Notes in the margin: Super Ted

The not-for-profit foundation dedicated to "ideas worth spreading".

Where can you find Morgan Spurlock talking about product placement, Bill Gates addressing the problems of state schools and David Byrne opining on architecture and music? At Ted Talks, that's where.

It's a stealth success: from its original 1984 conference on technology, entertainment and design, Ted has turned into an international hydra dedicated to the spread of (mostly) good ideas. Each speaker gets up to 18 minutes to deliver a lecture on a subject of their choosing, accompanied by props, visualisations, slides and, occasionally, live music.

The Ted empire now includes the Ted conference (held every spring in Long Beach), Ted Global (its sister event in Europe, held this year from 12-15 July in Edinburgh), Ted Women and Ted India. Then there are Ted fellows, who are given funds to do everything from spreading slam poetry to "growing" clothing from bacteria.

Perhaps most excitingly, there are now Tedx events, where any local organiser can apply for a (free) licence to hold an evening of talks under the organisation's banner. There have been 1,500 of these around the world in the past two years, including several dozen in the UK. There are some coming up: on 4 June in Oxford, on 7 July in York and 17 September in Bristol. See for details.

If you asked me to name my favourite Ted speech, I'd be torn. The first contender is Steven Johnson: in his 2010 talk “Where Do Good Ideas Come From?" (, the American author elegantly lays out his thesis that the English coffee house was crucial to the intellectual flowering of the Enlightenment. "Before the spread of coffee and tea, both elite and mass folks drank alcohol," he says. "You had an entire population that was drunk all day."

But, in the end, I would always pick the gerontologist Aubrey de Grey. It's not just his ZZ Top beard, his 90 miles-per-hour delivery or even his assertion that the first person to live to 1,000 has already been born. No, it's the moment when a rotund man in the audience asks whether he could live past 100, as the gerontologist predicts. "If you lose a bit of weight," de Grey shoots back, totally without malice.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 23 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Obama 2.0

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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.