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 Ted.com 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?" (tinyurl.com/tedgoodideas), 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

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

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

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