New Times,
New Thinking.

18 February 2015

In this week’s magazine | Still hanging

A first look at this week's issue.

By New Statesman

Still Hanging
20-26 February 2015 issue


 Cover Story: “Still hanging”

Simon Heffer argues that another hung parliament could plunge Britain in a constitutional crisis.


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Letter from Baghdad: John Simpson writes that Isis is losing the fight in Iraq.

The shadow transport secretary, Michael Dugher, promises the “public control” of railways under Labour in an interview with George Eaton.

The NS Leader: Europe and the new anti-Semitism.

Mark Lawson interviews Julie Walters.

First Thoughts: Peter Wilby on Peter Oborne’s resignation from the Telegraph.

The Politics Column: George Eaton writes that it may take defeat to an “unelectable” Labour Party to make the Tories modernise.  


Who governs Britain?

Simon Heffer explains why another hung parliament and the ill-conceived Fixed-Term Parliaments Act could lead to a constitutional crisis in May. He argues that the current parliamentary system is failing to reflect the will of the people:

Although it has become a commonplace that the outcome of the general election on 7 May is less predictable than almost any in living memory, the consequences of a result that does not provide a majority government are only now beginning to be grasped. General elections are the agents of our democracy. They are supposed to ensure some relationship – however imperfect – between the will of the people and the composition of the executive that governs the United Kingdom. However, this was not strictly the case after the election in May 2010. No party won it. Once the Conservatives decided not to try to govern as a minority administration – it was never an option for Labour, with almost 50 fewer seats than their rivals – the outcome was a coalition for which, as with all coalitions formed after an election, nobody had explicitly voted. That coalition government has since then implemented a programme for which the electorate supplied no mandate, for the obvious reason that that specific programme had not been put before it at the general election.

He writes that because there was no real public debate preceding the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, “We stand at risk of a profoundly anti-democratic outcome from the forthcoming electoral process,” and that the act should be repealed:

If that should mean that 2015 was a year of two elections, so be it. At least the second election would give the public the opportunity to reflect upon the indecisive outcome of the first, and to choose whether they wished to cast their votes differently. This is important not least because of the position with Scotland, and the growing controversy over the exercise of votes on English issues by Scottish MPs. If that question, raised by Tam Dalyell 40 years ago, is to be settled in a way that inspires the confidence of all concerned, it has to be settled by a government with proper democratic legitimacy. But if the British are to have a democracy in which they can properly believe, they cannot tolerate governments that come about contrary to the will of the people, and then are allowed to rule indefinitely because the mechanism to remove them has been abolished. The one lesson that should, above all, have been learned from the past 20 years or so, is that if a government decides to unpick parts of the British constitution, it should not begin to do so until all the consequences have been exhaustively considered, and – in keeping with the best ideas of a democracy – until the public has signalled its approval at a general election.


Letter from Baghdad: Isis is losing in Iraq

John Simpson reflects on the past ten years of conflict in Baghdad, writing that the city feels safer now than ever before:

Twelve years have passed since the terrible decision to invade Iraq in 2003. When I add up all my visits to Baghdad during that time, I find I have spent two full years of my life here. That’s a long time to observe so much bloodshed and misery. But now, for the first time, I am starting to wonder whether things are changing.

The other night I wandered around the main shopping street in Karada, the Kensington of Baghdad. The lights blazed out from every shop along the way and half the pavement space was taken up with goods for sale: shoes, handbags, sweets, jackets, scarves. A river of people wandered in both directions along the street, past the cafés and restaurants where diners leaned back in their plastic chairs and gave themselves over to the pleasures of eating, drinking tea and talking. The laughter drowned out the blaring horns from the slow-moving, nose-to-tail cars, and children played and danced and tried to drag their parents over to look at the toys on show. There was a certain amount of beer-drinking going on. It was a Thursday night, and everyone was determined to have a good time. They had something to celebrate, you see: this was the first weekend since the nightly curfew had been abolished.

Simpson is not naive about the extent of violence and fear that have swept through the city since 2003, admitting:

Over these 12 years, things in Iraq have gone from bad to horrific to bad again. There’s never been anything approaching peace; and then, last year, Islamic State erupted into Iraq and captured its third most important city, Mosul. After that there was huge panic in Baghdad. IS volunteers came hurtling down the motorway southwards in the direction of the capital.

But now, he writes, a brisk government campaign has driven IS out of Diyala altogether and the Iraqi army is beginning to show itself as capable of defeating IS.

After 12 years in which the worst of any range of possibilities usually came about, it does feel as though Iraq could at long last be starting to turn the corner. That is certainly what people here in Baghdad, probably the most pessimistic city on earth, are now allowing themselves to hope. If it turns out to be true, they will deserve it more than just about any other group of people on earth.


Michael Dugher promises the “public control” of railways under Labour

After his appointment as shadow transport secretary at the end of last year, Michael Dugher was charged by Ed Miliband with toughening Labour’s stance on the railways. In an interview in tomorrow’s New Statesman, the Barnsley East MP seizes the chance to do so:

To date, Labour has pledged to allow the public sector to compete with private companies for rail franchises as they expire. But Dugher suggests that the bidding process itself could be abandoned. “Privatisation was a disaster for the railways,” he says. “I’m adamant about putting the whole franchising system, as it stands today, in the bin.” He adds: “The public sector will be running sections of our rail network as soon as we can do that.”

Dugher describes Labour’s plan to establish a new passenger body in unashamedly socialist terms:

 “I’m going to be honest and proud about this – I want there to be more public control of the railways and we should just say so because, actually, that’s what the public want as well. We’ve talked about how the only people with no voice at the moment in the running of the railways are the travelling public, the passengers.”

Dugher also contrasts Labour’s current policy programme with that of New Labour:

“This is not like 1997, that whole deference to markets and the private sector, that’s gone too.

“Every time you get one of the boneheads at Stagecoach attacking Labour’s policy for wanting to regulate the buses, that’s every day they put Labour’s policy out there and that’s every day which gives us an opportunity to win the election because we can win this argument.”


The NS Leader: Europe and the new anti-Semitism

The Leader this week reflects on the horrific recent anti-Semitic acts in Denmark and France and asserts that Europe would be a lesser continent without its Jewish citizens:

The Jewish story is one of relentless persecution, yet it is also a testimony of extraordinary resilience and ultimate triumph, as evidenced by the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 and by the return of Jews to live even in Germany. The United Kingdom and the rest of Europe would be hugely diminished if Jews were to feel that they could no longer live safely here. This moment has not yet come to pass. But vigilance is all.


Mark Lawson interviews Julie Walters

The acclaimed actress talks to Mark Lawson about watching herself on-screen and whether she is posh enough to be a dame. She tells Lawson that her approach to her career has changed as she has got older:

“I realised that I didn’t want to give up and that the pleasure was still there. But it’s not the same as when you’re young, scrabbling for a career and needing to prove yourself. Now, whether I do something is governed by different things: is it different from other things I’ve done? Is it funny? Is it touching?”


First Thoughts: Peter Wilby on whistleblowing at the Telegraph

Peter Wilby reflects on the recent Telegraph revelations following Peter Oborne’s public resignation:

On the openDemocracy website, he accuses the Telegraph of running news stories solely to please big-spending advertisers such as the Cunard shipping line. Worse, in what he calls “a most sinister development”, he says that the Telegraph increasingly commits “a form of fraud on its readers” by suppressing or downplaying stories, such as the HSBC tax avoidance scandal and Tesco’s false accounting, that reflect badly on big advertisers.

Oborne, though politically on the right, is a brave and independent-minded journalist who takes on such difficult targets as the pro-Israel lobby’s influence on British policy in the Middle East. We frequently hear about the potential dangers to press freedom from state regulation. But an equal, perhaps greater, danger comes from corporate advertisers. Oborne, in a rare example of whistleblowing from within the newspaper industry, has rightly put the subject in the public arena.


The Politics Column: George Eaton

The NS political editor, George Eaton, writes that it may take defeat to an “unelectable” Labour Party to make the Tories modernise:

The Conservatives are struggling to win this election because they failed to win the last one. Most governments endure by managing decline, rather than gaining support. Both John Major and Barack Obama, two leaders whose electoral success Tory strategists study obsessively, retained power with reduced majorities. Because of David Cameron’s failure to win outright in 2010, he will almost certainly fail to do so on 7 May. Indeed, the Tories face a fight to remain the single largest party: Labour needs to make net gains of just 24 seats to supplant them. There is increasing confidence among Ed Miliband’s inner circle that it will.

To win again, the Tories must understand why they fell short in 2010. Their problem is that many still do not. It was a dearth, not a surfeit, of modernisation that denied them outright victory. This is not an ideological assertion but a matter of empirical record.

Eaton writes that the Tories’ historic strength has been their willingness to change according to circumstance, a strategy they should re-employ should they wish to succeed in May and beyond:

A more politically adroit Conservative Party would harness the public discontent against the corporate sector, championing the “little man” in the manner of the trust-busting Republican president Theodore Roosevelt. The current one has rejected a “mansion tax” on the grounds that: “Our donors will never put up with it.”

Should they lose in May, the Tories may yet again draw the wrong conclusions, marching even further into the wilderness of Europhobia. But the party’s economic modernisers would at least have a window of opportunity to shape its future. Defeat to Miliband, a man they will remorselessly ridicule between now and polling day, could be the jolt the Tories need to awake from their dogmatic slumber.



Hunter Davies: Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.

Helen Lewis: Iain Duncan Smith may look like a pious abbot – but he is presiding over this parliament’s biggest failure.

John Gray writes that popular culture has more to say about the afterlife than religion.

Suzanne Moore: I always let my children have hamsters because they didn’t live very long. But we never recovered from Spike.

Edward Pearce on the pomp and bark of PMQs.

Will Self: At a revolving restaurant in provincial India, I saw a vision of the future . . . as imagined in 1971.  

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