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The history boy: can Nick Thomas-Symonds reunite Labour and nation?

Born in the same valley as Roy Jenkins, Keir Starmer's shadow home secretary is a student of Labour's past. Now he must reshape its future.

Nick Thomas-Symonds is most at home in Labour's past. On his weekly commute to Westminster from Abersychan, a stilled cradle of heavy industry in the South Wales coalfield, the shadow home secretary drives past the childhood home of Roy Jenkins. No Welshman since Jenkins has run the Home Office in a Labour government for real. Should Keir Starmer lead Labour to victory at a general election, the next will come from the same valley.

The coincidence inevitably invites comparison, much of it too straightforward to resist. Is Thomas-Symonds a Jenkins for the 2020s? Starmer, after all, has likened himself to Harold Wilson. Both were born to sons of toil: Jenkins to a miner turned Labour MP; Thomas-Symonds to a steelworker. Both left home for Oxford as soon as they could. Each took firsts in Politics, Philosophy and Economics, as aspirant Cabinet ministers tend to do. Both wrote biographies of Clement Attlee before their election to Parliament, where both arrived young: Jenkins at 28; Thomas-Symonds at 34.

In appointing Thomas-Symonds to shadow the office from which Jenkins helped transform Britain’s social order – liberalising abortion and divorce law, decriminalising homosexuality, strengthening legal protections for ethnic minorities and reducing the prison population – Starmer has inadvertently fuelled a sense of manifest destiny for Thomas-Symonds, like him a barrister. But it is the differences between the two men from the Eastern Valley that illuminate more searching questions for Labour and its leader.

Jenkins made his life away from Abersychan – in Westminster, Brussels and the Oxfordshire countryside. Cultured, continental and well-fed, he never seemed to be a creature of the Valleys at all. Jenkins was urbane and placeless, with an accent that bore no trace of his regional origins. His Welshness was never a source of pride. At Oxford, he professed only to have come “from the Marches”. Aneurin Bevan, whose own provenance as the son of a South Wales miner was never unobvious, was once asked why Jenkins was not ambitious. His reply spoke volumes: “Anyone who comes from South Wales and learns to speak like that must be very ambitious.”

Thomas-Symonds, too, is a man of intense ambition. He has come from South Wales and stayed there, as MP for Torfaen and with it Abersychan and his hometown of Blaenavon, just up the valley. His is an unaffected, demotic manner of speaking. Despite years at the bar and teaching at Oxford, he sounds as if he is of the Valleys and arguably looks it, too. Jenkins sought to cure himself of his congenital Labourism as the founder and leader of the SDP. Thomas-Symonds does not so much embrace it as worship it. Colleagues note with amusement that he has given recent interviews standing before a painting of a pithead. His are a politics rooted in place.

Yet Labour’s problem is that places like Torfaen, clobbered and denuded of economic purpose by Thatcherite deindustrialisation and globalisation, came unmoored from its platform last year. In 2016, 60 per cent of Thomas-Symonds’ voters backed Brexit – a total beaten by only one other Welsh constituency. The pits and foundries have long closed. Some wards in Pontypool, the seat’s administrative centre, are among the poorest in the country. MPs for seats in the English North and Midlands with comparable challenges woke up on 13 December without jobs. Thomas-Symonds found his majority over the Conservatives reduced to under 4,000, not even a fifth of what Labour mustered in 1997. MPs in South Wales were lucky – saved, one of their number says, by the fact that their constituents “hated the Conservatives more than they liked Brexit”. It will take only a 5 per cent swing to the Tories to fall at the next election.

Starmer will never form a government without stemming the bleeding in communities like those Thomas-Symonds represents in Torfaen, where coronavirus will hit the economy hard. But the new leadership of the Labour Party has its sights on southern suburbanites too, for without them it can have no majority either. His challenge, as a man of the London left, is to communicate a vision and domestic policy platform that unite Torfaen with Tottenham, rather than hastening their division. It is one of the most profound of Labour’s history. While Jenkins did not succeed in realigning British politics via the centre, in a worst case scenario his home valley – no longer the place immortalised in the Labour imagination – could yet be a symbol of its transformation by the right.

Starmer's shadow home secretary, a biographer of Bevan and Harold Wilson as well as Attlee, knows that history better than any other MP. Unlike Starmer he is a man of the party, not the movement. Having served loyally under Jeremy Corbyn, he now faces the challenge of writing the next chapter in his own voice. “The problem for Nick,” said one Welsh Labour strategist, speaking of white van men in Cwmbran, at the heart of his constituency, “is that he wants to be a reformist Jenkins. They want an authoritarian Callaghan.” Which is it to be?

***

The Labour tradition in Abersychan runs long and deep. Today home to barely 7,000 people, the village has produced four Labour MPs. After Roy Jenkins came Paul Murphy, MP for Torfaen before Thomas-Symonds and mainstay of Tony Blair’s cabinets, and Don Touhig, Neil Kinnock’s successor as the member for Islwyn. Before him came Roy's father, Arthur Jenkins, parliamentary private secretary to Attlee. A NUM agitator, Jenkins Senior’s arrest on spurious grounds at the height of the 1926 General Strike inured his son with an instinctive distrust of the police he would become responsible for as Home Secretary.

Murphy claims Thomas-Symonds as heir to the line. “It’s very, very unusual that a small village like that has produced so many MPs,” he told me. “There’s this huge, working-class, radical socialist background to all those MPs. It was a very, very radical part of the world, you know. It produced the Chartists, and was probably the cradle of the Labour movement in many respects. The common denominator was the pit.”

Yet Thomas-Symonds is no Labour dynast. The only child of Jeff Symonds, apprenticed as a steelworker in Newport before retraining as an industrial chemist at night school, and Pam Thomas, a secretary at a local forging factory, he was born in May 1980, three weeks before his namesake, the golfer Jack Nicklaus, won the US Open for the fourth and final time three weeks later. Pam, who died in 2018, had preferred the traditional spelling of Nicholas, but did succeed in imposing a double-barrelled surname.

Jeff had spent the first fortnight of the year of his son’s birth on strike, but his was not a political home. His son was instead radicalised by his maternal grandmother Olwyn, a failed Labour council candidate. “What she taught me,” Thomas-Symonds recalled in December, “was that politics had this extraordinary capacity to make a difference.” Ideology was certainly making a difference in Torfaen. “I saw what Thatcherism had done to this community, taking away opportunities and not replacing them… My grandmother’s answer to that was a pretty simple one: if you actually do want to make a difference, the only way to do it was to go into politics.” His mission was to restore the dignity denied by deindustrialisation.

That ambition was never concealed from classmates at St Albans, a Catholic comprehensive in Pontypool. His, however, was a Calvinist’s appetite for hard graft. Pupils christened the young Thomas-Symonds as Marvin, after the self-pitying android in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It was a nickname inspired by intellect – Marvin’s underutilised brain was said to be “the size of a planet” – rather than a gloomy temperament. “He was incredibly hard-working, and very popular,” a schoolfriend says, speaking in the sort of terms now echoed by the 2015 intake of Labour MPs. “But it was politics that drove him.” By 16, he was minute secretary of Torfaen CLP, but no bookish bore. Though a student of the marauding Liverpool FC sides of the late 1980s, contemporaries diplomatically describe his own style of play as “committed”. (He still plays five-a-side.)

In 1998 the brain took Thomas-Symonds to St Edmund Hall, Oxford – though the heart obliged regular visits to Manchester, where his sixth form girlfriend Rebecca, now his wife and mother to his three children, studied economics. His other love was Philip Larkin. Three years later he graduated with a first in PPE, as did Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, and Anneliese Dodds, his Labour shadow. As Wilson did before him, Thomas-Symonds, though only 21, was retained by his tutors as a lecturer in the politics of Britain, America and the Soviet Union. He interviewed undergraduates and toured Welsh comprehensive schools in the hope of ensuring more teenagers like him might be among them.

