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In this week's New Statesman | The New Exodus

Plus: Chris Patten downplays the BBC pay-off scandal and slams Grant Shapps for "exceptionally ill-judged" licence fee attack.




On the pay-off scandal: “This is not the most outrageous example I can think of mortal sin.”

On BBC-bashing in the press: “In some newspapers the BBC gets bashed more than President Assad. It’s extraordinary.”










In a frank and robust interview in this week’s New Statesman, Chris Patten, chairman of the BBC Trust, tells Ed Smith he wants to see the BBC’s self-confidence and moral authority restored after a series of blows to the organisation including the Savile affair and the executive pay-off scandal:


“The BBC is the only institution that I’ve been associated with that gets a sense of Schadenfreude about its own problems or mistakes. It beats itself up more. I think we should start to be more positive about ourselves. People get a fantastic service for 40 pence a day. I think the important thing for the BBC is not to lose its nerve. My friends from around the world are amazed that BBC is in the headlines so much. They assume this must be an organisation that everybody is exceptionally proud of. Well, sensible people are.”

Patten contrasts the high regard in which the BBC is held around the world with the way it is pilloried by certain sections of the British press:

“I was thinking the other day that in some newspapers the BBC gets bashed more than President Assad. It’s extraordinary.”

Patten uses the interview to hit back at Grant Shapps, chairman of the Conservative Party, who last month launched a cynical attack on the BBC, questioning the future of the licence fee. Patten was appalled by what he calls the “mis-Shapp”:

“We were appearing in front of a select committee the other day, we’re always appearing in front of select committees, I think we’re now up to 17 in a year, on one issue or another. I said what had surprised me during my period as chairman of the Trust was on the whole the lack of political pressure from anybody. And then just to make it look as though I was a cloth head, the chairman of the Conservative Party launched himself into an exceptionally ill-judged attack on the BBC. . .The chairmen of the Conservative Party invariably have a bash at the BBC in the run-up to elections. I have to say to my eternal shame I did the same. But what was odd [about Shapps’s intervention] was publicly linking an attack on a journalist [the BBC home editor, Mark Easton] with the BBC as whole and the licence fee.”

Patten on the pay-off scandal:

“No-one – nobody sensible – would argue that the way that severance pay had been handled had been other than messy and shabby. It was wrong. The worst damage has been inside, because people have seen their budgets being squeezed and [also] these big pay settlements. Some of these severance payments raised . . . well, not just eyebrows . . .”

“If you then look at a period of seven years from 2006 to 2013, people who left and were paid more than they were contractually entitled, that totalled £6.8m. Which is about what you’d have to pay to televise a football match. This is not the most outrageous example I can think of mortal sin. . . But it was wrong. And it stopped. And it won’t happen again.”

On BBC bureaucracy and creativity:

“That’s exactly what Tony Hall is trying to do at the moment. Strip out some of those layers of bureaucracy that have, among other things, a deadening effect on creativity. . . We definitely have to be faster on our feet.”

“The best drama I’ve seen since I’ve been in this job is the Tom Stoppard Parade’s End, which I thought was magical. Downton Abbey is a huge success. But I’m glad that we made Parade’s End, not Downton. So there is a lot [of good programming] but there needs to be more.”

On his hopes for the BBC:

“Success would be that the BBC was on the way to renewing the charter, at a reasonable licence fee level, which would enable it to go on producing the kind of programming it does now. And for the levels of trust in the BBC to have consolidated and stabilised; I’d like them to be even higher. It’s a great national treasure and it’s important that it should act like a national treasure and be regarded as – not beyond criticism – but as something that we can be reasonably proud of.”


In a controversial essay for the NS, Paul Collier, professor of economics and public policy at Oxford University and author of the new book Exodus: Immigration and Multiculturalism in the 21st Century, argues “liberal intellectuals who dismiss concerns about future migration. . .are being cavalier at other people’s expense” and declares the “noble vision” of multiculturalism incompatible with an egalitarian society.

Collier argues it is time for a sensible conversation about immigration and wants to break the taboo surrounding its discussion:

“Ever since Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech in 1968, serious discussion of migration has been taboo in British social science. I lost count of the number of times I was cautioned while writing my book Exodus not to include anything that could be ammunition for Ukip. In other words, I was told to write yet more policy-based evidence. British migration policy is too important and in too much disarray for this to be defensible.”

He argues that the multiculturalism model is incompatible with a fair deal for the “indigenous population”:

“Liberal intellectuals want to combine rapid immigration, the multiculturalism that entitles migrants to remain within a distinct cultural community, and an egalitarian society. This is a noble vision but unfortunately the desirability of a policy combination does not ensure that it is technically possible.”

“The weight of evidence suggests overwhelmingly that if a society fragments between an indigenous population and a variety of diaspora communities, co-operation will weaken. More surprisingly, diversity even appears to weaken co-operation within the indigenous population: as indigenous networks are disrupted, people withdraw into more isolated lives.”

Refusing to accept this is, says Collier, an indulgence we cannot afford:

“Liberal intellectuals who dismiss concerns about future migration, as distinct from the complaints about its past effects, are being cavalier at other people’s expense. It is the indigenous poor, existing immigrants and people left behind in the countries of origin who are potentially at risk, not the middle classes.”


In this week’s column, Rafael Behr, NS politics editor, explains that Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, hopes to deal with the winter NHS crisis by positioning himself “as the champion of patients against an unresponsive health bureaucracy”:

“Jeremy Hunt, the current Health Secretary, has a third way. He aims to position himself as the champion of patients against an unresponsive health bureaucracy. He takes as his model the approach that Michael Gove has adopted for schools, casting himself as the scourge of complacency in a system that cherishes mediocrity and cares only about doing things the way they have always been done. ‘Jeremy is always going on about what Michael is doing at Education,’ says a senior Department of Health insider. That is the impulse behind calls for Ofsted-style regulation of hospitals and for GPs to offer more appointments outside working hours. Hunt treats problems in the NHS as evidence of the need for reform. Labour says he is dumping responsibility for the fiasco on doctors and nurses.”


Eimear McBride wins the first Goldsmiths Prize – a new literary prize in association with the New Statesman

Vince Cable reflects on the past 100 years – and shares his fears and hopes for the future – in the NS Centenary Interview

Rachel Cooke watches the final Downton episodewill ITV realise how bad a writer Julian Fellowes is or keep flogging this dead horse?

Ryan Gilbey reviews Ridley Scott’s film of Cormac McCarthy’s The Counselor

Michael Brooks calculates the risk of an asteroid hit in this week’s Science column

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.