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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

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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

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