The Greasy Pole Column from the April 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard
Why does she stay in a party which, she says, imposes policies it was not elected on?Say what you like about rebel Labour MPs, in most cases they are consistent – or should that be boringly predictable? Foundation Hospitals? Against. War on Iraq? Against. Ban Hunting? In favour. All tediously predictable. Then along comes Kate Hoey, Labour MP for Vauxhall, to upset the pattern. The big issue for Hoey – the one which has earned her the most publicity – has been her support for hunting which she demonstrated, on the day the “sport” was banned by Parliament, by riding out with the Beaufort Hunt. She says the ban is unenforceable, that it has actually made hunting more popular than ever: “It’s part of the British rebellious streak that as soon as something is banned it becomes more attractive”. Which raises the question of what she is doing in Parliament, where they lay down laws which ban all kinds of behaviour as a way of making them unattractive to even the most rebellious person. She has also said of the Labour Party : “They don’t understand the countryside” – as if there is a lot more to “understand” than that the countryside is basically the same as the towns and cities, with a class structure which condemns one class to work for their living in varying degrees of poverty and insecurity.
It is also fair to ask what drives her to be the MP for Vauxhall which, in the London Borough of Lambeth and including Kennington, Stockwell and parts of Clapham and Brixton, is as far from what most people see as the “countryside” as it is possible to be. It is, in fact, one of the toughest and most disrupted parts of London. To ensure that everyone, including the long-suffering voters of Vauxhall, knew where she stood on hunting, Hoey took on the job of chairing the Countryside Alliance – an organisation which tells us it campaigns about rural poverty and the decline of the villages but which was mysteriously silent on these issues until the 1997 Labour victory brought the first ever real threat to hunting. It was unfortunate timing that Hoey announced her new, additional job on the day the police shot John Charles de Menezes – at Stockwell station, in her constituency. This ghastly event did not dampen the Countryside Alliance’s joy at her elevation to lead them, which they said they were “delighted” about. Not all the voters of Vauxhall felt the same: many of them, worried about the living conditions there and the shooting at Stockwell, expressed their angry surprise that their MP had the time to take on so much extra work when she manages to attend only 55 percent of votes in the Commons.
But Hoey’s record of rebellion extends beyond hunting. She is against foundation hospitals (although she was once in favour of hospitals trusts, which many traditional Labour people feared would be a first step in betrayal of the NHS), against student top-up fees, the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill, compulsory ID cards, the war on Iraq… She protests that it the others who are out of step, that the measures she opposes were not in Labour’s manifesto – as if it would have made any difference if they had been. And why does she stay in a party which, she says, imposes policies it was not elected on? Even the Tories are confused about her. In October 1996 the mischievous MP Giles Brandreth recorded in his diary that he plotted about her with Sebastian Coe:
“Why don’t we find someone to defect to us? We decided Kate Hoey was our prime target. We like her, she seems sensible, she isn’t valued by New Labour.”
And more recently a Tory MP in the Daily Telegraph showed that little has changed with her: “She spends more time in our division lobby than on the other side.”
Quite what the fatigued electorate of Vauxhall think of the fact that they have elected a Labour MP who votes like a Tory will be apparent at the next election. Meanwhile they may take some kind of hint from Hoey’s assessment of Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell and her husband David Mills with their labyrinthine mortgages and offshore financial manoeuvres. Perhaps she is jealous of a more durable female rival but Hoey refused to acquiesce in the orchestrated campaign from Number Ten designed to discredit the exposure of Jowell as motivated by gender prejudice. She was one of those who wanted Jowell sacked from leading Labour’s campaign in the local elections, for; she “…grew up in a Labour Party that thought that talking money out of the country wasn’t a very loyal thing to do”. In fact the vast majority of the people of Vauxhall are not rich enough to practice that kind of “disloyalty”; as Hoey put it: “Most people have enough trouble just getting one mortgage”.
Before she joined the Labour Party Hoey was a member of an obscure Trotskyist organisation, which she later explained by confessing that “I didn’t have much contact with ordinary people. So I didn’t understand their concerns” (Brian Deer interview, Sunday Times Magazine 8 August 1993). After that embarrassing spasm she sat as a councillor in Hackney and Southwark waiting, with other hopeful future Labour stars, for the offer of a winnable seat. Hoey’s chance came when the sitting MP for Vauxhall, Stuart Holland, resigned from the Commons to take an academic job. Holland, who was a disciple of Tony Benn , was described by a fellow member of the Lambeth Labour Party as “…pitifully eager to acquiesce in whatever absurdities Lambeth Labour cared to expound”. Holland’s departure came as a relief to Neil Kinnock, tempered by the fact that the constituency party intended to replace him with Martha Osamor who, with her similar ideas, seemed to be no less of an embarrassment to the Labour leadership. So Hoey was imposed on a resistant local party as a “moderniser” – a word with a meaning we are all aware of now. She won the by-election with a majority of over 15000.
Realising her ambition to be the first woman Sports Minister (she had a qualification in Physical Education, she had been Ulster high jump champion and Educational Adviser to a number of football clubs including Arsenal and Chelsea) brought Hooey up against the spin doctors of Downing Street. Against instructions from Alastair Campell she criticised the decision of Alex Ferguson (a special favourite of Blair’s) to withdraw Manchester United from the 1999 FA Cup, saying that the club’s supporters had been treated in “a quite shabby way”. She officially complained about the MBE awarded to Arsenal striker Ian Wright, because his behaviour on the field – shouting and swearing at other players and the referee – made him a poor role example. She lasted only a couple of years in the job.
And now, on the back benches there seems little more by way of a political career left for her. There is still her writing for the Daily Telegraph, there is chairing the Countryside Alliance and doing her abrasive best to upset her party as she goes into the opposing voting lobby. And of course there may be her memoirs, which should have the words Tally Hoey in the title. If she hangs on to Vauxhall there will be the job of ministering to the people there who, in their poverty, bad housing, crime and pollution, can be expected to be feeling distinctly unministered to. Like most rebels, Hooey will need to work at living up to her own image. Recently in the Daily Telegraph, she was described as wearing a Gucci watch and a jacket trimmed with fake fur. She did not miss this chance to boost her reputation for reckless confession: “The fur” she responded“was real. The Gucci watch was fake”, provoking a spokesman for the Trading Standards Institute to remind her of the realities of commodity society: “We deplore any public figure who seems to be celebrating the purchase of counterfeit items” he sniffed (which probably gained Hoey a few more votes in Vauxhall).
It was Oscar Wilde who once described Hoey’s favourite pastime as “the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable”. We may wonder what enduring, scathing epigram he would have fashioned about a Labour Minister indulging in such “sport” after her party had made all those promises about building a sustainably better society. Like all other “rebels” Hoey relies on the deception that she offers something so fresh and different that it has not been thought of before. In Wilde’s absence let us sum up the futility of it all: the unmemorable in pursuit of the unpracticable.