Peter Hoskin

From the archives: Labour election special

From the archives: Labour election special
Text settings

A double hit from the Spectator archives, this week, in recognition of events in Labour land. The first is a recent piece, by Andrew Gilligan, on why the battle between Ken and Oona – now resolved, of course – is the real battle for Labour’s soul. And the second is Boris’s take on Blair’s election to the Labour leadership back in 1994. Enjoy, as they say.

The real battle for Labour’s soul, Andrew Gilligan, The Spectator, 11 September 2010

This summer’s election to choose a new deputy regional sales manager of the Co-op, sorry, a new leader of the Labour party, has rather obviously failed to set the nation on fire. But one level below the sundry Eds and assorted Milibands, there’s a much clearer and more interesting battle for Labour’s soul.

In the party’s highest-membership region, London, the graphic designers and diversity outreach consultants who make up Labour’s new industrial base are choosing a mayoral candidate to oppose Boris Johnson in 2012. Officially, the odd timing — nominations closed only six weeks after the general election, and almost two years before polling day — is to allow the successful nominee to ‘establish their presence’ with the London electorate. In practice, it seems designed to benefit someone whose presence with the London electorate is all too balefully established: the former mayor, Ken Livingstone.

By not allowing enough time for various ex-ministerial or MP candidates to get campaigns together, the theory seems to have been that Ken would have a clear run at correcting the grave error made by the voters in 2008. Livingstone’s long-standing chief of staff, Simon Fletcher, was a senior officer of the London Labour party until just before the selection timetable was drawn up, but there can’t possibly be any connection.

That, though, was the theory. A bit like the Circle Line, this particular bandwagon isn’t running quite to schedule. Ken may prefer coups to contests — he famously scored his first big job, the GLC leadership, through a putsch against the man the voters thought they’d elected — but his opponent for the 2012 nomination, Oona King, is threatening to make it a fight.

She has the support of more London Labour MPs than Ken, though he has more councillors. The characters of the rival campaigns are no better symbolised than by their supporters. She is backed by Simon Schama. He is backed by Aslef, the union for train drivers and operators.

At the campaign hustings, almost all in solidly Labour parts of the capital, the activists sit in rows, sighing with pleasure, as Ken tells them that everything can be all right. The cuts can be stopped. The clock can be turned back. Bendy buses running on Venezuelan petrol can once again cruise the streets of London. It can all be exactly how it was, if only we get rid of the evil Tories, scrap Trident and tax a few bankers. In Southall recently, Ken actually described the deficit as a ‘scare’ and said that what Britain needed was a ‘1945-style’ programme of even more public spending.

Ken’s platform is such an extraordinary heritage artefact that it would probably be eligible for a National Lottery grant. Everything which lost him the 2008 election — the gas-guzzler tax, the embrace of radical Islamists, the defiant denial of cronyism — is still in there.

He has promised to reappoint his disgraced race adviser, Lee Jasper, who he claims has been ‘cleared’ by an independent inquiry (it actually said that Jasper’s behaviour in channelling millions of pounds to friends, including a woman he wanted to ‘honey glaze’, was ‘inappropriate’ and ‘below the standards expected’ of a GLA officer). He describes Boris’s election as a ‘sliver victory’. If only four Tory boroughs didn’t exist, he would still be mayor right now!

Labour ought to have quite a decent chance of regaining City Hall in 2012. At the recent general election, it won slightly more votes in London than the Tories. Boris’s was far from a ‘sliver’ victory — he won by 6 per cent, taking 21 of the 32 boroughs — but he will still be vulnerable to the government’s midterm unpopularity. The Lib Dem south-west suburbs, which voted for Ken in 2004 and Boris in 2008, could easily switch back to Labour in protest at the coalition.

But it’s very difficult to imagine any of that happening if the candidate is the Rip van Winkle, cryogenically frozen Livingstone. He inspires both love and passionate loathing. He hasn’t shown even the smallest sign of understanding why he really lost, or of reaching out to the centre vote he spurned. This week, as the Tube strike brings large parts of London to a halt, Ken has not yet found time in his busy schedule to condemn the strikers. Could this have anything to do with the fact that his campaign for the mayoralty is being run out of the Euston headquarters of the Transport Salaried Staffs Association?

He claims he was defeated because of Labour’s national unpopularity; in fact, Labour was almost as unpopular in 2004, when he comfortably won. He says he ran ahead of his party in 2008 — true, but Boris also ran ahead of the Tory party, and by almost exactly the same margin. He thinks he can win simply by running against the government — without realising that Boris, too, is quite capable of running against the government.

The schtick of total resistance to the cuts just isn’t credible with voters who know that Labour would have done very much the same. Nor does lashing the bankers sit well from someone who, as mayor, campaigned furiously against heavier regulation of the City and against even the token taxation of non-dom financiers. King, by contrast, is clearly trying to broker diplomatic relations with the real world. She spends much of the hustings meetings talking her party back from the cliff. ‘We have to look at what gets results,’ she said in Southall. ‘The fights of the 1980s didn’t work. Posturing and gesturing doesn’t get houses built… I would ask every member here tonight if they want to win. If you do, we have to reach out beyond the core vote.’

She lacks Ken’s apparent command of policy minutiae — though, on close examination, much of what he says turns out to be made up. But the people of London won’t really be choosing policies — they’ll be choosing a person. They’ve already made their choice between Boris and Ken. Oona has the sort of personality which might persuade voters to take another look.

The odds, of course, are against her winning the nomination. Among political activists of all stripes, thinking has never been popular. Yet for all Ken’s crowd-pleasing, it does seem that at least some are not pleased. Even among the hustings activists, King gets decent, often prolonged applause. But her real task is to appeal to those members who never go to such meetings.

In that, Team King is somewhat frustrated. The London election has been buried by the national leadership contest; and most of the national contenders have been silent about their preference in the capital. They shouldn’t be: they’ll be saddled with whoever gets the London nomination, and it is in some ways as important as who wins the leadership.

Because London offers a Technicolor version of the choice which faces Labour nationally: between embracing reality, or embracing brain-death. It is also the party’s first big electoral test since losing power. If Labour takes back City Hall, it could signal that it is on track for government. If it selects a candidate who is almost certain to lose, it signals that it is happy to spend the next two years, or longer, in a coma.

Nice vs Nice, Boris Johnson, The Spectator, 23 July 1994

As Tony Blair at last goes chin to chin with John Major, there is something oddly symmetrical about the contest. The two have the same principal electoral virtue. In Blair’s case, it is the quality which makes mothers wish their daughters brought home men and bit more like him. In Major’s case, it lay at the root of his selection to replace Mrs Thatcher. His personality, or at least the personality he projected, satisfied a recurrent need in the drama of politics. After the warrior leader, the man of people; after Churchill, Atlee; after Caligula, Claudius.


After the divider came the healer. After so much turmoil, niceness was all. A few months ago, the cycle almost completed another revolution. When Mr Major seemed vulnerable, the Tories were preparing to throw themselves upon Mr Heseltine, of all cabinet ministers perhaps the one least resembling the leader in spirit and tone. Now, though, his authority cemented by a reshuffle, the ‘Corfu effect’, the afterglow of the great veto, not yet dissipated, Major is surely a fixture; and it seems likely that Blair vs. Major will be the theme of the next election.


Nice vs Nice, that is; Yet More Mr Nice Guy. Self-styled healer is pitted against soi-disant conciliator, with what might turn out to be virtually the same policies on crime, schooling, health, employment, Europe, with not much inflection even on taxation.


Who will out-nice the other? Surely great issues await the pair in 1996 or 1997, and no amount of niceness will do. Surely someone will be temped to play the nasty card?


Let us be clear about terms. I mean the word banned from school essays, as it refers to people, rather than things or events (‘Is that nice?’, Americas ask each other when they see a drive-by shooting). I am referring to niceness in politicians, when it occurs as a primary element of their appeal. Hitler was kind to animals and Eva Braun. Perhaps Pol Pot’s image-makers have tried to present him as a family man. Lady Thatcher was famously good at remembering the names of the wives of her cabinet ministers, and asking after children with tonsillitis. But no one could accuse her of trying to be publicly pleasant, schmoozing with the electorate.


Both Major and Blair have decided, strategically, that they will plough this distinctive political furrow. It is not relevant to the argument to try to find out what they are really like, when they think no one is looking. They are trying a trick that neither Lady Thatcher, nor Neil Kinnock, nor Edward Heath, nor Winston Churchill attempted, at least not wholesale. James Callaghan as Prime Minister was not exactly nice, though he was genial and blokish. Stanley Baldwin had elements of it (slogan: ‘You can trust me!’), but that was before television had produced such intimacy between politicians and the electorate. John Smith was nice, but his main appeal was competence.


Blair and Major think that these days not only can nice guys finish first, but that to finish first it is essential to be publicly nice. My guess is that the stunt is essentially American, imported from the country that pioneered glad-handing and baby-kissing. Their more developed sense of democracy causes Americans to demand not just a full head of hair and jogging shorts from their leaders. Niceness, incorporating approachability and jean-wearing down-to-earthness, has become a desideratum of the man of the people. One man who perfected the approach was Ronald Reagan, perhaps because he was also nice underneath. Behind the façade of the folksy, decent ham there lurked a folksy, decent ham.


Moreover, both party leaders seem to have judged the mood of the times correctly. The present age is mellow. Instead of power-royals, we have Sarah Armstrong-Jones and Daniel Chatto going off for their honeymoon in India and returning to their wood-carved wedding presents. People in their twenties belong to Generation X, a more caring, sharing, downright inspissated bunch than the right-off types of my generation, who decided en masse to be bond dealers in the late 1980s. Instead of Jacques Delors and his challenging ideas about European monetary union, we have Jacques Santer, the ruddy nosed incarnation of bonhomie from Luxembourg, the most inoffensive country in the EC.


But if nice guys finish first, which of the two will it be? We can not say, so far, which contestant will prove the master of the technique. His enemies say that in the Prime Minister’s case the mask has already fallen. Oh, we know all the caveats about Mr Major’s alleged niceness.


He is touchy, they say, especially when he detects condescension from those who believe themselves, probably wrongly, to be his intellectual superior; and when he his cornered, he shoots ferret-like up your trousers and bites. As a junior Treasury minister, he is said to have been not exactly overwhelmed with grief when his rival for Lady Thatcher’s favour, John Moore, encountered turbulence.


Contrast Tony Blair, say the anti-Majorites in the Tory party. Who has not warmed to him during the televised leadership campaign? Kicking the ball around with Euan, 10, and Nicky, 8, amid the pink rose petals of an Islington park (‘Shoot first time! Oh, nicely done!’); the manifest sense of humour, the radiant dentition. If you meet him in the corridor in Westminster, he exudes well-being, as though he has just played a game of squash.


In the words of a close Labour henchman, ‘Tony is a giver, not a taker. He has not risen this far by doing everyone in, by climbing over everyone else.’ This sort pf self-interested puffery obviously carries a health warning, though I think it also carries conviction.


But I don’t think it is right to imply that, by comparison to Mr Blair, Mr Major is a grabber, not a giver. This is not the place for an intemperate attack on the Prime Minister of the red-blooded, red-headed Hefferian kind that has so greatly enlivened these pages. In keeping with the theme of this article, let us concentrate instead on his attractive features, which he places so much to the fore, and which have been alluded to by Matthew Parris (Niceness is not enough, The Spectator, 27 February 1993).


In the end, as Oscar Wilde says, only a fool does not judge these things  by appearances. It is no coincidence, apparently, that the Prime Minister’s majority in Huntingdon is the largest in the country. Hardened Eurosceptics describe how Major has visited their constituency chairmen, and allowed himself to be slobbered over by moulting labradors. ‘They come away thinking he’s the greatest man since Achilles,’ says a backbencher.


A minister observes that ‘he’s likely to talk to the least important person in the room without letting his eyes roam. He’s one of the few colleagues who spends their time talking to your wife,’ he adds, citing Lord Owen as a good example of the opposite tendency. Women, who always seem to support him on radio phone-ins, like him for his comforting voice, and, would you believe it, his hands, with their square palms and tapering fingers. He is said to be ‘tactile’ with women, and this, at least in his case, goes down well.


Tony Blair, too, is no slouch in that department, and there are other resemblances. Both men have the skill of picking up journalists’ names first bounce, and patting them back across the net. That is always popular.


In lesser men, this disposition is a flower than can easily wilt. Blair’s niceness is of a fresher, dewier variety than Major’s. But he knows full well that from the moment he was crowned Labour leader he stood to reap the whirlwind of his early flirtation with the Tory press. You could argue that in so far as Mr Major has shown testiness, it the déformation professionelle of leadership. As Prince Hal turned into Henry V, so he has progressed from popular young Treasury minister whom journalists would take out to lunch, to the lonely Prime Minister, wounded by the attacks of his former newspaper friends. The test with Mr Blair, as Major has correctly said, will be whether he cares if people still say he is nice in two years’ time.


In the end, the evidence is that too much niceness makes people tense. Teeth are gritted. Not everyone wants their leadership continually portrayed in this way, especially if it means really nice but ineffectual, or nice but vacuous. Mrs Thatcher may have been finally intolerable. But she contrasted so splendidly with the evident decline of the nation. You can have too much self-deprecation at the top, when there is much to deprecate at large.


The all-around niceness is particularly worrying, given that the agenda for the next three years will call for the reverse of the bonhomous approach, especially the coming arguments over public spending and the 1996 EC inter-governmental conference. That is why Mr Major’s adherents are stressing that he is nice but with a touch of tungsten carbide about the spine. Or in Blair’s case, it’s nice but with a strong jaw, even if the chin puckers with the effort of pushing it forward. Tory ministers are preparing to build Major up for the contest against an even younger man as the battle-hardened veteran, wreathed with the scar-tissue of a hundred encounters in Brussels.


Neither can afford to be outbid in the Tough Guy stakes. As if aware of the dramatic cycle in politics mentioned earlier, Blair has already been drawing comparisons between himself and Mrs Thatcher. These do not ring true. It would be unwise, too, for Mr Major to try to change his spots entirely.


The man who vetoes Jean-Luc Dehaene and says in the Corfu press conference, covered in metaphorical gore, ‘I like Jean-Luc very much’; the man who writes to Mikhail Gorbachev, when he is holed up by his kidnappers in the Crimea, noting that he and Norma are ‘desperately anxious about you and Raisa’s well-being. We send you the love and heartfelt good wishes of the British people’ – this man has become so dependent on pleasantness as part of his political identity that it would be impossible, and unpersuasive, to abandon it. As for Tony Blair, I don’t believe he could. Yes, it will be a battle of the Nicies. And whichever of them loses can reflect, with my mother’s nanny, that’s nice to be important. But it’s more important to be nice.