One of the perks of being a writer these days is that from time to time you get to sit next to politicians at BBC-hosted dinner parties and on publicity-seeking panels of writers feeding the face-time craving of readers. Just before the 1997 election there was Paul (now Baron) Boateng on my left (at the table, not politically) responding to my ill-mannered complaint about the destruction of the point of the Labour Party by the invention of New Labour and its Tory policies on poverty. Don’t worry, he said conspiratorially, you’ll see. We have to get into power. Then we’ll legislate to improve the condition of the poor. We’re still the old Labour Party, but we have to get elected. New Labour is the only way to do it. Wait and see, we’re playing the long game.
But once you’re in power, you’ll have another election to fight.
Just wait and see, he said. I waited and I saw.
Then the other day at Foyles, in front of a blameless audience who only wanted to hear about the writing of personal memoir, I behaved badly again, by having an ill-tempered moan about the disgraceful social record of New Labour at former minister Chris Mullin (diaries out in a bookshop near you). It’s just as well, he was saying, that Kinnock lost the 1992 election because otherwise Labour would have been in government during Black Wednesday and Labour would have been as damaged as the Tory party was. The landslide victory of 1997 would have been the Conservatives’. Perhaps, I interrupted, but at least we might not have had New Labour. Mullin immediately insisted that New Labour had done great things for the poor during its time in power.
But the gap between rich and poor has never been wider, surely?
That’s nonsense, he said, a report by the Institute of Fiscal Studies showed the gap to have narrowed as never before during New Labour’s governance.
I was surprised, but unequipped. A little googling when I got home found this in the Telegraph from 2009 on income figures for the year 2007-8, before the recession, released by the Department of Work and Pensions, which showed that the number of children in poverty had grown by 100,000:
According to economist at the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the figures mean that the Gini Coefficient, a measure of income inequality, is now at its highest level since they began compiling figures in 1961. Alastair Muriel, an IFS economist said: “Since the election, average incomes across the population have grown slowly, whilst they have fallen for the poorest.”
And on the BBC in January 2010:
The gap between rich and poor in the UK is wider now than 40 years ago, a government-commissioned report says.
Another good reason to have an iPad beside one at all times.
Finally Mullin shut me up, so we could get on with talking about memoirs and bookselling, by saying that the most important thing a political party has to do is to get elected. Shut me up because a) it’s true and b) it’s the reason there is no chance of a decent politics. Consider, for example, the entire New Labour project under Tony Blair, and the falling off of ‘yes we can’ under the presidency of Barack Obama, or, come to think of it, the career of Baron Boateng (I waited and waited to see, Baron). It’s a conundrum. Can’t do the business in opposition, can’t get elected without pleasing the crowd. On Sunday, Nick Clegg told the LibDem Conference to wait and see, that he is playing the long game. So in Foyles I shut up instead of throwing a tantrum, though I think a tantrum was more in order than polite and pointless chatter about keeping diaries or writing memoir for publication. The implication was, of course, that I was speaking idealistic waffle while Mullin, Boateng and Clegg are working in the real world. That is quite true, I am utterly discouraged and quite unable to see how the world can become a better place, while a sense of realismus in politics ensures an inevitable slippage between what is said (assuming anyone could care less) and what can be done. The real world is implacable. I think I have to accept that now. Politics, therefore, is simply a career: why on earth would anyone who minded about the world go into it?