On the political horizon: by-election mayhem

The races for new city mayoralties and directly elected police commissioners could mean choice Westm

Westminster loves a by-election. Opinion polls can tell us only what people say they might do, which isn't even a reliable guide to what they truly think, let alone what will happen when they are ultimately confronted with a ballot paper. A good by-election reveals the mood of the electorate - albeit in just one constituency. It also helps parties test campaigning strategies. Labour tacticians still wince at the memory of the ill-judged deployment of top-hatted stalkers to pursue the (not at all aristocratic) Conservative candidate in Crewe and Nantwich in 2008.

And, of course, the by-election is often, in the worn idiom of political journalism, "a crucial test" for party leaders. Are they showing momentum? Are they fending off attacks? Is their message getting through?

So it is hardly surprising that the prospect of a rash of constituency skirmishes over the next year or so is generating a lot of chatter in parliament. In May of this year there will be referendums in 11 British cities on the creation of an elected mayoral job. If the answer is "yes", mayors will be chosen in November. Also due in November are votes to install the first 40 directly elected local police commissioners. Some of these jobs might be fancied by sitting MPs, especially on the Labour side where life in impotent opposition is proving dispiriting.

Two names often cited as possible candidates for the Birmingham mayoralty are Liam Byrne, shadow work and pensions secretary and MP for the city's Hodge Hill constituency, and Gisela Stuart, MP for Edgbaston. Of the two, fans of politics as spectator sport would much prefer the latter for the simple and faintly dishonorable reason that the battle to fill Stuart's seat would be by far the more exciting. Edgbaston is a bellwether constituency. It was the result - a massive swing to Labour - whose declaration on election night in May 1997 revealed the scale of the landslide to come. If Edgbaston had gone Labour, anything was possible.

Likewise, Labour holding the seat in 2010 was a telling sign that Cameron had failed to fully decontaminate the Tory party. If his campaign had gone anything like according to plan he really ought to have won that seat. The fact that he didn't is sometimes attributed to the personal standing of the local MP, sometimes also to a well-fought grass roots campaign. In any case, it's a marginal now and one that the Tories would very much like to snatch away from Ed Miliband.

Rivalling Edgbaston for interest is the Hampshire seat of Eastleigh, currently occupied by Chris Huhne. The former Lib Dem Energy Secretary faces criminal charges on a driving offence. He is, of course, entitled to be presumed innocent. If, however, he is convicted he would have to quit as an MP. The seat has, in the past, been a straight Lib Dem/Tory contest. A by-election along those lines could be gruesome for coalition relations. Quite a few Lib Dem seats match that profile, including constituencies held by cabinet ministers. Vince Cable, Business Secretary (Twickenham) and Ed Davey, Huhne's replacement as Energy Secretary (Kingston and Surbiton) would both be watching with keen interest how the Tories would campaign in an Eastleigh contest.

All of this is, of course, still very much in the realm of idle speculation and hypothesis. But that doesn't mean it isn't exercising a lot of minds in Westminster.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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The Tinder dating app isn't just about sex – it's about friendship, too. And sex

The lines between sex, love and friendship are blurrier than ever, as I found out quickly while using the app.

The first time I met someone using Tinder, the free dating app that requires users to swipe left for “no” and right for “yes” before enabling new “matches” to chat, it was an unqualified success. I should probably qualify that. I was newly single after five years in a committed relationship and wasn’t looking for anything more than fun, friendship and, well, who knows. A few weeks earlier I had tried to give my number to a girl in a cinema café in Brixton. I wrote it on a postcard I’d been using as a bookmark. She said she had a boyfriend, but wanted to keep the postcard. I had no date and I lost my page.

My Tinder date was a master’s student from Valencia called Anna (her name wasn’t really Anna, of course, I’m not a sociopath). When I arrived at the appointed meeting place, she told me I was far more handsome IRL (“in real life”) than my pictures suggested. I was flattered and full of praise for the directness of continental Europeans but also thought sadly to myself: “If only the same could be said about you.”

