Commons Confidential: Carry on up the lobby

Featuring Ed Miliband's accidental coup, MPs in the nude, and flying too close to the <em>Sun</em>.

Ed Miliband’s accidental coup against David Cameron – and, by extension, Barack Obama – was as much cock-up as conspiracy. The Prime Minister’s strategic amateurism led him to recall parliament before victory was assured on the Syria vote. Miliband, on the other hand, is no peacenik. His line hardened when Labour whips found that half the parliamentary party was against war, with front-bench resignations likely to fill a minibus. The whips were instructed to inform MPs resolutely opposed to missile strikes that they had permission to miss the vote. The tactic backfired. Told he could remain on holiday, the Blaydon anti-bomber Dave Anderson defied orders and waved goodbye to the Hebrides for Westminster. Carl von Clausewitz would have recognised the unpredictability of war in parliament.
By the way, the government source quoted anonymously in the Times dissing Miliband as “a f***ing c*** and a copper-bottomed shit” was, I gather, an uncivil servant in the Foreign Office and not a Downing Street politico. The misogynistic deployment of the C-word was particularly undiplomatic. I’ve heard a name and so, presumably, has William Hague.
Tom Harris and Iain Wright are the Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau of British politics. A snout overheard Harris, the Glasgow South MP, complaining to Hartlepool’s Wright: “I have now seen both you and your dad naked.” Further inquiries established that the Labour odd couple share a London flat. Buy some towels, boys.
The Sun man Graeme Wilson exchanging Wapping for Cameron’s Downing Street should liven up the 7.03am train from Kingston to London Waterloo. Dave’s new press secretary has a house near Miliband’s director of communications, the former Mirror man Bob Roberts. Harry Hill would know how to judge the battle of the tabloid titans: “Which is better? There’s only one way to find out – fight!”
Feminist MPs are devising a new tactic to cover up page three topless models in the Sun. The plan is to slap “No More Page 3” stickers on the exposed chests of women in any copies in the House of Commons library. Not quite Emily Wilding Davison hiding in a broom cupboard on the night of the 1911 census or Marjory Hume chaining herself to a statue in St Stephen’s Hall but suffragettes would recognise this as “deeds not words”.
The pull of TV prompted 40 newspaper hacks, including at least one Fleet Street political editor, to apply to be number six on the Sky News lobby team. Because of the scramble, it would have been simpler if those political scribblers uninterested in the job had ruled themselves out. And before anybody asks, no, this journalist did not apply. 
Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror
Westminster. Photo: Getty

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 09 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone

Show Hide image

Why I’m thinking of joining the Labour Party

There’s a lot to admire in the direction Jeremy Corbyn is taking the party – perhaps it’s time to get involved.

Why I'm leaving Labour”, as Owen Hatherley remarked a few days ago, appears to be the new “why I’m leaving London”. However, aside from a few high(ish) profile departures, the bigger story is the net increase in membership of 90,000 that Labour has enjoyed since Jeremy Corbyn became leader. Indeed, the last few weeks have got me seriously considering whether I should add to these impressive numbers and join the party myself.

For me, one of the most cheering pieces of news since Corbyn’s victory was the convening of an advisory committee to shadow chancellor John McDonnell, including policy and academic heavyweights such as Mariana Mazzucato, Ann Pettifor, Joseph Stiglitz and Thomas Piketty. It was a clear indication that some fresh and serious thought was going to be put into the creation of a plan for remaking and rejuvenating the British economy. The early signs are that Labour will be offering a dynamic, high-tech economy of the future, with good pay and job security at its heart, which will stand in sharp contrast to the miserable Randian dystopia George Osborne has been pushing the country into during his time at the Treasury.

Also refreshing has been Corbyn’s use of Prime Minister’s Questions to give a voice to those affected by austerity. Given that our media and political class is disproportionately populated by people from privileged backgrounds, it’s really important that an extra effort is made to ensure that we hear first-hand from those bearing the brunt of these policies. It’s right in principle, and it turns out to be good politics as well. Because apparently many Conservative MPs are too stupid to realise that responding to the concerns of working class people with loud, derisive braying merely provides the public with a neat and powerful illustration of whose side each party is on.

Corbyn has taken a lot of flak in the media, and from MPs on the Labour right, for his response to the Paris attacks. But as someone who researches, teaches and writes on British foreign policy, Middle East politics and security issues, my admiration for the Labour leader has only grown in recent days.  

In the atmosphere immediately after a terrorist atrocity, a discourse emerges where caring about the victims and being serious about dealing with the threat are taken to be synonymous with advocating military responses and clampdowns on civil liberties, irrespective of the fact that fourteen years of pursuing this approach under the “war on terror” has only served to make the problem far worse. At times like these it takes a great deal of courage to articulate a careful, cautious approach emphasising non-military forms of action that address root causes and whose effects may be less dramatic and immediate. Many people were simply not in the mood to hear this sort of thing from Corbyn, but his policies are objectively more likely to make us safer, and I admire him for not being intimidated into silence despite the gallons of vitriol that have been poured on him.

In general, on national security, there is something heavily gendered about the narrative that casts the alpha male Cameron keeping Britain safe versus the dithering milquetoast Corbyn who doesn't understand the harsh realities. We reached the nadir of this stone age machismo during the last election campaign when Very Serious Jeremy Paxman put it to Ed Miliband that he couldn’t have Vladimir Putin in a fight.  After the disasters of the last decade and a half, the time is right to articulate a more intelligent, sophisticated alternative to the expensive, counterproductive militarism of the Conservative Party and the Labour right wing.

The question of whether Corbyn can win an election is certainly one that preoccupies me. He will struggle to attract voters to his right just as Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham or Liz Kendall would have struggled to win back votes Labour lost to the SNP and the Greens. Enthusing and rallying the perhaps 30 per cent of the electorate who are broadly on the left is one thing, but adding the other 6-7 per cent that you need to win an election is another challenge altogether. Corbyn and his team have been on a steep learning curve since their shock victory in September, and they urgently need to clarify their message and improve their media strategy. Almost all the corporate press are bound to remain hostile, but there are ways to provide them with as little ammunition as possible.

More importantly, Corbyn’s team need to find ways of connecting directly with the public and bring them actively into what he's trying to do. In the current anti-politics mood, an opposition party based on a genuine, engaged mass movement could be a formidable force. Initiatives like “Momentum” will need to make quick and substantial progress.

Fundamentally, Corbyn’s Labour has to do what everyone concerned with genuine social progress has had to do throughout history: articulate points of view that go against prevailing orthodoxy, and do so in as persuasive a way as possible. By definition, these are battles against the odds. But you can't win them if you don't fight them. And for me, and I think most people on Corbyn's part of the left, five years of austerity have taken us beyond the point where we can accept the least worst version of the status quo. That prospect has simply become too painful for too many people.

So will I join? I’m still unsure. Without doubt there will be times when the leadership needs constructive, even robust criticism, and as a writer and researcher I may feel more free to articulate that outside of the Labour tribe. But whatever choice I make, the point for me is that this isn’t really about Jeremy Corbyn so much as the wider movement he represents, demanding a real change of course on politics, economics and foreign policy. That collective effort is something I will certainly continue to play an active part in.

David Wearing researches UK-Saudi-Gulf relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies, where he teaches courses on Middle East politics and international political economy. He sits on the steering committee of Campaign Against Arms Trade.