Speech Debelle-extended interview

A longer version of this week's NS interview

How has life been since you won the Mercury Prize? You've faced some criticism since then.
That wasn't really an issue for me, that's just how it is. With the Mercury, it's 12 albums and 12 different styles and they've got to pick one, so it's always going to be controversial.

Has it been a good year for British rap? Or are a lot of artists still not getting enough attention?
What Dizzee Rascal's done, his success -- that's never happened before in this country. He has the right to do whatever he pleases; he put his work in. Artists like Tinchy Stryder are on daytime radio, but he's been doing his thing for a long time and I've never heard any of his older stuff on there. It's the difference between, say, 50-Cent and Q-Tip. It's like saying 50-Cent got through, so don't you think that's good for everybody? Well, no. Q-Tip isn't necessarily going to get the same airplay. But Fiddy and Q-Tip come from the same type of place. At the same time the door is opening, slowly but surely. Ms Dynamite was the first black female ever to win the Mercury. Dizzee Rascal was the first black male. That's -- bang -- a door open right there. I've come this year, the first rapper to win it. Bang -- that's another door. We've got no Jay-Zs or ten-time Grammy Award-winning artists over here. Everything we do, we're doing for the first time.

It's been reported that you decided to leave your record label. Why?
That was taken out of context. I heard a lot of stuff about leaving -- I heard I got dropped! Ha ha ha. That's madness. Why would any label drop a Mercury prize-winning artist? I mean, as an artist, you get upset with your label, you get upset with your team. I'm entitled to do that. In the same way, they are entitled to get upset with me.

So, what is happening?
At the moment I'm talking to my label and seeing what's available. If we're all on the same page, it's all good.

You've talked about wanting more control with your label. Is it about artistic freedom?
No! That's not what I meant. I've always had that. What I was talking about was ownership, owning the rights to your own music, which absolutely every artist would want. Knowing the business, knowing about things that will benefit you -- how long to have the publishing rights, what type to have. A lot of artists set up their own companies so they can keep their publishing. That's the type of thing I'm talking about, making the right choices so that I don't end up feeling like a slave to the music business.

Does the music industry exploit artists?
Definitely. There are people right now in slave deals. But the music business is struggling at the moment. You get deals where your record label own a piece of everything you do. But that's because they're trying to stay alive. And it's the business that we choose. This is what we love. This is the career that all of us want, we all love it. You get to do what you've always wanted to do.

Do you think the industry is in crisis in some way?
No. I think people need music to live to their full.

How do you feel about the way the music industry treats women?
I spend a lot of time letting the bullshit go over my head. The amount of times I've heard about what I have to wear, what size I have to be. In the business, you don't just have people that put out songs -- you've got video directors, make-up artists, hair [stylists]. Making the music is such a small part of it. The further I get along, the less the music seems to matter. I don't want to turn into Lily Allen. And it could happen. People want that -- they'd prefer me to be a Lily Allen to a Lauryn Hill.

Why does that bother you?
It's not about the music, is it? Who Lily Allen sleeps with is not important. When she started it was about the music. Now I don't know what it is she's about.

Estelle is one artist who felt she couldn't make it here so went to the US. Do you sympathise?
Yeah. Estelle had to leave, so I don't have people like that to look up to or people to make reference to. I have to use people like Lily Allen -- ha! Ain't that a shame? Unfortunately we haven't got to the point where we can accept a black star in the same way as America. Not even just America -- it's every time I do a gig outside the UK.

In what way?
You go to Germany, France, Switzerland, all of these places, you've got the radio on, and you're hearing great beats - this is in the daytime! Maybe you're hearing some reggae-type stuff. But it's also pop stuff like Flo Rida. Here, only one radio station can make your career. But I could never switch on Radio 1 in the daytime and hear that many kinds of music.

Why don't we have the diversity?
If only one station makes a difference, it's not going to happen. It's not a democracy, is it?

Do you think the BBC has too much of a stranglehold on our culture?
In the same way that McDonald's has a stranglehold on kids. It's big business.

What about the whole Simon Cowell empire? What do you think of him?
If I were in his shoes I might think the same as him. If you have that much power and money, what else do you do except try and make more? That's what people do when they have all that power.The X-Factor is TV and it's meant to be entertaining, so in that respect . . . do your thing.

It's become such a dominant presence in the music industry. Every week every number one is a product of his machine.
It's changing people's mindset -- so many young people will listen to those songs and think that that's what being an artist is. Those people go to The X Factor thinking that it's going to give them a career. But they're not looking for artists . . .

But there are exceptions, like Leona Lewis or Cheryl Cole. They've been around a little while now. Do you think someone like Cheryl Cole will be around to stay?
I wouldn't know. Leona Lewis -- that girl can sing. It's very possible that Leona Lewis will be around for a long time and make good music for a long time. But how many Leona Lewises do you get through The X Factor? It's not a singing contest, it's a TV show. This year they had Jedward, those twins. It's not a talent contest, it's entertainment. They've probably already decided who's going to win.

Do you think someone like Cheryl Cole has got what it takes?
I don't care. I don't care enough to make an opinion.

In the music industry, who inspires you?
Not necessarily his music, but I'm a big fan of what Dizzee Rascal's done. He's an example of what we can achieve -- as far as I'm concerned, he's the future. There's going to be a whole generation of people following Dizzee's lead. Everything has to start somewhere.

You've said before that Oprah Winfrey is a person you admire as she's the richest black person in entertainment. Is that what you want, too?
I don't know about the riches but, you know, it'd be beautiful to have an equivalent of Oprah in this country - it would be brilliant. Someone I really, really admire is Brenda Emmanus. Also Moira Stewart. Those are brilliant examples.

Do you wish there were more black women on our TVs and in our culture?
Ten years ago if a black person came on TV we'd all start going mad. We've made a lot of strides forward.

Do you vote?
I'm going to vote in May.

What do you think of the Prime Minister?
I went to 10 Downing Street about a week after the Mercury and he seemed like a nice guy. He's got a difficult job to do. You can't always knock him for getting things wrong.

And how do you feel about the Conservatives?
Change is good, as long as it's a change for the better. If it doesn't make a difference then it's irrelevant. That whole BNP thing, it doesn't need to be blown out of proportion. They're not going to run the country any time soon. Having them on Question Time and that, I think it's a good thing -- a reminder of what a disaster looks like.

What about Boris Johnson? Are you a fan?
I don't know if he's got enough swagger for me to be a fan of his. What I like about Boris is that he seems an honest guy, which is rare. He seems to say what he feels, which sometimes can be inappropriate and offensive, and I like that.

Who is your biggest musical influence?
Michael Jackson. Especially "Human Nature".

What does next year hold for you?
The most important thing for me now is to make a brilliant album.

Are you working on it already?
I'm gonna start at the beginning of next year.

Do you have a sense of what direction you're going in musically?
It's too early for me to change styles. It will be an evolution. Emotion's always going to be where I start from when it comes to writing and that won't change. But I want the music to be grander. I've been advised not to go too old-school, but the music that's had the biggest impact in history has not been now, when people put out songs one week and they're forgotten the next. Think of how many people still remember Bob Marley's "No Woman, No Cry". People won't forget it for a long time. I appreciate that in music. That's why Michael Jackson was the greatest, because he did things you just can't forget.

What do you worry about?
I'm always confident. I have to be. It's all about this next year -- making the album as good as I can and being proud of it at the end of it.

Is there anything that you'd like to forget?
No, I can't say that. Everything is for a reason.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

André Carrilho
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"Jeremy knows he can't do the job." What now for Labour and Britain's opposition?

Senior figures from all parties discuss the way forward: a new Labour leader, a new party or something else?

In the week beginning 13 March 2017, the Scottish National Party demanded a second referendum on indepen­dence, the Chancellor tore up his Budget and George Osborne was announced as the next editor of the London Evening Standard. One fact united these seemingly disparate events: the weakness of Her Majesty’s Opposition.

When Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, addressed journalists at Bute House, her Edinburgh residence, she observed that Labour’s collapse entailed an extended period of Conservative rule. Such was the apparent truth of this statement that it went unchallenged.

Twenty minutes before Prime Minister’s Questions on 15 March, the Conservatives announced the abandonment of their planned rise in National Insurance for the self-employed. Their expectation that Jeremy Corbyn would be unable to profit was fulfilled. “Faced with an open goal, Jeremy picked up a tennis racket,” one Labour MP lamented of his leader’s performance. Rather than a threat, the government regards PMQs as an opportunity.

Two days later, Osborne was announced as the next editor of the Standard. “Frankly @George_Osborne will provide more effective opposition to the government than the current Labour Party,” the paper’s co-proprietor Evgeny Lebedev tweeted. His decision to hand the post to a Conservative MP was another mark of Labour’s marginalisation. In more politically competitive times, owners are warier of overt partisanship.

The Tories have a parliamentary majority of just 15 – the smallest of any single-party government since 1974 – but they enjoy a dominance out of all proportion to this figure. Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat former deputy prime minister, told me: “The fundamental pendulum swing of democracy, namely that the people in power are always worried that the other lot are going to hoof them out, has stopped.”

Labour is hardly a stranger to opposition: the party governed for just 20 years of the 20th century. But never in postwar history has it appeared so feeble. By-elections are usually relished by oppositions and feared by governments. But in Copeland in the north-west of England, a seat that had not returned a Conservative since 1931, the Tories triumphed over Labour. In recent polling the governing party has led by as much as 19 points and on one occasion it was leading in every age group, every social class and every region.

Corbyn’s MPs fear that were he to lead Labour into a general election, the attack dossier assembled by the Conservatives would push support as low as 20 per cent.

When David Miliband recently said that Labour was “further from power than at any stage in my lifetime”, he was being far too generous. After the forthcoming boundary changes, it could be left with as few as 150 seats: its worst performance since 1935.

The party’s plight was both predictable and predicted – the inevitable consequence of electing a leader who, by his own admission, lacked the requisite skills. “Now we made to make sure I don’t win,” Corbyn told supporters after he made the ballot in 2015. The lifelong backbencher stood with the intention of leading debate, not leading the party.

Neil Kinnock, Labour’s leader from 1983 to 1992, told me: “From the outset, I said that Jeremy [Corbyn] just can’t do the job . . . Now I think he knows that. He’s been a member of parliament for 34 years and will have a sense of self-examination. Both he and the people who work around him know that he just can’t do the job.”

Morale in the leader’s office has seldom been lower. “They’ve got the yips,” a Lab­our aide told me. Shortly after the Tories’ Budget U-turn, Corbyn’s director of strategy and communications, Seumas Milne, asked journalists whether there would be an early general election. He produced no evidence of any hope that Labour could win it.

Yet Corbyn’s leadership alone does not explain the crisis. In the early 1980s, when Labour was similarly enfeebled (but still strong in Scotland, unlike today), the creation of the Social Democratic Party provided hope. But the mere 23 seats won by the SDP-Liberal Alliance in 1983 (on 25.4 per cent of the vote, against Labour’s 209 seats from 27.6 per cent) acts as a permanent warning to those tempted to split.

With only nine MPs, the Liberal Democrats are too weak to function as an alternative opposition, despite their accelerating recovery. The third-largest party in the House of Commons – the SNP – is an exclusively Scottish force. The hegemony of the Nats, which cost Labour 40 seats in Scotland in 2015, has encouraged forecasts of perpetual Tory rule. “I don’t think there’s any way the Labour Party in this day and age can beat the Conservatives south of the border,” Clegg said.

To many eyes, the UK is being transformed into two one-party states: an SNP-led Scotland and a Conservative-led England. “The right-wing press have coalesced around Brexit and have transformed themselves from competitors into, in effect, a political cabal, which has such a paralysing effect on the political debate,” Clegg said. “You have a consistent and homogeneous drumbeat from the Telegraph, the Express, the Mail, the Sun, and so on.”

In this new era, the greatest influence on the government is being exercised from within the Conservative Party. “Where’s the aggravation? Where’s the heat coming from? Eighty hardline Brexiteers,” Anna Soubry, the pro-European former Conservative minister, told me. “They’re a party within a party and they are calling the shots. So where else is [May’s] heat? Fifteen Conservatives – people like me and the rest of them now. So who’s winning out there?”

Soubry added: “The right wing of the party flex their muscle against the only lead Remainer in the cabinet, Philip Hammond, for no other reason than to see him off. And that’s what they’ll do. They’ll pick them off one by one. These people are ruthless, this is their life’s work, and nobody and nothing is going to get in their way.”

Theresa May’s decision to pursue a “hard Brexit” – withdrawal from the EU single market and the customs union – is partly a policy choice; there is probably no other means by which the UK can secure significant control over European immigration. But the Prime Minister’s course is also a political choice. She recognised that the Conservatives’ formidable pro-Leave faction, whose trust she had to earn, as a Remainer, would accept nothing less.

 

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The UK is entering the most complex negotiations it has undertaken since the end of the Second World War with the weakest opposition in living memory. Though some Tories relish an era of prolonged one-party rule, others are troubled by the democratic implications. Neil Carmichael MP, the chair of the Conservative Group for Europe, cited Disraeli’s warning: “No government can be long secure without a formidable opposition.” It was in Margaret Thatcher’s and Tony Blair’s pomp that calamitous decisions such as the poll tax and the invasion of Iraq were made. Governments that do not fear defeat frequently become their own worst enemy and, in turn, the public’s. The UK, with its unwritten constitution, its unelected upper chamber and its majoritarian voting system, is permanently vulnerable to elective dictatorships.

As they gasp at Labour’s self-destruction, politicians are assailed by Lenin’s question: “What is to be done?” Despite the baleful precedent of the SDP, some advocate a new split. In favour of following this path, they cite an increasingly promiscuous electorate, a pool of willing donors and “the 48 per cent” who voted Remain. Emmanuel Macron – the favourite to be elected president of France in May, who founded his own political movement, En Marche! – is another inspiration.

A week after the EU referendum, the Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron, was taken by surprise when a close ally of George Osborne approached him and suggested the creation of a new centrist party called “the Democrats” (the then chancellor had already pitched the idea to Labour MPs). “I’m all ears and I’m very positive about working with people in other parties,” Farron told me. But he said that the “most effective thing” he could do was to rebuild the Liberal Democrats.

When we spoke, Nick Clegg emphasised that “you’ve got to start with the ideas” but, strikingly, he did not dismiss the possibility of a new party. “You can have all sorts of endless, as I say, political parlour game discussions about whether you have different constellations or otherwise.”

Anna Soubry was still more positive about a new party, arguing: “If it could somehow be the voice of a moderate, sensible, forward-thinking, visionary middle way, with open minds – actually things which I’ve believed in all my life – better get on with it.”

However, Labour MPs have no desire to accept that the left’s supremacy is irreversible. But neither do they wish to challenge Corbyn. An MP distilled the new approach: “There is a strategy to give Jeremy [Corbyn] enough rope to hang himself. So it has not been about popping up in the media and criticising him in the way that colleagues did a year or so ago.” By giving him the space to fail on his own terms, rather than triggering another leadership contest, MPs hope that members will ultimately accept a change of direction.

Corbyn’s opponents acknowledge the risks of this approach.

“People are incredibly mindful of the fact that our brand is toxifying,” one told me. “As each day goes by, our plight worsens. Our position in the polls gets worse and the road back gets longer.”

Shadow cabinet ministers believe that Corbyn’s allies will never permit his departure until there is a viable successor. An increasingly influential figure is Karie Murphy, the director of the leader’s office and the partner of Unite’s general secretary, Len McCluskey. “She’s holding Jeremy in place,” I was told.

Leadership candidates require nominations from 15 per cent of Labour MPs and MEPs, a threshold that the left aims to reduce to just 5 per cent through the “McDonnell amendment” (named after the shadow chancellor, who failed to make ballot when he stood in 2007 and 2010).

Should the rule change pass at this year’s party conference – an unlikely result – the next leadership contest could feature as many as 19 candidates. Labour has no shortage of aspirant leaders: Yvette Cooper, Dan Jarvis, Clive Lewis, Lisa Nandy, Keir Starmer, Emily Thornberry, Chuka Umunna. (Rebecca Long-Bailey, the shadow business secretary and Corbynite choice, is said to believe she is “not ready” for the job.)

All are clear-sighted enough to recognise that Labour’s problems would not end with Corbyn’s departure (nor did they begin with his election as leader). The party must restore its economic credibility, recover in Scotland, or perform far better in England, and bridge the divide between liberal Remainers and conservative Leavers.

Lisa Nandy, one of those who has thought most deeply about Labour’s predicament, told me: “I do think that, for many people, not being able to have time with their families and feel secure about where the next wage packet is coming from, and hope that life is going to get better for their kids, is really pressing as a political priority now. They will vote for the political party that offers real solutions to those things.

“That’s why power is such an important unifying agenda for the Labour Party – not just through redistribution of wealth, which I think we all agree about, but actually the redistribution of power as well: giving people the tools that they need to exert control over the things that matter in their own lives,” she says.

But some Labour MPs suggest even more drastic remedial action is required. “In order to convince the public that you’ve moved on, you have to have a Clause Four-type moment,” one member told me. “Which would probably involve kicking John McDonnell out of the Labour Party or something like that.

“You have a purge. Ken Livingstone gone, maybe even Jeremy [Corbyn] gone. That’s the only way that you can persuade the public that you’re not like that.”

Political commentators often mistake cyclical developments for structural changes. After Labour’s 1992 election defeat it was sometimes said that the party would never govern again. It went on to win three successive terms for the first time in its history. In March 2005 Geoffrey Wheatcroft published his book The Strange Death of Tory England. Less than nine months later, the Conservatives elected David Cameron as leader and returned to winning ways. As the US political journalist Sean Trende has archly observed, if even the Democrats recovered “rather quickly from losing the Civil War” few defeats are unsurvivable.

From despair may spring opportunity. “It is amazing how this Brexit-Trump phase has really mobilised interest in politics,” Nick Clegg said. “It’s galvanised a lot of people . . . That will lead somewhere. If in a democracy there is a lot of energy about, it will find an outlet.”

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition