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The Olympics on BBC1 - review

Rachel Cooke loves the TV coverage of the Games (one presenter excepted).

My deep love for the Olympics always takes me by surprise: this wasn’t, let me tell you, how it was supposed to be. I think of school sports day and want to weep. Sheffield was then redder than a baboon’s bottom, with the result that all had to have prizes. And so it was that when Sebastian Coe, our only famous former student, came to dish out the cups, I found myself receiving from his hand a certificate that celebrated that I’d come fifth in the 400m.

“How many runners were there?” he asked, as the applause rang out (the clapping did not cease for 20 minutes; it was like being at a meeting of the Chinese Communist Party). “Er, five,” I said. Ten minutes later, we had to go through this humiliation all over again, when a disbelieving Coe compelled me to admit that I’d come eighth in the shot-put out of a field of, yes, eight.

With sudden love, though, there comes something else. Something darker. The more Olympics one watches – and I watched an awful lot; I have a carpet burn on my thigh, due to a heavy fall on the sprint between my desk and the television – the more the irritations grow. Occasionally, this tips over into pure loathing. I refer, naturally, not to those taking part in the games, but to those covering them.

When the BBC vowed that we would “never miss a moment” of London 2012, they didn’t inform us that many of these moments would
be delivered by the presenter John Inverdale, a man who reminds me strongly of a World of Leather sofa, being so burnished, so strangely unyielding and always too squat for the space he is inhabiting.

Inverdale can make most things seem boring and usually does. Worse, he seems bored himself. On the second Monday of the Games, when things were not going too well for our athletics team, his conversations with Michael Johnson et al were gilded with a loathsome Partridge-like irritation, as if it were not Dai Greene and Holly Bleasdale who were having a bad day, but Inverdale himself. “The steam-roller seems to have hit a speed bump,” he said, as though he were at the wheel of a shiny new Prius and stuck in traffic on the M40.

Olympics Tonight, Gaby Logan’s chat show-cum-round-up, managed the rare feat of being both unmissable and unendurable. If you’d been out, you had to watch it. But no sooner had the theme music rolled than you felt like rending your garments.

This wasn’t wholly the distractingly well-groomed Logan’s fault – though as the days rolled by, I did find myself wondering each evening how she would top the outfit of the night before. No, she is super knowledgeable and one of the few people on this earth who is able to keep a conversation going with Amir Khan for more than 35 seconds. But, really. Whose idea was it to play Spandau Ballet’s “Gold” every night, while a famous sportsperson moved the arrow northwards on a Blue Peter-style “totaliser” in the shape of Big Ben? And why, at the sound of it, did Logan start with the disco arms as if she was on a hen night? No man would have done this. Sorry but they wouldn’t.

A few critics have had a go at Jake Humphrey, who presented from the velodrome and other places. I quite liked him. Basically, he had two jobs. One was to explain the omnium to people like me (sounds like a brand of waste-disposal unit). The other was to make Mark Cavendish, who sat beside him in the commentary box, feel better.

I don’t know if he was entirely successful when it came to Cav, though it’s just about possible that his references, made roughly every five minutes, to Cav’s failure to pick up a medal were the idea of the British cycling team’s psychologist. But when it came to the omnium, he had no less gravitas than Ian Thorpe who, I swear, told Gary Lineker one evening that in swimming events: “Look, there is water in every lane.”

Perhaps you’re wondering who I did like. The answer is: pretty much all the commentators. Why, I wonder, didn’t Logan et al have these experts – Garry Herbert and Dan Topolski at the rowing; Mitch Fenner and Christine Still at the gymnastics; Chris Boardman and Hugh Porter at the cycling – in their studios more often? These are the people who bring the Olympics alive and we love the sound of their voices, whispering and calm one minute, clanging with emotion the next.

Like everyone, I adored Clare Balding, too, a woman whose every utterance seemed a rebuke to a BBC that, in 2010, failed to renew her contract. Not only is Balding better prepared than any other BBC sports presenter (Gary Lineker, like our football team, was winging it and it showed; Sue Barker seemed strangely sleepy). She is also a lot less vain. Some people want to be on television for its own sake; it is being on TV that is important to them. Not Balding. It’s the sport she likes and the people who do it and the screeds of stats – and this sincerity puts everyone who comes within a six-mile radius of her at their ease. Medal winners, you may noticed, tend to kiss her, not the other way round. Now I really think about this, if Balding were to ask me about coming eighth in the shot-put, I might, even now, consider taking it up again. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The New Patriotism

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Labour break the Osborne supremacy?

The Conservative hegemony is deeply embedded - but it can be broken, says Ken Spours.

The Conservative Party commands a majority not just in the House of Commons, but also in the wider political landscape. It holds the political loyalty of expanding and powerful voting constituencies, such as the retired population and private sector businesses and their workers. It is dominant in English politics outside the largest urban centres, and it has ambitions to consolidate its position in the South West and to move into the “Northern Powerhouse”. Most ambitiously, it aims to detach irreversibly the skilled working classes from allegiance to the Labour Party, something that was attempted by Thatcher in the 1980s. Its goal is the building of new political hegemonic bloc that might be termed the Osborne supremacy, after its chief strategist.

The new Conservative hegemony is not simply based on stealing Labour’s political clothes or co-opting the odd political figure, such as Andrew Adonis; it runs much deeper and has been more than a decade the making. While leading conservative thinkers have not seriously engaged with the work of Antonio Gramsci, they act as if they have done. They do this instinctively, although they also work hard at enacting political domination.

 Adaptiveness through a conservative ‘double shuffle’

A major source of the new Conservative hegemony has been its fundamental intellectual political thinking and its adaptive nature. The intellectual foundations were laid in the decades of Keysianism when free market thinkers, notably Hayak and Friedman, pioneered neo-liberal thinking that would burst onto the political scene in Reagan/Thatcher era.  Despite setbacks, following the exhaustion of the Thatcherite political project in the 1990s, it has sprung back to life again in a more malleable form. Its strengths lie not only in its roots in a neo-liberal economy and state, but in a conservative ‘double shuffle’: the combining of neo-Thatcherite economics and social and civil liberalism, represented by a highly flexible and cordial relationship between Osborne and Cameron.  

 Right intellectual and political resources

The Conservative Party has also mobilised an integrated set of highly effective political and intellectual resources that are constantly seeking new avenues of economic, technological, political and social development, able to appropriate the language of the Left and to summon and frame popular common sense. These include well-resourced Right think tanks such as Policy Exchange; campaigning attack organisations, notably, the Taxpayers Alliance; a stratum of websites (e.g. ConservativeHome) and bloggers linked to the more established rightwing press that provide easy outlets for key ideas and stories. Moreover, a modernized Conservative Parliamentary Party provides essential political leadership and is highly receptive to new ideas.

 Very Machiavellian - conservative coercion and consensus

No longer restrained by the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives have also opted for a strategy of coercion to erode the remaining political bastions of the Left with proposed legislation against trade unions, attacks on charities with social missions, reform of the Human Rights Act, and measures to make it more difficult for trade unionists to affiliate to the Labour Party. Coupled with proposed boundary changes and English Votes for English Laws (Evel) in the House of Commons, these are aimed at crippling the organisational capacity of Labour and the wider Left.  It is these twin strategies of consensus and coercion that they anticipate will cohere and expand the Conservative political bloc – a set of economic, political and social alliances underpinned by new institutional ‘facts on the ground’ that aims to irrevocably shift the centre of political gravity.

The strengths and limits of the Conservative political bloc

In 2015 the conservative political bloc constitutes an extensive and well-organised array of ‘ramparts and earthworks’ geared to fighting successful political and ideological ‘wars of position’ and occasional “wars of manoeuvre”. This contrasts sharply with the ramshackle political and ideological trenches of Labour and the Left, which could be characterised as fragmented and in a state of serious disrepair.

The terrain of the Conservative bloc is not impregnable, however, having potential fault lines and weaknesses that might be exploited by a committed and skillful adversary. These include an ideological approach to austerity and shrinking the state that will hit their voting blocs; Europe; a social ‘holding pattern’ and dependence on the older voter that fails to tap into the dynamism of a younger and increasingly estranged generation and, crucially, vulnerability to a new economic crisis because the underlying systemic issues remain unresolved.

 Is the Left capable of building an alternative political bloc?

The answer is not straightforward.  On the one hand, Corbynism is focused on building and energizing a committed core and historically may be recognized as having saved the Labour Party from collapse after a catastrophic defeat in May. The Core may be the foundation of an effective counter bloc, but cannot represent it.  A counter-hegemony will need to be built by reaching out around new vision of a productive economy; a more democratic state that balances national leadership and local discretion (a more democratic version of the Northern Powerhouse); a new social alliance that really articulates the idea of ‘one nation’ and an ability to represent these ideas and visions in everyday, common-sense language. 

 If the Conservatives instinctively understand political hegemony Labour politicians, with one or two notable exceptions, behave as though they have little or no understanding of what is actually going on.  If they hope to win in future this has to change and a good start would be a collective sober analysis of the Conservative’s political and ideological achievements.

This is an extract from The Osborne Supremacy, a new pamphlet by Compass.

Ken Spours is a Professor at the IoE and was Convener of the Compass Education Inquiry. The final report of the Compass Education Inquiry, Big Education can be downloaded here.