Thursday, 30 July 2015

Labour leadership: Corbyn to storm in?

So they say. The party membership, as so often in its history, has gone bonkers. Now I am not so sure that Corbyn will in fact storm in to the leadership of the Party That Prefers Opposition, as party elections are carried out in the Alternative Vote system, so while it may appear that Corbyn has a majority of first preferences, that may quite well not add up to 50%, and second and third preferences may give it to Andy Burnham, or indeed one of the others. Incidentally it is Yvette Cooper who has made the best joke of the campaign so far, calling the candidates "ABBA" - the blonde one, the dark one, the bearded one, and the other one. *Resists temptation to use pic of ABBA in this post* and anyway they are super-strict with their legals, and it's actually quite hard to download a free-to-use picture of the Swedish foursome that is any good.

Yes. The bonkers party. It is well known that the activists - those who attend the monthly General Committee (GC) meetings, the GC being the sovereign body of a constituency or other local party, are almost all clinically insane, and those that are not are swiftly hounded out, and routinely denounced in the local media. Read Robert Conquest on Stalin's years in power, as I am currently doing, and you will recognise your GC. It is also well known that the "grass-roots" members (this means the mad ones) prefer being in opposition. They HATED Tony Blair, and they HATED the 13 years of Labour government we had from 1997 to 2010. There were HORRID things like the minimum wage, like money for working families, like free TV licences, like - oh, please yourselves. I was a Labour MP for eight of those years, and not once did anyone at the GC say it was a good thing that we had the minimum wage, or Sure Start, or any of the other goodies Tony Blair as Prime Minister and Gordon Brown as Chancellor made sure the people had. No. But they moaned and carped and nitpicked endlessly, mainly about foxhunting and the Middle East. After a while it got so that Jewish members had to stay away, as they were howled down whenever they tried to speak. It was that bad. And this was in the late 1990s, when the economy was pretty strong, when my constituency had zero structural unemployment, and when the world was a bit more peaceful than it appears now.

What a waste. In the good years - yes, the Blair years, or go back to the Wilson years if you are old enough, those years when we had Labour governments - the party right up to the top was pointlessly distracting itself with petty infighting, persecution and bullying. The whips bullied, not the rebels, but the loyal backbenchers. Ann Taylor and Hilary Armstrong as successive Chief Whips took particular pleasure in this, and where are they now? Oh yes, in the Lords, being smug on £300 a day. Taylor in particular is rather stupid, well you'd have to be to think Roy Hattersley was hunky at any time in history. Local parties persecuted, not the corrupt and the racist (all parties have those) but hardworking councillors and MPs. And no one cared. The great resource the party had in those days, its people who were not part of corrupt cabals but who worked hard as volunteers for the cause, or who had been elected because the British people wanted a Labour government led by Tony Blair, whether Labour members liked that or not, was wasted. Most of us came through it more or less in one piece. Some did not. Margaret Moran is a broken woman. Fiona Jones is dead. Anne Moffat was deselected by a small cabal of corrupt men (there is always a small cabal of corrupt men, the trick is not to let them take charge) and the party leadership laughed in her face.

So let's bring it down on their heads. I disagree so profoundly with most of what Jeremy Corbyn has to say that it's not even worth my while deconstructing any of it. But part of me says - serve them right. Destroy the party. You might as well, now that between Gordon Brown and the mad GC men you've contrived to keep Labour out of power for at least a generation, if not for ever. Scorch the earth, and start again.

And the people, in all this?

Friday, 22 May 2015

Tabloid Secrets

I was most interested to read this book, largely because the News of the World, whatever you thought about it, was a phenomenon. I think that's the right word. There never was another paper quite like it. I used to read it regularly. Even in the fairly short time since the paper closed, at the behest of its owner, well I won't bore you with why that happened, but there was phone hacking and a whole bunch of stuff, and I suppose the brand finally became tainted, the dead-tree press has become less relevant, and less important to people's lives, and perhaps as a consequence, people have become more credulous.

My grandfather, a butcher by trade who was of Welsh heritage and worked in the Harrods food hall in the last years of his working life, used to read the Daily Mirror. He read it every day, and was highly sceptical about what he read there. He thought the government mostly lied to the people, and that most of the papers copied out their lies most of the time. He was probably right. He used to like the News of the World too, but my grandmother wouldn't have it in the house because of its raunchy content, and because she thought reading it might give my grandfather "ideas" - what sort of ideas, she never said, though my brother and I used to try and persuade her to.

My parents used to read the Daily Sketch, and later on The Times. Most of the rest of our family thought they were getting above themselves for reading the "Top People's Paper", as it styled itself at one time. My father was fairly sceptical about what he read too, but less so than my grandfather had been. He used to wonder aloud about what was "meant" by what was published. He knew there was another message there under the headlines, but he wasn't quite sure what it was. My mother very rarely commented on the news. When the Profumo affair broke I was nine years old, and my parents got their "information" about it from the newspapers they read. I remember their rather clumsy attempts to use coded language when they talked about that story in front of their children. I think they were trying to avoid one of us asking "What's a call girl?"

I read newspapers when I was younger, to my shame the Guardian at one time, poisonous racist rag that it is, and I read The Times on line sometimes now - I get bored and let my subscription lapse, and then I start again - but newspapers aren't part of my life any more. I use public transport every day, and you never see people reading newspapers on there any more. Freesheet giveaways, maybe.

Neville Thurlbeck, sometime news editor and chief reporter on the News of the World, describes the old Fleet Street and tabloid reporting as a "vanished world", and so it is. Twitter and so on have more or less put paid to it. And we are all the more gullible as a result. Retweet something when you have no idea whether it is true or not, which people do every day in their millions, and where in all that is knowledge? There used to be a saying up north "some folks'll believe owt" I think it was, perhaps regional linguists can correct me (I'm from London and the South). And so they will.

If you read this book expecting to discover the vanished dark arts of story-getting, you will be disappointed, although the blurb tells you that is just what you will get. No. It gives you background on the chasing around that goes with breaking a tabloid story, David Beckham's affairs, that sort of thing. And as such is good fun, and rather interesting. I remember a lot of stories from the NotW (I was even in one once, the headline was "Woman On Top"), and it would have been great to find out some of the back stories, but most people are more interested in David Beckham than they are in some choirmaster being caught out fiddling with a choirboy. though they shouldn't be.

Of course, there was "the one that got away". A senior politician, whose sexuality was not what he made it out to be, allegedly, but who was never exposed. If he had been, the political landscape would have been "radically altered", we are told. Well, who might THAT be, then?

I think this book is rather a valuable contribution to the history of the media. Journalists, other than very pompous ones who think themselves historians and so on, don't usually write books that make a contribution to the sum of human knowledge. This one has.  

Friday, 8 May 2015

two blues in Reading

is this 1992 all over again? It has been suggested that it is. A Tory leader, slightly unexpectedly to be Prime Minister again when the polls said he probably wouldn't be - a Tory leader the people don't exactly loathe, as many of them did Thatcher, but don't warm to either - a Tory leader, however many of his party do loathe, cordially or otherwise - and Europe the Big Issue. The only difference seems to be that John Major didn't know to begin with how much of an issue Europe was for his backbenchers and members, and David Cameron does know. Well, 1992 was a tragedy for those of us who were Labour activists at the time, but after all it was 23 years ago, and surely things must have changed since then? Not for the Tory backwoods, it seems. A referendum on membership of the EU there shall be, we are told. A profound mistake. Cameron surely knows this, but has to do it anyway. If the UK leaves the EU, will it leave the Council of Europe too? (Google it, ffs.) The European Convention on Human Rights? Will it have the choice?

Both Reading's Conservative MPs were re-elected yesterday. Not a surprise. Victoria Groulef in Reading West was the better prospect for Labour, and there is no real evidence that the Reading party bigwigs put any effort or resources into Reading East, so nothing has changed there since approximately 1993. As recently as Tuesday this week the Reading Evening Post told us (so it must be true) that former MP for Reading West Martin Salter had personally written to everyone in Reading West asking them to support Victoria Groulef. Must have cost him a hell of a lot in stamps. Because he'd have to have paid the postage personally, and then it would have to have been declared as a donation, or - oh, please yourselves. However, getreading's @LindaAFort tweeted that Martin Salter had started briefing against Groulef during the night: this was confirmed by BBC South. Both used a picture, now mysteriously vanished from their Twitter feeds, showing Groulef leaving the count alone, apparently in tears, with a number of Labour councillors with their backs to her. All that is now to be found from that time from the sainted Linda Fort is "Labour's Victoria Groulef is now nowhere to be seen after looking close to tears". Well, yes. that's what the Reading boys are like, people. Victoria should have expected it.

Linda Fort also tweeted overnight "Former Labour councillor John Howarth said he predicted Labour's loss at the General Election a couple of months ago". That would be early March or so, then. Now usually I avert my eyes when Howarth tweets anything, as I have a sensitive nature and he seems to like tweeting revolting photographs of glutinous carb-rich meals, but I have taken the trouble to look back, and he has tweeted nothing of the kind in the last three months. So, perhaps he wrote it on his political blog? Nope. He doesn't write anything much on there. On 5th January he said Labour was "hanging on". Then nothing until 29th April, when he said Miliband was looking "more plausible". And - that is it. Silence. It was all lies.

I think I shall pay more attention to Linda Fort in future. She is often the bearer of delightful news, such as that Martin Salter is about to become a TV presenter. My first thought, as I am sure was yours, was that he is to replace Jeremy Clarkson on Top Gear, Salter being a notorious petrolhead and lover of the blacktop and all things motorised. But, sadly, no. Still, nearly as good. He is the new presenter of a show called "Fishing Britain". You can find it on YouTube here. It's not actually about fishing, it's about Martin Salter. He tells us he's been to Argentina and he's going to a place he coyly calls "the foothills of the Himalayas". So there you are, fans, it's not all politics, the delights just keep on coming. He shakes hands with someone in a shop! He walks past the camera wearing an anorak! This is cutting-edge home video  television. If you miss it, you miss out.

Now, in newly Tory Britain, wish the new MPs well. It's not an easy job. I was doing it back before social media, when all we had was email and letters. This is what the people said they wanted when they voted, so give it to them, please. A better Britain. Er...

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Reading Evening Post says vote Martin Salter

You can see the whole piece from His Master's Voice (including the picture if you can bring yourself to) here, but I shall do a little light fisking below. For a local newspaper which is not supposed to have a party political affiliation to press a candidate's case in this way, and to ask no questions, awkward or otherwise, is more than disgraceful, it is corrupt. But the Post under the editorship of Andy Murrill, the graduate of a Kent secondary modern, was ever thus. Not Labour, but Reading Labour. Not Reading Labour but what the corrupt little clique at its heart tells it. Not the clique, but What Martin Salter Wants. Here is some of the text anyway. My fisking in red.

Former Reading West MP Martin Salter has written to thousands of constituents there are no constituents, idiots. We are in a General Election campaign. Parliament is dissolved. There are no MPs, and therefore no constituents. Even if there were, whose constituents would they be? to ask them to join him in voting for Victoria Groulef . Who bought the stamps? About £40K's worth by my calculations - an expensive vanity publication by anyone's standards.

Mr Salter, who represented Reading West from 1997 until he stepped down in 2010, has come out of retirement to campaign for Ms Groulef saying he wants local people to have an MP who fights long and hard for their constituents. Unlike his own 13 years of treating Reading West as a personal vanity project, funded by the council tax, during which he spent most of his time in Reading East anyway

He has agreed to work with The Labour candidate – should she win the General Election – to rebuild an efficient, responsive local constituency service. How exactly? Answering the phone in her constituency office? Or gurning for the cameras? Tell us, do. Or didn't the Post ask that question? Or did they just copy out Salter's press release? Tell me it ain't so.

Mr Salter wrote: “I want an MP with passion and principles who will work for us all without fear and favour. Victoria will be that MP and I back her 100 per cent. As ever, Reading West will be a straight fight between Labour and the Tories. I hope you will join me in electing Vicky on May 7th and give Reading West back the type of MP you deserve and have not had for five years.” ME! ME! It should have been ME!

Drawing on his successful lobbying for funding to rebuild the Royal Berks and build a new hospital at Prospect Park, Mr Salter has deep concerns about the long-term safety of the NHS in Conservative hands Illogical, Captain. Why would successful lobbying (if there had been any, but there wasn't) lead to concerns about the NHS? and is pleased Ms Groulef has already proved to be a champion for better health services.

She this is Victoria Groulef, do try and keep up. She is the Labour candidate for Reading West. You didn't think this press release newspaper article was all about Martin Salter, did you? Oh.  has raised awareness of the lack of understanding of relatively unheard of medical condition leaving aside the poor subbing, which medical condition?, which included a debate in Parliament noting her advocacy, and closely worked with local small businesses to produce Labour policies such as a small business rates freeze and cut. So Victoria wrote the policies in Labour's national manifesto relating to business, did she? Really?

Mr Salter, who still lives in Reading West, served for 12 years as a Reading borough councillor and deputy leader of the council before becoming an MP. He currently works for the Angling Trust as their national campaigns co-ordinator. That makes him how important, exactly? Nowadays?

Thursday, 30 April 2015

women and politics

Jenni Russell, writing in The Times (£) today, seems to be of the view that the only way for there to be a decent proportion of women in the House of Commons is for there to be quotas. If she really does believe this, and it is not just the subs (do they still have subs at The Times?) writing a headline that says so, she might do well to look at countries (like Bangladesh!) where there are significant numbers of women parliamentarians. Yes, quotas it is. This is where a number of seats are reserved for women, and they are allotted to parties in proportion to the number of "real" (ie male) candidates elected. That's one way of doing it. As Russell writes, the only reason that getting on for a third of MPs in the UK after next week's election are likely to be women is that Labour has a policy of having all-women shortlists in half of its winnable seats. How you define winnable, though, is another matter. And Labour is known to have evaded this policy where it wants a seat for a particular favourite, almost always a chap.

Russell cites the biopic of Margaret Thatcher "The Iron Lady", which I have seen twice. It notes the isolation of Thatcher when she first went into the House. Well, of course she was isolated. But she acquired allies, as you do. How else do you suppose she became leader of her party? Russell says Thatcher was shut out from the "gossipy conviviality of the members' room" (there's no such place; perhaps she meant the Smoking Room,which is open to all members) and "exiled to the emptiness of the lady members' chamber". Yes, the "Lady Members' Rooms" of which in fact there are several, are often empty, but there's no "exile" about it. I used to use those rooms quite a lot. You could have a quiet sit down, watch the news, read the newspaper, make phone calls if you wanted. It was a perk not an exile. I thought the men should have their own rooms too.

Forty years on, Russell writes, parliament is still male-dominated, and "surprisingly hostile to women". Male-dominated, yes, like the rest of the world, but I never found it hostile to women when I was a Member, from 1997 to 2005. Some juvenile behaviour, yes. But hey, we girls had all experienced that before. Russell says that Stella Creasy, Labour MP for Walthamstow since 2010, and a politician with a fairly high profile, has been challenged for taking the member' lifts. Really? In her first week there, possibly - although I found parliamentary staff, and the police, fantastically good at knowing members' faces within days of their arrival. Parliamentary staff assume that young women cannot be MPs, she says. Oh yeah? NO. Parliamentary staff are highly professional. I have been out of the House ten years now, and when I went back there for lunch with a former colleague a few weeks ago (I have a pass that allows me in, and to book a table for lunch on certain days) both the police officer I spoke to and the waitress in the Members' Dining Room recognised and remembered me by name.

When the House was prorogued last month for the General Election, there were 502 male MPs. How many women do you think have EVER been elected to Parliament? I got it wrong too. The answer is 370. Ever. In history. When I stood down in 2005 my successor was a man, of course.

In 1997, the year I was first elected, Labour used all-women shortlists. At that time local parties were allowed to choose whether they wanted them or not - mostly. My own party at the time, Labour in Reading East, chose not to have one. My four fellow shortlisted candidates for selection were all men. In that year, a landslide for Labour, how many Labour women do you think were elected for the first time who had not been selected from all-women shortlists? I got that one wrong as well. Six. Of whom I was one. Parties who think the seat is winnable want a man. They'll only select a woman if they have to, pretty much. But hey, the world of work, business, academia, journalism, whatever line you're in, is all like that. Anyone who's not so over-privileged that they can recognise reality when they see it knows that.

