We need to talk about Alun

I did a straw poll in my local pub last week; not scientific, but revealing. I asked 15 people, all of whom had lived in the Cardiff South & Penarth constituency for years, to name their MP.  A grand total of two summoned up the name of Alun Michael from the deepest recesses of their memories; the rest didn’t know. This despite the fact he has been Labour MP here since 1987, was Wales’ first ever First Minister between 1999 and 2000 (when also an AM), and held numerous ministerial posts at the Home Office, DEFRA and the DTI in the Blair government.  I wasn’t surprised at his no-profile: Alun Michael has made busy-doing-nothing into a Fine Art across a quarter century of self-aggrandisement and complacency.  Soon he will resign as MP to stand in the November elections for the new Police Commissioner posts created by the ConDem coalition in London. I can’t think what attracts him to this £85,000 per year cushy number, but whatever his reasons he will be one of just two sitting MPs going for the 41 Commissioner jobs up for grabs in Wales and England and thus there will be a by-election in Cardiff South & Penarth.

By-elections are rare occurrences in Cardiff. This will be only the second since the introduction of universal suffrage for men in 1918 (all women didn’t get the vote until 1928), and there hasn’t been one at all for 70 years since the Cardiff East by-election of 1942 at the height of WW2, when incumbent Tory Owen Temple-Morris (1896-1985) stood down to make way for Whitehall mandarin PJ Grigg (1890-1964) so that Churchill could put him straight into his war cabinet. The previous by-election was also a khaki-tinged affair, in 1915 following the death of Tory Ninian Crichton-Stuart (1883-1915) at the Battle of Loos in WW1 – the last time Cardiff voted as a single constituency (it was split into Cardiff Central, Cardiff East and Cardiff South at the 1918 general election). Prior to that there had been just seven by-elections since Cardiff’s very first MP, Bussy Mansel (1623-1699), was sent to Westminster in 1660 by the handful of freeholders entitled to vote. So, Mr Michael’s career move will provoke the 10th by-election in Cardiff history.

PJ Grigg, winner of  the last Cardiff by-election in 1942

The electoral history of southern Cardiff reveals a persistent pattern of neglectful and otherwise-occupied MPs. As Cardiff South in 1918 the seat was won by Herbert Cory (1857-1933), a Tory shipping magnate after whom the suburb of Coryton would later be deferentially named. He retired at the 1923 general election to spend more time with his 35 company directorships, opening the way for Cardiff to acquire its first Labour MP Arthur Henderson (1893-1968). His better-known father, another Arthur Henderson (1863-1935), served three terms as leader of the Labour Party in its formative years and it soon became clear that young Arthur owed his position to family connections rather than merit. This set the standard for a number of Welsh Labour characteristics still at large today: nepotism, untalented people promoted beyond their abilities, outsiders undeservedly parachuted into office, and Wales being used as a springboard into UK politics. Arthur Evans (1898-1958) won the seat back for the Tories in the 1924 general election that wiped out the Liberals for generations as punishment for going into coalition with the Conservatives (sound familiar?). Well-heeled army officer Evans was barely seen in the constituency, and for a while voters seemed not to be able to tell the two Arthurs apart. Henderson unseated Evans in 1929, then Evans unseated Henderson again in 1931 and held the seat right through to 1945. It seems incredible now that a constituency containing thoroughly working-class Butetown, Grangetown and Splott should have a Tory MP for 19 years out of 21, until one remembers Labour’s internal divisions of the time, the Liberals’ collapse and Cardiff’s then prevalent staid and conventional small ‘c’ conservatism (sound familiar?).

Henderson Junior confirmed that Cardiff was merely a footnote on his CV by moving on to other constituencies when the city eventually rejected him once and for all. He was MP for Kingswinford in the English Midlands from 1935-1950 and then neighbouring Rowley Regis from 1950-1966 until retiring and taking that well-worn route for Labour time-servers to the House of Lords as Baron Rowley. As for Evans, his long stint as Cardiff South MP is now entirely forgotten. He cut ribbons, ate many luncheons at formal functions and kow-towed with Glamorgan’s Great and Good while his constituency slid into catastrophic meltdown due to the Tory government’s insane ‘austerity’ policies at a time of economic depression (sound familiar?). In the 1945 general election he was swept away in the post-WW2 Labour landslide, when voters sickened by the conspicuous failures of military-industrial capitalism turned to socialism en masse. The Tories have not been in power here since. Cardiff South elected a just-demobbed Royal Navy lieutenant from Portsmouth.  Enter James Callaghan (1912-2005).

‘Sunny Jim’ (he was actually sour and truculent away from the cameras) had the longest life of any British Prime Minister so far, dying on his 140 acre Sussex farm one day short of his 93rd birthday. Another record he holds is being the only person to have held all four ‘Great Offices of State’ (PM, Chancellor, Foreign Secretary, Home Secretary) – thus, it follows, he’s the only person to have fucked up all four. As Chancellor (1964-1967) he “devalued” the pound days after he announced he wouldn’t and was forced to resign; as Home Secretary (1967-1970) he sent troops into Northern Ireland and was responsible for the racist ‘keep blacks out’ Immigration Act of 1968; as Foreign Secretary (1974-1976) he was a cold war hawk in US pockets and a devious opportunist who led the ‘yes’ campaign in the referendum that took the UK into the EU having previously been a vehement opponent; and as Prime Minister (1976-1979) he aped Tory policies and initiated the monetarist squeeze and attacks on trade unions which were later carried through with relish by Thatcher, having paved the way for her by ineptly miscalculating the timing of a general election. After the New Labour years it is easy to forget that ‘Old Labour’, of which Callaghan was the living embodiment, was just as rightwing: paternalistic, militaristic, British nationalistic, wedded to command-and-control capitalism and fixated on the amassing of personal wealth. There was nothing particularly ‘new’ either about Blair and Brown’s fawning to tycoons and dodgy bankers: Callaghan made it his leitmotif in a long, intimate association with Julian Hodge (1904-2004), Cardiff’s credit crook who specialised in selling loans at outrageously high interest rates to poor people (sound familiar?). Sitting on the boards of Hodge’s various scams netted Callaghan a fortune in the days before MPs could take us to the cleaners with their “expenses” claims. It was this corrupt Cardiff politics of patronage and connections and unctuous wheedling that Callaghan took to a wider audience during his three farcical years in 10 Downing Street. Having implemented the most savage cuts in public spending and the wages of low-paid public sector workers on record (sound familiar?) he triggered the chaotic 1978 ‘Winter of Discontent’. To stay in power his minority government needed SNP and Plaid Cymru support in the Commons. This he obtained by promising limited devolution for Scotland and Wales. But during the 1979 referendums ever-slippery Callaghan conducted a deliberately lukewarm ‘yes’ campaign while tipping the wink to his avowedly Unionist and pathologically anti-Welsh MPs, led by that peerless collector of publicly-funded pensions Neil Kinnock, to run a vitriolic and fear-mongering ‘no’ campaign against Labour’s own policy. With the Tories also campaigning for a ‘no’ vote and the South Wales Echo doing its usual wrecking job as the foe of a tangible Wales, the referendum in Wales was lost by a massive 4-1 majority. In the aftermath Callaghan became the first Prime Minister since Ramsey MacDonald (1866-1937) to lose a vote of no confidence, and he then completed his hat-trick of defeats by losing the subsequent general election to Thatcher. Wales was left helpless and voiceless for 18 years of Tory rule; years during which it was turned into Europe’s poorest region, Cardiff was cruelly exposed as the “capital” of nothing at all, and the UK economy was shaped into a parasitic off-shore tax haven according to the bidding of unregulated casino capitalism (sound familiar?). Callaghan got his bauble from the British establishment in 1987, entering the Lords feeding-trough as Lord Callaghan of Cardiff, an open supporter of the Thatcherite agenda of privatisation and inequality. Deservedly ignored everywhere else, Callaghan was memorialised in the city he damaged so much when a huge new traffic roundabout…I mean public square, was named after him by a slavering Labour Council in 2000. Paid for by Labour’s Private Finance Initiative, which in this case guarantees an index-linked £5.2 million of public money per annum for 25 years to the developers, the useless waste of space that is today’s Callaghan Square is the perfect symbol of his trademark greed, corporate servitude and incompetence.

During all his years climbing the greasy pole Callaghan had little time for his constituency. Together with another long-serving Cardiff MP, George Thomas (1909-1997) he built a formidable party machine in the city to press flesh and do the donkey work. Through boundary changes the seat became Cardiff South East in 1950 and Cardiff South & Penarth in 1983 as Callaghan entrenched his increasingly impregnable majority. From his first win in 1945 to his last in 1983 he won 12 consecutive elections and was MP for a total of 42 years, an all-time Cardiff record ahead of George Thomas’s 38 years and well clear of previous record holder Herbert Mackworth (1687-1765), who had 26 years in the saddle in the pre-democratic era.  The seat was effectively run by his secretary, agent and acolyte Jack Brooks, who learnt at the feet of his boss and became leader of the newly-created South Glamorgan County Council in 1974. This gerrymandering concoction was abolished in 1996 when Cardiff got its council back, but by then Brooks, in cahoots with Tory Welsh Secretary Nicholas Edwards, had done his best for “the city he loves” by creating the Cardiff Bay Development Corporation – the biggest seizure of Cardiff assets since the Norman Conquest. But that’s another story…

Having your MP as Prime Minister brought no benefits to Cardiff, quite the reverse. Supposedly big-hitting Callaghan (plus George Thomas, MP for adjacent Cardiff West and the fawning, bellowing Speaker of the House of Commons from 1976-1983) could only watch impotently from the sidelines when the GKN steelworks in Splott were closed in 1978 with the devastating loss of 8,000 jobs. Cardiffians got all the disadvantages of a representative permanently absent on important London business without any of the advantages of preferment and special treatment that might have been expected. Little changed with the arrival of ambitious Alun Michael in 1987.

Alun Michael receives his expenses (£140,000 per year)

He was one of the main proponents of the Barrage, involved up to his neck in the machinations designed to maximise the land values of Associated British Ports that resulted in an SSSI being entirely destroyed for the first time in the UK with profoundly damaging consequences to southern Cardiff, economic and social as well as environmental – he still claims it as a “spectacular success”, citing “luxury apartments” and the opening of Harry Ramsden’s chippy as proof. He was Tony Blair’s puppet candidate for First Minister when the Assembly was formed in 1999, riding roughshod over Welsh Labour’s preference for Rhodri Morgan – Wales got Rhodri anyhow within a year after Michael humiliatingly resigned rather than face a vote of no confidence over his mishandling of EU funding. He introduced ASBOs when a Home Office minister, criminalising vast areas of otherwise lawful behaviour to pander to punitive populism. He was forced to repay £20,000 in wrongly-claimed public monies, one of the worst offenders in the MPs’ expenses scandal, featuring the flipping of his ‘main residence’, the claiming of £4800 per year for snacks and even £2600 for repairs to the roof of his Gothic pile in Penarth – he wrote out the cheque immediately from his small change and then complained at the unfairness of it all. He was frequently unavailable to his 75,000 constituents, running an appointment system rather than a drop-in surgery. He is infamous for his self-importance – best exemplified by the Christmas cards he sends out containing a ’round robin’ review of his wonderful family’s marvellous year, a source of unalloyed mirth around Cardiff for years. And, of course, his opposition to the concept of elected Police Commissioners didn’t stop him slapping in a nomination for the South Wales Police position, and one of his sons doing the same in the North Wales Police area – meaning Wales faces the prospect of the Michael dynasty setting policing priorities for years to come.

Good riddance Alun Michael. But, oh dear, on the horizon is his replacement: Stephen Doughty. He’s the son of an old friend of Mr Michael’s. He won the Labour nomination despite not being on the initial short-list after typical behind-the-scenes arm-twisting – repeating the way Callaghan handed on his fiefdom to Michael.  I doubt he’s very socialist.

Of all the crimes perpetrated by this sequence of Cardiff South MPs, the worst is the way they have made politics itself repellent. That’s why the turn-out on November 15th will barely reach 30%. Alun Michael and his predecessors, with their brazen use of democracy for their own personal advancement, have poisoned idealism, shattered dreams of a better world and turned us all into disillusioned cynics. Until the Welsh Labour party is made to grow some balls and principles by the lemming-like Labour block-voters of Cardiff South & Penarth, nothing will change.

Pictures: National Portrait Gallery; Penarth Times