Jacqui Smith: a question of courage?

Why do Labour Home Office ministers stumble so badly when they attempt to deal with immigration? Bec

The serialisation of Gordon Brown's latest book, Wartime Courage, has gone largely unnoticed. But in the week running up to Remembrance Sunday, the Daily Telegraph ran extracts of the Prime Minister's latest tribute to individual heroism, which followed two previous volumes on celebrated men and women of courage and everyday heroes. The extracts suggest that the new book, due for publication in April of next year, is a surprisingly good read. Brown is plainly moved by the Second World War bomb disposal experts, secret service operatives and ordinary soldiers whose exploits he describes.

It is said that Gordon Brown became so obsessed with these stories of personal courage that senior members of the defence staff and the intelligence services would bring him new snippets of information, or be asked by Brown to open files to confirm facts on the people concerned. As the extracts show, the stories in Wartime Courage are peppered with references to these military and intelligence documents.

But where lie the roots of this obsession? I am told that Brown became fascinated by how people perform under fire and, in particular, how they kept their head when entering enemy territory.

I kept thinking of the book extracts when I watched Jacqui Smith under persistent Tory fire after her parliamentary statement this week on how much she knew about people working illegally in this country as security guards, and when she knew it. It made me wonder why Labour Home Office ministers fare so badly when entering the enemy territory represented by the immigration debate in this country.

One by one they have been shot down by David Davis, who simply waits for them to move into his sights on the immigration battlefield before picking them off. The first was Beverley Hughes, the immigration minister who resigned in April 2004 after she claimed not to have known about a visa scam involving fraudulent claims from eastern Europe. It later turned out that she had been warned a year previously. Her demise was followed, in December of the same year, by that of her mentor, David Blunkett, after he was linked to the speeding up of a visa for his lover's nanny. The episode also revealed systematic failings at the Immigration and Nationality Directorate at the Home Office.

Blunkett's successor, Charles Clarke, fared no better when, in May 2004, he was forced out after it was revealed that more than 1,000 foreign prisoners had been released without being deported. The final straw came when the New Statesman revealed that one of the offenders concerned went on to become a suspect in a high-profile terrorist case.

We are talking here about new Labour's crack troops, not fresh-faced new recruits, and yet in three-and-a-half long years they have been shown to be woefully ill-equipped and poorly trained to deal with a firmly entrenched enemy, sure of its ground. So why is it that Labour politicians stumble so haplessly when they attempt to deal with this issue?

I believe there are three main reasons. The first is that the department responsible for dealing with immigration at the Home Office remains one of the most dysfunctional in the whole of Whitehall. John Reid knew this when he split the Home Office in two, but the restructuring, while it may have highlighted the problem, has not yet brought the reform necessary to solve it. A second and connected issue is the disloyalty of immigration officials to the government. David Blunkett's troubles began when an ideologically-driven mole began leaking information. Ministers believe a similar process was at work in the recent leaks to the Daily Mail of emails showing how early Jacqui Smith was made aware of the problem over security guards. They are convinced that they went to the Tory party first, and I have certainly heard senior Tories boast that they have had Home Office officials falling over themselves to provide them with information.

Distasteful work

But third and most importantly, Labour ministers still feel deeply uncomfortable with the immigration issue and, in many cases, quite rightly so. No Labour politician goes into parliament because of a burning desire to deport asylum-seekers or kick illegal workers out of their jobs. This is distasteful work, and despite ten years of tough-talking rhetoric I don't believe even David Blunkett, Labour's most authoritarian home secretary, was happy dealing with immigration policy. For this reason alone, Labour will always be outflanked by a party which feels passionately about it.

Jacqui Smith, therefore, has good reason to be concerned. There is a growing frustration within the Labour government that no real progress has been made at the Home Office since Gordon Brown became Prime Minister. Although new initiatives have been launched by Ed Balls at the Department for Children, Schools and Welfare, for example, and by Peter Hain at the Department for Work and Pensions, Smith has been hamstrung by a department that still seems, in the words of her predecessor, "not fit for purpose". At the time of writing, Smith herself is not being held responsible and her stock remains high because of her handling of the failed terrorist attacks in June. Her offence at this point is unclear. She certainly held back information from the public, but it isn't clear whether she did so to stop illegal immigrants going on the run, or to bury bad news. Either way, one more leak of a misjudged email and she could yet find herself in no-man's-land, just another victim of David Davis's sniper fire.

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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What Jeremy Corbyn can learn from Orwell

Corbyn’s ideas may echo George Orwell’s – but they’d need Orwell’s Britain to work. It’s time Corbyn accepted the British as they are today.

All Labour Party leaderships since 1900 have offered themselves as “new”, but Tony Blair’s succession in 1994 triggered a break with the past so ruthless that the Labour leadership virtually declared war on the party. Now it is party members’ turn and they, for now at any rate, think that real Labour is Jeremy.

To Keir Hardie, real Labour had been a trade union lobby expounding Fellowship. To the Webbs, real Labour was “common ownership” by the best means available. Sidney’s Clause Four (adopted 1918) left open what that might be. In the 1920s, the Christian Socialist R H Tawney stitched Equality into the banner, but during the Depression young intellectuals such as Evan Durbin and Hugh Gaitskell designated Planning as Labour’s modern mission. After the Second World War, Clement Attlee followed the miners (and the London Passenger Transport Board) into Nationalisation. Harold Wilson tried to inject Science and Technology into the mix but everything after that was an attempt to move Labour away from state-regulated markets and in the direction of market-regulated states.

What made the recent leadership contest so alarming was how broken was the intellectual tradition. None of the candidates made anything of a long history of thinking about the relationship between socialism and what the people want. Yvette Cooper wanted to go over the numbers; only they were the wrong numbers. Andy Burnham twisted and turned. Liz Kendall based her bid on two words: “Have me.” Only Jeremy Corbyn seemed to have any kind of Labour narrative to tell and, of course, ever the ­rebel, he was not responsible for any of it. His conference address in Brighton was little more than the notes of a street-corner campaigner to a small crowd.

Given the paucity of thinking, and this being an English party for now, it is only a matter of time before George Orwell is brought in to see how Jeremy measures up. In fact, it’s happened already. Rafael Behr in the Guardian and Nick Cohen in the Spectator both see him as the kind of hard-left intellectual Orwell dreaded, while Charles Cooke in the National Review and Jason Cowley in the New Statesman joined unlikely fashion forces to take a side-look at Jeremy’s dreadful dress sense – to Orwell, a sure sign of a socialist. Cooke thought he looked like a “burned-out geography teacher at a third-rate comprehensive”. Cowley thought he looked like a red-brick university sociology lecturer circa 1978. Fair enough. He does. But there is more. Being a middle-class teetotal vegetarian bicycling socialistic feministic atheistic metropolitan anti-racist republican nice guy, with allotment and “squashily pacifist” leanings to match, clearly puts him in the land of the cranks as described by Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) – one of “that dreary tribe of high-minded women and sandal-wearers and bearded fruit-juice drinkers who come flocking towards the smell of ‘progress’ like bluebottles to a dead cat”. And though Corbyn, as “a fully fledged, fully bearded, unabashed socialist” (Huffington Post), might make all true Orwellians twitch, he really made their day when he refused to sing the National Anthem. Orwell cited precisely that (see “The Lion and the Unicorn”, 1941) as an example of the distance between left-wing intellectuals and the people. It seemed that, by standing there, mouth shut, Comrade Corbyn didn’t just cut his wrists, he lay down full length in the coffin and pulled the lid shut.


Trouble is, this line of attack not only misrepresents the Labour leader, it misrepresents Orwell. For the great man was not as unflinchingly straight and true as some people think. It is impossible, for instance, to think of Orwell singing “God Save the King”, because he, too, was one of that “dreary tribe” of London lefties, and even when he joined Labour he remained ever the rebel. As for Corbyn, for a start, he is not badly dressed. He just doesn’t look like Chuka or Tristram. He may look like a threadbare schoolteacher, but Orwell was one twice over. Orwell was never a vegetarian or a teetotaller, but, like Corbyn, neither was he interested in fancy food (or drink), he kept an allotment, drove a motorbike, bicycled, cared about the poor, cared about the environment, loathed the empire, came close to pacifism at one point, and opposed war with Germany well past the time when it was reasonable to do so.

In Orwell’s thinking about socialism, for too long his main reference point was the London Marxist left. Not only did he make speeches in favour of revolutions, he took part in one with a gun in his hand. Orwell was far more interested, as Corbyn has been far more interested, in speaking truth to power than in holding office. His loyalty was to the movement, or at least the idea of the movement, not to MPs or the front bench, which he rarely mentioned. There is nothing in Corbyn’s position that would have shocked Orwell and, should they have met, there’d have been much to talk about: belief in public ownership and non-economic values, confidence in the state’s ability to make life better, progressive taxation, national health, state education, social care, anti-socially useless banking, anti-colonialism and a whole lot of other anti-isms besides. It’s hard to be sure what Orwell’s position would have been on Trident and immigration. Not Corbyn’s, I suspect. He was not as alert to feminism as he might have been but equally, few men try to write novels from a woman’s point of view and all Orwellians recognise that Julia is the dark hero of Nineteen Eighty-Four. In truth they are both austere types, not in it for themselves and not on anyone else’s expense account either. Corbyn won the leadership because this shone through from the very beginning. He came across as unaffected and straightforward – much as Orwell tried to be in his writing.

Except, as powerfully expressed in these pages by John Gray, Corbyn’s politics were made for another world. What sort of world would he need? First off, he’d need a regulated labour market: regulated by the state in partnership with a labour movement sensitive to what people wanted and experienced in trying to provide it. He would also need capital controls, a manufacturing base capable of building the new investment with Keynesian payback, an efficient and motivated Inland Revenue, a widespread public-service ethos that sees the country as an asset, not a market, and an overwhelming democratic mandate to get things done. In other words, Corbyn needs Orwell’s Britain – not this one – and at the very least, if he can’t have that, he needs the freedom to act that the European Commission forbids.

There’s another problem. Orwell did not trust left-wing intellectuals and spent half his life trying to work out their motivations as a class who spoke for the people, went in search of the people, and praised the people, but did not know them or believe in them. True, Corbyn says he wants to be open and inclusive, but we know he can’t possibly mean it when he says it will be the party, not him or the PLP, that will decide policy, just as we knew it couldn’t possibly be true when he said he’d turn PMQs into the People’s Question Time. Jeremy hasn’t changed his mind in forty years, appears to have great difficulty (unlike Tony Benn) in fusing socialism to national identity or experience (Hardie, Ben Okri and Maya Angelou were bolted on to his Brighton speech) and seems to think that not being happy with what you are given somehow captures the historic essence of socialism (rather than its opposite).

Granted, not thinking outside the ­circle is an inherent fault of the sectarian left but some of our most prominent left-wing journalists have it, too. Working-class support for nationalisation? Good. Right answer! Working-class opposition to benefit scroungers and further mass immigration? Bad. Wrong answer! Would you like to try again? In his essay “In Defence of Comrade Zilliacus” (1947) Orwell reckoned that left-wing intellectuals saw only what they wanted to see. For all their talk of representing the people, they hated the masses. “What they are frightened of is the prevailing opinion within their own group . . . there is always an orthodoxy, a parrot-cry . . .”

The game is hard and he may go down in a welter of knives, yet Corbyn still has time. He may go on making the same speech – on the benefits of apple pie to apple growers – but at some point he will have to drop the wish-list and get on the side of the British people as they are, and live with that, and build into it. Only the nation state can even begin to do the things he wants to do. The quicker he gets that, the quicker we can see if the latest incarnation of new Labour has a future.

Robert Colls is the author of “George Orwell: English Rebel” (Oxford University Press)

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis