Wealthy strikers, kissing in public and half-built conservatories

The talk at the TUC conference was of a winter of strikes, even of a general strike. It may be unwise of the unions to provoke press and politicians in this manner, particularly since anything they organise cannot be on the scale of 1926 when the general strike lasted nine days and involved miners, rail workers, road haul­iers, bus drivers, printers, builders and power workers. But when the boss class goes on strike, why shouldn’t the workers?

I am not referring just to bankers and company executives who leave the country, or threaten to do so, if bonuses are restricted or tax rates increased. Just about the whole corporate sector has, in effect, been on strike for several years, sitting on mountains of cash and refusing to invest because the returns aren’t high enough. If there were a prolonged labour strike, the government would act to break it by bringing in the army to maintain essential services and supplies. But it declines to use state power to break the investment strike by using its resources to get the economy moving again.

Barber’s paradox

Nevertheless, the TUC general secretary,
Brendan Barber, goes too far when he calls
on the government to link investment to an “Olympic-style national crusade”. Tories will interpret this as an invitation to give corporate interests more powers and tax concessions; to dress workers in purple uniforms, pay them nothing and call them “volunteers”; to find sponsors for everything; to hand over disabled welfare entirely to Atos; and, worst of all, to elect Boris Johnson as their leader. No doubt the “Olympic spirit” will now be called upon whenever we face difficult challenges, just as people once called on the Blitz spirit. But we should remember that, just as the Second World War had its downsides, so did the Olympics.

Stoppard the press

Tabloid newspapers have published pictures of the BBC’s Andrew Marr and the Sky News presenter Dermot Murnaghan canoodling (I think that is the word) with women not their wives. “Here’s a newsflash for Murnaghan’s wife” was the Mail’s strapline. Tom Stoppard once referred to the “casual cruelty” of newspapers. That seems too weak a term here; “calculated” and “pitiless” may be better adjectives.
But since both men did their groping in public places, the newspapers do not need to concoct a “public interest” defence. Marr, admittedly, “fondled mystery woman”, as the Mirror put it, in a dark street in the early hours but Murnaghan shared his “passionate kiss” (and more) beside the Serpentine in Hyde Park in broad daylight. Any passer-by could snap these embraces on their mobiles and post them on the internet. No regulatory system could, or should, prevent newspaper publication. If we are to be spared such tawdry sights as Marr putting a hand down a woman’s jeans and Murnaghan fiddling with the zip of a red dress, TV presenters will have to establish their own self-regulatory mechanisms, backed by sanctions from their wives.

It’s my party

Andreas Whittam Smith – like Marr, an ex-
editor of the Independent – seems unlikely (to quote the Mirror again) to get “frisky with brunette” during a “drink-fuelled night-out”. But I wonder if my esteemed former colleague has lingered a little too long over the whisky bottle. Writing in his old paper, he launches “Democracy 2015” and invites “like-minded citizens” who have pursued “demanding careers” to join him in starting a group to contest every constituency at the next election. These folk would stand for a single term, intending to form a government that would implement “a manifesto constructed to the highest standards with the best possible advice”. It would have “easy-to-understand policies” for unemployment, crime, immigration, the NHS and so on.

This sounds like a government of business executives, diluted by a few managers from charities, public services and unions, which, as Andreas is old enough to know, is what people always propose at difficult times. It wouldn’t work because successful executives are used to getting their own way, while democracy involves constant negotiation and compromise.

My fear, though, is that Whittam Smith – who launched the Independent in 1986 against impossible odds – may just bring it off. I am
reminded of when the Irish tycoon Tony O’Reilly launched a takeover bid for the paper. “I’d rather run a south coast boarding house than work for him,” Whittam Smith declared. “That’s one boarding house I certainly won’t be staying in,” commented Alexander Chancellor, then the Independent’s magazine editor. In the same spirit, I am resolved that, if Andreas takes over the UK government, that’s one country
I won’t be staying in.


The government, hoping to win votes from grateful householders, proposes a temporary suspension of planning laws on home extensions. I see disaster looming. First, for every happy householder, there will be at least one disgruntled neighbour. Second, the building industry, true to form, will leave thousands of extensions half-finished while they start new ones. Third, the suppliers of conservatories, also true to form, will deliver hundreds of the wrong-sized windows with the wrong type of glazing to the wrong addresses. David Cam­eron’s conservatories strike me as more in the league of John Major’s cones hotline than of Margaret Thatcher’s council house sales.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Who comes next?

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide