Nigella’s media marriage, staying out of the Middle East, and a future “Sir” Andy Murray

Peter Wilby's "First Thoughts" column.

Ed Miliband may be right to propose that union members should opt in to paying fees to Labour, rather than be affiliated automatically unless they opt out. If nothing else, it would give Labour access to the names and addresses of those who are nominally its supporters.

Yet what applies to union members surely should also apply to company shareholders and even customers, whose money finds its way indirectly to political parties – usually the Conservatives – without their consent. If state funding of parties goes ahead, perhaps this should apply to taxpayers, too. Ask all taxpayers, on their annual return, if theywish to donate £5 to a political party and, if so, to tick from a list of parties that won at least 5 per cent of votes at the previous election. HMRC would then forward the money. Has anyone thought of this idea before?

Fawlty logic

It’s not just trade unions that sign up Labour members to seize control of candidate selection. Nor is the practice new. When I was a member of the Brighton Kemptown party in the 1960s, two proprietors of boarding houses on opposite sides of a street off the seafront were rivals for the council nomination in our local ward. In those days, Sussex University parked its students in Brighton hotels, which eagerly accepted the off-season custom.

Early in the autumn term, one hotelier signed up several of his resident students and brought them to ward meetings. At the selection meeting, his rival, who owned a slightly larger hotel, appeared with at least twice as many. The first hotelier flew into a Basil Fawlty-style rage and challenged the validity of their membership. Amid what newspapers call “angry scenes”, the meeting was adjourned. After a constituency party inquiry, both hoteliers were expelled. I hope Miliband can bring the troubles in Falkirk to an equally neat conclusion.

Minding our own business

No matter how much westerners dislike Mohamed Morsi, the deposed Egyptian former president, he and the Muslim Brotherhood won free and fair democratic elections. Moreover, he commanded overwhelming support from the poor, as Islamists do throughout the Middle East. The liberal, secular, “modernis - ing” politicians preferred by Britain and the US are seen by poor people, many of them scraping a rural subsistence, as a threat. They want governments that will maintain a stable social and economic order on traditional lines.

Our frustration with the Arab masses who back illiberal, reactionary parties echoes the frustration of Lenin and Trotsky with the Russian peasantry, mired in a world of icons and cockroaches. To echo Brecht, we wish to dissolve the Arab people and choose another, designed to please our enlightened, metropolitan sensibilities. Which is why, whether it’s Libya, Syria or Egypt, we should mind our own business and stay out.

Image problems

When spouses disagree, they usually have a row and then forget about it. With celebrities, it’s different. The argument between Charles Saatchi and his wife, Nigella Lawson, at Scott’s restaurant in Mayfair, London – apparently over whether a child should go to Oxford or take up a permanent role at the Economistmagazine (if only we all had such troubles) –occurred on 9 June. It culminated, as photographs show, with Lawson leaving in tears after Saatchi gripped her throat. According to the Mail on Sunday, the couple then carried on as normal, planning summer holidays and returning to Scott’s for another meal. Only when pictures were published on 16 June did their marriage fall apart.

Lawson consulted her PRs. They probably ruled – here I speculate – that images of her as an abused wife would damage the “brand” of a domestic goddess. Saatchi, I imagine they said, must confess publicly his “shame and humiliation” (or so the Mail reported). He refused, perhaps fearful for his own image. Now, he announces he will divorce Lawson.

You could accuse wicked newspapers of wrecking a marriage. However, Saatchi and Lawson live in a media-driven world: they first met at the Ivy, another celebrity restaurant in London, at a dinner organised for Tina Brown, then the editor of the New Yorker. In Jane Austen’s novels, relationships are mediated by property. Today, to borrow from Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle, celebrity relationships are mediated by images.

Sports knights

Can David Cameron seriously intend to recommend a knighthood for Andy Murray, Britain’s first Wimbledon men’s champion since 1936? Until recently, sporting heroes were rarely knighted. W G Grace was never honoured, nor was Fred Perry. Harold Larwood got a belated MBE at 88 when the cricket-mad John Major was PM. Jack Hobbs and Len Hutton also received gongs after their careers were over. Ian Botham got his for services to charity, not cricket. Stanley Matthews was the first to be knighted for services to football while still playing but, by then, he was nearly 50 and appearing for Stoke City reserves.

The rot set in under New Labour, with Olympic gold medallists receiving instant knighthoods and the entire England cricket team awarded MBEs (and one OBE) for winning back the Ashes in 2005. Unlike their predecessors, many of whom played for nothing, today’s sportsmen receive handsome financial rewards. At least until they retire, that should be enough.

Arise Sir Andy? Photograph: Getty Images

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 15 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Machiavelli

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

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