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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The Manchester attack will define this election: Broadcasters have a careful line to tread

It's right that the government should be given a chance to respond, but they must not be allowed to use it to campaign.

Every election campaign has its story, its place in the political history of this country. 2017 will forever be known for Manchester and the horror of the attack on Britain's young; and fighting terrorism will be a theme, overt or underlying, of what we see and hear between now and polling day.

The broadcasters have covered the events comprehensively yet sensitively. But they are aware that we're in an election campaign too; and when other news drives aside the carefully-balanced campaign formats, ministerial appearances give them a dilemma.

The fact is that what the Prime Minister and Home Secretary are doing in response to Manchester is newsworthy. It was Theresa May's duty to implement the recommendations of her security advisers on the elevation of the terror alert, and it would have been unthinkable for the news channels not to broadcast her various statements.

But it is also true that, if the bomb hadn't been detonated, Tuesday would have been a day in which the PM would have been under relentless damaging scrutiny for her u-turn on social care. All the opposition parties would have been in full cry across the airwaves. Yet in the tragic circumstances we found ourselves, nobody could argue that Downing Street appearances on the terror attack should prompt equal airtime for everyone from Labour to Plaid Cymru.

There are precedents for ministers needing to step out of their party roles during a campaign, and not be counted against the stopwatch balance of coverage. Irish terrorism was a factor in previous elections and the PM or Northern Ireland secretary were able to speak on behalf of the UK government. It applied to the foot and mouth epidemic that was occupying ministers' time in 2001. Prime ministers have gone to foreign meetings before, too. Mrs Thatcher went to an economic summit in photogenic Venice with her soulmate Ronald Reagan three days before the 1987 election, to the irritation of Neil Kinnock.

There are plenty of critics who will be vigilant about any quest for party advantage in the way that Theresa May and Amber Rudd now make their TV and radio appearances; and it’s inevitable that a party arguing that it offers strength and stability will not object to being judged against these criteria in extreme and distressing times.

So it's necessary for both broadcasters and politicians to be careful, and there are some fine judgements to be made. For instance, it was completely justifiable to interview Amber Rudd about the latest information from Manchester and her annoyance with American intelligence leaks. I was less comfortable with her being asked in the same interview about the Prevent strategy, and with her response that actions would follow "after June", which edges into party territory and would be a legitimate area to seek an opposition response.

When the campaigning resumes, these challenges become even greater. Deciding when the Prime Minister is speaking for the government and nation, or when she is leader of the Conservative Party, will never be black and white. But I would expect to see the broadcast bulletins trying to draw clearer lines about what is a political report and what is the latest from Manchester or from G7. They must also resist any efforts to time ministerial pronouncements with what's convenient for the party strategists' campaign grid.

There might also usefully be more effort to report straight what the parties are saying in the final days, with less spin and tactical analysis from the correspondents. The narrative of this election has been changed by tragedy, and the best response is to let the politicians and the public engage as directly as possible in deciding what direction the nation should now take.

Roger Mosey is the Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge. He was formerly editorial director and the director of London 2012 at the BBC.

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