"Now we’re in a different world": James Graham on politics, playwriting and Labour of Love

The playwright opens up about Jeremy Corbyn, local politics—and why he's finding it so hard to set a drama in Number 10
September 8, 2017

The publication of the election exit poll at 10pm on 8th June was a plot twist worthy of the wildest of melodramas. Even by the turbulent standards of current politics, the prospect of a resurgent Jeremy Corbyn denying Theresa May a majority seemed so unlikely that few regarded it as credible. Journalists rushed to delete Labour’s political obituaries; pollsters were, yet again, dumbfounded. Judging by Corbyn’s reaction at his Islington count a few hours later, he was as flabbergasted as anyone.

Spare a thought, then, for James Graham. On election night he was drinking with friends, taking a break from a play he’d been working on for seven years. Labour of Love was supposed to tell the story of 25 years of Labour Party history, from Neil Kinnock’s failure to beat John Major in 1992 to what most people assumed would be an even more calamitous defeat in 2017. Actors had been cast and a theatre booked for the autumn; the script was nearly done. Everyone knew how the saga would pan out. Until, of course, they didn’t.

“I did have an existential crisis moment,” Graham admitted when we spoke recently, looking tortured by the memory. “It wasn’t just a case of having to change the bloody ending; the premise of the play had to shift. Nothing to do with my opinion of Jeremy Corbyn or the direction of the Labour Party, but I just assumed like everybody else that it was going to be an autopsy.” He threw up his hands. “And now we’re in a different world.”

We were talking in a garret room in a West End theatre, on a bright, breezy summer Friday morning. Graham was as full of bounce as ever—if you saw him at Westminster you’d peg him for an eager junior researcher, even at 35—but I detected some recent all-nighters in the lines under his eyes. The play still wasn’t finished, and the actors needed it on Monday. When I asked how much sleep he’d had since the election, he laughed. “How much sleep have any of us had?”

Graham, of all people, should perhaps have had an inkling that May’s supposedly safe bet might not pay out. An eager student of parliamentary history, he shot to prominence with This House (2012), a surprise hit for the National Theatre that retold the fraught and absorbing story of the 1974-79 hung parliament, with its uncanny foreshadowing of 2017. One of his very first works, Eden’s Empire (2006), focused on Anthony Eden, who seemed to all eyes—not least his own—a dead cert, and yet who made a disastrous, career-ending blunder. The Vote (2015) was a comedy of errors set inside a polling station. Few playwrights have gone to such lengths to demonstrate that, far from marking the serene progress of history, British politics most often resembles an out-of-control roller coaster, with public servants clinging on as best they can. Particularly when the electorate is at the levers.

Graham first had the idea for Labour of Love in 2010, when Labour found itself outmanoeuvred by David Cameron and Nick Clegg. The tragic arc looked appealing, almost Greek: Kinnockian hubris, Blairite apotheosis, Brownite nemesis. But the playwright couldn’t quite get a handle on how to tell the story. “It took a long time to gestate,” he said. “Either the moment wasn’t right, or the Labour Party wasn’t right for the play, or the play wasn’t right for the Labour Party.”

So he borrowed a trick from This House. Instead of being set in grand chambers of state, Labour of Love takes us inside the shabby rooms where day-to-day power is actually exercised. The earlier play largely inhabited the Labour whips’ office, as James Callaghan’s back-room boys feverishly try to prevent the government from toppling; this one is based in a thinly-fictionalised Labour constituency office in Northamptonshire. Martin Freeman plays the modernising MP, in thrall to Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson; Tamsin Greig his long-suffering local agent. The timeline hops between past and present, touching on large events such as the fallout from 9/11, austerity and de-industrialisation, but paying close heed to what Graham calls “proper politics, on the ground politics.”

Labour of Love isn’t, of course, the first attempt to anatomise Labour’s ongoing psychodrama: David Hare’s The Absence of War (1993), based on his observations during the 1992 campaign, went to town on the party’s battles with a hostile press and doubts about its economic competence. But Graham’s play might be the most detailed. The constituency in the play bears an uncanny resemblance to Ashfield, where Graham grew up, and the region where Labour’s fears were darkest in June. Although Ashfield has voted Labour since 1979 and was regarded as red-ribbed and rock-solid as recently as 2005, voters have become increasingly unpredictable. In 2010 Gloria De Piero scraped in with just 192 votes, before scoring an unexpectedly high 8,820 majority in 2015, even in the face of a Ukip surge. This time, she was back down to 441.

The play’s opening scene takes place on the night of 8th June, amid recount after tormenting recount. David, the MP, realises the bind his party is in—winning in university towns and cities for the very reasons that condemn it in its former heartlands; attempting to appease Brexiteers without terrifying the liberal elite. But Labour supporters fretting about their purpose is nothing new, he realises: “That’s all we ever seem to do, this party, as long as I can remember; questioning, soul-searching, introspection. How can we still not know, a hundred years on, who we fucking are?”

It isn’t simply that the link with blue-collar voters has become frayed, Graham suggested; many different forces are at work, ones that mainstream parties are struggling to read. “Ashfield is a place that’s constantly having a conversation about the kind of politics it wants, and that reflects national debates about what kind of Labour Party we want—do we want it to be on the left, on the right, socialist, centrist, even electable?”

More worrying shifts, from Labour’s perspective, are visible a few miles northeast in Mansfield, a formerly industrial constituency that in June swung Tory for the first time since its creation in 1885 (to the obvious consternation of the returning officer, who at first read out the wrong result).

"After every period in government, Labour goes through the same process of self-flagellation and self-loathing"
With Brexit likely to have disproportionate negative effects on areas such as this, Graham added, Corbynistas basking in their unexpected success shouldn’t get too comfortable. “Obviously it’s very exciting to see young people turn out and be passionate, but, knowing the picture where I come from, it’s a lot more dangerous than people think. There is still a potential crisis at the heart of that movement.”

He sounded doubtful about Labour’s prospects, I said. “I do find it curious and troubling the cyclical patterns Labour finds itself in. After every period in government, it seems to go through exactly the same process of self-flagellation and self-loathing—it blames the loss on not being left-wing enough, and wants to abandon the achievements of the previous administration. The same thing happened after Attlee in 1951, then in the 1980s, and now again after Blair and Brown.”

Graham was reluctant to offer any personal views on Corbyn: he has never been a member of any political party, though he campaigned for the anti-Corbyn De Piero in 2017, on the basis that he admires her as a local MP. But he did express his fears that conversation inside the party had been stifled: “There’s a silent creeping toxicity inside Labour, and that’s very worrying.”

Labour of Love is billed as a comedy, but there’s quite a lot here to make party strategists swallow hard, I suggested. Graham sighed. “It’s a tragicomedy, I guess, which I think is more like the Labour Party. You’re laughing and crying at the same time.”

Graham’s political antennae began to twitch young. Though too young to remember the miners’ strike, the scars it left were impossible to ignore in a constituency that once boasted four pits, all of which were gone by the early 2000s. His father was employed by Nottingham city council, while his mother currently works as a school secretary as well as in a warehouse. One of Graham’s earliest political memories is of his parents (who later divorced) taking opposing sides in the 1992 election.

After studying at Ashfield comprehensive, where he fell in love with drama, Graham went on to Hull University, and threw himself into theatre. He has produced over 20 plays, not to mention several screenplays, among them a movie about a young maths prodigy, X+Y (2014), and his television retelling of the deal-making that followed the 2010 election, Coalition (2015). Where playwriting contemporaries such as Jack Thorne, Lucy Prebble, Nick Payne and Lucy Kirkwood have addressed political subjects, they have also collectively ranged over topics as varied as the collapse of Enron, the concept of multiple universes and the teenage travails of Harry Potter.

Graham, though, has tackled politics with an obsessive intensity. Nearly every one of his works has some connection with politics, from a mouthy history play called Coal Not Dole!, written while he was still a student, to his first mature work, a surprisingly tender rumination on Ted Heath and the Conservative Party’s relationship with homosexuality called Tory Boyz (2008).

Yet one of the most impressive facets of his work, ironically enough, is how scrupulously apolitical it is: Graham is far more interested in process and personalities—the way power actually works—than in pushing political buttons. Ink, his play about the Sun, is surprisingly generous to Rupert Murdoch, and even more so to Larry Lamb, the man who transformed the newspaper from middlebrow Labour to rabble-rousing Tory. One of the great delights of This House—apart from its joyously nerdish interest in the technicalities of parliament—was its sense that British politics is a game in the best sense: a job for seasoned professionals who play by the rules (most of the time). Little of the work done by the whips attracts the eye of political editors, but they are as essential to the functioning of democracy as anything declared at the dispatch box or outside 10 Downing Street.
"Ten years ago the political plays were all about Iraq, not domestic policy. Now the opposite has happened, and it's thrilling"
At first it felt like a lonely furrow, Graham told me. Few people understood why a playwright still in his 20s was delving into Margaret Thatcher’s childhood, still less rummaging through the musty recesses of 1950s British Conservatism. But as political life in Britain has intensified over the last decade there has been an extraordinary flowering in political drama—one Graham has spearheaded. The last 12 months have seen major plays on the 1981 Labour split and creation of the SDP (Limehouse by Steve Waters), a stage version of Paul Mason’s interrogation of capitalism (Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere), Carol Ann Duffy’s referendum-inspired piece My Country: A Work in Progress, several television docudramas, and more hurriedly scripted hot takes on Trump and Brexit than the average episode of Newsnight.

“Ten years ago, the assumption was that people just didn’t want to watch it,” Graham said. “I guess also because it was felt there was nothing to talk about. The political plays were all about Iraq: in terms of domestic policy, it was like the end of history. The argument had been won, there was a consensus, there’s no point in talking about it. Now the opposite has happened, and it’s thrilling.”

When I asked if he ever got tired of the sheer pace of events, he frowned. “As a human being, yeah. Last year in particular we weren’t in a good place as a country, or as a world. Because of the referendum result particularly, but also because of the quality of our politics, how divided and angry it felt.” But he didn’t feel compelled to write about everything that came up, he added: “There are other brilliant writers who are covering a multitude of things. I don’t feel like I have to write a Donald Trump play any time soon.”

One wonders how he’d find the time. In addition to Labour of Love, and the transfer of Ink—the two will occupy neighbouring theatres—Graham has recently completed a television series responding to Brexit, due to begin filming later this year. Added to that, he’s writing a satirical stage piece for Hull City of Culture, and is working up a screen adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

When we got to chatting about why there’s never been a heavyweight British political drama like Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing, he admitted—somewhat sheepishly—that he was already on the case.

“Oh yeah, I’ve been trying to write a drama set in Number 10. I haven’t quite nailed it yet.”

Really?  “Erm, yeah. Since last year. The problem was I just couldn’t keep up with reality. You have to do what Sorkin did and make it a bit abstract, or you try to keep up with events. I’d like to start it up again. It feels like someone should be doing it; people who didn’t used to talk about politics now talk about it in the pub. We need some sort of vessel for all those conversations and thoughts and anxieties.”

We got back to talking about the astonishing turn of fortunes that has seen Corbyn back from the political dead, while May twists in the wind. “The arc of it is beautiful,” he mused. “The arrogance of calling an election, and then for it to all go wrong. The most popular polled PM since Churchill, the new Boudicca, falling. It’s Shakespearian.” Wait, I said, it sounded like there was material there for him to write yet another play. He looked impish. “Maybe I will.”