The new Fantastic Four looks rubbish. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

4 things we learned from the Scottish TV debates

Nicola Sturgeon isn't half as impressive when someone gets up in her grill, and Labour must thank their lucky stars that Ruth Davidson isn't moving south any time soon.

Nicola Sturgeon benefits from condescension

"You can have your opinions, but you can't have your own facts," Jim Murphy told Nicola Sturgeon, "You might get away with it in England but you won't get away wit it here." The First Minister was still a dominant figure but she was some way distant from the imperious figure she cut in the UK-wide debates. What happened? There, she was effectively left unmarked by Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband, despite the threat she poses to both their parties. Here, she faced an audience and a group of political opponents who were willing to get in her face and really challenge the SNP's record, leaving her a much-diminished presence. Challenged on her record she cut a cantankerous and at times marginal figure. Team Miliband should take note ahead of their second clash with Sturgeon on April 16. 

The Liberal Democrats need a new tune

The Liberal Democrats haven't done too badly, you know. Stronger action against female genital mutilation than any other government. The 0.7 per cent aid target enshrined in law. And they've done more to remove the stigma around mental health than any other party. Yes, there have been disappointments and the Janus act over tuition fees has, rightly, cost the party a great deal. But they have a more positive message, surely, that "look at this shower". A miserable "plague on both your houses" message did nothing for Nick Clegg last week and did even less for Willie Rennie tonight. Time for the party to start shouting about its values and achievements, not merely attacking the other parties. 

Labour will thank their lucky stars that Ruth Davidson is unlikely to cross the border anytime soon

Ruth Davidson lists kickboxing as one of her hobbies but, on this evidence, it should really be listed as a key skill. It's all too easy for the third party to end up squeezed in these affairs but she was more than a match for Jim Murphy or Nicola Sturgeon. More importantly, she seemed to have a hunger for the fight that, as Ian Leslie noted, appears to have abandoned David Cameron. She has the advantage, too, that she doesn't sound posh; when she talks about people who struggle, it sounds like something she's lived, not something a focus group spat out. "The best leader Scottish Labour will never have," was the quip of one Labour strategist during the referendum. Labour will hope she remains the best leader that the Conservatives will never have at a UK-wide election, too.

The Union's not done yet

45 per cent. A narrow loss in an independence referendum, a narrow majority under the Holyrood election system, a crushing defeat under the Alternative Vote,  and a landslide at Westminster. But not a majority, and there was a reminder of that tonight when Nicola Sturgeon was booed for not ruling out another referendum for the forseeable future. The SNP's monopoly on the forces of independence looks unlikely to be challenged at Westminister - although at Holyrood the Greens will have a thing or two to say about that - but there's no evidence yet that there is any real movement towards the SNP's preferred solution. Scottish politics, which feels so vital at present, could in fact be headed for a period of prolonged stasis, with the Nationalists unassailable at Westminster and Holyrood, but continually frustrated on the question that provides them with a raison d'etre.  

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses