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.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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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.