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In political debate as in sport, practice doesn't make perfect: it makes for boring

Instead of playing to win, politicians are seeking not to lose.

Faced with the threat of relegation, our political leaders ground out a low-scoring draw in the ITV televised leaders’ debate. They were disciplined and competent (to varying degrees, naturally). There was lots of legwork but little progress.

It was no surprise that both the Labour and the Conservative camps felt quite satisfied afterwards. It’s a revealing disconnect. When insiders believe that an event went well and outsiders feel the opposite, you know there is something structurally wrong with the game.

No one skipped training. No one was drunk. No one collapsed from nerves. No own-goals, no red cards. Lots of defenders behind the ball. Make the other side take the risks if they want to get the win. But let’s be honest: no one came to win. They sought not to lose. The weight of planning was rarely offset by instinct. There was much technique on view – too much. A technique totally mastered is one that disappears. “Technique is freedom,” reflected the ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky. The leaders on the podium did not look at all free.

An uninspiring sports coach would call it a set of “good professional performances”. And that is why I switched off my television in low spirits, another notch more disengaged. I didn’t learn a thing. Did you?

To assess the event as a set of performances is not to endorse superficiality. Nigel Farage’s abysmal pinstriped suit, which deserved a pre-warning like those news reports that contain flash photography, is not the point. Ed Miliband, unfairly ridiculed by the conservative press, was always likely to exceed expectations. But he struggled to articulate what the Labour Party is for when it can’t turn on the taps of public spending. Nick Clegg, just as in 2010, looked the most at ease. On the deficit, however, he came close to saying that he was keeping all his options open until convenience and circumstance direct his hand.

David Cameron, in his “debt and more taxes” moment, came closest to articulating a clear dividing line between him and the other leaders. Even those who disagree must accept that Cameron said what he believes. Yet the flatness of the debate left the strongest impression.

There is a misunderstanding, across many fields, about the nature of performance and how it can be trained. Early in my cricket
career, well-meaning coaches frequently led me to play worse rather than better. Reflecting on what they – and I – did wrong, I see similar symptoms in the leaders’ debate.

Professional coaches often fail to understand that a true performance is not just a rehearsal that is played out in public. It rests on risk and freedom as well as planning and preparation. “I’ve never had much sympathy for conductors who ‘program’ an orchestra at practice and then just ‘run the program’ during the performance,” Christopher Seaman explains in his splendid book, Inside Conducting. “Take a chance and leave some things fluid.”

A letter recently published in the New Statesman moved me very much. The previous week I had described the England cricket team as grimly over-rehearsed and risk-averse. “Just like state schools,” a teacher wrote in response. That is why the best head teacher I encountered loosened the wheels at his school, reducing “professionalism” and compliance, encouraging space for mavericks. By nature, he was fiercely disciplined. By observation, he understood the dangers of too much discipline.

In sport you have to plan and practise. But there is no magic without spontaneity. If players exclusively roll out a series of prearranged plays and “patterns”, there will come a point where there is no point in watching them. We could just watch a digitised simulation of the playbook instead.

A brilliant wit is not funny because he knows exactly where he is going. Quite the opposite. His mastery of language is so great, his mind so quick, that even a mundane conversation offers countless open doors. Someone open to opportunities for humour is a wit. A person inflexibly delivering a learned “funny” story is a bore. The leaders’ debate was depressing primarily because it was so boring.

Did the politicians need to turn up in person? The following memo could have sufficed: “The leaders are going to present their key messages, clearly but predictably, often rotating their neck muscles effectively as they swivel, mid-speech, having first addressed the questioner, before looking straight at the camera. Trust us: they are going to be competent. We’ve prepped them completely. Yours sincerely, the message/spin teams.” And the professional politicos would have been right. Yet as our certainty about the professionalism of the “message experts” grows, our faith in the politicians diminishes in equal measure.

The media must take some blame for the defensive stalemate. The obsession with “gotcha” gaffes reinforces risk aversion. The familiar complaints – What a stupid mistake! Give us human beings! – are two sides of the same coin. But that does not entirely explain a generation of over-coached politicians. I am usually sceptical about the idea of attaching adjectives to the “electorate”, as though it were one person with an identifiable mood. But this time, like a fish washed up on a beach, the electorate is gasping for authenticity. And that drives the desire to give mainstream politics a bloody nose.

