Nightmare drinking pals, Fergie’s good fortune and why Ukip has already peaked

Peter Wilby's "First Thoughts" column.

In the wake of Ukip’s success in the county council elections, I dug out an article I published in early 2005 in my final months as New Statesman editor. Written by three academics, it was headlined “One in five Britons could vote far right”. At the time, this seemed an alarming prediction.

The article’s warnings were based on opinion polls, focus groups and voting in Euro and London elections. It argued that supporters of Ukip and the BNP shared “similar views and fears”. The two parties drew on the same “reservoir” of potential support. The authors reckoned this amounted to about 20 per cent of the electorate and that it had existed at least since Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech in 1968. A wider range of elections, with differing voting systems, had made voters’ preferences more apparent.

You will perhaps be surprised that I still don’t think we should worry. On the contrary, I believe Ukip has probably peaked, having exhausted the “reservoir” of voters who can stomach the far-right world view. It has also benefited from the Liberal Democrats disqualifying themselves as a “protest” party. But as a vehicle for protest votes, its performance is weak by historical standards. In a string of midterm by-elections –Orpington (1962), Sutton and Cheam (1972), Crosby (1981), Eastbourne (1990), Ribble Valley (1991) – the Liberals, Lib Dems or SDP won around half the vote, as did George Galloway in Bradford West last year. Ukip’s best shot so far is 28 per cent in Eastleigh.

Moreover, extremist parties, once they win council seats, are quickly found out by the voters. The BNP has lost all but two of the council seats it won during the last parliament. Voters discover that it’s no use electing politicians who “speak their mind” but lack the diplomatic and persuasive skills to get anything done.

What is the point of putting people on Lincolnshire county council because they want to take us out of Europe and stop immigration? Will they fortify Skegness? At the next election, they will be judged on whether they got the potholes mended.

Pub farrago

One puzzling aspect of Ukip’s rise is that everyone says they’d go for a beer with Nigel Farage. Really? He’d rant about the EU and immigrants the whole time, embarrass you by talking too loudly, say “bottoms up” whenever he started a drink, stop you getting a word in edgeways and attract a swarm of similarly opinionated know-alls. Journalists are averse to bores, if not to alcohol. After a recent press conference, none would join him in the local. Sadly, he took an early flight back to Brussels instead.

Too many Nigels

Still, I might prefer a pint with Farage to one with Nigel Lawson, the born-again Euro - sceptic. Read his Times article, explaining why he wants Britain to leave the EU, and read his Chatham House speech on Europe in 1989 (when he was still chancellor), and you will understand that he’s a Farage with longer words. Lawson once supported the move towards a single European market because he thought it possible to turn Thatcherism into a continent-wide project. Single markets entail harmonisation of regulation and business and savings taxation. That was fine by Lawson if it meant harmonised abolition, or at least minimisation (I generously assume he envisaged restrictions on child labour). He now knows that will never happen. Plans for a financial transactions tax to restrain banking excesses are the last straw.

Lawson, like many Eurosceptics, complains that the EU is undemocratic. But there is nothing democratic about his wish for a Europe where business and finance do as they wish.

Sub standard

Even further down the list of ideal companions for a pint must be the Guardian news sub-editors of the 1980s. Melanie Phillips, appointed news editor, joined them on their evening breaks, as she recalls in her memoirs, serialised in the Daily Mail where she now writes. The breaks “were spent propping up the bar in the pub, beer glass in hand, legs apart, jingling coins in their pockets”. Poor Melanie drank fruit juice and struggled to understand “cryptic half-sentences, in-jokes and cricketing metaphors”.

I’ve often wondered why she, whom I once knew as an intense feminist of conventional left-wing views, suddenly developed such hatred of the Guardian and its liberal values. Now all is understood. Even forgiven.

In the red

I shall watch the fortunes of Sir Alex Ferguson’s successor as Manchester United manager with interest. I’ve never been sure whether his record was attributable to genius or to his simply having more money to spend than anyone else. His success began with the creation of the Premier League and the lucrative deals with satellite and cable broadcasters which ensured that the rich got richer and the poor poorer.

In his first five full seasons in charge at Man United, the team finished 11th, 11th, 13th, sixth and second in the old Football League first division. The first championship came in 1992-93, the Premier League’s inaugural year. Ferguson did have considerable success with modest Scottish clubs, notably Aber - deen, before he took over at United. But I often wonder how he would have fared with a serial underachiever such as my own Leicester City.

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 13 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Eton Mess

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