Nigel Farage. Photo: Getty
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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

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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

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