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Dylan Jones's Diary: Harmony between Jeremy Corbyn and Alastair Campbell?

A year is a long time where the GQ Men of the Year Awards are concerned.

If a week is a long time in politics, 12 months is certainly a long time where the GQ Men of the Year Awards are concerned. While we have occasionally been accused of pandering too much to the Tories, we have tended to mirror public opinion, as we have done in all of the other categories that we celebrate at the awards.

For the first seven or eight years, we acknowledged the success of the likes of Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson and David Blunkett, and when the tides started to turn – as they inevitably do – we went through a period when the room was full of David Cameron, George Osborne, Boris Johnson, William Hague and others. One year, all four of them happened to be there, prompting another winner, Noel Gallagher, to say quite rightly that the evening felt like being at the Tory party conference (not that he would know anything about that).

This year, we had Jeremy Corbyn and Sadiq Khan in the house, and up on stage, as well as Alastair Campbell (who has become something of the magazine’s conscience), so right back atcha. I may even have managed to achieve a rapprochement between Corbyn and Campbell. We shall see.

Seizing the day

One of the many books I took away with me this summer was A Life in the Day, Hunter Davies’s entertaining (and rather moving) second autobiography. I had forgotten that he was responsible for one of the best things about newspaper supplements, the Sunday Times Magazine’s “A Life in the Day” column, which Hunter came up with in 1975, while he was editor.

It was always meant to be a litany of the mundane, prosaic things that a person got up to, a genuine snapshot of domesticity. For a while I edited this section when I worked at Wapping in the 1990s, and it was surprising how many celebrities misunderstood the concept.

My favourite was a (very) former pop star who had obviously condensed an entire year’s worth of achievements into a single day, so it went something like this: “Got up, made tea, ran a marathon, wrote a book, had a meeting with Martin Scorsese, sang on a charity album, climbed Kilimanjaro, had dinner with Richard Branson, spoke at the UN…”

We didn’t have the heart to tell his PR how foolish he looked, so we ran it. I often wonder how that meeting with Scorsese panned out.

Balearic buzz kill

The summer wasn’t all I had hoped it would be, as I was sick for most of it. I’ve been ill for nine months now, struck down by some kind of ear infection that has manifested itself in a variety of issues, not least obstructed Eustachian tubes and a horrific bout of tinnitus. The latter is an ailment that many believe is untreatable but, having spoken to a fair number of experts this year, I have learned that it is usually a symptom of something else completely, and that if you get the right diagnosis, it is possible to rid yourself of it.

I am still in the middle of the process and have learned a great deal since it developed. One important thing is that it is extremely advantageous and rather comforting to find yourself surrounded by cicadas, especially those that congregate around rented pools on the Balearic Islands. They might not be there for the duration, but in the short term they certainly help to disguise the buzzing in your ears.

Soho subterraneans

Having just spent many a year writing and compiling an oral biography of David Bowie – interviewing more than 150 people in places as far removed as Los Angeles and Ipswich – I was surprised that he had such strong connections with London’s Soho, especially as he largely lived “abroad” from 1974 onwards.

One of my favourite passages is the period in the mid-1980s when the film director Julien Temple was leading Bowie around various fleshpots in the West End, looking for the inspiration that would fire up the disaster that became Absolute Beginners. Everywhere Bowie went, people knew him: not from the TV, not for his fame, but really knew him. Twenty years earlier, he had been introduced to the denizens of the coffee bars, clip joints and after-hours drinking clubs by his brother, Terry, and they had never forgotten. There was a lot of: “All right, Dave, ’ows it going, son?”

The authenticity of this glorified pub crawl didn’t stop Temple’s film from being an unmitigated disaster, even if it did include one of Bowie’s finest and often forgotten works, the magisterial title song. Many of these more marginal voices are in my book, and I hope they help contribute to our greater understanding of the man. It was certainly a joy meeting them.

Soap and glory

The minutiae of someone’s life are as important as the glittery bits (if indeed there are any), something that Hunter Davies understood well. I discovered lots when I was researching my Bowie book. Towards the end of the 1970s, the Thin White Duke was touring his Low and Heroes albums, records that were quite austere in their construction and eventually in their presentation, too.

The stage show at the time was so long that Bowie had included an interval of half an hour, not just so the crowd could drink some more beer, but also to allow himself a breather. At half-time, what he did was this: he would stand upright, dressed in his full stage kit, with one leg on a trestle chair while he watch prerecorded videotapes of Coronation Street.

That’s right, the most influential recording artist of the decade would decompress during one of the most intense tours of his life – of anyone’s life – by watching recordings of a soap opera. There’s nowt so queer as flame-haired ambisexual rock stars from space, let me tell you.

Dylan Jones is the editor of GQ and the author of “David Bowie: A Life” (Preface)

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem

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The Universal Credit nightmare shows there’s nothing more dangerous than a good idea

The hardest thing to build into any benefits IT project is common sense.

The trouble with Universal Credit is that everyone thinks it’s a good idea. Labour has long backed the concept of rolling multiple benefits into one payment but studiously refused to implement it when in power. Why? Because it takes all the mess and complication that claimants have to navigate and transfers that to the government. It’s like Whitehall volunteering to find your next house, sort out the survey and fix the best mortgage for you. It sounds brilliant – and that should make you suspicious.

“I think it’s quite a good idea, having it all in one go,” says Jo Whitaker when I speak to her at home in Moulton, North Yorkshire. Unfortunately, the reality fell short. Diagnosed with breast cancer in late 2016, Whitaker had to give up her cleaning business as she underwent chemotherapy. She was told – oh, happy day! – that her local jobcentre was one of those testing Universal Credit ahead of its countrywide roll-out.

There was a catch. In order for her to claim Universal Credit, her existing child and working tax credits had to be stopped for six weeks, while her eligibility for the single monthly payment was assessed. She created an online “journal” to record her income and provide supporting evidence and was told that she could apply for an advance, which would have to be paid back later, to cover the time she spent waiting.

She received her payments in November and December, then ran into a problem. Whitaker, a mother of three, owns a house jointly with her ex-husband, but it was on the market and had no tenants. (She was renting elsewhere.) This seems to have given the jobcentre computer conniptions: did Whitaker have an asset that meant her housing benefit should be reduced, or not?

She received a demand in her “journal” a few days before Christmas: show us that you’re paying rent, or we’ll stop your benefits. “I was on my fifth round of chemo and I wasn’t well at all,” she says. “After Christmas, I couldn’t get hold of anyone to give me a straight answer. This went on for about a month.” The January payment didn’t come. Whitaker spent hours on the phone – her mother, listening to our call, chimes in to amplify this point – and she eventually received a letter admitting that it was a mistake to withhold her benefit. “I can remember being on the phone, crying my eyes out,” she says. “Chemo, it does your brain in. It was the last thing I needed. It was an absolute nightmare.”

Yet Jo Whitaker’s story is not a particularly extreme one. She is, she says, lucky to have a great support network, and she never felt truly helpless. Her business experience helped her budget and cope with rectifying the jobcentre’s error. I’ll also admit that when I heard she had a house, I thought: hang on, why is she claiming benefits when she has an asset? As she talked, the situation became clear. But this is the kind of detail that computer systems struggle to deal with: the hardest thing to build into any IT project is common sense.

Many aren’t as resilient as Whitaker. New figures from the Department for Work and Pensions show that around a quarter of new claimants wait more than six weeks for their first payment. And because Universal Credit is paid to tenants, rather than directly to landlords, it has significantly increased the number of people falling behind on their rent.

There’s a cruel double bind here. Most people claim benefits precisely because they are in difficult personal circumstances. They have lost their job, got sick, or broken up with a partner and had to move house. Those same circumstances make dealing with bureaucracy more challenging. When the computer says no, it doesn’t just take away one of half a dozen benefits; it can disrupt the only assistance people are getting.

The quiet unhappiness of Jo Whitaker’s story should worry the government. In 2015, the possibility of cuts to tax credits caused enough concern on the doorstep and in constituency surgeries that even Tory MPs quailed. George Osborne’s resulting fudge was to kick back the cuts, promising that “savings” would be found anyway as more people moved to Universal Credit.

The idea that this can be accomplished without people feeling noticeably poorer is optimistic. That it can be accomplished using the existing IT system is even more so. Universal Credit should be a pragmatic project, but it has always been politicised: first by Iain Duncan Smith’s evangelical insistence that he would “make work pay” (even though 60 per cent of UK households in poverty have at least one member who works) and then by his flouncing anger that the project was being used as a cover for “salami-slicing” the welfare budget. IDS must have been the last man in Britain to work out that Osborne wasn’t just pretending to be into austerity; he really loved it.

In 2013, the National Audit Office found that the Universal Credit programme was struggling with a “tight timescale, unfamiliar project management approach and lack of a detailed plan”. The Labour MP Margaret Hodge, then the chair of the public accounts committee, concluded that most of the £425m spent so far would have to be written off. The programme was “reset”.

That, in effect, is what Citizens Advice wants to happen again. The organisation is calling for a pause on the roll-out, which is scheduled to accelerate next month. “[It] is a disaster waiting to happen,” says its chief executive, Gillian Guy. “People face severe consequences, like visits from bailiffs and eviction, when they can’t pay their bills.”

Like Jo Whitaker, she believes that the “principles behind Universal Credit are sound”. But that won’t be a consolation to anyone left cold, hungry or homeless over Christmas. In politics, there’s nothing more dangerous than something that everyone thinks is a good idea. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left