Scorsese: doesn't rhyme with "foresees". Photo: Getty
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“Don’t say anything nasty,” my son pleads, as we head for a university open day

A couple of years ago, I’d gone with his big sister to another university, where a lecturer had mispronounced one of the most prominent authorities in her discipline and I had got into a fight with him.

To Manchester, with the eldest boy, for the open day at the university. Such English roots as I have are from the west of the Pennines; for that reason, I had asked his mother to take him to Leeds for its open day. Besides, that was where she had gone, so she was better placed to make comments along the lines of: “This used to be really nice,” “There used to be a great pub here but I see they’ve pulled it down,” “I was sick here once,” and so on.

My memories of Manchester were patchy and dim. The last time I had been there was years and years ago, taking a train up with Mr Self so that we could drop in on Mark Radcliffe’s BBC Radio 1 programme, on which Will had a slot talking about books. “Welcome to Manchester,” I muttered, as we left the station. “Twinned with Mordor.” For it was dark and drizzly and cold and we were at the end of our tethers: the man sitting next to us had spent two hours swearing at an Action Man-sized doll of Michael Schumacher; indeed, he’d encouraged us to join in. (This sounds unlikely but is quite true; Will gave me a “Sorry, this kind of thing always happens to me” look.)

Manchester was much nicer this time round. For one thing it was, if not exactly sunny, at least unseasonably warm and we’d had a quiet journey up, without anyone abusing homunculi in the shape of German Formula One racing drivers. But because of a misreading of the rudimentary map handed out by the university, we walked the wrong way down Fairfield Street for a few minutes and it didn’t take us long before we were in one of those urban landscapes that seem beyond redemption. I hate making stupid, basic mistakes like this – I hate it only a little bit less when a child of mine reads the map on his phone better than I read my paper one – so we turned back, almost running into, as we did so, a couple of bedraggled, near-toothless women in conversation. Something about their attire seemed wrong and as we passed them I realised, from the embonpoint of the one and the short skirt/boots combo of the other, as well as the lipstick that served only to bring the barrenness of their surrounding features into sharp relief, that these were prostitutes. It was about noon.

I didn’t fancy explaining to the boy, should he have asked, what these ancient women were doing got up like that and, while he has spent much of his young life playing the Grand Theft Auto games, in which I gather prostitutes feature more than they do in real life, I doubt any of them look like that. But everyone was civil, the encounter passed without incident and we proceeded along to the campus.

The boy had anxieties of his own, I knew that. A couple of years ago, I’d gone with his big sister to — University, where a lecturer had mispronounced one of the most prominent authorities in her discipline and I had got into a fight with him; the boy wanted no repetition of anything like that. But he wants to study and make films and I was quietly confident that no film-maker was ever going to – to give a comparable solecism – pronounce Scorsese as if it rhymed with “foresees”.

“Also,” said the boy, “don’t say anything nasty about Manchester.”

As if – even if the author of a horrible letter about me last week, in this very magazine, came from the city. I pointed out the grandiosity and permanence of the Victorian civic architecture, although, for instance, the Fire Station on Whitworth Street had long since been separated from its original purpose. Both of us marvelled at the way that it had black cabs and I said that Manchester had produced an inordinate number of great bands and that if the boy did not form or play in one for at least a couple of weeks while
he was here, I’d disown him.

Later, after I had had a pleasant nap in the lecture theatre while the relevant prof introduced us to the outlines of the film course, we sat eating our lunch on the campus green.

The boy, who was still discombobulated to think that you could have black taxis and double-decker buses and yet be in a city that was not London, reflected that he had hardly been to any other city in Britain; whenever he left London, it was either to go abroad or to go to the country.

This struck me as a very true and useful observation and one that should make Londoners a little bit abashed and a little less cocky.

“Leeds was really nice, though,” he added. To which I had nothing to say at all. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, British jihadis fighting with Isis

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide