Saturday, August 15, 2015


Having laid a minefield, the Labour party seems doomed to march across it. Whatever the accuracy of opinion polls recording a potentially unassailable domination for Jeremy Corbyn in the contest for the party leadership, the result is clearly going to split the party. Corbynites will howl ‘foul’ if anyone but Corbyn wins. The danger that opinion polling entails is that people naturally set store by it. Corbynites understandably expect their man to win now. If he doesn’t, they will want to know why. I can’t imagine an answer that would satisfy them.

On the other side, there seems an increasing likelihood that the Anyone But Corbyn alliance – which is certainly predominant in the parliamentary party – will foreswear acceptance of democracy and dedicate itself to overturning the result of the vote. This is a rather more difficult position to argue rationally or logically. It is wholly dependent on the assertion that a Corbyn-led party could not win a general election. Nobody of course can prove such an assertion. Moreover, the evidence offered to support it is compromised by many other factors.

Michael Foot and Tony Benn are immediately offered as evidence. Well, there was no Footmania. Michael Foot was elected leader by a ballot only of MPs. There was no grassroots surge on his behalf. Indeed Denis Healey (98 at the end of this month) was so sure he would be elected leader that he refused to countenance any other result – I recall his smug face doing so on a television interview.

Foot and Healey

Foot had a slim victory over Healey. Great man though he was, he cut a remote, bookish and professorial figure. He didn’t play the best hand as leader. I found it hard to forgive him for announcing in the House that he was “an inveterate peacemonger” and then, just a fortnight later, committing the party to backing Thatcher on the Falklands. But the most damaging episode of Foot’s leadership was not something that Foot did. It was the defection of a number of MPs, led by the so-called Gang of Four, to form a new party, the Social Democrats. It was this fracturing of the anti-Tory force that kept Labour out of power for 18 years. The prediction that carries much more conviction than that of Corbyn’s unelectability is that a party riven by internal strife is unelectable.

As for Tony Benn, a rosy glow has settled over him since his death nearly eighteen months ago. His candour and courage and wisdom are now remembered with great affection. Of how many politicians do you hear the phrase “national treasure” used without irony or apology? That he was Corbyn’s mentor is benefiting both his own legend and Corbyn’s present reputation.

The Gang of Four

Look again at the argument that Corbyn would be unelectable at a general election. Whatever you argue, you cannot gainsay that he has enthused a lot of people. Many of them are young, the very constituency hitherto most alienated from mainstream politics. And many of them are long-suffering Labour supporters who consider that the party has gradually drifted away from core values. These are real assets for the Labour party. There is not much evidence that Burnham, Cooper and Kendall are bringing in new support.

That leads me to the vexed question of ‘entryism’. The distinction between entryism and recruitment is difficult to plot or to argue. If someone has left Labour in despair and joined a new grouping on the left or the LibDems, the Greens or the SNP, why would her return not be welcomed with open arms? Nobody in the PLP objects if someone who, at the previous general election, voted for the Tories or Ukip or the Monster Raving Loony Party now wants to vote Labour. Such a voter does not get her motives questioned, even though her previous vote might have been ‘tactical’ and hence perhaps suspect in the purists’ eyes. I voted LibDem in May because I didn’t want the Tories to take the seat from the LibDems. There was absolutely no chance of Labour taking it, even in a good year. That doesn’t mean I am not a Labour supporter. You do what you have to do.

Kendall and Corbyn; the knife is out of sight

Attempts to stymie Corbyn’s leadership are nothing but self-defeating. If he is replaced by Cooper or Burnham before the next election, the Tories will say that the new Labour leader couldn’t even get elected in the party so why would the country be impressed? If David Miliband is rushed in at a by-election simply in order to replace Corbyn with a supposedly electable alternative, the term ‘carpetbagger’ will be forever attached to him. As for the stabbing-in-the-back legend, that would be turned on its head. Moreover, the half-buried issue of extraordinary rendition, on which Miliband has yet to be fully candid, would come back with a vengeance.

All this may still be avoided, however. Remarkably, a poll released last night finds that Jeremy Corbyn easily leads among the candidates on the question “which leader would make you more likely to vote Labour in the next general election?”. He has 32% to the 25% of his nearest rival, Andy Burnham. Yvette Cooper, increasingly put forward as the best compromise candidate by the party’s mainstream, comes last with 20%. This is a poll not of Labour supporters but of the wider electorate. I always doubt opinion polls; this is not what the ABC crowd wants to hear, however.

Last night's poll

It’s unfortunate, but the success or otherwise of Corbyn’s leadership of the party rests largely in the hands of his enemies. His own democratic instincts mean that he will surrender choice of the shadow cabinet team back to the PLP; the chances are that they will heavily load the team with Blairites and other malcontents. Then he has said he will re-offer himself for confirmation before the 2015 general election. Will that be to the PLP or to the whole party?

However it falls out, the Blairites need to tread carefully. Unless they are to reveal themselves as mere opportunists, they will not join the Tories or the LibDem rump. Will they set up a new party? The danger is that they would fail to find a space to carve between the existing parties. The impact of the SDP, which anyway turned out to be shortlived, is unlikely to be replicable. In any case, the absence of Blairites in the Labour party would allow Corbyn to carry more of his policy positions. The more parties ranged against a Corbynite Labour party, the less impact each can have. But if they stay, the ABC-ers must be smart about rocking the boat. New leaders are entitled at least to a honeymoon period. Soon enough, Corbyn will get an opportunity to test his leadership at the ballot box, in the Holyrood elections next May and then the EU referendum across the UK, if not at a by-election. A premature party split would mean that the split itself would be the only aspect of Labour that voters judged.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015


Until I saw the Guardian obituary today, I hadn’t registered the death of Jack Gold at 85. His career exactly spanned my own obsession with television. Watching his film Death in the Morning, made in 1964 for the early-evening magazine programme Tonight, was a pivotal moment in viewing for me. At 16, I was beginning to understand that there was a correlation between the credits I saw on programmes and movies – especially those of the writer and director and sometimes too of the producer – and the effectiveness of the work. Alan Whicker fronted the film, but it was Gold’s producer credit (which meant director in current affairs parlance) that I remembered.

Death in the Morning was arguably the spur that kicked off the anti-fox-hunting movement. It undoubtedly referenced the dazzling hunt sequence in Tony Richardson’s feature film Tom Jones, made the previous year. But it put this visceral excitement to decided polemical use. That it was a true innovation in engaged documentary was recognised by its winning of a SFTA award (the forerunner of BAFTA).

Gold made a memorable record of Malcolm Muggeridge’s lecture tour of the States before joining the roster of directors on The Wednesday Play. He immediately slipped into the Ken Loach mould with The Lump (written by Loach regular Jim Allen), though he made it his own by brilliantly casting a very grand actor, Leslie Sands, in the lead rather than the earthier type that Loach would have favoured (Bill Dean or Peter Kerrigan).

One of the most successful (if least characteristic) Wednesday Plays was Mad Jack, Tom Clarke’s play that covered similar ground to Pat Barker’s subsequent Booker Prize-winning novel Resurrection. It was on a re-teaming of Gold and Clarke, Stocker’s Copper, that I met Jack Gold. I was then a BBC trainee. Jack was reserved, watchful and serious; the part of the production that I shadowed was the recording and dubbing on of music, so the very different character of the composer Carl Davis – loud, garrulous, ebullient – somewhat eclipsed Jack. I never doubted his authority and control, however.

Jack almost invariably chose scripts by writers of the very first rank: Charles Wood, John McGrath, Jack Rosenthal, Julia Jones, Howard Barker, Peter Nichols, Adrian Mitchell, Andrew Davies. But, as all his generation of directors experienced, the movies proved less rewarding than the golden age of television – though Jack made more than most – and the golden age dwindled and died in the late 1970s.

The last time I saw Jack was on a bus in Crouch End and he mistook me for Enn Reitel, not the most flattering of misperceptions. I can forgive him that. His career was as effective and discriminating as any director of his generation and he’s left a fine legacy.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015


Anybody who's ever discussed politics with me knows that I set no store by the pseudo-science of opinion polling. The growth of this egregiously parasitical activity answers the media's obsession with prediction and anticipation, itself a reaction to the decline of the printed press as a source of overnight news. It matters little if the forecasting of sports events or culture awards proliferates and either drains the results of excitement or makes the misguided forecasters look fools. But pollsters have got elections badly wrong in Britain – in 1970, 1983, 1992 and 2015 – and in the States – Bob Worcester himself "called" the 2004 election for John Kerry. This is noxious because, as polling day approaches, it manipulates the electorate and affects the results.

YouGov, the polling organisation set up by the political journalist Peter Kellner, is now saying that Jeremy Corbyn is on course to win the Labour leadership on the first ballot. That's a very dangerous finding and I fear it will have a bad effect on the general behaviour of the Labour Party, both among those who (like Alastair Campbell) have started the ABC movement (Anyone But Corbyn) and among those who plan to vote only for Corbyn and may find their ballot papers discounted if they just put an X by his name. Corbyn's team need to work up to the wire to give their candidate the best chance. Over-confidence now could prove fatal.

Like all opinion pollsters, YouGov supply their paymasters with what they want, including the massaged results that they want. Kellner, remember, was the pollster who asked voters whether they thought Ed Miliband was "weird", a vilely loaded question and, it seemed to me, a good example of pot, kettle and black (see above). But this finding and others that re-enforce it set up a highly damaging possibility. If now Corbyn fails to become Labour leader there will be thousands of Labour supporters who smell a very big fix and the consequences of that could be very far-reaching.

At the weekend, I spent 24 fascinating hours in London Town. On the Saturday night, it was dinner with old (and one new, lovely) journo friends from three continents. We covered pretty much everything you might name, much spiced by one of our number being able to move at will inside the DC beltway. This is what connections are for.

Sunday was spent at The Guardian, attending a so-called Masterclass on The Essentials of Freelance Journalism. Now, I've been a freelance journo for more than 40 years (longer than any of the day's four speakers has been alive) but I haven't placed a piece in more years than I care to count so I figure that ... er ... You're Never Too Old to Learn. I went prepared to be the speccy kid at the front, putting his hand up at every verse end and being utterly obnoxious. My opening line was going to be that I felt like Matt Dillon in Wayward Pines. Probably just as well that I didn't get to use it. The speakers were all quick-witted and sympathetic, though all cut from the same cloth: wry, self-deprecating, self-congratulatorily giggly, unpretentious. Their argot is the one that now dominates journalism and television presentation: banter. If you don't do banter, you can kiss goodbye to a career.

This is bitter aloes to me. The first speaker, Stuart Heritage, had a piece in G2 the other day, followed by another piece by Ian Martin. Both were about Jeremy Corbyn, both were crippled by their jokes shouldering each other out of the way, and Martin's went second because his jokes were that much more outré and gratuitous. I longed for something about Corbyn that I could engage with. I guess I'll have to offer it to G2.

Still, there was a lot of good stuff passed on. I amassed a mass of details that I didn't know or hadn't considered or had overlooked. I feel newly armed for the battle. And for £129 (including a decent lunch and continuous tea/coffee) it wasn't bad value – some of the plusher Masterclasses charge in the high four figures. This is a smart service for The Guardian to offer and also a useful one. Of course, as always, I march away newly determined and within two days the rest of life has crowded in and good intentions fall behind old habits. Perhaps I'll write myself a note.

