Jeremy Corbyn’s huge victory was a cultural revolution. It was a plea for a different style of politics and a rejection of people like me – the special adviser.
As a very recent ex-adviser, fresh out of Labour HQ just three weeks ago, I’m not going to lie . . . this hurts. But you have to accept that people felt politicians were too cautious, too carefully schooled in their answers. In our defence, though, we spads weren’t all bad (and we were working in an ever more hostile media climate). I’m most proud of working day and night on the Equality Act, one of the greatest achievements of the last Labour government.
But life is strange for an ex-adviser. The first stage is denial. There is talk of a new life: a personal renaissance. You vow to do yoga, read fiction, grow stuff – beards, vegetables – but it’s only talk. Before you can say “massive marrow”, you’re arguing on Twitter and shouting at the Daily Politics (which you never used to watch) in your pants.
The silence of your phone – something you once craved – begins to sicken you. Then it rings. It’s an unknown number. Your heart leaps, thinking it might be a junior producer from World at One and at least you can have a wee chat. But it’s not. It’s a PPI claim. In the end, the poor call-centre worker has to make polite excuses to get you off the phone.
Inevitably, after many protestations of being a “normal” person now, the typical ex-adviser can’t resisting booking a train ticket to Brighton for party conference. The truth is, we all care about the party deeply and we still feel part of the Labour family (even though we’re treated a bit like slightly unwanted relatives at Christmas).
At one gathering, what was ostensibly a high-level political salon quickly devolved into something more like a group therapy session. “A few weeks ago I was making big-ticket policy calls,” one ex-spad mourned. “Now the biggest decision is whether to watch Homes Under the Hammer or Come Dine With Me.” I told him to stop being so ridiculous. The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills is where it’s at.
One of the many great things my ex-boss Harriet Harman did was to reinstate the annual Labour women’s conference on the Saturday before the main event begins.
This year, more than 1,200 women attended and there were brilliant contributions from the new shadow women’s minister, Kate Green, and the Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale. But the highlight is always the open-mike session, which is a free-for-all and therefore wildly unruly. It usually starts with a few feel-good speeches, then rapidly descends into “it’s your gripe”, where everyone just lets rip. Eventually, the poor chair has the unenviable job of pleading with some majestic feminist in full flow: “Err . . . sorry to interrupt you (boooo!) but would you mind wrapping up (booo!) . . . We’ve only got the room for another 11 minutes and there are 74 women left to speak . . .”
That’s the great thing about women’s conference: it allows women to speak freely, directly to the leadership, without fear. Except – we no longer have a woman in Labour’s leadership team. This is a big deal. It made the tribute to Harriet (complete with inevitable photo of the Pink Bus) all the more poignant. We all got misty-eyed, but Harriet was having none of it. She did what Harriet does best: told the room to buck up, stop feeling sentimental and keep fighting, even if it meant being unpopular with hierarchy. She left us with her feminist motto: “A row is as good as a rest.”
Although the Tories are never going to be feminists, they are coming after our female-friendly policies – especially on family issues. George Osborne has just nicked one of our best manifesto promises, which came out of Labour’s Commission on Older Women: to allow working grandparents to share parental leave to help with childcare.
We need more ideas like that. And with an all-male top team, we need more women behind the scenes to support the shadow cabinet (which has a very welcome 50/50 gender split) in developing them. The power behind the throne is pretty important in politics – even the new politics.
Having been involved in writing the leader’s speech for the past five years, I found it both liberating and slightly sad not to play a part this time. Much has been made of the delivery, use of the autocue, what Jeremy Corbyn wore, the structure and who wrote what bit. I don’t really think that matters. What matters is what he said and whether it reached out to people at home. (And to be fair, most leaders start working on their speech three months before conference – he’s had only three weeks.)
The big thing he didn’t talk about was our terrible election defeat. In the new politics, we expect to hear some hard truths, no matter now painful. We needed to hear some recognition of why we lost so badly and why the public couldn’t bring themselves to vote for us in those key marginals. And, in an unspun era, we need to hear the unvarnished truth – we were not trusted on the economy and welfare.
Pizza the action
There was a lovely bit about kinder politics in JC’s speech. I can vouch for the kindness of Jeremy’s family. At the first televised leadership hustings in Nuneaton, I arrived tired and hungry, while all the leadership teams were ploughing their way through the pizza that Newsnight had provided. Not a crust or a wee disc of pepperoni was left. My stomach rumbled noisily, and a very nice lady tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Are you OK? Have this,” and then gave me half her sandwich. Talk about the kindness of strangers. Turns out it was Jeremy’s lovely wife – that is a kinder kinda politics.
This article appears in the 07 Oct 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis