Show Hide image

The 50 people who matter today: 1-10

The top 10 on our diverse list of individuals, couples and families changing the world, for good and

1. The Obamas

First family

It is easy to be beguiled by the visual power of America's first family. The Obamas' presence in the White House projects to the world a version of the all-American family that is the polar opposite of their predecessors, the Bushes. From the family's resolutely urbanite profile to Michelle's slavery roots, from Sasha and Malia's photogenic charm to their parents' combination of style and intellect, the Obamas have a universal appeal and something the Bushes never had - cool.

Yet the circus around the Obamas can detract from the deeper significance of their success. The election of the first African-American president has changed the US for ever, and his progressive policies continue along this path. It has not been easy - health-care reform has been his most intractable challenge to date - but the decision to close Guantanamo Bay and the abandonment of plans for a missile defence shield in eastern Europe have transformed the US's reputation and its relationship with the world.

But it is more than just policy, or office, that makes Obama so influential. The man is normal and relaxed. He can write honest, beautifully nuanced, intelligent prose. When he smiles, it is genuine rather than pained. These are superficial qualities, perhaps, but his magnetism, and that of his family, gives them huge cultural power. So does their obvious symbolism.

2. The Murdochs

Sky lords

In his book The Murdoch Archipelago (2003), Bruce Page, a former New Statesman editor, observed that the liberal Guardian, the
illiberal Mail and the neutral BBC all resemble one another more than they resemble any Murdoch product: for all their differences in political standpoint, they strive to maintain an independence of the state.

The Murdochs' News Corporation erodes the boundaries between state power and media operations. The same could be said of Silvio Berlusconi and of numerous authoritarian regimes, but the Murdochs alone cross international boundaries, influencing popular perceptions of reality (there is no other way to put it) from Montevideo to Manchester, Baltimore to Beijing, and always getting close to the seat of power.

In a world where information is the most precious commodity, the Murdochs - through interests that cover newspapers, television, radio, books and the internet - control their own global superhighway. They summon aspirant political leaders such as Tony Blair and David Cameron to address themselves and their leading executives, judging whether they are worthy of support. Despite contrasting editorial styles, the Murdochs' papers (and broadcasting outlets) express a unanimity that Page describes as "the intellectual equivalent of synchronised swimming". No Murdoch paper or magazine opposed the Iraq invasion, though some (Modern Fishing, for instance) didn't express a view. No Murdoch organ doubts the merits of free markets. All attack the "statist" BBC. To a remarkable extent, the Murdochs' agenda - light business regulation, tight shackles on unions, a semi-detached relationship with the EU - is also the British political agenda of the past three decades.

Unlike many past media tycoons, the Murdochs are rational business people. What drives them is power and control, not a specific political programme. Their first priority is to secure News Corporation's business interests, suppressing all potential rivals and regulatory threats. If anything, they prefer pliable centre-left parties in order to close off more hostile options. They prefer relatively untried leaders, as Thatcher and
Blair once were, as they have greater need of their support. Once secured, that support is unstinting, but it is always conditional.

We must now speak of "the Murdochs", as James, the fourth of Rupert's six children, has taken charge of News Corporation, Europe and Asia, overseeing, for example, the company's British newspapers (which boast more than a third of total national newspaper circulation) and Star, the TV satellite operation in Asia. Murdoch père, at 78, still calls most of the shots, but James, 36, has made his own mark. He takes global warming seriously, and the Times and Sun, previously inclined to the sceptics' camp, suddenly switched to firm support for reducing carbon emissions. No global warming denier now gets significant space in the Murdochs' papers. The calculation, no doubt, is that a drowned world would be bad for News Corporation's prospects. We may yet have cause to be thankful for the Murdochs' cold, calculating assessments of what's best for business.

Peter Wilby

3.Marwan Barghouti

Palestinian Mandela

Marwan Barghouti may be a detainee in an Israeli prison - a leader of the second intifada, he was sentenced to five life terms in 2004 - but hopes for peace in the Middle East rest on his shoulders. Many Palestinians regard him as an antidote to the corruption of the Fatah Establishment, and a number of senior Israeli politicians believe he is the only man who can unite the Palestinian sides and reach a final-status agreement with Israel. Touted as the "Palestinian Mandela", Barghouti is expected to launch a presidential campaign in 2010.

4 Eric Schmidt, Larry Page and Sergey Brin

Search party

Is any brand more ubiquitous than Google? Eleven years after it was founded in a garage in California by Larry Page and Sergey Brin, now headed by Eric Schmidt, it is the defining company of our internet age. It weathered the economic storm better than many analysts expected, further extending its domination of the search-advertising market.

5. General Stanley McChrystal

US super trooper

US military commander in Afghanistan since June, Stanley McChrystal is spearheading the fight against the Taliban. Despite having compared western strategy in Afghanistan to a lumbering bull, he insists that the situation could be remedied with more money and a reduction of civilian casualties. McChrystal is the man to whom Gordon Brown and the Ministry of Defence will look for guidance on Afghanistan. He will also determine the need for further US or Nato troops.

6. Malalai Joya

Afghan heroine

Assassination attempts and death threats have not silenced Afghanistan's answer to Aung San Suu Kyi. The 31-year-old, the youngest person elected to the Afghan parliament in 2005, was expelled in 2007 for speaking out against the warlords who maintain a grip on power under the western-backed government of Hamid Karzai. Forced to live like a fugitive in her own country, she fights on from the secret hideaways of her supporters, exploding the myth that the war has liberated Afghanistan and its women. With her new memoir, she has become not just the "voice of the people of my country", but a figurehead for peace and demo­cracy campaigners around the world.

7. Vladimir Putin

Russian bear

Russia's prime minister and former president is credited with bringing the country back from the brink of collapse and increasing GDP sixfold. Russia's strategic importance has also grown under Putin, who disregards diplomatic niceties as he reasserts the presence of his country - with its 12,000-plus nuclear warheads - on the world stage. Putin's formidable influence shows no sign of waning; he has hinted that he could return to the Kremlin in 2012.

8. Osama Bin Laden


The latest message from the al-Qaeda leader has thrust him back into the public view at a time when his group is under great military pressure in its Pakistani strongholds. The message was heavy on US foreign policy but light on jihadist ideology, which many see as part a new strategy to win over mainstream Muslims. As al-Qaeda has become a more disparate organisation, Bin Laden has struggled to maintain political and spiritual unity. But he has survived nearly ten years of US warfare ostensibly directed around him, suggesting his spectre will haunt the world for some time to come.

9.Nouriel Roubini

Financial foreteller

Overoptimistic capitalists at the New York Times described him as "Dr Doom" back in 2006, but even they now agree that Nouriel Roubini predicted financial meltdown before anybody - yes, anybody - else. And, with a pessimism that governments the world over should be taking far more notice of, he continues to argue that the old financial systems must evolve, and that recovery from recession will be slow and painful. Less public intellectual than economic adviser to Planet Earth.

10. Xi Jinping

Chinese kingpin

Xi Jinping is increasingly seen as President Hu Jintao's likely successor. Considered open and pragmatic, Xi is tipped for promotion at the Communist Party plenum being held in Beijing. He has attracted praise from the former US treasury secretary Hank Paulson and Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew, who has suggested he is "in the Nelson Mandela class of persons".

This article first appeared in the 28 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The 50 people who matter

David Young
Show Hide image

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