Francis Beckett reviews two books telling the inside story of the implosion of New Labour
Talking to a Brick Wall by Deborah Mattinson (Biteback)
Campaign 2010 by Nicholas Jones (Biteback)
Biteback, a new publishing company founded by Iain Dale, the Conservative blogger, aims to get political books out very fast, while the issues are still warm (disclaimer, they have published my recent books too). And here, just two months after the general election, are the first two instant analyses of how New Labour rose, flourished and imploded, by two of the people best qualified to offer them.
Both books bear the marks of haste – Jones in a tendency towards uncharacteristic wordiness, Mattinson in a slightly disordered structure – but in a strange way that makes them both more exciting. They are living history, leaping off the page. Reading them, I felt the excitement and the anger that their authors felt in writing them.
Deborah Mattinson was Gordon Brown’s private pollster, at both Number 11 and Number 10, but she neither hero-worships him nor turns on him. He is “a hugely talented and fundamentally decent man”. But he is also an obsessive, who will telephone his pollster while she is shopping with her daughter on Saturday morning to ask if she has seen the email he just sent her; and when she explains she will not have internet access for an hour, says: “So what’s your fax number?”
He also has the political obsessive’s faith in slogans. A gloriously funny passage describes Mattinson’s doomed attempts to talk him out of this. “‘So,’ he would ask, ‘which do they like best? Is it Investing in Britain’s Potential or Investing in Opportunity for All?’”
Mattinson’s trade is focus group research. It’s always been a slightly suspect process. With quantitative research – conventional opinion polling, where you just count the answers – so long as the questions are properly written, there’s no way anyone can distort the results. With qualitative research, as focus groups are called, there’s always the suspicion that the politician or the pollster is getting the results they want. Mattinson’s case for the defence is that it provides the best way in which politicians can find out the real priorities of the people outside the Westminster village. I suspect it has to be really carefully done if the prejudices of the pollster and her political master are not to influence the results.
But this is a tremendous political book, from a real insider who saw and supported what went on through the New Labour years, and is nonetheless prepared to be clear-sighted and critical about it.
There’s a murky ground where journalism and politics meet, and no one knows it better than Nicholas Jones. He’s patrolled it for years, and is still genuinely and engagingly horrified by some of the things he stumbles across there. He takes proper pride, as he tells us in this book, in the fact that Peter Mandelson considers him “unreliable”.
He is still shocked by the excesses revealed in the expenses scandal, but he is clear-sighted enough to see how David Cameron used it to his advantage. It enabled him to be rid of some of the gentry from the shires, who were determined to keep his Party in the dark ages, and who were scuppered by their willingness to charge the taxpayer for the upkeep of such things as the moat around their castle.
But the heart of Jones’s book is about how Cameron’s media boss Andy Coulson outmanoeuvred New Labour’s spinners, with the assistance of what Jones calls the “attack dogs” in the Tory press.
Labour’s attacks on Coulson would carry more credibility if he were not doing exactly what they did for years, but doing it rather better. He is avoiding Mandelson and Alastair Campbell’s crucial mistake of allowing themselves to become the story, and he is avoiding Campbell’s error of throwing away the trust and affection of his former colleagues in newspapers by too close an identification with his boss. Campbell’s semi-hysterical hero-worship for Tony Blair destroyed Campbell and very nearly destroyed his boss. It is clear from Jones’s account that Coulson is not going to make that mistake.
Nick Jones was a dissenting lobby correspondent. When he worked for the BBC, top politicians used regularly to complain about him and, to its shame, the BBC generally failed to support him. A lesser journalist would have opted for the easy life, but Jones persisted in being unreliable, and since the BBC forced him to retire the moment he reached the age of 60, he has produced several books, none of them likely to be the favourite reading of either the BBC or New Labour. Despite what seems to be an alarming new respect for Cameron and Coulson, this is another informative and irreverent account of the recent doings of those who govern us.