Table-dancing MPs, Rihanna’s revenge and why Ed Miliband really needs a “thing”

Helen Lewis's "First Thoughts" column.

Every politician should have a “thing”. An offbeat yet innocuous hobby or quirk that they can deploy in small talk with civilians, and that lazy journalists can use to provide “colour” in profiles. It’s a short cut to indicating you have a personality, without actually giving anything private away.

So: Theresa May has her kitten heels. Ed Balls loves to barbecue. Stella Creasy will bow to no one in her knowledge of obscure 1990s indie music. Vince Cable and Jeremy Hunt both like to boogie, though Vince prefers ballroom while Jeremy has a sprung dance floor at home where he can practise the lambada (this is actually true). Tracey Crouch is a football referee, Michael Gove leaks to friendly journalists and writes snarky letters to Stephen Twigg, and Tom Watson, greedily, enjoys karaoke and video games.

If you don’t have a “thing”, the danger is that you have one thrust upon you and you then have to spend the rest of your political career smiling through gritted teeth and pretending to enjoy jokes about chillaxing with Fruit Ninja or how Barack Obama thought you were called Jeffrey.

So, with two years to go until the next general election, that’s the only useful advice I can offer to Ed Miliband: get a “thing”. I suggest rock-climbing or Abba.

Blow your whistle

After the reports that the Metropolitan Police had infiltrated environmental protest groups – and had sex with unsuspecting women while undercover – it was harrowing to hear the experiences of those affected, on Dispatches on 24 June. One woman, Jacqui, said she felt “raped by the state” after getting pregnant by a man who, she now knows, already had a wife and two children. It was also revealed that police had spied on the family of Stephen Lawrence.

It’s become fashionable to bash whistleblowers – see the monstering of Edward Snowden as a “traitor” – but there are no words for the bravery of the ex-SDS (Special Demonstration Squad) officer Peter Francis, who agreed to go on the record despite receiving threats and suffering a nervous breakdown in 2001. The same goes for those who tried to expose the cover-up at the Care Quality Commission over failings at Furness hospital. The “whistleblowers’ charters” aren’t worth the paper they’re written on but we need whistleblowers more than ever.

Special treatment

In Peter Francis’s online Q&A with the Guardian, he made a comment that I doubt will be widely reported: “People who are now mainstream politicians were, at their start of their political careers, deemed to be subversive by the Special Branch – to name one: Jack Straw. I read Mr Straw’s rather large file . . . The same for Diane Abbott and Jeremy Corbyn.” In other words: left-wingers.

Bone of contention

At the weekend, I had the dubious pleasure of appearing on the BBC’s Sunday Politics with the Tory backbencher Peter Bone, architect of the “Alternative Queen’s Speech” (aka the Daily Express website commenters’ manifesto). He and three other MPs camped out for several days in a committee room to table 42 private members’ bills for the next parliamentary session. These would do everything from bringing back the death penalty to renaming the August bank holiday “Margaret Thatcher Day” (I mildly suggested that if the idea was to annoy the left, they should have gone instead for “Tony Blair Day”.)

Obviously, none of the Tory Taliban’s bills will get passed but it does support my colleague Raf’s thesis that there is a significant section of the Tory back benches that, even though we have a Conservative prime minister, feels like it’s in opposition.

Ri and Ms Jones

Forget Leveson. A new terror stalks journalists: celebrities striking back. After Hugh Grant went undercover to bug the buggers, and Katherine Jenkins used Twitter to take issue with Jan Moir suggesting she looked too glamorous at the marathon, Rihanna has joined the fray. Responding to Liz Jones’s accusation that she was a “toxic role model”, she posted an unflattering picture of Jones on Instagram, opining: “That s*** ain’t journalism! That’s a sad sloppy menopausal mess!!” Being half of a celebrity feud should keep Jones in columns until at least 2018.

Party of the century

On 20 June, the NS hosted a centenary party at One Great George Street, Westminster, for our contributors. Our guest speaker, Ed Miliband, told the audience that “a thriving political culture and a thriving New Statesman go together”. (He also pointed out that Jason will have to remain editor until 2038 to beat Kingsley Martin’s record.) As the celebrations of our 100th birthday continue – we’re publishing a 250-page archive special issue next month – I wanted to add: thank you for reading. The New Statesman really is thriving and it’s down to you.

Yeah, not that thing . . .

PS: Remember what I said about having a “thing”? This report from the BBC shows how not to do it. “Conservative MP Mark Harper has fallen off a table while dancing in a bar in Soho and broken his foot. ‘My wife Margaret was with me but thankfully she’s a far better dancer so didn’t fall off,’ Mr Harper said.” How will he ever live that down?


Ed Miliband. He really needs a thing. Photograph: Getty Images

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 01 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Brazil erupts

Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses