What was the point of this film? It added nothing to our understanding of World War One, nor to that cliched (and misleading) reduction of it to the trenches.
I was pleased when Sam Mendes announced his projected tribute to his lance-corporal grandfather. It promised a refreshing focus on the ‘poor bloody infantry’, those who do the dying in the wars of that era and this. True enough, Mendes bravely casts two little-known actors George Mackay (pictured) and Dean-Charles Chapman in the central roles, two lance-corporals who must carry an urgent message across No Man’s Land to call off an attack.
Mackay and Chapman are compelling however implausible their accents. At times the film – made apparently in three ‘takes’ – is genuinely frightening. They meet successive authority-figures, all played by better-known actors. Each evokes one of the officer tropes of the ‘Great’ War: cynicism, nihilism, lust for glory. But have we not known all that since the days of Owen and Sassoon?
The enemy lurks, but only in the shadows. When he emerges, he is treacherous, embodying another trope: the bloodthirsty Hun. My mind returned to Stefan Zweig whose The World of Yesterday mourned the loss of cosmopolitan Europe whose culture abhorred boundaries. Zweig, a Viennese, idealised the Austro-Hungarian empire, which was cruel, stupid and hostile to national identity. Today’s Europe is the European Union. It is the only Europe we have, but conflicted. Can it defend itself militarily? Must it succumb to demographic decline? Can it expand Eastwards yet remain true to its early principles?
English directors should shun a cultural Brexit. They could start by acknowledging the European dimension of the 1914-18 bloodbath. Let us have no more filmic anthems for doomed youth.
Picking a new Leader of the Opposition – a potential prime minister – isn’t easy. Labour is right to take its time. April will be soon enough for a party trying to recover from a demoralising defeat. My choice, Aston-under-Lyne MP and Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner chose to run only for Deputy Leader (‘Policies are not enough’, 4 January 2020). This was a mistake, however understandable her personal reasons, both for her and for the party. Five candidates have reached the shortlist. In casting my vote, I shall by influenced by
1. A non-metropolitan voice
Labour must speak for the whole country. Its options include: setting the Scottish party free; setting a bold programme for devolution; electing a woman leader; choosing a non-London MP.
2. A pleasing media presence
There is no substitute for this. Younger candidates should have been advanced under Jeremy Corbyn. Many MPs sought to destabilise him by going on strike. Others simply courted media coverage with opposition, crudely pandering to anti-Labour prejudice. If they hadn’t, we would already know our best leader.
3. Away with the market
There is no way round it. Labour must stand for something. New Labour’s path to power meant dropping policies offending the powerful and rich, ‘triangulating’ against the membership. This brought office, not power. It fed the anti-democratic notion that all politicians are the same.
4. Evidence of ability
There is no way round this either. Some on the Left seem to see leadership as a box-ticking exercise. In reality voters will come to long for a personable alternative to the odious Johnson. His faults – laziness, vagueness, callousness, preference for American solutions, inattention to detail, eventual policy failure will become more evident.
5. A sense of humour
We all need to laugh a lot more. This grim sense of battling against a sea of troubles must end. Labour’s new leader should be quick-witted (and confident) enough to crack jokes. A little less seriousness, while remaining in deadly earnest about the need to shift power, would open closed ears.
I left the Labour Party in the 1990s. Once dropping Clause IV had been proposed and, worse, agreed by the party membership, there didn’t seem much point in staying. New Labour’s rudderless Labour Party won three elections and achieved much in health and living standards but unlike 1945 it did not establish a new settlement, redefining the terms of politics. Nor did it intend to. Jeremy Corbyn’s emergence as possible, then actual leader drew me back in.
Let’s not mince words. This was an electoral disaster. There is very little comfort to be had either from the details or the broad sweep of the 2019 general election. Impotent venting on Twitter and elsewhere is pointless. This was a rout and the first thing we must do is acknowledge
1. Lack of professionalism
This aspect of Jeremy’s leadership drove me crazy. From the start there was a tendency to believe that the programme power alone would overcome opposition: communicating the message was neglected. I often prayed for an Alistair Campbell, a ruthless brute who would sort out the press. I know journalists who offered their services. They got nowhere.
2. Policy incoherence
I’m in the Labour Party because it stands for something. The manifesto policies were right and individually popular but clearly weren’t sold to the voters, above all to those who would have benefited most: the poor, Northern commuters and so on
Whimpering about being unable to overcome Brexit is futile. Labour made a pig’s breakfast of Brexit. Which dimwit thought we could take no position on this ahead of the promised referendum? Or a referendum in the first place? A potential prime minister cannot be agnostic on the one issue on which everyone has a view. It just fed the weak leadership concept.
Jeremy was a poor leader. Unquestionably he had the power to rally members and (especially in 2017) crowds. But from his initial reluctance to stand, to start wearing suits, to make big policy speeches, he never embraced the necessary. Where were the personal attacks, especially after Johnson became prime minister? Ruthlessness and strength needed communicating to the voters. They didn’t think he even wanted the job.
This largely invented issue was intended to wound Jeremy at his strongest point, his lifetime commitment to doing the right thing whatever the consequences. It was weaponised, quite deliberately, to damage him among the young. A ruthless and committed leader would have seen and finessed this, robbing the Right (in or out of Labour) of its most powerful weapon.
6. Lack of colour
Labour fought a grey, grim campaign. Where was the flair? Where was the humour? Where was the variety of leaders giving the message? We should have been offered the impression of a competent and varied team who would form the Labour Cabinet. Too much rested on one pair of shoulders.
It may sound odd to say this so soon, but Johnson will stumble. Brexit is only feasible as self-harm. His grovelling to Trump will start to grate. Decentralisation won’t happen (as the Cummings call for new Whitehall recruits implicitly concedes). Australia shows us a newly-elected Right-wing leader undone by events. It can happen here. It did to John Major in 1992.
For Labour to retain the two components of its mass membership – the young plus the returning grizzled veterans – two things are required. First there must be an affirmation that Labour was right on the big issues of the day, above all on the need to shift from presuming market solutions are always best. Second a leader must be found who does not disdain communications.
We should have changed leaders last Autumn: a fresh face selling policy might have done the trick. We’ve missed that chance. I don’t know why the merits of a male leader are even under discussion. Labour can take the political initiative for the first time in months by announcing an all-women shortlist. We do it for candidates; why not for leader?
Run, Angela, Run!
Labour’s leadership choice must show we wish to return to power as soon as opportunity offers. One remarkable feature of the 2019 electoral map was the loyalty of Lancashire to Labour, not just cities but towns too. My belief is that Angela Rayner, a Greater Manchester MP, proved in the last Parliament that she has the skills voters look for in a prime minister. Her background qualifies her to speak for the dispossessed. She has shown her willingness to use catchy slogans. Choosing her will signal a rupture with London-centric policies. Let’s hope she won’t let false modesty get in her way.