Jeremy Corbyn Labour History Labour Party


Labour needs to make it unmistakeably clear that it is committed to keeping the country and its people safe, thereby snuffing out pacifist accusations, but also giving a context for the ensuing forensic argument. People must know we are prepared to defend the country. If Labour is not pacifist the only question is whether bombing Syria will advance or degrade safety – a pragmatic, and therefore a secondary issue. Jeremy’s objections are all valid except for one – that it increases the risk of attack at home. There is no doubt – the security services have sad so – that that is going to happen anyway.
It is impossible for one of the country’s two main political parties not to have a position on whether to go to war. What could be more fundamental? I see all the dangers to the Labour Party of a whipped vote – they are great and growing. However the yawning gap between the Leader and some Labour MPs is a political fact. If not confronted now when will it be?
The dangers of not having a view at all on peace or war are worse: it will be seen an abdication of leadership which, after all, is largely about managing difficulties. Labour will wriggle off this week’s dilemma only to postpone the reckoning. It must have a sense of direction, even if there is a rebellion. The Leader has rightly consulted and the result, I believe, has been decisive. Moreover there are large numbers of people outside the Party who are opposed, including Tories (the Mail, Matthew Parris) and people of no party. Who is to speak for them? The SNP? A free vote will make the Leader appear as his enemies portray him – an impotent sentimentalist, a new George Lansbury, ‘hawking his conscience about…’ as Ernie Bevin cruelly said. This is not an issue of conscience but of policy on the most fundamental question any country ever has to face.
English history English radicalism Jeremy Corbyn Labour History Uncategorized

Attacks on Labour are nothing new

My article from the new issue of Labour Briefing

Here We Go Again

Labour Party

Getting used to winning 001



Yvette has ‘the strength to win’.  She wants a ‘strong Labour Party’ that will ‘make us stronger’.  She knows this cause she comes from a family of ‘strong women’.  After all ‘we’re stronger when we stand together’ and ‘we need strong opposition’. The way back for Labour is to ‘build stronger public finances’. Her backers confirm this is true: Yvette has ‘Labour values and strength’, they tell me, ‘knowledge, experience and strength’.  Thank God she’s not like that Jeremy, with his ‘old solutions to old problems, not new answers to the problems of today’.

Yvette doesn’t like Tom, but Tom is strong too. We have his own word for it when he promises ‘a strong voice for you’. The visionary look and cleft chin eradicate all doubt. You might shoot the sheriff, but I wouldn’t point your weapon at the deputy, not while Tom’s around.

At the local level things are different.  Here it’s more about smiles. Take Tessa. ‘She’s a star’, a nice man who once delivered the post tells me, ‘She is Labour’s Kylie – everyone loves her and she only needs a first name’.

O I almost forgot Christian.  He’s a bit like Jeremy really. In fact what with their bikes and lack of ties they do seem rather similar. I don’t know if they are strong men or not.  Perhaps I should worry about this because no-one has written to tell me they are? The trouble is, they will keep going on about their policies when really all I’m looking for is a cheery smile with a hint of inner strength from people who understand all these things so much better than me.


My letter to the London Review of Books on the Labour Leadership contest

The 27 August 2015 number of the London Review of Books published an alarming article from David Runciman (reproduced at foot). I have sent the following response.

Dear Editor,

Strip away the persiflage in David Runciman’s piece (‘Short Cuts’, 27 August) and you are left with an assertion that Jeremy Corbyn cannot lead Labour at all – let alone back to power. Established parties are not led by the likes of him. His supporters wrongly see their approaching vote as a way to express themselves and it is no excuse that they know exactly what they are doing.

Labour is hardly a thriving enterprise. Much polling evidence suggests 2015 voters did not know what it stood for (sometime appending the deadly phrase ‘any more’). Until Corbyn electrified a dismal contest Labour’s identity remained a lost cause. Now overdue policy shifts are being advocated from a position of authority. Runciman acknowledges Corbyn’s policies are ‘popular with a surprisingly wide swathe of the public’, but expects the message to be muffled by a divided PLP and Shadow Cabinet. That distinguished body has Chris Leslie as its Shadow Chancellor. Corbyn is an unassuming man but it does not follow that he cannot lead a powerful opposition from an unpromising electoral position, wrong-foot Cameron at PMQs or handle the press lobby. Campbell-Bannerman and Attlee, who both led powerful but fractious teams back to power from the wilderness, were likewise underestimated.

Political science texts portray party members as unduly ideological and unrepresentative. Blair disarmed them, ruling by referendum as he narrowed the span of legitimate debate and impoverished Labour’s ambition. The Party became defined against its own history, frightened to advocate rational policy. In 13 years it didn’t even achieve public control of the railways – a vote-winner with commuters in Southern target constituencies if ever there was. Has anyone at all complained about Boris Johnson’s quiet municipalisation of private rail lines in rural and suburban Essex, stuffed with seats Labour must win?

The Scottish government disproved New Labour’s thesis by governing from the Centre-left. Despite a referendum defeat, SNP membership exploded, presaging an electoral landslide. Just the prospect of a Corbyn victory has galvanised Labour. Of course its UK-wide task is greater than the SNP’s. But Labour has five years to transmute enthusiasm into votes; Nicola Sturgeon had eight months. This willingness of the once unaligned, jaded or cynical – many of them young – to explore established parties rather than insurgents has unnerved many, Runciman among them. His plea for Labour to do ‘a bit of fixing’ must be the first call for ballot-rigging you have ever carried. I hope it will be the last.

Yours Sincerely,

Short Cuts

David Runciman

It’s easy to confuse democracy with democracy. Having a party’s members elect its leader is clearly more democratic than leaving the decision up to MPs or union bosses. But that doesn’t mean it’s good for democracy. When the Tories first moved to a one-member-one-vote system in 2001, they plumped for Iain Duncan Smith over Kenneth Clarke. The result was that Britain had a weak and ineffectual parliamentary opposition at the most hubristic phase of Tony Blair’s premiership, during the run-up to the Iraq War. The situation was only remedied two years later when the parliamentary Conservative Party effectively staged a coup, installing Michael Howard as the sole candidate without consulting the membership. In 2007, Lib Dem members chose Nick Clegg over Chris Huhne as their leader by the narrowest of margins. Given that Huhne was to end up in jail in 2013 you might think this was the wise choice. But none of the voters (bar two) could have known Huhne’s vulnerability on that score. By choosing Clegg they went with a comfortable politician under whose leadership the party would be chewed up and spat out by the Tories, rather than with a more rebarbative one who might have kept them at arm’s length – and his party alive. It’s hard to argue that British democracy is better off as a result.

Now the Labour Party, putting the decision entirely in the hands of its members for the first time, may elect Jeremy Corbyn. It’s tempting to see this as another IDS moment. But it’s something more than that. The election of IDS was wishful, whereas this looks much more wilful. Deluded Tory members seemed genuinely to believe that Duncan Smith was a widely appealing politician whose virtues, so apparent to them, needed only to be brought to the attention of the general public to win them over. Corbyn’s supporters are under few illusions that he fits the mould of a mainstream party leader. They know he’s at best an acquired taste and unlikely to be the man to win back voters lost to the Tories in the key marginals. A recent YouGov poll found that barely a quarter of Labour members believed that understanding how to win an election was one of the key qualities needed in a Labour leader (62 per cent wanted him or her to be ‘in touch with the concerns of ordinary people’). Corbynites realise that they are not playing the game by the rulebook. They don’t care.

One way to understand this is as a manifestation of what political scientists call the expressive, as opposed to the instrumental, theory of voting. If voting is instrumental then it’s presumed that voters are primarily motivated by the results they hope to achieve: leaders and parties who can deliver real benefits. If it’s expressive then voters are more interested in signalling who they are and what they value. The case for expressive voting is partly driven by the thought that instrumental voting is a waste of time, since in any significant election no one’s vote ever decides the outcome (if your candidate wins or loses it is always by more than one vote, making your contribution incidental). But it also seems to chime with the world of social media and online communication, where self-expression rules and echo chambers proliferate. The internet is much more effective as a vehicle for expressing disgust with mainstream politics than it is for organising pragmatic reconfigurations of it. Corbyn might be a reminder of the 1980s in some of his policy prescriptions, but his is still very much a candidacy of the internet age.

Nonetheless, there is something unpersuasive about the idea that voting is simply a way of striking an attitude. Casting a ballot is an odd way to signal anything to anyone, given that no one is actually watching you do it. Most voters do seem to want their personal contribution to make a difference and believe that it can. I’m not convinced that support for Corbyn is just gesture politics. As well as being the era of self-expression this is also the era of disruption. Yes, a Corbyn victory would mean going against all the conventional wisdom about how to win an election. But conventional wisdom is a devalued currency these days. Whole industries that believed the world was a certain way have found the rug pulled out from under them. Things that seemed impossible become inevitable with barely time to pass through a phase of being merely improbable (and if Corbyn does win his campaign will conform to that pattern – a few weeks ago he was a 100/1 outsider; as I write this he has just been installed as the bookmakers’ favourite). A few years ago Uber didn’t exist. Now it’s taking over the world. Not playing the game by the rulebook can pay off in the most dramatic and unexpected ways. Why should political parties be immune to this expanded range of possibilities? The shake-up is happening across Europe. Why not here?

If I’m right that this is part of what lies behind the Corbyn surge, then his supporters are making a mistake. The Labour Party is not a start-up. Disruption is almost certainly not what it needs. Indeed, disruption is more likely to destroy it than to revitalise it. The job for which Corbyn is standing has many different facets, of which the most important remains leading his party’s MPs in Parliament. This is the bit of the job it is nearly impossible to imagine him doing successfully. It is not just that the parliamentary party is liable to be both split and demoralised by his election. He also lacks the experience. Corbyn at PMQs? Corbyn handling the press lobby? Corbyn managing the shadow cabinet? To see these as relics of the old way of doing politics is to mistake the range of policy possibilities for the range of institutional ones. It may well be true that much of what Corbyn stands for – including a fairer tax system, greater public ownership of key services and more support for the low-paid – is popular with a surprisingly wide swathe of the public. But it won’t make any difference if the news never gets beyond a divided and dysfunctional parliamentary party. Voters don’t elect parties that are split. Those rules are not going to change.

In this respect, the examples of Syriza and Podemos are a distraction. Both those parties are start-ups. Britain may well be crying out for new political parties (especially in Scotland) and the thought of someone like Corbyn at the head of one makes sense, though under Britain’s first-past-the-post system it might not make much difference. But that isn’t what he’s offering. His popularity has been compared to the baffling levels of support currently being enjoyed by Donald Trump in the fight for the Republican presidential nomination. That too is probably a reflection of the fact that voters are no longer content to take at face value the limited range of acceptable options presented to them. But Trump’s case is also very different. The length of the US contest means there is plenty of time for the old rules to reassert themselves. And when that happens, Trump has the option of running as an independent, which is what a disruptor would do (though the likely consequence is that he would help usher Hillary into the White House). Corbyn is an intransigent independent trying to take over an established player. It rarely works in politics, just as it rarely works in business. You don’t disrupt corporate behemoths like IBM from the inside. You have to break away.

There is still time for the Corbyn bubble to burst. The opinion polling that has him far ahead is more likely to be expressive than the casting of ballots will be. Polling in previous Labour leadership elections has shown a tendency to overstate support for the more radical candidates (the final YouGov poll of party members in 2010 had Ed Miliband winning by 4 per cent when in fact his brother, David, won that section of the electorate by nearly 9 per cent). If Corbyn does win, there is talk of a swift coup to replace him, but the Labour Party is not the Conservative Party and kneejerk anti-democratic moves are a much harder sell. Ed Miliband must take some of the blame for where the party finds itself. Even Syriza, we now discover, had some contingency plans for exiting the euro. Miliband seems to have done nothing to prepare for defeat, presumably on the grounds that it would damage morale. When it happened he simply walked away. Michael Howard stayed on in 2005 to ensure that the election of his successor could be steered in his preferred direction. Miliband was probably too damaged by the scale of his failure to do that (and who knows what his preferred direction would be), but he could have done more to try to ensure a better range of options than the party is currently faced with: unsustainable inspiration or uninspired continuity. It pains me to say it, but if ever an election needed a bit of fixing it was this one.

31 July


A Campaign to Build a Mass Movement of Resistance

An inspiring piece. In particular the rejection of tokenism in this campaign. No doubt that was the motive of some of Jeremy’s nominators who were frightened of terminally alienating the Left. Fighting to win is absolutely the only way.

Labour Briefing


WHEN ED MILIBAND ANNOUNCED HE WAS RESIGNING AS LEADER OF THE LABOUR PARTY there were calls for the left to stand a candidate. Jeremy Corbyn and I sat down to calculate whether we had the 35 MPs we needed to nominate to secure a left candidate on the ballot paper. We couldn’t get past 22.

At the LeJMCD4ft Platform meeting on the Tuesday after the election defeat, I explained that we couldn’t realistically mount a challenge, but we delegated Jeremy and Kelvin Hopkins MP to check again what prospect there was of running a left candidate. The numbers came out the same and there were those in the Campaign Group who thought it would be better to back Andy Burnham in return for policy commitments.

There was also the question of who would be the left candidate. I made it clear that, having run twice…

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English history English radicalism german history


18 June isn’t a well-known date, for all the efforts of Britain’s Francophobe press, which is celebrating the bicentenary of Waterloo in true apolitical style. Occasionally reality breaks through: it has, for example, emerged that the casualty rate in the battle surpassed the first day of the Somme. Will there be similar same flag-waving on 1 July next year I wonder? Certainly Wellington’s victory was a triumph for combined command not to be repeated until the last half of 1918. Whether this gifted general’s final win puts him in the same league as Napoleon (victor at Toulon, Austerlitz, Jena, Wagram, Borodino) I leave to the military historians, but squeezing Waterloo into the dreary narrative of ‘our island story’ should not obscure its politics.

Back to the Bourbons

Waterloo was greeted with relief by every crowned head in Europe (bar one) and rightly so. Once confirmed by the Congress of Vienna, it meant the Continental restoration of the ancien regime. These restored (or imposed) tyrants could not of course occupy their thrones with the same confidence as before 1789, but they could still combine to frustrate and suppress popular expression.

A foretaste had come in Spain, theatre of Wellington’s earlier triumphs, where the ludicrous Ferdinand VII had been restored, returning the country to its trajectory of decline: within two decades it sank into civil war. But at least in Spain the monarchy (however undeservedly) truly focused national feeling against the Napoleonic invasion. Elsewhere this was true only of Prussia, and perhaps Russia. Generally Waterloo and Vienna meant that national self-expression and bourgeois right – the political expressions of the Enlightenment – would be subordinated to Order and Legitimacy.

Bernadotte, King of Sweden, was rewarded for betraying Napoleon with the gift of Norway, whose people had to wait a century for independence. When the Belgians were subordinated to the Dutch in an artificially united province the arrangement lasted just 15 years. Poland, dismembered in the 18th century but given cause for hope by Napleon, was redistributed between the restored great powers. Italian self-determination was not even considered: the north (excepting Piemonte) went to Hapsburg Austria, the middle to the Pope and the south to the restored Bourbon monarchy, notable only for its cruelty and stupidity.

Distorting Germany

Prussia which had experienced powerful national renewal under French occupation now had to play second fiddle to a bloated Austrian Empire which, under the preposterous Hapsburgs, spread its ample bottom over most of central Europe. Hapsburg supremacy brought Metternich’s police state and national division. Within three decades this produced the revolutions of 1848, drowned in blood in every country. The flawed liberals of the Frankfurt Parliament might have fashioned an all-German republic; this path blocked, a deformed united Germany emerged in the ugly shape of a greater Prussia with its strutting military caste. This new Germany now excluded Hapsburg Austria, which strove the harder to retain its other territories, suppressing national minorities from Bohemia to the Ukraine. Its final expansionist clutch precipitated World War One.

In France, the restored Bourbons lasted just 15 years, swept away by popular revolution in 1830. It took two more huge revolutions – and several experimental regimes – to restore the republic, France’s proper form of government. In Russia Tsar Alexander, who had once presumed to treat Napoleon as an equal, soon relapsed into mere reaction. The serfs who had saved his throne were not emancipated and he ceased to dally with the Enlightenment. In 1825 he was succeeded by his brother, the noted brute Nicholas I, the very essence of unapologetic reaction.

Britain no exception

And what of Britain? Its huge army was rapidly demobilised with no provision made for their homecoming. Excess labour at home drove down wages sparking successive revolts in the years following Wellington’s triumph. The restoration of the Corn Laws fattened landlords and starved the people into demanding bread and reform. At Peterloo the terrified militia emulated the Tsar’s Cossacks when they freely sabred a peaceful assembly, women and children not excepted. Wellington drifted into Tory administrations, even becoming prime minister during 1828-30. From this position he opposed all change. Only with his removal did the British state begin a process of gradual reform, the very thing it had denied to all the other countries of Europe on 18 June 1815.

President Hollande is unavailable for today’s Waterloo jamboree. He will attend events marking De Gaulle’s defiant speech of June 18 1940. Now that’s an anniversary worth celebrating.

English history English radicalism



Caryl Churchill’s 1976 play was part of the great rediscovery of the English Revolution. Nearly a century ago Edouard Bernstein thought it worthy of wider understanding among German socialists. From the 1930s historians like David Petegorsky, Christopher Hill and Rodney Hilton unearthed the deeds and words of the common people who had ‘turned the world upside down’. Their wartime generation faced a supreme crisis in 1940 and found inspiration from a forgotten English tradition.

Levellers in our time

The post-war generation revived interest in the Levellers, Diggers and others who had struggled to find a democratic and egalitarian way ahead in 1649. Appropriately, a great outburst of pamphlets and events greeted the 350th anniversary of the last stand of the Levellers at Burford and the Putney Debates (convened by the Parliamentary Army Heads after Charles Stuart’s final defeat). BBC Radio 3 broadcast the Debates in 2008, Light Shining was revived by the Arcola Theatre in 2010, 2012 brought to the Hampstead Theatre Howard Brenton’s 55 Days brilliantly juxtaposing Oliver Cromwell’s revolutionary will and Charles’s fatuous arrogance. In 2015 the Levellers’ Association celebrated the 400th birthday of the Leveller John Lilburne. Burford’s Levellers’ Day is alive and well, right in David Cameron’s back yard.

Churchill’s play begins with the common people, then turns epic, as Cromwell presides over a generous exposition of key moments in the Putney Debates which occupied several days in late 1648. She boldly uses the protagonists’ own words which in their dramatic impact surpass the words of any playwright. Cromwell’s great foresight in calling for minutes preserved them, notably Colonel Rainsborough’s famous outburst ‘…the poorest he that is in England has a life to live, as the greatest he’. Taken with records of Charles Stuart at his trial and execution a few weeks later we have contemporary expressions from both sides in the first modern revolution.


Mental horizons

The second half belongs to the common people. We see Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers setting up utopian communes. Their settlement at St. George’s Hill, Surrey was a political fact. Here the dramatist reaches beyond the records for her characters are mostly fictitious. At Putney, Rainsborough, Edward Sexby (an Army Agitator, or shop steward) and others had called unavailingly for male suffrage. By showing the propertied class crushing the Diggers, Churchill skilfully illustrates that without it there can only be economic continuity. Sadly, we know more of the deeds of these people than we do of their words. In imagining them, Churchill avoids the kind of mistake Shaw would have made, remembering that this is 1648-9. Characters may be creating the modern world but they inhabit a universe bounded by Christian thought. Might a heavenly king might be defeated and deposed like an earthly one? They could not say so. Instead, the Revolution unleashed Millenarianism – anticipation of the Second Coming. As illustrated in Ben Wheatley’s recent film A Field in England (2012), the Left Wing of the Revolution looks superstitiously backwards as well as radically forwards.

England’s Robespierre

Churchill (like Geoffrey Robertson and John Rees in the excellent programme notes) reminds us that even the most radical wing of the revolution did not advocate women’s emancipation. Early on we meet a woman preacher who inspires fear among the common people; later an imagined female character challenges the Diggers’ male-centric universe in words and behaviour. Churchill is also one of many playwrights depicting a stage Cromwell. This complex man is shown attending to the debates with the utmost seriousness, as indeed he did. He was the English Robespierre, recently voted the greatest Englishman. He is a year away from a brutal Irish campaign. We know that he will bloodily crush the Levellers within six months, yet here – surely accurately – we see a revolutionary leader, capable of the boldest deeds yet consulting widely (in his view seeking the Will of Providence) when unsure of the way. 55 Days (another play that hopefully will also be periodically revived) brilliantly explored the paradox of revolution: you have to do the unthinkable to show the future what is possible. In May 2015, after an election chucked away by timidity and lack of vision Churchill’s play reminds us that England too can be radical and that history turns the page on even the blackest defeats.



Labour History

When Labour had an identity



By Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds (IB Tauris, 2015), 316 pp. ISBN 9 781780 762098


Towards the end of Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds new biography, we see Nye reflecting on the 1959 election defeat. His last Conference speech affirmed that the future belonged to Labour, a view none of today’s leadership candidates can confidently hold. The author, newly-elected MP for Torfaen, will have plenty of time in Opposition benches to reflect on these two polls, one from the dawn of consumerism, the other after years of austerity.

Outside Wales, Bevan is remembered only as founder of the NHS (not a bad monument!). His several biographers (including Michael Foot) diverge widely in their assessment. This dynamic man began as a miner but ambition and conviction speedily propelled him into local government and (aged just 32) into Parliament. For 30 years he was unmatched in combining authority in the House with compelling extra-parliamentary advocacy.

Bevan and Benn

Among modern Labour politicians only Tony Benn – from a very different background – excelled in both. Each was a man of power, though Benn had 11 years in Cabinet to Bevan’s six. Of the great socialist orators we cannot hear Hardie, MacLean or the young MacDonald. Bevan’s conference speeches and rally orations survive, most memorably his savage destruction of Eden’s reputation during the Suez fiasco.

These two contrasting individuals had something else in common.  They should both have become leaders of their party.  But Labour, conservative to its roots, fears brilliance.  Each of them, just by being there, provoked a coalition of mediocre bullies – many of them second-rate union leaders – to block their path.  This fear of charisma doomed Labour to a succession of Gaitskells and Kinnocks, leaders quite unable to assemble winning majorities.

Aneurin Bevan

Tony Benn smoking his iconic pipe in 1981

Lost Leaders


Eclectic Leftist

Ideologically Bevan was firmly on the Left. Nationalising the ‘commanding heights’ of the economy was a central conviction; his final illness removed him from the scene just as the dogmatic Gaitskell launched his attempt to delete Clause IV of the party’s then constitution. It is inconceivable that he would have joined in though Thomas-Symonds, who can seem uncomfortable with this, points out that he was a critic of ‘Morrisonian’ state corporations. Contrast his view of nuclear weapons. Though not a party to Attlee’s secret decision to build a ‘British’ bomb he saw them as sustaining British socialist influence in the world. One of the most moving passages of Foot’s book describes how Bevan turned devastatingly on the unilateralists – his own closest political friends – at the 1957 conference. Thomas-Symonds is more neutral.

This same mercurial figure was a well-known bon viveur with friends on the Right, a powerful journalist (though author only of one book, In Place of Fear), and unafraid to take Beaverbrook’s coin. He was briefly expelled from the Party for advocating a popular front and attempts were again made to get rid of him for factionalism in the 1950s. (In fact he was an incorrigible individualist; his failure to organise against a brutal Right demoralised his friends and the wider Left.) He was a serious internationalist, committed to freedom for the colonies even if it meant opposing his own party. Had he lived – he died as Deputy Leader – he might well have succeeded Gaitskell after the latter’s death in 1963 and led Labour to victory the following year (though Thomas-Symonds fairly observes that Harold Wilson might already have been better-placed to succeed).

But the NHS was his great achievement, and if we don’t get the passion with which he drove it through the parliamentary process we do get the pragmatism that finally allowed him to bring it off. What a colossal achievement it was to bring together the various health providers under one umbrella without compromising the basic principles the whole Attlee government was determined to incorporate. Facing appalling opposition from the BMA (which happily sees the world differently these days) he stuck to his last: it was a great triumph of political will. No Briton under 70 is not in his debt.

The editors might have helped the author, cutting out repetitions here and there. This Bevan is not the familiar one from newsreels or Michael Foot’s flawed romantic hero, but a pragmatic – even a diminished – Bevan. Certainly he was not the ‘intransigent ideologue’ of legend, but any observer, friendly or hostile, of Bevan’s career could only conclude that he was driven by conviction. Thirty years on, a party desperate for office traded its beliefs for office. It has just paid a heavy price. What withering scorn Nye would have hurled at it.

This is an edited version of a review that will appear in the June 2015 number of Labour Briefing.


german history opera


Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (Royal Opera House, Covent Garden)

March brings a Kurt Weill score with libretto by Bertolt Brecht, from 1930 Leipzig, just as the Weimar Republic started to die. London’s Royal Opera House (ROH) took 85 years to catch up with a rollocking modernist production supporting Jeremy Sams’ street-wise translation. Has it made up for lost time?

The opera might be considered a morality tale. Three crooks on the run found a settlement where anything goes: one, the widow (and brothel madam) Begbick, has seven ‘girls’ available.  Four Alaskan lumberjacks also arrive seeking a better life.  Given the location (‘Amerika’) this might be the Puritans’ ‘shining city on a hill’, the perfectible Susquehanna society of Southey and Coleridge, a socialist utopia.

But Brecht doesn’t do bromides.  At first the utopian project founders on its economic contradictions and an excess of rules (‘no happy songs after nine o’ clock’). One lumberjack, Jimmy McIntyre (Kurt Streit), becomes so disillusioned he calls for re-foundation of Mahagonny as a city of licence.  You can have your dream provided you can pay: it is a bourgeois republic of rights, a new Sodom where men find food, sex, fighting and drink.  The crooked accountant Fatty eats himself to death; Depression-era queues await Begbick’s girls; lumberjack Alaska Joe briefly tastes boxing glory before dying in a bare-knuckle fight.  The only two female ‘characters’ are Begbick (an underpowered Anne Sofie von Otter), a maker of markets and Jimmy’s girlfriend Jenny (Christine Rice), a woman on the make. The waitresses assisting Fatty’s gastro-suicide are in supportive roles.  Begbick’s other girls don’t even have names,

When free-spending Jimmy can’t pay his whisky bill, there’s a reckoning.  In court he finds Begbick presiding.  Earlier she took a bribe to acquit a murderer because no injured party had come forward to complain! But Jimmy is skint so gets blamed for crimes he has not committed.  Worse, for buying whisky without paying – his only property crime – he is condemned to death.  The law exists solely to ensure the process of exchange is unimpeded: justice itself is merely another traded commodity. The only capital crime is to lack the means of exchange. No one who has drunk with Jimmy now offers their own money to save him.  Jenny betrays him too and returns to whoring. A commentator sneers that the opera audience wouldn’t stump up either, and the Covent Garden cameras switch to the expensive stalls front row to underline the point. Jimmy gets the chair, his electrocuted body mangled like Christ’s on the cross.

The classically-trained Weill was not a musical revolutionary.  His slightly older contemporaries – Schoenberg, Bartok, Berg – all pushed the boundaries more.  Even Brecht smocked his conservatism. But Mahagonny brilliantly references a range of musical modes from Beethoven to jazz, anticipating his Hollywood years when he was a father of the musical.  His lyrical gifts are heard in Jenny’s haunting ‘O Moon of Alabama’. Weill and Brecht also produced the sung ballet The Seven Deadly Sins and The Threepenny Opera, debunking high culture and holding a mirror to the venal audience.  We don’t need to imagine them, only look at Georg Grosz’s Weimar caricatures. The Brownshirts demonstrating at Mahagonny’s premiere and disrupting later performances knew what was going on.  In 1933 Brecht and Weill (who was Jewish) left Germany just in time.


Georg Grosz, The Pillars of Society (1926)

Sometimes the ROH production of Mahagonny forces its audience to think, not wallow.  Begbick’s giant lorry is straight out of a Calais truck-park. Spun round it’s a nightclub where a virtuoso black pianist plays jazz.  Spun again it’s a brothel shuffling men queue for.  Clever graphics depict the stock market and a hurricane that menaces – but hilariously avoids – Mahagonny. The Jimmy/Jenny romance ends with his money and is barely redeemed.   But did the audience leave unsettled? Perhaps Mahagonny comes too early in Brecht’s career for this question, and it was after all a co-production. And in our era, when no-one at HSBC is to blame and we still haven’t sent any bankers to the chair, perhaps we are unshockable.  Our reality makes this dystopia tame, for all the jokes and virtuoso singing.

(This is an edited version of a review to appear in the April 2015 number of Labour Briefing)