Lobbyists in the spin crowd, the folly of “the third umpire” and opting out of the royal birth

Peter Wilby's "First Thoughts" column.

The case of Lynton Crosby, an Australian who has been appointed the Tories’ chief election strategist, suggests that public relations (or spin doctoring), private-sector lobbying and government policymaking have merged into a seamless whole. Crosby’s company has advised private health-care providers, hustling to get their hands on the NHS, and tobacco manufacturers, desperate to see off plain cigarette packaging. This allegedly creates conflicts of interest.
 
David Cameron claims that Crosby “does not advise on government policy”. If so, he is an odd sort of strategist. PRs are no longer just technical assistants who, once policy is agreed by ministers, explain how to present it. They help to create the policy and sometimes have the decisive voice. George W Bush’s spin doctor Karl Rove became the White House deputy chief of staff, with specific responsibility for policy development. Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s spin doctor, was described by many (unofficially) as “the real deputy prime minister”. But neither carried Crosby’s baggage. Though Rove briefly advised the tobacco company Philip Morris, he gave up the role precisely because he envisaged conflicts of interest. Campbell, for all his faults, was a passionate socialist who acquired the cynicism necessary for spin doctoring from a career in journalism.
 
Policy and presentation have become two sides of the same coin, so that planning “election strategy” inevitably entails forming policy. Private-sector lobbying, however, remains the most important influence. By employing Crosby, Cameron has brought it further into the heart of government.
 

The son and heir

 
Kate Windsor – like her husband’s late mother, Diana, and his grandmother Elizabeth – managed to produce a live, male heir at the first time of asking, even though this child was not required to be in possession of a Y chromosome. Think of how much Henry VIII’s first two wives, Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, suffered for their difficulties in achieving that goal. In the premodern era, the birth of a healthy royal male in direct line of succession promised peace and stability. These were regarded as God’s most precious and elusive favours, making the birth a true cause for celebration.
 
Now, thanks to scientific and medical advances – but not, I think, the grandfather Charles’s homoeopathic remedies –birth and the child’s survival beyond infancy are almost routine. The anxious wait and subsequent celebrations are public rituals like Christmas and Bonfire Night. Nobody spares a thought for our ancestors, just as nobody thinks that, on Bonfire Night, they are burning a member of a persecuted minority driven to terrorism.
 

Push the button

 
As soon as the young Mrs Windsor went into labour, the Guardian website kindly allowed me to screen out its “live coverage” of her progress. But why was I required to “opt out” (using a not-very-prominent button labelled “Republican?”) rather than, as Cameron proposes for internet pornography, “opt in”? And why do the Guardian’s masterminds think anyone who wants regular updates on royalty would visit their website instead of, say, the Mail’s or the Telegraph’s?
 

Unfair play

 
Players and coaches in all sports make an enormous fuss about marginal decisions: whether or not a football crossed the goal line, a rugby ball was grounded behind the try line or a bat touched a cricket ball before it was caught. If the umpire or referee gets it wrong, they imply, a cosmic injustice is done. Sports governing bodies hope to settle matters by using technology as a court of appeal.
 
However, technology – and the interpretation of it – turns out to be as fallible as a human being. Several times during the current England-Australia Ashes series, the “third umpire” was accused of getting a decision wrong even after he had examined slowmotion replays, listened to audio feeds and scrutinised a device called the “Hot Spot”.
 
The cry “We wuz robbed!” is integral to sport and always will be. Cricket should abandon its pompously named “Decision Review System” – which involves tedious delays, compared by one sports writer to a mobile phone ringing repeatedly during Hamlet’s closing soliloquy – and get on with the game. Injustice cannot be eliminated. A batsman who narrowly fails to hit the ball, rather than edging it for a catch, didn’t skilfully contrive to miss it. He was beaten by the bowler. If he misses completely, he is less competent than the batsman who manages a thin contact. In that sense, an incorrect “not out” decision carries more justice than the correct one.
 

Only connect

 
My Apple iMac computer (of a 2005 vintage) recently gave up the ghost – it was “obsolete”, the repair people ruled. So I bought a new one. It came with a battery-powered wireless keyboard.
 
Can anyone explain how this is an improvement? The computer continually tells me the batteries are running out, though they clearly are not, and the keyboard connection is lost if I hit the keys hard, as I am apt to do when writing about Tories.
 
When the batteries do run low, I shall have the trouble and expense of buying new ones. I am reminded of Hutber’s law, named after the late Patrick Hutber, an economics journalist: “Improvement means deterioration.” 
The arrival of the future ruler, as imagined by Legoland. Photograph: Getty Images.

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 29 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.