Nigel Farage. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Pricking the Ukip bubble, the Baftas’ gender agenda, and the real lesson of the Chinese maths scores

Peter Wilby's First Thoughts.

Almost nobody seems to have noticed, but the Wythenshawe and Sale East by-election has surely pricked the Ukip bubble. Labour increased its vote share to 55.3 per cent from 44.1 per cent in the general election. Ukip got a mere 18 per cent. That has been the pattern throughout this parliament. In eight of the 13 by-elections in England, Labour got more than half the vote. Only in Eastleigh, where the incumbent, the Lib Dem Chris Huhne, resigned in disgrace, did Ukip manage more than 25 per cent. In nine contests, its vote was below 15 per cent. And only in Bradford West did Labour stumble badly, losing to George Galloway.

Ukip had a chance to take over from the Lib Dems as the main vehicle for protest. Yet at a time when mainstream politicians are supposedly more out of touch and despised than ever, it has achieved nothing like the spectacular by-election swings that the Lib Dems (and, before them, the Liberals and the SDP) achieved in their heyday. It has barely 1 per cent of local council seats. It may do well in the European elections because voters don’t care who represents them in Brussels and Strasbourg. But clearly they won’t risk a Ukip “fruitcake” getting anywhere near real power.

The by-elections were not representative; nearly all were in safe Labour seats. Nevertheless, it seems that, if protest votes are going anywhere in this parliament, they are going to Labour, whose vote (discounting Bradford West) has risen by an average of 9 per cent – a remarkable and perhaps unprecedented achievement for a party recently ejected from office.

Can the established parties now stop trimming their policies to counter the Ukip “threat”? Can we see less of Nigel Farage and his acolytes on BBC1’s Question Time panel? Can assorted liberals and leftists stop warning of a Europe-wide fascist revival? Don’t hold your breath.


Eyes on the prize

I find all awards ceremonies, including those for journalists, irritating because they amount to little more than marketing and PR events. Why they should take up hours of prime-time TV, I have no idea. The Baftas, like the Oscars, I find particularly annoying. Why are there awards for “actresses” rather than just “actors”? Aren’t we supposed to be in the age of gender-neutral terms? The answer, I suppose, is that, if the “actress” awards were abolished, there would be fewer prizes and fewer sponsorship opportunities.


Do the sums

The press is excited by news that in maths tests, the children of factory workers and cleaners in Shanghai outperform the children of professional parents in the UK. Yet those lowly Shanghai children also do better than the children of well-heeled parents in the US, France, Canada, New Zealand, Denmark and even Finland, normally regarded as the European star in league tables of educational performance. The children of German professionals are only just ahead and those of Japanese and Dutch professionals are roughly on a par.

Shanghai is a city of about 23 million people, of whom more than a third have migrated there (mostly from rural areas) since the turn of the century. Most of the city’s school pupils are from migrant families. Probably the only legitimate comparison is with children of Chinese origin in London schools; Chinese pupils are known to have easily the highest exam results of any ethnic group in the UK and, by an even greater margin, the highest rate of progression to post-school education.

Elizabeth Truss, Michael Gove’s ministerial sidekick at the Department for Education, is off to China, babbling about threats to “our productivity and growth”. But is she sure that the answer lies in Shanghai’s schools?

If we need high-achieving young mathematicians, perhaps we should look at our immigration policy and, at least in China’s case, stop issuing work permits only to the skilled. The more unskilled Chinese factory workers and cleaners we have, the better. If you can’t beat them, get them to join us, a rule followed by the English cricket and rugby teams.


Continental shift

In London at the Natural History Museum’s riveting new exhibition “Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story”, I learned several new things. Here is one. I knew that about 2 per cent of Neanderthal genes can be found in modern human beings. I didn’t know that, though such genes are found in people of European and Asian origin, they are not found in Africans, whose ancestors never left that continent.

I am still turning over in my mind how this may affect popular perceptions of ethnic differences and their significance.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Space Issue

Show Hide image

Will the collapse of the EU/Canada trade deal speed the demise of Jean-Claude Juncker?

The embattled European Comission President has already survived the migrant crisis and Brexit.

Jean-Claude Juncker, the embattled President of the European Commission, is likely to come under renewed pressure to resign later this week now that the Belgian region of Wallonia has likely scuppered the EU’s flagship trade deal with Canada.

The rebellious Walloons on Friday blocked the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA). The deal for 500 million Europeans was at the final hurdle when it fell, struck down by an administration representing 3.2 million people.

As Canada’s trade minister, Chrystia Freeland, walked out of talks in tears and declared the deal dead, fingers were pointed at Juncker. Under pressure from EU governments, he had agreed that CETA would be a “mixed agreement”. He overruled the executive’s legal advice that finalising the deal was in the Commission’s power.

CETA now had to be ratified by each member state. In the case of Belgium, it means it had to be approved by each of its seven parliaments, giving the Walloons an effective veto.

Wallonia’s charismatic socialist Minister-President Paul Magnette needed a cause celebre to head off gains made by the rival Marxist PTB party. He found it in opposition to an investor protection clause that will allow multinationals to sue governments, just a month after the news that plant closures by the world’s leading heavy machinery maker Caterpillar would cost Wallonia 2,200 jobs.

Juncker was furious. Nobody spoke up when the EU signed a deal with Vietnam, “known the world over for applying all democratic principles”, he sarcastically told reporters.

“But when it comes to signing an agreement with Canada, an accomplished dictatorship as we all know, the whole world wants to say we don’t respect human right or social and economic rights,” he added.  

The Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was due to arrive in Brussels on Thursday to sign CETA, which is backed by all EU leaders.

European Council President, Donald Tusk, has today spoken to Trudeau and his visit is currently scheduled to go ahead. This morning, the Walloons said they would not be held to ransom by the “EU ultimatum”.

If signed, CETA will remove customs duties, open up markets, and encourage investment, the Commission has said. Losing it will cost jobs and billions in lost trade to Europe’s stagnant economy.

“The credibility of Europe is at stake”, Tusk has warned.

Failure to deliver CETA will be a serious blow to the European Union and call into question the European Commission’s exclusive mandate to strike trade deals on behalf of EU nations.

It will jeopardise a similar trade agreement with the USA, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). The Commission claims that an “ambitious” TTIP could increase the size of the EU economy by €120 billion (or 0.5% of GDP).

The Commission has already missed its end of year deadline to conclude trade talks with the US. It will now have to continue negotiations with whoever succeeds Obama as US President.

And if the EU cannot, after seven years of painstaking negotiations, get a deal with Canada done, how will it manage if the time comes to strike a similar pact with a "hard Brexit" Britain?

Juncker has faced criticism before.  After the Brexit referendum, the Czechs and the Poles wanted him gone. Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban muttered darkly about “personnel issues” at the Commission.

In July, it was reported that Angela Merkel, the most powerful politician in Europe, was plotting to oust Juncker. Merkel stayed her hand, and with German elections looming next year is unlikely to pull the trigger now.

When he took office in November 2014, Juncker promised that his administration would be a “political Commission”. But there has never been any sign he would be willing to bear the political consequences of his failures.

Asked if Juncker would quit after Brexit, the Commission’s chief spokesman said, “the answer has two letters and the first one is ‘N’”.

Just days into his administration, Juncker was embroiled in the LuxLeaks scandal. When he was Luxembourg’s prime minister and finance minister, the country had struck sweetheart tax deals with multinational companies.  

Despite official denials, rumours about his drinking and health continue to swirl around Brussels. They are exacerbated by bizarre behaviour such as kissing Belgium’s Charles Michel on his bald head and greeting Orban with a cheery “Hello dictator”!

On Juncker’s watch, border controls have been reintroduced in the once-sacrosanct Schengen passport-free zone, as the EU struggles to handle the migration crisis.

Member states promised to relocate 160,000 refugees in Italy and Greece across the bloc by September 2017. One year on, just 6,651 asylum seekers have been re-homed.

All this would be enough to claim the scalp of a normal politician but Juncker remains bulletproof.

The European Commission President can, in theory, only be forced out by the European Parliament, as happened to Jacques Santer in 1999.

The European Parliament President is Martin Schulz, a German socialist. His term is up for renewal next year and Juncker, a centre-right politician, has already endorsed its renewal in a joint interview.

There is little chance that Juncker will be replaced with a leader more sympathetic to the British before the Brexit negotiations begin next year.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.