New Statesman & Society, 6 October 1995
Paul Anderson dips his toes into the murky waters surrounding the Liz Davies affair, and searches for his socks in the waters off Brighton beach
Brighton beach opposite the Grand Hotel, 2.45 Monday morning – and the editor has just thrown my socks into the sea.
It’s probably my own fault. I’ve torn up his resignation letter and we’ve been arguing the toss about Liz Davies. He wants to paint “LIZ DAVIES IS INNOCENT” on every railway bridge in London and dig up cricket pitches. I reckon that no one will get the joke. And anyway, I say, Liz’s other half, the journalist Mike Marqusee, wouldn’t have anything to do with it.
Although a Yank, he’s mad about cricket, the nearest thing we’ve got to the great C L R James and the official New Statesman & Society correspondent for next year’s cricket World Cup. He even told me before Labour conference voted not to back his partner that, as far as he was concerned, the best thing about moving to Leeds was the cricket ground at Headingley.
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Well, there’s an element of truth in all that: the editor did throw my socks into the sea. We were doing a little late-night paddling after the Labour conference New Statesman reception, at which he was expected, according to press reports, to announce his resignation.
It’s the sort of thing you feel like after a stressful evening explaining to all and sundry that you haven’t a clue who started the rumour that some sort of Blairite consortium was about to buy NSS and that the price was the editor’s head.
As I said to Anita Roddick, as he said to Roy Hattersley, as we both said to the man from the Indian High Commission who had been reading the Statesman since he was five – honestly, there is no resignation letter. And we really didn’t argue about Liz Davies, although what Mike said about Leeds is absolutely true, and I actually think the joke is rather a good one.
* * *
As for Laurie Taylor, he hasn’t resigned or been fired either. He is in Bogota, and I’m doing his slot just this once. The editor, the staff and the board of the Statesman and Nation Publishing Company have full confidence in him.
Got that? I hope so. Laurie is finding out about cocaine in South America and writing about it in the Evening Standard, the paper that first suggested someone was keen to turn NSS into a tool of the Labour leader’s office – a story, inciden¬tally, that Tony Blair’s aides say they are as clueless about as anyone at the Statesman.
“Look,” one told me this week, “we’re talking about trying to run the country. We don’t care what you publish.” That’s just a slight overstatement, but it has to be said that Blair’s regime is far less uptight about the left press than Neil Kinnock’s used to be, even if the Blairistas are somewhat touchier than their predecessors when John Smith was leader.
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The memory of Kinnock that will remain with me forever is from just after I became editor of the Labour weekly Tribune in 1991, when he granted an audience in his office to the paper’s board to talk about “the future”.
The meeting consisted of a 45-minute monologue from the Labour leader, in which he used the fruitiest language to denounce Tribune‘s treachery, fully two years before, in running a campaign against his plan to ditch unilateral nuclear disarmament. We didn’t get a word in.
Blair is a very different animal. He might be extraordinarily sensitive to criticism, and there’s no doubt that his advisers have a knack for no-holds-barred denunciation when it suits them. But in the experience of NSS, he has been co-operative in the extreme, writing pieces and agreeing to be interviewed whenever we’ve asked. And it’s actually quite easy to deal with the spin-doctors: any journo worth his or her salt simply gives them what Ernest Bevin memorably described as “a complete ignoral”. The only people who are scared of Peter Mandelson are those who allow themselves to be cowed.
* * *
But back to cocaine. In the late 1980s, when it was the fashionable drug of the successful and the ambitious, you didn’t have to go to Bogota to find about it: you could do your research on the fringes of any of the major party political conferences.
The Tories were the real coke-heads – they had the money – but there was also a select group of Labour enthusiasts, most of them thrusting young Kinnockite modernisers from the Labour Coordinating Committee who were apparatchiks at Labour headquarters or researchers for Labour frontbenchers. Don’t get me wrong: we had some good times together.
The problem is that, these days, particularly after Labour’s attempt to label Lib-Dem Chris Davies in the Lit-tleborough and Saddleworth by-election as “soft on taxes and high on drugs”, no one associated with the LCC would admit even to having inhaled smoke from a spliff while at university. The party is over, and the Clintonisation of Labour is complete – but how times change.
* * *
In similar vein, I’m amazed at some of the people who have decided to speak out against Liz Davies-in particular my old col¬league and friend Phil Kelly, who was editor of Tribune before me, when I was the paper’s reviews editor.
Back then, he was a great defender of the idea that constituency Labour parties should be allowed to choose whomsoever they wanted as their parliamentary candidates, no matter how daft their political views: it was a matter of democratic rights.
Almost alone on the soft left, he also opposed the Labour leadership’s decision in 1990 to proscribe the barmy Trotskyist group Socialist Organiser and then ran a campaign in Tribune to get the ban reversed.
The whole thing was a bit of a farce, not least because it was based on the argument that they were in contravention of party rules but were too small to be worth bothering with – not really a principled position, as the comrades from Socialist Organiser reminded me at great length on several subsequent occasions.
But if my memory serves me correctly, Phil did speak at an SO rally on the fringe of the 1990 Labour conference in Blackpool. Now he is chair of education on Isling¬ton council, and he is one of three Isling¬ton councillors who wrote to the Labour Party saying that Davies should not be endorsed as a parliamentary candidate because she had incited the public to vio¬lence at a 1994 council meeting (Davies denies the charge and is suing). Lovers of irony will note that one of the main reasons the Labour NEC decided not to endorse her was her membership of the editorial board of Labour Briefing magazine – which is out of order, they say, at least partly because of Briefing‘s association with Socialist Organiser. A further irony, unrelated to the ins and outs of Islington politics, is that Briefing was on the verge of folding just before the Davies row broke out. Now, the comrades are more upbeat than for years.
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Enough, however, of bloody politics. The most important thing about party conferences is that you get sick of them after a very short while. And I was heartily sick of Labour’s, long before Tony Blair delivered his keynote speech. I need a decent night’s sleep, an alcohol-free week of healthy eating, and a break from bores telling me what they think about the Statesman. And if anyone finds my socks, please dry them and post to the address on page 46. They’re black Marks & Spencer cotton ones, size 9-11. Utterly unmistakable.