Through the long, hot summer of 1976, for eleven weeks, I was gripped by Bill Brand, a TV series written by left-wing playwright Trevor Griffiths and broadcast on ITV in prime-time. Regarded at the time as a brilliant example of how radical ideas could be presented in popular television drama, as the years went by I often recalled the series and hoped to be able to see it again. But the story of how Bill Brand (played by Jack Shepherd), an FE college lecturer from a working-class background, and former member of the Trotskyite International Socialists, is elected as a Labour MP seemed to have forever dissolved into the ether.

Bill Brand logo
Bill Brand series title

Until, that is, I discovered just recently that Bill Brand had been released on DVD.  Now, at last, I had the opportunity to watch the series again and see how it had stood up to the passing years: Britain’s changed political landscape, and the altered conventions of modern television drama.

Remarkably well is my conclusion after watching the whole thing again. Obviously, some aspects of the production are at odds with the more anodyne way TV drama tends to work these days. Instead, viewing Bill Brand plunged me forcibly back into the 1970s, perhaps Britain’s most deeply politicised decade.

Bill Brand polling day
Bill Brand: polling day

Griffiths places politics centre stage throughout. While Brand wins his seat in a by-election, faces up to party discipline imposed by the party whips, supports industrial action including a factory occupation, deals with unhappy traditionalists in his constituency, attend the annual conference, and participates in a Labour leadership election, he also has an increasingly fraught private life: his marriage is on the rocks and he’s having a bumpy relationship with an ardent feminist activist Alex, played by Cherie Lunghi.

Bill Brand and his wife
Bill Brand: Brand (Jack Shepherd) with his wife Miriam (Lynn Farleigh)

While there have been any number of TV series that have used politics as a backdrop for personal drama and conflict, what’s unusual about Bill Brand is that it’s the politics itself that constitutes the drama, with the dramatic episodes concerning Brand’s own family, marriage and sexual relationship serving to underline key questions of politics.  Griffith’s achievement was to make this exploration of political issues – democracy and party discipline, socialism and the Labour Party, feminism and traditional gender roles, terrorism and civil liberties – both engaging and challenging.

What I like about Griffiths’ approach is that he doesn’t insist on answers to these questions: he has his characters articulate differing positions and argue them out – including the standpoint of the Labour leadership which he’s obviously hostile towards – but leaves viewers to make up their own minds.

Griffiths treats the viewer as intelligent and curious, prepared to listen to arguments and have scenes extend well beyond what is now assumed to be the limited attention-span of the average viewer.  What TV dramatist today would demand that we observe the minutiae of agreeing a composite resolution in a pre-conference Labour party meeting? Or fifteen minutes of detailed discussion in a parliamentary Select Committee? There is no musical soundtrack, and scenes unfold slowly and are given as much space as they need in which arguments can be developed. Indeed, the series is a hothouse of political argument: instructive, but at the same time engaging.

But the strongest feeling I had while watching Bill Brand was one of deja vu: for the debate that Trevor Griffiths sought to provoke back in 1976 is one that is still highly relevant today: is the Labour Party still a vehicle for socialist values and radical political change?  These were serious questions in the 1970s, deeply familiar to Griffiths who had spent some time as a member of the local Labour party in Stockport before leaving, disillusioned. And his drama is firmly rooted in the crises that challenged the 1974 Labour government during the time he was writing the script, some of them having a distinctly familiar feel today.  Moreover, his dramatisation of developments in the Labour Party at the time, now appears remarkably prescient of the bitter struggle between left and right that tore the party apart in the next decade, ultimately leading to the triumph of New Labour under Tony Blair.

Trevor Griffiths
Trevor Griffiths

When Bill Brand was broadcast, Trevor Griffiths was regarded as one of Britain’s most politically incisive television dramatists, who had combined work for television with a highly regarded theatre career because he wanted to reach the maximum possible audience with drama that encouraged the audience to consider issues from a perspective rooted in socialist values. Griffiths grew up in East Manchester.  While his brother left school at 15 to work in a factory, Griffiths was one of those working-class children who, as a result of the Butler Education Act of 1944, was able to go to grammar school and then to Manchester University, where he studied English.

After university Griffiths became a teacher, first in a school and then in a local Further Education college. By the late 1950s he was politically involved in CND and the New Left, and chaired the Manchester Left Club, a discussion group which included historians such as Edward Thompson and John Saville. By 1962 he was a member of the Labour Party and wrote for their local paper, Labour’s Northern Voice. But, disillusioned by the Labour government of Harold Wilson, he left the party in 1965.

By this time Griffiths, now working for the BBC in Leeds as an education liaison officer, was turning to the idea of exploring political issues through drama. This was the period in which producers of BBC TV’s Wednesday Play championed new writers to reflect on the radical social changes taking place in Britain, particularly as seen through the prism of working-class experience, and Griffiths was commissioned by Tony Garnett to write for the weekly drama slot (a script was written, though never produced). He did eventually achieve a screening on BBC TV in 1974 when All Good Men was broadcast in the Play for Today slot, during the three day week imposed by the Heath government in response to the mine-workers’ overtime ban; with TV channels forced to close down by 10:30 pm, this meant that the play had to be cut significantly. Thematically, the play pre-figured Bill Brand.

I remember seeing his 1970 play Occupations (a Royal Shakespeare Company production that must have toured) which, against the background of the factory occupations in 1920s northern Italy, explored the distinctive revolutionary ideas of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. This was the period in which Michael Billington, the Guardian theatre critic, cited Griffiths as ‘the godfather of British political theatre’ and ‘our foremost socialist dramatist’. In 1979, we watched a memorable TV adaptation of his play Comedians, set in a Manchester evening class for aspiring working-class comedians, which asked searching questions about comedy, such as: Is there more to comedy than making people laugh? Should comedians appeal to the lowest common denominator in their audience? And – crucially – should comedy be about entertainment, or about the truth?  I would love to see it again. In 1988, as part of a BBC TV commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the events of May 1968, we saw The Party, his 1971 play that was a forerunner to Bill Brand in that it offered a devastating critique of the failure of the British Left to radically transform society.

In his plays, and in Bill Brand, Griffiths is never a political propagandist or polemicist. His own approach to drama was as an advocate of what he defined as ‘critical realism’: burrowing beneath the ‘materialism of detail’ – the surface appearance of things – to reveal the ‘materialism of forces’, the ‘deep structure’ of a society determined by differences of power between , classes, genders and ethnic groups. Speaking of Bill Brand, Griffiths observed:

People are not stretched to follow it in terms of its narrative structure or character development. That’s important because what will be stretching them is the detail of the lives of the characters, what they’re talking about. That’s a phenomenal amount of stuff to grapple with.

The genesis of the series occurred when Trevor Griffiths met ITV drama producer Stella Richman on the night of the general election in February 1974. in a close parallel with the expected outcome of the 2015 election, the result led to no party gaining an overall majority. For the first time since 1931 a minority government took office, led by Labour leader Harold Wilson.

Stella Richman had seen The National Theatre production of The Party, and was receptive to Griffiths’ proposal of a series about a newly-elected Labour MP. For the next two years, as struggles within the Labour government and in the wider working class movement intensified, Griffiths researched and wrote the scripts. The series was accepted by Verity Lambert at Thames Television who had recently been appointed head of Drama there by Jeremy Isaacs (who would later manage Channel Four during its a initially more socially-conscious phase).

The background to Bill Brand is the political turmoil that tore through Britain in the 1970s, a period in which the political consensus that had held in British politics since the 1940s began to crumble, marked by a political culture far removed from that of 2015. The minority Labour government of 1974 came to power in an election fought against the background of a national miners strike, power cuts, the three-day week, and Conservative Prime Minister, Edward Heath’s challenge: ‘Who Governs Britain?’

After the second election of 1974, Labour was returned with a slim majority, but by 1977, following defeats in by-elections, the narrow Labour majority had been eliminated. To stay in office, Labour agreed to the Lib-Lab pact which lasted for only 16 months. In 1976, Harold Wilson had resigned as prime minister, due to ill-health. He had been replaced by James Callaghan who, after the collapse of the Lib-Lab pact remained in office as head of a minority government, managing to stay in power through deals with the Ulster Unionists and Scottish Nationalists (Here we go again!).

The deeper background to all this was recession and inflation brought about by the oil price rise imposed by Arab producing nations following western support for Israel in the Yom Kippur war. Rapid prices rises led to increased trade union militancy, with the Labour government attempting to restrain wage rises by the Social Contract, an informal agreement with the trade union leadership. Divisions within the labour movement, fuelled by increased socialist agitation, led ultimately to the wave of strikes that spread across Britain during late 1978/early 1979 in what was dubbed the ‘winter of discontent’, as wages were frozen and inflation soared into double figures. In May 1979, Callaghan lost a vote of no confidence precipitating a general election won by the Conservatives – led by Margaret Thatcher.

There were certain parallels between Britain then and Greece now. With the pound plummeting, the Chancellor Denis Healey proposed significant cuts in public expenditure designed to curb inflation and stabilise the pound. Then, in March 1976 the pound fell below the two dollar mark for the first time ever and Britain was gripped by its worst financial crisis since the 1930s. Healey secured loans from the IMF on the promise of cuts in public spending, and conditional upon allowing IMF inspectors in to examine the government’s books and oversee the implementation of cuts totalling £3,000 million. Hospital wards closed, schools went without basic teaching materials, social services were dramatically hit.  For those on the left, public services had been savaged by a Labour government at the behest of international capitalism. Denis Healey responded that ‘the government must live with the judgements of that mar­ket, whether they like it or not.’

In the midst of economic turmoil, these were also years during which the war in Northern Ireland came to Britain with the IRA bombing campaign. The first anti-terrorism legislation was introduced, and Irish people in Britain faced hostility on the streets and in workplaces, as well as restrictions on their civil rights. These were years, too, in which issues of feminism and gay rights began to challenge the traditional, male-dominated world of left groups and trade unions.

Bill Brand encapsulated all of these questions and tensions. In a powerful speech in the Commons, Brand breaks party discipline and opposes the renewal of the anti-terrorism legislation (back then, it had to be renewed annually), highlighting how the legislation is affecting his Irish constituents and wrongly being used to target the Irish community. We see his family home being targeted by fascists and defended by trade unionists. In the 1970s this was not unusual.

Throughout the series, there are reminders of how rich – and influential – left politics were in the 1970s, a time of struggles and campaigns around unemployment, Ireland, sexual politics, Chile and anti-fascism. Griffiths later remarked:

What I was trying to say throughout the series was that the traditions of the labour movement were inadequate to take the struggle further, and that we had to discover new traditions or revive even older ones. And that we had to seek connective tissue between electoral party politics, which still has a mystifying mass appeal, and extra-parliamentary socialist activity.

As a newly-elected left-wing MP, Bill Brand wrestles with these issues, both as a member of the Parliamentary Labour Party subject to the party whip, but also in his struggle to represent his constituents – striking textile workers occupying their mill as globalisation threatens the entire industry with closure, women demanding the right to decide for themselves whether they should seek an abortion, and an Irish community subject to harassment. One of the ways in which Bill Brand succeeds is in its portrayal of personal relationships, which are never divorced from the historical and political context of a society being fractured by social changes which, Griffiths suggests, demand new alternatives in attitudes, behaviour and social organisation.

Bill Brand and Alex
Bill Brand (Jack Shepherd) and partner Alex (Cherie Lunghi)

In the opening episode of Bill Brand, the eponymous character wins a by-election when a Labour governs with a small majority. Like me, and like Trevor Griffiths, Brand has benefited from the 1944 Education Act and the achievements of the post-war Labour government that have enabled the son of a chemical process plant worker to attend university on a full grant and become a Liberal Studies lecturer in a Further Education college where he has worked for fourteen years.  He has only recently left the International Socialists to join the Labour Party, hoping to change the party’s traditional conservatism from within.

You were never like us, even as a little lad. Allus had your head stuck in a book somewhere. I never told you … I worried about you sometimes, how you’d end up, with all that learning … Do summat good, won’t you?

Bill has a brother whose life has turned out differently: a shirt cutter in the textile industry, he has been made redundant as the industry, facing competition from cheap labour in India and elsewhere, goes into decline.

Bill’s parents as well as his constituency agent Alf Jowett other prominent figures in the local party and trade union leadership belong to an older, more conservative generation (Jowett grumbles about Bill’s lack of punctuality, long hair, and blue suit).  However, Griffiths never condemns figures such as Jowett, seeing them as representative of a different historical context who are due respect, whilst portraying them as being slow to respond to a world that is changing. Party loyalty is crucial, and expressions of socialist belief frowned upon. On election day, when Bill suggests that the electoral process ‘ruthlessly reduces what we do to its most fundamentally trivial elements’, Jowett replies, ‘You’ll be all right. Once you settle down.’

But Bill isn’t ready to settle down. To a Radio Manchester interviewer on the night of his by-election victory, he asserts:

I’m a socialist. I actually believe in public ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange. I actually believe in workers’ control over work, community control over the environment. I actually believe that the real wealth of any society is its people. All of them, not just the well-off, the educated and the crafty. Which I suppose make me a democrat too.

He may call himself a socialist, but to his wife Miriam, Bill is a ‘selfish, egotistical, uncaring swine of a man’ who has been unfaithful with Alex (Cherie Lunghi), a feminist colleague at the FE college.  She wants a divorce.

The scenes which follow the breakdown in Bill’s marriage, and his relationship with Alex might, on first impressions, fit easily in a conventional soap.  But Griffiths probes deeper into the sexual politics of the time. At first it seems that Bill has a satisfying relationship with Alex, but she soon discerns a puritanical and controlling streak in his personality. Later, as she calls an end to their relationship during a cottage retreat, Alex announces her desire for an independent life: ‘You make me feel married. I’m not a partner, or a comrade. I’m a surrogate wife.’

In one episode Bill listens to a talk given by Alex to a group of gay men in which she insists that their aims cannot be separated from other forms of political oppression. In another scene, Bill meets a Catholic doctor who has refused one of his constituents, an abandoned working-class woman with four children, her right to an abortion. Griffiths later introduces an understated contrast when Bill discovers that fellow left-wing MP Winnie Scoular has had an abortion – which she had no difficulty obtaining. Here, Griffiths suggests, are two women from very different social circumstances who experience the politics of sexual relationships in very different ways because of their class.

Alongside these questions, Griffiths presents a detailed and convincing picture of the MP’s life: in parliament, in his constituency, in committee meetings, the Whip’s office, the tearoom, and at the Labour Party conference. He explained at the time:

We’re investigating the stuff, the actual tissue and texture, of the social democratic processes within a major party. About which people know next to nothing.

As Brand settles into the parliamentary routine, he discovers that his notion of an MP’s responsibilities is very different from that of the party whips. He meets both Tory and Labour MPs who talk of being ‘lobby fodder’, and the House of Commons resembling a ‘damned assembly line’. The Labour Chief Whip Cedric Maddocks, an ex-docker, tells him: ‘The government has a right to your loyalty. Total. Unquestioning, if necessary.’

Maddocks begins by disciplining Brand (in a nice touch, we see that on the wall of the Chief Whip’s office there is a photograph of a flock of sheep), but they end up working together when the Home Secretary John Venables, a Roy Jenkins figure, makes a bid for the leadership after the Prime Minister (a cameo appearance by Arthur Lowe) resigns in an echo of Harold Wilson’s resignation. For Brand, opposing Venables in the leadership contest is instinctual; for Maddocks it’s because he fears the PLP will split over Venables’ right-wing policies. Venables wins and becomes the new Prime Minister.

Brand’s convictions mean that he cannot accept the imposed constraints on his backbench role. Though he shares a house occupied by MPs who are members of the Journal group (clearly, a reference to the left-wing Labour Tribune group), when Bill votes against a government bill designed to reduce social and welfare services, he condemns the group for being forced into supporting the party line. After being disciplined by the Chief Whip he returns to his constituency to face censure by the Executive Committee of the local party for refusing to support the government.

In one episode, Brand lends his support to textile workers who are occupying a factory in his constituency in protest against its planned closure and demanding a cap on cheap imports which threaten their jobs. Rather than cool down the situation, as government ministers had hoped he would, Brand expresses his solidarity with the workers, calling for the nationalisation of the textile industry. The story makes the front page of a right-wing Sunday newspaper.

In 2015, factory occupations and demands for nationalisation seem outlandish. But this was not so at the time the series was broadcast. I, too, had been a member of the International Socialists in the early 1970s (leaving eventually over an issue that went under ‘the personal is political’ in the rubric of the time).  While a member, one of the major events with which we were involved was the workers’ occupation of the Fisher-Bendix factory in Kirkby, just outside Liverpool.

