DJ Taylor: Keep the red flag flying? Could do...

Union ties are as burdensome for Labour as the Tories' debt to wealthy donors. State funding beckons

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One of my favourite television programmes in late Seventies teendom was the BBC's coverage of Labour Party conferences. The most amusing moment was the sight of our middle-class leaders trying to remember the words of "The Red Flag". The second most amusing moment came when, with the platform occupied by some behemoth of the trades union movement, the camera panned out to include reaction shots from the cabinet ministers in the front of the stalls. There would sit Messrs Healey, Crosland and Hattersley, seething with resentment at the drivel to which conference protocols required them to attend, yet darkly conscious that without union sponsorship the conference would take place in a church hall in Bridlington.

Back in the days when Labour Party conferences – and indeed the trades union movement – mattered, I could see the practical value of Labour's union paymasters without being able to appreciate their ideological justification. In the era of Callaghan and Foot, trades union leaders were of two kinds: right-wing ones who wanted the party to win elections, and left-wing ones who wanted to cause trouble. The social equality (or rather the conditions in which social equality might be encouraged) trumpeted by Labour Party manifestos was of no interest to them, because their brand of trades unionism, with its insistence on differentials and pecking orders, was really about maintaining economic divides. Then, of course, there was the routine embarrassment of watching general secretaries, many of them elected on the votes of Tory-supporting members, throwing their considerable weight about on the conference platform.

All these memories were stirred by last week's news that the GMB union may withdraw its funding (put at £2m a year) in protest at Labour Party policy on public-sector pay, while Unite has called a Westminster meeting at which all 258 Labour MPs are invited to hear the (supposedly critical) thoughts of its leader, Len McCluskey. If It weren't for the money, one would be tempted to advise Ed Miliband to tell his union backers to go hang, for in front-of-house terms they do nothing but harm. Whenever Bob Crow of the rail union opens his mouth another 10,000 votes slide out of reach. As for the teaching unions, I don't believe we have heard a constructive remark in the time Michael Gove has been at the Department for Education. State funding for political parties would not only silence the likes of Mr McCluskey but would also prevent Tory hedge-fund proprietors from buying themselves knighthoods. It can't come soon enough.

The passing last weekend of Whitney Houston offered a high-grade example of the media's ability to string out a celebrity death. Monday and Tuesday were occupied by blanket newspaper coverage. By Wednesday, the gossip magazines were on the scent with hastily contrived tribute issues. Come Thursday speculation about the funeral had reached boiling point, accompanied by numberless spin-off stories about how much money Dolly Parton, composer of Ms Houston's biggest hit, "I Will Always Love You", was likely to make in royalties.

All this prompted one or two speculations about the future of the obituary, and whether the old highbrow /lowbrow apartheid of the death notice is capable of being maintained into the mid-21st century. Until fairly recently, a minor novelist might labour on for 50 years unknown to the wider public but safe in the knowledge that he would get his couple of columns in The Times, while Leroy Fredge, lead singer of the Peckham Posse, made do with a paragraph. Clearly this landscape has been reconfigured, and even the broadsheet press is full of lavish tributes to bass players from obscure Seventies bands.

But what about the long-term? Again, until fairly recently one could assume that highbrow artists would survive in the decades after their death because their admirers were more loyal, while popular entertainers went the way of all flesh. On the other hand, even the New Oxford Dictionary of National Biography turns out to carry a long (and very good) essay on the porn star Mary Millington. My own guess is that 50 years from now, most people will have a vague idea of who Whitney Houston was, while a select cognoscenti will fanatically recollect the quirky American singer-songwriter Dory Previn, who died on Tuesday. Perhaps, in the end, this is less of a consolation than it seems.

In the wake of the Suarez/Evra non-handshake and the resignation of Fabio Capello from the England managership, a fascinating debate has moved into gear in newspaper letters pages over the allegedly disproportionate place occupied in the national consciousness by football. One disconcerting aspect of this set-to has been a repeated claim that the bandwagon was set rolling by "middle-class journalists" who seized on a working-class pastime, patronised it, gentrified it, wrote books about it and eventually garlanded it with a cultural and even mythical status that it never wanted to possess.

It is true that the up-market media's preoccupation with soccer began with Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch in 1992. In faint mitigation, the pre-Hornby broadsheet press was so indifferent to the beautiful game that the middle-class "soccerati" could be forgiven the relish with which they set to work. I can remember, in the late 1980s, trying to persuade the editor of The Spectator, Charles Moore, that what his paper needed above all was a football column. Mr Moore was polite but unimpressed. On the other hand, one only needs to look at the number of sports journalists on display in Private Eye's Pseuds Corner for comparing some Premiership enforcer to a figure from classical mythology to realise that he probably had a point.

Reading John Lanchester's new novel Capital, I came across a scene in which a young man called Parker, asked by his girlfriend if he wants to go for a walk in the village where they are taking a weekend break, utters the words "Could do." Lanchester helpfully appends the gloss "Parker and Daisy had both grown up in Norfolk, where the most boring people she had ever known would use this phrase as a way of sucking the oxygen out of any conversation, discussion or plan." To which I would add that, 30 years ago in Norwich, it was what girls you asked to the cinema would say if they didn't want to go but were too courteous for the instant put-down. Whether or not the rest of Capital, with its descriptions of investment banking and the lifestyles of the London rich, is authentic I am not qualified to judge, but in the matter of Norfolk argot Mr Lanchester is bang on target.

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