Monday, 30 September 2013
Brighton Beach Memoirs, or: Mrs Angry goes to the Labour Conference
A moveable feast, of course, the Labour Party conference, so last year we had Manchester in the rain, and this year Brighton, in the unnatural blaze of a late September heatwave.
From gritty northern metropolis to seedy seaside resort - a boon to the blogging commentator, in fact: Brighton is replete with easy metaphors for political life, and the state of the Labour Party - too easy:like over ripe fruit falling from the tree.
Don't say I didn't warn you.
From the early decadence of regency Brighton, and the folly of a terminally bored prince of Wales, to the era of the naughty weekend by the seaside, venue for the production of criminal evidence for a thousand and one divorces, to the morality play of Brighton Rock, and the eternal catholic themes of damnation and salvation explored by Graham Greene, this town has followed the path of temptation, sin, and redemption.
It has witnessed the attempted assassination of a prime minister, and the ending of a political age of innocence. And in the September sunshine of an Indian summer, in 2013, it was the scene of another act of redemption, of someone from Broken Barnet, who came to sell his story, which was a story no one in the Labour leadership wanted to hear.
Yes: Damian Mc Bride, brought to Brighton to face his own last punishment, like Pinkie Brown, facing up to divine judgement for his sins, and the loss of his soul. But more of that later ...
Suffice it to say, then, that the painted backdrop of the Brighton seascape and town was the perfect setting for this year's panto: an end of the pier show, playing on, while down below, the sea continued in its relentless rolling onto the pebbled beach, with infinite indifference, and the pier jutting out over the waves, offering trippers a pointless journey to nowhere very far, and back again.
And in the distance, the burnt out carcass of the abandoned West Pier, disconnected from the shore, standing forlornly, waiting only, yes, for Mrs Angry's use as a convenient metaphor for the state of things, in the midst of conference.
Mrs Angry fetched up early on Monday morning and went straight to the conference centre, courtesy of a taxi ride with a driver keen to share with her his UKIP centred view of the world. He was looking forward to getting a Labour MP in the back of his cab, he said, to give them the benefit of his considered opinion. Mrs Angry prayed it would be Ed Miliband, or Ed Balls. Or Liam Byrne, or Doug Alexander, or: well, any of the shadow cabinet, and serve them right.
Within seconds of stepping through the entrance, oops: there was our AM, Andrew Dismore, wandering about at a loose end. Cheering words from Mrs Angry about his forthcoming defeat of Matthew Offord, in 2015. Andrew almost cracked a smile. Up the stairs, past the plaque commemorating the last public performance in this venue by Bing Crosby, into a world more familiar to Lynton Crosby, the show that never ends - the political circus.
Performing in the arena as Mrs Angry arrived was Ivan Lewis, lulling everyone to sleep with a spectatular act of mesmerism, trying to lead us into a false sense of security with something about the 'interdependency and interconnectivity of the world'. Only connect, see: but he didn't; not really.
Mrs Angry sat in her seat on high, like Her Majesty at the Royal Variety Performance, wishing perhaps for Bing Crosby, rather than Cliff Richard, or even a troupe of performing monkeys - and sighed.
Next up, Doug Alexander, terse and uninspiring. Then the ubiquitous Chuka Ummana, as smooth as silk, and entirely unmemorable, both of them clocking up their expected One Nation references. Yawn.
Hooray: here now was Unite's Len McCluskey.
He woke everyone up from their One Nation reverie: he quoted Harold Wilson - if Labour is not a moral crusade, then we are nothing - if our party is to have a future, he warned, it must speak for ordinary workers, and it must represent the voice of organised labour. A radical message, which appears to have been blocked by the filtered in box of the Labour leadership's thought process.
This party, he admonished, should be proud of the link with the trade unions. He quoted George Bernard Shaw: I dream things that never were, and I ask: why not?
Indeed, thought Mrs Angry: why not?
He received a standing ovation.
Here is the significant missing detail: just before he came to speak to conference, Ed Miliband temporarily absented himself from the stage.
The standing ovation should serve as a lesson to Miliband, and the shadow cabinet. The ovation was to mark the feeling that is deeply held within the ranks of the Labour membership that it is moving too far away from the roots of the Labour movement, and the needs of ordinary working people.
At last year's conference, this fatal disconnection was the theme of Mrs Angry's musings: the control of the party by a class of (mostly) male public schoolboys, careerist would be politicians: and of course again this year there they were, the same suits, wandering about, a marked absence of ethnic minorities, a predominance of men - the shame of so many fringe events featuring panels without even a token woman only partially redeemed by the news that the Tory conference is four times worse.
One well known young commentator (and you know who you are, boy, and wait til I catch up with you) tweeted last Sunday, after Andrew Marr, with relief, that at last the conference proper could begin. Saturday, of course, was the Women's Conference, but that doesn't count, as - to be fair - women are not real people, and they probably spent their time talking about shoes and make up, rather than the fact that the impact of the Condem policies falls heaviest on them, and you know, everyday sexism and boring stuff like that.
So: no need to listen to women, no need to listen to the unions. Even if, as is the case, union membership itself is now dominated by ... low paid women.
At this year's Gala in Durham, the atmosphere of antagonism, post Falkirk, from those attending, and no, not just the speakers, towards what is perceived as a betrayal by the Labour leadership was overt, and a very dangerous sign, which the party leadership seems intent on ignoring. A theme which nibbled away at Mrs Angry's anxiety throughout the conference, and completely unravelled after the leader's speech. But back to Monday's speeches.
A blast from the past, next: Margaret Beckett, in a 1980s outfit and hairdo, all shawl collars and satin jacket, and political views to match, spoke to us rather primly like a retiring headmistress, or a slightly disapproving maiden aunt. Then it was time for - oh dear - Ed Balls.
Balls spoke excitedly, in full flow, watched by an increasingly uneasy Ed Miliband, sitting sideways on, perhaps noting with envy his ability to speak in a blokeish, relaxed manner: he spoke of 'the lie that Britain is broken'.
Mmm, thought Mrs Angry: not sure if that is a lie, Mr Balls - or if it is the right thing to say, to people struggling with welfare cuts, and bedroom taxes, who may well feel entitled to feel that something has indeed been broken, and taken out of their reach. But then: you are not really talking to those people, are you?
After the speeches ended, Mrs Angry joined the queue in the ladies loo, by the bar. Two women from Glasgow in front of her had been deeply unimpressed by the speeches from the shadow ministers.
They don't speak my language, said one to the other.
Leaving the loo, Mrs Angry found her way out of the centre blocked by one Alastair Campbell, venting his spleen to a cameraman on some unspecified subject. He was outraged. He also gave Mrs Angry an interesting look, as she walked by, amused, and wondering why he was so cross.
Later on it emerged that the unspecified subject was that of Mr Damian McBride, whose book, 'Power Trip', published on the eve of conference, was causing such upset. Alastair 'Dodgy Dossier' Campbell's outrage was the natural reaction of a man of great sensitivity and moral judgement who has no tolerance for the manipulation of truth, or the degradation of standards of probity in high office.
Mrs Angry wandered next door to the Grand Hotel, and, at the top of the steps bumped into the lovely Gerald Shamash, the Labour party solicitor who valiantly led the Judicial Review of the One Barnet programme of service privatisation. Gerald introduced Mrs Angry to a once very influential Blairite peer, who proceeded, upon being informed that Damian McBride was present in Brighton, to fume with anger.
Mrs Angry mentioned that Mc Bride had turned up, after his downfall, in a post at her son's school, seemingly in an act of penance. Anyone who has a child at the redoubtable Finchley Catholic High will understand that working there must necessarily knock off a few years at least of any sinner's future time in purgatory, if not the other place, but the Blairite peer was not convinced of the sincerity of McBride's bid for salvation, expressing - no, spitting out over the marble steps of the Grand Hotel, her considered view that his interpretation of christianity was not one she recognised from her knowledge of the bible.
Mrs Angry began to feel a sense of tribal sympathy for Damian McBride, one that was reinforced by that evening's Newsnight, in which the man was rounded up, held captive in a conservatory with Jeremy Paxman, and paraded before a selected audience of sceptics, who also felt his act of contrition was not entirely sincere.
Perhaps only another sin-laiden catholic can witness the fall of Brown's spin doctor, and feel some understanding of the process of losing your soul, and the sense of remorse which follows, or ought to follow.
McBride talks in his book about becoming 'some diabolical inversion of a priest in the confessional box: told about other peoples' sins precisely in the hope that you'll expose them to the world ...'
The first thing they teach you, before you make your first holy confession, is that indeed you may not confess other peoples' sins, a spoilsporting commandment which gravely disappointed the six year old Mrs Angry, sitting quivering with fear during instruction from the St Vincent school chaplain Father Kavanagh, and keen to grass up his loathsome ally,the abusive class teacher Miss O'Donovan to him, and to the Almighty. The resultant sense of injustice, as explained elsewhere , finds its outlet in later life.
Fittingly, perhaps, our Damian's downfall was engineered by another North London catholic boy, ie blogger Paul Staines, Guido Fawkes, who also makes a living out of exposing and exploiting the venial sins of political life, with all the zeal and relish of a Vatican inquisitor. And perhaps only another cultural catholic can recognise the distorted sense of moral outrage which is the product of such an upbringing: the perfect breeding ground for political bloggery - or expertise in spin.
McBride is trying to reclaim his sense of conscience, his soul, the only way he can. What a shame that Alastair Campbell, Blair, and all the other Iraq war apologists, who ought to have on their consciences so much worse than the malicious smearing of individual politicians, have apparently no similar promptings, in the long dark night of whatever passes for their souls.
That night, on Newsnight, Paxman sat gingerly amidst the vulgar, nightmarish lighting of the BBC's idea of a conservatory: in fact rather more of a Conservatory, being a swanky Palm House, the sort of necessary installation we used to pay for at the behest of swindling Tory MPs not yet reduced to yearning for a duckhouse - and tried without much enthusiasm to encourage a verbal lynching of Mc Bride from the stern faced audience, sat stiffly like a roomful of disappointed relatives forced to attend a family function with a blacksheep nephew.
Much talk of the conservatory test, of course. Alastair Campbell liked it. Well, he would, wouldn't he, being as about as much in touch with the hearts and minds of ordinary voters as, say, the Prince of Wales; either the one who potters about in his own state subsidised glasshouse in Gloucestershire, or the bloated regency version sat in his oriental retreat up the road in Brighton a couple of hundred years ago?
MP Jeremy Corbyn didn't like it, pointing out the letters he receives from constituents are more concerned with the effects of welfare cuts, rather than expressing the aspiration to aquire a conservatory. Indeed, as one commenter pointed out, most ordinary people are more distracted by the worry that they may not have a job next month, or somewhere to live. Aspirations, conservatory based or otherwise, are the luxury of those who already have the basic needs of life guaranteed, aren't they?
And this is where the real danger lies. The leadership of the party is obsessed with the idea of Middle England, and rounding up the Daily Mail voter. While they are busy worrying about how to do this, and trying to make all the right soothing sounds that will encourage such voters into Labour territory, they are risking the alienation of those who are becoming further and further estranged from the political system: the working classes, the poor, the dispossessed, the disenfranchised: women, union members, our friends in the north. Don't take them for granted: because they are increasingly looking elsewhere, whether in the direction of UKIP, or in the direction of a complete withdrawal from the democratic process.
A journalist from the Times speaking on Newsnight, compared the Labour leadership to 'a rock in the sea'. Or, thought Mrs Angry, gratefully seizing the opportunity: like a burnt out pier, stranded from the shore?
Yes! In the sea of life enisled ...
The next day was Tuesday, and all about the Leader's speech. Mrs Angry took her place in the endless queue, and ended up in a seat in the balcony, to the side of the stage: an interesting perspective, poised above a row of bewildered diplomats, including the Israeli ambassador, accompanied by discreet but watchful security. Also seated in front were guests like Owen Jones. (Not going to make any more jokes about him bunking off school, as he may well have been given the day off by the head of sixth form). Down below, various shadow ministers took their places, and graciously posed for photographers.
Mrs Angry found herself fantasising about Ed Balls. No, eww ... not in an unwholesome, salacious, Mumsnet sort of way, but a pleasant enough daydream involving a peashooter, a sharp aim, and running like hell down the stairs before anyone could catch her.
We waited and waited, forced to watch a short film filled with Alan Partridge type images of our Leader, and to listen to a curious mix of music, including a lot of Florence and the Machine, which was then turned right up, as if a rebellious teenager was in charge of the sound system, seemingly to work us up into a right old frenzy of adoration for when himself, Ed Miliband, walked onto the stage.
Ed Miliband, himself, walked onto the stage. Mrs Angry successfully tried to quash the rising tide of hysteria at this sight, and applauded politely, like all the rest. But her heart wasn't in it.
Wandering about the stage like Max Miller, It's all clever stuff, no rubbish ... I don't care what I say, do I? ... joking about his geekiness, and repeating catchphrases, does nothing to disguise the lack of gravitas which Ed carries with him. And whereas his speech last year was thoughtful, intellectual, philosophical, this one was rambling, written to a formula, carefully framed around a few policy features, but curiously lacking in any real, focused, passionate feeling. Endlessly spouting a litany of key phrases: We're Britain - we're better than this, Race to the bottom, Not under my government ... it was music hall stuff, for sure: and it wasn't great oratory.
Leaving the speech, passing by a gaggle of bored journalists huddled around the door to the stage, Mrs Angry bumped into a friend, who asked her what she thought of the speech. She had to think again, very hard. In the time between leaving her seat, and walking the few yards down the stairs, she had already forgotten.
It was not that there was anything much that Miliband said that you could disagree with: it was the way he said it, and what was not said - sins of omission, you might say, if we revert once more to the catholic scale of misdeeds: what we have done, and what we have failed to do.
And what was omitted was part of the same failing, the lack of connection with the mood of fear and anger that prevails amongst the most disadvantaged sections of our society, those without aspirations for conservatories, or Conservative governments, but hope only to have enough money not to depend on foodbanks, or to have a home where their children do not sleep and study in cramped conditions because of the bedroom tax, or to find a job that pays a fair wage, without a zero hour contract, and all the uncertainty and anxiety that such insecurity presents. What was missing was the sense of outrage that people have at what is happening to their NHS, their local hospitals closing or withdrawing vital services while private companies move in and grab their share of the new opportunities for profit, at our expense.
Miliband is a clever man and a shrewd enough politician: but he is also deeply unsexy, physically, politically; and in the shallow world we live in his public image is what the majority voters who have a minimal interest in political debate will judge him by. If he fails to engage them, then we will lose the next election.
In a more intimate environment, of course, he is more confident - too confident, perhaps. Mrs Angry observed him again at close quarters at the Labour Friends of Israel reception: articulate and intelligent, and speaking touchingly about his own family's experience of the Holocaust, but when back on more mundane political territory... rather smug, surprisingly. Such an attitude is misplaced.
Something is not right: perhaps we need someone who communicates more easily with a wider audience: Andy Burnham, maybe? Don't know. Cometh the hour, cometh the man, or, and here is a revolutionary thought, comrades: maybe a woman?
On Wednesday morning, Mrs Angry decided to bunk off and look around Brighton, visiting the museum, and musing about life in general, down by the sea.
Surrounded by the peculiar desolation of the English seaside, and with the slightly choppier waves now crashing in on the shingle, in the distance the metaphorically obedient West Pier slipped away into the mist, and the lines of another Arnold poem came to mind: Dover Beach
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
In a cynical world, we - or maybe I - no longer believe so easily in solutions to problems, whether religious, social, or political. We have to make the best of things as they are, and not as we would like them to be. The Labour party, under Miliband, is not ideal: nothing is or ever will be, but - dear God - it is better than the alternative, isn't it?
Brighton September 2013