5 minutes with… Tom Harris: On Thatcher, Culture, Corbyn, The Walking Dead and our Zombie Parliament
Tom Harris is a writer and journalist, and former Labour MP for Glasgow South (2001-2015).
Tom, firstly, thanks for talking to me. Ok, so let’s kick things off with the obvious question –
Were you still an MP, would you vote for the deal and/or a General Election?
I would have voted for this deal and in fact would have voted for Theresa May’s deal, given a chance. It really bugs me when I hear Labour MPs saying that the reason they oppose Boris’s/May’s deal is because they don’t want a no-deal Brexit. And since it’s clear that this Parliament can’t resolve Brexit – in fact refuses to resolve Brexit, then yes, I would certainly vote for an election on December 12.
And the other obvious question – what has happened to Labour?
There’s a very good book about exactly that subject (bows modestly) [yes, ok, buy it here – ed]. Basically, the members got frustrated, while we were in government, at having to be adult and consensual and moderate – that’s not what most Labour Party members signed up for. So the Corbyn take-over was a coup by factions of the hard left, but it was capitulated in by the majority of members who suddenly decided that they’d had enough of grown up politics and it was time to return to the self-indulgences of their student days.
I am increasingly concerned about the tone of our public debate. What do you think we can do to recover a sense of human perspective in our national discourse?
Oh fuck off! Just kidding… Julie Birchall recently made a great point about this: no significant political advance, whether it was votes for women or universal vaccination, was achieved without a huge barney. It’s the same with Brexit. Having said that, there’s a lazy tendency – and it’s far more prevalent on the left than on the right – to dehumanise your opponent. It’s such an immature thing to do, to assume that the only reason people disagree with you is because they must be evil. When you have the likes of Laura Pidcock MP proudly proclaiming that she could never be friends with a Tory – that’s just embarrassing to have an actual MP say something so ridiculous. We all need to grow up and start replacing words like “scum” and “traitor” with alternatives like “people I don’t agree with”.
Is there any conceivable way that the Labour Party can be wrested back from the Corbynites? If not, what should Labour MPs do? What would you have done? Would you have resigned the whip?
The reason so many ostensibly sensible people have stayed in the Labour Party is because they believe – with some cause – that when Corbyn goes the long, slow process can begin to drag the party back to some version of sanity. They may be right, that may happen, but here’s my problem: if you need to do that at all (and it had to be done a couple of times in the past), then you’re dealing with a dysfunctional organisation that probably isn’t worth saving. It’s not normal for a party to have to be turned around, for its members to be faced down and beaten on a regular basis. It’s the “broad church” argument that’s had its day. Labour shouldn’t be a broad church. Being a broad church has allowed the nutters at the extremes – those who should have been kicked out decades ago – to take over. If you don’t have a broad church, if you limit membership to people who are… oh, I don’t know… not mad, then you can at least have an element of stability that Labour has rarely had. Even Tony Blair had to spend ridiculous amounts of time reassuring his members that his government wasn’t evil. I mean, where’s the sense in that?
But sure, the “moderates” (and I rarely use that word when talking about Labour MPs these days without the use of inverted commas or the words “so-called”, because true moderates would never have had any truck with Corbyn’s Marxism and certainly could never have countenanced campaigning to make him prime minister) have a chance to take back the party once Corbyn’s gone. It may take a while – there’ll probably have to be a “Kinnock” figure in place for a few years while the “moderates” gather their strength and organise a final take-over. But seriously, why should they have to? Most grown ups have better things to do with their time.
Labour MPs should have set themselves up as a separate party, isolating Corbyn and his handful of loyal MPs and depriving him of the title of Leader of the Opposition. They didn’t want to press that particular nuclear button, of course, because of their loyalty to the Labour tradition and particularly the Labour brand. But here’s where I actually agree with something John McDonnell said years ago: Labour is just a vehicle. When it’s stopped delivering what you want it to deliver, it’s time to move on (I paraphrase slightly). But that’s what I think these days. Political parties don’t last forever, nor should they. And they’re only parties, institutions – who cares? It’s what a government delivers that matters, not the name and identity of one party or another.
If I had held on to my seat in 2015 and 2017, I would certainly have resigned the Labour whip by now and would be waiting for the next election to collect my redundancy. I would have followed Ian Austin – a great man, by the way – out of the party and would be sitting alongside him in the Commons.
Do you miss being an MP? What was your proudest achievement as a politician?
I miss some of the people and I miss the chamber, which I loved. Seeing the farce being played out on that stage these days by people who would be considered too immature to take part in a student sit-in is genuinely heartbreaking. There are tons (imperial measure) of stuff I’m proud of as an MP, mostly in terms of the individuals I helped who came to me in desperate situations. One particular case, in the 2010-2015 parliament springs to mind: a young mother who had undergone a brutal sexual assault was still suffering from PTSD and couldn’t return to work But a work assessment said she was fit to work and so she lost all her benefits – every one of them. And she had kids! I was fucking furious. I marched into the Commons chamber and was prepared to have a shouting match with iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions secretary at the time. He completely disarmed me by quietly asking me for more details in a letter, which I hand delivered to him the following day. The day after that my constituent phoned to thank me – all her benefits had been reinstated. That was as much thanks to IDS as to me. He was actually a very impressive and thoughful minister, who at least made an effort to understand the cycle of poverty that has made victims of so many people in my constituency and across the country.
That’s just one example, of course. An early win, as a back bencher, was persuading the Science & Technology Select Committee to conduct a short inquiry into light pollution as it affects astronomers (I’m an amateur astronomer). This resulted in light pollution becoming a statutory nuisance for the first time.
As a transport minister, I suppose my two big wins were making sure that a station for Woolwich was established on the new Crossrail line (long story – the original plan was not to have one at that location), and saving the Blackpool Trams. Officials recommended to me that because we couldn’t afford to upgrade the trams to EU safety standards, they should be scrapped. Yeah, like that was going to happen on my watch! As many of my constituents used those trams during the September weekend as people in Blackpool did! So I instructed the same officials to go back and do their sums in a more… creative way so that the numbers added up. And they were brilliant – they did just that and the proudest moment of my ministerial career was travelling to Blackpool to announce the money needed to save the trams.
Look, you asked, okay?!
We are a passionately pro-free market site. What – in brief – is your view of free markets?
Thatcher was right. Free markets are flexible enough to produce positive outcomes in an efficient way that is, for the most part, beyond governments. My support for free markets is not unconditional: I believe in regulation, light touch where possible, but it has to be part of the mix.
You are a massive Doctor Who fan. So am I, have been since I was a kid. My feeling is Doctor Who has been taken over by a rather extreme “Woke” viewpoint – a situation which is reflected in much of our wider cultural landscape. Do you think it’s time for politicians – and/or our cultural gatekeepers – to start pushing back against Wokeism?
I think that’s already happening. I don’t want to say too much about Doctor Who in this respect – not having seen a single episode, or even clip, of Jodie Whittaker’s take on it, I’m not in the strongest position to comment. And I wrote a Telegraph article in 2017, after Peter Capaldi had announced he was leaving the role and the usual speculation about a female/transgender Doctor had sprung up. Again. And I wrote it in a tongue-in-cheek way, before Whittaker was cast, assuming that the very idea was so ridiculous that it obviously wouldn’t happen. And now we have people being castigated as misogynists if they disagree that a character who’s been a man for more than 50 years and across 13 incarnations can suddenly be female! It’s not woke culture itself that’s the biggest problem – it’s the intolerance of any alternative viewpoint. If you’re only tolerant of views with which you already agree, that’s actually the opposite of tolerance.
But yeah, this woke thing really pisses me off. I used to think “woke” was just a funny insult to throw at students who had swallowed the whole American campus insanity hook, line and sinker. I didn’t realise until quite recently that that’s how they describe themselves. I hope it’s a fad that will fade away to be replaced by something equally insane in due course.
A better example of wokeness’s stupidity in the media is actually The Walking Dead and its spin-off, Fear the Walking Dead. I’ve been a fan of it since the comic came out and I still watch it, but oh my, the wokeness! Now, I understand perfectly why the producers want to have representation in the cast of all walks of life – it’s not necessary but I get why they want to do it. But here’s the thing: in the inevitable zombie apocalypse that’s going to happen any day now, you know who’s not going to survive very long? People confined to wheelchairs, that’s who. That may sound unkind, but life in a post-apocalyptic zombie-infused landscape will be very unkind indeed. And one of the central characters in Fear The Walking Dead is a badass guy in a wheelchair who gets carried up and down stairs by his friends. Nope – he’d have been a main course about 15 minutes after the apocalypse started, I’m afraid. And in the main show, a new character who is profoundly deaf has been introduced, played, inevitably, by a woman who is actually defa, because casting an able-eared actor would have been the worst crime against humanity ever, obviously. Again, this is the writers’ virtue signalling trumping reality (if you can call a zombie story “reality”). A great deal of Walking Dead drama centres on shouted warnings along the lines of “Look out! There’s a heard of flesh eating zombies heading your way! Run away quickly!” If you can’t hear that warning, if you need someone to sign those words for you before you start running, I’m afraid you’re never going to make it to the end of season one, let alone hope to make an appearance in season 10.
You told me once you were a big fan of Jacob Rees-Mogg – and that you even responded to his maiden speech. Do you think actually “doing” politics has given you a different perspective to activists (on all sides)?
I love PG Wodehouse so obviously I really can’t help liking Jacob, and I hate the hatred that’s poured on him from the left, much of it centred on his sincere view on abortion. He’s held up as the arch misogynist, completely ignoring the point that even in today’s Commons, there are Labour MPs who share exactly the same views as Jacob on account of their faith. It used to be the case that Labour activists had a much less tolerant approach to Conservative politicians than Labour MPs did, because the latter worked with them on a daily basis and activists knew only what they saw on TV. But now that attitude has found its way into the Commons, and even the opposition front bench, which is a real shame. I see Jess Phillips getting grief because she’s friends with Jacob, and that is profoundly sad. These people actually think the class war is still a thing. It’s not. if it was ever fought at all, it was lost by Scargill in 1985.
Thanks Tom, you’re a man of great wisdom, perspective and wit – and we are huge fans of you here (which will probably do you no good at all, but there we are).