Dear Jeremy…

Re. Your email of 18th April, 2017

I’ve had several “no, Jeremy” moments over the last year or so. Yesterday, I had another. Around 24 hours after Teresa May announced her intention to push for a General Election, and a little before Parliament rolled over and granted her wish, I received an email from you. You signed it off under the title “Leader of the Labour Party,” helpfully avoiding the inclusion of the word “Parliamentary” which might have led to confusion. You were writing to ask for money.

Fair enough. Labour coffers could doubtless do with a boost and appealing to those who have previously signed up – at the last General Election – for updates from several major parties makes sense. The politically engaged, or at least the politically curious, are a reasonable target group and there is doubtless more transparency and less political capital expended in asking the people over relying on the largesse of high net worth individuals or major corporates. Doubtless, as Sandi Toksvig once joked, the Lib Dems will be relying on a bring-and-buy sale, although whether the book token from Nick Clegg’s maiden aunt is still available is a matter of conjecture.

The appeal for cash – John McDonnell helpfully clarified this morning that the amount could be £5, £10, £20 or “other” – was not what irked me. No, it was the brief campaign message that rounded off the appeal:

Labour will be offering the country an effective alternative to a government that has failed to rebuild the economy, delivering a fall living standards and damaging cuts to our schools and NHS.

Together we can work to ensure the British people vote for a government that will put the interests of the majority first.

Now, hang on a minute, Mr C… Wait, John just emailed me something similar:

Together we can take the fight to the Tories and elect a Labour government for the many, not the few.

So, what shall we take from this? That John likes bold fonts less than Jeremy, certainly. But what else? Here are the words that irk me: “British people;” “interests of the majority first;” “government for the many;” “not the few.” Now, call me a bleeding heart liberal – go on, I don’t mind – but these feel most like the words of a movement, barely those of a political party and, less so, the ambition of a government.

Let’s break it down. First, British

It is a sad truth, not universally acknowledged, that in this world of Brexit (of which more later), Trump, Erdoğan and, god knows, Marine Le Pen, references to national identity now come freighted with additional meanings, not all of which are welcome. We have Le Pen shouting “I will protect you!” and the members of the Front National responding with their traditional “This is our home!” We have Trump’s commitment to “America First” by which he means white Americans as defined by Donald Trump – Sean Spicer has already confirmed that German Jews living in Germany were not Hitler’s – at the time, Chancellor of Germany – “people,” so presumably Donald has some flexibility. Here of course we have Britain First, an organisation which, to quote the late Linda Smith doesn’t deserve the oxygen of oxygen. I’m sure the concepts of “America First” and “Britain First” are in no way related.

For me, “British” is tainted. The Government of Dave required all schools to teach “British Values,” which is all well and good, but could, just as easily, be called “Human Rights.” The Government’s view on Human Rights is a little less committed. Doubtless, like the flag of St George, there is a case to be made for reclaiming Britishness (autocorrect suggestion: Brutishness, for all you commonwealth readers) from those that tie it to the yoke of nationalism, but whether that can be achieved in the 80 days available before the General Election is a moot point.

I want a Government for all people in Britain, not just the British, and one with a mindset that favours all of humanity over any narrow population hemmed in by lines drawn on a map in the last few hundred years – or even the geological catastrophe that led to the formation of a sea 425,00 years ago when floods stormed the Weald-Artois chalk range. To be clear, these are the only floods that interest me: water, that’s what comes in floods: not economic migrants or those seeking asylum – the latter eroding nothing but the quality of intellectual debate between politicians.

Next up, the notion of government “for the majority” and putting the “interests of the majority first.”

Woah there, Jezzer!

John states that “Labour is building the biggest people-driven […] campaign our country has ever seen.” I have no problem with this. The conflation of the need for a popular mandate with a campaign makes sense – after all, the first duty of a political party must be to get elected or else what is the point of making policy? However, the idea of a people-driven, dare I say populist, government is one that fills me with horror.

Here’s a personal view with which many won’t agree:

…the fate of any government is to become unpopular and this should be accepted and embraced.

Admittedly, that unpopularity should evolve gradually, but while governments must seek to enact the manifestos that got them elected in the first place, they also gain a duty to do so with one and a half eyes on the people that did not vote for them – I’m assuming this is not the majority to which you and John are referring.

At the last General Election, the Tories secured around 11.3 million votes to Labour’s 9.3 million. That leaves a hell of a lot of people that did not vote in favour of the Tory manifesto to whom Government has a duty that the Tory campaign did not, not least to the 2.4 million who voted Lib Dem and the 1.5m Scottish Nationalist voters.

In general, the popular majority has the critical mass to look after itself. Like the market, if something is likely to be popular, the majority will find a way to participate in it without the prop of government support. Where government then has a role is in ensuring that the remaining minority – being those excluded from the majority by inequality, divisiveness or, to pick a random example, religious choice – has a voice,  is protected and can also access the same quality of service and/or opportunity as everyone else.

For example, the majority view might be that immigration is too high and a drain on public services. As such, it might be popular (and therefore appropriate if the job is to get elected) to campaign on a platform of addressing this issue by committing to reduce immigration – unless, I don’t know, promising to boost public service spending is an equally valid alternative, of course! (But we best let that lie, for now…). Once in government, however, there is an additional requirement to understand the consequences of a promised political approach and to adapt the approach accordingly.

For example, when preparing a manifesto policy commitment for implementation once in government, it might be appropriate to:

  • Undertake an analysis of the net impact of immigration;
  • Give due consideration to how those pesky individuals (be they Syrian, French, Australian, Icelandic… or simply human) with a genuine reason to fear for their lives or livelihoods could be processed outside any controls designed to prevent those issues of health and/or benefits tourism that are so whipped up in the court of public opinion: you know, how they could benefit from those British (Human) Values (Rights) that we purport to espouse;
  • Look up some robust evidence to sit alongside the gut instincts of those encountered on the doorstep

The result? Well, hopefully, in the given example, a balanced immigration policy that recognises the net benefits of immigration and draws a distinction between migration and asylum seeking. We Guardian-reading liberals can but hope.

To be clear, the current crisis in Europe is not a Migrant Crisis, no matter the shorthand that has emerged. It is a People-Fleeing-for-their-Lives-Because-of-a-War-in-part-Evolved-from-the-Actions-and-Inactions-of-Western-Politicians Crisis. There’s a distinction, and not even a fine one.

If ever war came to the UK, perhaps as a result of an uprising of fundamentalist Anglicans from Norwich, I’d like to hope that the citizens of the word would open their arms to receive me and my family as we flee a country under the oppressive slip-on loafers of jumble sale-hosting, tea cake-eating and 24 hours a day reruns of the Antiques Roadshow-watching vicars.

So, Jeremy, John – Lads…

By all means pitch for the majority in your effort to get elected (hint: the majority are in the middle – that’s why it’s the middle). But recognise the purpose of Government is different from the objectives of a movement: you need to govern for everybody, not the majority; you need to lead (but not seek to convert) those who will not follow you or believe in you, as much as those that will.

Sadly, I suspect that whatever pitch you make, the effort will not yield the number of seats required for Labour to unseat the Government on its own. By dint of the electoral system, where I live, I will not be voting for Labour, I will be voting against the Tories. (Hey, Jeremy, you’re right on bold fonts – I’m into it).

Does the best placed second candidate in my constituency represent a party with a manifesto and a track record which I can wholeheartedly support? Not especially, but she could well win and seems committed to serving her constituents in a manner the incumbent does not. And that would be a better outcome than voting with my heart for someone else and losing.

Truth is I have never voted in a General Election for the party which has subsequently gone on to form a Government. Truth too is that I have always voted tactically, the exception being 1997. I have, on two occasions, got my preferred MP.

In Tooting in 2010 it was Labour’s Sadiq Khan who benefited from my vote against the clearly reprehensible Tatler Tory Mark Clarke – my instincts as to his odious character later upheld, however unsatisfactorily, by Clifford Chance’s review of Clarke’s activities within the Tory Party.

Finally – and I promise it is the final point – I am struck by what is missing from your list of things your government will address. It is the key point on which Mrs May is seeking a public mandate (while incidentally benefiting from her profoundly obvious tactical advantage, which is by no means the intention of calling an election now): Brexit.

Remember, you said:

Labour will be offering the country an effective alternative to a government that has failed to rebuild the economy, delivering a fall in living standards and damaging cuts to our schools and NHS.

This is not a typical General Election.

I am less concerned with what the Government, across two terms and seven years, has failed to deliver. I am most concerned with what it intends to do next. If the Tory’s achieve, say, 15 million votes and a clear majority on the back of a manifesto built on the platform of a hard Brexit, it will be able to argue that the votes of 25% of the population give greater legitimacy to the notion of committing economic and cultural suicide than did the vote of the broadly-in-favour-of-leaving-in-some-form-or-other-to-a-greater-or-lesser-extent-but-we-haven’t-really-thought-it-through-and-anyway-I-wasn’t-really-voting-on-that-it-was-a-protest-against-the-political-elite-I-want-my-country-back-(no-I-didn’t-mean-like-that-!) 51.9%.

If that sounds like remoaning, that’s fine. If remaining is no longer a valid option, then I’m happy to lose an “i” and gain an “o” – at least it’s close to the original. I live in a constituency of remoaners, so I’m not alone.

So, Jeremy… was there something you wanted to say about what your version of Brexit would look like? I’d encourage you to say something, because where Mrs May has long argued that to reveal her plan to parliament would be to weaken her hand in negotiations, surely the Conservative Manifesto will be silent on Brexit

…unless she just was making excuses

…you don’t think

…no, that can’t possibly be it


…I don’t know where my cynicism comes from sometimes.

Either way, Labour can make its position on Brexit clear – perhaps it is:

  • For an exit that preserves the opportunity for businesses and social enterprises to access the free market in exchange for a fair contribution to the EU budget and a commitment to the (not unreasonably) free movement of people outside the Schengen Agreement – oh, hang on, the UK wasn’t subject to Schengen anyway… Oops, did everyone know that?
  • Against an “exit at any cost” approach that puts the future economic prosperity of the UK at risk;
  • For an approach that continues to recognise the progress made on human rights, employment protections and tax co-operation in conjunction with Europe and furthers these around areas such as the gig economy, the gender pay gap and offshore tax avoidance;
  • Against the rolling back of security and intelligence co-operation threatened in Mrs May’s first missive to the EU

(Do you like how I formatted the text, Jeremy? I’m an approval junkie…)

 I don’t think you’ll win. (Sorry, I’ll turn that off now).

But I do retain a hope, sequestered safely within my little liberal social media and friendship bubble, that between Labour, the Lib Dems, the Greens and Independents, there might coalesce sufficient parliamentary heft to offer the country and the 75% minority that can’t / won’t / don’t vote Tory, an effective voice and maybe even a hand brake against the ideologically driven pursuit of a hard Brexit. (I understand why you and Come-on-Tim! are against the formalised left of centre co-operation suggested by Caroline, but there are, perhaps, softer means at your disposal.)

With such a collective of anti-Tories (for want of a better term) would come an opportunity to fight for a properly funded NHS, in which services critical to those that cannot afford private healthcare are not left in the hands of publicly-contracted private healthcare providers; a position from which the mess left by the ideologically-driven reduction in affordable homes funding in the desperate hope that private finance could be leveraged off Government’s balance sheet against increased social rental rates, can be pointed up and despaired of before the House as the disaster it has proven to be; where education funding – including the revisions to the schools funding formula and amended definitions of deprivation within it – is scrutinised and challenged.

Come on, Jeremy. You can do this.

I do not think – and have never thought – that you are the leader Labour needs, but your elevation to that position is hardly your fault. Twice. I don’t even disagree with much of what you stand for. But it seems to have been forgotten by some of your supporters that Labour is a political party and not a movement. The aspiration of its leader should be to become the CEO of UK plc, not to remain the plucky activist shouting forever from the sidelines.

These roles seem broadly incompatible and perhaps CEO, UK plc is a position that you cannot, in good faith, aspire to fulfil. It appears to contradict the values that define you.

If that’s the case, good on you: you should be proud of your commitment to pacifism and social justice; you should take pride also in serving the people of your constituency generously and with dedication. In short, you should be an MP.

It’s just that the leader of a political party that aspires to government cannot be the person I suspect you are. Ruthless pragmatism is ultimately more electable – even if eventually it will lead to derision and the loss of popular opinion. Prime Ministers always fail because the system requires it. Like Timelords, there will always be a surge of optimism when the role is recast, followed by recriminations in series 3.

Sorry about that. I really am sorry about that. That’s what happens when the head rules the heart.

Well, Jeremy… Best of luck for 8th June, and all that.

In the interim, look around you. It might just be that the least of your enemies will be more helpful than the best of your friends in the weeks ahead, when it comes to fighting the common enemy without.


Yours sincerely etc.

Re. thinking

If to drive to Edinburgh from East Sussex is beyond the call of duty, then to drive back again a few days later is barely rational. But this was not about duty, it was about family; and as my mother dozed on and off on the way there and more soundly on the return the purpose was clear and the rationale convincing – to me, at least. 

On the way up, music sustained us: the relatively countrified airs of the likes of Margot Price prevailed, as if the iPhone’s shuffle function were steering away from Nick Cave, John Spencer and paeans to the freedom of Satpal Ram because it knew who I was with. Later though, I felt the need to introduce my mum – insomniac and boxset omnivore that she is – to the podcast Serial. 

By the time we hit Edinburgh, we were about eighty percent through the story of Adnan Syed, Hae Min Lee and Jay. From the M6 Toll up to the A71 that cuts across from just south of Glasgow to the one way roads and 20mph speed limits of Scotland’s capital, Serial baton twirler Sarah Koenig, all journalistic fervour, logos and pathos in perfect balance, made the story re-familiar to me, and stirred mum’s interest in her fitful woken moments.

Later, what passed in Edinburgh was both sad and affirming: the sadness of illness, the uplifting freedom of someone breaking past their grief, the surprising balance of those more notorious for their sense of familial injustice and grudge. For me, it was a trip to level the cycnism developed in absentia; for mum, it was, I think, a chance to say goodbye – and also hello – to those she’s been away from so long.

Maybe I’ve always been a cynic: I joke, from time to time, that I hit forty-three at ten and I’m just waiting to catch up. But in my return to the country that laid the foundation for perhaps half of me, the perfectionism of a cousin I’d assumed itinerant and lost in drugs applying a third coat of gloss to the bedroom woodwork of an aunt who won’t live to see it yellow; in the walking liberation of my uncle from the oddities of his grief, and in the acceptance of the uncles who’ve been barred from the bedside of their dying sister for a distant sleight, I feel ashamed of my preconceived distaste. 

But if that’s not to be lingered on here, then the journey back provided another chance to re-assess a given and to emerge in a more positive frame of mind. Serial, season two, commenced somewhere around Carlisle. This was the season that, initial commitment faltering, I left around episode 6, unable to sustain forced loyalty. But here, in the five or so hours that followed, was a chance – above the sound of mum’s breathing as she caught up the sleep denied the night before by fire alarms and worry – to reappraise. 

And I think I’ve come to appreciate Serial 2 for what it is: superior journalism; a good This American Life or RadioLab episode, a solid New Yorker profile. Like a long-form essay, Bowe Bergdhal’s story – so recently extended as the motion to dismiss on the basis that Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric constituted “unlawful command influence” was denied – is told with rigour (or maybe rigor for American cousins), tenacity and charm by the Serial team. Yes, there are shortfalls versus the case of Adnan Syed: less focus on the what and more of the why; a less sympathetic, empathetic character in the lead role; the extension of the narrative in the geo-political and away from the personal: but stil, superior journalism from Koenig and co. 

In just the last few days it has been trailed that the new series S-Town from producer Dana Chivvis – one of the twin beating hearts of Serial – will be deliver en block in March 2017. With my faith reaffirmed I will be listening. 

