Look Left: Still number three?

I wrote this piece for Look Left, the termly Oxford University Labour Club magazine. Look Left Still Number Three


Did Michael Gove ever really leave the Oxford Union?

Only a former Oxford Union hack could in the same sentence describe a political opponent as both “charming, intelligent, eloquent” and “uncertain, irresolute, weak”.

The tactic, as George Eaton puts it, consists in flattering one’s opponents into submission before sticking the knife in.

It’s a classic ploy used by members of the Oxford Union, the prestigious Oxford University debating society of which Gove was once President, to ridicule an interlocutor whilst appearing sincere and dispassionate to the audience.

I’ve been an Oxford Union member for two years and have seen the trick pulled too many times to count. To seasoned observers it’s boring and patronising at best, and slimy and disingenuous at worst. But it works.

In weighing up Miliband’s credentials, Gove creates the impression of balance by listing the Labour leader’s positive as well as negative attributes. In fact he gives the impression of doing more than that: six positive adjectives – charming, intelligent, eloquent, thoughtful, generous and chivalrous – against just three negative ones.

Of course Gove isn’t being fair at all. The compliments all allude to Miliband’s ‘Buddha-like qualities’ which, in the public eye, aren’t really qualities at all. Not against Cameron’s supposed strengths of certainty, resoluteness and strength which, Gove would have us believe, Miliband doesn’t possess.

But it’s not easy to spot the guise. Instead Gove’s apparent equanimity succeeds in depoliticising and legitimising the crushing conclusion that follows: that when asked “who governs Labour, his answer would appear to be, increasingly: the unions.”

Incidentally, Boris Johnson, another former Union President, repeatedly pulls the same trick of patronising a rival – David Cameron – while outwardly appearing warm and friendly. Johnson is the only politician with the nerve, and status, to get away with calling the Prime Minister ‘Dave’, which Johnson – who never forfeiting the status afforded by being two years above Cameron at Eton and then Oxford – regularly does in public.

If Gove really is “the politest man in politics”, then he is also the least authentic. A little of veteran Labour MP Dennis Skinner’s bad manners – accusing George Osborne of snorting cocaine (2005) and calling Jim Prior, then secretary of state for employment, the “minister of unemployment” (1980) – would help him recoup some much-needed authenticity.

Interview: Andrew Adonis

I interviewed Andrew Adonis earlier this year, shortly before an Oxford Union debate. We were due to meet before the debate but sadly he had to cancel on that and so we spoke on the telephone instead.

He’s a lovely man, so nice in fact that I struggled to say anything rude about him in the interview write-up, which is unusual for me.

He’s in politics for the right reasons, which perhaps is why he never rose high enough in the Labour governments to really command education policy.


Interview: Hazel Blears

This is an interview I did with Hazel Blears, New Labour-ite and former Cabinet Minister, some months ago for Cherwell. I talked to her about the murky world of internships.

The first thing that strikes you about Hazel is her height – 4ft.10, the ‘motorized munchkin’ of British politics. The second thing I learnt precluded me from mentioning the first; she’s fiery – sugary sweet but not to be crossed. Suggesting a resemblance with Dolores Umbridge of the Harry Potter series would be cruel, but since the thought provokes a chuckle then superficially at least the comparison contains truth.

The daughter of a maintenance fitter, Hazel came into a firmly working-class tradition. She went to grammar school followed by Trent Polytechnic. Practicing law was her unambiguous aspiration; she describes herself then as ‘an angry young woman’ who saw law as a way to ‘stand up for people’. Was it simply a stepping stone into politics? Apparently not, though through emotively recounting the story of a job interview after graduating, it seems to have been on the agenda from the early days. After sending out ‘300 letters without reply’ she’d only been given one interview, and only since her father was doing nuts-and-bolts stuff on the company’s shop floor. ‘Half way through the interview’ however ‘the partner asked what my Dad did for the company. When I told him he was a fitter on the shop floor he closed his folder and said ‘Good Morning, I think I’ve heard enough’ and showed me the door’. This New Labour politician was inducted into the Old Labour world view of class politics at a fragile young age.

‘I realised then that it wasn’t lawyers who changed the world…the people who really change the balance of power between rich and poor are politicians. That really gave me the impetus to go for Parliament’. That wasn’t easy either. Before 1997, she had fought two seats – one ‘unwinnable’ (Tatton, then Neil Hamilton’s fiefdom) and the other (Bury South, where she lost by only 700 votes) distinctly ‘winnable’. Her disappointment over losing in Bury was an experience she coyly describes as ‘character building’. She recounts having to abandon her job and livelihood to stand, and for a while it seemed she would win. In the final week of the campaign however, following Kinnock’s notoriously hubristic Sheffield Rally and a concerted attack by the Murdoch Press, her hard work was undone. You can’t help but feel sympathy for those swing-seat constituency candidates. They must sacrifice almost everything to acheive victory, even though the end result is ultimately the consequence of national mood-swings which, on a local level, appear whimsical and callous.

A tough ride into Parliament meant that once inside she wasn’t afraid of rubbing people up the wrong way. Frank Dobson once expressed his enthusiasm for global warming through a deep aversion to Blears since ‘the rising sea levels would get her first’. Her most theatrical moment came in 2009 when she unsubtly sought to ‘rock the boat’ by resigning from Cabinet. The Labour Party prizes collegial loyalty above all else; such a blatant act of treachery combined with an unreconstructed Blairism and dodgy expenses claims has seen her stock fall among Labour insiders, rendering a return to the front-bench inconceivable.


Yet at 56, in one of the safest seats in the country (Salford, a city ‘deep in my blood’), Hazel’s career is far from over. Like a large number of former New Labour ministers who face backbench renunciation in a Miliband government, Hazel has become a vigorous parliamentarian, campaigning most recently for universally paid internships.

The current arrangement, whereby new graduates in competitive industries must submit to years of slave labour before maybe getting a paid contract, is tough to argue for. Having Hazel as the opponent makes it all the more difficult. I had thought I was fairly clued up on the issue, insecure in the knowledge that I’ll shortly be entering the rat race. Yet my ignorance of the law, and Blears’ expertise in it opened up a fruitful discussion. ‘Unpaid internships are illegal. Under National Minimum Wage legislation, if a person has set hours and set tasks, then they are legally an employee, entitled to the [NMW]’. Indeed the concept of an ‘intern’ has no definition in British law; as Hazel describes it’s a wholly ‘American import’. If you are not an employee, you are a volunteer. Interns – with their concrete working shifts and very real workloads – very much fall into the former. Try taking a day off work as an intern and see what happens.

The point is that no new legislation is needed; the government simply ‘needs to enforce what’s already on the Statute’. However a quick scan of the popular w4mp website, where most parliamentary internships are advertised, shows how Parliament flouts the law it approved itself fourteen years ago. Martin Vickers, a Tory MP, has recently advertised a 6 month unpaid internship. When I contacted his office, his parliamentary aide was quick to reply pointing out that, having himself worked as an unpaid intern, ‘[he] benefited immeasurably from the experience and was [subsequently] successful in securing paid employment in a career I love’. In the past some interns had been paid, ‘depending on their individual circumstances and the availability of funds’ in the office.

I put it to Blears that the good intentions of the campaign betray its naivety. If the problem is a deficit of working-class people in politics, then isn’t the requirement for MPs’ offices to pay them a salary – making it more costly to offer internships – counter-productive? In the murky world of upper-middle class patronage, the few remaining ones will be doled out by MPs to personal contacts and family friends. She’s not persuaded, recounting Tory scaremongering over the NMW, which despite concerns about youth unemployment substantially raising living standards in the bottom decile with no extra unemployment. I suspect the two cases are less than analogous. Indeed it simply is not credible that salaried internships will lead to anything other than their intense scarcity, especially given how sensitive politicians like Vickers are to be seen to provide taxpayer value. But this misses the point, which is that the number of internships available does nothing for social mobility if they are all occupied by rich kids. In other words, fewer overall internships are a fair price to pay for a more equitable distribution of the opportunities entailed by them.

As she rightly notes, it’s not just young people who have a stake in this; ‘the country as whole loses out [in terms of] talent and creativity’. Indeed by allowing internships to be captured by the wealthy we are hugely restricting the talent pool from which to dram tomorrow’s leaders. If Roy Hodgson, the England Manager, decided to only pick players with rich parents, there would be uproar. Not just because of the unfairness – debasing an honour (playing for ones country) by discriminating on income as opposed to merit – but because the team would be pants. The decision would rightly be seen as a massive, self-inflicted own-goal (to exhaust the metaphor).

Leaving Portcullis House I speak with Kay, Hazel’s intern, about her experience. She’d previously nurtured vague political aspirations but hadn’t realised, until now, how getting ahead in the Westminster village ‘is all about the connections’ which she’s tentatively started making. Gazing around the central atrium Kay is a refreshing contrast to the other floppy-haired, self-assured SPADs I observe busying about. If more parliamentarians adopted intern-pay, if we had more Kays, I daresay the next generation’s political leaders would seem considerably less odious.


Fair Observer: The PCC Elections and the re-birth of localism

Fair Observer  in my understanding models itself on ‘The Economist’, certainly in terms of tone and content. It’s a pretty low profile web outfit, but I was attracted to writing for it for three reasons: (1) Atul, its Editor and a former Oxford PPE-ist, was kind enough to contact me during the PoshGirls scandal, not to goad, but to offer some words of support. I appreciated that. (2) the content was generally very high quality, the sort of stuff I’d aspire to write and (3) its claim to have global nous seems genuine; Fair Observer has contributors from 5 continents and in all walks of life. I was attracted by the project Atul is attempting to pioneer, even if I think he’ll have a tough time establishing a market niche.

Reproduced from Fair Observer

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With the creation of new Police and Crime Commissioners last year, along with recent inaugural elections, the British government’s attempt to politicise the post of the Chief of Police appears to have come at a wrong time.

The PCC Elections are emblematic of the Coalition’s attempt to push power and democracy downwards and outwards. But will democratising the police refresh the flabby institution, making it more accountable and responsive to the community it serves, or will it turn the police into a political football, having a corrosive effect on the quality of the service?

Defenders of PCCs say that policing is already a political issue. How could it not be? If politics is about how we best live together, the importance of both individual and collective security will form a central part of public discourse. Political parties have disagreed about policing ever since Robert Peel established the world’s first professionalised force in 1829. The function of the new PCCs, the government argues, is not to ‘politicise policing’ as their Labour critic claim, but to push the politics down from a national to municipal level.

And if this exercise in decentralising one function of Britain’s leviathanic state can be shown to work, it may prove to be simply a harbinger of further devolution from London to the localities.

Why Westminster Rules

Among the club of liberal democratic states Britain remains its most centralised member. The legacy bequeathed by earlier generations was born of noble intentions. During the Second World War the country unified – and centralised – to kill Germans. So why couldn’t it do the same to lift people out of poverty and squalor? These pressures, manifested in Labour’s landslide 1945 election victory, led to the creation of a comprehensive welfare state – its proudest achievement: the National Health Service. Aneurin Bevan, the Minister for Health who pioneered the NHS, famously ordered that should a bedpan pall in some provincial hospital ward, its echo would reverberate around Whitehall. The Atlee government believed first in social justice, but they were quintessential centralisers, asserting not just the primacy of public over private but of national over local. Both features would become central to British national life.

The Thatcher government challenged the first of these with its programme of liberalisation and denationalisation. It left the second untouched however, leaving swathes of the public sector unreformed, inefficient and out of date. The Labour government of Tony Blair began to force change through the public sector, introducing market incentives into healthcare and freeing schools from the deadpan hand of the education authorities. It bowed to nationalist sentiment and devolved power from Parliament to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and indeed, to Greater London, now the fiefdom of Boris Johnson. For the first time the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty – the haughty principle that what is decreed in Westminster shall be – was formally repudiated. But as the conflict in Iraq escalated, Blair’s authority evaporated and his reforming allies were marginalised. The ascendancy of Gordon Brown to the Premiership in 2007 ended further attempts at reform, a victory for the vested interests in the public sector that had supported Brown’s rise.

Giving people a say

Whilst David Cameron’s government has been less than successful in reviving Britain’s fledgling economy, it has breathed new life into the public sector. Of special noteworthiness, Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, has made thousands of state schools ‘independent’ within the public sector, giving them powers to emulate their outstanding rivals in the private sector. More radically he has permitted local parent groups to set up hundreds of ‘free schools’, allowed to teach to their own curriculum. Projects like Toby Young’s ‘West London Free School’ in Ealing, which emphasises a ‘classical curriculum’, promise to shake-up the British class system in a way not attempted since the advent of comprehensive (non-selective) education five decades ago, ironically pioneered by Toby’s father, the late Lord Young.

‘Giving people a say’ is the mantra of this government. And in education at least they have been faithful in executing it. But what happens when the people don’t really fancy a ‘say’ in how their services are run?

The government intended the PCC elections to capture the interest of local people, and to attract candidates prominent in their local area. That plainly hasn’t happened. Few serious and successful local figures have been willing to take the plunge into what remains an ill-defined role, the powers of which are wholly ambiguous. Moreover the public has been largely unwilling to invest time into learning about the non-party candidates. The information conferred by a ‘Conservative’, ‘Labour’ or ‘Liberal Democrat’ candidate has therefore been all that the public are willing or able to take in, strongly prejudicing their choice against candidates they might otherwise warm to.

More politics = better politics?

The tension, ultimately, is between the general public’s two conflicting instincts: (1) for a greater say in how they are governed and (2) an unprecedented loathing of the political class. The second of these feelings is currently the strongest. In light of the scandal over British MP’s expenses claims, as well as crises in journalism and finance, the whole British Establishment has been thrown into disrepute.

This cynicism has already undermined for a generation attempts to empower urban towns and cities. In May eleven of England’s largest cities were granted referenda on whether they wanted directly-elected mayors. With the exception of Bristol and Salford, part of Greater Manchester, they refused. So it is unsurprising that turnout in the PCC elections was next to abysmal: 18% nationally with many of those spoiling their ballots. The message, it seems, is unambiguous: the public simply does not want more politicians.

That is why Michael Sandel, the Harvard philosopher who has spent the autumn in Britain, has provoked derision at his call for more politics, not less. Despite its scepticism the public should listen to his argument. Sandel describes healthy societies as those in which people of different incomes and cultures rub along together, in which they share a similar understanding of what their welfare consists in. In Britain communities are divided between regions as well as within them. It means that a banker living in Chelsea, West London, has more in common with, say, a landlord in Edinburgh – not to mention his kinship with another banker in Hong Kong – than he does with his near-neighbour. This is no way to cultivate a sense of place and local identity. Yet far from encouraging that, the British state as constituted governs its citizens in such a way that alienates groups from one another.

If the effect of Police and Crime Commissioners is merely to add a new layer to the political class then another nail in the coffin of localism will have been struck. If, on the other hand, people see policing as a means to put right what is wrong in the community, then the PCCs could, in time, become a vital catalyst in rebuilding what has been lost since 1945: an identification with, and pride in, local bodies. Ultimately, the dubious mandate of the newly-elected PCCs will be forgotten if they make a success of it. It only takes a small number of charismatic, reforming characters to imbue the role with the significance it surely merits. When a previous Labour government introduced a mayoralty to London in 2000, it took a couple of election cycles and two sparring candidates – Ken and Boris – to embed the mayoralty firmly in the public consciousness. The government could not have picked a worst time to expand the political class, but having done so the public will eventually come to thank them for it.


Interview: Peter Mandelson

I interviewed Peter Mandelson for Cherwell in May 2012. I should have been harder on him, but this being my first proper interview for the newspaper I was rather too bewildered by the ‘Prince of Darkness’ to go all Paxman on him. We spoke mostly about his time at Oxford.