DJ Taylor: Sing and you're winning

If Labour wants to retain power, it should back the singalong rather than fret about the press. Plus, Polanski's ridiculous friends, football's foulers, and the death of Lucy Vodden, inspiration to John Lennon
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The Independent Online

To compare this year's Labour Party conference to the fraught jamborees of 30 years ago is to register a profound degeneration. For a start, numbers are down: the platform on to which Gordon Brown so manfully strode could have been the stake-out for a suburban Tupperware party when set against the seething amphitheatres of the Callaghan era.

Then again, there is none – or not much – of the bitterness, the sheer adversarial clangour, that distinguished the gatherings of the late 1970s, when for weeks beforehand the comment pages would be gravely disputing whether Jim would hold the left, or would Brother Bootle of the Wheeltappers' and Shunters' displace Brother Bickersdyke of the Carpet-Loom Operatives on the NEC, and moderate members of the parliamentary party who ventured to the microphone could almost expect to have things thrown at them by the braying Trotskyite mob in the stalls. So much, alas, that one fondly remembered has vanished down the waste-disposal unit of time: the eager, complacent look on Tony Benn's face as he sat nodding approval at the routine assaults on governments of which he had been a part; the acronymic frontages – AUEW, Sogat 82 – of the TUC robber barons; the countless activist cells (the Tribune Group, the Manifesto Group, Trades Unions for a Labour Victory) into which the movement constantly sub-divided.

Happy days they were, spent watching – say – the Chancellor, Denis Healey, being booed on his return from negotiations with the IMF by a roomful of constituency delegates who would probably have not been able to compute their weekly outgoings on the back of a fag packet; or James Callaghan attending, bleak and Buddha-like, to a succession of speakers informing him what an idiot he was – a sort of ideological panto in which the spectres of Karl Marx and Max Miller uneasily contended.

Curiously enough, though, what I really miss is the community singing. To be sure, Thursday's proceedings ended with a ragged attempt to sing "The Red Flag" and what one commentator called "a Village People scene" on the platform, with conference-goers dressed up in their occupational uniforms, but the assemblies of yesteryear resounded to the most exotic selections from ancient party songbooks. I have a vivid memory of watching Michael Foot, Dennis Skinner and others carolling their way through a rousing critique of the capitalist system entitled "The Very Fat Man That Waters the Workers' Beer" (chorus: "I am the man, the very fat man/That waters the workers' beer/And what do I care if it makes them ill/If it makes them terribly queer/I've a car, a yacht, and an aeroplane/And I waters the workers' beer"). This year's post-conference leading articles have been full of sound advice for Brown: he should be more decisive; he should put clear water between himself and the Tories; he should state where the cuts are going to fall. I think he should sing more.


In fact, a certain amount of rancour did spill out on to the Brighton conference platform, and it had to do with The Sun's announcement that it would not be endorsing the party at the next election. Harriet Harman denounced the paper, while Tony Woodley of the Unite union ceremoniously ripped up a copy in front of the assembled delegates. Brown, meanwhile, was reported to be "livid", while confining his public remarks to the observation that newspapers don't decide election results; people do. All this, of course, was very funny, as well as drawing further attention to one of the great shortcomings of the whole New Labour project, which is its timidity in the face of media criticism.

When Tony Blair won his first election victory back in 1997 and marched into the Commons with a majority of more than 150, I remember being gripped by the odd delusion that, for perhaps the second time in British history – the first being 1945 – what right-wing newspapers thought about the government wouldn't matter, that Mr Blair could turn to Fleet Street and say, in effect, "We are going to do x, y and z, and we don't care in the least what you think of us."

The delusion lasted for approximately a week, after which Mr Blair started sucking up to The Daily Telegraph again. What makes Harriet Harman's public disparagement of The Sun so questionable, alas, is the 12 years' silence that preceded it – a silence that, you imagine, would have continued had Labour got the Murdoch imprimatur this time round. And if, as the Prime Minister asserts, newspapers don't win elections, why is he so cross when they desert him?


The book I most enjoyed reading this week was The Daily Telegraph cricket correspondent Michael Henderson's immensely spirited 50 People Who Fouled Up Football, right, an accusatory work based on the premise that, as the introduction puts it, the beautiful game "has been shamed by people who do not hold its best interests at heart". Who are the guilty men – and indeed women, for Victoria Beckham gets a mention for inaugurating the cult of the WAG? Happily, most of football's widely dispersed constituencies are gathered up in Henderson's net, from narcissistic players (Best, Ronaldo) to aggrandising owners (Ambramovich, Ridsdale, Bates) and predatory agents (Pini Zahavi). There is a special place, too, for the ringside commentator, and Henderson has some choice remarks about Radio 5's Alan Green ("so tremendously pleased by the sound of his own voice, and the firmness of his convictions, that nothing short of fire, flood or pestilence can prevent him from bestowing his opinions on the public") and BBC television's Alan Hansen ("who has nothing to say and is determined to say it").

Naturally, witless punditry is a symptom of football's ills rather its root cause: on the other hand, you suspect that many supporters pine for more intelligent coverage of the game. During the 2008 European Championships, for example, when the BBC went all interactive and invited audience comment, there were so many complaints about the badinage exchanged by John Motson and Mark Lawrenson that the site apparently had to be shut down. Meanwhile the 50 People Who ... format could profitably be extended to commerce and the arts. How about "50 People Who Loused Up Literature"? (The destroyers of the Net Book Agreement, Dan Brown, the head buyer at Tesco, super-agent Andrew Wylie ...) Or perhaps, on reflection, 50 isn't nearly enough.


Of all the articles filed in the wake of l'affaire Polanski, the one I objected to most was the cry of anguish from Harvey Weinstein that appeared in Tuesday's Independent. It was not that Weinstein used the words "so-called crime" to describe the well-attested drugging and rape of a 13-year-old girl, but that his defence of dear old Roman, his great chum and "humanist" (whatever that means in these circumstances) reeked of the Benefit of Clergy line which habitually attends the misdeeds of famous people. Mr Weinstein didn't actually say in so many words "Because Polanski is a celebrated film director the normal rules of civilised behaviour don't apply", but the assumption ran through the piece like the lettering through a stick of rock.

The depressing thing about these exercises in moral equivocation is that they operate throughout the celebrity firmament, to the point where considerations of "genius" nearly always end up peddling an altogether bogus exceptionalism. Writing about the Bloomsbury Group, the late Noel Annan once observed that it annoyed him when people talked about JM Keynes "as if he were an ordinary man". But presumably Keynes ate, slept, breathed and defecated like the rest of us? Half of the difficulty in getting the majority of the population to take "Art" seriously stems from this refusal on the part of its guardians to accept that both the circumstances in which it gets created and the artists creating it are often horribly mundane.


The death, aged only 46, of Lucy Vodden (nee O'Donnell), a classmate of John Lennon's son Julian at a Weybridge nursery in 1966, allowed a final debunking of the myth that surrounded the Beatles' "Lucy in The Sky With Diamonds". Far from being a coded reference to LSD (and, as such, banned by the BBC), it turned out to derive from a picture of her, drawn by Julian and presented to his father with the explanation "It's Lucy in the sky with diamonds". One grows used to these reminders of how prosaic the creative impulse can be. Watching the recently reformed post-punk veterans Magazine rock the Royal Festival Hall last month, I was taken aback to learn that the song "Parade", from their 1978 album Real Life, always thought to be inspired by Satie and the Ballets Russes, was actually a nod to the 1970s "glamour" publication of the same name. On the other hand, given the line about "staying one step ahead of relief", perhaps I should have realised this before.