How well does Labour need to do in the local elections?

The party needs to win back most or all of the four councils it lost in 2009 and make significant gains in the Midlands battlegrounds.

After a troubled fortnight for Ed Miliband, today's local elections will determine whether the narrative moves back in his favour. The county councils were last fought in 2009, at the nadir of Gordon Brown's political fortunes, so Labour is certain to make gains but how many it makes and, as importantly, where it makes them will be the key test. 

At a minimum, the party needs to make net gains of around 250-300 and win back most or all of the four councils it lost in 2009: Derbyshire, Lancashire, Nottinghamshire and Staffordshire. A good result would also see it make significant gains in the Midlands battlegrounds of Northamptonshire and Warwickshire and challenge the Tories for control of Cumbria. Labour should also hope to dent the Tories' majority on councils like Kent, Lincolnshire and Norfolk and win the mayoral contests in Doncaster and North Tyneside.

Held in areas long dominated by the Conservatives, the county council elections are an imprecise guide to Labour's national standing. As Tom Watson has pointed out, "80% of the areas facing local elections this year elected a Tory MP – compared to just 11% electing a Labour MP – making their seats nearly doubly overrepresented and Labour seats massively underrepresented."

Labour's vote share last time round was just 13 per cent, so the party should hope to get close to or match the 26 per cent it polled in 2005. The ComRes poll earlier this week put it on 24 per cent, two points ahead of UKIP. Retaining that advantage will be crucial if Miliband is to continue to present Labour as a government-in-waiting. 

As well as the local elections, today also sees the South Shields by-election, triggered by David Miliband's departure to New York. Although there is no question of Labour losing the seat, where it holds a majority of 11,109, the party is engaged in extreme expectation management.

Today's Guardian reports on speculation by Labour figures that UKIP could "possibly" win the seat. It won't. It does, however, appear increasingly likely that UKIP will finish second, perhaps even bettering the result it achieved in Eastleigh (where it polled 28 per cent), its strongest by-election performance to date. Given that the party didn't even put forward a candidate in 2010, that is some measure of its dramatic progress in the last year. 

Ed Miliband waves as he makes his way to do a speech on the high street in Worcester town centre on April 25, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Want your team to succeed? Try taking a step back

From the boardroom to the sports ground, managers need to step back for creativity to thrive.

Everyone is in favour of creativity, usually at the expense of creative people. The concept is in perpetual boom. Give us creative midfielders, creative leadership, creative solutions, creative energy. It’s with the “how” that the problems start – with extra meetings and meddling, over-analysis and prescriptiveness, whiteboards and flow charts. Professional systems rarely support the creativity that they allegedly seek. The creativity industry system is at odds with its stated goals.

The novel was an early casualty. Nothing makes me close a book more quickly and finally than the creeping realisation that the author is following a narrative map purchased on an American creative writing course. Life is too short for competent novels. The creativity industry pulls up the worst while dragging down the best.

Something similar happens inside professional sport, even though creativity is so obviously linked to performance and profit. Yet sport, especially English sport, has suffered from excessive managerialism. Perhaps guilt about English sport’s amateur legacy gave “professionalism” free rein, however pedestrian its form.

Here is sport’s problem with creativity: professional systems crave control, but creativity relies on escaping control. If an attacking player doesn’t know what he is going to do next, what chance does the defender have?

So when truly unexpected moments do happen, they take on a special lustre. This month, Olivier Giroud scored an unforgettable goal for Arsenal. Bearing down on the goal, he was already launched in mid-air when he realised that the cross was well behind him. With his body far ahead of his feet, Giroud clipped the ball to the top corner of the net with the outside of his left ankle – a so-called scorpion kick.

It was, in retrospect, the only option available to him. Football, for a moment, touched the arts – not only beautiful, but also complete. Nothing could have been added or taken away.

I once tried to compare the perfect cricket shot to Robert Frost’s celebrated description of writing a poem: “It begins in delight, it inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events, and ends in a clarification . . . Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting.”

A great goal, however, fits that poetic model better than a cricket shot. Cricket shots come in many aesthetic grades, but they are all intended as shots. A goal, on the other hand, is more than just a very good pass, only better. There is an act of transformation within the event.

Frost’s acknowledgment of luck (distinct here from fluke) neatly defuses the accusation. Saying that a great goal involved luck does not to diminish it. Many unearned factors must interact with the skill.

“But did he mean it?” some people have wondered about Giroud’s goal. That isn’t the point, either. There wasn’t time. Giroud had solved the problem – to make contact with the ball, however possible, directing it towards the goal – before he was fully conscious of it. That doesn’t make it an accident. The expertise of a striker, like that of a writer, is opportunistic. He puts himself in positions where his skills can become productive. It is a honed ability to be instinctive. “If I’d thought about it, I never would have done it,” as Bob Dylan sings on “Up to Me”, an out-take from Blood on the Tracks.

Pseudo-intellectual? Quite the reverse. There is nothing pretentious about recognising and protecting creativity in sport. Over-literal decoding is the greater threat: instinctive performance needs to be saved from team meetings, not from intellectuals.

Having described a creative goal as unplanned – indeed, impossible to plan – what can coaches do to help? They can get out of the way, that’s a good start. It is no coincidence that the teams of Arsène Wenger, who is sometimes criticised for being insufficiently prescriptive, score more than their fair share of wonder goals.

The opposite arrangement is bleak. A friend of mine, a fly-half in professional rugby union, retired from the game when his coaches told him exactly which decisions to make in the first six phases of every attacking move. In effect, they banned him from playing creatively; they wanted rugby by numbers.

Not everything can be rehearsed. One useful book for coaches scarcely mentions sport – Inside Conducting, by the conductor Christopher Seaman. “I’ve never had much sympathy for conductors who ‘program’ an orchestra at rehearsal,” Seaman writes, “and then just run the program during the performance. There is much more
to it than that.”

Dan Vettori, the rising star among cricket’s Twenty20 coaches, is rare for having the bravery to echo Seaman’s theory. He believes that cricketers are more likely to play well when they feel slightly underprepared. It’s a risk and a fine balance – but worth it.

As I explored here last month in the context of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, there is a danger of slotting players into false stereotypes and classifications. Giroud, for example, is slow. Slow yet athletic. That’s an unusual combination and partly explains why he is underrated.

We often think of pace as the central and definitive aspect of athleticism. But speed is just one component of total athletic ability (leave to one side footballing skill). Giroud has an outstanding vertical jump, power and great balance. Because he is big and slow, those athletic gifts are harder to spot.

Management systems overestimate both labels and top-down tactics. A braver policy, pragmatic as well as aesthetic, is to be less controlling: allow opportunity to collide with skill, directed by an open, expert and uncluttered mind. l

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge