Nick Cohen? How many divisions has he?


My dentist doesn’t like me reading Private Eye. Every fortnight without fail, there is not inconsiderable grinding of teeth. Oh yes.

Of late, this has as often as not been attributable to occasional Decent columnist ‘Ratbiter’. And lo, so it is again this fortnight, as our intrepid neocon takes on Ken Livingstone yet again, with a vivid illustration of what the last post was trying to point out.

You can guess what the content is. Basically it’s the same stuff Martin Bright has been touting about, with a little lily-gilding thrown in. Sheikh Qaradawi blah blah blah Socialist Action yada yada yada Jamaat-e-Islami zzzzzz. There’s also a clear insinuation, but probably not clear enough to be actionable, that the mayor’s office is deliberately stoking up anti-Semitism so as to win votes from those dastardly Mooslims. And a bigging up of former Socialist Action member Atma Singh, who seems to have temporarily displaced Ed Husain as ethnic whistleblower of the month.

This is pretty standard boilerplate. What’s more interesting is the proposition that, while a few months ago Ken looked like a dead cert for re-election, he’s now trailing Boris in the polls. The reason for this, we are given to understand, is that lefties have been abandoning Ken in droves because he’s been too chummy towards uppity ethnics with funny religions.

I think not. If we’re talking about the Decent Left, those guys hate the Cheeky Chappie and have done so for ages, in some cases for decades. It seems more plausible to me that Ken’s unpopularity is not unconnected to the general unpopularity of the Labour Party. Let’s say that the Labour candidate was Oona King or even (Lord help us) Denis MacShane. Would they be doing significantly better than Ken? I rather suspect they would be doing even worse, the Lee Jasper saga notwithstanding.

But this leads me on to another question – just how big is the Decent Left? Is this a significant swing constituency? Let’s try a little mathematical exercise.

It may be best to go back to the Euston Manifesto. You remember the Euston Manifesto, one of the defining documents of this century, yes? No? Well, the Reader’s Digest condensed version goes like this: Norman Geras and Nick Cohen go to the pub. Nick bitches and moans about what a shower of bastards the left are. Norm scribbles a manifesto on the back of a beer mat. (Eustonians like to say there was Serious discussion involved, but I’m sticking with the beer mat theory. It’s the best explanation for the combination of windy truisms with weirdly specific stuff on the Middle East and, er, Linux.) Alan (Not The Minister) Johnson then sets up another one of his thousands of websites, and invites punters to sign the document.

It’s an imperfect measure, but the number of people willing to take the trouble to sign an online manifesto is as good as indicator as we have of the number of people who self-identify as the Decent Left, as opposed to the broader number of people who subscribe to one or another of their propositions without buying their entire bill of goods. And the number was, as I recall, around 3000, which would tally with the similar number who signed Alan NTM’s Unite Against Terror statement. One could quibble with this, of course. There were a few tongue-in-cheek signatures, notably from Ern Malley. And a very large proportion of signatories seemed to live on another continent. But let’s allow 3000 as a ballpark figure for convinced Decents.

Now, the size of “the left” or “the liberal left” or whatever you’re having yourself is much harder to estimate. But let’s note that the Guardian and Independent have a combined daily sale of around 600,000. That gives you something like a ballpark figure. Putting the one figure against the other gives you some perspective, not least on the whinge in the Manifesto about how the Decent Left couldn’t get space in the media. This was always hard to take from the shy and retiring Nick Cohen, or the equally bashful Francis Wheen, not to mention a certain hedge fund manager with a blog who unaccountably gets invited onto Newsnight to discuss Latin American politics, but really – these guys are underrepresented in public discourse? Shyeah.

If we squint a little and look at things from a different angle, that of left sectology, we could also say that the Decent Left is of a roughly comparable size to the Socialist Workers Party. There are of course differences. The SWP, for all its many stupidities, has a distressing tendency to go out and do stuff. The comrades are willing to go out and get their hands dirty agitating for worthwhile causes. More to the point, whether or not you think Lindsey German’s candidacy is a good idea, they have actually got a mayoral candidate and seem willing to go out and campaign for her. This seems a little more constructive than writing columns urging Gordon Brown to deselect Ken and draft in a candidate more to Decency’s taste. Especially since few of the Decents are actually members of the Labour Party.

So you want an alternative? Why not go out and build one? Let’s see a Nick Cohen candidacy – I wouldn’t vote for him, but it would liven things up more than a little, and put the Decent agenda to the broad masses for their consideration. Let a thousand flowers bloom.


  1. Jack R said,

    March 20, 2008 at 1:48 pm

    3,000 is generous. How many at those ‘freedom of speech’ demos (when you take out the non-decent fascists and exiled Iranian communists)

  2. mastershake said,

    March 20, 2008 at 4:13 pm

    As Aarowatch have pointed out, last week it became pretty clear that the Euston Manifesto’s terms mean very little to one of its most prominent signatories, Oliver Kamm…

  3. Phil said,

    March 20, 2008 at 7:37 pm

    You nicked the bruxism line from Chomsky.

    What struck me about that column – and yes, it is teeth-grindingly awful – was how paranoid the reasoning is. Saying that Livingstone insulted the Express guy and told those Iranians to clear off because of unavowed anti-semitism would be daft and offensive, but nothing new – it’s bog-standard Engage reasoning. But the argument here is that Livingstone did those things because he wanted to appear anti-semitic, so as to court the Islamist vote – and he did that because Socialist Action told him to. You see! It all fits together!

    As a long-time reader of Lobster I generally leap to the defence of ‘conspiracy theory’, but this one’s just crazy.

  4. splinteredsunrise said,

    March 21, 2008 at 8:38 am

    If you’re going to nick from anybody, Chomsky has plenty of class.

    I’m not aware of any great ideological convergence between Livingstone and SA, never mind that he’s supposed to be in thrall to them. I see no reason to disbelieve Ken’s story that he employed them because they’re can-do people, and because at the time Labour Party members could be expelled for taking jobs with him.

  5. McGazz said,

    March 22, 2008 at 9:09 am

    “How many at those ‘freedom of speech’ demos (when you take out the non-decent fascists and exiled Iranian communists)”

    I think a lot of the Euston signatories were Libertarian Computer Programmer types who’ll support their cause in any way that involves sitting comfortably at their PC – making them over-represented online (like anarcho-capitalists, or flat tax enthusiasts). Didn’t the Decents’ ‘support the Muslim-bashing cartoonists’ demo pull a crowd of about 300, half of whom were BNP?

  6. Martin Wisse said,

    March 23, 2008 at 5:35 pm

    So you want an alternative? Why not go out and build one? Let’s see a Nick Cohen candidacy

    Silly, the core value of Decentism is that you don’t do anything, you just support the status quo while carping and moaning about how all those lefties are fascists. It’s no coincidence that the Euston manifesto was created by a columnist and a tenured professor.

  7. March 25, 2008 at 12:34 am

    And, it has to be added, Euston has found absolutely no echo outside *a few* leftish blogs. There’s a bigger audience interested in Iain Dale’s breakfasting habits than Euston’s chicken hawk liberal imperialism.

  8. mastershake said,

    March 25, 2008 at 9:05 am

    Eustonians, especially Cohen and Kamm (despite the fact that he disagrees with numerous statements in the EM), get an awful lot more exposure in the media than the popularity of their views really warrants.

    Cohen’s popularity, from what i can tell, now comes from the right wing, who love the way that he has so ably ‘exposed the true face of the left’ – ie, he told them what they wanted to hear. He’s left the New Statesman because they wouldn’t pay him enough and is now supplementing his much-diminshed Observer column by writing for clearly right-wing places like Pajamas media, telling them how the British left should be supporting, er, John McCain. And Kamm has admitted that he gets most of his TV and journalistic gigs because nobody else is willing to toe the neocon party line so strongly, and so mindlessly, after so many clear failures. They’re both printed in the Guaridan and Observer so often because of their unpopularity with the readership – this goes for andrew anthony as well – look how many comments their CIF pieces get. This = money.

    The fact that they, and so many on Harry’s Place, think that Oona King is a far better candidate for London Mayor than the ultra-experienced and actually very good at the job Ken Livingstone says it all – as does the fact that they’re refusing to support Paddick, and some of them are using their ‘protest votes’ not to support a progressive candidate, but to support a reactionary Tory. They’re not interested in anything other than having their own petty gripes with a political faction they no longer belong to backed up.

  9. commentyperson said,

    March 25, 2008 at 9:57 am

    Nick is now recommending a cote for Paddick,
    Nick Cohen
    The Evening Standard
    March 19
    Ken can’t win but I know the man who could still nail Boris

    FOR THE past few months my comrades have been urging me to vote for evil.

    I must forget about Ken Livingstone’s decision to ignore London’s liberal Muslims and ally with the far Right, they say, and banish his Jew-baiting from my mind.

    The condemnation of his own Labour government’s modest proposals to tax Indian tycoons and Russian oligarchs cannot be held against him. Nor should I mention his friendship with speculative developers whose grotesque high-rises will disfigure the London skyline well into the 21st century.

    As for the public money that has disappeared into organisations run by friends of his cronies come on, Nick, you’re a man of the world.

    There’s no need to get on your high horse. Just shrug your shoulders and remember that the only way to stop Boris Johnson is to vote for Livingstone the “lesser evil”. For the past few months my comrades have been urging me to vote for evil.

    But is it? The Standard’s poll this week showed Johnson 12 points ahead. As it stands, Livingstone can’t be re-elected because Johnson is almost home. If his popularity starts to fall, however, the candidate most likely to beat him is Brian Paddick.

    This may seem an odd claim. The Lib-Dems are a distant third, and a vote for Paddick looks wasted. But everywhere I go I meet people caught in a Left-wing dilemma: we don’t want Johnson but we won’t be able to look at our faces in the mirror if we support Livingstone.

    If enough of us were to swing behind Paddick, however, London’s perverse election system would be on our side. Here’s how. If no candidate gets 50 per cent of first preferences, then a run-off takes place. The second choices of voters for the eliminated minor parties are then counted and added to the leaders’ totals.

    Obviously, hardly anyone who put Livingstone as their first choice will put Johnson as their second, and vice versa. But Paddick will be the second preference for most Labour and Tory supporters.

    It will take nothing less than a mass defection of voters from Ken to the Lib-Dems in the first round but if Paddick can get to the last round, he wins because a majority of secondchoice votes will come to him. But if Johnson is ahead and faces a final showdown with Livingstone, Johnson wins because the second preferences of Liberal-Democrat voters split evenly between Tories and Labour, as you would expect them to.

    It’s a sign of how malicious and incompetent the Mayor’s campaign has been that he has smeared his rival as a “racist,” which Johnson isn’t, instead of a buffoon, which is how he often seems to many. Perhaps Johnson will give him a break he doesn’t deserve by making a spectacular blunder between now and polling day.

    A lot can change, in other words. But as things stand, if you want a candidate who can reform the police, take a Leftish stand on social, environmental and economic issues and beat the Conservatives, then Paddick, not Livingstone, is your man..

  10. mastershake said,

    March 25, 2008 at 10:22 am

    So evidently now his call for Labour to get a new candidate (despite Ken’s clear popularity within the party) has failed he’s been forced into actually ‘engaging with the issue’.

    It will take nothing less than a mass defection of voters from Ken to the Lib-Dems in the first round

    well yes, which is why it is clearly never goign to happen. what a terrible article. spends more time bashing ken than promoting Paddick. Plus ca change for the Decents.

  11. yorksranter said,

    March 25, 2008 at 5:00 pm

    Fuck off, Cohen; we don’t want you, bad luck bird!

  12. Paulie said,

    March 25, 2008 at 6:29 pm

    As one of those dastardly Decentists, I’ll be voting for Ken, but not that happily. You are probably right that the self-styled spokespeople for the ‘decents’ only can wheel out a couple of thousand people who would describe themselves as politically active. But there’s a wider issue than that.

    A lot of Labour voters liked Livingstone’s cheap bus programme in the 1980s, but were spitting mad about his Joe Strummerish posturing with Gerry Adams. The same reaction is got from his perceived anti-semitism (I don’t subscribe to this, but there are plenty of non-lefties who are happy to make this charge stick over at Evening Standard towers) and his involvement with unrepresentative Islamist groups in London.

    I regard him as a great mayor who is damaging his chances of re-election by getting involved in things he doesn’t need to. And, do you need to be reminded that Qaradawi is murderously anti-semitic, murderously anti-gay, and not of a mind to leave your own mother without a bit of … er… *flesh* missing.

    Why doesn’t this bother you at all?

  13. WorldbyStorm said,

    March 25, 2008 at 11:49 pm

    It’s an infuriating approach dressed up in the language of principle. I really have to wonder at just how self-regarding so many of the Decents appear to have become. I’ve no problem with Paddick, on some levels he’s reasonably admirable. But Livingstone flawed and all is the only horse worth backing in this race with a chance of winning. As for the analysis of Johnson as quoted in 9… hmmm, that’s very charitable indeed compared with the stuff heaped on Livingstone.

  14. mastershake said,

    March 26, 2008 at 9:00 am

    I regard him as a great mayor who is damaging his chances of re-election by getting involved in things he doesn’t need to.

    Thing is, the stuff he’s being criticised for – by you – is stuff that he’s not ‘getting into’, it’s stuff he did, on a one-off, ages ago. Talking to Qaradawi doesn’t make Ken a believer in any of the things Qaradawi believes in. When Blair was photographed with Gerry Adams, who was actually responsible for terrorist activities as opposed to Qaradawi’s condoning Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation, did it ‘bother’ you in the same way? It certainly bothered me rather more that, for example, Tony Blair, who had the power to stop it, did not criticise a single bomb which Israel dropped on Lebanon 2 years ago.

    Boris employed Taki – a self-confessed anti-Semite and racist – for his entire reign as editor of the spectator. and if you don’t vote for Ken, you’re voting for Boris. Who will disband the GLA if he gets the chance.

  15. ad said,

    March 26, 2008 at 6:33 pm

    If we squint a little and look at things from a different angle, that of left sectology, we could also say that the Decent Left is of a roughly comparable size to the Socialist Workers Party.

    So the Decent Left is about the same size of the Hard Left? Rarely enough to swing an election, but if they did move over to the Decent Right for some length if time, they might take a lot of floating voters with them.

  16. andyinswindon said,

    March 26, 2008 at 6:57 pm

    Is Qaradawi “murderously anti-gay”.

    he wrote in a book FORTY EIGHT years ago, something that was very anti-gay, but at a time when homosexuality was also illegal in for example the UK and USA. And he has never repeated it I believe. He was merely refelcting the common sense views of his time and place.

  17. Phil said,

    March 26, 2008 at 7:32 pm

    As it stands, Livingstone can’t be re-elected because Johnson is almost home. If his popularity starts to fall, however, the candidate most likely to beat him is Brian Paddick.

    This may seem an odd claim.

    You can say that again. If Johnson’s popularity falls below the level of Livingstone’s, the candidate in first place at the end of round 1 will be Livingstone. If Johnson’s popularity starts to fall and there’s mass defection of reluctant Labour supporters to Paddick, Paddick could finish up in second place and perhaps come through in the second round. Cohen dodges between describing the situation we’re in and the situation we would be in if everyone did as he said. “It’ll work because… well, this is how it would work.”

    As for Livingstone’s campaign, it strikes me that not portraying Boris as a buffoon is a sign of both political and tactical intelligence – because (a) he isn’t and (b) looking like a buffoon evidently doesn’t cost him votes. But what really got my goat was that casual reference to Ken’s “jew-baiting”, as if it was established fact that Ken regularly attacks Jews as Jews. Perhaps it is if you read the Evening Standard.

  18. mastershake said,

    March 27, 2008 at 8:49 am

    looking like a buffoon evidently doesn’t cost him votes.

    This is what i find so frustrating about Cohen on Boris in general. He seems to regard him as a bit of a joke, and yet this joke is far ahead in the polls at the moment. So surely he needs some ‘serious’ scrutiny from ‘serious’ political commentators like Cohen? But oh no, what really matters is the fact that Ken went to Gerry Healey’s funeral almost 20 years ago. And Boris is just a bit funny isn’t he? even if he has no real policies, isn’t a londoner, and would abolish the position of mayor if given the chance…

  19. Matthew said,

    March 27, 2008 at 10:39 pm

    “If we’re talking about the Decent Left, those guys hate the Cheeky Chappie and have done so for ages, in some cases for decades.”

    Nick Cohen was a supporter of Livingstone’s in 2000 – urging him to stand even. This is peculiar given Livingstone had already attended Gerry Healey’s funeral at this point.

  20. Matthew said,

    March 27, 2008 at 10:42 pm

    Also, Nick’s plan to vote for paddick, is better than Oliver Kamm’s, which was to urge a “write-in” campaign for Oona King, despite the fact that ‘write-ins’ simply spoil the ballot paper. On the other hand if more of his readers are Tories than Labour this would help Livingstone, so perhaps it was more clever than it seemed.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: