Don't rejoice at Giggs's downfall

Our obsession with the sex lives of the rich and famous is tawdry at best.

Ryan Giggs's spectacular plummet in the public estimation is the perfect example of how our celebrity culture works. A couple of years back, he was Sports Personality of the Year, a shining example for youngsters everywhere; now he's Ryan Giggs, Love Rat.

It's a familiar narrative arc: The young, talented sportsman comes from nowhere to reach the top of his game; he goes on to accumulate an impressive haul of trophies; he has everything that money can buy; but fails to keep his private life as perfect as everything else. Our cheers turn to boos as the secrets are gaudily splashed over the front pages of the red-tops.

"GIGGS IS THE NEW TIGER WOODS" says today's Daily Star. And it's a similar story: the supposedly squeaky-clean bubble punctured by a series of revelations; the kiss-and-tell stories snowballing along as more and more events come to light. Just as with Woods, the tabloids can smell blood - and money.

The Woods stories were dragged out over several weeks, with new affairs coming to light, new people telling their tales of what they got up to, and didn't get up to, with the world's second best ever golfer. The women involved were quickly dehumanised, turned into a series of numbers - or rather holes that Woods had played. Because we didn't really care what they thought, or felt, or did - it was all about the man at the centre of it all. What was he like? What did he say?

The humbling of the alpha-male millionaire was complete; and we could read all about it, and feel a sense of superiority over this super-human ball-hitter, that we hadn't made the mistakes as him - or if we had, that we weren't notable or famous enough to have our mistakes inked onto a million paper pages, peered at on a million shimmering screens. We could enjoy his pain, because it wasn't happening to us; we could revel in his self-inflicted misery, enjoy seeing his hubris turn to shame before our delighted eyes.

So it is with Giggs, although there's another element to all this, a barely disguised stench of triumphalism among our friends at the tabloids. Look, he was doing this all along! And he tried to hide it with that evil injunction! Well now, the floodgates are open. If anything, the huge interest in Giggs brought about by the injunction gave these stories a value they might not have otherwise had - not that they wouldn't have been big stories anyway.

It's hard to find much sympathy for Giggs in all this, and clearly he is the originator of his own downfall through his actions and choices. But I still see these things as very much a private tragedy. No, perhaps we shouldn't be prevented from knowing about these matters, distasteful though that is; but I still feel a bit grubby reading about them - there's a slime that rubs off on your fingers when you put the paper down, or leave the keyboard.

We may like to convince ourselves that we're better than people like Giggs, because we get to see their decline and fall take place in public, but I am not so sure that we are. Our obsession with the sex lives of the rich and famous is a bit mucky, I think; a bit adolescent. Of course, the papers will sell by the palletload on the back of his face being on the front, and so they will have been proved right all along.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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