The Dissolution Honours

Four former defence ministers and Floella Benjamin are elevated to the House of Lords.

And through the round window, it's Lady Floella Benjamin. The actress and TV presenter, best known for her 14-year stint on the children's programme Playschool, has been honoured in the Dissolution Honours List for her work campaigning on education issues.

Benjamin is the founder of Touching Success, a charity that aims to link children with role models, and was a member of the Liberal Democrats' commission on primary education. She will sit in the House of Lords as a Lib Dem peer.

A few names had leaked out this morning, but the full list is now up on the Downing Street website. There are to be 55 new peers in all.

The list includes some predictable entries -- for instance, John Prescott and Michael Howard. (Incidentally, it is worth asking how his elevation to the Lords might affect Prescott's availability to make an effective party treasurer.)

Other former frontbenchers moving to the Lords include the former defence secretaries John Reid, Des Browne and John Hutton, the former chief secretary to the Treasury Paul Boateng and the former Northern Ireland first minister Ian Paisley.

Quentin Davies, another former minister of defence who crossed the floor from the Tories, will become a Labour peer. The former Metropolitan Police commisioner Sir Ian Blair, who was ousted shortly after Boris Johnson became Mayor of London, becomes a crossbench peer.

There are a few slightly more controversial political appointments, such as Michael Spicer, who until stepping down at the election chaired the 1922 Committee, and Sue Nye, the gatekeeper Gordon Brown blamed for his "Bigotgate" run-in with Gillian Duffy during the campaign in Rochdale. Anna Healy, a former adviser to Harriet Harman and wife of Jon Cruddas, also becomes a Labour peer.

The unions have their customary representation, with Margaret Wheeler of Unison and John Monks of the European TUC making an appearance. Single-issue campaigners, too, are present, with Helen Newlove, a campaigner against drink-related violence, and Deborah Stedman-Scott, chief executive of the employment charity Tomorrow's People, both becoming Tory peers.

But the prizes for the wackiest appointments most defintely go to Benjamin and Shireen Ritchie, grass-roots Tory campaigner and stepmother of Guy Ritchie, who was once interviewed in the Daily Mail about her love life as part of an article on "passionate pensioners".

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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Shadow Scottish secretary Lesley Laird: “Another week would have won us more seats”

The Labour MP for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath on the shadow cabinet – and campaigning with Gordon Brown in his old constituency.

On the night of 8 June 2017, Lesley Laird, a councillor from Fife and the Labour candidate for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, received a series of texts from another activist about the count. Then he told her: “You’d better get here quick.”

It was wise advice. Not only did Laird oust the Scottish National Party incumbent, but six days later she was in the shadow cabinet, as shadow Scottish secretary. 

“It is not just about what I’d like to do,” Laird says of her newfound clout when I meet her in Portcullis House, Westminster. “We have got a team of great people down here and it is really important we make use of all the talent.

“Clearly my role will be facing David Mundell across the dispatch box but it is also to be an alternative voice for Scotland.”

At the start of the general election campaign, the chatter was whether Ian Murray, Labour’s sole surviving MP from 2015, would keep his seat. In the end, though, Labour shocked its own activists by winning seven seats in Scotland (Murray kept his seat but did not return to the shadow cabinet, which he quit in June 2016.)

A self-described optimist, Laird is calm, and speaks with a slight smile.

She was born in Greenock, a town on the west coast, in November 1958. Her father was a full-time trade union official, and her childhood was infused with political activity.

“I used to go to May Day parades,” she remembers. “I graduated to leafleting and door knocking, and helping out in the local Labour party office.”

At around the age of seven, she went on a trip to London, and was photographed outside No 10 Downing Street “in the days when you could get your picture outside the front door”.

Then life took over. Laird married and moved away. Her husband was made redundant. She found work in the personnel departments of start-ups that were springing up in Scotland during the 1980s, collectively termed “Silicon Glen”. The work was unstable, with frequent redundancies and new jobs opening, as one business went bust and another one began. 

Laird herself was made redundant three times. With her union background, she realised workers were getting a bad deal, and on one occasion led a campaign for a cash settlement. “We basically played hardball,” she says.

Today, she believes a jobs market which includes zero-hours contracts is “fundamentally flawed”. She bemoans the disappearance of the manufacturing sector: “My son is 21 and I can see how limited it is for young people.”

After semiconductors, Laird’s next industry was financial services, where she rose to become the senior manager for talent for RBS. It was then that Labour came knocking again. “I got fed up moaning about politics and I decided to do something about it,” she says.

She applied for Labour’s national talent programme, and in 2012 stood and won a seat on Fife Council. By 2014, she was deputy leader. In 2016, she made a bid to be an MSP – in a leaked email at the time she urged Labour to prioritise “rebuilding our credibility”. 

This time round, because of the local elections, Laird had already been campaigning since January – and her selection as a candidate meant an extended slog. Help was at hand, however, in the shape of Gordon Brown, who stood down as the MP for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath in 2015.

“If you ever go out with Gordon, the doors open and people take him into their living room,” says Laird. Despite the former prime minister’s dour stereotype, he is a figure of affection in his old constituency. “People are just in awe. They take his picture in the house.”

She believes the mood changed during the campaign: “I do genuinely believe if the election had run another week we would have had more seats."

So what worked for Labour this time? Laird believes former Labour supporters who voted SNP in 2015 have come back “because they felt the policies articulated in the manifesto resonated with Labour’s core values”. What about the Corbyn youth surge? “It comes back to the positivity of the message.”

And what about her own values? Laird’s father died just before Christmas, aged 91, but she believes he would have been proud to see her as a Labour MP. “He and I are probably very similar politically,” she says.

“My dad was also a great pragmatist, although he was definitely on the left. He was a pragmatist first and foremost.” The same could be said of his daughter, the former RBS manager now sitting in Jeremy Corbyn's shadow cabinet.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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