(Robert Hale, 1979)
Thomas Hargreaves, the incumbent Labour prime minister, dies of a heart attack on the eve of a general election. The party faces a leadership contest – the ballot of the title – ahead of the poll battle in the country at large. At this time, only MPs are involved in choosing the leader, thus the selection of a replacement is feasible in a way it would not be today.
On one level, this is a straightforward tale; a classical drama, in that there are two main warring camps, neither of which is especially admirable, clustered round the front runners, Pam Bruce and Tom Westwood. In this regard, it resembles the 2011 big-screen American political drama The Ides of March. As with that film, The Ballot features also a smaller, third group, whose votes could be critical, and a heavy-hitting journalist with a laissez-passer to cross back and forth through the battle lines, Ida Horowicz (Marisa Tomei) of the New York Times in the movie, Edwin Battle of the Daily News in the book.
Indeed, when we learn that the front runners hate each other – the result of an ancient family feud – and that their respective children are, to their enormous disapproval, dating (dating like rabbits, in fact, as Liz Bruce and Richard Westwood spend most of their time in bed), the novel comes uncomfortably close to resembling one of the productions of master yarn-spinner Jeffrey Archer. While the emergence of the Machiavellian chief whip Joe Hepworth, as the book’s central political character, threatens to take us into House of Cards territory – scarcely much of an improvement.
So I am happy to report that Summerscales is a decent enough writer to steer the narrative away from these pitfalls, and that there is genuine insight into the Labour movement of the time:
‘Unity?’ he asked, divining her fears. ‘Unity is what we’re always talking about but it never seems to exist for more than a week at a time. It’s always been the same, Pam; if we were united it would only mean that we were dead.’
Furthermore, this apparently straightforward political thriller contains a number of mysteries, the first of which is the question of when it is supposed to be set. Published in 1979, it was presumably written ahead of the election of that year. Normally, in this genre, one would assume the events are taking place a few years in the future – the mid-1980s, in this case – but that is not so. Summerscales makes it quite clear that the pending general election is the first since Labour’s return to power during the economic crisis of the mid-1970s:
[The] social contract … they would be proclaiming from the roof-tops in the next three weeks, had saved Britain.
Elsewhere, Tom Westwood is soliciting donations from the real-life (at that time) general secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, Moss Evans:
‘We’ve done a lot already, Tom. We’re still recovering from the financial beating we took over the Tory Industrial Relations Act.’
‘Look, with inflation, the cost of this campaign is going to be murderous. The bastards across the road [Conservative Central Office in Smith Square] are going to pump out money in torrents of gold. The bosses know that if they are beaten this time, with the North Sea oil coming in like a flood, they are out for a lifetime.’
October 1979 was the latest that the election of that year could have been held. Perhaps Summerscales hoped his book would ride the tide of public interest. Perhaps, indeed, it did. But the downside is that, superficially at least, the tale becomes out of date almost immediately.
If the author flouted one convention, that of setting a story a few years in the future, by tying it so specifically to a point in time, he flouted another in having, apparently, invented most of his main characters, rather than giving us thinly-disguised versions of real people. The dead PM, Hargreaves, a drunken adulterer, could scarcely be further removed from the real-life Downing Street incumbent James Callaghan. Pam Bruce and Tom Westwood have no obvious (or even obscure) counterparts in the 1974-79 Labour governments. Is Joe Hepworth supposed to be Callaghan’s enforcer Michael Cocks? At this distance of time it is hard to tell, but there is no reason to think so.
Alongside this wholly admirable imaginativeness sits a rather puzzling dearth of information as to the positions that these people hold. Hepworth is chief whip, but what does Bruce do? We are told that Westwood holds some sort of job at Transport House (Labour’s then headquarters) but is this full-time or merely for the duration of the general election campaign? Perhaps Summerscales was deliberately underlining a view that politics is – pace Tony Benn – entirely about personalities and human passions and that both issues and job descriptions are irrelevant. More likely, he just wasn’t very interested in this aspect of the tale.
Ah yes, Tony Benn. I said the author had invented most of his main characters. Here’s the exception, the leadership candidate of the third, smaller faction mentioned above:
[Y]oung Eric Bassett, the enfant terrible leader of the Workers’ Control group.
Bassett, of boyish appearance, is a fanatic, a teetotaller and a food crank. Just in case we haven’t got the message, there is this exchange between himself and Battle:
‘Would Wedgie have done better than you?’
‘I doubt it. Like me, Wedgie was 30 years before his time.’
The ‘about the author’ page of my edition has fallen out, and there is precious little about Rowland Summerscales on the internet, other than that he wrote a number of novels under the pseudonym Robert Gaines. I have a feeling he was a lobby journalist, but no proof.
He did, however, have something of a talent for long-range forecasting. After the outcome of Labour’s 2015 leadership election, this line from Pam Bruce to Joe Hepworth, as he urges her to throw her hat into the ring, looks prophetic:
‘My guess is that it will be 50 years before the Labour Party is conservative enough to elect a woman leader.’
Just 14 years to go, then.