Telling it like it is?

With a ‘difficult’ election upon us, Matthew Brown reviews two contrasting tales of Britain under the Labour government

It all seemed so much simpler back then. A little more than 20 years ago I clung to the back wall of a packed students’ union hall listening to Billy Bragg telling it like it is about the evils of the Tory government and their odious press.

It says ’ere, (sang the bard of Barking)

D’you ever wish you were better informed?

It says ’ere, we can only stop the rot,

With a large dose of law and order,

And a touch of the short sharp shock …

Billy Bragg – slightly greyer now…

The young Billy sang with what sounded then like refreshing political punch and clarity about our ’orrible world. We all knew what we were about – for the miners, against Thatcher and the Falklands War, dying for a Labour government … We were already into the second Conservative government by then, with two more terms and a thousand miles to go before the great dawn of 1997.

How times have changed. At the end of March, shortly before the election was officially announced, I found myself leaning against the back wall of small, dark venue in east London listening to Billy Bragg. He, like his audience, is older, greyer, and a bit more confused these days. Here we are, two decades on, at the end of a second consecutive Labour term, not celebrating but reeling from another idiotic war, and wincing with each new dose of law and order, dished out new Labour style. Is this what we were singing for?

The gig was a benefit for the re-election campaign of Oona King, Labour MP for Bethnal Green and Bow. One of the poorest and most ethnically mixed wards in the country, it ought to be one of Labour’s safest seats. But things are not so straightforward these days. Bragg and, I suspect, the vast majority of his audience, was against the war and no doubt opposed many of the government’s other headline-grabbing initiatives – short, sharp shocks an’ all.

In parliament, King voted for the war and her seat is now under threat from a Tory Muslim candidate picked to appeal to Tower Hamlets’ large Bangladeshi population. The Lib Dems have a Muslim too, and Respect are fielding their Stalin look-a-like leader George Galloway, who may well bite a hefty chunk out of King’s majority. Indeed, the thinly disguised ranks of the SWP are out in force, keen to feast on the scraps of Labour’s disillusioned left even if it hands the seat to the Tories.

In some ways, the constituency is a perfect case study for assessing the contrasting merits and short comings of So now who do we vote for? by John Harris and Better or Worse? Has Labour delivered? by Polly Toynbee and David Walker, both of which aim to provide ‘progressives’ with some guidance on what’s been happening over the last four years and where to place their crosses come 5 May.

King’s support for the war sets up precisely the kind of lefties’ dilemma that Harris is trying to examine. If not Labour, then what is the alternative?, he asks. And what will be the effect of voting for someone else? Yet, a close look at Tower Hamlets over the last eight years reveals huge improvements in education and health (more teachers, more doctors, as Blair would say), new housing everywhere, reduced poverty, and a booming local economy, at least on ‘Bangla Town’s’ brightly lit Brick Lane – just the kind of changes detailed by Toynbee and Walker. On the other hand, people on its poorest estates are still struggling, many of them slapped with tags, curfew orders, ASBOs and all the other Mail-friendly anti-youth crime nonsense that squirms out of the Home Office.

So what’s really been going on? Reading these two books it’s difficult to tell, as they leave you with two largely contrasting pictures of the kind of society our new Labour government has been creating over the last four years. In reviewing Better or Worse? in the New Statesmen recently Harris wrote: ‘It is easy to divine the authors’ take on the Blair government from the book’s most telling passages … that inside the most hardened Blairites, there might be a redeemably social-democratic heart – if only confusion and reticence did not get in the way.’ Well, there might.

You don’t even need to find ‘the most telling passages’ to discern Harris’s ‘take’ on Blairism. Multi-coloured capital letters on the back of his book spell it out in verb-less phrases that read eerily like one of Blair’s speeches. ‘War in Iraq. Top up fees. Blair in bed with Bush,’ it says. ‘Private companies buying into schools and hospitals. We didn’t want the world. We understood the need for caution and compromise. But really: what was all this?’ What, indeed.

There are similarities. Both books are written by Labour-supporting authors (albeit in Harris’s case a disaffected one) who are neither rabid Blairites nor headbanging ultra-lefties. Both seek only to deal with the immediate parliamentary term and the forthcoming election, casting barely a glance at any wider social context or political complexity. Neither gives much thought to how our approach to parties, elections or the business of parliamentary government might form part of a longer term understanding of social change. And there’s no discussion of what other kinds of political activity such change might entail.


