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

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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.