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Labour has a path to power - but only if it stands up to the Tories on Brexit

A victory for Theresa May will be a mandate for the most right wing, nationalist and authoritarian government programme in recent times. Labour can beat it.

Is it because the date of the election could derail a potential criminal investigation into Tory election spending in 2015? Is it because they anticipated a Labour leadership succession? Is it because of looming government split? Really, none of that now matters. Theresa May has pulled the trigger, calling a general election timed to hit Labour at its weakest, and, more importantly, before the tangible effects of the Tories’ Brexit plan hit people’s lives.

Despair is the easiest emotion for Labour supporters - lagging by 18 points, we are in a worse polling position than at the same time in 1983. But despair is also pointless and boring – and with politics more volatile than it has been in living memory, the left must grit its teeth and relish the fight ahead. Election upsets are a defining feature of our political era, and like it or not we are now presented with the task of taking transformative social and economic policies onto the doorstep. A month ago, leftwinger Jean-Luc Melenchon was on 11 per cent in the polls. In a few weeks he could be the President of France.

Labour has a path to power – but, like successful electoral insurgents all over the western world, it must be clear about the issues that are at stake and hit its enemies hard. In France, Melenchon’s campaign has produced a video game (“Fiscal Kombat”) in which he literally attacks bankers in the streets and shakes them down for cash. Labour will always lean towards a strategy that clings to respectability and cautiousness. Jeremy Corbyn must banish it, and set out a narrative that attacks not just “this Tory government”, but the political and economic elites as a whole. Free school meals and a £10 minimum wage were a good start; now we need to see the flip side of the “kinder politics”.

By far the biggest temptation that Corbyn will face is to attempt to make this election about anything other than Brexit. With Labour’s base divided at the referendum, and his closest allies and internal support base still divided on questions like Article 50 and free movement, the natural instinct for the Labour leader will be to take a series of defensive stances on immigration and Brexit, and move the conversation on to something else. This tactic worked well in a Labour leadership election, where the electorate is much more concerned with, say, rail nationalisation, and keen to digest a large number of policy areas.

At the 2017 general election, it will be suicide. With the Tories pursuing their “52 per cent strategy” and the Liberal Democrats standing on an unapologetic platform to represent the 48 per cent, Labour would be gambling hard on its ability to change the subject with no backing in the mainstream press to do so. That won’t work, because everything in British politics and society – including economic credibility, and any conception of fairness and social justice – is bound up with Brexit. To win, Labour must absolutely work beyond the divisions of the referendum. But if anything that will require talking about Brexit more, not less.

The Brexit plan for which Theresa May is seeking a mandate promises a future of regression and social decay. It aims to deregulate Britain, in a race to the bottom which will abolish workers’ rights and environmental protections, and open up further avenues for privatisation. It will divide people by nation and race – laying blame on immigrants, breaking up communities and setting the clock back. May will almost certainly enter this election pledging to abolish the Human Rights Act, even to withdraw Britain from the European Convention on Human Rights. Labour can present a bold vision of a modern and open society with higher wages, decent housing and civil rights inside the European single market.

The Great Repeal Bill is an attempt to hand the executive powers to change the law – to legislate by decree – that in almost any other western society would be unconstitutional. It is part of a wider power grab by the political elite, giving themselves and a range of corporate interests more and more power over the state. Labour can be the guarantors of British democracy, introducing a wave of democratic reforms such as a written constitution, more powers to local government, proportional representation, and measures to limit the revolving doors and the role of big business in the functioning of government.

A decisive victory for May at this election will be a mandate for the most right wing, nationalist and authoritarian government programme in recent times. Labour can beat it, but to do so it must replace wonky, mealy-mouthed Brexit policy with a clear commitment to membership of the single market and to maintaining and extending the progressive aspects of EU membership. It must replace equivocation on immigration with a principled defence of free movement and a sharp alternative narrative about who to blame. And, above all, it must stop trying to change the subject. 

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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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