the prospects of a full body search. At this point I snapped, losing my temper with various SMF staff and bellowing (mild) obscenities in front of several rather startled members of the Cabinet.

Eventually I tracked down the pass and Ben and I ran up five flights of stairs to a meeting room so hot that it could only have felt tolerable to anyone who had just stepped of the super cooled 8.36 Euston to Manchester train.

Ben was a star and entertained everyone with his slides showing the contradictory nature of public opinions. I made my short comments. But RSA and WATO staff were frantically waving at me to indicate that the Foreign Secretary was ten, no fifteen, no five, no ten minutes away so I slowed down and extemporised.

After 25 minutes which ranged over my life at the RSA, Number Ten, the Labour Party and Bootham Street Junior School I dried up so we had to move to questions.

Eventually, after very enlightening exchanges about how to canvass in Mitcham, the design of leaflets and engaging with your local park, Mr Miliband showed up looking relaxed and commanding. After he had made a few comments Martha Kearney started to quiz him, presumably aware that we were by now running well over time and that several people were showing signs of heat exhaustion. But the conference delegates have been well briefed so the moment Martha mentioned the leadership issue she got drowned out by a combination of booing and the soft clump of expiring bodies falling to the carpet.

So that WATO could get something to tape for today’s programme there was no choice but to overrun, anyway, we couldn’t get out of the doors until all the people on stretchers had been carried to safety. Suddenly I realised I had fifteen minutes to get the last train back to London. There was no choice but to run. As I sprinted past a Cabinet minister I can’t be sure but I think she murmured ‘that’s right Taylor you can run, but you can’t hide’.

I made it to the station with two minutes to spare. My body was steaming, my shirt was soaked and there was sweat running in rivulets off my forehead as I sat down in the carriage. ‘Ding dong’ went the announcer ‘welcome to the 20.10 to Euston. Unfortunately, due to unforeseen circumstances. the air conditioning will not be working on this journey’.

Matthew Taylor became Chief Executive of the RSA in November 2006. Prior to this appointment, he was Chief Adviser on Political Strategy to the Prime Minister.
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Corbyn is personally fireproof, but his manifesto could be torched by the Brexit blaze

There is no evidence that EU migration has depressed wages – but most Labour MPs believe it has.

News, like gas, expands to fill the space available to it. That’s why the summer recess can so often be a time of political discomfort for one party or another. Without the daily grind of life at Westminster, difficult moments can linger. Minor rows become front-page news.

There are many reasons why Theresa May is spending three weeks hiking in northern Italy and Switzerland, and one of them is that it is hard to have a leadership crisis if your leader is elsewhere. That makes the summer particularly dangerous for Labour. The danger is heightened as the majority of the press is unsympathetic to the party and the remainder is simply bored. Even a minor crisis could turn into a catastrophe.

Jeremy Corbyn’s interview on BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show on 23 July, therefore, carried the same risks as juggling lit matches in a dry forest. The Labour leader ruled out continuing participation in the single market after Britain leaves the political structures of the European Union. For good measure, he added that the “wholesale importation” of people from eastern and central Europe had been used to undermine pay and conditions for British workers. Both statements only aggravate the stress fractures in the Labour movement and in its electoral coalition.

The good news for the Labour leader is that he is fireproof. Only God or Corbyn himself can prevent him from leading the party into the next election, whenever it comes, and no one will be foolish enough to try to remove him, even if they had the inclination. Also, while the question of what flavour of Brexit to pursue divides Labour in the country, it doesn’t divide Labour at Westminster. Most Labour MPs nodded along in agreement with Corbyn during the Marr interview. They believe – as the shadow international trade secretary, Barry Gardiner, outlined a day later – that remaining in the customs union and the single market would be a betrayal of the wishes of Leave voters, who want full control over Britain’s borders and laws.

There is no evidence that migration from the eastern bloc has depressed wages. But most Labour MPs believe that it has. “I am convinced,” one formerly pro-European MP told me, “that no matter what the studies say, immigration has reduced wages.”

Most of the Labour people who are willing to kick up a fuss about “hard” Brexit are outside parliament. These include the Welsh First Minister, Carwyn Jones, who wants Britain to remain in the single market; the general secretary of the TSSA union, Manuel Cortes, who recently used the New Statesman website to urge the party to keep all of its options open, including a second referendum to keep Britain in the EU; and the rapper Akala, who lambasted Corbyn’s interview on Twitter. While a large minority of Labour MPs back a softer version of Brexit, they are a minority, and not a large enough one to combine with Tory dissidents to make a Commons majority, even when the votes of the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Green MP Caroline Lucas are taken into account.

This increases the party’s dependence on Jeremy Corbyn. As the leader’s aides observe, even among the quarter of the country that believes the government should simply overturn the referendum result, only a quarter of that quarter do so because they have a particular affection for the institutions of the European Union.

For the majority of hard Remainers, Brexit is a significant battleground in a larger culture war, one in which Corbyn is otherwise in perfect alignment with their values. His electoral appeal to Labour MPs is that he is someone who can say the same things on Brexit and migration as Yvette Cooper or Stephen Kinnock previously did, but without losing votes in England’s great cities.

The electoral threat to Labour from backing a harder form of exit is, in any case, often overstated. The first-past-the-post system makes the Liberal Democrats an inadequate refuge for anguished Remainers in England, while the SNP’s support for Scottish independence makes it an unsuitable home for Labour refugees in Scotland. Team Corbyn feels that Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrats’ new leader, will struggle to convince Labour voters that he can be trusted because of the role he played in designing the new system of tuition fees (having previously pledged to vote against them). In any case, the risk of letting in a Conservative prime minister – probably one committed to a version of Brexit even harder than Labour’s – further locks Remainers in Labour’s corner.

That leaves Labour in Westminster free to pursue a version of Brexit that meets the needs of both the leadership, which relishes the freedom to pursue a more radical economic policy unconstrained by the European Union, and Labour MPs, particularly those with seats in Yorkshire and the Midlands, who are concerned about opposition to immigration in their constituencies. This has the happy side effect of forcing the Conservatives to take the blame for delivering any Brexit deal that falls short of the promises made by Vote Leave during the referendum and in the high-blown rhetoric used by Theresa May during the election campaign.

However, all is not rosy. What most Labour MPs seem to have forgotten is that Brexit is not simply a political battleground – something to be leveraged to reduce the number of complaints about migration and to hasten the Tory government into an early grave. There is a political victory to be had by using the Brexit process to clobber the government. But there is also a far bigger defeat in store for the left if leaving the EU makes Britain poorer and more vulnerable to the caprice of international finance. That Jeremy Corbyn is personally fireproof doesn’t mean that his manifesto can’t be torched by the Brexit blaze. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue