A Westminster Life: The McBride saga shows the mutual feeding frenzy of press and politicians

Plus: Zero-hours gives the lie to recovery, the death of grassroots politics and family status ought not bind opinions

Chris Bryant
Saturday 21 September 2013 10:09
Damian McBridge has written a memoir about life inside Brown’s Treasury and Downing Street courts
Damian McBridge has written a memoir about life inside Brown’s Treasury and Downing Street courts

What to say about Damian McBride? I’m betting his book is as honest an expiation as he could possibly make it. It will be well written. And it will show that the press and politics are engaged in a mutually self-destructive, orgiastic feast in which we gorge ourselves on tittle-tattle and gossip and wonder why nobody buys our papers/votes for us any more. McBride briefs the Daily Mail, the Mail condemns his “poison”, the Mail pays to serialise his book, and condemns his poison again. Tangled webs.

Don’t get me wrong. Damian’s briefing undoubtedly caused entirely unnecessary pain and hurt to politicians who he considered as either permanent or temporary enemies. But outrage from journalists and editors who specialised in precisely this style of political assassination should be treated with equal contempt.

One story which I suspect won’t be in his book happened at the 2008 Labour Conference. Harriet Harman’s wonderful special adviser, Ayesha Hazarika and I were stuck in Harriet’s hotel room finishing off her speech for the next morning while she toured regional functions. At about midnight we heard transport secretary Ruth Kelly had resigned, been sacked or had otherwise accidentally fallen out of the Cabinet, and we were facing a major rewrite of the speech.

In need of fresh air we stepped out onto the balcony. Gordon Brown’s office was nearby and from the terrace above us we could hear Damian’s rasping tones ranting at some poor hack at three o’clock in the morning about the evils of his boss’s deputy, our very own Harriet. We should have been scandalised, but to be honest we just laughed and teased him about it for weeks.

Zero-hours gives the lie to recovery

You probably won’t have heard of Clydach unless you live there. Consisting of a thin strip of terraced streets reaching up into the mountains above Tonypandy, its two lakes look stunning on a sunny day. However, on a dreich morning such as Tuesday, when the mist rolled down and turned from drizzle into rain just as we started leafleting, all I could see was boarded up and abandoned houses and the signs of families struggling to keep afloat.

If there’s an economic recovery in London, it certainly hasn’t reached Clydach yet. Or Tonypandy. Or pretty much anywhere in Wales. Indeed, this week’s Joseph Rowntree Foundation report on poverty in Wales since 2010 makes shocking reading. Of those living in poverty, more are in work than out of work. Low pay and part-time work have consigned almost a quarter of all Welsh families to a life bumping along on or below the poverty line.

One chap came out to tell me his son’s story. He’s 44, he has a mortgage (most people own their own homes in the Rhondda) and he loves his work. Unfortunately, he’s on a zero-hours contract, so he has to ring the depot every evening to find out how many hours he will be working the following day (on £3 less an hour than full-time employees).

I just don’t get how that makes social, economic or moral sense. How can he plan to pay his mortgage or his bills? How can the agency plan to get its contracts completed? Some employers might like a subservient workforce, always on tenterhooks about whether there will be three or eight hours work tomorrow, but why on earth do we all put up with a society in which someone who works a full week has to get additional hand-outs from the state just to put food on the table?

It won’t be a true economic recovery worth having unless we’re all in it together. Relying on trickledown along the M4 (or up the M1 or the M6) won’t do. The answer lies in better-rewarded work for all. So Labour’s message must be that Labour means work. A job for anyone caught in unemployment for two years, as we’ve already promised. And once in work, hours and a wage you can rely on and live on. As one man who I canvassed in a marginal seat last week, “I won’t vote Labour until they show that a fair day’s work gets a fair reward. No more. No less.”

The death of grassroots politics

The Tories have finally admitted they have lost half their members since David Cameron became leader. That means that with the Conservatives on 134,000, Labour on roughly 188,000 and the Lib Dems on 42,501, the total number of members in the three main parties with their 616 MPs is 364,501. Allowing for three-quarters of these being sleeping supporters, that’s fewer than 150 active members across all three parties per constituency. That’s a lower proportion than in Germany, France or Spain. Yet this is the structure on which candidate selection, the election of MPs in “safe seats”, the party system, the whipping operation in the Commons and the government itself rests. Like a constitutional game of Jenga, we’ve piled on power at the top, but the structure is now fundamentally unstable.

Family status ought not bind opinions

I’m perplexed by a new argument going around. Tim Loughton started it by suggesting Sarah Teather was a terrible Families Minister because she didn’t have one of her own. That was bad enough. Lib Dems rightly howled like banshees at the sheer nasty Tory-ness of this, though he said his words had been distorted. But lo and behold, up comes the one Lib Dem who is almost a national treasure, Shirley Williams (pictured). When asked why Simon Hughes opposed Labour-run Southwark Council’s free school meals policy, she told Question Time he got it wrong because he didn’t have children. By this logic, only homosexuals should have a view on same-sex marriage, penal policy should be reserved to criminals, police officers and crime victims and only bankers should have a say on banking regulation. Surely not?

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