Looted at the Ledbury

Last week's edition of this self-important propaganda sheet was full of so-called experts pontificating about the riots. It was all theory and surmise, however, because they weren't there in the thick of it. I, on the other hand, was in the eye of the storm and can give you the view from the front line.

I don't usually go slumming in the capital's underbelly, but my delectable companion that night (I promised to keep her name out of this, so let's
just say it rhymes with Pippa Middleton) insisted that we dine at the Ledbury, a Notting Hill restaurant with a mere brace of Michelin stars.

I was halfway through my loin of Sika deer baked in Douglas fir with beetroot, bone marrow and salt, when a legion of louts in hooded sports tops literally crashed through the plate-glass doors. I turned to my guest and wittily observed, "There's no way they're going to get served dressed like that."

Amid the confusion, these interlopers went from table to table, demanding our valuables. I was forced to give up my £50,000 Rolex - I'd left my best watch at home - and my wallet, containing, among other things, several credit cards and a large sum in sterling, dollars and roubles. My "friend" remained seated, so the hoodlums weren't able to get their hands on her most valuable asset.

The room was traumatised as the mob ran off with its spoils. Remaining calm, I reached into my pocket for the remote control that I keep for exactly these circumstances. There was a bang and a scream from outside as the ounce of plastic explosive concealed in my wallet did its job.

Now, I understand that we can't all afford to booby-trap our personal possessions, but I think my anecdote expresses the need for lateral thinking in these challenging times.

Therefore, and this may surprise you, I think we should look anew at the words of Sir William Beveridge, father of the welfare state and inventor of the hot drinks machine. He said that the nation had to confront five giant evils: want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness. While the first four of Beveridge's evils have been largely suffocated by an avalanche of taxpayers' money, idleness has led to mob rule in our streets - well, your streets. My street has private security guards with gun-shaped bulges in their socks.

Fatherless, feral gang members terrorise our towns because they have nothing better to do. If we could find them work, nine-tenths of them would cease to pose a problem. Sadly, they have no economic value to any employer.

Yet, even before the riots, there were estates to be cleaned, graffiti to be removed, canals to be dredged, waste sites to be decontaminated: work sufficient to employ millions of yobs. But we all know that there just isn't the money to pay even an insulting minimum wage. Under these circumstances, I think you'll agree that the time has come to reappraise the virtues of a system that once helped make this country great - slavery.

As told to Marks and Gran

This article first appeared in the 22 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The answer to the riots?

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