Monday, August 10, 2015


1) He is a game-changer. Neither before nor immediately after the general election, did anybody anticipate that by the end of July the bookies’ favourite to lead the party would be a career backbencher of more than three decades’ standing who is comfortable discussing Marx on television (as he did with Andrew Marr). So already the political landscape has changed and when that happens it doesn’t only affect the party in question. As Matthew d’Ancona shrewdly described in The Guardian (july 27), apprehension has grown among thoughtful Tories that Corbyn is not to be dismissed lightly.
2) He is a vote-winner. His seat, Islington North, is the smallest in area and the most densely populated in Britain and his majority there has risen from 6,700 in 2005 to 12,400 in 2010 and 21,200 this year. The overblown issue of entryism does not detract from the fact that party membership, both full and associate, has grown greatly since the election and reflects the particular enthusiasm for Corbyn’s campaign among the hitherto disenchanted young and rejuvenated veterans like me. People understand that Corbyn represents something to vote FOR.
3) He is what the electorate have been waiting for. For years the media told us that people have given up believing politicians, that they think they’re all the same, that they’ve all got their noses in the trough, that they don’t know what ordinary lives are like, that they’re only out for themselves, that they bend to every passing wind and think only in soundbites. Now along comes a politician who counters all these notions. What’s not to like? Yet the same media tell us that he’s a dinosaur, an extremist, a dreamer who can’t possibly get elected. Corbyn is disrupting the conventional wisdom.
4) He is not Michael Foot and he is unlikely to split the party. The circumstances now are very different from those that obtained when a group of Labour MPs broke away to form the SDP in 1981. At the previous election (in 1979), only three parties had received more than one million votes; this year six parties did. In the House in 1981, there were only 27 members who were not from the Conservative or the Labour parties. Now there are 68. This is not propitious for the formation of a new party, which would have difficulty finding available ground to occupy. But which existing party could they join? For all sorts of reasons, none is attractive for an ambitious Labour MP. And could they cross the floor without embracing the logic of a by-election to confirm the change, as Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless did when they defected to Ukip? This far from a future general election, they would be mercilessly pilloried without it. Moreover, changing colours rarely improves the fortunes of the changer. None of the founders of the SDP ever held ministerial office again.
5) He can win general elections from the left. It’s been done before. The Observer quoted Liz Kendall dismissing Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters as not old enough to remember Labour losing “election after election in the 1980s” (August 2). Well, selective citing of history may be made to support any position. At the time of the Labour split that led to the formation of the SDP, Kendall herself was ten years of age. I am old enough to remember the horror with which the Gaitskellite wing of the party contemplated the Bevanite (“left wing”) Harold Wilson becoming leader in 1963 (I was 15). Wilson held the party together pretty effectively and won four general elections, one more than Tony Blair and without seeing his majority dwindle successively. And the canard that elections can only be won from the centre ground has been disproved since Wilson. That snorting sound you hear comes from the grave of Margaret Thatcher.
6) He will survive opposition within the party. As he has already made clear, Corbyn would put himself up for re-election as leader at least once before 2020, possibly annually. The anti-Corbynites would have a problem squaring a refusal to accept that such a provision is sufficient with any claim to respecting democracy. By the time Corbyn were re-confirmed in office, Chuka Umunna might have decided that he would do better to be inside the tent looking out than outside looking in, unless of course his alternative career in the city were too lucrative to pass up.
7) He will oblige David Cameron to be a more serious, consistent and transparent prime minister. The sneering and patronising that Cameron relied on against Ed Miliband and deploys now (though less so) against Harriet Harman will cut no ice with Corbyn. Every ducked question will be conspicuous and will be hunted down, every scripted semi-joke will fall flat, every ‘politician’s answer’ will look shifty beside Corbyn’s candour and forthrightness.
8) He will neutralise Ukip. Nigel Farage’s vehicle in this parliament will be the EU referendum. Cameron already has his work cut out to cobble together a manifesto that persuasively suggests that he has secured genuine change in Europe, especially given the number of Tory MPs who will believe that no re-negotiation can ever be enough. I’m guessing that Corbyn will allow his party to vote according to individual conscience and will eschew a three-line whip over the referendum. He is not so root-and-branch opposed to the EU as his mentor Tony Benn, but of all the leadership candidates, he is the one most likely to propose voting to leave the EU if he assesses that Cameron’s manifesto is inadequate. Whichever way it falls out, Farage will no longer have a monopoly on Euroscepticism.
9) He will work with the SNP. I would not be at all surprised if he appointed a Shadow Scottish secretary from within the SNP ranks, and perhaps one of two other frontbenchers from the SNP, the LibDems and Caroline Lucas. Corbyn understands that Labour’s route back to being relevant in Scotland will not be identified in terms of differences with the Nationalists. I wouldn’t rule out a pact, even a merger between the SNP and Labour in Scotland. Corbyn’s and Nicola Sturgeon’s positions across a wide range of policy are closer than Corbyn’s and Liz Kendall’s.
10) He will weather the storms. As a rank outsider needing the nominations of MPs who averred that they weren’t actually going to vote for him in order to get on the ballot paper, Corbyn has nothing to lose. If he weren’t already stoic, battle-hardened and dauntless, he would still have no instinct to be fearful. The Tory press will find that he can shrug off or effectively counter their propaganda much more readily than most of his predecessors did. Moreover, any opinion polls suggesting that the public were taking time to give him their trust would be much easier to dismiss after the pig’s ear that they all made of the general election. A couple of stonking by-election wins, especially against turncoat Labour backbenchers in new colours, will soon confirm what I am proposing here, that Corbyn will be the smartest move Labour has made for very many years.
Hang onto your hats. This blog is back.