The manliness of fracking, bad intelligence, and English Test cricket’s selection problem

Peter Wilby's "First Thoughts" column.

Do you care that David Miranda, the partner of an investigative journalist, was held and questioned for nearly nine hours at Heathrow? Enough to take to the streets about it? Or contact your MP? Miranda lives with Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist who revealed the extent of the US National Security Agency’s surveillance, thanks to the whistleblower Edward Snowden. You are not an investigative journalist, nor do you live with one. Even if you did, you probably wouldn’t be ferrying materials, as Miranda was, between your partner and a film-maker. Do you, come to that, really care that some geeks in a windowless room in Maryland can read your emails? After all, they contain nothing of the smallest interest to the security authorities.
 
As ministers repeat ad nauseam, you need fear nothing if you aren’t doing anything wrong. On the other hand, you have much to fear from terrorist attacks, though I am not aware of any calculations of the respective risks of being detained as a suspect and of being around when a bomb goes off. Even if you unluckily suffer the former, you probably won’t be killed or maimed – though if you are Brazilian, like Miranda and Jean Charles de Menezes, who was shot dead on the London Underground in 2005, it seems you risk particularly rough treatment.
 
So, it’s a no-brainer, isn’t it? Support the authorities in their exhaustive attempts to keep you safe, even if they sometimes go too far. Remember, however, what the chairman of a long-forgotten inquiry into intelligence agency abuses, Senator Frank Church (quoted in the current New York Review of Books), said in 1975 when the agencies’ powers were a fraction of what they are now: “If a dictator ever took charge . . . there would be no way to fight back, because the most careful effort to combine together in resistance to the government, no matter how privately it was done, is within the reach of the government to know . . . That is the abyss from which there is no return.”
 
One of the boys
 
I try to get my head around the pros and cons of fracking. Like many current issues, it strikes me as highly technical, requiring PhDs in physics, chemistry, geology and economics to get a full grasp of the subject. It certainly sounds nasty, because it involves drilling, splitting rocks and injecting water (which I had understood to be in short supply) underground.
 
I don’t want to be a knee-jerk lefty and, now that the Guardian’s George Monbiot has explained that support for fracking marks you out as “one of the boys”, I shall keep my counsel for fear of being thought effeminate. Yet one thing puzzles me. Why are the people outraged by protesters who oppose fracking because it (allegedly) ruins the countryside also outraged by the spread of wind turbines because they (allegedly) ruin the countryside? As Adam Smith nearly said, there’s a lot of ruin in the countryside.
 
Citizens’ advice
 
Browsing the internet, I stumbled across the website of Democracy 2015, a movement set up last year by Andreas Whittam Smith, one of the founders of the Independent. Launched with fanfare in that paper, it invited “likeminded citizens” from “demanding careers” to contest every constituency at the next election in the expectation of forming a one-term government to set the country to rights. Now Whittam Smith reports: “Our first public meetings were not as successful as we expected . . . A period of careful reflection is necessary.” In the Corby by-election last November, Democracy 2015 received 35 votes, 64 fewer than the Church of the Militant Elvis.
 
Whittam Smith may be better advised to find people who have pursued undemanding careers in the constituencies they seek to represent. They would be MPs for just one term, with no ambitions except to serve their constituents, scrutinise government actions, vote for legislation only if convinced of its merits and decline freebies or consultancies. Such a group could get 50 seats and transform parliament.
 
Full Monty
 
The spin bowler Monty Panesar has been left out of England’s latest Test squad because he pissed on nightclub bouncers. Perhaps, as recommended by Sir Michael Parkinson, he was testing himself for prostate cancer. How the incident affects his ability to spin a cricket ball isn’t explained. Nor is the failure of Panesar and other talented non-white cricketers – Ravi Bopara, Samit Patel, Adil Rashid, Ajmal Shahzad – to establish themselves in the England team, often for reasons only partly to do with on-field performance.
 
I do not accuse selectors and coaches of racism but some inquiry into this persistent underachievement is surely necessary.
 
In vino veritas
 
Each day, I take five tablets: three in the morning, two at night. I have no idea what they’re for. It’s just that, from time to time, my doctor summons me for “tests”, says I have “failed” and prescribes more tablets. Now, some Danish scientists say that all this screening and medication of senior folk may do more harm than good.
 
It’s probably best to hedge your bets. The latest tests, which involve answering an interminable government questionnaire about “lifestyle”, rule that, being “moderately inactive”, I must drink less wine and take more vigorous exercise.
 
I think I’ll give that a miss. 
Lawyer Gwendolen Morgan, acting for David Miranda, emerges from the Royal Courts of Justice. Photograph: Matthew Lloyd/Getty Images.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 26 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How the dream died

Photo: Getty
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Ken Livingstone says publicly what many are saying privately: tomorrow belongs to John McDonnell

The Shadow Chancellor has emerged as a frontrunner should another Labour leadership election happen. 

“It would be John.” Ken Livingstone, one of Jeremy Corbyn’s most vocal allies in the media, has said publicly what many are saying privately: if something does happen to Corbyn, or should he choose to step down, place your bets on John McDonnell. Livingstone, speaking to Russia Today, said that if Corbyn were "pushed under a bus", John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, would be the preferred candidate to replace him.

Even among the Labour leader’s allies, speculation is rife as to if the Islington North MP will lead the party into the 2020 election. Corbyn would be 71 in 2020 – the oldest candidate for Prime Minister since Clement Attlee lost the 1955 election aged 72.

While Corbyn is said to be enjoying the role at present, he still resents the intrusion of much of the press and dislikes many of the duties of the party leader. McDonnell, however, has impressed even some critics with his increasingly polished TV performances and has wowed a few sceptical donors. One big donor, who was thinking of pulling their money, confided that a one-on-one chat with the shadow chancellor had left them feeling much happier than a similar chat with Ed Miliband.

The issue of the succession is widely discussed on the left. For many, having waited decades to achieve a position of power, pinning their hopes on the health of one man would be unforgivably foolish. One historically-minded trade union official points out that Hugh Gaitskell, at 56, and John Smith, at 55, were 10 and 11 years younger than Corbyn when they died. In 1994, the right was ready and had two natural successors in the shape of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in place. In 1963, the right was unprepared and lost the leadership to Harold Wilson, from the party's centre. "If something happens, or he just decides to call it a day, [we have to make sure] it will be '94 not '63," they observed.

While McDonnell is just two years younger than Corbyn, his closest ally in politics and a close personal friend, he is seen by some as considerably more vigorous. His increasingly frequent outings on television have seen him emerge as one of the most adept media performers from the Labour left, and he has won internal plaudits for his recent tussles with George Osborne over the tax bill.

The left’s hopes of securing a non-Corbyn candidate on the ballot have been boosted in recent weeks. The parliamentary Labour party’s successful attempt to boot Steve Rotheram off the party’s ruling NEC, while superficially a victory for the party’s Corbynsceptics, revealed that the numbers are still there for a candidate of the left to make the ballot. 30 MPs voted to keep Rotheram in place, with many MPs from the left of the party, including McDonnell, Corbyn, Diane Abbott and John Trickett, abstaining.

The ballot threshold has risen due to a little-noticed rule change, agreed over the summer, to give members of the European Parliament equal rights with members of the Westminster Parliament. However, Labour’s MEPs are more leftwing, on the whole, than the party in Westminster . In addition, party members vote on the order that Labour MEPs appear on the party list, increasing (or decreasing) their chances of being re-elected, making them more likely to be susceptible to an organised campaign to secure a place for a leftwinger on the ballot.

That makes it – in the views of many key players – incredibly likely that the necessary 51 nominations to secure a place on the ballot are well within reach for the left, particularly if by-election selections in Ogmore, where the sitting MP, is standing down to run for the Welsh Assembly, and Sheffield Brightside, where Harry Harpham has died, return candidates from the party’s left.

McDonnell’s rivals on the left of the party are believed to have fallen short for one reason or another. Clive Lewis, who many party activists believe could provide Corbynism without the historical baggage of the man himself, is unlikely to be able to secure the nominations necessary to make the ballot.

Any left candidate’s route to the ballot paper runs through the 2015 intake, who are on the whole more leftwing than their predecessors. But Lewis has alienated many of his potential allies, with his antics in the 2015 intake’s WhatsApp group a sore point for many. “He has brought too much politics into it,” complained one MP who is also on the left of the party. (The group is usually used for blowing off steam and arranging social events.)

Lisa Nandy, who is from the soft left rather than the left of the party, is widely believed to be in the running also, despite her ruling out any leadership ambitions in a recent interview with the New Statesman.However, she would represent a break from the Corbynite approach, albeit a more leftwing one than Dan Jarvis or Hilary Benn.

Local party chairs in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is profiling should another leadership election arise. One constituency chair noted to the New Statesman that: “you could tell who was going for it [last time], because they were desperate to speak [at events]”. Tom Watson, Caroline Flint, Chuka Umunna, Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall all visited local parties across the country in preparation for their election bids in 2015.

Now, speaking to local party activists, four names are mentioned more than any other: Dan Jarvis, currently on the backbenches, but in whom the hopes – and the donations – of many who are disillusioned by the current leadership are invested, Gloria De Piero, who is touring the country as part of the party’s voter registration drive, her close ally Jon Ashworth, and John McDonnell.

Another close ally of Corbyn and McDonnell, who worked closely on the leadership election, is in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is gearing up for a run should the need arise.  “You remember when that nice Mr Watson went touring the country? Well, pay attention to John’s movements.”

As for his chances of success, McDonnell may well be even more popular among members than Corbyn himself. He is regularly at or near the top of LabourList's shadow cabinet rankings, and is frequently praised by members. Should he be able to secure the nominations to get on the ballot, an even bigger victory than that secured by Corbyn in September is not out of the question.

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