Consigned to history? Will we see similar leaders' debates to the ones in 2010 this time around? Photo: Getty
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The boon of election debates, remembering the Brighton bomb, and a school inspector’s power

Peter Wilby’s First Thoughts column. 

The 2010 TV election debates turned out to be rather like leylandii: they killed off everything around them. The old-fashioned morning press conferences almost vanished. Instead, the parties designed their strategies around the weekly debates, which changed the texture and rhythm of the campaign to an extent nobody had anticipated. The defining moment was Nick Clegg’s “victory” in the first debate, which ultimately led to an 850,000 rise on the Lib Dems’ 2005 vote (though they won fewer seats). The only other memorable event was Gordon Brown’s encounter with the Rochdale grandmother Gillian Duffy.

Following the broadcasters’ proposal that next year Nigel Farage should be included in one debate, Clegg excluded from another and the Greens still left out in the cold, it seems possible that, with litigation threatened from all quarters, what happened in 2010 will not be repeated. If so, it would be a pity. The debates should continue while other forms of electioneering, including party political broadcasts and leaders’ walkabouts, wither away. Nothing is perfect but 90-minute debates, free from filmed sequences, computer graphics, spontaneous audience intervention and other irritating media tricks, seem to be a relatively good way to decide an election. They are cheap, leaving politicians without need for either big donations or taxpayer subsidies. Perhaps similar debates, between candidates in each constituency, could go out on the web.

Aid prescription

As large numbers of Britons, moving serenely towards early deaths from excessive food and alcohol, panic over the ebola virus, you couldn’t have a better argument for overseas aid. Like nearly all diseases, ebola spreads in countries with poor public infrastructure: insufficient doctors, nurses and public health workers; inadequate sewage systems; absence of running water; unreliable electricity supplies; low literacy levels that make it hard to convey vital health information. Only by developing better public resources can this virus and others be stopped at source, ensuring hypochondriac westerners can continue undisturbed with their sugar-saturated diets. Aneurin Bevan, architect of the NHS, said that when a bedpan was dropped in Tredegar, it should resound in Westminster. The same could now be said of a bedpan dropped in Monrovia.

I doubt that Farage, the most prominent advocate of abolishing overseas aid, will be impressed. He seems to believe the answer to everything is to keep foreigners out. Ebola, he will think, strengthens his argument for a return to the 1950s when migrants came only by boat and hardly anybody ever got on planes.

Wages of sin

It is hardly surprising that NHS staff went on strike. Since 2010, nurses’ and midwives’ pay has gone up 5 per cent while the service’s top managers have enjoyed rises of almost 14 per cent. Meanwhile, boardroom pay in the biggest UK companies is up 21 per cent in a year while average earnings continue to fall. Nobody is any longer surprised by such figures, which pass almost without comment. Why are they not at the centre of political debate and why does no politician seem to know what to do about them?

Blissfully unaware

The 30th anniversary of the Tory party conference bomb in Brighton reminds me that, before mobile phones and the internet, it was possible to go for long periods unaware of even the most dramatic news. The bomb went off at 2.54am. That morning, I overslept and dashed straight to the station with the morning’s Guardian, printed too early to carry the news. I then worked for the Sunday Times in a small office hidden down a corridor where other hacks rarely ventured.

Up against a features deadline, I worked alone and single-mindedly, ignoring phone calls, until I left for a lunch appointment. I spotted an evening paper billboard about a Brighton bomb as I entered the restaurant and greeted my fellow luncher with: “Ha! Somebody’s put a bomb under the Tories!” Only then, nearly 12 hours after the event, did I learn the full, grisly story.

At least this was an improvement on the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, Robert Kennedy’s assassination and the Munich Olympic massacre, of which, being on holiday, I remained ignorant for two, three and five days respectively.

An inspector’s call

I thought the Chief Inspector of Schools, Michael Wilshaw, was going too far in June when he proposed that heads should have the power to fine parents who didn’t read to their children. However, Nigel Gann, a former head teacher who now runs an educational consultancy, recalled at a conference I attended the other day that Matthew Arnold had gone further. He told a six-year-old girl that, if she didn’t quickly learn to read, he would put her parents in prison. Startled and frightened, she asked her father if a poet had such powers. After some hesitation, he said he didn’t think so but that, since Arnold’s day job was schools inspector, perhaps he could.

Arnold’s threat worked: the child (who grew up to become Lina Waterfield, the Observer’s correspondent in Italy, and recalled this episode in her autobiography) was reading Grimm’s Fairy Tales within weeks. But please don’t tell the power-crazed Wilshaw.

Dangerous mind

Sally Tomlinson, who has been an education professor at three universities, received an email last month inviting her to the 15 October launch of a campaign, supported by all the mainstream party leaders, to have more people visiting primary-school classrooms to “make the connection” with “the world of work”. The email demanded an immediate reply and a postal address to allow security checks prior to formal printed invitations. Tomlinson duly replied, giving her Cotswolds address. No invitation followed. Are professors of education now regarded as security risks? 

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 15 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Isis can be beaten

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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage