Why Vote?

Glancing at my phone this morning I was reminded by Facebook of my entry on this day in 2017. Theresa May had just called a general election, and was riding high in the polls, all of which gave her a lead of over 20 points. The local elections hadn’t yet happened, though when they did, they were dreadful for the Opposition. And I wrote, from a feeling in my gut, but no empirical evidence whatsoever, that I was an “optimist”.

My optimism in 2017 was that despite Corbyn, who hadn’t done a thing in the 2016 referendum campaign, despite the Tory poll lead, the galvanising effect of Brexit had given a unity of purpose to the Remain camp which could yet weaponise tactical voting, stop May’s presumed landslide, and perhaps, lead to a People’s Vote.

And arguably that’s almost what happened. No landslide, hung Parliament, tactical voting everywhere. Even in an electoral system as skewed as ours, given common purpose, we can be effective.

Today, with local elections looming, a ‘difficult’ by-election ahead in Wakefield, polls tanking for the Tories, and voter opinion word clouds centring upon words like ‘liar’, you might think that my inner optimist might be clamouring to get out. But it’s not.

Of course, there isn’t a general election looming. It’s hard to get motivated by local elections, especially when few councils will change hands when only a third of wards are being contested. Turnout will be low, 30%, perhaps a lot worse in some areas. There’s no sense of jeopardy, at least not for opposition parties.

The Tories are worried, of course. I saw an election poster locally which made me do a double take. It obeyed the visual grammar of an election flyer, with two smiling young men, and a background of a billowing Union Flag, upon which was printed the candidates’ names, and the date of the election. But of party affiliation, there was no sign. No party name, no logo. A search of the local press showed that the Conservative policy was explicitly to detach the local party from any association with the Tories nationally. One of the candidates said to the media, and this became the headline, “I’m nothing to do with the national side of the party”.

In other words, Conservatives contesting this election are worried. They are resorting to highly unusual tactics to shore up their vote.

You’d think that the other parties, and especially Labour, would be brimming with confidence at this scent of blood.

It doesn’t feel like that. Far from it.

Labour’s leadership seems to be locked into a permanent cringe, forever in awe of the Tories. The response to the Tories’ cynical and outlandish stunt in which they claim that they will banish all male refugees, however deserving of asylum, to camps in Rwanda, exemplifies this. Where the former oil executive turned Archbishop of Canterbury, no wimp he, felt compelled to express his moral disgust from the pulpit, Labour is reduced to bloodlessly stressing the expense, and the practical difficulties of implementation of this bizarre and offensive policy.

It is easy to understand why Labour is in this pitiful position. The leadership is in thrall to focus groups. Where the former Labour leader reportedly waved away all polls, and took no interest in qualitative opinion research, the current leader is mesmerised by them. Both leaders were wrong. Polls give some indication of the direction of travel of voting intention, and that is useful. And focus groups can give a glimpse of the sort of messages, narratives, that are lodging in voters’ consciousness. But what they don’t do is reveal how people think. They don’t provide a blueprint for winning elections.

When asked about things we don’t normally spend a lot of time discussing, we tend to repeat whatever we can recall about the subject. If I was in a focus group discussing reality television, or football, I wouldn’t have any real opinions. If pushed, I could probably say something vague about Married at First Sight Australia, or Manchester City and Liverpool. If my fellow discussants then came up with an amusing anecdote about Naked Attraction, or a sad tale about Cristiano Ronaldo, I would probably smile, or nod gravely, as appropriate. It’s the focus group way. Shallow, but indicative of what’s getting through to people.

And so a careful reading of focus groups ought to be telling Labour that it is not projecting a consistent and compelling narrative. That it needs to show clearly what it stands for, and to project leadership. Sadly it is trying to follow opinion, not lead it.

Which brings me to the most personal side of these reflections. I am a voter. I want to feel that there is a party I can vote for which is broadly on my side. There are two key verbs in the last sentence – vote, and feel.

Voting is an action. It requires the voter to make a decision, and to mark a cross on a form. Feeling is what can motivate the citizen into wanting urgently to use that vote – or conversely to stay sullenly at home. I shall vote – I always do – but it will be without any enthusiasm. I am finding it difficult to motivate myself, because the party that usually gets my vote not only doesn’t inspire me, it repels me.

And it feels deliberate. Voters like me embarrass the current leadership. Urban, educated, internationalist, environmentally-conscious, socially liberal, above all, a bit Muslimy-looking, we are not valued. Even Tony Blair quite liked some of those attributes, (with one very conspicuous exception).

And I can’t help but reciprocate. Labour’s “Hero Voters”, town-dwelling, ‘plain speaking’ (euphemism for bigoted), petrol-headed, Brexity, anti-woke, are exactly the kind of people I’ve spent my life avoiding. Which hasn’t been that difficult, even when I’ve lived in ‘Red Wall’ towns. Because they don’t exist in large numbers.

There isn’t a “Red Wall”. It’s a clever marketing invention by the Right, allegedly populated by the “white working class”, who are said to have flexed their reactionary muscles to push Brexit to victory, and who are now king-makers in any electoral contest.

Labour needs to stop believing the Right’s confident, self-aggrandising mythology. It needs to decide what its principles are, what its direction of travel should be, and to show some swagger of its own.

Look closely at the Tories. They have an ethnically diverse Cabinet, and rising ministerial stars, which might be thought to be at odds with dog-whistle xenophobia. Indeed, the Tories often draw attention to that diversity. That the nastiest anti-immigrant rhetoric comes from the likes of Priti Patel, and the most noxious anti-anti-racism/sexism is fronted by Liz Truss and Kemi Badenoch, is no accident. It’s a product of their confidence. It’s absolutely audacious stuff, which proves only that sass trumps substance. And Labour’s scared to display much of either.

The Tories are, in reality, running on fumes. Their vote is old, and getting older, their tame press isn’t the powerful beast it once was, and if they lose property developers’ money on top of the laundered Roubles that have been bankrolling them of late, they’ll struggle, even after gerrymandering the boundaries and stifling the Electoral Commission, to maintain their unique hold on our politics.

It’s long past time for Labour to find fire, purpose, and poise. Women, of all ages, all classes, and in all constituencies, are to the left of men, and are a force waiting to be mobilised. Minorities shouldn’t be regarded as an embarrassment. Most people know that climate change is real, and urgent, and everyone wants a decent home, secure work, high-quality healthcare, good education from nursery to tertiary, dignified old age, and a safety net in hard times. Why would that be a hard sell?

I suspect that I’m not alone in wanting a reason to vote that isn’t just the limited goal of getting rid of the Tories.

But I’m not seeing it.

What’s Up With the Tories?

They’re always up to something, those Tories. They aren’t the most successful political party in the world for no reason. Their ability to move from reactionary to reformist, from anti-democratic, to the extenders of the franchise in the 19th Century demonstrates a breathtaking ability to ride any wave. And in the 20th and the 21st Century that shapeshifting has continued, giving us the political folk wisdom that the ruthless Tories want to stay in power so much that they will ditch any leader once he or she starts to look like a liability.

But I’m not sure that the Conservative Party retains that superpower any more. When it was “men in smoke filled rooms” who appointed leaders perhaps it was easier to conclude that a change at the top was necessary, and to act decisively. Indeed, the Tories of old weren’t actually a party in any contemporary sense. The ‘party’ existed in Parliament, and comprised Peers and MPs. The ‘party in the country’ was a network of ‘Conservative Associations’, membership of which was as much social as ideological, perhaps more so. They certainly held little sway over the orientation, policies and leaders of the party in Parliament.

These days the party membership elects the leader, from a shortlist of two, decided, in rounds of voting, by the MPs. Moreover, that membership is small (how small we don’t really know, perhaps 70,000?), heavily white and male, with an average age of 72. How well, collectively, they can read and anticipate the feelings of the wider electorate is perhaps open to question.

And so to 2022, Plague Year Three, and growing signs of panic in the Tory ranks. The party is now consistently trailing in the polls. A poll of Tory members https://news.sky.com/story/nearly-half-of-conservative-members-think-rishi-sunak-would-make-better-party-leader-than-boris-johnson-poll-12512455 shows tumbling confidence in their leader. Troublesome backbench groups like the Covid Recovery Group, the Northern Research Group of Red Wall MPs, and the Net Zero group (https://www.itv.com/news/2021-07-31/tory-backbenchers-prepare-to-fight-cost-of-net-zero-greenhouse-gas-emissions) all suggest that a lot of unhappy rumbling is going on within the party, both in Westminster, and more broadly. There have even been fears reported in the Mail on Sunday of new MPs crossing the floor of the House (https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-10382665/No10-fear-Red-Wall-chicken-run-defections-Labour.html).

How has a government elected with a huge majority just two years ago ended up so fractious and jittery?

Some explanations are obvious. The party might just have won a landslide, but it’s been in power for twelve years. Brexit isn’t the cakewalk that was promised – quite the reverse – and as for the pandemic, the government has had to face tsunami, after earthquake, after storm. It’s taken a battering.

But this feels like something more than the consequences of external events, or in the case of Brexit, the unintended consequences of an adventure with no agreed purpose or outcomes. It feels like something organic, intrinsic to the contemporary Tory Party, a malignancy.

The Tory Party at its most confident and successful has been disciplined, inclined to resist change for change’s sake, traditionalist, ‘respectable‘ in middle class terms, and studiedly unideological. The system it ruled worked well for Tory interests, and they could see no reason to favour change. Strong, and stable, you might say.

The inflection point, as with so much, seems to go back to Thatcher. She was, or was persuaded to become, ideologically committed. Sir Keith Joseph, a Leeds MP and with something of a reputation as an intellectual in the party, was a key influence. They repudiated what was called ‘the post-war settlement’ of a ‘mixed economy and a welfare state’, and marched the party towards neo-liberalism, what was then often called the New Right. I remember seeing Thatcher era minister, Peter Lilley, now a Brexiter Peer, addressing a packed Tory Party Conference fringe meeting about ten years ago, pumping his fist whilst declaring to the adoring audience, “we were the Leninists of the New Right!”

But Thatcher’s success was less to do with her ideological clarity of purpose, than with her deft melding of neo-liberal novelty with very traditional social conservatism. Ideology only went so far (to the evident frustration at the time of younger Thatcherites, like Lilley, Redwood, and Portillo.

Once Thatcher had been deposed, for the overreach that was the poll tax, the ability to hold together the Conservative Party, a party having become a hotbed of ideologues, was beyond any new leader. Major did his best, beset by ‘bastards’. William Hague, unsuited to the leadership, and facing a confident Labour government, struggled. Iain Duncan Smith was in some ways the best ideological fit for an increasingly Eurosceptic party, but lacked any discernible leadership skills. Michael Howard was hapless, undermined by his own MPs (who can forget Anne Widdecombe’s insidious “something of the night about him” comment?), and in any case ran an election campaign with a negative tone wholly at odds with a Labour government which still looked shiny and optimistic.

Then came David Cameron. In today’s faction-ridden Tory Party, some see Cameron, with George Osborne, as their Blair and Brown, the charismatic and clear sighted reformers who remade their party as a credible electoral force. But the PR gloss of social liberalism might have given the Tories a bit of a makeover in 2010 and 2015, but it was barely skin deep. The hugging of huskies and hoodies soon gave way to muttering about “Green Crap”. The march of the libertarians accelerated under Cameron. ‘Austerity’ went where Margaret Thatcher never dared. Centralisation gathered pace, local government lost up to 50% of its income, the NHS was ‘reformed’ to make it easier to privatise by stealth, and the state itself was hollowed out, stripped of capacity, institutional memory, skills and independence; something made starkly obvious by the pandemic.

But it wasn’t enough. It’s never enough for the party the Conservatives have become, an unserious party of ‘fruitcakes, loonies, and closet racists’ as David Cameron once called UKIP. After Cameron’s ill-advised referendum in 2016, the UKIP membership has almost entirely decamped to the Tories.

The Brexit referendum threw an unforgiving spotlight on the Conservative Party, though one which too few have commented upon. It is the left that is more often prey to the sin of political vanity which makes them think that capturing the levers of power in a party enables them to steer it like a vehicle in any direction they choose, but Cameron, a PR man in his only real job, also believed that he could steer a referendum using the same tactics that had made him PM, and then won the Tories their first general election in eighteen years. In other words, he really didn’t understand his party, nor the wider political culture that sustains it. As someone in his camp said during the campaign, “Now we know what it’s like to be Ed Miliband”.

From 1832 to the mid-1970s, the Tory Party was an intelligent and flexible force, marshalling their formidable resources, both financial and cultural, to become an almost unstoppable election winning machine. It was genuinely representative of key interests in the country – business, finance, the leadership of the great institutions, like the military, the Church, the judiciary, the universities. It had an authentic appeal to the middle class, who joined the party in their hundreds of thousands. The press was mostly on its side.

But since the 1970s, despite the party’s continued political dominance (with a 13 year interregnum), the ecosystem that supported the Tories has changed radically, and in ways not yet widely understood. (The same is true for Labour, though the effects there are more obvious.) Globalisation, the replacement of industry by finance capital and services, the growing inequality of regions as a consequence, the rise in the numbers of people attending university, migration, rapid technological change, and much else, has altered the landscape. The idea that the Tory world view might by synonymous with that of the Church, the law, leaders of higher education and the great cultural institutions is now palpably absurd. Far from sitting atop a stable pyramid of power, the party surfs the waves of fickle opinion, bankrolled by a footloose selection of assorted chancers, oligarchs, kleptocrats.

And the party’s shrunken membership, with its very own Militant Tendency of former Faragistes, is not the potent force on the ground it once was. Camera phone footage of a raucous looking party meeting in 2019 in former Attorney General Dominic Grieve’s then constituency of Beaconsfield at the height of Brexit faction fights looked far from the 1950s vision of the Tories as a place where your daughter or son might find a respectable marriage partner https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/dominic-grieve-traitor-liar-local-conservatives-constituents-no-confidence-a8847266.html.

Brexit was no aberration, no spasm, no moment of madness. Because it is a symptom, not a cause, a malignancy that needed, and continues to need an outlet. The pandemic, or rather it’s handling, has been a temporary vehicle for the rebels in search of a cause. But that will fade. ‘Net Zero’ is shaping up as this century’s Europhobia; not climate change denial, which has never flown in this country, despite the best efforts of ‘think tanks’ and paid advocates. Rather, they will tout a combination of ‘head in the sand’, and a mock regretfulness that ‘nothing we do matters’ in the face of giants like the US, China and Russia.

And so here we are in 2022. Whether Johnson remains leader of the Tory Party is being discussed openly by party members, but the sullen and sometimes volatile electorate in the short term might deliver any outcome this year, from a pasting in the local elections, to a stunning victory for a Teflon PM, or for his successor. The immediate fate of this government, however, isn’t the question.

The real question is what is the Tory Party for, and who, or what, does it represent. Is it a coherent and sustainable force, long term?

Because from here it looks very much like a powerful, malevolent, but terminally ill beast kept on life support by the distortions of the First Past the Post voting system.

The Myth of the 2017 General Election

From the moment the exit poll dropped on election night in 2017, indicating a shock result in which Theresa May went from a 20 point lead at the start of the campaign, to a lost majority and a hung Parliament, a myth has grown, at least among sections of the left, that Corbyn ‘won’ a moral victory, if not an actual one that year. But it’s likely that the real story of the ‘righteous losers’ lies elsewhere.

Let’s start with the facts. Theresa May’s humiliating ‘defeat’ saw her winning 42.4% of the vote, which is 5.5% more than David Cameron got two years earlier, and only 1.2% down on Boris Johnson two years later. That’s 13,636,684 actual votes compared to 13,966,454 votes in the 2019 landslide.

But the myth is about Labour under Corbyn. So how did Labour do? They got 40% of the vote, which was 10 points up on the previous election. That’s 12,878,460 voters backing the party in an election with a relatively high turnout at 68.8%. A stunning result, given Miliband’s 30.4% in 2015. So how and why did that change so rapidly to become, on a similar turnout, 32.1% – 10,269,051 votes – in 2019?

The Corbyn myth, or the myth of the magic manifesto, is seductive. There was a disastrous Tory campaign which showed that three word slogans aren’t always winners (Strong and Stable?). A wooden PM appearing in carefully stage managed venues before hand picked audiences of party supporters was plainly a contrast with the celebrity status that seemed to surround Corbyn, especially his enthusiastic rallies. And polls did show many Labour policies, some of which have subsequently been adopted by the Tories, whether by design (energy price cap, more police) or accident (rail renationalisation), to be popular. How can anyone suggest that there wasn’t some magic to Labour’s 2017 campaign?

Photograph (c) Yasmin Ali

Always a Corbyn sceptic, I did go to his final rally in Birmingham the day before the election. There were lots of people there, the atmosphere was excited, Clean Bandit played a great set, Steve Coogan read Shelley, and when Corbyn spoke, a rainbow appeared in the sky. A sign!

A sign not exactly foretold in the polls. One late YouGov poll, viewed as a rogue, suggested hung Parliament territory, but disastrous campaign or not, the other still pointed to a clear May victory. The only question was the likely size of her majority. But the polls were wrong.

The Corbyn myth makers put it down to the enthusiasm of young voters, the sorts of people who might spontaneously sing his name. The media got on board, writing of a ‘youthquake election’. So what’s the evidence?

There is a clear age effect when it comes to voting intention. The crossover point at which voting Labour tips to voting Tory in 2017 was 47. Below that point, Labour led. After that, the balance shifts, with the over 70s being around 80% Tory. It’s also true that Labour’s vote grew very clearly in constituencies with a lot of young people, such as university towns. But Labour polled most strongly with 30-40 year olds. Higher turnout was driven by younger and minority ethnic voters, but this doesn’t seem to have been the primary driver of the Labour surge. A British Election Study report, The Myth of the 2017 Youthquake Election thoroughly debunks the idea that ‘It Was the Young Wot Won It’.

Corbyn myth makers are less likely to seize on election data that shows the party’s share of the middle class vote soaring by 12%, while the Tories’ share of working class support showed a similar rise.

So who are these Thirtysomething middle class voters who fuelled the Labour surge, and, more to the point, why did they go missing two years later?

Again, it’s polling detail, and the British Election Study which perhaps offers the answer.

The Labour surge happened very late in the campaign. In most elections, furthermore, ‘late switchers‘, people who change their voting intention at the last minute, tend to split fairly evenly between the two big parties. Not in 2017, when 54% of late switchers went to Labour, and 19% (probably from a poorly performing UKIP) went to the Tories.

Detailed analysis by the British Election Study showed that the campaigns run by the parties were not aligned to the issues that were moving voters. Or perhaps that ought to be the ‘issue’. For it was one question, which hardly featured in campaigns by either the Tories or Labour, that was found to be the top concern of the electorate – Brexit.

When the 2016 referendum was called, I thought that Labour would use it as activists around the 2014 Scottish independence referendum used their poll, to campaign around issues that had nothing whatsoever to do with the question on the ballot, such as the NHS, or the state of public services. Instead Labour largely ignored the issue, leaving it to Alan Johnson to run an under resourced Labour Remain campaign without any buy-in or active participation from the leadership. This was a huge mistake, both on an opportunistic, and on a principled basis, but it set the stubborn mindset that was to characterise the party then, and now.

I was slightly involved in campaigns around the referendum, attending meetings on the issue. Labour was always notable by their absence, even at ‘Another Europe Is Possible’ meetings of the left (where there was a palpable sense of fear from some participants, even platform speakers, that their ‘comrades’ might disapprove of their presence at an anti-Brexit event). But as soon as the vote had happened, a strange, loose social media phenomenon began to emerge. People outraged by the result, unguided by parties, began to ‘find’ one another. There was a sharing of hashtags, a habit of following anti-Brexiters, and a practice of adding sympathetic strangers to anti-Brexit Facebook groups.

This grew into the People’s Vote Campaign. Organised at the top, at grassroots it was a loose coalition of local groups, and many, perhaps millions, of individuals. The marches were huge, the meetings often crowded. I recall seeing a slightly bewildered Michael Heseltine, dressed in a casual sweater, address a packed meeting more enthusiastic than he had even in his heyday at Tory Party conference when, with his blond locks, he wowed them as ‘Tarzan’. I recognised many of the people in the hall. Some were Labour activists, some Lib Dem, and others I knew from fields outside politics, people who ran cultural organisations, or were writers and actors.

When the 2017 election was called, this amorphous group, part organised, part autonomous, were immediately embroiled in arguments. Some people were politically naive, with no understanding of how the electoral system worked. Others found their political sectarianism reigniting. But we argued it out, often on a highly local basis, and almost entirely through social media.

It was in the last week of the campaign that I thought something was shifting. One of the biggest stumbling blocks to getting people to vote tactically for Labour candidates was Labour’s lack of enthusiasm for stopping Brexit. In some constituencies there was an additional obstacle in that the Labour candidate was an active Brexiter (my own MP at the time was Gisela Stuart, who would probably have lost the seat had she not stood down). But pragmatism, often through gritted teeth, seemed to prevail. I remember one man, half-accusingly, half-incredulously, saying to me, “You persuaded me to vote Labour!”

Certainly on election night there was elation at a result that at least opened up the possibility of another vote on leaving the EU. I spent that night on social media watching the political party that stole victory from the Tories. And it wasn’t Labour – it was the People’s Vote Party.

Photo (c) Yasmin Ali

That’s how it felt. Now we have the evidence to suggest that our perception was right.

It could have been Labour’s victory. Even after a year of having nothing to say on Brexit, Labour could have read the election result as a second chance to lead the fight, to bring party and trade union banners and numbers to the PV marches, and made unified common cause in Parliament to offer the electorate another chance to vote, and perhaps even to lead a minority government to organise that vote.

But the Labour leadership chose to believe the myth that their ‘absolute boy’ somehow ‘won’.

He didn’t. The extra million (1,120,000) voters he got in 2017 who were gone in 2019 are in number pretty close to the number of people who marched in London on the final People’s Vote March in 2019.

The Corbynite myth of the 2017 election is just that – a fairy tale. The unexplored story, and one with implications that still matter for Labour, and for other parties, too, including the Tories, is what happened to the anti-Brexit coalition, and can it rise again, in some other form, to transform the prospects of some other party?

Losing Focus

There’s a magazine called Total Politics. It’s described as a “lifestyle magazine” for those who work in British politics. I first read it when I was given a free copy at Conservative Party Conference about a decade ago. I’ve always been a political nerd, a wonk, and an ecumenical one, reading publications from across the political spectrum. Why else, indeed, was I at a Tory Conference, as an avowed social democrat?

Total Politics magazine troubled me. It was fascinating in its narrowness and banality, as I suppose fits a ‘lifestyle” rag. There was a joke in Private Eye when the short-lived SDP was born, that their slogan was “Take Politics out of Politics”. Total Politics ought to have used that as their strap line.

The view of politics enshrined in the magazine was that politics was an aspect of media, or showbiz, essentially marketing, advertising and public relations. It was not primarily about principles, philosophy, ideology, or policy development for a purpose. For there was, in its pages, only one purpose in politics – to win.

