Paul Anderson, review of A Walk-On Part: Diaries 1994-1999 by Chris Mullin (Profile, £20), Tribune, 9 December 2011
The third and final volume of diaries from Chris Mullin is actually a prequel to the first two, covering his life and times as a Labour MP from 1994, when John Smith died and Tony Blair was elected Labour leader, to 1999, when he joined Blair’s government as a junior minister.
A Walk-On Part shares the qualities of the volumes covering 1999 to 2010, The View From the Foothills (2008) and Decline and Fall (2010). Mullin writes clearly and candidly, with an eye for telling detail and amusing anecdotes, some of them about the most unlikely people. He pulls no punches in his assessments of colleagues, including supposed superiors (Gordon Brown is described as ““a workaholic who is burning himself up for no apparent purpose” and every MP's complaint about Peter Mandelson's machinations is recorded) and, despite writing in his preface that “much pessimism and agonising has ended up on the cutting-room floor”, he has done little to excise from the record opinions or predictions that might now seem embarrassing or naive.
“We're going to lose. Blair knows it too. I can see it in his eyes every time he appears on the TV news,” runs an entry just a week before Labour's spectacular landslide in the 1997 general election.
The diaries are not just a political record, moreover. There is a lot about his family and friends, some of it funny and some of it poignant.
All this makes A Walk-On Part immensely enjoyable. But it has a serious purpose too – or rather several serious purposes. It is, for a start, an extended meditation on the role of the backbench MP in modern British politics. Mullin represented Sunderland South as a backbencher from 1987, and he paints a vivid picture of what the job entailed: the surgeries with constituents (some of them utterly unreasonable), the endless meetings, the constant travel back and forth from London. Some MPs might be snout-in-trough, lazy careerists, but Mullin was clearly assiduous and selfless in representing his constituents’ interests.
Throughout the period covered by this volume, Mullin had an important role in parliamentary politics as a senior member of the House of Commons Home Affairs select committee (from 1997 to 1999 as its chair), and the book deals in some depth with its work – often unsung and dreary but utterly essential in holding the executive to account. Mullin is always sceptical about the effects of his and his committee’s efforts, but A Walk-On Part is in its subtle way as convincing an argument as I’ve read for massively increasing the power and independence of the select committees in order to improve parliamentary scrutiny of government.
Mullin also has plenty that is serious to say about Labour politics. The diaries encompass the birth and electoral triumph of New Labour and the first two years of the Blair government – a quite momentous period, or at least that is how it seemed to most observers and participants at the time.
Most of the left to which Mullin belonged – he had been a strong supporter of Tony Benn as editor of Tribune in the early 1980s and in 1994 was a member of the hard-left Campaign Group along with Tony Benn, Dennis Skinner and Ken Livingstone – saw Blair as a cuckoo in the nest and opposed his every move, with ever-decreasing effectiveness. Mullin did not.
His diary entries abhor the vacuity of New Labour’s marketing and slogans, are withering about the idiotically centralised regime of party management at the core of New Labour, and are unsparing in their criticisms of much New Labour policy – particularly Gordon Brown’s timidity on just about every aspect of economic policy and the craven approach to Rupert Murdoch adopted from 1995. But Mullin recognises early on that Blair, for all his faults, is Labour’s best hope of winning and holding on to power, and he has no time for the oppositionist stance of his erstwhile comrades, choosing his rebellions against the leadership with care. It’s clear from his account that the marginalisation of the old left by New Labour was aided and abetted by the old left itself.
The events with which this book deals took place a long time ago – before 9/11, Afghanistan and Iraq, before the internet became a mass phenomenon, before boom turned to bust. Many of the people who appear in its pages are dead – Michael Foot, Peter Shore, Jack Jones, Joan Maynard, Joan Lestor, Robin Cook, Mo Mowlam – or long retired.
It is nevertheless remarkable how strangely recent it all seems. In part, this is because so many of the key players in Labour politics in the 1990s were still there at the bitter end of the 1997-2010 Labour government (most notably Brown and Mandelson). But it is also because so many of the issues then central in Labour politics remain so today.
The Labour leadership spent the 1990s desperately seeking credibility on the economy and chasing the votes of affluent middle-class voters. Mullin despaired and still despairs of many of the means it used in the process – “control freakery, a soft spot for rich men, the obsession with spin” – but thought and still thinks that the broad strategy was right. In his preface, he writes of Blair: “He was surely right about the need to seize the middle ground and stay there. His decision to rewrite Clause Four of the Labour Party constitution … was in retrospect a master stroke, though it didn’t feel that way at the time. His strategy of promising little and delivering more, in contrast to the over-promising and under-delivering of previous governments, was also surely validated. Likewise his determination to tackle the huge benefit culture (ironically the new government’s most enduring legacy from the Thatcher decade) and to reform public services, education in particular.”
Whether such a strategy will work against the background of economic crisis and insecurity as well as it worked during a period of boom is, of course, the big question facing Ed Miliband right now. If he hasn’t read this book already, he could do worse than put it on his Xmas list.