'Unruly Slavic eyebrows'

Mocha chocca libraries

Many were terrified by the picture of new "21st century libraries" painted by the Secretary of State for Culture, Andy Burnham, this week: libraries modelled on Waterstones and Virgin Megastores, filled with mobile-phone-talkers, McDonalds-eaters, Wii-players and Youtube-watchers, with books featuring low down on the list of priorities.

More terrifying still, however, is the fact that this sort of thing seems to work: in Hillingdon, West London, book borrowing increased by 32 per cent when a Starbucks was built in one of the libraries, and there is now a formidable seventeen more Starbucks on the way to the seventeen other libraries in the area.

Burnham’s announcement that libraries should "offer an antidote to the isolation of someone playing on the internet at home" and be places "for families and joy and chatter" has been met less than joyfully. Tim Coates, ex-Managing Director of Waterstones and now a libraries campaigner, argues: "This ought to be about getting more books, particularly for children, not turning libraries into fish and chip shops."

In Camden, the ban on mobile phones and food in libraries will be lifted this month. There has already been a stream of complaints from residents: "I only foresee bedlam," one darkly proclaimed.

Unruly Slavic eyebrows

Poets are not usually inspired by both experimental dance music and Elizabethan verse, but this year’s winner of the Forward Prize for the Best Single Poem suggests that perhaps more should be. Scottish artist and musician Don Paterson’s tremendous "Love Poem for Natalie 'Tusja’ Beridze" is an address to an obscure Georgian electronica artist with ‘unruly Slavic eyebrows’, spoken by an obsessive, love-struck Googler who promises that he is "not like those other IDM [Intelligent Dance Music] enthusiasts in early middle age". In Paterson’s poem, the traditional turret window of courtly lovers becomes the stage at the Manöver Elektronische Festival in Wien, and it is not his mistress’s body that is uncorrupted, but the music software on her laptop – "which makes me love you all the more, demonstrating as it does an / excess of virtue given your country’s well-known talent for / software piracy." And who said romance was dead?

Free musicals for bankers

If you’re freshly plunged into financial chaos and busy reassessing everything you thought you could rely on, being confronted with an all-singing all-dancing reality TV star in a colourful coat may not be quite what you want. Andrew Lloyd Webber disagrees, however, and is attempting to cheer up newly unemployed bankers with free tickets to see Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. The composer said he hoped his "feel-good shows" would cheer up those affected by the credit crunch, "albeit for a couple of hours".

Dog chews and sinister pensioners

Fake excrement, European monuments made from dog chews and pensioners eerily circling in wheelchairs await visitors to the Saatchi Gallery, which has reopened in a new Chelsea location with an exhibition of contemporary Chinese art. Meanwhile, in a one-metre-square space in the window of a Baker Street [bathroom shop], an Argentinian dancer will be [performing a ten-minute tango] four times a day.

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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