Frontier town: Quito, Ecuador, seen shortly after a small earthquake, August 2014. Photo: Getty
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Alone in the border town, I got a bit too nifty with the Spanish phrasebook

Suzanne Moore’s weekly column, Telling Tales. 

Border towns are often dodgy places. Anyone sensible would not arrive at one in the middle of night with nowhere to stay. But I was never anyone sensible.

What had possessed me to “do” South America in 1981 is hard to say. I had read One Hundred Years of Solitude. Blokes I knew were going out to Nicaragua to aid the Sandinistas in their revolutionary struggle.

Somehow I thought this was mere fashion and that Central America was not the real deal.

I bought a one-way flight from Miami to Quito, Ecuador, on my Barclaycard and then persuaded a Dutch guy and his Israeli sidekick to get a driveaway car from New York where I was living.

It is hard to say how unprepared I was for an entire continent. For a start, I had assumed Latin America was hot so I had nothing more than what could only be called a summer wardrobe. Somehow the Andes had not figured in my scheme of things.

Ruth was tall and skinny and hyper and gave me tips. I met her in the first week in Quito. When men hissed and clicked at her she would hiss back, “Fuck off and die.”

At first I thought this excessive. By the end of my trip I would have happily macheted many of them myself.

The sexual harassment was so extreme that stuff like going to the loo meant two men blocking your way and groping you. Maybe it’s better now? In 1981 a woman travelling alone was asking for it.

But I was a quick learner. I learned where to sit and where to avoid. I learned sometimes it was just easier not to go out at night at all. I learned the art of bribery. And the code of giving presents to officials which meant that borders could be crossed, papers would always be in order.

But this town, a collection of run-down brothels and bars, was a very bad place. My main aim was not to be murdered.

There were no hostels and no transport out. Old men with bottles of hooch sent me down alleyways looking for a room, hawking up phlegm as they laughed at my predicament. Staying in a flophouse was better surely than staying out all night with these characters.

“How much? ” I asked a toothless man in what would be called “Reception” only in a godforsaken shack.

The price was extortionate.

I began bargaining: “El noventa? Eso es ridículo!

I got the price right down.

Cincuenta soles.”

He leered at me. My Spanish was coming on in leaps and bounds even though this was a shithole.

He took me up to the room. There were dirty clothes everywhere and a poster of Clint Eastwood on the wall. He locked the door and came towards me. “Gringita . . .”

This was his room.

The price that I had so successfully haggled down? That was my price. 

Suzanne Moore is a writer for the Guardian and the New Statesman. She writes the weekly “Telling Tales” column in the NS.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Grayson Perry guest edit

Photo: Getty
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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.