New Statesman Contents
SRSLY #94: Liam Payne / Kimmy Schmidt / Mulholland Drive
May 24th, 2017, 07:19 PM

On the pop culture podcast this week: the debut solo single from Liam Payne, the Netflix series The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and the David Lynch film Mulholland Drive.

This is SRSLY, the pop culture podcast from the New Statesman. Here, you can find links to all the things we talk about in the show as well as a bit more detail about who we are and where else you can find us online.

Listen using the player below. . .

. . .or subscribe in iTunes. We’re also on StitcherRSS and SoundCloud – but if you use a podcast app that we’re not appearing in, let us know.

SRSLY is hosted by Caroline Crampton and Anna Leszkiewicz, the NS’s assistant editor and editorial assistant. We’re on Twitter as @c_crampton and @annaleszkie, where between us we post a heady mixture of Serious Journalism, excellent gifs and regularly ask questions J K Rowling needs to answer.

The Links

Liam Payne

The lyrics. Oh God, the lyrics.

The interview that Caroline mentioned, feat. Ed Sheeran anecdote.

Liam on the trending chart.

The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

The show on Netflix.

Why the show needs to end.

The GOAT, Emily Nussbaum, on the show.

Mulholland Drive

Lynch's ten clues to unlocking the film.

Everything you were afraid to ask about Mulholland Drive.

Vanity Fair goes inside the making of the film.

For next time:

We are watching Loaded.

If you’d like to talk to us about the podcast or make a suggestion for something we should read or cover, you can email srslypod[at]gmail.com.

You can also find us on Twitter @srslypod, or send us your thoughts on tumblr here. If you like the podcast, we’d love you to leave a review on iTunes - this helps other people come across it.

We love reading out your emails. If you have thoughts you want to share on anything we’ve discussed, or questions you want to ask us, please email us on srslypod[at]gmail.com, or @ us on Twitter @srslypod, or get in touch via tumblr here. We also have Facebook now.

Our theme music is “Guatemala - Panama March” (by Heftone Banjo Orchestra), licensed under Creative Commons. 

See you next week!

PS If you missed #93, check it out here.

What the debate over troops on the streets is missing
May 24th, 2017, 07:19 PM

Security decisions are taken by professionals not politicians. But that doesn't mean there isn't a political context. 

First things first: the recommendation to raise Britain’s threat level was taken by the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (JTAC), an organisation comprised of representatives from 16 government departments and agencies. It was not a decision driven through by Theresa May or by anyone whose job is at stake in the election on 8 June.

The resulting deployment of troops on British streets – Operation Temperer – is, likewise, an operational decision. They will do the work usually done by armed specialists in the police force protecting major cultural institutions and attractions, and government buildings including the Palace of Westminster. That will free up specialists in the police to work on counter-terror operations while the threat level remains at critical. It, again, is not a decision taken in order to bolster the Conservatives’ chances on 8 June. (Though intuitively, it seems likely to boost the electoral performance of the party that is most trusted on security issues, currently the Conservatives if the polls are to be believed.)

There’s a planet-sized “but” coming, though, and it’s this one: just because a decision was taken in an operational, not a political manner, doesn’t remove it from a wider political context. And in this case, there’s a big one: the reduction in the number of armed police specialists from 6979 when Labour left office to 5,639 today. That’s a cut of more than ten per cent in the number of armed specialists in the regular police – which is why Operation Temperer was drawn up under David Cameron in the first place.  There are 1340 fewer armed specialists in the police than there were seven years ago – a number that is more significant in the light of another: 900, the number of soldiers that will be deployed on British streets under Op Temperer. (I should add: the initial raft of police cuts were signed off by Labour in their last days in office.)

So while it’s disingenuous to claim that national security decisions are being taken to bolster May, we also shouldn’t claim that operational decisions aren’t coloured by spending decisions made by the government.  

Photo: Getty
Of course we could do more to stop terrorism – if we’re willing to live in a police state
May 24th, 2017, 07:19 PM

 The only way to stop this sort of human monster completely is to become like them.

What are we prepared to sacrifice to keep children safe? On Monday night at Manchester arena, 22 people were senselessly slaughtered. Many of them were young girls, pouring out of a pop concert, giddy with excitement. Hours before the killer was identified or Islamic State had claimed responsibility for the attack, the political conversation had already turned to vengeance, and respected public thinkers were calling, in the name of those dead children, for further crackdowns on immigrants and perceived outsiders, for troops on the streets, for "internment camps'" with straight faces and the sincere implication that anyone who disagrees is weak-willed and possibly a terrorist sympathiser. A lot of little girls have been killed. What good are tolerance and human rights today?

Nobody can be expected to be instantly rational when dozens of kids have just been maimed and murdered. There are, however, individuals who seem more than prepared to exploit the occasion to further their own agendas. Yet again, we are told that the state is failing in its duty to protect "our" children, that pansy liberals won't let us raise the "obvious solutions" to this problem. Nobody can quite bring themselves to articulate exactly what those "obvious solutions" might be, hedging the issue instead with grave looks, raised eyebrows and stern allusions to the consequences of political correctness. The consensus is that we are living in a nation so paralysed by hand-flapping progressive talk-talkery that ordinary, right-thinking folks aren’t allowed to say what’s really on their minds. 

The truth is that nobody’s stopping anyone from saying what they think about any of this, and if you don’t believe me, take a brisk scroll through Twitter this afternoon, and keep some eyeball bleach on hand. In fact, the reason a lot of people are stopping short of saying what they think ought to be done is that they know full well that what they think ought to be done is unacceptable and shameful in any sane society. So shameful, indeed, that it takes a professional shit-stirrer to speak it aloud. 

Enter Katie Hopkins. It’s not just pro-trolls like her who have called for a "final solution" following the Manchester Arena bombing. Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson declared that we should start putting "thousands" of people in "internment camps" in the name of protecting children. Spiked editor Brendan O’Neill echoed the tone, blaming "multiculturalism" for mass murder, and implying that anyone advocating calm and tolerance in the face of terrorism does not feel sufficiently angry about the murder of 22 of their fellow citizens. “It is becoming clear,” insists O'Neill, “that the top-down promotion of a hollow ‘togetherness’ in response to terrorism is about cultivating passivity.”

In fact, Britain is far from passive in the face of extremist violence. Britain already has one of the most robust counter-terrorism programs on the planet. We are among the most surveilled societies in the Western world. We have a counter-extremism program, Prevent, that places a duty in schools, universities and other public bodies to report any suspected radical or "extremist" activity, and is so exacting that it has been condemned by experts and educators across the board as an infringement of the right to free speech and thought. The authorities responsible for heading off and hunting down these psychopaths and all who sail with them are hardly slacking on the job. The problem is that there's really no way to up the game from here without going full police state. The pundits condemning the relevant institutions as shirkers today know this full well, which is why a police state is exactly what they’re asking for, with the inference that anyone who disagrees is awfully relaxed about the violent death of young girls and their parents.

So let’s not mince words. Let's be absolutely clear what’s at stake here. Let us acknowledge that yes, we could do more to stop this, if we wanted. And then let's think about whether that's really, actually, what we want.

Yes, we could do more. We could allow the state to round up and lock away anyone even remotely suspected of violent, extremist tendencies; anyone who has ever accessed a suspicious website or attended a dubious lecture. We'd have to lock those people up for a very long time, of course, because if there's one thing that nudges people from a passing interest in anti-state violence into full on fanaticism, it's active state oppression. We could ban anyone who's ever been in any way associated with extremist ideology from entering the country, including those who are fleeing violence themselves. We could institute total surveillance of everyone’s online activity. We could build those internment camps. They’d be expensive, so it’s only fair that potential degenerates and their associates be obliged to work for their keep. Of course, you wouldn't want those internment camps spread out - you'd want the inmates concentrated in one place. What could we call such camps? I’m sure we’ll think of a name.

If we did all that, and more, then yes, there's a chance that we could stop atrocities like this from happening again. Even then, there's no guarantee. The most exacting neo-stasi infrastructure can’t always stop the rogue loner with a breadknife and a brain boiling with arcane violence. It would, however, significantly lower the odds.

The question is not whether it can be done. Of course it can be done. Paranoid, bloodless, hyper-vigilant police states have been instituted in European nations before, and if any country on earth has the infrastructure to make it work right now, it's Britain, a small island with an extensive surveillance architecture, a mostly urban population, a conservative government currently seeking re-election on a tough-love platform, and no pesky constitutional rights to free speech. We can do it if we want to. Sure we can. The question is whether we should. The question is whether it's worth it. Is it worth it, to prevent the loss of one more young life, the devastation of one more family?

Don’t answer that right now. Give it a few days, at least, because right now it makes a great deal of emotional sense to say yes, yes, it’s worth it. Anything to stop something like this happening again. To save one child. To keep hundreds more from being traumatised for life just because they went to a pop concert with their friends. I suspect that today, tucked away in the collective psyche of a great many otherwise tolerant and decent people, is a furious, frightened voice yelling - sure, let’s do it. Let’s shut the borders and build the camps. It might not be nice, it might not even be right, but these evil dickheads are killing kids, so frankly, fuck the Geneva convention.

That furious, frightened instinct needs to be named so we can deal with it like adults. The anger and the fear here are real and legitimate, even though a great many bad actors are exploiting them to further racist, xenophobic agendas. It’s alright to be frightened and furious. It’s not alright to let those emotions dictate public policy. Today, with the faces of murdered little girls all over the news, is not a day to ask anyone what they’re prepared to sacrifice to make sure this never happens again.

Because the truth is that the only way to stop this sort of human monster is to become like them. The only way to be sure that no swivel-eyed extremist who hates life, and liberty and raw youthful joy so much that he's prepared to blow up a pop concert full of teenagers can never do that again is to acquiesce to the sort of state apparatus that is anathema to joy and liberty and life, the sort of state apparatus that no child should grow up with.

This is why platitudes about 'unity', about 'not letting hate win', about keeping it together and trying not to let our worst instincts take over, are not, in fact, platitudes at all. They are not banal. They are not hollow. It takes enormous strength of character, at a time like this,  not to give in to fear and rage and the rationale of revenge. The people of Manchester are showing that strength in the wake of one of the most horrific mass murders this tense and divided nation has ever seen. We owe it to them, to the victims of this attack, and to their families not to sully their memories by surrendering to the logic of intolerance.

It is at moments like this when a community proves its character.  It is at times like this that it is more, not less essential to refuse racist and fascist ideas. Tolerance is not passivity. Kindness is not weakness. It is not cowardly to stay with our anger and our grief and refuse to let those emotions sway our commitment to human dignity, or to look dreadful vengeance in the face and refuse it. It is strength. It is strength more profound and more human than fundamentalists of any faction can comprehend, and if we hang on to that strength, they will never, ever win. 

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This is the place: the poem Tony Walsh read at the Manchester attack vigil
May 24th, 2017, 07:19 PM

The full text of the poem read at the vigil to remember victims of the Manchester terror attack. 

If one moment captured the response of Manchester to the terror attacks, it was arguably when Tony Walsh, who writes under the name Longfella, recited his poem, "This is the place", about the city. 

Originally penned as a commission for the charity Forever Manchester, a charity that funds community activity in the city, Walsh recited a version of it in front of a crowd of thousands. 

Here is the poem in full, reproduced with Walsh's permission:

 

 

 

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Leader: Mourning in Manchester
May 24th, 2017, 07:19 PM

Yet another attack shows we are going to have to get to used to the idea that our liberalism and our freedoms can only be preserved by a strong state.

Children are murdered and maimed by a suicide bomber as they are leaving a pop concert in Manchester. As a consequence, the government raises the terror threat to “critical”, which implies that another attack is imminent, and the army is sent out on to the streets of our cities in an attempt to reassure and encourage all good citizens to carry on as normal. The general election campaign is suspended. Islamic State gleefully denounces the murdered and wounded as “crusaders” and “polytheists”.

Meanwhile, the usual questions are asked, as they are after each new Islamist terrorist atrocity. Why do they hate us so much? Have they no conscience or pity or sense of fellow feeling? We hear, too, the same platitudes: there is more that unites us than divides us, and so on. And so we wait for the next attack on innocent civilians, the next assault on the free and open society, the next demonstration that Islamism is the world’s most malignant and dangerous ideology.

The truth of the matter is that the Manchester suicide bomber, Salman Ramadan Abedi, was born and educated in Britain. He was 22 when he chose to end his own life. He had grown up among us: indeed, like the London bombers of 7 July 2005, you could call him, however reluctantly, one of us. The son of Libyan refugees, he supported Manchester United, studied business management at Salford University and worshipped at Didsbury Mosque. Yet he hated this country and its people so viscerally that he was prepared to blow himself up in an attempt to murder and wound as many of his fellow citizens as possible.

The Manchester massacre was an act of nihilism by a wicked man. It was also sadly inevitable. “The bomb was,” writes the Mancunian cultural commentator Stuart Maconie on page 26, “as far as we can guess, an attack on the fans of a young American woman and entertainer, on the frivolousness and foolishness and fun of young girlhood, on lipstick and dressing up and dancing, on ‘boyfs’ and ‘bezzies’ and all the other freedoms that so enrage the fanatics and contradict their idiot dogmas. Hatred of women is a smouldering core of their wider, deeper loathing for us. But to single out children feels like a new low of wickedness.”

We understand the geopolitical context for the atrocity. IS is under assault and in retreat in its former strongholds of Mosul and Raqqa. Instead of urging recruits to migrate to the “caliphate”, IS has been urging its sympathisers and operatives in Europe to carry out attacks in their countries of residence. As our contributing writer and terrorism expert, Shiraz Maher, explains on page 22, these attacks are considered to be acts of revenge by the foot soldiers and fellow-travellers of the caliphate. There have been Western interventions in Muslim lands and so, in their view, all civilians in Western countries are legitimate targets for retaliatory violence.

An ever-present threat of terrorism is the new reality of our lives in Europe. If these zealots can murder children at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, there is no action that they would not consider unconscionable. And in this country there are many thousands – perhaps even tens of thousands – who are in thrall to Islamist ideology. “Terror makes the new future possible,” the American Don DeLillo wrote in his novel Mao II, long before the al-Qaeda attacks of 11 September 2001. The main work of terrorists “involves mid-air explosions and crumbled buildings. This is the new tragic narrative.”

Immediately after the Paris attacks in November 2015, John Gray reminded us in these pages of how “peaceful coexistence is not the default condition of modern humankind”. We are going to have to get used to the idea that our liberalism and our freedoms can only be preserved by a strong state. “The progressive narrative in which freedom is advancing throughout the world has left liberal societies unaware of their fragility,” John Gray wrote. Liberals may not like it, but a strong state is the precondition of any civilised social order. Certain cherished freedoms may have to be compromised. This is the new tragic narrative.

The problems with ending encryption to fight terrorism
May 24th, 2017, 07:19 PM

Forcing tech firms to create a "backdoor" to access messages would be a gift to cyber-hackers.

The UK has endured its worst terrorist atrocity since 7 July 2005 and the threat level has been raised to "critical" for the first time in a decade. Though election campaigning has been suspended, the debate over potential new powers has already begun.

Today's Sun reports that the Conservatives will seek to force technology companies to hand over encrypted messages to the police and security services. The new Technical Capability Notices were proposed by Amber Rudd following the Westminster terrorist attack and a month-long consultation closed last week. A Tory minister told the Sun: "We will do this as soon as we can after the election, as long as we get back in. The level of threat clearly proves there is no more time to waste now. The social media companies have been laughing in our faces for too long."

Put that way, the plan sounds reasonable (orders would be approved by the home secretary and a senior judge). But there are irrefutable problems. Encryption means tech firms such as WhatsApp and Apple can't simply "hand over" suspect messages - they can't access them at all. The technology is designed precisely so that conversations are genuinely private (unless a suspect's device is obtained or hacked into). Were companies to create an encryption "backdoor", as the government proposes, they would also create new opportunities for criminals and cyberhackers (as in the case of the recent NHS attack).

Ian Levy, the technical director of the National Cyber Security, told the New Statesman's Will Dunn earlier this year: "Nobody in this organisation or our parent organisation will ever ask for a 'back door' in a large-scale encryption system, because it's dumb."

But there is a more profound problem: once created, a technology cannot be uninvented. Should large tech firms end encryption, terrorists will merely turn to other, lesser-known platforms. The only means of barring UK citizens from using the service would be a Chinese-style "great firewall", cutting Britain off from the rest of the internet. In 2015, before entering the cabinet, Brexit Secretary David Davis warned of ending encryption: "Such a move would have had devastating consequences for all financial transactions and online commerce, not to mention the security of all personal data. Its consequences for the City do not bear thinking about."

Labour's manifesto pledged to "provide our security agencies with the resources and the powers they need to protect our country and keep us all safe." But added: "We will also ensure that such powers do not weaken our individual rights or civil liberties". The Liberal Democrats have vowed to "oppose Conservative attempts to undermine encryption."

But with a large Conservative majority inevitable, according to polls, ministers will be confident of winning parliamentary support for the plan. Only a rebellion led by Davis-esque liberals is likely to stop them.

Getty Images.
How long will general election campaigning be suspended after the Manchester attack?
May 24th, 2017, 07:19 PM

Parties have suspended political activities in a mark of respect. 

In the middle of the night, as news broke that an explosion in Manchester had killed scores of concertgoers, political parties reacted almost instantly. Campaigning was cancelled. For at least 24 hours.

Then the details of what happened emerged. That the explosion was deliberately created by a suicide bomber. That little girls died in the blast. Campaigning was suspended indefinitely.

But what does this mean for 8 June 2017? When will campaigning resume, and how? While most see the suspension of the political battle as a matter of respect, some, such as the blogger Guido Fawkes, argue that doing so only gives “the enemies of democracy some satisfaction”.

Here is what we know so far:

The parties have suspended national campaigning

All the mainstream parties have agreed to suspend national campaigning, and are likely to agree together before resuming campaigning again. 

However, Labour has advised candidates that local campaigning is at their discretion. If it does happen, it will be leaflets through doors, rather than public stalls.

Broadcast interviews have also been cancelled

The BBC's Andrew Neil interviewed Theresa May on Monday night, in what was supposed to be the first of a series of interviews with the leaders of different political parties. However, the second, with Ukip’s Paul Nuttall, was scrapped. 

A BBC spokeswoman said: "Following tragic events in Manchester, The Andrew Neil Interviews will not go ahead as planned whilst election campaigning is suspended." The decision to resume interviews is likely to reflect when campaigning resumes. 

The suspension is a gesture of respect

The UK terrorist threat level has risen to “critical”. Since the Westminster Parliament was the target of a terrorist attack only two months ago, you might think one of the primary reasons for stopping campaigning would be the security of the public figures involved.

However, party sources say the main motivation for suspending the campaign is out of respect, and a realisation that the public does not want to see parties squabbling at this point in time. 

Indeed, so far, politicians have not exactly been hiding. The Prime Minister Theresa May went to Manchester on Tuesday morning, while Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and home secretary Amber Rudd attended the vigil in the evening. 

No one really knows when campaigning will resume

Because the parties want to begin campaigning at the same time, there is no fixed time for when candidates hit the streets again. However, the awkward fact remains that we are halfway through a general election campaign. The Scottish National Party cancelled its manifesto launch after the terror attack. So while “indefinite means indefinite”, as one party source told me, it can’t really mean 8 June. 

When the Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered during the EU referendum, campaigning was suspended for three days before resuming again. If the same rule is applied, campaigning may start as early as Friday. However, the parties may prefer to wait until the weekend, and make a fresh start on Monday.

The Scottish Greens certainly seem to be planning for this. A planned manifesto launch on Friday has been postponed, but may happen on Monday. 

Campaigning may look a bit different when it starts

When campaigning does resume, it is likely to be a gradual process, rather than epic photo ops and rosettes. In the meantime, expect more scrutiny of parties’ policies on terrorism, security and civil liberties. 
 

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The New Statesman Cover | Why the Islamic State targets Britain
May 24th, 2017, 07:19 PM

A first look at this week's magazine.


 

GETT
What the “critical” UK terrorist threat level means
May 24th, 2017, 07:19 PM

The security services believe that Salman Abedi, was not a lone operator but part of a wider cell.

Following the Manchester bombing, the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (an inter-agency organisation comprised of 16 different agencies) has raised the UK's threat level from "Severe" to "Critical", the highest possible level.

What does that mean? It doesn't mean, as per some reports, that an attack is believed to be or is definitely imminent, but that one could be imminent.

It suggests that the security services believe that Salman Abedi, was not a lone operator but part of a wider cell that is still at large and may be planning further attacks. As the BBC's Dominic Casciani explains, one reason why attacks of this sort are rare is that they are hard to do without help, which can raise suspicions among counterterrorism officials or bring would-be perpetrators into contact with people who are already being monitored by the security services.

That, as the Times reports, Abedi recently returned from Libya suggests his was an attack that was either "enabled" – that is, he was provided with training and possibly material by international jihadist groups – or "directed", as opposed to the activities of lone attackers, which are "inspired" by other attacks but not connected to a wider plot.

The hope is that, as with the elevated threat level in 2006 and 2007, it will last only a few days while Abedi's associates are located by the security services, as will the presence of the armed forces in lieu of armed police at selected locations such as parliament, cultural institutions and the like, designed to free up specialist police capacity.

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Manchester united: “A minority of absolute idiots are trying to break us apart”
May 24th, 2017, 07:19 PM

At the vigil, one man’s T-shirt read: “The only thing that’s allowed to be separated by colour is the laundry.”

A day after one of the worst atrocities in the history of the city, Manchester's people were keen to show the world the resilience of the Mancunian spirit.

Dom's, an Italian restaurant, is in walking distance from Manchester Arena, where 22 people had lost their lives to a suicide bomber the night before. On Tuesday, the staff were giving out free coffee, tea and pizza to anyone who needed it. On a table outside, there was a condolences book, and teary passers-by left RIP messages to those who perished. Under a bright blue sky, the community seemed more united than ever, the goodwill pouring out of everyone I met. But the general mood was sombre. 

"We need to make space for healing and for building up our community again, and just getting people to feel comfortable in their own city," the Dean of Manchester, Rogers Govendor, told me.

The terrorist has been named as Salman Ramadan Abedi, a 22-year-old Mancunian of Libyan descent. But with a population of 600,000, Manchester is a cosmopolitan hub, and proud of it. Throughout the day I encountered people of all skin shades and religions. On one of the roads off Albert Square, a couple of Orthodox Jewish boys set up a little stand where people could grab a bottle of water and, if they so desired, hold hands and pray.

On the night of the tragedy, Muslim and Sikh cab drivers turned off the meter and made their way to Manchester Arena to offer free rides to anyone – many of them injured – who was trying to escape the mayhem and reach safety. "It's what we do around here," my taxi driver said in a thick Arabic accent.

The dissonance between the increasingly frantic debate on social media and what was discussed on the streets was stark. I spoke, on and off the record, with about two dozen residents, eavesdropped on a number of conversations, and not once did I hear anyone speaking out against the cultural melting pot that Manchester is today. If anything, people were more eager than ever to highlight it. 

"Manchester has always been hugely multicultural, and people always pull together at times of trouble and need," said Andrew Hicklin. "They are not going to change our society and who we are as people. We live free lives."

It was also a day when political divisions were put aside. Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn agreed to suspend their campaigns. For the next few days there will be no Labour v Tory, no Brexiteer v Remainer, at least not in this part of the country. This city has closed ranks and nothing will be allowed to mar that cohesion.

"I don't demonise anyone," said Dennis Bolster, who stopped by to sign the book of condolence outside Dom's. "I just know a small minority of absolute idiots, driven by whatever they think they are driven by, are the people who are trying to break us apart."

Later in the day, as people were getting off work, thousands flocked to Albert Square to show their respect for the victims. Members of the Sikh community entered the square carrying "I love MCR" signs. The crowd promptly applauded. A middle-aged man wore a T-shirt which said: "The only thing that's allowed to be separated by colour is the laundry." A moment of silence was observed. It was eerie, at times overwhelmingly sad. But it was also moving and inspiring.

Tony Walsh, a local poet, brought brief respite from the pain when he recited "This is the Place", his ode to the city and its people. The first verse went:

This is the place In the north-west of England. It’s ace, it’s the best

And the songs that we sing from the stands, from our bands

Set the whole planet shaking.

Our inventions are legends. There’s nowt we can’t make, and so we make brilliant music

We make brilliant bands

We make goals that make souls leap from seats in the stands

On stage, everyday political foes became temporary allies. The Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, Home Secretary Amber Rudd, the Lib Dem leader Tim Farron, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, and the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, all brushed shoulders. Their message was clear: "We are Manchester too."

The vigil lasted a little over half an hour. On other occasions, a crowd this size in the centre of Manchester would give the authorities reason for concern. But not this time. Everyone was on their best behaviour. Only a few were drinking. 

As Mancunians made their way home, I went over to a family that had been standing not far from me during the vigil. The two children, a boy and a girl, both not older than ten, were clutching their parents' hands the whole time. I asked the dad if he will give them a few extra hugs and kisses as he tucks them in tonight. "Oh, absolutely," he said. "Some parents whose children went to the concert last night won't ever get to do that again. It's heartbreaking."

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Theresa May raises UK terrorist threat level to “critical”
May 23rd, 2017, 07:19 PM

A further attack may be “imminent” and armed soldiers will be deployed on the streets. 

After last night's horrific attack in Manchester, Theresa May has announced that the terrorist threat level has been increased from "severe" to "critical" – meaning a further attack may be imminent. The Prime Minister, following the advice of the independent Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre, said in a statement from 10 Downing Street: "The work undertaken throughout the day has revealed that it is a possibility we cannot ignore that there is a wider group of individuals linked to this attack."

The new threat level, the highest available and last imposed in 2007, means that up to 5,000 soldiers will be deployed on the streets to replace armed police, guarding sensitive points such as parliament and railway stations. The intelligence services are likely to have been troubled by the relative sophistication of the Manchester Arena attack, a nail bomb, which murdered 22 people and injured 59 others.

May added: "This morning I said that the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre, the independent organisation responsible for setting the threat level on the basis of the intelligence available, was keeping the threat level under constant review. It has now concluded, on the basis of today’s investigations, that the threat level should be increased for the time being from severe to critical. This means that their assessment is not only that an attack remains highly likely, but that a further attack may be imminent.”

Operation Temperer – allowing military personnel to take to the streets – had been enforced, May announced. “This means that armed police officers responsible for duties such as guarding key sites will be replaced by members of the armed forces, which will allow the police to significantly increase the number of armed officers on patrol in key locations. You might also see military personnel deployed at certain events such as concerts and sports matches, helping the police to keep the public safe.” 

The terrorist threat level was last raised to "critical" in June 2007 following the attempted bombing of a Tiger Tiger nightclub in London and the Glasgow Airport attack. It was also increased after the failed 2006 Heathrow bomb plot. On both occasions, the "critical" status remained in place for less than a week.

May will chair another meeting of the government's emergency Cobra committee at 9.30am tomorrow. The Conservatives and Labour have suspended all national and local election campaigning until further notice.

In her concluding remarks, the Prime Minister emphasised: "I do not want the public to feel unduly alarmed." She continued: "We have faced a serious terror threat in our country for many years and the operational response I have just outlined is a proportionate and sensible response to the threat that our security experts judge we face. I ask everybody to be vigilant and to co-operate with and support the police as they go about their important work.

"I want to end by repeating the important message I gave in my statement earlier today. We will take every measure available to us and provide every additional resource we can to the police and the security services as they work to protect the public.

"And while we mourn the victims of last night’s appalling attack, we stand defiant. The spirit of Manchester and the spirit of Britain is far mightier than the sick plots of depraved terrorists, that is why the terrorists will never win and we will prevail." 

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Manchester will keep being Manchester – anything else would let the victims down
May 23rd, 2017, 07:19 PM

The city will survive even this bitter attack on the young and their freedom to have fun.

It was probably the first time many people had ever heard of Ariana Grande. That in itself is horribly significant, this perverted generational dimension to the plan. Manchester throbs and pounds to the sound of music every night. Most evenings of the week, I have a choice of gigs or concerts I can go to in the city. Some nights I make several in succession – “double dropping”, as we say in a term borrowed from drum’n’bass and drug culture. You probably wouldn’t find me at an Ariana Grande concert; her brand of slick teen, YouTube-friendly R’n’B is not really my thing, nor is it meant to be. But it is very much the thing of a very great many 14-year-old girls.

Targeting that Manchester show, picking the MEN Arena that night, choosing that as the place where you would detonate a nail-filled explosive in a crowded, teeming foyer as the suicide bomber did, seems to be an attack not just on Manchester, not just on pop culture, not just on youth even, but – unbelievable as this would seem – a specific, bitter, nihilistic attack on children, girls, young women and their freedom to have fun in the way they want.

There are some who say that modern Manchester began with a bomb blast. In 1996, in one of their final, almost desultory and wilful acts of valedictory violence, the IRA set off an explosion in the city centre, down on Corporation Street by the weary and unlovely Arndale Centre, that squat retail edifice of 1970s brutalism. There, on Saturday 15 June 1996, the IRA triggered a truck bomb that was the largest explosive device detonated in Britain since the Second World War. No one was killed but more than 200 people were injured. The structural damage was enormous. Many buildings, shabby and smart alike, were damaged beyond repair and had to be demolished. The city was a building site for years.

Most of the work was done in time for the new millennium, though, at a cost of an estimated £1.2bn. Out of the rubble (literally) the modern Manchester of sleek trams, hipster bars, street food and chic hotels emerged. Until then, for all its vigour and self-belief, Manchester still looked like a postwar city of faded grandeur and former magnificence; rough around the edges, its heart still pockmarked with strewn bricks and boarded entries, its fringes often empty and desolate. The city felt like the music of Joy Division, the Smiths and Happy Mondays sounded: rain-lashed, bleak, sardonic, hedonistic but in a bug-eyed, low-rent, faintly menacing way. The jokes and myths were of rain and drugs and guns. Now they are of beard barbers and vintage bicycles, of Chorlton luvvies, the Northern Quarter, MediaCity and millionaire footballers.

To the people of Manchester and beyond, there is no credible comparison between the events of 21 years ago and this week. Five days after the 1996 blast, the IRA issued a statement in which it claimed responsibility, but regretted any injury to “civilians”. Wreaking injury and death on the innocent is precisely what atrocities such as the MEN Arena attack are about. Indeed, it is all they are about when viewed through anything other than the warped, distorting lens of fanaticism and barbarism. Whatever your feelings about Irish republicanism, and however feebly the right-wing press tries to kindle that old demonology to discredit Jeremy Corbyn, Manchester, like all north-western cities in England, has huge Irish and Catholic populations. These families and pubs and streets may not have sympathised with the IRA but their aims and their struggle would have been a familiar thread of family life and local culture. Those aims did not seem unreasonable to many: a united homeland, free of an occupying military colonial presence.

By contrast, it is hard for anyone sane to comprehend what Isis or its deranged “lone wolf” sympathisers can possibly want, beyond their own martyrdom and an end to what we think of as civilisation. It is a new dark age.

“I have no words,” Ariana Grande posted after the attack. Others in fact had quite a few words, to which I am, of course, now adding. At times like this we reach first for cliché, but irritation at social media feeds soon softened when one realised that people mostly meant well and, God knows, meaning well was something to cherish and value in the aftermath of such violence.

A few people invoked the Manchester of laddish rock culture, of Oasis, Factory Records and being “mad for it”. They talked of the fact that Manchester “rocked hard”; and, well-intentioned as this was, it somewhat misunderstands what had happened. The bomb was, as far as we can guess, an attack on the fans of a young American woman and entertainer, on the frivolousness and foolishness and fun of young girlhood, on lipstick and dressing up and dancing, on “boyfs” and “bezzies” and all the other freedoms that so enrage the fanatics and contradict their idiot dogmas. Hatred of women is a smouldering core of their wider, deeper loathing for us. But to single out children feels like a new low of wickedness.

We held our breath when we heard the president of the United States had shared his thoughts on the tragedy. His comment on the bombers (“I won’t call them monsters, because they would like that term. They would think that’s a great name. I will call them . . . losers, because that’s what they are – they’re losers”) was as crassly expressed as usual and drew the usual sniggering. But, in its casual bullishness, Trump’s was a strangely Mancunian response. This is not a city that shrinks and frets and wrings its hands. This is city that is used to winning and will happily call its rivals “losers”. As my friend John Niven tweeted with characteristic gusto: “To the sordid animals making nail bombs: in 1940 the Luftwaffe dropped 443 tons of high explosive on Manchester in 48 hrs. You’ll lose too.”

In the endless, repetitive rolling news after the bombing, I heard another well-intentioned voice, this time a media-friendly psychologist, saying tremulously that “Manchester will never be the same again”. Well, to use the local argot: sorry, chuck, but that’s bobbins. Manchester will mourn and weep but it will come through and get on and it will continue to be Manchester, to the delight of its citizens and the amused exasperation of nearly every other British city.

To not be the same, to change, would be to let the victims down. It may be a little harder to get into gigs for a while; the evenings may be a little more awkward and inconvenient, as air travel has become – but that is a small cost compared to what those kids and their families paid. As a great man once said, “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.” It will be the price of victory.

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Manchester attack: Theresa May condemns “warped and twisted” terrorist
May 23rd, 2017, 07:19 PM

The Prime Minister said the police were treating the explosion at the Manchester Arena as “an appalling terrorist attack”.

At least 22 people are dead and around 59 have been injured, including children, after an explosion at a concert arena in Manchester that is being treated as a terrorist attack.

Police believe the attack was carried out by a single suicide bomber, who also died. However, the police have also announced the arrest of a 23-year-old man in south Manchester in connection with the attack.

Speaking before the announcement, Chief Constable Ian Hopkins said: "We have been treating this as a terrorist attack." The attacker was named by newspapers late on Tuesday as Salman Abedi, a British man of Libyan heritage. The source for this is US, rather than British, intelligence.

The victims were young concert-goers and their parents. Victims include the 18-year-old Georgina Callander and the eight-year-old Saffie Rose Roussos.

The Prime Minister, Theresa May, earlier said that the country's "thoughts and prayers" were with those affected by the attack.

She said: "It is now beyond doubt that the people of Manchester and of this country have fallen victim to a callous terrorist attack, an attack that targeted some of the youngest people in our society with cold calculation.

"This was among the worst terrorist incidents we have ever experienced in the United Kingdom, and although it is not the first time Manchester has suffered in this way, it is the worst attack the city has experienced and the worst ever to hit the north of England."

The blast occurred as an Ariana Grande concert was finishing at Manchester Arena on Monday night. According to May, the terrorist deliberately detonated his device as fans were leaving "to cause maximum carnage".

May said the country will struggle to understand the "warped and twisted mind" that saw "a room packed with young children" as "an opportunity for carnage". 

"This attack stands out for its appalling, sickening cowardice deliberately targeting innocent and defenceless children," she said. "Young people who should have been enjoying one of the most memorable nights of their lives."

She thanked the emergency services "on behalf of the country" for their "utmost professionalism" and urged anyone with information about the attack to contact the police. 

"The general election campaign has been suspended. I will chair another meeting of Cobra later today."

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Ending her statement, she said: 

"At terrible moments like these it is customary for leaders politicians and others to condemn the perpetrators and declare that the terrorists will not win. But the fact we have been here before and we need to say this again does not make it any less true. For as so often while we experienced the worst of humanity in Manchester last night, we also saw the best.

"The cowardice of the attacker met the bravery of the emergency services and the people of Manchester. The attempt to divide us met countless acts of kindness that brought people together and in the days ahead those must be the things we remember. The images we hold in our minds should not be those of senseless slaughter, but the ordinary men and women who put their own concerns for safety aside and rushed to help."

Emergency services, including hundreds of police, worked overnight to recover the victims and secure the area, while families desperately searched for their children. The dead included children and teenagers. The injured are being treated at eight hospitals in Greater Manchester, and some are in a critical condition. 

The so-called Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the attack, although this has not been independently verified, and the organisation has been slow to respond. 

Theresa May chaired a Cobra meeting on Tuesday morning and another in the afternoon. She said police believed they knew the identity of the perpretator, and were working "at speed" to establish whether he was part of a larger network. She met Manchester's chief constable, the Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham, and members of the emergency services. A flat in a Manchester suburb has been raided.

There were reports overnight of strangers offering their homes to concert-goers, and taxis taking people away from the scene of the explosion for free.

As the news broke, Grande, who had left the stage moments before the attack, tweeted that she felt "broken". 

Manchester's newly elected metro mayor, Andy Burnham, called the explosion "an evil act" and said: "After our darkest of nights Manchester is waking up to the most difficult of dawns."

He thanked the emergency services and the people of Manchester, and said "it will be business as usual as far as possible in our great city". 

Extra police, including armed officers, have been deployed on the city's streets, and the area around the Manchester Arena remains cordoned off. Victoria Station is closed. 

The main political parties suspended campaigning for the general election for at least 24 hours after the news broke. The Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said: “I am horrified by the horrendous events in Manchester last night. My thoughts are with families and friends of those who have died and been injured.

“Today the whole country will grieve for the people who have lost their lives."

Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, said: “My thoughts are with the victims, their families and all those who have been affected by this barbaric attack in Manchester."

Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, a city that suffered a terrorist attack two months ago, tweeted that: "London stands with Manchester."

The attack happened while many Brits were sleeping, but international leaders have already been offering their condolences. Justin Trudeau, the prime minister of Canada, tweeted: "Canadians are shocked by the news of the horrific attack in Manchester." The Australian parliament paused for a minute's silence in remembrance of the dead. 

 

 

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Aussies and Kiwis can be “us” to Brexiteers – so why are EU citizens “them”?
May 23rd, 2017, 07:19 PM

Nostalgia for the empire means Brexiteers still see Australians and New Zealanders as "Brits abroad". 

There are many terrible things about Brexit, most of which I counted, mournfully, on the night of the referendum while hiding in a stairwell because I was too depressed to talk to anyone at the party I’d just run away from. But one of the biggest didn’t hit me until the next day, when I met a friend and (I’m aware how ridiculous this may sound) suddenly remembered she was Dutch. She has been here 20 years, her entire adult life, and it’s not that I thought she was British exactly; I’d just stopped noticing she was foreign.

Except now, post-referendum, she very definitely was and her right to remain in Britain was suddenly up for grabs. Eleven months on, the government has yet to clarify the matter for any of Britain’s three million European residents. For some reason, ministers seem to think this is OK.

If you attended a British university in the past 20 years, work in the NHS or the City – or have done almost anything, in large parts of the country – you’ll know people like this: Europeans who have made their lives here, launching careers, settling down with partners, all on the assumption that Britain was part of the EU and so they were as secure here as those with British passports. The referendum has changed all that. Our friends and neighbours are now bargaining chips, and while we may not think of them as foreigners, our leaders are determined to treat them as such. People we thought of as “us” have somehow been recast as “them”.

There’s a problem with bringing notions of “us” and “them” into politics (actually, there are many, which seems like a very good reason not to do it, but let’s focus on one): not everyone puts the boundary between them in the same place. Take the Tory MEP Daniel Hannan. The sort of man one can imagine spent boyhood afternoons copying out Magna Carta for fun, Hannan spent decades campaigning for Brexit. Yet he’s not averse to all forms of international co-operation, and in his spare time he’s an enthusiastic advocate of CANZUK, a sort of Commonwealth-on-steroids in which there would be free movement ­between Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK.

When pushed on the reasons this entirely theoretical union is OK, when the real, existing one we’re already in isn’t, he has generally pointed to things such as shared language, culture and war memorials. But the subtext, occasionally made text by less subtle commentators, is that, unlike those Continentals, natives of the other Anglo countries aren’t really foreign. An Australian who’s never set foot in Britain can be “us”; the German doctor who’s been here two decades is still “them”.

There’s a funny thing about Hannan, which I wouldn’t make a big thing of, except it seems to apply to a number of other prominent Leave and CANZUK advocates: for one so fixated on British culture and identity, he grew up a very long way from Britain. He spent his early years in Peru, on his family’s farm near Lima, or occasionally on another one in Bolivia. (You know how it is.) That’s not to say he never set foot in Britain, of course: he was sent here for school.

His bosom pal Douglas Carswell, who is currently unemployed but has in the past found work as both a Conservative and a Ukip MP, had a similarly exotic upbringing. He spent his childhood in Uganda, where his parents were doctors, before boarding at Charterhouse. Then there’s Boris Johnson who, despite being the most ostentatiously British character since John Bull, was born in New York and spent the early years of his life in New England. Until recently, indeed, he held US citizenship; he gave it up last year, ostensibly to show his loyalty to Britain, though this is one of those times where the details of an answer feel less revealing than the fact that he needed to provide one. Oh and Boris went to boarding school, too, of course.

None of these childhoods would look out of place if you read in a biography that it had happened in the 1890s, so perhaps it’s not surprising that they instilled in all of their victims a form of imperial nostalgia. I don’t mean that the Brexiteers were raised to believe they had a moral duty to go around the world nicking other people’s countries (though who knows what the masters really teach them at Eton). Rather, by viewing their homeland from a distance, they grew up thinking of it as a land of hope and glory, rather than the depressing, beige place of white dog poo and industrial strife that 1970s Britain was.

Seen through this lens, much of the more delusional Brexiteer thinking suddenly makes sense. Of course they need us more than we need them; of course they’ll queue up to do trade deals. Even Johnson’s habit of quoting bits of Latin like an Oxford don who’s had a stroke feels like harking back to empire: not to the Roman empire itself (he’s more of a late republican) but to the British one, where such references marked you out as ruling class.

There’s another side effect of this attitude. It enables a belief in a sort of British diaspora: people who are British by virtue of ancestry and ideology no matter how far from these shores they happen to live. In the 19th century, Australians and Canadians were just Brits who happened to be living abroad. What Britain absolutely wasn’t, however, was just another European country. So, in the Leavers’ minds, Aussies and Kiwis still get to be us. The millions of Europeans who have made Britain their home are still, unfortunately, them.

I’m sure these men bear Britain’s European citizens no ill-will; they have, however, fought for a policy that has left them in limbo for 11 months with no end in sight. But that’s the thing about Brexiteers, isn’t it? They may live among us – but they don’t share our values.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric

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How Roger Moore made James Bond immortal
May 23rd, 2017, 07:19 PM

Roger Moore, James Bond actor, has died at the age of 89. 

Unlike every other actor to play James Bond, Roger Moore was already a star when he came to the role. Not a star of motion pictures admittedly, although he had topped the bill in some minor films, but a star in television. The lead of the adventure series Ivanhoe (1958-59) and The Saint (1962-69), the latter of which brought him international fame and reportedly made him the highest paid actor on television.

It was a far cry from his beginnings. Although he lived much of his life abroad (it has been said, for tax reasons, something the actor himself denied) and was regarded by many as the archetypal English gentleman, Moore began life as a working-class Londoner.  Born in Stockwell in 1927, the son of a policeman and his wife, he grew up in a rented three room, third floor flat in SW8, and attended Battersea Grammar School. There, he later insisted "looking as though I was listening", was the only subject at which he excelled. Battersea Grammar was, despite the name, then an overcrowded local school boxed in by the buildings and sidings of Clapham Junction Station and made dark and noisy by the still expanding railways.

As both Moore and his friend and fellow film star Michael Caine have observed, their backgrounds in urban South London are almost identical, something that has never fitted with public perception of either of them. The difference was, as again both noted, that when it came to National Service Moore, unlike Caine, was picked out as officer material and trained accordingly, in the process acquiring the accent he would carry for the rest of his life.

The common, near universal, ignorance of Moore’s origins (although he himself was never shy of them, writing about his family in his various books and discussing them in interviews) says something significant about Roger Moore the public figure. Despite being a household name for decades, an international film star and latterly a knight of the realm, he was, if not misunderstood by his audience, then never really quite what they assumed him to be.

This extends, of course, into his work as an actor. Moore was often mocked by the unimaginative, who saw him as a wooden actor, or one lacking in versatility. Often, he was somehow self-deprecating enough to play along. And yet, the camera loved him, really loved him and his timing - particularly but not exclusively comic - was extraordinary. To see Moore work in close up is to see someone in absolute control of his craft. His raised eyebrow, often mocked, was a precision instrument, exactly as funny or exactly as surprising as he wanted it to be.

It is more accurate, as well as fairer, to say that Moore was typecast, rather than limited, and he made no secret of the fact that he played his two most famous roles, Simon Templar in The Saint and James Bond 007 as essentially the same person. But he would have been a fool not to. Bond producers Harry Saltzman and Albert R "Cubby" Broccoli’s EON productions wanted Templar nearly as much as they wanted Moore.

They had thought of the actor for the part of 007 as early as 1961, before casting Sean Connery and before Moore had played The Saint, so it was not just his success as Templar that made him suitable. Yet both producers knew that audiences in both Britain and America loved the way Moore played Templar, and that if that affection could be translated into ticket sales, their series would be on to a winner.

It was a gamble for all involved. George Lazenby had already tried, and as far many were concerned, failed to replace Connery as James Bond. When it came to 1971’s outing in the series, Diamonds Are Forever, David Picker, head of United Artists, which distributed Bond films, insisted that Connery be brought back for an encore before EON tried a third actor in the role, re-hiring Connery at a then record $1.25m and paying off actor John Gavin, whom EON had already cast. That’s how high the stakes were for both the Bond series and Moore’s reputation when he stepped into the role for 1973’s Live and Let Die. The film was a huge success, so much so that EON rushed out its sequel, The Man With The Golden Gun the next year, rather than after two years as it had planned.

The reason for that success, although the film has many other good qualities, is that Moore is brilliant in it. His whip-thin, gently ironic and oddly egalitarian adventurer, capable of laughing at himself as well as others, is a far cry from Connery’s violently snobbish "joke superman". It’s been said that Connery’s Bond was a working-class boy’s fantasy of what it would be like to be an English gentleman, while Moore’s was essentially the fantasy of a slightly effete middle-class boy who dreams of one day winning a fight. It’s a comprehensive reinvention of the part.

That’s not something that can be achieved by accident. One shouldn’t, however, over-accentuate the lightness of the performance. Moore’s Bond is exactly as capable of rage and even sadism as his predecessor. The whimsy he brings to the part is an addition to, not a subtraction from, the character’s range.

Moore expanded Bond’s emotional palette in other ways too. His best onscreen performance is in For Your Eyes Only (1981), in which the then 53-year-old Moore gets to play a Bond seen grieving at his wife’s grave, lecturing allies on the futility of revenge ("When setting out for revenge, first dig two graves") and brightly turn down a much younger woman’s offer of sex with the phrase "Put your clothes on and I’ll buy you an ice cream". None of which are scenes you can begin to imagine Connery’s Bond pulling off.

Moore was not just a huge success as Bond, he remains, adjusted for inflation, the most financially successful lead actor the series has ever had. He was also successful in a way that guaranteed he would have successors. What he gave to the part by not imitating Connery, by not even hinting at Connery in his performance, was a licence to those who followed him to find their own way in the role. This, along with his continued popularity over twelve years in the role, probably the only reason the series managed to survive the 1970s and the EON’s finally running of Ian Fleming novels to adapt to the screen.

Actors have received knighthoods for their craft for centuries, but when Moore was knighted in 2003, there was some push back. Moore was understandably seen as not being in the same category as an Alec Guinness or a Ralph Richardson. But the citations for Moore's knighthood indicated that it was for his decades of charity work with Unicef that he was being honoured. It’s yet another of the misconceptions, large and small, that aggregated around him.

Moore himself was always clear that it was the profile playing James Bond had given him that made his role with Unicef possible, let alone successful. When asked about pride in his charity work, he always responded that instead he felt frustration. Frustration because as with, for example, the UN’s iodine deficiency programme or Unicef’s work with children with landmine injuries, there was always so much more work to be done than could be done.

It was an answer that, along with his energetic campaigning, at the age of 88, to ban the use of wild animals in zoos, pointed to the biggest misunderstanding of all. Moore was known for playing frivolous characters in over the top entertainments and this led to him being perceived by many, even by those he enjoyed his work, as essentially trivial. Ironically, such an assumption reveals only the superficiality of their own reading. The jovial, wry interviewee Sir Roger Moore was, beneath that raised eyebrow, a profoundly serious man.

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The joy of teenage girls is the heart of pop – we can’t let the Manchester attack change that
May 23rd, 2017, 07:19 PM

What happened in Manchester feels horribly new because it targeted young girls in one of the places where young girls can be themselves to the fullest.

This morning, while the radio news talked of nothing but Manchester, my ten-year-old daughter asked me if it was still safe to go and see Adele at Wembley Stadium in July. The ticket was her big Christmas present and the printout of the order confirmation has been blu-tacked to her wall for months. She’s as excited about it as she has been excited about any event in her life, but now she’s also scared. Could this have happened to her when she saw Ed Sheeran the other week? Could it happen to her at Wembley, or anywhere else? I am sure that there are similar conversations happening across the country. Some long-awaited birthday treats will be cancelled. Red-letter days erased from the calendar. Parents can allay their children’s fears (and their own), and decide to go ahead despite them, but they cannot pretend the fear isn’t there, suddenly, where it wasn’t before.

When I first started going to gigs in 1989, I never worried about not coming back. I fretted about missing the last train back to the suburbs, or not having a good view of the stage. You can feel unsafe at a gig, especially if you’re a girl in a moshpit where boys can’t keep their hands to themselves, but usually not life-or-death unsafe. Fatal crowd disasters such as Roskilde in 2000 and Cincinnati in 1979 have spurred the concert industry into making venues as safe as possible. There are sensible, practical measures you can take to avoid crushes.

Terrorism at music venues, however, is relatively new and hard to deal with. This is why the Bataclan massacre in November 2015 had such an enormous impact. There is no hierarchy of tragedy – a death due to terrorism is a death due to terrorism, whether it’s at a concert hall in Paris or a mosque in Iraq – but some tragedies are so close to home that they change the way you think. The first show I attended after the Bataclan (New Order in Brixton) was charged with a strange electricity, as defiance defeated anxiety and the rational mind silenced this new kind of fear. A few weeks later I saw Savages in Paris and it was even more intense. The venue was small and subterranean. I have never paid such close attention to the location of the exits.

Everyone who has tried to reassert normality after an atrocity has felt like this: the first time they took the Tube after 7/7, or went to work in New York in September 2001, or danced in Miami after the Pulse shootings, or stayed out late in Istanbul after last New Year’s Eve. In some countries the fear is never allowed to fade. What happened in Manchester feels horribly new because it targeted young girls in one of the places where young girls can be themselves to the fullest.

The joy of teenage girls is the heart of pop, and it is often misunderstood, if not patronised and dismissed. Their excitement doesn’t derive purely from fancying the star on the stage – when I saw Taylor Swift or Miley Cyrus (at the MEN Arena, in fact), the screaming was as intense as it is for any boy band. In fact, it’s not entirely to do with what’s happening on the stage at all. As a critic in my forties who’s been to hundreds of shows, I may be bothered by an incoherent concept or a mid-set lull, but nobody around me is solely interested in the performance. Even shows that I’ve found disappointing have an ecstatic carnival atmosphere because a pop show is a catalyst for a great night out – one that may have been anticipated for months. The pop star is a vessel for a mess of inchoate desires and thrilling, confusing sensations (Bowie knew this) so the girls aren’t just screaming for the star; they’re screaming for themselves and for each other. They are celebrating music, of course, but also youth, friendship, the ineffable glee of the moment, life at its most unquenchable. It’s a rite of passage that should never be contaminated by even an inkling of dread.

First and foremost, I feel compassion for the victims and their friends and families. Then for the survivors, including Ariana Grande, who will be traumatised for a long time to come. But beyond those immediately affected, this atrocity will cast a long shadow across the youths of countless pop fans. Will something like this happen again? Perhaps not. Statistically, the possibility of an attack at one particular show is minuscule. Over time, the fear will subside, because it always does. My daughter is absolutely still going to see Adele, and she’ll have a whale of a time. But the knowledge that it could happen at all means a loss of innocence.

A girl in an Ariana Grande top. Photo: Getty
Inside a shaken city: “I just want to be anywhere that’s not Manchester”
May 23rd, 2017, 07:19 PM

The morning after the bombing of the Manchester Arena has left the city’s residents jumpy.

On Tuesday morning, the streets in Manchester city centre were eerily silent.

The commuter hub of Victoria Station – which backs on to the arena – was closed as police combed the area for clues, and despite Mayor Andy Burnham’s line of "business as usual", it looked like people were staying away.

Manchester Arena is the second largest indoor concert venue in Europe. On Monday night, with a capacity crowd of 18,000, the venue was packed with young people from around the country – at least 22 of whom will never come home. At about 10.33pm, a suicide bomber detonated his device near the exit. Among the dead was an eight-year-old girl. Many more victims remain in hospital. 

Those Mancunians who were not alerted by the sirens woke to the news of their city's worst terrorist attack. Still, as the day went on, the city’s hubbub soon returned and, by lunchtime, there were shoppers and workers milling around Exchange Square and the town hall.

Tourists snapped images of the Albert Square building in the sunshine, and some even asked police for photographs like any other day.

But throughout the morning there were rumours and speculation about further incidents – the Arndale Centre was closed for a period after 11.40am while swaths of police descended, shutting off the main city-centre thoroughfare of Market Street.

Corporation Street – closed off at Exchange Square – was at the centre of the city’s IRA blast. A postbox which survived the 1996 bombing stood in the foreground as officers stood guard, police tape fluttering around cordoned-off spaces.

It’s true that the streets of Manchester have known horror before, but not like this.

I spoke to students Beth and Melissa who were in the bustling centre when they saw people running from two different directions.

They vanished and ducked into River Island when an alert came over the Tannoy, and a staff member herded them through the back door on to the street.

“There were so many police stood outside the Arndale, it was so frightening,” Melissa told me. “We thought it will be fine, it’ll be safe after last night. There were police everywhere walking in, and we felt like it would be fine.”

Beth said that they had planned a day of shopping, and weren’t put off by the attack. “We heard about the arena this morning but we decided to come into the city. We were watching it all this morning, but you can’t let this stop you.”

They remembered the 1996 Arndale bombing, but added: “We were too young to really understand.”

And even now they’re older, they still did not really understand what had happened to the city.

“There's nowhere to go, where’s safe? I just want to go home,” Melissa said. “I just want to be anywhere that’s not Manchester.”

Manchester has seen this sort of thing before – but so long ago that the stunned city-dwellers are at a loss. In a city that feels under siege, no one is quite sure how anyone can keep us safe from an unknown threat.

“We saw armed police on the streets – there were loads just then," Melissa said. "I trust them to keep us safe.”

But other observers were less comforted by the sign of firearms.

Ben, who I encountered standing outside an office block on Corporation Street watching the police, was not too forthcoming, except to say, “They don’t know what they’re looking for, do they?” as I passed.

The spirit of the city is often invoked, and at a vigil tonight in Albert Square, there will be solidarity and strength from the capital of the north.

But the community values that Mancunians hold dear are shaken to the core by what has happened here.

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Andy Burnham's full speech on attack: "Manchester is waking up to the most difficult of dawns"
May 23rd, 2017, 07:19 PM

"We are grieving today, but we are strong."

Following Monday night's terror attack on an Ariana Grande concert at the Manchester Arena, newly elected mayor of the city Andy Burnham, gave a speech outside Manchester Town Hall on Tuesday morning, the full text of which is below: 

After our darkest of nights, Manchester is today waking up to the most difficult of dawns. 

It’s hard to believe what has happened here in the last few hours and to put into words the shock, anger and hurt that we feel today.

These were children, young people and their families that those responsible chose to terrorise and kill.

This was an evil act. Our first thoughts are with the families of those killed and injured. And we will do whatever we can to support them.

We are grieving today, but we are strong. Today it will be business as usual as far as possible in our great city.

I want to thank the hundreds of police, fire and ambulance staff who worked throughout the night in the most difficult circumstances imaginable.

We have had messages of support from cities around the country and across the world, and we want to thank them for that.

But lastly I wanted to thank the people of Manchester. Even in the minute after the attack, they opened their doors to strangers and drove them away from danger.

They gave the best possible immediate response to those who seek to divide us and it will be that spirit of Manchester that will prevail and hold us together.

Oli Scarff/ Getty
Why I'm spoiling my ballot on 8 June 2017
May 23rd, 2017, 07:19 PM

A paid-up Conservative party member and anti-apathy campaigner is not impressed with the options on offer. 

Theresa May has lost my vote – and no other political leader will win it over.

Mainstream British politics has deserted the liberal centre-right. Jeremy Corbyn has produced the most left-wing manifesto in the last thirty years (but at least he has a vision.) Tim Farron’s Liberal Democrats have a couple of good policies – a regulated cannabis market and a push on Freedom of Information transparency, to name a few (but please drop the Brexit nonsense.) Ukip and the Greens are barely worth mentioning – as previous pledges merge into the major parties manifestos, it is arguable that they have done their job. Theresa May, almost single-handedly, if you believe reports that her cabinet widely disapprove of her policies, has produced the most left-wing Tory manifesto, arguably ever. It reeks of Edward Heath’s collectivism. It panders to a dangerous sense of nationalism, of Orwellian big government, of protectionism and toying with markets. It ignores hard-nosed pragmatism for rhetoric – immigration brings £25bn into the British economy, legalising cannabis would break up gangs and prioritise health and safety of users.

So, where is the opposition? It seems that, with Brexit, British politicians have decided that the best way to go is backwards. Where is the radical vision for freer markets (see: Dan Hannan) and freer people? Britain should be looking forward to being a world leader in technology and innovation; preparing ourselves for the Digital Age; going out into the world. Why, when Brexit was built from classical liberal ideas of sovereignty, democracy and freedom, has Theresa May decided this is the time to leave them behind? Britons, with our love of liberty, don’t believe, as May does, that coffee is a psychoactive substance which must be exempted from her sweeping drug laws – or that the internet is so dangerous that we need constant surveillance.

I’ll tell you: there is none. It’s why, on 8 June 2017, despite being a paying member of the Conservative party and an anti-apathy campaigner, I’ll be spoiling my ballot.

Let’s be clear – going "none of the above" is never a cop out. People don’t die for the right to vote for us all to blindly tick a name we don’t believe in. It’s certainly true that the only wasted vote is one cast without conviction. In spoiling the ballot, you are making it clear that you are disillusioned – rather than not voting at all and giving politics an excuse to ignore you.

Matt Gillow is the founder and managing director of Talk Politics

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I spent so long worrying about my teeth that I forgot about my eyes
May 23rd, 2017, 07:19 PM

I suppose I am due for my seven-yearly punch in the face by Time.

I am peering in the mirror, just before bedtime. There’s something funny going on around my eyes, especially the right one. It looks as though I’ve been a victim of a practical joke, the one that involves handing someone a pair of binoculars whose eyepieces have been rubbed with soot. (I wonder where one gets soot these days, if one is any distance from a genteel home with a wood-burning stove. Burning the end of a cork can work, but when was the last time you saw a cork? Don’t get me started on corks.)

This is worrying, to say the least. We are coming up to my birthday – by the time you read this it will have come and gone – which is always a time of year when I am filled with a sense of time passing horribly swiftly, as I suppose is the case with many of you lot.

However, at least we only age one day at a time, in the normal run of things. Great shock can accelerate this enormously, though; and I remember an aged actor telling me once that, every seven years, time (and here he made a gesture somewhere between wiping a window and waving goodbye) suddenly changes your appearance. Well, I’ve had some shocks lately, about which I am not at liberty to talk just yet; and I suppose I am due for my seven-yearly punch in the face by Time.

But this ring round the eyes is not good. I rub at it and it doesn’t go away. It’s something male Lezards are prone to, I recall: and although I thought I might have inherited at least some of my mother’s seeming immortality, that is not the case. Then again, I have been hitting the wine and the roll-ups fairly heavily these days, and although I still look considerably better than I deserve to – basically, I deserve to be in an iron lung – you can’t cheat the forces of entropy.

However, it could be worse. I think of those of my friends around my age whose backs are killing them, or whose necks have gone wrong; who have to turn their whole body to look behind them. My heart bleeds for these people, which is by way of saying, “There but for the grace of God go I.” I suppose being slender, and with no muscles to pull, I have escaped many of these depredations of the middle-aged. Largely.

I once found myself unable to move my right arm anywhere without pain, and above shoulder height without agony, and I hadn’t even slept funnily on it the previous night. That lasted about two months before it went away without even leaving a note, but not before the kindly doctor gave me a prescription for tramadol, prince of opioids, a painkiller against which I will not say a word. (I still have a few left which I am saving for a special occasion.)

But the eyes. The eyes and the teeth. They’re the things that get you in the end, that mark you out as time’s victim. And the hair: which I think of as grey but now looks snow-white in photographs. The teeth . . . I know I go on about these, but I spend pretty much all my spare time thinking about them. I also think about other people’s teeth. When in conversation, I look at their teeth. Aren’t their teeth wonderful? So neat, so white.

I mentioned a trip to the dentist a few issues ago, the purpose of which was to see how much it would cost to make them look presentable again. Two things I didn’t mention: one, that there was a form to fill in beforehand, which asked questions such as: “Are you afraid to smile?” and “Do you cover your mouth with your hand when you smile?” My answers: 1) Yes, and 2) That hadn’t actually occurred to me, but what a bloody good idea, now you mention it. Of course, because I’ve not been trained as a geisha the gesture does not come naturally; so what I do is simply not smile. As I have little to smile about these days, that isn’t so hard.

The second thing I didn’t mention is that the dentist put a temporary crown on my front two teeth to show me what they would look like in an ideal world. Having become familiar with my two eroded stumps, the sight of two normal-length teeth came as something of a shock. Basically, I looked like a rabbit.

Anyway, now it’s the eyes. Maybe I have been sleeping badly and this is just temporary. Maybe a change of diet would help, this time with the odd vegetable and piece of fruit. I had a banana a couple of weeks ago. It was really rather tasty, though a bit of a chore by the end. But it was very easy on the teeth.

I wonder if the skins are good as a poultice for tired eyes. 

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Does the media's herd instinct risk them missing the real story yet again?
May 23rd, 2017, 07:19 PM

 The warning from 2015 and 2016: what matters in the flurry of the campaign may not matter at all the morning after polling

In an election campaign, everyone is on the lookout for political bias on TV. They usually search in vain because journalists prefer a good story to parading their party affiliations. And in any case the regulation by stopwatch during a campaign means there’s little chance to indulge one party over another when on-air time is being closely monitored.

But that doesn’t stop unfairness caused by the herd instincts of journalists seeking headlines; and what seems like a natural hunt for a story to broadcasting insiders can come across very differently when you’re outside the Westminster and London media bubble.

In 2015, the narrative was simple: there was going to be a hung parliament. The polls said it, so it must be true; and the Conservatives had enormous success in getting everyone to froth about the prospects of a Labour-SNP coalition. For day after day, the game was trying to get Ed Miliband or a senior Labour figure to rule out – or tacitly accept – that there might be a coalition with Nicola Sturgeon; and every programme that obsessed about that subject missed a much bigger story. What would happen if the Conservatives won an overall majority? What was their programme for government? Instead there was an awakening immediately after the election in which the nation discovered that the manifesto commitments – including an in-out referendum on Europe – might be for real.

The referendum campaign in 2016 was also plagued by an obsession with process over policy; and, I suspect with hindsight, a belief that Remain would win in the end. We were minutely informed about the manoeuvrings within the Conservative Party – “blue on blue knife-fights” and all – and about the Labour worries that Jeremy Corbyn was making a poor fist of it. There was a much less conspicuous attempt to outline what ‘Leave’ might look like, and many of the network bulletins endlessly recycled the same soundbites about the economy or immigration. The interest in internal Tory politics drove out the diversity of politicians backing Remain.

In 2017, the two big and related narratives were established from the start. First, the election result would be a Tory landslide; and second, Jeremy Corbyn is hopeless and is leading his party to an historic defeat. This means, paradoxically, that Conservative policy this time is being minutely scrutinised – hence the rows about pensioners’ entitlements and social care. By contrast, political correspondents rushed to put Labour’s manifesto launch into a context of 1983 and another lengthy suicide note; and there was an unmistakeable snarky tone in some of the reporting about Corbyn’s activities.

The narrative may yet be proved right. Third time lucky, and all that. But Theresa May was correct to point out at the weekend that she only needs to lose 6 seats to lose her parliamentary majority, and although she exaggerated by saying it would automatically mean Jeremy Corbyn moving into Downing Street, there are, questions of interest about what would happen if the Tories did lose seats. Tim Farron, for instance, is taking the position of ‘no coalitions’ and is asking for the Liberal Democrats to be a strong voice in opposition. Is that valid at a time of national need in the Brexit negotiations if the Commons arithmetic gives him unexpected power?

More generally, broadcasters should be mindful of their responsibility to give the electorate a chance to hear the views of the parties straight. The traditional way was to allow us first to know what was in the manifestoes without over-intrusive commentary, and yet there have been times in this campaign when I’ve felt we learn too much too quickly about a correspondent’s view of the agenda. Analysis matters a lot, but it has a place within programmes that is not in the opening script or driven home relentlessly through the main report. That is particularly the warning from 2015 and 2016: what matters very much in the flurry of the campaign may not matter at all when we wake up the morning after polling. Allowing for a range of outcomes is wise, and a democratic duty.

Oli Scarff / Stringer
The public like radical policies, but they aren't so keen on radical politicians
May 23rd, 2017, 07:19 PM

Around the world, support for genuinely revolutionary ideas is strong, but in the UK at least, there's less enthusiasm for the people promising them.

You’re probably a getting a little bored of the litany of talking head statistics: trust in elected officials, parliament, the justice system and even democracy itself has been falling steadily for years and is at record lows. Maybe you’ve seen that graph that shows how people born after 1980 are significantly less likely than those born in 1960 to think that living in a democracy is ‘essential’. You’ve possibly heard of the ‘Pasokification’ of the centre-left, so-named the collapse of the once dominant Greek social democratic party Pasok, a technique being aggressively pursued by other centre-left parties in Europe to great effect.    

And so, goes the logic, there is a great appetite for something different, something new. It’s true! The space into which Trump et al barged leaves plenty of room for others: Beppe Grillo in Italy, Spanish Podemos, Bernie Sanders, Jean Luc Melanchon, and many more to come.

In my new book Radicals I followed movements and ideas that in many cases make someone like Jeremy Corbyn seem positively pedestrian: people who want to dismantle the nation state entirely, use technology to live forever, go off grid. All these ideas are finding fertile ground with the frustrated, disillusioned, and idealistic. The challenges of coming down the line – forces of climate change, technological change, fiscal crunch, mass movements of people – will demand new types of political ideas. Radical, outsider thinking is back, and this does, in theory at least, offer a chink of light for Corbyn’s Labour.

Polling last week found pretty surprising levels of support for many of his ideas. A big tax on high earners, nationalising the railways, banning zero hours contracts and upping the minimum wage are all popular. Support for renewable energy is at an all-time high. According to a recent YouGov poll, Brits actually prefer socialism to capitalism, a sentiment most strongly held among younger people.

There are others ideas too, which Corbyn is probably less likely to go for. Stopping benefits entirely for people who refuse to accept an offer of employment is hugely popular, and in one recent poll over half of respondents would be happy with a total ban on all immigration for the next two years. Around half the public now consistently want marijuana legalised, a number that will surely swell as US states with licenced pot vendors start showing off their dazzling tax returns.

The BNP effect used to refer to the problem the far-right had with selling their ideas. Some of their policies were extremely popular with the public, until associated with the BNP. It seems as though the same problem is now afflicting the Labour brand. It’s not the radical ideas – there is now a genuine appetite for those who think differently – that’s the problem, it’s the person who’s tasked with delivering them, and not enough people think Corbyn can or should. The ideal politician for the UK today is quite possibly someone who is bold enough to have genuinely radical proposals and ideas, and yet appears extremely moderate, sensible and centrist in character and temperament. Perhaps some blend of Blair and Corbyn. Sounds like an oxymoron doesn’t it? But this is politics, 2017. Anything is possible.

Lindsey Parnaby / Getty
Theresa May dodges difficult questions about social care and NHS in Andrew Neil interview
May 22nd, 2017, 07:19 PM

Prime Minister was on message but on the back foot.

Theresa May was interviewed for 30 minutes by Andrew Neil on BBC One this evening, and she managed to say next to nothing. Whether you see that as skilful politics or shameless dishonesty, there was very little that came out of this interview. Here’s the little we did learn:

The Prime Minister is assuming victory - even if she says otherwise

Although the Conservative party’s campaign has been based on trying to convince voters that there is a chance Jeremy Corbyn could be Prime Minister (to spook them into voting for May, and against a Corbyn-led coalition – a very unlikely scenario in reality), Theresa May revealed just how strongly her party is assuming victory. For example, when pressed on her plans for funding social care (means-testing the winter fuel allowance, and taxing the elderly on their assets), she could only answer that her government would hold a consultation to iron out the details. No matter how hard she tries to push the message that Corbyn is en route to No 10, if her policies are not policies at all but ideas to be fleshed out once she returns to power, this remains just rhetoric. As Neil asked about the consultations: “Wouldn’t you have done that before you came out with the policy?”

The Tories won’t lower themselves to costing their manifesto

It has always been the case that Labour has to work much harder than the Tories to prove its economic credibility, which is why in the Ed Miliband days it was decided that all policy proposals had to add up. But never have the Tories been so shameless in taking advantage of that political fact. For all the stick its received for being idealistic, Corbyn’s manifesto is more costed than the Tory effort, which May herself admitted during this interview is a set of “principles” rather than policies: “What we set out in our manifesto was a series of principles.” Where is the money going to come from for £8bn extra for the NHS? “Changing the way money is used”, “The strong and growing economy”, and “a variety of sources”, of course! At least Labour could patch together something about corporation tax and cracking down on tax avoidance if asked the same question.

Playing politics

Neil went in hard on May’s u-turn on her plan to fund social care – asking repeatedly why the Tories are now planning on bringing in a cap on how much the elderly have to pay, when originally there was no cap. All May could offer on this was that Corbyn was “playing politics” with the policy, and “scaremongering” about it. This deflection was flawed in a number of ways. First, it provided no explanation of what the policy will now be (what will the cap be? When will we know?), second, if Corbyn has been “scaremongering” it means he must have influenced the policy change, which May denies, and third, all it highlights is that May is herself “playing politics”.

Brexit is always the answer

As May cannot answer a single question about the specifics of policies or spending, Brexit is the perfect topic for her. It is a subject defined by its uncertainty and lack of detail, therefore something she can get on board with. She answered almost every question on every subject broached by Neil by asking who voters want around the Brexit negotiating table after the election – her or Corbyn.

Why are the polls closing? “...I’ve set out my vision for that strength in negotiations and that stronger plan. And the choice is who’s going to be doing those negotiations, me or Jeremy Corbyn.”

Are your policies uncosted? “...I think it is important that the country has certainty over the next five years, has the strong and stable leadership I think it needs, as I’ve just explained, particularly for those Brexit negotiations.”

Where is the extra NHS funding going to come from? “...Crucial to that, is getting the Brexit negotiations right, and that’s why this is so important. That’s why who is sitting around that negotiating table, 11 days after the election it’s going to start…”

Will National Insurance go up? “...Fundamental to that of course is getting the Brexit deal right and getting those negotiations right and having both a strong hand in those negotiations but also the strength of leadership in those negotiations…”

Will you break the immigration target promise for a third time? “...The question that people face is who do they trust to take this country though the Brexit negotiations..?”

But the soundbites must be working

A few seconds in to the interview, May had already used the phrase “strong and stable” and “my team”. While political insiders will groan and mock the repetitive use of such banal phrases, and emphasis on Brexit negotiations, we must remember the “long-term economic plan” slogan of 2015’s Tories. It worked, and clearly behind the scenes, the masterminds of the Conservative campaign believe these soundbites must be working. Theresa May is miles ahead of Jeremy Corbyn on the “who you trust to be Prime Minister” metric, which is why the Tories repeating how “strong and stable” their government would be, and running such a presidential campaign (“my team”, and May versus Corbyn) must be working.

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Why is Labour surging in Wales?
May 22nd, 2017, 07:19 PM

A new poll suggests Labour will not be going gently into that good night. 

Well where did that come from? The first two Welsh opinion polls of the general election campaign had given the Conservatives all-time high levels of support, and suggested that they were on course for an historic breakthrough in Wales. For Labour, in its strongest of all heartlands where it has won every general election from 1922 onwards, this year had looked like a desperate rear-guard action to defend as much of what they held as possible.

But today’s new Welsh Political Barometer poll has shaken things up a bit. It shows Labour support up nine percentage points in a fortnight, to 44 percent. The Conservatives are down seven points, to 34 per cent. Having been apparently on course for major losses, the new poll suggests that Labour may even be able to make ground in Wales: on a uniform swing these figures would project Labour to regain the Gower seat they narrowly lost two years ago.

There has been a clear trend towards Labour in the Britain-wide polls in recent days, while the upwards spike in Conservative support at the start of the campaign has also eroded. Nonetheless, the turnaround in fortunes in Wales appears particularly dramatic. After we had begun to consider the prospect of a genuinely historic election, this latest reading of the public mood suggests something much more in line with the last century of Welsh electoral politics.

What has happened to change things so dramatically? One possibility is always that this is simply an outlier – the "rogue poll" that basic sampling theory suggests will happen every now and then. As us psephologists are often required to say, "it’s just one poll". It may also be, as has been suggested by former party pollster James Morris, that Labour gains across Britain are more apparent than real: a function of a rise in the propensity of Labour supporters to respond to polls.

But if we assume that the direction of change shown by this poll is correct, even if the exact magnitude may not be, what might lie behind this resurgence in Labour’s fortunes in Wales?

One factor may simply be Rhodri Morgan. Sampling for the poll started on Thursday last week – less than a day after the announcement of the death of the much-loved former First Minister. Much of Welsh media coverage of politics in the days since has, understandably, focused on sympathetic accounts of Mr Morgan’s record and legacy. It would hardly be surprising if that had had some positive impact on the poll ratings of Rhodri Morgan’s party – which, we should note, are up significantly in this new poll not only for the general election but also in voting intentions for the Welsh Assembly. If this has played a role, such a sympathy factor is likely to be short-lived: by polling day, people’s minds will probably have refocussed on the electoral choice ahead of them.

But it could also be that Labour’s campaign in Wales is working. While Labour have been making modest ground across Britain, in Wales there has been a determined effort by the party to run a separate campaign from that of the UK-wide party, under the "Welsh Labour" brand that carried them to victory in last year’s devolved election and this year’s local council contests. Today saw the launch of the Welsh Labour manifesto. Unlike two years ago, when the party’s Welsh manifesto was only a modestly Welshed-up version of the UK-wide document, the 2017 Welsh Labour manifesto is a completely separate document. At the launch, First Minister Carwyn Jones – who, despite not being a candidate in this election is fronting the Welsh Labour campaign – did not even mention Jeremy Corbyn.

Carwyn Jones also represented Labour at last week’s ITV-Wales debate – in contrast to 2015, when Labour’s spokesperson was then Shadow Welsh Secretary Owen Smith. Jones gave an effective performance, being probably the best performer alongside Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood. In fact, Wood was also a participant in the peculiar, May-less and Corbyn-less, ITV debate in Manchester last Thursday, where she again performed capably. But her party have as yet been wholly unable to turn this public platform into support. The new Welsh poll shows Plaid Cymru down to merely nine percent. Nor are there any signs yet that the election campaign is helping the Liberal Democrats - their six percent support in the new Welsh poll puts them, almost unbelievably, at an even lower level than they secured in the disastrous election of two year ago.

This is only one poll. And the more general narrowing of the polls across Britain will likely lead to further intensification, by the Conservatives and their supporters in the press, of the idea of the election as a choice between Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn as potential Prime Ministers. Even in Wales, this contrast does not play well for Labour. But parties do not dominate the politics of a nation for nearly a century, as Labour has done in Wales, just by accident. Under a strong Conservative challenge they certainly are, but Welsh Labour is not about to go gently into that good night.

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Pirates of the Caribbean’s silly magic still works – but Johnny Depp doesn’t
May 22nd, 2017, 07:19 PM

This fifth sequel makes no sense, but my former teenage heart still jumped. It’s Johnny Depp who’s sunk. [Aye, spoilers ahead . . .]

“One day ashore for ten years at sea. It's a heavy price for what's been done.”

Ten years ago, Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), having replaced the sprawling villain Davy Jones as captain of the Flying Dutchman, spent his only day on land before leaving his bride, the incumbent King of the Pirates, Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), for ten years, to fulfil his cursed fate and bring the dead at sea to their eternal rest. Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) was sailing away to new adventures, again running after his beloved ship, the Black Pearl. It was 2007, I was 14, and the trilogy I had put all my teenage heart into was ending with the third instalment, At World’s End, on a bitter-sweet and loyal salute to the series.

But whatever the posters said, that wasn't quite the end, and what came after was awful.

First, the third film’s traditional post-credits scene showed Elizabeth waiting for her husband’s return, a ten-year-old boy by her side. She, the King of the Pirates, who in the same movie had just led a fleet to defeat the East India Company, had been sitting on the sand for ten years, raising a kid, instead of sailing, even while pregnant, to save Will like a fictional Ann Bonny? I was furious. Then, in 2011, Disney released On Stranger Tides, a sequel so hideous that even this former fan could not bring herself to like it. Bloom and Knightley had moved on, and without the original lovers’ duo, Johnny Depp’s legendary Sparrow had no substantial character to balance his craziness. Somehow, it made money, leading Disney to plan more sequels. Hence the fifth story, Salazar’s Revenge (Dead Men Tell No Tales in the US) hitting theatres this weekend.

Admittedly, it didn’t take the fourth or fifth movie for Pirates of the Caribbean to stop making sense, or just to be a bit rubbish. After the surprise success in 2003 of The Curse of the Black Pearl (young man associates with pirate to save young woman from more pirates and break a curse, adventures ensue), Disney improvised two more stories. Filmed together, there was 2006’s Dead Man’s Chest (couple’s wedding is interrupted, curse threatens pirate, fiancé wants to save his father from said curse, adventures ensue) and 2007’s At World’s End (everyone goes to the end of the world to save dead pirate while piracy is at war with East India Company and man still wants to save his father, adventures ensue). Chaotic plots, childish humour, naively emphatic dialogue and improbable situations quickly lost much of the audience.

Yet I’ve loved the trilogy for it all: the swashbuckling, sword-fighting and majestic ships on the high seas, the nautical myths, the weird magic and star-crossed love story. Everyone knows the main theme, but there are more hidden jewels to Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack. “One Day”, the melody to the couple’s last day together, is a beautiful backwash of nostalgia, as they embrace in the froth. Detailed costumes and stylish sets (At World’s End had stunning shots, such as a Chinese junk navigating the icy waters of the world's end) worked their magic every time.

As expected, there's little subtlety in Salazar’s Revenge. It’s over-the-top comedy and loud action, unnecessarily salacious jokes and copied scenes from the original. Its villain, Capitán Salazar (Javier Bardem), is a parody of a nightmare, but then not everyone can convey terror from under layers of CGI the way Bill Nighy could. It is a story of sons and daughters – Turner’s son Henry is following in the family tradition, trying to save his father from a curse – usually the sign that a series is dangerously lurking into fan fiction (here's looking at you, Harry Potter’s Cursed Child). Praised for being a feminist character, the new female lead Carina (Kaya Scodelario) spends half the film being sexualised and the other half defending the concept of women being smart, where previous films let Elizabeth lead a fleet of men without ever doubting her sex.

But the promise has been kept. Exactly ten years after leaving in a flash of green, Will Turner returns and brings some of the original spirit with him: ship battles and clueless soldiers, maps that cannot be read and compasses that do not point north. Zimmer’s theme sounds grand and treasure islands make the screen shine. The Pearl itself floats again, after disappearing in Stranger Tides.

Yet the one bit of magic it can't revive is in the heart of its most enduring character. Johnny Depp has sunk and everyone is having fun but him. Engulfed in financial troubles and rumours of heavy drinking, the actor, who had to be fed his lines by earpiece, barely manages a bad impersonation of the character he created in 2003. Watching him is painful – though it goes deeper than his performance in this film alone. Allegations of domestic violence against his ex-wife Amber Heard have tarnished his image, and his acting has been bad for a decade.

It should work better, given this incarnation of his Jack Sparrow is similarly damaged. The pirate legend on “Wanted” posters has lost the support of his crew and disappoints the new hero (“Are you really THE Jack Sparrow?”). The film bets on flashbacks of Jack’s youth, featuring Depp’s actual face and bad special effects, to remind us who Sparrow is. He is randomly called “the pirate” by soldiers who dreamt of his capture in previous movies and his character is essentially incidental to the plot, struggling to keep up with the younger heroes. He even loses his compass.

Pirates of the Caribbean 5 is the sequel no one needed, that the happy end the star-crossed lovers should never have had. It is 2017 and no one will sail to the world’s end and beyond to save Depp from purgatory. But all I wanted was for "One Day" to play, and for the beloved ghosts of my teenage years to reappear in a sequel I knew should never have been written. The beauty was in that last flash of green.

And yet the pirate's song sounds true: "Never shall we die". Pirates of the Caribbean has, at the very least, kept delivering on that.

Disney
Mother of all bloodlusts: Sexual politics and Greek tragedy
May 22nd, 2017, 07:19 PM

New interpreteations of ancient stories show the deep roots of our thinking about sex and gender

During the 1960s Pier Paolo Pasolini made two films based on ancient Greek tragedy, Oedipus Rex and Medea. In the latter, Maria Callas played the heroine with predictably operatic bravura – dark eyes flashing out dark emotions, thrilling voice conveying ferocity and pain. Pasolini’s Oedipus, by contrast, was almost silent (there was dialogue, but very little of it) and unmitigated by consoling theatricality. Distant figures crept across a scrubby desert. Thebes’s mud walls rose, like an organic growth, from the bare ground. The leading actor’s face was thuggish and inexpressive. The soundtrack was dominated by the soughing of the wind. Pasolini used barely a line of Sophocles’s verse, but I remember the film as having a desolate grandeur unmatched by any of the theatrical productions I have seen since. It was nothing like the tragedies acted out by masked performers in 5th-century Athens, but its harsh beauty felt appropriate to the Bronze Age legends on which those tragedies were based.

Those legends are still attracting new interpreters. “The finest tragedies are always on the story of some few families,” wrote Aristotle. He was thinking of the House of Atreus, whose terrible sequence of internecine killings provides the material for Colm Tóibín’s latest novel; of Oedipus’s incest-entangled web of relationships, now unravelled by Natalie Haynes; of Medea, the heroine of David Vann’s Bright Air Black, a sorceress whose royal status, adventurous spirit and unearthly powers have all been eclipsed in the collective memory by her shocking transgression against family values – the slaying of her own children.

Sexual politics has been intrinsic to these tales since the Greek tragedians first explored them: 21st-century gender politics isn’t going beyond, merely keeping pace with, the thinking of the ancients here. ­Aeschylus framed the Oresteia as a conflict between mother-right and father-right and concluded with a judgement from Athena. The motherless goddess, born from her father’s head – woman but also all-man – ordains that humanity must find a way to reconcile the male and female principles. When Robert Icke, in his recent adaptation of the Oresteia, located the origin of the family’s trouble in Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter – the killing of a girl child for the sake of her father’s manly honour – he wasn’t making an anachronistically feminist point: he was faithfully following Euripides.

So there is nothing new about the way modern reinterpretations zoom in on the women. Colm Tóibín gives the husband-killing Clytemnestra a voice; Natalie Haynes does the same for Jocasta, the mother of her son’s children, and for one of her daughters. As for David Vann, he allows Medea to devour him and his readers: to read his book is to be swallowed down into her mad mind.

In House of Names Clytemnestra is the initial narrator. Tóibín has written about many mothers, including, in The Testament of Mary, the mother of Christ. None of them conforms to any sentimental ideal of the maternal. This one is particularly problematic. Clytemnestra was duped into delivering her daughter Iphigenia to a horrible death. She was an adulteress who took a lover while her husband, Agamemnon, was away at war, and subsequently murdered that husband. She killed the enslaved Trojan princess Cassandra out of jealousy. She so signally failed to win the love of her surviving children, Electra and Orestes, that they killed her.

Tóibín, writing in grandly simple, declaratory prose, gives her a raging energy and a bitter intelligence. The unfolding of the story she tells – that he tells through her – will surprise few readers, but he structures it subtly enough to maintain its tension. Clytemnestra speaks at first in flashback, recounting the ghastly tale of Iphigenia’s sacrifice from a much later point in time, while Agamemnon’s and Cassandra’s bodies lie exposed outside the palace walls. The violence is gruesome and Tóibín doesn’t spare us any horror, but the folding of chronology creates a kind of decorous formality.

Clytemnestra’s story is one we know. When Tóibín shifts his attention to her son Orestes the book becomes stranger, its narrative more original and its tone more hallucinatory. None of the canonical texts tells us much of what Orestes was up to in the interim between his father’s murder and his own return, years later, to avenge it. The ancient sources speak of him growing up in a foreign court. Tóibín ignores that tradition and has him marched off instead, along with a column of other boy hostages, and imprisoned in an infernal complex of caves. He escapes with a charismatic older boy, a teenaged guerrilla named Leander. They wander through a landscape of poisoned wells and killer-infested groves as inhospitable as Pasolini’s imagined desert.

The journey makes for a haunting story, largely because Tóibín tells it in spare, resonant prose, from Orestes’s point of view. He is a child and then a bewildered, emotionally stunted adolescent. Filtered through his consciousness, his dangerous exile and even more dangerous return to his mother’s court are at once materially vivid and bafflingly vague. He just doesn’t understand the political and sexual currents eddying around him, and his incomprehension makes them all the more potently alarming.

Tóibín’s other addition to the story is a reimagining of the usually opaque Aegisthus, Clytemnestra’s lover and accomplice. Here he is not just Agamemnon’s rival in love and power: he is his shadow and counter-image, a king of darkness. Confined in a dungeon beneath the palace, he commands a hidden, irregular army. Once released he becomes a sexual predator, roaming the palace corridors by night in search of men or women to suit his appetites. After Electra’s coup d’état Aegisthus’s legs are broken to prevent him from leaving to establish a rival power base. Immobile in his chair, he still dominates the council meetings.

It is probably too simple-minded to ­suppose, just because Tóibín is Irish, that we should read into this a reworking of Ireland’s history of clandestine armies and generation-spanning revenges. Yet the tentative hopefulness of his book’s ending, involving the fading of a grim ghost, a benign forgetting and a baby’s birth, does seem to speak (albeit quietly) of better times.

“Can you name another man who has ever done what you have done?” Thus Tóibín’s Leander to Orestes. A son’s killing of his mother is an unheard-of transgression. Orestes realises that he is being kept at hand by the ruthless new regime as a
potentially useful tool, because he “had proved to them that he was someone who would do anything”. Medea’s crime – a mother’s killing of her sons – is the mirror image of his own, and breaches an equally powerful taboo.

In Tóibín’s Mycenae, a culture defined by its gods is giving way to a secular society. Clytemnestra has stopped praying: “The gods have their own unearthly concerns, unimagined by us. They barely know we are alive.” By the end, her consciousness fading, the only deity she can remember is the inhuman rapist who defiled her mother – Zeus, in the form of a swan. Her daughter Electra laments that as obfuscating superstition dwindles, the world is increasingly exposed to the light of day. That enlightenment, Electra thinks, is a blight. “Soon it will be a world barely worth inhabiting.” The world David Vann’s Medea inhabits is subject to no such diminishing daylight. We are in a dark age.

Rachel Cusk recently updated Euripides to present Medea as a modern wronged wife. Vann does the reverse. He is not interested in drawing parallels with banal, latter-day domestic upsets: he is conjuring up a pre-classical sorceress cloaked in darkness, fornicating on the deck of the Argo amidst the decomposing remains of her dead brother’s body and opening her mouth to show the vile worm that lies where her tongue should be.

His Medea has doubts about the myths that supposedly explain her world. If the sun is her grandfather, how come the human race, which should be only two generations old, is so numerous? But she has no understanding to put in its place. Her eye is innocent, not in the judgemental moral sense but literally. She knows what the golden fleece is – one of the sheepskins used to pan for gold in the rivers of Thrace and left glittering with gold dust – yet she knows almost nothing else. Her wonder at the sea, and the way its water buoys her up, prompts a beautiful passage. Her freedom from guilt verges on the absurd. She is a kind of Martian, travelling to us not from outer space but from the deep past.

Vann’s novel shares with Tóibín’s book an interest in power: how to get and keep it, how legitimacy is trumped by assertiveness. Just as Orestes, returning to Mycenae, is baffled to find that, king’s son though he is, no one sees him as a potential ruler, so Medea and Jason share a naive belief that when they return with the sparkly sheepskin the old king will abdicate the kingdom to them. He doesn’t. The novel’s narrative swings round on the shocking passage in which it dawns on Medea that her betrayals and outrages aren’t to be rewarded with a throne, but have delivered her into slavery.

Vann’s title is borrowed from Robin Robertson’s version of Euripides’s Medea. Vann is indebted to poets, and he grants himself great poetic licence in his handling of syntax. His prose is as hacked and chopped as the corpse of poor King Pelias after Medea has bewitched his daughters into jointing him for a stew. It is as though Medea, barbarian from an immeasurably ancient world, has yet to reach the evolutionary moment when the human mind comprehended that causes had consequences, and sentences have main verbs. Vann writes always from her point of view. The resulting narrative can be wearisome, like spending time with someone too stoned to think connectedly, but it is also vivid, often appalling, sometimes piercingly
sad and frequently striking. This Medea is all sensory perception, no reflection. “The men wet and shining, skin burnt dark. Medea’s skin far whiter, turning red now, painful.” And so it goes on, right down to the final horror. “Hot blood on her hands, Aeson [her little son] jerking against her side.”

If Vann drags the reader with him into chaos and old night, Natalie Haynes seems intent on illuminating and rationalising the cluster of legends about Oedipus and his family. Haynes is an expert populariser. Her story is enriched by archaeological know-how. She gives us a clear account of the layout of the palace at Thebes. She describes markets and dresses, pots and meals. In its physical details, her story is a plausible reconstruction of urban life in a Greek palace-state – complete with obsidian mirrors and wax writing-tablets, dark rooms and sacrificial fires.

She has two narratives, arranged in orderly fashion in alternating chapters. The story of Jocasta’s marriage, widowhood and remarriage to a good-looking young stranger (who turns out to be her own son) is told in the third person, simply and realistically. Ismene, one of her daughter/grand-daughters, narrates the chapters that deal with her experience. She is attacked by an assassin. She looks on as her brothers compete for power in Thebes. She distrusts her uncle Creon. She doesn’t reveal, until the very end, when she is about to be reunited with him, that she knows why her father is a blind wanderer, and why her mother is dead.

The bipartite structure is efficient. The narrative progresses satisfyingly. But Haynes not only demystifies, she demythologises, stripping the story of its ­numinous charge. King Laius is homosexual: he orders a slave to take his place in the marriage-bed and impregnate his young wife (which means that Oedipus’s inadvertent killing of him is not actually a parricide). The sphinx is neither a fabulous monster nor a riddler: it is a predatory tribe. Jocasta kills herself not because she is shamed by the revelation of her incest, but because she has been infected with the plague and doesn’t want to pass it on to her children.

There are horrors certainly, but they are mundane ones. Eteocles’s corpse lies rotting in the sun when Creon denies it burial, but it is ghastly for its smell, and the circling vultures, rather than the offence against ­human dignity and divine decree. Even the characters’ names have been deprived of the resonance two and a half millennia of remembering have given them. Antigone and Ismene become here “Ani” and “Isy” – two ordinary girls in a tricky situation. The book is entertaining, but Pasolini it most certainly is not. Aristotle, who expected these stories to purge their audiences’ minds by overwhelming them with pity and terror, would have been sorely disappointed. 

House of Names 
Colm Tóibín
Viking, 263pp, £14.99

Bright Air Black 
David Vann
William Heinemann, 252pp, £18.99

The Children of Jocasta 
Natalie Haynes
Mantle, 336pp, £16.99

Lucy Hughes-Hallett is the author of “Heroes: Saviours, Traitors and Supermen” (Harper Perennial). Her latest novel, “Peculiar Ground”, is newly published by Fourth Estate

Collection Christophel/Alamy
“I see the world in rectangles”: Life as a Lego Master Builder
May 22nd, 2017, 07:19 PM

Nathan Sawaya stunned colleagues when he quit his job as a lawyer to play with Lego full-time. Now everyone from Lady Gaga to Barack Obama’s a fan.

Nathan Sawaya is describing his favourite Lego brick, shiny-eyed and grinning at the thought of it. But he’s not a child proudly displaying a beloved toy. He’s a 43-year-old former corporate lawyer, and well over six foot tall. The brick he is evangelising about is a small 1x2 socket plate with a stud in the centre of its top. He calls this a “Jumper”.

“You know your Lego lingo?” he asks, looking crestfallen when I shake my head. “It has only one stud instead of two, and it allows you to do even more detail because you can offset the brick a little bit. But in general, I focus on the rectangular pieces.”


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Sawaya is one of the world’s eight Lego Master Builders, having left his job at a New York law firm when he was 32 to dedicate his life to building Lego constructions full-time. His most striking works include a torso of a man ripping his chest open with bricks spilling out, called Yellow, a lifesize T-Rex skeleton, a two-metre long model of Brooklyn Bridge, and replicas of famous paintings, including the Mona Lisa, and Edvard Munch’s Scream.

I meet him in a dark exhibition space in a tent on London’s Southbank, where his works are lit up around us. His latest constructions consist of a series of DC Comics superheroes, so we are surrounded by expressionless Supermen flying around us, capes realistically rippling, and a full-size Batmobile with glistening batwings. His boyish eagerness aside, Sawaya himself looks like a comic book villain – a hulking figure dressed in black from top to toe, with a long black overcoat, piercing eyes and thick dark hair.


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Back in his early thirties when he was a lawyer, he would come home after a punishing day at work and do something creative – drawing, painting, sculpting with clay and wire. He soon began to experiment with Lego, constructing models out of sets he had lying around the house. His son, now 17, was never particularly interested in playing with it himself.

“Eventually I made the choice to leave the law firm behind and become a full-time artist who plays with toys,” he beams.

His family was supportive, his colleagues jealous, and his bosses confused – but it wasn’t long until Sawaya found success as a Lego artist. He has had exhibitions of his work on every continent but Antarctica, and gained some high-profile fans. When he was US President, Barack Obama posed with one of his installations – monochrome life-size men sitting on park benches in Washington – and Bill Clinton has a sculpture in his office, as does Lady Gaga in a music video.

“That is the magic of Lego,” he says of his popularity. “It has become a universal language in a way.”


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Sawaya’s Master Builder status means he can buy all his bricks directly from Lego in bulk – not possible for us Lego civilians. He used to buy sets in toy shops and on eBay when starting out; now he can email asking for 500,000 red 2x4 bricks, say, and Lego ships them to him on wooden pallets. He has six million bricks on hand at his studio in Los Angeles. “Millions of each colour and shape and size,” he says. “And they’re all organised by shape and colour.”

He works away for hours at a time in his studio, with his dogs obediently at his feet, in what he describes as a “trance”. He plans designs on special “brick paper” like graph paper, but sometimes he free-builds from his imagination. “I do often see the world in rectangles,” he says, and sometimes he even dreams in bricks.

Just like children do with Lego sets, he simply snaps the bricks together – though he does dab glue between each brick, which triples the time it takes. He describes it as “therapeutic”, but says making a mistake can be “heartbreaking” – he can lose days and weeks of work at a time. “There may be times where I start questioning my choices in life,” he smiles.


Photos: Copyright Jane Hobson

Sawaya faced snobbery from the art world when he first began approaching galleries as a Lego artist. “Oh, is that cars and trucks and little castles?” was the response. He feels it’s now a more acceptable medium. “It makes art accessible,” he says. “And in doing that, it democratises the art world a bit. It allows people to relate to the art. Everyone has snapped a brick together at one point, every child has played a little bit with Lego.

“As an artist, my role is to inspire. And what better way to do it than through a medium everyone is familiar with? If someone sees a marble statue, they can appreciate it, but very few people have marble at home they can chip away at.”

The first Lego creation Sawaya can remember making was a little house, when he was first given the toy at the age of five. He then made a city that grew to 36 square feet. When he was ten, he was desperate for a dog. His parents refused, so he tore all his creations down and built a lifesize one. “It was blocky and very multi-coloured, of course,” he says. “But it was that ‘Aha!’ moment – when I realised it doesn’t have to be on the front of the box. It can be whatever I want.”

The Art of the Brick: DC Super Heroes is on at Upper Ground, Southbank, London, until 3 September 2017.

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Theresa May's U-Turn may have just traded one problem for another
May 22nd, 2017, 07:19 PM

The problems of the policy have been moved, not eradicated. 

That didn’t take long. Theresa May has U-Turned on her plan to make people personally liable for the costs of social care until they have just £100,000 worth of assets, including property, left.

As the average home is valued at £317,000, in practice, that meant that most property owners would have to remortgage their house in order to pay for the cost of their social care. That upwards of 75 per cent of baby boomers – the largest group in the UK, both in terms of raw numbers and their higher tendency to vote – own their homes made the proposal politically toxic.

(The political pain is more acute when you remember that, on the whole, the properties owned by the elderly are worth more than those owned by the young. Why? Because most first-time buyers purchase small flats and most retirees are in large family homes.)

The proposal would have meant that while people who in old age fall foul of long-term degenerative illnesses like Alzheimers would in practice face an inheritance tax threshold of £100,000, people who die suddenly would face one of £1m, ten times higher than that paid by those requiring longer-term care. Small wonder the proposal was swiftly dubbed a “dementia tax”.

The Conservatives are now proposing “an absolute limit on the amount people have to pay for their care costs”. The actual amount is TBD, and will be the subject of a consultation should the Tories win the election. May went further, laying out the following guarantees:

“We are proposing the right funding model for social care.  We will make sure nobody has to sell their family home to pay for care.  We will make sure there’s an absolute limit on what people need to pay. And you will never have to go below £100,000 of your savings, so you will always have something to pass on to your family.”

There are a couple of problems here. The proposed policy already had a cap of sorts –on the amount you were allowed to have left over from meeting your own care costs, ie, under £100,000. Although the system – effectively an inheritance tax by lottery – displeased practically everyone and spooked elderly voters, it was at least progressive, in that the lottery was paid by people with assets above £100,000.

Under the new proposal, the lottery remains in place – if you die quickly or don’t require expensive social care, you get to keep all your assets, large or small – but the losers are the poorest pensioners. (Put simply, if there is a cap on costs at £25,000, then people with assets below that in value will see them swallowed up, but people with assets above that value will have them protected.)  That is compounded still further if home-owners are allowed to retain their homes.

So it’s still a dementia tax – it’s just a regressive dementia tax.

It also means that the Conservatives have traded going into the election’s final weeks facing accusations that they will force people to sell their own homes for going into the election facing questions over what a “reasonable” cap on care costs is, and you don’t have to be very imaginative to see how that could cause them trouble.

They’ve U-Turned alright, but they may simply have swerved away from one collision into another.  

Photo: Getty
Not for the first time, James Brokenshire is making things worse in Northern Ireland
May 22nd, 2017, 07:19 PM

The Northern Ireland secretary's questions on Jeremy Corbyn and the IRA are valid. But he shouldn't be asking them for the sake of the Tory campaign. 

Consensus is an elusive thing in Northern Irish politics. But ask anyone how well James Brokenshire is handling his brief, and the answer is almost inevitably a variation on “not very”.

There are plenty of reasons for this. Some are fairer than others. But an overriding concern among nationalist and cross-community parties is that the Northern Ireland secretary cannot and has not acted as a neutral or honest broker in his time in office. They believe him to be both too close to the DUP and all too ready to take nakedly partisan lines on the issues that continue to disrupt the business of devolved government.

The legacy of Troubles violence is one such issue. By far the rawest of the disagreements looming over Stormont, neither Sinn Fein nor the DUP have brooked much compromise. That Brokenshire hasn’t been able to solve these issues in his 11 months in office isn’t all that remarkable.

One might even sympathise: few cabinet wickets are stickier than Northern Ireland, more so now than at any point in the last decade. Some – though not all – nationalists are instinctively hostile to his presence and think talks ought to be handled with kid gloves, preferably worn by a grizzled American senator.  

What is remarkable, however, is how prepared Brokenshire has been to make that situation worse – this time apparently for the sake of influencing an election his party is almost certain to win. On Monday, the secretary of state – who appears to have spent most of the general election campaign in his Bexley constituency – issued a statement via the Conservative party that challenged Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell (whose party, unlike the Tories, do not stand in Northern Ireland) to clarify their record on the IRA.

Whether these questions are valid – and they are – is irrelevant. What matters is whether they ought to be being asked by a serving secretary of state for Northern Ireland at this stage in an election. It is, to put it lightly, pretty difficult to conclude that they are. Here, not for the first time, we see Brokenshire moving in lockstep with the right-wing press away from the consensus – or at the very least sensitive, though not uncritical, engagement with both sides – so desperately necessary for the restoration of devolved government.

As I wrote when Theresa May called the election last month, the impasse at Stormont means this election cannot be siloed from the mainland campaign. I predicted that electioneering pitched at middle England will feed into the culture wars that still dominate Northern Ireland's politics. The province's troubled past remains a live issue and continues to disrupt the business of devolved government. It was clear that attacking Corbyn with the Lynton Crosby playbook will do nothing to defuse it.

And so it hasn’t. The IRA dead cat was of course to be expected, but for Brokenshire to be the one throwing it on the table is almost ridiculous. Some might argue, as they have before, that he has derelicted his duty as secretary of state for the sake of the shortest-term political expediency. Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams says the flurry of Tory-provoked interest in Corbyn’s record on the IRA is a “distraction”. Well, he of all people would. But the underlying truth is this. If we can learn anything from the fitful past few years at Stormont, it’s that arguments over legacy issues are nearly impossible to mediate.

Not for the first time, Brokenshire has made his own job – if he intends to stay in it – much more difficult. And if he is destined for pastures new in May's victory reshuffle, then his successor will not thank him for the febrile and distrustful atmosphere he has helped create. 

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No, Jeremy Corbyn did not refuse to condemn the IRA. Please stop saying he did
May 22nd, 2017, 07:19 PM

Guys, seriously.

Okay, I’ll bite. Someone’s gotta say it, so really might as well be me:

No, Jeremy Corbyn did not, this weekend, refuse to condemn the IRA. And no, his choice of words was not just “and all other forms of racism” all over again.

Can’t wait to read my mentions after this one.

Let’s take the two contentions there in order. The claim that Corbyn refused to condem the IRA relates to his appearance on Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme yesterday. (For those who haven’t had the pleasure, it’s a weekly political programme, hosted by Sophy Ridge and broadcast on a Sunday. Don’t say I never teach you anything.)

Here’s how Sky’s website reported that interview:

 

The first paragraph of that story reads:

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been criticised after he refused five times to directly condemn the IRA in an interview with Sky News.

The funny thing is, though, that the third paragraph of that story is this:

He said: “I condemn all the bombing by both the loyalists and the IRA.”

Apparently Jeremy Corbyn has been so widely criticised for refusing to condemn the IRA that people didn’t notice the bit where he specifically said that he condemned the IRA.

Hasn’t he done this before, though? Corbyn’s inability to say he that opposed anti-semitism without appending “and all other forms of racism” was widely – and, to my mind, rightly – criticised. These were weasel words, people argued: an attempt to deflect from a narrow subject where the hard left has often been in the wrong, to a broader one where it wasn’t.

Well, that pissed me off too: an inability to say simply “I oppose anti-semitism” made it look like he did not really think anti-semitism was that big a problem, an impression not relieved by, well, take your pick.

But no, to my mind, this....

“I condemn all the bombing by both the loyalists and the IRA.”

...is, despite its obvious structural similarities, not the same thing.

That’s because the “all other forms of racism thing” is an attempt to distract by bringing in something un-related. It implies that you can’t possibly be soft on anti-semitism if you were tough on Islamophobia or apartheid, and experience shows that simply isn’t true.

But loyalist bombing were not unrelated to IRA ones: they’re very related indeed. There really were atrocities committed on both sides of the Troubles, and while the fatalities were not numerically balanced, neither were they orders of magnitude apart.

As a result, specifically condemning both sides as Corbyn did seems like an entirely reasonable position to take. Far creepier, indeed, is to minimise one set of atrocities to score political points about something else entirely.

The point I’m making here isn’t really about Corbyn at all. Historically, his position on Northern Ireland has been pro-Republican, rather than pro-peace, and I’d be lying if I said I was entirely comfortable with that.

No, the point I’m making is about the media, and its bias against Labour. Whatever he may have said in the past, whatever may be written on his heart, yesterday morning Jeremy Corbyn condemned IRA bombings. This was the correct thing to do. His words were nonetheless reported as “Jeremy Corbyn refuses to condemn IRA”.

I mean, I don’t generally hold with blaming the mainstream media for politicians’ failures, but it’s a bit rum isn’t it?

Wikipedia.
Nicola Sturgeon's SNP, like Tony Blair's New Labour, is heading for a crash landing
May 22nd, 2017, 07:19 PM

The fall of Tony Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and a fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through radical policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s methodology was so successful and so convincing that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness. Arguably, a form of New Labour won in 2010 and 2015.

But, as they say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh, when you make, as you will, bad decisions, when the list of enemies grows long, when you’ve just had your time, you’ll fall like all the rest – only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair and of Labour should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. Sunday night’s debate between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of what’s coming – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. This is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’etre is independence; everything else - literally everything else - is just another brick to build the path. And so education reform cannot be either radical or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions or parents. Bricks, you see. Same with the NHS and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature - is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while in reality body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: "it’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs".

But voters show signs of wearying of the predictable blame game and waking up to the time-limited strategy of show-over-substance. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren – things aren’t just not improving, they’re getting worse. The SNP is not keeping its part of the deal.

So, during Sunday night’s debate it was Nicola Sturgeon, not Ruth Davidson or Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs. It will have been a strange experience for a woman more used to public adulation and a clamour for selfies. There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use a food bank (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster): ‘I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish Government]. You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS. Don’t come on your announced visits, come in in the middle of any day to any ward, any A&E department and see what we’re up against.’ She delivered the evening’s killer line: ‘Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you… in this election?’

The list of reasonable criticisms is growing and will grow further. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off, while in England the fee-charging regime has seen the number of students coming from poorer families climb. Ms Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nats’ constitution explicitly prohibits its elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. While total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing. Allowing public self-criticism, far from being a sign of weakness, is a necessary vent for inner tensions and a sign to voters that a political party is something more than a cult.

That ‘cult’ word has long dogged the SNP and its supporters. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning bright, but it has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when it is unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage at times). Claire Austin, the nurse who criticised the First Minister on Sunday, has found herself at its mercy. Immediately after the debate, the Nats briefed (wrongly) that she was the wife of a Tory councilor. The SNP branch in Stirling said Tebbitishly that if she was having to use food banks "maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?" Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s Home Affairs spokesperson, was forced to publicly apologise for spreading "Twitter rumours" about Ms Austin.

The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but we now see it hasn’t gone away - it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated, they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party: it’s the behaviour of a cult.

I might be wrong, but I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly aggravate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and plenty of signs that things will get worse. How, then, do you arrest your fall?

The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed.

Nicola Sturgeon and Tony Blair. Photo: Getty
The Deep Dive podcast: Merkel and Macron
May 22nd, 2017, 07:19 PM

The New Statesman's Deep Dive Podcast.

This week, co-hosts Ian Leslie and Stewart Wood discuss whether the tide is turning against anti-establishment politics in Europe? Together with Professor Anand Menon, Director of UK in a Changing Europe, they explore the politics of the "M&M axis" between Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel - and ask what this new relationship might mean for Brexit. Plus: Ian rants about how Labour appears to privilege policies over votes.

Quotes of the Week:

Anand on Macron’s pro-European campaign: “He’s a very traditional French Europhile. He sees Europe as France’s ‘destiny’ [...] The second thing was that the National Front really started to struggle over Europe towards the end of the campaign.”

Stewart on French nationalism: “Sarkozy told Gordon Brown, when I worked for him, that he asked someone like McKinsey what it would take to make French the lingua franca of the European Union – and they came back after six months and said ‘It’s too late. English has won.”

Anand on French integration in Europe: “One of the big differences between the French and us is that when any French President gives a press conference he’s got two flags behind him. Every single time without fail there’s a European flag and a French flag.”

Ian on the Labour campaign: “When you say this party is proposing that we spend loads of money on everything and nobody’s going to pay for it, the voters go ‘”don’t be ridiculous” – and they’re right to.”

Listen to this episode of The Deep Dive now:

 

GETTY
Attention millennials: we have reached Peak Unicorn
May 22nd, 2017, 07:19 PM

There is a strong current of Nineties nostalgia that blends the ironic celebration of childhood kitsch with wilful self-infantilisation.

If you have been on the internet recently, you may have noticed the unicorns. Social media has become saturated with pastel pinks and blues, sprinkled with glitter and transformed into a land of magical rainbows and prancing, mystical creatures. For adults.

Young women post pictures of themselves with lilac-and-turquoise-tinted “unicorn hair”, or holographic “unicorn nails”, and put up photographs of rainbow-coloured and gold-leafed “unicorn toast”. The beauty industry has something of a unicorn problem, with brands issuing identikit ranges of shimmery, unicorn-themed cosmetics and perfumes with names such as “I Heart Unicorns”. When it comes to millennial commodity capitalism, no depth of unicorn-related paraphernalia has been left unplumbed. You can buy sparkle-laced gin advertised as “Unicorn Tears”, body glitter branded as “Unicorn Snot”, and even a lipstick tinted with “unicorn blood” – which is presumably aimed at the niche market for Goth unicorns.

In the past few weeks, the world has officially reached peak unicorn, following Starbucks’s limited-edition release of the selfie-friendly, Instagram-baiting “Unicorn Frappuccino”. Despite being described by tasters as “the worst drink I have ever purchased in my life”, and “like a combination of the topical fluoride used by dental hygienists and metallic sludge”, pictures of it were shared on Instagram more than 150,000 times in the single week it was available.

But why do unicorns have such seemingly inexhaustible popularity among millennials – many of whom, despite entering their thirties, show no signs of slowing their appetite for a pre-teen aesthetic of prancing ponies and mythical fantasy? Certainly, there is a strong current of Nineties nostalgia at play here – though it seems to be a nostalgia that blends the ironic celebration of childhood kitsch with wilful self-infantilisation. There is something terribly earnest about the language of unicorns; its vocabulary of rainbows and smiles is too embarrassing to sustain genuine irony.

The sickly-sweet copy issued by brands starts to feel unhinged, after a while. (A £28 body “Wish Wash” that tells you “Unicorns are awesome. I am awesome. Therefore I am a unicorn”, anyone? That’s not how logic works and you know it.)

God knows there’s room for a bit of crayon-coloured twee in our dark geopolitical times. And if my generation is to be denied any conventional markers of adulthood, in the absence of affordable homes or secure employment, I’ll cover myself in glitter and subsist on a diet of pink lattes and sugar sprinkles as much as I please. But in our post-truth age of Trump, Brexit, Twitter trolls and the rise of the alt right, advertising that maniacally shouts that “UNICORNS ARE REAL! UNICORNS ARE REAL!” has a flavour of deranged escapism.

Yet maybe there is an element of knowingness in countering the rising tide of global hate and uncertainty with a pretend sparkly magic horse. Perhaps unicorns are a particularly fitting spirit animal for Generation Snowflake – the epithet given to young people who have failed to grow out of their instincts for sensitivity and niceness. Eighties and Nineties kids were raised on cartoons such as My Little Pony, which offered anti-bullying messages and a model of female strength based on empathy and collaboration. By identifying with creatures such as horses, dolphins and unicorns, young girls can express their own power and explore ideas of femininity and fantasy away from the male gaze.

And perhaps these childhood associations have shaped the collective millennial psyche. For the generation that is progressively dismantling the old gender boundaries, unicorn aesthetics aren’t just for women. On Instagram, lumbersexual hipsters show off their glitter beards, while celebrities such as Justin Bieber and Jared Leto rock pastel-tinted dye jobs. Increasingly, young people of all genders are reclaiming styles once dismissed as irretrievably girly – as seen in the present media obsession with “millennial pink”. Pink is now performing the double feat of being both the unabashedly female colour of fourth-wave feminism and the androgynous shade of modern gender fluidity.

Let’s be frank: there are limits to this kind of ideological utopianism. The popularity of unicorn aesthetics and millennial pink is due in no small part to one simple thing: they are eye-catchingly appealing on social media. In an age dominated by visual media, bubblegum shades have the power to catch our attention.

Starbucks knows this. The company has explicitly acknowledged that the Unicorn Frappuccino was “inspired” by social media, knowing well that Instagram users would rush to capture images of the drink and thus giving a spike to their publicity free of charge.

But predictably, with the vagaries of the fashion cycle, Starbucks has killed the unicorn’s cool. The moment that corporate chains latch on to a trend is the moment that trend begins its spiral towards the end – or towards the bargain basement from which it will be redeemed only once it has reached peak naff. Unicorns are now “basic” – the term the internet has given to the rung on the cultural capital ladder that sits between hipster and ignominy.

Yet already the next mythical creature is waiting in the wings for us to pass the time until the inevitable heat death of the universe. If Instagram hashtags are anything to go by, the trend-setters are all about mermaids now.

John MacDougall/Getty
The Conservatives' social care woes are real
May 22nd, 2017, 07:19 PM

The "dementia tax" has made waves in the marginals - and not in a good way.

Will the dementia tax cost Theresa May her house? That's the gag in Morten Morland's cartoon in the Times this morning, which depicts a pair of elderly voters angrily remonstrating with the PM outside Downing Street. To make matters worse, that paper reports that the plan may may fall apart anyway due to other problems in social care. "Care crisis threatens to scupper May reforms" is their splash.

I was out and about in Bath, Newport and Gower this weekend and it was clear to me that the Conservatives' social care policy has made waves in the marginals and not in a good way. That's not just my impression, either. As Denis Campbell and Rowena Mason report in the Guardian, Conservative candidates are uneasy about the reaction too. The blame game is already underway, with Conservative sources telling the FT's Jim Pickard that the plan was rushed through at the last minute without consulting the Cabinet.

That the polls are all showing Labour closing the gap with the Conservatives. That might just be noise - Labour tends to peak a few weeks out from an election. In 1997, they were polling at or above 50 per cent at this stage in the race, they got 43 per cent. In 2001, they were again hovering around the 50 per cent mark and then got 41 per cent. In 2005, they were on 40 per cent and ended up with 35 per cent. In 1987 they were at 35 per cent and ended up with 30 per cent. In 1983 they were at 35 per cent and got 27 per cent. But that pattern doesn't always hold and it might not this time either.

The Conservatives' big hope is that in the final weeks they will unleash everything they've dug up on Jeremy Corbyn and his inner circle, turning around the polls. First up: the Labour leader's dealings with the IRA in the 1980s. Corbyn's refusal to condemn the IRA's bombings exclusively - he instead said he condemned "all bombing by both the loyalists and the IRA" - on the Sophy Ridge programme yesterday is picked up in today's papers. "Corbyn engulfed in IRA furore" is the Telegraph's splash and "Corbyn's kick in the teeth for IRA victims" is the Mail's.

Will it work? Maybe. The Conservatives' poll ratings still have a way to fall before they have genuine cause for panic and the historical trends still point to them improving on their current position in the polls and significantly increasing their strength in the House of Commons.

But the difficulty for the PM is that that her victory, if it comes, looks less and less like an endorsement for her ripping up of Conservative heresies and more and more like a referendum on Jeremy Corbyn.

Getty Images.
The fish-eaters and the fasters
May 22nd, 2017, 07:19 PM

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

Chris Ball/UNP
Bernie Sanders is America’s most popular politician – and he’s coming after Donald Trump
May 22nd, 2017, 07:19 PM

Sanders, unlike Clinton, had a clear and coherent vision. As of now, he is the best hope the Democrats have of retaking the White House in 2020.

“I like Bernie Sanders,” my four-year-old niece in Texas said to me last month. “Why isn’t he president?” More than six months on from the defeat of Hillary Clinton, it’s a question that countless frustrated progressives across the United States continue to ask aloud.

Remember that the election of Donald Trump was not the only political earthquake to shake the US establishment last year. A 74-year-old, self-declared socialist and independent senator from the tiny state of Vermont, in a crumpled suit and with a shock of Einsteinian white hair, came close to vanquishing the Clinton machine and winning the Democratic presidential nomination. Sanders began the campaign as the rank outsider, mocked by the former Obama strategist David Axelrod as the candidate with whom Democratic voters might “flirt” and have a “fling” before settling down with Clinton. By the end of the campaign he had won 13 million votes and 23 states, and raised more than $200m.

In this dystopian age of Trump, it is remarkable that Sanders is now by far the most popular politician in the US – and this in a country where “socialist” has long been a dirty word. Increasing numbers of Americans seem nevertheless to “feel the Bern”. As such, Sanders supporters cannot help but ask the big counterfactual question of our time: would Trump be the president today if he had faced Bernie rather than Hillary in the election? Throughout the campaign, polls showed him crushing Trump in a head-to-head match-up. In a poll on the eve of the election, Sanders trumped Trump by 12 percentage points.

Democratic voters were told repeatedly that Clinton was more “electable” – but had they opted for Sanders as their candidate, there would have been none of the backlash over her emails, Benghazi, Bill, her Iraq War vote, or her Goldman Sachs speeches. So did the Democrats, in effect, gift the presidency to the Republican Party by picking the divisive and establishment-friendly Clinton over Sanders the economic populist?

I can’t prove it but I suspect that Sanders would have beaten Trump – although, to be fair to the much-maligned Clinton, she, too, beat Trump by nearly three million votes. Also, one-on-one polls showing Sanders ahead of Trump in a hypothetical match-up fail to tell us how the independent senator’s support would have held up against a barrage of vicious Republican attack ads during a general election campaign.

Then there is the matter of race. Clinton, despite deep support in African-American and Latino communities, was unable to mobilise Barack Obama’s multiracial coalition. Sanders would have done even worse than she did among minority voters. Trump voters, meanwhile, were motivated less by economic anxiety (as plenty on the left, including Sanders, wrongly claim) than – according to most academic studies, opinion polls and the latest data from the American National Election Studies – by racial resentment and an anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim animus. Sanders, who at a recent rally in Boston defended Trump voters from accusations of bigotry and racism, would probably have struggled as much as Clinton did to respond to this “whitelash”.

Nevertheless, Sanders, unlike Clinton, had a clear and coherent vision and I would argue that, as of now, he is the best hope the Democrats have of retaking the White House in 2020. His support for greater Wall Street regulation, debt-free college tuition, universal health care and a higher minimum wage is not only morally correct and economically sound but also hugely popular with voters across the political spectrum.

The Democrats have a mountain to climb. They have to find a way to enthuse their diverse, demoralised base while winning back white voters who are concerned much more by issues of race and identity than by jobs or wages. A recent poll found that the party had lower approval ratings than both Trump and the Republicans as a whole.

Yet press reports suggest that at least 22 Democrats are thinking about running for president in 2020. This is madness. Few are serious contenders – thanks to the dominance of the Clinton machine in recent years, the party doesn’t have a deep bench. There is no new generation of rising stars.

The only two people who could plausibly prevent Sanders from winning the nomination next time round are the former vice-president Joe Biden and the Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren. The good news is that all three of these Democratic contenders are, to varying degrees, economic populists, willing to stand up passionately for “the little guy”. The bad news is that the Democratic base may fantasise about a young, dynamic Justin Trudeau or Emman­uel Macron of their own but, come the 2020 election, Sanders will be 79, Biden 77 and Warren 71. (Then again, they’ll be up against a sitting Republican president who will be 74, behaves as if he has dementia and refuses to release his medical records.)

Bizarrely, that election campaign has already begun. On 1 May, Trump released his first official campaign ad for re-election, 1,282 days before the next presidential vote. Biden visited New Hampshire last month to give a speech, while Warren is on a national tour to promote her new bestselling book, This Fight Is Our Fight.

Sanders, however – riding high in the polls, and with his vast database of contacts from the 2016 race as well as a clear, popular and long-standing critique of a US political and economic system “rigged” in favour of “the billionaire class” – is the man to beat. And rightly so. Sanders understands that the Democrats have to change, and change fast. “There are some people in the Democratic Party who want to maintain the status quo,” he said in March. “They would rather go down with the Titanic so long as they have first-class seats.”

Getty
Stop thinking of EU citizens as bargaining chips - they could be voters instead
May 21st, 2017, 07:19 PM

Just 5 per cent of Poles and 2 per cent of Lithuanians are enfranchised. They could transform politics. 

When history teachers talk about the extension of the franchise, they tend to stop somewhere between Emily Davison throwing herself under a horse and 1928, when unmarried poorer women were finally allowed to vote. But if mainstream politicians thought a bit more imaginatively, we could be on the cusp of a third great extension of the franchise – to more than three million potential new voters.

I’m talking, of course, about EU citizens. So long as they can’t vote, perhaps it’s understandable that Labour politicians don’t seem to notice the vast Eastern European working class that hands them their drink at the bar and tidies up after they spill it. It’s not surprising that the Conservatives haven’t found time to woo the middle class French of London, or extoll the virtues of the vast army of crop pickers that keep Britain’s farms running. The question of EU citizens’ right to remain in the UK is treated as an ethical dilemma, or a negotiating tactic, but not something that could sink your budding parliamentary career.

But picture this scenario. If a mainstream political party unilaterally granted British citizenship – and the corresponding voting rights – they would have the potential to change the whole political dynamic of the country in an instant. 

Using data compiled by Rob Ford, a professor of political science at Manchester University, which was originally used for the 2015 election*, in partnership with the Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity, it’s possible to sketch out how such an extension of the franchise could transform a candidate’s chances. 

First, the potential for enfranchisement is massive. EU citizens, for the most part, cannot vote. In Ealing, a London suburb, where the Labour MP Rupa Huq is currently defending a majority of just 274 from the Tories, there were an estimated 28,632 Poles in 2015. But of those, only 1,423 could vote. 

In Lambeth, an area home to the pro-Brexit Labour MP Kate Hoey’s Vauxhall constituency, just 1,418 Spanish, Portuguese and Polish residents voted in 2015. If the franchise was extended, there would be 20,025 votes. In other words, three EU nationalities alone have more votes than Hoey’s majority. 

But this is not just a London story. Take Boston, the town that voted most fervently for Brexit. Just 259 Poles and Lithuanians could vote in 2015 – not much for any politician to worry about. But enfranchise all those EU nationals, and the Polish-Lithuanian vote rises to 6,744. This is somewhat larger than the standing Conservative MP Matt Warman’s majority. 

Other provincial towns and cities show a similar pattern. Just 5 per cent of Poles and 2 per cent of Lithuanians in Peterborough are enfranchised. If all Polish and Lithuanian nationals had the vote (and all exercised their right), they would represent nearly a quarter of voter turnout.

Of course, there are huge caveats to be made. First, assuming Polish or French voters will automatically form a bloc vote is glib, and patronising. Second, there is the fact that some EU nationals might not wish to exercise their voting rights. Third, even if EU nationals felt some immediate obligation towards the party that had granted them the vote, this is hardly a guarantee of loyalty in the future. In true British style, preoccupations of class and income could soon come to the fore.  

Still, if this is an imperfect exercise, it nevertheless has a simple point. There are millions of EU citizens in this country who wish to remain in the UK, and if they do so, they may well get a vote one day. That could be a day of reckoning for any politician that has used them as a bargaining chip. 
 

*Ford projected the population of different nationalities to estimate the 2015 count, and then estimated the number of voters based on the take up of British citizenship. His original report can be found here.

Getty
Thatcher daintily manoeuvred over my sprawled form. “All right there?” she said
May 21st, 2017, 07:19 PM

In those days it was thought exciting to send out Today presenters to hang around at EU summits.

Winter 1980: a bland conference centre in Luxembourg. I was a Today presenter then, though you wouldn’t have known it from my youth and innocently scruffy demeanour. On one mortifying occasion we were all invited to a reception with the new PM, Thatcher, and I got shooed away down another corridor as an official barked, “Jobless youth delegation, second door on the left!” The duffel coat would have to go.

In those days it was thought exciting to send out any one of the three regular Today presenters to hang around at EU summits, getting in the way of the real Europe and economics correspondents, delivering live bulletins and recording snatched interviews with thwarted Eurocrats for the following morning’s show.

I’d already done Dublin, and scored, without enthusiasm, the second of the Luxembourg summits (as outings go, these were not popular, even with Brian Redhead). My chief memory from Dublin was that I churlishly refused to join the keener UK cadre, whose wont was to spend half the night drinking in a smoke-filled hotel room while Bernard Ingham, the PM’s press secretary, told them absolutely nothing. My producer did go to the midnight conclave with the economics correspondent, Dominick Harrod, whose hobby was explaining the Common Agricultural Policy to the Today presenters, to little avail.

Meeting the bleary pair on the hotel stairs at 5am the next day, I asked, “What news?” They spoke simultaneously: the producer grunted, “Nothing!” and Dom squeaked, “Crisis!” That was pretty much the nature of all news from EU summits: Mrs T agreeing to nothing, and everyone calling it a crisis.

A few months later, there I was, the long Luxembourg day passing in the usual way. The British reporters all knew that Ingham and co would tell us nothing about the tense and irritable talks until the final despairing communiqué, so we had to find another way to get titbits for our masters. The favoured tactic was to dredge up any French, Italian or German we could remember from O-level years and roam around, eavesdropping on the other nations’ more frank and furious spokesmen. I had been bilingual in French at school, so for me the excitable Belgians were a good bet: “Madame T’atchaire, she say non, toujours non! S’en fiche de nous!

After gleaning what I could over the lunch break, I hurried back towards our phones but tripped over a cable. At which moment the posse of leaders crossed the floor to get in to the next session. Thatcher herself, without breaking step, daintily manoeuvred over my sprawled form with a kindly yet scornful: “All right there?”

As a dutiful newshound I rang in and related this, because it was the only interesting thing to happen all day. A weary duty editor, recently recruited from Fleet Street, said: “Did she actually tread on you?”

“No.”

“Well, did you see up her skirt?”

“Certainly not!”

“No story, then, is there?”

True enough. 

Keystone / Getty
The age of lies: how politicians hide behind statistics
May 21st, 2017, 07:19 PM

Perhaps it is time to combine our Trump-era, heightened sensitivity to untruths with a new broadcasting technique or two.

The small slabs of crude election soundbites, with extra ornamentation in the form of half-true and meaningless headline statistics, clunk across the airwaves, and we grimace. The dead prose reaches us umpteen times a day – “an economy that works for all”, “the many and not the few”, “work is the way out of poverty”, “more being spent on our schools than ever before”, “the NHS is treating more patients than ever ­before”, “fastest growth rate in Europe”, “the national interest”, “the most ­important election in my lifetime” – and yes, let’s hear it for “strong and stable leadership”.

On 30 April, Andrew Marr tried a little witty and civilised pre-emptive mocking to stop Theresa May using soundbites in his interview with her, but it did not work because it could not work. Embarrassment about clichés and almost idiotic numbers is not what democratic politicians worry about at election time. Many of us may pine for the old American game-show device – where, for failing to amuse and divert the audience, contestants are removed from the fray by a man hammering a gong – but that is not on offer and, in election mode, the politicians will do as they have long learned to do. They will listen to the Lynton Crosbys and Seumas Milnes of this world and plough on – and on.

The soundbites are largely vacuous and we are more noisily sardonic about them than three decades ago (hooray for media literacy) but they aren’t worse than normal. There is no point expecting the debate to run on the lines of Gladstone’s Midlothian campaign 140 years ago, when he charged around Britain giving five-hour speeches – richly informed by Liberal philosophy – which did the trick for him and his party.

The clichés are, naturally, often interchangeable. Everybody running for high political office could quite contentedly utter any or all of the above phrases, though I concede it doesn’t require an inspired analyst of modern British politics to know what Theresa May is trying to do with her leadership riff – nor Jeremy Corbyn with his “rule for the many and not the few”, a phrase that has been used religiously since the adoption of universal suffrage. Only Jacob Rees-Mogg would put it to one side.

I spent almost 30 years at the BBC – working with a cadre of (mostly) hugely talented and impartial presenters and editors trying to find ways of injecting a bit more surprise or rigour into political interviews. (Surprise and rigour are often not the same thing.) I recall David Dimbleby reducing Alastair Campbell to semi-public fury in 1997 by excavating Tony Blair’s early political career and finding, neither surprisingly nor, in my view, particularly reprehensibly, that he had said Michael Foot-like things in a Michael Foot-like era. Oddly, nobody had thought to do this after he had been elected leader three years earlier, so Dimbleby’s approach to Blair had an element of ­surprise. And then there was John Humphrys’s relentless needling of Gordon Brown for his comic refusal after the 2008 financial crash to use the word “cuts” to describe what might have to happen to reduce the budget deficit, or even to agree with his own chancellor, Alistair Darling, that the global economic outlook was very bad. Brown had an on-air mega-curdle.

We know the score – the politicians find the rhetorical and statistical position that provides the best short-term defensive crouch, while the interviewer at least wants to make sure that the audience knows the question posed is relevant, fair and, if need be, that it has been dodged. Time presses on both participants – but the impact of the compression is unequal. The interviewee usually has the upper hand. In her early period Margaret Thatcher, who was a good deal more nervous than her subsequent reputation for clarity and authority would suggest, might well have been the all-time queen of interview delay tactics. However, most interviewees know that once they have found an answer to a question the first thing to do is to pad it out in case the next question is a little more difficult.

I am not outraged by any of this; nor do I believe these encounters should be dismissed as sterile, or that we should be contemptuous of the skills involved on either side of the exchange. The sort of one-sided triumph enjoyed by LBC’s Nick Ferrari with Diane Abbott is rare, and her numerical amnesia over policing made a whole argument go kerplunk – but even in more orthodox interviews you can often detect at the very least a broad weakness in a broad argument.

To my ear Corbyn sounds perpetually unsteady on defence policy (see his Marr interview in the first week of the campaign) and public finances, and neither May nor David Cameron before her manages much fluency on the impact of cuts on the working poor once they have uttered that threadbare soundbite about work being the route out of poverty. Would that it were so simple.

Our willingness to dismiss as boring these interviews, the staple of daily current affairs programmes, is overdone. And we have been a little graceless about the extent to which senior UK politicians do – or did – engage in at least some forms of public debate. Anyone who follows the US media will know how rare it has always been for senior members of the administration and White House staff to expose themselves to the sort of scrutiny still supplied by the Sunday political shows, Radio 4 current affairs programmes, Newsnight or Channel 4 News.

For decades, senior politicians in the UK turned up in the studios – often with scarcely concealed irritation – but they went through with it. In part because it was expected and in part out of self-interest. Good interview performances could lead to rapid promotion. Iain Duncan Smith was (you may be surprised by this) particularly effective in his early years at advocating his causes, and his party’s, in front of a microphone. But the studios did for him when he became Tory leader. As it turned out, his failings were more obvious when confronted by a skilled interviewer than in the House of Commons. His nervous coughing finally caught up with him one morning on the Today programme, and that was that.

Duncan Smith and Abbott are far from alone in seeing their currency plummet as a result of losing the plot in an interview. Harriet Harman, normally a highly fluent and agile politician, was sacked as social security secretary in 1998 after a grim outing, at least for her, with John Humphrys – caused not by his abrasiveness nor by any Abbott-like forgetfulness, but by her almost tangible unhappiness with a New Labour policy she was defending.

Even now, on BBC Question Time, some heavyweights will turn up only to be mauled by the voters on topics a long way away from the heart of their portfolio. Yes, they get copious notes from party researchers and have endless rehearsals to minimise the chance of saying anything too intellectually lively: but they should nevertheless get credit for risking it in the first place.

However, outside election time this tradition of broadcasting interrogation and debate, not much more than 50 years old, is under stealthy attack. The presenting team on Today is seriously good, but it is hard not to notice that the heavy hitters turn up less often for their ten minutes of duelling; similarly with Newsnight and Channel 4 News.

The Prime Minister’s Olympian approach to this sort of public engagement aggravates what was already a problem. The broadcasters may be losing ground. In this election there will be no head-to-head leaders’ debates featuring Labour and the Conservatives, and there is no great uproar about it. As it happens, I don’t believe that their absence is a disaster – not least because the format of individual leaders confronting an engaged Question Time audience one at a time (a “tradition” that began in 1997) provides far more substance and revelation than the 2010 or 2015 leaders’ debates did.

In the meantime, what can be done to the interview to improve the quality of public debate? Forcing out the clichés is not a realistic goal. Yet perhaps it is time to combine our Trump-era, heightened sensitivity to untruths with a new broadcasting technique or two. The BBC Trust (which I was part of for two years until it ceased to exist in April) commissioned its final independent editorial report on the BBC’s use of statistics from a panel of experts chaired by the former UK chief statistician Jil Matheson.

It is a superb piece of work. Above all it pleads with the BBC to do more to put statistics in context. The work was largely complete before the EU referendum so it did not pass judgement about either the veracity of the Brexiteers’ “extra £350m for the NHS” claim or the BBC’s coverage of that claim. I listened and watched a lot and, contrary to the views of many leading members of the Remain campaign, the BBC seemed to me to have consistently signalled to the audience the risible nature of the figure, if not as rudely as many would have liked.

Yet there is a different perspective on that cause célèbre. Only very rarely did the BBC on air (or anyone else, for that matter) compare the sums involved with total UK public expenditure: a net annual payment to the EU of about £8.5bn, compared to public expenditure of about £785bn. This £8.5bn is not a trivial sum – and it is likely to sound gargantuan to an unskilled worker on low wages in Hartlepool – but it hardly threatens the nation’s existence. We will have to think about that number all over again when the EU divorce bill gets paid.

In the past few years there has been a welcome growth online of fact-checking websites that get to grips with some of the half-sense or nonsense uttered – sometimes deliberately – in public debate. Among the broadcasters, Channel 4 News got in first with “FactCheck” and deserves great credit for having done so. The BBC has Reality Check; there are also the non-aligned Full Fact and others. And the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) sits as a mega-authority when it pronounces on individual economic statistics. (It was a particularly dispiriting episode when the IFS took a pounding during the EU campaign.)

The good newspapers and the broadcasters have correspondents who can – and do – understand the context in which statistical argument takes place. They know the difference between a big number and a not-so-big number, the difference between an aggregate spending figure and spending per head of population, the difference in importance between a one-month figure and a trend – and a trend that does not change much over time.

This is all good, and better than it used to be. But perhaps more of this rigour can be woven into what is still the dominant form of political accountability in broadcasting: the interview.

So let us try a thought experiment. Imagine (though we don’t really have to imagine) that the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, comes into a studio to say, surprise, surprise, that more is being spent in real terms on the NHS than ever before. Imagine that he is told there will be no questions on anything else until he can answer, let’s say, two obvious supplementary questions: in the course of the past 60 years how often has his assertion not been true? (Answer, says the IFS: four times, one of which was 2011/12.) And what has been the growth in per capita NHS spend, in real terms, since 2009/10, compared to the previous 15 years or so? (Answer: 0.6 per cent, as opposed to 5.4 per cent.) Answering these would show that his boast is one that almost all of his predecessors could have made, and also that the Conservative-led coalition was less generous to the health service than the preceding Labour government. It would be absolutely fair for Jeremy Hunt to respond vigorously about the need to cut the deficit or even to make points about who was in government when the crash happened – but he could not be allowed to get away with statistical near-rubbish.

Similarly, the mantra on English education (“Our schools are getting more money than ever before”) is a waste of air. It’s not that the cuts are “vicious” – just that the assertion when put in context is gibberish. The economy is growing and the school population is growing, fast. So if we were not spending more in total, and in real terms, then the cuts would be vicious. And yet, per head, there will be less in real terms for pupils. Period.

The front-line interviewers I know best are very skilled journalists and they often do try to get a jab in when the numerical nonsense gets going – but they have to move on, whether to other urgent matters or to seek a news headline from the interview, and there is not enough jeopardy for the press officer or spin doctor who wrote the politician’s brief to desist from writing the same stuff next time around.

There may be other ways of levelling up matters. The interview could proceed as normal; but at the end of it up could pop, say, Tim Harford (of the brilliant statistics programme More or Less on Radio 4) to put in the necessary corrections. It would have to be done within a few minutes or else the impact would dissipate. From time to time, Harford or his equivalent does appear after a political interviewee has spouted statistically illiterate twaddle – but not often enough, and usually this happens long after the attempted mugging of intelligent debate. Too little, too late.

It would be obligatory to ensure that this type of treatment, particularly at election time, was meted out to all the parties – but outside the election it is the government of the day and its news departments that are going to have to face most of the music. Fair enough.

My suggestion is not put forward because I am advocating a particular party’s reading of the state of the nation (or nations). There is no monopoly on vice. We should not forget Labour’s “triple counting” of health service spending after 1997 even if Blair/Brown subsequently, in benign economic circumstances, did indeed put their foot on the health-spending accelerator.

Rather, when the election dust settles and the media seminar post-mortems crank up yet again – about the level of turnout, political ennui, the particular disengagement of the young, the coverage of the leaders, the role of opinion polls and other staples – we need to keep working on how to improve the quality of public debate. It is not all awful, and a stylised contempt for what is good is itself corrupting of democracy. But the numbers nonsense needs fixing. 

Mark Damazer is Master of St Peter’s College, Oxford, and was the controller of BBC Radio 4 from 2004 to 2010

Cargo
On Wheels
May 20th, 2017, 07:19 PM

A new poem by Patrick Mackie

The hills swarm and soften towards the end of the day just as
flames do in a fireplace as the evening
loosens and breaks open and lets out night.
A nasty, grotesque, impatient year ended,
and the new one will be bitter,
tired, opaque. Words wrangle in every inch of air,
their mouths wide open in stupid shock
at what they have just heard every time they hear anything. Venus,
though, blazes with heavy wobbles of albeit frozen
light. Brecht, who I like to call my
brother just as he called Shelley his,
has a short late poem where he sits by a roadside, waiting
while someone changes the wheel on his car,
watching with impatience, despite not liking
either the place that he is coming from or
the place that he is going to. We call it
connectivity when in truth it is just aggression
and imitation writ ever larger. Poems, though,
are forms of infinite and wry but also briskly
impatient patience. Brecht’s poem seems to end,
for instance, almost before you
can read it. It wheels. The goddess is just a big, bright
wilderness but then soon enough she clothes
herself again in the openness of night and I lose her.

Patrick Mackie’s latest collection, The Further Adventures Of The Lives Of The Saints, is published by CB Editions.

Nasa
Spurs’ last game at White Hart Lane ... the crowd never stopped singing
May 20th, 2017, 07:19 PM

I was fortunate to be there, at the very last game at White Hart Lane after 118 years, and to have fab seats, kindly given by one of the staff. It was also lucky for Spurs. Their emotional finale could have happened at any time in the past couple of decades, if they’d built their new ground earlier.

This season, by chance, has turned out to be their best, most exhilarating, most optimistic in decades. It could easily have been one of those seasons when the players got booed off the pitch at half-time, thousands left before the end, and we all trailed miserably home thinking, oh bugger, not another middling year, with a middling team, and the Arse miles above, as usual.

“We nearly won the League,” the fans yelled, which in other circumstances might have been a negative reaction – but here it was a cry for joy. Unbeaten at home all season. The best crop of young players since, well, the last best crop of young players.

My son and I were seated right behind the 30 or so Spurs ex-stars, all gleaming bright and well shaved, not a beard among them, in their Pierre Cardin suits – Hoddle, Waddle, Ossie, Villa, Ledley King, Pat Jennings and a host of others, presumably kitted out by the club for this special occasion.

Only Ginola wasn’t wearing a white shirt and tie – trust him, flash bastard – but he did make me laugh. Afterwards, when they all trooped on to the pitch, he emerged taking a selfie.

I peered into the back of Darren Anderton’s lush hair and he has not aged. So slim, so fit-looking. As was Teddy Sheringham. Only poor old Joe Kinnear looked overweight. Graham Roberts did look burly, but he always was.

During the whole game, and the touching half-hour ceremony, the crowd never stopped singing and waving their flags. Yes, Spurs went mad, hope Daniel Levy doesn’t regret it. They gave each of us a free T-shirt and a flag.

Yet there was something a bit creepy about these old retired footballers being worshipped and adored by the fans; grown men looking at them with awe.

You forget that for almost 140 years, players who have played for any top team, or any professional club, remain famous in their own local world for ever. That has been the case since 1885, when professionalism came in – nothing to do with the modern cult of celebrity.

After one particular bout of insane cheering as a close-up appeared on the screen of some of the old stars sitting in front of me, my son cynically observed, “A shame they never won anything in their day.” All true, for almost all of them, but that wasn’t the point. They played for Spurs – my heroes.

My ears went after about half an hour. The noise and singing were unrelenting. As for the flag-waving, I did that for half an hour, then had to sit down.

Many of the ex-players and their wives were taking photos on their mobiles. It must have been strange for them, thinking back to their day on that pitch, in this ground, when they were real heroes. The ones from the Seventies and Eighties, who never made much money, must mostly be hanging round the house in their slippers. This was a moment for them to remember their great days and good times at White Hart Lane.

I thought back to first coming to the ground in 1960. I did sometimes take my wife. She would walk away when the signs said “Ground Full”. Don’t be daft, pet, follow me. I would walk round the whole ground until eventually we found a turnstile still letting people in. It was a metaphor for our different personalities.

In the Seventies, doing a book about Spurs, I remember walking round inside the stadium with the manager Bill Nicholson, who joined the club in 1936. He pointed out the girders under the West Stand, which he’d helped to paint.

And Gazza telling me the most appalling stories about his pranks: putting shit sandwiches in his freezer for guests, firing an air rifle at Five Bellies’ big bare arse on the training ground. I don’t think we’ll see those incidents again.

PS This is a column of record – I forgot to say that Spurs beat Man United 2-1

 

Richard Heathcote / Getty
Rather than restricting NHS services ... why not invite voluntary donations?
May 20th, 2017, 07:19 PM

"Money has been getting ever tighter for several years now ... we’re well past the point where we can do everything we used to do."

People suffering from a range of health problems are experiencing the hard reality of the Conservatives’ austerity NHS. Money has been getting ever tighter for several years now and, to put it bluntly, we’re well past the point where we can do everything we used to do.

Nationwide provision on prescription of gluten-free foods for people with coeliac disease is ceasing. Hay fever sufferers will be expected to buy their treatments over the counter; likewise those needing paracetamol or ibuprofen.

This won’t matter to working adults on a decent wage: under the NHS prescription charge, it’s already much cheaper to purchase these kinds of things directly. But for those entitled to free prescriptions – by virtue of age or low income – the changes represent yet another drain on already stretched household budgets.

A similar rationing is happening with operations: cataract removal, hernia repair, varicose vein treatment and bunion excision are now subject to a highly bureaucratic process to obtain “prior funding approval”. Already hard-pressed GPs are faced with lengthy forms to complete, and accompanying letters to be written, all to plead for treatments that used to be offered routinely on the strength of a referral.

The sheer weight of administration is intentional: put hurdles in the way and many people will decide they just don’t have the energy to jump. Even for patients whose doctors do manage to scale the paperwork mountain, only those with the most severe conditions will get their treatment approved by the funding committee.

We recently discussed these developments at our local clinical commissioning group – the forum where GPs in the local area get together to plan health care for our population. Most accepted the new reality with the weary resignation of a profession feeling powerless in the face of the irresistible forces grinding it down.

There were some glimmers of spirit, though. One of my colleagues posed the question: rather than restricting services, why can’t we look at creative ways to raise more funds instead? She wondered about applying to charitable foundations, or partnering with commercial concerns. Her ideas were dismissed by the CCG leadership.

It set me thinking. Looking round a cathedral nowadays, one invariably finds a large, glass-domed receptacle in the entrance, with signage explaining how much it costs to maintain the building, and inviting visitors to make a donation. And, as most parents are finding, it has become a matter of course for my children’s schools to seek my help in meeting the cost of educational trips or equipment.

I raised my hand and sketched my off-the-cuff vision. How about a slip, given out with every NHS prescription, inviting additional voluntary contributions? And what about a big, glass-domed receptacle in the A&E waiting room, with a sign explaining how much it costs to keep the hospital running, and inviting people, if they’ve enjoyed their visit, to make a donation?

The idea caused a few wry chuckles round the room. I fancied I could see the colour draining from our CCG chairman’s face as he imagined being peremptorily summoned by the Department of Health to discuss the politically unacceptable developments in the health service in our area. Like my colleague’s, my proposal got short shrift.

Brexit is important, but it is drowning out other vital issues in this snap election. The NHS is inexorably becoming a minimum safety net for the have-nots, while the haves vote with their feet and use their greater resources to secure better provision privately. And what’s true in health is also true in education and social care.

There is precious little time for opposition parties to get the parlous state of our public services firmly up the election agenda. Five more years of Tory austerity (at least) doesn’t bear thinking about. l

NIKLAS HALLE'N / Getty
If Tony Blair wants a political comeback he needs to show what side he’s on
May 20th, 2017, 07:19 PM

Tony Blair is more toxic among the British public than Jeremy Corbyn, which shows how hard a comeback will be.

Our recent survey for Business Insider UK has caused a stir. As part of a wider political study showing the Conservatives 20 points ahead of Labour, we asked respondents to imagine different hypothetical leaders of the Labour Party and state whether they would consider voting Labour under their leadership or not. The results may surprise you. Jeremy Corbyn essentially vies for first place on ‘net consideration’ with Yvette Cooper.

Source: GfK / Business Insider (May 2017)

However, the numbers that really stand out are those that show Tony Blair as less popular than Jeremy Corbyn.  61 per cent of Brits claim that they would not consider voting Labour under Blair compared to 53% that say the same about Corbyn. In fact, Blair is the least popular of all of the five Labour names tested with a ‘net consideration’ score in the doldrums at -38.

Some people will not like these numbers. Indeed, writing for the New Statesman, Patrick Maguire has called these findings ‘self-evidently redundant by [their] own premise’.  The argument appears to be that Blair is not going to be Labour leader again and is naturally tainted by 10 years in office and therefore any comparison with Corbyn now is unfair and meaningless. I disagree. Sometimes hypothetical poll questions speak to a wider truth that is important.

These results are certainly not good news for Corbyn. There I do agree. He is deeply unpopular and faces leading Labour to a very heavy defeat. But they tell us something about Blair’s political future that is relevant to his supposed plans.

The problem for Blair is that these findings are not in isolation. Another survey conducted back in February, this time by Opinium, asked respondents to rate whether the Prime Ministers of the past 30 years did a good or bad job in office. Margaret Thatcher came out on top, whilst voters thought that Tony Blair did a ‘bad job’, rather than a ‘good job’, as Prime Minister by a more than 2:1 margin.

Source: Opinium Research / Polling Matters (Feb 17)

How do we explain Blair’s unpopularity? Labour voters. For example, 77 per cent of Conservative voters told Opinium that Thatcher did a ‘good job’ as Prime Minister whereas Labour voters could not make their mind up about Blair. A third said he did a ‘good job’, 37 per cent ‘bad job’ and the rest didn’t know. The same pattern is true in our survey published this week. 44 per cent of current Labour voters would consider voting for a Labour Party led by Tony Blair whereas 40 per cent would not. So the challenge that Blair faces in any political comeback – in whatever form that might take – is that he is divisive among progressives and unpopular among the public as a whole. Our survey this week adds evidence to that point. It’s not enough to blame the legacy of office. Thatcher had that too but remains relatively popular because she is loved by her own side.

So perhaps a good starting point for a Blair comeback would be to make peace with his party. Sometimes Blair does not help himself here. In a wide ranging interview with Alastair Campbell for GQ, Blair repeatedly dodged any opportunity to criticise Donald Trump or Theresa May. Yet he has previously made it very plain what he thinks of Jeremy Corbyn and Ed Miliband’s leadership of the Labour Party. For progressives that want to like him, he is immensely frustrating at times, whilse he has given those that don’t little reason to change their mind since leaving office. How hard would it be for him to criticise Trump?

If Blair is entertaining some form of comeback he needs a constituency in British politics. That constituency is still the centre left first and foremost but he needs to be much stronger in showing them that he is on their side. He should take on conservative forces much more directly and vocally and champion progressive causes and candidates openly (as Obama did recently endorsing Macron). In doing so, he can remind those that used to love him why they did and win over new converts to his side of the political argument. But people won’t come to him. He needs to reach out.

Tony Blair is arguably the best political communicator of his generation but his political antennae has misfired for some time. To have a genuine political future he needs to improve his personal poll ratings so that people will listen to him and that starts with reminding his own side why he is still ‘one of them’. This week’s polling evidence suggests he has some way to go.

Keiran Pedley is a Research Director at GfK and presenter of the ‘Polling Matters ‘podcast. He tweets about polling and politics at @keiranpedley

WPA Pool
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee tells the story of Koreans living in Japan
May 20th, 2017, 07:19 PM

Throughout the book, spanning nearly a century and four generations, Koreanness is a flickering state.

The multigenerational family saga, spanning decades and often countries, has offered a way of looking at how individuals find themselves situated in relation to history, how they battle it and survive, sometimes even with a measure of triumph. The Korean-American novelist Min Jin Lee’s second novel, Pachinko, marries the story of the generations with the immigrant narrative, but with a twist: instead of the now exhausted account of people fetching up in the West to forge a new life amid the travails of assimilation, Lee looks at a little-known history of exile – that of Koreans in Japan in the 20th century.

Lee’s novel begins in 1910, among poor people on the islet of Yeongdo in Busan, in a Korea that has been occupied by Japan. Hoonie, a good, simple, hard-working man with a cleft palate and twisted foot, finds a bride when he meets Yangjin, a destitute farmer’s daughter. Their only child, Sunja, becomes pregnant at 16 after a brief romance with a charismatic and mysterious older man, Hansu – who, we later discover, is a yakuza, a member of Japan’s organised crime network. Hansu is unable to marry Sunja because he already has a wife and family in Japan. A young Christian pastor, Isak, offers to marry her and give the child paternity, but he is bound for Osaka – and here Sunja moves to Japan, as does the novel. Lee’s cast of Korean characters will not be able to return home; nor will they be born on foreign soil.

In Osaka, Isak and Sunja join Isak’s brother, Yoseb, and Yoseb’s wife, Kyunghee, in a Korean ghetto called Ikaino. It is here that the outrageous discrimination against ­Korean immigrants begins to mark the narrative, providing the insistent moral/political heart of the book. Theirs is a hardscrabble life: Isak earns a pittance as the minister of the local church, and the family is almost entirely supported by Yoseb’s small income from his job as a foreman and mechanic at a biscuit factory.

Sunja’s first son, Noa, is born, and then her second, with Isak – Mozasu. After the Second World War breaks out, Isak is arrested on the flimsiest of charges during the crackdown on Koreans and disappears for more than two years. When he is released he is a man broken by torture and tuberculosis and he dies shortly afterwards.

Meanwhile, much against the wishes of Yoseb, the two women have set up a market stall selling home-made kimchi and sweets and, later, cooking in a restaurant. The hardship gets worse as the war progresses; then Hansu reappears and arranges for the family to be moved to a farm in the country before the Allied bombing of Japanese cities. It emerges that he has kept tabs on the family because he has a vital stake in it: Noa, his son.

After the war, the situation gets worse. Yoseb is severely burned in an accident, but despite their dismal financial situation Sunja refuses to accept help from the powerful and wealthy Hansu. Noa, taking after Isak, turns out to be a gentle, bookish, upright soul, while his brother Mozasu is more carefree, dashing and worldly. By dint of hard work, and overcoming all odds, Noa gets a place to study English literature at the prestigious Waseda University in Tokyo but the family can’t afford to send him there. Hansu steps in and paves the way, despite Sunja’s misgivings and Yoseb’s opposition.

Mozasu becomes a successful manager and, later, an owner of pachinko parlours (pachinko being the pinball-style gambling machine that gives the book its title), moving from Osaka to Yokohama. Inevitably Noa finds out who Hansu really is, and when he does the sense of shame and disgust that overcomes him has far-reaching consequences.

The self-loathing that is thrust upon Noa becomes a metaphor for Koreans living in Japan – those whom the Japanese call zainichi and look upon as less than human. Noa’s erasure of his Korean identity and transformation into “Nobuo Ban”, his Japanese name, is uneasy at best: “In no way did he see his current life as a rebirth. Noa carried the story of his life as a Korean like a dark, heavy rock within him. Not a day passed when he didn’t fear being discovered.”

It is a sentiment that recurs in the novel, echoed by several characters, with the coherence and heft of a motif. Throughout the book, spanning nearly a century and four generations, Koreanness is a flickering state, in an unstable equilibrium between erasure, first of all; problematic, even impossible assimilation; and, finally, an inchoate assertion. In Solomon, Mozasu’s son, who attends university in the US but chooses to continue his father’s pachinko business over working for an investment bank, the story of those in permanent exile is not returned to, but reclaimed as a broken past.

Lee writes about every character with sympathy, generosity and understanding; in particular, Sunja, the woman who holds the story together, is a wonderful creation. The immensely dignified survivors in this story are the two women at its core, Sunja and Kyunghee: history has bent but not broken them. They have endured. 

Neel Mukherjee’s third novel, “A State of Freedom”, will be published in July by Chatto & Windus

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Voters who backed Brexit changed something. The problem for Labour is they like the feeling
May 20th, 2017, 07:19 PM

With Brexit, "we" made something happen. Labour's popular policies cannot compete. 

"If voting changed anything they’d make it illegal," said the American anarchist Emma Goldman. Ms Goldman might find canvassing in this UK election rather disconcerting. For large numbers of voters - mainly Leavers but some Remainers too - voting has changed something. They like the feeling. With Brexit "we" made a choice; "we" made something happen. (And "we" did something that most of "them" didn’t want us to do). That is more important to many than whether the decision was necessarily a good one; after all no one can really tell.

That mood on the doorstep provides some explanation for the growing number of "Re-Leavers" who want to finish the job. Focus groups have heard that voting Tory is the "democratic" thing to do. We are not seeing much support for the "let’s have another Brexit vote" party. For newly empowered voters, too many Remainers still manage to sound aghast that voting did actually change something. (I’m embarrassed by my fellow Remainers who make snide remarks about ill-educated voters; perhaps we’d be happier with a more restricted franchise?)

It’s all too rare to feel your vote connects to power. Many felt it on that "bright new morning" in 1997. (The late political scientist Anthony King famously compared Tony Blair’s victory to "an asteroid hitting the planet and destroying practically all life on Earth".) After 18 years of Tory government, it suddenly seemed as though it was possible to change something, even if it wasn’t entirely clear what would be changed. But most of the time, voters are pretty cynical about their politicians and it’s been getting worse.

Labour’s manifesto may be radical in the scale of tax and spending, but the political relationship on offer is very familiar. "Vote for us, and we will do good things for you." The problem is that fewer and fewer voters trust that deal any longer. A pound, please, for every canvasser of every party who will be told "It doesn’t matter who you vote for"; "they all promise you everything but when they get in they forget all about you".

Promising more doesn’t make you more believable. Being promised more doesn’t make you feel your vote is more powerful. It’s quite possible to think your vote is an important right without believing it makes any real difference. This gap - the gap between voting as power, as a way of making things happen for us, not just me, and voting as mere personal preference - is part of the political dynamic of this election.

Labour policies are popular. On many doorsteps it is Labour that is dealing with the issues that matter most to voters. But they are all on that long list of promises that many voters assume will never be delivered whoever gets in. Brexit, on the other hand, is a decision that we the people, the people of this country and this place have taken, and we took it together. To go back on last year’s vote would be to surrender the power "we" took for ourselves. The one thing we can make sure on its that our decision is followed through. To that end, voters will choose the leader and party most likely to keep faith with their decision.

Not everyone was empowered by Brexit. Labour’s polling is slowly improving. But most support is still coalescing around the party that has put Brexit at the heart of its campaign. The party with popular policies but politics as usual is well behind.

At such an extraordinary time in politics, punditry and prediction is fraught with risk. My sense, though, is that former Labour voters backing May are far from committed Tories yet. Their votes will be predicated on her delivering for them, not them supporting her.

There are lessons and future potential here for Labour. Moments when voters feel empowered are to be prized, not feared. They show that radical change is possible when a party becomes the vehicle for what people want; for themselves, their community, their nation. Today’s Labour and its leader (as he keeps reminding us), is a vehicle for the change its members want. To put it another way, Labour comes across as a "they" party, not a "we" party.

On some issues people and party are clearly on the same side; on others - of nation, patriotism and community - they are too far apart. After the election we will find out whether Labour can bridge that divide, and whether it wants to.

 

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Under pressure at home, Donald Trump will struggle to deliver what Saudi Arabia wants
May 19th, 2017, 07:19 PM

Above all, the Gulf states want stability. Can this beleaguered US president bring order?

There is a nervous energy around Riyadh. Fresh palm trees line the roads from the airport, punctuated by a wall of American flags and corporate slogans: “Together we prevail.” All the street lights are suddenly working.

The visit of any American president is always a lavish affair in Saudi Arabia, but there is an optimism to this visit that evaded the Obama years and even the recent visits of Theresa May and Angela Merkel.

Yet, there are two distinct parts to this trip – Trump’s first overseas engagement as president – that will determine its success. The first is relatively straightforward. Trump will sign huge defence contracts worth billions of dollars and offer trading opportunities that allow him to maintain his narrative of economic renewal for American businesses.

For the Saudis, too, these deals will fit into their ambitious project – known as Vision 2030 – to expand and diversify their economy away from its current dependence on oil revenues. Both parties are comfortable with this type of corporate and transactional government, enjoying the gaudy pomp and ceremony that comes with the signing of newly minted deals.

The more complicated aspects of the trip relate to its political dimensions. As the Middle East continues to convulse under the most significant turmoil to envelope it since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, what Gulf leaders desperately want is the re-establishment of order. At its core, that is what will define Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia – and the Saudis are optimistic.

Their buoyancy is borne of shared regional interests, not least curbing Iranian influence. Ever since the Arab uprisings in 2011, Tehran has asserted itself across the Levant by organising hundreds of proxies to fight on its behalf in Syria and Iraq. Closer to home, too, the Gulf states accuse Iran of fomenting unrest within Shia communities in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces, in Bahrain, and in Yemen.

All of this has left the House of Saud feeling especially vulnerable. Having enjoyed an American security umbrella since the 1970s, Obama’s pursuit of the Iran deal left them feeling particularly exposed.

In part at least, this explains some of the Kingdom’s more frantic actions at home and abroad – including the execution of prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and the war in Yemen. Both are really about posturing to Iran: projecting power and demonstrating Saudi resolve.

Trump shares these concerns over Iranian influence, is prepared to look the other way on Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and is deeply opposed to Obama’s nuclear deal. Riyadh believes he will restore the status quo and is encouraged by the direction of travel.

Just last month Trump commissioned a review of the Iran deal while the US Treasury imposed sanctions on two Iranian officials. Saudi Arabia also welcomed Trump’s decision to launch cruise missiles against a Syrian military base last month after Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

These measures have been largely tokenistic, but their broader impact has been very significant. The Saudis, and their Gulf partners more generally, feel greatly reassured. This is an American presence in the region that is aligned to their interests, that they know well and can manage.

That is why Gulf states have rushed to embrace the new president ever since he first entered the Oval Office. Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (colloquially known simply as “MBS”), already visited him in Washington earlier this year. The Emiratis and others followed shortly afterwards.

A spokesman for Mohammed bin Salman later described the meeting with Trump as an “historical turning point” in relations between the two countries. A White House readout of the meeting baldly stated: “The President and the deputy crown prince noted the importance of confronting Iran's destabilising regional activities.”

Now that Trump is visiting them, the Saudis are hoping to broker an even broader series of engagements between the current administration and the Islamic world. To that end, they are bringing 24 different Muslim leaders to Saudi Arabia for this visit.

This is where Trump’s visit is likely to be fraught because he plans to deliver a major speech about Islam during his visit – a move that has seemingly no positives associated with it.

There is a lot of interest (and bemusement) from ordinary Saudis about what Trump will actually say. Most are willing to look beyond his divisive campaign rhetoric – he did, after all, declare “I think Islam hates us” – and listen to him in Riyadh. But what can he say?

Either he will indulge his audience by describing Islam as a great civilisation, thereby angering much of his political base; or he will stick to the deeply hostile rhetoric of his campaign.

There is, of course, room for an informed, careful, and nuanced speech to be made on the topic, but these are not adjectives commonly associated with Donald Trump. Indeed, the pressure is on.

He will be on the road for nine days at a time when pressure is building over the sacking of the former FBI director James Comey and the ongoing investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia.

It is already being reported that Trump is not entirely enthusiastic about such a long overseas programme, but he is committed now. As with almost everything concerning his presidency, this extra pressure adds a wild air of unpredictability to what could happen.

Away from the lucrative deals and glad-handing, this will be the real standard by which to measure the success of Trump’s visit. For a relationship principally defined by its pursuit of stability, whether Trump can deliver what the Gulf really wants remains to be seen.

FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images
The Inbetweeners’ Damon Beesley on his dad, the Eighties, and his new show White Gold
May 19th, 2017, 07:19 PM

Beesley’s new comedy explores a heady world of sex, drugs and insulating glass units.

Picture the scene. A local park. A group of lads playing football. A group of girls chatting. Four awkward teenage boys are playing frisbee, bickering about why on earth they’ve decided to engage in this pastime in the first place. Stone Roses floats from a radio across the grass, playing “Fool’s Gold”.

This draft was one of the first scenes of The Inbetweeners Damon Beesley ever wrote. If it sounds familiar, that’s because it is: the much-trailed clip was eventually used as the opening for the first series’ second episode, “Bunk Off”. But as the soundtrack suggests, The Inbetweeners started life in a very different time and place: originally set at the end of the Eighties, reflecting Beesley and co-writer Iain Morris’s own teenage years. While this period element was eventually scrapped (due to a combination of high costs and fears that setting a teen comedy 15 years in the past might make it less accessible), Beesley remained tempted by the idea of making an Eighties-set comedy.

Enter White Gold, Beesley’s new show coming to BBC2 this month. Starring Gossip Girl’s Ed Westwick and The Inbetweeners veterans Joe Thomas and James Buckley, it follows the crimes and misdemeanors of three double-glazing salesmen in Essex. Led by Westwick’s dangerously charismatic Vincent Swan, the show explores a heady world of sex, drugs and insulating glass units.

“We were trying to tap into this changing nature of British society,” Beesley explains. “At that time it was new opportunities, new careers, looking out for number one.” He credits Thatcher’s Right to Buy scheme with making white plastic windows a status symbol: “It was the policy of selling off council houses that actually created this huge boom in renovations in homes, so you’d buy your council house and then you’d think ‘How can I distinguish it from everyone else’s council house? I’ll get new windows.’”

Born in 1971, Beesley spent his formative years in Stanford-le-Hope in Essex. He was only nine when the Right to Buy scheme was introduced, so the nuances of Thatcherism at that time aren’t part of his major personal memories. What he does remember, though, are the piles of rubbish that accumulated on the streets after strikes in 1979, the stories of the miners’ strikes broadcast from every TV in the mid 1980s. He remembers hot summers, his town’s insatiable love for snooker and his nan’s crush on Cliff Thorburn. And, of course, he remembers his dad, the inspiration for White Gold’s magnetic Vincent Swan.

In the early 1980s, Beesley’s father lost his job the oil refinery where his mother before him, and indeed most of Standford-le-Hope, made their living. It was, in Beesley’s words, “a big moment”. “I didn’t understand,” he says, “but the atmosphere was really sombre and really serious.” But things changed dramatically when his dad got a job as a double glazing salesman - and discovered he was great at it. “We were minimum wage kids and all of a sudden my dad had a brand new sports car.” Though the hours were disruptive, Beesley began to see more of his dad than when he worked nights at the refinery, because he’d pop up all over town, charming his neighbours into buying new windows. “He was born to be a salesman. He had a good sense of style, he started driving the cars, he knew everyone, and he was very charismatic.” People bought from him often simply because they wanted to spend time with him. “It was like having Bruce Forsyth come to tea.”

Beesley insists that the extent of the unsavoury behaviour on show in White Gold is not based on stories about his dad, or his friends: “It isn’t my dad, and it isn’t my family, because this would be too weird for everyone involved.” But that sense of charisma pervades every scene. Ed Westwick wears his sex appeal as thickly as his hair pomade as he charms his way through every window frame in Essex: you feel he could suddenly start having sex with any character at any moment, no matter how inappropriate the context. (Beesley notes that he wanted to write a scene in which Swan experiments with gay sex, “And everyone just said, ‘Those are some serious father issues you’ve got there.’”)

“That’s part of [Swan’s] charisma: this very overt sexual aura,” Beesley explains. “I think that’s what selling is about.” He recalls a scene between Al Pacino and Jonathan Pryce in Glengarry Glen Ross, something he only watched recently, after comparisons abounded. “That’s exactly what Al Pacino’s doing. You start to think, are they going to have sex? And then at the end he whips out the brochure and signs him up.”

While the show itself never glamourizes the debauchery and dodgy dealing of the salesmen at its heart, instead showing them up as faintly ridiculous, there is a clear vein of nostalgia in the project. It wasn’t just his dad that captivated a young Beesley, who loved spending time in the double glazing showroom, inhaling its potent scent of cigarettes and coffee. “It was full of hi-jinks,” he says. “They were always mucking around and winding each other up. As a kid it’s pretty intoxicating, getting to hang out with these sharp-suited, young charismatic men.”

It seemed like the perfect material for a comedy show. “They were colourful characters. I really wanted to write something about salesmen. [I love] writing about men, and groups of men: I like that almost secret world of what they say to one another.” He spoke to several different salesmen for inspiration. Joe Thomas and James Buckley, who play Swan’s less successful colleagues Martin Lavender and Brian Fitzpatrick respectively, reprise their Inbetweeners dynamic with dialogue like: “I think you’re a massive prick,” “Oh yeah? Well I’ll show you a massive prick.” You can imagine what happens next. Inspired by audacious American comedies like Swingers and American Pie, Beesley insists, “Sometimes, just someone telling someone to fuck off is as funny as a beautifully sculpted joke.”

Beesley remembers asking his dad how he learned to sell. He told him, “Oh, I don’t remember anything from the training. What I used to do was: I’d go round there in the car, and I’d laugh and joke with them and we’d sit town and talk about people we knew in the town, and I’d let them drive my car, and after half an hour I’d say, ‘Now tell me. Why do you want these new windows?’” Beesley grins. “It’s sort of brilliant really, isn’t it?”

The first actor they saw for the role was Westwick, and Beesley says his audition “blew [him] away”. Did Westwick meet his father? “He would come down to set occasionally to have a look at everything,” he says, grinning. “He doesn’t really dress like he used to, but he’d get dressed up for it, and the car would all be polished, and he sort of waltzed around, and when he left, everyone would be like, ‘Was that the executive producer?’ And I’d be like, ‘No! That’s my dad!’”

As we’re having this conversation, Beesley’s phone buzzes. “That’s my dad calling now,” he tells me. I encourage him to answer, but he says with a rueful grin, “No, we better not…”

Windows are something of a recurring theme in Beesley’s life. He didn’t always work in television. After his mum suggested he wouldn’t be able to get a job, he stubbornly walked into the recruitment agency on Brook Street, and accepted the first thing they found him, spending three months working in a luggage shop in Piccadilly. After that, his step-dad helped him into trade publishing (another industry that features in White Gold), on titles like Building Products, Roofing, Cladding & Insulation and Window Trade News. Working his way up from editorial assistant, Beelsey found himself in his early twenties, editing Window Trade News and Glass and Glazing Products.

He had been the editor for a year when, standing in his mum’s kitchen, he ended up arguing over her windows: “She was moaning about [them], saying she needed a new sash window.” Beesley patiently explained that the window in question was not a sash window. His mother insisted it was. Unable to agree, Beesley went into work on Monday and looked up the precise definition of a sash window in order to prove her wrong. But when he did, he discovered his mother was right. It was, indeed, a sash window. “I literally had a little breakdown. I was like, ‘What am I doing with my life? I don’t care about this, do I?’ So I left.”

One £800 two-week TV journalism training course later, Beesley bagged jobs on The Big Breakfast (the Zig and Zag desk, to be precise), and The 11 O’ Clock Show, where he met Inbetweeners co-creator Iain Morris, and Ricky Gervais, who would later name two Extras characters after the future writing duo. (“My step-dad’s mum called up the next day and said ‘Oh, I saw Damon on the TV last night!’ They were like ‘...That wasn’t him, mum.’”)

Beesley has had a level of success in television that most people only dream of, with The Inbetweeners running for three internationally-acclaimed seasons and two enormous movies. I ask why he’s still so drawn to embarrassments and failures in his work when, from an outside perspective, he’s doing quite well. “On an absolutely routine basis I am constantly having these small failures,” he insists. “You can’t escape who you are, can you?”

Despite his previous collaborative success White Gold marks his first solo comedy writing project, and his first time directing his own show. He describes the transition from creative partnership to mostly working alone as “very difficult”. “It’s much more fun writing with Iain,” he says. “I think the scripts I write with Iain are funnier, to be honest, because there’s two of you, and I think he’s one of the funniest men I’ve ever met.

“When you’re doing it on your own it’s... all writing, I think, is quite difficult and quite an insular experience, but writing comedy can be soul-destroying because you’re like ‘... Is that funny?’”

Is he keen to revisit such an uncomfortable writing experience? There is one idea for White Gold he keeps coming back to. As his father outgrew his double glazing career, he moved to the south coast of Spain, in Beelsey’s words, “where the great salespeople all emigrated” to sell timeshare. There, “the world was even bigger, with higher stakes, even more amoral and illegal behaviour, greater rewards and more hedonism.”

“And it was all set in the sun.”

White Gold will air on BBC Two at 10pm on 24 May. The full series will be available on BBC iPlayer.

BBC
What matters for Labour is not the general election but what happens next
May 19th, 2017, 07:19 PM

Jeremy Corbyn will have to decide whether, like some of his predecessors, to stay on - or resign immediately. 

A handful of recent polls suggest Labour is doing better than many expected at the start of the campaign. Whatever the reason, though, the gap between it and the Conservatives is still a yawning one. Bluntly, it remains the case that this election is not about whether Labour is going to lose, it’s about how badly.

What matters for Labour, then, is what happens next and that depends in part on how many parliamentary seats the party ends up with on 9 June.

Clearly, judging from its tax, spend, and nationalise manifesto, and from the study made of Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign itinerary by the BBC’s Chris Cook, the leadership is hoping not so much to win over undecided voters as to mobilise its base sufficient to match or even surpass Ed Miliband’s 30.4 per cent of the vote in 2015.

But while that might allow Corbyn and co to mount a rhetorical argument in favour of keeping him in place, it’s unlikely to be enough (owing to the number of Labour-held marginals that will inevitably fall to a resurgent Conservative party) to stop Labour dropping below two hundred seats. And if their plan doesn’t work, and Labour’s vote share ends up somewhere in the mid-to-late 20s, then the party could emerge from the election holding just a quarter of the available seats in the Commons.

Whatever happens, Corbyn will have to decide whether, like some of his predecessors, to stay on or, as Ed Miliband did in 2015, to accept responsibility for the defeat and resign immediately. If he stays on, it will presumably be not so much because he plans to be in the job for another full parliamentary term but because he hopes his being there will improve the chances of his being replaced sooner or later by another MP from the radical wing of the party – something made more likely, though by no means certain, should the parliamentary Labour party’s left manage to change the rules to reduce the number of nominations required to make it onto the ballot paper sent out to its largely left-liberal membership.

There are, however, two problems with this strategy. First, the left is not as good at grassroots organising as many assume, and there is no guarantee that they will achieve that rule change at Labour’s autumn conference. Second, Corbyn could well face a challenge before then anyway. And if he is challenged over the summer (names bandied around include Yvette Cooper, Chukka Umunna and possibly Dan Jarvis), then no-one should take it as given that he will win – not after a damaging election defeat and a possible change of heart on the part of those trade union leaders whose ideology does not trump their concerns about throwing their members’ good money after bad.

If, on the other hand, Corbyn resigns immediately after the party’s defeat, it will be because left-wing Labour MPs reckon they can count on 15 per cent of their colleagues in the PLP and the party’s delegation to the European Parliament to nominate one of their number for the leadership. Calculations vary, but this is by no means impossible, not least because Corbynite MPs are slightly more likely to escape losing their seats than the non-Corbynite MPs who will continue to make up the bulk of the PLP after the general election. Should they achieve their aim, Labour’s fate will again be the hands of its membership.

Again, though, we should be careful not to assume the party’s grassroots will automatically opt for another left-winger – a Corbyn clone or mini-me. Members value their principles, and many will doubtless buy into the argument that their hero Jeremy was traduced by the media and stabbed in the back by his "Blairite" parliamentary colleagues. But research suggests that party members also care about power as well as protest, so they won’t necessarily relish the prospect of a further five (and probably ten) years out of office.

That said, if Labour members do vote for Corbyn or another out-and-out seventies-style socialist (as opposed to a Neil Kinnock-style "soft left", compromise candidate), then we need to contemplate the possibility (if not yet the probability) that the party could suffer a potentially fatal split as the moderate majority of the PLP looks for a way out of what by then will look to many of them like a burning building.

Inertia, of course, is a much-underestimated force, and behavioural psychology teaches us that loss-aversion is just as powerful. On the other hand, so, too, is the feeling that sometimes you have nothing left to lose. If that applies to a substantial number of Labour MPs, then look past the election for a moment because this summer, like last summer, could be a truly historic one for British politics.

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John McDonnell wants to defend pensioners - but will they return the favour?
May 19th, 2017, 07:19 PM

McDonnell senses a chink in the Tories' armour. 

A 34th birthday is associated with hangovers, impending middle age – and voting Conservative. That last bit is according to YouGov, which says the age of 34 is a “tipping point” at which voters are more likely to favour the Conservatives over Labour. For every ten years older a voter is, their chance of voting Conservative rises by roughly 8 per cent, and the chance of them voting Labour decreases by 6 per cent.

Labour’s shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell (65), wants to change that. He jumped on the Tories’ manifesto plans to remove some of the generous universal benefits pensioners enjoy. At a press conference a day later, he posed beneath a Labour poster of a figure with three boxing gloves. Pensioners, McDonnell declared, are facing “a triple whammy” from Theresa May. 

McDonnell senses a chink in the Mayan armour. He spent the bulk of the press conference talking about the cuts to winter fuel allowance. “I don’t want our pensioners to be cold this winter,” he said. Means testing such a vital benefit, he argued, would make pensioners less likely to claim and cost more in terms of administrative charges. He cited Resolution Foundation prediction that 10 million pensioners would be affected.

While all but the coolest millennial cannot help but be moved by freezing pensioners, younger voters are unlikely to feel quite so sympathetic about the other policies at stake. Labour is now defending the triple lock – the pledge to raise the state pension by 2.5 per cent, the rate of inflation, or average earnings, whichever is highest. Pensioners are much more likely to own their own homes. The typical pensioner household is £20 a week better off than the typical working age household. 

In the press conference, McDonnell argued that Labour will be looking after working families by scrapping the Bedroom Tax, reinstating housing benefit for young people and other measures. Abolishing university tuition fees will be a boon for one group of young (mostly middle class) voters in particular. This is unlikely to convince young taxpayers long overdue a wage increase. 

Still, while McDonnell’s defence of middle class pensioners may be economically wonky, it is politically astute. A poll by Old Mutual Wealth found a third of over 55s were less inclined to vote Conservative if the triple lock was at risk. And pissing off millennials is a low-risk strategy for Labour. After all, another thing goes up with your age – your likelihood of voting in the first place.

 

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What happened when Kiss went to Moscow: bullet-proof tents, rivalries and mating rituals
May 19th, 2017, 07:19 PM

Gene Simmons: "If Putin is here, he will not make himself known to me."

When Gene Simmons decided he wanted to be a rock star, he made a deal with his mother: be in a band but show me how you’re going to pay the rent. He had a variety of marketable skills at his disposal. At Newtown High School in Queens, Chaim Witz, only son of Flóra, who’d brought him to New York from Israel, took stenography and typing classes. By 13 he could out-type his teacher. By 18 he was a “tele-girl” (a temp) and found himself in demand with powerful female executives in Manhattan. With his feet, he worked a Dictaphone machine to take their letters – one pedal for go, one for stop and one for rewind. The then managing editor of Vogue, Kate Rand Lloyd, heard about the only male temp on the floor at Glamour. He became her Man Friday and fixed her hectograph, rexograph and mimeograph machines.

On 29 April 1974, he made his first television appearance on The Mike Douglas Show as Gene Simmons, “The Demon”, of the rock band Kiss. He picked his way across the studio floor on 30lb silver platforms, his abnormally long, seven-inch tongue thrashing about in his mouth like a skinned snake. In a whisper he declared himself “evil incarnate”. On the sofa next to him was the comedian Totie Fields. “Is your mother watching?” she asked. “Wouldn’t it be funny if under all the make-up he’s just a nice Jewish boy?” Eighteen months later, Simmons got a cheque from his record company for $1.5m. He showed it to his mother and she said, “Now what are you going to do?”

Up on the roof garden of the Park Hyatt hotel in Moscow sits Simmons today, his wiry hair, like black loft insulation, pulled into a ponytail. I’ve been taken to see him briefly, before an interview scheduled for two days later. Despite looking, in his own words, “at best like a baby dog at birth”, Simmons claims to have slept with 4,600 women, taking a record of each with a Polaroid camera. At 67, his latest conquest is Siri, whom he has programmed to call him “My Lord and Redeemer” on a cellphone with a special Kiss case.

Simmons stands when a woman arrives; he analyses the size of your bag, wondering how you fit your make-up in it. He thumbs through photos of Kiss products on his phone: Kiss guitars, Kiss car wraps – and a Kiss Kasket, a limited-edition coffin, part of his funeral range. The murdered Pantera guitarist Dimebag Darrell was buried in one: affection runs deep for the cartoonish glam-metal compound, now in its 44th year of music and merchandising. Among the expressions Simmons claims to have trademarked are “rich and famous” and the Chinese word xi, meaning “the West”.

Rehearsals for Russia’s May Day celebrations float up from Red Square, operatic folk songs and the chug-chug of army boots being put through their paces. Over in the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin prepares a phone call to Donald Trump to talk about Syria. US-Russian relations have hit a new low. In recent months, Simmons has generated a steady flow of headlines from views that wouldn’t seem out of place in a hardline administration. Drug addicts should be sent to gulags, he said; paedophiles put to death. Islam is a “vile culture”, and don’t even get him started on immigration. On the night of the national festivities, Kiss will play the Moscow Olympic Stadium to 15,000 people who’d rather hear “Crazy Crazy Nights” than “The Song of the Volga Boatmen”.

Will Putin be at the gig?

“If he is, he will not make himself known to me,” he says, drifting off to his room.

Gene Simmons’s hoist, which enables him to float 30 foot above the stage, puts a great strain on his body because his costume gives him an extra 50lb in weight. He recently fell over on to his back and couldn’t get up again, like a turtle. At the show, he will be spitting fake blood. But today’s soundcheck is a sedate affair: a three-hour dissection of stage manoeuvres, the testing of winches and timing of feet. In plain clothes, the band’s frontmen, Simmons and Paul Stanley, step on hydraulic arms and sweep out over the empty arena like two tree surgeons. Simmons noodles on his bass – snatches of Peter and the Wolf and “The Pink Panther Theme” – but seems less interested in playing the well-oiled anthems of Kiss.

It’s like watching a group of men congregate around a car they’re refitting, or a hole they’re digging in the ground. They seem completely absorbed – but every so often, with a sting, a guitar pick hits my face, 30 feet away at the side of the stage. Throwing their personalised, painted guitar picks at people is part of Kiss’s mating ritual. Stanley greeted me remotely earlier by despatching a fistful of them via the tour manager, the way a man might order a drink for a lady across a hotel bar. Another pick hits my forehead. “Hey, Statesman.” And another. “Can someone lift her on to the stage?”

There are no women in the Kiss entourage, apart from one who carries the costumes and another who manoeuvres the large wheelie bins containing the make-up and cosmetic products the men administer themselves. Both employees are on the younger side. It was a different story in Moscow thirty years ago, as Jon Bon Jovi told the NS, when, at the first Western rock gigs in Russia, babushkas swept the stadiums with brooms made of twigs.

At the centre of the Kiss team is a man who will confirm this: Doc McGhee, the music mogul sacked by Jon Bon Jovi after McGhee was convicted for drug smuggling. In 1989, partly to get around his jail sentence in the US, McGhee collaborated with the Russian musician Stas Namin to bring Western bands to the country. Namin’s grandfather was a Bolshevik statesman who served under Lenin, Stalin and ­Khrushchev. The Moscow Music Peace Festival happened on Gorbachev’s watch. McGhee spent three days with the president at the Kremlin offering him $10m for the rights to a book and film of his life. You can’t blame him for trying.

It was different putting on gigs in those days. You had to allow 12 hours for an eight-hour drive to account for the number of times you’d have to stop and bribe border guards with records, or wake Alice Cooper up from the tour bus and get him to do an autograph in order to be allowed on your way. McGhee brought his own ice from Scandinavia. You couldn’t buy records in Russia but there was a feverish black-market trade on street corners in albums pressed on to old X-rays. A young interpreter joins the band one night and talks about her parents’ time with bright eyes. “It’s different now that you have access to everything,” she says.
“It doesn’t matter so much any more.”

Outside the hotel, the teenage boys keeping a three-day vigil for Simmons and Stanley might disagree. Kirill and Daniel have flown four hours from Tomsk, Siberia, for the concert. They are 14 and first saw the band’s white faces in a magazine. Dmitri, in his thirties, knew of Kiss only from some famous graffiti in Red Square: their double “lightning S”, banned in some countries for its proximity to Nazi insignia, appealed to his teenage brain. I bring Stanley’s guitar picks out of my pocket. Twenty boys scrum violently like pigeons on a loaf of bread.

Back at the soundcheck, Kiss leave the stage in strict formation, 20 feet apart, each flanked by a member of staff as though surrounded by great crowds. It’s a small hint of the invisible rules, the secret rivalries, covenants and compromises that allow opposing characters to exist side by side for decades in the classic rock bands. Simmons is the face of Kiss but Stanley’s limousine always arrives first, “because he’s the boss”, someone mutters. Stanley applies his make-up – a soft-faced, effeminate character known as The Starchild – in a private room, while Simmons packs into one dressing room with the rest of the band, playing the Kinks at loud volume.

Gene takes over two hours to complete the process “because he is talking all the time”, Stanley says. “It’s very hard to do it when your mouth is moving. Me, I can do it in half an hour.”

Stanley drifts down the corridor and, taking my chances, I slip into his dressing room behind him. It’s a triumph of interior decorating, the Soviet-style lime-green walls and strip lighting obscured by satin drapes like a black-and-white version of the purple “foo foo room” that Prince used to set up backstage. There is a black satin bed should he need a lie-down for any reason. There are weights of various sizes and a medicine ball – and in the corner, lit with old-fashioned make-up lights, his own cosmetics area.

“Here is my clown white,” he says softly, picking up a pot of the thick, sweat-resistant foundation they discovered in the Seventies. “And here are my puffs.” Why do they do their own make-up?

“Because it’s a ritual,” he says. “It’s a rite of passage. I can’t imagine sitting in a chair like a dummy and having somebody painting my face. It is putting on my uniform. It’s my colours. And it’s better for me in here than the chaos in the other room.”

Stanley takes a seat on a leather sofa, one leg crossed over the other, eyes on the floor. On his mirror, there is a photo of him playing the burned and disfigured lead in Phantom of the Opera, a Toronto production, in 1999. Above it is written “Star of the Show”.

He was born Stanley Eisen, “a little fat kid”, deaf in one ear as a result of microtia, a deformity of the ear canal. He was raised on opera and Broadway. As a young man he drove a taxi. He speaks in careful but lyrical sentences, and gets straight down to business.

“I always found it interesting that a lot of the critics were venomous in their dislike of us,” he says. “It’s something that perhaps they should work out on the psychiatrist’s couch. Because the dislike for the band was so out of whack, so out of proportion, you almost have to look at someone and go: who beat you as a child!”

In 1978 the NME ran an interview with Simmons under a headline it had also used for Freddie Mercury: “Is this man a prat?”

“The fact is that what we do has endured,” Stanley says. “What we are doing has no expiration date. Some of the critics who embraced us when we were struggling spurned us when we became successful. Once you gain acceptance you have ‘sold out’. Well, sold out means the place is full. I never felt the need to counter the vitriol because I was too busy succeeding.”

Stanley Eisen is the son of Austrian and Polish Jews who escaped to New York via Amsterdam. Simmons’s mother was born in Hungary and spent many months in a Nazi concentration camp in Austria, where she saw most of her family put to death. She fled to the new state of Israel, where her only son was born, and moved to New York in 1957 after her husband deserted the family. Stanley and Simmons have survived many line-up changes in their band: they once had a member called Vince Cusano, whom Simmons renamed Vinnie Vincent, because the old name sounded “like a fruit vendor”. Their tour manager, Steev Toth, has Hungarian and Jewish ancestry. The guitarist Tommy Thayer is the son of Brigadier General James Thayer, who liberated 15,000 Hungarian Jews from a concentration camp in Austria which, Simmons thinks, may have been his mother’s.

Paul Stanley: "I have said to Gene, I would shoot myself if I had your life."

“We are children of immigrants,” Stanley says. “We are children of the post-Holocaust; we have a certain mentality, and a mindset, and a work ethic. I was taught you don’t take anything that isn’t yours, don’t take anything that you don’t deserve and don’t take anything you didn’t work for.

“We are, more than ever, brothers. That doesn’t mean we want to spend all our time together. I have said to Gene before, ‘I’d shoot myself if I had your life.’”

Why?

“Because what is appealing to Gene in life is not my desire. And my life is boring to him.” He stretches along the whole length of the sofa, beginning to relax.

It is 4pm, and from behind a Superman curtain down the corridor, the muffled sound of Sixties British music signals the start of the transformation. “All right?” barks a cod London accent. I can make out Simmons’s silver platforms propped up on the top of a crate but I cannot see his face.

“He is the strangest guy,” their manager Doc McGhee told me the previous night in the hotel bar. “I mean, the strangest legitimate guy I know – I know bipolar guys, guys with mental problems. He has NO friends.”

Simmons’s family life played out in 2011 on a popular reality-TV show called Gene Simmons Family Jewels. For decades he had been “happily unmarried” to the erotic actress Shannon Tweed, the star of films including Meatballs III and Indecent Behaviour. The couple have two children, but they did not live together.

“The show made him behave differently towards his family,” McGhee told me. “It showed him from different angles and he didn’t like what he saw.” The idea inspired McGhee to conceive another programme called Extreme Combover: “You do this thing to your hair, and you think it looks good, but everyone else sees it from a different angle. My first two contestants would be Gene Simmons and Donald Trump.” Simmons appeared with Trump on The Apprentice (Trump fired him) but Combover has yet to be made.

The Superman curtain is ajar and I can see Simmons in profile, emerging from behind a wall. The next time I look up, he has pulled himself across the room on his wheelie chair and sits facing me with legs thrown apart, groin open, presenting a silver codpiece.

“All right?”

Nothing can prepare you for the Kiss make-up transformation in the flesh, and the psychological shift it occasions in both onlooker and band. One by one, a series of giant, seven-foot space clowns, taller than anything else in the building and whiter than the moon, emerges, each with a look of surprise on its face. High up the door frame of Stanley’s dressing room peers a face like a sad mime, one eye a black star, red lips pulled into a feminine pout. He takes to the corridor with the careful elegance of a giraffe – and there is something new in his manner; glorying in eye contact now, waving his platform boots in my face. Suddenly the biggest mystery of all – how Kiss can claim to have got so much sex – is a mystery no more. The white faces are frozen as men of 25. And the costumes, if you can call them that, directly facilitate inappropriate physical interplay: all rules of personal space are broken as, without thinking, you find yourself touching and poking them. A tail emerges from Paul Stanley’s satin backside and my hand closes around it.

“Is it real rabbit?”

“Will you call me a fraud if it’s not?”

He bears the sense of an older, more medieval conquest; of pillage and of poor women taken by force.

Simmons, hair pulled into a five-inch topknot and with giant leather bat wings under his arms, is a different beast. His entire body is plated in armour – part orc, part titanium warthog – and where Stanley is charming, he bears the sense of an older, more medieval conquest; of pillage and of poor women taken by force.

He talks little, but what he wants, he gets with his body. He pulls the make-up girl in for a hug – by the hair. I am told under no circumstances to get in his line of vision after the show, because if I do so he will “slime” me with fake blood and sweat. He pretends he hasn’t seen me – then backs me into the wall with a little too much force, his spikes digging into the back of my hands.

***

The next morning, up in the second-floor restaurant, Simmons has breakfast with Shannon Tweed. They finally married in 2011. Tweed, 60, is dressed in pink and flicking through Time magazine. Simmons’s thumbnails are short and wrecked, black with last night’s make-up. Silver hair curls on his chest: in his mirrored sunglasses and military-style shirt with gold adornments, he looks like Gaddafi at leisure. He moves my Dictaphone closer.

On the way home from school, he would go to the library and read the encyclopaedias. That’s where he learned that Edward VI used to torture animals. “When you’re king, who’s going to tell you not to skin a frog alive?” he reasons. I ask him about his childhood heroes. “I didn’t have heroes,” he says. “Not real people. My heroes were fantasy. My heroes didn’t have flaws – Superman and Einstein and ethereal, semi-godlike figures. Because whenever you have a real-life hero it’s f***ing pathetic how they wind up – like Elvis, naked and bloated on the bathroom floor.”

He picks up his phone and summons Siri to bring up a picture of the British dish of faggots in gravy. “Explain this to me – what the hell is that?” he asks. “The English were always a smaller people because of the food. After the war you had beans on toast and what the f*** else did you eat? In the States we had butter and pancakes – it was always a big supply. If Jagger got into my outfit on seven-inch heels spitting fire and flying through the air, he would be exhausted. Put Bono in my outfit? Good luck.”

It seems a good time to ask him how he feels on stage.

“I can glibly speak about it,” he says. “But in real terms I am aware that there is a transformation that takes place here –” he points at his ribs. “I am aware that my chest cavity expands, and my heart is pumping, and the only thing I can compare it to is when a boxer can be backstage toying with his little girl, then go into the ring and be oblivious to the audience, and have this kill thing.”

Tweed has looked up the root of the word “faggots” and reads from her phone in her slightly anaesthetised, Beverly Hills voice: “A bundle of pieces of iron or steel to be welded, rolled or hammered together at high temperature.”

“It’s a question of semantics,” Simmons replies. “Though I’m not anti-semantic . . .”

I ask him about the reality show that changed his life. “I didn’t like watching myself,” he says. “I mean, I love the way I look, other than these affectations [he gestures to his sunglasses]. They even filmed my facelift – I had my face thrown over my shoulder like a scarf. But in the course of the show I realised what an asshole I was.

“When I was a little kid, my mother would smack the shit out of me as soon as I went out of line. When I went off on my own, I was my own police in certain areas: I’ve never knowingly got high or drunk or smoked a cigarette, because I didn’t want to break my mother’s heart. But other than that, I was self-entitled. I’m an only child so I look to myself for everything. Part of that process is you get deluded with the sound of your own voice. And although I am fairly educated, that doesn’t mean I have wisdom.”

In the early 2000s Simmons launched a magazine called Tongue, which ran for five issues, with an emphasis on the celebration of the female form. There will be a new magazine called Mogul – “high-end pop culture, entrepreneurial” – and he shows me a mock-up of the cover with him on the front. He has published several books, including Ladies of the Night: a Historical and Personal Perspective on the Oldest Profession in the World and the business title Me, Inc: Build an Army of One, Unleash Your Inner Rock God, Win in Life and Business.

“I’m a curiosity to people in high finance,” he tells me, “because I haven’t been there and done that, but I have made a decent living. They can’t put a finger on how and why it has worked for me.” He adds, of music, “What other job would give you money in advance and you never have to pay it back?”

He has read Trump’s books. “All business books are lies,” he says. “Ten secrets of success? People want a short cut to life. You have a duty to educate yourself, and from there on it is f***ing hard, back-breaking work. Forget ‘inherent’ and ‘intrinsic’ and other big words like ‘gymnasium’. Nothing happens without hard work.”

In 2011 Simmons endorsed Mitt Romney, saying that America needed to be in the hands of a businessman. “Government is business,” he says today. “People don’t understand that. A lot of people hate Trump, I get it. I know the man –”

“Which is not to say you like him,” Tweed mutters.

“He doesn’t give a f*** what anyone thinks. You’re talking about a guy who does not care and will go to war against all media. I want a businessman in there. Not someone to dole out favours, raise your minimum wage, meantime countries get deeper and deeper into debt. I want someone who says: ‘You’re fat and bloated and you’re going on a strict diet.’ The dietician is not your friend.”

Excuse me,” his wife chips in.

“I’m sorry?”

“You’re burping while talking.”

“I was? At least I didn’t fart. To make a long story short,” Simmons says, “I don’t know why anyone gives a squat what somebody with a guitar round his neck thinks about politics. ’Cos I sure as f*** don’t care what your wonderful new Prime Minister thinks about Kiss.”

“Rock stars are morons,” Simmons says. “Pragmatism is much more my milieu.” And then: “Let me show you a short video.”

He raises his handkerchief, mops his brow, surveys a black patch and muses: “Hair dye.” He’s not the first reactionary American rock star I’ve met who gets flustered talking about Donald Trump despite sharing many of his views. They’re all businessmen, headline-chasers. Trump got to be president after forty years hanging around at the same galas as them.

“Rock stars are morons,” Simmons says. “Pragmatism is much more my milieu.” And then: “Let me show you a short video.” He takes his phone and fires up an interview with the American journalist Dan Rather, in which Simmons declares that immigrants in the US should learn goddam English.

“Yesterday their cousin would have wound up in a can of dog food,” he tells me. “But today you can literally sue the president for sexual harassment and win. You want to try that here in Russia? ”

“And you know what celebrities shouldn’t do?” Tweed cuts in. “Talk politics. Don’t do it. Eat your food.”

As Simmons scoops the last of his porridge I ask about his relationship with Paul Stanley. “It’s too easy to say that we’re both Jewish and the other guys weren’t, so they didn’t survive but we did,” he says. “With Paul and me, it’s like the marriage of different alloys making titanium. Likewise with dogs. Purebreds are retarded. It’s the mixture of bloods that makes them healthy.”

Surely another advert for immigration.

“Legal immigration, do you mean?” he whispers. “Because there is a profound difference. I want to know everybody’s fingerprint. I want to know everybody’s social security number. Instead of just ghosts. Twenty million in America! More than most other countries have men, women and children. Know wot I mean?”

In the days after my return from Russia, I get 16 emails from Simmons’s personal account (he has no assistant), each containing a separate business venture he wishes me to know about. There’s a cardboard cut-out of him advertising Dr Pepper, a reproduction of his MoneyBag clothing logo, a new Kiss sandwich toaster – and a photo of him ringing the bell at the New York Stock Exchange.

“You know why we were the number-one banned band in Russia?” he told me. “‘I wanna rock’n’roll all night’, ‘I Was Made for Lovin’ You’ – the most powerful word in the English language is ‘I’. There is no scarier word for an authoritarian regime.”

***

Simmons was once asked to describe the experience of performing and he put it like this.

“The only comparison I can make is with the films of Leni Riefenstahl. One word from Hitler and the masses would move in unison. It was an amazing feeling of power . . . I was King Kong, pounding his chest after chewing up some damsel in distress. Godzilla stomping through Tokyo’s streets. To say I felt like God up there is not an overstatement.”

On either side of the stage at the Olympic stadium are small bulletproof tents. Paul Stanley takes a zip wire over 15,000 Russian fans and lands with force, on unforgiving platforms, on his second hip replacement. He bursts into a perfect Christ-like arc, and keeps up an energetic but slightly banal stage patter: “Here is a song from 1988!”

Over to the left, in a pool of green light, stands a crazy lump – blank of face, rolling of eye, head jerking in time to the music with globules of viscous blood bubbling up from a black mouth. For a moment, there is something tragic about Simmons, like a mad, chained bear, a freakshow. Then he’s breathing fire. Ticker tape explodes on to the crowd from two big cannons; flames leap, and then it’s over.

In the hotel car park, the door of Simmons’s taxi falls open to reveal him etched in light, head back, encrusted with fake blood. His minders walk him through the back of the building, but, knowing his ­tendency to “slime” people, no one wants to share the lift with him. 

Kiss’s UK tour begins on 27 May. Gene Simmons addresses the Oxford Union on 29 May. Details: www.oxford-union.org

Matthias Seifarth for New Statesman
Rosé is as macho as claret - real men should drink it with pride
May 19th, 2017, 07:19 PM

Pink is nothing but a state of mind. 

The assumption that pink has a feminine hue, that women naturally love its soft, skin-coloured permutations while men turn away in distaste, is both recent and untrue: it is merely a matter of fashion. Roman senators wore purple because the dye, from sea snails, was expensive; Louis XIV’s shoes had scarlet heels.

The notion that pink wine is for girls has everything to do with modern mores and nothing to do with gender, colour or drink. After all, if we ladies are now permitted to apply our feeble muscles to the lifting of a pint, should a gentleman hankering after a cool glass of wine be limited to white, lest outdated aspersions be cast on his masculinity?

The idea of gendered tastes
is based on the notion that men are strong, dark and decisive, while women are pallid and foolish and have a fondness for sweets. This is only marginally sillier than the idea that a given colour has a gender.

Rosé wine, sashaying across the palette from pale salmon to deep carmine, is frequently beautiful and sometimes delicious. I love the herbaceous rosés of Provence, made mainly from Grenache, Cinsault and Mourvèdre, and as gentle in colour as their native landscape is brash. I usually avoid darker rosés – dyed by longer contact with red grape skins – as too forceful. Instead, I’ll drink Cinsault-based Lebanese wine or tawny Australian by Spinifex, in the Barossa Valley.

I have tempered the feel-good sensation of sun salutations on a Moroccan yoga retreat with a local wine the colour of sunset; and soothed the pain of regular working hours, back when I still laced myself into that particular corset, with gallons of Lombardian Cà dei Frati.

Last week, I ate John Dory and celeriac purée with Pinot Noir from Albourne Estate in Sussex, a delicately savoury wine called white but glowing a lovely pink-orange.

Why not call it rosé, I asked Albourne’s owner, Alison Nightingale. Because, she said, the grapes are removed very promptly from the skins, so the colour varies according to the vintage – the 2015, which I tried, is pinker than most. Also, “We’re funny about rosé in this country: we only drink it in summer and only want the current vintage. So, as a small vineyard, we’d have to have it ready by May and all sold by August, or we’d be stuck with it.” She didn’t add that the marketing of this wine is generally limited to the 51 per cent of the population that has cerise balloons in place of brain cells, but she could have.

It’s odd to drink according to the season, particularly in Britain; still, I like the idea of a wine whose colour changes to reflect the year’s weather. The oddity is that long ago, before the technological knowledge to keep the juice of red grapes clear of the skins, most good wines would have been pink. That is why red Bordeaux is known as claret: clairet meant “clear” or “pale”, until the wines and the English adjective darkened to maroon.

Meanings change just as styles do, and surely the time has come for rosé to cast off antiquated associations. Men should indulge the sensuality and, yes, vulnerability signalled by a wine the colour of skin. As for women, I leave them with the wonderfully barbed advice of Kay Thompson’s fashion magazine editor in Funny Face, a film that also hides a great deal behind frivolous colour and seeming transparency: “Now I wouldn’t presume to tell a woman what a woman ought to think, but tell her – if she’s gotta think, think pink!” l

Next week: John Burnside on nature

 

Annabelle Breakey
May’s conservatism is blue not red: The battle over the new centre-ground is far from over
May 19th, 2017, 07:19 PM

The Prime Minister's manifesto has taken ideas from Burke, Beveridge, and Blue Labour, but she can't escape the pull of neo-liberalism.

Is the Prime Minister best described as Red Theresa? Judging by May’s manifesto, she is more like a certain kind of blue. The blue of Burke, Beveridge, and Blue Labour.

In an age of anxiety and anger, ​May and her co-chief of staff Nick Timothy are trying to renew a more traditional conservatism that can combine greater economic justice with more social solidarity. 

The manifesto unveiled yesterday breaks not only with Thatcher’s settlement by stating that Conservatives "do not believe in untrammelled free markets. We reject the cult of selfish individualism". 

It also rejects Cameron’s version of progressive conservatism by dropping any talk of the Big Society and the emphasis on volunteering. Instead, May draws on Burkean thinking to argue that "true Conservatism means a commitment to country and community; a belief not just in society but in the good that government can do; a respect for the local and national institutions that bind us together".

Many will dismiss all this as nothing but warm words but it is so far the clearest expression of May’s guiding philosophy. 

Both before and after becoming Prime Minister, May has resisted labels such as being "post-liberal" or "red Tory". What is clear though is that she is the first party leader to acknowledge the limits of liberalism. More rights and individual entitlements will not provide a proper balance between personal freedom and social cohesion.

That is why she is calling for a greater recognition of mutual duties: "We know that we all have obligations to one another, because that is what community and nation demand […] society is a partnership between those who are living, those who have lived before us, and those who are yet to be born."

But it is not just Burke that shapes May’s conservatism. Beveridge’s commitment to tackling the five giant evils gets an update too. The manifesto promises to correct a dysfunctional economy, deliver Brexit, heal social divisions, care for the elderly and harness the power of technology. 

In each instance, the response offered by the Conservatives borrows both from the language and from many policy ideas developed by Blue Labour – the Labour group around Maurice Glasman and Jon Cruddas who argue for a common good politics based around work, family, decency, community and country.

Far from merely copying Ed Miliband’s policy platform, May’s team have embraced Blue Labour’s emphasis on ordinary working families. Part of the problem with Miliband was that he only ever talked about the rich and the poor, which ignored the vast majority of people. The Conservatives are pitching for what they call the mainstream – people with Blue Labour values who choose a fairly traditional family structure, value their settled ways of life and are generally sceptical about the pace of change.

While specific policies undoubtedly matter, the point about the manifesto is how the party sees the country. And the Conservatives are redefining the centre-ground away from the elite consensus of the past four decades towards the British mainstream. That means rejecting both the socialist left of Corbyn and the libertarian right of Farage in favour of the ‘common good’. That includes the ‘just about managing’ who struggle to make ends meet and the precious bonds uniting the peoples of the four nations.

However, May’s communitarian Conservatism looks set to run into contradictions. Ever-more global free trade is likely to hurt the very workers that May claims to defend when she speaks of a country that works for everyone, not just the privileged few. The focus of the Tories’ industrial strategy on greater specialisation in cutting-edge high-tech sectors offers nothing to more traditional sectors and local supply chains in support of people and communities they live in.

What is missing is a Conservative challenge to the power of centralised finance in the City of London combined with the Blue Labour idea of establishing a network of sectoral and regional banks that can channel capital into the productive activities of small- and medium-sized enterprise.

There is an even deeper problem with May’s mantra of creating a Great Meritocracy, which is narrowly focused on trying to boost social mobility. By definition, higher social mobility involves both winners and losers, and the point about the Brexit vote is that the losers from globalisation want a new settlement that works for everyone. 

State support for upward mobility fails to recognise that most people will never "win", or never succeed very far in pure liberal, free-market terms. Arguably, a true Conservatism requires higher economic success and more social esteem for non-academic qualifications and employment, for example BTECs. 

Britain needs a wide range of high-level technical colleges that provide proper vocational training, as Blue Labour has argued. It also requires new hybrid institutions for engineering, law and finance where young people not only acquire some academic knowledge but also learn a trade and its ethos.

And why not create Royal Colleges for professions that will matter more going forward, especially carers but also cleaners and caterers? Amid all the talk about automation, the Tories are silent on these and other jobs that involve human qualities of compassion, patience, humour and adaptability, which machines will never possess.

Thus May’s vision is steeped in the blue traditions of Burke, Beveridge, and Blue Labour, but her conservatism is beset by a fundamental contradiction between global free trade and national solidarity. The Tories are the party of capital and the moneyed interest, and they seem committed to a purely buccaneering approach to Europe, which drags the country back in a neo-liberal direction.

The failure to build a strong settlement at home will weaken Britain’s ability to shape a new global economy that benefits those who are experiencing economic and cultural insecurity.

Herein lies Labour’s chance. If the party recovers the Blue Labour values of work, family, community, country and support for the poor, then it can once again become the force of national renewal. 

May has parked the Tory tanks on Labour’s lawn, but the battle over the new centre-ground is far from over.

Adrian Pabst is the co-author (with John Milbank) of “The Politics of Virtue: Post-Liberalism and the Human Future” (Rowman & Littlefield).

DAN KITWOOD/AFP/Getty Images
Buying into broadband’s bigger picture
May 19th, 2017, 07:19 PM

Reliable internet access must be viewed as a basic necessity, writes Russell Haworth, CEO of Nominet.

 

As we hurtle towards a connected future, in which the internet will underpin most aspects of our daily lives, connectivity will become a necessity and not a luxury. As a society, we need to consider the wider benefits of enabling internet connections for all and ensure no corner of the county is left out of the digital loop.

Currently, despite government incentive schemes and universal service obligations, the rollout of broadband is left largely to the market, which relies on fixed and wireless network operators justifying deployment based on their own business models. The commercial justification for broadband deployment relies on there being sufficient demand and enough people to pay for a broadband subscription. Put flippantly, are there enough people willing to pay for Netflix, or Amazon? However, rather than depending on the broad appeal of consumer services we need to think more holistically about the provision of internet services. If road building decisions followed the same approach, it would equate to only building a road if everyone living in the area bought yearly gym membership for the leisure centre at the end of the new tarmac. The business case is narrow, and overlooks the far-reaching and ultimately more impactful benefits that are available.

Internet is infrastructure as much as roads are, and could easily prove attractive to a wider range of companies investing in digital technology who stand to gain from internet-enabled communities. Health services are one of the most compelling business cases for internet connectivity, especially in remote, rural communities that are often in the “final five per cent” or suffering with below average internet speeds. Super-fast broadband, defined as 30 Mbps, is now available to 89 per cent of UK homes, but only 59 per cent of rural dwellings can access these speeds.

We mustn’t assume this is a minority; rural areas make up 85 per cent of English land and almost ten million people (almost a fifth of the population) live in rural communities. This figure is rising, and ageing ‒ on average, 23.5 per cent of the rural population is over 65 compared to 16.3 per cent in urban areas ‒ and this presents complicated healthcare challenges for a NHS already struggling to meet demand. It goes without saying that accessibility is an issue: only 80 per cent of rural residents live within 4km of a GP’s surgery compared to 98 per cent of the urban population.

While the NHS may not have the resources to build more surgeries and hospitals, robust broadband connections in these areas would enable them to roll out telehealth options and empower their patients with healthcare monitoring apps and diagnostic tools. This would lower demand on face-to-face services and could improve the health of people in remote areas; a compelling business case for broadband.

We can’t afford to rely on “one business case to rule them all” when it comes to internet connectivity – the needs run far beyond Netflix and Spotify, and the long-term, economic and social benefits are vast. It’s time to shift our thinking, considering internet connectivity as essential infrastructure and invest in it accordingly, especially when it comes to the needs of the remote, rural areas of the country.

Russell Haworth joined Nominet as CEO in 2015. He leads the organisation as it develops its core registry business, explores the potential of new technologies in the global internet sector, and delivers on its commitment to ensuring the internet is a force for good.

This article was taken from a New Statesman roundtable supplement "The Internet as Infrastructure: Why rural connectivity is crucial to the UK’s success"

“No other journalist in the world has asked these questions”: The interview Nigel Farage won’t want you to read
May 19th, 2017, 07:19 PM

The former Ukip leader terminated his talk with a German newspaper when pushed to deny links with Russia.

In an extraordinary interview with German newspaper Zeit, Nigel Farage called the reporter a “nutcase”, told him he should be on a “comedy show”, and was “away with the fairies”, and terminated the interview after the fourth intervention from his press officer.

Such a reaction came after repeated questioning about the former Ukip leader’s links with Russia. He refused to say why he visited Julian Assange at the Ecuadorian Embassy in March (apparently it was for “journalistic reasons” and was somehow also “private”), and initially denied meeting the Russian deputy foreign minister Alexander Yakovenko in May 2013, before admitting it when pressed, asking, “so what?”

After obfuscating, Farage insisted to the reporter that the Leave campaign had not received Russian money and had no links with Russia. His press spokesperson interrupts repeatedly to say the interview should focus on trade relations between Germany and the UK. Eventually they put a stop to the questioning and asked the journalist to leave.

Read the full exchange here, and feel Farage squirm.

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Yanis Varou­fakis's retelling of the Greek debt crisis will galvanise Eurosceptics
May 19th, 2017, 07:19 PM

Adults in the Room: My Battle with Europe's Deep Establishment also reveals a curious bond between the former Greek finance minister and Norman Lamont.

Halfway through this book my mind drifted to Arthur Dent, the hapless hero of Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. Seeking enlightenment, Arthur is directed to a half-blind crone battling giant flies in a cave. She gives him a pile of paper and tells him to photocopy every sheet. Confused, he asks if this is her advice. No, she replies – it’s the story of my life. Do the exact opposite of what I did, and then you won’t end your life in a smelly old cave.

It is tempting to interpret Yanis Varou­fakis’s account of his tempestuous period as finance minister of Greece in the same vein. The “erratic Marxist” spent his brief time in office, in the first half of 2015, locked in battle with Greece’s eurozone creditors as he vainly attempted to convince them to release his country from “Bailoutistan”, the debtors’ prison it had occupied since 2010. Confronting his adversaries with grand reforms and exotic debt-swap proposals, Varoufakis encountered a dogmatic refusal to engage. He resigned amid capital controls (not yet lifted), a chaotic referendum and the Greeks’ final capitulation. Some will see his gambit as an honourable attempt to restore dignity to a nation battered by years of austerity. But few could argue that his efforts amounted to anything other than ignominious failure, though he finds little room here to interrogate his own decisions.

It is hard to gainsay Varoufakis’s critique of the bailouts. The fiscal measures they entailed sucked demand from a shrinking economy and saddled Greece with unpayable debt. But if Varoufakis was a reasonable economist, he made for an appalling politician. As his minutely detailed accounts of meetings of the Eurogroup (the 19 eurozone finance ministers) indicate, he treated the gatherings as quasi-academic exercises, in which he would subject his counterparts to hectoring. It is hardly surprising that few were minded to play along. Greece’s perilous situation – Varoufakis took office just a few weeks before the bailout was due to expire – left him with little time for the patient coalition-building that is the only way to get business done in Brussels. But a good negotiator calibrates his approach to the circumstances. Varoufakis merely lectured.

How could Varoufakis, representing a nation worth just 2 per cent of eurozone GDP, have hoped to win his detractors over? First, by the power of his arguments; this is not a man crippled by self-doubt. But if that failed, he had in his back pocket credible threats he thinks would have forced Germany, the European Central Bank and, by extension, the rest of the eurozone to offer Greece better terms. (One wacky scheme involved an electronic payments system that could have served as a temporary parallel currency, should the ECB have shuttered Greece’s banks.) Whether his outlandish plans would have brought Angela Merkel to her knees we will never know. Ultimately Varoufakis’s humiliation lies in the treachery of his own side: notably Alexis Tsipras, the prime minister, whose early promises to support him crumble, we are told, in the face of looming default and Grexit.

It is Tsipras’s referendum, on a final offer made by the creditors as a hard deadline approached, that does for Varoufakis. Outside observers saw clearly that the referendum was a gun pointed at Greece’s own head. No electoral mandate, however thumping (over 60 per cent of Greek voters followed their government’s suggestion to reject the bailout proposals), will nudge the other side into compromise if they hold the better negotiating hand – as Theresa May will soon learn. Greece’s mighty Oxi (“No”), celebrated by Varoufakis, led directly to Tsipras’s capitulation at an all-night summit in Brussels in July 2015, and the signing of a third bailout on worse terms than the creditors were previously prepared to offer. (A fourth is now heaving into view.)

It’s not clear what audience ­Varoufakis has in mind for this carefully written but overlong book. Its value as a record for historians hinges on the minister’s often-questioned reliability as a narrator. The blow-by-blow accounts of his battles with the hated “troika” (the IMF, ECB and European Commission) are of nostalgic interest only to the small number of us who were immersed in the drama in 2015. Eurosceptics, at least, will find much to confirm their hunch that the EU is a bureaucratic monster incapable of brooking democratic dissent. And one curiosity of the book is the enduring bond Varoufakis forms with Norman Lamont, today a gung-ho Brexiteer. It is also fun to see Emmanuel Macron, then France’s economy minister, make the odd cameo as a pro-Greek rebel powerless to shape events.

Greece was the first sign that all was not well in the eurozone, and it remains the last country in the sickbed today (though Italy is looking a little green). Its detractors say that its governments never tried seriously to tackle Greece’s deep-rooted ills of clientelism, corruption and tax evasion. Their critics, like Varoufakis, argue that the crushing austerity forced on Greece made it impossible to do anything other than struggle to stay afloat. Lost in the middle are the millions of Greeks dumped into poverty or forced to emigrate by an endless recession in which GDP slumped by a quarter after 2008. Varoufakis’s input is useful in weighing the balance of blame for Greece’s woes. But when it comes to negotiating, his is an example of what not to do. 

Tom Nuttall writes the Economist’s Charlemagne column

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I get criticised for being gobby - but shouting loud saved a little girl from displacement
May 19th, 2017, 07:19 PM

 “Don’t know” could win by a landslide if it stood a candidate, as I discovered on doorsteps in Birmingham. 

The whirlwind of an election campaign is a strange mix of frenetic chaos and soothing mundanity. The beginning of my week began as the previous day did and the following day will be the same. Like a baby on a mealtime routine, we do a morning door-knocking session, lunchtime door-knocking session and teatime door-knocking session. We assemble, knock, chat, record, repeat.

The variation on each day comes from the people we meet. My constituency has both inner-city grit and suburban sprawl, so no two days are the same on the doorstep. This week I’ve been given gardening tips from a resident who offered me armfuls of fresh rosemary (though this was kind, it made me look a little like a travelling apothecary as I continued along the street). I also received a huge cactus from a constituent and five days later I am still picking the tiny barbed hairs out of my right arm. It must be a Lib Dem succulent.

I’ve comforted desperate people in tears on the doorstep who are at the end of their tether living in overcrowded situations. I’ve measured potholes, called the police out to ticket cars blocking the pavements, I’ve videoed and photographed people fly-tipping to get evidence to throw the book at them. My life on the doorstep is a bit like being a social worker-cum-vigilante. If it all goes belly up on 8 June I may write a comic series.

Speaking up

Politics is of less interest to people than their immediate needs. I can’t say that any of the messaging that national parties are plugging has been used on the doorstep. “Don’t know” could win by a landslide if it stood a candidate.

In the down period between street sessions I return to the office, see my constituents who need help, and catch up on my work. Just because I’m not officially an MP at the moment doesn’t mean my job stops. This week I teamed up with a frequent partner in crime, Mr Foley – the head teacher of one of my local primary schools – after a little girl who is an asylum-seeker in my constituency was moved at a day’s notice to Bradford. She was removed from a school where she has settled and is thriving, and has been a pupil for two years. We sprang into action but initially the Home Office basically said “tough luck”. There’s a reason Theresa May’s buzzwords aren’t kind and human. We didn’t back down; we used our voices – both Mr Foley and I got ourselves in the papers and on the airwaves. It worked. The day after the family were taken to Bradford, they were told that soon they would be able to return to Birmingham and the girl would be back at school within a few weeks.

Words as weapons

I get a lot of criticism for being gobby. The fact that I have a profile and a following is the central plank of my Lib Dem opponent’s campaign for the general election. Apparently I should keep quiet and stay off the telly, according to the Lib Dems. Yet my opponent is a man who nominated himself for a tabloid “Love Rat of the Year” gong, presumably because it was good for his constituents and because he wasn’t desperate for attention from the media or anything like that. Having a profile as an MP is a good thing. It means that my voice has reach. My words become weapons deployed for my constituents. Mr Foley and I saved that little girl because we were able to get the story covered. Damn the mainstream media for highlighting bad practice and helping to change things.

On the front line

I’m a fan of the free press and understand the importance of having decent public-service broadcasters, but when they visit you on the campaign trail it can be a bit of a challenge. In Birmingham Yardley this week, we had cameras from the Guardian, and the Peter Pan of politics himself, Owen Jones. There was also Emily Maitlis and the Newsnight crew, and a number of photographers and magazines come along to get views from the front line. I don’t know how any journalist ever gets a civilian’s opinion – I watched the most gregarious constituents who’d happily chatted with me turn to shy wallflowers once the cameras were on.

Manifesto déjà vu

The office is absolutely jam-packed with people at the moment. The delightful buzz and excitement of an election campaign are hard to beat. Every week, hundreds of people walk through, and this has taken its toll on the facilities. This week our toilet, which was dodgy when five of us used it, has, like the Labour Party, sprung a leak. I kid you not: dodgy plumbing has come up on the doorstep more times than manifestos.

The leak of the Labour manifesto I think has been good, as it allowed the conversations (online and among the political class) to be about ideals rather than personalities. Of the three people who mentioned it on the doorstep (bear in mind we speak to thousands of people a week), it has a 100 per cent success rate. I realise that this poll will probably now be used in some fake news purveying blog to prove that Labour will win by a landslide. I like most of the manifesto, though it seems none too dissimilar to the one I stood on in 2015.

Philistines flabbergasted

The geopolitical event of the week was ­Eurovision. A load of Labour activists came back to my house to join in the camp delights. Some tolerated only the first two songs and instead decided that playing obscure brick-sorting games with my eight-year-old son was a preferable way to spend the evening. The absolute philistines.

I love Eurovision; I always have. I thought the Portuguese entry was rubbish and wholly unmemorable save for the stupid man bun of the star. That he won the jury votes was tolerable but when he bagged the public vote I was left once again flabbergasted by public opinion. Democracy – it’s a funny old game.

Jess Phillips is the Labour candidate for Birmingham Yardley

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Colossal and Spaceship: Satisfyingly bizarre takes on sci-fi
May 19th, 2017, 07:19 PM

Two new fantastical films go well beyond the genre's tropes

You have to feel sorry for the marketing department whose job it is to sell Colossal, which combines elements of romantic comedy, twisted psychodrama and monster movie. There can’t logically be much overlap between fans of The Philadelphia Story, Fatal Attraction and Godzilla. Adventurous audiences, though, are in for a treat.

It’s unusual to come across a film in which it is impossible to predict the outcome of each scene, or the agenda of each character, but from the moment Gloria (Anne Hathaway) is kicked out of her boyfriend’s apartment for being drunk and jobless, there’s no telling where this one might be going. Gloria, however, is going home – back to the tumbleweed town where she grew up. She bumps into an old school pal, Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), who gives her a job at his local bar, and it seems she may get her life back on track if she can stay off the bottle.

Then disaster strikes. A gigantic reptilian monster materialises in Seoul and starts stomping on cars and knocking down skyscrapers like ninepins. What all this has to do with Gloria is not immediately apparent. She has never even been to Seoul. And just because both she and the rampaging creature have the Stan Laurel-ish habit of scratching the top of their head in a quizzical manner doesn’t mean they’re related.

The Spanish writer-director Nacho Vigalondo is in complete control of his material as he moves between apparently incompatible genres, as well as up and down the emotional register. Much of the film’s power lies in skilful misdirection. All the signs suggest that Gloria will progress from addiction to redemption, a journey familiar to Hathaway from Rachel Getting Married, but that’s only a sliver of the story. On an intimate level, it’s about the malignant consequences of poor self-image, though it could also be argued that it’s a satire about how the rest of the world always has to pay for America’s dysfunctional behaviour.

If the eventual explanation for the bizarre goings-on raises more questions than it ­answers, the rest of this satisfyingly strange film easily compensates. Hathaway and Sudeikis work boldly against type and the monster itself is oddly beautiful, ­especially in one poetic shot where it is ­camouflaged among autumnal trees. Colossal is surprising from minute to minute but it amounts to more than the sum of our gasps.

The fantasy-related oddness continues in Spaceship, a psychedelic curiosity that introduces aliens to Aldershot. The teenage Lucidia (Alexa Davies) is busy watching the skies as her archaeologist father (Antti Reini) digs in the forest. Inspired by the memory of her late mother, who used to be heard giving directions to aliens in her sleep, the girl fakes her own abduction by UFO – a shoestring spectacle, staged using smoke and coloured lights. It’s tempting to wonder why she went to all that bother when there is more than enough exoticism in her own backyard. The fetching, blue-haired Alice (Tallulah Haddon) drags her bleach-blond boyfriend around on a leash, and Lucidia’s own beau, Luke (the Ben Whishaw-like Lucian Charles Collier), dances an electrified slow-motion ballet in his head while his body has an epileptic fit in an empty swimming pool. It’s that sort of film.

For these kids, the possibility of extraterrestrial abduction becomes a means of coping with earthbound trauma, as it was in Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin. It is a testament to the first-time director Alex Taylor’s investment in this idea – as well as his Kenneth Anger-with-glow-paint visual style – that the scrapbook approach hangs together. The dialogue is authentic teenage poppycock. “I saw my life flash forward,” Luke says after witnessing Lucidia’s kidnapping. “I’m gonna be a famous shoe designer!”

And the performances are thrillingly uninhibited; don’t be surprised if the careers of several future stars are traced back to this film. The soundtrack is a pleasing jumble of earthy folk and throbbing electronica, with East India Youth’s euphoric “Heaven, How Long” playing a vital part in helping Spaceship achieve final lift-off. 

Colossal handout
The right-wing press are in Theresa May loyalty mode - for now
May 19th, 2017, 07:19 PM

Away from the frontpages there are signs that May's new agenda might not have as easy a time after the election.

Talk about walking on water. Today's papers are in and they will have the Conservatives grinning from ear-to-ear.

"Blue Labour" roars The Sun. Whether that's a commentary on Theresa May's roaming into Labour territory or how the Opposition will be feeling, I'm not sure. (Works both ways, I guess.) And that paper is first out of the traps with their election endorsement, too. (Spoiler alert: the Conservatives.)

"Mainstream May reaches out to Labour heartlands" is the Times' splash, while "May breaks with Thatcherite faith in centrist pitch to Labour voters" is the FT's. "May's manifesto for the mainstream" is the Telegraph's take, while the Mail opts for "At last, a PM not afraid to be honest with you". The i goes for the Ronseal approach: "May's vision for Britain" is their splash.

But away from the frontpages there are signs that May's new agenda might not have as easy a time after the election. In the Telegraph, Judith Woods accuses May of forcing her daughters to become her carers to keep the family home. (I suppose "accuses" isn't quite right as that is 100 per cent what May's care plans do.)

Over at the Spectator, Will Heaven has coined a phrase that might stick: the "dementia tax".

That Jeremy Corbyn is seen as a surefire loser means that the plans are getting an easier time now than they might otherwise, and that it's an election season means the right-wing press is also firmly in loyalty mode. But the difficulty with introducing an inheritance tax by lottery is that the right dislikes inheritance tax and the left dislikes lotteries, and that isn't going to go away on 8 June.

The Conservatives think that Corbyn is an asset because he locks in a big majority on 8 June. But there's a problem there, too: it means that when those grumbles about the social care changes move from the middle of the frontpage things could get messy. Fairly or unfairly, people will say that far from getting a mandate to take away "the family home", May won because of Jeremy Corbyn. It feels a lot like George Osborne's £12bn of welfare cuts - he could win an election that, but he couldn't govern on it.

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The white working class is dying - and not just metaphorically
May 19th, 2017, 07:19 PM

Across the rich world, life expectancy has risen consistently since the 1930s. For some, that trend is starting to reverse. 

Labour’s 128-page manifesto contains little about how much Labour will spend and how it will raise money. Such pesky detail is confined to a separate eight-page document, comprising mostly footnotes, as though it were of interest only to nerds and pedants. That exposes a lack of thought and imagination on the most urgent issue facing any 21st-century government – the erosion of the tax base in an age when money can be on the other side of the globe before HM Revenue & Customs has got its boots on.

Labour’s programme will be financed almost entirely, we are led to believe, from rises in income taxes for those earning £80,000 or more annually, restoration of corporation tax cuts and an extended financial transactions tax. Avoidance is too easy in all three cases. The manifesto says Labour will set up a “transparency and enforcement programme”, raising £6.5bn, but gives no details about how it will work. Nor does it envisage the great overhaul of taxation that is needed. A land value tax is mentioned only in passing. Taxes on company turnover (in place of corporation tax based on profits, which can be shifted offshore) and on road use (whereby congested motorways, for instance, would cost more than quiet rural roads) are not mentioned at all.

My objection to this manifesto is not that it is too radical but that it is too conservative.

Garbage in, garbage out

I do not understand computer viruses and a “patch”, to me, is something my mother used to sew on my clothes when I wore holes in them. But I do understand the three rules for absolute computer security once given by a US National Security Agency cryptographer. 1) Do not own a computer. 2) Do not power it on. 3) Do not use it.

Osborne’s omission

“Why?” asks the London Evening Standard’s front-page headline below pictures of 11 Londoners stabbed to death in the previous week. The answers may lie in the benefit reductions, youth service cuts, diminution of educational opportunities, strains on family life, housing shortages and overstretched policing created by the policies of the newspaper’s editor, formerly the chancellor. Unsurprisingly, the four-page investigation inside the Standard does not consider this possibility.

Murdoch’s food chain

So farewell, then, Kelvin MacKenzie. After he compared the Everton footballer Ross Barkley, who has a Nigerian grandfather, to a gorilla, the Sun columnist and former editor has been fired. I hold no brief for him, but I have just a smidgen of sympathy. Columnists are paid to be provocative but when, in their anxiety to discharge this duty, they go too far, editors are supposedly there to restrain them. Yet no action against the current editor of the Sun or his senior aides has been reported.

This is hardly surprising for a paper owned by Rupert Murdoch. When the extent of phone-hacking at the News of the World was exposed beyond doubt, alongside numerous “corrupt” payments to public officials, the company set up a “management and standards committee” to assist the police. It shopped not only the lowly hacks who tried to please their superiors but also the sources who provided them with information. Meanwhile, most senior executives wriggled out of responsibility. When things go wrong in the Murdoch empire, top people invariably look for scapegoats lower down the food chain.

Chronic pains

In Christopher Caldwell’s fascinating essay in last week’s New Statesman, one sentence in particular caught my eye. France’s national statistical institute, he wrote, had recorded a fall in life expectancy for the first time since the Second World War “and it’s the native French working class that is most likely driving the decline”.

This is part of what may be the most under-reported story of our time. Across the rich world, life expectancy has risen consistently since the 1930s. A few weeks ago, however, UK actuaries changed their mortality projection models. In 2013, a man of 45 could, on average, expect to live to 88. Now, that figure is 87. The fall in women’s life expectancy is slightly greater.

More dramatically, a paper published this year by two senior Princeton University academics shows that death rates among white non-Hispanic non-graduates in the US have risen sharply. For every 100,000 men aged 50-54, there were roughly a hundred deaths in 1999. For the equivalent age group in 2015, there were nearly 200. Fewer women died, but the rise from 1999 was even sharper. Meanwhile, death rates among blacks and Hispanics in the US – though still, it should be emphasised, higher than those for whites – continue to fall.

The paper suggests that the white working class – which, in America, was once the most prosperous and confident in the world – is now dying, literally as well as metaphorically. Its members are in chronic pain and that is not fancifully emotive rhetoric but a precise medical description supported by evidence. Something similar may be happening in Britain and France. I leave you to draw the political lessons.

Kitchen-sink drama

In the kitchen I am a menace – to myself. At least once a month, I plunge a knife into some part of my body, causing blood to gush across utensils and surfaces and prompting a rush for bandages. But I have never suffered injuries from avocados despite calls for the fruit to be sold with warning labels, after one surgeon’s claim that he treats four people a week for “Avocado Hand”.

My technique is simple. Gently slice the avocado lengthways through the middle but do not completely sever the two halves. Put the knife down. Pull the halves apart with your (clean) hands. Extract the stone with one hand. Wipe bits of avocado off your hands with (clean) tissue. What’s so difficult about that? 

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Why is Theresa May so popular? Because she's not ashamed to be "basic"
May 19th, 2017, 07:19 PM

She couldn’t encapsulate contemporary British culture better if she’d been designed by Simon Cowell and a BBC pre-watershed commissioning committee.

When I first arrived in England from Sudan in the mid noughties, slightly bewildered and armed with little cultural preparation apart from a diet of BBC World Service radio, nineteenth century literature and old video tapes of Top of the Pops, the country crashed into me. It was so much to take in. And the thought that my fluency in the English language and passing familiarity with British culture via whatever little media or literature had filtered through was any sort of cushion was immediately laughable. One can be able to name British radio newsreaders but still think that 'taking the piss' means to go to the actual loo. That was humbling.

And so I crash-coursed. I binged on Britain 101. I watched back episodes of Only Fools and Horses, Keeping Up Appearances, Monty Python and The Fast Show and Coupling and all of Derek and Clive (on tapes, on a Walkman). As a student, I lived in London council estates and sat in musty pre-smoking ban pubs where you couldn’t get a skinny chip let alone a chunky triple fried one, talking to anyone I could.

The country that unfolded itself before me was not the staid Bush House tones of the BBC but something anarchic, edgy and almost infinitely layered. There was no X Factor, no great Great British Bake-Off. Big Brother had just started and was actually an exciting experiment. It's mind boggling to think that this was all just over ten years ago. The concept of ‘basic’ didn't exist, really because the essence of basicness didn’t exist, that is, a derivative unimaginative reproduced pattern of middlebrow tastes and consumption. I arrived in England when having a Starbucks pumpkin latte, if you could find a Starbucks, was a massively exciting indulgence. What do you mean it’s basic? It’s £5.30! And is a coffee that tastes like pumpkin! What sort of pretentious killjoy are you to not appreciate that? Nothing was ‘cheeky’ or a ‘guilty pleasure’ - most things were just a pleasure if you could afford them. It was right after Cool Britannia and before there was such a thing as a Michelin-starred pub.

Just as I settled in and the country became more familiar to me, it began hurtling very fast in a different direction - one where hyper-capitalism fused with a nominal Englishness to create a huge pool of middlebrow culture, and before I knew it, there was a whole other evolution that I had to track. What was unfolding was a culture that seemed increasingly samey, cynical and designed to appeal to the comforting nostalgia of tweeness while also playing it safe and rolling out barely serviceable offerings. What I’m trying to say is, and you can be forgiven for not seeing where I was going with this, I get Theresa May.

I get Theresa May and I get why others get Theresa May. Sure, much of the left sees her as a monster. I am an immigrant who lived under May’s Home Office, you don’t need to tell me. But she is of the country now in a way that makes so much sense if you just look at from outside the realm of political and policy and through the prism of economic consumption patterns and popular culture. 

You see, May is that hugely popular sitcom that is also painfully and bafflingly unfunny and which everyone claims they never watch. Clearly someone is watching it and lying about it. Her script is obvious and hammy. Her set-ups you can see a mile away. The audience laughter isn’t only canned, it’s frozen. That is May, she is Miranda and Not Going Out and Mrs Brown’s Boys and the kid who won X Factor because his grandmother died and a cheeky Pizza Express on a Friday and a 3D Marvel comics movie at the local multiplex where you experience a lot but feel nothing. She couldn’t be more contemporary British culture if she’d been designed by Simon Cowell and a BBC pre-watershed commissioning committee.

That isn't to say that one can’t enjoy Miranda and not be a Tory (although I would like to say to, but alas I do not have the research to back it up), but that you do not need to be a Tory to like Theresa May. 

In the Financial Times, Janan Ganesh observed that ‘May could easily have a people: middle-class, suburban-to-provincial, plain in taste, respectably right-wing, unnerved but not unhinged by modernity.’ This is true but still vastly underestimates her appeal. She has bridged the gap, stepping widely in some look-I-have-a-personality-shoes, to land a foot in the camp of the right wing, and those who do not have any strong political beliefs either way, but find May a plain enough canvas on which to project.

She is an avatar animated by the electorate’s tastes and lack of adventurism in a febrile time, something which she is aware of, and therefore ensures she never says anything unscripted. Her pedigree is perfect. She is Oxbridge without being a chinless Bullingdon buffoon, a woman and thus enough of a break from the usual fare without being too alternative, entitled without being reckless and thus unpredictable. She is a little bit old fashioned with her ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ jobs, but also a little bit modern with her leather trousers and quirky fashion. She is the banal patriotism for whatever the country represents, without the actual love. She is a ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ mug. She is today’s Britain 101. 

So many on the left don’t see it, rightly observing that May has little tangible substance and is quite possibly incompetent, and blaming the inability to take her on on Corbyn or a ‘crisis of the left’. But it is all much more sweeping than that. May captures a moment in the country’s history that has been taking shape for years and she will rule for many many seasons. Brexit was the country’s last act of political animation before it settles down to a cheeky Nando's in front of Gogglebox.

Theresa May. Photo: Getty
The irresistible rise of Angela Rayner
May 18th, 2017, 07:19 PM

The youngest-ever shadow education secretary takes a more pragmatic stance than other Jeremy Corbyn backers and is increasingly spoken of as a future Labour leader.

At Labour’s manifesto meeting on 11 May, there was one exchange that dominated the conversation as participants left. Angela Rayner, the shadow education secretary, had challenged John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor and Jeremy Corbyn’s longtime ally, over the draft document. In her broad northern tones, Rayner expressed dismay at the lack of attention for child protection and early-years funding.

“She wasn’t very pleased that there was more on protecting animals than children in the manifesto,” I was told. While early-years funding benefits the neediest, McDonnell’s focus had been on abolishing university tuition fees, which would benefit undergraduates, and thus middle-class families.

After a side meeting – the only one held with a shadow cabinet minister – the dispute was resolved. McDonnell later talked down the disagreement and declared that Rayner would be the “Nye Bevan of the Jeremy Corbyn government”. Not for the first time, Rayner had demonstrated her independence.

Although the 37-year-old did not join the rebellion against Corbyn, she has differentiated herself from the party leadership. The day before the manifesto meeting, she made a speech in which she praised Tony Blair despite the Corbyn team’s misgivings. “We’re going to see a generation of our children being held back,” she warned about the Tories’ plans. “It never used to be like this under Labour . . . Tony Blair spoke of the need to build an education system fit for a new millennium.”

When Blair entered office in May 1997, the red-haired Rayner had recently turned 17. She had left school the previous year, with no qualifications, after becoming pregnant.

Raised on a council estate in Stockport by a mother who could not read or write, “I wasn’t school-ready,” Rayner said recently. “Books weren’t a thing in my house. Mum couldn’t help me with homework.”

It was a signature New Labour achievement – Sure Start – that “rescued” Rayner. “Some may argue I was not a great role model for young people,” she said in her first party conference speech. “The direction of my life was already set. But something happened. Labour’s Sure Start centres gave me and my friends, and our children [she now has three], the support we needed to grow and develop.”

Rayner’s personal experience and her knowledge of her brief prompted her intervention at the manifesto meeting. Research shows that it is during a child’s earliest years, rather than secondary or higher education, that funding can make the greatest difference.

Her route into Labour politics was a familiar one. After becoming one of the youngest careworkers on the staff of Stockport council, she was elected as a Unison representative. She originally “didn’t know what a trade union was” but Rayner was encouraged by colleagues, impressed by her harrying of management. After becoming Unison’s most senior official in the north-west, she was elected in 2015 as the first female MP for Ashton-under-Lyne.

“I lay claim to being the only member of this house to have ever worked as a home carer,” she said in her maiden speech to the Commons. “Perhaps, too, I’m the only member of the house who, at age 16 and pregnant, was told in no uncertain terms I’d never amount to anything. If only they could see me now.”

After the party’s June 2016 crisis in which 63 frontbenchers resigned, she was promoted from shadow pensions minister to shadow for women and equalities. A week later, she became the youngest-ever shadow education secretary after the resignation of Pat Glass (who lasted 50 hours in the post).

It has proved the right brief for Rayner. Theresa May’s support for new grammar schools has united Labour in opposition, allowing Rayner to build alliances across the party and exploit Tory divisions. In the Commons on 12 September 2016, she told the Conservatives to “stop your silly class war”. As Tory MPs jeered, she remarked that it was the reply David Cameron gave in 2006 when asked what he would say to any backbencher who supported grammars.

Rayner has spoken of how her accent and appearance have led her to be “underestimated” (one email labelled her “as thick as mince”); she now uses this to her advantage. “A lot of better-educated people have come off worse against her,” an ally told me, citing a Channel 4 News exchange with Michael Gove.

Though loyal to Corbyn, Rayner has cast herself as non-factional. “Ideology never put food on my table,” she said in January this year. “I talk about Tony Blair’s tenure because it changed my life.”

Among Labour politicians, Rayner, whose journey is recognised as remarkable, is increasingly spoken of as a future leader. “She’s very ambitious,” a source said. “A leader of the party in the future? Who knows,” Rayner said of herself in February. This council estate girl, one senses, is determined to keep defying expectations. 

Ellie Foreman-Peck for New Statesman
5 things we learned from the leaders’ debates for the smaller parties
May 18th, 2017, 07:19 PM

“I’m not Natalie.”

When Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn are away, what conversations happen among the smaller party leaders? Do they all agree about how nefarious the government is and hopeless the opposition is and then hold hands and form a progressive alliance?

Not likely.

Here are the five things we learned from ITV’s debate between SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon, Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron and Green party co-leader Caroline Lucas. A panel that ended rather frostily, with Wood refusing to shake hands with Nuttall, and only the most cursory of handshakes between Farron and Lucas.

1 Paul Nuttall thinks all women look the same

The Ukip leader addressed two out of three women on the panel as “Natalie”. None of them are called Natalie. Perhaps he was thinking of former Green party leader Natalie Bennett. Or the Scot Nats. Or the actor Natalie Wood, instead of Leanne Wood. Either way, a massive and enjoyable gaffe from a man who will never, try as he might, be mistaken for a Nigel.


2 “I agree with Tim”

The phrase “I agree with Tim” popped up a number of times during the debate. And not just as a hashtag on the Lib Dem press office’s Twitter feed. Nicola Sturgeon said it, as did – believe it or not – Paul Nuttall. The phrase is reminiscent of the “I agree with Nick” debates of Cleggmania prior to the 2010 election, but also indicates a problem for the Lib Dems. If they have Sturgeon on one side and Nuttall on the other agreeing with them, they’re back in the position they were in before the 2015 election when they were so badly trounced – middle-of-the-road is not an election winner, as many senior Lib Dems concluded following the election result, after a campaign of trying to be Labour with a brain, and the Tories with a heart. And even if Farronmania became a thing, it wouldn’t even get them to small coalition party status this time round.

3 Not a good look for Labour and the Tories...

The received Westminster wisdom is that there is little point in Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May taking part in these debates. It is pointless making themselves vulnerable alongside leaders who have nothing to lose – or lowering themselves to the same level as the smaller parties in Parliament, the argument goes. Perhaps, but in an election where a thumping Tory victory is thought to be a foregone conclusion, and a divided Labour is an unattractive choice, these party leaders certainly sound refreshing. It’s considered “safer” by voters to back parties that will never take power when they know what the election result will be, and strong performances, particularly by good media performers like Caroline Lucas, will boost this sentiment.

It didn’t help matters that both Labour and the Conservative press offices tweeted along to the debate, picking apart the answers, despite their leaders refusing to take part:

4 …but this is very much a general election of two personalities

Unlike Cleggmania and the ensuing coalition in 2010, and the multi-party excitement in the build-up to the 2015 election, the debate highlighted that this year’s general election is only about two parties: the Tories and Labour. With the polls predicting a stonking majority, the smaller parties’ proposals feel like they have less weight than previous years because, for the first time in a while, there’s no prospect of coalition or minority government.

And it’s not only about the two main parties. It’s about two individuals in particular. The Conservative campaign is running a presidential bid for government, calling itself “Theresa May’s Team”, and playing down the party’s name, whereas Labour’s campaign bus and many of its MPs are attempting to do the opposite, in response to Corbyn’s abysmal personal ratings. There are only two people who are really shaping the election result, and neither of them was here.

5 It’s not all about Brexit

Strangely, considering two of these politicians (Farron and Nuttall) have hinged their campaigns on the subject of Brexit, all the party leaders were least convincing when they were discussing the B-word. Perhaps it’s because the “Re-Leaver” theory (that many of those who voted Remain have accepted the referendum result and don’t want the result reversed) resonates, or maybe it simply feels stale to stage a rerun of the referendum campaign, but their ideas on housing, climate change, education and health were more compelling than their stance on how (or whether) the UK should leave the European Union.

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My attempt at running disintegrates into a war of words with Madonna
May 18th, 2017, 07:19 PM

Christ, it hurts.

Don’t laugh at me, but I’m trying to learn how to run. I blame that recent BBC programme, Mind Over Marathon, where a group of people, all living with mental health issues, trained to run the London Marathon.

It was good TV, warm and engaging, all of the participants showing impressive degrees of mental and physical courage – battling their anxiety and their knees, bonding with each other and with the viewer. And it sparked in me a little flicker of curiosity. I wonder if I could run? I’ve always shied away from it, but what if? What if?

Cautious advice-heeder that I am in middle age, I go to the NHS website and, sure enough, it offers encouragement to the terrified via an app called Couch to 5K. This teaches you how to start running in short bursts, egged on by the celebrity voice of your choice. I download the app, choose Jo Whiley, and brace myself.

Week one. Monday. A minute of running, followed by 90 seconds walking, for a total of 20 minutes. Christ, it hurts.

Wednesday. Run 2. Realise halfway through that I have made a complete balls-up of these first two runs by setting out in the hilly part of north London where I live, the gradient nearly killing me. I’ve also learned a lesson about gravity, and how strong is the pull of the Earth. A lightness of step is advised, yet I seem to hit the ground with an unexpected thud. I picture a glass of water somewhere, trembling. Also realise I need music.

Friday. I have a new plan, which involves taking a short bus ride to the nearest flat length of road and running up and down it. I’ve also made a Madonna playlist, aiming for a tone of can-do, dance-tempo positivity. First track up is “Vogue”, which begins with her slightly accusatory “What are you looking at?”, reminding me that when I told the kids I’d been running, the youngest replied, “What, in public? Where people can see you?” Am now convinced that everyone is looking at me.

Week two. Monday. Still with the bus ride and the playlist. It’s quite empowering, and I’m playacting at being Madonna-like, although after a while I wonder if she’s actually taunting me.

“Quicker than a ray of light,” she sings in my ear.

“Heavier than a sack of potatoes,” I mutter.

“Don’t stop me now, don’t need to catch my breath.”

Actually, you know what, Madge . . . hah . . . gimme a sec . . . hah . . . just need to . . .

“And when the lights go down and there’s no one left/
I can go on and on and on.”

I can’t go on. I’ll go on.

Wednesday. Meanwhile Jo Whiley is being encouraging: “Try to say to yourself, ‘I LOVE RUNNING!’” Banal, but it actually helps. After every 90 seconds of running she interrupts with, “OK, now you can slow down and walk for two minutes.” I go back to walking, not entirely sure that that means I’m slowing down. Her other tip is to distract yourself by looking around. I look up at the trees, all springy and bursting, and think of the lovely Dennis Potter quote about “the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom that there ever could be”, and it starts to rain, a fine drizzle mingling with the sweat, and I’m momentarily enjoying myself.

Saturday. I’ve finished run three and I’m walking back home, when a woman coming in the other direction in full running gear and headphones stops me. She gets out her phone and shows me that the last song she’d been listening to, as she did a 5K run, was “Come Hell or High Water”, from a mid-Eighties Everything But the Girl album. It’s a kind of torchy ballad, so I ask her whether or not it was helpful. “Oh yes,” she says, “it reminded me of being at college and singing along with it, tears streaming down my face.”

Well, whatever gets you through, I suppose.

Week three. Monday. My knee hurts. I mean really hurts. I’m in the studio today, standing up to do lead vocals, and am distracted by a throbbing just below the kneecap.

Wednesday. Resting. Have made an appointment with the physio. You know when you laughed at me for taking up running? Mmm. 

Next week: Kate Mossman

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In search of Mexico's lost radio superheroes
May 18th, 2017, 07:19 PM

By the time we reach the coastal area of Punta Chiquita there is no radio signal at all. 

“As soon as anyone gets back home, the TV goes on. In Mexico, radio is for cars.”

Driving south of the resort town of Puerto Vallarta along Mexico’s Pacific coast, my friend Roberto lists some of the things that have changed. He says that as late as 1987 his mother would send him soap and toothpaste from Mexico City, because they were hard to come by in this western state of Jalisco. He adds that until a couple of years ago, everybody used to listen to a local station that featured mariachi bands from the district playing music “all day, every day” – live and super-chaotic in the studio.

Now, though, it’s just Radio Disney, which has almost total saturation across the country thanks to its competition prizes of film merchandise (the pencils are popular) and powerful surprise guests such as President Peña Nieto himself, who makes absurd appeals about the dramatic rising price of fuel (“The hen gave us eggs of gold, but the eggs have run out”).

Along the one road south run leafy fields of mango trees, frothily green but with a sap so acidic that any plantation workers wear hoods like highwaymen. We stop for bread at a shack with an oven cut into a rock face; the only thing not thick with soot is a picture of the Virgin strung with tinsel. Ants are busy on the ground. Hungry dogs search endlessly among twigs for scraps.

By the time we reach the coastal area of Punta Chiquita there is no radio signal at all. No station, no frequency; never has been – though Roberto’s friend here, José, swears he remembers listening to soap operas on the radio with his grandmother.

José recalls such characters as the Mexican superhero Kalimán and the 19th-century revolutionary hero Gabino Barreda, who had “amazing special effects. Pah-pah! Drum-drummm! Y’know, a guy who made horse sounds with his hands, or a bucket, or his mouth. You would have to use a lot of imagination.

Mi abuela estaba loca por eso,” he adds – “my grandmother was crazy for it”.

José can’t place the station. Soaps play all day on TV now. Perhaps memory has muddled the mediums I (primly) suggest. “Ah no!” he scoffs, insulted. “No no. Radio was once a whole big deal.” 

Getty
The NS Podcast #213: Manifestos Special
May 18th, 2017, 07:19 PM

The New Statesman podcast.

Welcome to 2017's epic, Manifesto Special edition of the podcast. Helen and Stephen begin with analysis of the Conservative's latest offerings - from the new policy on social care, to their (costly) targets on immigration. Next up is Labour, who get "Marx out of ten" for their ambitious pledges. And finally, You Ask Us: are the polls right? 

 

Quotes of the Week:

Helen on Labour's manifesto: "I like it. Despite my reservations about the Corbyn project, what I hoped it would do was at least overcome some of that grim, one-more-heave Milibandism. And there is some genuinely new thinking in there."

Stephen on the Tory's social care pledge: "The way you've chosen to pay for this is incredibly Progressive - in terms of the people who will pay and the problem of inherited asset wealth. But the policy lever you're pulling is not Progressive."

Helen: "My new favourite source of subtweets about Theresa May: Evening Standard leader columns written by George Osborne."

You can subscribe to the podcast through iTunes here or with this RSS feed: http://rss.acast.com/newstatesman, or listen using the player below.

Want to give us feedback on our podcast, or have an idea for something we should cover?

Visit newstatesman.com/podcast for more details and how to contact us.

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This election isn't about getting a better Brexit deal - and the Conservative manifesto proves it
May 18th, 2017, 07:19 PM

The government's Brexit policy is the only thing not changed by the Conservatives' new manifesto. 

Why are we having a general election? The official line is that Britain’s Brexit deal is under threat because Labour are iffy on whether or not to back Brexit, while the Liberal Democrats and the SNP are out to oppose it.

And it is true to say that the Liberal Democrats have threatened to “grind the government’s business to a halt”, and that the SNP have pledged to vote against a deal that takes Scotland out of the single market. It’s also true to say that Labour’s policy on what flavour of Brexit it wants has tended to fluctuate depending on whether or not the by-election they are fighting takes place in a constituency that voted to Leave or Remain. For the Stoke-on-Trent by-election, they donned the full Brexit garb. For Manchester Gorton – obviated by Theresa May’s early election – they softened their line.

But the truth is that on Brexit issues, the government had a comfortable but not overwhelming majority, as the vote to trigger Article 50 showed. Despite the psychodrama over whether or not Jeremy Corbyn should have whipped Labour MPs to trigger Brexit, if his decision had gone the other way, most of the parliamentary Labour party would have voted the same way they did. On what you might call “general” Brexit votes – that is, whether or not we should actually leave – there are in excess of 400 votes in the House of Commons come what may.

On “specific” Brexit votes – that is, the vision of exit as seen by Theresa May – there is still a comfortable majority. The bulk of the Conservative Party, the whole of the DUP and the seven Labour Brexiteers will vote not just for European exit in general but May’s vision in particular. (That’s before you factor in Labour backbenchers who fear the wrath of their Leave-voting constituents or the party’s leadership, which is led by a Eurosceptic of long vintage.)

The truth is that May is calling this election to get a majority for everything else in this manifesto, most of which would be dead on arrival in the House of Commons as it stood on 3 May 2017.

And the proof? The sections on Brexit in the Conservative manifesto:

“As we leave the European Union, we will no longer be members of the single market or customs union but we will seek a deep and special partnership including a comprehensive free trade and customs agreement. There may be specific European programmes in which we might want to participate and if so, it will be reasonable that we make a contribution. We will determine a fair settlement of the UK’s rights and obligations as a departing member state, in accordance with the law and in the spirit of the UK’s continuing partnership with the EU. The principle, however, is clear: the days of Britain making vast annual contributions to the European Union will end.”

In other words, a simple restatement of the position outlined by Theresa May in her Lancaster House speech, her Article 50 letter, and her first conference speech as leader. The only big difference? A softening of the "red line" on the role the European Court of Justice will play. The undeniable truth is that the sections on Brexit have the greatest continuity with existing Conservative policy. It's not Brexit this election is changing. It's everything else. 

As I’ve written before, the government, no matter what Theresa May’s rhetoric about being “bloody difficult” might suggest, has quietly but effectively not ruled out continuing contributions to the EU budget every year. The way has been set for a Brexit deal where Britain pays into the EU every year, notionally in exchange for its continuing participation in science and anti-terror initiatives but in reality to the general pool, and pays the so-called “divorce bill” for its existing liabilities. (One reason why the British government wants to negotiate the divorce bill at the same time as everything else is, understandably, the more we pay in per year, the less they will want to pay up front.)

The word “vast” is one of those words that appears in party manifestos that can mean whatever you want it to mean. £350m a week is vast. A fiver per person is scarcely more than a pint in some parts of the United Kingdom. The secret is: these two amounts are the same.

If anything, a bigger Conservative majority decreases the quality of the deal Britain will get. With a majority of 16, it’s just about plausible that a deal involving a large upfront payment and continuing annual contributions – vastness TBC – might be difficult to pass through the House of Commons. (Though as the government will be giving the legislature a choice between May’s deal and exit without a deal, if there is any risk it will not pass with Conservative votes alone, Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs will have to vote for it)

With the House of Commons as it stood when May called the election, she had the ability to say to her fellow European leaders: Look, I’ve got these Brexit ultras, can you help me out here? With a thumping majority and as master of all she surveys, that card loses its value.

Both the Conservatives and their opponents believe it is in their interests to say that this election is about May getting a mandate for a hard exit from the European Union. The truth is completely the opposite. 

Photo: Getty
Three Girls: A story of fragile self-esteem, abused
May 18th, 2017, 07:19 PM

A powerful drama exploring the Rochdale child grooming scandal contains miraculous performances

Self-esteem: how hard it is won and how easily it ebbs away. For the teenage protagonists of Three Girls, Nicole Taylor’s three-part drama about the Rochdale child grooming scandal (16-18 May, 9pm), inner confidence was nothing but a chimera, yet another miserable staging post on the road to disillusion. Offered praise and half a bottle of vodka, it would briefly flare, warm and hopeful, only to disappear again as the men of the piece – brutes who thought of these mixed-up children as so much meat – put it out as easily as they would a candle.

There is, it seems, an awful lot still to be learned from what happened in Rochdale to 47 girls between 2003 and 2011, crimes for which nine men were finally convicted in 2012. But beyond the lazy, dysfunctional processes of the police and the social services – their institutional sexism and (how odd that these things can coexist) their stubborn political correctness – perhaps the biggest lesson of all has to do with self-worth. If only this was a thing we could give to our young women, as we would a mobile phone or a key to the front door.

I began watching Three Girls, which promised 180 minutes of bottomless misery, with something close to dread. We find ourselves in the middle of a glut of TV series based on real-life events, most of which are pretty lame and parasitical. The Rochdale case, moreover, brought with it an added danger: surely the BBC wouldn’t let the titles roll without earnestly reminding viewers that although those convicted in this case were all British Asian and knew one another, most abusers are white men operating alone, usually within their family. I feared the inevitable lecture, and not just because sermons are the enemy of drama. The specific facts of this case matter. Context is an excellent thing, except when it provides an excuse to look in the opposite direction.

Sure enough, there came one excruciatingly laboured scene in which, at a fractious community meeting, everyone who spoke had some preposterously well-rehearsed anti-racist message to impart. But otherwise, I found myself utterly in awe of Three Girls. What a script by Taylor (until now, best known for The C Word), her dialogue faultlessly unmannered, her structure seamlessly smooth. Careful and involving, her screenplay honoured the three girls on whose experiences she focused by depicting them in the round. Wayward, foolish and streetwise, they threatened to drive us, as they did their long-suffering parents, halfway round the bend; and yet not for one moment did we lose sight of them as so vulnerable that their basic needs (sustenance, shelter, even love) were being met by a kebab shop.

Sara Rowbotham, the sexual health worker who repeatedly told the deaf Greater Manchester Police just what was going on in Top Curry and other establishments like it, was played by Maxine Peake, and Margaret Oliver, the detective whose job it was to win their trust after being ignored for so long, by Lesley Sharp. Both were predictably brilliant, especially Peake, vibrating with rage. But they were also, I’m glad to say, acted off the screen by Ria Zmitrowicz, Liv Hill and Molly Windsor, who played our three girls, Amber and Ruby Bowen and Holly Winshaw, respectively.

Amber, put to work by her abusers as a kind of pimp, deployed her considerable toughness in the cause of denial, a balancing act Zmitrowicz performed with dexterity and sullen vim. Holly, meanwhile, simply sank every further, a numbness Windsor transmitted first with a zombie stillness, and then with a noiseless inward collapse, the tears seeming to come not from her eyes but from her very soul.

For my money, though, it was Hill who stood out, for all that she had the smallest of the three roles. Ruby’s learning difficulties led her to muddle pleasure and pain, and Hill was horrifyingly convincing in these tinny explosions of joy (“It were mint!” she insisted, when first asked about the nature of her relationship with the man who passed her among his friends “like a ball”.) A miraculous performance and, or so I found, an indelible one, too. 

Are the media biased against Jeremy Corbyn? Just look at how Theresa May’s policies are covered
May 18th, 2017, 07:19 PM

The Tory manifesto contains Labour policies – and receives adoration from the right-wing press.

Slowly but shamelessly, the Conservative Party has been ripping off Labour policies. From the days of David Cameron to Theresa May unveiling her manifesto today, the Tories have been nicking Ed Miliband’s ideas and passing them off as their own: eergy price caps, banning letting agent fees, raising the minimum wage, abolishing permanent non-dom status, worker representation on boards, borrowing to invest without counting it in the deficit, means-testing winter fuel payments for pensioners, and making the elderly pay more for social care.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as Ukip rejoices in having influenced the government to call an EU referendum, the creators of the Labour 2015 manifesto can take some solace in having their policies implemented (that’s if they aren’t watered down by the Tories). But the blood-boiling thing about this is how differently such proposals are received by the press when they come from Theresa May compared to when they come from Ed Miliband or Jeremy Corbyn.

Let’s take the announcement today that the elderly will have to pay more for their care. The idea is that people will have to pay care costs – whether they’re receiving care at home or living in a nursing home – until their assets are below £100,000. This takes the value of their house into account, which means about one in ten people with care needs will be paying more. The government will wait until they die before they have to provide this money.

This is very similar to the Labour politician Andy Burnham’s policy proposal when he was health secretary in Gordon Brown’s government. He proposed funding social care by taxing people’s estates when they die – almost identical to May’s announcement today. Burnham resurrected this idea as a Labour leadership candidate afterthe 2015 election. Both times, it was labelled a “death tax” by the press and political opponents.

How did the papers react when May announced the same thing?


All photos: Twitter

And remember Miliband’s energy prize freeze? Here’s his former adviser Stewart Wood comparing headlines about a policy that was lambasted by the right-wing press at the time but being praised now that the Tories have proposed it:

May is consistently labelled “mainstream” and praised for appealing to “Middle England” when she does something for middle-earners (say, making the better-off stump up more for public services, or raising the personal tax allowance). When Corbyn does the same – as with his policy to pay for universal free school meals by taxing private schools – he is waging a “tax war on the middle class”.

When pictures of Corbyn’s five-bedroom manor house where he grew up flash up on our screens, as with ITV Tonight’s leader interview on Monday (fair enough – it’s a personal profile), the intricacies of May’s family home don’t feature in similar reports about her background. These tend to focus – as in The One Show’s recent interview – on her character (“strong and stable”, usually) and on banal, sanitised details of her relationship.

And it’s not just Corbyn. While the Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron is (rightly) grilled on how his Christianity affects his views on abortion and homosexuality, May – the vicar’s daughter – is given a free pass.

And it’s not just May. When the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, got himself into a tangle over the cost of HS2 in a disastrous interview on Radio 4’s Today programme, it was mainly ignored. A rather different response from when the shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott, messed up policing figures. Her performance was roundly covered and mocked.

This is not to say that Corbyn’s hypocrisies, influences and policies shouldn’t be scrutinised. It’s just that the press needn’t be so credulous when reporting Tory policies that would have provoked horror if they came from opposition parties.

Twitter
Labour's 2015 manifesto lives on in the Conservative manifesto
May 18th, 2017, 07:19 PM

Theresa May has smartly borrowed popular policies that Ed Miliband was not trusted to implement.

In 2015, Labour endured its worst election defeat since 1987. Its manifesto, however, is enjoying more of an afterlife than this fate suggested. The Conservatives' 2017 prospectus, as I wrote earlier, has several intellectual antecedents: Burke, Beveridge and Blue Labour. But it also bears unmistakable traces of the 2015 manifesto assembled by Ed Miliband's team (including Blue Labourite Jonathan Rutherford, Resolution Foundation director Torsten Bell and New Economics Foundation chief executive Marc Stears).

Market interventionism was the red thread running through that document and it resurfaces in Theresa May's programme. Miliband's signature energy price freeze is echoed with a promise of a "safeguard tariff cap" to protect "energy customers from unacceptable rises". Like Labour, the Conservatives also promise worker representation on company boards, a higher minimum wage and a new generation of council housing.

The party's fiscal plans owe more to Ed Balls than George Osborne, promising only to eliminate the deficit by 2025 (a full decade later than Osborne aimed to) and leaving room to borrow for investment. The Tories have also adopted Labour's proposed ban on letting agent fees and its means-testing of the Winter Fuel Allowance (in an enhanced form).

For Labour, the lesson is a salutary one. Though many of its policies had widespread appeal (not least to government ministers), the public did not trust it to implement them. Under Jeremy Corbyn, all the signs suggest that pattern is being repeated. Until a Labour leader is regarded as a future prime minister, and the party is trusted to manage the economy, Nixon will continue to go to China. 

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Is the government’s plan for voter ID an attack on Labour voters?
May 18th, 2017, 07:19 PM

A newly proposed requirement to show ID before casting a vote could reduce the number of people who vote Labour.

The Conservatives' manifesto proposal to require ID to cut down on electoral fraud has many on the left worried that the proposal is actually a ruse to decrease the number of Labour voters who are eligible to vote. Are they right?

The first thing to note is that while there is a very small number of electoral malpractice cases – fewer than 100 – some of which count as an electoral fraud, they involve matters unrelated to the wrong people voting at polling stations. The most frequent crime is putting false signatures on nomination papers, after that breaking expenses rules, and lastly making false claims about other candidates.

The most recent high-profile cases of electoral fraud involved false claims about a candidate (Labour’s Phil Woolas against his Liberal Democrat opponent in 2010), postal vote fraud (Birmingham, 2004) and bribery and spiritual influence (Lutfur Rahman, 2014).

In none of the cases would a stronger ID requirement have detected or prevented the crime.

Of course, some people will ask, “but what about the criminals we don’t catch?” The difficulty there is that it’s hard to see where this fraud is taking place. In all those cases, the result itself was a sign something was up. If someone is rigging results, they are doing so in a way that produces outcomes entirely in keeping with national swing and demographic behaviour. Other than the thrill of the chase, it’s not clear why someone would do this.

What we do know from the one part of the United Kingdom that requires voters to produce ID before voting ­– Northern Ireland – is that it makes it harder for poorer people to vote as they are less likely to have the required identification. That's why after their pilot, their scheme, introduced in 2002, went hand-in-hand with free ID.

There is, however, a strong argument that elections need to command a high level of public legitimacy, making the case for ID stronger. But there is a wide suite of measures the government could bring in alongside this change that would achieve that while lessening the impact of having an ID. They could, for instance, make it so you are automatically enrolled when you pay council tax, a water bill, a heating bill or any other charge that comes with a fixed abode. They could roll out a free photo ID for elections.

But as they are doing neither, it feels fair to say that at best the government is relaxed about making it harder for supporters of its opponents to vote, and at worst is actively seeking to do so.

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Theresa May's Conservative manifesto buries dogmatic Thatcherism
May 18th, 2017, 07:19 PM

The Prime Minister is more sceptical of the market and less hostile towards the state.

"Forward, together". The title of the Conservatives' election manifesto invites comparison with Margaret Thatcher. It was before these words that the Tories' great landslider spoke at her party's 1980 conference. But it is here that the similarities largely end. For Theresa May is the first Conservative leader to truly grapple with Thatcher's legacy.

The economic forces that the former prime minister unleashed – through privatisation, deregulation and tax cuts – had ambiguous and unintended consequences. While dealing a hammer blow from which the socialist left and the trade unions never recovered, they also undermined the ordered society that she revered. The speculative frenzies of the market, the decoupling of contribution and reward and the surge in private debt contradicted her values of responsibility, fidelity and thrift. Thatcher's ideological inheritors, many of them more doctrinaire than the Iron Lady herself, adopted a dogmatic faith in capitalism at odds with traditional Tory pragmatism.

May's mission is to rehabilitate this older strain of Conservative thinking. "We do not believe in untrammelled free markets," declares a section entitled "Our Principles". "We reject the cult of selfish individualism. We abhor social division, injustice, unfairness and inequality. We see rigid dogma and ideology not just as needless but dangerous."

May's manifesto, authored by her fiercely loyal co-chief of staff Nick Timothy (along with Tory ministers George Freeman and Ben Gummer), proclaims a belief "not just in society" but "in the good that government can do". There are echoes of Beveridge ("five great challenges"), of Burke ("society is a contract between the generations") and of Blue Labour (whose founder Maurice Glasman recently met Timothy).

The ensuing policies do not seek to reverse Thatcherism (as Labour's manifesto does) but to correct it. The manifesto promises a "tarriff cap" on energy bills (which have continually risen under privatisation), "worker representation on company boards" (strengthening labour against capital), "a new generation of council housing" (neglected ever since Thatcher's Right to Buy) and a "modern industrial strategy" (legitimising the state as an economic actor).

Even in the case of Brexit, May is wrangling with another Thatcherite bequest. Despite her latter europhobia, it was the former prime minister who took the UK into the European single market, extending the free movement of goods, services, capital and people. As the EU expanded, the liberal imperative of growth clashed with the conservative imperative of order. Net migration from Europe now stands at 168,000, a level regarded by May as unsustainable. To this end, the manifesto recommits the UK to single market withdrawal (in order to limit free movement) and renews the aim of reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year.

Every prime minister since Thatcher has dwelt in her ideological shadow. The Brexit vote, one of the ruptures to which the UK is given roughly every 35 years (1906, 1945, 1979, 2016), constitutes a natural punctuation mark. Thatcher’s unintentionally liberal settlement could be supplanted by May’s harder-edged conservatism. Far more than David Cameron, who sought the middle way of “the big society”, she heralds the role of the state in promoting national greatness, maintaining social order and widening equality of opportunity.

Governments are frequently better judged by their actions than by their words. If, as the polls suggest, May's return to Downing Street is inevitable, the ensuing years will be defined by one task: Brexit. But the intention of her manifesto could not be clearer: to bury dogmatic Thatcherism.

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What’s the opposite of post-truth? It’s not as simple as “the facts”
May 18th, 2017, 07:19 PM

Two books by Evan Davis and Matthew d’Ancona explore the concept of post-truth. 

If we are living in a post-truth era, it must have started a very long time ago. The British Library recently reproduced the title page of a 1614 newsbook reporting that “a strange and monstrous Serpent (or Dragon)” was living in the woods near Horsham, in Sussex, “to the great annoyance and ­divers slaughters both of Men and Cattell, by his strong and violent poyson”. The very phrase “fake news” dates from more than a century ago, and “false news” existed in the 16th century. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was a 20th-century fake news meme that did far more historical damage than anything on Twitter today.

Nor was political lying invented by Donald Trump or Tony Blair, or even Richard Nixon. This is demonstrated by The Art of Political Lying, John Arbuthnot’s splendidly sarcastic pamphlet published in 1712: “The People may as well all pretend to be Lords of Manors, and possess great Estates, as to have
Truth told them in matters of Government.”

So what, if anything, is new? Part of the reason it may seem we are living through an extraordinary crisis of truth is that we have a news culture in which everything must be described as a crisis. So the cynical misinformation ploys of Brexit and Trump, in particular, are thought to have ushered in an era of “post-truth”, given the flagrancy of bogus claims such as that Brexit would release an extra £350m a week for the NHS, and that Trump’s inaugural crowd was the biggest in history (the defence of this lie by his adviser Kellyanne Conway led to her infamous use of the phrase “alternative facts”).

“Post-truth” was coined in 1992 to describe the Iran-Contra scandal and the Gulf War but the popularity of the expression has rocketed more recently, leading to its being chosen by Oxford Dictionaries as the 2016 “word of the year”. The prefix “post”, Oxford explains, means “belonging to a time in which the specified concept has become unimportant or irrelevant”. And yet everywhere the intelligentsia and the tech industry are loudly worrying about truth and how to save it. It’s as if truth, far from having become irrelevant, has shot to the top of the cultural agenda.

Of the two books called Post-Truth under review, Evan Davis’s is the more subtle and wide-ranging, written with the generous intelligence and wry humour that admirers of his broadcasting will recognise. There is a celebrated definition of “bullshit” by the philosopher Harry Frankfurt, which is basically a disregard for whether what one is saying is true or not, as opposed to lying, when one knows it isn’t true and is deliberately recounting a falsehood. Yet Davis wants to define bullshit much more broadly, as “any form of communication – verbal or non-verbal – that is not the clearest or most succinct statement of the sincere and reasonably held beliefs of the communicator”. In that case, we all traffic in bullshit most of the time, and for very good reasons.

“Genuine frankness is not the norm but the exception,” Davis points out, defending the circumlocutory speech of diplomats or doctors, of people offering sympathy or encouragement, and even of politicians in some circumstances. At one point, amusingly, he even defends a piece of flowery wine writing. “This is good gibberish,” he judges, “because I think for the intended readers the material is well devised.”

On the other hand, he perceives a real issue in the popularity of a classic Frankfurtian bullshitter such as Donald Trump (whose recent “post-truths” include claims that millions voted illegally in the 2016 election and that Barack Obama wiretapped his Trump Tower office). How should a “fact-conscious person” handle the “afactual” phenomenon? Rather than attempt to reason anyone out of a false position, Davis argues, we should try to understand why they hold it. People choose to believe things for reasons of group belonging and it is not necessarily irrational for them to do so.

He also points out, cleverly, that voters are rational to judge prospective leaders on their perceived character rather than their policies – because “most of what their elected representatives have to do in office is ­react to things that haven’t come up yet”. So the best thing politicians can do is “relax”, “be genuine”, and “present themselves in a more natural way”. I guess if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.

Similarly, Davis takes a nuanced line on political spin. It is often a rational strategy because the media will hysterically overreact to any “gaffe” – but it can’t in the end lead people to believe things that are manifestly untrue. He recounts being asked by financiers to recommend a PR strategy to solve the City of London’s image problem. He demurred, saying their poor reputation was thoroughly well deserved, given that they had caused a global financial crisis and depression while continuing to pay themselves millions: “If you are regarded as bad and you are bad, you don’t have an image problem, you have a badness problem.”

The banks, indeed, have probably contributed in large measure to one undeniable aspect of our modern version of post-truth, which is the erosion of popular trust in institutions. Matthew d’Ancona’s book also correctly identifies the contribution to this phenomenon of the decades of effort by corporate lobbyists for the big tobacco and oil companies, which wage war on science through obfuscation and manufactured dissent. But he also blames a more surprising third cadre: postmodernists. While acknowledging that in the 19th century Nietzsche and William James cast a shady side-eye on the concept of truth in their different ways, d’Ancona thinks the downgrading of truth in our time has trickled down from the French and American academies, in the work of Foucault, Lyotard, Derrida, Baudrillard and Rorty – “to name but five”, he writes, as though they were a homogeneous crew of conspirators.

Yes, the “often incomprehensible” work of the postmodernists, he thinks, is where the rot set in. For “if everything is a ‘social construct’, then who is to say what is false”? D’Ancona asks this plaintively, as though there can be no answer and so the premise must be false. But of course there is an answer: the people who are to say what is false are the people who have acquired the generally acknowledged and demonstrated expertise in judging which social constructs are more or less accurate in making predictions about, say, the operation of machinery. And this has always been how things have worked. It does not entail that we are doomed to a chaotic free-for-all.

The underlying difficulty of today’s polemics about post-truth is that many well-meaning residents of the reality-based community are talking as though it is ­always obvious and uncontroversial what is a “fact” and what isn’t. And yet the very idea of a fact is a social construct with an origin. (As the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has written: “Facts, like telescopes and wigs for gentlemen, were a 17th-century invention.”) Facts are fuzzy and changeable; in scientific practice, matters of truth and evidence are always at issue. The best scientific theories are social constructs. Whether they should be taken as accurately describing reality is still an unresolved debate in quantum physics; and, as the biologist Stuart Firestein has written: “All scientists know that it is facts that are unreliable. No datum is safe from the next generation of scientists with the next generation of tools.”

Some of our most eminent scientists ­argue that too great an obsession with facts can obstruct progress. The Nobel laureate in physics Frank Wilczek has wittily adapted Stephen Colbert’s comic coinage “truthiness” for his own concept of “truthifiability”. We should worry not so much about whether an idea is true, Wilczek advises, but whether it is “truthifiable” – whether it can inspire further creative research that would otherwise be shut down by overly aggressive and hasty fact-checking.

By contrast, we should not be surprised if the naive positivism espoused by aggrieved liberals who insist on a simplistic portrayal of “the facts” and “the science” does nothing but reinforce the lines of tribal warfare. As Davis rightly observes, “judgement almost always plays a part in our decisions as to what is a fact and what is true”. Trump voters are surely as well aware as anyone else that we all must take most facts on trust – I, for one, have not experimentally verified the idea of anthropogenic global warming – and understandably feel patronised by opponents who deny this is the case. Indeed, to the extent that experts are telling them to shut up and prostrate themselves before an immutable version of the “facts”, they are right to have had enough of experts.

None of this is to deny that the spread of deliberate misinformation and lies is a grave problem. But what should be done about it? A few weeks ago, Facebook took out ­advertisements in the British newspapers offering advice for users on how to spot fake news: “Be sceptical of headlines”, “Investigate the source”, “Check the evidence”, and so forth. This might look rather like a buck-passing cop-out from a giant corporate ­vehicle of fake news that has always denied it is a publisher, but news consumers do have the power to distinguish good from bad, if they are minded to do so.

In any case, fact-check websites aren’t going to be trusted any more than the “mainstream media” by the suspicious or conspiracy-minded, and any attempt by industry or government to establish a kind of institutional truth police will soon fall foul of the reality that truth often comes in shades of grey – quite apart from the idea’s rather unflattering totalitarian aura.

Both Evan Davis and Matthew d’Ancona agree that it is we, the audience, who have the greatest power to push back the tide of fake news. Davis ends his book with the sunny prediction that this peak in the historical graph of public bullshit will pass, as others have done before it, and d’Ancona makes the sensible suggestion that children should be taught methods of source evaluation and sceptical analysis, or what is sometimes seen as coming under the umbrella of “critical thinking”.

I would add that you could even go so far as to make philosophy compulsory in schools, as it is in Brazil. After all, philosophy actually has a branch of study that specialises in issues of truth and knowledge, called epistemology – which is why New Scientist magazine rather sweetly called a few weeks ago for more epistemologists to wade into the public debates.

Whichever tools they choose to employ, it is up to readers, in the end, to decide what they are going to believe. And it has always been thus. The same principle applies both for the news of the horrible dragon in 17th-century Sussex and for the latest unsourced meme on social media: caveat lector (“reader beware”). There never was a golden age of truth, and it’s a good thing, too. 

Post-Truth: Why We Have Reached Peak Bullshit and What We Can Do About It 
Evan Davis
Little, Brown, 368pp, £20

Post-Truth: the New War on Truth and How to Fight Back 
Matthew d’Ancona
Ebury Press, 176pp, £6.99

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Commons Confidential: Why Chris Grayling can't escape Southern rail
May 18th, 2017, 07:19 PM

 Labour has picked the Aslef train driver Ed Mayne to pursue the Tall Controller in Epsom and Ewell.

The highest number of seats I’ve heard a senior Conservative predicting that Theresa May will win is the 600 cited by one cabinet minister. He laughed, so I assume he was joking, though Labour has been reduced to hoping that hubris averts a Tory landslide. A veteran Labour MP defending a 12,000-plus majority in one of the party’s safest seats muttered that his agent had been ordered by party HQ for the first time to spend up to the £12,000 constituency legal limit though victory usually costs half that. To the list of reasons May plumped for the grubby early election she’d dismissed as bad for Britain must be added the Conservative fear that Labour would ditch Jeremy Corbyn next year. My snout whispered that May was worried she’d lose a valuable Tory asset by 2020.

Shunted into sidings for the election, the Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, is unable to escape the Southern train dispute. Labour has picked the Aslef train driver Ed Mayne to pursue the Tall Controller in Epsom and Ewell. Grayling’s return to parliament is assured, with 58.3 per cent of the vote last time out, but a performance in high office as unreliable as the strike-hit Southern’s services leaves him a favourite to be derailed in the triumphant PM’s reshuffle.

May’s generous personal endorsement of John Bercow in Buckingham – “it is more important than ever that the House of Commons has a redoubtable champion in the chair” – hints that readoption as Commons Speaker is a mere formality. Bercow’s is the loneliest campaign in the land: he’s sitting on a 23,000 majority and Labour and the Libs stick with convention by not running candidates against the Speaker. He canvasses, however, as if it’s a marginal. Door-knocking two years ago, Bercow joked cheerily to a constituent, “Don’t worry, I’m not a Jehovah’s Witness.” “No, but I am,” replied the householder. Fortunately for Bercow, this faith group usually doesn’t vote.

The struggle takes many forms. Corbyn’s posh mouthpiece James Schneider is sharing a jumper for the duration of the campaign with a girlfriend who toils at Labour’s Southside HQ. My informant mutters that the pair wear the pullover on alternate days. Socialism is a garment for the two, not the many.

Bus envy and paranoia in the leader’s office when a senior apparatchik screamed that Corbyn’s deputy, Tom Watson, was trying to overtake his boss with a campaign coach of his own. Watson’s wheels are a red, eight-seater Hyundai i800 people carrier, while the prophet of Islington is roaming the country in the full, 28-passenger works. Corbyn’s driver was pulled off a Shakin’ Stevens tour, so for the next three weeks it’s “This Ole House” for Jezza.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror.

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How would the Daily Mail report other policies through history if they were announced by Theresa May?
May 18th, 2017, 07:19 PM

At last, someone is cracking down on Princes in the tower. 

Something strange has happened. A disturbance in the force.

The Daily Mail . . .  likes someone?

We know, it's eerie. 

This morning, the paper has responded to news that older people will be expected to pay more for their care - something it had previously attacked as a "death tax" - by rejoicing that: "EVERYONE can defer care bill - and keep £100k assets". 

And when the Conservatives announced action on energy bills - previously decried by the paper as likely to "make the lights go out" - it was welcomed as a "crackdown on energy rip-offs". As Ed Miliband's former adviser tweeted:

 

This got the Mole wondering. How would other policies through history have been reported by the Daily Mail had they been announced by Theresa May? Here are a few suggestions:

Logan's Run

MAY'S BIG IDEA TO CUT CARE BILLS

The Black Death

MAY: I'LL MAKE IT EASIER TO GET ON THE PROPERTY LADDER

French Revolution

MAY'S CAKE FOR ALL

Soviet show trials

MAY SWEEPS AWAY EU-LOVING JUDGES

Mary I's loss of Calais

FINALLY, WE'RE OUT OF EUROPE

 

The 1696 window tax

MAY: I'LL HELP FAMILIES SAVE ON SUNCREAM

The Puritan abolition of Christmas

MAY'S PRODUCTIVITY BOOST

MAY'S TURKEY REPRIEVE

MAY SAVES FAMILIES THOUSANDS ON NEEDLESS FOOT SPAS

Collective farming

MAY TO TACKLE OBESITY CRISIS

The cultural revolution

SPARROWS WERE OVER-RATED ANYWAY

King Herod's slaughter of male babies

MAY EASES PRESSURE ON SCHOOL PLACES

MAY'S BOOST FOR GIRLS' CHANCES IN STEM SUBJECTS

Death of the Princes in the Tower

MAY ENSURES STRONG, STABLE GOVERNMENT

Molotov-Ribbentrop pact

MAY'S NEW SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP

Opium Wars

AT LAST, A SENSIBLE CONVERSATION ON DRUGS

Roman withdrawal of legions in AD410

FINALLY, EUROPE IS OUT OF US

Theresa May. Photo: Getty
The good daughter
May 18th, 2017, 07:19 PM

The truth is I don’t want to be a full-time carer, any more than I wanted to be a full-time mother. And I don’t want to live with my ma any more than she wants to live with me.

In Tate Britain is a painting by the Victorian artist George Elgar Hicks of a woman ministering tenderly to her invalid father. It is called Comfort of Old Age. The work is the final panel of Hicks’s triptych Woman’s Mission. The first part, Guide of Childhood, in which the same figure teaches her little boy to walk, has been lost. But the second panel also hangs at the Tate in London: Companion of Manhood shows our heroine consoling her husband after ghastly news.

Hicks depicted “woman” in her three guises – mother, wife, daughter – and in her ideal state, the selfless provider of guidance, solace and care. Her life has meaning only in so far as it nourishes and facilitates the lives of others, principally men.

Domestic and emotional labour, we call it now. Feminists have long campaigned both for this to be acknowledged as real work and for men to do their share. Women cannot reach their potential at the office, notes Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg in her book Lean In, until men pull their weight at home. But this has always been the toughest, messiest fight, because it is about domestic harmony, varying standards of personal hygiene, nagging, sulking and love. Besides, there is an enduring sense, little changed since Hicks’s day, that not only are women better at caring duties, but it is their natural lot.

I have spent a long time in the first two panels of the triptych: a partner/wife for 30 years, a mother for 21. (My two sons are grown and pretty much gone.) And I have seen, in the course of my adult life, enormous progress in those two domains. Men no longer assume that wives will dump their careers to follow them on foreign postings, for instance, or that mothers cannot work. According to research by the Office for National Statistics, women still do 40 per cent more household chores than men but, growing up, I never saw a man make dinner, let alone push a pram. Marriages are increasingly equal partnerships and each generation of fathers is more engaged.

Now I have reached the third panel, the trickiest bit of the triptych. My 93-year-old mother is 200 miles away in Doncaster, and since my father died, five years ago, she has been living alone. She is – I must stress – admirable, independent, uncomplaining and tough. A stoic. Someone who doesn’t mourn her every lost faculty but relishes what she can still do. Yet almost everyone she ever knew is dead, and I am her only child: her principal Comfort of Old Age.

For a long time, the landscape was a series of plateaus and small dips. Her little house acquired rails, walking frames, adaptations; she wears an emergency pendant. But until she broke her hip four years ago, she wouldn’t even have a cleaner. (“I don’t want strangers in my house.”) She managed. Just. But since Christmas the terrain has shifted. A persistent infection, two collapses, three ambulance rides, tachycardia (in which your heart beats to the point of explosion), but then, after three weeks, back home. Finally I persuaded her to have carers – nice, kindly, expensive – for an hour five times a week. (She demanded days off.) A slightly lower plateau.

Then, a few weeks ago, a neighbour called to say that my ma’s curtains were still closed at 4pm. She was found dehydrated, hallucinating. (She hadn’t pressed her emergency button; it was a non-carer day.) I hurriedly packed my bag for God knows how long, then scrambled north to sit by her bedside believing, for the third time this year, that I was watching her die.

For three weeks, on and off, I slept alone in my teenage single bed, in the house where I grew up, weeping every time I opened a cupboard to see her cake tins or Easter eggs for her grandsons. That week, I read a news report about how having children makes people live two years longer. Of course! As her daughter, I was her advocate, hassling doctors for information, visiting, reassuring, making sure she was fed, washing her soiled clothes (even long-stay units won’t do laundry), trying to figure out what to do next. God help the childless! Really, who will speak for them?

Finally, having wrestled her into (almost) daily care – she is very stubborn – I returned to London to find a letter. I am a Times columnist and write a weekly notebook slot, occasionally featuring my mother. I am used to harsh reader critiques of my life. But this, I must say, stung. It was from a man who lives in Cheshire (he had supplied his name and address), and he wanted me to know what a terrible person I am. “I have been puzzled when reading your column over the past months how you have been able to leave your mother – whose serious health issues you have used as copy . . . to holiday in Mexico, East Anglia and Norway.” I was “selfish and self-regarding”, and I should be ashamed.

He was not the first. Online posters often chide me for maternal neglect, and otherwise kind letters sometimes conclude: “But I do think your mother should move in with you.” Anyway, my egregious Mexican holiday had been long delayed by her illness and although she was well when I left, I was braced to fly back at any moment. The Norway trip was to visit my son on his 21st birthday. No matter. How dare I have a life.

I was reminded of when my children were young and I was a magazine editor. The guilt-tripping, the moral judgement: the looks from full-time mothers, the pursed lips from older relatives. Why bother having kids if you work full-time? Back then, I was “selfish and self-regarding”, too. My husband, who worked vastly longer hours, was blameless.

So let me warn you that just when you’re free from being judged as a mother, you’ll be judged as a daughter. It is the last chance for reactionary types who resent women’s career success, or just their freedom to live how they choose, to have a dig. Look at this selfish bitch, weekending in East Anglia when she should be a Comfort of Old Age.

When we say someone is a Good Dad, it means he turns up to football matches and parents’ evenings, gives sensible advice, isn’t a derelict alcoholic or a deserter. I know many fathers do much, much more. But that is the bar to Good Dadhood. It is pretty low. To qualify as a Good Mother, however, a woman must basically subsume her entire existence into her children and household and may only work part-time, if at all.

So, what is a Good Daughter? A US report showed in 2014 that daughters were twice as likely as sons to care for their elderly parents. In a survey of 26,000 older Americans, Angelina Grigoryeva, a sociologist at Princeton University, discovered that daughters provide as much care as they can manage, while sons do as little as they can get away with. If they have sisters or even wives, men are likely to leave it to them. I can find no equivalent UK study, but I’d bet the same is true here.

I know many sons who help out with ageing parents: Sunday care-home visits or a spot of DIY. Some do the truly grim stuff, such as washing and toileting a frail, dementia-patient father. And all sons – unless they are estranged, or cruel, or in prison – are Good Sons. Being a Good Daughter is a much tougher gig. However often I go north, sort out bills, buy new ironing boards, listen to my mother’s worries, take her shopping, organise her Christmas presents and stay awake worrying, it won’t be enough. A friend visits her disabled mother every day, despite her family and career, sorts out wheelchairs and carers, runs errands. Her three brothers drop by for ten minutes once a fortnight: so busy, so important! Yet my friend’s care is a given, and her brothers are “marvellous”. A truly Good Daughter would quit her job, have her old mother move in and tend to her alone.

The truth is I don’t want to be a full-time carer, any more than I wanted to be a full-time mother. And I don’t want to live with my ma any more than she wants to live with me. Now that I’ve served out my motherhood years, I want to do other things with my life besides looking after people. Is that a shocking admission? Men wouldn’t give it a second thought.

Yet politicians of left and right are always telling us that the solution to our screwed-up social-care system is the family. To socialists, the “care industry” is further evidence of marketisation and the profit motive taking over the personal sphere. Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, has said that he favours the “Asian model” and the care minister David Mowat said recently that we must care for our parents as unquestioningly as we do our children. In practice, these all amount to the same thing: women, chiefly daughters and daughters-in-law, toiling away unpaid.

After Christmas, while my mother was living with me, frail and recuperating from her infection, I hired a private carer so that I could work. This lovely woman was boundlessly kind, calm, patient, unfazed: I am none of these things. Ask me to fix the car, get sense from a doctor, shout at the council: I’m Action Daughter, at your service. But expect me to sit still in a room making nice for hours and I am crap. In Hicks’s Woman’s Mission, I have failed.

A Times reader chastised me for hiring help: “Well, I’d expect to look after my own mother myself.” And I was reminded once more of early motherhood, when I employed a nanny. Yes, a nanny, not a childminder or a nursery. I know the word makes left-wing men crazy: you cold, rich, privileged cow. That nanny, funnily enough, allowed both my husband and me to work, but it was me who got the rap.

Even hiring a cleaner is “problematic”. A good feminist shouldn’t expect a poorer woman to clear up after her, I hear. To which I reply: my mother was a cleaner for thirty years and her meagre wages paid for my new shoes. When a couple hire a cleaner, it is nearly always to compensate for the shortfall in male domestic labour, yet it is the woman, again, who has somehow failed.

In the third part of the triptych, paid help for elderly parents is even more of a dereliction of female duty. My mother’s next-door neighbour has cared for her invalid father, unaided, for 20 years; a friend has remodelled her house to accommodate her elderly parents. Across Britain are millions of people who care for relatives with little respite. When I say that a private carer now visits my mother, I do so with shame because, most days, this is the only company she receives. A nice lady called Sue helps with her jigsaw puzzle, chats to her, does some light housework and fetches her shopping. But what she is paying for is a surrogate me.

It tears up my heart. Yet it is complicated. What if you live far from your home town: should you be expected to return? My unmarried aunt came back after an interesting single life to live with my grandmother until her death. Her siblings didn’t thank her for this sacrifice. Indeed, without the status of marriage, she was treated with disdain.

Last month, as a Nigerian health assistant helped Ma to the hospital bathroom, I remarked that she lives alone. “Why?” came the horrified response. In her culture, this made no sense. But northern European society has evolved an individualism that often transcends notions of family and duty. This applies to the old and offspring alike.

Largely our elderly do not want, Asian-style, to be infantilised by their children, or bossed around by their daughters-in-law. (The claim that Indian parents are “revered” is undermined by rampant elder abuse.) My ma wants to watch Corrie, eat quiche, not feel she is in the way. “I like to please myself,” is her refrain. Her home of almost 50 years is her carapace: her central fear is of being too ill to stay. Despite the much-discussed return of “multigenerational living”, the most popular British solution is the “granny annex”, where an old person maintains autonomy behind her own front door.

Moreover, members of the baby-boomer generation recoil at living with their parents. We spent our teenage years trying to escape. What if your upbringing featured divorce, personality clashes, arguments, abuse? What if, like me, you left your working-class culture for a completely different life – what if you have little in common? Or your widowed father now expects you to run around after him like a skivvy, just as he did your mum? You can reject your roots for your entire adulthood, then your parents’ frailty yanks you home.

Now those Guide of Childhood years seem simple and golden, although the parallels are striking. From stair gates to stairlifts; from pushchairs to wheelchairs; the incontinence provision; the helplessness. But raising children is largely a cheerful, upward trajectory. Elderly care is an uneven descent, via those dips and plateaus, towards some hidden crevasse. There is no compensatory boasting, showing cute snaps on your phone. You learn not to mention geriatric travails. People look uncomfortable or bored: too grim.

But, just as a child shows you the world anew – look, a spider, a leaf, the sea, Christmas! – through clear, unjaded eyes, older people reveal what truly matters in the end. A reader remarked that it was probably best that my mother, at 93, now died. I replied that she gets more joy in M&S than some get from a Caribbean cruise. With age, the world distils down to elemental pleasures: seeing a grandchild, a piece of cake, a sunny day, the warmth of a hand. When my father was very close to death and when recently my ma was at her sickest, both still managed to utter the words “I love you”. Just as when a frightened child cries for you in the night, you are utterly irreplaceable, needed.

And it will be your turn soon, when your parents are old. We are living longer, often fading out in medically preserved decrepitude over many years. I can’t understand why both as individuals and as a society we refuse to plan. Well, actually I can. It’s horrible. As my mother always says: “When it happens, it happens.”

Yet there is so much we could do. Come up with a cross-party agreement on how to fund social care through the tax system. Invest money and imagination in ways that old people can remain in their home, rather than slash home help. Develop friendship schemes and clubs, so the lonely aren’t so dependent on faraway children. Enable the old to use the internet: few are online, though no one would benefit from it more. Rip up the care-home model in which the elderly are objects in a chair: let people be their full human selves until the end.

Above all, we must redraw that final panel of the triptych. Don’t judge daughters more harshly than sons. Don’t let men slink away from their fair share. Don’t wield the family as a glib solution. Instead, acknowledge that it is hard, heart-rending work, being a Comfort of Old Age. 

Janice Turner is a columnist for the Times

Tate London 2014
Theresa May's manifesto: a mixture of the dangerous, the calculated and the brave
May 18th, 2017, 07:19 PM

The Conservatives' pledges on social care are genuinely redistributive - but they may struggle in the Commons. 

Theresa May is up north to launch the Conservative manifesto today, but some of the contents have been announced early.

Here are the big items, in order of surprise factor: the target to get net immigration to Britain down to the tens of thousands lives is still in there. If achieved, it would create a black hole far larger than anything contained in the Labour and the Liberal Democrat manifestos - the OBR put the cost of even a fall of 80,000, light years away from the target, at an extra £6bn worth of borrowing a year - but the PM is genuinely committed to it, so in it goes.

What a lot of analyses of the pledge are missing is this, however: when May was at the Home Office, her feeling there was that the target could be met provided that Downing Street stopped giving into special pleading from other government departments. We should take this pledge a great deal more seriously - and expect it to be pursued more relentlessly - than when it was a tactical wheeze of David Cameron and George Osborne.

Slightly more surprising is the commitment to scrap universal free school meals at primary school and replace them with free school breakfasts. The measure will save money as the original policy committed schools to "hot" meals which meant greater outlay on kitchens and so on. As far as the election goes, it may be the most significant pledge in the short-term. It also allows the Conservatives to cancel their planned changes to the school funding formula. A glance at the average Labour MP's Facebook feed should give you a clue as to why - many are effectively running single issue campaigns against the planned cuts to their local schools. (It's not just Labour MPs, either - in a slightly surreal development, education minister Edward Timpson is campaigning against the changes, too.

But the biggest and most surprising announcement is about social care. People will have to pay the cost of their own care until their assets are below £100,000, although they will be able to defer the sale of their homes until after they die.  It's a hugely radical and progressive change to the system. To give you an idea of the scale of the change, the plan is close to identical to the one that Andy Burnham proposed in 2010, but minus the concessions Labour chucked in as part of a failed attempt to secure cross-party agreement on care.

Frankly if Labour did it, the Mail's splash would just be a series of asterisks and an exclamation mark. Here's their splash: "You Won't Have To Sell Home To Pay For Your Care". (Provided that your house isn't worth more than £100,000 doesn't seem to have made it onto the frontpage. Perhaps there wasn't space.)

It is a huge shift away from the Cameron-era approach of building Conservative majorities on the back of ever-increasing redistribution from the old, who vote in great numbers and are more well-distributed across the country, and away from the young, who vote less and are clustered together in fewer seats.

Of course, May has a special place in the Mail's heart and the record-breaking disapproval ratings that Jeremy Corbyn has with the elderly ought to inoculate her against any electoral backlash.

There's a "but" coming, and it's a big one: even with the thumping majority suggested by the polls, can they do it, really? I may be talking to an unrepresentative sample of Conservative candidates, but the new intake in the party's target seats look to be drawn from across the Tory firmament. They haven't been selected for loyalty to Mayism, though of course most know what an asset she is on the doorstep. But there are many more orthodox Conservatives than there are true believers in May's new model Conservatism.

Yes, the care crisis has grown more acute since David Cameron branded Labour's plans a "death tax". But even with a landslide majority Margaret Thatcher couldn't touch Sunday trading and came a cropper over the poll tax. Even a Conservative government with a triple-digit majority may find it harder than we expect to make every pensioner in London sell their home to pay for the cost of their care.

Getty Images.
Beesic Instinct: Labour wants to protect the bees from Brexit
May 18th, 2017, 07:19 PM

Leaving the EU could weaken protections, which is a shame because politicans have a lot to learn from hive behaviour

No more bumbling around from Labour: the Party is now firmly pro-Bee. Their new manifesto says they would ban the controversial pesticides, known as neonicotinoids or “neonics”, from the UK:

The pledge is not just great news for bees, whose nervous systems are attacked by the chemicals, but for admirers of bees' elegant political decision making too. In fact, if our politics was more bee-like perhaps it would bug us less.

Bees, it turns out, are skilled in the political arts. When honey bees have to move to a new hive they send “scouts" to check out the options - a cosy crevice in your shed perhaps. The scouts then relay their findings to their comrades with a “waggle dance” up the honeycomb walls. Their sequence of steps indicates a site’s location, and if their opinion of your shed is not so hot, they’ll only bother to repeat their dance a couple of times. If they love it, they can dance a few hundred.

The longer a bee dances, the larger her audience grows. Her fellow scout bees can then follow the directions and visit the venue themselves. On their return, they perform their opinion for others. Eventually a hive should end up with a critical mass of the creatures all dancing for the same place. At that point, the entire hive takes flight to its new, democratically elected, home. Talk about waxing lyrical. 

Now just think about what such a system could do for British politics? Leaving aside the joyful prospect of our Right-Honourables jigging their way through parliament, would bees be vague about what kind of EU relationship they were choosing? No way. Would they have been swayed by dodgy facts? Nope. 

But, wait, what’s that I hear you say? – it’s not real democracy if only the scout bees get a vote! Fair point. But in that respect, neither is our own: just take 16 year-olds or foreign nationals. 

Plus the sad truth is that leaving the EU is putting the UK's capacity for strong, scientific decision making in doubt - not least over which pesticides are safe to use.

At present, The European Food Saftey Authority evaluates the safety of the substances proposed in new “plant protection products” and shares the results among the member states. In 2013, its findings led the European Commission to restrict the use of three key neonictides which the EFSA warned posed a “high acute risk” to honey bee health. This science has recently been reviewed by the EFSA and may see the restrictions extended to a complete ban

In the event of Brexit, the UK will have to decide on whether or not to maintain, extend or reduce EU rulings on pesticides. Labour's call for prohbiition is in line with calls from seventeen of the UK’s leading environment and conservation groups (the Green Party already pledged to ban neonoictinoids in their 2015 campaign). But while the Conservative government says it will take a "risk based" approach to the matter, it is under pressure from pesticide and farming groups to relax present regulation. In 2013 it also voted against the EU’s partial ban.

The even wider question, however, is how Britain will conduct scientific reviews and licensing in future. Dave Timms, senior policy campaigner for Friends of the Earth, is concerned about what our future relationship to the EFSA's review process will be: "You've got so many chemicals coming up for review all the time that member states take it in turn to be rapporteurs - and that process of sharing the science, sharing the effort, could be lost if we leave."

Even Defra has highlighted the problem of repatriating such decisions to the UK: "some areas (such as chemicals or ozone-depleting substances) might present more challenges than others because they are currently delivered by EU agencies, systems or resources,” it said in evidence presented for a recent government report.

The need for decisions based on shared and transparent scientific evidence has thus arguably never been greater. Otherwise we risk a situation in which, as Dr Elli Leadbeater of Royal Holloway told the NS, “evolution seems to have found a better solution than we have.”

The Liberal Democrat manifesto is a blast from the past
May 17th, 2017, 07:19 PM

The party has moved on from Nick Clegg, but not in the way you might expect. 

In 2015, I dubbed the Liberal Democrat manifesto their a “coalition-ready” document: it was stuffed with small incremental changes. A few might have pulled Ed Miliband to the right or David Cameron to the left, but all were all perfectly deliverable in coalition. There were no tuition-fee-style hostages to fortune – every promise in the 2015 manifesto could have been delivered in a coalition, regardless of who was in it.

The 2017 manifesto is very different. This is a Liberal Democrat manifesto from the year BC: Before Coalition. These are policies that, for the most part, could only be secured in the event of a Liberal Democrat majority in the House of Commons.

Take the big ticket item: a vote on the terms of the Brexit deal. That would be a tricky ask if Labour were, say, 30 seats short of a majority in parliament, as their leader is a Eurosceptic of long vintage, or a parliamentary party worried about going the same way as their Scottish colleagues did if they defy their voters over a referendum. The Liberal Democrats might, however, get their way on the legalisation of cannabis.

As for their commitment to increase income tax by a penny in the pound on the basic, higher and top rate of tax to fund the NHS: Labour have made a great deal of hay that average earners will pay no more tax under them, and would loathe to give it up.

But those achievements look a lot better than what they’d get past a Conservative government under Theresa May. Philip Hammond – or whoever May replaces him with after 8 June – is not going to sign off a penny increase in income tax to spend on the Liberal Democrats and there is no drug strong enough to convince May is to approve the decriminalisation and legal sale of cannabis.

At this election at least, the Liberal Democrats are firmly back in their “wouldn’t it be wonderful if we won?” fantasyland – lightyears away from the age of Nick Clegg. 

Photo: Getty
Six ways the Liberal Democrats promise they'll save us from Brexitpocalypse
May 17th, 2017, 07:19 PM

Tim Farron's party is taking a major gamble on anti-Brexit sentiment - but it's unlikely to pay off.

Brexit means Brexit - unless you’re Tim Farron, who has turned the Lib Dem manifesto into a life raft for Remainers still firm in the belief that Britain is better off inside the EU, than outside with a bad divorce settlement.

In a move that will cause outrage in some sectors, the party has pledged a second EU referendum once Brexit negotiations are complete, offering voters the chance to say yes to the deal on offer or no thanks, we’ll stay in the bloc.

The threat of Brexit looms large over the manifesto, not least in Farron’s introduction: “You might worry that jobs and living standards are threatened by the extreme and divisive Brexit that Theresa May has chosen for Britain.”

That sets the tone for the next 90 or so pages - within which are the ways the Lib Dems believe voting for them will rescue you from Brexitaggedon.

1. Rights for everyone

The party pledges to press for a unilateral guarantee of rights for EU citizens in the UK, and will work towards the same for UK citizens living in European Union countries.

2. Single (market) obsession

The idea of a hard or no deal Brexit doesn’t sit well with the Lib Dems, who will be campaigning to keep us in both the single market and the customs union. Good news for businesses, but it’s likely to come at a price - which won’t go down well in the other camp.

3. Freedom of movement

The Lib Dems want to keep freedom of movement, which will not go down well with those who voted leave precisely because of what they perceive as "uncontrolled immigration". 

For others though, the principle of being able to “work, travel, study and retire” across the EU will resonate. The party pledges to do “everything it can” to protect the Erasmus exchange programme.

4. Don’t want to lose your holiday, do EU?

“We want our parliamentary sovereignty back” was a common rallying cry from the Leave camp - although when it was put into practice they weren’t so keen. Nevertheless, the Great Repeal Bill will absorb into British law all the EU laws by which the UK is currently bound - these can then individually be amended for “British people”.

Among those up for grabs is the protection of maternity and annual leave. Vote Lib Dem, says Farron, and your leave is safe. Well, they will “fight to ensure that these entitlements are not undermined” - no guarantees they’ll succeed.

5. Do your research

Medical and scientific research funding is another area now awash with uncertainty following the referendum. The manifesto pledges to protect researchers by underwriting funding for British partners in EU projects - including Horizon 2020, the biggest EU Research and Innovation programme ever. The Lib Dems also want to increase the science budget in line with inflation, and will publish a National Wellbeing Strategy, to ensure health and wellbeing for all remains at the centre of government policy.

6. Tim "deep pockets" Farron?

Key economic proposals in the manifesto include a 1p rise in income tax to raise £6bn in additional revenue for the NHS, rejecting the Conservatives' commitment to budget surpluses on capital and revenue, protection of the education budget, tough action on tax avoidance and evasion, and reversing a number of the government's tax cuts, including corporation tax and capital gains tax.

It adds: “The Conservative pursuit of hard Brexit will have serious impacts on the UK’s national finances – impacts which current government plans may not fully take into account.”

To negate the effects of a hard Brexit, the Liberal Democrat policy proposes economic boosts such as freedom of movement and access to the single market. Add in arts, media and sports funding, cross-border security co-operation, maintaining environmental standards and fighting for the rights of the nations, and it almost feels like we’re not leaving the EU at all. Which is, of course, what the Liberal Democrats want. 

It is not, however, what more than half the country wants - and many Remainers have accepted the decision and moved on. Banking on Brexit anger might have worked on 23 June 2016, but almost 12 months later, it’s unlikely to yield the response they hope for.

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Here's what the argument about tuition fees is missing
May 17th, 2017, 07:19 PM

Tax cuts for me, but not for thee.

There is a lively debate over tuition fees and taxation as the Labour manifesto commits to scrap one – at a cost of £11bn – and to raise taxes on people earning above £80,000. The party plans to introduce a new band of tax at £80,000 and to increase the top rate – to be levied on incomes of £125,000 and higher – to 50p in the pound.

Adding to the debate, the Liberal Democrats have defended their decision to raise tuition fees in the coalition in their manifesto, as the changes secured at the time mean that repayment is more progressive and is time-limited.

There’s some criticism that, taken with the Conservative changes to the tax threshold, there is now a cliff-edge at £100,000 where people pay a higher rate of tax and thanks to national insurance some people will in fact be paying a rate of more than 60 per cent.  (When you pass over £100,000, you lose your tax free allowance, meaning that you pay significantly more on your first £11,000 over £100,000 than you do subsequently.)

The second criticism of Labour’s plan is that in order to hit the repayment threshold for the £9,000 tuition fees you have to earn more than £21,000 means that the bulk of the beneficiaries of Labour’s tuition fee change are earning above the national average.

This is true. There will be some earning above £100,000 who will be paying tax at a rate of 60p in the pound and it is also true that the main beneficiaries of scrapping tuition fees will be people earning above average incomes. Just as with Ed Miliband’s reduction of tuition fees, Labour is redistributing from the well-off above 40 to the benefit of the well-off under 40.

But there are a couple of important caveats. The first is that, in practice, tuition fees are a form of income tax. They’re paid through PAYE or after self-assessment and in practice they are no different to an increased income tax.

So if you’re worried about the fact that national insurance and the loss of the income threshold creates a higher-than-advertised marginal rate, you should also be concerned by the fact there is, in effect, a hidden tax threshold for people repaying tuition fees of £3,000 a year at £17,500 and for people paying fees of £9,000 at £21,000.

This works both ways. Taken together, increases in the income tax threshold under the coalition government means that the graduates of 1997 – the last year not to pay tuition fees – were paying roughly the exact same amount in taxation as the graduating class of 2012 – the first to pay the £9,000 fee. So seeing the issue as one of “the last generation didn’t pay for higher education” or “this change is regressive” is missing a wider story of what is going on as far as tax in Britain goes.

Does that mean that scrapping tuition fees is a good or a bad thing? Well, it depends.

In practice, that cutting tuition fees it is in effect a redistribution from people earning above average over 40 to people earning above average under 40 isn’t necessarily an argument against scrapping them. Because of their greater share of asset wealth and savings, there is a strong argument for generational redistribution.

Governments assess tax rises through the prism of behaviour changes all the time – that’s why you can reduce the amount you pay in tax by putting more into your pension, as there’s an obvious public good. If it emerges that the higher £9,000 fee is driving changes in student and graduate behaviour that is socially undesirable – a sense that a degree of a certain quality has been earned solely through the fee, a post-graduation career trajectory that focusses away from jobs in the public realm and towards higher-paying jobs – then there is a case for revisiting whether the fee would be better off paid through income tax. (It is worth noting that the feared decrease in higher education participation from people from a lower-income background hasn’t happened, so that case doesn’t work.)

There are also issues around tax collection to be considered. If I move abroad, the government continues to collect my tuition fees – it doesn’t, of course, continue to collect income tax on earnings in another country. So you may need a greater tax take just to stand still in terms of revenue for higher education.

But the crucial thing is that all of these issues – the most effective way to collect tax, and the fairest system of who pays for it – are not specific to tuition fees. The argument around them makes more sense in the context of a wider discussion about tax.

Photo: Getty
Leader: The return of the state
May 17th, 2017, 07:19 PM

Whatever the outcome of the general election on 8 June, the next government will no longer treat the state as an illegitimate actor.

In 2013, at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet in London, David Cameron declared that it was his mission to create a “leaner, more efficient state . . . not just now, but permanently”. It was the language of the orthodox Thatcherite. By contrast, in her first Conservative party conference speech in 2016, Theresa May repudiated this doctrine, denouncing the “libertarian right” as well as the “socialist left”. The Conservative Party manifesto, launched this week, is the most interventionist in its economic positioning since the collapse of the postwar consensus at the end of the 1970s. Mrs May’s party has pledged to cap energy bills, to build a new generation of council housing and to protect and enhance workers’ rights.

Labour’s manifesto is, as one would expect, even more interventionist: the party has vowed to renationalise the railways, the water industry, Royal Mail and the energy grid, to reinstate collective bargaining and to raise taxes on those earning more than £80,000. Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to invest £250bn over the next decade in infrastructure caught our eye. The change would increase annual investment from 2 per cent of GDP to 3 per cent – the level at which it stood before George Osborne’s injudicious cuts in 2010. By borrowing at low rates, the UK can stimulate growth, improve productivity and increase living standards. Total investment in Britain stands at just 17 per cent of GDP, compared to 22 per cent in France, 20 per cent in Germany and 19 per cent in the United States. That is not good enough.

The interventionist turn in British politics can be traced back to the 2008 financial crisis, when the state rescued capitalism from itself as J M Keynes would have wished. Under the Brown administration, “industrial strategy” was rehabilitated and a programme of fiscal stimulus introduced.

Theresa May is sometimes accused of borrowing liberally from Ed Miliband’s 2015 Labour manifesto – but her interventionist instincts long pre-date this. In a speech to the ConservativeHome conference on 10 March 2013 she vowed to take on “vested interests in the private sector” and argued that “where businesses abuse their market position to keep prices high, we should be prepared to make sure the market works in the public interest”.

When the UK voted to leave the EU, Mrs May recognised the result reflected not merely anti-Brussels sentiment but a desire for profound economic and social change. “There has been a breakdown in trust,” she told Jason Cowley in her NS interview in February. “Wages have been stagnant but there are other aspects to it, too. There’s been a breakdown in trust in institutions that have always formed the core of our society. There’s a sense that business somehow has been playing by a different set of rules, which is unfair. Tax avoidance is one of the issues. I’m trying to show business the importance of recognising the roots in community and the impact that decisions have on a community. What I’m talking about is a wider sharing and signs of solidarity. I don’t tend to think about terms like a new social contract between the state and the citizen, but I do speak about responsibilities. There needs to be a new recognition of the role that the state can play.”

As well as protecting existing workers’ rights, the Conservatives have pledged to introduce employee representation on company boards, to adopt new protections for “gig economy” workers and to offer a statutory right to leave for those wishing to care for a sick relative, for training or for mourning the death of a child.

Critics reasonably point to limitations: many cannot afford to take unpaid leave, and employment tribunal fees remain as high as £1,200. However, there is a significant tonal difference. Mr Cameron chose the venture capitalist Adrian Beecroft to lead a review of employment law; Mrs May appointed the former Labour adviser Matthew Taylor. Rather than pre-emptively dismissing the Prime Minister, opponents should challenge her to honour her pledges and try to understand why her communitarian politics might be appealing to so many.

Governments have an indispensable role in redistributing wealth, challenging cartels, creating the good society and investing in national projects. Whatever the outcome of the general election on 8 June – and all indicators point to a comfortable majority for the Conservatives – it is to be welcomed that the next government will no longer treat the state as an illegitimate actor.

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The New Statesman Cover | Age of Lies
May 17th, 2017, 07:19 PM

A first look at this week's magazine.

 

19 - 25 May issue
Age of Lies

 

George Osborne mocks Theresa May's immigration problem
May 17th, 2017, 07:19 PM

The former chancellor says in an Evening Standard editorial that no senior cabinet ministers back the net migration target - and he's right.

George Osborne's editorship of the Evening Standard has certainly enlivened the paper's leaders. Yesterday's compared Leave voters to a "duped drunk in a strip club" and admitted that the coalition underfunded schools and hospitals (yes, the chancellor was one Mr Osborne).

Today's takes aim at Theresa May's vow to reduce net migration to "tens of thousands" a year (which will be reaffirmed in tomorrow's Conservative manifesto). "You would assume that Mrs May would jump at the chance to bury the pledge," it reads. "That’s what her Cabinet assumed; none of its senior members supports the pledge in private and all would be glad to see the back of something that has caused the Conservative Party such public grief. But no. Mrs May has kept digging."

Yet Osborne - still smarting from his ruthless sacking last year - is actually too generous to May. Senior cabinet ministers have opposed the pledge in public, not only in private. Last July, Boris Johnson and Amber Rudd both suggested that the target should be abandoned before being slapped down by No.10. Philip Hammond (whose position May refused to guarantee this morning) and Liam Fox have publicly argued that students should be excluded from the total - another concession the Prime Minister has refused to make.

As chancellor, Osborne was one of many cabinet ministers to privately oppose the pledge. "Sometimes, I think only Theresa and I actually believe in our immigration policy," David Cameron complained to his cabinet. The then home secretary was undermined by colleagues (including Osborne) who opposed her efforts to reduce student visas and work permits.

Contrary to some expectations, she has doubled-down on the target as prime minister. Not only does May sincerely believe in the pledge (which would reduce net migration - currently 273,000 - to a level not seen since 1997), it is also a valuable political shield against Ukip (whose voters the Tories have been hoovering up).

But meeting the target is another matter. As I've written before, Brexit is teaching the UK why it needs migrants. The UK’s vote to leave the EU has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

David Davis, for instance, has said: "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants ... The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

By the time of the next election in 2022, the Conservatives will have missed their net migration pledge for more than a decade. But if past form is any guide, that won't stop it being repeated in their manifesto.

Liberal Democrat manifesto targets the youth vote
May 17th, 2017, 07:19 PM

Millennials remain the target audience for Tim Farron's wannabe opposition party

So here’s your third time-travelling election choice - if Labour will take the country back to the 1970s and a Tory landslide sweeps us right back to the 1950s, where does the Liberal Democrat manifesto propose we land? Possibly the 2030s.

That’s not to say it’s full of incredibly forward-thinking policies, rather that this is a manifesto aimed at millennials, hoping to capture young minds with promises of Help to Buy schemes, green jobs and votes for 16- and 17-year-olds. A small mention of tuition fee repayments too, but they’re not trumpeting that…

Add in the fact leader Tim Farron’s introduction yells “go for the silver”, categorically stating his party is taking aim at the opposition despatch box, not that currently gripped by Theresa May, and thus is a manifesto designed to woo back Generation Y - many of whom it burned while in coalition with the Conservatives (something Farron has ruled out this time around). The polls suggest they haven’t succeeded so far - will that change after today?

Brexit, Brexit, Brexit

This was always going to be a major issue for a party that was emphatic in its assurances that Britain was better off in the EU. Brexit crops up no fewer than 23 times within the pages, with a second referendum the party’s key offering - voters will return to the polls (Brenda from Bristol will be even more furious) to decide whether to accept the Brexit deal (likely brokered by the Tories) or to say no, thus remaining in the EU.

Given that 75 per cent of voters aged 18-24 voted remain and 56 per cent of those aged 25-44 did the same, this is a policy designed to entice those concerned about what a future outside the EU holds for Britain.

Home sweet home

The Lib Dems are not alone in acknowledging Britain’s housing crisis, which affects numerous sectors within society. Proposals include a new Rent to Own scheme for first-time buyers, capping rental deposits, giving tenants first refusal if their home is put on the market and protecting tenants against rent hikes.

It also promises to meet a target of 300,000 new homes per year, including half a million energy efficient homes by the end of parliament.

The Treasury will benefit by a levy of up to 200 per cent council tax on second homes and ‘buy to leave empty’ investments from overseas.

Support green (policies)

A survey by CensusWide last year showed more than 90 per cent of young people agreed it was important for politicians to consider the environment, with half adding environmental policies were more important than those on immigration.

The contents would suggest Farron’s party agrees, with green policies well up the pecking order. Priorities include insulation retrofitting in 22,000 homes and the introduction of its Air Quality Plan aimed at preventing the 40,000 deaths a year caused by air pollution.

It also offers a diesel scrappage scheme and a ban on the sale of diesel cars and small vans by 2025, increasing the number of low emission zones around the country and strong support of the Paris agreement.

Green jobs also factor into the proposals, supporting investment in cutting-edge technologies including energy storage, smart grid technology, hydrogen technologies, offshore wind, and tidal power.

Get out and vote

Two years earlier than you can now. Enfranchising 16 and 17-year-olds was branded a key priority and potentially vital should the Lib Dems get their wish of a second referendum given an estimated 82 per cent (or roughly 1.2m, the number by which Leave won) would have voted Remain had they had their say last June. However, that is without considering voter apathy - 64 per cent of 18-24 year olds used went to the ballot boxes last year, compared to 90 per cent of those over 65. Current voters may wish to capitalise on this momentum and welcome them into the pro-EU fold.

And, of course, tuition fees

They’re still here, and not going anywhere, but a Lib Dem government would aim to reinstate maintenance grants for the poorest students and, rather vaguely, “establish a review of higher education finance in the next parliament to consider any necessary reforms, in the light of the latest evidence of the impact of the existing financing system on access, participation and quality”.

And how will all this be paid for? The manifesto pledges to save the NHS with a 1p income tax rise and reverse a number of Tory tax cuts including corporation tax and and capital gains tax to fund pledges, but is also aiming to eliminate the deficit on day-to-day spending by 2020 - no mean feat while also pledging to reverse benefit cuts, increase Local Housing Allowance, increasing Job Seeker’s Allowance and Universal Credit, building homes and maintaining the pensions “triple lock”.

If this is a manifesto for the future, it must be able to afford to survive till then. More importantly of course, the Lib Dems need to secure some semblance of power. The polls suggest even another coalition role unlikely come June, thus rendering any policies - forward- or backward-thinking, good for young or old, rich or poor - an irrelevance.

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Nick Clegg Q&A: “I loved the idea of living like Stig of the Dump”
May 17th, 2017, 07:19 PM

The Liberal Democrat politician and former deputy prime minister talks Emmanuel Macron, Prince and Brexit.

What’s your earliest memory?
The turquoise colour of my mum’s dressing gown. At least I assume it was a dressing gown; it was almost exactly 50 years ago.

Who is your hero?
Emmanuel Macron, for saving us from an unimaginably bad fate in Europe. My childhood hero was Stig of the Dump. I got it into my head that I wanted to live not quite like a latter-day caveman, but I loved the idea of living outside – in a dump.

What was the last book that changed your thinking?
The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan is the only book I have found so uncomfortable to read that I had to put it down. It made me think hard about the nature of violence and human suffering – but also human generosity.

What politician, past or present, do you look up to?
Jo Grimond has always loomed large in my own perception of British Liberalism. He seems a sort of Romantic figure, who kept British Liberalism alive through some pretty fallow years. And he did so with great dignity and great intellectual panache.

What would be your Mastermind special subject?
The music, life and times of Prince. He promoted such an original and subversive character in modern music. I saw him in concert when he was last in London and he didn’t appear to have aged at all in the quarter-century since I’d last seen him. So it came as an even bigger shock that someone so ageless should suddenly die.

Which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live in?
The 1950s: after great catastrophe, societies have the ability to think in a way that isn’t the case in normal times. Europe’s leaders now wouldn’t have the breadth of vision to do what the founding fathers (and they were largely fathers, I’m afraid) of European integration did in the 1950s. At the moment it’s just a generation of pygmies compared to the big dreamers then.

What’s your theme tune?
“The Battle”, from the film Gladiator. In an election campaign you have to clip on your armour, pick up your weapons, and deal with the slings and arrows hurled in your direction.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
My mum always taught me to treat everybody, no matter how low they are in the pecking order, kindly and with respect. I no doubt fail to do that in Westminster all the time, but I try.

What single thing would make your life better?
No Brexit. I regard the Brexit vote as a grotesque act of generational theft, telling youngsters they can’t have the future that they themselves have said they want. What mature democracy does that?

If you weren’t a politician what would you be?
David Attenborough. Even if I could make his tea while he explores the world’s natural wonders, that would be something.

When were you happiest?
I’m probably at my happiest in the summer when, with the three boys, Miriam and I go up to the mountains in the north of Spain. You can jump into river pools, with golden eagles wheeling overhead and fish almost within arm’s length.

Are we all doomed?
It depends on what we do on 8 June. I now worry about the future in a way that I’ve never worried before. Some pretty ugly currents have been awakened in politics and we’ve got to relearn the virtues of moderation.

Nick Clegg’s “Politics: Between the Extremes” is published in paperback by Vintage

Stavros Damos for New Statesman
Blow-dried and supplicant, Ivanka shows the limits of the power women are allowed in Trumpworld
May 17th, 2017, 07:19 PM

A new book by the US President’s daughter has surpisingly strong echoes of medieval royalty.

Exactly 500 years ago this month, the apprentices of London rose up, ­angry with Flemish immigrants and the bankers of Lombard Street. The race riot was quelled only when a couple of dukes sent in their private armies. Hundreds of looters were arrested and some were hanged, drawn and quartered. But some rioters were as young as 13 and the city’s residents felt sorry for them.

Henry VIII wanted to look magnanimous, but not weak. And so, at the trial in Westminster Hall on 7 May, ­Cardinal Wolsey first asked for mercy on the youngsters’ behalf. He was refused.

And then three women came forward: Henry’s queen, Catherine of Aragon, and his sisters Mary and Margaret, the widowed queens of France and Scotland. Faced with three women on their knees, the king relented. “It was a scene straight from the pages of chivalry,” writes Sarah Gristwood in her history of Renaissance women and power, Game of Queens. “An intercessory function, of course, had been traditional for queens, from the biblical Esther and Bathsheba to the Virgin Mary.”

Whenever contemporary politics gets too depressing, I take refuge in history. I always hope I will gain some perspective from people whose problems are very different from my own. Yes, climate change is terrifying; but at least I don’t have scrofula! Yet modern life has a way of creeping back. Late-medieval Europe was full of resentment for “aliens”, for example, who were felt to be prospering at the expense of native populations, even if those tensions were often expressed in religious rather than nationalist terms. It was Catherine of Aragon’s parents, Isabella and Ferdinand, who expelled all Jews from Spain in 1492.

Nonetheless, I was surprised to find such strong echoes of medieval royalty in Ivanka Trump’s new book, Women Who Work. I won’t waste your time by attempting to review this seminal tome, especially as it’s largely constructed out of bits of other self-help books. The advice boils down to: be “multi-dimensional”; don’t be afraid to use “architect” as a verb; feel free to turn down Anna Wintour, when she offers you a job at Vogue straight out of university, because your true passion is real estate. If it’s a busy time at work, as it was for Ivanka on the campaign trail, go into “survival mode”. (“Honestly,” she writes, “I wasn’t treating myself to a massage or making much time for self-care.”) Something for everyone.

Still, Women Who Work gave me the chance to contemplate the point of Ivanka Trump. I’ve seen her far more than I have heard her, which is no surprise, as her role in the administration is largely symbolic. What is Ivanka if not a Renaissance queen, tearfully pleading with her lord to show mercy? She is, we are told, his conscience. When his daughter’s clothing line was dropped by the US retailer Nordstrom in February, Trump tweeted: “My daughter Ivanka has been treated so unfairly by @Nordstrom. She is a great person – always pushing me to do the right thing! Terrible!”

Two months later, her name was invoked again. The First Daughter was distraught – “heartbroken and outraged”, she tweeted – at the sight of Syrian children gassed by the Assad regime. This prompted her father to bomb an airbase to atone for the slaughter of what his statement referred to as “beautiful babies”. “Ivanka is a mother of three kids and she has influence,” her brother Eric told the Telegraph. “I’m sure she said: ‘Listen, this is horrible stuff.’”

This is the power that women are granted in Trumpworld: softening, humanising, empathetic. Their tears moisten the oak-like carapace of great leaders, showing them that sometimes it’s OK to be kind – but obviously not too kind, because that’s a bit soppy and girly and gay. Women are naturally prone to emotion, of course, unlike sturdy, ­rational men, who get so cross about the way TV news is reporting their firing of the FBI director that they start sending unhinged tweets implying they have incriminating “tapes” of White House conversations.

In this structure, however, the limits of women’s power are sharply circumscribed. The tears of both Ivanka and Catherine of Aragon only provided cover for something that their lord and master wanted to do anyway. (As New York magazine urged acidly on 13 April, “Someone Please Show Ivanka Pictures of Starving Yemeni Children”.) Ivanka’s whole book is designed to render female power unthreatening by making it “feminine”; merely a complement to male power instead of a challenge to it.

To reassure us that she isn’t some frumpy bluestocking, Ivanka has crafted an image of expensive, time-consuming perfection: perfect white teeth, perfect blow-dried hair, perfectly toned body. Her make-up, clothes and home are all styled in unobtrusive neutrals. Together it says: let me in the room and I promise not to be a nuisance or take up too much space, even on the colour wheel. It’s noticeable that no woman in Trump’s orbit has “let herself go”, even though his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, has the complexion of a body that’s been found after two weeks in the water. I somehow doubt he ever makes “time for self-care”.

And don’t come at me with all that garbage about a nice frock and a manicure being “empowering”. Look at Donald Trump, the one with his own military: he has a fat arse and uses Sellotape to hold his ties in place. A president is allowed to have appetites – for women, for food, for power. His supplicant daughter gets to peddle platitudes about how you should “bond with your boss”. (Being a blood relative helps, although, sadly, Women Who Work is silent on what to do if he also fancies you.)

Is this how far we’ve come in 500 years? Ivanka Trump might try to sell herself as a modern woman, but her brand of female power is positively medieval.

NICHOLAS KAMM / Staff
Why has it all gone wrong for the Liberal Democrats?
May 17th, 2017, 07:19 PM

The party's hopes of a rapid revival look to have turned to ashes. 

Before they entered coalition with the Conservatives in 2010, the weeks ­running up to a general election used to be kind ones for the Liberal Democrats. Given some time in the media spotlight, their poll ratings would turn upwards like flowers in the spring.

This year, however, that pattern has not held. The Lib Dem leader, Tim Farron, is ­appearing on television and radio. Their policies are being covered in the national news. They are lucky in their opponents, too. On the right, there is a Conservative Party that has abandoned many of the liberal shibboleths it embraced under David Cameron and is fully committed to a hard exit from the European Union. And on the left there is a bitterly divided Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn.

Yet the long-awaited “Lib Dem revival” has stalled. The party lost 28 councillors across England and Wales in the local elections on 4 May, when it had expected to gain seats. The latest polls have the Lib Dems barely troubling double figures nationwide. According to YouGov, in the south-west of England, once a stronghold and where many of their former seats are located, the Lib Dems have increased their vote share by only 1 per cent since the 2015 general election. To make matters worse, the Conservatives – their main rival in the region – have increased their share of the vote at the expense of Ukip, which has collapsed.

The Liberal Democrats, who have only nine MPs, are gaining some votes, but mostly in areas where they cannot hope to dent thumping Labour and Conservative majorities. The one region where the party might hope to gain seats is in and around London, but even there, its strategists fear defeat in Carshalton and Wallington, where the Lib Dem chief whip, Tom Brake, faces an uphill battle to hold his seat.

Outside the capital, the Conservatives hope to gain North Norfolk from Norman Lamb, Farron’s rival for the party leadership, and are even more optimistic about taking Southport, where the 68-year-old sitting MP, John Pugh, has opted to stand down. The cold reality is that the Liberal Democrats have no safe seats – even Tim Farron could plausibly lose his own in Westmorland on a really bad night – and when an incumbent stands down, the party is particularly vulnerable.

Pugh’s retirement is also a blow to the party’s press office. At the start of the parliament, he was keen to increase his profile and he gave Lib Dem headquarters permission to use his name whenever it needed to respond quickly to events. That helped bolster the party’s reputation for speed, efficiency and an eye for a good gag, which has boosted its stock among political journalists. (The Lib Dem official Twitter feed offered a live commentary on Eurovision; not something the Conservatives would do.)

If the Lib Dems can make gains elsewhere (Cambridge and Twickenham spring to mind) they might come out of the election in no worse shape than they went into it. But that’s not the result their activists and strategists hoped only a few months ago, when they expected to ride an anti-Brexit wave. Just four days before Theresa May surprised Westminster with her decision to call the general election, Farron visited Manchester Gorton, a Labour stronghold since 1935. There he told journalists that he expected a strong second place in the by-election that had been planned following the death of Gerald Kaufman, and, perhaps, even to add a tenth MP to his flock. That optimism has now evaporated.

What went wrong? The obvious answer is that Farron bet heavily on casting the party in opposition to Brexit, and lost. That is a problem in seats such as Carshalton and North Norfolk, where a majority voted to leave the EU. The evidence suggests that few on either side of the referendum divide regret their decision, but since 23 June a distinct bloc has emerged. According to YouGov’s Marcus Roberts, formerly an adviser to Ed Miliband and Sadiq Khan, many Remain voters believe that Brexit is a calamity but accept that the government has a democratic duty to enact the referendum result. He calls them the “Re-Leavers”, and they are not at all receptive to the Liberal Democrat message of a second referendum. 

Even more troubling for Farron is that the Lib Dems are not making headway among voters who want the vote for Brexit to be overturned. Although that’s a smaller group than the Re-Leavers, pollsters estimate that it accounts for close to 20 per cent of the electorate. So why aren’t these hard Remainers flocking to the yellow banner?

Part of the problem, simply put, is credibility. As one senior Liberal Democrat puts it, “voters can count”. No matter how angry you might be about the referendum result, it’s still a stretch to believe that nine Lib Dem MPs could prevent it. For Remainers who usually vote Labour, the prospect of undoing austerity with Jeremy Corbyn is more realistic than stopping Brexit. And Farron himself, though instrumental in driving through the decision to back a second referendum, is not a natural salesman for it. His evangelical Christianity, a repeated issue on the campaign trail, puts him at odds with the bulk of the diehard Remain vote, which tends to be aggressively secular. That Farron's voting record is not an immaculate advertisement for the separation of church and state only compounds that issue. 

Among Conservative Remainers, the ­Liberal Democrats have another problem: the struggles of Labour. That might seem counterintuitive, but it reflects a widespread belief among voters that given a free choice, the Liberal Democrats will always opt to support Labour, rather than the Tories. If Labour is unappealing, then so is voting for anyone who might strike a deal with it to govern Britain. The former coalition minister David Laws, by no means a natural friend of Labour, has long argued that his party does best when Labour is strong and attractive to swing voters.

The fates of the two parties are thus intertwined. We saw that at the last general election when a weak Liberal Democrats, tainted by coalition, collapsed in the south-west and Scotland, delivering a Conservative majority. Now, it is Labour’s turn to toxify its fellow progressives. Corbyn’s troubles have not benefited Tim Farron: while voters fear a Labour Britain, they will not risk a Liberal England.

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Of course Corbyn is more popular than Blair. But don't pretend it's news
May 17th, 2017, 07:19 PM

Polls that ask whether people would rather vote for Corbyn or Blair are completely missing the point. 

Just fancy that. Jeremy Corbyn, according to a new poll by GfK for Business Insider, “is now a bigger vote-winner than Tony Blair”.

It isn’t exactly soothing reading for the left – some 53 per cent of voters say they would not consider voting for a Corbyn-led Labour Party versus 31 per cent who would. But Jez apparently thumps Tony in the electability stakes. 61 per cent would not consider voting Labour should Blair – somehow – have another shot at the leadership. A mere 23 per cent would.

The gulf between those two net scores – minus 22 per cent for Corbyn and minus 38 per cent for Blair – does indeed tell a story. Unfortunately, it isn’t quite the story the wilfully obtuse headline is telling. A poll like this might tell us something were it not already rendered so utterly and self-evidently redundant by its own premise.

Here’s the problem. Tony Blair hasn’t been the leader of the Labour Party for a decade. Even if his much-trailed and as yet unrealised “return to frontline politics” manifests itself as something more substantial than appearing on Marr a bit more often, he isn’t going to be leader of the Labour Party ever again. He has said – repeatedly and explicitly – that he knows this cannot happen.

Why? Because Tony Blair, tainted by the legacy of Iraq and by the disappointments of his ten years in office, is a deeply unpopular man. There are many indices against which we can measure Corbyn’s electability – or lack thereof – but “Tony Blair’s current popularity” is neither a fair nor illuminating one. As Iain Austin once said of a 2008 Times poll that asked voters whether they would prefer a beleaguered Gordon Brown or a younger, more charismatic leader: “There’s a ridiculous question. It’s like saying ‘do you want burnt toast or something nicer?’”

Of course, there’s nothing wrong in principle with comparing two politicians of varying shades of unpopularity. It’s true and provable that Corbyn is more popular than the Blair many Britons now think of as a snake oil salesman. But the poll’s exuberant conclusion – that Corbyn is “a bigger vote-winner than Tony Blair” – is complete bunkum.

A more sensible though still not all that useful comparison would compare the net favourability of Corbyn now and Blair in the weeks before 1 May 1997.

There are no prizes for guessing which of the two would end up lauded as the bigger vote winner then, but even then, it isn’t a like for like comparison. Think about it: for insight on where the Tories should go next you’d compare Theresa May with, say, Amber Rudd, not Thatcher or Douglas-Home.

Even if Blair won three general elections and Corbyn, on current evidence, will win none, whether the former was ever a bigger vote winner than the latter is missing the point. Comparing Corbyn with Bad Tony The War Criminal sets an unduly low bar for the current leadership. Blair’s continued unpopularity does present some structural challenges for the Labour Party of 2017, but marginally surpassing rock bottom isn’t success, nor is it evidence that you’re a vote winner par excellence.

And though there is evidence that Corbyn is winning some votes that escaped the Labour leaders who went before him – such as non-voters – the real problem is that too many Labour supporters are drawn to another “vote-winner”. Her name is Theresa May. 

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Labour's investment bank plan could help fix our damaging financial system
May 17th, 2017, 07:19 PM

The UK should learn from the success of a similar project in Germany.

Labour’s election manifesto has proved controversial, with the Tories and the right-wing media claiming it would take us back to the 1970s. But it contains at least one excellent idea which is certainly not out-dated and which would in fact help to address a key problem in our post-financial-crisis world.

Even setting aside the damage wrought by the 2008 crash, it’s clear the UK’s financial sector is not serving the real economy. The New Economics Foundation recently revealed that fewer than 10% of the total stock of UK bank loans are to non-financial and non-real estate businesses. The majority of their lending goes to other financial sector firms, insurance and pension funds, consumer finance, and commercial real estate.

Labour’s proposed UK Investment Bank would be a welcome antidote to a financial system that is too often damaging or simply useless. There are many successful examples of public development banks in the world’s fastest-growing economies, such as China and Korea. However, the UK can look closer to home for a suitable model: the KfW in Germany (not exactly a country known for ‘disastrous socialist policies’). With assets of over 500bn, the KfW is the world’s largest state-owned development bank when its size is measured as a percentage of GDP, and it is an institution from which the UK can draw much-needed lessons if it wishes to create a financial system more beneficial to the real economy.

Where does the money come from? Although KfW’s initial paid-up capital stems purely from public sources, it currently funds itself mainly through borrowing cheaply on the international capital markets with a federal government guarantee,  AA+ rating, and safe haven status for its public securities. With its own high ratings, the UK could easily follow this model, allowing its bank to borrow very cheaply. These activities would not add to the long-run public debt either: by definition an investment bank would invest in projects that would stimulate growth.

Aside from the obviously countercyclical role KfW played during the financial crisis, ramping up total business volume by over 40 per cent between 2007 and 2011 while UK banks became risk averse and caused a credit crunch, it also plays an important part in financing key sectors of the real economy that would otherwise have trouble accessing funds. This includes investment in research and innovation, and special programs for SMEs. Thanks to KfW, as well as an extensive network of regional and savings banks, fewer German SMEs report access to finance as a major problem than in comparator Euro area countries.

The Conservatives have talked a great deal about the need to rebalance the UK economy towards manufacturing. However, a real industrial policy needs more than just empty rhetoric: it needs finance. The KfW has historically played an important role in promoting German manufacturing, both at home and abroad, and to this day continues to provide finance to encourage the export of high-value-added German products

KfW works by on-lending most of its funds through the private banking system. This means that far from being the equivalent of a nationalisation, a public development bank can coexist without competing with the rest of the financial system. Like the UK, Germany has its share of large investment banks, some of which have caused massive instabilities. It is important to note that the establishment of a public bank would not have a negative effect on existing private banks, because in the short term, the UK will remain heavily dependent on financial services.

The main problem with Labour’s proposal is therefore not that too much of the financial sector will be publicly owned, but too little. Its proposed lending volume of £250bn over 10 years is small compared to the KfW’s total financing commitments of  750 billion over the past 10 years. Although the proposal is better than nothing, in order to be effective a public development bank will need to have sufficient scale.

Finally, although Brexit might make it marginally easier to establish the UK Investment Bank, because the country would no longer be constrained by EU State Aid Rules or the Maastricht criteria, it is worth remembering that KfW’s sizeable range of activities is perfectly legal under current EU rules.

So Europe cannot be blamed for holding back UK financial sector reform to date - the problem is simply a lack of political will in the current government. And with even key architects of 1980s financial liberalisation, such as the IMF and the economist Jeffrey Sachs, rethinking the role of the financial sector, isn’t it time Britain did the same?

Dr Natalya Naqvi is a research fellow at University College and the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford, where she focuses on the role of the state and the financial sector in economic development

Ralph Orlowski / Getty
The toxic new right-wing media will outlast Trump even if he’s impeached
May 17th, 2017, 07:19 PM

Fox News and a network of smaller outlets have created an alternative version of reality. That ecosystem might prove more durable than the US president. 

An early end to Donald Trump’s presidency looks more feasible than at any time in the 117 days since his inauguration.

The New York Times revealed on Tuesday that FBI director James Comey – who was fired by Trump a week ago – wrote a memo recording the President’s request he “let go” an investigation into links between Michael Flynn, Trump’s pick for national security advisor, and Russia.

Already there is talk of impeachment, not least because the crime Trump is accused of - obstructing justice - is the same one that ended Richard Nixon's presidency.

But with a Republican-controlled Congress the impeachment process would be long and fraught, and is only likely to succeed if public opinion, and particularly the opinion of the Republican voters, swings decisively against Trump.

In another era, the rolling coverage of the president's chaotic, incompetent and potentially corrupt administration might have pushed the needle far enough. But many of those Republican voters will make their decision about whether or not to stick with Trump based not on investigative reporting in the NYT or Washington Post, but based on reading a right-wing media ecosystem filled with distortions, distractions and fabrications.

That ecosystem – which spans new and (relatively) old media - will be going into overdrive to protect a president it helped elect, and who in turn has nourished it with praise and access.

On Monday, BuzzFeed’s Charlie Warzel took a forensic look at how a new breed of hyper-partisan right wing sites – what he calls the "Upside Down media" – tried to undermine and discredit claims that Trump disclosed sensitive security information to Russian officials.

The same tactics can already be seen just 24 hours later. Notorious conspiracist site Infowars talks of “saboteurs” and “turncoats” undermining the administration with leaks, mirroring an email from Trump’s campaign team sent late on Tuesday. Newsmax, another right-leaning sight with links to Trump, attacks the source of the story, asking in its web splash “Why did Comey wait so long?”. GatewayPundit, which published several false stories about Hillary Clinton during the election campaign, appears to have ignored the story altogether. 

As Warzel points out, these new sites work in concert with older media, in particular Rupert Murdoch’s ratings-topping cable news channel Fox News.

Fox initially underplayed the Comey memo’s significance, switching later to projecting the story as a media-led attack on Trump. At the time of publication, the Fox homepage led with a splash headlined: “THE SHOW MUST GO ON Lawmakers vow to focus on Trump agenda despite WH controversies.”

Fox acts as a source of validation for the newly established right-wing sites. Once Fox has covered a story, smaller sites can push further and faster, knowing that they aren't going too far from at least one outlet considered respectable and mainstream. If anything should make the UK value the impartiality rules, however imperfect, which govern its broadcast news, it’s Fox’s central role in enabling this toxic mix of misinformation.

These new media sites have another weapon, however. They understand and exploit the way internet platforms - in particular Facebook - are designed to maximise attention. They have found that playing on very human desires for stories that confirm our biases and trigger emotional responses is the best way to build audiences and win fans, and they have little compulsion abusing that knowledge.

This isn’t just a Trump or Fox-related phenomenon. It’s not even just a right-wing one. In both the US and the UK left-wing hyper-partisan sites with a tenuous relationship with the truth have sprung up. They have followed the same playbook, and in most cases the same advertising-based funding model, which has worked so well for the right. Emotive headlines, spun stories, outright fabrications and an insistence that “the corrupt mainstream media won’t report this” work just as well in generating clicks and shares for both ends of the political spectrum.

The main difference between the two political poles is that the right has benefited from an ideologically and temperamentally suited president, and a facilitator in Fox News. 

Of course the combined efforts of this new media and the Fox-led old may still fail. Trump’s recent transgressions appear so severe that they could break through to even his diehard supporters.

But if Trump does fall, the new right wing media ecosystem is unlikely to fall with him. 

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Theresa May refuses to rule out sacking Philip Hammond
May 17th, 2017, 07:19 PM

The Prime Minister's answers confirmed that all is not well between No.10 and No.11. 

Theresa May and Philip Hammond were at Canary Wharf's One Canada Square to launch an attack dossier on Labour. But it was blue-on-blue warfare that the assembled media were more interested in. In his earlier appearance on the Today programme, Hammond refused to deny fraught rows with No.10 (merely dismissing the reports as "tittle-tattle") and even appeared to confess to swearing. 

The Chancellor has clashed with Nick Timothy, May's co-chief of staff and the author of the Conservative manifesto (which will be published tomorrow), over economic interventionism (which No.11 has resisted), the National Insurance U-turn (which saw a Hammond aide brand Timothy "economically illiterate") and the Tories' tax lock (which the Chancellor pre-emptively suggested would be dropped).  

Against this unhappy backdrop, May was asked whether Hammond would remain in his post after the election. "It's true to say that the Chancellor and I, and every other member of my team, are focused on June 8th," the PM replied, conspicuously refusing to guarantee Hammond's job. The Chancellor, meanwhile, hastily clarified that while he did "occasionally swear", he was not referring to "any particular conversation". Hammond added: "We work very closely together, she has got an extremely strong team around her. I work very closely withr her team - some of them are people I have known for many, many years. We do work very well together as a team. All this media tittle tattle is just that - media tittle tattle." 

At the press conference's close, May was invited to return the "endorsement". "Very happy to do so," she replied, again refusing to confirm Hammond's position. She then somewhat awkwardly added: "As Philip says, we have worked together over the years, for many years. Longer than we would care to identify [laughter] - that's an age-related comment, nothing else." 

May's answers did nothing to dispel the impression that all is not well with No.10 and No.11. Indeed, they merely reinforced it. "Embarrassing for Hammond," tweeted his shadow John McDonnell. "It seems May has no confidence in her own Chancellor. Tory splits at the top." 

If the relationship between May and Hammond has often appeared troubled it is partly because they have followed the uniquely close David Cameron and George Osborne (Cameron always confirmed his friend's position). But there also genuine tensions. That May has refused to rule out sacking Hammond, after Amber Rudd was tipped as a replacement, is one of the election's most significant moments.

It's true that prime ministers like to keep their options open and that, were May to confirm Hammond's position, she would be challenged to issue similar guarantees to Boris Johnson and David Davis. But there is no more important relationship in government than that between the prime minister and the chancellor. With the polls suggesting that a Conservative victory remains inevitable, expect May to be pressed again on who will occupy No.11.

Getty Images.
Why Len McCluskey's idea of general election "success" for Labour matters
May 17th, 2017, 07:19 PM

Len McCluskey said a "successful" campaign would be one in which Labour holds onto 200 seats.

Well, they've broadened the debate alright: to the question of whether or not losing 32 seats and a third election on the bounce is "success".

That's the question raised by Len McCluskey's interview with Politico in which he said that a "successful" campaign would be one in which Labour holds onto 200 seats.

Unison boss Dave Prentis has fired back on Twitter, saying that "Success = a Labour government. That's what care workers, nurses and teaching assistants need."  (Readers in the Lords: it's what the kids call a subtweet: a tweet that is about you but not at you.)

At face value, of course, they've both got a point. 200 seats would be Labour's worst performance since 1935 and mean, effectively, that the 2022 election would be a foregone conclusion before it starts. But bluntly the truth of the polling and the local elections is that a parliament in which the combined strength of Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens will be lucky to get nearer than 150 than 200 seats. If you talk to almost anyone in the trade union movement or elsewhere in the Labour party, the priority, whatever they may say publicly, is to bunker down and save as many Labour MPs as possible, not to defeat Theresa May. (And as far as that battle goes, that the Guardian's splash is "Labour won't win, says top union backer" is not all bad news for Labour's chances.)

But of course no-one is really taking anything anyone else says in the Labour party at face value at the moment. Just as the argument over whether or not Labour are going to match or surpass Ed Miliband's vote share is really about laying the groundwork for Jeremy Corbyn to stay on as leader after defeat on 8 June, so too are these arguments about what constitutes success.

As far as Corbyn and the trade unions are concerned, what will matter in the days after 8 June is a) how bad the loss and b) what McCluskey, Prentis and the other two general secretaries of Labour's big four - Dave Ward of the CWU and Tim Roache of the GMB - agree together.

So while the division between what Prentis and McCluskey are saying "success" looks like today matters a bit, what matters most of all is that neither target looks like one that Jeremy Corbyn will hit in June.

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As Donald Trump once asked, how do you impeach a President?
May 17th, 2017, 07:19 PM

Starting the process is much easier than you might think. 

The liberals sobbing into their pussy hats when Donald Trump was inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States in January had one thing to cling on to - the hope that sooner or later he might do something so outrageous he could be impeached.

Trump, it seems, is living up to expectations. He has spent the fifth month of his presidency embroiled in a row with the intelligence agencies which culminated in him sacking the FBI chief James Comey for his handling of Hillary Clinton's emails, an explanation which convinced precisely no one. Now, reports suggest Trump's meddling went much further, and the Republicans are flustered. Could the liberals' dream come true? 

So, how exactly can you impeach a President? Here is our rough guide.

OK, what does impeachment actually mean?

Impeachment is the power to remove an elected official for misconduct. Here’s the relevant clause of the US Constitution:

“The President, Vice President and all Civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”

Impeachment is actually a legacy of British constitutional history, and dates back as far as 1376, but according to our own parliamentary website, in the UK “this procedure is considered obsolete”. 

It’s up to the US Congress to decide whether to impeach and convict a President. Both houses are controlled by the Republicans, so impeaching Trump would mean turning against one who is – technically at least – one of their own. Since he’s already insulted the neighbouring country, supported discrimination against Muslim immigrants and mocked a disabled reporter, their impeachment threshold seems pretty high. But let’s imagine he surpasses himself. What next?

The impeachment process

Members of the House of Representatives – the lower chamber of the Congress – can start the impeachment process. They in turn may be encouraged to do so by voters. For example, there is a whole Wikipedia page dedicated to people who tried to impeach Barack Obama. One Impeach Obama supporter simply gave his reason as stopping the President from “pushing his agenda”. Another wanted to do so on the grounds of gross incompetence...

But for an impeachment attempt to actually work, the impeacher needs to get the support of the house. If a majority agree with the idea of impeaching the elected official, they nominate members to act as prosecutors during the subsequent trial. This takes place in the Senate, the upper house of Congress. In most impeachments, the Senate acts as judge and jury, but when a President is impeached, the chief justice of the United States presides.     

Two-thirds of the Senate must vote for impeachment in order to convict. 

What are the chances of impeaching Donald Trump?

So if Trump does something that even he can’t tweet away, and enough angry voters email their representatives, Congress can begin the process of impeachment. But will that be enough to get him out?

It’s often assumed that Richard Nixon was kicked out because he was impeached for the cover up known as the Watergate Scandal. In fact, we’ll never know, because he resigned before the House could vote on the process.

Two decades later, the House got further with Bill Clinton. When it emerged Clinton had an affair with Monica Lewinsky, an intern, he initially denied it. But after nearly 14 hours of debate, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives decided to impeach him on grounds including perjury and obstruction of justice.

In the Senate trial, Clinton’s defenders argued that his actions did not threaten the liberty of the people. The majority of Senators voted to acquit him. 

The only other Presidential impeachment took place in 1868, when President Andrew Johnson, removed a rabble-rouser from his Cabinet. The guilty vote fell short of the two-thirds majority, and he was acquitted.

So, what’s the chances of impeaching Trump? I’ll leave you with some numbers…

 

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Can Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn become Prime Minister after the 2017 general election?
May 17th, 2017, 07:19 PM

Can Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn win the 2017 general election? 

Jeremy Corbyn could be the next prime minister. Admittedly, it’s highly unlikely. After less than two years as Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn is leading the party into a snap general election. Labour behind in the latest general election polls and underperformed badly in the recent local elections. But since the election was called, Labour’s position in the polls has been improving. Can we trust the general election polls?

This isn’t the first vote of national significance since his election, however, since he was in office during the 2016 EU referendum. It’s also not Corbyn’s first serious challenge: after the Brexit vote, his MPs voted “no confidence” in him and Owen Smith challenged him for the leadership. Corbyn saw off that threat to his position convincingly, so can he pull out another electoral triumph and become prime minister? 

 

Can Jeremy Corbyn become prime minister after the general election 2017?

Do the polls predict a Labour victory?

Since May 2015, the Conservative Party has consistently led in the polls. The latest polls give Labour ratings in the high-20s, while the Conservatives are on the high-40s – numbers which, if borne out at the polls, would give Labour its worst result since 1935. Recent improvements in Labour’s standing still leave Jeremy Corbyn a long way from becoming prime minister.

But should we believe the general election polls? Glen O’Hara, professor of modern and contemporary history at Oxford Brookes University, points out that the polls have been wrong before, and could be overstating Labour’s collapse. However, a 20-point gap is far outside the margin of error. A Corbyn win would be an unprecedented upset.

What is Labour's record on elections?

At the 2016 local elections, Labour did not gain any councils and lost 18 seats and 4 per cent of the vote. James Schneider, the co-founder of Momentum who is now Corbyn’s head of strategic communications, said this showed Labour was on the right trajectory, but it’s a disappointment for an opposition to make no gains. And at the Copeland by-election this February, Labour lost the seat to the Tories – the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Can Jeremy Corbyn become prime minister? The verdict

Jeremy Corbyn’s path to power would be one of the greatest surprises in British politics. But unlikely doesn’t mean impossible. It would take some extraordinary events, but it could happen. Check out the latest odds to see how the markets rate his chances.

Jeremy Corbyn, Labour leader. Getty
Can we trust the general election 2017 polls?
May 17th, 2017, 07:19 PM

The Conservatives are expected to win a huge majority in the general election 2017. But the pollsters have been wrong before.

Latest polls are predicting a Conservative landslide, and Labour’s worst election since 1935. But opinion polls have been wrong before. The Conservative majority in the 2015 general election came as a surprise after opinion polls had widely foreseen a very tight race between Labour and the Tories. And in 2016, both Brexit and Trump appeared to defy the opinion polls. 

General election polls have undergone hard scrutiny since those failing. A lot of effort has gone into correcting the general election polls’ tendency to overrate Labour’s chances. So do the pollsters deserve to be believed now, or are general election polls no better than looking at the latest general election odds for a glimpse into the future? 

One indication that is probably more reliable than general election polls is local election performance. According that that, general election polls could be underestimating the Conservatives.

Should we believe the general election 2017 polls?

Yes and no - and here's our guide to why.

How accurate have polls been in the past?

The 2015 general election 2015, the EU referendum and the 2016 US presidential elections all gave the polling industry a bloody nose. In those results, polls flattered the left and underestimated the right, but Glen O’Hara points out that in the 1983 and 2010 general elections, it was Labour that exceeded expectations.

But Anthony Wells of YouGov argues that the polls actually got Brexit right (calling a narrow result, veering towards leave). The US presidential result was a genuine upset, but again the polls were right to call a Clinton victory in the popular vote, which she won by 3 million. However, they were wrong about which states that vote would concentrated in - which meant that the electoral college skewed heavily towards Donald Trump. And in 1983 and 2010, the polls got the Tory victory right, but overestimated its size.

So while polls aren’t an exact guide to the future and need cautious interpretation, their record is stronger than it currently appears.

How can polls be biased?

When it comes to broad trends within the margin of error - usually accepted to be three percentage points - polls taken as a whole are fairly reliable. When it comes to detailed breakdowns of individual group behaviour, however, statistical noise creeps in.

Bear that in mind when you’re faced with predictions about swings between minority party voters, or leave vs remain voter behaviour – conclusions might be based on small subgroups that aren’t sufficiently representative.

Individual polls at national level are prone to the same effect: one outlier result might be the start of a trend, or it might be just that - an outlier. And be particularly cautious of “private polling” like the Ashcroft polls. They’re usually released to swing a particular narrative, and those who pay for them rarely reveal their methodology.

Should we believe the general election 2017 polls? Verdict

The only poll that counts is the ballot box. Only after the final count will we know for sure whether Jeremy Corbyn could become prime minister or whether Ukip is finished. But opinion polls are a fairly reliable guide to the broad shape of the general election. It would be a genuine upset if Corbyn won, based on Labour's current polling. 

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Will Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn stand down if he loses the general election 2017?
May 17th, 2017, 07:19 PM

Jeremy Corbyn once said he expected to carry on, but he seems to have changed his message as we get closer to 8 June 2017.

Jeremy Corbyn has already withstood one attempt to get him to stand down. Now the latest polls suggest that Labour is headed for heavy defeat in the June general election. Labour’s 27 per cent vote share in the local elections is about the same as its vote share at the 1983 general election, pointing to an even worse performance at the 2017 general election in June. 

Will Corbyn hold on again? Usually a general election loss would be the trigger for a leader to quit: Michael Foot, Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband all stood down after their first defeat, although Neil Kinnock saw out two losses before resigning in 1992. A majority of the party membership has said they want Corbyn to stand down if Labour loses.

 

Will Jeremy Corbyn stand down as Labour leader after a 2017 general election defeat?

What does Jeremy Corbyn say? 

He told Buzzfeed News on 8 May that he would not. "I was elected leader of this party and I’ll stay leader of this party," he said. Gordon Brown made similar statements in 2010, later saying that he wanted to stay on until David Cameron had formed a goverment. However, he was forced to stand down by pressure from his own MPs. 

In Jeremy Corbyn's case, he seems to have regretted the interview with Buzzfeed. Shortly after the interview, he told the BBC he would carry on if he won the election, and his team stopped inviting Buzzfeed to press events.

The rules about Labour leaders standing down

There is no formal process for the parliamentary Labour party to oust its leader, as it discovered in the 2016 leadership challenge. Even after a majority of his MPs had voted no confidence in him, Corbyn stayed on, ultimately winning his second leadership contest after it was decided that the current leader should be automatically included on the ballot.

This year’s conference will vote on to reform the leadership selection process that would make it easier for a left-wing candidate to get on the ballot (nicknamed the “McDonnell amendment” by centrists). The plan is to reduce the required proportion of support from MPs and MEPs from 15 per cent to 5 per cent of the party. Corbyn could be waiting for this motion to pass before he resigns.

Will the membership still support Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader? 

Corbyn’s support in the membership is still strong. Without an equally compelling candidate to put before the party, Corbyn’s opponents in the PLP are unlikely to initiate another leadership battle they’re likely to lose.

That said, a general election loss could change that. Polling from March suggests that half of Labour members wanted Corbyn to stand down either immediately or before the general election.

The rumours about Jeremy Corbyn quitting as Labour leader after losing the 2017 general election

Sources close to Corbyn have said that he might not stand down, even if he leads Labour to a crushing defeat this June. They mention Kinnock’s survival after the 1987 general election as a precedent (although at the 1987 election, Labour did gain seats). Corbyn told Buzzfeed on 8 May he would be "carrying on". 

Will Jeremy Corbyn stand down as Labour leader after a 2017 general election defeat?  The verdict

Most leaders would stand down in the event of losing a general election. But most leaders would stand down after losing a vote of no confidence among their own MPs – and Corbyn resisted that last year. The mooted changes to the leadership election process give him a reason to hold on until September in order to secure a left-wing succession. If Corbyn refuses to stand down after losing the general election, it would be another sign that he’s just not like other politicians.

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Will Ukip survive the general election 2017?
May 17th, 2017, 07:19 PM

Ukip led the way to Brexit, but now the party is on less than 10 per cent in the polls. 

Ukip could be finished. Ukip has only ever had two MPs, but it held an outside influence on politics: without it, we’d probably never have had the EU referendum. But Brexit has turned Ukip into a single-issue party without an issue. Ukip’s sole remaining MP, Douglas Carswell, left the party in March 2017, and told Sky News’ Adam Boulton that there was “no point” to the party anymore. 

Not everyone in Ukip has given up, though: Nigel Farage told Peston on Sunday that Ukip “will survive”, and current leader Paul Nuttall will be contesting a seat this year. But Ukip is standing in fewer constituencies than last time thanks to a shortage of both money and people. Who benefits if Ukip is finished? It’s likely to be the Tories. 

 

Is Ukip finished? 

What are Ukip's poll ratings?

Ukip’s poll ratings peaked in June 2016 at 16 per cent. Since the leave campaign’s success, that has steadily declined so that Ukip is going into the 2017 general election on 6 per cent, according to the latest polls. If the polls can be trusted, that’s a serious collapse.

Can Ukip get anymore MPs?

In the 2015 general election Ukip contested nearly every seat and got 13 per cent of the vote, making it the third biggest party (although is only returned one MP). Now Ukip is reportedly struggling to find candidates and could stand in as few as 100 seats. Ukip leader Paul Nuttall will stand in Boston and Skegness, but both ex-leader Nigel Farage and donor Arron Banks have ruled themselves out of running this time.

How many members does Ukip have?

Ukip’s membership declined from 45,994 at the 2015 general election to 39,000 in 2016. That’s a worrying sign for any political party, which relies on grassroots memberships to put in the campaigning legwork.

What does Ukip's decline mean for Labour and the Conservatives? 

The rise of Ukip took votes from both the Conservatives and Labour, with a nationalist message that appealed to disaffected voters from both right and left. But the decline of Ukip only seems to be helping the Conservatives. Stephen Bush has written about how in Wales voting Ukip seems to have been a gateway drug for traditional Labour voters who are now backing the mainstream right; so the voters Ukip took from the Conservatives are reverting to the Conservatives, and the ones they took from Labour are transferring to the Conservatives too.

Ukip might be finished as an electoral force, but its influence on the rest of British politics will be felt for many years yet. 

Ukip's Nigel Farage and Paul Nuttall. Photo: Getty
Right-wing newspaper headlines bring bias to the BBC
May 17th, 2017, 07:19 PM

Today's parroting the anti-Labour press undermines the impartiality rules TV and radio are meant to abide by

Every morning on the BBC’s agenda-setting Today programme, broadcasters operating under strict impartiality regulations give their listeners a flavour of the headlines from that morning’s newspapers. It’s a familiar routine that accompanies the drinking of millions of cups of tea and coffee and provides a taste of the feisty print culture that, apparently, millions of people might otherwise be unaware of.

The trouble is that reading out selected headlines is a long way away from staying "impartial" simply because of the in-built bias towards the Conservatives in the daily press. In the 2015 general election, the share of press support for the Tories (measured by circulation) was 71 per cent compared to 15 per cent for Labour and 5 per cent for the Liberal Democrats. If anything, the press has moved further to the right since then, as reflected by the recent appointment of George Osborne (former Conservative MP and chancellor) to the role of editor-in-chief of the Evening Standard.

In the early weeks of the 2017 general election, we’re already seeing a systematic overrepresentation in the press of Tories over Labour (50 per cent versus 33 per cent) and of May over Corbyn (32 per cent versus 21 per cent). The Tories have seen a 15 per cent increase in press coverage in comparison to 2015 with the SNP and Ukip the most obvious losers so far.

In this context, reading out a sample of newspaper headlines is always likely to favour the Tories: to highlight the issues with which they are most comfortable and, in particular, to repeat the attacks on Jeremy Corbyn. Of course there’s nothing wrong with a balanced critique of press agendas (informed by empirical research and relevant interviews) but that’s hardly the point of Today’s press review.

Just take last Friday’s edition of the Today programme in which Nick Robinson summarised coverage of the leaking of Labour’s manifesto with references to stories from the SunMailTelegraph and the i – none of them Labour-supporting outlets. Robinson even took the time to explain the Sun’s headline - "CRASH BANG WALLIES" – without then reading out any press coverage that might rebut the Sun’s assertions. Robinson, when challenged about this by Labour’s Barry Gardiner in an interview a few minutes later, simply retorted that listeners "expect us to read out newspaper headlines which we’ve been doing for many years without backing them, endorsing them or criticising them".

But why should listeners have to put up with a sample of coverage that is almost guaranteed to have a Tory bias – particularly on a platform that is required to be "impartial"?

One problem is that our impartiality rules (that apply to broadcasting and not the press) are unable to account for some of the structural flaws of journalism – its intimacy with powerful elites, its appetite for immediate reaction as opposed to more careful reflection, and its reluctance to depart from a narrow consensus. We may feel smug that we do not have the regulatory wasteland of US broadcast news (as epitomised by Fox, by far the most popular news outlet) but we do not have the critical and fearless journalism that many of its proponents think we do.

It is true that coverage of the current general election is superficially ‘impartial’ in the sense that, at least on TV, equal time is being devoted to both of the main parties. But this says nothing about the tone of the coverage, the questions posed, the issues ignored and the ‘Corbyn is not a viable candidate’ meme endlessly repeated. So we are now likely to see a broadcast campaign where the media’s entrenched hostility towards and dismissal of Corbyn and Labour’s manifesto more generally threatens to overwhelm their formal attachment to a quantitative balance of coverage.

The idea that broadcasters can "report" headlines from the national press during an election campaign in a way that is free of bias and distortion is simply not logical given the domination of right-wing titles.

Des Freedman and Justin Schlosberg are the former and current chairs respectively of the Media Reform Coalition, which is running a petition calling on the Today programme to drop its press review during elections

WPA Pool / Pool
EU nationals in the UK are distressed and anxious - a single act could reassure them
May 17th, 2017, 07:19 PM

All that is needed is one bold and generous political act at the start of Brexit negotiations.

Support is growing amongst MEPs and the European Parliament to separate citizens’ rights from the Brexit negotiations.

Last week, the European Parliament as representatives of all EU citizens hosted its first public hearing on the current situation of EU and UK citizens’ rights since the Brexit vote. The cross-party MEP taskforce with which whom I have been working with attended this hearing and included Lib Dem, Labour, Green and non-UK MEPs from other political groups. We are all in agreement with the lawyers, academics and citizens’ rights groups who gave evidence that UK and EU citizens' right to reside (wherever they may have settled) must be the first thing agreed in the Brexit negotiations. We also believe that once citizens’ “right to reside” has been agreed it must be ring-fenced and kept away from the turbulence of the rest of the negotiations, in other words not part of the final deal and caught up in the usual convention for these sort of deals “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”.  

Why should this be a priority for politicians on both side of the Channel?  It has been 328 days since the UK voted to leave the EU, meaning that for almost a year around five million people have been living their lives in a legal limbo (there are around three million EU citizens in the UK and around 1.8 million Brits living in Europe). This is not about re-running the remain versus leave arguments about the benefits or negatives of migration. It is about treating people with dignity and allowing them get on with their lives with a certainty that the rest of us enjoy.

Since we formed the taskforce my good friend Dutch MEP Sophie in ‘t Veld and I, like many other MEPs, have received hundreds of emails from EU and UK citizens explaining the predicament they and their families are in. The stories are truly awful. They range from the unwieldy length of the application forms for permanent residence to a refusal to register children at schools, from an absurd request by the Home Office to take out comprehensive sickness insurance or leave the country, to having to prove that no trip out of the UK has taken place over many years.

These people have already been through a lot of uncertainty. A survey by the citizens’ rights group New Europeans shows that Brexit has led to a heightened state of anxiety for thousands of EU and UK citizens - at least 7 per cent said they were feeling depressed. Some case studies even report that EU citizens have been discriminated for jobs because employers felt that there was risk attached with employing them in case their residency status changed at short notice.

While reading the emails I couldn't fail to feel sympathy for these people. But it was when their stories were presented to us in the parliament that it the pain that so many of them have been feeling truly became clear.  I was delighted that so many had made the journey to Brussels to attend the hearing.  As Sophie in ‘t Veld MEP put it so aptly at the hearing:  "imagine a country with a population of around five million people where citizens’ rights were not guaranteed, where they could be asked to leave that country at any point and be forced to move away from families, homes and jobs. If that place were to exist we would call it a banana republic, at best. Why then is the EU and the UK allowing that sort of arrangement to exist?"

All that is needed is one bold and generous political act at the start of Brexit negotiations so the British agencies can tear down the bureaucratic barriers that are currently causing daily frustration and fear for so many people. 

No lingering, no calculating, a “right out of the gate” comprehensive agreement. There is definitely the appetite to do this on the EU side. We shall see once the general election is over if the new Prime Minister is really committed to the basic rights of these people, who in many cases have been contributing to the British economy for years. 

What is more, it would be in the interest of the UK government to go for this early agreement. The EU member states and the European Parliament have made it very clear to the Commission's negotiators that citizens’ rights are a priority. An early agreement, quickly enacted by the UK government, would be seen as a very courageous and sensible decision by many EU leaders. It could well set the tone for the negotiations that are to follow. 
 
 

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Which Harry Potter character is Theresa May? An extremely serious investigation
May 17th, 2017, 07:19 PM

This 10.52" hornbeam wand with a dragon heartstring core has Theresa May written all over it! 

So. After Theresa May told a small, confused child that she enjoys the Harry Potter books at a school in Birmingham yesterday, the Telegraph’s political correspondent asked her which character from the series she thinks she most resembles. Seemingly unimpressed with the question, the Prime Minister responded, “No, you can’t ask me that. I don’t think I’m similar to any of the characters.” You know what that means, guys. It’s time for another round of: making tenuous comparisons between British politics and Harry Potterrrrrrrrrrrr! Here are the 12 Harry Potter characters Theresa May is most like.

Professor Umbridge

Many commenters scrambled to suggest online that Theresa May shares a striking resemblance with Professor Umbridge. Certainly, it’s the easiest comparison to make: Professor Umbridge ensures a strong and stable leadership through a combination of draconian policies, fear of difference, posh coats and the blood of a pubescent male. At least Umbridge likes cats.

Cornelius Fudge

Come on. Doesn’t Theresa May more closely resemble Cornelius Fudge? Chosen to lead as a compromise between extremes, boring, with a capacity for denial and an insistence on plodding along with a single course despite changing circumstances.

Neville Longbottom In A First Year Potions Class

Theresa May and Neville Longbottom In A First Year Potions Class probably wouldn’t have been firm friends – but that’s not for a lack of things in common! Just like Neville Longbottom In A First Year Potions Class, the Prime Minister is unable to answer simple questions, such as “Which Harry Potter character are you most like?”

Nagini

Ah, the old Giant Malicious Snake Inhabiting The Body of A Human Woman Until It Can Be Cast Aside Come The Time Of Attack routine. Think we haven’t seen that one before, Theresa?

The Hand of Glory

Theresa May has more than the odd thing in common with this severed and preserved human hand! Providing light only to the beholder, it works on the principle that basic necessities needed to navigate one’s environment should be preserved only for oneself. Inspiring!

The Quick Quotes-Quill

This feathered implement just screams Theresa! Taking plain and ordinary facts and whipping them into sensational and inaccurate narratives that bear little resemblance to actual events, this pen has been known to demonise the marginalised and protect the privileged.

The Marauder’s Map

This fusty piece of paper could play Theresa May in the biopic! The Marauder’s Map gets up to all sorts of pranks through constant, invasive surveillance on every person in the Wizarding World – who needs the Snooper’s Charter! We bet the Prime Minister would like nothing more than to take a leaf from its roll of parchment. Mischief managed!

The Durmstrang Ship

Wow, you’ll do a double-take glancing at The Durmstrang Ship! After lurking under the surface for the majority of its journey into the spotlight, this “ghostly” vessel chose the perfect time to finally emerge! Once taking centre stage, it anchored itself steadfastly. And strongly.

Helga Hufflepuff’s Cup

It’s said to possess special powers (though none have been demonstrated) – and it contains a fractured evil soul invisible to the human eye. A real doppelgänger for Mrs May!

The Vanishing Cabinet

You could have sworn that there was something inside this polished facade – but upon closer inspection, you’ll see there’s nothing there at all! Haha. Only joking, Theresa. What potentially lies inside the Vanishing Cabinet is far more exciting – an entrance point allowing sinister forces to infiltrate institutions beloved by the nation!

Victor Krum’s Wand

This 10.52" hornbeam wand with a dragon heartstring core has Theresa May written all over it! One of the last ever designed by Mykew Gregorovitch, it is, as Ollivander notes, “rather thicker than one usually sees” and “quite rigid”.

Pius Thicknesse

I know, right? You’re all like “who the hell is Pius Thicknesse?!” and then BAM! He’s only bloody Minister for Magic! 

Warner Bros/Getty