Politics


mandelson10a

The silly season is upon us and the story that Peter Mandelson is hovering over a safe seat in the Commons with an eye on the premiership had a certain air of inevitability about it. William Rees-Mogg tipped some coal on the fire yesterday, suggesting Mandy’s aides briefed the Sunday Telegraph on the story, although it was really only a matter of time before someone somewhere dreamed it up.

For all his charms Mandelson would never win an election. He wouldn’t even tangibly limit the electoral damage David Cameron will inflict on Labour in 2010. He is unloved by voters and travels light on policy; his real skills lie in organising the party’s communications and strategy. He’s a Gerrard rather than a Rooney.

However in the aftermath of the next election I could see Mandy as an excellent caretaker leader. Harriet Harman may have been heading in the right direction in the gist of her comments over men and women this week, but the way she expressed them reminded us of just what a divisive figure she is.

Jack Straw and Alan Johnson would be, I imagine, less enthusiastic about grasping the poisoned chalice after a heavy defeat at the polls. Mandelson would have the strength of character and the political nous to stabilise the party while it began patching up its wounds. If I was the betting type I’d put money on Mandy running the party for a couple of years after 2010.

Advertisements

McBride_Brown_Email_cartoon

A sea-change article in today’s Guardian. Polly Toynbee, the lefty voice at the heart of the paper, calls on Labour to topple Gordon Brown and install Alan Johnson. Toynbee has been a steadfast Brown apologist and was rooting for the jowled one right up until April. But her piece today surely spells doom:

Gordon Brown has been tested and found in want of almost every attribute a leader needs. Squalid dealings by his poisonous inner circle were exposed to the light of day; yet at the same time he lacks a leader’s necessary political cunning. Many hoped that the end of the rivalry with Blair would see Brown cast off his myrmidons. He didn’t. In the  tussle between his better and his worse selves, too often the lesser man won.

Oh dear.

Cartoon courtesy of www.mattbuck.com

streatham-online

It seems Labour candidate Chuka Ummuna is facing battle with an enthusiastic, if decidedly unsophisticated internet adversary for the seat of Streatham. Streatham Online, a site mysteriously keen on rival Tory candidate Rahoul Bhansali (above), saw fit to post no fewer than five identical comments to my blog in response to an interview with Chuka in February.

The comments were – thoughtfully – a cut-and-paste of material from Streatham Online and contained the immortal line:

What Streatham ultimately needs right now is an ‘Action Man’ who can urgently restore it to it’s Former (Socio-Economic) Glory. [Rahoul Bhansali]

Matters of punctuation aside, the idea that Streatham was once a sprawling Byzantine kingdom of learning and commerce can only be described as highly questionable. Branding your candidate an action man, even in inverted commas, also raises serious issues. While you can’t fault Bhansali’s spin machine for raw energy, Alastair Campbell shouldn’t be looking over his shoulder just yet.

 

front-pages-15

I was listening to Ed Balls on the Today programme on Wednesday and was immediately struck by his unconvincing attempts to distance himself from Damian McBride, and to portray Smeargate as “an issue for all parties”. He didn’t sound as if he believed it himself.

That anodyne interview seems to have been the basis for the Sunday Times’ explosive front page story today. A whistleblower took exception to Balls’ obfuscation and spoke out on what plenty of people have already tacitly suggested – that Balls is at the centre of the Brownite culture of thuggery that sustained McBride.

It was a brave article at the end of a week that has seen Guido Fawkes – and even Alice Miles in the Times – bemoan the subservience of the Westminster lobby to political interests. Judging by the hysterical tone of Balls’ press officer, who described the allegations as “completeley fabricated and malevolent nonsense without any foundation in fact”, the story was a nasty little bolt out of the blue.

westminster

The malaise clearly goes deeper than the immediate scandal. The Telegraph carried a damning front page headline, “Now Brown pays the price”, with poll figures showing a haemorrhaging of Labour support over the last week. Peter Oborne wrote an interesting piece in the Observer calling for an end to the all-powerful celebrity Prime Minister. Earlier in the week Simon Heffer wrote an excoriating piece calling for Jacqui Smith’s head.

As Paddy Ashdown candidly remarked on this morning’s Andrew Marr show, no betting man would plump for Labour at the next election. Smeargate is the culmination of years of dirty briefing, and now it’s open season on the Government.

front-pages-14

The Mail on Sunday took the unusual step of sharing its front page story with other Sunday papers today, ensuring Geoff Hoon’s ‘three homes’ scandal was splashed around generously. Hoon was outed for living rent-free in Admiralty House for three and a half years – apparently due to security reasons as he was defence minister at the time – while claiming expenses on his home in Derby and renting out his London townhouse.

The general impression of MPs rolling around in public money like pigs in litter isn’t helped by the shabby excuses they put out when Paul Dacre and friends inevitably track them down. Hoon told the Mail:

I only claimed whatever the rules allowed for. The [Commons] fees office was aware what was happening. Indeed, I was told to move to Admiralty House on security advice. I was told unless I went into secure premises I would have to have round-the-clock police protection at my home in London and that would cost the taxpayer a great deal more.

As more revelations showed Jacqui Smith claimed £304 for a barbecue – they must have been pretty amazing burgers – the home secretary took the the blue airwaves of the Telegraph to defend herself. “I thought that was the wrong thing to do [to claim for her husband’s porn films] and that’s why what we immediately did was apologise and pay the money back,” Smith told the newspaper, using that cunning New Labour formulation that looks like an admission of error but is actually just an excuse.

barbecue2

Amid all the expense hounding, one story in the Telegraph made me laugh. Philip Hollobone, MP for Kettering, is loathe to claw back expenses from the taxpayer and is apparently keen to get his annual claim even lower. “I’ve got a board [with my name and contact details on it] at Kettering Town football club and that’s £15,” he told the paper. “I could stop that.” I think we can all allow him that little bit of hedonism.

 

harman3

These occasional encounters between Harriet Harman and William Hague at PMQs make you wish Gordon Brown would go on holiday more often. It’s like watching a brainless sitcom in the middle of endless news bulletins, or seeing the clowns wander in halfway through a Shakespearean tragedy.

Reliably, today’s joust was high on comedy factor and low on substance. William enjoyed himself; Harriet was cross. This unchanging formula is the basis of every episode. While – like Men Behaving Badly – it starts to get rather worn after a while, you can always be guaranteed a few juvenile laughs.

Things picked up where they left off last time, with Hague asking about the Working Capital Scheme. The scheme is essentially a bit of PR tat which was kicked out by the Labour spin machine last year and forgotten about, making it a useful thorn for the Tories to wiggle once in a while. Harman doggedly refused to answer the question, reeling out the textbook ‘do-nothing party’ riposte with such passion you get the impression she actually believes it’s a useful response.

As usual Hague landed a couple of funny blows, at one point painting a picture of Gordon Brown unpacking his Speedos on a South American beach and pointing out that “inheritance must preoccupy the niece of the Countess of Longford” when Harman brought up tax. You just know there are plenty of Labour backbenchers tittering along with these kinds of jibes.

The fact that these exchanges of puerility are such a welcome break from the usual Brown/Cameron drudgery does say something about the level of national debate, though. When Chuka Ummuna came to talk to our City class a month ago he was all for scrapping PMQs and replacing it with something more likely to fire useful discussion. At the time I dismissed this as nonsense. But in the long term there has to be a more constructive way than this.

I met David Kingsley, the advertising guru who helped transform the Labour party in the 1960s. Here he talks about working for Harold Wilson, how it feels to be compared to Alastair Campbell, and whether he thinks Gordon Brown can beat David Cameron at the next election.

dscn0270

A small box sits on the mantelpiece in the study, a slogan playfully scrawled across its side in marker pen.

.

‘Fidel Castro gave this cigar to Harold Wilson,’ it records. ‘H.W. then gave it to D.K. at a meeting on the evening of his son Andrew’s birthday.’

.

