The great (neck breaking) debate

The death penalty debate is one of personal agendas, desperate publicity, and is an inevitable dialo

I am falling into a trap. I know that by talking about the newly ignited debate over restoring the death penalty, no matter how it is discussed, it gives credence to something that I might not think deserves credence.

But here it is: it's unavoidable, given that I've seen it on television, heard about it on the radio and read about it everywhere, from newspapers to Twitter and beyond. So I think you have to talk about it, even if that means giving certain people the publicity they so desperately seem to crave.

Sometimes, you have to fall into one trap, to avoid falling into another trap. The other trap, in this instance, is to imagine that by not talking about the newly ignited debate over restoring the death penalty, that somehow it will go away. And those of us who don't believe the death penalty should be restored should be prepared to debate it. If we don't, we run the risk of being the political elite, looking down on the plebs and dismissing their views as being unimportant from our lofty perches - and that won't do at all.

That's exactly how some people would like to portray the kind of people who don't think it's a good idea to bring back the rope, or lethal injection, or whichever humane or inhumane method of terminating the life of an undesirable person is proposed. An impression can be created in which our political masters and the detached elite are unwilling to talk about issues that matter to ordinary people, creating anger. You may argue that this kind of detachment is not limited to matters of lawful homicide and applies to a great deal of the business of government - but on such an emotive issue as this, it can benefit one side of the argument to portray their opponents as deliberately ignoring the wishes of the 'general will'.

The problem faced in this particular debate right now, I think, is one of momentum. This whole business came about because of newly relaunched epetitions to the Government; those proposing a return of state-sponsored neck-breaking were obviously quicker out of the blocks than those arguing for the status quo. Of course they were: who launches a petition to keep things as they are? If you don't agree with the petition wanting to restore the right of the Government to kill those citizens it deems unworthy, then you just ignore it. The active position defeats the passive one, in this instance.

Which is why I've seen petitions started to retain the death penalty. Again, you could argue that these people are allowing the other side of the argument to win, by acknowledging that there's a debate to be had in the first place, but it's probably a debate worth having, if enough people are going to be shouting about it from one side. If no-one is shouting about it from the other, it could create a false impression that more people are in favour than actually are. I suppose it seems strange for anyone to want to sign a petition to retain the lack of a death penalty, as it is to sign a petition to retain the lack of killing every first-born male child, but doing so might, perhaps, reveal that this debate - if we must have it - is not as cut-and-dried as it's being portrayed in some quarters.

In the meantime, the debate - if we can call it a debate -is carrying merrily on, during the summer recess and the silly season, providing an easy subject matter for radio phone-ins and struggling columnists alike (oh look). It gives the opportunity for those with an agenda to pursue it, and beyond that, to appear on television and radio and in print with increasing regularity - which may not be desperately disappointing for their egos, one suspects.

Is this all just a lot of fuss about nothing? Do people really, really want to bring back the Rope to sort out who deserves to live and who deserves to die, particularly at a time when so much police corruption is being investigated? It will be interesting to see if the debate has legs, or whether it's just a handy distraction from phonehacking, the miserable economic situation and other questions of competence during the summertime. Regardless, it's important to take it seriously, and not dismiss it, I think, whatever your view.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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Who will win in Manchester Gorton?

Will Labour lose in Manchester Gorton?

The death of Gerald Kaufman will trigger a by-election in his Manchester Gorton seat, which has been Labour-held since 1935.

Coming so soon after the disappointing results in Copeland – where the seat was lost to the Tories – and Stoke – where the party lost vote share – some overly excitable commentators are talking up the possibility of an upset in the Manchester seat.

But Gorton is very different to Stoke-on-Trent and to Copeland. The Labour lead is 56 points, compared to 16.5 points in Stoke-on-Trent and 6.5 points in Copeland. (As I’ve written before and will doubtless write again, it’s much more instructive to talk about vote share rather than vote numbers in British elections. Most of the country tends to vote in the same way even if they vote at different volumes.)

That 47 per cent of the seat's residents come from a non-white background and that the Labour party holds every council seat in the constituency only adds to the party's strong position here. 

But that doesn’t mean that there is no interest to be had in the contest at all. That the seat voted heavily to remain in the European Union – around 65 per cent according to Chris Hanretty’s estimates – will provide a glimmer of hope to the Liberal Democrats that they can finish a strong second, as they did consistently from 1992 to 2010, before slumping to fifth in 2015.

How they do in second place will inform how jittery Labour MPs with smaller majorities and a history of Liberal Democrat activity are about Labour’s embrace of Brexit.

They also have a narrow chance of becoming competitive should Labour’s selection turn acrimonious. The seat has been in special measures since 2004, which means the selection will be run by the party’s national executive committee, though several local candidates are tipped to run, with Afzal Khan,  a local MEP, and Julie Reid, a local councillor, both expected to run for the vacant seats.

It’s highly unlikely but if the selection occurs in a way that irritates the local party or provokes serious local in-fighting, you can just about see how the Liberal Democrats give everyone a surprise. But it’s about as likely as the United States men landing on Mars any time soon – plausible, but far-fetched. 

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