No exit: Ed Miliband waits to enter the hall to address supporters in London on 13 November. Photo: Getty
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Leader: The choice before Labour

Ed Miliband’s big conundrum. 

The febrile events of the past week at Westminster have wounded Ed Miliband deeply but not fatally. The Labour Party is very reluctant to topple its leaders, even when it knows it is destined to lose a general election, as it was under Michael Foot in 1983 and Gordon Brown in 2010 but is not in the present circumstances. Yet so fragile is the confidence of Labour MPs and so jittery is their general mood that one issue of the New Statesman seemed to shake the very foundations of the party and precipitated a leadership crisis.

It is nonsense to suggest that the Labour leader is a victim of a conspiracy led by the right-wing press. It is true that much of the press despises him and the Labour Party; but as our political editor, George Eaton, reported in last week’s issue, many Labour MPs have lost confidence in their leader. This fuelled the feverish speculation about Guy Fawkes Night plots and mysterious letters. Had they not been briefing, there would have been no crisis.

Labour MPs accept that there is no obvious successor to Mr Miliband. Nor is there anyone waiting and willing to strike. Alan Johnson, popular and such a gifted communicator, does not seek the highest office. David Miliband has left the House of Commons and is in exile over the water in New York. Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper are playing a longer game. And it seems too early for the leaders of the gifted generation who entered the House in 2010 – Chuka Umunna, Tristram Hunt, Rachel Reeves. The party accepts that it has no alternative but to fall in behind Mr Miliband and fight the election with him as the figurehead of a movement of progressive reform.

Mr Miliband is a good and honourable man but many of his MPs believe that he is floundering. Yet they also understand how vital it is that Labour wins next May’s general election. If the Tories win or were to continue in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, the consequences could be lethal for the British Union and for UK membership of the European Union. The poorest would suffer most. Food banks would proliferate. The ethos of public service would be further eroded. The marketisation of our lives and society would continue apace.

The ludicrous events in the Commons over the European Arrest Warrant demonstrated again the ineptitude of David Cameron’s government. The Tories are disunited and expected to lose the Rochester and Strood by-election to the UK Independence Party on 20 November. Nigel Farage’s party has divided the right as the left was divided by the split in the Labour Party and the creation of the Social Democratic Party in the early 1980s, clearing the ground for Margaret Thatcher to carry out her grand counter-revolution. Support for the Liberal Democrats has collapsed. However, in such propitious circumstances, Labour is going backwards. In its northern English heartlands and in Scotland, many of its core supporters are giving up on the party. Or they are simply refusing to vote. Many progressives now prefer the Greens, with their robust anti-austerity message.

Mr Farage, the Ukip leader, in his interview with Jason Cowley on page 22, says: “Everybody thought that people’s tribal allegiance to Labour was as strong, if not stronger, than the tribal allegiance to the Conservative Party. What we’re actually finding is, they don’t even recognise the tribe . . . Increasingly what we’re finding is the people that come from the Labour side . . . don’t think anyone’s on their side.”

Mr Miliband challenged and defeated his elder brother, David, for the leadership because he believed only he could effect the change that Britain needed. He is nothing if not resilient and has that little chip of ice in the heart that characterises all politicians of serious ambition. Indeed, it is a sense of destiny that sustains him even now, in his darkest hours, as many despair of him.

Yet he cannot continue to bear so much of the burden alone. Labour needs to harness the talents and skills of its frontbenchers, including the admirable Jon Cruddas, Mr Burnham, Mr Umunna and Ms Cooper, as part of a more inclusive, team-based approach. In contrast to the Tories, who have failed to shed their image as the party of the rich, Labour’s brand remains strong and polls show that its progressive policies – higher NHS spending, wealth taxes, mass housebuilding and an increased minimum wage – have broad appeal.

Having lost so much ground in spite of this, the party needs urgently to improve if it is to convince voters that it represents a credible alternative government. A defeat to an administration that has combined incompetence with callousness like few others is one that its supporters cannot afford and would not forgive. 

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Nigel Farage: The Arsonist

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear