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RAPSCALLION MAGAZINE BOOK REVIEW: How it all went wrong for the Labour Party in John O’Farrell’s reflections of the last 20 years of British politics (with wit, wisdom and a few political blind spots)

Things Can Only Get Worse?, by John O’Farrell

No wonder John O’Farrell found it so hard to like Jeremy Corbyn in his book Things Can Only Get Worse?, because unlike his chums Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, Corbyn is a real socialist.

O’Farrell’s light weight left wing credentials are exposed by the way he so easily accepted the offer to become the Labour party candidate in the Eastleigh by election. He’s offered the job from Labour head office on the phone, asks his wife Jackie who is ambitious for him to be an MP and he accepts. His description of the actual selection process fails to recognize the obvious way the party rubber stamped his application when there were local Labour candidates who would have done a better job.

He’s out of touch with the voters believing Iraq should be the main issue when they are interested in jobs and the influx of immigrants who are effecting employment for locals. UKIP scoop up their votes leaving Labour far behind. How could he be so blind? Easy. He was in hock with the Blair and Brown Governments for years and came to see the world through their eyes. He wrote their jokes, had dinner with them and accepted that they were the authentic voice of Labour voters. Then came the Invasion of Iraq in 2003. The following year of 2004 saw workers of EU member states of Eastern Europe given the right the work in the UK causing major concerns about immigration among many ordinary workers and the effects on employment and finally the credit crunch in 2008.

O’Farrell and the Labour Party as a whole failed to see how this would affect their election prospects as voters looked for answers to unemployment, low wages and a decline in living standards. His blindness to these themes he unwittingly exposes in his the chapter The Sickest Man in Britain. He makes light of it all and appears to blame it all on the people of Eastleigh for not being very enlightened.

No wonder Jeremy Corbyn became leader after the years of New Labour. He may not be the most media savvy leader of the party but he is a genuine conviction politician who takes social issues seriously. It was only when he proved a hit against all the odds in the 2017 General Election that O’Farrell finally signs up to the idea that Corbyn is OK.

That said, this is a highly readable and funny book, with lots of common sense, some excellent jokes and many insights into O’Farrell’s mindset. Even if you are a true blue Tory O’Farrell’s prose and anecdotes keep the pages turning and chuckles coming – and glimpses into how those at the top of the Labour party live and how someone at the top of a media career thinks.

O’Farrell is very hard on the LibDems as you might expect but compounds his prejudice by effectively saying nobody should vote anything else but Labour or Conservative. His London bubble of thinking forgets there’s a whole world of opinion outside of the M25. There’s Northern Ireland with its own unique political divisions, the Green Party, UKIP and Scotland, plus Wales and pockets of England where low wages and economic neglect explain the vote in favour of Brexit.

The chapters on his campaign to create a new secondary school in his area are some of the most interesting as he battles to get the backing and funds for the enterprise. His conclusion is that compromise is key in getting things done as the school is not quite the one he envisaged but is eventually built and he becomes chair of the governors. But it his honesty in not knowing what to do after a row with the head teacher and with the school is in crisis that are some of the strongest sections. And then there are the jokes. Like the day in 1997 when William Hague became the leader of the Conservative Party – he notes that nobody cared as it was like TV’s Neighbours – the Tories were still going but all the big stars had left and nobody watched it anymore.

As a sequel to Things Can Only Get Better, it has a huge amount of wit and wisdom, some very repeatable anecdotes – along with a few political blind spots.

Harry Mottram

Things Can Only Get Worse?, by John O’Farrell, was first published in 2017 by Doubleday and is also available in paperback by Black Swan.

For more reviews visit www.harrymottram.co.uk

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RAPSCALLION MAGAZINE FEATURE: Tilting at the political system: Don Corbyn Quixote of Islington North is laughed at by his opponents, but could he have the last laugh in 2020?


He’s put on his ancient suit of armour and has ventured out into the harsh world of Medieval Spain in search of the leader of the British Labour Party. Harry Mottram is in search of our very own Don Quixote

In a constituency of Islington North, whose name I do not wish to remember, there lived a little while ago one of those gentlemen who are wont to keep a copy of Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist or The Communist Manifesto beside him.
His stew more lentil than meat, his talk more 1970s than 21st century, and  his shirt more Help the Aged than Ben Sherman. Our gentleman of some 60 summers or more is of a sturdy constitution, but wizened and gaunt featured, an early riser and devotee of Diane Abbott.
Jeremy Corbyn has something of Don Quixote about him as he tilts at the tormenting windmills of Owen Smith, Hilary Benn and Angela Eagle. Behind him are all the other characters from Cervantes’ novel: his faithful shadow chancellor John McDonnell, his housekeeper Diane Abbott, ancient retainer Dennis Skinner and unreliable stable boy Tom Watson.
Armed with a mandate from members of the Labour Party the leader of the movement has mounted his sturdy steed Rocinante and with his lance Momentum has set out to vanquish the Conservatives. This mixture of the dangerous, reactionary and wicked Tory inn keepers, Toledo traders, Galician pony dealers and muleteers may laugh at him during Prime Minister’s Question Time each Wednesday lunchtime and criticise his archaic view of Britain, but privately are frightened of what he represents and mercilessly attack him because they know that if the economy dips he could become the master of Seville.
David Cameron and Teresa May, The Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph, had ridiculed his ideas but somehow the barbs don’t deter him. In fact armed with his lance, his buckler and home-made visor he is more determined than ever to sally forth and seize the Castile Number 10 Downing Street.
As with Don Quixote it is not so much the Conservatives, the Scottish Nationalists and even the Liberal Democrats who stand in his way but members of his own party (or in Don Quixote’s way those members of his household) who feel he will never win even the most minor battle in his bid for glory.
Those within the Labour Party who wish he would hang up his buckler see him as a misguided and out of date old fool – just like Cervantes’ hero. Mr Corbyn however constantly points to his fans, and to the vast new membership of the Labour Party who joined up to support his two leadership bids. But they are surely the same as those readers who bought Cervantes’ novel when it was published. They supported him from their bedrooms and living rooms as they read of his exploits. Queued up for his book signings (if they had them in Spain’s Golden Age) and if was alive today would hang his every word like someone else with a beard and the look of a Biblical prophet.
His only true fans in Parliament are his faithful servant Diane Sancho Abbott who follows him where he treads. Like Sancho Panza she is often left to clear up the misunderstandings and chaos that Don Quixote leaves in the Inns of Catalonia or the dusty highways of the high Sierra as he comes to blows with herders, traders and members of the clergy.
The duo cross the verdant plains of Middle England in search of electoral victory, tilting at windbags and dreaming of rescuing Princess Maritones or Rebecca Long-Bailey from the back benches. Mistaken as a mystic, a fantasist and a hopeless and ineffectual leader by a large group of goat herders, nevertheless he believes he can heal the wounds of muleteers with his balm of Fierarbras and return them to health in 2020.
Jeremy Corbyn looks like Don Quixote – well like Jean Rochefort in Lost in La Mancha. And he has a passing resemblance to David Threlfall who played the self-proclaimed knight in the RSC production. And there is something attractive about someone who sticks to his principles (or fantasies if you are a cynic) despite all the evidence presented by his critics.
Corbyn it is said rejects the modern world and wishes to turn back the clock to a long lost never was time when the trains were nationalised and ran on time, when the National Health service was fully financed.
It is generally agreed by pundits in America that the equivalent politician Bernie Sanders could have beaten Donald Trump in the presidential election had he won the Democratic nomination. Clearly millions were prepared to give him the chance to run the world’s most powerful economy because of the disappointment felt over the last few administrations. If Teresa May and the Brexit hardliners in UKIP and the conservative party fail to make a success of leaving the EU and the country falls into a recession or worse, then in 2020 Don Corbyn de Islington may not seem such a fantasy.