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.

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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