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In this week's New Statesman | Sunni vs Shia

A first look at this week's magazine.

Who are Isis?

Iraq special report by John Bew and Shiraz Maher

Mehdi Hasan: Inviting Tony Blair's views on the Middle East is like asking Bernie Madoff to comment on financial regulation

Gordon Brown: why Britain needs a written constitution

“I won't be joining the Theresa May fan club any time soon”

Alan Johnson, former home secretary, talks to Lucy Fisher about his support for Ed Miliband the “geek” and his dislike of Theresa May

Plus

Lib Dem president Tim Farron: supporting a minority government

The new stateswoman: Douglas Alexander reviews Hillary Clinton's Hard Choices: A Memoir

Jonathan Rugman in Kurdish Erbil: Does Iraq need a three-state solution?

Letter from Baghdad: Hayder Al-Khoei reports from the Iraqi capital

Mark Lawson on J K Rowling and the chamber of pseudonyms

Russell Brand, Jonathan Wilson and Hunter Davies on the World Cup

Margarent Heffernan busts the competition myth: why shared progress is better than winning

 

Cover story: who are Isis?

In a special report on the situation unfolding in Iraq, the NS contributing writer and award-winning historian John Bew and the radicalisation expert Shiraz Maher consider the origins and motivation of Isis, “the west’s new bogeyman”. What does this murderous group want, they ask, and how many British jihadists are fighting for it in Iraq and Syria?

 

Mehdi Hasan on Tony Blair

In his Lines of Dissent column, Mehdi Hasan condemns Tony Blair’s most recent intervention in the debate on the Middle East. Why does the British press continue to give Blair airtime and column inches when he is so discredited, Hasan asks. And why do senior Labour figures still defend the former prime minister?

On 20 January 2009, George W Bush boarded a helicopter and flew out of Washington, DC, never to be heard from again. Well, apart from that unreadable memoir in 2010. And, er, those rather odd self-portraits.

For Britons, however, Tony Blair never really went away. Month after month, year after year, he pops up on television, or appears in the newspapers, to promote an alliance with Putin’s Russia, or to defend Egypt’s military junta, or to push for military action against Iran/Syria/Iraq/fill-in-the-gap. He is the peace envoy who always wants war, the faith foundation boss who doesn’t understand the Islamic faith. Yet Blair, invader of Iraq, occupier of Afghanistan, defender of Israel’s 2006 blitz on Lebanon, is regularly and inexplicably invited by the British press to comment on all matters Middle Eastern. Why not ask Bernie Madoff to comment on financial regulation?

 

 

Gordon Brown: Britain needs a written constitution

In an essay for this week’s issue, the former prime minister Gordon Brown argues that the UK is moving inexorably towards federalism and that Britain now needs a written constitution. “Britain cannot be Britain without Scotland,” he writes, “and yet Britain cannot keep Scotland unless Britain itself changes.”

Brown argues that we can no longer ignore “the basic fact that the United Kingdom is no longer and will never again be the all-powerful centralised unitary state of the constitutional textbooks”. The solution, he suggests, is to “codify” the new situation:

. . . whatever the post-Scottish referendum arrangements are, the UK already looks more like a constitutional partnership of equals in what is in essence a voluntary multinational association. At some stage it will make sense to codify the new division of powers and the new power-sharing, tax-sharing, risk-sharing and resource-sharing rules in a written constitution. And when this is done, Britain will move as close to a federal state as is possible in a country where 85 per cent of the population comes from only one of its four constituent parts.

 

 

The Politics Interview: Alan Johnson

In an interview with Lucy Fisher, winner of the inaugural Anthony Howard Award for Young Journalists, the former home secretary Alan Johnson discusses his extreme dislike for Theresa May, his concern about declining social mobility in Britain, the next volume of his memoirs, his 100 per cent support for the “geek” Ed Miliband, and his love of stylish clothes.

Alan Johnson on Theresa May:

Though he hardly reserves high praise for Gove, who has “done nothing yet that suggests he’s turned around British education”, Johnson’s contempt for May is biting. “The major villain here is the Home Secretary,” he says. He derides May for the resignation of her closest adviser, who left in an effort to draw a line under the [Gove-May] row. “Poor Fiona Cunningham taking the hit here . . . I think that’s wrong.”

[. . . ]

There is an enduring sense of decency and honour about the way Johnson has navigated politics. Conversely, as he continues to catalogue May’s perceived errors, it becomes clear that it is her lack of these qualities that he resents. “Abu Qatada,” he says emphatically: “the biggest mistake I’ve ever seen a home secretary make to get someone like him arrested on the wrong day.”

[. . . ]

Her treatment of the police has, furthermore, been a ploy to earn “cheap applause” from “her group of worshippers”. He says: “You need the police force, you need to be able to work with them. You don’t need to be at this constant loggerheads with them, as she is.”

He reiterates: “You have the rows behind closed doors. That’s the sensible thing to do as a senior politician.” He pauses. “So I’m afraid I won’t be joining the Theresa May Fan Club any time soon.”

Johnson on Ed Miliband:

. . . he says he is “100 per cent” behind Ed Miliband . . . He concedes, however, that the Labour leader trails his brother in style and presentation and “maybe is not as able to connect [with people] as strongly as David can. It’s not his strong point.” He continues: “I can’t pretend that, knocking on doors, people come out and they’re really enthusiastic about Ed.”

[. . .]

“With him [Miliband] being classified as a geek – which may turn out to be a very cool thing to do; I’ve seen T-shirts with ‘I’m a geek and proud of it’ – he’s going to have to overcome that. What he mustn’t do is try to pretend he’s something he’s not.”

On loyalty in politics:

Loyalty is important to Johnson. At one point during our conversation, he claims that he could not “betray” the people of his constituency in Hull by standing for London mayor in 2016. Later, he explains why he never bid against Brown for the Labour leadership: “I wasn’t going to stab him in the back. I don’t do treachery.”

On social mobility:

“I think it’s doubtful that anyone can come in like I did.” Even more anxious-making for him is the notion that any disadvantaged young people could be inspired by his tale. “I’m not a role model for kids from any kind of background but certainly not from poorer backgrounds,” he tells me when we meet at his airy office on Parliament Street, Westminster. “It was a different era completely.”

On sartorial correctness:

“. . . this is sound advice that I’ve given my daughters over the years,” he pauses gravely: “never have anything to do with a man who wears cufflinks but not a double cuff.”

 

Tim Farron: supporting a minority government

In an interview with the NS political editor, George Eaton, Tim Farron, the president of the Liberal Democrats, argues that the party should not dismiss the idea of backing a minority government. Contradicting his party leader, Nick Clegg, who has ruled out support for anything short of a full coalition, Farron tells Eaton:

“When you go into negotiations with another party you have to believe – and let the other party believe – that there is a point at which you would walk away and when the outcome could be something less than a coalition, a minority administration of some kind. That is something we all have to consider.”

Farron also expresses sorrow at Matthew Oakeshott’s resignation:

When I begin our conversation by mentioning the fate of Lord Oakeshott, who was forced to resign after attempting to bring Nick Clegg down by leaking unfavourable polling, Farron offers a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger response. “I really like Matthew Oakeshott. I might be one of the very few people who still does. It was just unbelievably crass and foolish,” he says. “I hope there can be some way back for him.”

 

Douglas Alexander on Hillary Clinton's new memoir

The shadow foreign secretary, Douglas Alexander, delivers his verdict on Hillary Clinton’s new memoir, Hard Choices, in the Critics section this week. Alexander finds the book “characteristically disciplined and organised”, but expresses surprise that it is interested in the “nuance of governance rather than the primary colours of politics” – especially given that the memoir is “widely seen as a prelude to a possible 2016 run for the White House”. Alexander is particularly interested in Clinton’s account of the “pivot to Asia”:

This “Asia awareness” is unsurprising. In the Senate she had called the rise of China “one of the most consequential strategic developments of our time” and was an early advocate of a “careful and disciplined” response to the relationship.

Yet even after finishing the book I am left wondering whether the pivot to Asia that Hillary oversaw, with a new emphasis on regional security alliances, will prove sufficient to acknowledge the global rebalancing of power and wealth now under way. Her successor, John Kerry, chose Europe and the Middle East – a much more conventional destination – for his first overseas visit, and the Middle East continues to absorb US time, energy and bandwidth.

 

Russell Brand's World Cup: I can't give up on England

In a column for this week’s New Statesman, the comedian and former NS guest editor Russell Brand explains why he’s rooting for England in the Brazil 2014 World Cup against his better judgement:

Here I am, another World Cup, staying up late, worrying, hoping, like a heroine in a Motown song or Angie Watts, jumping back into the arms of my three-lion lover, murmuring the split-lipped refrain of the abused, “This time they’ve changed.”

If I could’ve told little 11-year-old Russell, bereft in the asphalt wasteland of Little Thurrock Primary School, as he listened to the bewildering lies of Jamie Dawkins (that England would be allowed to proceed in the tournament and that Diego Maradona’s quarter-final handball had been retroactively banned by Fifa; he was the hardest kid in our school: I had no choice but to believe), that in 2014 I’d be once more, like a wincing white-coal fire walker, striding into the agonising known, he’d have been dazzled.

Plus

The Diary: Joy Lo Dico on David Cameron’s date at the Chiltern Firehouse

Peter Wilby on Angelina Jolie’s honorary damehood and the move to fine bad parents

James Medd: how British TV is taking over the world

Exhibition of the Week: “The Human Factor: the Figure in Contemporary Sculpture” at the Hayward Gallery

Love letter to London: Tracey Thorn finds beauty in the capital’s plague pits

Real Meals: Will Self wilfully ignores the “pulled pork” shtick

Michael Brooks on why scientists are so keen to study the human placenta

Ian Steadman explains why modern terrorists tweet pictures of cats

Natasha Turner believes that students should campaign to close the pay gap in universities

 

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.