There is one gravely worrying consequence of the retreat by the political class into professionally coached condescension. When voters are deprived of natural, authentic political voices they are vulnerable to the shallow attractions of people whose authenticity, however unpleasant, is their only drawing card. The great risk of collectively playing for a draw is a resounding defeat for mainstream politics. l

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Anniversary Issue 2015

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“We can’t do this again”: Labour conference reactions to Jeremy Corbyn’s second victory

Overjoyed members, determined allies and concerned MPs are divided on how to unite.

“I tell you what, I want to know who those 193,229 people are.” This was the reaction of one Labour member a few rows from the front of the stage, following the announcement of Jeremy Corbyn’s victory at the Labour party conference. She was referring to support received by his defeated contender, Owen Smith, who won 38.2 per cent of the vote (to Corbyn’s 61.8 per cent).

But it’s this focus on the leader’s critics – so vehement among many (and there are a lot of them) of his fans – that many politicians, of either side, who were watching his victory speech in the conference hall want to put an end to.

“It’s about unity and bringing us all together – I think that’s what has to come out of this,” says shadow cabinet member and MP for Edmonton Kate Osamor. “It shouldn’t be about the figures, and how many votes, and his percentage, because that will just cause more animosity.”

Osamor, who is supportive of Corbyn’s leadership, is not alone in urging her colleagues who resigned from the shadow cabinet to “remember the door is never shut”.

Shadow minister and member of Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) Jon Ashworth – not a Corbyn loyalist, but focusing on making the shadow cabinet work together – shares the sentiment.

Standing pensively in front of the now-empty stage, he tells me he backs shadow cabinet elections (though not for every post) – a change to party rules that has not yet been decided by the NEC. “[It] would be a good way of bringing people back,” he says. “I’ve been involved in discussions behind the scenes this week and I hope we can get some resolution on the issue.”

He adds: “Jeremy’s won, he has to recognise a number of people didn’t vote for him, so we’ve got to unite.”

The former Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett, another MP on the NEC, is sitting in the audience, looking over some documents. She warns that “it’s impossible to tell” whether those who resigned from Corbyn’s shadow cabinet would be willing to return, and is concerned about talent being wasted.

“We have a lot of excellent people in the party; there are new people now in the shadow cabinet who have had a chance to show their mettle but you need experience as well as ability,” she says.

Beckett, who has urged Corbyn to stand down in the past, hopes “everybody’s listening” to his call for unity, but questions how that will be achieved.

“How much bad blood there is among people who were told that there was plotting [against Corbyn], it’s impossible to tell, but obviously that doesn’t make for a very good atmosphere,” she says. “But Jeremy says we’ll wipe the slate clean, so let’s hope everybody will wipe the slate clean.”

It doesn’t look that way yet. Socialist veteran Dennis Skinner is prowling around the party conference space outside the hall, barking with glee about Corbyn’s defeated foes. “He’s trebled the membership,” he cries. “A figure that Blair, Brown and Prescott could only dream about. On average there’s more than a thousand of them [new members] in every constituency. Right-wing members of the parliamentary Labour party need to get on board!”

A call that may go unheeded, with fervent Corbyn allies and critics alike already straying from the unity message. The shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon is reminding the PLP that, “Jeremy’s won by a bigger margin this time”, and telling journalists after the speech that he is “relaxed” about how the shadow cabinet is recruited (not a rallying cry for shadow cabinet elections).

“If Jeremy wants to hold out an olive branch to the PLP, work with MPs more closely, he has to look very seriously at that [shadow cabinet elections]; it’s gone to the NEC but no decision has been made,” says Louise Ellman, the Liverpool MP and transport committee chair who has been critical of Corbyn’s leadership. “That might not be the only way. I think he has to find a way of working with MPs, because we’re all elected by millions of people – the general public – and he seems to dismiss that.”

“If he sees it [his victory] as an endorsement of how he’s been operating up until now, the problems which led to the election being called will remain,” Ellman warns. “If we’re going to be a credible party of government, we’ve got to reach out to the general electorate. He didn’t say anything about that in his speech, but I hope that perhaps now he might feel more confident to be able to change direction.”

Corbyn may have called for cooperation, but his increased mandate (up from his last stonking victory with 59.5 per cent of the vote) is the starkest illustration yet of the gulf between his popularity in Parliament and among members.

The fact that one attempt at a ceasefire in the party’s civil war – by allowing MPs to vote for some shadow cabinet posts – is in contention suggests this gulf is in danger of increasing.

And then where could the party be this time next year? As Osamor warns: “We should not be looking at our differences, because when we do that, we end up thinking it’s a good thing to spend our summer having another contest. And we can’t. We can’t do this again.”

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.