Labour's acting leader Harriet Harman speaks at the party's HQ on May 18, 2015. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Labour's week of crisis: the inside story

How acting leader's Harriet Harman's stance on welfare cuts became a battle for the soul of the party. 

When Labour MPs gathered for their weekly meeting in committee room 14 at the House of Commons on the evening of 13 July, the mood was grimmer than at any point since the party’s general election defeat in May. Five days earlier, they had watched George Osborne triumphantly deliver the first Conservative-only Budget in 19 years, which included policies such as a “National Living Wage” and an apprenticeship levy on firms – measures considered but rejected under Ed Miliband. The Chancellor’s political opportunism was a reminder, as one shadow minister told me, that: “Being in opposition is horrible.”

In the days after the Budget, unease grew as Harriet Harman, the party’s acting leader, and Chris Leslie, the shadow chancellor, signalled that Labour would not oppose Conservative policies such as the 1 per cent cap on public-sector pay rises for four years and the reduced benefit cap of £20,000 (£23,000 in London). The tipping point came when Harman announced on 12 July that the leadership would also abstain on the welfare reform bill and would not reject the two-child limit on tax credits. To their fury, neither the shadow cabinet nor MPs had been consulted in advance.

“It’s gone to her head,” a senior figure told me of Harman’s ascension to leader of the opposition following Ed Miliband’s resignation in May. “She wants to teach Labour a lesson.”

After arriving at 6.10pm – ten minutes late – at committee room 14, Harman began by telling the meeting that as soon as the exit poll was published on election night, she knew that her constituents would “take a thumping” under the Tory government. Yet she reaffirmed her view that Labour could not credibly resist all of the government’s welfare cuts. “If we oppose everything, people will not hear those things we are opposing and why,” she said. Harman recalled that in the last parliament, Labour voted against all 13 of the government’s welfare bills but only its rejection of the “bedroom tax” registered with the public.

The acting leader was described by one Blairite MP as having been “mugged by reality”. Harman believes that Labour will only return to power if it explicitly repudiates its Miliband-era positioning on the deficit and welfare. When at a shadow cabinet meeting on 6 July Andy Burnham, the leadership front-runner, cautioned against embracing austerity, Harman acidly replied: “But Andy, we lost that argument. You may have noticed that we lost the election.”

In committee room 14, one MP after another rose to rebuke her. Of the 25 who spoke, just five defended Harman’s stance. One rebel, Andy McDonald, warned that she was tolerating the policies of “Mao Zedong and King Herod” by refusing to oppose the two-child tax credit cap. Frank Field, the work and pensions select committee chairman, began by praising Harman’s performance as acting leader, declaring that he would vote to give her the job permanently. He ended, however, by berating her refusal to table reasoned amendments against the cuts to tax credits. Keith Vaz, the chair of the home affairs select committee, quipped that he never thought he would see the day when Harman was attacked “from the left” by Field.

Midway through the meeting, the former party leader Neil Kinnock emerged. “Not much,” he replied disdainfully when asked what he thought of Harman’s speech. His son, Stephen, the MP for Aberavon, had earlier remarked that the two-child cap was “awfully reminiscent of some kind of eugenics policy”. Support for Harman came from the Labour leadership candidate Liz Kendall, who praised her for “a great speech” as she left the room. (Kendall’s rivals – Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Jeremy Corbyn – were absent from the meeting.)

At an uneasy shadow cabinet meeting the following day, Labour’s senior figures were “completely divided”, in the words of one of those present. Some, such as Leslie and Rachel Reeves, the shadow work and pensions secretary and Burnham’s shadow chancellor-in-waiting, endorsed Harman’s call to abstain on the welfare bill. Others, such as Cooper, suggested tabling reasoned amendments. Three, including Burnham, argued that Labour should vote against the bill. The decisive stand taken by the shadow health secretary has helped his campaign. “This could be the day that he won,” one shadow cabinet minister told me afterwards.

