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Israel's centre cannot hold

Yair Lapid could end up as camouflage for Netanyahu’s intransigence.

The real winner of Israel’s general election on 22 January was a former TV presenter and newspaper columnist, Yair Lapid, whose party, Yesh Atid (“there is a future”), came from nowhere to grab 19 seats. It now holds the balance of power, should Binyamin Netanyahu wish to remain prime minister. Lauded as a “centrist”, Lapid soon made clear his political inclinations – his party, he said, would not go into a “blocking coalition with the Haneen Zoabis”.

The charismatic and affluent newcomer meant that his party would not enter a coalition with any of Israel’s Arab parties, whose Knesset seats would be needed to make up the numbers for a feasible centre-left bloc. This shorthand, pluralising the name of an outspoken member of the Knesset (profiled in the New Statesman’s “A-Z of Israel” feature, 18 January) to denote all Arab parties, gave away Lapid’s prejudices about Palestinians – who make up 20 per cent of Israel’s population but are treated as second-class citizens.

The revelation was no great surprise. The man whom some commentators cast as a potentially restraining influence on the hard-right Netanyahu has made his opinions about regional politics quite clear. He is for peace negotiations but thinks the Palestinians should give up any hope of securing East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state – though this is one of the core, internationally accepted parameters of a twostate solution.

A few days before the election, Lapid wrote on his Facebook page: “I do not think the Arabs [Palestinians] want peace.” His solution was “to be rid of them and put a tall fence between us and them”.

Israelis, who often mistake novelty for aptitude, seem to like new politicians in the Lapid mould. With an ex-politician father (the late Tommy Lapid) and long career in TV, Lapid pretty much embodies how coastal Israel sees itself: relaxed, secular and reasonable. Moderation, to the point of meaninglessness, is also an appealing point: Aluf Benn, the editor-in-chief of the liberal newspaper Haaretz, wrote of the Yesh Atid leader that he “adapted his messages to voters’ interests. His strategy was to find the path of least resistance.” In other words, his campaign strategy was not to have one.

He did, however, have a catchy slogan – “Where’s the money?” – which tapped in to concerns about spiralling prices, dwindling cheques and a government in thrall to a tycoon elite. Such concerns sprawled on to the streets in 2011 during protests larger than any seen before in Israel.

Yesh Atid, which seeks to represent the battered middle class, doesn’t have a coherent policy on these issues, either – the party has made only vague noises about the importance of education and housing reform, for instance. In fact, on economics, Lapid doesn’t differ much from his soon-to-be coalition leader; both he and Netanyahu are free-market capitalists.

The kingmaker has been offered the position of finance minister, which would fit his supposed socio-economic agenda. Yet the word is that he has been advised not to take it: harsh budget cuts are on the horizon and it would not look good for the “Where’s the money?” man to lead the department responsible for taking away even more of it.

Another scenario is that Lapid, who has no political experience, will take the role of foreign minister. There, he could act as camouflage for Netanyahu’s intransigence, with Israel not budging on settlement expansion, or negotiations, or anything else – but at least not budging with a suave smile on its face.

This article first appeared in the 04 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Intervention Trap

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide