What David Starkey can learn from Rastamouse

The historian's comments were wrong, insulting, crude and disingenuous. He could learn a lot from th

David Starkey has a lot to learn from Rastamouse. We've all got a lot to learn from Rastamouse, but Starkey in particular. After his comments on Newsnight last week about white people having become black, and his horror at the sound of patois, he might learn something at the Thames Festival, when he's due to share a boat with the rasta rodent's creators Genevieve Webster and Michael De Souza.

It's probably too much to hope that Starkey greets the pair with a cheery "wa'gwan?" and pleads to be made an honorary member of Da Easy Crew as penance for his shameful statements. He should: he'd probably get an insight into the things he's spoken about from the tales of Rastamouse and Da Easy Crew, a community-spirited bunch who always want "to make a bad ting good". Perhaps in the case of Starkey's numbskull views, that might be an assignment too far even for Rastamouse. President Wensley Dale might regard Starkey as a lost cause, but we can always hope.

What Starkey said last week was wrong, insulting, crude and disingenuous. You don't even have to use the R-bomb, and it's probably best that those who disagree with him choose not to use it. No -- perhaps words like pathetic, ill-judged, crude, daft, idiotic, embarrassing, disgraceful and witless are better than the R-bomb. It's true, I suppose, that people do occasionally wheel out terms like racist (and misogynist, and so on) when they aren't merited, as a way of going nuclear in an argument. But there are equally many times when people do say and write things which are offensive, and need to be called out.

I know there are many who have leapt to his defence. "Oh no no, it wasn't racist because it wasn't racist, therefore it wasn't," goes the argument, and who am I to argue against that? How can you? There's no point. It's one of those odd things about the way we argue things nowadays that if you say someone's said something racist for saying something racist, it gives them an immediate "out". Aha, they turn around and say, you're calling me a racist, it's the Politically Correct Stasi gone mad, it's the new McCarthyism, you're not even allowed to be racist anymore without someone going and calling you racist. And that opens up a huge, distracting and tedious debate which deflects you from what people actually said.

What Starkey actually said was wrong. He got it hopelessly, ridiculously wrong. But these things happen when you wheel on entertaining experts like Starkey, controversialists who "make good TV" rather than necessarily provide the most accurate answers to the questions at hand. Television is forever in fear of the remote control, and aims to keep us interested; it knows we're not too keen on dry debates, so it aims to stir the pot a little.

Starkey is, after all, not put on television because of his skill as a historian. He's put on television as an entertainer, a controversialist, a pompous-sounding gasbag who comes out with stuff that makes you sit up and take notice. There should be a caption on screen whenever he starts his Professor Yaffle needling: "This historian is for entertainment purposes only."

In the meantime, Starkey could do worse than read a few Rastamouse books to gen up on his new friends. He might even learn some of the patois that scares him so much, so he can sound culturally aware for his next TV appearance. Irie.

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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.