Yet, for all those surface similarities, the stance these books adopt could hardly be more different. The disillusioned Harris is writing explicitly for others like himself – Labour supporters or, like him, ex-members – who are so fed up with Blairism they’re seriously looking for a new electoral home. We all know the type, if we haven’t become one ourselves – people who’ve been tipped over the edge into the ‘never again’ camp by war, PFI, anti-immigration or any of the government’s other teeth-grindingly contentious policies.

Harris sets out to present the alternatives, travelling the country to find out what the Liberal Democrats, Greens, Plaid Cymru, SNP and Respect have to offer. He talks to Labour dissidents too. A former pop journalist, he deals in opinions and personalities, serving up his own highly personal impressions of the people he meets and what they tell him, measured against his own rather predictable yardsticks, which he assumes are his readers’ too.

Toynbee and Walker do the opposite. Their book deals in facts – hundreds of them, laid out to present a picture of the last four years in every conceivable area. They write in the past tense, as if making a written record of an era that has already gone. Such commentary as there is gets sidled into the unfolding, statistic-heavy narrative of each hugely researched section – on health, equality, education, the economy, war, crime, security, the environment, governance, the constitution, and so on. It is, both in size and substance, a heavier and more impressive tome than Harris’s slim volume. In many ways it’s more enlightening, although Harris’s tale is certainly more entertaining.

Indeed, he draws you in at the start with a strangely familiar tale – how he joined the Labour Party in the mid-1980s full of Thatcher-hating zeal, fought the Trots in the Young Socialists, delivered leaflets at college, got upset by election defeats, and went off to start a career (in his case as a rock journalist, Harris is the author of The Last Party reviewed by Will Brown in Democratic Socialist, Autumn 2004 ). He returned to canvassing in 1997 and cried with delight when Neil Hamilton was ousted from Tatton, his old constituency. The ‘giddy’ Mr Harris even put a double-page image of Blair in Select magazine, which he edited. ‘Now, the memory fills me with a shivering embarrassment,’ he writes.

He voted Labour again in 2001, guiltily, before it all went wrong. The usual suspects are to blame – Iraq, privatisation, tuition fees, Iraq, Iraq, Iraq. ‘Of course,’ he admits, ‘relative to the doom-laden days of Conservative government, things are better … But having progressive – oh, go on then, socialist – politics is not just a matter of wishing to see more new schools and hospitals per se; it is also bound up with the question of what kind of schools and hospitals you want.’

So Harris sets off to find out what each of his alternatives has to offer, meeting, among others, Charles Kennedy and Mark Oaten, Peter Kilfoyle and Roy Hattersley, Alex Salmond, Simon Thomas and George Galloway … oh, and a Green member of the Greater London Assembly called Darren. The only ‘Blairite’ he talks to is Hazel Blears, who used to be a Trot-fighting colleague in the north west YS. After arguing about the war and top-up fees she leaves him with a feeling of ‘bleak dejection’, although the passage reveals as much about his own blinkered views as her ‘contorted doublethink’, as he calls it.

His account is both very personal and, at times, very funny, but it’s always under-pinned by the author’s apparent presumption that the reader thinks like him. At points, he displays all the worst aspects of modern journalism – his tale is full of himself and his own opinions, and short of much in the way of research or analysis. It’s also riddled with unnecessary observations and asides that are meant to be enlightening but just tend to annoy. Why, for example, do we need to know that the young woman who takes him to see Kennedy is wearing teeth-braces? Elsewhere, he describes one Labour character as ‘an unremarkable-looking man’, twice.

On the other hand, he describes, in picture perfect detail, the aspiring politicos who move in and out of Portcullis House, the London building where MPs have their offices. ‘Here, the fact that the archetypal MP now leaves university, shuffles to Westminster and experiences alarmingly little of life among the rest of us is made flesh,’ he writes. ‘Aspirant Blairites (Joe 90 glasses, slightly garish ties, suits with the faintest hint of designer flash) queue for the security X-ray machine next to ascendant Conservatives (striped shirts, paunches, brogues, the usual), united by that strange effect whereby would-be politicos manage to occupy a non-specific age bracket somewhere between twenty-four and thirty-eight.’ Harris hears ‘a towering young man’ telling the receptionist he’s there to see Tory MP David Willetts ‘with that booming self-assurance that tends to cost parents at least £20,000 a year’. Don’t you just know what he means?

Frightening tales

He’s good on the Lib Dems too. Anyone tempted to vote for them should read chapter one, if only to be reminded just how utterly confused they are, although Harris fails to expose their equally outrageous opportunism. He lets Respect off the hook as well, failing to probe their disgraceful stance towards the labour movement in post-invasion Iraq, or Galloway’s arrogant approach to the war (and everything else).

For all the wit of his face-to-face encounters with politicians, the best sections are those on ‘hospitals’ and ‘schools’ in which Harris provides frightening, if not altogether surprising, accounts of what’s happening ‘on the ground’ under some of Labour’s worst policies. He visits a foundation hospital in Carlisle and describes the effects of ‘out-sourcing’ on the low paid workers who service it. And he recounts the inspiring story of two mothers in Doncaster who fought off a truly scary sounding Vardy-run creationist City Academy.

Unfortunately, these experiences don’t lead him to the radical conclusion you would hope for – that voting is not all important; that it’s there, on the ground, that change might begin. Indeed, he suffers from those old left delusions that what we need most is a change of leadership, and that giving Labour an electoral kick in the teeth will somehow make it more left wing – views backed up by an unnamed ex-minister who almost urges him to vote Lib Dem. When Kilfoyle, sensibly, says that he aspires to ‘a change of thinking in the party’ rather than a change of leader, Harris calls him ‘disappointing’, ‘cautious’ and ‘equivocating’.

Hattersley, on the other hand, says that ‘When Gordon Brown becomes leader … he’ll be very much like Labour leaders I’ve known in the past.’ And this is somehow seen as a good thing. It’s strange how Labour’s left wing critics never remember the failings of its old right wing leaders. In Harris’s warped logic, electoral defeat, or at least a good bruising, would bring Brown and ‘grass roots thinking’ in its wake, delivering a shock that would send the Labour Party back to ‘first principles’. Leaving aside just where those principles got us in the past, wouldn’t a narrow majority and the Blairites’ (accurate) perception of Britain’s conservative culture push it even further the other way?


One of the most damning failings of the Labour government, especially given its large majority, is how much it panders to popular opinion, and how little it does to change it. At least Toynbee and Walker recognise this to some extent, criticising the government for lack of ambition, on the one hand, and for failing to knit its achievements into ‘a compelling story’, on the other.

Their scope is both narrower and broader than Harris. Their aim is not to court opinion and size up personalities, just to present Labour’s ‘outcomes so far: what was promised, what happened, what worked and what didn’t’. Yet, while it’s a considerably drier read, their book does succeed where Harris fails – they recognise the influence of the press and press bias; they comment on the prevailing political culture; and they discuss the differences between perceptions and reality, indeed they seek to present the reality through facts and figures which, they rightly say, no government before this has ever made available. They acknowledge the shadow of Iraq, but don’t let it dominate, arguing (contentiously) that it did not ‘loom large in the daily lives of the majority’.

It’s a strange read. At times you feel surprisingly proud of what this government’s done, as the authors cite many incidents of positive change that have passed almost without comment, even in the so-called progressive media. On health, they point out that 60 years after Nye Bevan failed to kill it off, ‘the private sector felt a chill wind blowing from improvements in the NHS’. On poverty, benefits targeted at children rose by 72 per cent. ‘There had never been redistribution like it,’ say the authors. ‘No Labour government had done as much.’ In education, spending will have doubled by 2008. Having risen by 1.4 per cent a year in the Tories’ 18 years, it’s gone up on average by 4.4 per cent a year since. There are 30,000 more teachers than in 1997.

Unlike more left wing commentators, these authors attack both the media and the government for failing to make more of their positive reforms. ‘Slight monthly changes in house prices were eagerly reported, but deprivation indicators were not news,’ they say. ‘Labour came to power barely breathing a word about social justice and yet accomplished more than anyone expected.’

Their stats blow holes in a few common myths too. Take crime, where the risk of being a victim fell by 40 per cent. ‘But crime facts were for experts. Attitudes were shaped by the front pages and the bombardment of horror stories, tales of useless judges and ineffective policing… Blair and Blunkett were their own worst enemies, running with the hue and cry.’ Or asylum, in which claims to the UK fell more swiftly than in any other EU country. ‘Yet even as asylum figures plummeted no one quite believed it … when the bean counters reported it hardly made a ripple in the press.’

They comment little on the ‘tough’ policies that contribute to such results, however, although they are critical of Labour’s failure to tackle widening inequality and directors’ pay (‘no one tells them of their rights and responsibilities’), and Blair’s ‘needless cowardice’ in not raising tax rates for the rich. However, some of the most contentious policies are skirted over – City Academies are dealt with in one extended paragraph, for example; while they say the eventually ‘generous and attractive plan’ for tuition fees ‘never got the public acclaim it deserved’ because of the government’s poor handling of the issue.

The whole Iraq affair and its aftermath is recounted in unemotional detail. Blair is criticised for allowing his political fate ‘to depend on the whim of the White House’, for consuming the party’s energies, and for being forced onto the defensive. No doubt, many will see that as a rather soft slap on the wrist.

Galloping expectations

They conclude by recalling Clare Short’s comment, that the Blairites are ‘creating a Labour government without telling the story’. ‘The public is congenitally ungrateful; memories are short and expectations gallop on ahead,’ they write. The facts, they say, ‘make pretty impressive reading’ although ‘many barely see the light of day in regular media reporting’. New Labour’s ‘spin tag’ stuck like the proverbial, but ‘it equally deserved to be known as the most scrupulously self-monitoring government ever’. Maybe.

According to Toynbee and Walker’s research, Britain is a richer, fairer, healthier, safer and better governed place in 2005, not that you’d know it. ‘Time and again,’ they say, ‘we were struck in writing this book at how little people have a chance to know about what goes on.’ Or as Billy Bragg once sang: ‘D’you ever wish you were better informed?’

The question is, how informed are we by these two books? Neither makes an explicit case for voting for or against Labour – Harris assumes you’re against, while Toynbee and Walker report what’s happened, commenting merely that ‘there’s still time on the clock to do better in a third term’. The problem with both is there’s no political perspective, no sense of what voting for a Labour government might be for in the long term.

In the end Harris comes down in favour of tactical voting as a kind of self-made proportional representation. All his chosen alternatives have their faults, he says, but ‘all of them, oppose the government on at least some of the right issues, and hold out the prospect of delivering a shock. For one election at least, that’s surely enough.’ At the end he lists the Labour MPs who’ve rebelled on one or more of his ‘right issues’ – Iraq, foundation hospitals and top up fees – as if that’s all that mattered. He assumes, it seems, that Labour will be elected anyway.

Bizarrely, it’s Hattersley who delivers the one bit of thinking that approaches political wisdom. ‘I don’t think political parties ever improve with failure,’ he tells Harris. ‘The Labour Party remains the only possible vehicle for achieving the ideals I have. If there’s ever going to be a vehicle for egalitarianism in this country, that’s it… The idea of equality will remain. And the Labour Party is the best possible vehicle for it.’

In truth, supporting Labour has never been straight forward. That students’ hall 20 years ago wasn’t packed with lefties. It was Loughborough, for Keir Hardie’s sake, one of the most conservative (and Conservative) unis in the country. The half dozen of us who made up the Labour group, CND and Anti-Apartheid didn’t engage in the usual student sectarian infighting simply because there weren’t enough of us. The enemy was bigger and all around. They had the power. We shook tins and fists in vain, united in our opposition. Comfortable.

Back in the Spitz last month, Billy Bragg explained why he, an opponent of the war and much else that’s new Labour, is supporting candidates like Oona King. ‘I’m not a party member,’ he said. ‘But what fills me with dread is the thought of a resurgent Tory party or a government led by Michael Howard. I’ll do what I can to defeat them and the fascists.’

As we all cheered, I looked around. The crowd was mostly my age, or thereabouts. Thatcher’s generation. There were not many students, but there in the audience was Oona in her dress down jeans and t-shirt, and a few blokes in Joe 90 specs and casual jackets with the faintest hint of designer flash. Then Billy launched into ‘The World Turned Upside Down’ and, suddenly, just for a moment, it felt like we all knew what we’re for again, what we’re against.

So now who do we vote for? by John Harris is £7.99 from Faber and Faber. Better or Worse? Has Labour delivered? by Polly Toynbee and David Walker is £7.99 from Bloomsbury

1 Comment

  1. Spring 2005 - ILP
    24 February 2009

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