The Houses of Parliament. Photo: Oli Scarff/Getty Images
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My election predictions, a dismal TV audience and Gillian Duffy’s legacy of duff campaigns

I keep being asked for my election predictions, but I hope I'm wrong.

This has been the least engaging election campaign I can remember. You could sense newspaper editors’ collective sigh of relief when a royal baby arrived to take over the front pages as the final week of campaigning began.

No doubt commentators are right to blame the spin doctors who, mindful of Gordon Brown’s encounter with Gillian Duffy in Rochdale in 2010 (in which he called her a “bigoted woman”), insulated the party leaders from unscripted contact with the public. The loss of journalistic scrutiny of party policies in daily press conferences, which were the centrepiece of campaigns until televised leaders’ debates killed them off, removed a further element of unpredictability.

The biggest problem, it seems to me, has been the electoral arithmetic. Most of us can get our heads round a simple two-way contest: Chelsea v Arsenal, England v Australia, Mayweather v Pacquiao, Labour v Conservative. The growing strength of minority parties ruins the dramatic structure. It is as though a Premier League football match had three or four players from lower leagues on the field, all trying to score goals for their own teams, or, while Lady Macbeth urged her husband to “screw your courage to the sticking-place”, the porter and the physician kept interrupting to offer their views.

The politicians haven’t helped. Most voters want to know what sort of government they will get and what it intends to do. Both Labour and the Tories denied us such enlightenment by implausibly insisting they would not make deals with other parties and would stick to their manifestos, nothing more, nothing less. The result has  been a campaign in which politicians have seemed more remote than ever and nobody has the slightest idea what they are voting for.

 

Tough crowd

The only moments of excitement came from the audience members who cross-examined the three main party leaders on BBC1’s Question Time on 30 April. Most commentators acclaimed them as “the real winners” but I thought that their comments were rude, ignorant, self-pitying, self-righteous and generally dreadful. In a democracy, we, the people, are supposed to be the politicians’ employers. No decent employer would talk to even the most junior employee – or to a job applicant – as these supposedly admirable Yorkshire folk addressed Messrs Cameron, Miliband and Clegg. They seemed interested only in grandstanding, probably looking forward to the acclamation of their friends for the mighty achievement of calling somebody a liar. No one asked about rent controls, climate change, Trident or caps on energy price rises. Since Ed Miliband got the roughest ride and the audience seemed obsessed with immigration, the EU and the difficulties of running businesses, I hope to hear no more from the right about “leftist bias” in the BBC’s audience selection.

 

Small business end

The alleged star of the show was Catherine Shuttleworth, who, recalling that Ed Balls described Liam Byrne’s notorious “There’s no money left” note for his successor at the Treasury as a joke, told Miliband that running a small business “is no joke” and, therefore, Balls should be sacked. This was a chain of thought that I struggled to follow. But Shuttleworth, as a small-business owner, is a “wealth creator” and must, therefore, be treated as both wise and virtuous.

As a general rule, I like small businesses and would never dream of buying meat, fish or bread from anything other than a local butcher, fishmonger or baker. But a business isn’t automatically virtuous because it is small. Shuttleworth runs a marketing agency that, according to its website, helps companies with “disrupting shoppers’ journeys”, whatever that means. The clients include Britvic, Shell, KP and Mars, all accused of making and/or selling products that are bad for us. I do not accuse Shuttleworth of doing anything wrong; on the contrary, I admire her for starting this successful business when she had three children under three. But I’m not sure she creates “wealth” exactly and she is certainly not a more valuable member of society than the doctor or teacher who makes people healthier or less ignorant.

 

A coach’s courage

Nobody who follows Leicestershire cricket (unfortunately, there aren’t many of us) will be surprised that the West Indies have revived sufficiently to beat England in a Test match. The team has a new coach, Phil Simmons, who, as a player, helped Leicestershire win the County Championship in 1996 and 1998 (he was unavailable in 1997).

Leicestershire won in 1975 with at least two of the game’s all-time greats: Ray Illingworth, an Ashes-winning England captain, and the Australian fast bowler Graham McKenzie. The winning sides of the 1990s contained nobody you had ever heard of, unless you count Simmons, who played Tests for the West Indies but with little success. He was never officially county captain but no one doubted the influence of his wisdom, enthusiasm and courage – in 1988, his heart stopped when a bouncer hit him on the head – on a team of modest talent. When he was finally, because of injuries, made stand-in captain, the county won six consecutive matches, five of them by enormous margins, to secure the 1998 title.

As Ed Smith wrote in last week’s issue, West Indies cricket is in dire straits. If anybody can revive it, Simmons can.

 

To hazard a guess

I keep being asked for my election predictions, presumably because I correctly predicted in this column the exact result of the Scottish referendum. At the risk of jeopardising my flimsy reputation as a psephological sage, I think (as of mid-afternoon, 4 May) that the Tories will get between 295 and 300 seats and, with Lib Dem support but probably not another coalition, David Cameron will stay in Downing Street. I make this prediction without confidence and in the fervent hope that it is completely wrong. 

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 06 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Power Struggle

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Jeremy Corbyn's Labour conference speech shows how he's grown

The leader's confident address will have impressed even his fiercest foes. 

It is not just Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate that has been improved by his re-election. The Labour leader’s conference speech was, by some distance, the best he has delivered. He spoke with far greater confidence, clarity and energy than previously. From its self-deprecating opening onwards ("Virgin Trains assure me there are 800 empty seats") we saw a leader improved in almost every respect. 

Even Corbyn’s firecest foes will have found less to take issue with than they may have anticipated. He avoided picking a fight on Trident (unlike last year), delivered his most forceful condemnation of anti-Semitism (“an evil”) and, with the exception of the Iraq war, avoided attacks on New Labour’s record. The video which preceded his arrival, and highlighted achievements from the Blair-Brown years, was another olive branch. But deselection, which Corbyn again refused to denounce, will remain a running sore (MPs alleged that Hillsborough campaigner Sheila Coleman, who introduced Corbyn, is seeking to deselect Louise Ellman and backed the rival TUSC last May).

Corbyn is frequently charged with lacking policies. But his lengthy address contained several new ones: the removal of the cap on council borrowing (allowing an extra 60,000 houses to be built), a ban on arms sales to abusive regimes and an arts pupil premium in every primary school.

On policy, Corbyn frequently resembles Ed Miliband in his more radical moments, unrestrained by Ed Balls and other shadow cabinet members. He promised £500bn of infrastructure investment (spread over a decade with £150bn from the private sector), “a real living wage”, the renationalisation of the railways, rent controls and a ban on zero-hours contracts.

Labour’s greatest divisions are not over policy but rules, strategy and culture. Corbyn’s opponents will charge him with doing far too little to appeal to the unconverted - Conservative voters most of all. But he spoke with greater conviction than before of preparing for a general election (acknowledging that Labour faced an arithmetical “mountain”) and successfully delivered the attack lines he has often shunned.

“Even Theresa May gets it, that people want change,” he said. “That’s why she stood on the steps of Downing Street and talked about the inequalities and burning injustices in today’s Britain. She promised a country: ‘that works not for a privileged few but for every one of us’. But even if she manages to talk the talk, she can’t walk the walk. This isn’t a new government, it’s David Cameron’s government repackaged with progressive slogans but with a new harsh right-wing edge, taking the country backwards and dithering before the historic challenges of Brexit.”

After a second landslide victory, Corbyn is, for now, unassailable. Many MPs, having voted no confidence in him, will never serve on the frontbench. But an increasing number, recognising Corbyn’s immovability, speak once again of seeking to “make it work”. For all the ructions of this summer, Corbyn’s speech will have helped to persuade them that they can.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.