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by Mandy Rhodes
12 February 2024
Pat McFadden: It's a myth that British politics is a pendulum - Labour victories are rarities

Pat McFadden photographed for Holyrood by Louise Haywood-Schiefer

Pat McFadden: It's a myth that British politics is a pendulum - Labour victories are rarities

The story of the Labour Party over the last forty or so years is as much the story of Pat McFadden’s career as it is of the big beasts – the so-called Scottish McMafia – that dominated politics during the 1990s and noughties. From working with and around Donald Dewar through to John Smith, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, George Robertson, John Reid, Robin Cook, and Alistair Darling, McFadden’s CV reads like a Scottish Labour leadership rollcall. And while he himself may not yet be a household name, the 58-year-old Paisley-born MP for Wolverhampton South East has been quietly and influentially working behind the scenes to make his party electable.

Arguably largely unknown outside party circles, McFadden has been at the epicentre of his party’s leadership since the 1980s. He was first employed by the then shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, Donald Dewar, straight out of the University of Edinburgh where he had studied alongside contemporaries such as the SNP’s John Swinney who, he said, he liked and “we got on very well”. Having arrived in Edinburgh – only his third time in the city, the first being to visit an aunt who was on a trip from her home in the States, and the second to see David Bowie play Murrayfield on his ‘Let’s Dance’ tour – he admits to feeling like “a fish out of water” surrounded by tall, English students.

“I was just this wee guy from Glasgow, and they all seemed so big, their clothes were all big, and they all seemed very posh. And this might sound naïve, but they were a product of generations of private schooling, and these were still the days before big participation in higher education and there weren’t many people there from my background.

“I remember going to see my director of studies after the first term, and I said, I don’t quite fit in here. And he was wise. He’d probably heard this story a number of times. And he said to me, ‘Look, I know what you’re saying but give it until the end of the first year, you’ve only been here for three months, give it more time and see how you feel in the summer.’ It was good advice. Things got better. I made more friends. I felt more at home after I’d been there for nine months rather than three.” 

Notwithstanding his initial misgivings, he went on to graduate with a politics degree. And with a backdrop of growing up in a working-class, Labour-voting family in Glasgow in the 1970s and 80s – he cast his first vote for Labour in 1983 – and with Margaret Thatcher in power, McFadden, unsurprisingly, joined the Labour Party at university, citing the inspiration of watching Neil Kinnock taking on Militant in his 1985 Bournemouth conference speech.

He became very active in both student politics and the local constituency of Edinburgh South and was tipped for the job with Dewar by Murray Elder, who was the general secretary of the Scottish Labour Party at the time. McFadden remembers having to get dressed up in a suit and tie to go and meet Dewar for a cup of tea at the then North British Hotel and being very scared and quite uncomfortable. He affectionately remembers Dewar as being “like a stick insect, all angles” and says Dewar basically spoke at him for about half an hour and then offered him the job by saying, “Right, this is fine, you can start on Monday”. 

From working with Dewar, where he says he began by opening the mail, McFadden forged strong contacts with the Scottish media – every newspaper north of the border had at least one Westminster-based correspondent at the time – and given the large Scottish contingent of MPs – at one time, one in five of the parliamentary Labour Party represented a Scottish seat – their views were in demand and McFadden played a vital role in building relationships.

McFadden went on to be John Smith’s speech writer and policy advisor when Smith was the leader of the opposition, and when Smith tragically died in 1994, McFadden became an aide to his successor, Tony Blair, both in opposition and government. When asked if he agrees that Smith was ‘the finest prime minister we never had’, he says that “counterfactuals are always difficult to argue” but you suspect he would have clearly liked to have seen that happen.

He does, however, emphatically believe that Blair was one of the country’s greatest leaders. He ultimately became Blair’s political secretary and while he would not say it, he is also credited with driving the modernisation of the party. 

Characteristically, McFadden says his efforts were “a small part of the change”, but others will say he played a crucial role in, for instance, negotiations with the trade unions in amending the totemic Clause IV of the party’s constitution and also played a hugely influential role in the devolution settlement. As a Scot and close aide of Blair’s, McFadden was inevitably caught in the Blair/Brown psychodrama and again, while he would not publicly confirm it, it was that which likely delayed his entry into frontline politics when he was persuaded by Blair to stand aside in favour of Brown’s candidate, Douglas Alexander, when the seat of Paisley South was contested in a by-election following the tragic death of Gordon McMaster in 1997. He will only say he was “bruised” by it but “quickly got over it”.

Eventually persuaded to stand for election, McFadden contested and won the seat of Wolverhampton South East at the 2005 general election and, less than a year later, entered government in a reshuffle that saw him appointed as parliamentary secretary for the Cabinet Office. He went on to hold various ministerial posts, both under Blair and later Brown, and following Labour’s defeat in 2010, was appointed shadow business secretary by the interim party leader, Harriet Harman, and later shadow minister for Europe in the Ed Miliband-led party of opposition.   

Every political leader should have a Pat McFadden, a quiet, stable, respected intellect, whose loyalty can be relied on and who, importantly, isn’t after the top job – albeit is well-equipped to do so. And it perhaps then comes as no surprise that this is also the man who, ironically,  was sacked for “repeated acts of disloyalty” when Jeremy Corbyn briefly led the party into rancour and electoral obscurity – which perhaps says more about Corbyn than McFadden. He is also the man who chooses not to be drawn into recriminations or slanging matches about that time, although those close to him say he was happy to sit the Corbyn period out.

Needless to say, McFadden is back. And if not quite in the driving seat currently occupied by Keir Starmer, then surely sitting by his side,  helping to pull the levers and navigate a steady course to Number 10.

Patrick Bosco [he has no idea either, other than his mother told him that expectant mothers used to pray to St John Bosco but he’s not sure that could be true, given the rarity of its use] McFadden is officially Starmer’s shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster – deputy to Rachel Reeves, and importantly for the here and now, Labour’s National Campaign Coordinator. He is leading the party’s election campaign and if he has learnt one thing about leadership from the many leaders he has brushed up against, it is about “seeing the bigger picture” and “remaining curious”.

McFadden is infamously calm, not prone to histrionics, although his fierce intellect can be menacing enough to keep others in check. And some will say that his arched eyebrow does more for party discipline than a raised voice. He is certainly not someone to get swept away on the hubris of the polls and even though the first minister of Scotland and the leader of the SNP, Humza Yousaf, is basically fighting this next election on the presumption that Labour will form the next government, the man actually leading Labour’s campaign reminds me, several times during our conversation, that Labour victories are rare and he is taking nothing for granted.

“No election is in the bag. Nobody’s got it. Firstly, that’s taking people for granted in a way that I don’t think any party should. But secondly, I think it downgrades the value of Scottish people’s votes. Humza Yousaf talked about sending a message to Westminster. I don’t want Scottish voters to send a message, I want them to send a government. I want Scottish voters to be empowered to be part of this decision.

“And the decision is, are we going to have five more years of the Tories or are we going to have a Labour government? And so, I don’t want people to think this is about sending a message, I want them to send MPs who instead of sitting in opposition will be part of a government. And we will only get a Labour government if everybody feels part of that change.

“And so, we want voters in Scotland to be empowered to vote and to be part of the change. We’ve made good progress in Scotland, but the change that we want to see at a UK level is much more likely and more achievable if people in Scotland are fully part of that. So, I don’t agree with this notion that it’s in the bag, so you can do something else with your vote. We want people’s votes to be a meaningful part of this process. 

“The SNP used to say there was no point in voting Labour in Scotland because we couldn’t win. Now they’ll say there’s no point in voting Labour because we can’t lose. Well, I am clear that Labour victories are a rarity, you have to earn them, you have to work hard for them. As the National Campaign Coordinator, I spend a lot of my working week at the Labour Party headquarters, which is across the river from where we’re talking now, and my message to the staff – most of whom have not fought a general election, certainly not fought a winning general election – is to ignore these polls. They’re about as useful as looking in the rearview mirror of your car and trying to predict the traffic conditions up ahead. They just tell you what’s happened up till now.

“Do not ever be sucked into the idea that we are the incumbents, we’re not, we’re the challengers. Don’t let the media or the SNP or the Tory party turn Labour into the incumbents. The Tories are the ones with a 14-year record to defend. And we are fighting this from behind, we’re coming off the worst result we had in 80 years. The arithmetic we’ve got to overcome is really challenging. But I do believe we’re back on the pitch. I do believe that Keir Starmer deserves enormous credit for taking a party that came off the back of that result and for turning it into a competitive force again. But we still have everything to prove. So, things are possible. But it’s a lot of work to turn a possibility into a reality.”

McFadden hasn’t lived in Scotland for a very long time, although he has a lot of family still here and is a regular visitor and says that he is shaped by his upbringing in Glasgow. But he is not one of those politicians who exaggerates his background for political gain. Indeed, despite him having more of a hinterland than most of the current crop of career politicians could shake a stick at, you suspect personality politics just aren’t his thing and as we delicately skirt around the more personal aspects of who he is, he quickly steers the conversation back into the more political where he is clearly more comfortable.

So, when we talk about his years at Holyrood Secondary School on Glasgow’s southside, he quickly moves the conversation onto the more general policy discussion, the role of education in social mobility and the reforms made by Tony Blair which introduced school academies. McFadden is passionate about education and says “one of the most powerful and radical things any government can do is make sure that people who don’t have money have got at least some of the life chances and opportunities that people with money do have”.

He is much more comfortable taking about policy than personality and it is perhaps indicative that the few print interviews that exist with McFadden tend to have unnamed ‘friends’ and ‘close colleagues’ quoted describing who he is more than words that have come directly out of his mouth. McFadden is private, unassuming, and hides his light under a bushel, but his ability to lead should not be ignored lightly. He has a steely determination, a fierce intellect and an instinctive political antenna guided by a sense of what will make life better for all rather than by simple ideology. He is the embodiment of what was dubbed ‘New Labour’ and much of that is shaped by his own upbringing.

He dismisses the whole ‘passport out of poverty’ descriptor that others have attributed to him in the past but, when pressed, says, “We weren’t what you would call poor, but I would say we were an ordinary working-class family albeit a pretty large one”.

In fact, McFadden is the youngest of seven – five boys and two girls – and the only one to actually be born in hospital rather than at home, which is why he is often referred to as Paisley-born despite having never lived there. His parents were Irish immigrants and, he says, like a lot of Irish immigrants of that generation, his father worked on building sites and that it was “tough, hard, unforgiving work” and he worked from early in the morning to late at night, often holding down more than one job and working weekends digging gardens just to bring in some extra money.

It was gruelling work and it is this which McFadden suspects contributed to the premature death of his father, who suffered a number of strokes before his death when McFadden was just 14-years-old. His mother, who died six years ago, worked in a children’s home in Castlemilk.

“Mum did the night shift; the night shift is tough. I think her shift started at 10 o’clock at night and she’d go and get the bus and then she’d come in about eight in the morning, just as we were getting ready for school. Then once we went to school, she’d go to bed for a few hours. By the time I got home from school about four o’clock in the afternoon, she’d be back up and so it would start. I guess she gave us security, we always knew she was there for us.

“Obviously when Dad died, it was a shock, and that first contact with death is a real shock to anyone because of the finality of it. You’ve never come across anything else in life that is so final. You may have fallen out with people, you might miss people, but there’s nothing else that has the finality of death where you have to absorb, for the first time in your life, that you’ll never see that person again. They are fully gone. It’s obvious in a way but it’s still a shock. It’s unlike anything else in life and Mum was on her own from then until she died six years ago; that must have been hard. Mum was still working in the children’s home at the time, and she carried on working, she didn’t retire for some years after that. We all carried on. What else are you going to do?”

That finality of death is something that McFadden had to share in a more public way when John Smith died of a heart attack in 1994. McFadden was working for the Labour leader at the time and says news of his death was one of those “standstill moments in British politics”.

“I’d worked for John for about a year when he died. You know, that was one of the standstill moments in British politics, I think. He was going to speak at a conference, and I was meant to be going with him in the car that day, the car would have then taken him to parliament, and instead I got into work to learn that something terrible had happened. He was loved and respected and while counterfactuals are always difficult, who knows what kind of prime minister he would have been; we’ll never know. 

McFadden with then Prime Minister Gordon Brown in 2009 | Alamy

“I remember going to Edinburgh and staying there for a week while we were planning John’s funeral, and I don’t think we realised when we started that it was going to turn into basically a semi-state occasion. And we were halfway through the week when I realised, we’re going to have to have a ticketing system because you’ve got to have family...and dignitaries are coming and you’ve got to work all this out, and not everybody can get in. So, there’s going to be overspill, and we ended up with some four different colours of tickets or whatever to ensure the seating would go to plan.

“And then collectively, we were pitched into a leadership contest which turned out to be quite a difficult thing from the point of view of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. And, as you know, plenty has been written about that. But the party did then go on to return to score the most fantastic election victory a few years later. In some ways, I think it might have been better if it [the Tony Blair and Gordon Brown leadership tussle] had all been fought out and played out rather than this notion of a deal, which then lingered on for many years.

“Tony did a fantastic job in turning the Labour Party around but anyone who thinks this is easy should remember the history. There have only been three Labour leaders since Ramsay MacDonald that have been elected prime minister. It is a myth about British politics that it’s a pendulum. It’s not a pendulum. Labour election victories are rarities. And, as I say, only three people since Ramsay MacDonald have managed to secure one. If it was easy, more people would have been able to do it. And so, to secure not one but three, as Tony did, was a testament to his power as a leader and as a communicator. I think the job that he did in changing Labour and getting a broad appeal to the electorate was just an amazing thing to do, but it wasn’t easy.

“Oh, my role was tiny. You know, I was for what Tony was doing. I was for the modernisation of the Labour Party. I was for updating aims and values. I was for the public service changes that we made when we were in government. We talked about education earlier. And I think a number of MPs from my kind of background could see that at the heart of this was a real agenda of working-class opportunity.

“Take the health service, you know, his view was, why should people wait 18 months, two years, for hip and knee replacements? We’ll put the money in, but it’s going to take some reforms, we’re going to put strict targets in there: 18 weeks from diagnosis by a GP, not by a consultant, but a GP, to your operation. We ended up with an average wait of seven weeks for these kinds of operations. Compare that to today. The four-hour wait in A&E. There was a lot of resistance from some of the doctors who didn’t want politicians telling them what to do. But I could see this was somebody saying, the service revolves around the consumer, around the patient, and it will work for the patient, not the other way around.

“And I think that’s a radical and powerful thought. It may not have been done perfectly. But you ended up, after a number of years of pushing this agenda, with the highest levels of satisfaction that the NHS ever recorded.”

I suggest that talking about the ‘consumer’ of public service can annoy some on the more ideological wing of his party who may feel that language smacks of capitalism. The eyebrow arches. 

“I honestly don’t care how that is viewed. By the ‘consumer’, I mean the school pupil, the victim of crime, the patient, the citizens for whom these services are for. I remember going to one of the schools in my constituency and seeing the council dignitaries, the head teacher, and all the staff, and there were some pupils and teachers, and I said, the people I work for in this room are the pupils and their parents. I don’t work for the local authority, I don’t work for the school, I work for the pupils and their parents, and I want the best outcome for them. And that was very much Tony Blair’s view on public services.

“And I think we’ve lost sight of that in this country a little bit. I think the desire to really focus these services on who they are for has dissipated in part because somebody thought it was ideologically suspect or something. But it’s actually a really powerful, radical thing. Because remember, this is for the people who can’t go somewhere else to get it. So, you’ve got a public duty to make sure that this thing that everybody relies on, especially the people that don’t have money, is the absolute best that you can provide.” 

McFadden at a meeting of Keir Starmer's shadow cabinet | Alamy

I ask McFadden if he agrees that political fortunes can turn on the head of a pin and that despite all that Blair achieved, his legacy became the ill-fated intervention in Iraq, and does he wish things had been done differently?

“Looking back is pointless, but I could see what he was doing, I could see that he was making a judgement, and that British foreign policy has been aligned with the United States since the war. And after September 11, he thought that was the critical thing. Now, there might be people who say that was wrong and whatever, but whether they’re right or not, that’s the rationale for his decision. 

“But I think about his achievements and given the electoral record we spoke about, to have won three elections in a row, and on the roster of government achievements, there’s a lot to talk about there. There’s a lot to take pride in. I’ll make a partisan point: we were in office for 13 years between the Tony Blair premiership and the Gordon Brown premiership; I would argue with anyone to take the achievements of those 13 years and compare them to the last 13 years. And I’ll say the country achieved a lot more.

“It’s about what do you do with power rather than just securing power. There’s a very famous clip of Gordon, actually – not Tony, Gordon – at a conference just reciting the Good Friday Agreement, the minimum wage, the reduced NHS waiting times, the reforms in schools, the neighbourhood policing, and so on, and he goes through the whole thing. There’s a lot to take pride of in there. 

“And look, similarly, no one can deny the SNP’s electoral success. They’ve been very electorally successful for the last 16 years or so. But I would pose the question of what did Scottish people get for that? Look at the education. Look at the NHS. Look at other areas, too. And I would argue that they have done nothing tangible with that electoral success other than win elections.”

Winning the next general election is McFadden’s entire focus and he believes that Starmer is the leader who will bring change. McFadden is very close to Starmer, they share the same curious intellect, are pragmatists, and have a similar outlook on life. Starmer is more comfortable being front-facing and the more self-effacing McFadden, while entirely confident in his own leadership abilities, prefers to be the power behind the machine.

At Alistair Darling’s funeral in Edinburgh in December, at which organisers had the unenviable task of seating former political leaders and heads of state without causing offence, McFadden, a close friend of Darling, was not precious about where he would be seated, telling Darling’s family he would “do as he was told” and that “there are bigger tomatoes than me” to consider. It was typically unassuming of McFadden, who doesn’t need to be visible for his influence to be felt. 

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