Why such a fuss about something as prosaic as a colour? Why such disagreement and dissent? Yes, I am talking about the row over Harriet Harman’s Pink Bus, which I missed because I was away on holiday. This story may be two weeks old, but I cannot let it pass because, as I read about this from my own battle bus (or rather, as I was trying to provide cups of tea in a car stuck in traffic on a German autobahn), it outraged me that Labour could think women voters could be reduced to the colour pink, as though we are four-year-old girls and this is not an election but Toys R Us.
A fortnight on, however, my anger has been tempered by two realisations on returning to Westminster: first, that the Pink Bus seems to be working because people are still talking about it – it has cut through; and, second, that women in the Labour Party have never been so powerful.
For the purposes of this column, let’s say Labour doesn’t win the election. Not an unlikely scenario. A leadership contest will follow. The likely candidates are Andy Burnham, Chuka Umunna, Tristram Hunt and Yvette Cooper. But I keep hearing (from various Labour sources) that Cooper may not run. Is this because, as a strong frontrunner, her allies are trying to make clear her loyalty to Ed Miliband and she does not want to be seen as a Michael Heseltine, waiting for the leader to fall?
When I asked the very straightforward leadership question in an interview with Cooper in Westminster last week (“if there was a vacancy, would you be a candidate?”), I wasn’t expecting such a forthright, robust response. Anyone who was talking about the leadership contest, she said, needed to “sort themselves out” and focus on winning the election. I believed her. But this doesn’t mean she won’t run if the time comes.
It has been suggested, however, that Cooper does not have strong support in the 2010 intake – her allies come from a broader base in the parliamentary party than her husband’s did in the last contest, but they tend to be MPs who have been around longer. And, so the 2010er argument goes, do we really want someone elected in 1997 to be our Prime Minister in 2020? Burnham has tacked to the left since his days under Tony Blair in Downing Street and can count on union support. But the next Labour leadership contest will be the first where the unions’ power is diminished. All the momentum is with a 2010 candidate such as Umunna or Hunt. And the most powerful force behind them is the group of talented female MPs from that cohort – Liz Kendall, Rachel Reeves, Stella Creasy, Gloria De Piero, Emma Reynolds and Luciana Berger. All of these women have leadership qualities, yet I am told none of them is eager to run this time, which is a pity. But their kingmaker status is unrivalled, and it is likely that whoever wins their backing will emerge as the winner. Would it be astonishing if a 2015 Labour leadership contest did not have a female candidate? Yes. Is it a good thing that the future of the Labour Party lies in the hands of women? Yes. So we can perhaps now all relax about the Pink Bus.
Jowell’s opinion devolves
One woman who has put herself forward for a Labour election is Tessa Jowell, for the party’s London mayoral candidacy. After the announcement that Manchester will be given control of its own £6bn NHS budget, Jowell wrote that this was “good news for the health of local people – and I think Londoners deserve to get the same deal”. She told her Facebook followers: “Devolving power and budgets to the Mayor and boroughs would be a huge opportunity to improve Londoners’ health”, adding that “better integration of social care will help end the annual A&E crisis”.
This is not quite what Burnham, the Shadow Health Secretary, thinks: his reaction to the Manchester plans was that this would lead to a “Swiss cheese NHS” and that, “it does point to further break up of the idea of a National Health Service”.
Better is not always best
On Tuesday, I attended a fundraising dinner for the charity Action for Stammering Children and heard moving accounts by youngsters of how they struggle to make themselves heard. The bravery of one young woman named Arielle, who stood up in front of hundreds of people to deliver a speech, was incredible. Colin Firth, who won an Oscar playing a stammering King George V, is the charity’s vice-president.
In the wake of another Brit, Eddie Redmayne, winning best actor in Hollywood at the weekend, Firth told the audience that, in his experience, “it’s a better party when you don’t win”. This raised a laugh – however, Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper, who were also in the audience, would no doubt think this is a rule that doesn’t translate well to general elections.
Border boredom cured
A few years ago, I wrote how much I hate a queue – even the word itself is four letters too long. But, forced to join many while on holiday – in a tangle of skiers trying to get on a chairlift in Austria and waiting for half an hour to fill up with petrol in Germany were just two – I decided that the best thing to do is learn to love the queue. Impatient pushing to the front just makes things worse.
When we were waiting to drive on to the Eurotunnel shuttle to get back to the UK, one family in a large 4x4 tried to push to the front by driving through closing barriers and even nearly knocking over the guards. They had been assigned the letter T – and the front of the queue was only on E. When Britain’s borders are supposedly on high alert for illegal immigration and terrorism, just what were they thinking? I imagine they weren’t expecting the police to arrive.
Watching the incident unfold from our car as I put on the travel kettle for yet another pot of tea, I surrendered to the joy of queuing.