Next to the cigar case is a black and white photograph. It shows three men flanking Wilson, the tough-talking Labour prime minister whose mercurial personality dominated the politics of the 1960s. They appear to be smiling in modest celebration.

.

“Won two, lost one,” David Kingsley chuckles, nodding at the picture. Now approaching his 80th birthday, he allows himself the indulgence of raising a bushy eyebrow. He is talking, of course, about general elections. Kingsley’s natural aversion to boastfulness must be one of the reasons his story has remained one of the untold tales of modern politics, until now.

.

Before Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson refashioned the Labour party into an election winning machine, before ‘spin’ entered the daily lexicon of British newspapers, even before Margaret Thatcher paid two brothers from Baghdad to design her first election poster, a team of elite executives became the first professionals from the world of marketing to help a politician break into Number 10.

.

election-broadcast

.

‘Let’s Go With Labour’ and ‘You Know Labour Works’ were the motifs that powered Harold Wilson’s Labour party to two consecutive general election victories in 1964 and 1966, accompanied by innovative TV broadcasts. They sprang from the fertile mind of a young media guru who felt his socialist leanings tugging more urgently than his wallet.

.

At the age of 33, David Kingsley was already a veteran marketeer with his own business and experience of working in New York for Proctor & Gamble, the founders of modern advertising. He was “something of a man-about-town”, he remembers with a laugh, a dynamic figure who made regular TV appearances and knew the power players in London’s blossoming advertising scene. Like Alastair Campbell, Kingsley was – and still is – a dyed-in-the-wool Labour supporter.

.

Excitement was buzzing in the air when Harold Wilson shaped up to fight the ageing Harold Macmillan in 1964. Here was an energetic challenger, fresh and full of self-belief, who promised to forge a new Britain in “the white-hot heat of technology”.

.

So when a mutual friend told him the prospective prime minister was considering radically changing the Labour party’s election strategy, Kingsley jumped at the chance to help.

.

“I had a feeling that politicians weren’t very good at communicating with the people, and the people found it very difficult to understand what the politicians were doing,” Kingsley says.

.

harold_wilson

“The Labour party didn’t know how to communicate with words. If you look back, none of the parties really did.

.

“I became very interested in how one could use the latest marketing techniques to understand how you needed to get through to people, instead of just throwing out headlines.”

.

After Labour won the 1964 election with a slender majority, Kingsley persuaded Wilson to let him bring in two more high-flyers from the advertising realm, Peter Lovell-Davis and Denis Lyons. Together they became known – only partly in jest – as the prime minister’s Three Wise Men. The first golden age of Labour PR had truly begun.

.

“We quickly became very involved,” recalls Kingsley. “Every second Tuesday we’d go to Number 10 and chat over what was happening. Sometimes we’d find ourselves in the embarrassing situation of carrying messages from Number 10 to the party because they didn’t always see eye to eye. It was an extremely interesting period.”

.

Political folklore has it that the trio of Mandelson, Campbell and Blair were the first senior figures within the party to really hook themselves to the addictive potion of opinion polling, the gauge of public favour widely seen to be responsible for forming many of New Labour’s early policies.

.

But Kingsley insists it was the Three Wise Men – together with their friend Bob Worcester, who later went on to found the hugely successful research company Mori – who started using regular opinion polls to guide party strategy. It was they, years ahead of Tony Blair’s watershed moment, who identified the potential appeal of ditching the Labour party’s manifesto commitment to nationalisation. At the time, even raising the idea would have been like uttering a blasphemy. It was quickly shelved.

.

“They weren’t doing proper [opinion poll] research when we arrived,” Kingsley explains. “What they liked was to show their ratings once in a while, but they weren’t digging deeper to find out why people had views on things.

“So the research part of it was very important. In fact to my mind, introducing the Labour party to proper opinion poll research was one of the most important things we did.”

.

For a moment he looks slightly rueful.

.

“Bob [Worcester] was very good. If they’d used him more we needn’t have lost the 1970 election. I know everyone always looks back, but he was tracking very clearly what was happening and what the problems were in a way the Labour party had never experienced before.”

.

It’s clear the art of spin, now so associated with vicious briefings and irresponsible hype, was governed by a certain gentlemen’s code in the 1960s. Kingsley describes Wilson as “a marvellous chap” who would bring his wife and children to parties and would charm friends and foes with his bluff northern manner. He takes pains to point out that even at the peak of the Wise Men’s activities, advertising was seen as a precursor to real discussion.

.

yesterdays-men2

.

“The most notorious slogan we ran against the Conservatives was ‘Yesterday’s Men’,” Kingsley says, referring to the controversial campaign that portrayed Ted Heath’s team as puppets languishing in the dustbin of history.

“But that was actually planned as a preliminary to clarifying our position. It was a preliminary to talking. I always believed you should talk about your policies and your principles, because those are the key ingredients which other people tend to feel good about or not.

.

“Things go wrong in politics when people think they know it all, when they aren’t actually closely in touch with what’s going on around them or what people feel like. But everything goes so quickly these days. We used to have time to think about these things. Now you have to think on the spot for 24-hour news.”

.

Kingsley parted amicably from the Wise Men and the Labour party when Ted Heath’s Tories scraped to power in 1970. He says he has never been tempted to return to the heart of British politics, preferring to split his time between charity work and advising a number of African governments.

.

He still takes an interest in the Labour party’s fate, though. What are his thoughts on Gordon Brown’s chances at the next ballot box? There is a long, meditative pause as Kingsley rubs his hands together.

.

“Well,” he offers, “when the first troubles came to the Labour party, and MPs were beginning to say ‘We must get rid of Brown’, I wasn’t of that ilk. We didn’t know what was going to happen, but I thought he’d come through very well at the right moment, and…”

.

Again Kingsley hesitates, weighing his words carefully.

“And, I think he has. It doesn’t mean he’s done everything right or everything wrong. But I still think he is the right person for this time. You can’t just go by what the newspapers say.

.

tories

“There’s still a lot going to happen in the next 18 months or so until there’s an election. I think it’ll swing back to Labour, more than anything because Cameron and his crew seem to be so bad at doing things.”

.

At this point Kingsley raises his hands in mock incredulity.

.

.

“They don’t ever seem to get anything right. I’d love to advise them how to do things because it would be very easy. What is amazing is the Conservative party hasn’t yet managed to modernise itself in the sense of being a party that cares for the whole country – they just haven’t done it.”

.

Asked whether he sees the likes of Alastair Campbell and Andy Coulson as his progeny, Kingsley is more evasive. He is grateful to Peter Mandelson for breathing life back into the Labour party in the 1980s, he says, and he recognises a certain parallel between the professionalism the Three Wise Men brought Harold Wilson and the professionalism New Labour’s modernisers brought to the party 30 years later. How about Blair himself?

.

“I will always praise Tony Blair for getting the party into the frame of mind where it realised it needed to win something,” Kingsley says slowly. “Of course, many of us lost faith with the Iraq war and… it deteriorated after that.”

Silence settles for a few seconds. An email pings softly on the laptop behind him.

.

“He did a very good job for the party,” Kingsley finally pronounces. “But he was a bit of a disappointment. As a person.”

.

As the conversation draws to a close, Kingsley lets slip a surprising revelation: he didn’t draw a penny in salary from the government in all his time as its communications maestro. Offering his services for free gave him a feeling of distance from the political machine, he says, and the freedom to do as he liked. His only remuneration came in the form of a Havana cigar, itself a gift from Fidel Castro to Harold Wilson.

.

“I’ve promised to give it to one of my sons, but it’s probably falling to pieces,” he explains, gesturing towards the box on the mantelpiece. “I know the exact date Wilson gave it to me because my first son was born earlier in the evening, so I arrived at Number 10 late from the hospital.

.

“He had it ready for me, and I said, ‘I don’t smoke’. He said, ‘David, you don’t have to smoke this, but do have it as a celebration of your son’.”

.

Kingsley smiles at the memory. “I keep meaning to give it to Andrew, but I think perhaps we ought to frame it or something.”

Next Page »