Kelvin MacKenzie and me

I'm amused to see myself feature in the former Sun editor's latest rant.

I've met Kelvin MacKenzie now on two or three occasions. I've chatted to him on the phone about Andy Coulson. I spent an hour in the green room with him last Sunday, chatting about the Lib Dems, Rupert Murdoch phone-tapping, etc. So I'm surprised he couldn't remember my name; or, if he did, chose not to share it with his readers. I appear in his column only as "the chap from the New Statesman" and "the bloke from the New Statesman". Can the Sun subs not spell "M-e-h-d-i" or "H-a-s-a-n"? I'm also amused that the only other journalist I've ever debated with or spoken to who couldn't remember my name, despite being told twice on air what it was by the presenter, was the Sun's Trevor Kavanagh.

But let's look at the substance of Kelvin's column (and I use the word "substance" rather loosely):

The class war has taken a surprising turn. Here I was in a television studio debating obesity's link to poverty when the chap from the New Statesman turned on me and said: "It's all right for you, shopping at Waitrose." Guilty as charged. I do shop at Waitrose and am now in the strange position of having to defend myself. It's my nearest supermarket and any food retailer will tell you -- thanks to their extensive research -- that no customer wants to travel more than one-and-a-quarter miles to shop. It's why supermarkets build more and more stores. But it's the first time a shop has defined my politics. He may as well have accused me of wearing shoes. Looking at the bloke from the New Statesman, my sense is that on the same basis Lidl may be his regular haunt.

I'm a Tesco man myself, to be honest. I've never shopped in Lidl or, for that matter, Waitrose. But MacKenzie manages to write about Sunday's The Big Questions, on BBC1, without mentioning the context in which I made my remarks about Waitrose. I know that most Sun columnists shy away from facts and figures -- and MacKenzie is no exception -- so let me try to offer some balance. There is a concept known as a "food desert"; in 1996, a British Low Income Project Team defined food deserts as "areas of relative exclusion where people experience physical and economic barriers to accessing healthy foods". In 2008, the Telegraph reported:

The increasing number of suburban supermarkets is creating health problems for those living in inner-city "urban food deserts", according to research.

The proliferation of supermarkets on city outskirts has led to a decline of decent food outlets in the centre, a study published today discloses.

These "food deserts" are said to be affecting the health of the poorer sections of society as well as those without cars, who cannot easily travel to supermarkets.

As for the overall debate about the links between obesity and poverty in this country and abroad, please see this rather insightful CIF piece from last year.

Kelvin continues:

Not since the Eighties have I seen class war so prominent in public life. Bashing bankers, suggesting mansion taxes. Squeezing the rich until the pips squeak is at the centre of the debate.

He's right -- class war is "prominent in public life" and it is indeed like the "Eighties" all over again. Why? Because, as in the 1980s, a Tory-led government of multimillionaires, which is squeezing the poor and the middle classes while appeasing its greedy friends in the City, has declared class war on the rest of us.

Still, nice to appear in the Sun today, as well as the Guardian, and as for being on the end of Kelvin's notorious rants, as a colleague pointed out me a moment ago, being accused of shopping at Lidl is hardly the worst insult he's ever thrown at someone. At least he didn't accuse me of urinating on the dead.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

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

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide