Bernard Donoughue: “He also may have shot people. I always think that is very good for people”

Stephen Bush talks to Bernard Donoughue about Labour's past, present and future.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Bernard Donoughue has been a presence at Westminster for most of the last half-century; as a young activist supporting Hugh Gaitskell in the 1960s, at the heart of Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan’s Downing Street operations, at the Times and as a Labour peer since 1985. But he chooses for lunch a quiet Italian restaurant away from the crowds which he likes for the quiet, and when I ask him to list his proudest achievements from his time in office, he draws back.

“I’d rather not pick out individual items,” he says, “What I’m pleased with is having been associated with Labour governments which defended the interests of working people and underprivileged people.”

There is one thing, however, from his career in journalism, of which he is unambiguously proud.

“I’m very proud of that fact I was sacked by Murdoch. That’s an honour!”

He pauses.

“There are quite a number of us with that honour, of course.”

Donoughue was at the Times during Rupert Murdoch’s takeover and in his first year as proprietor, and he holds the media mogul responsible for what he dubs “a diminution in the values of our society”. I wonder if he thinks it makes the task at the next election more difficult for Labour.

“It makes it harder,” he concedes, “But the reality is, we’ve always had the majority of the media against us, and we’ve won quite a lot of elections and had quite a few Labour governments.”

I ask Donoughue, who says he doesn’t see “any sign or prospect” of Labour getting back ito office under Jeremy Corbyn, if he believes that it is the media who will prevent the party taking power in 2020.

“That’s all bollocks in my view,” he retorts, “When the hard left says that [the media is against them], they’re trying to explain why it is that 90 per cent of the electorate and the public rejects what they’re saying. They think that people are stupid, unlike them, in their great genius, and that those people are therefore forced to reject the hard left because they’re influenced by the media. What a load of arrogant codswallop!”

For Donoughue, the large public meetings in support of Corbyn feel unnervingly similar to the ones that occurred in the run-up to the election in 1983, when he lived in the marginal seat of Hampstead and Highgate, where John McDonnell was the Labour candate, and he, and the party’s leader, Michael Foot, packed out a local school hall.

He recalls activists “saying ‘We’re having bigger meetings than Labour has had since the war.’”

“And that was true,” he concedes, “But what they didn’t say was: ‘But no-one else outside is going to vote for us’. The mass was a tiny mass. When we came to the election, we were massacred.”

For observers of history, the Labour leadership election felt eerily familiar. The last Labour government was an object of disdain among many activists. The party’s right was discredited both by its participation in the last government and by electoral defeat. I wonder if Donoughue – who was in Downing Street right until Labour were ejected in 1979 – believes that history is repeating.

“Whenever Labour loses an election seriously and the prospects don’t look good,” he answers, “The hard left emerges from beneath the ground or wherever it is they exist, and because people feel a certain hopelessness they’re more reactive to extreme proposals. We lost the 1959 election and bam! That happened. They had to be fought and beaten, and they were beaten. It happened in 1979 and they had to be fought and it was an absolute knife-edge. So we lost in 2010 and ’15 and here we are again. So there seems to be a pattern.”

But this time is different. The trade unions, which were allies to Gaitskell in the 1960s and opponents of Tony Benn in the 1980s, are mostly behind Corbyn. Even at the peak of the left’s power in the early 1980s, Benn was kept out of the deputy leadership by the block votes of trade union general secretaries. Now, Benn’s political heir is party leader.

 “This time it’s harder,” he says, candidly, “But there are reasons for hope, there are certainly reasons for fighting and believing that we can win. The first is that I believe that our values are better than their values. And we have in the parliamentary party we have a lot of promising young people. “

One reason for Corbyn’s victory, Donoughue believes, is the weakness of the other candidates.

“A young woman said to me, quite angry: ‘I saw Burnham and I saw Cooper and frankly if you expect me to vote for people like that! They’re boring.’  They were not offered a strong choice.”

He pauses.

“I mean, when I saw Burnham and Cooper,” he makes a face as if he has just discovered a large toenail in his soup, “I’m not sure I could have voted for them. In the end I voted for Liz Kendall, because when the polls said ‘you’re on five per cent of the vote’, she said ‘I’ll carry on and say what I think’. Burnham would have changed three times a day if the polls had told him. But we’ve got to make sure that next time they are offered something better.”

He lists a number of politicians - “They’re inexperienced, but that’s the one thing you can make up for with the passing of time.” - he believes could be that something: Emma Reynolds, Owen Smith, Steve Reed, Lisa Nandy.

“Hilary Benn could be in that category,” he adds, “But as a horse-racing man I’m nervous about the pedigree.”

There are two in particular he singles out: Rachel Reeves, and Dan Jarvis. Both have real world experience – Reeves at the Bank of England, Jarvis in the army – and believes that as a ticket “they could win a lot of support from the public”.

At present, for Donoughue Reeves just edges Jarvis.

“I’d like it to be a woman. It’s outrageous that Labour has never had a woman leader, even the Tories have had a woman leader. That’s why I think someone like Rachel, but that’s my personal prejudice, I’m prejudiced in favour of women.”

What about Jarvis? On his fingers, he ticks off the qualities you usually hear cited by both Labour and Conservative MPs, and adds an unexpected final item: “He also may have shot people. I always think that is very good for people.”

Warming to his theme, he adds: “The thing I remember about Callaghan’s government is the best ones had all been in the war. They learned how to take difficult decisions and to take responsibility. They [the veterans] were all good ministers.”

Donoughue says that he once had a late-night discussion with Callaghan in 1977 about a coming reshuffle, and suggested moving Denis Healey to the Foreign Office because he seemed tired. “Jim looked at me and he said: ‘Bernard, when you’ve stood on the beach at Anzio with German 88s [shells] going past your head, you can mention to me that you might move Denis.’”

“I should ask him [Jarvis] if he’s shot people. There are one or two people I could put in his crosshairs!”

Of course, the label that could yet sink the next generation is “Blairite”.  Donoughue knew Wilson and Callaghan well, and the two pursued divergent approaches to retirement, and I ask him what he makes of Tony Blair’s post-Downing Street conduct.

“I was never a Blairite,” he said, “I’m Antique Labour! I think Blair’s government did some fine things, in health and education and particularly in Northern Ireland. He did some not as good things, but where you’re very perceptive is in talking about post-Prime Minister.”

He muses that there is a good book to be written about the after-careers of Prme Ministers.

“Attlee behaved very well, Macmillan behaved quite well, Churchill was too old to judge, Harold Wilson didn’t behave so well , and Jim Callaghan behaved very well. John Major has behaved well. Blair has not behaved well in my view, he seems to be too concerned with making money and all of that.”

“I think history will write up the Blair government,” Donoughue declares, “It won’t necessarily write up Blair. But he was a remarkable leader, and it helps to be a good leader. But I think the behaviours in retirement, could have been a bit more measured and modest and less commercial.”

But he is more complimentary about Blair’s overall record than that of Ed Miliband’s.

“[Ed Miliband] was always talking about ism. Predistributionism, environmentalism, climate changeism,” he sighs, “Now, in Wigan, that isn’t moving the lads, so I felt that he wasn’t a suitable Labour leader, anymore than I think the present incumbent is a suitable Labour leader, for different reasons. I thought Ed was a much more preferable person. But when we’re picking our next leader, we’ve got to pick someone the people are comfortable with.”

Where could that leader come from? Donoughue draws inspiration from one of his hobbies.

“I’m a horse-racing man, and if you look at the stables that produce winners, it’s just like horse racing. Some stables produce them, some don’t. If you look at the moderate stable, it’s produced Attlee, and Wilson, and Blair, and they won nine elections. And if you look at the left-wing stable, which is Foot and Miliband, they haven’t won any. It’s nine to zero. I prefer stables that produce Labour governments.” 

A shorter version of this interview appears in this week's NS.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman, the EI Political Commentator of the Year, and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.