Shadow Northern Ireland secretary Ivan Lewis speaks at the Labour conference in Manchester in 2014.
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Ivan Lewis: "self-indulgent" Milburn and Hutton must remember need for unity

Shadow Northern Ireland secretary says former New Labour ministers "would have been the very people lecturing others". 

There was fury across Labour this week at Alan Milburn's attack on the party's election strategy. Figures from all wings of the party regarded the content ("a pale imitation" of the 1992 campaign) and the timing of his remarks - the launch day of the party's NHS pledge - as unacceptable. One former Blairite minister told me that the former health secretary's behaviour amounted to "treachery". Others pointed to his earnings from private healthcare as evidence of a vested interest in promoting the sector. 

Now, in an interview with the New Statesman, Ivan Lewis has delivered the most prominent criticism from the shadow cabinet. Referring to Milburn and to former defence secretary John Hutton, who co-authored a critical Financial Times article, the Blairite shadow Northern Ireland secretary urged the pair to remember their own lessons on discipline. 

Alan Milburn and John Hutton were two people who delivered very impressive things for Labour in the period that they were in government. But they would have been the very people lecturing others about ill-discipline and self-indulgence at this stage in the political cycle. And that's why their interventions were unacceptable this week. 

He added:

Those interventions, that view of Labour doing things differently, if that's their opinion, fine, they've had three, four years to air those opinions. To do it on the day that Labour published its NHS pledge was inappropriate and regrettable. 

I don't think we should be personal, as some have chosen to be. As I say, these people did make a very big contribution to many of the positive things that Labour did between 1997 and 2010. Alan Milburn, for example, the lowest waiting times in the history of the NHS, we should never forget that. But they, more than anyone, would have talked about the need for discipline and for unity and been critical of those who were self-indulgent, so I hope they'll reflect on the impact of their interventions this week and make sure it doesn't happen again during the course of this campaign. 

"No justification" for keeping DUP out of TV debates

Elsewhere in the interview, Lewis criticised the broadcasters' decision to exclude the DUP from the proposed TV debates. "I can't see any objective justification for that decision," he said. "If you look at the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Greens, Ukip, there's absolutely no justification for keeping Northern Ireland's voice out of these debates, none whatsoever."

Conservative poster of Ed Miliband and Gerry Adams was "gutter politics"

Asked whether Labour could work with the Northern Irish parties in the event of a hung parliament, Lewis said: "We're aiming for a majority, so we're not going to speculate about coalitions."

He went on to attack the "entirely untrue" story that Labour had encouraged Sinn Fein MPs to take their seats after the election, adding that the Conservatives' subsequent poster of Ed Miliband with Gerry Adams was "the kind of gutter politics that I think we need to expect day in, day out, week in, week out in this election. Totally not based on one fact, totally untrue."

"Tory arrogance" over Unionist parties

Lewis also criticised the "arrogance" that led the Conservatives to believe that Northern Ireland's Unionist parties would automatically favour them.

"In terms of working, I work with all of the parties in Northern Ireland, we have a relationship of equal respect with all of them. I think there is an arrogance among the Tories, who believe that Unionists should support them. They don't seem to realise, for instance, that many of the voters of the Democratic Unionist Party are being hammered in terms of Tory social policy. 1930s-level cuts would be awful in the UK generally, but in terms of a society that's emerging from conflict it would have an even worse effect. In a situation, frankly, where if you look at youth unemployment, if you look at long-term unemployment, Northern Ireland is still lagging behind the rest of the United Kingdom. 

"So I think the Tory arrogance that assumes that they have this close relationship with the Democratic Unionist Party ... I think we have a good relationship with all the parties and it's important in Northern Ireland that you seek to be an honest broker, you seek to be trusted equally by all the parties and you're not seen to be taking sides."

The full interview with Ivan Lewis will appear next week.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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My son is shivering – precisely the response you want from a boy newly excited by drama

I can only assume theatre is in his blood, but not from my side of the family.

I went to the National Theatre last week to see, not a full production, but a reading of a play – Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Wig Out!, directed by, and starring, the writer himself. The pre-publicity described the play as a “big, bold and riotous look at gender, drag and fabulousness”, in which “the House of Light competes with the House of Diabolique for drag family supremacy at the Cinderella Ball”. It lived up to this thrilling billing, transcending the modest expectations of a “read-through” and bursting into vivid life on the stage. The audience, less subdued, less thoroughly straight and white than a standard West End theatre crowd, rose to the occasion, whooping their approval and leaping to their feet at the end in a genuinely rousing and moved ovation.

It was a great evening, and came hot on the heels of another success only two weeks ago, when Ben and I took our youngest to see Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman. The boy is only 16, and freshly into drama, so it felt risky taking him to a new play. But we needn’t have worried. The piece is visceral and physical, set in County Armagh in 1981; against the backdrop of the hunger strikes, it tells a story of the long reach of the IRA, and even though the boy needs some of the history explaining to him, when I turn to him at the end of the final, shocking scene, he says: “I am actually shivering.” Which is presumably the precise response you would want to get out of a 16-year-old boy, poised on the brink of being excited about drama.

But theatre isn’t always exciting, is it? Let’s be honest. Ben and I have slunk out of too many intervals, bored witless by something flat and stagey, so I chalk these two latest experiences up as something of a triumph.

I didn’t even know the boy was so into theatre until I saw him on stage this year in a school production of Enron. He only had a small part, but still had to come to the very front of the stage, alone in a spotlight, and deliver a monologue in a Texan accent. And seeing him out of context like this, I nearly fell off my seat with the jolt of dislocation, almost not recognising him as my own son. Who knew he could do a Texan accent? (He’d practised for hours in the bathroom, he told me later.) And when did he get so tall? And so handsome? I see him every day and yet all I could think, seeing him up there on stage, was: “Who on earth IS this lanky six footer with the Hollywood smile, making eye contact and connecting with the audience in a way I never could in 20 years of gigs?”

I can only assume it is in his blood, and has come from Ben’s side of the family. Ben was studying drama at Hull when I met him; indeed the first time I saw him with his clothes off was on stage, in a production of The Winter’s Tale where the director, somewhat sadistically I thought, lined up a chorus of young men to be dancing satyrs, and made them strip down to nothing but giant codpieces. We’d only just started dating, so it was quite the introduction to my new boyfriend’s body.

Theatre was in his blood, too, inherited from his mother, and he was always confident on stage, enjoying the presence and feedback of an audience, which is why he still plays live and I don’t. His mother had been an actress, performing with John Gielgud and co at the Memorial Theatre Stratford-upon-Avon, until her career was cut short by having a child, and then triplets. At her funeral a couple of years ago we listened to a recording of her RADA audition from the 1940s, in which she performed one of Lady Macbeth’s speeches, her cut-glass English tones, declamatory and dramatic, in many ways every bit as fabulous and flamboyant as the drag queens in Wig Out!, whose theatricality she would have adored. She loved the stage, and she loved fame, and when it couldn’t be hers she revelled instead in mine and Ben’s, keeping every press cutting, wearing all the T-shirts, coming to every back-stage party. If it couldn’t be the spotlight, then the wings would do, darling.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder