Notebook - Rosie Millard

There is one London area so bereft of history, a book of stories had to be commissioned about it

As if anyone needed reminding, the incidents of the past few weeks have meant we have been told, yet again, that London is a city with character: from its signature buses to its architectural icons, from Gherkin to Eye via Big Ben. So it was very odd to hear that there is one area of central London so bereft of fable, so devoid of mythology, that a book of stories had to be commissioned and published to rectify the situation. Indeed, it is the very patch on which the New Statesman has its headquarters. I'm talking about Victoria.

Victoria, one would have thought, might have capitalised on the Kinks single, or its royal name, or at least made merry about how its eponymous terminus was the one where the infant Jack Worthing was famously abandoned in a handbag. None of these things has been hyped by Victoria. (Unlike King's Cross, which has been tediously banging on about its Harry Potter connections for the past seven years.)

Now, however, the developers have finally arrived and everything is different. "We need to bring Victoria to life as a location, not just a station," announced Mike Hussey, MD of the London portfolio at Land Securities, over lunch at a flash restaurant in the cultural vacuum that is Victoria.

Land Securities owns roughly 30 per cent of Victoria. It is building a huge new shopping centre, "Cardinal Place", opposite Westminster Cathedral. This shopping centre needs tenants. Land Securities grasped that, in order to sell sites, it had to make Victoria sexy, like Knightsbridge is sexy, like Westminster is, like Belgravia is; hell, like every one of Victoria's neighbours is. Even parts of south London are sexier than Victoria.

Hussey commissioned Victoria Defined, a book that picked up hitherto unknown but fascinating local stories, and sent it to potential tenants of Cardinal Place. He also commissioned £500,000 worth of contemporary art. "It's all about the developer being a patron of art," he said. "Art is capable of delivering all sorts of indirect messages to people."

Clearly, the charm offensive worked; Cardinal Place is full. When it opens next year, we can look forward to a place full of high-street outlets which, having read all about the history of the place, have suddenly realised its sexiness and want to be at the party. Who knows what will happen next? The very least we NS staffers can expect is a son et lumiere show at the bus station.

Having lured in the shops, the art now has a second job - to lure in the shoppers. Over lunch, I was introduced to "footfall", "tarrying" and other gobbets of commercial marketing-speak. If you have good public art around shops, Hussey explained, you might not only increase footfall, but you make people tarry. And when you tarry, you spend money. How very useful a tool art is. It makes hanging out at the shops into a better experience.

What is wrong with this? Nothing. It is a perfectly good, tried-and-tested reason for employing professional artists to bring non-essential decoration to a row of shops. It's just that, like Victoria Defined, a publication which lends mystique to an area where none actually existed, the urgency and fidelity of creativity are somewhat lost when shackled to the market-driven and complex demands of footfall.

Rosie Millard was previously Arts Editor for the NS and a Theatre Critic. She was the Arts Correspondent for BBC News for 10 years and is now a broadsheet columnist. She lives in London with heaps of small children, which may partially explain her love of going to the theatre.

This article first appeared in the 01 August 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Why Britain is great

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