Weekend Round-Up -- 15 September 2008

The commentariat was wrong-footed by the Labour rebellion, but it's running to catch up.

It was a difficult balancing act, keeping abreast of the Liberal conference (no one mentions the Democrat bit any more) while watching the Labour Party tearing itself apart.

Andrew Rawnsley did his best to sum up the situation for Nick Clegg and the implications of a Liberal Democrat drift to the right for Labour.

This we can say for certain. The repositioning of the Lib Dems is further bad news for Gordon Brown or whoever else takes Labour into the next election.
The Clegg strategy makes the atmospherics of politics even more hostile to the government. When the Lib Dems join the Tories in deploring the level of taxation and decrying government waste, Labour is left looking isolated and less credible when it tries to defend its record. As if things were not dire enough already for Labour, they now face the prospect that the next general election will be two against one.

But most columnists concentrated on Labour's woes. I thought Matthew d'Ancona was wrong to play down the crisis for the Prime Minsiter.

Next week's conference will have its rumblings and its distractions, but it will also - by definition - be Mr Brown's show and his unity rally.

There will be squalls, coded criticisms and a beauty contest between the potential leadership contenders. But there will not be outright rebellion.

This is not a time for predictions, as the BBC's Nick Robinson discovered.

Janet Daley was on form this morning. I love her challenge to the big men in the Cabinet to stick their heads above the parapet rather than leaving it to braver women on the backbenches.

Watching that procession of female Labour MPs nobody's ever heard of flinging themselves over the cliff at the weekend, I was reminded of Margaret Thatcher's remark: 'In politics, when you want something said, ask a man. When you want something done, ask a woman.'

This characteristically perceptive insight may help to explain why it has been a procession of little girls who have been prepared to sacrifice themselves for the greater good and dared to demand a leadership election, while the big, brave men in Cabinet have cowered in the shadows."

Marvellous stuff.

But the best piece of the weekend was by Nick Cohen in the Observer, who identified a canker eating at the heart of Gordon Brown's 10 Downing Street. In a piece with the glorious headline Call Off Your Mafioso Aides, Mr Brown, Cohen condemns the briefing operation carried out against Brown's critics such as Ivan Lewis. He concludes:

Many are now grasping that no law says Gordon Brown is the only Labour politician allowed to use the sneak attack; that nothing in the Labour party's constitution prevents his targets responding in kind.

As rebels challenge his leadership this weekend, Brown should make his case for continuing in power honourably and fight his critics in the open. If he does not, he will find that the tactics of his made men will destroy his premiership.

As someone who has experienced at first hand the inept mafioso tactics of Brown's political gangsters, I could not agree more.

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.