Alan Watkins, 1933-2010

Former NS political columnist dies at 77.

Alan Watkins, one of the longest-serving political columnists in British journalism, died yesterday at the age of 77.

He wrote his last column for the Independent on Sunday on 18 April, shortly after the first of the three leaders' debates. And it is a perfect illustration of Watkins's artistry (not too strong a word, I think, for what Watkins did week in, week out for well over 40 years; his former colleague on the Observer, Robert Harris, describes Watkins's weekly despatches from the heart of British politics as "unsurpassed in [their] wit, [their] knowledge of parliamentary history and the quality of [their] prose").

Beneath a headline that now looks unusually prescient ("Clegg's soft touch will be hard to sustain"), Watkins displayed an attractive imperviousness to the conventional wisdom that too often asphyxiates political journalism in this country:

From the acres of opinion on display on Friday, I seem to find myself in a minority of one. The "great debate" has been pronounced an outstanding success. Hardened political commentators journeyed all the way to Manchester for . . . for what exactly? They might just as well have watched the proceedings from the modest comfort of their own sitting rooms, as I did myself.

Indeed, I watched part of Coronation Street, with the sound turned down. The first time I have done so, on that previous occasion turned up, for about 20 years. I watch a good deal of Channel 4, but to the main ITV channel I give a wide berth. There it is.

Not only was Watkins immune to debate-hysteria, he was also sceptical of "Cleggmania". Too many commentators, he suggested, were mistaking a minor earth tremor for a permanent shifting of the tectonic plates -- a judgement that, for all the unprecedented excitement and intrigue of this weekend's behind-closed-doors horse-trading, looks pretty secure in the wake of the Lib Dems' disappointing showing on Thursday:

Politically, the effect of Mr Clegg's appearance on Thursday evening was the same as the effect of a Liberal Democrat win at a by-election. For many years there was almost a guaranteed supply of Liberal Democrat upsets. In later years, the supply was in danger of drying up. There is no comparable peril on 6 May. Mr Clegg can say: vote for me. There is bound to be a Liberal Democrat somewhere within easy reach.

The New Statesman is proud to be able to say that, for several years, Watkins was one of our own -- as political correspondent in the late 1960s and early 1970s, under the editorships of Paul Johnson, Richard Crossman and Anthony Howard. In 1968, the magazine sent Watkins to Blackpool to cover the 100th Trades Union Congress:

Who is the windblown figure, battling along the front at Blackpool? Past "Seaview" he goes, past the Belgrave, past the Cliffs, sharp left and past Yates's Wine Lodge -- where Labour ministers will drink a glass of lunchtime champagne to demonstrate their solidarity with the workers -- and finally to the Winter Gardens, in which the only visible form of plant life is the fruit machines. Is it? Can it be? Indeed, it is: the Political Correspondent of the New Statesman, refreshed after several weeks' holiday, come to the one hundredth annual Trades Union Congress.

You can read the rest of his report here.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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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.