Anna and I became friends, at least for a while. The date wasn’t a success in the traditional sense of leading us into a contract based on exclusivity, an accumulating cache of resentments and a mortgage, but it had put me back in the game (an appropriate metaphor – people speak regularly of “playing” with the app).

According to Sean Rad, the co-founder who launched Tinder in late 2012, the service was invented for people like me. “It was really a way to overcome my own problems,” he told the editor of Cosmopolitan at an event in London last month. “It was weird to me, to start a conversation [with a stranger]. Once I had an introduction I was fine, but it’s that first step. It’s difficult for a lot of people.” After just one outing, I’d learned two fundamental lessons about the world of online dating: pretty much everyone has at least one decent picture of themselves, and meeting women using a so-called hook-up app is seldom straightforwardly about sex.

Although sometimes it is. My second Tinder date took place in Vienna. I met Louisa (ditto, name) outside some notable church or other one evening while visiting on holiday (Tinder tourism being, in my view, a far more compelling way to get to know a place than a cumbersome Lonely Planet guide). We drank cocktails by the Danube and rambled across the city before making the romantic decision to stay awake all night, as she had to leave early the next day to go hiking with friends. It was just like the Richard Linklater movie Before Sunrise – something I said out loud more than a few times as the Aperol Spritzes took their toll.

When we met up in London a few months later, Louisa and I decided to skip the second part of Linklater’s beautiful triptych and fast-track our relationship straight to the third, Before Midnight, which takes place 18 years after the protagonists’ first meet in Vienna, and have begun to discover that they hate each others’ guts.

Which is one of the many hazards of the swiping life: unlike with older, web-based platforms such as Match.com or OkCupid, which require a substantial written profile, Tinder users know relatively little about their prospective mates. All that’s necessary is a Facebook account and a single photograph. University, occupation, a short bio and mutual Facebook “likes” are optional (my bio is made up entirely of emojis: the pizza slice, the dancing lady, the stack of books).

Worse still, you will see people you know on Tinder – that includes colleagues, neighbours and exes – and they will see you. Far more people swipe out of boredom or curiosity than are ever likely to want to meet up, in part because swiping is so brain-corrosively addictive.

While the company is cagey about its user data, we know that Tinder has been downloaded over 100 million times and has produced upwards of 11 billion matches – though the number of people who have made contact will be far lower. It may sound like a lot but the Tinder user-base remains stuck at around the 50 million mark: a self-selecting coterie of mainly urban, reasonably affluent, generally white men and women, mostly aged between 18 and 34.

A new generation of apps – such as Hey! Vina and Skout – is seeking to capitalise on Tinder’s reputation as a portal for sleaze, a charge Sean Rad was keen to deny at the London event. Tinder is working on a new iteration, Tinder Social, for groups of friends who want to hang out with other groups on a night out, rather than dating. This makes sense for a relatively fresh business determined to keep on growing: more people are in relationships than out of them, after all.

After two years of using Tinder, off and on, last weekend I deleted the app. I had been visiting a friend in Sweden, and took it pretty badly when a Tinder date invited me to a terrible nightclub, only to take a few looks at me and bolt without even bothering to fabricate an excuse. But on the plane back to London the next day, a strange thing happened. Before takeoff, the woman sitting beside me started crying. I assumed something bad had happened but she explained that she was terrified of flying. Almost as terrified, it turned out, as I am. We wound up holding hands through a horrific patch of mid-air turbulence, exchanged anecdotes to distract ourselves and even, when we were safely in sight of the ground, a kiss.

She’s in my phone, but as a contact on Facebook rather than an avatar on a dating app. I’ll probably never see her again but who knows. People connect in strange new ways all the time. The lines between sex, love and friendship are blurrier than ever, but you can be sure that if you look closely at the lines, you’ll almost certainly notice the pixels.

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad