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Jemima Khan meets Nick Clegg: “I’m not a punchbag – I have feelings”

The NS guest editor Jemima Khan talks to the Liberal Democrat leader about life on the far side of power and what it’s like to be a cut-out.

Nick Clegg and I smile genially at each other across the table of a standard-class train carriage. He is on his way to his constituency in Sheffield to talk about manufacturing. Pale-faced, pale-eyed and so tired he appears taxidermied, he looks like he could do with a holiday, except he's just had one – skiing in Davos with his children as the Libyan crisis escalated (for which he was lambasted).

Nick Clegg is the Tim Henman of politics: a decent man for whom Cleggmania represented the peak of his career, his Henman Hill moment. Then he became the Deputy Prime Minister and, shortly after, an effigy.

The carefree, cloud-cuckoo days of opposition, when he had a platform and little criticism, are long gone. At last year's Liberal Democrat spring conference, a fresh-looking and ebullient Clegg had gesticulated and boomed: "We see the same old broken promises. No wonder people feel let down." A year on, he was less combative, more ambivalent. His many critics pointed to his own broken promises and let-down voters.

Clegg concedes that it has been a "very sharp transition". "Of course it has had a dramatic effect on how I'm perceived, the kind of dilemmas I have to face," he says. "I don't even pretend we can occupy the Lib Dem holier-than-thou, hands-entirely-clean-and-entirely-empty-type stance. No, we are getting our hands dirty, and inevitably and totally understandably we are being accused of being just like any other politicians."

His point – and it seems a fair one – is that the British public voted, no one party won and that coalition government, by definition, is a compromise. "A whole lot of things are happening that would just never in a month of Sundays have happened without the Lib Dems there," he says. The morning of our meeting, he claims to have "squeezed out of [George] Osborne" a promise of a green investment bank, not simply a fund. "We've done more on liberty and privacy," he adds, "in the past ten months than Labour did in the past 13 years."

All this has done little to dilute the vitriol of his opponents. John Prescott has likened him to Jedward, the risible and tuneless twins from The X Factor. Ed Miliband has called him "a tragic figure", one too toxic to share a platform with ahead of the referendum on the Alternative Vote. Clegg insists that none of this bothers him. "I see it exactly for what it is. [Ed] is a perfectly nice guy but he has a problem, which is that he's not in control of his own party, so he constantly has to keep his troops happy and he thinks that ranting and raving at me is the way to do it."

Since joining the government, and in particular since his U-turn on university tuition fees, Clegg has had dog mess posted through his door and been spat at in the street. It must upset him. "No, well look, I'm a human being, I'm not a punchbag – I've of course got feelings."

He pauses. "Actually, the curious thing is that the more you become a subject of admiration or loathing, the more you're examined under a microscope, the distance seems to open up between who you really are and the portrayals that people impose on you . . . I increasingly see these images of me, cardboard cut-outs that get ever more outlandish . . . One thing I've very quickly learned is that if you wake up every morning worrying about what's in the press, you would go completely and utterly potty."

After ten months in government, he has a guardedness that did not exist in the days when he told Piers Morgan he'd had roughly 30 lovers. These days he is tightly managed. I have already had a pre-interview briefing with one adviser, and now Clegg's version of Andy Coulson, who is sitting to his right, is busy taking written notes of our interview, as well as recording it. When Clegg gets sidetracked, he prompts him, head down, pen poised over notebook, deadpan: "You were talking about what you've achieved . . ."

Everyone seems painfully aware that my task as interviewer is to catch him out, to get him to say the wrong thing. Clegg's task, like all politicians, is to rattle off rhetoric, to be evasive and as uncontroversial as possible, and to fill up the tape with unquotable patter.

All of which makes interviewing him excruciating. He continues: "What we've achieved so far . . . I think just having a government with two parties in it is already such a big new thing. I know it has been born in a blaze of controversy because of the difficult economic decisions we've had to take . . . but if we're lucky, people will look back on it in 20 or 30 years' time as quite a normal thing in British politics that politicians can actually agree with each other from time to time.

“That in itself is quite big and radical. In the week or two leading up to the general election, every single newspaper was screaming from the headlines: 'A hung parliament will be a disaster, coalition politics will be a disaster. Nothing will get done.' And the extraordinary thing is that now we're being accused of almost exactly the reverse – of doing too much."

Of doing too much? Or of being too Tory? Clegg's dilemma is that, on the one hand, he is in danger of being seen as too close to David Cameron and the Conservatives, and losing credibility with his party and voters. On the other hand, he can't be too distant, because that would be damaging for the coalition and a gift for the opposition and the press, which is constantly looking for rifts.

Before the election, Clegg let it be known that he had turned down an invitation to dine with the Camerons at their home in Notting Hill. He wanted to maintain a distance. Perhaps wary of looking like he fits too easily into the port-swilling, waistcoat-wearing Bullingdon Club set, he is still keen to present Cameron as more working partner than friend.

“We don't regard each other as mates and actually I don't think it would be a particularly healthy thing if we tried to become personal mates," he says. "I don't think a coalition works unless you have a very careful balance between mutual respect and civility and also a certain hardness, as at the end of the day you are representing different views."

I've heard that they play tennis together. "No, no – well, er, I think we've played one game of tennis. Of course we meet from time to time but it's always basically to talk about what we're doing in government."

Who won?

“Ah no, that's a state secret," he jokes. (Cameron won.)

Earlier, at my pre-interview briefing, Clegg's adviser Richard Reeves, the former head of Demos, characterised being in the coalition as like being in a marriage – you both get to know instinctively which are the no-go areas.

Clegg concedes that there are "some areas where we flatly disagree" with the Tories, such as on Europe ("I think you can't make sense of this world unless you work together with other folk in the European neighbourhood") and taxation ("Our reflexes as Lib Dems are to try to give tax breaks to people on middle or lower incomes, whereas traditionally they are more interested in trickle-down economics"), but denies that there are "no-go areas". "Look, we're on completely opposite sides of the fence on the AV referendum."

He refuses to concede that signing the pledge to vote against an increase in university tuition fees before the election was a mistake. "That would be a cop-out. I did it. And I have a rather old-fashioned belief that you've got to stand by what you've done and take the consequences, good or bad." He insists that it was not one of his main manifesto priorities anyway. "I didn't even spend that much time campaigning on tuition fees."

Instead, he says, he spent "every single day and every single interview talking about the four things that were on the front page of the manifesto – namely the pupil premium, two and a half million quid for disadvantaged kids; changing the tax system, so you don't pay tax on your first £10,000; political reform; and sorting out the banks and rebalancing the economy."

That's all very well, but given that the Lib Dems are only ever likely to be in government as part of a coalition, how will he deal with pledges made in future election campaigns? Will there be pledges with caveats, depending on which party he clambers into bed with next? "I think that we need to be clearer about what are the really big, big priorities."

After his capitulation on tuition fees, there are many who now fear that nothing is sacred for the Lib Dems. He denies this. "If the Conservatives wanted to become as authoritarian as Blair and New Labour, I wouldn't have it – but it wouldn't happen, as it couldn't happen with us in [the coalition]."

Clegg is emphatic that he will not allow the Tories to disempower the Lib Dems' much-loved European Court of Human Rights. The problem with being in a coalition government is that it acts as a gag. There are times in the interview when Clegg looks so pained as to remind me of Colin Firth in the opening scenes of The King's Speech, particularly when issues of Rupert Murdoch and phone-hacking come up. I know what he'd have said if he were in opposition. The Lib Dems were always very critical of the Cameron-Murdoch cabal. Some Lib Dem MPs were victims of phone-hacking by the News of the World.

“My thoughts are," he begins haltingly, "that it has all come out much more into the open since the police investigation . . . and I think, you know, since those days it is becoming much more out there, and quite rightly. I've always said that the police have got to investigate and the CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] have got to take action. Look, I don't follow every twist and turn . . ." His press secretary looks up for the first time.

What of those, such as the Labour MPs Chris Bryant and Tom Watson, who believe that the Murdochs have too much power and influence over politicians? There's a long pause. "I think that the days when newspaper barons could basically click their fingers and governments would snap to attention have gone," he says.

Clegg is exceptionally loyal to David Cameron – I expect he is a loyal man by nature, not design – but there's a fine line between being loyal and sounding plain disingenuous. So, what does he think of the dinner party hosted over Christmas by News International's chief executive, Rebekah Brooks, at her Cotswolds home, attended by the Camerons and James Murdoch?

“I don't know anything about Oxfordshire dinner parties," he says. Of course he does. Everyone in politics knows about the get-together of Brooks, Cameron and Rupert Murdoch's son, and most agree that the timing of it was inappropriate, given that there was a criminal investigation under way over phone-hacking in the Murdoch empire, as well as ongoing negotiations with the regulatory authorities over the ownership of BSkyB.

“Well, I'm assuming that they weren't sitting there talking about News International issues," says Clegg. "Look, you're putting me in a very awkward spot. If you've got an issue with it, speak to Dave. I don't hang out in Oxfordshire at dinner parties. It's not my world. It's never going to be my world."

He looks pained. I feel sorry for him and I can't help telling him so. I was married to a politician and I remember the constant self-censorship and, in my case, the gaffes. I get the impression that Nick Clegg is an honest, straightforward man in a dishonest, unstraightforward world, in which nobody can say what they really think.

An interruption offers some blessed relief. A beaming middle-aged woman who has spotted Clegg on the train passes a note to his aide. It reads: "I couldn't resist such a unique opportunity to say, 'Stick With It!' The vast majority of us think the coalition are doing the right thing. We know it's tough but it's very necessary. All the best."

The press secretary looks triumphant. Clegg looks momentarily less beleaguered. He thanks the woman graciously and just as I am wondering if it was a set-up, Clegg jokes that it was. He often gets support from the public, he says, but the difference is that these days people whisper their congratulations, "as if it's a guilty secret saying anything nice about Nick Clegg". He should watch those slips into the third person – an early sign that a person is losing touch with reality.

Clegg was a strong opponent of the war in Iraq and for that he earned many supporters. His backing of the "surge" and British forces' continued presence in Afghan­istan is therefore surprising. There are rumours, which he denies, that he wanted to call for an immediate withdrawal of troops but that the former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown, an ex-marine, persuaded him not to.

“In a sense," Clegg says, "we have brought our ambition to a much more realistic level. We've now got an exit date, which we didn't have before, and a much better set of weapons on the ground. And crucially you've got the British government saying to [President Hamid] Karzai – who I had dinner with recently – this cannot be won militarily. Once you're in that far and you've had that many people die and be maimed, I think it would be morally questionable to cut and run overnight."

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the real reason we continue to pour money into a war with no clear goals – and continue to line the roads of Wootton Bassett – is so that those in power will be able to keep on claiming that "they did not die in vain".

“Look, it's never perfect. It's not a neat world," says Clegg. He is above all a pragmatist for whom coalition, foreign policy and life are a balancing act. He accepts that there are moral problems with supporting Karzai's government, which has no authority outside the Afghan capital, Kabul, and which, according to the Transparency International corruption index, was last year the second most corrupt in the world. "Exactly – that's where it gets messy and imperfect."

Clegg is pleased to have "got more balance into the debate on Israel in the party". While he is "undimmed" in his criticism of Israel's illegal settlement activity and his "absolute horror of what is a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza", he stresses that "Israel has legitimate security issues in a region where there is a threat to its existence".

He denies that there is a fundamental incompatibility between the west's rhetoric about democracy and our need for oil. "Do we have vital economic self-interest to keep lights on? Yes. Do I think that should be won at the cost of always being on the side of people who want to express themselves and want democracy? No."

He refuses to be drawn on whether he thinks it was bad timing for Cameron to tour the Middle East on a "UK trade mission"- a euphemism for peddling arms to despots – at a time when there are widespread protests in favour of democracy in the region. He will say, though, that the business of selling arms represents "a horrendous dilemma".

That we have sold arms to repressive regimes – tear gas grenades to Bahrain, armoured personnel carriers to Saudi Arabia, crowd-control ammunition to Libya – is "of course wrong", he agrees. "That's why we've suspended scores and scores of export licences. What guarantee do you have when you export product X to country Y, who seem totally hunky-dory, totally peaceful, and what happens when the country goes belly up? What we're doing is pragmatic rather than pure."

Even the language Clegg uses is moderate and qualified, interspersed with phrases such as "kind of" and "on the other hand" as well as rhetorical questions and unfinished sentences. He's unhyperbolic and ambiguous in a way that must be alien to most Tories. Whereas Cameron strikes me as a man with almost no self-doubt, Clegg seems more self-questioning and less bombastic. I suspect that he is as accom­modating and good at compromise in his marriage as he has been politically.

He smiles for the first time when he tells me that his Spanish wife, Miriam, has "got wonderfully strong opinions". It's clear for a start who chose the names for their three children, Antonio, Alberto and Miguel Clegg. They are being brought up as Roman Catholics, even though Clegg has said he is an atheist. The children are bilingual, speaking both Spanish and English fluently.

At one point, it was assumed that Miriam would be the one with the big career and he would be the thinker and take care of their children. After his eldest son was born, Clegg says: "Miriam was in a particularly intense period of her career and I was in a particularly relaxed period of mine . . . coming to the end of my time as an MEP, so I was very, very involved. I wasn't the primary parent – Miriam would get very annoyed if she were to read that – but I was very involved and you carry that on with you."

He has successfully managed to keep his family out of the spotlight, "to create a firewall" between his world and theirs, although he worries constantly that "what I am doing in my work impacts on them emotionally, because my nine-year-old is starting to sense things and I'm having to explain things. Like he asks, 'Why are the students angry with you, Papa?'"

Clegg refuses "to play politics" with his children, or to say whether or not they will go to a private school. While he's not "ideologically opposed to fee-paying schools existing", he is offended by the notion that it would be his decision alone, rather than one he would reach with Miriam. "I go: hang on a minute – what century are we living in?"

The same applies to what he might do in the future. He certainly does not want to be in politics all his life. "I think that's deeply unhealthy. I look at those people that got into politics when they were 16 and are still at it in their late sixties and think, 'My heavens above!'" Judging by the most recent opinion polls, he may not have the luxury of choice. Either way, he says, Miriam has made "masses of sacrifices putting up with me and politics" and this will be something they decide on together. He'd like to think, though, that he would go into education.

He is besotted by his "three lovely boys" and is most proud "by a long shot" of the family life he has created with Miriam. They manage to lead a relatively normal life, "not in a bunker in Westminster", and he tries to pick his children up from school and put them to bed at night at least two or three times a week.

He regrets that sometimes he doesn't always get the balance right, which makes him "quite miserable" and unable to do his job properly.Sometimes he has to tell them white lies if he is stuck in a meeting. At home, in the evenings, he likes to read novels and says he "cries regularly to music."

I receive a snapshot of his family life when, after the interview is over, I am invited to dine with other journalists at Chevening, the grace- and-favour house in Kent that Clegg shares with William Hague. Clegg arrives two hours late – he's been in protracted discussions over Libya – and looks corpse-like with exhaustion. The contrast with his vibrant, pretty wife, with her big bawdy laugh, could not be more stark. His children seem delightful – and delightfully normal.

Clegg has been accused of selling out, of providing a yellow fig leaf for the Tories' less attractive bits. But I expect that he would see opting out of the coalition or leaving politics altogether as the biggest cop-out of all. He is not consumed by politics – he has a fulfilling life away from Westminster – but he seems to have an old-fashioned sense of duty and believes that, without him there in the cabinet, the Tories would be up to far more of their old tricks. He might well be right – but will he be so easily forgiven by the voters?

“I have a faintly romantic belief that if over five years I just keep steadily trying to do the best I can, with all the difficult dilemmas we face, with not very much money, all those kinds of things . . . we will kind of come through. I think if people see that someone is trying to do the right thing and maybe they're not entirely succeeding, they kind of will go with you. And that's all you can do."

He suddenly looks very, very sad. A week later I glimpse him on television, on the front bench on Budget Day. Cameron sits to his left, looking ruddy and shiny, straight off the playing fields, ready for an interminable life of "Yeah, yeah, yeah" in the Commons. Clegg, by contrast, looks like he's in black and white – lost and out of place.

Later that evening, I get a text from his press secretary, offering me "a full copy of the note that lady passed on the train". He thought I might like it for my piece, "in case it needs some colour".

Jemima Khan is associate editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit

Photo: Getty Images
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Behind the mask, Boris Johnson's mayoralty has been a disaster

If giving good conference speeches and writing well made a Mayor, Boris Johnson would be the best there's ever been. But unfortunately, there's a bit more required.

If dangling on a zip wire waving Union Jacks, or giving a stand up Conference performance was all it took to be a good Mayor of London Boris Johnson would be a in a league of his own. Sadly for Londoners, whilst arguably one of the most well-known politicians in the country, behind his ruthless publicity machine and bumbling image, Boris’ record as Mayor reveals years of policy failures, missed opportunities and reneged promises.

At the heart of the problem has been a failure to get stuck in. From the start Boris adopted a “chairman of the board” style - very much aloof and clearly focused on using the Mayoralty as a stepping stone back onto the national stage. The problem is that means assiduously avoiding controversy as opposed to actively tackling the challenges facing London.

As a result, the legacy left behind him will be stark. The housing shortage inherited in 2008 is now an  entrenched crisis with the Mayor having missed even modest house building targets each and every year since he was elected. London’s cost of living crisis has grown unchecked as wages stagnate, housing costs rocket and the cost of commuting hits global highs.

Vital investment in transport infrastructure, for example the tube upgrade and bus network extension, has been shunned in favour of publicity projects like the Garden Bridge or Thames Cable Car. Perhaps this should all come as no surprise from a Mayor who believes high property prices are “the right problem to have”. The same Mayor who considers his £250,000 a year income for newspaper columns to be little more than “chicken feed.”

After eight years of inertia, London is crying out for a workhorse, someone who will tirelessly set about tackling these problems before they become unassailable. Londoners now know that is simply not Johnson’s pedigree. Maybe that’s why a national YouGov poll in April showed that of all the UK regions, Londoners had the lowest view of Johnson’s prime ministerial abilities.

Yes, we need a mayor with character, someone who can inspire others to follow their lead and promote the capital on the world stage. In fairness, as a profile raiser, Boris excels. But too often London is left out in the cold. Take the Mayor’s official visit to Iraq in January. It’s hard to envisage how Boris Johnson posing with a Kalashnikov on the front page of The Sun will bring any real benefit to the capital.

Despite stunts like this, we’ve seen little in terms of policy delivery. The pledges made in his manifestos have in large parts fallen by the wayside, embarrassments dismissed with empty quips that “It is easy to make promises - it is hard work to keep them." Quite.

For Boris Johnson, promises made are easily broken:

  • Remember the pledge not to close a single tube ticket office? By the end of 2016 every single one will be permanently shut. 
  • How about the no strike deal he pledged to negotiate? Despite a crisis entirely of his own making, the Mayor refused point blank to meet staff representatives when, during the summer, tube strikes over the Night Tube brought London to a standstill.
  • End rough sleeping by the Olympics? It’s almost doubled since 2008.
  • No cuts to the fire brigade? Boris has closed ten stations and axe 13 fire engines.
  • The pledge to help hard-pressed Londoners? Not hugely helped by eight years of transport fare increases pushing average ticket prices up 40 per cent, with bus fares up by almost half.

And that cast iron promise not to run for Parliament? How quickly the Mayoralty went from the “greatest job in the world” that “cannot be combined with any other political capacity” to merely an opportunity to “show what he could do” and “gain some administrative experience.”

When Boris finally departs, London will have endured eight years of his leadership. Whilst much has changed, as it always will in a global city like ours, the challenges of eight years ago all remain, many having grown far worse. The legacy Boris has to bequeath to the next Mayor is dire. A deep housing crisis, a wider gap than ever between rich and poor, an £800m hole in the Met Police budget, toxic air pollution levels, the most expensive transport fares in the world and more Londoners than ever paid below a living wage.

For a household name like Boris separating out rhetoric from reality is a real challenge but take a minute to peek at the Mayor behind the mask and you may find that you do not like what you see.

Len Duvall is leader of the Labour group on the London Assembly. 

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The day the earth stopped

Ed Miliband’s confidant and former speechwriter recalls the terrible shock of election night and tries to make sense of what has happened since.

Conference season 2015 wasn’t meant to be like this, for any of us. The Conservatives were meant to be plunged into turmoil, having lost office. The Liberal Democrats were meant to be reimagining themselves as partners in a progressive alliance. The leading lights of a young Labour generation – Chuka Umunna, Tristram Hunt, Rachel Reeves and Liz Kendall – were meant to be getting used to their ministerial boxes. And I was meant to be writing a victory speech for a newly elected Labour prime minister.

Painful though it is to recall, it wasn’t that long ago that this alternative future disappeared. It was the night when the hope of 7 May turned to the despair of 8 May. Good news had trickled in to Labour’s HQ at One Brewer’s Green, London, throughout the ­afternoon. Rumours spread. Turnout was up, it was said. Young people seemed enthused, we heard. There were more people voting Labour making the journey to the polling station than people voting Tory. And how did we know? Well, the party had had over five million conversations with voters. Or was it six million? Even that number continued to rise as the day went on. As party staff came in for the evening shift at Brewer’s Green, the challenge was to control expectations.

But then the exit poll came. And then ­Nuneaton. And then Douglas Alexander. And then Ed Balls. And lose we did. This was supposed to be a country, as I had written in speech after speech, “yearning for change”. But it turned out it wasn’t, or at least not in the way we thought. It was happily settling for more of the same. Just without the Liberal Democrats.

Yet, somehow, here we are, at the end of the summer, with Jeremy Corbyn – a serial backbench rebel who had spent 32 years on the furthest reaches of the back benches and the margins of Labour politics – about to give the leader’s speech at conference in Ed Miliband’s place.

Surreal though this story sounds in the abstract, the rough outline of what has happened and why is bizarrely familiar. In May, the British public rejected Labour for seeming to offer too much of an economic risk in exchange for too little of an economic promise. And then, four months later, Labour members and supporters empowered by reforms most people had long forgotten about seized their chance. They flocked to an unlikely candidate who celebrated his own unbending authenticity. Someone who not only put principle before pragmatism in theory, but who was prepared to say things that party members believed but that their leaders had resisted saying for decades. And then to do so again and again. So it turned out that the consequence of an election in which the British public opted for continuity was a landslide Labour leadership election victory for a candidate who promised to bring even bigger change.

Put this way, it is no wonder that there are many who genuinely care about Labour’s election prospects who are in despair. Within four months, we have had the public heading one way, followed by the party heading almost exactly in the opposite direction. It is not what any of my political scientist colleagues would describe as “orthodox vote-seeking behaviour”.

For those seeking a more optimistic reading, however, there is at least one place where the party’s voters and the broader voting public may find common ground. Jeremy Corbyn’s triumph, along with the utter failure of the other leadership candidates, is not only a shift to the ideological left. It is a rejection of a whole way of doing politics. It marks the end of the spadocracy, the strangulated prose of political slogans derived solely from focus groups, the ever-declining levels of trust, the apparent refusal to take the braver course of action, the collapse of respect for grass-roots party activism, the widespread sense that the elite “never listens to us”. When Owen Jones and Yanis Varoufakis are the go-to advisers for Her Majesty’s Opposition, we know we are a long way from Peter Mandelson and David Axelrod.

Now, pundits talk too often about a “new politics” but in this, at least, the election of Jeremy Corbyn is a new political reality. As the political scientist Peter Mair so presciently put it a few years ago, we have witnessed “the hollowing out of western democracy” in recent years, as elites have drifted ever further away from the people, and now almost everyone has had enough. The widespread revulsion at a “political class” separated off from the rest of society has shaken the old order.

People far beyond the membership of the Labour Party have grown tired of politicians of all parties who live in continual dread that someone will discover precisely how little they know or care for what most people call their everyday. People know that underneath those gotcha questions about the price of a pint of milk or a loaf of bread there lurks a terrible truth: most top-level politicians of all parties can’t really know what it feels like to have no formal power, no significant influence, to be worried about how things will pan out in their daily lives.


To those already persuaded, the rawness of Corbyn’s political style seems perfectly suited to a time when people have become turned off by the slick, the polished and the professional. There is a freshness to a party leader who seems not to care what he wears, who takes the night bus and who just doesn’t know when the newspapers go to press. A leader whose acceptance speech contained not one soundbite, not even a memorable phrase, but that laid out a philosophy nonetheless, indicates that we are indeed in a new era. Ironically, it all follows from one of Axelrod’s most compelling pieces of advice to Ed Miliband. Conventional politics where the candidate seems to care more about power than anything else, he always told Miliband, just can’t win for the left in an age like ours.

So, in this respect at least, the public and the party may seem to be at one. Surely that is a reason to be optimistic about what Jeremy Corbyn has to offer?

Sadly, this apparent confluence between the public and the party’s disdain for politics as usual is not quite as simple as it seems to the converted. And that is not because, as the gnarly old sceptics claim, the only way to do politics properly is the Campbell, Mandelson or Crosby way. Of course, Corbyn’s team needs to avoid near-terminal presentational errors, but it faces a bigger challenge than just getting its act together. Instead, there is something important about the public’s turn against professionalised politics that risks being lost in all the frenzy and the excitement of Labour’s political takeover. And that is the precise nature of what the public thinks about politics and politicians. Because it is not just that the public is bored by soundbites and focus groups and strangulated slogans. Millions of members of the public think that our politicians have a deep disdain for the everyday life of millions of people in this country. They believe that politicians lead entirely separate lives, shaped by their own, entirely idiosyncratic ideas, and that they spend a good deal of their time looking down on the rest of us. And no amount of soundbite-free politics is going to change that on its own.


I realised the depth of this problem almost exactly a year ago. At that time, I was working with Ed Miliband on his eventually disappointingly received annual conference speech. Miliband’s goal, with just months to go to the general election, was to share his vision of the future of our country. More ambitiously still, he wanted to describe what Britain could look like after not just one term of a Labour government, but two. Yet he also knew that for this vision to resonate with people it had to start not from him, but from them. It had to begin, that is, with the dreams and the nightmares of the people of this country, not from the abstractions and the ambitions of the professional politician.

The question for me as a speechwriter was how to reach those dreams and nightmares. The answer seemed simple. Listen and talk to people. And that is how Ed and I ended up spending day after day in conversation with people we bumped into in the park. It’s how we ended up, as a close friend joked at the time, “cruising for anecdotes on Hampstead Heath”.

It all seems like a different world now. But at heart, it was an honest attempt to describe the spirit of the country. The stories didn’t just come from the rich or the powerful. They didn’t just come from people who lived in north London. They came from all over. And they were written in and rehearsed, and they provided a texture to his understanding.

But as Ed began to deliver this part of his speech, the reaction was stark. People began to tweet with incredulity and, believe me, that is not what you want as a speechwriter. The first accusation was that the people were invented. They weren’t. The second was that they couldn’t really have said the words that Ed attributed to them. They had. The third was that they hadn’t really been persuaded by Ed’s arguments. They were. The fourth was that it was inappropriate to talk about real people and their petty ­goings-on in a speech of this scale. That it was silly or sentimental, mawkish or mad. And that just reinforced the whole problem with which we began.

Despite the frustration, and now that the dust has settled, I understand the scepticism. It goes far beyond the standard critique of leadership ratings or rhetorical power. Why should anyone who didn’t know Ed Miliband personally believe that he was sincerely trying to do things differently, trying to demonstrate that the words of political leadership should be dictated by the people? Why shouldn’t they just think it was a cheap trick in an otherwise standard party conference speech? Why should anyone think that a Labour government led by Ed would think differently from governments that had gone before?

These are the same questions that remain for Labour’s new leader. The ideology and policy orientation may have changed. The style may have changed even more. But it is going to take much more than either of those things to convince the British public that Labour has an approach to politics that respects them, that takes their lives seriously, that is sincerely concerned with changing the relationship between the governed and those who aspire to govern.

Working out precisely what is required to convince the British public that this is now a party rooted in their concerns and not in its own interests will be the central task of the next few years. It will take us right to the heart of all the hardest debates about policy and ideology. But I believe the essence of what is required is already evident.

Most of all it needs a culture of humility at the top. The new leader, deputy leader and shadow cabinet need to display an inner belief that people matter more than politicians, that government doesn’t possess all the answers. They need to show they know that the trust that is crucial to our politics has snapped and needs to be restored. This means speaking boldly and directly to people’s concerns. It means forgetting the tendency to speak in the arcane abstractions of socialist politics; dropping the references to the International Labour Organisation and the long march of the working class. It also means an end to behaving as if all the conventions of public life apply only to others. It was the haughtiness behind the decision not to sing the national anthem at the Battle of Britain commemoration that was most off-putting of all. Even more importantly, it means turning decisively against the statism and the centralism of Labour’s past, both in terms of the party’s structures and its plans for government. Corbyn must be clear: the future is democracy, not dirigisme, experimental innovation, not narrow ideology. Ours is an age in which people rightly long to direct as much of their own lives as possible, not have their lives directed for them. Labour is a party that has shown such success recently in engaged, local government, from Hackney to Manchester, and now is the time that the party can make that change with confidence. But doing so will require a break with many of the habits of mind and spirit that many around Corbyn have acquired over the decades.

