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One cheer for democracy, why I’m sceptical about Brexit’s hate crimes – and chaos at the pub

Peter Wilby on bewildering political change and why he doubt Theresa May would call for a general election.

Democracy is all very well but, to adapt the title of Ken Livingstone’s memoirs, when voting threatens to change anything, they stop you doing it. So it was with Labour in 2007 when Gordon Brown succeeded Tony Blair as party leader and PM without a vote of party members. Now the Tories have pulled off the same trick with Theresa May. Labour MPs had hoped to do something similar, persuading Jeremy Corbyn to resign or disqualifying him and then putting forward a “unity candidate” for a Brown-style acclamation.

Internal party democracy has produced mixed results for both leading parties. Lab­our’s not very democratic electoral college, which gave more weight to MPs’ and unions’ votes, produced the “right” result – the one favoured by the Westminster hierarchy – in the first four contested leadership elections. It only narrowly failed to do so in the fifth, when Ed Miliband beat his brother. The introduction of “one member, one vote” produced Corbyn, emphatically the “wrong” result. The Tories’ adoption of a similar principle has produced one “right” result in a contested election (David Cameron), one “wrong” result (Iain Duncan Smith) and two uncontested elections, in the first of which IDS, chosen by the members just two years earlier, was unceremoniously dumped in favour of Michael Howard.

E M Forster gave “two cheers for democracy”, adding “there’s no occasion to give three”. After the EU referendum, which also produced the “wrong” result, most MPs would give one cheer, and that grudgingly.

Election aversion

As I write, May is set to become prime minister. We live in such bewildering times that, by the time you read this she, too, may have stood aside. Or perhaps she will have taken office but announced an autumn general election. Given the trouble that voting causes, I doubt she will risk it. Constitutional precedent imposes no requirement to do so and it would be perverse of her, having been allowed an uncontested victory for the sake of stability and continuity, to inflict several more months of uncertainty on the country.

Would Labour truly want an election, given that it seems woefully unprepared to fight one? Assuming the Tories will not propose a vote of no confidence in themselves (though stranger things have happened, most of them in the past three weeks), May would need to persuade two-thirds of the House of Commons to support a dissolution. As Labour has 35 per cent of seats, it would be in a position to frustrate her. Declining the chance to overthrow a tax-cutting, right-wing government would not be a problem for most lefties. We are accustomed to being told that the objective conditions for revolution are not in place.

Hate hyperbole

Much as I deplored the tone of the Brexit campaign, I am sceptical about the claim that it unleashed an epidemic of hate crime. Almost daily, the media report instances of foreigners and ethnic minorities being abused in the streets or on public transport, of tearful children asking if they are about to be deported, and of slogans being daubed on mosques and community centres. The police say 3,076 incidents were recorded across the country in the last two weeks of June, compared with 915 over the same period last year.

Although I sympathise with the victims, I suspect we are seeing another example of this column’s old friend, Alsatian dog syndrome. When one dog savages a child, dogs throughout Britain, it seems, start savaging children. That is because journalists, police and members of the public report incidents that normally go unremarked and unnoticed. The spike is in media coverage, not canine savagery.

Dogs, fortunately, do not read newspapers or go on social media. Many racists do. By eagerly reporting alleged hate crime, and arguing that the referendum has legitimised such behaviour, the media legitimise it further and encourage imitators.

Cut the passion

A committee of MPs wants to stop the appointment of Amanda Spielman, currently the chair of Ofqual (which regulates exams), as the new chief inspector of schools because she lacks “passion”. But Nicky Morgan, as education secretary, doesn’t want passion. The outgoing chief inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw, a devout Roman Catholic, was passionate to a fault – he once told me he had “an evangelical zeal to do Christ’s work on earth” – and caused Michael Gove, who appointed him, nothing but trouble. Though his traditionalist views about education were similar to Gove’s, Wilshaw didn’t share the Tories’ ideological beliefs about the superiority of non-state providers. He was as tough on Gove’s academies and free schools as he was on local authority schools, and he ditched the private firms that carried out most inspections, preferring to employ in-house inspectors.

In 2014 Gove tried to manoeuvre Wil­shaw out of his job. Wilshaw saw him off. Instead, it was Gove who lost his job that summer. Morgan, taking no chances, prefers an accountant with no teaching experience who has spent most of her working career in corporate bureaucracies.

Down and out

The scene: our local pub at closing time. A man who has been swaying precariously at the bar for more than an hour makes for the door, collides with a stool, falls to the floor, and then lies prone. Someone makes an urgent call on a mobile phone. I assume a taxi is being called and that, in time-honoured fashion, the comatose one will be bundled into the back of it. I have witnessed this procedure dozens of times on licensed premises and sometimes – dare I say it? – in newspaper offices.

Not on this occasion. Within minutes, two emergency vehicles arrive, sirens wailing, blue lights flashing. Four paramedics are in attendance. “Now,” I say to my wife, “I have seen everything. And I understand why the NHS is close to collapse.

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 14 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit PM

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The NS Podcast #226: Fiction and Fees

The New Statesman podcast.

Helen and Stephen discuss the row over student fees and what it means for Corbyn's electoral prospects. They also recommend their top TV shows to catch up on this summer. Plus, a selection of our magazine writers pick their favourite political fiction.

 

Quotes of the week:

 

Stephen on the West Wing: "It's ultimately not the West Wing's fault that people took a brilliant, high-class soap opera and decided it was a manual for how to revive the centre left in Britain."

 

Helen on tuition fees: "Where I think this issue is important is the clue it gives to what the Tory attack on Jeremy Corbyn for the first half of this parliament is going to be, which is an attack on his integrity."

 

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