Tuesday columns for Newcastle Journal by George Hepburn

Month: July, 2015

Elect a Leader, any leader……..

How can the poor old Labour Party have got itself into this mess?  For a mere three pounds, I can join the Party and cast a vote to elect the new Leader. Tories for Corbyn are encouraging everyone to do so and split the opposition apart. Why on earth did not anyone think to close the electoral list when the last Leader stood down?

The contest still has seven weeks to run. All through the silly season, every Labour loud mouth  will be paraded on the Today programme . The candidates will have every opportunity to make a fool of themselves. The clever Yvette Cooper is keeping her head down. Why did not anyone think about a tighter timetable?

It is difficult to argue against one member one vote  but I wonder if both major parties rue the day they extended the franchise. My  brother in law, an insider on such matters,  tells me that if Boris is one of the two names put to party members when Cameron retires, he will romp home regardless. Those were the days when a few Tory grandees took soundings in the safety of their gentlemen’s club.

Margaret Beckett admits she was a ‘moron’ to nominate Jeremy Corbyn when she has no intention of voting for him.  Apart from Jeremy’s lack of experience and even  interest in holding office, he will be 71 by the time of the next election. Is a septuagenarian electable? Large numbers of young people apparently think so.

Prophets do not often make effective leaders in the rough and tumble of politics.  Two of my greatest political heroes, Nye Bevan and Michael Foot, found this out but the Labour Party always needs a champion of its socialist ideals to fight and not win the day. No one does infighting better than the Left. They wear their hearts on their sleeves and that is why we love them.

The trouble is that Corbyn has a really attractive platform –  taxing the rich, stopping welfare cuts, scrapping Trident and abolishing  tuition fees. He talks straight, rides on trains, wears beige and wont smile inanely at the camera. But is there a place at the top for the campaigning nice guy?

The trouble is also that none of the other candidates stand out in terms of policies or personality. They seem too concerned with saying the things that will get them back into power at any price.  No one has even a whiff anything as inspiring  as the “white hot heat of  technology”  from Harold Wilson’s days.

What a shame that Ed Miliband did not hang around to let the Party come to terms with its defeat. What a shame so many Blairites jumped in so quickly to condemn him. What a shame that Harriet Harman caused a fiasco over the welfare bill. What a shame the candidates are now subject to personal innuendos. What a mess.

As the honourable members set off on their holidays, with the promise of a few extra pounds in their back pockets  that nurses and teachers deserve far more, the one man who will be striding across the beach to build the grandest sandcastle is George Cameron.

The emergency budget was a political tour de force even though the economics was despicable; giving more to the rich through changing inheritance tax thresholds, denying young people housing benefit, penalising large families and cutting tax credits. It had a narrative (to use a horribly fashionable word) about the hard working class that went unquestioned by hardly anyone except the enthusiastic members from north of the Border. No one has a cunning plan for prising those seats back for Labour. No one can tell how Labour can be elected without them.

Then on the day that the Commons is demob happy, the Chancellor slips in spending cuts by government departments of 40% or £20bn by 2012, which will hit local authority budgets again. He said:

“We’ve shown that with careful management of public money, we can get more for less and give working people real control over the decisions that affect them and their communities”.

Do you laugh or cry?  This is a rampant government putting its cronies on a panel to dismantle the  BBC  and shredding the  Freedom of Information Act  because it shows them up. How else would we know about John Bercow’s expenses?  Only the foxes have survived to fight another day.

John McDonnell said he would rather “swim through vomit” than vote for welfare cuts and a good number of North East MPs agreed with him.  Will it catch on as a fundraiser? We need a vocal and coherent opposition and, to my mind, we need a Labour Party that will stand up for the poor and underprivileged even if it is not popular in middle England. That’s why we love them.

Give politicians  August off. Muzzle the opinion polls and pull the plug on the radio interviews. Keep the paparazzi  off the beaches. Breathe in fresh air and come back in September to elect a Leader, any Leader, and get into battle.

Setting the world to rights with a much missed friend

I  realised how much I would miss my friend  Carole Howells, who died on 25th June, as I walked round the 2015 BP Portraits Awards at the National Portrait Gallery. Last year, we had visited the exhibition together.

The show attracts high quality submissions from all over the world whose standards and reach improve every year. If you thought a portrait was some famous old fart facing out at you, think again. Thanks to the long term sponsorship of a company which ruins the natural environment, the exhibition is free and hugely popular. We will pass over that contentious issue today.

I noticed several poignant portraits of people with serious illness – like  David Lawton’s ‘The View in Winter’. Carole was not at all sentimental about her illness. She studied the delivery of her own health care with the astute eye of a professional researcher and never wanted her condition to take up too much of the conversation.

She would have pointed out that this portrait was in the manner of a Dutch master or that the technical paintwork in another beyond belief. There was no end to her knowledge and, in retirement, she  become a  keen painter as well.

We would have argued over whether the judges came to the right decisions – did Michael Gaskell’s classic and compelling portrait of his niece warrant the first prize? –  and pick favourites of our own. I fell in love with the portrait of two historians in late night conversation  in the manner, though who am I to say, of Van Gogh.

After buying a few postcards, providing Carole thought the colours were accurately reproduced, we would have retired for a spot of lunch. If we had done so last  week, we would have picked over the bones over the budget.

“If you elect the Conservatives” Carole would have said ”what else do you expect”.  We would have raised a wry smile at the artful way the Chancellor had hijacked  the term ‘living wage’ and set it at a much lower level. This government is never going to favour the poor over the rich or be concerned about the quality of local services.

As Director of Newcastle Council for Voluntary Service for over twenty years, Carole had been an indefatigable champion of the voluntary sector and the underprivileged communities it served. She was also a proud supporter of the City of Newcastle, which was her adopted home.

Then the conversation would have moved on to murkier matters of how things get done.  Carole had treated herself to a wide screen television recently as she  prepared for a more restricted life style. In the event, she was spared a long and painful decline and died with dignity at home in the arms of a very old friend.

With the help of a second glass of wine, we would have been incredulous at the idea that BBC should be forced to fund the  licence for the over 75s.  The way the deal had been hatched behind closed doors and then talked up by Tony Hall was indefensible. The lily-livered trustees had broached an important principle by making the BBC an arm of the welfare state. It is all too obvious that troubles lie ahead as the population ages and the costs escalate.

Camilla Batmanghelidjh’s name would  have cropped up in the context of the government’s apparent demand that she leave Kids Company, the inspiring charity she founded, before any more public money was awarded.  Carole would have reminded  me that a flamboyant leadership style  often covers a poorly run organisation.

However, after long years of awarding grants  at the Community Foundation, which Carole helped found and where she was  an exacting chair of grants committee, we were in no doubt  that a funder should not expect heads on a platter.

Over coffee, the latest handouts from the bank fines kitty would be noted. After  £4 million given last year to the yet to be established Virgin Money Foundation, we now hear about pensions for holders of the Victoria and George cross. Who gave the Chancellor the right to pick and choose how to spend this not inconsiderable sum of money as if it came out of his back pocket?

We would sigh.  We might have to live with the decision of the ballot box but we should expect probity in public affairs. These are signs of a government getting above itself and enjoying its moment of power before the back benchers rebel over Europe. We knew the warning signs.

Carole was saddened not to have the good health to enjoy her eight decade but at least, she said, she would not have to rage against the injustice of five years of conservative rule.

I will miss these animated and tipsy conversations. Carole was an inveterate conversationalist; a  thoughtful and compassionate friend and also a wise and forthright mentor. Friendship  is a rare, precious and undervalued gift  which she possessed in abundance. Life will be the poorer without her.

There will be a celebration of Carole Howells MBE’s life on Saturday 3rd October at noon. For details, yet to be finalised, contact Newcastle CVS.

Picture below of Carole, with the late Grigor McClelland and George Hepburn, at the 20th anniversary of the Community Foundation in 2008

Cfdn 20th anniversary