Election drama

Playwrights stay up past bedtime to produce instant political theatre.

The play's the thing: as politicians stayed up way past bedtime on 6 May, a group of playwrights were also pulling an all-nighter to script five brand new dramas. Whilst politicos struggled with squaring the circles of government by Venn diagram, the "first five plays of the new parliament" were cast, rehearsed and produced by the Supporting Wall theatre company in just 24 hours. The resulting show was Election Drama, a one-night-only, rapid response to the election, which was staged at the New Players Theatre barely 48 hours after polls closed. Truly a breathtaking feat of theatrical chutzpah.

There was a palpable party mood amongst the youngish, probably leftish spectators, even if the party had overtones of the ship's band on the deck of the Titanic. Election metaphors flew everywhere: when someone was given a seat number in a non-existent row B, it was suggested by the man next to me that she "enter into negotiations with Rows A and C".

Staged just round the corner from where the "Take Back Parliament" protest had begun only hours before, this was a rare opening for dramatists to engage directly with unfolding events -- and to take the piss out of Ukip. Would they seize the opportunity to hang a tale on a hung parliament, or would they bottle it?

In truth, aside from some last minute on-trend references, carbon dating the moment of performance, as it were, the playlets could have been written at any time over the past year. But there was no doubting the authentic rawness of the performances as the actors struggled, scripts in hand, to deliver these newly-hatched dramas. At times, it was like watching a rehearsed reading; at others, the performers managed to deliver substantially more.

Our compères for the evening were the producers Ben Monks and Will Young, and in the spirit of making it up as you go along, they were standing in for an unknown celeb who couldn't make it (praise be). In fact, they were in danger of upstaging the actors in the likeability stakes, and their "back-room boy pushed to front of stage" personae worked like a charm.

The plays themselves were a varied bunch. Most eschewed actual politicians, perhaps confirming their irrelevance in everyday affairs. As might be expected, given the exigencies of rehearsal time and brevity, the most successful were those with sensibly curtailed aims, and the sort of broad-brush strokes that an audience can grasp quickly. That said, there was at times a real flexing of ambition.

Understandably, two of the playwrights scavenged off existing texts: Rex Obano's The Wrong Party reworked The Birthday Party and reproduced the surreal Pinteresque menace pretty well. A dishevelled and stringy Brown -- looking absolutely nothing like Brown -- is browbeaten by thuggish apparatchiks, the reincarnations of Pinter's Goldberg and McCann, who wring the requisite ambiguity and threat from the word "Party". The second overt hommage was Phil Wilmott's Act IV, which was a resetting of Uncle Vanya. And although there simply wasn't time to get it in full colour, the Chekhovian mood of disconsolate lassitude was spot on. The Russian gentry are transformed into a political dynasty on its uppers, sitting amidst the remains of the night's takeaway feast.

Just as in politics, women tended to be sidelined in these plays, with the notable exception of Megan Ford's Human Interest, which took this very marginalisation as its theme. A light gloss on the political WAGs, with cursory name changes (Brown to White; Sam Cam to Shabo), it was also the vehicle for the performance of the night. Sian Robins-Grace pulled off an inspired turn as a self-seeking TV presenter, and brought the house down as she leered, simpered and winked at the camera, all pertness and no pertinence.

The other short that I thought worked well was Anders Lustgarten's Bang Up, which dealt with the definitively disenfranchised -- prisoners -- on election night. A black crack-dealer's perception of himself as a true Tory (pays no tax, is self-reliant) was first class mischief. However, the final moments, when the Afghan prisoner is deported, slightly over-stretched this neat, diagrammatic piece. The final show, Che Walker's Two Thousand and Twelve, seemed to be pulled in many directions, from Greek mythology to post-Afghanistan stress, via a bleak dystopian near-future. Despite its eye wateringly brutal language of "single slut mums" and "cage fighter daddies", it never really rose off the page.

So a patchy but passionate evening, during whiche not every word counted. Just like the election, then.

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How should Labour's disgruntled moderates behave?

The price for loyalty looks like being long-term opposition. Sometimes exiting can be brave.

When Albert O. Hirschman was writing Exit, Voice, Loyalty: Responses to decline in Firms, Organizations, and States he wasn’t thinking of the British Labour Party.  That doesn’t mean, though, that one of the world’s seminal applications of economics to politics can’t help us clarify the options open to the 80 to 90 per cent of Labour MPs who, after another week of utter chaos, are in total despair at what’s happening under Jeremy Corbyn.

According to Hirschman, people in their situation have essentially three choices – all of which stand some chance, although there are no guarantees, of turning things around sooner or later.

The first option is simply to get the hell out: exit, after all, can send a pretty powerful, market-style signal to those at the top that things are going wrong and that something has to change.

The second option is to speak up and shout out: if the leadership’s not listening then complaining loudly might mean they get the message.

The third option is to sit tight and shut up, believing that if the boat isn’t rocked it will somehow eventually make it safely to port.

Most Labour MPs have so far plumped for the third course of action.  They’ve battened down the hatches and are waiting for the storm to pass.  In some ways, that makes sense.  For one thing, Labour’s rules and Corbyn’s famous ‘mandate’ make him difficult to dislodge, and anyone seen to move against him risks deselection by angry activists.

For another, there will be a reckoning – a general election defeat so bad that it will be difficult even for diehards to deny there’s a problem: maybe Labour has to do ‘déjà vu all over again’ and lose like it did in 1983 in order to come to its senses. The problem, however, is that this scenario could still see it stuck in opposition for at least a decade. And that’s presuming that the left hasn’t so effectively consolidated its grip on the party that it can’t get out from under.

That’s presumably why a handful of Labour MPs have gone for option two – voice.  Michael Dugher, John Woodcock, Kevan Jones, Wes Streeting and, of course, John Mann have made it pretty clear they think the whole thing’s a mess and that something – ideally Jeremy Corbyn and those around him – has to give.  They’re joined by others – most recently Stephen Kinnock, who’s talked about the party having to take ‘remedial action’ if its performance in local elections turns out to be as woeful as some are suggesting.  And then of course there are potential leadership challengers making none-too-coded keynote speeches and public appearances (both virtual and real), as well as a whole host of back and frontbenchers prepared to criticise Corbyn and those around him, but only off the record.

So far, however, we’ve seen no-one prepared to take the exit option – or at least to go the whole hog. Admittedly, some, like Emma Reynolds, Chuka Umunna, Dan Jarvis, Yvette Cooper, and Rachel Reeves, have gone halfway by pointedly refusing to serve in Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet.  But nobody has so far declared their intention to leave politics altogether or to quit the party, either to become an independent or to try to set up something else.

The latter is easily dismissed as a pipe-dream, especially in the light of what happened when Labour moderates tried to do it with the SDP in the eighties.  But maybe it’s time to think again.  After all, in order to refuse even to contemplate it you have to believe that the pendulum will naturally swing back to Labour at a time when, all over Europe, the centre-left looks like being left behind by the march of time and when, in the UK, there seems precious little chance of a now shrunken, predominantly public-sector union movement urging the party back to the centre ground in the same way that its more powerful predecessors did back in the fifties and the late-eighties and nineties. 

Maybe it’s also worth wondering whether those Labour MPs who left for the SDP could and should have done things differently.  Instead of simply jumping ship in relatively small numbers and then staying in parliament, something much bolder and much more dramatic is needed.  What if over one hundred current Labour MPs simultaneously declared they were setting up ‘Real Labour’?  What if they simultaneously resigned from the Commons and then simultaneously fought scores of by-elections under that banner?

To many, even to ask the question is to answer it. The obstacles – political, procedural, and financial – are formidable and forbidding.  The risks are huge and the pay-off massively uncertain.  Indeed, the whole idea can be swiftly written off as a thought-experiment explicitly designed to demonstrate that nothing like it will ever come to pass.

On the other hand, Labour MPs, whether we use Hirschman’s three-way schema or not, are fast running out of options.  The price for loyalty looks like being long-term opposition.  Voice can only do so much when those you’re complaining about seem – in both senses of the word – immovable.  Exit, of course, can easily be made to seem like the coward’s way out. Sometimes, however, it really is the bravest and the best thing to do.

Tim Bale is professor of politics at QMUL. His latest book, Five Year Mission, chronicles Ed Miliband's leadership of the Labour party.