Leaders-in-waiting

Whether they like it or not, Labour's senior figures still need to think about Gordon Brown's succes

Future Labour leaders are like buses, sometimes you wait for ages without seeing one and all of a sudden three come at once.

This was the experience for the audience gathered in London on 3 November for a debate about the future of the Labour Party. Its doom-laden title was "After New Labour". The speakers included Harriet Harman, who won the party's deputy leadership election last year. Close friends have been urging her not to stand in the event of a vacancy, but she is still riding high in the betting to replace Gordon Brown with odds of 10-3. (Only David Miliband is better placed according to the bookies.)

Jon Cruddas, another former deputy leadership contender and MP for Dagenham, was also present. There is no doubt he will be urged to stand by the centre-left of the party should Gordon Brown not survive the next election.

But the organisers of the event, the Guardian and Soundings magazine, had also invited Chuka Ummuna, 30, Labour's prospective parliamentary candidate for Streatham. Ummuna is an impressive lawyer who is already being talked up as Labour's Barack Obama and the party's next leader but one.

This may seem an odd moment to talk about successors to Brown when there now seems no realistic prospect of him being replaced before the next election. But the discussion is already well-advanced within the Labour Party itself as the debate demonstrated.

Cruddas and Ummuna did not mention Gordon Brown, and expressed the need to move beyond the new Labour settlement. Harman herself was not prepared to go so far but said: "If anyone is getting any political satisfaction out of the present economic crisis, they shouldn't be." This was a peculiar statement from the deputy leader, considering the only person who appears to be getting any such satisfaction from the economic crisis is the Prime Minister himself.

Chuka Ummuna is a bold young politician with an easy public presence. If he wins the Streatham seat he will be fast-tracked into what is still likely to be the shadow cabinet. He has none of the cautiousness that characterises the fortysomething generation that now dominates (numerically at least) the Brown government. He is no Obama yet. But he is prepared to depart from the current government line in a way that would simply not have been acceptable for a candidate in the buttoned-up Tony Blair era. He believes, for example, that there should be a higher top rate of tax for those earning more than £100,000 a year, and believes that the institution of Prime Minister's Questions should be abolished or reformed.

He is also fearless in his criticism of suggestions from the Business Secretary, Lord Mandelson, that the government could row back from its commitment to flexible working. At one time it would simply not have been possible to cross Mandelson and survive. But Ummuna knows his political life is likely to be longer than the man who may yet turn out to be Gordon Brown's Sarah Palin. His dissent is a sign that the next generation of politicians will not be so ready to accept the authority of the founders of new Labour as the Miliband-Purnell-Balls crowd.

Jon Cruddas is a more immediate threat to the new orthodoxy, which states that the Prime Minister has turned his fortunes around thanks to his handling of the economy. Cruddas is fast becoming the most impressive politician on the back benches. He has a robust and consistent theory of the future of the party entirely absent from the government itself. On the other side of the Channel, Cruddas would be described as an intellectual. While recognising that the crisis in the global markets represents a crisis for parties of the centre-right, he also warns against centre-left triumphalism. Speaking of his sense of foreboding, he pointed out that this could turn out to be "a distinctly Labour recession".

But what is most striking about Cruddas is his capacity to come up with genuinely new ideas. He has proposed, for instance, revisiting the decision to renew Trident and diverting the money instead into boosting the living conditions of frontline soldiers on active duty and at home. He believes a similarly imaginative solution should be found to channel money from the hugely expensive ID card scheme into more practical security measures. Such moves would be extremely popular.

More immediately, he is urging the government to intervene directly in the housing and construction industries in order to ensure that a homelessness crisis is not the inevitable result of the recession.

It is now probable that Gordon Brown has saved his party from oblivion at the next election: something some only felt would be possible as a result of the Prime Minister falling on his sword. But there remains a deep unease on the Labour back benches that the collateral damage from the summer's civil war has been too great.