As for Edinburgh, it seems likely – though I hope it’s a while away still – that there will be another trip coming up. Perhaps the journey will present the chance to binge, boxset-like, on S-Town. Whatever, I hope that, like Serial 2, my next trip to Scotland pre-empts a similar reappraisal. There are times when brothers should act as brothers and sisters as sisters, if only out of respect for the departed (or departing). And if not, perhaps I’ll force the issue. Peace must break out, even if it takes desperate sadness to provide the path.

I’m with the mutants across the road

On Sunday just gone, Teddington Theatre Club (TTC)’s production of Bernard Pomerance’s “The Elephant Man” won (jointly) best play at the Richmond-Upon-Thames drama awards (the Swans) for 2010/11. That achievement reflects the excellent efforts of the cast and crew and rewards the decision of TTC’s artistic committee to both suggest and back the production. It also rewards the commitment we made, cited by the judges, to craft a production that was a sensitive treatment of disability and difference that a modern audience would grasp and, hopefully, reflect on. It seems appropriate in that context to republish here my programme note by way of thanks to all those who made the production possible.

Director’s note

Eighteen months ago I read Armand Marie Leroi’s book “Mutants”, in part in preparation for “Elephant Man”, although it has since taken on a broader importance. I have since read it twice more. If I’m honest, my understanding of the science of genetics probably reached its peak about a third of the way into the second reading – and will never progress further – but my appreciation of the story has continued to grow. There is a key theme, building on Francis Bacon: mutants – those people with genetic difference arising from errors in the code by which they’re programmed – are central to understanding what we are, why we develop in the way we do and why our bodies malfunction and die.

Or in summary, if we understand those people who are different from ourselves, we understand ourselves better.

Leroi tells this story through a mixture of modern science, teratology – the archaic study of monsters – and descriptions of early genetic experiments from splicing newt DNA in Freiburg just prior to the second world war to experiments on dwarves in it; there are also case studies of some of the more celebrated mutants throughout history, including Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man.

Merrick’s doctor, Freddie Treves, late of Dorchester, friend of Thomas Hardy and physician to the wealthy and successful, wrote his own case study of Merrick, famously misnaming him John. It is from this text that much of the material for Bernard Pomerance’s play is drawn. Indeed, David Lynch’s film draws from much the same source as the play, although the two are not linked otherwise.

In the film, of course, John Hurt’s Merrick comes replete with prostheses, beautifully rendered in crisp, brightly lit black and white. In the play, Pomerance proscribes the use of prosthetics and, whilst the actor must approximate the physical form and recreate the initial difficulties Merrick faced in making his speech understood, his physical deformity is of secondary concern.

That might seem a strange thing to say of a play about the Elephant Man. It’s Richard III or Quasimodo without their hunched backs; Leroux’s Phantom without the mask. The question perhaps is what we’ve come to the theatre to see.

Many of the mutants whose stories Leroi recounts were amongst those collected by the high ranking nobles of Europe for display at court: piebald Javanese children, people covered from head to toe in luxuriant hair, conjoined twins. They were there, as Merrick was, to be stared at in amazement and with amusement. Those highborn courtiers responded in much the same way as their lower born counterparts responded to the freak shows of Barnum and others. People, it seems, are always drawn to extremes.

But Pomerance’s play is not a freak show. And a reasonable question is: do the prostheses in Lynch’s film assist or detract from the story of the man beneath them? Perhaps there’s a zeitgeist-y parallel here: when Susan Boyle sang on Britain’s Got Talent, did you also think, in the words of Amanda Holden, “I wasn’t expecting that” – by extension, a “beautiful” voice to come from someone who was unattractive physically? To make up our Merrick with lumps and bumps would be to present the audience the opportunity to betray itself with the thought: I never expected something so ugly to see so much beauty in the world. It’s an instinctive thought, and one that I’m sure we’ve all had. And it does majority a disservice. Most of us feel the immediate guilt that follows.

There should be no need for guilty consciences here. My hope is that you will note the physical difficulties Merrick faces – they do, in the end, lead to his death – but to think about what he says about the world around him, his lack of bitterness and his capacity for love and faith, and to focus on what Pomerance wants us to see: just another man, with his challenges to overcome, poorly treated by those around him but doing what we all do best: become a little better every day.