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9 October 2016

Ed Balls to head Momentum? Well, stranger things have happened

The week in media, from Trump’s debt to the Greens to why Chipping Norton is a dump.

By Peter Wilby

Hope for Labour comes from unexpected quarters. Momentum – previously portrayed as Jeremy Corbyn’s brutish private army, roughly equivalent to Hitler’s Stormtroopers – has suddenly been revealed as a left-wing version of the Rotary Club. Several journalists visited its gathering in Liverpool, held in parallel to the Labour party conference, and met Momentum members. The Times columnist Philip Collins, formerly an aide to Tony Blair, was particularly impressed. This “cavalry of idealists”, he enthused, was fresh, “technologically adept and energetic”.

Meanwhile, the reborn Ed Balls, whose lack of appeal to the electorate was once taken for granted, has won the popular vote on Strictly Come Dancing for his performance of the charleston, which a Daily Mail columnist described as “absolutely marvel­lous”. Although the judges gave him the thumbs-down, the people rejected expertise, just as they did in the EU referendum.

Can he put himself at the head of Momentum and sweep to power? Stranger things have happened, mostly in the past year.

 

Hope for Labour comes from unexpected quarters. Momentum – previously portrayed as Jeremy Corbyn’s brutish private army, roughly equivalent to Hitler’s Stormtroopers – has suddenly been revealed as a left-wing version of the Rotary Club. Several journalists visited its gathering in Liverpool, held in parallel to the Labour party conference, and met Momentum members. The Times columnist Philip Collins, formerly an aide to Tony Blair, was particularly impressed. This “cavalry of idealists”, he enthused, was fresh, “technologically adept and energetic”.

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Meanwhile, the reborn Ed Balls, whose lack of appeal to the electorate was once taken for granted, has won the popular vote on Strictly Come Dancing for his performance of the charleston, which a Daily Mail columnist described as “absolutely marvel­lous”. Although the judges gave him the thumbs-down, the people rejected expertise, just as they did in the EU referendum.

Can he put himself at the head of Momentum and sweep to power? Stranger things have happened, mostly in the past year.

 

Bad education

Attempts by Justine Greening, the Education Secretary, to justify Theresa May’s almost certainly doomed policy of bringing back grammar schools look increasingly desperate. As she knows, families that can afford private tuition are at an enormous advantage in securing grammar school places. But, she insists, tutor-proof tests can be introduced. Really? US universities claim that SATs, the tests set for undergraduate entry, measure pure intelligence and are culturally neutral and immune to family background or teaching quality. Yet private coaches and publishers make a fortune out of instructing young people how to prepare for them.

I recently asked Professor Jim Flynn of Otago University in New Zealand – an American and probably the world’s biggest expert on IQ testing – if tests can ever be made tutor-proof. “Yes,” he replied, “by providing everyone with a tutor.”

 

Falling Sky

When Theresa May addressed the Tory party conference, she had already faced a more important audience. Visiting New York last month, she held a private meeting with ­Rupert Murdoch. In the age of Facebook and Google, he seems nothing like as powerful as he once was – but he nearly always gets what he wants in the end.

Murdoch’s attempt in 2010-11 to buy the 60 per cent of BSkyB that he didn’t already own was dropped following the News of the World hacking scandal. Yet, less than a year ago, his son James stated: “Having 40 per cent of an unconsolidated asset is not an end state that is natural for us.”

In plain English (an alien tongue to the young Murdoch), this means that the bid for Sky, as it is now called, could be revived. Was that discussed in New York? Note that, thanks to the fall in the pound and a drop since last summer in Sky’s valuation, a takeover will now cost many fewer dollars than at any time in the past five years.

 

Alternative histories

Donald Trump’s support among African Americans is close to zero. He is unlikely to get more than a quarter of the Hispanic vote; barely one in four graduates will back him; the majority of women loathe him, as do a clear majority of the under-thirties. So how can he get close to the US presidency?

The answer is the Greens and their candidate, Jill Stein, for whom some Democrats will vote. You can always blame the Greens. Ralph Nader, the Green candidate in 2000, was accused of handing the presidency to George W Bush and thus causing the Iraq War. In the UK, the Greens gained votes that exceeded the Tory majority over Labour in ten constituencies in 2015, thereby helping a Tory government into power. So they are responsible for Brexit. Perhaps the Third World War or a second American civil war will be laid at Stein’s door.

One is reminded of those exercises in alternative history that speculate about what would have happened if, say, the Muslim army hadn’t been turned back at Poitiers in 732. We don’t know and never can. So, we should leave people to vote as they see fit in accordance with their judgement and conscience. That is the point of democracy.

 

Literary life after death

Although I sympathise with the desire for privacy, I cannot quite bring myself to join the outrage over the revelation of the true identity of the Italian novelist Elena Ferrante. Speculation about successful artists and who they “really are” goes back at least to the Brontës, whose identity emerged in considerably less time than the two decades that Ferrante kept hers a secret.

Great works of art cannot be treated as though they were inert objects. One naturally wants to know how they were created and who created them. Authenticity and cultural appropriation are hot literary topics, and are particularly important in Ferrante’s case. She writes vividly about the poorer inhabitants of Naples but, it turns out, left the city when she was three and has lived prosperously in Rome ever since.

If novelists want to remain anonymous, there’s a simple, if not very lucrative, solution. Publish posthumously.

 

Chipping’s chain shops

While spending a few days in the Cotswolds recently, my wife and I dropped in on Chipping Norton for the first time. We discovered its best-kept secret: it is a dump. Heavy lorries thunder through; chain shops dominate; the only pub recommended in the guides is closed for redecoration and appears to be sinking. The pub we did try was unusually unwelcoming and gloomy, with two male patrons carrying on a positively Pinteresque conversation. “Must go and do my ironing.” “I’ve got to go, as well. My dinner’s in the oven. Don’t know what it’s like now. Probably burnt.” How odd that this down-at-heel town should have given its name to a “set” of supposedly glamorous, wealthy and powerful people. 

Attempts by Justine Greening, the Education Secretary, to justify Theresa May’s almost certainly doomed policy of bringing back grammar schools look increasingly desperate. As she knows, families that can afford private tuition are at an enormous advantage in securing grammar school places. But, she insists, tutor-proof tests can be introduced. Really? US universities claim that SATs, the tests set for undergraduate entry, measure pure intelligence and are culturally neutral and immune to family background or teaching quality. Yet private coaches and publishers make a fortune out of instructing young people how to prepare for them.

I recently asked Professor Jim Flynn of Otago University in New Zealand – an American and probably the world’s biggest expert on IQ testing – if tests can ever be made tutor-proof. “Yes,” he replied, “by providing everyone with a tutor.”

 

Falling Sky

When Theresa May addressed the Tory party conference, she had already faced a more important audience. Visiting New York last month, she held a private meeting with ­Rupert Murdoch. In the age of Facebook and Google, he seems nothing like as powerful as he once was – but he nearly always gets what he wants in the end.

Murdoch’s attempt in 2010-11 to buy the 60 per cent of BSkyB that he didn’t already own was dropped following the News of the World hacking scandal. Yet, less than a year ago, his son James stated: “Having 40 per cent of an unconsolidated asset is not an end state that is natural for us.”

In plain English (an alien tongue to the young Murdoch), this means that the bid for Sky, as it is now called, could be revived. Was that discussed in New York? Note that, thanks to the fall in the pound and a drop since last summer in Sky’s valuation, a takeover will now cost many fewer dollars than at any time in the past five years.

 

Alternative histories

Donald Trump’s support among African Americans is close to zero. He is unlikely to get more than a quarter of the Hispanic vote; barely one in four graduates will back him; the majority of women loathe him, as do a clear majority of the under-thirties. So how can he get close to the US presidency?

The answer is the Greens and their candidate, Jill Stein, for whom some Democrats will vote. You can always blame the Greens. Ralph Nader, the Green candidate in 2000, was accused of handing the presidency to George W Bush and thus causing the Iraq War. In the UK, the Greens gained votes that exceeded the Tory majority over Labour in ten constituencies in 2015, thereby helping a Tory government into power. So they are responsible for Brexit. Perhaps the Third World War or a second American civil war will be laid at Stein’s door.

One is reminded of those exercises in alternative history that speculate about what would have happened if, say, the Muslim army hadn’t been turned back at Poitiers in 732. We don’t know and never can. So, we should leave people to vote as they see fit in accordance with their judgement and conscience. That is the point of democracy.

 

Literary life after death

Although I sympathise with the desire for privacy, I cannot quite bring myself to join the outrage over the revelation of the true identity of the Italian novelist Elena Ferrante. Speculation about successful artists and who they “really are” goes back at least to the Brontës, whose identity emerged in considerably less time than the two decades that Ferrante kept hers a secret.

Great works of art cannot be treated as though they were inert objects. One naturally wants to know how they were created and who created them. Authenticity and cultural appropriation are hot literary topics, and are particularly important in Ferrante’s case. She writes vividly about the poorer inhabitants of Naples but, it turns out, left the city when she was three and has lived prosperously in Rome ever since.

If novelists want to remain anonymous, there’s a simple, if not very lucrative, solution. Publish posthumously.

 

Chipping’s chain shops

While spending a few days in the Cotswolds recently, my wife and I dropped in on Chipping Norton for the first time. We discovered its best-kept secret: it is a dump. Heavy lorries thunder through; chain shops dominate; the only pub recommended in the guides is closed for redecoration and appears to be sinking. The pub we did try was unusually unwelcoming and gloomy, with two male patrons carrying on a positively Pinteresque conversation. “Must go and do my ironing.” “I’ve got to go, as well. My dinner’s in the oven. Don’t know what it’s like now. Probably burnt.” How odd that this down-at-heel town should have given its name to a “set” of supposedly glamorous, wealthy and powerful people. 

This article appears in the 05 Oct 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's triumph