August 26, 2011 9:57 pm

A Walk-On Part

A backbencher’s perspective on the early years of New Labour

The diaries of Chris Mullin, former Labour MP and sometime junior minister, have been the surprise hit among accounts of Britain’s New Labour years. His acerbic wit, independence of mind and self-deprecating honesty have proved a refreshing antidote to the spin that marked life under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

This third and final volume, covering the period from the death of John Smith, Blair’s predecessor as Labour leader, to the point where the author becomes parliamentary undersecretary at the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions – and encompassing Labour’s victory in 1997 – contains the same engaging mix. Mullin, a left-winger who backed right-leaning Blair because he saw him as a winner, is an open-minded chronicler whose eye for the absurd does not spare his leaders, colleagues or himself.

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This part has been published out of sequence, after the first two volumes covering 1999-2010 – no doubt because the trudge through opposition was judged less exciting than the dramas of office. In truth, you do have to wade through a lot of accounts of backbench committees, debates about obscure legislation and discussions with half-forgotten minor figures. But that, in a way, is its charm. Mullin’s editor, Ruth Winstone, has wisely not sought to disguise the tedium and frustration that comes with being an MP. Whereas his first volume vividly caught the banalities of life as a junior minister, this one captures the drudgery of backbench existence – punctured by shafts of witty observation.

“I doubt whether a single word will reach the outside world,” he writes after delivering a Commons speech on the welfare of farm animals to an almost empty chamber and an entirely empty press gallery. We hear much of his efforts to cajole the whips in charge of accommodation to give him a room with a window.

The book contains far more than that, though. It vividly portrays not only the central figures of New Labour but also agonised debates over the compromises needed to win power – relevant again now Labour is back in opposition. Mullin, although never a senior politician, was not inconsequential. A former journalist, he had built a reputation as a campaigner against miscarriages of justice, notably in helping to free the Birmingham Six, jailed for IRA bombings in the 1970s. He remained on the left but the diaries show a discerning brain – he can see the case, for example, for private sector-run prisons and breaking welfare dependency.

His admiration for Blair – “The Man” – is balanced by scorn for New Labour “claptrap”. Most of the regime’s fault lines – control freakery, a soft spot for rich men, an obsession with presentation – are apparent early on. “I strongly suspect that most of our masters don’t have a clue about what they want to achieve in government,” he writes in 1996.

In his present-day preface, Mullin is struck by “how much Tony Blair got right”. He was “surely right about the need to seize the middle ground and stay there”, Mullin says, and praises Blair’s determination to tackle the benefit culture and reform public services. It seems odd, though, to say Blair had a policy of “promising little and delivering more” – many would say Blair struggled to deliver policies that lived up to the New Labour rhetoric.

Gordon Brown is scathingly treated in the early sections of the book – “a workaholic who is burning himself up for no apparent purpose” – though Mullin’s view softens when Labour is in power. Peter Mandelson, resented by many MPs for his influence on Blair, also comes in for a pasting. Mullin recounts a conversation with Derek Foster, then Labour chief whip. “I used to complain to Tony about Peter week after week,” says Foster. “Tony would say: ‘What do you want me to do? Hang him from a yardarm?’” Doug Hoyle, another MP present, says: “I could sell tickets for that.” Again, Mullin is kinder today and suggests Mandelson’s presence in the cabinet in 2010 “arguably made the difference between mere defeat and annihilation”.

In the aftermath of this summer’s riots, Mullin’s portrayal of the social breakdown of parts of his northern constituency of Sunderland South, where he still lives, seems newly relevant. “Three or four houses were burned out, a dozen others abandoned and unsaleable ... Every so often one comes to net curtains and dried flowers in the front window, a home where decent people, unable to escape, are clinging on by their fingertips. And only a couple of hundred yards from where we live. How close we are to the abyss.”

Mullin blames the devastation on the Thatcher decade, when local jobs were lost in shipbuilding, mining, textiles, glass and engineering. He has good relations, though, with many Tories, including John Major, with whom he shares an obsession with the influence of Rupert Murdoch. “I was hoping you’d chair Heritage [a select committee] so you could sink your teeth into our common enemy,” Major tells him in July 1997, obviously bruised by his treatment at the hands of Murdoch’s empire. He proposes moves against cross-media ownership and foreign ownership of newspapers.

At a meeting with Michael Green of Carlton Television, Mullin encounters “a rosy-cheeked, soft-skinned young man who radiated upper-class self-confidence and didn’t hesitate to interrupt his master” – David Cameron. On another occasion he meets “the Sunderland Echo’s new lobby correspondent, a young journalist called Tom Baldwin, who is hungry for stories” – now Labour leader Ed Miliband’s spin doctor.

It is not all politics. The diaries include touching entries about Mullin’s Vietnamese wife and daughters. Five-year-old Sarah “thinks all men go to Parliament. She said to Ngoc the other day about her little friend Martha, whose father works in an advice centre in South Shields, ‘Her dad comes home from his parliament every night, why does my dad have to stay at his?’”

Mullin’s diaries have been compared to those of other celebrated diarists such as Alan Clark or Chips Channon. As Mullin himself acknowledges, the jury is still out on whether they will be read in 20 or 30 years. In the here and now, however, they give much pleasure.

Brian Groom is the FT’s business and employment editor and former political editor

A Walk-On Part: Diaries 1994-1999, by Chris Mullin, Profile, RRP£25, 512 pages

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