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Stephen Pollard’s Diary: Tony Blair was as good as it could get for Labour

My Labour days are gone, repleaced by nostalgia for my time as chair of my branch in the early 1990s.

By Stephen Pollard

My days of Labour Party membership are long behind me. I realise that this will further ostracise me, but as far as I’m concerned, Tony Blair was as good as it could ever get (and that’s not intended as damning with faint praise).

The results from this week’s election to the party’s ruling National Executive Committee make me nostalgic for my days as chair of my branch in the early 1990s, when the local executive committee was in the hands of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (for younger readers, just think Momentum with plastic bags instead of iPads). There was one other proto-Blairite on the committee with me and we had a ball. There wasn’t the slightest chance of us ever winning a vote, so we used to enjoy our monthly Trot-baiting session. I guess it was a form of therapy. But I’m not sure that’s the word anyone on the receiving end of some of Momentum members’ more extreme behaviour would use.

Labour pains

I have a huge amount of respect for those moderate Labour MPs who are battling publicly to save the party from the likes of shadow chancellor John McDonnell, who – as his abhorrent remarks about Esther McVey, whom he called a “stain of inhumanity”, show – has no place in parliament, let alone in government.

Yet there are too few of them. Most moderates within the party are content to sit back and, to borrow Julian Critchley’s phrase about Michael Heseltine, duck under any parapet they see.

When I see their social media posts boasting, “Here I am canvassing with the team in X”, I feel a wave of anger. Last June they justified campaigning for Jeremy Corbyn to become prime minister because the polls showed it couldn’t happen. Except it almost did – and now one could say it is probable, rather than merely possible.

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So every step they take canvassing is a step nearer to putting in office a cadre of revolutionary Marxists they know are an affront to democratic politics and pose a grave threat to our nation. How can they not be regarded with anger?

Taxing question

I’ve finally given up on the BBC’s glossy gangster series McMafia. It’s not the convoluted plot. It’s not the fact that so many of the bad guys are Jewish. It’s not even the rather annoying sense you get that the writers and producers of a bog-standard bit of Sunday night glamour-thrill want you to think that they’re involved in Something Meaningful.

No, it’s that it’s so unintentionally funny. The dramatic thrust in Sunday’s episode was Expressionless Banker Man’s fiancée’s horrifying discovery that the love of her life might have visited the Cayman Islands once, to see a client. Because how could she not be truly shocked that a banker might have visited a tax haven?

Numbers game

The bulk of my professional life has been spent in think tanks and newspapers. In the former, the question that used to drive me mad was: “Have you got anything interesting in the pipeline?” I never did give the answer I wanted to, which would have been: “No, we used up all the good stuff last year. This year it’s just the rubbish.”

I now get a variation on this: “Have you got any good stories this week?” One day I’ll pluck up the courage to say, “No, they’re all really dull”, but until then I do as good a sales job as I can. Which isn’t difficult. I’m now in my tenth year as editor of the Jewish Chronicle. When I started I had never had any professional involvement with the Jewish community. I assumed that the biggest problem would be finding enough stories from a small community to fill a weekly newspaper. But the problem is the opposite:  deciding what to leave out.

Jews are remarkably busy, whether in the arts, politics, charity, science or pretty much any other field you can think of. It creates the impression that there are more of us than there are. So, I now have a party trick when I’m speaking about the JC to non-Jews. I ask them to guess how many Jews there are in the UK.

Go on – have a guess. I can pretty much guarantee you’re wrong. Not once has anyone ever said to me less than a million. Usually the guess is two or three million. The answer, according to the last census, is 263,346.

Card trick

It used to be said that the reason the late Gerald Kaufman always did so well in elections for the shadow cabinet (yes, there really used to be such things) was that he kept an index card system of his fellow Labour MPs, with family names, birthdays and such like. He would come across as avuncular and charming, even though he was the opposite. As the American comedian George Burns put it, “Sincerity – if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

I have my own version of this. In my job, I have to speak at any number of synagogues and Jewish organisations. And they all want a joke. Since most Jews have heard most Jewish jokes, the only way I can keep on top of this and not repeat the same ones all the time is to keep a note of which joke I’ve told to each group. At the risk of removing one from the available selection, this is one of my favourites: Becky returns home to find her husband in bed with her best friend. Shocked, she rounds on her friend: “Me – I have to… but you?”

Hidden figures

If the Guardian had simply redesigned its website, it might have prompted a few comments here and there – even though the site is hugely successful and read by millions – but the redesign of the printed newspaper has seen wall-to-wall coverage. Yet the Guardian sells just 147,000 copies a day. The Daily Star sells more than 400,000. Maybe a sense of proportion is in order? 

Stephen Pollard is editor of the Jewish Chronicle

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This article appears in the 17 Jan 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Churchill and the hinge of history