A sunset in Barbados, where Ed Smith stayed over the election campaign. Photo: JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
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The Pietersen poll delusion, reading the election, and a tour of Tony Cozier’s Barbados

I had a splendid election campaign. I left England for the Caribbean.

Final proof of the abject failings of Britain’s polling industry: the Kevin Pietersen affair. A survey conducted in March by YouGov “demonstrated” that England fans were split 43 per cent to 43 per cent on whether he should be picked for England. Hmm. Meanwhile, the best two pundits on the election, Matthew Parris and Peter Wilby, mostly ­ignored the polls. They sensed a deeper current in the electorate.

Here is my attempt to gauge the cricketing mood, polls notwithstanding: most real fans are sick of the whole issue. They would refuse to talk to a pollster, vote on a website or join a Twitter storm. They are the silent majority. A good number would love to see KP play for England again. Yet most feel not anti-Pietersen but weary of Pietersen. In the long run, he may realise that he is indeed a victim – not of “the establishment” but of exploitative, attention-seeking “friends”.

On BBC Radio 5 Live’s Breakfast programme the other day, I did something that I had never done before on air. I lost my temper. The presenter asked me a routine question about English cricket being “split down the middle”. I cut her off with a version of the argument above. Then, as if to prove the division, she read out a text message from a listener. It suggested that Alastair Cook and Andrew Strauss (England’s captain and the director of cricket, respectively) were pathetic failures, cowardly nobodies and losers, men of no achievements. (Between them, they have scored 47 centuries and won 37 Tests as England captains.)

We all know the convention when confronted with a vox pop buffoon: “I absolutely hear what you’re saying and you have a total right to think that. I want an open and frank debate that gets to the core of your legitimate and deeply held concerns,” and so on. Instead, I heard myself saying, “That text was written by an idiot.” There was a gasp. Propping up the delusion that every issue can be solved by an online referendum, pandering to the mob and pretending that it represents everyone, is to delude ourselves that there is always a popular and easy solution. If we in the media don’t challenge that methodology, we are accomplices in infantilisation on a massive scale.

 

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I had a splendid election campaign. I left England for the Caribbean (I was commentating on cricket) when it began and returned to vote on 7 May. I did not consume any British TV or radio, nor pick up a single newspaper or magazine. I returned feeling sprightly, looking forward to the story, in contrast to friends wearied by political overdose.

Hold your opprobrium. I still read a lot about the election while I was away. But that was the only medium: the written word. I downloaded newspapers and periodicals on my Kindle. Unlike the iPad, my Kindle can’t really handle graphics. I absorbed all my news through words. I read the articles from beginning to end. I was not led by cleverly chosen photos; I did not prejudge the writing by decoding images; I did not track the daily news cycle without bothering to confirm first what had happened.

The aesthetic dimension of editing is, without question, central. Yet there is a danger that we impatient readers cede too much power to the people who frame the page and lead our eyes. I relished the Luddite e-reader. How ironic it is that the most analogue-feeling reading experience comes not from the printed newspaper page but from a grainy digital screen.

 

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I love hot weather and especially humidity. The trick to enjoying the tropics is to use dawn and dusk. I would wake at 6am and take sleepy walks on the beach, prolonging the creative torpor of half-sleep, half-wakefulness. Then I’d jump into the sea before heading for the espresso machine. What a delicious juxtaposition: the thick weight of tropical humidity set against the black, treacly fuel of espresso. The comforting froth of milk is for temperate weather.

On days off, I’d write in bed. There is a simplicity to living in hot weather. Clothes are a waste of time and appointments a ­terrible hassle. A writer’s dream: an empty hotel room and a pared-down life.

 

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In my hotel room in Barbados, a note is waiting at the door, insisting that I call a local number. The voice is unmistakable to all cricket fans: warm, amused and beating to a subtle calypso rhythm. It belongs to Tony Cozier, now 74, who has commentated on West Indies cricket for more than 50 years.

“Edward, you need to see Barbados’s east coast. I’ll pick you up at your hotel at 2pm.” Cozier’s life has mirrored the story of West Indies cricket, its rise and gradual decline. He was already a journalist when Frank Worrell became the first black cricketer to be appointed captain of the West Indies for a series in 1960. Now that Christopher Martin-Jenkins and Richie Benaud are no longer with us, Tony’s mellow tone on the airwaves belongs to a fading tradition.

Accompanied by the ex-England spinner Graeme Swann, we set off. There, the Atlantic Ocean; here, a gorgeously isolated club ground; back there, Tony’s former beach house. Every vantage point – by extraordinary good fortune – was opposite a rum shack. The rum and the stories flowed. Tony described an era when players and journalists were friends and (generally) trusted each other, when the game was defined by a sense of adventure as well as professional advancement. What a contrast with the trench warfare of the Pietersen debacle.

As the sun set, I realised that I had been on a tour of Tony’s life, not just of Barbados. As much as I relish travel, what thrills me most is discovering new places through people – and vice versa.

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The real opposition

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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.