Labour’s left is in despair at an acting leadership that it regards as needlessly austere. The right is in despair at a party that it regards as recklessly profligate. Yet their angst has points of crossover. Many MPs confess to being unenthusiastic about the party’s leadership contest and concede that Labour will likely lose the next election. One senior figure told me: “Nobody is interested in the leadership campaign. I liken it to one of those albums that people release and no one buys. They’ve printed loads of albums, all the sales teams are really into it – but no one is buying the record. It’s really quite serious now. We are falling outside of the affections and the interests of the people.”

Conversation frequently turns to who could lead the party after another defeat in 2020: the former paratrooper Dan Jarvis; the shadow business secretary, Chuka Umunna (who withdrew from the race after just a few days); the former director of public prosecutions Keir Starmer; even David Miliband. The question, an insider said, was whether the party was electing “Iain Duncan Smith or Michael Howard” – someone who will take the party backwards or someone who will achieve modest progress.

The only leadership candidate who has had consistent momentum is Corbyn, the 66-year-old left-winger who was elected in 1983. When the Islington North MP first made the ballot, after colleagues nominated him to ensure a “broad debate”, many dismissed him as a token contender. Now, almost all in the party expect him to finish ahead of Kendall and some predict that he will come second. It is a prospect that has caused alarm. Umunna told me: “In this leadership contest, there are no free hits when you’re voting. People have got to consider very carefully what message the result on 12 September will send to the public.

“It’s not just about who wins this contest, it is the shakedown of the results.”

At the time of writing, Corbyn had been nominated by 41 Constituency Labour Parties, putting him ahead of Kendall (5) and Cooper (30). One MP warned of “1980s-style entryism” as the left grew in strength. An aide to Cooper, however, told me that CLP meetings represented “a fraction of the membership”, adding that this was not “a panic situation”. The irony of Corbyn’s ascension (to the point where an increasing number ask whether he could win), one source said, is that "He doesn’t want to be leader, he was very open about just wanting to influence the debate. It would ruin his summer, it would ruin his life."

 

***

 

Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters are satisfied that he has already shifted the terms of debate leftwards on issues such as the 1 per cent public-sector pay cap – which all of the candidates oppose – and the child tax credit cuts. Some MPs believe that Harman’s intervention was an attempt to halt this trajectory.

In the Kendall camp, there is anger that Burnham and Cooper have not rejected Corbyn more forcefully. John Woodcock, a member of Kendall’s campaign team, told me: “We all shared a view, the mainstream of the Labour Party, that advocating Jeremy’s route as a party spells sure-fire marginalisation and electoral defeat. But of all the people who are involved in this leadership race, Liz is the only one saying it. Are the others not saying it because they have changed their mind? Do they believe the basic approach of the Labour Party since Kinnock was wrong? Or are they not saying it out of misplaced tactics or convenience?”

Among MPs, the view is that Kendall recklessly positioned herself as the “New Labour” candidate, guaranteeing defeat among a selectorate that lies to the left of that of 2010. Umunna, who endorsed the shadow health minister after withdrawing from the race, told me that the “modernising part of the party” was “identifying the right problems” but was “wanting in coming up with the solutions”. He added: “We are using the vocabulary and concepts that were being used in the late Nineties and early Noughties when we’re heading towards the 2020s and the 2030s. I think we’ll know that we are ready and have successfully rebooted and are ready to govern again when we are actually using a different vocabulary and have new concepts to offer.”

Although many MPs predict that Cooper will ultimately triumph on second preferences as the least divisive candidate, her team concedes that Burnham remains the front-runner. Some believe the presence of Corbyn in the race has helped Burnham by making it harder to paint him as the creature of the left and the trade unions (it was Corbyn who won Unite’s nomination). And to the relief of the Blairites, Burnham has distanced himself from Cooper by apologising for the pre-crash deficit under the last Labour government. It is a stance that some suggest the shadow home secretary will not countenance, because it would amount to disowning the position of her husband, Ed Balls. A Cooper aide, however, told me that “Andy had set traps for himself” by ­“playing into Osborne’s hands” on the issue.

All of this does little to distract MPs from the defeat of 7 May and the defeat that many fear the party will suffer in 2020. Umunna describes Labour as still being “in shock and grief at what happened”. Even at the lowest moments of Ed Miliband’s leadership, a route back to power appeared open. Now, there is no consolation available, including of the false kind.

“We’ll be here all over again in five years’ time and probably the five after that,” one MP concluded. Labour, they fear, is once again the natural party of opposition.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Motherhood Trap

Martin O’Neill for New Statesman
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1966 and all that

A year of World Cup glory, meeting Paul McCartney and eating placenta.

Fifty years ago this Saturday, on 30 July 1966, I was at Wembley. I have my ticket and my programme to prove it. I also have my 1966 ­diary, which I am looking at now. I was 30, weighed ten stone and eight pounds, and my waist was 32 inches – about as hard to believe now as England winning another World Cup final.

I am still in the same house, all these decades later, but my telephone number then was GUL 4685. GUL was short for Gulliver, I can’t remember why. In my list of contacts at the end of my diary is Melvyn Bragg, who was another recent arrival in London from Cumbria, like myself and my wife, on PRO 0790. PRO stood for Prospect, I think, which was the exchange name for somewhere over the river, possibly Kew.

My office number was TER 1234. I always thought that was a great and memorable number. It’s only now, thinking about it, that I realise that TER – meaning Terminus –
probably related to King’s Cross, which the Sunday Times was near in those days.

At the top of the charts in July 1966 were the Kinks with “Sunny Afternoon”, which I can well remember, as it was so ironically chirpy, and Georgie Fame with “Getaway”. I liked Georgie Fame – low-key, cool – but I can’t remember that tune. Both were replaced in August by the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine”/“Eleanor Rigby”.

My day job in July 1966, on the Sunday Times staff, was writing the Atticus column. It still exists, but in a smaller, more skittery format. Previous incumbents included Ian Fleming, John Buchan and Sacheverell Sitwell, who was reputed to have got free Mateus rosé for life after giving the wine its first mention in an English newspaper.

I had been on the paper since 1960, after spending two years as a so-called graduate trainee journalist, mainly in Manchester, which was a laugh. There was no training and there were no lessons in law. You had a mentor for a few weeks and then you got on with it.

In my first few years as the boy on Atticus, I never had my name in the paper. I had to write dreary paragraphs about who might be our next man in Washington, or the bishop of London, or the master of Balliol, as if I cared. I wanted to write about footballers, gritty northern novelists, pop stars.

When I started at the Sunday Times, I felt for a while that people were prejudiced against me, because I was northern and working class and had gone to grammar school and a provincial university (Durham). Everyone else seemed to have been at Oxbridge and gone to public school.

But this prejudice was all in my head, imagined, just as it had been when I used to go from Durham to visit my girlfriend, Margaret – whom I married in 1960 – at Oxford. I was convinced that some of her posh friends were being condescending ­towards me. Total nonsense, but I had a chip on my shoulder for some years. Gone, all gone, just like my 32-inch waist. (I am now 12 stone and the new shorts I bought last week have a 38-inch waist. Oh, the horror.) If anything, these past 50 years, any prejudice has been in my favour.

Harold Wilson was the prime minister in 1966. His northern accent was even stronger than mine. I still have a letter from him, dated 21 March 1963, after I interviewed him for Atticus. In the letter, he ­describes the 1938 FA Cup final in which Preston beat Huddersfield Town 1-0, scoring in the last minute of extra time. At the bottom of the page, in handwriting, he’d added: “after hitting the crossbar”.

What I remember most about the interview was George Brown, who was deputy to
Wilson as Labour leader at the time, hanging around outside his office, drunk. Marcia Williams, Wilson’s secretary, was going around tut-tutting, making faces, complaining about George. I thought she shouldn’t have done, not in front of me, as I was a total stranger and a hack. (I don’t think we called ourselves hacks in those days, which is the normal, half-ironic self-description today.)

Harold was a football man and also a real know-all, forever boasting about his memory for facts and figures. The contents of this letter illustrate both aspects of his character. It led me later to collect a letter or autograph from every prime minister, going back to Robert Walpole. Only took me ten years.

There is a myth that England’s 1966 win helped Labour stay in power – which does not quite stand up. The general election was in March – four months before the final. But Wilson did milk England’s victory, identifying himself and the nation with our English champions.

It is possible that the reverse effect happened in 1970, when Wilson was chucked out and Edward Heath came in. England’s defeat at the 1970 World Cup by West Germany was just four days before the June general election.

***

I got my ticket for the 1966 World Cup final – for one of the best seats, priced at £5 – from my friend James Bredin, now dead, who was the boss of Border Television. Based in Carlisle, Border covered the Scottish Borders and the Isle of Man. It was a thriving, thrusting regional ITV station, now also deceased.

James’s chauffeur came to pick me up and waited for us after the match, a sign of the importance and affluence of even minor ITV stations. Border contributed quite a bit to the network, such as Mr and Mrs, starring Derek Batey, who presented 450 editions of this very popular national show. Batey was a local lad who started his show business life as an amateur ventriloquist in the little market town of Brampton, Cumbria, before becoming Carlisle’s Mr Show Business. He was so polished – lush hair, shiny suits, so starry, so glittery – that I always wondered why he was not in London, in the West End.

Border TV also produced some excellent documentaries that were networked across the ITV region, two of which I presented. One was about walking along Hadrian’s Wall and the other was about George Stephenson. For a while in the 1970s, I began to think I was going to become a TV presenter, despite being not much good. I was lousy at acting, which you need for television, and disliked asking questions to which I already knew the answers. And it took so much time. For each programme, we spent eight weeks on location with a crew of eight, just to make a one-hour documentary. Now they
do docs in a week with just two people.

For half an hour, I also imagined that I was going to become a playwright. In 1967, I had a play in the BBC’s Wednesday Play slot, awfully prestigious at the time, called The Playground. It was one of those shows that were filmed live and then wiped, so I have never seen it since, nor has anybody else. I blamed that for blighting my playwriting career, though till I was looking in my 1966 diary and saw that I was working on that play, I’d forgotten about its existence. As we go through life, we forget all the paths not trodden.

I’ve boasted endlessly about being at the 1966 Wembley final, and it was so exciting, but I can’t remember many of the details. I must have been aware of Geoff Hurst’s second goal being a bit dodgy, as there were loud complaints from the German fans, but as Sir Geoff, as he then wasn’t, went on to score a third goal, it didn’t really matter. At the time, I considered that the England-Portugal semi-final had been a better game, with our Bobby Charlton scoring two goals against one from Eusebio, but of course winning a final is winning a final and the excitement and the patriotic pride continued for weeks and months. We felt as if it had been our right to win – after all, did we not give the game to the world, lay down the first rules, show all those foreigners how to play our game?

The result was that we usually ignored all the new ideas and developments that were emerging from Europe and South America, carrying on with our old ways, stuffing our faces with steak before a game and knocking back six pints afterwards, a bit like Alf Tupper in the Rover comic. He lived on fish and chips, but on the race track he could beat anyone.

Those funny Continental players started playing in funny lightweight boots, more like slippers or ballet shoes, which seemed barmy to us. How we scoffed. How can you play properly, far less kick someone properly, unless your ankles are encased in hard leather as tough as steel? Who cared if they weighed a ton, especially in wet weather? We Brits were tough.

The top First Division stars of 1966 earned about £200 a week, including bonuses, and lived in £20,000 houses, semi-detached, on new estates with Tudor overtones. The top players drove Jaguars. But most were lucky to afford a Ford Cortina. I had one myself for a while. Awfully smart, or so I thought at the time.

Their basic wages were little more than double that of the best-paid working men, such as a foreman bricklayer or a successful plumber. Their neighbours on their estates were bank mangers or salesmen, a higher scale socially than their own background, but still fairly modest. Not like today. Footballers don’t even have neighbours any more. They are cocooned in their own gated mansions, with personal staff, gardeners, nannies, accountants, lawyers, agents.

Yet despite their modest lifestyles in those days, there were celebrity players, such as Bobby Moore, Bobby Charlton and, before them, Billy Wright, all household names, loved and admired, recognised everywhere.

None of them had an agent in 1966. The nearest thing to it was the system that operated if a team got to the FA Cup final. They would then agree to divvy up the peripheral proceeds, such as money from giving newspaper interviews, posing for staged corny photographs, opening shops, or selling their spare tickets to touts (which they were not supposed to do). They’d appoint some dodgy friend of one of the senior players to arrange the deals and collect the monies for them. Times, they always change. Otherwise, what’s the point, eh?

***

In 1966, two big events occurred in my personal life. In May that year, my son, Jake, was born – at home, in what is now our kitchen. He arrived so quickly that the midwife hadn’t turned up yet and he emerged with the cord twisted around his neck. I managed to untie it, which I have maintained since kept him alive (a trick I had learned at fathers’ classes).

Fathers’ classes – wow, what a novelty that was in the 1960s. Who says we were all chauvinist pigs back then? (Today’s young, female star writers at the New Statesman, probably.) I attended my first ones, at the Royal Free Hospital in 1964, when our firstborn, Caitlin, was about to arrive. I remember immediately thinking when the invite came that I would get 1,000 words out of this – which I did, for the Sunday Times women’s pages.

Also at those first-ever fathers’ classes at the Royal Free was a young BBC producer whose wife was also about to give birth: Wilfred De’Ath. He, too, was desperate to get a piece out of it. (He now writes occasionally for the Oldie, and he appears to be down and out and living in France.)

After Jake’s birth, I got the midwife to give me the placenta and I ate it, fried with onions. Tasted like liver. Another 1,000 words.

The other event of note in my ever-so-exciting life in 1966 was meeting Paul McCartney. When “Eleanor Rigby” came out, I thought the words – not just the tune – were so wonderful. Possibly the best poetry of the year, I said, as if I knew anything about poetry. I went to see him for Atticus in his new house in St John’s Wood, which he still has, being a very conservative feller. I talked to him about the background to the lyrics, as opposed to his hair, which interviewers were still asking him about.

A few months later, at the end of 1966, I went to see him again, wearing a different cap, as a screenwriter. I’d had a novel published the previous year, Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush, which was being made into a film, with Clive Donner directing. We went to see Paul at his house and discussed with him if he would do the theme tune. He turned us down in the end but it was while I was with him that I suggested that there should be a proper biography of the Beatles. He said Brian (Epstein, the band’s manager) would have to agree – and there and then sat me down and helped me write a suitable arse-licking letter to him.

I eventually saw Brian, after several cancellations, at his home in Belgravia and he played me the acetate of “Strawberry Fields Forever”. I was astounded. It seemed to break every rule of what was then considered pop music. I wondered if all Beatles fans
would take to it. But I could see that it was amazing and perhaps the Beatles weren’t finished, which was what some people were saying in 1966. At my publisher, Heinemann, which paid me £3,000 for the book, there was one director who maintained the Beatles bubble was about to burst.

Brian agreed to my project and offered a clause in the contract that we had not requested or even thought of. He said he would not give any other writer access to the Beatles for two years after my book came out. This was 1966. The book came out in 1968. Two years later, in 1970, the Beatles were no more. Without realising it at the time, I became the only authorised ­biographer of the Beatles.

***

So, 1966, a big year for me, so glad I kept that diary, and also a big year for the nation. I thought at the time that the Beatles were bound to fade, eventually, while England surely would dominate world football from now on. After their humbling by Iceland at this year’s World Cup, I now realise that England will never win the World Cup again in my life, what’s left of it. And probably not even another game.

The only way to rationalise it is to tell ourselves that we are ahead of the game. We are rubbish, but in turn it will happen to all the other so-called advanced nations.

You could say Brexit is a bit like that. We are ahead of the other leading European nations in going it alone, even though it is depressing and awful and shameful. We are advanced in wilfully turning ourselves into a rubbish nation. We are leading the way, as ever. Inger-land, Inger-land.

Hunter Davies’s memoir of the postwar years, “The Co-op’s Got Bananas!” (Simon & Schuster), was published in April, followed by “Lakeland: a Personal Journal” (Head of Zeus). His final book on the Fab Four, “The Beatles Book” (Ebury), will be published on 1 September

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue