Dancing isn't all about theatres, God-given talent and hard training. It's fun and everyone can do it

The final week of the Royal Ballet's season, and it comes not a moment too soon. Everyone looks exhausted. We do seem to have squeezed a lot into the past fortnight: five different ballets and 16 shows. There's more to the tense atmosphere than tired limbs, however. Late July is always a time of raised emotions, as dancers wait for their annual interview with the company's artistic director, Sir Anthony Dowell. The interview is the arena where promotions are awarded or denied, although, as a principal with the company, I'm spared the annual nail-biting by virtue of having already been promoted as far as it's possible to go. Journalists might seek every opportunity to reinstate them, but the words "ballerina", "prima" and "assoluta" passed out of general usage years ago, along with "florin", "guinea" and all measures imperial. Nevertheless, the list pinned to the board still sets my stomach churning, and I watch the process with vicarious trepidation. There have been some pretty sensational promotions this year. Two young corps de ballet ladies have leapfrogged the intervening levels and gone directly to first soloist rank - in the snakes-and-ladders game of the ballet world, that's pretty much a double six and straight off the top of the board. I've seen something similar happen only once before, when Darcey Bussell left the corps de ballet of the Birmingham Royal Ballet to become a soloist here at Covent Garden. The names to watch (but not necessarily pronounce) this time are Marianela Nunez and Alina Cojocaru. You saw them here first.

The season's end also marks the end of a career for some members of the company. I'm often asked how long dancers can go on treading the boards, but it's hard to give a straightforward answer. For every individual, it's different. This year, we're saying goodbye to two dancers at opposite ends of their dancing lives. Josephine Russell is leaving the corps de ballet to retrain as a physiotherapist, while Bruce Sansom, a leading principal, is hanging up his ballet shoes after 18 years. He's heading off to the US to undertake a training programme in arts management with the San Francisco Ballet. I've just returned home from his last show, where he was bombarded with flowers, teddy bears and buckets full of love from the auditorium. They're obviously going to miss him - but not as much as I will.

Over to north London's Finsbury Park on Sunday for the Feet First Dance Festival. The cab-driver dropped me off at the park gates with a warning: "Careful love, it's rough round here." Perhaps he had misunderstood the event, interpreting "dance festival" as some kind of all-night rave. After all, the park plays host to a lot of festivals, and they're not all as family-oriented as this one. Miffed that my street cred hadn't registered on him, I hugged my pashmina tighter and strode purposefully on my snakeskin heels towards the marquees, positioned defensively inside the park gates like a wagon circle in the Wild West. I expected to see a forlorn group of officials inside, outnumbering the paying public and huddling together for warmth. Instead, I found a crowd of around 2,000 people, half of them absorbed in Zimbabwean gumboot dancing, while the other half tried their feet at Lindy Hop. I spend much of my life trying to convince the cynics that dancing isn't a minority activity, that it's not all about theatres and tickets, God-given talent and hard training. It's something that everyone can - and does - do, the most instinctive of all the arts and a lot of fun, besides. In Finsbury Park, they knew that without being told. The taxi driver was wrong. I found the place very sophisticated.

While my colleagues in the ballet company are waltzing away to Adolphe Adam on Thursday evening, I will be dancing on a barge on the Thames. No, not one of those drunken, end-of-season parties, but the first performance of Fleeting Opera, a collaborative venture between the sculp-tor Max Couper, the composer Trevor Wishart, the choreographer Tom Sapsford and the textile artist Sasha Kingston. Dame Judi Dench will also be on board, as narrator, and we will perform along the stretch of the Thames adjacent to the Houses of Parliament. Dame Judi will then alight from the barge and become the first person to use the river steps leading to parliament in more than 100 years. Nor is this the most astonishing fact: Fleeting Opera is the first piece of music commissioned for the River Thames since 1717, when Handel wrote his Water Music for King George I.

Wearing my Arts Council hat, it seems apt that I should be writing in the New Statesman this week. It was in the annual New Statesman annual lecture that the Arts Council chairman, Gerry Robinson, called for the government to commit an additional £100m to the arts, the balance due on what he called the "down payment" of the previous spending review. His near namesake, the NS chairman, Geoffrey Robinson, gave wholehearted and welcome backing to what was either a brave or an audacious request. A few weeks later, the Mirror proved an unlikely ally, devoting a front-page editorial to the arts and backing the call for increased funding. The Culture Secretary, Chris Smith, has confirmed that, over the next three years, of the additional £240m allocated to his department in the comprehensive spending review, £100m will go to the arts. In football, they'd call that a result.

The writer is a principal dancer with the Royal Ballet

This article first appeared in the 31 July 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Why Tony Blair is a Bobo

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide