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

Getty
Show Hide image

The struggles of Huma Abedin

On the behind-the-scenes story of Hillary Clinton’s closest aide.

In a dreary campaign, it was a moment that shone: Hillary Clinton, on the road to the caucus in Iowa, stopping at a Mexican fast-food restaurant to eat and somehow passing unrecognised. Americans of all political persuasions gleefully speculated over what her order – a chicken burrito bowl with guacamole – revealed about her frame of mind, while supporters gloated that the grainy security-camera footage seemed to show Clinton with her wallet out, paying for her own lunch. Here was not the former first lady, senator and secretary of state, known to people all over the world. This was someone’s unassuming grandmother, getting some food with her colleagues.

It might be unheard of for Clinton to go unrecognised but, for the woman next to her at the till, blending into the background is part of the job. Huma Abedin, often referred to as Clinton’s “shadow” by the US media, is now the vice-chair of her presidential campaign. She was Clinton’s deputy chief of staff at the state department and has been a personal aide since the late 1990s.

Abedin first met Clinton in 1996 when she was 19 and an intern at the White House, assigned to the first lady’s office. She was born in Michigan in 1976 to an Indian father and a Pakistani mother. When Abedin was two, they moved from the US to Saudi Arabia. She returned when she was 18 to study at George Washington University in Washington, DC. Her father was an Islamic scholar who specialised in interfaith reconciliation – he died when she was 17 – and her mother is a professor of sociology.

While the role of “political body woman” may once have been a kind of modern maid, there to provide a close physical presence and to juggle the luggage and logistics, this is no longer the case. During almost 20 years at Clinton’s side, Abedin has advised her boss on everything from how to set up a fax machine – “Just pick up the phone and hang it up. And leave it hung up” – to policy on the Middle East. When thousands of Clinton’s emails were made public (because she had used a private, rather than a government, server for official communication), we glimpsed just how close they are. In an email from 2009, Clinton tells her aide: “Just knock on the door to the bedroom if it’s closed.”

Abedin shares something else with Clinton, outside of their professional ties. They are both political wives who have weathered their husbands’ scandals. In what felt like a Lewinsky affair for the digital age, in 2011, Abedin’s congressman husband, Anthony Weiner, resigned from office after it emerged that he had shared pictures of his genitals with strangers on social media. A second similar scandal then destroyed his attempt to be elected mayor of New York in 2013. In an ironic twist, it was Bill Clinton who officiated at Abedin’s and Weiner’s wedding in 2010. At the time, Hillary is reported to have said: “I have one daughter. But if I had a second daughter, it would [be] Huma.” Like her boss, Abedin stood by her husband and now Weiner is a house husband, caring for their four-year-old son, Jordan, while his wife is on the road.

Ellie Foreman-Peck

A documentary filmed during Weiner’s abortive mayoral campaign has just been released in the US. Weiner shows Abedin at her husband’s side, curtailing his more chaotic tendencies, always flawless with her red lipstick in place. Speaking to the New York Observer in 2007, three years before their marriage, Weiner said of his future wife: “This notion that Senator Clinton is a cool customer – I mean, I don’t dispute it, but the coolest customer in that whole operation is Huma . . . In fact, I think there’s some dispute as to whether Huma’s actually human.” In the film, watching her preternatural calm under extraordinary pressure, you can see what he means.

In recent months, Abedin’s role has changed. She is still to be found at Clinton’s side – as the burrito photo showed – but she is gradually taking a more visible role in the organisation overall, as they pivot away from the primaries to focus on the national race. She meets with potential donors and endorsers on Clinton’s behalf and sets strategy. When a running mate is chosen, you can be sure that Abedin will have had her say on who it is. There’s a grim symmetry to the way politics looks in the US now: on one side, the Republican candidate Donald Trump is calling for a ban on Muslims entering the country; on the other, the presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton relies ever more on her long-time Muslim-American staffer.

Years before Trump, notable Republicans were trying to make unpleasant capital out of Abedin’s background. In 2012, Tea Party supporters alleged that she was linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and its attempt to gain access “to top Obama officials”. In her rare interviews, Abedin has spoken of how hurtful these baseless statements were to her family – her mother still lives in Saudi Arabia. Later, the senator and former Republican presidential candidate John McCain spoke up for her, saying that Abedin represented “what is best about America”.

Whether senior figures in his party would do the same now remains to be seen.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad