Stephen Bush is a very tall man. This is probably a ridiculous way to start an article, but, speaking as somebody who very nearly hit six foot three and then stopped half an inch short, it’s always a bit of a surprise when you find that the voice you’ve been listening to every Thursday for the last year or so is speaking down to you. What is even more striking however, is how studied Bush is in talking. He takes time and persistently considers his words. It’s an impressive spectacle, and lets you know immediately that you’re on a table with a journalist once dubbed as the Left’s ‘voice of reason’.
For those of you familiar with political journalism within the British left, Stephen Bush needs no introduction. For those unfamiliar, it can simply be put that Bush’s contributions to The New Statesman, as both a Special Correspondent and as a podcast host, has helped to reenergise its readership and provide a new voice that criticises and defends all sides of the left in equal measure, laying on both ideological and practical problems without never letting up.
Indeed, LBC placed him at No. 76 on ‘Iain Dale’s 100 Most Influential People On The Left’, a position that sees him appear as one of only six journalists, and above Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood, Daily Mirror Editor Lloyd Emblem, and Labour grandee Neil Kinnock. Alongside this, his ability to boast a fanbase that includes Andrew Neil, Robert Peston and pretty much every MP in the Commons is quite an achievement. His credentials are, in short, hugely impressive, and he proves himself to be just as erudite and measured in person as his digital content would suggest.
Formalities out of the way, I dive straight into it, leaning in as he relaxes on his chair in the Forum’s sprawling street. The first question is the old, inevitable cliche: “what do you make of the state of politics?”.
“It’s not great is it?” he responds rhetorically, and cracks a wry smile. This burst of humour is, however, cut short by his acknowledgement that the EU referendum is possibly “the worst defeat for the Left in a century, perhaps ever in the history of the British Left.”
“There is an alarming turn to the right which no one, whether they’re on the left of the Labour Party or the right of the Labour Party, the Lib Dem’s, the Green’s, seems to be able to halt, to stop, or even just to hold in its current place. So it’s a pretty grim vista.” Indeed, with the Labour Party’s leadership accepting the tenants of Brexit, and more centrist MPs such as Stephen Kinnock calling for a “move away from multiculturalism”, the future of one of the key tenants of the Party’s ideology, one that has been subscribed to for decades past, is now on life support. Likewise, the picture from across both sides of the pond isn’t much rosier, Clinton’s chances of success were eradicated in November, and Italy’s Matteo Renzi committed political seppuku in December through is doomed referendum, with Bush conceding that “there aren’t many examples which we can draw on.”
Looking beyond the UK, Bush struggles to name a single left-wing figure with noticeable success. With the possible exception of Justin Trudeau, the left seems fated to opposition in the West. Bush notes the benefits of having such a charismatic leader who the media loves, as Trudeau is, “but the difficulty,” he warns, “is that it’s difficult to think of anyone on the left who is charismatic, loved by the media, and on the left.” Unfortunately, none of the key contemporary leaders seem to embody all three of these traits. Whilst Corbyn fulfils the lattermost criteria, his charisma is on par with a dried walnut, and his media relations are nonexistent at best. Likewise, his leadership challenger, Owen Smith, was about as inspiring as a fire in a hospital burns unit, and the Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron possesses neither the style nor the warmth of Nick Clegg or Charles Kennedy, the intellectual savvy of Vince Cable, or the gravitas of Paddy Ashdown.
Nonetheless, Bush, either out of habit or through a respect for historical trends (Labour tends to go through these things every thirty years or so), remains hopeful for the future. “I don’t believe that the Left’s malaise is terminal,” he confesses, “because one of the things we should actually draw comfort from is that self-interest is the motor of most human behaviour, and actually, it is in people’s self-interest to have a government to the left of the one we have now. The future they are carving out is one which is poorer, weaker, more dull.” As he speaks, his voice begins to call upon emphasis, in order to drive home his point. Already a proficiently polished podcaster, he knows when to hit the pedal to dial across the seismic importance of these problems, and he wastes no time doing so here.
“the future they are carving out is one which is poorer, weaker, more dull”
“And, actually,” he elaborates, “no-one really wants that, so there will still continue to be a pressing need for the left, and therefore it will find a way of working its way out. How we’ll get from there to here I don’t know and remains the big question.” Indeed, the country is already set to experience the worst levels of wage growth since the 19th Century, and with a self-wounded economy and a Prime Minister who’s taken the lyrics of Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill a little too literally, there do appear to be emerging gaps in this particular market.
His verdict of Corbyn, meanwhile, is less warm than many of the aforementioned’s supporters would like it to be, with Bush summarising that “I think that it’s hard to look at the polls, or local council elections, and pull together an argument that Labour’s current leadership is an asset. In some ways though, the problem isn’t him, but that him being there has meant that a lot of people in the Labour Party have stopped thinking about any of their big problems, for example ‘how do you get an immigration policy that doesn’t knacker the economy, that is acceptable to both liberal left-wingers and small-town voters – and that’s just holding together Labour’s 30%, without getting the 40% needed to oust the Tories. How do you do that?”
Of course, it’s safe to say that Bush is by no means more sympathetic towards Corbyn’s rivals and critics. “The problem” he elaborates, “is that those who should be thinking about that [policies and an election strategy] have spent their entire time going ‘isn’t Jeremy awful’, and it’s become this thing where it terminates any serious thinking about the Left. Basically, half of the Labour Party thinks that everything is brilliant now because they’ve got this Leader who they love. The other half thinks that everything is bad and everything will be solved by getting rid of this leader, but actually, both of those things just aren’t true.”
So what about the success of Hilary Benn and Yvette Cooper in the Parliamentary Select Committee Elections, wherein the former now heads the Committee for Brexit, and the latter Home Affairs? It’s safe to say that Cooper and Benn, although supportive of Owen Smith’s failed leadership attempt, were largely absent after the Benn’s resignation, which kickstarted the war. Is this any indication of a revival for the other part of the party? “No,” comes the reply. “I mean, Select Committee elections are decided by all parties, ultimately though the reason why Hilary Benn did well is that he’s respected across the House, and the thing that people often forget is that most MPs don’t tend to stick beyond their own plot, and don’t tend to talk to MPs from other parties. The fact that Hilary Benn has a massive TV profile means that Tory MPs will have heard of Hilary Benn, whilst going ‘what’s a Kate Hoey?’ [the pro-Brexit challenger], and ditto Yvette having a bigger profile. But Yvette also has this very well-oiled machine, Caroline [Flint, who finished second] is an incredible operator, Chuka [third place, former Shadow Business Secretary] has a lot of talent, but he has never been Mr. Organisation, there was never been any kind of shift in the PLP.” It should probably be noted that, in the final Shadow Cabinet Elections, held in 2010, Cooper was the clear victor, and was only just behind Burnham in collecting nominations from MPs in the 2015 Leadership Election.
Nonetheless, he remains, like many journalists, confident of Chuka’s ability, in spite of his continued problems when it comes to sustaining an image. “I think that they pick up on the fact that Chuka has star power,” he reiterates, “and he does, and Chuka is improving the things he’s bad at, but, to use a football metaphor [a favourite of Bush’s], we know that Chuka can be this incredible centre-forward, but he hasn’t yet shown that he can hold the ball up, track back, or do any of the other things you need to be able to do to be top class, but he is improving those things.” Indeed, whilst being heralded as ‘Labour’s Saviour’ by a number of pundits, usually on the days where David Miliband, Dan Jarvis, Alan Johnson, or Lisa Nandy are not ascended to those lofty heights, Chuka has struggled to define himself on his own. His ‘Vote Leave Watch’ initiative sparked initial interest, but has recently gone quiet, and whilst Cooper’s campaigning profile ranges from Syrian Refugee rights to Internet Security, his portfolio is less noticeable.
So what about the MPs he believes to be overrated by the Media? Jon Cruddas, MP for Dagenham & Rainham, and Labour’s former policy coordinator, is revealed almost immediately, who Bush deflates for his “spews of fairly incoherent bafflegab and then recommends pandering to the right on immigration.” Yvette Cooper also makes the list, with Bush lambasting those “who I respect [who] have said ‘oh, this is the real opposition, Theresa May is going to be nervous’, but Yvette Cooper spent four years opposing Theresa May at the Home Office and Theresa May became Prime Minister at the end of that particular novel, so that kind of tells its own story. David Miliband [The man-who-would-be-King, according to The Independent] has been massively written-up because of the things his brother got wrong, and I think he’s become this kind of general thing we can all pin our hopes on, but actually the real David Miliband was not very warm and strategically naive.” Indeed, when the elder Miliband lost to Ed in the 2010 Leadership Election, it immediately became clear that he had been effectively campaigning from a deckchair, as opposed to through the blood, sweat and tears that he is now seen as having delivered, only to regain support from the press and certain members after the papers effectively decided to start making reporters camp out at Heathrow’s arrivals lounge to await his Arthurian return.
“David Miliband has been massively written-up because of the things his brother got wrong”
Speaking of media relations, the difficulty many MPs face is dealing with both their constituents and their image to those beyond their boundaries. As such, many of them based outside of London struggle to maintain the same presence as their more central colleagues. “There are lots of other reasons why this is,” he elaborates, “but ultimately, if you are an MP from a London Constituency, or, to be frank, you don’t spend so much time in your seat, although it feels slightly unfair to say that Yvette never spends any time in her seat because she spends a lot more time than a lot of MPs with a big national profile,” he side-notes, “but the reason why Caroline Flint, Lisa Nandy and Alison McGovern have had less of a national profile is that they aren’t around on a Friday evening to go and have dinner at a political editor’s house, and that has held them back a bit. Of course, if you are good enough, you can break through that, and that’s what Lisa Nandy’s starting to do with those laser-focused questions, she really sensed blood on the Goddard Inqiury [a full and wide-ranging public inquiry into non-recent child sexual abuse] stuff and rightly so.”
As for UKIP, Bush’s views of them are not exactly merry, nor are they one’s to excite any of its disciples. “I think that, with poor UKIP, now they’ve had their big victory, it’s not clear what holds that slightly odd collection of people together. The worrying thing for the left in particular, especially if you are a racial minority, a sexual minority, a social minority, is that, actually, the kind of market for UKIP is not going to go away even if UKIP goes away, whatever fills it may be worse, and it may be motivated by intense social conservatism. Ultimately, I’m a bitter Remainer and I think that when the bitter contradictions of the referendum and the economic bow becomes apparent to us, that will fuel a bitter and populist right-wing movement.”
Nonetheless, the argument rings true on a number of bases. With Arron Banks now suspended from the party and hoping to launch his own, and with their failure to make a breakthrough and experience a Crosby moment in Stoke, UKIP seem to have failed to capitalise on breaking past their core support base, and thus will probably fail to reach the necessary numbers to make any sort of meaningful breakthrough.
So what about the other third party, the antithesis of all things UKIP that are the Liberal Democrats? Do they have a chance? “Although it’s a very small team because they are now skint broke, I think that the people running the Lib Dems are pretty competent,” he confesses, but stops short of saying more, thanks to their reduced public image, and “toss-up” support on certain policies. Nonetheless, the party seem does stand a better chance than UKIP do of gaining a wider support base, thanks to their gains in Richmond and in Council elections, as well as the fact that they overtook Labour in First-Quarter Party donations.
UKIP seem to have failed to capitalise on breaking past their core support base
As for Labour and Jeremy Corbyn, Bush seems to be more optimistic, albeit still excruciatingly cautiously, about the prospects of the man and party. “One of the things which has been slightly cheering is that the Corbyn operation has been a lot sharper than it was,” indeed, with a slightly more professional media policy, an expanded front bench and the death of ‘People’s Prime Minister’s Questions’, Corbyn has been able to present himself as a rather more competent force than before, in spite of the lack of difference in the polls. Meanwhile, Keir Starmer [the Shadow Brexit Minister] has, in Bush’s eyes, “obviously taken Labour’s opposition on Brexit to another level, and liberal Conservatives have realised that they can’t just leave Nicky Morgan out on her own to get gunned down by the right of the party, they have got to suit up and step up as well.” Indeed, despite being reviled as Education Secretary for the past few years, many pundits have made the choice to forgive her after she revealed herself as a potential thorn in Theresa May’s side. Likewise, Anna Soubry and Sarah Wollaston seem to have found new fanbases amongst centrist anti-Brexit voters, owing to their consistent and popular course of action in favour of a more pro-Europe approach.
This group is flanked by another who Stephen views to be the real danger to May’s government – the Old. “In any Parliamentary Party, the group which should really worry you are the old, because they are in a state where they just don’t give a fuck, there’s nothing you can really take from them.” On a contemporary basis, the two who best-fit this bill are Labour’s Dennis Skinner – whose lifelong ambition seems to be to be as angrily left-wing as possible, and Ken Clarke – the former Conservative Chancellor, Father of the House, and the best unpaid salesman Hush Puppies has ever had, whose views seem to be going in the opposite direction of the party. “There isn’t really a caucus of moderate Conservative MPs, however, because Theresa May did her own little red wedding of Conservative Lefties, people like Nicky Morgan, Neil Carmichael, Guto Bebb, are like ‘well, my career’s over, I might as well do what I want’, and one of them actually said to me ‘I’m actually enjoying this, and enjoying the fact that I can just say ‘I am a Liberal’ or certain things, so that group, that YOLO group, is only going to get stronger.”
“the group which should really worry you are the old, because they are in a state where they just don’t give a fuck”
The question is, would it not be more fitting for Pro-EU MPs from either party to break away and form a new group, in a vein similar to that of the Social Democratic Party of the 1980s, or the failed Pro-Euro Conservative Party of 1999? “I think that the chances of an SDP this side of the 2020 election are essentially zero,” Bush rebuts, “partly because the average Labour MP is so tribal that there is more chance of them ripping off a leg than them leaving the Labour Party,” see Kate Hoey and Simon Danzuck for more details. “However, my instinct is, if you’re a party member who doesn’t like Corbyn then you’re quite keen on a second party, it feels as if those people would be quite glad to set out on their own, but unfortunately for them the PLP is just not in that place.” Indeed, with heightened and consistent talk of a ‘Progressive Alliance’ (more enticing name pending), and viable grounds on which to oppose Brexit, such a group could see success, although, as Bush has stated, the problem lies in a reluctance to move on.
“I think in general tribalism has been its big problem. You saw that in the 2015 election when it was obsessed with killing off the other party of the left, and it should have been obvious to anyone with a map that the Lib Dems collapsing in the South-West was going to benefit the Tories, except for the Labour Party, who just hates them.” Indeed, the vast majority of the collapsed Liberal Democrat vote, from areas such as Plymouth Sutton & Devonport, a constituency many were expecting to swing back to Labour, went towards Conservative candidates, with the exception of constituencies such as Exeter, where Ben Bradshaw has been able to court voters from both sides of the table. “Their tribalism also means that they often don’t understand why people don’t vote Labour, and that’s just one of the many weaknesses of Theresa May; she’s much more a creature of the Conservative Party, she has an affection for it, which most Tory Leaders don’t. She’s going to find it harder to understand people who didn’t vote Tory.” This could perhaps prove to be a challenge for her in her own constituency of Maidenhead, where the affluent, pro-Remain, middle-class demographic, so similar to that of Richmond Park, could cost her dearly at the next election if she Brexit’s a little too hard and the Liberals throw the correct resources at it.
“She’s going to find it harder to understand people who didn’t vote Tory.”
Nonetheless, there is another side of Stephen Bush, beyond the bottomless pit of articles he has written, and the hours of podcasts he’s presented. As such, I bite the bullet and ask him how he was wound into all of this. “After I left University,” he laments, “I was working in a shop and a restaurant for a bit, and I started blogging because I’m really terrible at job interviews and I guess that I had this vague idea that somebody would see my blog and give me money and I’d be able to quit my horrible job, and through that I kind of started doing a blog for Progress [the New Labour Ginger Group], and then through that Ben Brogen, who was down with the Telegraph, gave me my start in journalism and was like ‘oh you write very well do you want to come and help me with my morning email’, and then The Daily Telegraph often has these kind of revolutions and then Ben had to leave so I ended up doing the email as myself, and then I got hired by the New Statesman and I’ve been there ever since.”
From there, Bush now writes the daily morning email for the publication, as contributes articles on a near-daily basis, and presents the aforementioned weekly podcast with Deputy Editor Helen Lewis, all of which has has created a leviathan of content that has defined him as the Left’s ceaseless voice of reason.
Nonetheless, he is still, somehow, able to escape from politics and its trappings every now and again. He currently also blogs for The Guardian‘s Lifestyle section, writing about food and fawning over Delia Smith’s cookbooks, aided by some quite frankly adorable cartoons, courtesy of Sam Island. “I wouldn’t even see it as escaping politics,” he retorts. Instead, he prefers to phrase it as the need to have “other hobbies.”
“Oh god, I sound like one of those dreadful MPs who go ‘I have a Hinterland because I watch Bake Off’!,” he laughs, “but I enjoy cooking because I’m greedy and I like food, but I think that it does make me better at doing my day job that I do other things, partly because it’s easy when covering politics is your full-time job to get obsessed with PMQ’s, but no-one cares about PMQ’s, it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t register, it’s just where people shout at each other. What really matters is the three minutes of news on Radio 3 or 6 Music or whatever, and the nice thing about doing the food thing is that it meant that I briefly discovered this world of people who don’t really plug into politics other than at election time, so it is a sort of useful corrective, and it is also tremendous fun.”
“no-one cares about PMQ’s, it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t register, it’s just where people shout at each other.”
Leaping into another territory, I ask Stephen what he thinks of the state to the British Political Media, and its ‘pale, stale and male’ image. Bush agrees with the image, citing that the media is, in a country “which is not exactly renowned for having a wide range of opinions and biographies, is probably the least diverse part of public life. Most of the time when I’m in a group of people in Westminster, unless somebody’s buying something or cleaning up around us, I’m the only non-white face. Ultimately, I went to Oxford so I’m part of a weird clique in another way, and that does mean that it does become incredibly susceptible to groupthink, to speaking in a weird kind of code, and missing out on what large chunks of the country are thinking.” Indeed, a study by Reuters in 2015 found that 89% of all journalists were white, 55% were male, and 84% had a degree, statistics which significantly push the journalism industry towards the aforementioned image. It’s a stark remind of the need to diversify, and a factor which Bush is adamant will improve the quality of political analysis.
“We’ve seen it with more diverse boardrooms; if you’ve got more women on your board your company does better. Diverse workplaces make better decisions because you have more perspectives. They’re more likely to spot inconsistencies, where the next tory is, etc., so yeah, I’m pretty much open to increasing diversity in every part of public life.”
“Most of the time when I’m in a group of people in Westminster, unless somebody’s buying something or cleaning up around us, I’m the only non-white face.”
Hinterland returns as the penultimate topic of conversation. The famous term, often applied to the old giants such as Denis Healey, Michael Foot, Roy Jenkins and Edward Heath through their desire to marry their love of music, writing, dining and yachting to their political sphere is often portrayed as a wasteland in many contemporary circles. Bush disagrees. “We always seem to be under the impression that things are getting worse, that it’s coming to an end, but ultimately you have people like Michael Gove, who has written stuff as an MP, and is in that weird intersection between journalism and politics. Boris Johnson has written stuff.” Indeed, on the day this piece was published, George Osborne was announced as the new Editor of the Evening Standard, a paper once edited by the former Labour Leader Michael Foot, and a factor that’s probably going to lead to me being forced to eat my hat for deciding to ask this question, and one that already makes me look a bit silly.
“Now,” he continues, “these are people I’m less personally sympathetic to than Roy Jenkins, but what tends to happen is that we look back to the past and only remember exceptions. We forget that that great ‘60s government, the Wilson government who I adore, they had all come up through the same route, and they had all gone to Oxbridge. It was an incredibly socially refined cabinet. But what also happened is that your mid-rank politicians have faded, and we only remember the title winners. I think that, with this era of politician, people will have a far higher opinion of in twenty years time. In twenty years time people will be complaining that we don’t have anyone with the hinterland of Ed Balls, for example.”
“what tends to happen is that we look back to the past and only remember exceptions”
For many, the fate of the British Left isn’t exactly a cheery one. Labour are currently middling about at around 27%, whilst the Liberal Democrats are stuck at 10%, and the Green’s appear to have yet to move from 4%. Coupled with a 50-seat reduction in the next Parliament and the SNP’s dominance of Scotland and Ruth Davidson’s revival of the Scottish Conservatives, it’s not exactly an exciting time to be left-wing. Nonetheless, Bush remains, as mentioned, optimistic, citing the new intake of people such as Melanie Onn, Alison McGovern, Emma Reynolds, Clive Lewis, and Jonathan Reynolds as a handful of them, whilst also affirming his belief that some MPs have improved after leaving the frontbench. A chance for Chuka Umunna is, for Bush, still on the cards, but what he is determined to focus on is the need to “free ourselves from the need to find ourselves a stunningly impressive candidate who will carry us through on their charisma. That’s how we’ve won the elections since 1951, which is why only two people have won elections for the Labour Party; Wilson and Blair. Those are once in a generation politicians. Labour has to get itself to a position in a way that the Social Democrats have done, what the German’s have done, which is actually to be able to win with a good team, not a good centre-forward.”
In many ways, there is a sense of salvation in those final words. Labour has a strong group of talented MPs, but it needs to relearn how to use them, and get them to work as a group, rather than as a rotating flavour of the week. Until then, it might just be a case of hanging in there.