John Harris

Journalist & Author

Archive for December, 2010

« Older Entries | Newer Entries »

Why celebrity memoirs rule publishing

Monday, December 13th, 2010

One celebrity memoir made our reviewer cry – but the rest just bored him to tears. What would reading 11 of them in four days do to his brain?

Hunter S Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas famously begins: “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.” The first sentence of The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath, goes like this: “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”

But never mind all that. Life & Laughing is the autobiography of Michael McIntyre, the 34-year-old comedian who is now arguably as successful as any standup has ever been. At the time of writing, it has sold 169,210 copies. People like it; at my local WH Smith, it seems to be selling like cut-price gold. It starts: “I am writing this on my new 27-inch iMac. I have ditched my PC and gone Mac . . . It’s gorgeous and enormous and I bought it especially to write my book (the one you’re reading now).”

While we’re here, consider also the enticing kick-off passage of My Story, by Dannii Minogue: “Having a baby; joyful, a quiet celebration with family. An intimate and magical moment of discovery shared with your partner. Hmmm . . . I wish!” She goes on: “The car is stuck in rainy London traffic and, as usual, I’m running on what some of my closer friends would call ‘Minogue Time’, which basically means I’m late.” This does not quite get me hooked, though I persevere. But more of that later.

To begin The Woman I Was Born To Be, that blessed national treasure Susan Boyle goes for a gnomic statement of the obvious: “My name is Susan Boyle.” Cheryl Cole’s Through My Eyes commences no less prosaically – “In 2009, we decided to take a break from Girls Aloud. During this time an opportunity came for me to make a solo album” – but it’s essentially a picture book, so maybe I should leave off.

Anyway, these books are not only dominating the bestseller lists at he moment, but my life too. The plan is simple enough: to collect these less-than-literary works, resolve to get beyond the first sentences, and thereby take the national pulse. So, I duly line up the memoirs of McIntyre, Minogue, Alan Sugar, Chris Evans et al – along with the supposed work of a fictional meerkat – and get to it.

First, though, I speak to my agent. Jonny Geller is managing director of Curtis Brown’s books division, and down the years he has occasionally sat me down and patiently explained the frazzled economics of the publishing industry. His contribution to the Christmas market is Nelson Mandela’s Conversations With Myself, which is doing respectably – though it is not quite up there with the work of Radio 2 DJs, TV tycoons and failed Australian pop stars.

How did we get here? He begins the story with the collapse of the net book agreement, which kept prices high and thereby held back the creation of a truly popular market, until 1997. “When that happened, the supermarkets came in with huge discounts, and you got a mass market. And what does a mass market want? They want what they get on radio, and TV, and in music, and film. So suddenly celebrities become the natural thing.”

The watershed book, he reckons, was Billy, the biography of Billy Connolly by his wife – and Guardian columnist – Pamela Stephenson, which was published in 2001, sold more than a million, and thereby pointed the way. Down, on the whole: though the Connolly story was full of pathos, and capably written, what followed did not do great things for the culture. One thinks of, say, the four memoirs credited to Katie Price (she’s already on to number five, apparently), Jason Donovan’s Between The Lines, or Kerry Katona’s landmark Too Much, Too Young: My Story of Love, Survival and Celebrity.

Last year, Geller tells me, was something of a celeb-publishing disaster, embodied by the underperformance of Ant and Dec’s Ooh, What A Lovely Pair: Our Story (which did 330,000 in paperback, but failed to recoup a mind-boggling £2.8m advance). But 2010 is looking much better: with Jamie Oliver’s 30 Minute Meals leading a high street publishing stimulus, and McIntyre, Sugar and the meerkat also doing their bit, the seasonal book market seems to have been miraculously revived, even as consumer confidence apparently plunges. That said, some of the numbers do not quite add up: McIntyre, Geller reminds me, received a reported £2.3m advance from the Penguin group, which means he’ll have to sell in advance of 600,000 hardbacks if anyone’s to make a profit. “There’s no way he’s going to do it, but that’s still a successful book. It depends how you gauge success.”

This last point goes straight to the book industry’s strange business model, the fact that financial exactitude may be less important than keeping the whole machine ticking over.

“You buy turnover by having celebrities,” says Geller. “You’ve got costs: distribution, employment, printers to keep happy . . . and if you’ve got something you know you’re going to print at least 200,000 copies of, that keeps the machine running. You have to have turnover: if you don’t, you’re left with a small company. It’s a self-fulfilling thing.” To some ears, this may sound like the economics of the pre-internet music industry: sign a lot, pay whatever it takes, keep the fun going – and hope you luck out with at least one big hit a year.

But anyway: I have books to read. Having put down what I’m currently reading (Keith Richards’s Life, which is great), I begin with Minogue’s My Story, because she is the one contemporary celeb author I have met: at a west London branch of TGI Fridays circa 1997, when we fell into a weird and bitter argument about whether Robbie Williams should be blamed for losing himself in drink and drugs after exiting Take That. I sympathised with him; she, like a true show-must-go-on veteran of an Australian institution called Young Talent Time, did not – and it all got rather heated and shouty. Which is more than can be said for My Story, in which most of her anecdotes fall flat, like the kind of pub stories that are followed by pregnant silences.

She recalls watching a cast-member from Prisoner Cell Block H chainsmoking at an Aussie TV studio: “It’s odd to think of it now,” she says. Oh, it is! One paragraph from the end, she serves up this gripping picture of her current domestic bliss: “I wouldn’t exactly say it’s a quiet house . . . Kris [her other half] has bought a new 3D TV that looks as big as a cinema with surround sound that makes the house rock.” To cap it all, there is this picture of her less-than-spectacular pop career circa 1989: “I seemed to be a mysterious, dark punk version of my older sister . . . it gave me more street cred.” No it didn’t!

There is much more: a boob job, nude shots for Playboy in which she was done up like Crocodile Dundee, and her valiant efforts to pretend Kylie’s success has never been an issue: “The truth of the matter is that I never felt like I was competing with my sister. I’ll say it again: I NEVER FELT LIKE I WAS COMPETING WITH KYLIE.” So there you are.

After that, I do the Michael McIntyre book, which is a bit like having someone with a mild personality disorder shouting in your ear for six hours. He has an interesting story, of sorts: among the other strands of his pre-fame life, his father was a close associate of the anarchic DJ-turned-comic Kenny Everett, with whom his mum – some 17 years dad’s junior – sated her appetite for the high life by regularly going clubbing. This all contributes to amusing enough stories, but there are insurmountable problems: a habit of digressing at ridiculous length; gags that don’t work too well in bald print; and quite unbearable smugness. This is him, for example, on performing at the O2 arena: “Before my tour started, I saw Madonna there, the first night I did was replacing Michael Jackson, the night before my final gig Beyoncé was there. It simply doesn’t get any bigger than this.”

Over four days of mind-bending effort, I then tackle five more.

Chris Evans’s Memoirs of a Fruitcake picks up where last year’s It’s Not What You Think left off: in 1997, when he borrowed £85m to buy Virgin Radio off Richard Branson, and commenced a long lost-it period that included his transformation into “a multi-millionaire part-time DJ”, visits to hundreds of pubs, and his strange marriage to Billie Piper. It just about holds my attention, though I am left wondering how a book so defined by the getting and wasting of huge amounts of money will play in an age of fiscal grimness and belt-tightening. One chapter begins with a list titled “10 must haves when I built my dream house” and describes Evans being helicoptered around the stockbroker belt with a view to buying a new mansion, which I’m sure will resonate brilliantly in, say, Middlesbrough.

Still, at least it vaguely gets my blood rising – unlike Simon Pegg’s distinctly un-gripping Nerd Do Well, in which he expends hundreds of pages on his memories of the 70s and 80s (you know the drill: Spangles, Star Wars, Princess Di haircuts, the usual), mysteriously fails to tell the reader anything much about Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz, and decides to weave in a very odd, half-written story about a re-imagined version of himself and a “robotic butler”. A talented and apparently nice fella, I’m sure, but his publishers have reportedly paid him £1m for three books, and so far, this one has done around 25,000 copies (insert Family Fortunes-esque “Uh-uhhhh!” noise).

After that, I have to speed up, for fear of madness. Cheryl Cole’s Through My Eyes is a picture portfolio, peppered with laser-like insights (”the paparazzi can be really scary”), which can be satisfactorily dealt with in around 20 minutes. Russell Brand’s Booky Wook 2 seems slight and widely spaced, and amounts to a breathless diary of his recent experiences – though there is a reasonably diverting chapter about what we must now call “Sachsgate” (when, he recalls, “the sky was black with scandal”).

Paul O’Grady’s The Devil’s Ride Out centres on his often grim experience of the 70s, and has one unexpected advantage over most of the competition: on this evidence, he can actually write, with an understated grace and admirable sense of comic timing. Susan Boyle’s The Woman I Was Born To Be, by contrast, is pretty much what I expect: an icky feast of anecdotes, homespun wisdom (eg “Memory is like a jukebox: push the right button . . . and you’re transported straight back to a time and place”) and truisms (”Being a postman is a full-time job”) that seems to have been put together by someone called Imogen Parker. On the whole, it makes me feel unbearably sad: the dedication says simply “for my mother”, which comes unexpectedly close to making me weep.

In other words, I have now taken a distinct turn for the worse – something conclusively proved by an afternoon in the company of Gok Wan’s Through Thick and Thin. Just to make it clear: I have only ever watched How to Look Good Naked by accident, and the entire Gok phenomenon makes about as much sense to me as, say, Coldplay. But after 20 minutes, I cannot put it down.

The plotline is simple and affecting enough: raised by a Chinese father and English mother who ran restaurants in Leicester, he feasted on what he calls “deep-fried love”, and ended up chronically overweight, and bullied. On the former score, he does not hold back: “My eyes were deep set and appeared piggy in the mass of fat on my face,” he writes – a condition that led eventually to anorexia, described in the unsparing detail of food diaries (”Saturday 16 March: two teaspoons of honey, 40 laxatives”). Of course, everything eventually aligns correctly, and he becomes the successful if slightly irksome stylist-cum-unqualified psychiatrist we now know, but fair play to him: he probably deserves it.

And so to Alan Sugar. The thrillingly titled What You See Is What You Get is the best part of 600 pages long. Obviously, there is a story in there somewhere: how a wily Jewish kid from east London sussed out that the future would be defined by consumer electronics, and made a mint. But where to find it?

At one point, Sugar writes: “I could spend hours talking about every single amplifier and product we ever made, and it would be dead boring to everyone other than the old saddo hacks who used to work for me or buy from me.” This lifts my spirits, slightly. But he follows it with this: “Stan Randall arranged the construction of the production line at Ridley Road and Mike Forsey got on with the design of the IC2000 [a hi-fi amplifier]. I did the mechanical drawing for the cabinet and chassis. This time, we moulded some very fancy silver knobs and slider controls. The front panel layout design of the product was down to me. I designed some flash aluminium toggle switches and the whole thing looked a real mug’s eyeful. Moreover, it was a bloody good amplifier and it ticked all the boxes as far as the specification was concerned.”

Who is this for? What is the point of it? The same exhaustive approach is applied to the mathematics of pricing, problems with “hard-disk controller cards”, and just about everyone Sugar has ever employed (”the production line was being run by a no-nonsense fellow by the name of Dave Smith”). You would have to be out of your mind to persevere much past page 30. I have to, and that’s roughly the state in which it leaves me.

Which brings us to the essential reason why the majority of modern Christmas bestsellers are so amazingly bad. Even if some of them have been ghostwritten, you often sense there has been precious little editing. No one – apart, in fairness, from Paul O’Grady – ever seems to deliver much context, or pause for thought, or indulge in any kind of reflection: better, it seems, to just go: “I was born ages ago and my mum and dad were nice but poor but then I got a lucky break and now I’m on TV and everything and here is a picture of me on our honeymoon in the Maldives.”

Put simply, many of these books are deeply, desperately, profoundly infantile, and at my lowest point – roughly, at around page 300 of the Sugar memoir – I begin to suspect that a miserable formula is at work. It goes like this: get celeb, let them write whatever slipshod rubbish they fancy, and don’t worry because 1) the more pages, the more people feel they’re getting value for money; and 2) by Boxing Day, these books will already be either gathering dust, or on their way to the local Sue Ryder shop.

One other thing. The aforementioned meerkat book is titled A Simples Life, is credited to “Aleksandr Orlov” and contains the chilling inscription “this is an advertisement feature on behalf of comparethemarket.com”, which essentially means the public are being asked to pay for an advert. It is an extremely cynical and thin work, based around a dependable enough trick: laughing at Johnny Foreigner. The prose, if you can call it that, features such gems as: “My home is a bit like English palace of Bucking Hams.” If someone buys you it for Christmas, you should probably hit them with it.

My ordeal finally comes to a close on a Thursday afternoon, when in celebration of the end, I put in a call to the HQ of Waterstone’s and speak to their head of PR, a book industry veteran named Jon Howells, who has been in the trade since 1991.

We talk for 20 minutes: he concurs with Jonny Geller’s picture of the end of the net book agreement sending everything haywire, tells me that McIntyre may have stolen Peter Kay’s comedy-book thunder, and mentions the promotional importance of TV chatshows. Most importantly, he suggests I stop thinking about all this stuff in the same context as what industry types call “range” – ie the books racked in the back of the shop – and realise what I’m dealing with.

“These books are a part of mainstream entertainment,” he says. “Cheryl Cole has got a book out this Christmas, she’s also got a new album out, and she’s all over the telly. The book is one part of a general programme for somebody like that. You could make the same argument about Gok Wan, or Paul O’Grady. Or Michael McIntyre. It’s all part of a brand. These are people with a huge amount of fans, and they want to buy product.”

Has he read any of the big Christmas sellers? “I’m reading the Keith Richards book,” he says. “I’m eking that one out, because it’s brilliant. I’ve read some of the Russell Brand, which is good fun. I’ve read about half of the Stephen Fry book. I’ve got quite a few books on the go.”

I reveal how I’ve spent the last couple of weeks, and mention them all: Minogue, McIntyre, Cole, Boyle, Evans, Pegg, O’Grady, Brand, Wan, Sugar and the meerkat.

“You’ve even done the meerkat,” he marvels. “That’s above and beyond the call of duty.” A Simples Life, he tells me, took people such as him by surprise.

“How do you judge how well a book based on a fake animal in a car insurance ad is going to do?” he marvels, and then delivers his version of an inescapable truth about capitalism. As Paul Weller once sang, the public gets what the public wants – so maybe jumped-up pseuds like me should leave them to it.

“That book is doing well,” he says. “People like it.” He says the next bit with slightly less cheer. “Merry Christmas to them.”

John Harris

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Posted in Guardian RSS | No Comments »

Music Weekly: John Lennon remembered

Saturday, December 11th, 2010

This week, 30 years ago, John Lennon was shot dead in New York. How would he have felt about the candlelit vigils in his honour? Would he have wanted to be canonised and worshipped by so many? Of course, no one can truly know.

But this week’s podcast looks at the lesser-known aspects of Lennon’s life. First up, we hear from director Tony Palmer, who explains how a chance meeting with Lennon many years ago spurred him to make the documentary series, All You Need Is Love.

In Singles Club, Alexis and Rosie are joined by John Harris to cast their ears over some of Lennon’s music; Nobody Told Me from John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Milk and Honey, God from John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band and I’m a Loser from Beatles for Sale.

Finally, in Feature With No Name, the panel discuss Yoko Ono’s music from screaming prog-rock to krautrock, and Alexis re-examines our ideas about her.

And that’s your lot. Enjoy this week’s show, as always come and say hello on Facebook or Twitter if you so wish.

Yoko Ono
Alexis Petridis
Rosie Swash
John Harris
Scott Cawley

Posted in Guardian RSS | No Comments »

How will the cuts affect our libraries? | John Harris

Saturday, December 11th, 2010

Tell us your experience of how government policy is threatening the future of libraries across the country

Anywhere but Westminster, our new series of films and articles, is now on the verge of its second instalment. Just to recap: at such a watershed time for Britain, our aim is to explore the gap between politics and the country at large, and focus on how big themes – the cuts, the lingering effects of recession – are playing out on the ground.

Last time, we went to my home town of Frome and explored its struggling economy. This time, we want to focus on the library closures that are happening all over the country. This subject came up when we first asked for ideas – JoshTS, for example, shared some compelling information on library cuts in Wandsworth, south London – and it chimes with things I’ve written in the recent past (have a look here and here). The threat to libraries pre-dates the coalition and has already resulted in a couple of very high-profile cases – not least in Wirral, where the local council proposed to close 11 libraries, before the then culture secretary, Andy Burnham, intervened.

There seem to be two recurrent themes: either straightforward closure, or the handing of libraries to volunteers – which causes a lot of people no end of concern.

Anyway, we’d like to know: where should we go? Who should we speak to? And how important do you feel our remaining libraries are?

John Harris

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Posted in Guardian RSS | No Comments »

We can’t keep treating party leaders like football managers | John Harris

Thursday, December 9th, 2010

Ed Miliband faces a wall of cant, ideological hostility and media silliness. Labour shouldn’t be fazed by this kind of hounding

Fancy that, something going right for Ed Miliband. At today’s Prime Minister’s Questions he managed as good a performance as his first and pulled off a coup: Labour’s first successful go at mocking the more absurd aspects of David Cameron’s back story. The reference to student years spent “hanging around with people who were throwing bread rolls and wrecking restaurants” was a creditable zinger; also, watch for serial reprises of the Miliband line about the luxury life on “Planet Cameron”.

But let’s not get too carried away. As the fun in the Commons got started, the Evening Standard newspaper was running a story headlined “Plotters give Ed Miliband until May to prove himself”, thus maintaining the low hum of mischief that has followed the new Labour leader since mid-November. Just listen: his less than loyal “enforcer”, Alan Johnson, who has lately been in the unique position of being inside the tent, pissing in, could be lined up as a possible successor. Or maybe it will be the brother Ed so cruelly defeated, who has reportedly been lunching all the right journalists. “Ed Miliband has no style, no substance,” says the Daily Telegraph; “Ed Miliband faces being sucked down the plughole,” reckons the Mail.

As a case study in the near insane machinations of modern media, this hysteria takes some beating. It underlines the fact that way too much political coverage consists of a stupid mixture of arrogance and neurotic impatience, which is coming close to putting politicians on the level of Big Brother contestants.

Underlying this are the criteria by which post-Blair leaders are judged. Ideally, you must be fortysomething, achingly metropolitan and comfortable on the set of This Morning – but also gifted with two even more important attributes: an eagerness to define yourself against your own side and convictions so hazy that you will be able to pirouette across the political spectrum at the behest of forces you will accept are much more powerful than you.

If any of these are missing, turbulent times await – which is why Britain now goes through party leaders like some football clubs go through managers. The facts are sobering: including “caretakers”, there have been no less than 10 in the last five years.

With his party staring into the electoral void as he prepares to vote against the government’s plans for higher education, the venerable Menzies Campbell is somebody I have been thinking about lately. When he was hounded from the Lib Dem leadership in 2007, one loyal blogger wrote: “The story had already been written: Ming was too old; the young Turks were waiting in the wings; the Lib Dems were being squeezed … and if we did not dump our leader soon we would crash to a defeat that would be worse than anything since the SDP merged with the Liberals in 1988.” Now consider a counterfactual – Campbell hanging on, sticking to the idea that the Lib Dems were a party of the centre left, and steering well clear of coalition with the Tories. There are Lib Dems, I am sure, who would kill for that version of the present.

Going further back, imagine if William Hague had not bowed to those voices who claimed that his face would never fit and had stayed on as Tory leader after the Conservatives’ inevitable defeat in 2001. His maturing into the brilliant politician he is today would have brought a few more benefits than the hurly burly of the Iain Duncan Smith-Michael Howard period; conceivably, the Tories might have found their feet much earlier than 2006. Note also that nobody much liked Margaret Thatcher when she became Conservative leader. As one of her biographers put it, she was faced by “a mixture of scepticism, curiosity, and snobbish condescension, shading into latent or outright hostility” and “little belief that she would be leader very long”; and her first performances at PMQs were deemed less than brilliant. Had today’s rules applied then, perhaps even she wouldn’t have lasted.

Back to reality, anyway. Ed Miliband still faces a wall of cant, silliness and ideological hostility dressed up as rational analysis. My favourite bit of invective was a leader in the Sunday Times on November 28: “He has lived a life far removed from those of ordinary people … He has grown up in the jargon-filled world of the political insider who would struggle to have a conversation with an ordinary voter in the pub.” This from a newspaper that rarely seems to think such thoughts about Cameron and Clegg, and which heartily backed the elder Miliband for the leadership without pause for thought – though he, as is well known, left north London as an infant and grew up in a pit village.

Here are some things you may have missed. In recent polls Labour has been ahead by as much as five points (the prompt for the Standard story was one that put them – oh, woe! – at 39% to the Tories’ 42%). And far from being endlessly kicked around by Cameron at PMQs, Miliband has scored some direct hits. His three questions about the coalition’s attack on the school sports partnership undoubtedly played the largest role in Cameron’s announcing a rethink. When he challenged the PM about why he had put a “vanity photographer” on the public payroll, he was met with camped-up Tory groans, though they took remedial action soon enough.

But for those hounding Miliband, such small wins mean nothing. They want sparks, preferably caused by the leader taking on his own party. They desperately desire – but of course – a “clause 4 moment“. In truth, for the more imbalanced minds among them nothing will do, save the resurrection of their beloved Blair and Labour’s continued passage so far to the right that it would do awful damage to our democracy.

In 2004 the journalist John Lloyd elegantly characterised the modern journalistic impulse: “I want a disaster to happen near me, with no other journalists present; I want things to go spectacularly wrong, and for someone to tell the inside story of it to me only; I want, at least, violent personality clashes which can be presented as explanations for public policy. And when I have this nugget, which no one else has or no one else has as fast, I wish it to be a cannon ball, blasting its way into the attention of a distracted audience.”

As evidenced by those voices claiming the Labour party might again turn inward and move on to its third leader in four years, this rings truer than ever. Labour should bear one thing in mind: to listen to such noise invites not salvation, but the politics of the madhouse.

john.harris@guardian.co.uk

John Harris

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Posted in Guardian RSS | No Comments »

Labour needs New Socialism – and coalition | John Harris

Saturday, December 4th, 2010

The old model of state provision is over. The left needs a new approach that recognises we live in an era of pluralism

In this week’s New Statesman, there’s a piece I’ve co-written with the chairman of Compass, Neal Lawson. With our usual sense of understatement, we’ve built it around what we call New Socialism: a set of centre-left ideas that have been cohering for the last five years or so, which Ed Miliband shows signs of instinctively understanding, and which we think points up the drastic changes the Labour party is going to have to embrace. In May 2010, we argue, Labour lost not just an election, but an entire way of being, and unless it grasps what is required, it could head yet further towards political twilight.

The problem is, Labour as a whole seems to be in no mood for such a radical rethink. A lot of the people at the top are way too quiet; but so too are poleaxed people at all levels of the party. Out of this state of shock comes a confused noise. Hold steady, say some – the cuts will soon do the work for us. Outflank the Tories from the right, reckon others: given New Labour’s record of hang-’em-flog-’em statecraft, it shouldn’t be too difficult. The new leader moves cautiously, pledging to start by listening, and you can’t blame him. But soon enough, he is going to have to flesh out the kind of modernised social democracy he seems to want.

What we suggest is that Old Labour and New Labour have fought each other to a standstill. From civil liberties to the target-driven approach to the public services, the former’s view of the state, which remained glued in place for the entirety of the Blair/Brown period, is outmoded. Post-crash, the latter’s naïve enthusiasm for free and “flexible” markets is also a busted flush. Neither school has anything to say about the far-reaching changes that will have to happen if centre-left politics is to be revived.

The Labour blogger Hopi Sen has read what Neal and I have written. Having got a mean-spirited go at Neal out of the way, he seems to agree with some of it, but he says he’s not sure what it all means. “I’m not quite sure how it translates into political action,” he complains. He sounds impatient, which highlights some of Labour’s problems. It’s not going to get to a 30-point manifesto in a matter of weeks. First, it has to learn to think again, and understand the condition of the country.

As we write in the article, everything has to begin where people are – that is, “stressed, stretched, anxious, insecure, tired and alienated”. This entails a new, human political vocabulary, so that we can at least begin to understand people’s lives, and how to improve them. It means that if Labour’s policy review is going to mean anything, it is going to have to intrude into places that post-Thatcher politics hasn’t dared go near: most obviously, the workplace, so that politicians at long last have something convincing to say about long hours, what “good work” might mean, and how people at the bottom of working hierarchies relate to those at the top. It demands that politicians start to think about the quality of places where people actually live, and what an out-of-control market and distant state have done to them.

Crucially, we also suggest that if you’re going to buck the market, you’ll have to push beyond the national limits of modern politics. Regulation based on social imperatives is increasingly only practicable on a European level, at least: how else can you match the power of high finance? As our piece says: “To match such power, there should be moves towards controls on speculative capital flows, co-ordinated corporation taxes and the establishment of the principle of a Europe-wide minimum wage.” Discuss below, if you fancy.

Sen has a real problem with this bit:

“New Socialism knows the state is vital, but recognises, too, the crisis of the bureaucratic and market state. It wants a state whose scope is determined democratically and that is made accountable, responsive and local through the boldest political reforms of public service this country has ever seen. A more proportional electoral system is only one part of the change required: the state must be reinvented so as to entrench citizens’ involvement through the principles of democracy and co-production. Parents expect meaningful input into their children’s education; patients increasingly want their treatment to be based on dialogue; the people who work in the public services can contribute far more than the implementation of diktats. Health, education, social care and much more need to be liberated from the bureaucratic, outsourced state and reshaped collectively and democratically.”

“What does this mean in practice?” he asks. He suspects that everyone from Michael Gove to Tony Blair might agree with us. They wouldn’t, and here’s why.

The postwar model of state provision is over: there is now an expectation of citizens having a voice and influence that it simply cannot accommodate. But the solutions the post-Thatcher settlement has offered to this tension have only compounded the problem. If hospital treatment is outsourced, do professionals and patients feel any more involved? If a school is turned into an academy, does that heighten a community’s involvement in local schooling ? Does a shadow state run by Serco, Capita and the rest do anything to empower anybody, apart from those companies? No: all of which highlights the left’s big problem. Is there a guiding idea that can shape the kind of public sector reform that might actually bring the state in line with people’s expectations of influence? It’ll take work, but there is: it’s called co-production.

Sen is also not too pleased about us arguing against “Labourism”, and thinks it might be a straw man. It isn’t: as we point out in the piece, it denotes the idea that change can “only be delivered from the centre by one – and only one – all-seeing, all-powerful, monolithic party.” We go on: “Today, we live in an era of pluralism, with competing centres of power. This new politics is manifested most clearly in Westminster in the form of the coalition, but can also be seen in Edinburgh, Cardiff, Belfast and on councils the length and breadth of the nation. This cultural shift is huge and, for Labour, unavoidable.” Can anyone really argue with this?

Some of this is about learning from the kind of non-party politics – from London Citizens to, say, the Save the EMA campaign – that leaves Westminster standing. But focusing exclusively on that stuff, as a lot of Labour people want to, ignores half the argument. Let’s face it: anyone who thinks anything meaningful can come of another Labour election win with – if they’re lucky – the support of a quarter of the electorate is kidding themselves.

I write this next bit in the expectation of howls of derision, but what the hell: I want the next Labour-led government to be a coalition. To enjoy the support of anything approaching 50% of the electorate and convincingly take the requisite number of people with it, it’ll have to be. I understand Labour people self-righteously banging on about “Lib Dem swine”, but they ought to recognise that plenty of Lib Dems are repelled by what their leadership has done, and are desperate to return to the idea of the re-alignment of the centre-left. Besides, a politics carved up between two monoliths has gone on forever: Lib Dems, Greens, Scots and Welsh nationalists, and more, are here to stay. To deny this and claim Labour can reclaim its relatively fleeting postwar monopoly of progressive politics is the stuff of King Canute politics, isn’t it?

And so the questions pile up. Neal and I are open to criticism – but we think the left should start coming up with answers, and fast.

John Harris

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Posted in Guardian RSS | No Comments »

« Older Entries | Newer Entries »

John Harris is powered by WordPress 2.8.4 Entries (RSS) Comments (RSS). Designed by Hywel Harris