Thomas-Symonds might not have left university, but he did leave Oxford. The two great romantic attachments of his life – Rebecca and the Welsh Labour Party – drew him back to the Eastern Valley. “He wanted to be the member of parliament for his own constituency,” an academic colleague recalls, “and he knew what to do every step of the way.” Before Oxford he had interned, briefly, for Murphy. “He said that one day I would end up with a top job. Well, I cannot think of a greater job than representing the people of Torfaen,” he recalled in his maiden speech.

Like Murphy had done while awaiting the retirement of Leo Abse, his colourful predecessor, Thomas-Symonds became secretary of his CLP – an administrative job that allows those with ambition to build a network, while sparing them from taking the sort of divisive positions on thorny issues that might alienate it. “It gives you a connection with party members which you wouldn’t normally have,” says Murphy.

Having also qualified as a barrister and built a successful chancery practice in Cardiff, he cultivated a reputation as one of Welsh Labour’s coming men. Word spread. “I picked up that he’d been in Oxford, got a good degree, lectured there, and was now a barrister,” Neil Kinnock told me. “You don’t find too many of those in South Wales Labour constituency secretary posts. For a boy from Blaenavon, that’s not terribly usual.” There were dalliances with candidacies beyond Torfaen, and in one case beyond Wales: Thomas-Symonds was briefly Labour’s no-hope candidate for Chippenham in Wiltshire in 2009, before missing out on the nomination for Kinnock’s old seat of Islwyn by a single vote the following year. In 2012, members in Cardiff South and Penarth did not want him either.

Alongside him on the Islwyn shortlist was Nathan Yeowell, another son of Torfaen who is now director of Progress, the Blairite pressure group. “I can’t imagine Nick representing anywhere else than Torfaen,” he told me. “For as long as I’ve known him, he’s felt, quite keenly I think, the history of the Eastern Valley, its place in the Labour Party, those people that have gone before him. Being part of that tradition is important to him and tells you a lot about what makes him tick.”

Murphy did not doubt that Torfaen would favour its own son either. “He was my natural successor,” he says. So it proved in 2015.

***

Thomas-Symonds arrived in Westminster that May to find Labour bruised by its unexpected defeat to David Cameron and divided on how it might face the future. The summer that followed revealed a party not only unsure of its past but haunted by it. What had Labour done in office, and why? What were the principles from which it had strayed?

Thomas-Symonds was mentored by Murphy and Albert Owen, the former Ynys Mon MP, over curry and Irish whiskey. He cast himself as a man who knew the answers to those questions of history, for he had written them himself. In his maiden speech, a bravura performance of the old school delivered without notes, he spoke of the Attlee governments as his lodestar. “Their central political lesson is that politics is ultimately about constructive achievement for people,” he said.

His biographies of Attlee and Bevan, written in his spare time while working at Oxford and the bar, tell the same story. Lives of the latter man, the founder of the NHS, have tended to sectarian apologia, hagiography or right-wing polemic. Thomas-Symonds is a devotee but does not do what critics refer to as "Nyolatry".

One can read Thomas-Symonds’ life of Bevan as a gentle attempt to point out that the qualities for which Nye is best remembered now – the bluster, the baroque expressions of contempt – made a good minister’s job harder than it needed to be. He believed in things that Corbynites at times set themselves against: the right of the PLP to defy its leaders, and multilateral nuclear disarmament. Both Nye and Attlee are cast as patriots. Power, he notes, “brought out the best” in Bevan. Labour MPs wonder whether the same will be true for his biographer. More fundamentally, they wonder what is there to be brought out of Thomas-Symonds.