The long-term consequences of the savaging of David Miliband at Labour party conference are yet to be fully grasped. Whether they like it or not, senior Labour figures need to think now about Brown's successor, even in the event of a Labour victory at the next election.

This article first appeared in the 10 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Change has come

Tracey Thorn. CRedit: Getty
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“Not technically beautiful, she has an engaging laugh”: 35 years of being described by men

For women in music, being described most of the time by men is just par for the course.

I am sure you all saw the Twitter challenge that took off the other day – a request to women to “describe yourself like a male author would”, started by the writer Whitney Reynolds. There were thousands of hilarious replies, with women imagining how a bad male author would describe them. I thought about posting an example, but then realised, I didn’t have to imagine this. I’ve been being described by male journalists for more than 35 years.

Katy Waldman in the New Yorker wrote about the challenge, and how it highlighted clichés in men’s writing: “…prose that takes conspicuous notice of a female character’s physical imperfections. This is done with an aura of self-satisfaction, as if the protagonist deserves credit simply for bestowing his descriptive prowess upon a person of less than conventional loveliness.”

And oh boy, that hit home. Yes, I thought, that is precisely how I’ve been described, too many times to recall, so many times that I’ve actually sort of stopped noticing. The following aren’t direct quotes, but near enough.

“Not conventionally pretty, Thorn nevertheless somehow manages to be curiously attractive.” “Her face may not be technically beautiful but she has an engaging laugh.” “Her intelligence shines through the quirky features.” Often what’s irritating isn’t the hint of an insult, but just being wide of the mark. “She isn’t wearing any make-up” (oh my god, of course she is). “She’s wearing some kind of shapeless shift” (it’s Comme des Garçons FFS).

I’m not trying to arouse sympathy. I’m much thicker-skinned than you may imagine, hence surviving in this business for so long. But the point is, for women in music, being described most of the time by men is just par for the course.

A few weeks ago, when I was in Brussels and Paris doing interviews, I was taken aback all over again by the absence of female journalists interviewing me about my album – an album that is being described everywhere as “nine feminist bangers”. As the 14th man walked through the door, my heart slightly sank. I feel like a bore banging on about this sometimes, but it astonishes me that certain aspects of this business remain so male-dominated.

Even the journalists sometimes have the good grace to notice the anomaly. One youngish man, (though not that young) told me I was only the third woman he had ever interviewed, which took my breath away. I look at my playlists of favourite tracks over the last year or so, and they are utterly dominated by SZA, Angel Olsen, Lorde, St Vincent, Mabel, Shura, Warpaint, Savages, Solange, Kate Tempest, Tove Lo, Susanne Sundfør, Janelle Monáe, Jessie Ware and Haim, so there certainly isn’t any shortage of great women. I’ve been asked to speak at a music event, and when I was sent the possible line-up I couldn’t help noticing that over three days there were 56 men and seven women speaking. The final bill might be an improvement on that, but still. Any number of music festivals still operate with this kind of mad imbalance.

Is it down to the organisers not asking? Or, in the case of this kind of discussion event, women often feeling they don’t “know” enough? It’s a vicious circle, the way that men and their music can be so intimidating. The more you’re always in the minority, the more you feel like you don’t belong. Record shops seemed that way to me when I was a teen, places where guys hung out and looked at you like you didn’t know your Pink Floyd from your Pink Flag.

I also have to watch songs of mine being described by male writers, and sometimes misinterpreted. I’ve got one called “Guitar” on my new record. There’s a boy in the lyrics, but he’s incidental – it’s a love song to my first Les Paul copy. That fact has sailed over the heads of a couple of male reviewers who’ve seen it as a song all about a boy.

That’s the trouble, isn’t it? You miss things when you leave women out, or view female characters through the prism of their attractiveness, or when you take for granted that you’re at the centre of every story, every lyric. I bet you think this piece is about you. 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge