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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Labour's purge: how it works, and what it means

The total number of people removed will be small - but the rancour will linger. 

Labour has just kicked off its first big wave of expulsions, purging many voters from the party’s leadership rolls. Twitter is ablaze with activists who believe they have been kicked out because they are supporters of Jeremy Corbyn. There are, I'm told, more expulsions to come - what's going on?  Is Labour purging its rolls of Corbyn supporters?

The short answer is “No”.

If that opener feels familiar, it should: I wrote it last year, when the last set of purges kicked off, and may end up using it again next year. Labour has stringent rules about expressing support for other candidates and membership of other parties, which account for the bulk of the expulsions. It also has a code of conduct on abusive language which is also thinning the rolls, with supporters of both candidates being kicked off. 

Although the party is in significantly better financial shape than last year, it still is running a skeleton staff and is recovering from an expensive contest (in this case, to keep Britain in the European Union). The compliance unit itself remains small, so once again people from across the party staff have been dragooned in.

The process this year is pretty much the same: Labour party headquarters doesn’t have any bespoke software to match its voters against a long list of candidates in local elections, compiled last year and added to the list of candidates that stood against Labour in the 2016 local and devolved elections, plus a large backlog of complaints from activists.

It’s that backlog that is behind many of the highest-profile and most controversial examples. Last year, in one complaint that was not upheld, a local member was reported to the Compliance Unit for their failure to attend their local party’s annual barbecue. The mood in Labour, in the country and at Westminster, is significantly more bitter this summer than last and the complaints more personal. Ronnie Draper, the general secretary of the Bfawu, the bakers’ union, one of Corbyn’s biggest supporters in the trade union movement, has been expelled, reported for tweets which included the use of the word “traitors” to refer to Labour opponents of Corbyn.  Jon Will Chambers, former bag carrier to Stella Creasy, and a vocal Corbyn critic on Twitter, has been kicked out for using a “Theresa May” twibbon to indicate his preference for May over Andrea Leadsom, in contravention of the party’s rules.

Both activities breach the letter of the party’s rules although you can (and people will) make good arguments against empowering other people to comb through the social media profiles of their opponents for reasons to dob them in.  (In both cases, I wouldn’t be shocked if both complaints were struck down on appeal)

I would be frankly astonished if Corbyn’s margin of victory – or defeat, as unlikely as that remains in my view – isn’t significantly bigger than the number of people who are barred from voting, which will include supporters of both candidates, as well as a number of duplicates (some people who paid £25 were in fact members before the freeze date, others are affliated trade unionists, and so on). 

What is unarguably more significant, as one party staffer reflected is, “the complaints are nastier now [than last year]”. More and more of the messages to compliance are firmly in what you might call “the barbecue category” – they are obviously groundless and based on personal animosity. That doesn’t feel like the basis of a party that is ready to unite at any level. Publicly and privately, most people are still talking down the chances of a split. It may prove impossible to avoid.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.