First published on ProgressOnline
James Graham’s play, This House, exploring the working-class heroes in the whips’ office – who fought the Tories and hard left to keep a Labour government in office – feels more poignant now than when it first opened in 2012. Reopening at the Garrick Theatre, Graham’s masterpiece shows the use of tactics, corralling the ‘odds and sods’ in smaller parties and the sheer determination to not give up that characterised the Labour members of parliament who went above and beyond for our party. More importantly, to try and give the voters what they had voted for. They were driven by one main insight: the worst day of a Labour government is better than a Tory government on its best day. When the Tory chief whip goads his opposite with ‘you are not getting anything done’, the retort, from Michael Cocks (played by Downton Abbey’s Kevin Doyle) is simple: ‘We’re keeping you out of power’.
Sadly this spirit was not shared among all comrades. The play retells how Audrey Wise [Sarah Woodward] and Jeff Rooker [Matthew Pidgeon] tabled a backbench amendment – for the first time ever by MPs on the government benches – to the budget. This allowed the Tories to rally round and deliver a body blow to the government. Arguably, it never recovered, and nor did Labour’s credibility on the economy for nearly two decades.
Wise is the very sassy villain of the play. The audience is sympathetic to her ‘principles’ until it is clear that they have turned into self indulgence and a gift to the real enemy. Graham’s play ends with the no confidence motion that followed another lost vote – this time on devolution to Scotland and Wales. Wise, who won Coventry South West in February 1974, increased her majority to 2,118 in October of the same year, went on to lose her seat in 1979. Maybe highlighting how bad a Labour government is day-in, day-out really is doing the Tories’ job for them. Sadly, Wise returns to the House of Commons in 1987 representing Preston – but you have to read Chris Mullin’s diaries to read the sequel to her attempt to do down Labour’s leaders based on her so-called principles.
Wise’s nemesis in the play is Ann Taylor, who joins the Commons in October 74 in the hyper marginal of Bolton West with a majority of 906. She is appointed by Callaghan to the whips office and plays a crucial role as one of the first women to hold this role at heart of party’s engine room in parliament. Taylor would be too classy to point out that she held her seat – only reducing her majority by 306 in 1979 – when Wise did not. She went on to be leader of the House and then chief whip under Tony Blair.
There is some focus on the ‘progressive coalition’ which has become all the rage again. Then chief whip Bob Mellish [Phil Daniels], who uses the term in Graham’s portrayal, I think it is fair to say, was no pluralist. He tried it out of necessity not conviction. But This House, potentially unwittingly, critiques the idea and the audience sees up close that deals and agreements can be made in the best of times and with the best of intentions but when the going gets tough, the smaller parties go out for themselves. Witnessing the treatment the Liberal Democrats received at the hands of the voters following their recent electoral pact, it is clear this experience will caution others throwing their party’ fortunes in with one of the traditionally dominant parties.
What comes across strongly in the performance is the personal commitment that Labour MPs put into fighting back against the Tory war of attrition. The actors’ emotional investment in their characters give a superb portrayal of this. Despite predictions they would last ‘just four months’, they managed four and a half years. They survived 30 byelections, the Lib-Lab pact and the winter of discontent.
The role of the MP for Batley and Morley – who voted from his sick bed – reminds us again of the terrible loss in 2016 of the MP for Batley and Spen. Jo Cox would have been proud of her predecessor and what they did to keep a Labour government going he would have been equally proud of what she went on to achieve in career that was so brutally cut short.
When the view of politicians is so low, Graham gives a sympathetic account of those who reveal honour in the machinery of politics. This is most welcome, as is seeing up close the pressure our MPs are constantly put up against. One character sums up the feelings of many, as they speak out about the militant Bennite-left that are seeking to deselect him and his colleagues. It is a reminder of how fruitless it is to have this sword of Damocles hanging over MPs’ heads when so much of their time needs to be spent taking on the Tories, the excess of capitalism and the vested interests that surround them.
Walter Harrison [Steffan Rhodri], as deputy chief whip, does so much of the heavily lifting to keep the show on he road. His Yorkshire charm and stoic working-class ethics meant Labour time and again lived to fight again. Those whose role it is to do the same for the contemporary Labour party stand on the shoulders of giants and the heroes of Graham’s spectacular play.
Richard Angell is director of Progress. He tweets at @RichardAngell