Waiting for the call

Veteran Labour MP Gerald Kaufman, who wrote the definitive guide on being a minister, recalls what i

It was even worse in the pre-mobile-phones era. In those days, anyone hoping to get a ministerial offer from No 10 - which meant almost all the Parliamentary Labour Party - felt it essential to stick close to a telephone in case the crucial call might be missed. There was the difficult choice of whether to stay at home, with one hand lightly on the receiver, or hurry to the House of Commons and stick it out there, waiting for that painfully awaited summons.

Of course, if a call does come through, the recipient has to know whether to trust it. When Harold Wilson was Prime Minister, one MP offered junior office by phone thought that the person at the other end was a malicious back-bench colleague imitating Wilson's voice, and put the phone down on him. Happily, Wilson persisted, and the man believed the offer and accepted the job.

Some Ministers can be very idiosyncratic. When Douglas Jay was sacked as President of the Board of Trade, he phoned the Prime Minister the next day and told the Prime Minister that he had thought matters over and decided that he preferred to stay in the job. That took a little sorting out, as did Norman Buchan's view that, while he accepted being sacked, he intended to retain his ministerial room in the House of Commons.

For those who do get a genuine call from No 10, with a genuine offer, and want to think that offer over, the ideal thinking-over time would be about two minutes. After that, the Prime Minister might do some thinking-over himself. Nor does it do for anyone, unless extremely powerful, to ask for an appointment other than the one being stipulated. There are far more back-benchers ready to accept anything - and I really do mean anything whatsoever, including junior whip, unpaid - for someone no more powerful but, on this occasion at any rate, a heck of a lot more lucky, to start cavilling.

When I worked for Wilson, I was always on hand to advise on ministerial appointments, even when not asked. On one occasion I was in his room in the House of Commons when he was pondering whom to appoint to a junior ministerial vacancy. The name put forward by the senior minister in whose department the appointment needed to be made was of someone deeply disloyal to the PM. I said to Wilson, "Can't you do better than that?" He riposted. Accusingly, "Well, who, then ?"

I picked up a copy of Dod's Parliamentary Companion, sitting conveniently on a nearby desk, rifled through its pages, pointed to a name, and said, "Why not her ?" She got the job, and went on to a long and reasonably distinguished ministerial career. Wilson learned from this. When he decided to appoint to a junior job someone he knew not only I but others in his entourage, would object strongly, he told us nothing about it until this appointment was announced

If this whole process of ministerial appointment sounds humiliating, that is because that is precisely what it is. But during these re-shuffle days, rather more than 300 Labour MPs have been ready, willing, even desperate, to be humiliated.

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times