Show Hide image

The great hosepipe revolt, muppet cilents and football's mawkish side

It was surely very foolish of David Cameron to quote the water industry as a model for his scheme to privatise roads. The water companies in the south and east have just enraged the public with their hosepipe bans. "Diktats of the water police," screamed the Daily Mail front page. "Even spraying your children to keep them cool in the sunshine will be outlawed." Websites are full of complaints about water-industry profits, the volume of water leaking from unrepaired pipes and the level of household bills.

A couple of people have told me that, while we endure shortages, "they" are secretly exporting "our" water to China. The water companies cannot transport the stuff from the sodden English north-west to the south-east, and so this seems unlikely, but it is a sign of the public mood turning sour.

I recall no such anger when water was restricted during the mid-1970s drought. We enjoyed the glorious weather and accepted that parched gardens and overheated children were the price to be paid. Water was then in public ownership. Now, with bills up 45 per cent above inflation since privatisation in 1989, people think supplies should be guaranteed.

As for what will happen to roads, we need only look at France, which has long had toll roads. Until recently, they were run by state-owned corporations, which charged modest sums and contributed handsomely to the French treasury. Then they were privatised. Within five years, the average toll per mile was up 16 per cent for cars, 38 per cent for lorries . . .

Putin, Gingrich . . . Clegg?

Even now that they enjoy high office, it is hard to take the Liberal Democrats seriously. A "tycoon tax" sounds like something proposed by a sixth-form debating society. If, as Nick Clegg suggests, those on the highest incomes are required to surrender at least 20 per cent to the Exchequer, regardless of what "tax planning" devices their accountants concoct, this would quickly become the only rate that millionaires pay. Does Clegg imagine that the salaried middle classes would then be happy to continue paying 40 per cent?

We would be more than halfway to requiring everybody to pay the same percentage on the whole of their income - a "flat tax", as advocated by the US Republican Newt Gingrich and implemented in Vladimir Putin's Russia. Perhaps that is what Clegg wants.

Retiring, but not shy

Though I am a dyed-in-the-wool atheist, I shall miss Rowan Williams, who will retire as Archbishop of Canterbury this year. He may be opaque of speech but he is a lifelong New Statesman reader ("thank you for the New Statesman", he once wrote to me) and one of the few remaining public figures with the instincts of a genuine socialist.

It is a curiosity of our times that the C of E, once described as "the Tory party at prayer" and still with congregations where, I'd guess, the majority vote Conservative, is now almost alone in taking social and economic equality seriously, even while dragging its feet on spiritual equality for women and gay people. Reading a Church document on education the other day, I came across the following: "The Church is challenged to work for justice and liberation for all, to change the structures of oppression and injustice." The practice, at least in Church schools, falls short of theaspiration. But it is impossible to imagine the post-1994 Labour Party using similar language.

Kerm off it

Forgive me, but I cannot get excited about the "exposure" of Goldman Sachs. It is not a retail bank and its clients are not, therefore, little old ladies seeking a decent return on their life savings. Greg Smith, its former executive director - who wrote in the New York Times that the bank had lost humility and integrity and that its executives referred to clients as "muppets" - advised, in his own words, "two of the largest hedge funds on the planet, five of the largest asset managers in the United States, and three of the most prominent sovereign wealth funds in the Middle East and Asia", with "a total asset base of more than $1trn".

In other words, the capitalists at Goldman Sachs rip off other capitalists. True, the latter include the trading arms of high-street banks, with our own Royal Bank of Scotland under Fred Goodwin as chief muppet and you, me and little old ladies as the ultimate victims. But the scandal lies in how managers and traders in the financial sector as a whole expropriate, according to some estimates, as much as a quarter of what customers pay for insurance, pensions, mortgages and so on.

Goldman Sachs is merely exploiting those who have already exploited us.

It's been emotional
Even those of us who don't care much for football (well, you wouldn't if your team was Leicester City) were moved by the fate of Fabrice Muamba, the Congolese-born Bolton Wanderers midfield player who collapsed with a heart attack during an FA Cup match at Tottenham on 17 March. But can we please be spared the game's displays of contrived emotion, with players "dedicating" their goals to Muamba and wearing his name on their shirts?

There is hardly a sporting occasion anywhere in the world now that can begin without a period of silence in memory of a deceased ex-player, aplayer's father (mothers rarely receive such recognition), an official or even a fan. Silence couldn't be observed for Muamba, as he isn't dead - andseems, happily, to be recovering - but the football clubs have organised synchronised applause instead.

The FA Cup final is usually preceded by "Abide With Me", which is also played at funerals. Perhaps the hymn should now be played before all sporting occasions.

Next week: Helen Lewis

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 26 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Mission impossible

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Labour tensions boil over at fractious MPs' meeting

Corbyn supporters and critics clash over fiscal charter U-turn and new group Momentum. 

"A total fucking shambles". That was the verdict of the usually emollient Ben Bradshaw as he left tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. His words were echoed by MPs from all wings of the party. "I've never seen anything like it," one shadow minister told me. In commitee room 14 of the House of Commons, tensions within the party - over the U-turn on George Osborne's fiscal charter and new Corbynite group Momentum - erupted. 

After a short speech by Jeremy Corbyn, shadow chancellor John McDonnell sought to explain his decision to oppose Osborne's fiscal charter (having supported it just two weeks ago). He cited the change in global economic conditions and the refusal to allow Labour to table an amendment. McDonnell also vowed to assist colleagues in Scotland in challenging the SNP anti-austerity claims. But MPs were left unimpressed. "I don't think I've ever heard a weaker round of applause at the PLP than the one John McDonnell just got," one told me. MPs believe that McDonnell's U-turn was due to his failure to realise that the fiscal charter mandated an absolute budget surplus (leaving no room to borrow to invest), rather than merely a current budget surplus. "A huge joke" was how a furious John Mann described it. He and others were outraged by the lack of consultation over the move. "At 1:45pm he [McDonnell] said he was considering our position and would consult with the PLP and the shadow cabinet," one MP told me. "Then he announces it before 6pm PLP and tomorow's shadow cabinet." 

When former shadow cabinet minister Mary Creagh asked Corbyn about the new group Momentum, which some fear could be used as a vehicle to deselect critical MPs (receiving what was described as a weak response), Richard Burgon, one of the body's directors, offered a lengthy defence and was, one MP said, "just humiliated". He added: "It looked at one point like they weren't even going to let him finish. As the fractious exchanges were overheard by journalists outside, Emily Thornberry appealed to colleagues to stop texting hacks and keep their voices down (within earshot of all). 

After a calmer conference than most expected, tonight's meeting was evidence of how great the tensions within Labour remain. Veteran MPs described it as the worst PLP gathering for 30 years. The fear for all MPs is that they have the potential to get even worse. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.