Pauline Bryan: “I’m not interested in wining and dining. I’m here to help Labour prepare for power”
Pauline Bryan arrived in the House of Lords on a pledge to campaign for its abolition “at the earliest opportunity”. As the new Labour peer gets to grips with the upper chamber, she sits down with Gary Connor for her first ever interview
When Pauline Bryan’s name was announced as one of Labour’s three new appointees to the House of Lords earlier this year, no one was more surprised than Pauline Bryan.
She had been retired for eight years after a long career running an employee counselling service in Glasgow and, while she was a veteran of the Labour left of the 1970s and 80s, was little known in wider party circles.
“When I got the phone call, I honestly thought it was to pick my brains about who would be good,” she recalls, adding with characteristic modesty that she has never considered herself one of the “great and the good”.
But it was put to her that the leadership wanted to nominate peers from outside the south of England, who were women and who would support the abolition of the Lords “at the earliest opportunity”. “I was able to say yes to all those,” she says.
“It took some time to think about it because it’s a big upheaval,” she adds. “But when you’re asked by someone who you support, you have to.”
When she sits down with The House magazine for what she describes as her first ever interview, I admit that I’d struggled to find out much about her or her views in my research, aside from a couple of articles for the Morning Star and the Red Paper Collective, a group that aims to provide an alternative perspective to political debate in Scotland. She laughs that she’s so far “gone under the radar”.
It would be fair to describe her as low-profile. At the time of her appointment, one comradely Labour MP even sneered that she was a “complete nobody”. “I quite liked that”, she laughs. “That’s going to be my nom-de-plume – Diary of a Nobody.”
But that vacuum has been filled with press speculation about her views. A piece in the Mail on Sunday on her appointment – headlined ‘Axe the Lords, the Royal Family and MI5, says Corbyn’s new peer’ – revealed that in 2015 she backed the left-wing manifesto of The Socialist Campaign for a Labour Victory, which called for the abolition of the monarch, special police forces and the institution that she has since joined.
She laughs it off, saying she signed up to a broad pledge but was unaware of all the detail. “Apparently MI5 was included in the list of the demands. I haven’t really got strong views either way on MI5,” she says.
On the Royal Family, she says it would not come as a surprise to anyone that she’s a committed Republican. “It’s such an anachronism to have a Queen with a role in our legislative process. It’s just bizarre.”
Over time she hopes that will change, but says she isn’t planning to campaign on the issue any time soon. She’s not likely to be queueing up for State Opening tickets though, I wonder? “No, I’ve worn my ermine. That’s it,” she laughs.
Her “most immediate concern”, she says, is abolishing the House of Lords. “I have no particular grudge against the people here, but it’s about what this chamber should be used for,” she explains. “The reason that I was invited here was to try and look at how we can democratise at a UK level so that all the regions’ and nations’ voices are heard.”
She acknowledges that her party’s leadership has no clear plan on what would replace the Lords but says retaining “the revising chamber element” is something that’s “really important”. “You can have a senate of the nations and regions that is representative in some way, either directly elected, or even in the short term maybe sitting MSPs, [Welsh] Assembly Members, but with a view to it becoming fully elected. But then would its role be a revising chamber, or something else? The role of a revising chamber is something I need to fully understand.”
Although Bryan deeply disagrees with the trappings of the institution, the ceremony and the ermine, she accepts them for now as necessary to ensure her voice is heard in the debates to be had about the future of the UK’s democracy.
We speak in what is only her fourth proper week as a working peer and the new Baroness says she’s beginning to get to know colleagues and find her way around the long, wood-panelled corridors of the Palace of Westminster. She describes the Lords as a “very friendly and welcoming place to work” and is full of compliments for the “kindness” of the staff and officials.
But Bryan’s open advocation for the complete abolition and replacement of the Lords makes her a rare figure on the Labour benches. In an article for the left-wing blog The Red Robin explaining her reasons for accepting the position, she said that she hoped every Labour peer would be committed to abolition and promised to “check that out when I get there”. So what has she found so far?
“I think most appreciate that it needs to change. I wouldn’t say abolition would be the first word they’d use, but reform,” she says.
“Most I’ve spoken to would acknowledge that as it was now, it’s not really acceptable. But there isn’t a consensus on how it would change.”
Baroness Bryan of Partick originally hails from “sarf London”, spending most of her youth in Wandsworth, and has held on to her accent through 32 years of living in Scotland. Only the occasional word betrays a gentle Scottish burr.
Her parents were both Irish Catholics and met in Birmingham after her father had been demobbed from the British Army and her mother was working as a “clippy” on the buses.
Bryan left her small school in Sheen in 1965, at the age of 16, and was helped by her mum to get a job as a messenger girl at the Daily Mirror. She would spend her days running around the paper’s HQ in Holborn Circus, and remembers taking legendary musicians like Sonny and Cher and The Kinks to interviews and occasionally picking up free concert tickets in the process. “There was a buzz to it”, she recalls.
Career prospects at that point for Bryan were somewhat limited. The best of the messenger girls would be poached to join the Mirror’s typing pool. But that wasn’t for her. “I remember once saying to my mum ‘I don’t want to be a secretary, I want to have a secretary!’”
After leaving school she spent two years at Kingsway College in London – “O Level British Constitution has stood me in good stead for the House of Lords” – and then went to a teacher’s training college in Bradford, but quickly realised that it wasn’t for her.
But it was in Bradford where Bryan got her first taste of politics when she started working for the Independent Labour party, which had been founded in the city in 1893, with Keir Hardie as its first chair. “I met people who’d met him,” she tells me, “so there was that sort of continuous chain, which was amazing. That gave me a deep interest in Labour history.”
Eventually, Bryan returned to London in 1981 to work for the Fabian Society, under Dianne Hayter, now Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town. She remembers “really exciting times”. “The SDP had just left and tried to take the Fabian Society with it. When I started work there Tony Benn was on the executive. It had a real buzz to it.”
She left London in 1986, after meeting her husband, who insisted they moved to Scotland because “nobody could understand him” in the south. Bryan has been based there ever since.
Bryan comes from a Labour family. Both parents were members of trade unions, and she had uncles who were in the Communist party – “though I’d have been thrown out if I’d even looked at them”. Politics wouldn’t happen overtly at home, she says, but emerged as part of conversations about fairness and equality.
She’s been a Labour party member for “40-odd years” and has never considered leaving, but admits to being “disillusioned” for long periods of time. Was there anything in particular?
“I think it has to be Blair. He gets first prize,” she says. The Iraq war? “Before. Over Clause 4. He put down his marker that he was going to fundamentally change the Labour party. He did a pretty good job of it, but its roots go deeper than he could reach.”
She’s pleased that there is now “a recognition that so much damage was done to the party during that time”. “You didn’t have to be on the far left to see that,” she says.
I ask her if she can think of anything nice to say about her party’s former leader and prime minister. After a long pause, she admits that she’s “struggling”, before citing some of the social reforms that he made.
“But he fundamentally believed – to be fair, I’m not sure what he believed – but the people around him believed in neoliberal global economics. They entered into it with gusto, and believed that there’d be a trickle-down effect so that the people down there would get bits and pieces. Their lives would be a bit better. But he was at odds with the idea of working people having the power. They would mess things up.”
It’s safe to say that Bryan feels a lot more comfortable with the current leadership. She says that since the election of Jeremy Corbyn Labour is getting closer to the values Hardie had in mind when he founded the party.
She’s known John McDonnell since he was a member of the GLC in the 1980s. The Shadow Chancellor stays with Bryan when he’s up in Scotland.
But, curiously given her characterisation in the press as a “Corbyn crony”, Bryan and Corbyn only met for the first time in 2015, after she invited him to contribute to ‘What would Keir Hardie say?’ a collection of essays she was editing to mark the centenary of the former Labour leader’s death.
“He holds me responsible for missing the FA Cup final of that year,” she tells me, laughing, adding that he frequently ribs her about it. Corbyn’s Arsenal went on to win the final 4-0. “He was going to watch it with his mates but was too busy writing his chapter.”
When Corbyn met Barack Obama, during the former US president’s visit to the UK in 2016, he handed over a copy of Bryan’s book as a gift. “It was quite a surreal thought,” she says, adding she only found out after it had happened so didn’t have the chance to sign it. “I’m sure it went in a big box somewhere in the basement.”
Bryan finds herself in something of a minority on the Labour benches. Most of the party’s peers were appointed under previous leaders and few would be natural political bedfellows. Whether other peers who are closer to her and the leaderships’ views are appointed in the future is a matter for Corbyn, she says.
“I can fully appreciate from Jeremy’s perspective; he doesn’t feel at ease appointing peers. He’s struggled with it,” she says. “Obviously if he were to become Prime Minister, he would want to have the manifesto commitments carried through in the Lords as well as the Commons, to get the passage of bills through in a reasonable time. But I don’t know that he’ll ever have a majority in the Lords.”
Bryan is very clear about what she sees as the duties of her colleagues in the House of Lords; to support the Labour party, and if it comes to power, its programme for government. “Obviously not everyone will agree with every dot and comma of the manifesto,” she says. “But the general understanding is if we win on the manifesto, it’s their duty support it.”
Bryan is determined to play an active part for as long as she is a peer. She quickly made her maiden speech, and as we chat, tells me about the debates she’s looking forward to speaking in, as well as asking her first Oral Question.
I put it to her that one of the upper chamber’s greatest strengths is its cross-party and less partisan nature. Might she have to challenge herself to work with people she would normally consider political opponents?
“I actually haven’t enough experience of the Lords to know that,” she says. “But I’m not convinced you can take the politics out of politics. The Scottish Parliament was set up in such a way that it was supposed to allow for cooperation and really reduce the influence of parties. To me, it actually damages the political climate in that you’re having to compromise the whole time, and therefore nobody gets what they want.
“You would hope to get support from wherever you can, but it should be on a principled basis, rather than finding the lowest common denominator to win support. If others will vote with Labour because they support that particular policy, that’s good. But you don’t change your policy simply to get something through that you don’t believe in. That isn’t going to deliver what’s needed.”
In the meantime, she says, she will be careful to ensure she is not seduced by the institution.“I think it was Dennis Skinner who said it, that you need to be all knees and elbows. You’re prickly and awkward, just to stop you being sucked in,” she explains.
“It doesn’t make you a bad person, and being resistant all the time can be really hard work. I think that not going to events and not being sucked into that side of it, all the wining and dining. That’s not what I’m here for.
“It’s to be in the chamber when needed, hopefully to become involved in things outside the chamber as well, in preparing for eventual power for the Labour party. That’s what I’m here for.”