Last month, I wrote a piece for this auspicious publication on . And now: Labour conference is here and so, by way of a sequel – and, in a spirit of magnanimity and, indeed, Comradeship – here is my rundown of the wittiest Labour politicians.
Dear ol’ Denis Healey – like a cross between an owl and a bank manager, with a hint of Carry On twinkle. Healey was a man of letters; a romantic, a poet, a sophisticate. He also brandished a sharp wit, which he wasn’t afraid of deploying on his own side. “He has the face of a man who clubs baby seals,” he said of John Prescott.
Healey was, at heart, a moderate, who believed the ideals of Labour had to be packaged in a reasonable, patriotic form. He was particularly disdainful of the Bennites – who he regarded as destructively and uncompromisingly left-wing – though this didn’t stop him hitting the campaign trail for his old foe: “Healey without Benn would be like Torvill without Dean. I can’t get the bugger off my back.”
“The Fabians,” Healey once said, “found socialism wandering aimlessly in cloud-cuckoo-land and set it working on the gas and water problems of the nearest town or village.” But he was critical of ‘modernisation’, particularly in the House of Commons: “Today’s MPs are terrible. They even look the same. You used to be able to tell the difference between Tories and Labour. The Tories wore waistcoats and Labour wore cords or caps. Now they all wear the same polyester-looking suits.”
Bob Monkhouse once quipped, “I saw a headline which read ‘Denis Healey caught with his pants down’. That’s a shame: it will make it easier to hear what he’s saying.” I suspect the old “atomic maniac”, who merrily referred to Mrs Thatcher as a “bag lady”, probably had the self-awareness to chuckle at that.
Tom Driberg was a committed communist, a committed churchman and a committed homosexual. At Oxford, which he left without a degree, Driberg caused a stir with a concert which featured a flushing toilet as one of the instruments. Driberg loved cruising as much as he loved Mass – there are, happily and surprisingly, no records of him combining the two – and, once an MP, spent almost as much time on the common as in the Commons. He claimed his doctor had prescribed fellatio as a curative: “The potassium ingredient is frightfully good for one”. He loved high dining (steady) and bemoaned the food on offer in Parliament: “the white wine is warmer than the food.” Churchill once quipped, when told of Driberg’s surprising marriage, “Well, buggers can’t be choosers.” Driberg counted amongst his friends The Krays, Lord Beaverbrook and the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Such a pity he never finished his autobiography. Ruling Passions, its working title, neatly evokes a self-deprecating streak. Driberg holds the honour of being the first man to be openly described as a “homosexual” – though he preferred the term “queer” – in a Times obituary. Anything else would have been anodyne, according to Editor William Rees-Mogg.
If Tom Driberg was left-wing, then Joan Maynard was left-wing. Affectionately known as Stalin’s Grandmother (d’awww), there wasn’t a private company this communist in curlers didn’t want to nationalise, a Duke she didn’t wish to defenestrate, or an item she didn’t wish to redistribute. Reach for a biscuit on a committee and she’d snap it out of your hand, pound it into bits and give an equally sized crumb to each person in the room. She once warned Neil Kinnock: “”You walk your shoes straight or else.”
“E’s a lovely Comrade,” she would say of fellow travellers; or “E’s a right-wing bastard,” if you didn’t wish to nationalise everything. She objected to the nickname Stalin’s Grandmother because Stalin’s real grandmother would have been involved in the Russian Orthodox Church in Georgia: “That might have been difficult for me.”
Her hard-left antics in the Labour Party – she nominated Eric Heffer for leader in 1983 – alienated her to the Labour “right”, but the Conservatives with whom she sparred held her in greater affection: “A good-mannered woman, a kind woman and well thought of by people who regard her views with anathema,” said Sir Robin Turton.
I was going to describe Chris Mullin as the left’s Alan Clark, but as a quietly spoken family man, I’m not sure he’d appreciate it. I am referring of course to Mullin’s diaries, which are an atmospheric and amusing evocation of the New Labour years from the sardonic eye of someone who lived through them – and echo Clark’s veneration of “The Lady” with rather less admiring references to “The Man”.
The former MP for Sunderland South – who still watches a black and white television – is frank about his time as a minister; he suggested his diaries from that period could be sub-titled: “How I reluctantly became a minister, made a bog of it, and quit.”
“There is a phrase in the Civil Service,” Mullin once drolly remarked. “When officials say, ‘That’s a very brave move, minister’, they mean you are completely bonkers.” And he has been less than complimentary about The Man’s activity since leaving Downing Street: “The rush for the boardroom immediately after leaving office used to be a Tory phenomenon. Now it has become a Labour one, too.”
But his ultimate approach to politics is as charming as it is wry: “I have always had friendships across the divide. The great beauty of living in a democracy is that we are not, ultimately, trying to kill each other.”
Wit, raconteur and left-wing fixture, Kaufman began his career as a comedy writer on seminal satire That Was the Week that Was and, despite moving into formal Labour politics, his sharp, dry sense of humour stayed with him. On TW3, his best remembered sketch was the Silent Men of Westminster, about MPs who sat in the Commons but never spoke or advanced a view. It was Kaufman who dubbed Labour’s 1983 manifesto “the longest suicide note in history”. Kaufman was a fierce critic of the BBC, regularly calling for its privatisation, and considered Prime Minister’s Questions a “load of old rubbish”. But, he could show a softer side on occasion. In his tribute to Margaret Thatcher, he told a story of meeting the former Prime Minister at a social event. She praised him for an article he’d recently written, which she kept in her handbag. “To be part of the contents of Margaret Thatcher’s handbag,” he noted, to much laughter. “What greater apotheosis could one possibly hope for?”
An honourable mention: Jess Phillips
Unafraid of speaking out, and even less afraid of speaking about herself, the MP for Birmingham Yardley is beloved by middle-class BBC producers who have never met a working class person and think she is what they’re like. But she can be genuinely witty. Perhaps her best joke came when she first arrived in the Commons: “Before I came here, I thought I’d met posh people. But I hadn’t, I’d just met people who ate olives.”