Cultural apartheid?

The Proms remain a resolutely all-white, Middle English affair

Years ago, before politics intervened and I had a life, I was a regular at the BBC Proms. I was never a 'Promenader' as even when younger I could not stand the effort of standing or the attentions of the significant number of sad middle aged and elderly queens who occupied the floor of the Royal Albert Hall: it is supposedly the best gay pick up joint in London if you are looking for brains rather than body.

However, there I was the other Thursday at a sold out Prom featuring the Baroque music of Handel and Telemann. Thank goodness there was no "new BBC commission" of a ghastly modern piece or revival of some best forgotten rubbish by Tippett that you normally politely sit through in the first half before enjoying the rest of the evening.

Several months ago I was a guest at an excellent luncheon thrown by the Lord Mayor of London at Mansion House to celebrate the arts in London (I could not quite work out my contribution Arts except the money I have paid out for theatre and opera tickets over the years) and one of the after-lunch speakers was the outstanding British tenor Ian Bostridge who proved that he had not just a voice but intelligence behind it as well.

He might well sing "Happy we!" from Acis and Galatea (although quite why he had his hand in his pocket whilst doing it I know not) during last Thursday’s concert as his acute business brain racked up the royalties on his new Handel CD and the free publicity the BBC were giving it.

But as I looked around a packed Albert Hall I saw barely one non-white face. The BBC Proms are entirely a white, middle class, suburban and Home Counties affair. As the concert over-ran due to endless changes in seating arrangements for the orchestra a significant contingent of the audience had to rush out before the encore to catch their trains to Dorking and all stations south.

Whereas a number of white Londoners flock to Notting Hill to view the Carnival (entirely as spectators), virtually no Black Londoners venture to a Prom. Classical music is just one area of London artistic life that shows no sign of an integrated society. Indeed, while the residents of Surrey, Hertfordshire and those London boroughs that cannot accept that they were incorporated into Greater London in 1965 feel safe venturing into Central London for a Prom, they would never dream of experiencing one of Ken Livingstone’s taxpayer-funded "cultural" extravaganzas in Trafalgar Square where they might have to mix with Londoners who think a movement is something their bowels do each morning.

Musicals may be for the West End queens and the foreign tourists, straight theatre for the artistic elite, and opera for the upper classes and the corporate sponsors but classical music concerts remain for the middle classes. The Proms are the BBC's way of keeping Middle England happy.

As London this week unveils its statue of Nelson Mandela our capital city’s cultural life continues to practise a firm apartheid system.

Brian Coleman was first elected to the London Assembly in June 2000. Widely outspoken he is best known for his groundbreaking policy of removing traffic calming measures
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As long as Jeremy Corbyn's Labour opponents are divided, he will rule

The leader's foes have yet to agree on when and how a challenge should take place.

Labour MPs began plotting to remove Jeremy Corbyn as leader before he even held the position. They have not stopped since. From the outset, most regarded him as electorally and morally defective. Nothing has caused them to relinquish this view.

A week before the first major elections of this parliament, Labour found itself conducting a debate normally confined to far-right internet forums: was Hitler a Zionist? For some MPs, the distress lay in how unsurprised they were by all this. Since Corbyn’s election last September, the party has become a mainstream venue for hitherto fringe discussions.

Many MPs believe that Labour will be incapable of rebuilding its standing among the Jewish community as long as Corbyn remains leader. In the 1930s, Jewish support for the party was as high as 80 per cent. “They handed you your . . . membership just after your circumcision,” quipped the father in the 1976 television play Bar Mitzvah Boy. By the time of the last general election, a poll found that support had fallen to a mere 22 per cent. It now stands at just 8.5 per cent.

Corbyn’s critics cite his typical rejection of anti-Semitism and "all forms of racism" (as if unable to condemn the former in isolation), his defence of a tweet sent by his brother, Piers (“Zionists can’t cope with anyone supporting rights for Palestine”), and his description of Hamas and Hezbollah as “friends”. The Lab­our leader dismissed the latter remark as a diplomatic nicety but such courtesy was not displayed when he addressed Labour Friends of Israel and failed to mention the country’s name. When challenged on his record of combating anti-Semitism, Corbyn frequently invokes his parents’ presence at the Battle of Cable Street, a reference that does not provide the reassurance intended. The Jewish community does not doubt that Labour has stood with it in the past. It questions whether it is prepared to stand with it in the present.

MPs say that Labour’s inept response to anti-Semitism has strengthened the moral case for challenging Corbyn. One shadow cabinet minister spoke of how the fear of “enormous reputational damage” had pushed him to the brink of resignation. As the New Statesman went to press, Corbyn’s first electoral test was looming. Every forecast showed the party on course to become the first opposition to lose council seats in a non-general-election year since 1985. Yet Corbyn appeared to insist on 3 May that this would not happen, gifting his opponents a benchmark by which to judge him.

Sadiq Khan was projected to become the party’s first successful London mayoral candidate since 2004. But having distanced himself from Corbyn throughout the race, he intends to deny him any credit if he wins. Regardless of the results on 5 May, there will be no challenge to the Labour leader before the EU referendum on 23 June. Many of the party’s most Corbyn-phobic MPs are also among its most Europhile. No cause, they stress, should distract from the defence of the UK’s 43-year EU membership.

Whether Corbyn should be challenged in the four weeks between the referendum and the summer recess is a matter of dispute among even his most committed opponents. Some contend that MPs have nothing to lose from trying and should be prepared to “grind him down” through multiple attempts, if necessary. Others fear that he would be empowered by winning a larger mandate than he did last September and argue that he must be given “longer to fail”. Still more hope that Corbyn will instigate a midterm handover to the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, his closest ally, whom they regard as a beatable opponent.

Those who are familiar with members’ thinking describe many as “anxious” and in need of “reassurance” but determined that Corbyn receives adequate time to “set out his stall”. One shadow cabinet minister spoke of being “caught between Scylla and Charybdis” – that is, “a Labour Party membership which is ardently Corbynista and a British electorate which is ardently anti-Corbynista”. In their most pessimistic moments, some MPs gloomily wonder which group will deselect them first. The possibility that a new Conservative leader could trigger an early general election is cited by some as cause for haste and by others as the only means by which Corbynism can be definitively discredited.

The enduring debate over whether the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged (the party’s rules are ambiguous) is dismissed by most as irrelevant. Shadow cabinet members believe that Corbyn would achieve the requisite nominations. Momentum, the Labour leader’s praetorian guard, has privately instructed its members to be prepared to lobby MPs for this purpose.

There is no agreement on who should face Corbyn if his removal is attempted. The veteran MP Margaret Hodge has been touted as a “stalking horse” to lead the charge before making way for a figure such as the former paratrooper Dan Jarvis or the shadow business secretary, Angela Eagle. But in the view of a large number of shadow cabinet members, no challenge will materialise. They cite the high bar for putative leaders – the endorsement of 20 per cent of Labour MPs and MEPs – and the likelihood of failure. Many have long regarded mass front-bench resignations and trade union support as ­essential preconditions for a successful challenge, conditions they believe will not be met less than a year after Corbyn’s victory.

When Tony Blair resigned as Labour leader in 2007, he had already agreed not to fight the next general election and faced a pre-eminent rival in Gordon Brown. Neither situation exists today. The last Labour leader to be constitutionally deposed was J R Clynes in 1922 – when MPs, not members, were sovereign. Politics past and present militate against Corbyn’s opponents. There is but one man who can remove the leader: himself.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred