Late in life, I have become a convert to the beautiful game | Jonathan Freedland

I was sceptical about a certain strain of middle-class fan, but now I know the thrill of belonging to the football tribe

II've spent much of this week following a leadership crisis, aiming to read every news item and key tweet, calling the odd well-informed source, gripped by the drama of the story. Don't worry, you haven't missed some fresh challenge at the top of the Liberal Democrats or Tories – that treat is in the diary for next week, after Eastleigh. No, the crisis I have in mind has been played out on the back rather than the front pages. At its centre is Arsène Wenger, manager for 17 years of Arsenal football club.

Non-football fans needn't turn the page just yet. Until not long ago, I numbered myself among you. I tuned in for the big international tournaments but stayed indifferent to the rest. Yet steadily, over the last two or three years, I've undergone a change. Like the man who waits till middle age to discover rock'n'roll, I have now, in my mid-40s, become a convert to the beautiful game.

Until this transformation, I confess I was sceptical about a certain strain of middle-class football fan, suspicious most of all of political types' boasted enthusiasm for the terraces. Among the New Labour crowd, I always thought it reeked of faux populism, a pretended connection to working-class culture, equivalent to the Blairite glottal stop and dropped "t". At best it seemed a pretty lame form of social icebreaker, the permitted masculine form of small-talk before getting down to business. (For Gordon Brown, a genuine Raith Rovers fanatic, football was indispensable. He mistakenly had one national newspaper editor down as an Arsenal fan, beginning every encounter with a long analysis of Wenger's men, with the editor in question bluffing wildly, too polite to tell the PM he'd got it wrong.)

Now I think I might have judged them all too harshly. The passion was probably sincere, perhaps all the more so because they were involved in high-tension politics, for reasons I'll come to. After all, I see what's happened to me. I now read this paper's football writers almost as closely as I read its political correspondents. I check the New York Times and Haaretz websites as regularly as ever, but now sneak a peak at the excellent Gunnerblog and Arseblog. Arsenal's fixtures are in my diary; I have found myself organising travel plans around home games. I own a red and white scarf. I have become a fan.

I usually blame my sons. Now aged eight and 11, they became hooked before I did. I encouraged it: Arsenal were our local team, the Emirates stadium within walking distance, and I knew from experience that being a football know-nothing is no fun for boys their age. I took them to the odd match when I could. And when a friend of a friend had season tickets going spare for a year, I took them. (I know: not the best season to start watching Arsenal.)

But those are just the circumstances, not an explanation for what has become a mild addiction. In conversations with those who've been at this much, much longer than me, the first reason offered is the simplest one: that football offers a thrilling spectacle rarely matched anywhere else. "It's all-consuming in a way that theatre, film or fiction can never be," David Baddiel told me. Remember, Baddiel is now a respected writer of fiction himself, albeit one who admits his devotion to Chelsea is so great that when he sees his eight year old play the Fifa 13 videogame, a kind of Pavlovian reaction kicks in, forcing him to watch – and support – even the virtual, pixels-only version of his team. Baddiel concedes that ballet or dance might offer similar awesome, gravity-defying feats, but not in the same spontaneous, unscripted way – a sequence of moves "that will only ever happen once" and which are, because born of competition, inherently real. Look no further than Sunday's Capital One Cup final, pitting Swansea against Bradford City, the giant-killers from football's fourth tier. "You couldn't script Bradford at a cup final," says Sunder Katwala, founder of the British Future thinktank and an Evertonian. "It would be too schmaltzy."

That certainly captures some of the hold the game exerts, but not all of it. Earlier this week Arsenal fan Piers Morgan tweeted that he had spent ten and a half hours on a flight from London to Los Angeles seething about Wenger. Yet Morgan is not short of action in his life, interviewing ex-presidents and the like. Why obsess over 11 men on a football pitch? "Escapism," was his answer.

Many will identify with that. Plenty of people, grappling with either personal heartache or the cares of the world, find a couple of hours absorbed in football a refuge. I know of several people steeped in the endless, apparently futile search for Middle East peace who stop everything to watch their team – Arsenal, as it happens – even if that means finding an Amman or Cairo cafe with a satellite dish at odd hours of the day or night. It's obsessive and sometimes painful, but it's a break from carrying the usual weight on their shoulders. Which is why the football enthusiasm of the New Labour folk was probably real rather than fake: they needed the escape.

Most fans will admit that other, more serious, things are going on in the world. But, as one put it to me, the serious stuff feels remote, separate from their lives. But when they're at a game, they are part of the crowd, part of the spectacle. This, surely, gets closer to it. Supporting a football team is about belonging to a tribe.

This is what surprises me most about my own new enthusiasm. For I'm not short of affiliations and identities, all of them strongly felt. But now, relatively late on, I have added another one. I might admire the beauty of a Barcelona or Madrid, but it never matches the thrill of seeing my own team score, the kinship I feel with my fellow supporters at that moment.

Tribalism tends to get a bad press, especially when applied to football. Often for good reason: witness the repulsive violence of Lyon-supporting thugs directed this week at travelling Spurs fans, although that episode appears to owe more to an alarming upsurge in French antisemitism than to football. But tribes can be open as well as closed, welcoming in as well as shutting out.

Katwala credits football for much of the change in British attitudes to race. As a boy he remembers being surrounded by fellow fans chanting, "Everton are white". But as fans saw black players score for their clubs every Saturday, they were confronted with a choice: either drop the racism or stop supporting their team. They couldn't conceive of doing the latter – and slowly this society changed.

I know I've come to this party late. But as I prepare for tomorrow's game, I'm glad I'm here.

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Ed Balls should ‘fall on his sword’? What madness | Jonathan Freedland

The shadow chancellor is a political powerhouse. For Labour's sake I hope he ignores Anthony Seldon's call for him to quit

One hesitates to challenge so august an authority as Anthony Seldon – fearing a visit to the headteacher's study, as it were – but his call today for Ed Balls to "fall on his sword" is so wide of the mark, it needs to be taken on.

Seldon, who doubles as a political biographer and master of Wellington College, has written an open letter to the shadow chancellor, published in the New Statesman. It sets out why it would be best for Ed Miliband, the Labour party, Balls himself and his wife Yvette Cooper, if Balls were to quit frontline politics until, say, 2017. Seldon suggests Balls could use the next four years following Seldon's own line of work, writing a biography of George Brown or teaching in a school. Or perhaps studying for an MBA. Anything but Westminster.

The master reckons this will rid Ed Miliband of the stale breath of the Brown era and the stench of its hardball tactics. It would create room for the return of David Miliband and Alistair Darling – though which one should get Balls's job, Seldon does not quite say. It would make Labour more appealing as a coalition partner to the Lib Dems, should parliament be hung again in 2015. It would allow Cooper a clear run. And it would be better for the Balls-Cooper children to have their dad around more.

Put aside the cheek of Seldon advising Balls on how to bring up his kids. (Presumably if Balls wanted that advice he could have paid Wellington's sizeable fees to get it.) Seldon is wrong on the politics too.

"Economic credibility would be more readily restored with your departure," he tells Balls, adding: "Your critique of the government's austerity strategy may never win back public trust and your proposals for the economy will never convince." But what economic credibility Labour now has it owes largely to the shadow chancellor, for the simple reason that he called it right when so many others called it wrong. In August 2010, he delivered a speech at Bloomberg's London HQ, which broke the consensus of the time, explaining that austerity would not nurture recovery but choke it. Some laughed off his warning of a double-dip recession. But Balls – a first-class economist before he was a politician – was right and they were wrong. As I've argued before, Balls is one of the very few people in politics able to utter those golden words: I told you so.

As George Osborne finds it ever harder to generate growth, as he presides over borrowing that has swollen not shrunk, as previous allies, including the IMF, suggest the austerity medicine is not working, Balls becomes ever more vindicated. Asking a politician to resign when they get things wrong is one thing. Demanding they quit when they get things right is a kind of madness.

Seldon might perhaps ask himself why it is David Cameron turns a shade of puce every time he finds himself facing Balls. Why is it the Tories hate him so? In politics, such loathing is a compliment. It suggests Balls is one of the few Labour figures they fear. The same goes for the right-leaning commentariat's regular demand that Balls go, a chorus Seldon has now joined. No one ever demanded the head of Gavin Strang.

Curiously, Seldon also mentions Europe, casting Balls as an opponent of a referendum. That will come as news to the Balls-ites in the shadow cabinet who were said to be agitating for Miliband to pre-empt Cameron and call for a Europe plebiscite. It also draws attention, in a way unhelpful to Seldon's argument, to Balls's Europe record. As the biographer surely knows, the loudest voice in New Labour's inner councils against joining the euro always belonged to one Ed Balls.

But one does not have to be convinced of Balls's talents to oppose his departure. Many have been surprised and impressed by the degree of Labour unity since 2010. Most of the credit for that belongs to Ed Miliband. But it's also partly a function of the fact that the powerful Balls camp feels represented at the top table. Exile Balls and there will be a sizable group that believes it lacks a voice. Resentments will grow. Call it a team of rivals, pissing out of the tent or keeping your enemies closer – the idea is the same. It's best for Ed M to have Ed B on board.

