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1 October 2001

New Labour and proud of it

Labour Conference 2001: The Gen Sec - The most famous student rebel of 1968, and later a Co

By Francis Beckett

No, said David Triesman sadly, he didn’t recognise himself in any of the colourful descriptions that people put about. “I think my main fault is that I’m rather dull and organisational. I take a pride in making things work.”

I listened to this rubbish with growing astonishment, not sure whether he was joking, or expecting to fool me, or had managed to fool himself. Afterwards I decided that, with this strange, clever, chameleon-like man, it was probably a bit of all three.

This will be Triesman’s first conference as Labour’s new general secretary. He is feeling defensive. He hasn’t had a good press – he has been made to sound rich, greedy and untrustworthy. He suspects that old trade union enemies have taken the opportunity to peddle nasty stories about him.

It is all rather unfair. He has genuine administrative ability. He comes from the Association of University Teachers, and he handled the union’s move from rented accommodation to its own building with considerable skill, which is one of the reasons he got the Labour Party job: Labour’s own headquarters move is yet to be negotiated.

Beneath the smooth, sometimes almost ingratiating exterior, the voice (to borrow from P G Wodehouse) that you could pour on a waffle, there is a tough, efficient manager, ruthless with staff he doesn’t trust, good at picking people he can work with.

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Triesman is also a witty performer; his annual after-dinner speech to the AUT council was always considered a comic treat. He has enormous charm and, like many good negotiators, is often not quite what he seems. He can adapt to a prevailing political climate, which to his friends makes him skilful, but to his enemies (and he has some unexpectedly bitter foes) makes him untrustworthy.

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Always well dressed, he changes his tie several times a day and, once finding himself at a union conference with insufficient spare ties, sent a secretary to purchase one. Colleagues still remember his horror when she headed off to Marks & Spencer.

Like many successful male politicians (Robin Cook is the most startling example), he is apparently very attractive to women in a way that puzzles men. His partner for many years was the writer and critic Michelene Wandor. Their acrimonious break-up, three and a half years ago, was a deep personal sadness to him, and he says: “I will always think she is one of the most talented writers of her generation.”

David Maxim Triesman (Maxim because his mother admired Maxim Gorky) was born in October 1943 into the north London Jewish community, the son of a Belarusian father and a French mother. Although not religious, he prizes Jewish culture, and each year goes to the synagogue on Yom Kippur with as many of his relatives as he can muster. His Jewishness may be a kind of anchor amid the ducking, weaving and trimming that an upwardly mobile political and trade union career has required. Perhaps he has done less trimming than his enemies would have you believe. But he does everything with style, so it gets noticed.

It starts with his childhood. It is said that he speaks of a poor childhood, yet he inherited a substantial sum of money and is rather rich. The truth seems simple enough. His parents were poor when he was small, and lived in a prefab off White Hart Lane. His father worked on the communist newspaper the Daily Worker. “My mum used to say: we haven’t got two of anything,” he says. But later, his father worked in management for the newspaper magnate Roy Thomson, made money, and left with a substantial pay-off in the early 1960s that Triesman has invested well.

He was not just a student radical in the Sixties: he was a famous student radical, the martyr of Essex University, the leader of occupations, and the cause of them, too, when the university tried to expel him. In 1970, he joined the Communist Party, which his father, like many Jews of that generation, saw as a bulwark against anti-Semitism, but which David saw as “a hegemonic force for progress over a long period of time” – which is how he now sees new Labour.

He left the Communist Party in 1976, as he became heavily involved with Natfhe, the college lecturers’ union, for whom he later became national negotiating secretary. He believes the recent unkind newspaper stories about him come from Natfhe sources. He is probably wrong (or half wrong), but it’s a telling testament to the way in which his relationship with the union to which he gave 17 years of his life has soured.

Most of the stories are trivial enough. For example: he seems rather to have exaggerated how close he once got to play- ing for Tottenham Hotspur, which he still supports; and his Who’s Who entry says he was deputy secretary general of Natfhe, but the union has no deputy secretary general – though if it had, it would have been Triesman. I also remember, in the early days of the Blair leadership, reeling away from a pleasant lunch with Triesman (lunch with him is always pleasant) and telling a mutual friend how surprised I was at his very close relationship with the party leader. The reply was: “I love David dearly, but he has a very rich fantasy life.”

But in fact, after Labour was elected in 1997, it became clear that Triesman’s lines of communication to Downing Street were indeed strong. And although he comes to his new job as the protege of the party chairman, Charles Clarke, he would not have the job if the Prime Minister did not know and trust him.

The Guardian ran a rather odd diary story about how he had once been offered a job, given his notice to Natfhe’s general secretary, then had to withdraw his notice when the offer was rescinded. The story is true, but quite uninteresting unless you know (which the Guardian apparently did not) that the job was running the hated college employers’ organisation with which he negotiated. In 1993, he left Natfhe to become general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, and began the political odyssey that would make him acceptable to Tony Blair. Last week, the former student firebrand and communist told me on the telephone: “I’m drinking my coffee out of a mug that says: new Labour and proud of it.”

In the politics of education, too, he seemed to Natfhe colleagues to move to the right at breakneck speed. The AUT is usually much less radical than Natfhe. Natfhe always wanted a merger between the two unions, and when Triesman went to run the AUT, the other union hoped he might deliver one. Natfhe felt he didn’t even try. Worse, he took over a small right-wing breakaway from his old employers and established a concordat with the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, which competes with Natfhe for members in colleges. He seemed to be siding with all its enemies.

Triesman says: “They had an expectation that I would pull the AUT through a merger and I didn’t . . . I very narrowly won the general secretary election against someone whose main opposition to me was the fear that I would pull them through a merger. They think I was the agent of the loss of a historic opportunity. They did not understand the AUT and its members.”

He takes his colour from what’s around him, and always has done. Today, what is around him is new Labour, and he has learnt to speak its language fluently. “The first Labour government was inevitably about a secure economic environment,” he begins as faultlessly as he once must have chanted “Je suis, tu es, il est” at grammar school. But Triesman can do more than that. He understands that he has to do something about the party’s disconnection from people like his one-time friends at Natfhe. He says: “I’ll want to ensure that people [in the Labour leadership] see the party not just as an electoral machine, but as a key player in civil society.”

As long as Triesman can contain his sense of the ridiculous, and continue to take new Labour seriously as a progressive party, he will serve it well and faithfully, as he served Natfhe and the AUT.