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20 August 2015

Edward Heath’s enemies, English cricket’s old burnouts and why I won’t vote Corbyn

It strains credulity that a man who was singularly ineffective as a backbencher can transform himself into an effective opposition leader.

By Peter Wilby

According to the latest YouGov poll, Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leadership candidate whose views are closest to my own, is sailing to victory. Yet his supporters, according to the same poll, lack confidence that he can win the 2020 election. That doesn’t matter, the Corbynites say. “What’s important,” argues the musician Brian Eno, “is that someone changes the conversation.”

It is hard to disagree. We have five years of Tory government ahead, with ministers determined to cut benefits, sell off state assets and reduce the scope of public services. We need an articulate and passionate Labour leader who can rally opposition. But we also need a quick-witted leader who can find ways of disrupting the Tory plans and protecting, if only at the margins, those who will be hit hardest.

Could Corbyn be that leader? As an MP, he has supported a living wage, higher taxes on the rich, free higher education, the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela, Fidel Castro, the fight against apartheid, the Palestinians, animal rights, nuclear disarmament, abolition of the Lords, a united Ireland and many other worthy causes, not forgetting the Chagossians, expelled from their Indian Ocean homes to accommodate a US naval base. But he has made no issue distinctively his own – as, say, Chris Mullin, also once a “loony lefty”, did with the Birmingham Six – and has not, so far as I can recall, a single parliamentary achievement to his credit.

It strains credulity that a man who was singularly ineffective as a backbencher can transform himself into an effective opposition leader. Despite my sympathy for most of his opinions, I shall not vote for Corbyn.


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The amazing vanishing ladies

Instead, I shall support Yvette Cooper, who is certainly quick-witted if not as good on TV as one would wish. Curiously, the YouGov poll finds that only 23 per cent of the women surveyed propose to vote for either her or the other female candidate, Liz Kendall, against 28 per cent of the men. It seems that, with Tom Watson leading the race for deputy, against a field otherwise comprising three women and one gay man, Labour will face the country in 2020 with two straight men of mature years in charge. One is reminded of George Bernard Shaw’s observation that, after the introduction of female suffrage, not a single woman was returned at the subsequent general election, the many female candidates of “proved ability” having been defeated by men “who were comparative noodles and nobodies”. With all possible humility, I suggest that we men sometimes care more about feminism than women.

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Abuse of power

I am always ready to believe the worst about the Tories. But I cannot accept that Edward Heath was a child abuser. Even Michael Bloch, who in his recent book Closet Queens suggests that Winston Churchill had homosexual tendencies, couldn’t find evidence that Heath was a practising paedophile or a practising anything. And Bloch does not seem to have a specially rigorous definition of evidence.

When Heath was prime minister in the 1970s, London was crawling with undercover agents – some working for Soviet Russia, some for South Africa’s apartheid regime, some for the more paranoid section of MI5 – looking for any particle of dirt they could use against a prominent political figure. If they couldn’t find anything, they made it up. Yet there was never a breath of scandal about Heath, though lots of people, including most Tory MPs, would have spread it around eagerly.

As always, it is impossible to prove a negative. Which is why the criminal law demands that prosecutors prove a positive. That rule should apply to the dead as well as the living, even if the deceased was, in his own way, as weird as Jimmy Savile.


Cheating the system

Another Sunday, another Sunday Times exposure of drug-taking in athletics. I cannot get excited, still less outraged. Doped athletes, it is argued, have an unfair advantage. But so do those who benefit from special diets or high-altitude training – or, for that matter, from expensive private coaching. Equally unfair are the advantages enjoyed by those who dope themselves up to pass exams or get through interviews with top City firms. Indeed, you could say anybody who attends a posh, fee-charging school will benefit from a sort of prolonged intellectual doping. Life, as we were told as children, is unfair. The problem, in sport as in everything else, is that late capitalism makes it much more unfair.


End of a (new) era

England’s cricket team took a 3-1 lead in the Test series, winning by an innings and plenty. “It does not get any more emphatic than this,” exulted the Mail. “England, so desolate after Lord’s, were irresistible . . . The transformation is complete.” The date is not 8 August 2015, when England took an unassailable 3-1 lead in the series against Australia, but 17 August 2014, when the opponents were India. Then came a disastrous World Cup campaign followed by a drawn series against a mediocre West Indies side and another against New Zealand.

Such is the nature of modern international sport, in which assets (that is to say, the players) must be sweated as the business management textbooks instruct. Cricket matches are now played so frequently and in such varied formats that it is doubtful any team could again dominate as the West Indies did in the 1980s and Australia in the 1990s. We are told that English cricket is on the brink of a glittering new era. Last year’s ended after about three weeks. We are also told that the exceptional youth of this England team promises world supremacy stretching into the distant future. In fact, the team’s average age is the same as that of the 2005 Ashes-winning side, also celebrated for its youth and promise.

That team fell apart almost immediately: only four survived to meet the Aussies in the next home series four years later.