Kleenex all round

Cameron's reshuffle will calm and bait in equal measure

David Cameron has delivered to his party one large fizzing Alka-Seltzer to banish the troubles of the past month. He said he was going to be positive and his shadow cabinet changes are predominantly that. One of the few benefits of opposition is the chance to try people out. Cameron has wisely picked not just for the person, but who they will be up against.

On 2 July, an emotional Francis Maude went round staff one by one and said goodbye to each person. His farewell email read: "We have much to be proud of; I have hugely enjoyed my time as chairman. The best part has been working with some of the most committed people it has ever been my privilege to work with. You are the best." The next day, the staff association sent an email to employees, "He [Maude] has been a great hands-on chairman who has worked to improve CCHQ both internally and as a fighting force." It went on to ask for donations for a gift. An aide says tenderly: "It is quite rare for management to be loved by their staff, and Central Office loved him. He would write emails and letters of thanks to employees. He was accessible. People were close to tears." Kleenex all round.

Outside Westminster, Tory activists are rarely in two minds about Maude. He is either the sinister plotter who was disloyal to Hague, or he is the dashing, misunderstood moderniser who has brought the (emotionally sensitive) party together. A Midlands constituency chairman from the former camp was content: "The removal of Francis had to happen. The sole purpose of the chairman is to cheer up the troops on the ground and he was hopeless at that. He seemed to relish telling the hard-working faithful their views were somehow morally defective." No Kleenex there.

New chairman, the ethereal Caroline Spelman, might not bring on the tears but she does have a sense of calm about her. Even her office has a lavender-scented tranquillity and she has a diplomatic team behind her. Chief of staff, Simon Cawte, is particularly popular. That the other two members of Spelman's former local government team have been rewarded with shadow cabinet jobs (Eric Pickles and Michael Gove) shows what a success they were. You will not catch any of them cracking a rude joke at a Conservative Future event, being mean to the people of Liverpool, or flashing a nipple.

Having few enemies in the Tory party is an advantage and it is rare to hear a negative word spoken of Spelman. There has been talk of her not being aggressive enough for the new job, but a party strategist disagrees: "Many of the local government issues she has had to deal with are not particularly sexy - housing, protecting the green belt, council tax. But having a background in them will help her in her new role, particularly with the grass roots." One well-oiled MP took a different view of his new chairman: "Julie Andrews, she's just too perfect. She probably goes home and sacrifices chickens."

Bedtime stories

Michael Gove, the new shadow secretary for schools, who turns 40 next month, looks 25 and resembles the eldest, good-natured brother in an Enid Blyton novel. Like Spelman, he is well thought of. Gushed one party official: "Michael has a treacly, Aberdonian, bedtime story voice, he's charming, helpfully state educated and he's incredibly nice." Party workers are waiting for promising showdowns between Gove and Ed Balls. "For all his intelligence, Balls is not a confident speaker," notes one researcher. "Michael is going to rile him. They are both talented, but I can't wait to see Balls getting irritable. CCHQ enjoyed Gove's "Cooper baiting" when, as shadow housing minister, he would effortlessly provoke Yvette Cooper (Balls's wife). Gove's team enjoying playing back a tape of a Today programme interview she gave in March in which she lost her cool.

As for other appointments, Owen Paterson's new role as shadow Northern Ireland secretary is thought to be a move by Cameron to appease a certain faction. "They've thrown Owen a bone, because it buys out Cornerstone and shuts up the far right," said one insider.

Most interesting for some MPs will be the relationship between shadow secretary for security, Dame Pauline Neville-Jones, and shadow home secretary, David Davis. "Like David, Neville-Jones is abrasive and tough and not a natural team player. The sparks will fly. The two of them have a lot of regard for themselves," sniggers a shadow minister. At least her previous jobs were "Bond" enough for the SAS-trained Davis - aides point out that Davis will be "heartened by her passing resemblance to Judi Dench". Role-play heaven!

This article first appeared in the 09 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The new terror

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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What Jeremy Corbyn can learn from Orwell

Corbyn’s ideas may echo George Orwell’s – but they’d need Orwell’s Britain to work. It’s time Corbyn accepted the British as they are today.

All Labour Party leaderships since 1900 have offered themselves as “new”, but Tony Blair’s succession in 1994 triggered a break with the past so ruthless that the Labour leadership virtually declared war on the party. Now it is party members’ turn and they, for now at any rate, think that real Labour is Jeremy.

To Keir Hardie, real Labour had been a trade union lobby expounding Fellowship. To the Webbs, real Labour was “common ownership” by the best means available. Sidney’s Clause Four (adopted 1918) left open what that might be. In the 1920s, the Christian Socialist R H Tawney stitched Equality into the banner, but during the Depression young intellectuals such as Evan Durbin and Hugh Gaitskell designated Planning as Labour’s modern mission. After the Second World War, Clement Attlee followed the miners (and the London Passenger Transport Board) into Nationalisation. Harold Wilson tried to inject Science and Technology into the mix but everything after that was an attempt to move Labour away from state-regulated markets and in the direction of market-regulated states.

What made the recent leadership contest so alarming was how broken was the intellectual tradition. None of the candidates made anything of a long history of thinking about the relationship between socialism and what the people want. Yvette Cooper wanted to go over the numbers; only they were the wrong numbers. Andy Burnham twisted and turned. Liz Kendall based her bid on two words: “Have me.” Only Jeremy Corbyn seemed to have any kind of Labour narrative to tell and, of course, ever the ­rebel, he was not responsible for any of it. His conference address in Brighton was little more than the notes of a street-corner campaigner to a small crowd.

Given the paucity of thinking, and this being an English party for now, it is only a matter of time before George Orwell is brought in to see how Jeremy measures up. In fact, it’s happened already. Rafael Behr in the Guardian and Nick Cohen in the Spectator both see him as the kind of hard-left intellectual Orwell dreaded, while Charles Cooke in the National Review and Jason Cowley in the New Statesman joined unlikely fashion forces to take a side-look at Jeremy’s dreadful dress sense – to Orwell, a sure sign of a socialist. Cooke thought he looked like a “burned-out geography teacher at a third-rate comprehensive”. Cowley thought he looked like a red-brick university sociology lecturer circa 1978. Fair enough. He does. But there is more. Being a middle-class teetotal vegetarian bicycling socialistic feministic atheistic metropolitan anti-racist republican nice guy, with allotment and “squashily pacifist” leanings to match, clearly puts him in the land of the cranks as described by Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) – one of “that dreary tribe of high-minded women and sandal-wearers and bearded fruit-juice drinkers who come flocking towards the smell of ‘progress’ like bluebottles to a dead cat”. And though Corbyn, as “a fully fledged, fully bearded, unabashed socialist” (Huffington Post), might make all true Orwellians twitch, he really made their day when he refused to sing the National Anthem. Orwell cited precisely that (see “The Lion and the Unicorn”, 1941) as an example of the distance between left-wing intellectuals and the people. It seemed that, by standing there, mouth shut, Comrade Corbyn didn’t just cut his wrists, he lay down full length in the coffin and pulled the lid shut.


Trouble is, this line of attack not only misrepresents the Labour leader, it misrepresents Orwell. For the great man was not as unflinchingly straight and true as some people think. It is impossible, for instance, to think of Orwell singing “God Save the King”, because he, too, was one of that “dreary tribe” of London lefties, and even when he joined Labour he remained ever the rebel. As for Corbyn, for a start, he is not badly dressed. He just doesn’t look like Chuka or Tristram. He may look like a threadbare schoolteacher, but Orwell was one twice over. Orwell was never a vegetarian or a teetotaller, but, like Corbyn, neither was he interested in fancy food (or drink), he kept an allotment, drove a motorbike, bicycled, cared about the poor, cared about the environment, loathed the empire, came close to pacifism at one point, and opposed war with Germany well past the time when it was reasonable to do so.

In Orwell’s thinking about socialism, for too long his main reference point was the London Marxist left. Not only did he make speeches in favour of revolutions, he took part in one with a gun in his hand. Orwell was far more interested, as Corbyn has been far more interested, in speaking truth to power than in holding office. His loyalty was to the movement, or at least the idea of the movement, not to MPs or the front bench, which he rarely mentioned. There is nothing in Corbyn’s position that would have shocked Orwell and, should they have met, there’d have been much to talk about: belief in public ownership and non-economic values, confidence in the state’s ability to make life better, progressive taxation, national health, state education, social care, anti-socially useless banking, anti-colonialism and a whole lot of other anti-isms besides. It’s hard to be sure what Orwell’s position would have been on Trident and immigration. Not Corbyn’s, I suspect. He was not as alert to feminism as he might have been but equally, few men try to write novels from a woman’s point of view and all Orwellians recognise that Julia is the dark hero of Nineteen Eighty-Four. In truth they are both austere types, not in it for themselves and not on anyone else’s expense account either. Corbyn won the leadership because this shone through from the very beginning. He came across as unaffected and straightforward – much as Orwell tried to be in his writing.

Except, as powerfully expressed in these pages by John Gray, Corbyn’s politics were made for another world. What sort of world would he need? First off, he’d need a regulated labour market: regulated by the state in partnership with a labour movement sensitive to what people wanted and experienced in trying to provide it. He would also need capital controls, a manufacturing base capable of building the new investment with Keynesian payback, an efficient and motivated Inland Revenue, a widespread public-service ethos that sees the country as an asset, not a market, and an overwhelming democratic mandate to get things done. In other words, Corbyn needs Orwell’s Britain – not this one – and at the very least, if he can’t have that, he needs the freedom to act that the European Commission forbids.

There’s another problem. Orwell did not trust left-wing intellectuals and spent half his life trying to work out their motivations as a class who spoke for the people, went in search of the people, and praised the people, but did not know them or believe in them. True, Corbyn says he wants to be open and inclusive, but we know he can’t possibly mean it when he says it will be the party, not him or the PLP, that will decide policy, just as we knew it couldn’t possibly be true when he said he’d turn PMQs into the People’s Question Time. Jeremy hasn’t changed his mind in forty years, appears to have great difficulty (unlike Tony Benn) in fusing socialism to national identity or experience (Hardie, Ben Okri and Maya Angelou were bolted on to his Brighton speech) and seems to think that not being happy with what you are given somehow captures the historic essence of socialism (rather than its opposite).

Granted, not thinking outside the ­circle is an inherent fault of the sectarian left but some of our most prominent left-wing journalists have it, too. Working-class support for nationalisation? Good. Right answer! Working-class opposition to benefit scroungers and further mass immigration? Bad. Wrong answer! Would you like to try again? In his essay “In Defence of Comrade Zilliacus” (1947) Orwell reckoned that left-wing intellectuals saw only what they wanted to see. For all their talk of representing the people, they hated the masses. “What they are frightened of is the prevailing opinion within their own group . . . there is always an orthodoxy, a parrot-cry . . .”

The game is hard and he may go down in a welter of knives, yet Corbyn still has time. He may go on making the same speech – on the benefits of apple pie to apple growers – but at some point he will have to drop the wish-list and get on the side of the British people as they are, and live with that, and build into it. Only the nation state can even begin to do the things he wants to do. The quicker he gets that, the quicker we can see if the latest incarnation of new Labour has a future.

Robert Colls is the author of “George Orwell: English Rebel” (Oxford University Press)

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis