The 2010 fees protests. Photo: Carl Court/Getty Images
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The credulity of Straw and Rifkind, Syriza’s losing hand and Labour’s muddle over fees

Plus, why Wolf Hall should have character stats flash up - so you can remember who destroyed the most monastaries.

What is most extraordinary about the behaviour of Jack Straw and Malcolm Rifkind, former foreign secretaries who were trapped by undercover journalists into offering their expertise to a fictitious Chinese company for £5,000 a day or more, is that they were so easily bamboozled. It is not, after all, the first time that MPs have been taken in by such approaches. Did it not occur to them to do a little research? To check the identity and track record of those supposedly running the company? To check the credentials of the go-betweens?

Both Straw and Rifkind believe that MPs aren’t paid enough (in terms of either salary or post-retirement pension) and that this excuses their anxiety to acquire “consultancies”. Straw, it is reported, says: “There is [a] really serious issue these days of making politics sufficiently attractive for the brightest and best.” On the evidence of his and Rifkind’s credulity, he clearly has a point.

 

Arguments of a straw man

I have known Straw for 46 years, since he was elected – supposedly as a left-wing firebrand – to the presidency of the National Union of Students. I immediately liked and respected him and, although we have had little contact in recent years, I still do.

However, he always had a weakness for making deals. I recall arriving at his flat late one night when he was the NUS president to find him in a state of high excitement, bashing away on a typewriter. He was putting down on paper, he said, a formula for ending the dispute over universities’ “secret files” on their students – some of them identifying potentially troublesome political leanings – which had led to campus sit-ins across the country. Soundings had led him to believe that he could make a deal with
the vice-chancellors.

The evident buzz he got from this prospect far exceeded, in my observation, any buzz he got from leading his followers into battle. Barbara Castle later appointed him as her adviser for his “guile and low cunning”, a description of which Straw was so proud that he showcased it below a chapter heading in his memoirs. Sadly, the deal he eagerly offered the fictitious Chinese suitors and the guile with which he proposed to serve them bring to an ignominious end his political career.

 

Dealer takes all

In an imperfect world, however, guile and deal-making are useful talents for politicians of any description. Syriza’s leaders, I fear, lack them. The new Greek government went into negotiations with its European partners holding a nuclear option: it could ditch the euro, return to the drachma and, in effect, default on its debts. True, that course would inflict damage on Greece and on Syriza particularly, since it told voters that it wouldn’t leave the eurozone.

But a nuclear option always entails potential damage to those who threaten to unleash it. Grexit would blow apart the idea that the eurozone is for ever, suggest that the EU (facing a possible Brexit as well) is crumbling from the edges, confront Germany with the prospect of losing its markets in southern Europe and perhaps deliver new allies and business partners to the Russians and Chinese. Were EU leaders more willing to run those risks than Greece was to run the risks to its own future?

Syriza, it seems, never tried to find out. International diplomacy is like a game of poker in which contestants have to judge whether their opponents really do have an ace in their hands or are just bluffing. The Greeks chose to play without an ace. Syriza’s anti-austerity ideas look like common sense even to many economists. But because the new leaders lack experience of the eyeball-to-eyeball confrontations of top-level diplomacy, it isn’t surprising that they were bested when it came to deal-making.

 

Fee on thee, wretch

It will take mighty feats of deal-making to sort out Labour’s mess over student fees. The party proposes to reduce the cap on them from £9,000 to £6,000 a year – but its leaders can’t agree on where it will find the money to compensate universities for the lost income.

It is painfully ironic that two parties that purport to care about the less privileged (the Liberal Democrats as well as Labour) have managed to make such trouble for themselves on this issue. As long as it is a service distributed uniquely according to “merit” – rather than being available on the basis of need, as most welfare services are, or a universal right of access, as schools and public libraries are – university education will disproportionately benefit the children of affluent parents who have the wherewithal to ensure that the necessary credentials are acquired.

Fees have not deterred students from poor homes but, by allowing the continued expansion of higher education, have enabled more of them to participate. If a party wishes to benefit the underprivileged on a bigger scale, it should force universities to discriminate in their favour.

 

Mantel’s match stats

By the time you read this, you will have seen Anne Boleyn lose her head – assuming you have been watching the BBC’s production of Wolf Hall. But if my own circle of acquaintances is any guide, you probably gave up midway through the series because you couldn’t follow who was who and what was going on.

One difficulty was the frequency of unexplained flashbacks; another was the high number of characters called Thomas, Henry or Mary. Though I have read Hilary Mantel’s two novels, I needed the who’s who that they helpfully include in order to follow the TV production. Perhaps the BBC should have assisted further by flashing explanatory titbits on the screen as sports programmes do during live matches: “Thomas Cromwell, king’s chief minister, 260 monasteries, 142 nunneries, 183 friaries dissolved since 1536.” Or: “Henry VIII, Church of England manager since 1534, six marriages in premiership reign.”

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 27 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Russia vs the west

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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

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