DJ Taylor: Unlike the Seventies, motoring on the left has now run out of gas

Some suggestions for how Diane Abbott can restart Labour's bandwagon, and how Ted Heath went from nought to me in under four minutes (33/4 actually)
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Now that we have a genuinely left-wing candidate in the Labour leadership race, in the person of Diane Abbott, there is a fair chance of one or two authentically radical and, if one can use the word these days, socialist ideas floating above the hustings.

But what form ought a properly left-wing agenda to take if – and this is not a requirement that creators of left-wing agendas have always bothered themselves with – it aspires to appeal to more than a fraction of the electorate? Ms Abbott and her allies could start by concentrating on that highly desirable abstract, social justice, by proposing not just a decent minimum wage but a maximum wage. To amass, let us say, more than £1m a year is to acquire wealth beyond utility. Who needs it, and to what end can it justifiably be put when a third of the nation's children live in poverty?

The standard argument levelled against the idea of a maximum wage, even by those supposedly in favour of higher taxes, is that the rich will always find ways of getting round measures designed to reduce their incomes by hiring high-grade financial advice. So a second proposal ought to be for a public inquiry – better still, a royal commission – into the activities of the UK's top half-dozen accountancy firms, whose tax-avoidance schemes have done incalculable harm to the Exchequer for the past couple of decades.

Another truly radical move from the Labour left would be to suppress its traditional hostility to the idea of excellence in education, acknowledge that most leftist education policy has been founded on the principle of denying bright children advancement rather than giving them opportunities to succeed, and accept that, given the dismal condition of much of the state sector, only a dash of private sector expertise can help it to prosper.

Finally, the radical left needs a symbolic "cause" – not perhaps an issue of very great importance, but one that stirs an instinctive public response. My own favourite would be a campaign to preserve the chequebook, whose planned phasing out seems a perfect example of one of our institutions – in this case the banks – deciding to adopt a particular course of action because it suits its own interests, while ignoring the huge inconvenience caused to everyone else. I don't suppose for a moment that Ms Abbott will get herself elected by saying these things, but it would be nice to hear them said.

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The book I most enjoyed reading this week was Philip Ziegler's fascinating biography of the former Tory prime minister Edward Heath. The fascination lies not so much in Ziegler's analysis of the political events of the 1960s and 1970s as in the continual exposure of his subject's extraordinary personality. Heath's monomania, his complete absorption in the ceaselessly arresting topic of himself, was the stuff of legend even in his prime-ministerial days. Ziegler's achievement, it might be said, is to explore some of the psychology of monomania and to demonstrate the altogether compelling logic of the monomaniac's response to the situations in which he finds himself.

There is a jaw-dropping moment, for example, in which Heath arrives at the home of some old friends on the evening of the day after the 1979 general election, seething with fury over Margaret Thatcher's refusal to offer him a cabinet post. The solitary words spoken to his hostess as he stumps upstairs are "An egg, 33/4 minutes at 8.10." But looked at from Heath's angle – admittedly, a curious one – this is not simple rudeness, but a kind of perverse civility: in the circumstances there is nothing to be said, but no doubt it would help to agree the breakfast menu in advance. Another Heath classic, related by his previous biographer John Campbell, had him being introduced to a nervous constituency chairman who ventured that he was a family man. In that case, Heath is supposed to have replied, why wasn't he at home with his wife and children? Again, from Heath's point of view, this wasn't in the least discourteous. A career politician, who subjugated all his other interests to the lumbering juggernaut of his ascent, Heath could not understand how anyone else professionally involved in politics could be less committed to it than himself.

Queerly enough, all this reminded me of the conversational techniques practised by Heath's sworn enemy Enoch Powell. A literary editor friend of mine once confessed that the job he liked least in the world was ringing up Powell and asking him to review a book: Powell always answered on the first ring and offered remorselessly logical replies to small-talk. On one occasion my friend completely lost his head. "I believe I have your phone number, Mr Powell?" he babbled at the conversation's close. "Yes," Powell replied earnestly. "Otherwise you could not have telephoned me on it."

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One of the by-products of the Saville report into the Bloody Sunday massacre was a spate of newspaper articles on "what it was like" back in 1972, the year in which the massacre took place. These tended to be illustrated with photographs of David Bowie and striking mine-workers. My own memory of the early Seventies is of the extent to which the consumerism that the 21st-century citizen takes for granted had yet to kick in. The Taylors (there were five of us) didn't acquire their first colour TV until 1973; made do for transport with a Citroë*Ami 8 of such limited horsepower that when climbing a hill in the Lake District it was necessary for four-fifths of the family to get out; and never had a foreign holiday – not quite the deprivation it sounds, as neither did anyone else. Watching Control, Anton Corbijn's film of the life of Joy Division's Ian Curtis, the other night, I remarked to my 17-year-old son on the verisimilitude of its stark Seventies interiors, where a stereo record player was the high-water mark of bourgeois luxe.

The other great characteristic of the early Seventies was the fretfulness of the middle classes, whose incomes were falling in real terms and who saw their status threatened by the unionised industrial proletariat. To anyone brought up in the era of the three-day week, the real difference between then and now is the rise in the living standards of the professional bourgeoisie. The honeymoon currently being enjoyed by the coalition government will last, you feel, until that moment – possibly only a few weeks hence – when this vital part of the demographic starts to feel insecure.

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Amid the countless banners held aloft to celebrate North Korea's entry on to the World Cup stage this week, the most forlorn was a placard that read "Let's ignore politics for the next 90 minutes". Alas, barely a day of the tournament goes by without confirming the fact that international sports events nearly always take on an extra dimension beyond the sport itself. To take only three examples: the decision to award the tournament to South Africa in the first place was a political act; North Korea's pariah status among the international community was instantly reinforced by the rumour that many of the North Korean fans in the stadium were masquerading Chinese; and it is still entirely possible that England will play Germany in the second round, thereby setting up another metaphorical Third World War.

Then there is the moral element that always colonises such spectacles – the David-versus-Goliath encounters in which a Switzerland beats a Spain, unhappily reversed on the occasion when Uruguay dispatched the hosts (plucky underdogs, naturally) 3-0 without breaking sweat. Another little parable, perhaps, can be found in the responses of the fans. Certainly, the South African supporters, brought out from their township social clubs to face the cameras, always seem a great deal more articulate than many of the English people present.

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To mark the opening of a new craft exhibition at Jerwood Space in London SE1, Jeanette Winterson could be found in The Independent urging us all to be more creative. Ms Winterson's trick on these occasions is to offer a series of grand-sounding truisms, which close inspection reveals to be just a little less plausible than they sound. "The most satisfying thing a human being can do – and the sexiest – is to make something." It is? "Life is about relationship – to each other – and to the material world." No, really? "Making is personal. Making is shared. Making is a celebration of who we are." Is it now? My wife, who was at St Catherine's College, Oxford, at the same time as Ms W, suggested that her old tutor would have been slightly less indulgent of this stuff than her present editor. And what is Ms Winterson making? On this evidence: easy money.

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