Why I was wrong about the Star and the Express

The Desmond empire's decision to embrace the Health Lottery has not calmed the papers' editorial pol

Back in March, a rather misguided but well-intentioned blogger wrote about Richard Desmond's plans for a health lottery. "It could raise a lot of money for charity and it could mark the end of the bad old days for the Express and the Star," wrote that fool, claiming that the philanthropic endeavour was aimed "with one eye on detoxifying his newspaper brands."

This idiot blundered on: "Pandering to Little Englanders every now and again might have done a good job in retaining a few hardcore readers for the Express and the Star, but that kind of tactic might become a hindrance." Oh, you have to wince.

The fool, if you haven't realised by now, was me. A month on from the launch of the Health Lottery in a rainbow-coloured vomit of excitement, has anything really changed in the Desmond empire? Have these newspapers become milder, less rabid, more measured, as they now share an umbrella with the beneficent health lotto project? Well, it's not looking tremendously promising. (The health lottery itself isn't looking tremendously promising either, but that's another story.)

I suppose the point I was making back in March was that it would be difficult to sell a message of positive, embracing, warm charity fun while at the same time selling a more divisive, cold, negative message about disliking foreigners. The lottery was launched at the end of September, with the Daily Express declaring it would "MAKE BRITAIN BETTER" and the Daily Star saying it was a "TONIC FOR BRITAIN". But did the content of the papers continue in such a positive vein? At first the signs seemed promising. The Express on September 29 led with news that there would be "PAY RISE JOY FOR MILLIONS". So far, so inoffensive. The Star said that Ed Miliband wanted to "BAN BIG BRO FUN", neatly mentioning Channel 5's flagship reality show. Cross-promotional as ever, and not entirely true, but not toxic. Not yet.

As October began, though, there were signs that the feelgood factor wouldn't last. "EU RAID ON OUR PENSIONS", boiled the Express. "£42M CHILD BENEFIT SENT ABROAD", grumbled the Sunday Express. "VICTORY IN BID TO QUIT EU", roared the Express, next to a photo of Simon Cowell, who was, wouldn't you know it, backing the Health Lottery (in a "FRENZY", according to the Star). A temporary bit of actual news intervened with the acquittal of tabloid favourite Amanda Knox (tastefully reported to be "HAUNTED BY MEREDITH'S GHOST", said the Star), and then the spleen returned.

The front page of the Express on October 14 proclaimed that "WORKERS ARE FIRED FOR BEING BRITISH", next to the beaming smile of early 1990s celebrity Donna Air (who was "backing the health lottery", shockingly enough). The headline might have led amateur readers to think that workers had been fired for being British, but a more thorough look at the words revealed it was a claim, made by an MP using parliamentary privilege, about a company and a forthcoming industrial tribunal, and not really quite as established a fact as it might at first have appeared.

In recent days, it's accelerated, with an Express "Crusade" relaunched on October 17 to "GET US OUT OF THE EU", a story saying "75% SAY QUIT THE EU NOW" (although the figures weren't quite that clear cut), "THE GREAT EU REVOLT" on October 24 and "SCANDAL OF EU BETRAYAL" on October 25. It took a somewhat more sinister turn with "GERMANY WARNS OF WAR IN EUROPE" on October 27, above a story which, you may be not entirely knocked down with a feather to learn, didn't exactly reflect Germany warning of a war in Europe. A day later, apparently, the FRENCH were sending "UNEMPLOYED TO BRITAIN ON CUT-PRICE TRAINS TO STEAL OUR JOBS." (And do what with them? Take them back to France? "Haha, you English fools, I have stolen your £6-an-hour job in the kitchen in Spud-u-like and am transporting it to Marseille!")

All those months ago, I had hoped that the arrival of the Health Lottery might spike the guns of the Express and Star a little, but I am not so sure it has. While the Star appears to have retreated from political front pages altogether for the time being, becoming more and more obsessed with celebrities (particularly female celebrities in their pants), the Express has ploughed the same old furrow. Those foreigners, stealing our jobs! Those Germans! War in Europe! Get us out now! Oh, and by the way, buy a lottery ticket - 21p from every pound goes to charity!

Whatever happens with the Health Lottery, it doesn't appear its presence will, after all, be a calming influence on the editorial policy of its papers. Someone somewhere must have reasoned that the anti-EU stories flog papers, and that's not going to stop anytime soon. It's always a shame to say you were wrong, but I think I was.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

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