Blairites, nearly men and BBC hacks

Furious Labour hacks round on sainted Ed, how David resembles Heseltine, and why BBC political pundi

Gosh, the Blairites are cross! In the Independent on Sunday, John Rentoul, Tony Blair's biographer, put the boot into the sainted Ed with reckless abandon. "He . . . panders to every oppositional instinct in the party. There has been no position taken by the Labour government of which he was a member that he was not prepared to trash . . . Tuition fees, Iraq, the third runway for Heathrow: you name it, he disowned it." In fact, Iraq was invaded before Miliband E even became an MP, while the decision on top-up fees was taken before he entered the cabinet. As for the third runway, there is no reason to doubt that he threatened to resign over it.

The Blairites should calm down. If David had won, he would have tacked to the left, reassuring voters he wasn't a Blair clone. Now Ed has won, his conference speech suggests he will tack to the right, countering the charge that, to use the media's curiously archaic language, he is a "red" in thrall to "union barons". How can the Blairites spurn a man who has already mastered the art of sonorous sentences denuded of verbs and meaning, as in "Real help matched with real responsibility"? I wouldn't be surprised if Ed's leadership turns out fractionally to the right of where David's would have been. Perhaps, as a fervent old Labourite, I should have voted for Miliband D, after all.

Middle-class muddle

The Blairites say Labour must not return to the "comfort zone" of appealing to its core supporters. What comfort zone? The British General Election of 2010, the latest "Nuffield" election study (quote marks because, for the first time, neither of the principal authors, ­Dennis Kavanagh and Philip Cowley, is from Nuffield College, Oxford), has just dropped on my desk. It shows that, in constituencies where more than a quarter of the economically active population are working class, Labour's vote dropped by 7.9 points on average, against 4.9 points where less than 18 per cent are working class. A combination of working-class constituency and a sharp rise in unemployment was "especially toxic" for Labour, causing an average drop of 9.4 points, the study notes.

Nobody thinks Labour can win solely on working-class support, because routine and semi-routine occupations (as the government statisticians now call them) are no longer in the majority. The trick is to highlight how a disproportionate share of national wealth and income is being hogged by the top 10-20 per cent at the cost of everybody else, middle class and working class.

The Tories and their press allies shamelessly pretend that people earning above £60,000 a year constitute "Middle England", and the Blairites often behave as though they believe it. In fact, the median wage is below £25,000.

Close, but no hurrah

Most "nearly men" in British politics probably missed out because they didn't want it enough. Lord Halifax, Winston Churchill's rival in 1940, was more interested in riding to hounds than in high office; he took the Foreign Office in 1938 only after assurances that he could still hunt on Saturdays. R A Butler, who lost first to Harold Macmillan and then to Lord Home, said that, if not elected pope, "one can always be a res­pected cardinal". Rung by a cabinet colleague in 1963 and implored to "don your armour, my dear Rab", he replied: "I take note of your remarks, but now I really must doze off." Denis Healey and Kenneth Clarke both had an obvious hinterland beyond politics: photography and painting in one case, jazz and beer in the other.

However, some failures, such as Michael Hes­eltine, probably wanted it too much. Gordon Brown's misfortune was that his rival was equally single-minded. Having once been barged aside, Brown expended so much psychic energy trying to wrest back the prize that he was exhausted when he finally got it.

My impression is that David Miliband is more in the Heseltine/Brown than Butler/ Healey mould. There has always been something other-worldly about Miliband's intense engagement with politics. He once expressed surprise to me that there should be humour and articles about Christmas food in the New Statesman, and an Oxford contemporary recalled in the Mail on Sunday that he "never saw him even mildly drunk".

For him, the failure to win the leadership will be an immense blow whereas, to Ed, it would have come as no surprise - rather, just business as usual - to lose to his elder brother.


What is the point of the BBC political team?

As the results of the early voting rounds were announced at the conference in Manchester, Nick Robinson, the political editor, butted in to predict a David Miliband win, thus drowning out figures for the destination of some second preferences which, to political anoraks like me, were important.

I was reminded of when Gordon Brown resigned and the political hacks insisted he wouldn't be going to Buckingham Palace that night, even as his car turned down the Mall. Sometimes, pundits should just shut up.

Neither beer nor there

The medical profession's latest bright idea, it is reported, is for pubs to stop serving drink in glasses and instead give us plastic beakers, lest we cut each other's throats. I couldn't care less about wine, which is never much good in pubs anyway, but beer served in plastic cups tastes flat and flavourless.

Still, you can't be too careful. Perhaps all furniture should be removed from pubs in case we start throwing bar stools around (I've seen it happen in films). Or maybe pub landlords should inspect the length of our nails to ensure we don't gouge anybody's eyes out.

Peter Wilby was editor of the New Statesman from 1998-2005

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 04 October 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Licence to cut

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