The battle for the centre - and the 2015 election

Last week, we received a large postbag from readers objecting to <a href="http://www.newstatesman.com/2013/09/miliband-isnt-chasing-power-rather-h... Hodges’s magazine column on “centre-ground” politics</a>. Here he

Whoever controls the political centre will win the 2015 general election. Or at least that’s the view from the first-floor flat of 10 Downing Street.

David Cameron’s strategists came away from the recent Conservative party conference in Manchester with the sense of a job well done. Those I spoke to were frustrated that some of their work had been overshadowed by the uproar over the Daily Mail’s attack on Ralph Miliband. They acknowledged that Ed Miliband’s announcement he would freeze energy prices had resonated with the public. Yet they also believed Labour had made a crucial strategic error.

“The idea that Labour is marching off to the left has been embedded,” a Tory strategist told me. “Before [the conference season], our dilemma was whether we painted Ed Miliband as a joke or as someone who was dangerous. We’re now confident we can do both.”

Before the Tory tribe arrived in Manchester, there were debates about whether Labour’s so-called core vote strategy (the belief that the party can win the next general election with no more than 35 per cent of the vote) should be matched by one of its own. There were attractions. It could help neutralise the threat posed by the UK Independence Party and reassure activists unsettled by the gay marriage controversy and by Nick Clegg’s provocative flourishing of a list of Conservative policies he had successfully vetoed.

In the end, the lurch to the right that some had been predicting did not happen. “We’ve got our strategy and we’re sticking to it,” a Downing Street source told me. That strategy is clear. For the first time since Tony Blair won a landslide victory in 1997, the Conservatives believe that the middle ground of politics is theirs for the taking. The challenge for them is how to occupy it.

In the aftermath of Cameron’s conference speech, I asked one his advisers why, if the centre ground was so important to the Prime Minister, he hadn’t just stood up and said: “We are the party of the centre now.” The public reason given was a tactical one. “Our strategy is show, don’t tell. Look at Ed Miliband’s speech. It was all about what a strong and decisive leader he was. Well, if you really are strong and decisive, you don’t need to shout about it.”

There are other reasons why the Tories are edging, rather than marching, towards the political centre. First, they are not entirely sure where the centre is. They know, for example, that cuts to welfare help reinforce their reputation as the “nasty party”. Yet they are equally aware that their policies on welfare are popular in the country.

Similarly, they recognise that a tough stance on immigration is vital for bringing back the Ukip defectors. But they are also aware that if they cannot make inroads into the BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) vote, their chances of winning a majority in 2015 rapidly diminish.

That’s why a number of senior Downing Street aides are now keen to stress the importance of the “common ground” rather than the “centre ground”. That means giving guarantees on areas such as NHS funding and then balancing this with tough measures, such as the so-called bedroom tax, which place them firmly on the right.

Another problem is that, after three and a half years of coalition, the Conservative Party is not in a consensual mood. Cameron is stuck between reassuring his party that he will govern as a true blue as soon as the Lib Dem shackles are broken and reassuring the country that a vote for the Conservatives does not mean a vote for a full-on neo-Thatcherite renaissance.

Whatever dilemmas Labour’s abandonment of the political centre pose for the Prime Minister, they’re as nothing compared to the concerns being shared among some of Ed Miliband’s shadow cabinet.

There is relief among Labour’s inner circle that Labour’s position in the polls stabilised in the conference season. However, there is also unease at the way Miliband remains wedded to the so-called 35 per cent strategy. So much so, that over the coming weeks, we can expect to start hearing talk of a “40 per cent strategy”.

This may appear to be dancing on a psephological pinhead. Yet those advocating it say that ignores its significance. “If you’re aiming for 35 per cent of the vote, you can play safe,” I was told. “You take the base, bolt on some Lib Dems, some first-time voters, some nonvoters and you’re basically home and dry. If you set your sights at 40 per cent, then you can’t get there without starting to reach out to soft Tory voters. And that, in turn, means getting into some serious, grown-up politics.”

Whether Miliband wants to engage in that sort of grown-up politics is unclear. There was concern – and not just from the New Labour wing of the party – at the purge of the Blairites in the shadow cabinet reshuffle on 7 October. There was a sense that the Blairites were being airbrushed out of the picture, as if they were now an embarrassment to the party.

There is a consensus among those in the shadow cabinet untouched by Miliband’s long knives that Labour’s perceived shift to the left has reached the limit of its elasticity. There surely must be what has been called a “recalibration” towards the centre and tough policy changes in areas such as welfare and education are going to have to be addressed.

Some NS readers might not like it but David Cameron is eyeing up the political centre. He is growing increasingly confident that a recovering economy, as well as doubts about Ed Miliband’s overall strategy, will enable him to claim it as his own.

 

David Cameron and Ed Miliband fighting for control of the centre ground. Photo: Getty

This article first appeared in the 11 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iran vs Israel

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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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