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

A first look at this week’s magazine.















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.



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.



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.”


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.


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.


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.


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

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