Deposed: George Lansbury, the only Labour leader to have been forced to resign, pictured in 1937. Photo: Getty
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Muzzling Blair’s dogs, “Jihadi John” and cricket’s awkward squad

Peter Wilby’s First Thoughts column. 

It has become impossible to pick up a newspaper or log on to Twitter without learning of assorted Blairites denouncing Ed Miliband. Many complaints are about the admittedly ill-advised proposal for a mansion tax. But they form part of a wider narrative in which Labour peers and mostly anonymous MPs describe their leader as “laughable”, “abysmal” and “complacent” and sing the dreary refrain that he must get “closer to business”. One brave MP told the Times that Miliband needed to see a psychologist and would probably “go down in history as one of the worst leaders”. By some oversight, the paper failed to name him.

Less than eight months from a general election, what do these people think they are up to? Most voters are poorer than they were in 2010. The NHS is close to collapse. The senior party in the coalition is deeply divided. These three factors alone should take Labour to victory, whatever Miliband’s faults, and the chances of success won’t be enhanced by internal denigration and disunity. The chances of a change this late in the electoral cycle are close to zero. Labour will either win under Miliband or lose under him.

The Blairites clearly prefer the losing option. They are now the wreckers, not the hard left, which didn’t rock the boat as Tony Blair rose to power. In his farewell conference speech, Blair said: “Whatever you [Labour] do, I’m always with you . . . Wanting you to win.” If he meant it, he should call off the dogs and tell Miliband’s detractors to stay silent.

Don’t drop the pilot

Labour did once overthrow a leader – or, more precisely, cause him to resign – and only weeks before a general election. At the 1935 annual conference, George Lansbury, agonising over how to reconcile his Christian pacifism with opposition to fascism, was publicly told by his union adversary Ernest Bevin to stop “hawking your conscience around from body to body asking to be told what to do with it”. When the delegates supported sanctions against Italy, which Lansbury regarded as economic warfare, his position became untenable.

The results are not encouraging for those who now think it wise to change leader. Although Labour increased its number of seats, it lost the election. Admittedly, the caretaker leader during the campaign was Clem Attlee, who went on to win the subsequent leadership contest and stayed for 20 years. You could just about imagine Alan Johnson, with his natural diffidence, as an Attlee figure. But Johnson is 64; Attlee was a mere 52. A last-minute change to a palpable stopgap wouldn’t increase Labour’s vote.

Labour gets grand

“Grandees turn on Miliband” was the Times headline over one of many eager reports in the Murdoch press. “Grandee” goes back to 15th-century Spain, where it was used to distinguish the more senior noblemen from the merely rich. In Britain, it was used during the civil war for the Cromwellian army officers, drawn from the landed gentry, who opposed the Levellers. Now it is the kind of word you only ever see in newspapers – one can’t imagine Miliband telling Nick Robinson “I’m worried about the grandees” – and it seems an odd collective noun for those quoted in the Times report, who include Tessa Jowell, John Mann (MP for Bassetlaw) and Lance Price, a former Blair press aide. I had always thought that, on Planet Journalism, only the Tories had grandees. Perhaps the extension of the term to certain Labour “supporters” tells us something.

Jilt Jihadi John

The media were never likely to heed demands from prominent Muslims to stop using “Islamic State” for the terrorists who have just murdered a second British hostage, if only because the suggested alternative, Un-Islamic State, would have created the confusing acronym US. But the press could surely stop referring to the front-man in the murder videos as “Jihadi John”. The name supposedly originated with the hostages who, because of their jailers’ British accents, called them “the Beatles”. The source of this tale is obscure and, as
“Jihadi John” seems to speak with a London accent, it sounds inherently improbable.

“Jihadi John” sounds glamorous, romantic and swashbuckling, particularly, I should think, to the ears of some adolescent Muslims. What about “Subnormal Steve” or “Dopey Donald” instead?

No team in I

Kevin Pietersen is clearly a somewhat abrasive and perhaps mixed-up individual, which I would attribute to childhood canings from his father. But whatever their opinions on his newly published autobiography – which describes the former England cricket coach Andy Flower as “contagiously sour, infectiously dour” and several former team-mates as bullies – millions of people are talking about it. Cricket’s special appeal is that, over long periods of play, it highlights in narrative form the personalities of individuals and how they interact with others. Think of Fred Trueman, Andrew Flintoff and Shane Warne, all men with personal shortcomings who fascinated the public.

Geoffrey Boycott shows that cricketers do not need to be entertaining players to attract such attention. Those who blamelessly “play for the team” are a greater threat to the game’s future than awkward mavericks such as Pietersen. Fortunately, someone like him usually emerges. Ben Stokes, the young all-rounder who broke his hand punching a dressing-room locker, shows great promise.

Tribute cones

The number of cones on the motorways this autumn seems greater than ever. They often stretch miles beyond any visible roadworking activity. Is it time to bring back the cones hotline? John Major, I think, now qualifies as a national treasure but the cones hotline is the only thing most people remember him for. It’s not much of a legacy compared to the NHS or the Open University, but wouldn’t it be a nice gesture for a grateful nation to honour him by restoring it? 

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 08 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Grayson Perry guest edit

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Want to beat Theresa May? First, accept that she's popular

The difficult truth for the centre and left, and advocates of a new party, is that people don't "vote for the Tories reluctantly".

An election campaign that has been short on laughs has been livened up by a modest proposal by an immodest man: the barrister Jolyon Maugham, who used to write about tax for the New Statesman as well as advising Eds Miliband and Balls, has set out his (now mothballed) plans for a new party called Spring.

The original idea was a 28-day festival (each day would be celebrated with the national costumes, food and drink of one of the European Union’s member states) culiminating in the announcement of the candidacy of Spring’s first parliamentary candidate, one Jolyon Maugham, to stand against Theresa May in her constituency of Maidenhead. He has reluctantly abandoned the plan, because there isn’t the time between now and the election to turn it around.

There are many problems with the idea, but there is one paragraph in particular that leaps out:

“Like Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty, Labour’s left and moderates are bent on one another’s destruction. No one knows what the Lib Dems are for – other than the Lib Dems. And we vote for the Tories reluctantly, lacking an alternative.”

Even within this paragraph there are a number of problems. Say what you like about Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty but it seems hard to suggest that there is not a fairly large difference between the two – regardless of which one you think is which – that might perhaps be worth engaging with. There are fair criticisms of the Liberal Democrats’ uncertain start to this campaign but they have been pretty clear on their platform when they haven’t been playing defence on theological issues.

But the biggest problem is the last sentence: “We vote for the Tories reluctantly, lacking an alternative”. A couple of objections here: the first, I am not sure who the “we” are. Is it disgruntled former Labour members like Maugham who threw their toys out of the pram after Corbyn’s second successive leadership victory? If you are voting for the Tories reluctantly, I have invented a foolproof solution to “voting for the Tories reluctantly” that has worked in every election I’ve voted in so far: it’s to vote against the Tories.  (For what it’s worth, Maugham has said on Twitter that he will vote for the Liberal Democrats in his home constituency.)

I suspect, however, that the “we” Maugham is talking about are the voters. And actually, the difficult truth for the left and centre-left is that people are not voting for Theresa May “reluctantly”: they are doing it with great enthusiasm. They have bought the idea that she is a cautious operator and a safe pair of hands, however illusory that might be. They think that a big vote for the Tories increases the chance of a good Brexit deal, however unlikely that is.

There is not a large bloc of voters who are waiting for a barrister to turn up with a brass band playing Slovenian slow tunes in Maidenhead or anywhere in the country. At present, people are happy with Theresa May as Prime Minister. "Spring" is illustrative of a broader problem on much of the centre-left: they have a compelling diagnosis about what is wrong with Corbyn's leadership. They don't have a solution to any of Labour's problems that predate Corbyn, or have developed under him but not because of him, one of which is the emergence of a Tory leader who is popular and trusted. (David Cameron was trusted but unpopular, Boris Johnson is popular but distrusted.) 

Yes, Labour’s position would be a lot less perilous if they could either turn around Jeremy Corbyn’s popularity ratings or sub him out for a fresh, popular leader. That’s one essential ingredient of getting the Conservatives out of power. But the other, equally important element is understanding why Theresa May is popular – and how that popularity can be diminished and dissipated. 

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

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