Next week the UK will have a new Parliament ready to go. I'm sometimes surprised that so many good and talented young men and women still want to go into politics. But they do, and that's a good thing. Those already pontificating about the results may get some surprises. In Reading, my man in the smoke-filled room says Labour know that they have no chance in Reading East. True. That chance was blown a long time ago, quite deliberately. In Reading West they think they have a better chance. They certainly have an apparently good candidate in Victoria Groulef, who appears to be her own woman (though not so much as to get on the wrong side of the Reading boys, naturally, or she will be deselected pronto) and who has now realised that being photographed with Martin Salter, former Labour MP for that constituency, is doing her no good with the electorate. But on my aforementioned visit to the House of Commons a few weeks ago, I ran into Alok Sharma, who has been MP for that constituency since 2010. We had an interesting chat, and I would not be so sure that the usual Reading Labour bluster, intimidation, dog-whistle racism, use of council facilities for election campaigning, and pictures of fat people holding up pieces of paper, that has been their campaign strategy since the 1980s, is going to do it for Labour in Reading West this time. We'll see though. Labour will have to win back a lot of seats like Reading West to compensate for the wipe-out that is coming in Scotland.

Me, I'd like to see a Tory/Labour coalition. That would actually be a better democratic solution than anything the "journalists" have been blethering about in recent weeks.

Saturday, 28 March 2015

King Richard, long lost, forever found

Kevin Spacey as Shakespeare's Richard
as the poem by the Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, has it, rather beautifully. I do believe the finding of Richard in 2012 was providential. It is so unlikely that the redevelopment (and destruction) which happened on the site in Leicester, most recently a council car park, over 500 years managed to do no worse than cut off the feet of King Richard's skeleton (we think that is why the feet are missing). It was so unlikely that the remains would be found, when there was so little evidence to go on that the likelihood of the remains ever being found was pooh-poohed even by ardent Ricardians over the years. But found they were, by a melange of scientific rigour, evidence, and personal intuition. And it is only now that it is possible for DNA evidence to establish that the bones are Richard's. And only now that the identified descendants are here to act as confirmation - because none of them has children, and the mitochondrial DNA line dies (it appears) with them. Although, Benedict Cumberbatch is apparently a descendant too, but his DNA has not so far as I know been sampled. He read the Carol Ann Duffy poem quite beautifully at the reinterment ceremony.

I went to Leicester for King Richard. Once it was clear - and I will not bore you with the various opinions, lawsuits and other controversies on the subject which have emerged since the discovery of the remains in 2012 - that Richard's remains would be buried in Leicester, near where he was killed, and very near the site of his hasty burial by the Franciscans at Grey Friars in Leicester, I knew I would not want to miss this occasion. Me, and many thousands of others. The Leicester city and Leicester Cathedral authorities have counted those who were there, but by no means all of them. They did not count the retired Caribbean widow who lives in Surrey and who took the the train to Leicester on impulse on Wednesday. She was too late to file past the coffin, as by the time she got there they were closing the Cathedral to prepare for the reinterment ceremony on Thursday. But she was there, and wept as she told me her late husband would have loved to be there. They did not count the Polish family from Nottingham who turned up for the light and firework display on Friday evening - the parents thought the children would enjoy it and that it would be good for their education about English history. There must have been many many others.

This week I have spent a LOT of time queueing at the Cathedral. But I didn't mind. And neither did anyone else, from what I saw. It was a very English queue - no one pushed in, there were stewards with not that much to do - although far from everyone was English. I heard American and Australian voices in quite some numbers, and on Friday while waiting (barely two hours this time) to see the finished tomb, got talking with some Canadians. I met an American playwright named Nance Crawford who grew up and still lives in Hollywood and has written a book in verse about King Richard (I bought it, natch). I met another American lady, age about 70, called Maggie Thorne, who wore a baseball cap to the Bosworth battlefield and who said "Richard has been my king since 1976". There were white roses everywhere. The wooden coffin looked small and lonely last Sunday as it was brought into Leicester by black horses. Thirty-five thousand people, including me, lined the streets to see it pass. We all die alone, even if we are remembered by multitudes.

