Five of the Best

The top five comment pieces from today's papers

The Times's Daniel Finkelstein questions why the expenses scandal has been largely ignored at the party conferences:

Last week, Labour underplayed parliament's biggest crisis in a generation in a really quite astonishing way. This scandal only broke a few weeks ago. People are still resigning, for goodness' sake. But it made page 94 or whatever of the Prime Minister's speech and he was finished with it before page 95. It wasn't centre stage in Nick Clegg's speech either. What were they thinking? By the time David Cameron sits down tomorrow, the Tories need to be sure that the story is very different.

In the Guardian, Simon Jenkins advises David Cameron to focus on leadership over policy:

The Tories do not have to convince voters that they are responsible or competent. They can leave Gordon Brown to convince voters that he is not, and offer instead a leader with whom the electorate can feel comfortably at home for the next four or five years. Cameron's aura of slightly foppish inexperience is surely preferable to a procession of shadow ministers banging their tin-can policies and inviting lobbyists to attack them at every turn. Their pledges merely saddle a Tory government with the odium of U-turn and reversal. By pledging to cut Whitehall "by a third", Cameron advertises his inexperience. He never will.

The New York Times's Bob Herbert argues that Barack Obama has not responded urgently enough to the US jobs crisis:

No big ideas have emerged. No dramatically creative initiatives. While devoting enormous amounts of energy to health care, and trying now to decide what to do about Afghanistan, the president has not even conveyed the sense of urgency that the crisis in employment warrants.

In the Financial Times, the think tank head Charles Grant says that Tony Blair would make a fine EU president:

[N]otwithstanding Iraq, he has a track record as a successful politician. He brokered a peace deal for Northern Ireland, while his recent work on the Palestinian economy shows a commitment to settling the Middle East conflict. As for the EU, he invented its defence policy (with Jacques Chirac, the former French president), helped create the Lisbon agenda of economic reform, and ensured that climate change and energy security became priorities.

On the eve of a docudrama on David Cameron's days in the Bulllingdon Club, the Independent's Michael Brown warns Labour not to revert to class warfare:

Labour would . . . be ill-advised to revert to an old-style class war campaign against the Cameroons. The working class continues to shrink and, in straitened times, the aspirational middle class puts more of the blame squarely at the door of Gordon Brown's profligacy than at rich City banking friends of the Tories.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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