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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

 

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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.

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

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‘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.’

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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‘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.

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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.

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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”.

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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.

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“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.

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

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“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.”

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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.

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“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.”

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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.

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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.

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“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.”

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For a moment he looks slightly rueful.

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“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.”

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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.

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“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.

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“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.”

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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.

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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.

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“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…”

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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.

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“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.”

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At this point Kingsley raises his hands in mock incredulity.

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“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.”

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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?

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“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.

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

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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.

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“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.

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“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’.”

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

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What a strangely iconic image this is. As Gordon Brown’s British Airways jet lingered on the runway at the US airbase in Maryland, a quick-witted photographer pounced and sold the image to Getty. Within minutes it was all over the internet ahead of Brown’s White House meeting with Barack Obama.

There’s a voyeuristic element in the photo’s composition. Brown looks slightly vulnerable but he also manages to wear a bad-tempered expression. It pretty much sums him up.

I had fun writing the story up for Mirror.co.uk, but one witty comment on the Guardian website says it all:

“When I asked for concealer I meant for the last 10 years, not the wrinkles on my face.”

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In a week dominated by the sad early death of Ivan Cameron, the eulogies have been plentiful. Gordon Brown for once managed to find the right words in his address to the Commons on Wednesday, when he said that “the death of a child is an unbearable sorrow no parents should have to endure”.

Among the shower of memorial articles produced since Wednesday morning, Matthew D’Ancona’s piece for the Spectator – written late on Tuesday night – has a special resonance. He pointed out, as others have, that Brown and Cameron are now bound by the tragic human bond of both having lost a child. He added:

In most cases, one finds that there is a formative event that moulds a political leader and acts as the fulcrum of his or her life. In Mr Cameron’s case, there is no doubt that the birth of Ivan, the challenges that followed, and the deep love he felt for his elder son had a tremendous impact upon his public as well as his private life.

Dominic Lawson’s piece in the Sunday Times today is also worth a read.

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Elsewhere, Lindsay Duncan’s portrayal of a magically slimmer, better looking and generally less insane Margaret Thatcher has sparked a raft of retrospectives.

The New Statesman dedicated this week’s issue to a ‘trial’ of Thatcher by recollection.

Among the memories the great and good have of her resignation – Paddy Ashdown recalls the entire departure lounge of Glasgow Airport erupting in euphoria – is this lovely vignette from former Labour MP Oona King years later:

On one occasion I was accompanying Gordon Brown after a meeting at Westminster with MPs. As we drove slowly through the House of Lords car park, we passed an old woman struggling to get out of a passenger seat. Gordon was nearest to her, but was rifling through papers for his next meeting. The old woman seemed to stand to attention at the sight of the car and waved almost bashfully towards us, evidently assuming we might stop and speak to her. When Gordon didn’t look up, her eyes slipped past his and, momentarily, locked on mine.

“Gordon,” I said, still surprised to have looked so closely into those eyes, “you’ve just blanked Margaret Thatcher.”

He seemed uncomfortable.

I bet he did. Also looking uncomfortable this week was Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman, who took a seat opposite Andrew Marr after a long week of briefing and counter-briefing over whether or not she is manoeuvring to succeed Gordon Brown.

Harman gave dull scripted answers to questions on British complicity in the torture of terror suspects and the proposed part-privatisation of the Post Office. The interesting bit came when Marr pressed her outright on whether there was any truth to the rumour of her party leadership ambitions:

Absolutely not a shred, not an iota of truth in it. None whatsoever.

Brown’s allies have never seen Harman as a serious threat, despite the fact she snatched the deputy leadership election from stronger candidates. Compare the careful ostracisation of David Miliband last year with the outright thuggery of the whispering against Harman this week. Her on-the-record denial of ambition to Andrew Marr should mark a short, sharp end to the affair.

harrietharmanqofhearts-703443 What an awful week it’s been for the women once dubbed Blair’s Babes. Now grown up, they’re taking a battering from all sides. Since the Mail on Sunday ‘outed’ Jacqui Smith over expenses for a second home two weeks ago, she’s had to face the embarassing prospect of an investigation led by John Lyons.

Tessa Jowell’s estranged husband, meanwhile,  has managed to clock up a four and a half year spell in an Italian clink for accepting the modest ‘gift’ of $600,000 from Silvio Berlusconi.

And then the Daily Telegraph heaped more bile on the female cast of the cabinet today with an excoriating assault on Harriet Harman.

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Headlined ‘Britain’s most deluded woman?’, Andrew Pierce’s piece quoted some off-the-record Brownite heavies who rubbished Harman’s ambition to lead Labour and described her as as a “deluded woman” who “has really lost it”.

Pierce went on to quote one of these aides making a “typically icy observation” about Harman’s plans for a women’s conference in the run-up to the G8 summit in April:

I expect she thinks Michelle Obama will pop in for a girlie cup of tea and a photoshoot.

The tone of the piece was remarkably savage. It was also another example of the thuggery of Brown’s confidantes, who have to have won ‘bitchiest briefing of the year’ with this little effort.

Thanks to Alex Hughes for the playing card images.

In a shameless attempt to boost my search engine rankings, here’s an insight into some of the weird online meanderings that have led people to my blog over the past few months.

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‘Gordon Brown’s eye’ has to be the most bizarre search, which led people to my very first blog post on Gordo’s glass eye and increasing blindness in his functioning eye. It was inspired by a Telegraph story claiming the PM needs things printed in 36 point font.

‘Daily Mail bigots’ was the next quirkiest one – I’m saying nothing – closely related to searches for golliwog-related material.

Another popular search was ‘Hackney gangs’, which took readers to an article I did ages ago.

Overwhelmingly though, Labour rising star Chuka Ummuna was the most searched for guy. It says a lot about his appeal that, despite not even being a politician at the moment – he’s a lawyer, about to stand for Streatham at the next election – people are already going crazy for him online. It’s another element to his early story that’s bound to prompt more irritating comparisons to Barack Obama. He’s coming in to chat to our politics class at City next week, so watch out for a longer Chuka-related focus piece then.