More than one Labour politician was broken by Brexit in the 2017 Parliament. Thomas-Symonds, like Starmer, was arguably made by it. Returning to the frontbench after resigning the botched coup of 2016 as shadow solicitor general and shadow security minister, he became the shadow Brexit secretary’s effective deputy at the despatch box. Though he had long been admired by older hands in the Welsh PLP, it was in responding for the opposition during Brexit debates he became more widely known in Westminster.

Geoffrey Cox, his sparring partner as Theresa May and Boris Johnson’s attorney general, was also among his admirers. “In time, he will grow into a formidable politician,” Cox told me. “When he stood up at the despatch box, you knew he would be persistent, and do so with a questioning edge that was always effective.”

Cox, too, sees Thomas-Symonds as the heir to conflicting traditions. “It’s not that there’s a dearth of lawyers in the House. There is a dearth, I’m afraid, of able lawyers. If you’re an able lawyer, the gap in pay, frankly, as well as the rigours of politics, are no longer very attractive. So what the Labour front bench has found in Nick Thomas-Symonds is a very promising, very able lawyer.

“But I think from time to time there creeps into his style an emulation of Bevan, which I thought was possibly the weakest part of his performance. I think when he matures, and as he grows in confidence, he will probably find it congenial and necessary to get rid of that aspect of his style, because he’s quite able to make his points without becoming nasty. I’m not saying Nick ever did become nasty – I have a real, genuine regard for him. But one sensed he was attempting to couch himself in that style.”

Style is one thing. Indeed, for Starmer, it is arguably the thing: both his leadership campaign and his response to the coronavirus pandemic have been exercises in shifting emphasis above and before anything else. Bevan, a savage opponent of the wartime coalition, might have taken a different approach. But what of the substance of Starmer and his shadow home secretary’s vision for a divided Britain?

Until now, Thomas-Symonds the frontbencher has been entrusted with punching holes in other people's visions, an easier task than articulating his own. That he played foil to two shadow cabinet ministers not always fairly maligned by Corbynsceptics – Diane Abbott and Shami Chakrabarti – did no harm to his reputation among MPs ,either. Few colleagues enjoyed similar luxuries.

“We see him as absolutely dead-centre of the Labour Party, someone who will try and build bridges with all wings,” says one member of the 2015 intake. “He kept his head down. But in a sense, he was able to do that because the stuff he did really well on involved handling quite niche bits of legislation. The obvious thing is that he hasn’t had to confront the political choices where he will have to disappoint some people.”

Should he and Starmer take the wrong choices, those people might yet include his own. “His sense of place, and the importance he derives from it, also presents its biggest challenge,” said Nathan Yeowell. Ask an MP of Thomas-Symonds’ politics and some struggle to offer much more beyond Labour. The challenge is ensuring that word means something more than vestigial tribalism. “The social and political monoculture that has sustained Labour in Torfaen since 1918 no longer exists,” says Yeowell. “Labour needs to work out what the traditions of yesterday mean in the Wales of tomorrow. And the clock is ticking.”

***

Roy Jenkins once said that writing was more difficult than being a minister. “The most difficult thing is sitting down at a desk with a blank sheet of paper, and unless you write the thing there will be nothing there. As a minister, you hardly write anything.” The question for Thomas-Symonds is whether he can make history as well as judging it.

Doing so will mean articulating a new Labour tradition, and speaking to the middle of the country, not just the middle of the party. Starmer says he is a patriot and has spoken of his desire to emulate Wilson, but any lessons Thomas-Symonds might have offered in his biography remain as yet unpublished. In his life of Attlee, he notes the dangers of failing to fulfill unite warring factions and personalities – as Starmer has promised to do.

His leadership team has an unenviable inheritance, too. Labour, as Thomas-Symonds wrote in a defence of how Michael Foot dealt with the Militant tendency, is “deeply split horizontally and vertically” beneath them. “The factionalism has been much more definitive in the last five years than it was even at the height of Bennery,” sighs Kinnock.

Both wings of the party believe they have his measure: one Corbynite refugee from the shadow cabinet says Thomas-Symonds and Chakrabarti agreed “on absolutely everything”, especially on questions of human rights. Others more accurately cast his politics as a departure from the last leadership. “Call it Bevanite, Kinnockite, Tribunite, if you like,” says Paul Murphy. “What it isn’t is probably better – it is not hard left. In no sense is it Bennite.”

Kinnock puts it lyrically: “Nick has got this in common with Nye, and with quite a lot of people of Nye’s generation – a combination of being firmly grounded in the community, but with very broad, indeed infinite horizons. That combination of specific terms of reference that come from a locality, an upbringing, being a window on the world instead of an enclosure. I find that characteristic is admirable, but it’s also quite unusual, because people who are brought up in relatively narrow areas too often remain narrow and breadth is associated, often, with rootlessness and with cosmopolitanism.”

Thus far Thomas-Symonds has sought to bring that worldview to bear on policy. “Labour have a message: that will keep you, your family and your community safe,” he told The Guardian in his first interview earlier this month, casting crime as a progressive issue. “That’s very much the approach where I come from.” (Claire Ainsley, Starmer’s new head of policy, has also spoken of the importance of the family.)

It is less Jenkinsite permissiveness than the language of Labour’s old right: mutual obligation over individual liberty at any cost, a conflict that Covid-19 and lockdown have thrown into harsh relief. “Responsibility is the word that I would use. Responsibility to others, to society: there is such a thing as society, there’s no doubt about that. Crimes have victims; they damage the fabric of that society. But there is a responsibility for government as well, and it’s the responsibility to keep people safe.” Starmer, once a radical who sought to muzzle the coercive forces of the state, has a protégé willing to reclaim the moral language of the right.

“It set the right tone,” says Nathan Yeowell, “of being more interested in the concerns of his constituents than banging the drum for ideological pet projects.” That two of the most important briefs in his shadow ministerial team – Security and Immigration – have been filled by Conor McGinn and Holly Lynch, both well to the right of the 2015 intake, also gives an indication of a possible direction of travel, as does the presence of Sarah Jones, a doughty campaigner on knife crime as a public health issue.

Thomas-Symonds has certainly shown an intuitive understanding of the electoral weaknesses in the Corbynite platform he left scrupulously unacknowledged while on the frontbench. Earlier this month he broke from the party policy he was once dispatched to the Commons chamber to defend, when he described Hezbollah as “an antisemitic terrorist organisation” that deserved to be proscribed by the Home Office. Labour hawks like Murphy think that is the sort of line that might pay electoral dividends. “They understand,” he says of voters in Torfaen, “that when it comes to things like dealing with terrorism, you can’t make many compromises.”

But the challenge facing Starmer’s inner team is even greater. Some in the PLP believe that all Labour need do is lance the electoral boils Corbyn was unwilling or unable to. That is wishful thinking: the pandemic and its long aftermath will require Labour to prosecute a new argument for what the Britain of the 2020s will look like. It is to Thomas-Symonds and Anneliese Dodds that the task has been entrusted. Bevan thought the crisis of war was an opportunity to reshape society. It remains to be seen whether his keenest student will demand the same.

Is Thomas-Symonds up to it? “When he spoke of home affairs, crime and justice being a progressive issue, he used the phrase about ‘you, your family, your community’ and I thought, ‘Right, this guy has really got his foot behind the ball,’” Neil Kinnock told me. “Because he understands that to speak of something as progressive can be very abstract – unless it’s directly related to what people in all backgrounds and all parts of society can identify with.”

That is what the Attlee and Wilson governments did. Whether Starmer will ever be spoken of in the same breath will depend on whether his shadow home secretary can take those lessons back to the future.

Patrick Maguire is political correspondent at the New Statesman.