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

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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