To be or not to be… John Prescott
Wanted: no-mark politician as occasional stand-in for new prime minister. Meaningless title offered. Political vision not required.
John Prescott is the tubby little man with pointy eyebrows, who bestrode the ‘tectonic plates’ of New Labour for the last 10 years as deputy prime minister. During that time he punched a voter, rode about in ‘Two Jags’ (and got his nickname as a result), had an affair with his secretary, played croquet at his grace-and-favour country retreat and stood in for Tony Blair at Prime Minister’s Questions whenever the prime minister happened to be on holiday. During these sessions he became infamous for beating the hell out of the English language until it was almost unrecognisable as English.
You wouldn’t think, with that record, prominent figures in New Labour would be scrabbling about to fill his shoes. But welcome to the world of New Labour, No Politics – where not one but six candidates have put themselves forward to be his successor.
In the national press, each candidate is held to be representative of something. Much like the Spice Girls were billed as Sporty, Posh or Scary, the candidates for deputy leader are Alan Johnson (the candidate for the Working Class), Harriet Harman (the candidate for Women), Hilary Benn (the candidate for being nice to Africa), Hazel Blears (Blair’s cheerleader), and Jon Cruddas (who is ‘left-wing’). In Spice Girls lingo, that’s Proley, Girly, Aidy, Nutty (see below) and Lefty.
There is also Peter Hain, who does not seem to be representative of anything. Trying to find out what he is representative of, I resorted to his campaign leaflet, which promises that he will: ‘Reconnect with grassroots members. Reconnect with trade unionists. Reconnect with backbench Labour MPs. Reconnect with voters’, which makes him sound like an unqualified electrician staring at a faulty plug having no idea what to do with it, but wishing very hard that it could be fixed.
The level of political debate has hit at an all-time low with this contest. Hazel Blears’s bid has revolved around dropping beer mats around the House of Commons bar that read ‘Hazel Beers’ and selling mousemats emblazoned with a photo of her dressed in biker leathers, which proclaim her ‘Deputy Leader of the Pack’. Hazel’s brand of campaigning hit a snag when her ‘Nuts about Hazel’ (hence ‘Nutty’) t-shirts were withdrawn over concerns that the t-shirts were the unethical products of sweatshop labour. That pretty much sums up the substance of the debate.
Alan Johnson talks a lot about having been a postman and having been fired from Tesco. Harriet Harman squeals about being a female, to anyone who will listen: ‘the parliamentary party has really warmed to the idea that a team of a man and a woman is a better team’, she explained, in an interview with The Times (London), going on to describe herself as ‘Radio 2’ to Gordon Brown’s ‘Radio 4’. Hilary Benn’s campaign looks to have been scuppered by allegations of sleaze. Jon Cruddas is hailed as the great white hope of the Left, but anything he might say is being drowned out by Johnson and Harman’s deafening lead in the polls. (The bookies have Alan Johnson at 2/1 and Harriet Harman at 6/1.)
None of the candidates has outlined an original vision for the future. In fact, the only issue on which the candidates have so far revealed a clear stance is what they have on their iPods. According to the Daily Mail, Peter Hain enjoys the Manic Street Preachers and Snow Patrol, Harriet Harman bops along to Coldplay, Hilary Benn loves The Killers and Alan Johnson likes a whole host of things nobody aged 57 would normally like: The Kooks, Arcade Fire, Ron Sexsmith, The Zutons and the Superfurry Animals. In this, of course, they follow the example of Gordon Brown who last year told a woman’s magazine he really likes the Arctic Monkeys, and later admitted that he didn’t really. It makes one feel almost fond of Hazel Blears, who at least picks something credible (The Supremes, Van Morrison) and Jon Cruddas, who doesn’t have an iPod, but likes Bobby Womack.
But it is Harman’s campaign which is the most objectionable, for she is the only one currently claiming to be actively campaigning on a Big Issue (aside from the playlist on her iPod). She keeps banging on about ‘Women’. But ‘women’ is not an issue. The last time I checked, we weren’t housing, immigration, comprehensive education or nuclear power stations. The idea that someone is campaigning ‘for us’ is nonsense. What Harman is really saying is, ‘you women should vote for me, because I look like you – hell, I am you!’ which comes from the same patronising school of politics that believes that black people only want to vote for black people (because they’re black), Muslim people will only vote for Muslim people (because they’re Muslim) – which pigeonholes all black and Asian people as troubled minorities, incapable of reaching beyond their own colour or religion, to vote on the basis that everyone else does: policy.
And if women did want a woman representing them (and couldn’t bear Blears), then surely they could find a better set of chromosomes than Harriet Harman offers. Harman’s ministerial career has been chequered to say the least. She triggered uproar in 1996 over her decision to send her children to selective and public schools and was sacked 15 months into her job as social security secretary in 1998, after cutting welfare payments to single mothers. ‘Crap’, ‘desperate’ and ‘bloody incompetent’ are just some of the phrases her colleagues within the Labour Party have used to describe her. Her re-emergence now is perhaps partly because of her husband, Jack Dromey, who is the Labour Party treasurer and the whistleblower in the cash-for-honours affair. She is also thought to be Gordon Brown’s choice for deputy, as her nomination paper was signed by a number of key Brownites.
Before the contest properly got going, claims abounded that it was going to be a debate by proxy about the future direction of the Labour Party. But the only way to have that debate was for someone, anyone to challenge Gordon Brown (see Will someone, anyone please challenge Brown?, by Josie Appleton). The election of a deputy can’t signify much because the position is not really necessary at all. In 1942, Churchill appointed Attlee deputy prime minister to free himself from domestic issues and to further cement the wartime coalition. But since then, as Roy Hattersley (who was deputy leader of the Labour Party himself) has written in The Times, the position ‘is a nonsense’ which ‘has been used [ever since] as either a consolation prize or to boost sensitive egos.’
Whether Harman wins, or Johnson wins, or Blears wins, or any of the other three candidates wins, the result will be the same. Labour will have elected a deputy leader who means as little to politics – if not less – than ol’ Two Jags.
Emily Hill is staff writer at spiked.
Emily Hill examined how the Blairites turned schools into social engineering labs. Dr Michael Fitzpatrick argued that New Labour’s interventions in the NHS had been disastrous. Munira Mirza asked, ‘What now for the M-word?’. Mick Hume discussed Brown’s connection to the politics of celebrity. Or you can read more at: spiked issue British politics.