From Niki Lauda to Damian McBride, when does the cost of winning become too high?

McBride is supposed to be a master of manipulating the media. Really? Have a glance at his own press this week to judge his expertise.

This week I’ve found myself comparing Rush, the superb new film based on the rivalry between James Hunt and Niki Lauda, with Power Trip, Damian McBride’s depressing memoir about his life as a Downing Street hitman. The common theme in otherwise contrasting stories is an ancient question: how much are you prepared to sacrifice to achieve victory and at what point on that spectrum does victory become meaningless? Hunt was as handsome and charismatic as he was ill-disciplined and hedonistic. While Lauda would rush off the podium to calculate how to improve his car’s aerodynamics,
Hunt would celebrate with throngs of seminaked, champagne-swilling models. “Don’t bring the percentages into this, don’t be a pro,” he complains to his rival. “The minute you do that, you kill the sport.” But the future, we know now, belonged to the Laudas, not the Hunts. Rush describes the last moment in elite sport, the 1970s, when pure talent could take you to the top.
I’ve often argued that professionalism has a mixed record in sport. At its strongest, my case against ultra-professionalism holds that it detaches athletes from the instinctiveness and joy they need to express their talents fully. At its weakest, the theory can hollow into little more than a lament for lost charm.
Sport’s growing cult of spartan self-denial certainly makes it harder for athletes to live broad, balanced lives. A recent New Yorker profile described a typical day for the tennis champion Novak Djokovic: “7.30. Wake up. Tepid glass of water. Stretching. A bowl of muesli with a handful of mixed nuts, some sunflower seeds, sliced fruit, and a small scoop of coconut oil. Chew very slowly . . . 12.00. Lunch. Gluten-free pasta with vegetables.” Don’t worry, you didn’t miss much in between – only stretching, massage, hitting balls, drinking electrolytes and checking the colour of his urine for signs of dehydration.
I want to believe C L R James was right when he argued: “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” But I also acknowledge that Djokovic and his generation have taken sport to new heights of thrilling athletic achievement. The Barcelona of today would thrash the Nottingham Forest of 1980, no matter how much Brian Clough geed them up over red wine at one of his team “lock-ins” the night before the game.
So, even I have to concede that the win-atall- costs culture of professional sport has triumphed. Taken all together, professionalism has elevated the spectacle of elite sport.
Could the same thing be said about the win-at-all-costs culture of modern professional politics? That brings us to Damian McBride’s memoirs, which describe what happens when politics is taken to its most relentless, narrow, tribal and unbalanced. It is hard to imagine a sadder exposé – of a political culture, of a party, of an era, of an author. McBride’s starting point – that Gordon Brown was “the greatest man I’ve ever met” – allowed him to justify routinely vile behaviour. Sometimes McBride simply made things up to damage his enemies. On other occasions he merely recycled smears he had accumulated in his little black book.
An irony here is that McBride is supposed to be a master of manipulating the media. Really? Have a glance at his own press this week to judge his expertise. In his own defence, he claims that only full and complete confession can lead to absolution from his sins. It is an intriguing approach to redemption. To adapt the words the playwright Robert Bolt made Thomas More say in A Man for All Seasons, “It profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world . . . but for a hundred grand from the Daily Mail?”
The parallels between sport and politics have always fascinated me but I now understand that in one crucial respect the analogy is inexact. Winning is not quite the whole of sport but it must always be the heart of the matter. Entertainment, beauty, charm and inspiration have their place, too, but they must emerge organically out of the pursuit of victory, as accidental by-products or, at a push, subsidiary ambitions.
Some sporting victories, it is true, can be tainted by grim or underhand methods, yet they remain victories. The simplistic structure of sport – the scoreboard resets to zero for the next match – works against the notion of a Pyrrhic victory. It is hard to think of instances in sport where victories explicitly caused longer-term defeat.
Winning in politics is very different. Surely proper victory means governing well and hence enhancing your political ideas. Winning elections and retaining power are prerequisites – like getting on to the pitch in sport – but surely not the ultimate goal. Whereas winning the match is the end of the sporting journey, winning power can only be the beginning of a proper political journey. That difference explains why winning in politics can be literally counterproductive. Some methods end up leaving the political ideas they were supposed to serve in a diminished and depleted state. That is the lesson of McBride. Perhaps his spinning may have helped Brown replace Tony Blair. It may even have helped extend Brown’s brief tenure as prime minister. But it has further undermined Labour’s claim to moral superiority, once central to its appeal.
The McBride era was the logical conclusion of professionalism’s faith in the separation of ends and means. Brown thought he had outsourced the nasty stuff while he got on with saving the economy. It doesn’t work like that, as Labour is now finding out.
Readers with longer memories will recall Glenys Kinnock, during television coverage of Labour’s election victory in 1997, giving a little homily about the superiority of “Labour values”. We are all nicer people in the Labour Party: that was the thrust of what she said. It will be a long while, post-McBride, before that argument fails to elicit a laugh.
Ed Smith’s latest book is “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune” (Bloomsbury, £8.99)
Copies of Damian McBride's 'Power Trip' book are dispalyed during the third day of the Labour party conference. Image: Getty

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Game of Thrones

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