David Puttnam on Labour
‘Now is the time to bridge the chasm between government and the governed‘
Perhaps I am an optimist, but I believe you’ve got to go back about seven years to recall a more united and positive atmosphere in the Labour Party. And it’s not just true in parliament: the efforts being made to rebuild at the grass roots in time for the next round of local elections have every chance of being successful, so long as the present climate of discussion and co-operation continues.
This represents quite a turnaround, because only four months ago the atmosphere in the parliamentary party was becoming poisonous. Several things have been responsible, chief among them the unifying effect of the recent attacks on London and the success of the party leaders in showing statesmanship. But other forces, too, have been at work: the election dust has settled and some divisive issues are slipping into the past. This is a good time to reinvigorate the party and its organisation.
Central to this process will be re-engagement with the electorate. The most recent Labour manifesto is unambiguous: “Widening access to power is as important as widening access to wealth and opportunity . . . Our political institutions – including our own party – must engage a population overloaded with information, diverse in its values and lifestyles, and sceptical of power . . . Our challenge is to bridge the chasm between the government and the governed.” Among the many discussions that ought to be taking place in this context is how we can improve citizenship education. Creatively and inclusively conducted, it has the potential to combat the lack of social cohesion that permits extreme ideologies to take hold of the imaginations of a few young Britons.
In 2001, in the wake of the Bradford riots, I wrote an article in the New Statesman setting out the imaginative steps the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television (of which I was then chair) had taken to draw in young Asians and interest them in the work of the museum. Many of these admittedly small initiatives were remarkably successful. As a result of my experience in Bradford, I was particularly interested in the Cantle report when it was published later that year. This described what had to be done if our multicultural society was to be a lasting success. To quote briefly: “There has been little attempt to develop clear values which focus on what it means to be a citizen of a modern multiracial Britain, and many still look backwards to some supposedly halcyon days of a monocultural society, or alternatively look to their country of origin for some form of identity.”
Four years on, it’s clear we have not done anything like enough to advance the cause of inclusive citizenship in the one place where it is likely to have the greatest impact – our schools. We have proved good at identifying and even celebrating our cultural differences, but we’ve baulked at the other side of the equation – mustering, as Matthew d’Ancona has put it, “the courage to identify, and insist upon, the points of non-negotiable conformity”.
By a strange twist of fate, at the moment when the bombs went off, I was visiting the site of one of the new “separation walls” in Jerusalem, and the news from London certainly tempered my response to what looked and felt like a Stone Age solution to a human problem. That evening, I spoke at the opening of the Jerusalem Film Festival and, in an attempt to link the terrible events of the day with the humanist role cinema is capable of playing, I used a Hebrew expression, “Mee? Annee“, which roughly translates as “Who am I?”. My argument was that cinema, when it wishes, has an almost unique ability to help us answer that question in a constructive way. The reaction of the audience to London’s tragedy was overwhelming: 7,000 people made it clear that in spirit, that evening, they were Londoners.
So what’s the thread running through these seemingly disparate factors: the frame of mind of the Labour Party, its manifesto, the Cantle report and my experience in Jerusalem? It is that the government and the party are now sufficiently experienced, and should be sufficiently comfortable with power, to honour that commitment to “bridge the chasm between the government and the governed”, and to do so rapidly and effectively.
This will inevitably mean reducing the ability of future governments to manipulate parliament and the electorate, but the trade-off should be an enhanced public trust and understanding of the complexity of political decision-making. We must also raise the stakes in our commitment to education for citizenship and implement the recommendations in that 2001 report. We have to convince a generation of young people that no one will be wilfully alienated or left behind, and that their success will be a means of helping others less fortunate than themselves.
Everything I see as I go around schools in this country tells me that it is beginning to happen; that we have achieved a platform of understanding on which to build; that we are not that far away from achieving a genuine sense of “inclusive citizenship”. To a confident Labour Party going into a summer recess with time to think and read, this should not be the stuff of idealism, but the reason for our political existence.
David Puttnam sits in the House of Lords as a Labour peer
John Harris on the Lib Dems
‘They are meant to be progressive. So why are semi-Thatcherites getting top jobs?‘
On 4 July a mystery that had been bugging me for months was finally solved. Charles Kennedy had seemingly vanished since the election, but now he was spotted by reporters in the thick of the hoopla leading up to the G8 summit. Anyone who believes him to be the carrot-topped figurehead for a new kind of progressive politics might have expected him to be at the head of the Make Poverty History march in Edinburgh, but no: according to the Daily Mail he was making himself comfortable in Live 8’s “golden circle”, availing himself of Pimm’s at £6.50 a pint and sharing the portable lavatories with the likes of Ruby Wax, Jemima Khan and Faye Dunaway.
Days later, of course, Westminster was convulsed by the London bombings, and the Lib Dem leader was obliged to elbow his way into the political foreground. Judged against past form, his decision to break from the stifling post-attack consensus was faintly miraculous: “Those like President Bush and Tony Blair, who have sought to link Iraq with the so-called ‘war on terror’, can hardly be surprised when members of the public draw the same link when acts of terrorism occur in the United Kingdom,” he said. “And the terrorist certainly will not shrink from using Iraq . . . as fodder for recruitment.” Cue predictable accusations that Kennedy was some kind of treacherous fool, and quiet gasps from those of us who had thought he had all but fallen asleep.
The aftermath of the election might have set mad blood stirring in the other parties – the Tories with their leadership contest, Labour dissidents fretting over the problem of renewal in government – but the Liberal Democrats evidently decided to take it easy. Until the London attacks, senior MPs appeared to be counting away the days until the summer break, so relaxed that even last month’s vote on the Identity Cards Bill could not rouse them. Why was the best soundbite – “the plastic poll tax” – the work of the Tories? And, most important, where was Charlie K?
“I’m a bad person to ask,” says my favourite Liberal Democrat, Lembit Opik, the party’s Wales and Northern Ireland spokesman and imminent Celebrity Mastermind contestant (specialist subject: Japanese motorbikes of the 1970s). “I see a lot of him. The ID cards debate? Well, it was Mark Oaten who was responsible for raising our profile on that. Charles is reasonably good at not wading in just when there’s a sexy story in a particular portfolio.”
Then he’s too nice for his own good, I reply. He should have put his boot-prints all over that issue. “Well, that’s why I’m in the party,” replies Opik. “We’re nice to a fault.”
If only they all were. Of late, more sinister voices have been swirling around the party’s upper ranks, specifically those of the “Orange Bookites”, contributors to that notorious anthology of cutting-edge Lib Dem thought that threatened to put a great big “neo” before the word “Liberal”. It’s these people who have made the loudest post-election noises, not least when it comes to the fashionable right-wing idea of a flat rate of income tax, mooted as a replacement for the allegedly Tory-scaring policy of raising the top rate. And that makes me wonder: if that policy comes to pass, what other hair-raising proposals might be up for discussion? “There are a small number of voices talking about changes to our economic agenda,” admits Opik. “And some of them are quite senior in the party. It’s perfectly fine for the [pause] basically semi-Thatcherite Orange Bookites to talk about all that at Westminster, but you won’t find many party members who’ll agree.”
Perhaps not. Yet if the Lib Dems based at least some of their recent appeal to disaffected Labour voters (like me) on the idea that they were a progressive alternative to the government, why are these semi-Thatcherites getting some of the party’s top jobs?
That question implies a wish for consistency, but the Lib Dems are still avoiding any attempt at sorting out what they stand for. The odd voice suggested that a debate – and even a leadership contest – might just have been triggered if the party had lost the Cheadle by-election. Victory, however, probably prolongs the onward march of what one Lib Dem acquaintance calls “Rennardism”: the non-philosophy, pioneered by the party’s campaigns chief, Lord Rennard, whereby first principles are routinely sacrificed to a cynical emphasis on dog mess and leisure-centre closures. The party fights Tory marginals as a palatable version of the Conservatives, and Labour-held seats on the leftish ticket that did the Lib Dems a few favours in May.
Unfortunately, a modest win in the north-west can’t hide the fact that the sophistry has started to come unstuck. The Orange Bookites reckon their rightward push is justified by the party’s failure to make significant inroads into Tory constituencies, but the left rightly sees that swinging to the right would mean waving goodbye to the kinds of gains – Hornsey and Wood Green, Rochdale, Cardiff Central – that represented their big election story. Is there any way of resolving this? Some of the party’s cleverer members think the answer is to tap back into the Liberalism of the 19th century and combine opposition to big government with an equally hostile approach to corporate power, accentuating the Lib Dems’ civil liberties credentials (more crucial than ever in the post-bombings atmosphere), and taking issue with inequality on the basis of its restriction of personal freedom. Thus, goes the argument, you simultaneously attract libertarian leftists and Daily Mail readers who are worried about the nanny state, the fact that Asda has strangled their town, and the closure of their local post office. Simple!
The trouble is, complain Lib Dem friends, the anti-intellectual imperatives of Rennardism make talking in those terms taboo. The party thus remains stuck in a world of dog mess and semi-Thatcherism, led by a man who – give or take the odd commendable soundbite – would sooner keep company with Faye Dunaway and Ruby Wax than get to grips with where the Lib Dems are going. These circles, I rather suspect, aren’t so much golden as ever-decreasing.
Jo-Anne Nadler on the Tories
‘So keen are the candidates to respect each other, it’s like Conservative Love Island ‘
Once upon a time, summer for the Conservatives meant Pimm’s and panamas, Henley and Glyndebourne. Not any more. Over the past decade the party has introduced a hectic summer spectacle all its own, an almost biennial entertainment with all the group dynamics and ritual humiliation of Big Brother. Now into its fifth series since 1995, the Conservative leadership contest seems to borrow from other hits, too. Michael Howard, for example, is now Alan Sugar, standing back to watch while the apprentices try to outwit each other. And, with all the contestants so keen to stress their common purpose and mutual respect, it almost qualifies as Conservative Love Island. There’s that nice Damian Green pairing off with dangerous David Davis, and loveable Oliver Letwin pledging his heart to the dashing David Cameron, leaving Theresa May, Liam Fox, Ken Clarke et al to do their canoodling later. And they’ll need to get on with it, because the Davids, Davis and Cameron (and let’s not forget wild-card Willetts), have been doing all the running.
Have recent events changed the ground rules? In view of the Prime Minister’s handling of the London atrocities, there is surely a possibility his tenure might be extended, and though that might be good news for the country it would be bad for the Conservatives, most of whom would like “Black Hole” Brown to take over as soon as possible. Yet it is by no means clear that either option materially changes the fortunes of the leading Davids. Against either Blair or Brown, Cameron and Davis have different advantages. Is it best to counter a newly strengthened Blair with a younger man who could out-Blair him, or an abrasive parliamentarian who could outwit him? And what about a Prime Minister Brown? To contrast him with a media charmer could score well for the Tories, but then again perhaps such a heavyweight would demand the opposition of the more experienced Davis, whose responses to Charles Clarke have been skilful and well judged.
Tories now have the summer in which to consider. Although jaded by leadership contests, they should be encouraged by positive differences this time around. Of all the contests, this is the most important since John Major succeeded Margaret Thatcher, not least because, for the first time since then, the Lady’s influence or endorsement matters not one jot. Thus far, too, the vitriol of previous contests has been kept to a minimum; perhaps the worst mudslinging has come from David Davis’s opponents, branding him “IDS with charisma”. It is not meant as a compliment, even though Iain Duncan Smith has been making a mark lately, advancing social justice as a theme which, rightly, enables all the wannabe leaders to make common cause.
It has taken three election defeats, but this fall-out period is markedly more thoughtful than its predecessors. Sure, 2001 brought calls for change, but the arguments polarised between “sexy” modernisers and complacent “one-more-heavers”. This time, the reflection is more thorough. Despite all of the uncharacteristic self-examination, however, there is a worry: none of the candidates is really exciting much enthusiasm. There may be more at stake this time, with the real possibility that the new leader could eventually become the next Conservative prime minister, but there is also a sober acceptance that there isn’t an outstanding leader waiting to be crowned.