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I wonder what my younger self would’ve made of the House of Lords – and its hairdryers

It was grand and archaic but it reminded me of nothing so much as a giant, souped-up parish council meeting.

The Norman porch of the House of Lords. Photo: Getty

I sat in the House of Lords the other day. Ben and I went for lunch with his godfather, the actor Brian Rix, now Lord Rix, who at 90 years old is still the funniest of men and great company. After we’d eaten, Brian gave us a guided tour, ending at the door of the actual House. A few whispered words were exchanged with a security guard – I swear I heard the phrase “Everything but the Girl” muttered under his breath – and we were ushered through the giant, Hogwarts-like oak door and on to two chairs at the back of the chamber, from where we gazed at the red padded benches, the gold throne and Lord Sir Alan Sugar asking a question about VAT.

Though we stayed for all of five minutes, it was bizarre and thrilling to be there and, slightly tipsy from lunch (as, I imagine, were most of the peers), I felt indulgent and benevolent about the set-up. It was grand and archaic but it reminded me of nothing so much as a giant, souped-up parish council meeting. The aged fustiness of the surroundings and participants added to this impression: during the time we sat there, I heard no one say anything comprehensible and you could easily believe that they were all engaged in some dreary matter of local business – planning permission for the golf club, or the relocation of an incinerator.

Following Brian’s signal, we crept out, stopping on the way to pat the bouncy sniffer dog, which an hour earlier had been checking the empty chamber. (For explosives? Drugs?) Then I went to the loo, behind another heavy oak door, this time marked “Women Peers”. There were two hairdryers plugged in beside the sinks. I pictured rain-drenched baronesses gratefully smartening up their perms before taking their seats. Useful to have a hairdryer there, of course, but there was also something makeshift about it – practical but unstylish, like those pictures you see of the inside of Buckingham Palace, with a two-bar electric heater sitting stranded in an 18th-century marble fireplace.

At dinner that evening, the kids asked me how you got to be in the House of Lords and what the lords did and, as so often on these occasions, I found under questioning that my knowledge was sketchier than I might like to think and blustered through some plausible-sounding answers. What most impressed them was our sighting of Mr Apprentice and they were delighted by the descriptions of waiters constantly addressing Brian as “M’lord”, especially since at one point it seemed as though one of them had directed the phrase at Ben.

Later, on the news, we saw that there had been a protest that day outside the House of Commons; there were scenes of people gathered in the spring sunshine, all holding banners and placards, protesting about NHS cuts. “Oh, dear God,” I said to Ben, “there’s going to be a shot of us in a minute, dressed up to the nines, sweeping past these poor protesters as we swan through the peers’ entrance like a couple of absolute arseholes.”

Thankfully there wasn’t but it gave me pause for thought. Bob Crow had died earlier that day – we’d heard the news just before we set off for our lunch with Brian – and I had been genuinely sad. Often when seeing him interviewed I had said, “He really is of a dying breed and I’m sorry there aren’t still more like him.” What I meant was that he seemed from an era that was almost gone but that I am old enough to remember: of working-class warriors, lefties who looked and talked like proper lefties, who stood for something clear and identifiable and weren’t ashamed to do so.

But my younger self, who first formed those kinds of ideas – discovering socialism in my teens through the NME and Rock Against Racism, writing feminist songs at Hull University and playing Red Wedge gigs in the early Eighties with Ben – what would she have made of me sitting politely in a posh frock and heels in the House of Lords chamber, having thoroughly enjoyed lunch in the formal dining room and a wee in what was, quite literally, the Ladies? She’d have objected, probably: maybe refused on principle to creep through that door and sit on that chair. She would have missed quite an experience. 

 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 10 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Tech Issue

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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