Festival Leprosy

Vile diseases and avaricious banks - AL Kennedy finds that Edinburgh's festival season isn't all lol

One of the many interesting chance elements which always enters into the Edinburgh Festival mix, is disease. Not to be too graphic, you spend your semi-waking days watching, or working in various warm, moist venues full of strangers who breathe, cough, giggle, guffaw, sigh, yawn and generally spread the usually very private and intimate contents of their lungs all over the shop, you utilise extremely well-used conveniences (with much less-used hand washing facilities) and handle microphones that have probably not been boiled in bleach since they were bought in the late 1970’s – you are eventually going to get Festival Flu, Festival Tummy, Festival Leprosy, or something else genuinely unpleasant. The fact that many venues smell like oldmantrousers, or deadnun is also unnerving. And a good deal of unhygienic hugging, patting and touching takes place. This year I’ve been enjoying a range of aches, snuffles, rasping strangulations and eye throbbings – as has pretty much everyone else I’ve been meeting from a distance with gloves and mask in place.

Given that I occupy a slightly peculiar cross-media position I have been bouncing between club comedy gigs, my show, the Westport Book Festival and the Edinburgh International Book Festival and deargodknowswhat else in a nether world of high-fat and previously-fingered free food and what I can only really describe as chatting. This can seem simply pleasant, if not puerile at one level, but it’s a joy to spend a month being reminded that British people and people in general are brighter, faster, more civilised and more pleasant to be around than any of our media or politicians might suggest. There are, of course, insistently insane and peculiar exceptions (and I have no idea what bowel of hell my audience came from on the 13th) but it is truly exhilarating to get down to telling stories and being told stories with no monkeying about, or muffling/critical/literary/buzz killing interventions.

This year there have already been some genuinely grand moments – the invention of lime tea as a refreshing alternative to lemon, seeing the Tiger Lillies do their twisted and wonderful stuff, the lady who took her socks off in my gig, the chap who was “good at being submissive” and the splendid couple who came all the way from Orkney to say hello. This year I have been proud to go on after a stripper – not necessarily a good thing, then again everyone is going to be pleased if I promise not to take off my clothes, so it all balances out – and have been given a lollipop and a balloon by two different kind gentlemen – not exactly the brand affection one might hope for in the heady world of notreallyshowbiz, but it has to be said that I do love a balloon.

Meanwhile, a pal of mine has managed to run up a £30 overdraft in the midst of the festival chaos. His bank is attempting to charge him £120 for the money he didn’t arrange for them to advance him in the first place… he should have gone to a loan shark, or just sold one of his legs for sandwich meat. We set aside a little time each day to meditate on the fact that greedy and utterly mindless banks have been entirely happy to bring our economy to the brink of meltdown by shifting fake money faster and faster round the globe and taking on impossible risks for the joy of short term blood-letting and with no thought for the implications of the word impossible – and no one in government is going to do anything other than bail them out. With our money. Until it’s too late. This does not improve our combined symptoms.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.