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In this week’s New Statesman | Running out of time

A first look at this week’s magazine.

7 NOVEMBER 2014 ISSUE

“THE ONLY WAY IS DOWN”

JASON COWLEY AND GEORGE EATON ON THE CRISIS IN THE LABOUR PARTY 

Plus

JAMIE MAXWELL MEETS INCOMING SNP LEADER NICOLA STURGEON

SIMON HEFFER: WHY THE FALL OF THE IRON CURTAIN WAS A DISASTER FOR THE RIGHT

THE POLITICS OF DRESS: HELEN LEWIS ON WOMEN, FASHION AND POWER

MEHDI HASAN: IT’S TIME TO STAND UP TO THE IMMIGRATION BIGOTS

MARTIN PLAUT IN BURKINA FASO: THE DIFFICULT LEGACY OF BLAISE COMPAORÉ

HORRIBLE HISTORY: RICHARD J EVANS REVIEWS BORIS JOHNSON’S SLAPDASH LIFE OF WINSTON CHURCHILL

IAN STEADMAN: IS THERE A PLACE FOR PROFIT IN SPACE EXPLORATION?

 

COVER STORY: “THE ONLY WAY IS DOWN”

GEORGE EATON ON THE CRISIS IN THE LABOUR PARTY

With six months to go until the general election, Labour is struggling to convince the country that it has the authority to govern, writes the NS political editor George Eaton. As the party’s poll lead dwindles and Ed Miliband’s personal ratings enter “subterranean territory”, Eaton finds the mood among Labour MPs is dismal:

“Morale has never been lower,” one shadow cabinet minister told me [ . . . ] No MP I have spoken to has argued that the Labour leader’s parlous ratings aren’t a problem or dismissed them as a “Westminster bubble issue”. “We’re all very, very concerned. The reality is that whilst we don’t have a presidential system, people are thinking increasingly about who they want to be the prime minister,” one shadow minister said. He went on to describe a “sobering moment” in which a voter told him: “You’ve been a fantastic MP, but I’m not going to vote for you. Because Ed’s not prime ministerial.”

Some no longer believe Miliband has the will to lead:

One senior MP suggested that Miliband should abandon Westminster, save for Prime Minister’s Questions, and go on a rolling tour of marginal constituencies. “The 200 to 400 voters in key seats who say on the doorstep that he’s the problem, he could win them round by talking to them.” But he doubted whether Miliband had the will to do so. “His confidence has gone. It’s like a light’s gone out,” he lamented.

Meanwhile, strategists cling to the hope that next year’s televised debates will be a turning point for Miliband and the party:

What most agree on is that the televised leaders’ debates, assuming they take place, could be the saving of Miliband. The common argument is that expectations will be so low that he cannot fail to impress. Strategists regard the debates as an opportunity for the Labour leader to speak directly to the country, unmediated by a hostile press devoted to humiliating him at every turn. The format, they believe, will favour his best-rated qualities: decency, empathy and cleverness. As the papers demonise him as the most dangerous man in Britain, the public may warm to the leader who wants to freeze their energy bill and build more affordable homes.

EDITOR’S NOTE

JASON COWLEY: ED MILIBAND’S PROBLEM IS NOT POLICY BUT TONE

Although the NS endorsed Ed Miliband in the 2010 Labour leadership contest, editor Jason Cowley argues that since then Miliband has failed to find an authentic voice to connect with the electorate: “at present, he and Labour seem trapped. His MPs sense it and the polls reflect it”. Cowley believes Miliband’s background has been a handicap in this respect:

Miliband is very much an old-style Hampstead socialist. He doesn’t really understand the lower middle class or material aspiration. He doesn’t understand Essex Man or Woman. Politics for him must seem at times like an extended PPE seminar: elevated talk about political economy and the good society.

[. . .]

Miliband does not have a compelling personal story to tell the electorate, as Thatcher did about her remarkable journey from the grocer’s shop in Grantham and the values that sustained her along the way or Alan Johnson does about his rise from an impoverished childhood in west London. I went to Oxford to study PPE, worked for Gordon Brown, became a cabinet minister and then leader of the party does not quite do it. None of this would matter were Miliband in manner and approach not so much the product of this narrow background.

Most worryingly, Cowley notes, the Labour leader sounds consistently negative about the country he hopes to lead:

Miliband is losing the support of the left (to the SNP, to the Greens) without having formed a broader coalition of a kind that defined the early Blair-Brown years. Most damaging, I think, is that he seldom seems optimistic about the country he wishes to lead. Miliband speaks too often of struggle and failure, of people as victims – and it’s true that life is difficult for many. But a nation also wants to feel good about itself and to know in which direction it is moving.

THE NS PROFILE

NICOLA STURGEON: “I’M A CHILD OF THE THATCHER YEARS”

As the dust settles after the 18 September referendum, the Scottish political journalist Jamie Maxwell meets the incoming SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon, in her Holyrood office. The differences between Sturgeon and her predecessor, Alex Salmond, are immediately apparent; Sturgeon distances herself from Salmond’s proposal to lower corporation tax and describes herself as a social democrat determined to lead Scotland into an era of greater equality.

Sturgeon is scathing of the Labour Party and dismisses Jim Murphy, the MP tipped to replace Johann Lamont, as a threat. She discusses working with the Smith Commission on cross-party talks to agree new powers for the Scottish Parliament, her idea of a Celtic lock on any future UK withdrawal from the EU, and gender equality in politics. Having spoken to both friends and critics of Sturgeon, Maxwell concludes that she now has a “momentum gathering behind her which is powerful enough to change Scottish – and British – politics for ever”.

Sturgeon on her social democratic values:

“I’m a child of the Thatcher years. I came into politics because of my desire for social justice and greater equality. My background, where I grew up, all of that has conditioned my perspective. But I understand that you can’t do anything unless you have an economy that creates the wealth and generates the revenue to fund and pay for [reform]. So, for me, social democracy is understanding that you need a strong, sustainable, balanced economy but for the purpose of creating greater social justice.”

When I press for more detail, Sturgeon says she is a “great believer” in “as collaborative a model of industrial relations as possible” and that she would like to “equalise the minimum wage with the living wage” – a more ambitious position than the SNP’s current pledge to increase the minimum wage in line with the rate of inflation.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that we’ve got to recharge our whole approach to inequality,” Sturgeon says. “At the moment, it’s going in the wrong direction, very
largely because of the Westminster assault on welfare . . . But [tackling inequality] is one of the big preoccupations I’ll take into the job [of first minister] with me.”

On the corporation tax proposal:

Intriguingly, when I raise the SNP’s controversial commitment to lowering corporation tax – something that causes much disquiet on the nationalist left – she refers to the policy in the past tense.

“The point of the corporation tax proposal was to stimulate economic activity. I don’t have power over corporation tax right now. If I did have power over corporation tax, I think there are a number of different things you could do with it . . . But I will set out a policy programme in the fullness of time and it will come from the perspective of what I’ve just described: having a strong economy but one that translates into greater equality.”

On Labour and Jim Murphy:

Of the current Scottish Labour Party, she is, unsurprisingly, scathing: “They have never reconciled themselves to devolution. They have lost their way politically and in terms of where they stand ideologically. They don’t seem to know what their purpose is. They’ve lost any sense of identity,” she says.

When I ask if the SNP is frightened of the former secretary of state for Scotland Jim Murphy, the frontrunner to replace Johann Lamont as the Scottish Labour leader, she laughs: “Not in the slightest. Not at all, actually. On the contrary.”

On the Celtic lock:

“The UK is not a unitary state,” Sturgeon says. “It is a multinational state. It was described during the referendum campaign by the Westminster parties as a family of nations, a partnership of equals.

“Therefore, if the UK was to exit the European Union, which I’m against, then it seems to me fair, right and democratic that that should require not just a vote across the whole of the UK, but a vote in each of the four component parts of the UK. Otherwise, you raise the prospect of Scotland voting to stay in while a UK-wide vote would be to come out . . . That strikes me as fundamentally and profoundly wrong.”

On gender equality in politics:

Sturgeon is a working-class woman in a profession dominated by middle-class men. The actress Elaine C Smith, a friend and prominent independence supporter, says Sturgeon has had to “work harder and be better” than her male colleagues. “The shift needed in Scotland’s political landscape for Scots to accept a woman leader has been massive,” Smith tells me. “It was unthinkable in the 1980s. But it’s great it’s happening now, and that it’s happening with Nicola.”

Sturgeon says: “I’m privileged to be in the position of, hopefully, being the first woman first minister. I hope very much it sends a positive message to women and to girls that, if you work hard enough, if you’re good enough, there are no artificial glass ceilings.”

THE NS ESSAY: SIMON HEFFER

To those on the right, the fall of the Iron Curtain 25 years ago was a moral and ideological victory but, argues Simon Heffer in this week’s essay, they have found some of the consequences dismaying. With the end of the eastern bloc, a humiliated Russia has sought to rebuild its place in the world through autocracy, and there have been “strategic and foreign policy developments that most on the traditional right would never have chosen”:

The decision in Britain to wind down the country’s defence capabilities, even before the cuts enforced by the present coalition, was informed by the notion that Russia was no longer a threat. After the events of the past 12 months in Ukraine and with mounting evidence of destabilisation in the former Baltic states because of the alleged mistreatment of ethnic Russians, that may no longer be the case. And the US, which since 1945 has increasingly seemed a country seeking an enemy in order to define itself, appeared temporarily destabilised after 1991, as if part of its raison d’être had been removed. After disastrous foreign wars it now seems reluctant to engage at all with Europe and came half-heartedly and late into the Ukraine imbroglio. The fall of the Wall began a long process of detachment by the US from Europe, helped on by other factors of its own making, leaving its former enthusiasts on the right without the paternal guidance so many of them had come to rely on.

MEHDI HASAN: TIME TO STAND UP TO THE IMMIGRATION BIGOTS

In his Lines of Dissent column this week, Mehdi Hasan argues that “to pretend racism doesn’t play a role in generating hostility towards, and anxiety over, immigration is naive, if not disingenuous”. Hasan is concerned that those in power seem to have little appetite for tackling bigotry, however:

. . .  politicians and pundits continue to hold their tongues. Take Ukip, a political party whose leader publicly worries about Romanians moving in next door and brags about taking “a third” of the BNP’s voters; which allies with a far-right Hitler admirer from Poland in the European Parliament. But don’t call them racist. The truth is, as the former Tory MP Matthew Parris has admitted, that “it need not be racist to talk about immigration but many who do are”. Or as another former Tory MP, the late Eric Forth, once put it, much more bluntly: “There are millions of people in this country who are white, Anglo-Saxon and bigoted and they need to be represented.”

Perhaps. I just wish our two main parties weren’t competing with one another to do so. It’s time to stand up to the bigots, not excuse, indulge or woo them.

BOOKS: RICHARD J EVANS ON BORIS’S HORRIBLE HISTORY

The historian Richard J Evans finds Boris Johnson’s The Churchill Factor characteristically bombastic, and believes its condescending tone will only alienate the younger generation Johnson had hoped to introduce to Churchill’s story:

There are some truly cringe-making metaphors and wordplay in the book. Churchill, we learn, was “mustard keen on gas” as a weapon in the First World War. He was “the large protruding nail on which destiny snagged her coat”. Young Tories “think of him as the people of Parma think of the formaggio Parmigiano. He is their biggest cheese”. And Chamberlain’s “refusal to stand up to Hitler” was “spaghetti-like” (clearly Boris is rather fond of Italian food).

The book reads as if it was dictated, not written. All the way through we hear Boris’s voice; it’s like being cornered in the Drones Club and harangued for hours by Bertie Wooster. The gung-ho style inhibits thought instead of stimulating it. There’s huge condescension here. The Churchill Factor advertises itself as an attempt to educate “young people” who think that Churchill is a bulldog in a television advertisement rather than Britain’s greatest statesman but talking down to them is no way to achieve this aim.

Plus

David Aaronovitch on the tough truth about being poor in a wealthy world

Mark Lawson: why Stephen King is still pop fiction’s master craftsman

Philip Maughan heads to Spiritland, a pop-up hoping to change the way we listen to music

Tom Chivers talks to Steven Pinker about the politics of bad grammar

Josh Spero goes in search of the life stories behind his second-hand books

Commons Confidential: Kevin Maguire shares his latest Westminster gossip

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder