Glenda Jackson, once an actor, was treated as either an "airhead" or a "diva" upon entering parliament. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Glenda Jackson: “Britain is in danger of being governed by pensioners like me”

The Hampstead MP and former Oscar-winning actor on why people her age shouldn’t run politics, coming close to “castrating" her male colleagues, and being an “anti-sociable socialist”.

It’s hard to imagine Glenda Jackson being scared of anything. A firecracker in the Commons, she has reduced Iain Duncan Smith to slumping in his seat like a guilty schoolboy and she stunned the House with her blistering “tribute” following Margaret Thatcher’s death last year. She wasn’t always so comfortable in the chamber. Of her maiden speech in 1992, she tell me: “It was the most frightening experience of my life. [I was] absolutely petrified . . . It suddenly struck me that here I was, representing a constituency synonymous with some of the world’s greatest exponents of the English language. I mean, the name Keats suddenly came steaming into my head. God! It was very frightening.”

Jackson’s performance anxiety is even more unlikely when you remember that, before becoming MP for Hampstead and Highgate (now Hampstead and Kilburn), she had been an actor, starring in Ken Russell’s Women in Love and memorably giving a deadpan turn as Cleopatra on The Morecambe and Wise Show.

The daughter of a bricklayer, Jackson was born on Merseyside in 1936 and worked at Boots after leaving school at 16. She went on to train at Rada in London and began her acting career on stage. Was her maiden speech more nerve-racking than any of her star turns? “Infinitely . . . [Stage fright] is something that grew every performance but, once the curtain went up, you couldn’t afford that indulgence. Well, no curtain went up that particular evening.”

As she talks, Jackson puts her feet up on the cavernous bottom drawer of her wooden desk, contorting her face in thought and occasionally flashing a pixie-like grin. A map of Hampstead and Kilburn is neatly pinned on the noticeboard of her Commons office and hangs next to a few books, but there is no hint of her unusual history. She smiles and says: “[I’m] not big on the past.”

Were her colleagues star-struck when she first arrived? “No,” she says, her smile vanishing. “I was treated either as an airhead who would fall flat on her face or as some unconscionably egotistical diva who would demand treatment different to everybody else. Neither of those assessments bears any relation to me whatsoever.”

She recalls a subcommittee in which a female colleague’s suggestion was dismissed. Then, she says, “Five minutes later a man came up with exactly the same proposal and all his colleagues said, ‘What a marvellous idea.’ And I said, ‘But she said that ten minutes ago.’ And it was as though we had attempted – what do you call it when you cut a man’s balls off?”

“Castration?” I venture.

“Thank you!” Jackson cries. “It was as though we had attempted some kind of castration.” She continues: “It is never, ever a level playing field. No man will go to his death and have an obituary which will refer to his tiger-skin, kitten-heeled shoes.”

Yet there is one woman whom Jackson makes no secret of disliking. Amid gushing Commons tributes to Thatcher in April last year, she gave a speech that accused the former prime minister of “wreaking . . . the most heinous social, economic and spiritual damage on this country” and concluded: “A woman? Not on my terms.”

Does Jackson ever scare her fellow parliamentarians? “I wouldn’t think so. We hardly ever speak to each other . . . Opportunities to be sociable are quite limited. But then, I’m an anti-sociable socialist.” Quaking Tories may be relieved that she will stand down in 2015. Her decision is “entirely age-driven”. “I shall be almost 80 . . . You need somebody younger. This country is in danger of being governed by pensioners like me. I don’t think that’s the best way forward.”

The only moment Jackson shows her age in our interview is when she admits that she is “IT-illiterate”. She doesn’t even have a computer on her desk. This puts her at odds with her son, Dan Hodges, a Labour commentator and Telegraph blogger, who is a prolific user of Twitter – and a constant critic of Ed Miliband. How does Jackson, who voted for the younger Miliband to become Labour leader, feel about her son’s writing?

“On one side, I’m sick of it!” she says, laughing. “I told him that Conservative MPs keep coming up to me and saying, ‘Ooh, I do enjoy what your son writes and he does make me laugh,’ and my Labour colleagues don’t seem to say anything. But I think you’ve done quite well as a parent if your kid holds positions totally opposite to your own. Then again, there are criticisms with which I agree. For far too long, we didn’t have a policy to bless ourselves with and we still have this inherent problem that we do have policies but still aren’t selling them strongly enough. It’s not playing out there . . . You do wonder who’s advising him [Miliband], sometimes.”

What does she think of his vision for a “one-nation” Britain? “I don’t like visionaries,” she shrugs. “I was taught the only path a leader will take is up the garden path.”

Jackson doesn’t have time to argue with her son about Labour. “I don’t see him enough to be able to. The hours here are funny. You’ve got too much on. He’s a grown-up and I’m a grown-up, so you have to learn to live with your differences.”

Perhaps she’ll have that time after she leaves parliament next year – or maybe she’ll find she’s too busy being the “appalling old lady” she promises to become in the final paragraph of Chris Bryant’s 1999 biography of her. Another part it would be worth watching her play.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, A century of meddling in the Middle East

Getty.
Show Hide image

Here’s everything I learned this weekend at LibDem conference

Fear and loathing in the Bournemouth International Centre.

I spent my weekend in Bournemouth. It’s a lovely place for a weekend away, with gorgeous sandy beaches, beautiful parks and unusually good weather for an English seaside resort – but I didn’t get to enjoy any of that because I spent the weekend shut in a conference centre with a bunch of Lib Dems. Here’s what I learned from the experience.

There are people who think that EU flag berets make a stylish addition to any head

Almost the first thing to catch my eye on entering the Bournemouth International Centre was a cluster of women with EU flags on their head.

I’m not entirely clear whether there were a lot of these guys, or a small group I just happened to notice a lot because an EU flag beret is the sort of thing you’ll almost certainly be able to spot across a crowded conference hall, but either way I kept seeing them all weekend.

Vexingly, they were always women of a certain age. Do young women not love the EU? Do they not make the hats in men’s sizes? What?

Anyway.  If you want to show your support for Britain’s membership of the European Union while looking a bit like one of the mushrooms from Super Mario Bros 3, now you know how. 

You can buy laminated pictures of Tim Farron for £4.25 a throw

Something I would like to know is who exactly the market is for this particular product.

Something I would not like to know is why this product is laminated.

Vince Cable wants to bring house prices down...

The reason I was at LibDem conference at all was because the Young Liberals had wanted someone who wasn’t a politician to join their panel about intergenerational inequality and, basically, shout at everyone about housing. This is how I spend most Saturday nights anyway, so I agreed.

The thing that stays with me about that discussion was something the new(ish) party leader Vince Cable said. I’m paraphrasing, but it was along the lines of: We need to explain to homeowners that house prices have to fall.

At the time, I thought perhaps this was a comment tailored for a young and angry audience – but he said something similar when taking questions from the party at large the next day. He also said that the party needed to take on the NIMBYs that oppose house-building. 

All of which I’m quite in favour of, on the whole. Except...

... but his party night not let him

...at least some of those NIMBYs are members of his own party. One of them is the MP for Oxford West & Abingdon, Layla Moran, who was elected in June on a platform of protecting Oxford’s green belt from the housing development she says neighbouring Tory and Labour councils are threatening to build. 

During our panel debate, Moran explained that she favoured meeting Oxford’s housing need by building in neighbouring Bicester (not, as it happens, a part of her own constituency). She also argued that building on the green belt should be the “last resort”, although since the city already has the most expensive housing in Britain relative to wages it’s not clear to me what the last resort might look like if not this.

At any rate: LibDem policy is set by the members, not the leadership. And Moran will be far from the only LibDem politician who wants to protect their patch from development. For those who favour housebuilding, Cable’s support is A Good Thing – but that doesn’t mean his party will follow him on the issue. 

Political tribalism is personal

Why, I asked people in a panic whenever conversation palled, are you a LibDem? Sometimes, when people seemed particularly annoyed with the party around them, I’d instead ask: why are you still a LibDem?

One of the answers I was given stays with me, because I’d not considered it before. You might hate the leadership, the policies, the coalition. You might not know many LibDems back home. But twice a year you go off to a conference somewhere, and you spend four days with friends from all over the country who otherwise you would hardly ever see. 

Leaving the party doesn’t just mean cutting up a membership card: it means abandoning those friends. 

This, I suspect, goes some way to explain why, even when the party is very obviously in a hole, everyone in the Bournemouth International Centre this weekend was so bloody cheerful.

Shutting a couple of thousand strangers in a badly ventilated conference hall for several days is a great way to incubate all sorts of exciting diseases

I’m a man on the cusp of middle age and I’m sitting here with freshers’ flu and no free drinks parties, how the hell is this fair.

Just because you agree on Europe that doesn’t mean there’s no excuse for a fight

The Brexit debate on Sunday morning was, I was assured, going to be the fight of the conference. I’m a big fan of both pointless political rows and the European Union so I went along.

The funny thing, though, was it was a remarkably difficult fight to understand. Both sides wanted Britain to remain in the European Union, of course (they’re LibDems; they have hats). But one faction wanted to commit the party to an “exit from Brext” referendum on the final terms of Brexit, while the other just wanted to stuff the whole thing. Okay.

It further transpired that actually both sides would probably accept another referendum (either the first or the third, argued former MP Julian Huppert, depending on how you count, but definitely not the second). The argument was really about the meaning of that referendum: if that was lost, too, would the LibDems accept it and back Brexit? Well, obviously not, but in which case what was the point of supporting a referendum? Why not just be clear that you oppose the whole thing as a mess?

Moreover, LibDem policy is meant to represent what a LibDem government would do. In the event of a LibDem majority – pause here for hollow laughter – it’s probably safe to assume that the mood of the British public towards Europe will have changed so radically that we could cancel Brexit without bothering with another referendum. So is LibDem policy a guide to the policy of a majority LibDem government? Or is it a guide to what it would fight for without said government? And since nobody outside the party is likely to read the thing does it actually matter?

Just as I was getting my head around this, someone requested that conference suspend standing orders, the chair said that would be a vote on whether to have a debate about this request, someone else said that standing orders had already been suspended, everyone began muttering, and my nose began to bleed.

In the event, after a long and exhausting debate that left everyone in a terrible mood, the LibDems voted overwhelmingly to keep policy pretty much the same as it had been before. Which, ironically, is a good description of the party’s position on Brexit.

The LibDems love a good singsong

“Oh you have to go to Glee Club,” people kept telling me. “You’ve not seen LibDem conference until you’ve been to Glee Club.”

I promise that whatever you’re imagining right now, the reality is worse. 

It works like this. People rewrite the lyrics to popular songs to make them about British politics, and then a roomful of LibDems sing them like they’re hymns. Here’s a topical one about David Cameron and a pig, sung to the tune of English Country Garden:

Sadly I didn’t make it to glee club – I was back in London before the glittering night – but just so I didn’t feel left out a crowd of LibDems demonstrated the concept to me by singing several verses to the tune of American Pie outside a pub. And just for me. Lucky old me, eh!

Despite the lyric “Tony Blair should fuck off and die”, this, I’m told, actually dated to before Iraq, all the way back to talk of a Labour-LibDem pact in the mid-1990s, long before many of those singing were even involved in the party. The lyrics are printed in a book that expands every year, and you can buy your own copy. So it is that people can confidently sing along with satirical songs dating back to the 90s or beyond. Amazing scenes.

If you ever tweet anything nice about LibDem conference, they will start sending you membership forms

No.

Apart from anything else you people give me the flu.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.