Glenda Jackson, once an actor, was treated as either an "airhead" or a "diva" upon entering parliament. Photo: Getty
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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 deputy web editor 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

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide