Brown, “Bigotgate” and the Prescott punch

Let's get some perspective, please.

Can we all just calm down? Or perhaps that's not possible in this 24/7 news/comment/blog/tweet age in which we all now live. Hyperbole rules. Frenzy is the norm. Memories are short.

Brown's gaffe -- or "Bigotgate", as it has already become known -- is not the end of the world, despite what his opponents might have us believe. The Telegraph's Benedict Brogan says this "might finish off Mr Brown altogether". ConservativeHome's Tim Montgomerie says it is "devastating for Brown".

Really? You mean the financial crisis, the recession, the expenses scandal, the European election results, the Purnell resignation, the letter to Jacqui Janes, three failed coup attempts and "bullygate" weren't enough? As I point out in my column in tomorrow's magazine, Brown -- to the fury of his disbelieving critics -- is the great survivor. It is amazing that he, and the Labour Party, are still standing in this election -- and perhaps on the verge of becoming the largest single party in a hung parliament. Who'd have thought it, eh?

Will Bigotgate set him back, especially with the third and final leaders' debate tomorrow, in which the PM will have wanted to focus on the economy? Maybe. But it is high time we recognised that "public opinion" is not the same as "pundit opinion". "Bullygate" in particular showed that voters didn't seem to react as Andrew Rawnsley, and his supporters in the Tory press, assumed they would.

Then there is the Prescott punch in the 2001 election campaign to consider. Did that wreck his careeer? Nope. As the Guardian's Andrew Sparrow notes:

These incidents are often not as damaging as they look. John Prescott was worried that his career was over after he punched a voter in 2001. But now he seems to regard that as something to be proud of. He referred to it in the title of his autobiography, and jokes about it frequently.

Journalists have short memories. Today, they laugh about Prezza and his punch; back then they were baying for his blood, with newspapers extolling his egg-throwing opponent as a "mild-mannered giant". The Indie's Colin Brown, in his biography of Prescott, reminds us of the hysteria -- both inside the Labour Party and in the media:

There was mayhem in the open-plan war room, as staff ran from one television to another, and tuned into the BBC, Sky and the 24-hour news programmes to try to catch the first pictures of the incident. Austin told an official to start videoing the news.

Adam Boulton, political editor of Sky News, who was broadcasting live about the incident from their Millbank studio, received a call from an official in Labour's Millbank HQ half a mile away. "A press officer at Millbank said I would be sued for libel," he told me. "They would have denied it, if we didn't have the evidence." That threat died as Sky News began broadcasting film of the incident. Boulton, who was acting as the anchorman in London for the election, told viewers it was so serious that Prescott could be forced to resign.

But Brown's camp stood by Prescott, and were determined to get ahead of the news by issuing a statement claiming it was self-defence. Lance Price, a former BBC political correspondent in charge of the party's media strategy, refused to put out any statement before they had seen the pictures with their own eyes.

But the party's pollster Philip Gould was convinced that the public would never stand for a deputy PM who went round hitting people and said that Labour's poll rating would be floored by Prescott's punch.

Meanwhile, a shaken and downcast Prescott telephoned Alastair Campbell on his mobile. Campbell took the call as Blair was about to record an ITV election programme, Ask Tony Blair.

"It's John," said the gruff familiar voice on the end of the line.

Campbell, who put the story in his one-man show when he left Downing Street, recalled there was an ominous silence. With the DPM that always meant there was a problem.

"I've hit someone," said Prescott.

"What?" asked Campbell, who could not believe his ears.

Campbell was incredulous as Prescott told him what had happened. Campbell decided not to tell the Prime Minister until his show was over. Prescott's friends say Campbell told Prescott he thought he would have to apologise.

Prescott snapped back: "You didn't apologise when you hit that lad on The Guardian." He was referring to the incident when Campbell, then political editor of the Daily Mirror, had punched Michael White, the political editor of The Guardian, in the Daily Mirror office at the Commons when the Mirror's ogreish owner, Robert Maxwell, had been found dead at sea. White bad popped his head round the Mirror's door and playfully suggested the paper's headline should be "Bob, Bob, Bobbing Along". Campbell, harassed, did not see the funny side.

As Blair, Campbell and Blair's gatekeeper, Anji Hunter, drove back from the studio, the grim view on board was that Prescott was in serious trouble. Blair asked Hunter what she thought. She had no hesitation in telling the PM it was terrible. "Middle-class England will not understand it," she said.

Campbell had a lot of time for Prescott, and had helped defend him when the press had been intruding into his private life over his wife Pauline's love child. But landing a punch in a general election campaign was, Campbell thought, beyond the limit.

The consensus in the Blair camp was that at least Prescott should apologise and some thought he should resign to try to limit the damage to the campaign, which was partly based on a promise to deal with yobbish behaviour. Brown was more cautious, and delayed forming an opinion until they could get a clearer view of what exactly had happened. While the debate went on at Millbank over what they should do, Prescott's career hung in the balance.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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How the row over Jackie Walker triggered a full-blown war in Momentum

Jon Lansman, the organisation's founder, is coming under attack. 

The battle for control within Momentum, which has been brewing for some time, has begun in earnest.

In a sign of the growing unrest within the organisation – established as the continuation of Jeremy Corbyn’s first successful leadership bid, and instrumental in delivering in his re-election -  a critical pamphlet by the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL), a Trotskyite grouping, has made its way into the pages of the Times, with the “unelected” chiefs of Momentum slated for turning the organisation into a “bland blur”.

The issue of contention: between those who see Momentum as an organisation to engage new members of the Labour party, who have been motivated by Jeremy Corbyn but are not yet Corbynites.

One trade unionist from that tendency described what they see the problem as like this: “you have people who have joined to vote for Jeremy, they’re going to meetings, but they’re voting for the Progress candidates in selections, they’re voting for Eddie Izzard [who stood as an independent but Corbynsceptic candidate] in the NEC”.  

On the other are those who see a fightback by Labour’s right and centre as inevitable, and who are trying to actively create a party within a party for what they see as an inevitable purge. One activist of that opinion wryly described Momentum as “Noah’s Ark”.

For both sides, Momentum, now financially stable thanks to its membership, which now stands at over 20,000, is a great prize. And in the firing line for those who want to turn Momentum into a parallel line is Jon Lansman, the organisation’s founder.

Lansman, who came into politics as an aide to Tony Benn, is a figure of suspicion on parts of the broad left due to his decades-long commitment to the Labour party. His major opposition within Momentum and on its ruling executive comes from the AWL.

The removal of Jackie Walker as a vice-chair of Momentum after she said that Holocaust Memorial Day belittled victims of other genocides has boosted the AWL, although the AWL's Jill Mountford, who sits on Momentum's ruling executive, voted to remove Walker as vice-chair. (Walker remains on the NEC, as she has been elected by members). But despite that, the AWL, who have been critical of the process whereby Walker lost her post, have felt the benefit across the country.

Why? Because that battle has triggered a series of serious splits, not only in Momentum’s executive but its grassroots. A raft of local groups have thrown out the local leadership, mostly veterans of Corbyn’s campaign for the leadership, for what the friend of one defeated representative described as “people who believe the Canary [a pro-Corbyn politics website that is regularly accused of indulging and promoting conspiracy theories]”.

In a further series of reverses for the Lansmanite caucus, the North West, a Momentum stronghold since the organisation was founded just under a year ago, is slipping away from old allies of Lansman and towards the “new” left. As one insider put it, the transition is from longstanding members towards people who had been kicked out in the late 1980s and early 1990s by Neil Kinnock. The constituency party of Wallasey in particular is giving senior figures in Momentum headaches just as it is their opponents on the right of the party, with one lamenting that they have “lost control” of the group.

It now means that planned changes to Momentum’s structure, which the leadership had hoped to be rubberstamped by members, now face a fraught path to passage.

Adding to the organisation’s difficulties is the expected capture of James Schneider by the leader’s office. Schneider, who appears widely on television and radio as the public face of Momentum and is well-liked by journalists, has an offer on the table to join Jeremy Corbyn’s team at Westminster as a junior to Seumas Milne.

The move, while a coup for Corbyn, is one that Momentum – and some of Corbyn’s allies in the trade union movement – are keen to resist. Taking a job in the leader’s office would reduce still further the numbers of TV-friendly loyalists who can go on the airwaves and defend the leadership. There is frustration among the leader’s office that as well as Diane Abbott and John McDonnell, who are both considered to be both polished media performers and loyalists, TV bookers turn to Ken Livingstone, who is retired and unreliable, and Paul Mason, about whom opinions are divided within Momentum. Some regard Mason as a box office performer who needs a bigger role, others as a liability.

But all are agreed that Schneider’s expected departure will weaken the media presence of Corbyn loyalists and also damage Momentum. Schneider has spent much of his time not wrangling journalists but mediating in local branches and is regarded as instrumental in the places “where Momentum is working well” in the words of one trade unionist. (Cornwall is regarded as a particular example of what the organisation should be aiming towards)

It comes at a time when Momentum’s leadership is keen to focus both on its external campaigns but the struggle for control in the Labour party. Although Corbyn has never been stronger within the party, no Corbynite candidate has yet prevailed in a by-election, with the lack of available candidates at a council level regarded as part of the problem. Councilors face mandatory reselection as a matter of course, and the hope is that a bumper crop of pro-Corbyn local politicians will go on to form the bulk of the talent pool for vacant seats in future by-elections and in marginal seats at the general election.

But at present, a draining internal battle is sapping Momentum of much of its vitality. But Lansman retains two trump cards. The first is that as well as being the founder of the organisation, he is its de facto owner: the data from Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaigns, without which much of the organisation could not properly run, is owned by a limited company of which he is sole director. But “rolling it up and starting again” is very much the nuclear option, that would further delay the left’s hopes of consolidating its power base in the party.

The second trump card, however, is the tribalism of many of the key players at a local level, who will resist infiltration by groups to Labour’s left just as fiercely as many on the right. As one veteran of both Corbyn’s campaigns reflected: “If those who have spent 20 years attacking our party think they have waiting allies in the left of Labour, they are woefully mistaken”. 

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