For Labour's sake and his own, Balls should stay exactly where he is. © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Pope Benedict has to answer for his inaction on child abuse | Jonathan Freedland

The pope did too little to deal with sex offenders in the priesthood. He must be held to account – in this life, not the next

We should not let Benedict XVI go quietly. One hesitates to say so, because he is elderly and frail and, much more importantly, because he is revered by many millions. Outsiders should tread warily, mindful that the papacy is central to Catholics’ faith, even to their very identity. We ought to signal from the start that we mean no attack on Catholics or their beliefs when we say that the departing occupant of that high office has a moral, if not legal, case to answer. But such a case there is.

The heart of the matter is the rape and abuse of children by Catholic priests. The child abuse scandal in the Catholic church has spread to some 65 countries, with victims estimated to be in the many thousands: one survivors’ group has 12,000 members, each with a heartbreaking story to tell. There will be many more victims who have stayed silent. Few would deny that this is the greatest single moral issue confronting the church.

For some, Benedict has proven himself on the right side of this most searching question. They note that he has closed loopholes in canon law, that he has centralised the handling of cases – rather than allowing each diocese to do its own thing – and that he has, above all, apologised on behalf of the church. In 2010, as cases emerged with alarming frequency – not just in the US, where the first major revelations came to light, but in Germany, Switzerland, Holland and elsewhere – the pope sent a message to the Irish victims of abuse: “You have suffered grievously and I am truly sorry.” He acknowledged that their dignity had been “violated” and said the guilty men would “answer before God”.

His defenders further note the action he took in the specific case of Marcial Maciel, the Mexican priest who had abused seminary students for decades and had secretly fathered sons – boys Maciel had also raped and abused. Early in his papacy, Benedict stripped Maciel of his ministry and confined him to a life of “penitence and prayer”. To the new pope’s admirers, such resolve was the natural consequence of his previous job, heading since 1981 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – the office previously known as the Inquisition. Shortly before becoming pope, the then Joseph Ratzinger was tasked with reviewing some 3,000 outstanding abuse cases. It’s said that he read the harrowing details and “became disgusted”.

But that account is, sadly, far from the whole picture. For Benedict has to be judged not only by his record as pontiff, but also in that pivotal, earlier role as Vatican enforcer. Among his responsibilities over many years was deciding the fate of those priests accused of crimes, including child abuse. It means that if the charge against the Vatican is that it turned an institutional blind eye to children’s pain across several decades – hushing up the evidence, covering for rapist priests, moving them from diocese to diocese – then the blindness was, in significant part, Benedict’s.

The evidence of church delay and indifference, if not obstruction, throughout the 80s and 90s is copious – and it came about when the now departing pope was the Vatican’s most senior official, second in this matter only to John Paul II. So rather than giving Benedict credit for dealing with Maciel in 2006, we should be asking why Ratzinger did not deal with him much, much earlier.

But the guilt is not only of this institutional variety. Those decisions Ratzinger took directly are equally suspect. When he was the archbishop of Munich in 1980, the case of Peter Hullermann crossed his desk. Father Hullermann was accused of multiple crimes of abuse. In one case he had taken an 11-year-old boy hiking in the mountains, plied him with drink, locked the door, stripped him and forced him to perform oral sex. Yet Hullermann’s punishment was simply to be moved from Essen to Munich for therapy. Within days, this known sexual predator was given pastoral duties with access to young people – and he promptly abused again. Benedict’s defenders have long insisted those fateful decisions were taken by his deputy. But the crucial documents, when they surfaced, said otherwise.

No less disturbing is the case of the California priest Stephen Kiesle, convicted of tying up and molesting two young boys in a church rectory. His superiors wrote to Rome in 1981, requesting that the abuser be defrocked, warning of “scandal” if he remained. After an initial request for more information, Ratzinger took four years to deliver his reply. It came in Latin – and said his office needed more time to consider the case. No doubt grateful for the delay, Kiesle was able to return to one of his former parishes – in the youth ministry.

It was a similar story with Father Lawrence C Murphy of Wisconsin, tormentor of as many as 200 boys in his care at a special school for the deaf, telling them God wanted him to teach them about sex. Eventually the archbishop of Milwaukee wrote to Rome – to Ratzinger – demanding action. Once again, the future pope failed to answer. Eventually a secret, canonical trial of Murphy began in 1996, ordered by Ratzinger’s deputy. But the trial was halted after the abuser wrote a personal plea to Ratzinger, requesting that he be allowed to “live out the time that I have left in the dignity of my priesthood”. He was granted his wish, dying peacefully, buried in his priestly vestments. Those children, deaf and especially vulnerable, never saw justice.

Whatever warm words he uttered as pope, it is this record of action – and inaction – that matters more. Benedict never acted against the top echelon of cardinals and bishops who had covered up crimes and obstructed justice. After Cardinal Law had fled Boston – just before state troopers arrived bearing subpoenas over claims of child abuse by priests in his archdiocese – he found safe harbour in Benedict’s Vatican. When those anxious to prosecute their abusers asked that the Vatican archives be opened, he kept the files shut. The truth is, what little this pope did to deal with the evil of child abuse came too late, and only under duress.

As an ex-pope, Benedict will no longer enjoy the sovereign immunity available to heads of state. A prosecution is possible – but only in theory. Who would hand him over? Certainly not the Italian authorities. For all that, despite his age and the reverence of the office he soon vacates, he should answer for his actions. Not only in the next life, but here and now.

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A-level history taught using ‘Eurosceptic’ textbook

Disadvantages of Britain joining the EEC in 1973 given more than five times the space over advantages in ‘alarming’ book

A-level history students are using a textbook that teaches a highly partisan, strongly Eurosceptic view of Britain’s entry into the European Union, MPs have claimed.

The book, which is entitled Britain 1945-2007, by the respected historian Michael Lynch, has been criticised for a biased view of Britain’s first steps towards the common market.

In one section, it devotes five lines to the advantages of Britain having joined the European Economic Community – and 26 lines to the disadvantages. The book is thought to be taught in large numbers of British schools, part of a bestselling series for A-level students.

It says of Britain’s 1973 entry into the common market and subsequent referendum: “The British people were never given the full story … the people were kept in the dark. They were constantly told there were no political implications attaching to Britain’s joining, that it was purely an economic arrangement.” The book goes on to call that argument a “deception”.

Earlier, the book says of the 1975 pro-entry campaign, “Stress was laid on the economic advantages Britain would gain. But these proved illusory.”

Julian Huppert, the Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge, said that the book is “clearly” very alarming. “People should be taught a fair and balanced view of history to make up their own minds what they think of it. It is deeply worrying that a recognised text book should be presenting a one-sided Eurosceptic account such as this,” he said.

Stephen Dorrell MP, former cabinet minister and patron of the pro-European Tory Reform Group, said that the book was biased, but that most teenagers would be able to see through its arguments.

“That is a tendentious version of events, but I would hope that most 17- and 18-year-olds are perfectly able to see that line of argument for what it is … The one sure way of creating a reaction in a 17-year-old is to pump a line that is not supported by an open mind,” he said.

The book, first published in 2008, is part of Hodder Education’s “Access to History” series, which is said to be the market leader in A-level history. Jim Belben, Hodder’s editorial director for humanities and social sciences, insisted Lynch was “authoritative” and that the book was not designed to be a standalone history covering all viewpoints.

“History is a dialectic subject with different interpretations,” he said, adding that if teachers found Lynch’s book too one-sided then they could address that by offering their students other books.

“If our book is not providing alternative viewpoints, then that’s something that should be remedied in the history teaching context. History is full of opinion,” he said.

A spokeswoman for the education department said that the book is not on the A-level syllabus, but may be on lists of suggested reading provided by exam boards. Those lists are not provided by the department but can be on the suggested reading lists, she said. © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Will Ed Miliband be an Obama or an Hollande? | Jonathan Freedland

The Labour party leader faces a choice he’s still not made: to keep ambitions modest, or to offer a genuinely radical vision

Ah, the temptations of political opportunism. For Ed Miliband the temptation comes daily, courtesy of a government that can’t help but present opportunities for opportunist attack. True, David Cameron will get good headlines this weekend, thanks to his budget-cutting success in Brussels. But even Cameron’s successes usually contain just enough failure to allow for a Labour swipe. The opposition can be glad the overall EU budget is coming down, but note that Britain’s contribution will be going up: just as the equal marriage vote in the Commons allowed Miliband simultaneously to compliment Cameron for standing up for equality and tease him for failing to win over half his fellow Tory MPs.

Labour could keep taking shots like this from now till 2015. One moment mocking Michael Gove’s GCSE U-turn, the next savouring the sight of yellow-on-blue violence in Eastleigh, as the coalition partners take lumps out of each other in the battle to replace Chris Huhne. All the while, watching the polls tick over nicely, with Labour’s lead in, or close to, double figures. Miliband could comfort himself that this steady current could carry him to Downing Street. He doesn’t need to be Barack Obama in 2008, surfing a wave of charisma and public fervour. He could be François Hollande in 2012, the unexciting alternative who ends up in power simply because the electorate reject the incumbent.

So why knock yourself out trying to craft a grand, ambitious vision? When Cameron was in opposition, he too was surrounded by chatterers who demanded a big idea. He placated them with the “big society” – and look how well that worked. It spawned a thousand newspaper columns but famously flopped on the doorstep. It was, in the jargon, “non-retail”.

Still, don’t expect Miliband to give in to temptation, sending out surrogates to taunt the government over horseburgers and the like while he keeps his head down. For one thing, he knows it’s in the nature of political froth to evaporate, leaving no trace come election day. His team believe voters want to know what their would-be leaders stand for, that they expect the opposition to provide more than a running commentary on events. There was some disquiet in Labour’s ruling circle over the party’s initial response to Gove’s “Ebacctrack”, worrying that simply slamming the education secretary for a “humiliating climbdown” was insufficient: better to argue that his U-turn arose from a narrow, outdated view of learning. “We’ve got to do explanation, not just description,” as one senior figure puts it. Above all, they say, mere reactive assault doesn’t suit the leader’s personality. He’s an intellectual, interested in ideas. He won’t want to face the voters without a unifying, cohering Labour vision. But what will it be? Already a battle is under way to define it, one that will inevitably shape the conduct of the next Labour government.

The current offering is “one-nation Labour”, the slogan presented with panache at last autumn’s conference. Its stated goal is “a country we rebuild together in which everyone plays their part”. That translates into a call for unity – in contrast, says Labour, with the Tory division of Britons into strivers and skivers – and for both opportunities and responsibilities to be spread from top to bottom. It means Starbucks can make big profits, but it also has a duty to pay its taxes. And that an 18-year-old should have both the chance to find a job and the responsibility to take it.

Miliband himself refers to one nation as the “animating idea” that should run through everything Labour does, determining both ends and means. Those less enamoured suggest the slogan is baggy, capable of meaning everything and therefore nothing. But that breadth currently serves a useful purpose, allowing it to encompass a whole range of ideas bubbling below the surface – all of which can be handily described as one nation but about which there is, in fact, no Labour consensus.

On the economy, for example, there is still no settled view about whether the next Labour government’s prime task is to deliver a shot of Keynesian adrenaline to stimulate the economy back to growth, or to embark on the more radical mission of remaking capitalism itself. The former position is associated, not always fairly, with the shadow chancellor, Ed Balls. The latter notion seems closer to the thinking of Miliband himself, who regularly faults the last Labour government – in which Balls was a key economic player – for demanding too little responsibility from those at the top, just so long as they kept the tax receipts rolling into the Treasury coffers.

But there are similar differences on the other big questions of the age. On welfare, Labour’s day-to-day approach is to challenge the coalition over this or that spending cut, inevitably leaving the impression that Labour in power would simply reverse the cuts and spend as before. Another view was visible, however, in the speech delivered this week by Jon Cruddas, head of Labour’s policy review. “Simply opposing the cuts without an alternative is no good,” he said.

He and the Blue Labour grouping around him talk of an entirely new way of doing welfare, in which the business of citizens caring for one another would no longer be “outsourced” to the state, but be done directly, whether in families or through associations – the local, mutual and co-operative societies that used to be part of Labour history but which withered long ago. The talk is of a “relational welfare” system, rather than what Blue types call “the contractual, transactional” apparatus in place since 1945 and treated as sacred by parts of the Labour tribe ever since.

The NHS is the clearest example. Some would channel all their energies into attritional trench warfare against the government over cuts and closures, arguing that the last thing NHS staff or patients want is yet another reorganisation of the health service. Others, emboldened by this week’s report into shocking conditions at Mid Staffordshire, argue that the H in NHS does not stand for holy, and reforms there are long overdue – even if that means taking on trade unions likely to oppose the Blue Labour vision of workers sitting on boards, sharing responsibility with managers.

These are different views, all of which can take shelter under the roomy banner of one nation. For now the debate between them poses no great problem: if anything, it’s healthy. But the next election is only two years away, closer than you think. Labour has some big decisions to take, whether to keep its ambitions modest – or offer a genuinely radical vision. I asked one Labour figure in which camp Miliband belonged. He paused, before singing the old 1970s hit: Stuck in the Middle with You. Eventually, the leader will have to make his choice.

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Gove U-turn on GCSEs: the moment cabinet’s golden boy dropped the ball | Jonathan Freedland

Once Gove could look on with disdainful pity at his colleagues' clumsiness. This U-turn will weaken his leadership chances

Besides the tens of thousands of teenagers now studying for GCSEs, as well as their anxious parents and the nation's headteachers, there is another – albeit smaller – group that will be smiling at the news of Michael Gove's U-turn on his plan to scrap GCSEs. Key members of this group – George Osborne and Boris Johnson – could be spotted around Rupert Murdoch's Mayfair dining table last month (where Gove himself could be found the very next evening), but others in the elite club include Theresa May, Jeremy Hunt and Grant Shapps.

The group in question are the men and women who hope one day to succeed David Cameron as Tory leader. All of them will take a tactfully disguised pleasure in Gove's embarrassment. For the previously shiny Gove brand has just taken a bad dent.

Until now, fans of the education secretary liked to tout him as a rare success story in a cabinet of underachievers. While Osborne could be blamed for a woeful economy and the disastrous budget of 2012, while May and Hunt have had their share of spectacular mess-ups, from Abu Qatada to BSkyB, Gove had appeared to be the government's smoothest operator. Both he and Andrew Lansley set out in 2010 to be grand reformers in their respective fields of education and health, but where Lansley messed up – reshuffled out of trouble last autumn – Gove came through, staying in post as many of his colleagues and rivals were moved on.

Yet now what were meant to be an unusually safe pair of hands are found to have dropped the ball. He and his acolytes insist this is no more than a minor "tweak", a tactical retreat on a technicality in order to ensure victory in the wider war. But such nuances carry little weight in the bearpit of Westminster. There he has given Labour the chance to talk of a "humiliating climbdown" and to coin the hashtag #Ebacctrack.

The government itself is damaged, too: the list of policy U-turns now stands, at the Guardian's latest count, at 35. The Telegraph puts the figure even higher. That the press on both the left and right is counting is the problem.

Once Gove could look on with disdainful pity at his colleagues' clumsiness (though he was not himself immune). But now he has undertaken what his enemies will call a big, rubber-burning U-turn of his own, forced on him because the experts in the field told him his policy was a recipe for chaos, rushed and poorly thought through. He is still a strong figure in this government. But he just got a bit weaker. © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Chris Huhne resigns: this is a problem for all parties | Jonathan Freedland

A winter of discontent looms, with Lib Dems and Tories fighting for his Eastleigh seat, Labour watching on – and Nigel Farage as wild card

As Richard III was disinterred in Leicester, so begins what could be an especially bleak winter of discontent for at least one of the political parties – if not for politics itself.

The resignation of Chris Huhne, following his guilty plea to the charge of perverting the course of justice, is bad news first for the way politics is seen in Britain. Just as the expenses affair did not merely discredit those individual MPs guilty of misconduct but the entire political class, so Huhne's admission damages all politicians. The cynics have long charged that you can't believe a word that comes out of their mouths and Huhne will be cited as Exhibit One. He repeatedly told interviewers to their face that he was innocent, maintaining that front until the very end. Yet now we have his word for it: he lied.

The more specific casualty will, inevitably, be his party. The Lib Dems already had a serious trust problem, thanks to Nick Clegg's broken promises – the pledge over tuition fees being the most blatant. Huhne, who came within a whisker of beating Clegg to the leadership, is now exposed as a deceiver of a graver variety. It will be very hard for senior Lib Dems to utter the words "trust us" without having either a Huhne gag or a tuition fees reminder thrust back in their face.

The party will now go into a byelection campaign hoping to limit the damage. If they manage to win the seat in such inauspicious circumstances, that will be a large boost to morale. The number crunchers say the party's prospects are better than you might think, noting that Huhne's former constituency of Eastleigh is one of the few places where the Lib Dems have gained council seats since the coalition was formed in 2010. They outnumber Tories in the chamber there by 40 to 4. But byelections are unpredictable. If that advantage is somehow overturned, it will have Lib Dems contemplating the wipeout that could face them in 2015.

That sound you can already hear is political observers licking their chops, for Eastleigh offers up the intriguing prospect of a dogfight between the two coalition parties: a Tory-Lib Dem marginal. There are dangers here for David Cameron. If he campaigns hard, getting stuck in personally, and doesn't win, it will strengthen the malcontents currently branding him a loser. If he keeps his distance, those same malcontents will accuse him of playing soft to make things easier for his Lib Dem partners (a repeat of the accusation made during 2011's Oldham East and Saddleworth byelection). So he will need to throw everything at winning, which could mean a very testy February around the coalition cabinet table.

The wild card, as so often, is Ukip. Nigel Farage is already under pressure to stand. If he doesn't, he'll look "frit". He needs to do what smaller parties – the Greens, Respect – have already achieved and win a Westminster seat. But if he stands and loses, that would slow Ukip's current momentum. Worse, if his candidacy were to divide the Tory vote and let in the Lib Dem then Cameron has a debating point that he will milk hard: this is what happens when you play games and don't vote Tory.

Watching it all will be Labour. Ed Miliband can choose to let the other parties take lumps out of each other, knowing that Labour's 10% vote in 2010 leaves little pressure on him to do well. Or he can do all he can to persuade erstwhile tactical voters that it's time they came home to Labour – that voting Lib Dem to stop the Tory makes no sense in the era of coalition. A strong Labour showing in a southern English seat will be the perfect start for Miliband's 2013.

And to think all this was set in train by a series of stupid, utterly avoidable decisions by one man. That's the thing about politics. They call it science, but it's all too human. © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

If the Chinese dragon is so mighty, why is it trembling inside? | Jonathan Freedland

Beijing's alleged hacking of the New York Times is a sign of both the regime's huge power – and its fear of a Chinese spring

As luck would have it, I was in Beijing when word came of China's apparent hacking of the New York Times. The newspaper says it became the target of sustained cyber-attack immediately after it had revealed the vast fortune – estimated as "at least $2.7bn" – amassed by the family of China's outgoing premier, Wen Jiabao. Among the dead giveaways: hostile activity on the NYT's system dropped off during Chinese public holidays. It seems even state-sponsored hackers need a day off.

If CCTV, China's state broadcaster – now with its own 24-hour, English-language news channel – mentioned the story at all, then I missed it. But it raises an intriguing question: was this the act of a regime that is strong or weak? It takes nerve to attack a prestige institution of the global superpower. But it also looks nervy to be so clearly rattled by one disobliging media report. So which is it? After a week immersed in conversation with Chinese scholars, foreign diplomats and NGO observers, it's hard to disagree with the analyst who told me the answer is both: China's rulers are simultaneously "hugely powerful and hugely insecure".

Put the question another way. Two years ago, when the Arab spring first blossomed, there began a global guessing game as to who would be next. By rights, China should have been an obvious candidate. It's ruled by an authoritarian government, the trappings of totalitarianism still in place. (For a first-time visitor, it can be a shock to see the retro slogans – "Long Live the Spirit of the 18th Congress!" – projected on giant, high-definition TV screens, often alongside ads for western brands. I spotted a demand for "Patriotism, Innovation, Inclusiveness, Virtue" directly opposite a poster for L'Oreal Men Expert Hydrating Gel. That's modern Beijing: a cross between 1984 and a Westfield centre.) Add in public frustration with both widening inequality and the brazen corruption typified by the Wen case, and the ingredients for a Chinese spring should be in place.

And yet the notion is barely discussed, the prospect of a serious challenge to the regime regarded as somewhere between remote and nonexistent. The first explanation is the most obvious: the Chinese people are getting richer. One estimate says 300 million regard themselves as direct beneficiaries of the Chinese economic success story with a stake in maintaining the status quo. The novelist and law professor He Jiahong sees the difference between his students now and those he taught before 1989: today's generation, born after those crushed protests, has no interest in politics, only in getting on and making money. "They want a peaceful life," he told me. They suspect political action "would only bring chaos, like in Egypt".

Others suggest that, despite the absence of democracy, many Chinese people hardly believe themselves oppressed. So long as they don't criticise the ruling elite directly, they have fairly broad freedom of speech, able to vent on Chinese social networks such as Weibo without fearing a midnight knock on the door – a useful safety valve for the regime, ensuring dissent does not become so pent-up it eventually explodes.

It helps the authorities that public anger can be easily directed at an alternative target, namely Japan. Nationalist fury at China's enduring enemy is real and rising, fuelled by the dispute over the islands in the East China Sea. A sales assistant in the electronics department at a Beijing Walmart told me that since the row escalated last year he had sold only Chinese-made TV sets: no one wanted to buy the Sharp models made in Japan.

We in the west have played a role too. Pre-1989, Chinese pro-democracy campaigners would look westward and see not only a different political model but also greater economic success. They assumed that only the former could deliver the latter. That assumption now lies in pieces, thanks to the contrast between a roaring China and a stagnating west. The financial crash of 2008 broke the appeal of the western model, says Professor Shi Yinhong of Renmin University. "China is emancipated from that feeling of inferiority," he says.

All of which should leave the regime feeling secure in its own position. Yet it hardly acts that way. "They're acutely aware of the risk," reports one diplomat, describing how closely Beijing watched the Arab spring, seeking to learn from the ousted despots' mistakes. One immediate response was to prevent the possibility of large crowds, flooding popular areas with security personnel to disperse potential groups, even ordering street-sweeping vehicles to drive closer to the pavement in order to keep people moving. There may be some freedom of speech in today's China, but there's next to no freedom of association.

