Shadow cabinet minister and senior adviser to Ed Miliband, Jon Trickett, speaks in parliament. Photograph: BBC.
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Jon Trickett: Labour must remember every day that it's a "democratic socialist" party

In an exclusive interview, the left-wing shadow cabinet minister discusses his new role as a senior adviser to Ed Miliband. 

Few Labour MPs know Ed Miliband better than Jon Trickett. It was in 2005, shortly after Miliband was elected to parliament, that he told the Commons newcomer he would one day lead the party. "He found it a surprising thought, but so it proved," Trickett recalls when I speak to him. The shadow cabinet member, whose Hemsworth constituency neighbours Miliband's seat of Doncaster North, was taught by the Labour leader's father Ralph Miliband while studying for an MA in political sociology at Leeds University. "I vaguely knew him and David when they were children," he tells me. 

Trickett went on to play a defining role in Miliband's leadership campaign, providing the psephological analysis (the five million votes lost by Labour between 1997 and 2010, just one million of which went to the Tories) that convinced him that a break with New Labour was not just a moral necessity but a political one. In 2011 he entered the shadow cabinet as shadow cabinet office minister and was later named shadow minister without portfolio and deputy party chair in the 2013 reshuffle.

The Yorkshireman has long been one of Miliband's most trusted consiglieres, often used as a sounding board before major speeches and policy announcements. Now, with six months remaining until the general election, this role has been formalised with the left-winger joining the Labour leader's office as a senior adviser in Wednesday night's reshuffle

"I’ve been around a long time," the 64-year-old reflects. "I was the leader of the council [Leeds], I worked for Mandelson for 18 months and I worked for Gordon for about 18 months and I was on the backbenches for a long time. I think I’ve got a wide experience of the labour movement. I was first elected in the middle of the miners’ strike in 1984 as a councillor and I think I can bring to the table a lot of practical experience and hopefully an understanding of economic and social trends." 

Before entering elected office (he became an MP in a 1996 by-election), Trickett worked as a builder and a plumber for 12 years, making him one of the few senior politicians with experience of blue collar labour. "There was no money and I had to have a job," he says. But he adds: "I also had a university degree, so I’ve got an unusual background and it’s hard to say that I’m either fish or fowl from that point of view. I did work for a long time and for most of that time I was self-employed or working as part of an SME and I think I’ve got a good insight into what it’s like."

Trickett, who left school aged 15 with no qualifications before returning to education, adds: "Everything that I’ve achieved in life was by the support of a loving family and by pulling myself up by my bootstraps, basically." One of his greatest political passions is Labour's Future Candidates Programme, devoted to recruiting more people from working class backgrounds to the party. 

After serving as Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) to Peter Mandelson between 1997 and 1998 (departing following Mandelson's resignation), Trickett distinguished himself as a backbench radical, chairing the left-wing group Compass and campaigning against the Iraq war and the renewal of Trident. He later ran Jon Cruddas's deputy leadership campaign in 2007 before returning to government, 10 years after his first job, as PPS to Gordon Brown. 

With the election of Miliband as leader in September 2010, Trickett was gifted with a new opportunity to exercise political influence. When I ask what qualities he identified in the Labour leader, he tells me: "There are two things about Ed which are remarkable. One is his capacity to absorb huge amounts of information without seemingly even working at it. He’s got an enormous brain, a very, very powerful mind.

"The second is a capacity to empathise with others, which isn’t always well represented in the media. He does have a capacity to encounter people and somehow be able to immediately relate to them in a very human way. It’s not something we often see but I did find that remarkable in a world in Westminster where everybody’s busy, preoccupied with their own selves, projecting their own images. Ed always seemed to take the time to find out about other people. That combination of qualities is very, very rare."

More than perhaps any other member of the shadow cabinet, the comradely Trickett is an unabashed socialist. "I read somebody say the other day that it’s an old-fashioned notion. I do regard myself as a socialist and I always have, a democratic socialist. For me the ideas of socialism are what inspired me to join the Labour Party. Clause IV of the Labour Party constitution, which Tony Blair agreed, starts off with the words 'The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party' and I think it’s important that we remember that every day in every way.

"We are a democratic socialist party, we’re the party in Britain that has the largest number of socialists in it. As far as I’m concerned, that’s what we’re about. Now, there'll be debates about exactly what we mean by that, but it certainly means a society which isn’t obscenely unequal and it also means not being afraid, if a market is failing, to intervene to protect the public interest."

He cites Miliband's plan to radically restructure the energy market as an example of socialism in action. "The idea that five or six companies should effectively control almost the manufacturing and the distribution of energy, then between themselves drive up the cost of the energy is demonstrably not in the public interest.

"Our policy to freeze fuel prices, it’s not widely understood. We’re going to freeze fuel but then we’re going to do structural reform because prices rising is a symptom of the underlying problem, which is that the market in energy isn’t working."

The challenge, he acknowledges, is communicating these ideas in a way accessible to voters. "I know I can fall into the trap of using what you might call Westminster language, but it’s not how I communicate with friends, neighbours and work colleagues at all ... I like to think I speak Yorkshire, that’s the language I try to use. I try to speak in a very plain, northern, Yorkshire dialect hopefully it’s my way of communicating." Labour, he says, must speak in "the plainest language, in primary colours, so that people understand exactly what it is that we’re saying." 

Among Trickett's many roles is a seat on the party's new anti-Ukip strategy unit, which also features Yvette Cooper, Caroline Flint and John Healey. He attributes the rise of the Farageists to "insecurity in an uncertain world, pressure on jobs, the decline in social mobility, a feeling that the future looks pretty bleak for a lot of people. The coalition are offering a future of cuts and more cuts with no end to it. It feels pretty bleak." 

"Our answer has got to be that this is a complex problem. It’s not unsolvable but it does mean radicalism and boldness, radicalism and boldness rooted in the centre of British politics and prepared to take on vested interests and the other obstacles to change," he adds. 

"It's not saying there’s a single answer to this, or a group of people who you can scapegoat and say 'They’re responsible'. But the truth is, most fair-minded people, when they sit down and you speak to them, they get it straight away." 

The key to reducing anxiety over immigration, the pre-eminent cause of Ukip's surge, is dramatic labour market reform, he argues. "There’s effectively a reserve army of cheap labour in the east of Europe who are being brought over, often by unscrupulous employers and agencies, to do work on the cheap and that can’t be right either for the people who are being shipped across or for the people who are already here.

"You often hear anecdotes or come across examples where the employers are using cheap migrant labour to undercut existing conditions - that can’t be right and Labour’s been clear that we’re going to stop all that."

Few weeks have been as taxing for Trickett's friend and ally Miliband as this one. Just six months before the election, the Labour leader has been forced to publicly dismiss threats to his position. Trickett's message to the rebels is unambiguous: don't feed the flames. 

"We’re the Labour Party and we are the labour movement and one of our founding principles is that an attack on anyone of us, by the forces of darkness, our political foes, is an attack on all of us. If one of us is attacked then all of us are attacked.

"The truth is that Ed Miliband has been subject to the most sustained level of attack and critique by the forces of reaction, our political foes, that I’ve ever seen and I was first elected 30 years ago this year. I’ve never seen anything like it.

"I think there’s an absolute duty on us, when anyone of us is under attack, particularly somebody we’ve elected to lead us, not to allow that and not to feed the flames.

"My own judgement, for what it’s worth, is that I will stand by anyone who is under attack. That doesn’t mean there can’t be a debate about policy options, we are a democratic movement, but that’s entirely different to feeding this frenzy of attack that has really been created by the right-wing in our society against our leader and that is completely inappropriate."

But as well fighting the fires fuelled by Miliband's foes, one senses that Trickett's greatest mission will be to keep the flame of socialism burning in the Labour leader's soul.  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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What I learnt when my wife and I went to Brexit: the Musical

This week in the media, from laughing as the world order crumbles to what Tristram Hunt got wrong – and Leicester’s big fall.

As my wife and I watched Brexit: the Musical, performed in a tiny theatre above a pub in London’s Little Venice, I thought of the American novelist Lionel Shriver’s comment on Donald Trump’s inauguration: “A sense of humour is going to get us through better than indignation.” It is an entertaining, engaging and amusing show, which makes the point that none of the main actors in the Brexit drama – whether supporters of Leave or Remain – achieved quite what they had intended. The biggest laugh went to the actor playing Boris Johnson (James Sanderson), the wannabe Tory leader who blew his chance. The mere appearance of an overweight man of dishevelled appearance with a mop of blond hair is enough to have the audience rolling in the aisles.

The lesson we should take from Brexit and from Trump’s election is that politicians of all shades, including those who claim to be non-political insurgents, have zero control of events, whether we are talking about immigration, economic growth or the Middle East. We need to tweak Yeats’s lines: the best may lack all conviction but the worst are full not so much of passionate intensity – who knows what Trump or Johnson really believe? – as bumbling incompetence. The sun will still rise in the morning (as
Barack Obama observed when Trump’s win became evident), and multi­national capital will still rule the world. Meanwhile, we may as well enjoy the show.

 

Danger of Donald

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t deny the risks of having incompetents in charge. The biggest concerns Trump’s geopolitical strategy, or rather his lack of one. Great power relations since 1945 have been based on mutual understanding of what each country wants to achieve, of its red lines and national ambitions. The scariest moments come when one leader miscalculates how another will react. Of all figures in recent history, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, with his flamboyant manner and erratic temperament, was probably the most similar to Trump. In 1962, he thought President Kennedy, inexperienced and idealistic, would tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba. He was wrong and the world only narrowly avoided nuclear war.

How would Trump respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltic states? Will he recognise Taiwan as an independent country? Will he scrap Obama’s deal with Iran and support a pre-emptive strike against its nuclear ambitions? Nobody knows, probably not even Trump. He seems to think that keeping your options open and your adversaries guessing leads to “great deals”. That may work in business, in which the worst that can happen is that one of your companies goes bankrupt – an outcome of which Americans take a relaxed view. In international relations, the stakes are higher.

 

Right job, wrong time

I rather like Tristram Hunt, who started contributing to the New Statesman during my editorship. He may be the son of a life peer and a protégé of Peter Mandelson, but he is an all-too-rare example of a politician with a hinterland, having written a biography of Engels and a study of the English Civil War and presented successful TV documentaries. In a parallel universe, he could have made an inspirational Labour leader,
a more thoughtful and trustworthy version of Tony Blair.

No doubt, having resigned his Stoke-on-Trent Central seat, he will make a success of his new job as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If nothing else, he will learn a little about the arts of management and leadership. But isn’t this the wrong way round? Wouldn’t it be better if people first ran museums or other cultural and public institutions and then carried such experience into parliament and government?

 

Pointless palace

When the Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by fire in 1834, thousands gathered to enjoy the spectacle. Thomas Carlyle noted that the crowd “whew’d and whistled when the breeze came as if to encourage it” and that “a man sorry I did not anywhere see”.

Now, with MPs reportedly refusing to move out to allow vital renovation work from 2023, we can expect a repeat performance. Given the unpopularity of politicians, public enthusiasm may be even greater than it was two centuries ago. Yet what is going through MPs’ minds is anyone’s guess. Since Theresa May refuses them a vote on Brexit, prefers the Foreign Office’s Lancaster House as the location to deliver her most important speech to date and intends to amend or replace Brussels-originated laws with ministerial orders under “Henry VIII powers”, perhaps they have concluded that there’s no longer much point to the place.

 

As good as it gets

What a difference a year makes. In January 2016, supporters of Leicester City, my home-town team, were beginning to contemplate the unthinkable: that they could win football’s Premier League. Now, five places off the bottom, they contemplate the equally unthinkable idea of relegation.

With the exception of one player, N’Golo Kanté (now at Chelsea), the team is identical to last season’s. So how can this be? The sophisticated, mathematical answer is “regression to the mean”. In a league where money, wages and performance are usually linked rigidly, a team that does much better than you’d predict one season is likely to do much worse the next. I’d suggest something else, though. For those who won last season’s title against such overwhelming odds, life can never be as good again. Anything short of winning the Champions League (in which Leicester have so far flourished) would seem an anti­climax. In the same way, the England cricket team that won the Ashes in 2005 – after the Australians had dominated for 16 years – fell apart almost as soon as its Trafalgar Square parade was over. Beating other international teams wouldn’t have delivered the same adrenalin surge.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era