Fox News puts Jon Stewart on the spot

The Daily Show host had a tougher time than normal when he appeared on Fox News on Sunday.

The host of the Daily Show, Jon Stewart, went onto Fox News Sunday last night. This, in itself, isn't really big news. Stewart regularly appears on the network and exchanges matey banter with the sometimes insane Bill O'Reilly. The formula is pretty standard whenever Stewart goes into enemy territory. The Fox News host accuses him of being the doyen of mainstream liberal bias, before Stewart declares: "Hey, I'm a comedian! Don't take me seriously."

This time, however, was a little different. Jon Stewart reeled out the same lines as usual (he's a comedian working on a comedy show, not a news anchor on a news show, etc. etc.) but Wallace was ready for them, pointing to a Baltimore Sun critic who recently wrote: "When [Stewart] is wrong, he goes into the tap dance of saying he's only a comedian and shouldn't be taken seriously."

This stumped Stewart momentarily. A raw nerve touched, Wallace dug his finger in a little deeper. "Honestly, I think you want to be a political player," said Wallace with a smirk.

Rather than laugh it off - like a comedian - Stewart seemed riled. "You're wrong. You are wrong," he replied sternly. Wallace then continued to poke, arguing that Fox was simply an antidote to mainstream liberal bias. This seemed to get to Stewart, who shot back, rather too forcefully: "Who are the most consistently misinformed media viewers? The most consistently misinformed? Fox, Fox viewers. Consistently, every poll."

Wallace then ruined what threatened to be an interesting debate by pointing to a clip of a "comedy roast" skit broadcast elsewhere on Stewart's network and a joke involving Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee's penis, which rather let the Daily Show host off the hook. "It's not exactly masterpiece theatre," argued Wallace. "You're the counterbalance to that. I'm suggesting that there is bias and you only tell part of the story." (Presumably because the joke focussed only on their sex video, rather than the break-up of their ill-fated marriage.)

Before this, however, the interview highlighted Stewart's awkward, and rather unique, position in the US media. Stewart might not want to be seen as a politcal player or a news anchor, but his comedy makes him so. His comedy is ideological and political - and that is why it's good. But the form it takes - a mock news show, that reacts to current affairs - blurs the lines between journalism and comedy. Likewise, events such as last year's "Rally for Sanity" cloud the issue further. The "I'm a comedian" defence is getting old. He is a part of US news culture, whether he wants to be or not. The Daily Show is infotainment with great jokes. The sooner Stewart accepts that, and stops relying on the comedian defence, the better.

UPDATE: I refine my views on Stewart and this interview in this piece here. Feel free to continue the kicking on a new thread.

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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.