Blair’s Babes hit puberty
Paul Marsden, Shrewsbury's rebel MP, might seem like New Labour's worst nightmare. But he's the creation of its politics.
‘Journalists are so used to politicians speaking with forked tongues.’ I’ve been sitting in the spacious offices of Paul Marsden, Labour MP for Shrewsbury and Atcham, for about an hour. Before turning on fellow politicians, he has already told me of his fears about a Blairite dictatorship, his loathing of Labour Party’s ‘shadowy’ spindoctors, and compared politics to shopping for microwave ovens.
‘I mean, he used to be a Quality Assurance Manager, whatever that is! He worked in a bank!’ One perplexed Shrewsbury constituent sums up the incongruity of his local MP’s rise to rebellion. How did this self-confessed dropout from Teesside Polytechnic, this likeable young father-of-two who proudly displays his management diplomas on his office wall alongside pictures painted by his kids, become a globetrotting anti-war maverick who won’t keep his mouth shut?
Paul Marsden was a little-known backbench MP who raised some objections to the war on Afghanistan. Chief whip Hilary Armstrong hauled him in for a private bollocking, and shouted ‘it was people like you who appeased Hitler in 1938’. Marsden released the notes of their conversation to the press; rumours were put about that he was unpopular and emotionally unstable; Marsden accused ‘cowards’ in the Labour Party of waging smear campaigns against him, and flew off to Pakistan to raise awareness about the consequences of his government’s war.
Two months on, Marsden has clearly warmed to his status as The Opposition Within. He wants a written constitution ‘to reign back the over-powerful executive’ and ‘this monarch-like prime minister who can do what the heck he wants’; he wants ‘radical reform of all the world institutions’ to prevent countries like Britain ‘abusing international law’ and ‘committing terrorist acts’ (like bombing Afghanistan). He wants a system of standards to hold MPs to account, because ‘accountability is non-existent in democracy’; and he looks forward to a future where there is ‘an alternative, an opposition’ to New Labour because ‘we have abused the goodwill of the public for so long’.
No wonder Marsden is getting up the national Labour Party’s nose. But they have only themselves to blame. Marsden might be a thorn in New Labour’s side, but he is also a direct product of its style of politics. He combines the naive idealism of student politics with bureaucratic managerialism in a way that Tony Blair perfected with the birth of New Labour. His striking lack of party loyalty, meanwhile, only reflects how little New Labour really is a political party, in any meaningful sense of the word.
‘I suppose it was about a year ago when I was less than happy with the government’, reflects Marsden. Subsequent to that, left-winger and former MP for Chesterfield Tony Benn made a speech – ‘I think it was about Iraq’ – and was jeered ‘by his own colleagues’. When Marsden went to empathise, Tony Benn ‘raised his hand and said, “It doesn’t matter what they say in here, it’s more important what they say out there and whether you’re actually true to yourself”’.
In adopting the motto ‘be true to yourself’, Marsden seems to have added a subclause – despite the party. ‘If you’re prepared to be independently minded and say, “hang on a minute, I’ll judge the government on its actions as I find them, support them where I think it’s right and criticise where it’s wrong”, then really there’s nothing to worry about’, he tells me. ‘Because it’s only a job, you know, and they don’t have the ultimate sanction to take the job away – that really does reside in the local party and the electorate.’ It’s all ‘you’ the MP versus ‘they’ the party. Life with New Labour, it seems, is less a case of holding the party line against the opposition than it is holding your own personal line against the party.
In many ways, this has been the case from the start. Note Blair’s presidential role, his disdain for party conference and the grassroots, his dislike of debate in the House of Commons. All this is symptomatic of a party born out of the decay of left/right politics, with no common ideology and no core support. New Labour has always operated less as a political party around a set of core values than as a network of political operators with specific jobs to do. In our post-political world, that was the secret of its success – and at the same time, the source of many of its tensions.
But critics of New Labour have been saying this for years. Why has it taken Marsden so long to cotton on? Simple, he says. He’s grown up a bit.
‘I think what it was, was that I was elected as one of the youngest MPs in 1997’, Marsden muses. Marsden is only 33 years old now – he would have been the ultimate Blair’s Babe. ‘I hadn’t been expecting to get in’ (Shrewsbury was a Tory stronghold). ‘I’d only ever been in the House of Commons about twice before in the whole of my life, I had no idea what to expect, and for the best part of the first two years I was hardly in the House of Commons because my wife was very seriously ill.
‘So by the time we got to the mid-term blues and looking towards the next election, there was never really an opportunity where I could feel that it was safe for me to contribute to the debate. And the way the whips react is that if you keep your head down then they will be very tolerant to a point, in giving you some leeway, but nevertheless they have an awesome reputation in terms of being able to put the fear of God into people. So as a young new MP it wasn’t really the easiest thing to do to stand up and say, “hang on a minute, this doesn’t seem to be quite right”.’
Now, by contrast, ‘I think I’ve grown older and a bit more worldly wise and in the second term you realise that this isn’t the right way of actually being able to manage a democracy – that there is a better way and a more moralistic way’ (I think he means ‘more moral way‘). ‘So it becomes a lot easier to speak out.’
That Marsden has no shame in admitting his naivety raises some interesting questions about New Labour – and particularly the Blair’s Babes who rode to victory on the back of the 1997 landslide. When Marsden tells me his political history, it doesn’t seem all that unusual. His dad was in the Labour Party, he himself joined at 15, he didn’t like Margaret Thatcher, he was ‘absolutely gobsmacked’ at the Labour defeat in the 1992 general election, he came to feel that ‘there was clearly truth in the argument that you have to take the middle ground’ and looked upon Tony Blair as ‘the guy who could actually deliver us to power, who understands Middle England fundamentally’, he stood as an MP in a Tory safe seat and surprised everybody – even himself – by winning….
None of this indicates a great deal of thought, back in 1997, about what New Labour stood for and where it might go next.
One of the general features of 1997 was that, in the desperation to get the Tories out by any means necessary, political questioning went out the window – among the media, the party membership, and the wannabe MPs. One suspects that it is only now that Marsden has even begun to form strong principles, and that he is quite surprised by the extent to which he thinks they clash with the party for whom he is an MP.
And when he thinks something, he has to say it – for his own sake, and despite the party. ‘Some of the rubbish I listen to from Labour MPs – and make no mistake, I used to come out with it myself – you just think, if you can be true to yourself, and represent those in your constituency, for goodness sakes, just say what you really think is true, and don’t hold back’, he says, passionately. ‘Because otherwise you’ll look back in horror at your career, and you’ll be ashamed.’ But can the political really be so personal, when you are a member of the government?
Maybe it’s just the initials, but as I talk to Paul Marsden I keep thinking of Peter Mandelson, exemplar of the ‘let’s get personal’ approach to party politics. That might seem strange. Mandy – former cabinet minister, spindoctor extraordinare and Blair’s Best Mate – was ousted from the government in January 2001 amid a mess of sleaze allegations, and promptly turned on the government by announcing his ‘fightback’ in the Sunday newspapers (1). A few months later, there was that extraordinary spectacle on election night in June 2001, when the victorious Mandelson spent several minutes screeching about his enemies in New Labour – before mentioning that Labour had won the election (2).
While Mandelson came across as a hysterical queen preoccupied with his personal circumstances, Marsden, by contrast, is raising genuine, political concerns, and sees his personal stance as being about a cause, not a career. (He would also make a far better drinking companion than Mandy.) Backbenchers – as opposed to cabinet ministers – have always had their own political campaigns and causes (although it is a reflection of the sad state of parliamentary politics that they once campaigned around abortion rights, and are now more likely to indulge far pettier preoccupations around issues like foxhunting).
But Mandy’s histrionics and Marsden’s personal battle against the leadership both reflect the fragmented character of New Labour, and the way the behaviour of individuals can quickly expose its weaknesses. After the initial embarrassment, Mandelson’s attacks on the Labour leadership could be absorbed because they were so obviously motivated by petty, personal grievances. Yet when MPs start deciding that they do not agree with the party’s politics, this exposes the lack within New Labour of any common political ideology – of any core principles that can hold the party together. As the Marsden/Armstrong incident shows, this fuels the insecurity that already defines the New Labour leadership, leading to overreactions and irrational clampdowns. And for what?
As it goes, I agree with many of Marsden’s criticisms of New Labour’s anti-democratic tendencies, and I do not support the war on Afghanistan. But there is an incoherence to his political outlook that makes you wonder exactly where it’s all going. He is bitterly opposed to the bombing of Afghanistan, but he supports the use of the Special Forces. He is opposed, in retrospect, to the bombing campaigns in Kosovo and Iraq, yet admits that he didn’t vote against them at the time ‘because I believed the propaganda’.
Marsden criticises Blair for his use of the press and the fact that ‘he does what the heck he wants’ with little regard for parliament – yet there seem to be similar patterns in his own methods of organisation. In January 2001, he announced to the local press his intention not to stand in the 2001 general election, because he wanted to spend more time with his family – when in fact he was involved in a dispute with officers from his local party. ‘Privately, I’d made perfectly clear that people had to back me. You either back me or you sack me – one way or the other, make your mind up.’ (How different is this from the Hilary Armstrong bollocking, which Marsden found so objectionable: ‘those that aren’t with us are against us’?)
And for all Marsden is playing the part of rebellious-idealist-who-wants to change-the-world over Afghanistan, the Quality Assurance Manager within him is still very evident. ‘In this consumer society, it isn’t just about speed or getting a satisfactory service – it’s also hopefully to do with quality’, he says. ‘People will spend a bit more money to go in and get whatever it is, a microwave oven or a mobile phone, because they know they can rely on it. You have to accept that there’s an element of that – I’m not saying that we’re completely consumer-driven – but particularly for the younger generation, when they listen to the politicians, they don’t want the flannel.’ No wonder, as he puts it, that ‘the esteem in which politicians are held is dropping to the level of estate agents and solicitors’ – the consumer-driven focus of much politics today means that that is, in effect, what politicians often sound like.
The more you try to fit Marsden’s views into any coherent pattern, the more difficult it is to do. Is this all that surprising? As Blair’s Babes grow up in a party that has substituted centralised bureaucracy for a central political ideology, we will no doubt see more of Marsden’s brand of rootless, aimless idealism and the bickering and infighting that followed. And on the fringes of it all floats the electorate, who would be incredibly confused if they weren’t so increasingly cynical.
Everybody in the national media now knows Paul Marsden’s name. Locally, a three-way battle is raging in the letters pages of the Shrewsbury Chronicle and Shropshire Star between those who think Marsden has a point about the war, those who think he should be spending more time in his own backyard, and some Labour supporters who demand he stands as an independent candidate next time. But what about everybody else? Does any of it matter?
I wander into a barber’s shop, empty but for three staff sitting chatting at the front. ‘We don’t know about politics – we’re hairdressers!’, says the lad, who sends me across the road to a men’s clothing boutique. ‘Ask for Aidy – he’s into that. Tell him Jimmy sent you.’ Aidy blushes, denies all interest and takes me next door to the pub to meet the landlord, John – ‘he’s always talking about this kind of thing’. John is forthright, friendly and Irish. He is cross that his local MP has paid too little attention to the local dispute over advertising boards, and thinks he should spend more time on Shropshire stuff. But, he says, ‘don’t get me wrong – I empathise with the Afghans. I’m from Ireland, of course I don’t like the loss of human life’.
Part of the reason for Marsden’s rise to celebrity is that, in this messy, incoherent war, many people kind of agree that ‘dropping bombs and firing bullets and killing innocent people’ is not the right thing to do. But beyond that, the level of popular disenchantment with politics means that understanding what can be done about it remains a mystery, and the campaigns led by the Marsdens of this world – even when they are genuinely political or idealistic – tend to be seen in the most cynical light. ‘I don’t know what his motives are’, says John, darkly. ‘Is he trying to get into the UN or something?’ ‘They’re all pen-pushers and bureaucrats’, says the pub’s chef. ‘They’re all the same when they get there’, says the man in the specialist tobacconist’s shop.
Are politicians held in the same esteem as estate agents and solicitors? They should be so lucky.
spiked-issue: Election 2001
The state of debate, by Josie Appleton
Mandelson: this time it’s personal, by Brendan O’Neill
(1) See Mandelson: this time it’s personal, by Brendan O’Neill
(2) See Final verdict: we know who lost, but who won?, by Mick Hume
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