Answering the government’s call for older workers to return to the jobs market, next month I should re-enter the Commons as the Morning Star’s parliamentary reporter, over a year after retiring as Unite’s chief of staff and nearly 45 since I first joined the notorious lobby for the Star.
The paper’s then editor asked me to lie about my age if challenged (I was 19) lest the Star be thought disrespectful for sending such a callow reporter to parliament. In fact, an abiding memory is of the kindness shown me by older journalists, including from the Telegraph and Mail, newspapers then fearing proletarian insurrection. Maybe they hoped I would tip them off as to the date of the great rising, but they were never gauche enough to ask, and the moment passed.
So too, I am told, has the drinking culture. Parliamentary hours no longer demand staying at one’s post until 10pm, which was virtually an incitement to inebriation. Leaving early was impossible in the 1970s when Jim Callaghan’s Labour government hung on the slenderest of threads, which could have snapped – and eventually did – with any vote taken after most of the electorate was in bed. The hours were filled by visiting Annie’s Bar, where journalists and MPs drank on an equal footing. I learned a lot there, particularly about the labour movement in Glasgow.
The party and the picket line
The dramatic fall of the Callaghan government imposed special challenges for the parliamentary press corps, not least because Commons catering staff were taking strike action that day – it was the 1970s after all. My colleagues and I had to roam Westminster in search of refreshment as the no-confidence debate unfolded.
I am glad strikes are now back in a serious way. They are essential to defending already-battered living standards, and they show working-class people standing up for themselves after years when that seemed out of the question. Callaghan’s cabinet was most troubled when one of its number – Shirley Williams of all people – visited the Grunwick picket line, so there is little new in Keir Starmer’s blinkered edict on this point. The political wing of the labour movement always seems happiest when the industrial wing isn’t flapping, laws of aerodynamics notwithstanding.
Phoning it in
There were no emails in 1978. Word processing meant dictating copy to stenographers; each newspaper had a phone booth in a gloomy corridor for this purpose. The Star’s chief stenographer was an implacable Bolshevik called Doris. The 80-something comrade was hard of hearing with arthritis in her fingers, leaving her bereft of any qualification for her role beyond ideological rectitude. I had no chance of keeping an exclusive as I bellowed my scoops at a pace Doris could keep up with.
Eventually I persuaded management that an infusion of youth was required in the stenography department, and a new typist was engaged. Dictating to her for the first time, I began my story, as so often in those days, with “Premier Thatcher…”. I was stopped at that point. “How do you spell that?” she asked. “Which word?” I said. “Both.” Give thanks for automatic spellchecks too.
Securing a consensus
I now have to secure the requisite passes to take up my new/old post. The last time I sought access to the Palace of Westminster I was an adviser to Jeremy Corbyn when he was leader of the Labour Party. It took a year to get the green light. Retired heads of MI5 and MI6 were quite voluble about the unsuitability of allowing me anywhere near the summit of state authority. In the 1970s militant trade unionism kept the establishment awake at night; under Corbyn it was his opposition to the war-mongering foreign policy consensus.
Twenty years ago on 15 February, I shared a stage with Corbyn at the biggest political protest in British history – the million-plus march against the impending Iraq War. I was chair of Stop the War at the time, as I am sure the parliamentary gatekeepers noted.
The invasion went ahead, the greatest failure of British foreign policy since Suez in 1956. Yet the security services, and the establishment more generally, have since seemed more bothered by those who were right about Iraq than by those who led us into that disaster, who have mostly done pretty well for themselves.
Corbyn’s 2016 apology to the Iraqi people and bereaved military families on behalf of the Labour Party was a moral high point of his beleaguered leadership. Apologies are only as good as the lessons learned from them, though, and Starmer’s authoritarian pro-Nato belligerence bodes ill in that respect.
Andrew Murray was chief of staff at Unite and an adviser to Jeremy Corbyn. He is the author of “Is Socialism Possible in Britain?” (Verso)
This article appears in the 15 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Why the right is losing everywhere