Bleak dramas, the new Newsnight and what CEOs can learn from terrorists

Julia Hobsbawm's diary.

Comrade. Colleagues. Conference. I used to spend the early weeks of autumn listening to the three Cs, initially at Labour and then briefly at the Conservatives (somehow I always missed the Lib Dems: although what did I actually miss?). Not any more. Marriage long ago put paid to my bar-propping seaside days. Plus, conferences are for tribes, unless you are a lobbyist or a journalist, and I prefer political polygamy. So, now I follow everything on air and online instead. BBC Radio 5 Live is the best way to hear a party leader’s speech uncluttered by anything but the words. Richard Bacon and John Pienaar always do a pithy analysis against the backdrop boom of diehard applause and anthem-pop cringe.

This year, felled by back-to-school flu, I watched a lot of Labour while lying down. Not a bad thing. Something called “Composite 4” was repeatedly called for from “the floor”. The Tories are a bit better in the jargon department but social media has made everything slightly indecipherable for the uninitiated: do they hashtag #cpc13 in the shires?

You schmooze, you lose

You would think that because I’m a professional who teaches networking for a living, the political season would be unmissable for me. All those receptions. Parties. Late-night drinks. Well, I have a secret to share. Conferences and, indeed, cocktail parties are actually the worst places to network. Too dependent on see-and-be-seen schmoozing and less on what really oils the wheels of good connections: curiosity and conversation. This happens less in big cliquey groups with people hurling business cards at each other and far more in small gatherings.

Publishing philosophy

Publishing is awash with tremendous zeitgeist thinking: Malcolm Gladwell, Jane McGonigal, Noreena Hertz. But when it comes to the philosophy of networking, avoid the cheery how-to books giving you “tips” and focus on the sociologists and scientists, not the salesmen. Charles Kadushin of Brandeis University and Barry Wellman of NetLab at the University of Toronto understand that tomorrow’s world won’t be an old-boy network of tight, self-reinforcing elites but one that is distinctly plural.

In 2007 the political analyst Anne-Marie Slaughter, writing in Foreign Affairs, predicted that supranational governance would hinge not on hierarchies but on lateral networks. Today, terrorists and criminals are ahead of governments and commerce in their understanding of how to transfer knowledge effectively through their groups.

Talking about a revolution

When I took the youngest member of our family away from playing Minecraft on the Xbox to marvel at the Science Museum in London, we learned that early industrial machines of the 1800s were invented by millwrights, “jacks of all trades” who created connections between the workers with skills to build everything from power looms to machine tools. As the Hungarian physicist Albert-László Barabási puts it, networks are everywhere; you just have to look for them. Social network analysis is less than a century old but the politics and economics of human capital will dominate over the next one.

Central Park and Highgate

After visiting the shop (the Science Museum’s biggest manufacturing output these days is its own-brand inventions) we had a gorgeous walk by the Serpentine, past the new Zaha Hadid-designed gallery. Central Park, eat your heart out. I used to go to New York for a cosmopolitan and cultural energy fix, and specifically for the nail bars and gourmand coffee. No longer. The Vietnamese have perfected fortnight-lasting gel nail techniques all over London and you cannot move now for the New Zealand bean aficionados running artisan workshops about crema depths on espressos.

I will return to Manhattan next month for a memorial for my father, who died a year ago. This week, the Daily Mail took issue with him in a venomous editorial about Ed Miliband’s father, Ralph, calling them both “useful idiots” of communism. As an avid Daily Mail reader, I can’t complain too loudly, although it hurts hugely. My father would have shrugged. He was a historian, not a politician.

Disgrace for Damian

He would have admired and enjoyed our friend Simon Schama’s magisterial Story of the Jews on BBC2 all month as well as Peaky Blinders, the 1920s gangster drama produced by the TV genius Caryn Mandabach. Television is having such a good moment.

I like the new Newsnight edited by Ian Katz. It could perhaps be dubbed “Guardian TV”, as it all screams “Very Now” – although have I missed the memo abut Chris Huhne? Is he as “back” as Damian McBride? To me, being discredited politically should be for life, not just for Christmas.

Methed up

Our household also watches masses on Netflix. Most recently we started Breaking Bad. This had two effects. One, we were joined on the sofa for the first time in two years by our teenage son, and two . . . I am waiting to be as wowed as the rest of the world. Give me Nordic Noir angst drama, not crystal meth with bleak jokes. I’ve watched only one episode. I was not, so to speak, hooked.

Appliance of science

Peter Bazalgette was on Newsnight last week declaring Breaking Bad to be superb. He and 60 other luminaries spent a morning at the Wellcome Trust to judge this year’s crop of entries for the annual commentariat prize at our Editorial Intelligence Comment Awards. I’m pretty sure the turnout was high because everyone wanted to meet each other. Better than a conference, as more politically eclectic. You could say it’s premium networking.

Julia Hobsbawm runs the networking company Editorial Intelligence and is Honorary Visiting Professor in Networking at Cass Business School in London. She tweets at: @juliahobsbawm

Gourmand coffee is now readily available in London. Photo: Getty

This article first appeared in the 07 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Nelson Mandela

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Could Labour lose the Oldham by-election?

Sources warn defeat is not unthinkable but the party's ground campaign believe they will hold on. 

As shadow cabinet members argue in public over Labour's position on Syria and John McDonnell defends his Mao moment, it has been easy to forget that the party next week faces its first election test since Jeremy Corbyn became leader. On paper, Oldham West and Royton should be a straightforward win. Michael Meacher, whose death last month triggered the by-election, held the seat with a majority of 14,738 just seven months ago. The party opted for an early pre-Christmas poll, giving second-placed Ukip less time to gain momentum, and selected the respected Oldham council leader Jim McMahon as its candidate. 

But in recent weeks Labour sources have become ever more anxious. Shadow cabinet members returning from campaigning report that Corbyn has gone down "very badly" with voters, with his original comments on shoot-to-kill particularly toxic. Most MPs expect the party's majority to lie within the 1,000-2,000 range. But one insider told me that the party's majority would likely fall into the hundreds ("I'd be thrilled with 2,000") and warned that defeat was far from unthinkable. The fear is that low turnout and defections to Ukip could allow the Farageists to sneak a win. MPs are further troubled by the likelihood that the contest will take place on the same day as the Syria vote (Thursday), which will badly divide Labour. 

The party's ground campaign, however, "aren't in panic mode", I'm told, with data showing them on course to hold the seat with a sharply reduced majority. As Tim noted in his recent report from the seat, unlike Heywood and Middleton, where Ukip finished just 617 votes behind Labour in a 2014 by-election, Oldham has a significant Asian population (accounting for 26.5 per cent of the total), which is largely hostile to Ukip and likely to remain loyal to Labour. 

Expectations are now so low that a win alone will be celebrated. But expect Corbyn's opponents to point out that working class Ukip voters were among the groups the Labour leader was supposed to attract. They are likely to credit McMahon with the victory and argue that the party held the seat in spite of Corbyn, rather than because of him. Ukip have sought to turn the contest into a referendum on the Labour leader's patriotism but McMahon replied: "My grandfather served in the army, my father and my partner’s fathers were in the Territorial Army. I raised money to restore my local cenotaph. On 18 December I will be going with pride to London to collect my OBE from the Queen and bring it back to Oldham as a local boy done good. If they want to pick a fight on patriotism, bring it on."  "If we had any other candidate we'd have been in enormous trouble," one shadow minister concluded. 

Of Corbyn, who cancelled a visit to the seat today, one source said: "I don't think Jeremy himself spends any time thinking about it, he doesn't think that electoral outcomes at this stage touch him somehow."  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.