The next general election could see a new era of Asian-style succession making an entry at Westminster
British politics often seems dull without a glamorous political dynasty such as the Kennedys, the Bhuttos or our own Nehru-Gandhi family. Britons, of course, retort that they have one of the world’s most famous dynasties in the form of the royal family. It is also seen as a measure of the strength of British democracy that it has not allowed political power to be concentrated in a few hands — at least so far.
But is it all about to change?
The next general election, in 2015, could be a watershed moment for Westminster and usher in a new era of Asian-style succession politics in Britain. Some half-a-dozen offspring of senior Labour figures — the largest ever collection of political “princelings” — have set out their stalls to become MPs, and if they pull it off, the House of Commons might look more like the Lok Sabha with its generous sprinkling of sons and daughters.
Leading the pack is former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s eldest son Euan (28), who last made news 12 years ago when as a teenager he was infamously found drunk in London’s Leicester Square, ironically just days after his father announced a crackdown on teenaged antisocial behaviour.
He has since grown into a sober young man with an impressive CV that includes an internship at Capitol Hill where he worked for both Democrat and Republican politicians. He also had a stint at Morgan Stanley investment bank which he left to take up a job in the public sector — apparently to “improve his Labour credibility,” according to one newspaper.
With his Lenin-esque beard and informal sartorial style, Euan looks more Old Labour than his father’s brand of slick-and-shiny New Labour. He has been quietly active in the Labour Party with an eye on the safe seat of Coventry North West, likely to be vacated by Geoffrey Robinson, a former minister in his dad’s cabinet, who intends to retire at the end of his current term.
Blair Senior, who himself is thought to be contemplating a second innings in mainstream politics, said he would support his children in “whatever they decide to do” but rejected “the idea of a Kennedy-style Blair dynasty” after his wife Cherie Blair was reported as saying that she rather liked the notion of a Blair succession. His denial, however, has done little to dampen speculation that the Blairs nurse the ambition of becoming Britain’s First Family.
The most serious contender
Another Labour grandee whose son is vying for a party nomination is Jack Straw, a sitting MP and former Foreign Secretary. Will Straw (32), a former Oxford University student leader, is coveting a seat next to his father’s Blackburn constituency in Lancashire. Many still ask, “Is he the same fellow who was caught selling cannabis as a student?”
The answer is “yes” but those who know Will insist that he is a different man now. Indeed, he is regarded as the most serious of all the “red princes and princesses” in the fray. He is said to have inherited his father’s knack for working the room and belongs to what one commentator described as the most “formidably well-networked” groups in Labour.
Will has worked in leading think tanks in London and Washington — and currently works for the left-wing Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR). About his foray into electoral politics, he says: “Fighting, and hopefully winning, the seat would be a satisfying and rewarding challenge.”
Others set to follow into the footsteps of their political parents include Joe Dromey (26), younger son of Labour’s deputy leader Harriet Harman whose husband Jack Dromey was elected to Parliament in 2010; Georgia Gould (26), daughter of late Philip Gould, one of the founders of New Labour; Andy Sawford (36), son of former Labour MP Phil Sawford; and Emily Benn (23), granddaughter of Tony Benn whose son Hilary is a sitting MP and was international development secretary in the Labour government. If elected, she would be the fourth generation Benn in the Commons and, by no means, the last. For, it seems, other little Benns, are also inclined towards politics.
It is not that Britain has not had political families. In fact, there has been a long tradition of sons and grandsons of Tory politicians following the family line. We had Winston Churchill and his namesake grandson Winston; Harold Macmillan and son, Maurice; and the father-son team of Douglas and Nick Hurd. Then there was Douglas Hogg, whose father Quintin and grandfather Douglas were both Tory ministers.
But none ever got to qualify as a “brand” which, in the end, is what a political dynasty is about: a name people begin to identify with and trust in the same way that they reach out for a branded product. As a recent article in The Guardian (“What’s in a name: why do people trust political dynasties?”) pointed out: “It (the name) can be bound with the historical dominance of a party and a family's role within that party, such as the Congress Party in India. Perhaps, as with the truism that extreme ideologies become more electorally palatable during economic crises, voters do indeed reach for ‘trusted brand names’ when crises make them frightened by the world's uncertainties.”
In that sense, most of the “class of 2015” has brand recognition, and with the country in a deep economic crisis, people are perhaps looking for familiar names, even if a Blair or a Straw may not be in the same league as a Clinton or a Gandhi.