Waco, popular culture and newstatesman.com

Where we are at newstatesman.com and the extraordinary story of David Koresh

This week we asked a lefty blogger called Kate Belgrave to write us an article about John McDonnell’s leadership campaign – it’s a good read and it’s interesting to hear what young socialists in the Labour Party are saying about the lack of a contest to succeed Tony Blair. It also ties in rather nicely with our latest in a series of interviews with deputy leadership wannabes. This week John Cruddas.

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Just two months have passed since we relaunched newstatesman.com and we’re still introducing lots of improvements behind the scenes. We’ve plenty of plans for the coming weeks including forums and podcasting. As always we’re interested to hear feedback on what you like and dislike.

So let’s start with this question: what is a blog? Is it a second rate article posted online? A personal diary of somebody’s very dull life? The rantings of an unelectable right-wing nutcase? An exchange of techy news for and by nerds? Or finely honed column for that most discerning/fickle of audiences, the web-user?

The answer, of course, is all of the above and much, much more. I just pose the question because New Statesman columnist Becky Hogge made the observation that blogs should be a bit like a conversation. I thought I'd try it out. So what do the rest of you think?

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I recently made one of my rare sojourns in the world of popular culture, watching a fascinating documentary on the awful events 14 years ago at Waco. Remember the siege of David Koresh’s Branch Davidians that ended with the deaths of 84 adults and children?

It was one of the most extraordinary episodes of the 1990s – not least because it subsequently became a rallying point for right-wing nutcases like Timothy McVeigh. He chose to conduct the Oklahoma bombing on 19 April 1995 – two years after the FBI decided to put an end to the Waco situation in such a disastrously bloody manner.

What I think was interesting was the way this piece of TV operated. On many levels it was excellent - thoroughly researched, it had managed to bring together a lot of eyewitness accounts from those who had played key parts in the tragedy.

But what was distasteful, to me at least, was the mixture of reconstruction and original footage – it became unclear eventually what exactly you were looking at.

The real drama was in the accounts of people who have been left permanently affected by what they experienced, what they could have done, who they lost.

Plus there was more than 50 days of TV news footage from when the whole debacle began with a bungled bid by the ATF – the bureau of alcohol, tobacco and firearms – to take Koresh into custody because of his arsenal of weapons.

Why the documentary makers had to fake up the rest is quite beyond me – this was a story that required no actors.

But all that aside they managed to take the audience through events more or less as they happened.

There were moments where you were allowed to believe that Koresh wasn’t all bad – if you forgot the armoury of weapons he inexplicably kept in his compound or the fact he was siring children with underage girls and the wives of his followers.

One of his sexual partners was Kathy Schroeder who survived the gun battle and the fire. She still believes in Koresh as a manifestation of God, said she would have considered it an honour to have had his child and was plainly still entirely under the spell of the dead cult leader. That's despite the fact her 29-year-old husband was one of the first casualties, shot as he tried to return to the compound.

People can be incredibly susceptible to manipulation and that's one of my chief objections to this tendency to mix up the real with the 'reconstructed' on TV. It leaves us all in a state of confusion about what was real and what was a product of a programme-maker's imagination.

Ben Davies trained as a journalist after taking most of the 1990s off. Prior to joining the New Statesman he spent five years working as a politics reporter for the BBC News website. He lives in North London.
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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.