For once, politicians started the hagiography and the media followed, not the other way around.
Queen Elizabeth II was “one of the greatest leaders the world has even known”, said Liz Truss, as she led tributes to the late sovereign in the Commons. John McFall, speaker of the House of Lords, said that he “greatly admired her thoroughly modern approach to communications. She thrived in the television and radio era from the very outset of her reign, and did more than any other monarch to open up the royal family to embrace the outside world”: quite a verdict on a woman who never gave a media interview, and never knowingly expressed a public opinion on anything,other than her love of horses and dogs. Lindsey Hoyle, the Commons speaker, even said that the Queen’s funeral would be “the most important event the world will ever see”.
When Elizabeth acceded to the throne in 1952, opined Harriet Harman, “she stepped up, as a 25-year-old married woman with two children, to take her place at the head of this nation and play a huge role on the world stage. What determination and courage that must have taken. The Prime Ministers she dealt with were mostly men, and mostly twice her age.” Harman spoke of the late Queen as if she was a hard-pressed single mother in her Peckham constituency, not a monarch.
Almost everyone has described the Queen’s 70-year reign as a uniquely difficult burden, bravely borne. But many women of her generation have had far worse burdens, some of them enduring for seven decades or more. Caring for a disabled child, or living with a chronic health problem of their own. Miserable and inescapable marriages. Childhood traumas that lingered well into old age. In most cases these afflictions would have been borne without a range of palaces to move between, and without a sovereign grant.
As I write, the field of candidates is being whittled down. It is Rishi Sunak’s contest to lose, and the best-placed “Stop Rishi” candidates, according to Westminster consensus, are Penny Mordaunt and Liz Truss. Tugendhat and Kemi Badenoch have caught much attention, but they are unlikely to make it the final run-off. Nor are Zahawi, Hunt, or Braverman. Although the momentum today seems to be with Mordaunt, after a slick campaign launch this morning, it could well be Truss and Sunak on the ballot paper that goes out to Conservative party members. An MP since 2010 – five years before Sunak arrived in parliament – Truss has been courting party members up and down Britain for more than a decade. Many expect she may become Britain’s next Prime Minister.
Can she be defeated at the next general election? Most definitely she can. I should know: I have defeated her twice in elections for public office. Long before she became an MP, Truss and I stood against each other at council elections in the London Borough of Greenwich (in the safeish Labour Vanbrugh ward in 1998, and in the ultra-marginal Blackheath Westcombe ward in 2002).
On both occasions I was elected, and Liz Truss wasn’t. I won 500 more votes than Truss at our first encounter in May 1998, and 400 more votes than her in 2002. I became a Labour councillor in Greenwich, serving for 16 years until I stepped down in 2014, and Truss didn’t join me in the council chamber until 2006. I am now a freelance writer, living happily well away from Greenwich, and Westminster, while Liz Truss is foreign secretary, and may be about to become our prime minister.
The head start I had over Truss clearly gave me no advantage. Being a councillor in Greenwich turned out to be the peak of my political career: for Truss it was merely a stepping-stone to selection in a safe parliamentary seat (South-West Norfolk), and then ministerial office. But what does Truss’s time in Greenwich tell us about her, and her strengths and weaknesses as a politician? Much has been said about Truss’s early years as a young Lib Dem activist in the 1990s, and about her career in Westminster from 2010 onwards. Much less has been said about the intervening years, in which she lived in Greenwich and stood for election there three times.
In 2019 the New Statesmanreported how local history groups on Facebook – normally innocent networks where older people swap yellowing photographs and reminiscence about the good old days – have a darker side, sometimes acting as a magnet for racists posting abuse against immigrants, the Left and the “political elite”. The Guardianreports that a Facebook group for people buying and selling small plots of land has been taken over by Far-Right “Supporters of free speech against Big Tech Fascism.” The same now seems to be happening to Facebook groups formed to discuss equally innocuous matters: bus lanes, cycle routes and road closures in south-east London.
A few months ago, for reasons that are unclear, I was invited by an old acquaintance to join a private Facebook group named Greenwich Road Closures. It’s six years since I moved out of Greenwich (a London borough I was a Labour councillor in from 1998 to 2014) and I now live 70 miles away. But I still have close links to the place: my Mum and Dad, and many friends, live there and I rarely turn down a chance to keep myself posted on what’s going on. I naively thought the forum might be a place for civilised debate about the pros and cons of Low Traffic Networks (LTN) measures in Greenwich to impede rat runs, increase space for pedestrians, and open new cycle lanes.
Instead, it soon became clear the group is dominated by conspiracy theorists, keyboard warriors and trolls. Car ownership may be falling in Greenwich, as in many other boroughs, as public opinion is shifting towards the need to restrict the use of the private car to avoid gridlock and help to halt climate change. But there are still clearly many angry motorists out there, for whom traffic jams are always the fault of someone else – mostly politicians. Road rage, plus lockdown cabin fever, are a potent mix.
It’s undeniable that there have been traffic problems in Greenwich since August 2020, thanks to the conjunction of three new schemes: a ‘Hills and Vales’ road closure programme to the west of Greenwich Park, the closure of the road through the park itself, and the completion of a new cycle lane, Cycleway 4, eastwards from Greenwich to Woolwich. But the traffic jams also resulted from many other factors: unscheduled Blackwall Tunnel closures caused by breakdowns, only one of two boats operating on the Woolwich Ferry because of problems with the vessels’ mooring equipment, and more people commuting by car for fear of catching Covid on public transport.
All these factors now seem to be ammunition in a new kind of culture war. Warning: much of the language that follows is not for the faint-hearted.
“Every death of someone sleeping rough on our streets is one too many”, says a spokesman for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. “One person dying or getting Covid in a care home is one too many”, says Nicola Sturgeon, adding that her Scottish Government was “very focused” on mitigating the risks. “One patient catching Covid in hospital is one too many”, says Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, the umbrella group for NHS trusts south of the border.
Throughout 2020 – a year dominated by illness, economic crises and social evils – the phrase ‘one too many’ has never been far from anyone’s lips. “One inaccuracy is one too many and we must not be complacent in our efforts to make further improvements,” says Greater Manchester’s Assistant Chief Constable, Rob Potts, in response to a furore over the force cancelling crime reports. “Every case of sexual violence is one too many and universities are committed to becoming safer places to live, work and study,” says a spokeswoman for Universities UK, after a report found increasing numbers of assaults on campus.
It’s pretty clear what bureaucracies and politicians are trying to achieve by using the phrase ‘one too many’: they are ‘virtue signalling’ zero tolerance of a social ill, which they are doing their utmost to eradicate. But, sub-consciously at least, aren’t they also doing something quite different? By raising the hypothetical possibility of just one death of a rough sleeper, just one campus rape or just one Covid case caught in English hospitals, they are also highlighting the absurdity of aiming for zero.
Never, since Iain Duncan Smith became Conservative leader two days after 9/11, has the election of a new Leader of the Opposition been so overshadowed by events. Coronavirus meant there was even less attention paid to Keir Starmer’s arrival than expected. The long Labour leadership contest started in early January, before Coronavirus had even been heard of. It bridged the gap not just between two leaders, but between two epochs.
As I write, both Labour’s poll ratings and Starmer’s leadership ratings are rising. The ineptitude and incompetence of the Johnson government’s response to Coronavirus becomes increasingly obvious. As it becomes embroiled in a political crisis entirely of its own making – Johnson’s refusal to sack Dominic Cummings for a flagrant breach of lockdown rules, giving a dangerous green light to the public to do the same – Starmer has shrewdly held back. Rather than issue shrill calls for resignations and enquiries, as Corbyn would have done, he has watched from a safe distance as a Tory civil war erupts over Johnson’s craven cowardice. Whether Cummings stay or goes, the government looks weaker by the day, as Starmer grows in stature.
Suddenly, Cummings’ contrarianism and wackiness are a liability for Johnson. His fixation with a “long march through the institutions”, disrupting here and creating chaos there, is precisely what post-Coronavirus Britain doesn’t need. Starmer’s forensic questioning at PMQs – confrontations delayed by Johnson’s own brush with the virus – has swiftly shown Johnson to be a bumbling lightweight, whose nonchalance about care home deaths has been brutally exposed.
Starmer’s election as Labour leader, and Angela Rayner’s election as his deputy, were never in much doubt. What then, is the point of looking at why they won, and the also-rans they defeated? But even after one of the dullest leadership contests in Labour history it’s worth embarking on an analysis of the contest and what, nearly two months on, it has to tell us about how Labour can prosper in these unprecedented times.
After the dam breaks, a flood of analysis and recrimination. More than ten days on from Labour’s catastrophic defeat in the general election, the pain is still raw, and many in the party don’t seem to have realised the enormity of what has happened.
Most comment on Labour’s defeat has been of two varieties. First, there are the Corbynites who blame Brexit, and in particular the conference resolution last year which prompted the party to explicitly back a second Brexit referendum, in the teeth of Corbyn’s opposition. This alone, they argue, cost Labour so many of its leave-voting seats in the Midlands, the north of England and North Wales. Second are the ‘centrists’ who say that Labour’s support for a second referendum wasn’t the culprit at all. Instead, they argue, the defeat was down to Corbyn’s weak leadership, a far-fetched and incoherent manifesto, and an over-ambitious electoral strategy which saw resources diverted to unwinnable targets, away from seats Labour that Labour had to defend.
Let’s start with the first group. Many pathetic excuses have been given for Labour’s dire performance. Laura Pidcock, defeated in North West Durham, argues that “Blair’s legacy still hangs around this party like a millstone, especially in the North East. I heard it time & time again”, suggesting that a Labour leader who won three elections before retiring 12 years ago is somehow to blame for Labour’s current disaster. Continue reading →
I am writing this as Members of Parliament are gathered in Westminster, on the first Saturday since the Falklands conflict of 1982, for yet another “make or break” day of reckoning on Brexit. MPs have just voted narrowly to pass Oliver Letwin’s amendment, delaying a decision on Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal and compelling him to request an extension of Article 50.
I’m a Labour man who voted wholeheartedly for Remain in 2016, but unlike many of my relatives and friends I’m not on the People’s Vote march today. If I was a Labour MP I might even cross my fingers, pinch my nose, and vote for Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal.
Why? Media coverage of Brexit tends to assume that the British electorate fall into three categories: ardent Remainers, ardent Leavers, and “repentant Leavers” who are now persuaded that the UK should stay in the EU, or at least that there should be a second referendum. But there is also a sizeable fourth category, whose views are rarely aired: those who voted remain, often for purely pragmatic reasons, but who now think the least worst option is an orderly Brexit, with a deal. Living in the east Midlands I come across people like these quite frequently, but although polling is beginning to identify them their voices are seldom heard in the media.
It is in this fourth category that I now find myself. I have never had any sympathy with ‘Lexiteers’, with their hackneyed prejudices against the EU for being a neo-liberal ‘bosses club’. Membership of the EU has been unquestionably good for Britain, and I deplore the little-England xenophobia, and in some cases outright racism, of the right-wing Brexiteers. In an ideal world, I wish there hadn’t been a referendum on EU membership in the first place. There was, after all, no groundswell of public demand for one prior to 2016. David Cameron only called a referendum to appease UKIP and the Eurosceptic right of the Tory party. A stronger leader would have resisted their pressure. Continue reading →
News that the redeveloped London Bridge station has been shortlisted for the 2019 Stirling Prize will be treated with bemusement by many of its commuters. The reconstruction began in 2013 and was all but finished in 2017. It was officially re-opened by the Duke of Cambridge more than a year ago, in May 2018. As with most large infrastructure projects, Grimshaw’s new station has opened incrementally, but two-thirds of the new concourse, and several new platforms, opened to passengers in August 2016, nearly three years ago. It’s not clear why it has only been put forward for the Stirling now, some time after the last increment was opened.
Although the timing seems odd, the new station is easily the biggest project on this year’s Stirling shortlist (among the others are a house in Berkshire made of cork, a visitor centre at a Scottish whisky distillery, and 105 council homes in Norwich), and has a strong chance of being the final winner.
Anyone who regularly used the old London Bridge – as I did, for 20-odd years – will agree that the new station is a big improvement. The old station was a hellhole. The canopies of platforms 1 to 6, and the overbridge between them, had been rebuilt in the mid-1970s and perfectly symbolised the penny-pinching austerity of the time, clad in aluminium painted – for reasons unknown – in a shade of lavatorial brown. These platforms were too narrow, and only partly covered. There was no disabled access between these platforms, other than by going down and up long, and very overcrowded, ramps at their western end. The old Victorian trainshed over platforms 7 upwards had survived the 1970s revamp but was unloved, its glazing replaced by corrugated plastic, and cluttered with British Rail offices clad in opaque black glass.
Although London Bridge’s underground station had been rebuilt in the late 1990s, with the opening of the Jubilee Line extension, the only connection between platforms 1-6 and the tube station was via cramped, claustrophobic corridors whose ceilings often leaked: overflowing plastic buckets to catch rainwater were not an uncommon sight. Continue reading →
Compared to these stories, the implosion of local government in a middle England county over the last two years stands little chance of breaking through. Since Northamptonshire’s County Council finally balanced its books and had its emergency spending controls lifted in March, a year after being declared effectively bankrupt, many may assume the crisis is over. But it isn’t, and the story tells us much about the fallout of austerity, the sheer incompetence of many Conservatives in local government, and Labour’s collapse in middle England over the last 15 years. It deserves a lot more attention than it has received.
While the immediate crisis may have been averted, the council’s – and the county’s – underlying problems remain, and may have even been magnified. Many lessons have yet to be learnt to prevent a large county council from ever going bust again.
Holocaust denial at Labour party meetings. Jewish members being called “dirty Zionists”, or worse. Party staffers being made to sign Non-Disclosure Agreements to stop them speaking out against the lack of action against the culprits. Interventions by Jeremy Corbyn’s office, and the party’s general secretary Jennie Formby, to change the composition of disciplinary panels, apparently to thwart them from expelling those found to have been anti-semitic. The appointment of Thomas Gardiner as head of the party’s disputes unit, who downgraded sanctions against several anti-semites from expulsions to suspension, or from suspensions to warnings.
Many of the revelations in last night’s Panorama programme about anti-semitism in Labour are very serious indeed. Mike Creighton, the party’s former head of disputes, spoke eloquently about the time that Seamus Milne laughed at him for suggesting a tough line on the most serious cases on anti-semitism, and that Corbyn should make a prominent speech on the subject. Several former officials said that they were so disheartened by the party’s unwillingness to combat anti-semitism that some had been signed off work sick, or had had breakdowns. One, Sam Matthews, even said he had contemplated suicide by throwing himself off the roof terrace outside Formby’s office at Labour HQ on Victoria Street.
The programme told how another young Labour staffer, Ben Westerman, was dispatched to Liverpool Riverside – a constituency whose Labour MP, Louise Ellman, is Jewish and had encountered mounting anti-semitism – only to encounter anti-semitism himself, with one party member asking whether he came “from Israel”. The term “Zionist” has been ‘weaponised’ and at too many CLPs unpalatable anti-semitism has become normal, or even routine. Continue reading →