Techno in Barcelona, the Indie’s founding fathers, and my advice to Australia’s cricket team

Amol Rajan's Diary.

Techno, I recently concluded, is the devil’s music. Even in its wilder and more varied forms, it has the kind of painful monotony that only a satanic imagination could conjure. In mid-June, I was at Sónar, a music festival in Barcelona, where my best-man duties had taken me. With unflinching fortitude, we listened to hour upon hour of this horrible noise, the only occasional glimmers of hope coming when a distant DJ dropped a beat and turned the volume up simultaneously. How on earth people can devote whole evenings, never mind careers, to this remorseless tyranny I shall never know.

Inky dreams

For all that, it was one of the best holidays I’ve ever had – not least because the Catalan sun readied me for my new job as editor of the Independent. It had been some time in the planning. On the flight home, with the techno finally draining from my ears, I took down my suitcase and extracted a battered old copy of Stephen Glover’s Paper Dreams, which documents the birth of the great British institution that I now lead. I bought a second-hand edition for 16p in Exeter shortly after joining the paper and, together with Andrew Neil’s Full Disclosure, Piers Morgan’s The Insider and Max Hastings’s Editor, it convinced me that being a journalist was one of the great privileges available to man. And to be editor? The stuff of dreams.

In the name of the fathers

Glover’s prose captured the zeitgeist beautifully, as indeed did the glorious early editions of the Independent. In preparation for my new assignment, I have buried myself in the archives and, reading those issues, I feel a deep sense of honour. For years, I’ve spoken to some of the great characters who made the paper so brilliant early on, including Glover, Francis Wheen –whose biography of Marx is simply the best book I’ve ever read – and Sebastian Faulks, a team-mate of mine in the Authors Cricket Club.

I think of these men as our founding fathers. The part of George Washington is played by Andreas Whittam Smith, who still writes superb columns for the paper.

Street knowledge

Last week, I asked Andreas what the founding ideals of the Independent were. First, he said, it was of no party or faction: you can’t think of it as left or right; it would always aim to surprise. Second, journalism is a street: we are on one side; the people we write about are on the other. It’s our job not to cross the street. Andreas used to think of his paper as “classic with a twist” – a lovely phrase.

In the coming months, I and the best team of writers and editors in Fleet Street will be animated by the spirit of those founding fathers. I have no intention of turning the clock back; rather, I want the paper to be true to the ideals in our DNA. After all, most of the British public think of themselves as independent-minded. Zeitgeists come and go but scepticism in Britain endures and we shall sing on its behalf.

Credit where it’s due

Two aspects of my appointment attracted most attention: the state-school heritage and skin colour. Naturally, I was thrilled to receive a warm letter from Keith Barbrook, the head teacher of Graveney School in south London, my alma mater. The brown skin business made me feel humble – but also uneasy. I didn’t smash through a glass ceiling, as one commentator put it: I just happened to be the lucky rascal who, when the moment came for an editor of minority extraction, was in the right place. Other people –my parents chief among them – deserve much more credit than me.

Second, the language around these issues is always dangerously loose. In The Meaning of Race, Kenan Malik shows that “race” is a social rather than a scientific category, concocted by (among others) French nationalists in the 19th century who wanted to justify inequality. It is also the first step on a road that ends in fascism. I am all for championing equality and indeed will fight for it, including through better and fairer representation of ethnic minorities. But race ought never to be a homologue of culture. I am an Englishman and a patriot and proud of it.

Gone Walkabout

Talking of nationhood, what on earth is happening to Australia? Our summers used to be defined by the onslaught of their cricketers through Ashes series we were bound to lose – but this lot seem utterly useless. They’re getting thumped on the cricket pitch. One of their players has been dropped after some allegedly drunken shenanigans in – of all places! – a Walkabout bar. And now they’ve dumped their coach just weeks before the biggest contest of all. I used to think that the answer to many of the world’s problems was a programme of mass migration to this beautiful, spacious and plentifully resourced nation. Now I’m not so sure.

The seamy side

So desperate are the tourists that they may fast-track legislation to allow the Pakistanborn Fawad Ahmed to play in this series. Ahmed, an asylum-seeker in a country not known for its liberal attitude to foreigners, has been left out by the selectors – but they retain the option of bringing him in for the last four Tests.

However, I must warn my Australian and, indeed, Pakistani comrades that a technical deficiency is threatening to hold back this sprightly twirlyman. Study pictures of Ah - med closely and you can see that he grips the ball tightly, with the seam running perpendicular to the base of his fingers.

Shane Warne, my hero, could tell him that this is a recipe for failure. Warne gripped the ball loosely and with the seam running perpendicular to the top, rather than bottom, of his fingers. That was what enabled the swerve into the right-hander that made Warne unplayable. Ahmed, by contrast, is a scrambled seam merchant. He may say that he is simply classic with a twist. I say he should log on to Amazon and get hold of a history of spin-bowling, quick.

Amol Rajan is the editor of the Independent

The audience at the Sónar festival in Barcelona. Photograph: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 01 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Brazil erupts

Photo: Getty Images
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.