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"Total Failure to Identify the Major Issues of Our Age"

A Political Diary

Parliamentarians and Commentators part 2 , Election Campaign , April 29, 2017
A Political Diary by Parliamentarians and Commentators part 2 THE SIGNAL AND THE NOISE 2 : GENERAL ELECTION 2017 DAYS 9-11

April 26th: The campaign jumps into familiar territory. A modest pay rise for everyone in the health services. That is nice but the raw politics of health were on evening radio last night. A half hour programme was given over to salt. Chronic ill-health, said the quiet but authoritative scientist, comes down to salt. He ran through the history of governments, good and not-so-good, versus the processed food lobby. Media debates on the health service do budgets and drug approvals but ironically rarely mention the nation's health.

A slew of new candidates announced- remarkable how much of politics resembles the White House- or BBC Wales- in the predominance of family connection. John Prescott's son has failed in Hull West but Rachel Reeves' sister and Tom Watson's ex-partner are both on the slate for safe seats. Esther McVey has been eased into the Osborne vacancy at Tatton. Zac is back for Richmond Park. His sheer grit has to be admired for what is likely to be a hat-trick of election losses.

10:00 AM- train to Charlton, on the outer ring of doughnut London. The inner boroughs of London, a circle of around ten miles in diameter, are young, Labour-voting, pro-Europe. Hourly pay is ten pounds above the national average. The ring of the doughnut is the converse, socially, politically, professionally. To the north in Dagenham UKIP has serious sights on unseating Jon Cruddas.

At the Thames Barrier the Environment Agency has put on an impressive display about engineering, tidal flow and fish life. The height of the tide is set to rise for three reasons, one of which is the melting of polar ice caps. The Agency has sent its plan to Defra which comprises three stages up to the year 2100. Climactic change may be for rebuttal in the broadsheets, or the White House, but government gets on with government and does science. Ninety percent plus of what the state does is continuity. The experience is strangely reassuring.

This beginning of the estuary is where historical London moved from housing to its raw material industries. Aggregates still pour in here for the vast building of flats required by all the flight capital from Russia and Asia. This is also the site of a vast Tate & Lyle plant. My companion is a Labour member of forty years standing and well-informed. But the career of David Davis is a small item he does not know.

Davis at Tate and Lyle observed the Commission and sugar and what he saw was quite right. The traditional crops of Eastern England were replaced with a vast acreage of sugar beet. The natural economic advantage of the small countries near the Equator with their sugar cane history was rendered void in face of protectionism from a rich selfish Europe. It was the price of Britain's entry all those years ago.

Conviction is the child of experience. Perhaps if the Davis career had led to finance or pharmaceuticals or technology he and Keir Starmer might well be political allies.

April 27th: More defections to Liberal Democrats. The span is the trivial- a Johnson sister- to the weighty. Bob Marshall-Andrews after fifty years of Labour membership has quit.

I do not read ministerial memoirs- at least not since Dennis Healey, and his memoir was a history of his age rather than prolonged retrospective self-vindication. But I have reviewed, with admiration, the memoirs of three outstanding parliamentarians. The careers of all three, Paul Flynn, Chris Mullin and Bob Marshall-Andrews, make a nonsense of the shrill vox poppery that our representatives are not worth much. Bob Marshall-Andrews' account of his encounter with Mrs Blair is a classic of political memoir to be remembered.

Marshall-Andrews is a lawyer so his parting statement spares no punches in stating its case. “There has been a total failure to identify the major issues of our age...The related problems of the environment, globalisation and the migration of impoverished people are almost ignored in favour of the renationalisation of the railways.”

Labour in the 20th century did what it set out to do. “In those 100 years it did more to advance the freedom and well-being of working people and the disadvantaged than any other political movement in history. The aspirations of the founding fathers – access to education, health and welfare; equality before the law; collective organisation; universal franchise – have all to a large extent been achieved.”

The achievements of Labour are total and massive. But then he adds a stinger about the tradition of religious tolerance. “Deserved, unprecedented power...created political fortresses across the industrial heartlands of Britain. But with power, the party became increasingly moribund and corrupt. The manipulation of the union block vote at party conferences became a national disgrace. The Labour heartlands, particularly Scotland, were treated like rotten boroughs.”

Marshall-Andrews diagnosis is that demise has been a devil's brew. “The extraordinary fall from a massive majority of 179 in 1997 to a political basket case has been blamed on the false dichotomy between Blairism and the old, unionised Labour. Both have contributed to the disaster in equal measure.”

April 28th: Philip Collins is a commentator I respect. The Conservatives are not going to say anything in his opinion. Of course they do not need to. He rounds his weekly column off with “this election is a void, about nothing at all.” If so it is going to be a long six weeks.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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