'It's very sweary!' What Labour MPs make of James Graham's political comedy Labour of Love

The mountains of leaflets, the WhatsApp groups, the election night panic … Harriet Harman, Tracy Brabin and David Lammy on what the play gets right – and wrong

‘What happens in the constituency office stays in the constituency office’

Tracy Brabin.
Tracy Brabin. Photograph: David Sillitoe for the Guardian

Tracy Brabin

Constituency offices are not glamorous places. There’s nothing remotely hi-tech about them. So I can’t tell you how real that set looked, with its bags of leaflets piled high and all the other assorted crap. James Graham’s research has obviously been forensic – but the warmth of the main relationship in the play rings true, too. The bond between an MP and a constituency agent, or between an MP and an office manager, is like husband and wife. You know you’ve got each other’s back – and understand that what happens in the constituency office stays in the constituency office.

To me, the play shows that you don’t go into the Labour party because you want glory. Nor do you do it as an affectation, or to be in a gang. It’s a calling, a vocation. We all want a fairer world. But, through flashbacks, the play also personifies the rifts within Labour, the tensions that have always been there. As we said at the conference, unity is the most powerful tool that we have. That message is at the core of the play.

If you don’t know anything about British politics, it’s a good history lesson about Labour’s triumphs and failures. It’s bang up to date, too. The line about the WhatsApp group for Labour MPs made me laugh – my own phone was buzzing with WhatsApp messages throughout. I don’t know how campaigns were ever run without mobile phones and the internet.

There are some clever references – like starting with a blast of the White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army, which was the inspiration for the “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn” chant. The play will stir a lot of emotions for Labour supporters, especially through the news montages: we see Ed Miliband on the screen, and feel a sense of disappointment, then cringe at Neil Kinnock delivering his “We’re all right” line again and again at Sheffield in 1992.

David Lyons, Martin Freeman’s character, is parachuted into a safe seat in 1990, his old Nottinghamshire patch. I’ve only been in office for a year – I succeeded Jo Cox as MP for Batley and Spen, an area I’ve known my whole life. I’ve got no idea how anybody could represent a place they either didn’t grow up in or don’t know very well.

Because I come from a council estate in Batley, I’ve never been cast as a character who needed a suit. Likewise, in my acting career, I never played a politician. But I really believe in the power of drama and go to a lot of local amateur productions. Earlier this year, we put on Jo’s favourite musical, Les Mis, in a warehouse, with 100 young people from across the constituency taking part.

There’s some beautiful broad humour in Labour of Love, and a moving Much Ado-style relationship, but the play is really a celebration of the party’s achievements – from SureStart centres to peace in Northern Ireland. People forget that what we achieved in power was extraordinary.

I thought the MP was going to be a caricature of a New Labour leftover

Harriet Harman.
Harriet Harman. Photograph: Karen Robinson for the Observer

Harriet Harman

Labour of Love showed the links between all the Labour leaders, from Callaghan right through to Corbyn, and the thread that unites them: shared Labour values and a shared struggle to get the party into power. I suspected the MP was going to be a caricature of a New Labour leftover but, as it worked backwards in time, you saw that the position he was in was a result of being tired of losing, being fed up with not being able to help people in his constituency.

The play was sophisticated enough to recognise that it is not the case that there is one group of people in the Labour party who have principles and one group who want power. It showed that every Labour person has a bit of both. It was interesting that the leader of the council couldn’t do anything without Labour being in government because the council was being starved of funds – and of course we’re seeing that happen again.

There were some things that just felt wrong. I think the idea that the majority of work for a Labour MP in a northern constituency is “dog shit” – as they say – is just wrong. The constituents have so many problems – yes, parks that are unusable, pavements that are fouled – but there are more problems than just dog shit, and it trivialised that.

Also, I can’t bear to see yet another depiction of that Labour period – after the transformations of the 1980s – that says nothing about the change in women’s lives. Once again, I had to sit there watching as the only women depicted are the MP’s wife, or the woman who works for him. Actually, a huge part of New Labour getting into power was because women changed their votes. Once again, this was looked at through traditional male eyes and I’ve lost patience with that.

The wife was a two-dimensional character who was so unpleasant it was misogynistic. At the end, the male MP gives his female agent papers to be the candidate and says she can step forward. But the way women have become MPs in Labour over the years is by struggling for it. They haven’t been gifted it by men who fancy them.

While the newsreel was poignant and compelling, where was Mo Mowlam? Where was Clare Short? The women were invisible and I find that intolerable.

The play captures a candidate’s vulnerability. On election night, I always think I’ve lost

David Lammy.
David Lammy. Photograph: Graeme Robertson for the Guardian

David Lammy

Politics is based on relationships. They’re behind the theory, policy and ambition. We hear a lot about spin doctors, special advisers and mandarins, but at the centre of Labour of Love there is an MP and his agent. That partnership is central to our political system.

Similarly, behind the grand theatre of Westminster, there are political centres that can feel dreary and mundane, like the constituency office. Even Theresa May has a small office like this one, somewhere in Maidenhead. These places are nothing like the corridors of power. So it’s refreshing to watch a play about politics that is not set in the Westminster village.

In his earlier play, This House, Graham went inside the whips’ office to show very salt-of-the-earth Labour folk for whom it was all trench warfare, but who felt uncomfortable with Westminster. In Labour of Love, Jean Whittaker – the agent played by Tamsin Greig – barely even goes to Westminster, but she plays just as important a role as David Lyons.

We need more portraits of politics that are local and regional. The strength of our system is that, unlike American senators, we are not just politicians, we are representatives – and we represent a place zealously. I thought Graham did well to convey a real sense of place – Nottingham, over the last 25-odd years, is brought home to us. Graham, like me, is proud of the part of the world he comes from. There are points of detail that only someone from a former coal-mining community could possibly know. It takes us away from the chattering classes and the north London dinner parties and helps us to understand post-Brexit Britain and those who voted leave.

The first half moves back in time, from Corbyn’s leadership to 1990. This gives you a perspective on the journey travelled and the one still to come. It also reminds us that the Labour party was only in power for 22 years of the last century. Labour has achieved so much but is not a natural party of government. It may be our best vehicle for progressive change but it remains a work in progress.

The play is a love story between two individuals but also looks at each character’s relationship with the party. I fell out with Labour most recently when it took a very different position to me on Brexit – I felt like a stranger in my own party. Like any sort of marriage, there are ups and downs, moments when you can feel quite estranged. And to govern, you do need a broad church. All political parties are a coalition of interests, especially in a two-party system. During the good times, it all comes together, but during the tough times you can be at war among yourselves.

Like David Lyons, I have one of the supposedly safest seats in the country. I’d been the candidate for two weeks when I was told the people of Tottenham would vote for a donkey if you put a red bow on it. Lyons is told the people of Mansfield would vote for a tub of cottage cheese if it had a red rose on it. But still, on election night, I always think I’ve lost. All of it counts for nothing when the ballot papers are being counted. I remember watching Oona King lose her seat after the Iraq war. The play captures that feeling, the vulnerability of the candidate. Nothing is safe at that moment.

If you’re a politico like me, I’m not sure how much you’ll really learn from the play – but you’ll certainly recognise the world it presents, which people don’t often see. It is very funny in places. There’s a great working-class tradition of pulling laughter out of pathos. And Graham has a great sense of comic timing. It’s quite sweary but then politics is! It will certainly please anyone who enjoyed Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It.

Labour of Love is at the Noël Coward theatre, London, until 2 December. Box office: 0844-482 5141.


Interviews by Chris Wiegand and Emine Saner

The GuardianTramp

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