Fear and loathing on the left

Why are Labour governments, from Attlee to Blair, always so riven by personal animosities? Andrew Ma

Why is the left so nasty? Why are politicians brought up in a Labour movement that bangs on about brotherhood and sisterhood so consumed with dislike and suspicion of one another? If we believe the newspapers, most members of the cabinet and many other Labour MPs are almost perpetually at daggers drawn, or at least simmering with mutual resentment. The rejoicing at Peter Mandelson's fall, and then the whooping at Charlie Whelan's resignation, are only the latest examples. And on this subject, mirabile dictu, the newspapers are certainly to be believed.

It is a tradition. One of Labour's mid- century heroes was Ernie Bevin, the trade union leader turned foreign secretary. Bevin has many earthy, pearl-encrusted lumps of wisdom for today's party. But new Labour has taken only one Bevinism to its heart: his retort to Attlee's remark about Herbert Morrison (a fellow member of the 1945-51 government) being his own worst enemy. Bevin snarled: "Not while I'm alive, he ain't."

So it goes on; a cosy party of worst enemies ever since, like a convoluted Sicilian family whose feuds are repeated generation after generation. John Prescott, the nearest we have to an Ernie Bevin, waged a long and malicious semi-public campaign against Mandelson, Morrison's grandson, constantly mispronouncing his name as "Mendelson", and once comparing him to a crab. Class hatred? Bevin would have approved. Meanwhile, I don't suppose there's a single important minister who someone else hasn't told me is lazy, corrupt or paranoid. Then, just as we were all digesting the Mandelson affair, we got an eerie echo of today's events, courtesy of the 30-year delay on cabinet papers being released. Alongside the modern grudge matches, the press simultaneously relayed the latest news from 1968 when Ray Gunter resigned from the Wilson government because he couldn't stand the "the bloody middle classes and intellectuals within the cabinet" and, in particular, "that bitch" Barbara Castle. There's a ringing feeling in my ears.

It was also the year of the fall of George Brown and he, too, was a famous hater. There's a story about him marching up to Len Williams, an ex-general secretary of the Labour Party, and one of Brown's enemies, who had just agreed to become the governor-general of Mauritius. Did the post involve wearing a plumed hat, Brown pleasantly asked. Yes, said Williams modestly, yes it did. "Well," said Brown, "I hope your fucking feathers fall out."

Is Labour fated to relive, government after government, the poisonous personal feuding that undermines the party's moral authority? And if so, why? Before the election, Tony Blair was warned that his biggest headache in No 10 was likely to be relations between his senior ministers - Gordon Brown and Mandelson, Brown and Robin Cook, Cook and Mandelson, Prescott and Brown, and so on. He laughed the idea off.

He probably isn't laughing now. This might be less damaging if it weren't for the striking similarities with cabinet feuding in the now-reviled Wilson years. The publication of Dick Crossman's cabinet diaries in the mid-1970s was a watershed because, for the first time, it tipped the cabinet's mutual animosities and bitterness into the public arena. For people outside the closed world of Whitehall and the press lobby, it was a moment of revelation. I can vividly remember my history teacher's shock and amazement as he read out entries to us.

Harold Wilson, realising what damage was being done, tried to get the rules on publication of cabinet diaries toughened up - to little effect, since the Castle diaries and then the voluminous Benn diaries followed. Crossman himself had gone to the root of the matter years earlier, when he wrote in his back-bench diaries in 1956: "When the Tories are in trouble they bunch together and cogger up. When we get into trouble, we start blaming each other and rushing to the press to tell them all the terrible things that somebody else has done."

Tory coggering had rather fallen out of fashion by the time of the Major government - or rather, when they did cogger up, someone was usually left dead on the Westminster marble afterwards. Under post-Crossman glasnost, we know a lot about how much the Tories came to loathe one another, as their European battle raged on. The Lawson and Howe resignations, then Margaret Thatcher's own bitterness at her removal ("treachery . . . treachery with a smile on its face") had set the scene for John Major and the "bastards". And, at the height of the battle, the hatreds were deep and real. I recall walking with Norman Lamont down Whitehall after his resignation; Tristan Garel-Jones, spotting us, immediately crossed four lanes of moving traffic to seize Lamont by the arm and warn him in bloodthirstily unrepeatable terms what he would do to him if he went public against Major. There are scores of similar stories still knocking around. These are vendettas that will probably last for a generation. Purely from a journalistic point of view, I do hope so.

But this should be of little comfort to the present cabinet. For one thing, the Tory feuds were mostly about policy, very important policy, and were perhaps unavoidable given the difficult choices facing the Thatcher and Major governments over Britain's destiny. Second, those governments were destroyed by them. Third, in the political mythology, Tories are supposed to be nasty - but efficient. They don't go on about fraternity and comradeship, do they? So again, why are Labour people so nasty to one another? Is it that lefties are simply disagreeable? That they are either cold, intellectual renegades from the upper middle classes, driven by dislike of their own backgrounds; or working-class politicians who despise the middle-class people they have to mix with?

Could be: academia, trade unionism and left-wing activism are all poor training-grounds for niceness and mutual respect. Academia is famously poisonous and rivalry-ridden. The clash between factions in the unions produced a culture of leak and counter-leak that was brought into government again in 1997. And the climate of oppositionism around the left in the late 1970s and early 1980s was particularly grim.

There is a hilarious and uncomfortable account of those times, Things Can Only Get Better: eighteen miserable years in the life of a Labour supporter (Doubleday, 1998) by the comedy writer John O'Farrell, which rings bells with many of us who were there.

"The media coined phrases like 'Hard Left' or 'Militant Left' but 'Very, Very Boring Left' would have been more accurate," writes O'Farrell. "It wasn't the left-wing-ness in itself that was the problem, it was the excessively bad-tempered and humourless way in which the left argued its corner. . . We had somehow got it into our heads that a period in opposition meant that we were now opposed to everything."

Some of the things O'Farrell decided were right wing were "flowers, fish knives, ladies' hats, power steering, Wellington boots, the county of Surrey, Donald Duck, conservatories, and any girl's name that ended in the letter 'a' . . . One of the people that I lived with in Exeter decided that smiling was right wing. He pretended to be miserable as a sort of political statement throughout the early 1980s."

I remember people like that. And, let's be honest, there have been humourless, life- hating lefties since the Levellers began hawking Socialist Peasant around Middlesex; and certainly since Robespierre gave purity a bad name. It is the psychological profile described by George Orwell: "The typical socialist is a prim little man with a white-collar job, usually a secret teetotaller and often with vegetarian leanings."

There's nothing wrong with a bit of puritanism, particularly in January, but it is connected to a left moral fundamentalism that can easily turn nasty. O'Farrell again: "We all believed, or rather we knew, that socialism would solve everything and that any particular individual who happened to be to the right of us was responsible for all the world's problems and therefore we hated them. As far as I can remember, just about everyone I knew on the left was like this. Angry, negative and totally un-self-aware. And Tony Benn gave the British left its chance to vent its ugly spleen in public. At regular intervals the news would feature Benn supporters booing Denis Healey, pelting him with missiles and picketing his meetings. They seemed to hate him more than they hated Margaret Thatcher."

It wouldn't be hard to see how a party whose left-wing members had marinated themselves in self-righteous hatred (remember Nye Bevan's 1948 proclamation of his "deep and burning hatred of the Tories . . . they are lower than vermin") might carry this right to the top. But there are a couple of problems with the thesis that Labour, despite the generosity of its vision, is somehow nasty by nature. First, most of the people feuding in cabinet had nothing to do with that era of ultra-leftism. Brown, Cook, Prescott - they hated it at the time as much as O'Farrell hates it in retrospect. Second, if it were true, then the Labour right would be conspicuously nicer than the Labour left, and that also isn't so. Denis Healey had a brilliant line in invective. Think of his famous remark about David Owen: that when he was born, the good fairy had given him everything - good looks, brilliant intelligence, luck. "Unfortunately, the bad fairy made him a shit." Nor would it be entirely true to say that, for instance, dear Gerald Kaufman was a kindly old soul. Or that Mandelson himself pursued a "speak no evil" policy.

No, I think the real answer is a mixture of all this, and something else, which is simply that Labour has spent too long in opposition. Out of power, the big egos kept themselves warm by dreaming of top jobs. But these are, by definition, very limited indeed. The same was true of the early Wilson years and of the Attlee government. What has changed is that the constant competition among desperate souls, for a handful of slippery perches, now takes place in front of a media that is itself more desperately competitive, and that exaggerates the smallest differences. This produces a bitchy climate that few ministers can resist. Since Tony Blair, who doesn't seem to have a malicious bone in his body, is one of the few who can resist, perhaps he can use recent events to draw a line under the warfare. Enough people have gone. Enough others have been frightened. Perhaps this really is grow-up time.

Everyone I've been talking to tells me so. They know that, in the long term, this behaviour is deadly. On the other hand, I can't help thinking that at the back of their minds there is a piece of advice that rings louder still. It's Stalin: "There is really nothing more delightful than carefully plotting a trap into which your enemy in the party is bound to fall, and then going to bed." Ho, ho, comrade, ho, ho.

Andrew Marr writes for the "Express" and the "Observer"

Andrew Marr is a broadcaster and journalist. Formerly the BBC’s Political Editor, he presents the Andrew Marr Show on BBC1 on Sundays and Start the Week on Monday mornings on Radio 4.

This article first appeared in the 08 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Stuff the millennium

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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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