Why were the events of the past week so important? There have been carpers and nitpickers. Polly Toynbee, inevitably, in the Filth, said it was ludicrous to pay tribute to Richard, because he was a king. Some tosser, writing in some rag or other, called Richard a "psychopathic killer". Jon Snow did himself no favours when he called the church services "mumbo-jumbo", to the disapproval of a Hindu gentleman to whom he addressed those words. There have been those who objected to the church services (most of them) being Anglican, because Richard was a Catholic. My view is that if Richard had had a burial with due dignity and honour in 1485 it would have been in a Catholic church, because that was what there was in England at the time, and after all no one makes a fuss now about any royal grave pre Henry VIII being in an Anglican church, as they now are. One otherwise sensible historical blogger referred in passing to  "Protestant" rites. No. The Church of England is not a Protestant church.

But ordinary people, in huge numbers, came spontaneously to pay tribute, and many more who were not present posted their feelings on line. This was a moment in the history of England. The last English king, and the last king of England to die in battle on English soil - and no one disputes Richard's bravery - and the first to be DNA tested. Plantagenet is not, as some think, a French name, but an English one, derived from the Latin for the native English plant broom - Planta Genista. It was Richard's ancestor Geoffrey of Anjou who adopted the name. It works as well in English as in French. An important moment, and one the ordinary people of England and more understood better than those writing in the Guardian and its ilk who claim to speak for them. The lost king, who is now found. He has had a media profile that almost no other king has had, thanks to Shakespeare, who was hired as a propagandist against him by the Tudor usurpers (100 years later, why did they still think it necessary?) but whose spin ultimately failed as the truth began to come out.

Laws in English. A Bible in English. The precursor of legal aid. The abolition of benevolences. In less than two years on the throne, and having to deal with rebellion and plotting in that time, to say nothing of losing his beloved wife and son, and thus leaving no heir. I'll defy most rulers to do as much. This is the best-known portrait of Richard, though it is from long after his death, and is thought to be a copy of a now-lost portrait made during his lifetime.

I went to Bosworth. It is a Leicestershire field. It looks like this now. There would have been no trees or hedges in Richard's time.

Bosworth, edge of the battlefield

The tomb made for Richard is of Swaledale stone (from Yorkshire), and is so designed, with a deep cross-shaped cut, that the light of the rising sun will make a glowing cross when it strikes the tomb through the stained glass window. Remember what happened to the winter of our discontent? Made glorious summer by this sun of York? Yes, Shakespeare had the words, all right. I came to Richard first through Shakespeare, at the age of fourteen.
Rest in peace, King Richard

Leicester City Council (Leicester became a city, and St. Martin's Church a cathedral, in 1927) did not put a foot wrong. Thank you Leicester for your welcome, and for the dignity and honour you have given King Richard. Thank you too for not trying to appropriate, or even comment on, his reign, his political base, anything he did, but for doing the right thing and giving him the honourable resting place he deserves. Thank you Leicester Cathedral for your commemoration of him. Thank you for using the theme of defeat (for after all Richard was defeated in battle at Bosworth in 1485, and that is how the usurper Henry Tudor got the throne) and death, in what your preachers said this past week about Richard. Many of us are defeated in life, or at the end of it. And all of us die. And that makes us all the same, at the end, king, or priest, or commoner. Rest in peace King Richard. I consider myself blessed to have been in Leicester this week. Loyaulte me lie (Loyalty Binds Me, Richard's personal motto). 

This is how Leicester ended the week - with thousands of lights, and fireworks from the Cathedral roof.

Friday, 27 March 2015

rubbish about Richard

People who know me know that I am a Ricardian, namely someone who thinks King Richard III has been unfairly maligned over the centuries. I am in Leicester this week for what is being called locally The Return of the King. Wrongly, because this is where he was killed. It is beginning to look as though we have got our king back. More on this to come, but in the meantime here are some intelligent remarks.