"If you don't do politics, politics will do you." Photo: Getty
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Sketch: Ed Miliband meets young people

We re-run yesterday’s unremarkable debate between Ed Miliband and young people.

“The 2015 general election is just around the corner, and regardless of what you think about voting, if you don’t do politics… politics will do you.”

And we’re off at Leaders Live, an attempt to engage young people with politics run by a new organisation called “Bite the Ballot”.

We’re just here with the kids, just chatting, just talking to the Labour leader, just keeping it political #leaderslive #bitetheballot #youngpeople #engagement #newpolitics #2k15.

The presenter seems to be called Michael Sarnie. He turns to Ed. “Welcome Ed, how are you?”

Ed: “Great to be here, thank you.”

We’ll presume Ed’s fine.

Sarnie: “Our studio audience is made up of some influential people… collectively they have an online reach of millions…”

Cue picture of some slouched kids in t-shirts.

Ed: “Well first of all can I say it is great to be here…”

No Ed you can’t say that.

Ed: “I want to go back to 70 yaerrrrrs ago, when the government set the target of full employment: I want to go beyond that.”

The young people wonder why Ed says “yaerrrrs” like that. We all wonder what is morethan full employment.

Ed plows on. He’s doles out the trademark eyebrows up, head forward, slightly incredulous half-smile. The “Isn’t it so obvious we need good jobs guys I’m just trying to do good things!” one. Finishes talking, relaxes face, drinks some water.

Ed plows on. He doles out the trademark incredulous half-smile.

Sarnie: “Okay, well thank you, yeah… thanks for that Ed.”

But was Sarnie actually listening.

Cue a video. We need the “right kind of jobs” says someone called Mawaan.

Those kind of jobs sound good.

“What would you do about youth unemployment?” Asks the evening’s backseat MC, Jamal Edwards (founder of SBTV, the music video channel).

Ed: “We would tax the bonuses of the bankers and we’d use the resources to guarantee every young person who's been unemployed for more than 12 months a job… It’s a very specific transfer.”

Jamal: “And it’s actually possible, 100 per cent?”

No, Ed was l-y-i-n-g.

Here comes Sarnie again.

Sarnie: “You might have seen the pictures on the social media… The debate on MP salaries, the chamber was packed, the debate on the public sector, there were only a few people…”

There was a debate on “the public sector”? Sarnie seems to be referring to the largely made-up memes of MPs not participating in debates on like important issues – debunked by Isabel Hardman at the Spectator.

But was Sarnie actually listening.

Some guy called Max weighs in on Ed’s job guarantee: “It sounds like a great sound-bite, but it doesn’t sound particularly workable.”

Ed: “It’s much more than a sound-bite Max…”

Well the good news for Ed is 76 per cent of people are responding well to his ideas on Twitter, Sarnie tells us.

Ed: “I want to stop the privatisation of our National Health Service.”

Can Ed actually name three ways the NHS has been privatised?

One senior Labour minister who knows far more than Ed about how public services work told May2015 the party’s war cries on privatisation are overblown.

We wade on. Ed: “I haven’t taken drugs…” Cue the news stories… (Even if he said this three years ago.)

Ed: “We should always be looking at the ways in which we discourage young people from taking drugs.”

Way to win over the young people here Ed.

Sarnie has a follow-up. “But if THC levels [in marijuana] were lower, it might not have as drastic side effects… is that not an interesting debate?”

Ed: “Look I understand the argument. I do understand the argument.”

But does Ed know what THC is.

Here’s a new question from “Jezza”.

“There was a gentleman on the live stream… who I don’t think likes you very much…” he begins, before bringing up the way New Labour sort-of-privatised-the-way-the-NHS-is-financed-but-ssh-don’t mention-it.

He means whom but grammar is like not important.

Ed: “Well let me answer directly Jezza. We did bring in private finance to build hospitals. I think some of the deals weren’t the best deals, but overall…”

But overall private finance is not the evil privatisation the Tories are doing, Ed is clear on that.

He means “whom” but grammar is like not important.

Private finance “modernised” the NHS, he continues, but the government wants “markets and competition”. Because there are no markets or competition in the NHS…

Time passes.

Ed: “We need to hear the voice of young people more in our democracy…”

One of the young people pipes up. “I think about 80 per cent of 16-24 year olds voted for [Scottish] independence,” he says.

Yeah well sort of basically but actually like half of that.

The next question is on “Mass surveillance… GCHQ … Ed Snowden for me is a hero.”

Ed: “First of all, I think it’s incredibly important there are rights for citizens… We’ve got to improve… On the other hand, we also have a responsibility to make sure our country is kept safe.”

Great answer Ed.

Ed talks some more. “I understand all your concerns…”

Ed’s interrogator isn’t convinced: “They can access all our computers and cameras, our phones – my phone I’ve got encrypted, and there’s been over 20,000 tracking attempts in the last three weeks of my data.”

Who is this guy?

Someone asks a question that doesn’t sound like it’s coming from a teenager and should demand Ed actually say something.

Kenny: “Yeah Ed I wanted to ask… What about ethnic minorities actually becoming MPs? … [And] You talked about engagement, it’s not just about making me know that my vote can make a difference, it’s also showing that people like me can become like you, and be in your seat. What would you do? And would you do shortlists?”

Ed: “We’ve got to do better… [But] Let me tell you what we’re doing… I’m absolutely committed Kenny… But I’ll be honest with you, I’ll be clear with you, we’ve got to do a better job, and if you’ve got ideas about what we should be doing, I’m happy to look at them.”

But will he actually.

“It could be worse”, Ed says.

Some more chit-chat. A new Ed sentence drifts from lazy language to the other word he pronounces like no one else in the room: “There’s big iss-ewes…”

And it’s time to go to the audience. How has Ed done on “the hashtags”? Do you agree with his views tonight? Twitter is 50:50.

“It could be worse”, Ed says.

That’s the spirit.

Finally we’re onto immigration – the only topic not chosen by Ed’s team.

We go to a video by someone called Harry Hitchens. After a few facts he concludes, “As a 19 year old kid, I’ve got my first vote coming up, I think it’s a failure I don’t know more about this.”

Who’s failure? Ed’s? Ours? If only Harry had, like, a computer with some sort of free online encyclopedia or some news websites where he could, like, learn this stuff so his ignorance wouldn’t be a failure. Our failure. Not Harry’s failure.

Ed differentiates between those concerned by immigrant and racists.

Which is good because otherwise most voters are racists.

A Twitter ticker pops up as Ed continues to say things: “+UREdrum23 Immigration: the most important issue?!”

Yes +UREdrum23, immigration is the most important issue. (You can break down the past 5 years of polls – on everything from voting intention to immigration – by age, gender, party ID and region on May2015.)

+PMills and +HighOnSprite also weigh in. Good to have them with us.

Ed is talking again. “You know… I passsssionately believe…”

He talks some more. He wades into tackling crime. Because Ed has loads of experience of gangs and estates and criminal role models and how to challenge them.

Clegg’s here next week, so you can look forward to another round of earnest jokes, passionate beliefs and mythical plans.

Or you can watch David Dimbleby interview Harold Wilson in 1970, or Robin Day interrogate Margaret Thatcher in 1987, or even Russell Brand jabber with Paxman last year, and recall what quality broadcast journalism looks like.


Harry Lambert was the editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.

Photo: Getty
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Boris Johnson is out of control, but Theresa May is too weak to punish him

Her weary “Boris is Boris” remark after his intervention suggests she couldn’t care less.

Only younger Tory MPs asked last weekend: “Why did Boris do it?” Why did he write a 4,000-word essay on his demands for Brexit, just six days before Theresa May would make a definitive speech on the government’s plans? The older ones knew why: he hadn’t been the centre of attention for a while and wanted to remind people of his existence and that he remained in the game. A charitable fringe of pro-Brexit MPs thought he did it because he is a sincere Leaver, motivated by a desire to ensure the democratically expressed will of the British people is discharged. However, theirs was not a view widely shared.

Others thought they could trace the motivation for Johnson’s intervention back to the events of June 2016. “The reputation of Vote Leave at the moment is a pile of shit,” one told me, referring to the campaign whose figurehead Johnson had been. The metaphor became even more pungent: “Going back to the £350m is like a dog returning to his vomit.” The figure, plastered on Vote Leave’s battle bus, was the amount Johnson and his friends claimed would be available post-Brexit to spend weekly on the NHS. It was quickly rubbished, with Nigel Farage’s Leave.EU campaign dismissing it outright. It was a gross, not a net, figure; it included the EU rebate, which ceases to exist when our contributions stop. David Norgrove, head of the UK Statistics Authority, has repudiated the assertion; and there are many other institutions, such as our tertiary education sector, that will lose EU money and expect the government to make it up. That Johnson should mention this fantasy figure in his article has bemused even some of that dwindling band of MPs who still see him as a possible future leader.

Although the piece was in Johnson’s familiar idiom, others detected in it the influence of Vote Leave’s former director, Dominic Cummings. Further evidence came in a bout of aggressive tweeting from Cummings after the pack turned on Johnson. An MP who worked with Vote Leave told me, “Cummings has returned. He is a narcissist. If he can’t get his own way, then he prefers to destroy: that was how he operated all through the campaign.”

Cummings, a former aide to Michael Gove, is like Johnson a publicity addict: both thirst to see their names in the media. He disappeared from view after Gove’s failed leadership bid, when Gove had to promise supporters that Cummings would not work in Downing Street if he won, so toxic was Cummings’s reputation after Vote Leave. Gove was quoted as supporting Johnson’s “vision”, a further sign of Cummings’s involvement. Within 24 hours, Gove’s friends denied that he supported any such thing but then, as Cummings went into action, Gove confirmed his backing for Johnson.

Johnson’s intervention did not grate with everybody. Some Brexiteer Tories, such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, felt that after a party debate dominated by ministers favouring a Brexit that looks like continued membership of the EU by other means – notably Philip Hammond – it was time the Foreign Secretary spoke out for something representing a cleaner break. Some also felt that, given his office, he had a right to have a public say on the matter, after months in which May had done her best to ignore him.

Her weary “Boris is Boris” remark after his intervention suggests she couldn’t care less, and suggestions he might resign are unlikely to concern her unduly. His remarks were not against party policy, but MPs trusted by Downing Street were at pains to stress that his views would have no effect on the content of the Prime Minister’s Brexit speech, for there had “never been any chance of Theresa going off-piste”.

Johnson’s intervention was, however, unhelpful to him and to May. Colleagues saw it as the consequence of his having spent the summer steaming with frustration because he had lost ownership of the Brexit issue. He has also, according to friends, developed a thinner skin of late, and feels wounded by frequent attacks on him in the media pointing out his disengagement, his laziness, his ambition and his generally poor impression of a foreign secretary. For so long the goût du choix of many younger colleagues, he now finds they take him no more seriously than most of his older ones do. He once took for granted that in a leadership contest MPs would choose him as one of the two candidates for a plebiscite of the membership; now few think that likely.

Too many colleagues have taken the Telegraph article as further proof of his inability to be a team player, and of his unfitness for higher office – which was why Gove dropped him last year. Referring to Johnson’s time as mayor of London, a colleague says: “He was a good chairman, when he had seven or eight deputy mayors. But he can’t do what a minister is supposed to do, which is to grasp a policy and deliver it.” Another highlights his skewed sense of priorities and the lack of a deft political touch. “Isn’t it astonishing that just as he should be sorting out all consular and diplomatic help for our people in the West Indies after the hurricane, he finds time to write a 4,000-word newspaper article? As usual, it’s not about what’s good for the country. It’s what he thinks is good for him.”

Yet, as Ken Clarke swiftly pointed out, Boris Johnson has shown that however much he annoys May, she is too damaged and vulnerable to sack him. When Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, started mocking him as a “back-seat driver”, May was seen to be presiding over a cabinet whose most senior members were squabbling. Johnson’s self-indulgence also meant that the expectation surrounding May’s Florence speech, already considerable as she struggled to rebuild her credibility and that of her Brexit policy, became even harder to satisfy. 

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left