This anxiety of the regime's can go to absurd lengths. During last November's party congress they imposed a no-fly zone in the area, applied to balloons and model aeroplanes. That came after the mandatory removal of window handles from all Beijing taxis, lest anyone try to distribute subversive leaflets from a moving cab. Most revealing, China spends more on internal than external security. "That tells you what the government sees as its biggest threat – and it's not Japan or the US," says Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt of the International Crisis Group.

Evidence of that nervousness comes in the way the regime caves so rapidly when confronted with China's equivalent of a Twitterstorm: call it a Weibo wave. Yang Dacai, a provincial official, paid the price last year when he was photographed grinning incongruously at the scene of a road crash that had left 36 dead. Weibo users turned on him, soon finding more pictures, this time showing him wearing a range of ultra-expensive wristwatches – all beyond the salary of a humble civil servant. Feeling the heat, the party investigated Yang for corruption and he was gone.

With Weibo users now in the high hundreds of millions, the regime regards this new political space with trepidation. The next wave could come over pollution. Some say the smog that clouded Beijing this week – leaving one diplomat's toddler "coughing like a 30-a-day smoker" – is testing the regime's legitimacy: what good is a government that can't ensure air clean enough to breathe? Once in denial over what they called "sea mist", China's rulers now discuss the smog as if they know they have to act – and fear the consequences if they fail.

Which is not to say a challenge is coming soon: I was told the Communist party has perhaps two or three decades in which to reform. The regime that rules China is mighty indeed. But the dragon seems to be trembling within.

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It wasn’t bias, it was wrong polls

What matters about last month's Israeli elections is what kind of government they produce. Talk of how those elections were covered in the media is, I know, secondary. So forgive me if I focus on a view that has bubbled up here and there in the blogosphere and, regrettably, in the editorial column of this very newspaper.

Broadly summarised, it goes like this. How delicious to see egg on the face of the liberal, western media which so confidently predicted a rightward lurch in Israel, only to be disproved by an Israeli electorate that backed instead the rising star of the centre-left. If only those reporters and pundits hadn't been so blinded by prejudice, they could have seen it coming.

This argument is wrong on almost every count. First, it wasn't just the liberal left, supposedly anti-Israel media that anticipated a big shift to the right in Israel. It was pretty well the entire media, across the spectrum, from the Wall Street Journal to Reuters, the New York Times to Time magazine and NBC.

What's more, it wasn't the foreign press alone that came to that conclusion. The Israeli media too expected serious gains for Naftali Bennett's Jewish Home party that - coupled with the purge of Likud's relative moderates Dan Meridor and Benny Begin and their replacement by the hardcore likes of Moshe Feiglin - were bound to produce a government to the right of the last, already-hawkish one. It wasn't just lefty Ha'aretz who said that. David Horovitz, founder of the Times of Israel, was fully in step with mainstream coverage when he wrote that Israelis were set to wake up to a "Different Israel" the day after the election, describing a "dramatic imminent shift in the national orientation" in which the right would become "the far right".

Almost everyone covering this story, inside and outside Israel, right or left, painted the same picture: Bennett was the campaign sensation, set to play a key role in what would be an ultra-nationalist Israeli government. They were saying that in chorus for one simple reason: they were all reading the same Israeli polls. With only slight variation here and there, those polls showed Bennett surging; none, including the final pre-election surveys, showed what eventually happened with the breakthrough performance of TV host, Yair Lapid.

It's not some act of wicked bias to project a result based on the available numbers. Still less is forecasting a hard right turn tantamount to comparing Israel to the Nazis, as one Telegraph blogger argued. If in April 2015 polls were to show UKIP set to storm Westminster, both the British and international press would report and discuss the fact. If by election day Nigel Farage's star had waned, it wouldn't mean those earlier reports were wrong or biased. It would just mean something had changed.

And that's what happened here. Bennett was indeed riding high, voters apparently drawn to his hi-tech, elite combat unit backstory. But then partly thanks to the media focus on him Israelis learned more about his hard-line, annexationist views and there was, says veteran Israeli political analyst David Landau, a last-minute mass recoiling. Those votes went instead to Lapid.

That can happen in elections: they are dynamic events, constantly changing. Sometimes a shift occurs that couldn't have been reported earlier because it simply hadn't happened yet. Which is why Israel's election night TV coverage began with the announcement of a "big surprise". As one observer wrote, Lapid's success shocked everyone, not least the man himself.

As it happens, Bennett still did pretty well, winning 12 seats. And Israel might get a government that includes both Bennett and Feiglin, alongside Avigdor Lieberman. Worth noting too that, despite his centre-left labelling, Lapid is no dove. So let's not make any assumptions except the one that says journalists are allowed to describe what they see. It's not bias if things then change.