Wet, broke and ill in New York – but it’s good to see my old pal Razors

Nicholas Lezard's "Down and Out" column.

So, here I am in New York, shivering and sweating with a lurgy in my old pal Razors’ apartment, digesting the news that, thanks to the reluctance of an accounts department somewhere, I have only £47 to my name. The rain falls in sheets outside and the weeping sore on my foot caused by the new shoes I had to get to replace the suede ones that rotted under the weather’s onslaught throbs ominously. Is this indeed the lurgy at all, or the opening stages of septicaemia?

The other news I am having a hard time digesting is that Razors is apparently now entitled to cast a vote in the Academy Awards. I have to admit I’m impressed, although form obliges me to sneer loudly and incredulously to his face. Those of you who are late arrivals to this column may not immediately grasp why the fact this person can now vote for Best Beard or whatever at the Oscars is a symbol of a civilisation far gone in collapse and moral degeneration. Actually it’s not really that bad and I’d value Razors’ opinion over any one of the other bozos in the entertainment business, with the honourable exceptions, perhaps, of David Lynch and Joss Whedon. Then again, I was slightly surprised to learn that Razors has not seen Mulholland Drive.

“You’d love it,” I say. “It’s got women snogging in it.”

“Right, that’s getting my vote then,” he replies, but I have a hunch that you’re not really meant to vote for films that came out a decade or so ago. Still, it might be worth a shot. And while we’re on the subject of homosexuality, I find it immensely amusing that Razors, despite being – how best to put this? – emphatically and indeed at times clamorously heterosexual, has just moved into the gayest area I have ever seen outside Castro Street.

In my experience gay men have no difficulty at all in discerning whether another man is gay or not – and indeed in this neck of the woods I don’t even have to rely on my very unreliable gaydar, as everyone here is simply flaming, which I think is wonderful – so the spectacle of two middle-aged Britons hanging out together but not actually holding hands causes people to do double takes as we walk down the street. Razors had to enlist my help in order to buy some bedding and a coffee-maker from the local equivalent of John Lewis, and after a couple of drinks to prepare for the ordeal we were smilingly rebuked by a woman for “having too much fun” as we careened about the place making silly jokes about some of the products on offer.

Meanwhile, we have found a routine. We lived together for two years and have a pretty reliable knowledge of what makes the other tick. It is not knowledge that demands particularly arcane skill. Basically, it involves a certain degree of hedonism and that means we fit right in here. People may think that Americans are acutely conscious of their health but this is just superficial. They still make filterless Lucky Strikes with only the most cursory and non-committal of health warnings, and the local diner offers two free cocktails – either Bloody Marys or Screwdrivers – with their three-egg fried breakfasts, which weigh in at about 50 per cent alcohol. A country that encourages you to get smashed at breakfast time should command a degree of respect, wouldn’t you say?

We have also discovered a truly excellent Italian restaurant whose waitress has developed a loathing for us so powerful that we find ourselves compelled to go back again and again in order to experience it. Ah, what a city. I have been coming here for five decades and it never palls. I would up sticks and move here for good if the Beloved and my children were not in London. (Well, maybe not. They don’t understand cricket and no one here seems to be very interested in explaining the finer points of baseball to me, however many times I ask.) Still, my mother, whom I am accompanying, has often wondered why I never did make the move.

Then again, I look at my bank balance and reflect that it wouldn’t cover the cab fare to JFK. I may have to move here, like it or not. Suddenly I find myself getting a bit homesick, an emotion I have not experienced since I was about 11. This lurgy isn’t helping much, either; one prefers to be unwell in one’s own bed, however excellent the hospitality elsewhere (and Razors’ is exemplary). The NHS may be under threat from the Ghastliest British Government Ever but at least it is more than notionally still there.

New York. Photograph: Getty Images

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

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Is Labour really as doomed as it seems? The polls have got it wrong before

Pollsters often overrate Labour's performance. But in two elections, the opposite happened. 

Few moments in the Labour Party’s history can have felt as gloomy as this one. Going into a general election that almost no-one expects them to win, their overall opinion polling is appalling. Labour seems becalmed in the mid-20s; the Conservative Party has rocketed into the mid- to high-40s, and has even touched 50 per cent in one survey.

The numbers underlying those voting intention figures seem, if anything, worse. The Conservatives have huge leads on leadership and economic competence – often even more reliable indicators of election results than the headline numbers. High turnout groups such as the over-65s have turned against Labour in unprecedented numbers. Working-class Brits have swung towards the Conservative, placing once-safe Labour seats in danger. There are limited, but highly suggestive, hints among the data that the swing against Labour is higher in its own marginal seats – a potentially toxic development for any party seeking to hang on to MPs, as Conservatives defending apparently impregnable majorities under John Major in 1997 would attest.

All the while, Labour seems confused about what it is really for. Try as he might, Keir Starmer’s term as Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary has been marred by a fatal confusion and indecision about the extent of the UK’s future engagement with the European Union’s single market. Labour seems neither the party of Brexit nor of Remain, but one determined to irritate as many voters as possible. A similar situation reigns in Scotland, where nationalists under Nicola Sturgeon face Conservative Unionists led by Ruth Davidson, and Labour struggles even to gain a hearing.

Many Labour policy offers – free primary school meals for all, the promise of free university tuition, nationalising the railways, upholding the triple lock of pensions, opposing National Insurance rises for the self-employed – are pleasingly universal, while in isolation appealing to different electoral groups. But together, they represent a massive shift of resources to higher-income Brits that would take huge tax rises to offset. Labour is dangerously close to offering a regressive package under the guise of left-wing radicalism. This is pretty much as far from the British people’s electoral sweet spot as it is possible to imagine.

It is therefore little wonder that Labour lags so far behind Theresa May’s Conservatives. Even some Labour strongholds appear likely to fall - regional polls from London and Wales suggest that many Labour seats will be lost in the party’s remaining citadels. Brutal stories are already coming in from the campaign trail. Rumours fly of truly epochal losses - though it is important to note that other anecdotes seem much less dramatic.

Still, there are other indicators – all too easily missed in the heat of the moment – that point in the other direction. Labour’s performance in local by-elections has been dire for the main opposition party, but the swing towards the Conservatives has been running at "only" just over 2 per cent. The party has certainly suffered some big swings against it, and it has lost wards to the Conservatives in local authorities as varied as Hertfordshire, Harrow and Middlesborough. But there is no evidence that its vote has collapsed on the scale that some of the polling suggests.

Relatively recent history should also give us pause before we write Labour off altogether. Consider the last two general elections in which Labour had near-death experiences, in both 1983 and 2010. Britain’s third party - first the Liberal-SDP Alliance, and then the Liberal Democrats - seemed about to overtake Labour in the popular vote, and steal scores of seats from the bigger progressive party. On both occasions, Labour was able to draw on hitherto unguessed-at wells of cultural identity and strength to pull away right at the campaign’s end. These are in fact the only elections in recent times when the polls have underrated, rather than overestimated, Labour’s likely score. It might be that the same phenomenon emerges this time.

The Conservatives’ huge lead right now has not resulted from a sudden collapse in Labour support, but rather from the United Kingdom Independence Party’s well-publicised implosion. If anything, after about a year of steady decline, the last week or two has seen Labour’s twelve months of slow deflation grind to a halt. Labour’s numbers have even ticked up a point or two as some voters appear to rally around "their" flag. It might be that, as you squeeze the Labour vote down, it becomes more resilient to further shrinkage.

As the Conservatives try to push into Labour’s heartlands, they might find it harder and harder to persuade voters across, from Ukip as well as from Labour. The Conservatives’ image is still far from good in such communities, whatever the underanalysed and separate appeal of PM May as a strong, considered leader in need of a negotiator’s mandate in Europe. Voters might be attracted to May, and repelled by Corbyn - that does not necessarily mean that they will actually vote Conservative. There is little evidence, so far, of any realignment in how voters see themselves – whether they "are" Labour or Conservative, rather than the more ephemeral question of whether they will simply vote for those parties.

Humans always look for patterns. Experts are no exception, while journalists and commentators can always jump to rapid – but wrong – conclusions in the overexcited heat of an election campaign. So it is with the threat of a Labour catastrophe on 8 June. The danger of just such a result is definitely there. But some of the data points we already have, and two recent elections at which Labour walked close to an abyss, cast a little bit of doubt on the inevitability of such an outcome. There are still just over six weeks to go. A Conservative landslide is still quite likely. But it is not certain. We should keep an eye out for the many hints that May’s gamble might end in a rather less crushing victory than we have been led to expect.

Glen O’Hara is Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Oxford Brookes University. He blogs, in a personal capacity, at Public Policy and the Past. He is the author of a series of books about modern Britain, including The Politics of Water in Post-War Britain (Palgrave Macmillan: forthcoming, May 2017).

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