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Shown the red card

Observations on Russia

When Vladimir Putin became Russian president in 2000, the influence of his birthplace of St Petersburg grew rapidly, as a series of officials moved to Moscow to join him in the Kremlin. And as this clique has consolidated its power base, the fortunes of Zenit, the city's football team, have risen accordingly, culminating in the side's sparkling performance against Manchester United in the Uefa Super Cup final.

Zenit's path to glory began when the Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich sold his shares in the oil company Sibneft to state-run energy giant Gazprom in 2005. The gas monopoly then ended Sibneft's sponsorship deal with the Moscow club CSKA, and took a controlling stake in Zenit. Gazprom's chairman was a St Petersburg native who had "supported Zenit since childhood" - the Russian president-to-be Dmitry Medvedev.

Gazprom, which aims to become the world's largest corporation by 2017, has been called a "a state within a state", and its massive political and economic resources have transformed Zenit from provincial outsiders into a top European club in under three years.

Zenit's success - a Russian title, the Uefa Cup, and now the Super Cup in the space of ten months - has not been universally popular at home. On 25 August, Zenit broke the Russian transfer record, paying the equivalent of £24.4m for the midfielder Danny Alves of Dynamo Moscow. A group of Dynamo fans then called on the Audit Chamber to investigate "on what grounds Zenit can permit themselves to spend astronomical sums from the Gazprom budget, in effect the state budget".

To answer this, it is necessary to look back to 2004 to Russia's 7-1 defeat by Portugal during a European Championship qualifier in Lisbon. The result reportedly sent the then-president Valdimir Putin into a rage, the scoreline mocking his earlier promise that Russia would "soon catch up with Portugal" (in terms of GDP). Putin, as a former KGB man, shared the Soviet leaders' view that sport was vital for the image of the country, and the defeat at the hands of the Portuguese surpassed mere sporting humiliation. Putin began to look for ways to revive Russian football, and Zenit was selected - in a snub to the independent-minded mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov - as the side to be the country's torchbearer in the prestigious Uefa Cup and the Champions League.

The Russian leadership treated the beautiful game just like any other sphere of business in need of an urgent overhaul. Foreign specialists - read, the experienced Dutch coaches Guus Hiddink and Dick Advocaat - were hired to shake things up. While Hiddink was given a free hand to carry out a much-needed reform of the country's antiquated football infrastructure, in St Petersburg Advocaat was handed a blank cheque to buy players.

However, as Advocaat freely admits, despite the huge salaries on offer, it has not been easy to persuade global stars to make the move to Russia. The country, he said, "still has an image problem". Indeed, despite a huge fan base and a new generation of talented domestic players, the current talk of a resumption of Cold War hostilities looks likely to make his job, and the Kremlin's self-assigned task, that much harder.

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