Similarly, renewal also requires putting in the hours. Everyone who knows the inner workings of the Labour Party knows about “Labour doorstep” – the time put in by activists all across Britain going door to door, talking to voters, doing voter ID. It is vital. But if that is 90 per cent of the way you meet people, you will never expand the party. The Chicago community organiser Arnie Graf, whose career began with the civil rights movement and who advised Labour during the Miliband years, once put it this way: door-to-door contact is at best a one-minute advertisement, and although that is better than a leaflet, it is not building a relationship. To build a relationship with people, you must know who they are, find out what they care about and begin to show that you can respond. The only way to show you trust someone and care for them, after all, is to show them that you want to spend time with them and that you enjoy it when you do. Labour’s community organising experiment should be at its beginning, not its end. No energy should be wasted on factional fighting in constituencies or in Westminster. All energy should be directed towards turning the increase in membership Corbyn has overseen into a strong connection with Britain’s communities. Put simply, Labour needs to return to the politics of relationship-building, not the politics of reselection.


Yet Labour’s renewal demands more than just humility and hours. It demands honesty, too. That starts with an honesty of campaigning. We need an end to the almost complete domination of politics by negative dividing lines, by minutely tailored messages designed to deceive rather than enlighten. That was the straight talking Corbyn promised during the summer. But it also requires honesty about the scale of the challenges that confront us all in the 21st century and can’t be wished away by grand statements of motivation or intent, as Tristram Hunt’s speech at Policy Network during the leadership campaign acknowledged.

That is why we can’t just have knee-jerk rhetoric about the merits of “investment over cuts” and the evils of austerity, however much the Corbyn victory has reminded us of the need to challenge stale economic orthodoxies. Instead, we have to develop an account of the way we can build an inclusive, egalitarian economy that gives people a sense of security and possibility for the future but also understands that the times we live in are hard and are unlikely to get easier any time soon. The only antidote to destructive populism in such an age is a politics of bracing truth-telling. Labour should lead the way in a conversation where we aim to get beneath the surface of problems, make sense of where we are in order to develop deep and sustainable solutions to them, and do so together. That is why we still can’t duck the challenges of reforming the social security system or of the future funding of the NHS. And it is why we have to remind people relentlessly of the economic, social and cultural imperative of securing our place in the European Union: a task that could define this political generation. Labour’s best hope – no, its only hope – is that the public will respond to clarity and honesty about all of these challenges. It will certainly punish any effort to look the other way, whether motivated by expediency or by passionately held conviction.

As I think about what that future looks like, I am drawn back to 8 May. I probably always will be: the pain of the failure is that intense. But this time I remember something from outside Labour HQ. Just before the exit poll was announced, James Graham’s new play, The Vote, was broadcast on More4 live from the Donmar Warehouse in London. The play was set on polling day at a single polling station in Lewisham, south London. People came in and they talked. There was a middle-aged man who had got drunk over the road and wanted to take his ballot paper to the pub; an elderly man who may, or may not, have voted twice by mistake; a young man, just 18, who had read too much pre-Ed Miliband Russell Brand and ripped up his ballot paper in revolutionary protest; and an elderly woman and her daughter who shared a first name, weren’t sure which one had been registered at their address and thus didn’t know precisely who had the right to cast her vote.

The play was funny and poignant, but most of all it was real. Here were the wonderful people of our country. They disagreed about some things – what should happen to children when parents divorce, whether the one-way system was good for traffic flow, whom to vote for – but shared many others: pride in the place they lived, their lives full of family and work and hope and fear. And a sense that democracy still matters.

It ended with the characters gathering together as the TV election programme began. The last sound the audience heard was the disembodied voice of David Dimbleby announcing the exit poll. It was a moment of pride, because everyone each knew, as so rarely in politics, that their voice had been heard. Then the play stopped. And we all returned sharply to reality. Because what Dimbleby went on to say was that they hadn’t said Labour. That is what Jeremy Corbyn has got to remember. They won’t say Labour again, unless the party sounds and feels like it knows the people we love.

Marc Stears is Professor of Political Theory at University College, Oxford. He was chief speechwriter to Ed Miliband

Marc Stears is fellow in politics, University College, Oxford and visiting fellow at IPPR.

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Revenge of the Left