Charles Kennedy: the ideal Lib Dem leader. Photo: Scott Barbour/Getty Images
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Charles Kennedy’s big what if, Murdoch says goodbye to Brexit, Blatter battered and testing tests

When politicians, the media and royalty are unanimous in their judgement that a man is a bad egg, I feel there’s probably much to be said for him.

In 2005, an NS poll found that a majority of our readers would support the Lib Dems in that year’s general election. The reason was that the party, under Charles Kennedy’s leadership, had been the only one in parliament that opposed the Iraq war. But I never believed that, under Kennedy, who has died at 55, the Lib Dems were a serious left-wing force. Their 2005 manifesto, superficially attractive, was designed to maintain and strengthen the middle-class welfare state. It offered nothing for the less fortunate.

Kennedy was an ideal Lib Dem leader, seeming kinder, more human and less dogmatic than leaders of rival parties. He had little grasp of or interest in policy detail but that enabled his party to continue its historic role of appealing across class and ideological boundaries. Even his problems with alcohol and punctuality, known to the dogs in the Westminster street from the early 2000s, contributed to his mellow, easygoing image. He recognised, more clearly than any of his colleagues, the perils of entering a Tory-led coalition in 2010. What he would have done had he still been leader is one of history’s great unanswered questions. In his genial way, he probably would have muddled through while still keeping his party in good health. For all his faults, he was a more substantial politician than Nick Clegg.

 

Blatter’s business

When politicians, the media and royalty are unanimous in their judgement that a man is a bad egg, I feel there’s probably much to be said for him. So although Sepp Blatter has now resigned, I note that, during his reign as Fifa president, World Cups have been awarded to South Africa, Brazil, Russia and Qatar, disrupting the accustomed pattern of western Europe hosting every other tournament. Meanwhile, African and Asian countries benefit from wider distribution of Fifa’s profits, a contrast both to the English Premier League’s practice of keeping nearly all profits in-house and to the International Cricket Council’s of channelling them to its richest members, England, Australia and India. No doubt the Fifa regime involved a deal of bribery, but that – as we are always told when British firms want to sell arms to the Middle East – is how much of the world does business.

 

Murdoch casts his vote

We already know the result of the EU referendum: Rupert Murdoch, it is reported, has decided that, despite his previous support for Brexit, it would be too risky for Britain to leave. Murdoch infallibly gets on the winning side in any ballot, even if it entails, as it did in the election campaign, backing the Nationalists in his Scottish papers while his English papers warned that a Labour government dependent on their support was unelectable. No doubt Murdoch calculates that the EU is now sufficiently wedded to “efficient markets” and minimal corporate regulation to represent no threat to his business interests. But his main motive always is to ensure that, whoever triumphs, he can claim the credit.

 

Prize-to-let

The Daily Mail is running a competition for readers “to secure your family’s financial future” by winning a buy-to-let house. For those who don’t win, it explains “how to join the buy-to-let boom”. This is the kind of “aspiration” – to become a landlord exacting the maximum possible price from your fellow humans’ need for shelter – that Labour failed to “get” in its election campaign. Labour promised modest rent controls that might have slowed the “buy-to-let boom”. It tried to meet the aspirations of millions of young families to own their homes, or at least to rent them securely at reasonable cost. Which, everybody said, showed it was out of touch.

 

Arthur Miller and aspiration

The word “aspiration” came to mind again as my wife and I watched the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Willy Loman is the archetypal member of what politicians now call the aspirational classes. “In love with fame and fortune and their inevitable descent on his family”, as Miller said of his Uncle Manny, the model for the character, Loman has nothing in his life except selling, polishing his car, aspiring to greatness for his sons, trying to dissuade his wife from darning stockings (a most unaspirational pastime) and philandering with a woman in Boston. We never learn what he sells. In reality, he’s the buyer, not the seller, and he’s bought something worthless: the American dream.

Miller’s play, written in 1948, now seems astonishingly prescient. Until recently, most Americans genuinely believed they were middle-class and upwardly mobile. Now nearly 48 per cent call themselves “working-and lower-class”, up from 35 per cent in 2008. The American dream has turned sour, creating lives, like Loman’s, of futility and frustration. Before Labour leadership candidates try to sell their version of the dream to the British, they should watch Miller’s play.

 

Cricket is too thrilling

Whatever has happened to Test match cricket? In the first of this summer’s Tests, New Zealand scored their first-innings runs at just under four an over. In the second match, they upped the rate in both innings to just under five an over. (In 1996 the West Indies, then regarded as the world’s most exciting team, scored at well under three an over.) Otis Gibson, England’s bowling coach, remarks: “I don’t really know what to make of it all, the way they bat and stuff.”

I sympathise. Cricket will not benefit from boundaries being hit every over any more than football would if goals came every few minutes. Torrents of fours and sixes may work in Twenty20 matches, lasting under three hours. But who can cope with constant thrills for five whole days? Test matches should allow periods for quiet contemplation, dozing off, browsing the newspaper (or a tablet, if you must) and sipping a pint. Those who need perpetual “highs” should try a substance of some kind.

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 04 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The myths of Magna Carta

Photo: Getty
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Could Jeremy Corbyn lose after all?

Saving Labour's numbers are plausible - but they feel unlikely. 

Saving Labour, the anti-Corbyn organisation, has released its analysis of figures showing that, far from the landslide victory for Jeremy Corbyn expected by the bookmakers – and indicated by his dominant showing in constituency nominations and in the only public YouGov poll of the race – they predict a much closer race – one that Smith will edge by 3902 votes.

The numbers are the result of Saving Labour’s analysis of its own mailing list and information about where exactly the £25 supporters and trade union affiliates live and what they do. But are they right?

Well, their estimates for the party membership fit with everything we know thus far.

Saving Labour estimate that Corbyn will defeat Smith among members by 57 to 43 per cent. That’s within the margin of error shown in the only public YouGov poll of the race thus far, which put the two candidates at 56 to 34 per cent, with the remainder undecided.

It also fits the pattern of constituency nominations – yes, Corbyn has taken 84 per cent of those, but when you look at the underlying figures, what you’d expect is a roughly 60-40 vote share. (The excellent Psephography Twitter account, which has also been collating CLP nominations, has produced a similar projection to mine.)  

That brings us to the known unknowns of the Labour leadership race: affiliated trade unionists and the registered supporters who have paid £25 for a one-off vote in the Labour leadership race.

The turnout figures for both are a carbon-copy of last year’s, which feels about right, although who knows, perhaps the sense of it being a foregone conclusion might lead to a turnout drop in the manner of Labour’s second successive landslide in 2001.

To overturn that heavy defeat among members, Smith would need big wins among trade unionists and registered supporters, both of which went for Corbyn by large margins last time.

My immediate response to Saving Labour’s figures – which, you guessed it, show him getting exactly those big wins among those sections – was “how very convenient”. But again, the underlying figures are plausible and fit with what we know: that many of last year’s £3 supporters became full members shortly after Corbyn’s victory, and many of the members most opposed to him left in short order. Look at it this way: if last year’s £3ers were drawn from “Old Labour in exile”, it is possible this year’s £25ers are “New Labour in exile”.

As for the trade union figures, Saving Labour believe they have successfully focused on recruiting trade unionists in fields that Corbyn has set himself against – aerospace, defence and pharmaceuticals. And again, this is perfectly plausible. We know, thanks to a series of polls commissioned by Ian Warren, a former Labour staffer, that support for Corbyn has fallen among members of the affiliated unions.

Plausible, but, not, I think, likely. Why not?

Let’s start with those trade unionists. Yes, we know that most members of affiliated trade unions are not that enamoured of Corbyn. But we also know that most members of affiliated trade unions are not that concerned with the Labour party. That’s partly why more than one of Labour’s trade union general secretaries is striking a far more pro-Corbyn tone in public than in private – because while their Corbynscepticism may be closer to that of the millions of union members who don’t vote in internal elections, they need to retain the support of Corbyn-backing activists who do vote.

It feels more likely than not that the tiny minority of trade unionists who choose to vote will be closer to the politically active members of their own trade unionists, particularly as Saving Labour had a relatively small window to recruit trade unionists.  

As for the £25ers, having rung round local parties, my impression is that, on average, a third of them are members who joined after the freeze date, with the rest unknown. It could be, therefore, that these additional sign-ups are “New Labour in exile”.

But again, it doesn’t feel likely. Although the support base for both Corbyn and his opponents, is, on the whole, able to afford to pay £25 for a vote, my feeling is that regardless of how much you earn, £25 still feels like quite a bit of money. Remember that for most of the window, it was unclear which of Angela Eagle or Owen Smith were going to be the candidate to take on the Labour leader – and neither of them were lighting up enough stages to motivate people to shell out to vote for one or both of them.

So while the numbers are certainly believable – I’ll believe it when it happens.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.