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Sensemaker: Slow news fast

Friday 7 May 2021

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Jill Mortimer became the first Conservative to be elected MP for Hartlepool in 57 years, and the first woman ever (more below).
  • A local Democrat wrote a six-page letter alleging bad practice by Republican volunteers in an Arizona audit of votes from last year’s US election.
  • May snow brought skiers onto the slopes of Helvellyn in the English Lakes. 

Slow news fast

Full results aren’t in (Scotland’s come tomorrow) but Labour is taking a hammering after yesterday’s local and regional elections and Sir Keir Starmer’s leadership is under fierce attack from the Left as a result. The party now has a full-blown identity crisis: working class or young and progressive? Looks like it can’t be both, at least under present management. Four more thoughts:

  • Brexit’s still decisive in the north east. The collapse of the Brexit Party since 2019 has meant double-digit swings to the Tories in Hartlepool and in council elections in Gateshead and Sunderland. 
  • Being sensible, centrist, experienced and forensic doesn’t cut it in the age of Covid.
  • A successful vaccine roll-out does.
  • It was crazy for Labour to field a Remainer in a hard Leave seat. Heads will roll, probably starting with senior Starmer advisor Jenny Chapman’s.

Join us at 1pm for Sensemaker Live, when we’ll chew over the results we know about and speculate on those we don’t with Jane Green, Matt Singh and others.

Do cry for Colombia

Seven years ago Avianca launched the first direct flights from London to Bogota in a decade. Charles and Camilla accepted a pair of first class seats on the first one. Two years later Colombia signed a peace deal with its FARC rebels. It felt like a new era. It feels like the old one again now – except this time the government is fighting civilians, not narco-guerrillas. There are tanks in the streets, helicopters overhead and 24 dead in a week.

What happened? A number of things, all pointing to the distinct possibility that the unrest in South America’s second-most populous country could spread:

Tax reforms: right-wing president Iván Duque proposed tax increases to backfill budget holes left by Covid. The rich would have paid most but strivers cried foul anyway. The reforms have been scrapped but they still set the country alight. 

Covid: after one of the world’s longest lockdowns, Colombians watching other countries vaccinate and reopen face the threat of a new surge of infection from Brazil’s P1 variant instead. (Bogota is 1,000 miles closer to Manaus, laid waste by Covid, than Rio is.)

General exasperation: “This is not just about the tax reform, it’s about corruption, inequality and poverty,” one teacher told the NYT. To that extent it’s a resumption of grassroots protest that was sweeping the region from Chile to Nicaragua before Covid intervened. Bolívar and Guevara would understand.

One more thing: Colombia’s strife would be less ominous if the narco-economy that tore it apart in the FARC years had been replaced with something less combustible. It hasn’t. It’s exporting more cocaine than ever.

New things technology, science, engineering

Chinese meteor
The US Space Force says it won’t be shooting down the 22-tonne carcass of a Chinese rocket that’s due to crash or splash down no one knows quite where on Saturday. An Italian photographer got a good look at it yesterday with a very long lens, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to land in the Colosseum. As it loses height it’s still looping round the planet at 18,000 mph and will probably end up in water since water covers so much of the Earth. But anything is possible, including full re-entry burn-up, with a fire and light show and not much else. No human has ever been killed by space junk, although the WaPo says a cow was, in 1961, in Cuba.

The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

Public Health England delayed the release of data on dozens of clusters of cases of the so-called Indian Covid variant because of yesterday’s elections. “Data publication [is] to be delayed 24 hours from Thursday to Friday given it is local elections tomorrow,” said an email from the Department of Health and Social Care seen by the Guardian’s Nicola Davis. The variant, designation B.1.617.2, is one of many circulating at huge human cost in India, and has now been identified in at least 48 outbreaks in the UK including in care homes and schools. Better news: 15 cases in one London care home led to four hospitalisations but no deaths. This is mass vaccination at work – but not much consolation to those grieving the more than 200,000 Indians lost to Covid for want of vaccines and oxygen.

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Antarctic runways
At the moment there are no year-round paved runways in Antarctica. Now Australia and China both want to build them. The proposed locations are on the unutterably lonely east coast, about 200 km from each other, at China’s Zhongshan Station and Australia’s Davis base. If laying concrete on Antarctica sounds like desecrating Earth’s last pristine wilderness that’s because it is, although big jets already fly in. They just have to land on hard-packed snow, and these two locations are snow-free for much of the year. The Times has done the story up as the Cold War down under; the latest manifestation of the great Sino-Australian falling-out over Covid, coal and human rights. China is planning to build on territory claimed by Australia. On a continent 40 per cent larger than the US with a population of 1,100, there’s probably room for both of them – but how can there possibly be the need? 

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Equinor shows the way
Embarrassingly for oil majors dragging their feet over the energy transition, Norway’s Equinor is showing it can be done fast if you set your mind to it. Formerly known as Statoil, Equinor was a thoroughgoing oil and gas company ten years ago. In the first quarter of this year half its revenues came from renewables. Whether it manages to clean up the other half remains to be seen, but for a company formed by merging two North Sea oil giants this is progress (and it follows Orsted’s full switch to renewables in Denmark). In fairness: a) Equinor is two-thirds state-owned and states can generally take the long view. And b) its latest results include windfalls from the sale of North Sea wind assets to other oil majors (BP and Italy’s Eni). Which just goes to show where the new money is.

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Two Trumps
Two views of Trump: the king in exile still pulling all the strings that matter in the GOP; or the fading fad who speaks to handfuls of die-hards at Mar-a-Lago and otherwise just golfs. The former is the character who’s consumed the attention of the Facebook advisory board these past three months and who is by his very presence behind efforts in Congress to unseat Liz Cheney – who broke with Trump in grand style in January – from her leadership role in the lower House. The latter is the character is this delightful portrait by Politico’s Jack Shafer, who notes Trump has done very little to follow through on his promises to build a new social media platform or news network. Which is the real Trump?

Thanks for reading, and please share this around. 

Giles Whittell

Photographs by Getty Images

Slow Views