The latest Labour ‘leadership’ campaign is an almost irrelevant bit of nonsense against the backdrop of Apocalypse Brexit, yet it seems to obsess an awful lot of the people I know. Why? And why the manic vehemence of the positions held?
That latter question was troubling me, until yesterday afternoon, when I experienced a moment of revelation. But we’ll come back to that later.
So who are these two men, and why is one so saintly, and the other so evil?
St. Jeremy had the sort of political youth common to his generation. Back in those days, and it was a jolly good thing too, you could scrape a couples of ‘E’s at A Level, drop out for several gap years in fashionable Latin America, fail to complete a degree, and still get a white collar job. Well, you could if you were white and middle class.
After that, the trajectory was clear. Become a councillor, sit on a health board, and accumulate what was thought relevant political experience before becoming an MP. Corbyn did all those things, becoming an MP in 1983.
His Islington constituency was much more solidly working class in those days, and although the gentrification had begun, it was generally liberal, arty types who were buying up the houses there, rather than the French bankers and Russian mobsters who own those des res properties now.
And Corbyn himself, at that time, was much more in step with his parliamentary party, with a strong Bennite wing at the height of its powers.
Since that time, Corbyn has remained a Bennite, and the late Tony Benn has also been canonised. Benn was sometimes an effective propagandist against the right, but his own record is less squeaky clean than it appeared. He could be a cold and cynical operator, economical with the truth. Corbyn, as far as I know, is much more honest than his mentor. Perhaps that is just the difference between those who reach Cabinet rank, as Benn did, and those who preferred, until recently, the freedom of the back benches? Certainly Corbyn looks less ‘straight’ as a front bencher, even if sometimes his struggles with the hypocrisies of his role are all too apparent.
Corbyn’s challenger, Owen Smith, is also a middle class white man from a comfortable background. Like Corbyn, he joined the Labour Party at 16, and has radical parents. He, too, has a political CV which is, for his generation, as textbook as Corbyn’s was for his.
The ten years as a radio producer at the BBC looks like a proper job. But a media career is now one of the recognised routes to parliament.
As is political lobbying. I hate political lobbying on behalf of commercial interests, especially something as rapacious as Big Pharma. I researched this subject thoroughly, because I was writing a novel in which the central character is a young man who wants a political career. He’s on the right, as in the Tory, neoliberal right, but he has also studied climate science, so it’s a moral dilemma when he gets his big break by being offered a lobbyist job with a rich and powerful climate change denial ‘think tank’.
My point is that this was, and to some degree still is, the route to a political career. Each generation tends to do whatever the route is for their peers. Which is no longer an excuse. The lobbying route must end.
I’m no fan of Corbyn as party leader. His fans find excuses for his ineptitude, blaming, rightly, Labour MPs for undermining him, or saying that abstaining on an issue of workers’ rights was merely procedural, when there was actually Labour policy on the issue, and they could easily have voted for their own policy instead (which in the end they did). No one can explain away his lack of leadership, vision, or even response to the referendum vote.
I’m no fan of Owen Smith, either, though only the Pfizer thing really troubled me. Even though I can see that he did the rational thing for a would-be politician at the height of New Labour’s power, being able to explain doesn’t mean being able to forgive.
One other thing troubled me. What if I wanted to become a politician? I don’t, but what if? What might a diligent journalist pin on me?
One thing came to mind immediately. I used to lie for a living.
It got to me in the end. I hated it. But I did it. I’m on the record. I would give talks at Open Days to potential students and parents of potential students in which I would downplay the then new fees introduced by Labour, and talk up the enhanced earning capacity of graduates. But I didn’t believe any of it, and now the evidence is coming in that I was right then in my head. But I still said all that stuff.
But even that doesn’t matter, not even to me. Because I had that moment of revelation yesterday.
I was on my way to a meeting at the Hippodrome Theatre, but being a bit early, I popped into WH Smiths to look at the newspapers. An ordinary couple, the sort you’d walk past without noticing, were also there, browsing the headlines. The woman picked up The Times, which ‘broke’ the Owen Smith lobbyist story, and said to her partner, “This Pfizer thing really gets to me.”
That was the lightbulb moment. I thought – Murdoch wants to break anyone who might have a better chance of opposing the Tories. And everyone I know seems to be Murdoch’s megaphone at the moment. Game, set and match to the media oligarchs.
Postscript: This is an edited version. My first posting may have suggested that Owen Smith began to work for the BBC after his father’s appointment as Head of BBC Radio in Wales. A reader has pointed out to me that Smith had been working at the BBC for some time prior to this.