The Labour leadership contenders at last month's Progress conference. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The next Labour leader will struggle to persuade that they can do more than fail better

The arithmetical Everest facing the party means Miliband's successor may find it even harder to convince anyone they can become prime minister. 

The more the general election result is studied, the worse it looks for Labour. Rather than assuaging the emotional trauma of defeat, the data has merely reinforced it. The loss was even greater than it first appeared. The party piled up wasted votes in safe seats and went backwards in target constituencies. There are just 25 ­marginals (23 Conservative-held) with majorities below 3,000. After the Tories’ forthcoming boundary changes, the Fabian Society has calculated, Labour will need to win 106 seats to achieve a majority. By grim coincidence, that is the same as the number it targeted in 2015 – but with the hope of winning a majority of 78. Now, with the Scottish collapse, the “missing marginals” and the decline of centre-left tactical voting, an electoral system that previously favoured Labour (allowing it to win outsize majorities from 1997 to 2005) is aiding the Conservatives. On 7 May, one MP reflects, “we lost two elections”.

Should the party fail to gain ground in Scotland, where just three SNP MPs have majorities below 6,000, it would require a swing of 11.4 per cent in England and Wales – larger than the 10.3 per cent achieved across the UK in 1997. With typical cunning, the Tories intend to use their newly acquired power to consolidate their advantage. The boundary changes vetoed by the Liberal Democrats in 2013 will be implemented, to Labour’s cost and the Conservatives’ benefit. The decline in the electoral roll since the introduction of individual registration (most notably in urban and socially deprived areas) will make the new constituencies favour the Tories.

Expatriates, a disproportionately Conservative-aligned group, will win the right to vote for life through the abolition of the current 15-year limit. Trade union members will be required to opt in to paying the political levy, eroding Labour’s main source of campaign funding. Before the election, the opposition boasted that the Tories “had the money” but it “had the people”, a reference to Labour’s superior activist pool. Yet its “ground game” proved an ineffective counter to the Conservatives’ financial muscle. Defeated candidates testify that the Tories’ micro-targeted direct mail overwhelmed them.

This psephological and political ­horror show has deepened Labour’s moroseness. The mood contrasts with 2010, when the pain of losing office gave way to the realisation that a route back to power was available. The party had won a 1992-style share of seats on a 1983-style share of the vote. The subse­quent collapse of the Liberal ­Democrats and the rise of Ukip was thought to have redrawn the landscape in its favour. Until the moment the exit poll was published, few dismissed the possibility of Ed Miliband becoming prime minister as an arithmetical absurdity. Now, there is no consolation available, including of the false kind.

The next Labour leader will find it even harder to convince anyone that they can become prime minister. Opinion-poll leads (should they be achieved) will be dismissed as fool’s gold after the debacle of 2015. ­Labour will be permanently harried to concede that the best it can hope for is to reduce the Tory advantage. It is not unthinkable, however, that it could gain power with the aid of the SNP and the Lib Dems, as the second-largest party in a hung parliament (through a swing of 5 per cent). The leadership candidates should start considering now, if only in private, how they would handle the treacherous politics of deal-making.

The potential trump card that the ­Tories hold is the planned anointment of a new leader before the next election. As in 1990, when John Major succeeded Margaret Thatcher and resurrected his party’s fortunes, this could sate the public desire for change. Should they thrive in office, the Tories have a continuity candidate available in George Osborne, who even his detractors acknowledge has evolved into one of our most substantial politicians. Should they falter, they have change candidates available in Theresa May and Boris Johnson, who have shrewdly differentiated themselves from David Cameron. The options open to the Conservatives for a new leader are far greater than for Labour in 2007.

No one can yet say who will lead either of the two main parties at the next election. The current Labour leadership contest is the most open since 1976. Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall could all plausibly triumph. It is Burnham who remains the front-runner, having secured the most MP nominations and topped the early activist polls. After banking the left, he has wisely gravitated towards the centre. As one Burnham ally observed of his socialist supporters: “Where else do they have to go?”

The shadow health secretary’s positioning has made it harder for Kendall to frame him as the unreformed candidate of the left and for Cooper to offer a moderate third way. The greatest obstacles for Burnham are his role in the last Labour government and the desire among many party members for a female leader (which the expected victory of Tom Watson as deputy leader will strengthen). It is Cooper who has assembled a formidable campaign team, including the revered organisers Sheila Murphy and Caroline Badley, and who some senior figures believe could win through second-preference votes. Kendall’s status as the only post-2010 MP in the race allows her to argue that only she can provide the clean break that a twice-defeated party needs.

But as supporters of all three candidates concede, none of them promises to be an electoral talisman in the mould of Tony Blair. The numbers amplify the need for a figure of comparable or even greater stature – yet none is available. “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” The next Labour leader will have to fight to prove that they can set their sights higher than this.


Now listen to George discussing the Labour leadership contest on the NS podcast:


George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 04 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The myths of Magna Carta

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It might be a pseudo science, but students take the threat of eugenics seriously

Today’s white nationalists and neo-Nazis make extensive use of racist pseudo-science to bolster their political arguments.

In January, the London Student published my investigation, which showed that the controversial columnist Toby Young attended the London Conference on Intelligence, secretly held at University College London. Shortly afterwards, I mentioned to someone in a pub smoking area that I go to UCL. “Did you hear about the eugenics conference?” he asked me.

He was an international student from Africa. “I applied to UCL partly because I thought it was safer than other universities, but now I’m not so sure. I worry about how many other professors hold the same opinions.”

A protest outside the UCL Provost’s office after the article was published attracted scores of students. “I have a right to come to university and not fear for my safety,” one told the crowd, exasperated. “Nothing has been done, and that’s what really scares me.”

While hecklers derided the protest as an overreaction, students have good reason for taking eugenics seriously. UCL has a long history of support for scientific racism, beginning with Francis Galton, the Victorian polymath who, among other achievements, founded the science of eugenics. UCL’s Galton Chair in National Eugenics, which survived under that name until 1996, was first held by Karl Pearson, another ardent racial eugenicist. Pearson talked about creating a nation from “the better stocks” while conducting war with the “inferior races”, and in 1925 co-authored an article published in the Annals of Eugenics warning of the dangers of allowing Russian and Polish Jewish children into Britain. The London Conference on Intelligence was held in a building named in Pearson’s honour.

Eugenics is most closely associated in the popular imagination with fascism, and the twisted ideology of the Nazi party. Yet racial eugenics was closely linked to wider European imperialism, as illustrated by one object in the Galton collection, contributed by Pearson. Dr. Eugene Fischer’s hair colour scale is a selection of 30 different synthetic hair varieties in a tin box, a continuous scale from European to African. Fischer’s work was used in the early 20th century by Germany to ascertain the whiteness of Namibia’s mixed-race population, even before it was used by the Nazis to design the Nuremburg Laws. In apartheid South Africa, Afrikaans researchers used his tools as late as the 1960s.

Its importance to the imperial project meant that eugenics enjoyed widespread support in British scientific and political establishments. Galton’s Eugenics Society, set up to spread eugenicist ideas and push for eugenic policies, had branches in Birmingham, Liverpool, Cambridge, Manchester, Southampton and Glasgow, drawing hundreds of academics to their meetings. It was a movement of the educated middle class, including leading progressives such as John Maynard Keynes, Marie Stopes and the Fabians. Society presidents hailed from the universities of Edinburgh, Oxford, Cambridge, LSE, and UCL.

With this history in mind, it is easier to understand why students take the UCL eugenics scandal so seriously. Science journalist Angela Saini, who has been researching the history of race science for her upcoming book, argues that the problem lies in the co-opting of pseudoscience for political purposes. “These people are on the fringes, they’re not respected in mainstream academia,” she says. “The problem is when people like Toby Young come in from outside and use these studies to promote their own political agenda.” (Young said he attended the conference purely for research).

The rise of the far-right in Europe and America also means that the tolerance afforded to racist pseudoscience is not a purely academic question. Today’s white nationalists and neo-Nazis make extensive use of racist pseudoscience to bolster their political arguments.

Our investigation into the London Conference on Intelligence uncovered the involvement of at least 40 academics from at least 29 different universities in 15 different countries. Among these was the Oxford academic Noah Carl, a postdoctoral researcher in the social sciences at Nuffield College, who has spoken twice at the London Conference on Intelligence. Carl has also written several papers for Emil Kirkegaard’s OpenPsych, which include two looking at whether larger Muslim populations make Islamist terrorism more likely, and one suggesting that British stereotypes towards immigrants are “largely accurate”.

One external reviewer responded to the last paper by stating that: “It is never OK to publish research this bad, even in an inconsequential online journal.” Nevertheless, the paper was featured by conservative US website The Daily Caller, under a picture of Nigel Farage’s “Breaking Point” poster. The far right European Free West Media cited the paper to claim that “criminal elements are represented by certain ethnic groups”, and on the blog of a far-right French presidential candidate under the headline “Study validates prejudices”. It even ended up on InfoWars, one of the most popular news websites in the USA, and can be found circulating on far-right corners of Reddit. The fact that Carl is linked to Oxford University was mentioned frequently in the coverage, providing legitimacy to the political opinions presented.

Another contributor to the London Conference on Intelligence was Adam Perkins of King’s College London, whose book The Welfare Trait proposed that “aggressive, rule-breaking and anti-social personality characteristics” can be “bred out” of society by reducing child support for those on the lowest incomes. Perkins actively engaged with far-right media outlets in promoting his book, appearing in hour-long interviews with Stefan Molyneux and Tara McCarthy. Molyneux doesn’t “view humanity as a single species because we are not all the same”, and argues that “ordinary Africans were better off under colonialism”. McCarthy was banned from YouTube for alleging a conspiracy to commit “white genocide”, and supports deporting naturalised citizens and “killing them if they resist”. Perkins himself attracted criticism last year for tweeting, alongside data from Kirkegaard, that Trump’s Muslim ban “makes sense in human capital terms”.

Perkins is not the first KCL academic to use his platform to promote contested science in the far-right press. In the 1980s, the Pioneer Fund supported the work of Hans Eysenck, whose work has been credited by his biographer with helping to “revive the confidence” of “right-wing racialist groups” such as the National Front by providing an “unexpected vindication from a respectable scientific quarter”. The original mandate of the Pioneer Fund was the pursuit of “race betterment”; it is considered a hate group by the US civil rights group the Southern Poverty Law Center. KCL did not respond to a request for comment.

An association with a high profile university can help bigots to legitimise their beliefs, but the infiltration of mainstream academia by eugenicists is even more complex than this.

After we exposed his involvement with eugenicists, Toby Young pointed out that the conference at which he actually spoke, that of the International Society for Intelligence Research (ISIR), was “super-respectable” and attended by “numerous world-renowned academics”.

He is entirely correct. The ISIR is home to many great scientists, and its journal Intelligence is one of the most respected in its field. Yet Richard Lynn, who has called for the “phasing out” of the “populations of incompetent cultures”, serves on the editorial board of Intelligence, along with fellow director of the Pioneer Fund Gerhard Meisenberg, who edits Lynn’s journal Mankind Quarterly. Two other board members are Heiner Rindermann and Jan te Nijenhuis, frequent contributors to Mankind Quarterly and the London Conference on Intelligence. Rindermann, James Thompson, Michael Woodley of Menie and Aurelio Figueredo, all heavily implicated in the London Conference on Intelligencehelped to organise recent ISIR conferences. Linda Gottfredson, a Pioneer Fund grantee and former president of the ISIR, famously authored a letter in the Wall Street Journal defending Charles Murray’s assertion that black people are genetically disposed to an average IQ of “around 85”, compared to 100 for whites.

The tolerance afforded to eugenicists threatens the reputation of respectable scientists. Stephen Pinker, the world-renowned cognitive psychologist, spoke at last year’s ISIR conference. Another speaker at the conference, however, was the aforementioned Emil Kirkegaard, a “self-taught” eugenicist who has written a “thought experiment” which discusses whether raping a drugged child could be defended, and whose research into OKCupid made international headlines for its “grossly unprofessional, unethical and reprehensible” use of personal data.

Saini spoke to Richard Haier, editor-in-chief of Intelligence, about the involvement of Lynn and Meisenberg. “He defended their involvement on the basis of academic freedom,” she recalled. “He said he’d prefer to let the papers and data speak for themselves.”

Publishing well-researched papers that happen to be written by eugenicists is one thing, but putting them in positions of editorial control is quite another. “Having researched Lynn and Meisenberg, I fail to understand how Intelligence can justify having these two on the editorial board,” Saini said. “I find that very difficult to understand. Academic freedom does not require that these people are given any more space than their research demands – which for a discredited idea like racial eugenics is frankly minuscule.” I contacted the ISIR but at time of publishing had received no response.

UCL has published several statements about the London Conference on Intelligence since my investigation. In the latest, released on 18 January 2018, the university said it hoped to finish an investigation within weeks. It said it did not and had not endorsed the conference, and had formally complained to YouTube about the use of a doctored UCL logo on videos posted online. UCL’s President described eugenics as “complete nonsense” and added: “I am appalled by the concept of white supremacy and will not tolerate anything on campus that incites racial hatred or violence.” UCL management has also agreed to engage with students concerned about buildings being named after eugenicists.

UCL’s statement also stressed its obligation “to protect free speech on campus, within the law, even if the views expressed are inconsistent with the values and views of UCL”.

Yet there is a direct link between the tolerance of eugenicists in academia and the political rise of the far-right. Journals and universities that allow their reputations to be used to launder or legitimate racist pseudo-science bear responsibility when that pseudo-science is used for political ends. As one UCL student put it: “This is not about freedom of speech – all violence begins with ideas. We feel threatened, and we want answers.”

Ben van der Merwe is a student journalist.