Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 26 August 2005
There’s nothing like the death of a prominent politician still in his or her fifties to remind you that, if a week is a long time in politics, a couple of decades can pass in the blink of an eye.
It seems only yesterday that Robin Cook and Mo Mowlam were 30-something rising stars of Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party, the brightest hopes of the soft left. I met them both in the mid-1980s through European Nuclear Disarmament (the bit of the 1980s peace movement that was most critical of Soviet nukes) and over the next 15 years saw a lot of them while I was working as a political journalist. They were both Tribune regulars in the late 1980s and early 1990s when I was on this paper, and both were valued sources of copy and talk when I was on the New Statesman and New Times.
As personalities, they were radically dissimilar except insofar as they were both irrepressible individualists, engaging and friendly. But in their politics they were remarkably close. They shared many of the same causes — Europe, proportional representation, civil liberties, environmentalism — as well as a political trajectory. Both threw in their lot first with Kinnock, then with John Smith and then with New Labour; both served in senior roles in Tony Blair’s Government; and both returned frustrated to the back benches after being frozen out by the Blair cabal (though in very different circumstances).
Mowlam died after a long illness and retirement from the Commons; Cook died suddenly when he still had every chance of returning to cabinet. But they will be missed in much the same way by their personal and political friends. Both were the life and soul of any gathering. And without them, it is difficult to think of anyone quite so charismatic who can carry the torch for the radical democratic Left politics they espoused.
But it’s not just the Left that should be worried by their deaths. Cook and Mowlam were members of a generation that remains the mainstay of the current government — and is not getting any younger.
No fewer than 19 of the 23 members of the cabinet today are, like Cook and Mowlam, in their fifties, born in the first postwar decade, brought up on the welfare state and the Beatles and the Stones and that revolution stuff. Perhaps most importantly they were formed politically by the implosion of the Labour Party in the wake of the 1979 defeat by Margaret Thatcher. Only two of the current cabinet, John Prescott and Margaret Beckett, are over 60; only two under 50, David Miliband and Ruth Kelly (40 and 37 respectively). (There’s also Douglas Alexander, 38, who goes to cabinet but isn’t actually a member.) By 2009, when the next election comes, a majority of current cabinet members will be eligible for bus passes within a couple of years if they haven’t got them already. And by 2014 — well, do the sums.
OK, by historical standards, they’re still young as a cabinet — and there’s nothing to rule out serving as a minister into your eighties. OK, there are a few junior ministers coming up who will make it to cabinet before too long. OK, you don’t win anything with kids.
But parties need to rejuvenate themselves, and Labour is going to find it difficult to do it, just as the Tories have since the late 1980s. Most of the PLP is of the same generation as the cabinet. There has been little turnover of personnel in the past couple of elections, and there are few undiscovered stars. A handful of old-stager MPs might retire next time just as they did in 2001 and 2005. But the party in the country is hardly brimming with enthusiastic activists in their twenties and thirties:the replacements for retiring MPs are likely to be uninspiring apparatchiks, just as they have been for the past decade or more.
Sorry if this sounds pessimistic, but I’ve got a hunch that a tired and ageing Labour will lose in 2014, then spend 15-20 years in the wilderness desperately searching for fresh blood, just like after 1979. And when we win again, I’ll be in my seventies.
On another subject entirely, I’ve just got back from a holiday in Scotland, during which I visited George Orwell’s old house at Barnhill on the island of Jura with my friend (and fellow Tribune contributor) Kevin Davey.
I knew Barnhill was remote, but I’d not quite got my head round how remote until we got there — after driving some 20 miles down a single-track road from Craighouse, the nearest village with a pub and a shop, then walking six miles from where the road ends. Orwell first visited almost exactly 60 years ago, in late summer 1945, and lived there during the summer of 1946 and for most of 1947 while writing Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Most of Orwell’s friends thought he was crazy to move there, and until last week I wondered what the attraction could have been. But now I think I know. Jura is the most beautiful place I’ve ever been in Britain — rugged, wild, silent, wet. If it weren’t for the midges it would be a major tourist attraction. Long live the midges.