Jonathan Isaby writes from ConHome about the avid politico's summer read

  • August 12, 2010 10:56
  • Katy Scholes

Some holiday reading for the avid politico.

Whilst some of you will want to take some trashy fiction to the beach as you get away for some sun this month, I don't doubt that some ConHome readers will want to take the time to catch up on some political reading while they're away.

And one book which fits into the latter category is Nicholas Jones' Campaign 2010: The Making of the Prime Minister.<!--more-->

Unlike some of Jones' previous campaign reviews, it does not just cover the frenetic period in the run-up to polling day itself; rather, as its subtitle, "The Making of the Prime Minister' correctly summarises, the book recounts David Cameron's long journey from staffer at Tory HQ to Downing Street.

Jones pays particular attention to Cameron's years working for Norman Lamont and Michael Howard in the 1990s (when he was covering those politicians' activities for the BBC on a daily basis) and later in the book - after dealing with the 2005 Tory leadership election, Brown replacing Blair, the political attitudes of the Murdoch press and Expenses-gate - he devotes whole chapters to both the TV debates and the role of the leaders' wives in a modern British election campaign. It is an excellent read for anyone who wants a reliable one-stop shop covering an historic few years in British politics.

Jones is as engaging as ever in his telling of the story and the book - unusually for a tome produced so soon after the event - is also furnished with an index, making it an all the more invaluable record for future reference.

Campaign 2010: The making of the Prime Minister is available to buy from Biteback priced £9.99.


Why join a trade union?

  • August 12, 2010 09:38
  • Katy Scholes

Jo Phillips and David Seymour are about to publish their new book, Why Join a Trade Union? Jess Freeman speaks to the authors and finds out about the futility of strikes, why women are under-represented and why unions aren’t as influential as they’d like to be.

What is the point of a trade union?
David Seymour: You need unions because people work, and because people work for other people. Obviously, if we all tilled our own little patches of soil and all manufactured things for ourselves and bartered with everything, you don't need unions.
Jo Phillips: More people are affected by strikes than are probably members of unions these days. Yet, as we move into economic uncertainty and job insecurity there is a very valid argument that people need the protection of unions. You are undoubtedly stronger if you are united and work together rather than trying to fight a bullying boss. Within the next year or two people are going to be in that position where they are too frightened of losing their job to complain. Some things you don't have to put up with and the reason you don't have to put up with them is because of trade unions.

So why did you decide to write about trade unions?
JP: It is terribly easy, especially for younger people to go in the same way they talk about politicians: "Oh they're all the same." "Oh unions, that Bob Crow he goes on foreign holidays he earns a six figure salary." You have to stop and think: what have the unions done? You can't tar everyone with the same brush. At the same time, it's a call to the unions. Look, come on guys. Stop living in the past. You're not a tribute band. Get real.

Do you think that unions need to modernise with regards to women? There are hardly any women at the forefronts of unions.
DS: Where are the women in it?
JP: Why has there been no woman as the general secretary of the TUC? It is quite shocking considering the campaign for women's rights – something is stopping us. Unions are still very male.
DS: And white. We highlight Brenda Dean and Bill Morris as a woman and a black guy who lead a union. They are complete exceptions. It's not like they opened a door and a lot of people followed in.

Do you think that unions can be disproportionately influential in politics?
JP: Only in the Labour Party. To be totally honest, who cares? Labour lost the election.
DS: Where unions are enormously important nowadays is in the funding of the Labour Party. It is still going on. Thatcher tried to do something. The coalition might try and do something about it. Of course, what it leads to is that the Labour Party are going to have so many millions there, then the Tories have to go to businessmen. It almost comes down to money now. There is no great suggestion that unions have a great influence on Labour policy.

Where would you like to see unions in ten years?
JP: I'd like to see them taking a backseat to the strikes. I'd like to see them involved in education, working practices, unpaid interns, looking at apprenticeships.
DS: A different relationship with employers and their members. There is a new trade unionism but there is still an element of the old trade unionism in it. They almost need to become like friendly societies.

So should there be fewer strikes?
JP: The success of a union has been judged very much on the battle between the government and employers and the union. We shouldn't judge a union by the amount of strikes it has. It should be about the negotiating so that you don't have to have strikes. Is striking against cuts when we're in financial shit an answer? I think most people will think it isn't. It will be interesting to see because unions are going to get bad press this autumn.

Why Join a Trade Union? is available from September 8th.


David Torrance: Exploring a lesser known range

  • August 10, 2010 10:35
  • Katy Scholes

by David Torrance

“For most political biographers…the ideal subject is an, as yet, unwritten major figure,” observed the political historian D. R. Thorpe in 2007. “The problem, as for mountaineers, is that the number of virgin Himalayan peaks is rapidly diminishing. Often the only alternative is to explore a hitherto unknown, but lesser range.”

In my recent biography of Noel Skelton, I opted for one of the lesser ranges. This was both rewarding, for I stumbled across sights no one had seen for more than seventy years, but also frustrating, not least because convincing other people they were worth seeing proved difficult. Publishers, naturally enough, prefer books about virgin Himalayan peaks.

The discerning Iain Dale, however, freed his mind and said yes. The timing was also fortuitous. Three years ago, when I virtually completed the manuscript in the space of a few months, Skelton and his timeless ideas – particularly that of the “property-owning democracy” – seemed irrelevant and out of date. Thus my typescript languished.

By the beginning of this year, however, not only did the election of a progressive Conservative government look inevitable, but political debate centred upon the use of co-operative models in the public sector, referendums to decide issues of constitutional reform and the extension of property ownership, all issues first explored by Skelton in his ground-breaking 1924 pamphlet, “Constructive Conservative”.

Skelton was also remarkably fortuitous in other respects, almost anticipating the early weeks of the Conservative/Liberal Democrat government. “Self-preservation is the fundamental rule of political life,” he wrote of the Liberals in 1931, “and it is in an effort to obtain the Alternative Vote that their energies are now concentrated. That is to be the prize which reconciles them to the huckstering and juggling of which they are at heart ashamed.”

Noel Skelton and the Property Owning Democracy by David Torrance is available to buy from Biteback, priced £25.00


Francis Beckett contemplates the reaction to Baby boomers

  • August 06, 2010 13:21
  • Katy Scholes

My book What Did the Baby Boomers Ever Do For Us? seems to have divided commentators strictly along age lines.

People of my age – the baby boomers, the children of the sixties – feel I’ve betrayed my own comrades for a mess of pottage. The Guardian’s Catherine Bennett asks pointedly: "Will his personal contribution be enough to stop a future young carer lashing him to a commode or similar?" Have I given myself an unfair advantage in my old age by crawling in advance to those who will look after me? That wasn’t the intention. And I promise to behave gallantly should I see anyone lashing Ms Bennett to a commode.

Bryn Jones and Mike O’Donnell retort that sixties radicals “joined and energised the radical labour movement campaigns to defend and advance the welfare state during the 70s and 80s.” But they didn’t. They brought their sixties student politics into the unions in those two decades, and it was their intolerance, sectarianism and self-righteousness that brought the unions to their knees by the mid 1980s.

On the other side, the much more youthful Laurie Penny at the New Statesman shook with indignation as she read the book. It "lays out an incisive case for how my parents’ generation squandered the good times and betrayed the courage of the Attlee settlement" she writes. And the Evening Standard's Rosamund Irwun - nearer in age to Ms Penny than to Ms Bennett - says: "Another boomer has belatedly woken up to the problems they have left us — Francis Beckett in his brilliant new book, What Did the Baby Boomers Ever Do for Us?"

None of them, however, give me credit for explaining just why the sixties generation failed. It was to do with schools in the late 1950s and early 1960s – a point upon which I shall expand soon in the Times Educational Supplement.

Look out for further comment by Francis on his website.

What did the babyboomers ever do for us? is available from Biteback, priced £12.99.


David Cameron: A past master of the punchy one-liner

  • August 06, 2010 09:19
  • Katy Scholes

Writes the author of Campaign 2010: The Making of the Prime Minister Nicholas Jones

Any suggestion that the Prime Minister’s headline-grabbing remarks about Gaza and Pakistan were slips of the tongue by an uncontrolled ‘loudmouth’ could not be further from the truth.

David Cameron cut his political teeth crafting punchy one-liners for the likes of John Major and it is farfetched to imagine he would launch himself on the world’s stage without having thought through the messages he wanted to deliver and how he intended to present them.

Cameron’s accusation that Pakistan was ‘looking both ways’ in the battle against terrorism – which set the framework for his meeting at Chequers with the Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari – was as pointed as his description of Gaza as a ‘prison camp’.

David Miliband, the shadow Foreign Secretary, rebuked the Prime Minister for having a ‘loose tongue’ and for ‘going off script’ during his visits to Turkey and India. He considered Cameron had created an international mess with his bluster: there was a ‘big difference between straight talking and being a loudmouth’.

What Miliband failed to acknowledge was that Cameron’s skill in crafting punchy soundbites was what originally marked him out as an up-and-coming political strategist after he joined Conservative Central Office at the age of twenty-two.

His job was to hunt for embarrassing quotes and slip-ups by Labour politicians and then ‘think of killer facts and snappy one-liners’ which John Major could use to attack Neil Kinnock.

He was credited with having sharpened up Major’s performance at Prime Minister’s questions and his ability to identify timely anti-Labour ammunition and transform it into ‘razor-sharp script’ lines won him promotion to head of the party’s political section and then the job of special adviser to the then Chancellor, Norman Lamont, and later the Home Secretary, Michael Howard.

Cameron’s track record suggests that his one-liners are entirely calculated. He had every intention of reminding Israel of its obligations to Gaza and of Pakistan’s responsibility to do more to tackle home-grown terrorism.

Early on in his bid for the Conservative leadership Cameron found a neat way to disarm critics of Eton and Oxford education: ‘Yes, I know I have this terrible CV...’

Not surprisingly Cameron knew instinctively how to woo the White House press corps after his first meeting with the US President.

Barrack Obama opened their joint news conference with a sombre seven-minute resume of US/UK relations. Less than a minute into his response, Cameron complimented the President on the tidiness of children’s bedrooms in the White House family quarters.

‘If the President of the USA can get his children to tidy their bedrooms, it is time the British Prime Minister did exactly the same’. When Obama signalled his encouragement, the Prime Minister looked to straight to camera to send a message home.

‘They should be in bed by now...but if not, they have notice from the President’.

Cameron’s easy-going style is beguiling but there should be no mistaking the message of his soundbites: they deliver what he meant to say.

Campaign 2010: The Making of the Prime Minister is available now from Biteback, priced £9.99 and you can look at Nick Jones's website here.