Worker occupations were in the air. In 1969 the BBC had transmitted the Ken Loach play, The Big Flame, which portrayed an occupation of the Liverpool docks (it gave its name to a Merseyside far-left splinter group). For many trade unionists and those on the far left, the factory occupation had emerged as a realistic industrial strategy for opposing the Conservative government’s ‘lame ducks’ policy – the determination that, rather than continuing to prop up ailing businesses with financial support, the government would refuse aid, even if it led to redundancies.

For viewers watching Bill Brand in the summer of 1976, the victorious work-in by workers following the closure of Upper Clyde Shipbuilders in Glasgow in 1971 would have been fresh in their minds.  In 1972 the factory occupation tactic featured in over 50 disputes in the engineering industry, including that one at the Fisher-Bendix washing machine factory in Kirkby.

By 1974, with the change of government, Tony Benn was Secretary of State for Industry, and involved in helping to set up worker cooperatives at Fisher-Bendix, as well as the BSA-Triumph factory at Meriden where the workforce had also evicted the management and carried on producing motorcycles. In 1975, while Griffiths was preparing the script for Bill Brand, workers at Imperial Typewriters in Hull occupied the factory, barricading the gates and displaying a sign that announced ‘Tony is with us’.

The relationship between an elected MP committed to socialist values and the struggles taking place outside Parliament constitutes a key theme of the series. The failure of the factory occupation in his constituency to preserve jobs from global competition will continue to haunt Brand, as will the question about which is more likely to advance the cause of socialism: manoeuvres at Westminster or extra-parliamentary campaigns.

Bill Brand and David Last
Bill Brand and David Last

This question is explored through the positions taken by the Journal group, and in particular through the figure of David Last, loosely based on Michael Foot, who has joined the Cabinet as Minister of Employment in the hope of changing things from within. Last encourages Brand to be his Parliamentary Private Secretary, an offer which Brand initially rejects.

One notable aspect of the scenes at Westminster is the appearance of Nigel Hawthorne playing a senior civil servant, the character he would replicate in Yes Minister four years later.

The scenes at the Labour Party Conference are also convincing and demonstrate Griffiths’ understanding of the detail and inner workings of the annual conference. Brand hopes to get his radical resolution proposing the nationalisation of the textile industry accepted for debate on the Conference floor, but is defeated when his resolution is shelved by the manoeuvring of a trade union leader in a compositing committee. Later that evening, in their hotel room, Bill and his agent Alf Jowett, review the day’s events over a whiskey or two.  Alf reveals his own dissatisfaction with how little he feels he has achieved:

Twenty years of struggling and arguing and wheedling and bullying and hustling and chiselling and promising and welching and offering and not delivering.

Brand experiences another setback when, in the committee stage of the bill to extend temporary measures introduced under the Prevention of Terrorism Act for detention without trial, he makes a passionate but futile speech condemning what he regards as an unholy alliance between Labour and the Tories to pass oppressive legislation drawn up by Home Secretary Venables. With Alex a few hours later, he bemoans the illusory nature of Parliamentary struggle and his own feelings of political inadequacy:

A Labour government kept in power by the likes of me, is currently fulfilling – yet again – its historic role as the supreme agent of international capitalism in Britain. And all the classic features of that process re-emerge: chronic large-scale unemployment, massive sustained cutbacks coupled with the steady, sheltered recovery of profits in the private sector. The definition of the left ends with a Labour government which they must then keep in power at all costs.

Bill returns to his constituency to face his executive committee’s anger at his principled stand, subsequently vilified in the right-wing press, and compromised after an IRA bomb attack in Manchester (oddly prescient, that one). Later, when Bill expresses anger at the reaction of his constituency party members, Alf responds by quoting Gorky:

You’ve gotta stay in touch. You can’t run all the time. So that people can see where you’re going. Do you know what Gorky said when he arrived at some godforsaken spot in outer Russia to lecture the peasants on socialism? He said, ‘Is this the rabble on which we are to build a revolution?’ Well, the answer’s yes Mr Gorky, yes Mr Brand. Because without them there is no revolution. We’re all you’ve got, comrade.

Eventually, Brand decides, despite reservations, to accept the position as David Last’s PPS and to assist him in his bid for the leadership. (Interestingly, this comes after Bill has read Last’s biography of Tom Mann; in 1975 Michael Foot had published his magisterial biography of Aneurin Bevan.) Last convinces Bill that his commitment is sincere: ‘All my political life I’ve worked to shift this party to the left. In two days we have a chance to move it further than it’s moved in fifty years or more. Is that a chance we have the right to pass up?’

The contest between the right-winger Venables and David Last representing the left is prescient of the 1980 leadership battle between Michael Foot and Denis Healey.  Except that in 1981 Foot won, while David Last loses. However, though Foot won in 1980, within a few months the party split when Roy Jenkins and others left Labour to form the Social Democratic Party. Maybe there’s a closer parallel with September 1981, when  Tony Benn stood against Denis Healey for Deputy Leader. Healey won by a margin of less than 1%. I have a vivid recollection of that result: ill with a stomach bug, I had my head over the toilet bowl, retching, as I heard the news of the result on the radio.

Following Last’s defeat, and with Venables outlining his plans at Cabinet for a ‘Brave New World’ that will fully embrace right-wing revisionism, Brand is becomes even more convinced that it is no longer from within Parliament that pressure for socialism can be brought to bear, but from outside through grassroots movements.  In the final episode he attends a fund-raising football match for the Right to Work campaign and meets an old university friend (Jonathan Pryce) who is now involved in agitprop theatre productions.

Bill Brand with his constituency agent
Bill Brand with his constituency agent, Alf Jowett

The penultimate scene of this episode occurs in his agent’s office. On the radio reports are coming in of demonstrations  and mass arrests in Chile. Alf tells Bill has seen figures like Venables attempt to take over the Labour Party before:

They can’t win because reality’s not on their side. They think capitalism’s like a coat of paint, like a veneer, and underneath is the structure. But capitalism is the structure. The reality. And it splits us up, sets us against each other and against ourselves, in classes, in thought, in life-styles, in aspirations and all the rest of it. And it breeds resistance, in every worker who goes down the road, in every tenant evicted, in every man and woman denied the chance to be human.

Bill suggests that Alf should book the theatre group. He returns to his house where he watches the group rehearse a sketch dealing with sexual politics and female oppression in which the actors debate the validity of their tactics and how they can reach a working-class audience. Among the group is a refugee from Chile. In the final scene Bill speaks to her and learns that she intends to return ‘When we have won.’ The struggle for socialist values – for cultural and political alternatives – Griffiths seems suggest, will continue in many different contexts.

Throughout the series, Griffiths has given expression to different points of view within the Labour Party and the trade unions, and in the end leaves the viewers to make up their own minds. The writing has been sharp, truthful, often funny and sometimes moving. Griffiths has revealed his deep understanding of the social, political and cultural issues he has explored in the series. Remarkably, it remains relevant in many ways forty years on.

Today, trade unions and the left in the Labour party are a mere shadow of what they were in the 1970s. During the Blair-Brown years as New Labour, the party enthusiastically embraced the tenets of neo-liberalism, accepting profit and privatisation as being compatible with social justice.

Someone (I can’t at the moment remember who) once said that only an inch divides Labour from the Tories, ‘but in that inch we survive’. For a long time that argument seemed to hold up, but now there is growing disillusionment with the lack of vision in the Labour party and the sense that ‘they are all the same’. Turnout in elections continues to fall steadily.

Recently, in the London Review of Books, in ‘Bye Bye Labour’, Richard Seymour summed up the crisis of Labour in these words:

Labour has accepted Conservative precepts. The private sector knows, and grows, best. The City is untouchable: it may be chastised, but never seriously confronted. Unemployment is a form of dependency, best dealt with through market discipline. Competition is the law of all social and economic life, and it is the role of the state to encourage it and to secure public participation in it. And the British state, and its military commitments, are sacrosanct.

The reasons for Labour’s decline are, he writes, fairly clear:

In Labour’s case, the collapse of its representative link with its base also has specific causes. The social basis of Labourism is the labour movement, and it is in retreat. Union membership has halved since 1980. The co-operative movement has shrivelled and the Methodist halls are no longer filled; the broader labour movement no longer produces a steady stream of orators and organisers. Even so, the accelerated rot of recent years is a product of New Labour’s period in office. The Blairites had argued that mass recruitment of new members would anchor the party to the mainstream, while a centrist governing strategy would help bind middle-class voters to progressive ideas. In fact, membership fell to the lowest levels in the party’s history after 13 years of Labour government, and the loss of five million working-class votes between 1997 and 2010 resulted in Labour’s lowest share of the vote since 1918.

Seymour’s prognosis for the Labour party if it remains committed to some form of moderated austerity, is bleak:

The party is trapped in a spiral of self-destruction, which James Doran, a Labour activist, has called ‘Pasokification’. Greece’s dominant centre-left party implemented austerity and its vote collapsed from 43.9 per cent in 2009 to 4.7 per cent in 2015 – but Pasok’s fate is only an extreme form of the implosion threatening most European social democratic parties, from the German Social Democrats to the French Socialists. […]

If it wins, Labour will be forced to implement an austerity agenda which, while not enough to satisfy Conservative voters, will turn its own remaining voters off in droves. That would be a defeat of a different order. For a vision of that future, one need only look across the Channel, at François Hollande sinking and sinking in the polls, and the Front National on the rise.

Having just watched Bill Brand, it’s clear we’ve been here before.  What will happen this time? We’ll soon see.

Addendum: two hours later

I’ve just read this, in Adam Nicolson’s The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters. He’s writing about Odysseus’s encounter with the Sirens, who ‘know the longing in his heart’:

But his men, like the poem, no better, and they tie him tighter to his ship.  They won’t be wrecked on the illusions of nostalgia, on the longing for that heroised, antique world, because, as the Odyssey knows, to live well in the world, nostalgia must be resisted: you must stay with your ship, stay tied to the present … Don’t be tempted into the lovely simplicities that the heroic past seems to offer.


Some extracts

See also

9 thoughts on “Bill Brand: glimpses of the past that have relevance still

  1. I’ll watch the series again, thanks, I’d forgotten it. I watched Alan Bleasdale’s Boys from the Blackstuff some months ago, and thought how well it portrayed the intense frustration and anger of its period (1980s Thatcherite Britain)

  2. Oh, I remember this. I fell deeply and eternally in lust with Cherie Lunghi. A great piece of drama. Richard Seymour? Meh. He’s one irredeemably arrogant charlatan. An ex-SWP hack, now strutting about as some doctrinal Robespierre. I read that LRB piece the other day./ I’d read it a dozen times before. It’s all he ever has to say

    1. Great review by Gerry, as ever, of a stunning series which made a massive impact on me as an impressionable 17 year old. I was lucky enough too see (ma) Cherie (Amour) at Stratford in The Winter’s Tale that year (1976 – Year Zero of Punk) as well.

      So I am in full agreement with David on Cherie.

      I am also in agreement with David on that awful sectarian Seymour and his entirely predictable views and baffled why the generally wonderful LRB published them.

      Sorry about the delay in replying but I acquired the DVDs over the weekend and wanted to re-acquaint myself with the series and what it meant to me at the first time I watched it (which I recall was on a tiny portable black and white telly).

      Essentially I will as usual vote Labour in the general election (not sure about the locals though) but with zilch illusions (thank you several decades of experience and Trevor Griffiths), and just a vague hope that they manage capitalist society better, slightly more equitably, than the other parties.

      Interestingly, the main actor, Jack Shepherd, seems to have been part of the old Workers Revolutionary Party (shudder) like so many actors. The lady who played his wife also played his wife in the TV version of Wycliffe. Don’t think she divorced him in the latter (and totally off topic but that adaptation was terrible – the books are in my opinion as good as Morse and deserved better treatment). Still, she also got to play Krupskaya to Patrick Stewart’s Lenin in that fine series Fall of Eagles two years before Bill Brand. and guess who wrote the relevant episode? Yes, Trevor Griffiths!

  3. Just watched the series on DVD. Nostalgia for a period when there were still politicians with socialist principles. I would have followed it better if the sound quality had been better or it had subtitles. I’m now more sanguine about the class struggle as I am convinced that Capitalism is destroying itself . It depends upon constant economic growth and this is impossible in a world of finite resources and irretrievable debt .
    By the way Google “Comedians” and you can find a link to the series on YouTube. Recently watched it – young Jonathan Pryce was brilliant.

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