I’m no ideological purist. Principles without power are of little use in a democratic polity. But ‘win’, in this context, is perhaps a misleading word. Winning really means gaming the system.

When that first copy of Total Politics fell into my hands, I was a political naïf. I had a gut belief that the purpose of winning elections was to do good things, to change unhappy lives, to make the country a better place to live, and a better influence in the world. But this innocuous little publication suddenly made me realise that I was a dinosaur, Beatrice Webb adrift in a Love Island world. For all that I knew about Thatcher and the Saatchis, or the spinners of New Labour, I hadn’t grasped the full degradation of our politics.

Politics is, at least as it is now practised by the main parties, a tawdry matter of the retail offer in a glossy package. It’s a sales job, not a manufacturing job. Find out what voters want, and flog it to them. Don’t waste time on trying the hard stuff – making something real, useful, with a purpose. The only purpose is getting into No.10.

Hence the hiring of Deborah Mattinson as Labour’s new Director of Strategy. Founder of polling firm, Britain Thinks, Mattinson is a firm believer in the use of focus groups to guide policy and strategy in politics.

Focus groups are made up of a small number of members of the public selected to be representative socially, and by political affiliation, of the wider public, either in a constituency or region. It’s quite an industry these days. There are even freelancers who do the legwork on the ground to find these Everyfolk for polling companies.

The methods of the focus group gurus draw crudely from social psychology, and the broader social sciences. There’s usually a convenor who guides the group, posing questions, but not overtly seeking to influence the direction of discussion, though keeping it within the parameters set by the company. Often there is a one way mirrored window in the room, enabling others, for instance, politicians, to witness the discussion as it happens. They ask obvious questions about parties, leaders, and policies, but also less obvious ones, like, “If Boris Johnson was a car, what sort of car would he be?” (The answer to that question, posed last year, was “an unreliable car, the sort that’s falling apart, and keeps breaking down”. Which is funny, contains some truths, but holds no clue as to why he still leads in the polls.)

Mattinson herself has gone beyond these meetings, attaching herself to individual participants after initial group discussions, joining them all day, at their homes, or as they collect their children from school, or head down the pub. Her book, Beyond The Red Wall, is based upon these encounters.

The attraction of focus groups to politicians is, on one level, understandable. Theresa May’s No.10 was apparently obsessed with the political views expressed on Gogglebox. There’s an irreverent energy, or earnest sincerity that can come across in what appear to be ‘unmediated’ public opinion. And unlike radio phone in shows, or television programmes like Question Time, they tend not to come with a high ranty factor.

But focus groups aren’t unmediated – they are ‘cast’, just as much as any QT, and they are led, too, by the questions asked, the steer of discussion, and, however skilled the leader of the group, by dominant individuals in the group, or even just the order in which people speak. There’s a tendency for a group of strangers, without a politician to shout at, to be polite, and to be reluctant to disagree with, or challenge one another. It’s a pull towards conformity with one’s peers, even if it means holding one’s tongue.

Moreover, most people aren’t political obsessives. Even if they watch the news, read a newspaper, they aren’t necessarily much engaged with, or even very informed about, what they read. What people pick up, whether from advertising or from the news, are slogans, and simple narratives.

The Conservative Party has been ruthless about refining what John McDonnell rightly called “misleading analogies”, like Labour “maxed out the credit card”, “spent all the money”, even that Labour, not the international banking system, ‘caused’ the crash of 2008.

Brexit was another successful exercise in telling compelling stories, honing memorable slogans. The Covid pandemic has been successfully sold as “no one could have seen anything like that coming”, and “Boris did his best”, and “we led the world at vaccinating people”. All these stories are demonstrably wrong, but people know them, and they haven’t heard convincing alternatives.

In other words, the Tories dominate the parameters of popular political discourse. Which has consequences for the focus group.

If I got put into a focus group discussing football, I would know nothing about football. I’m not a fan, I don’t watch it, I’d struggle to name a player who wasn’t involved in politics (fortunately quite a few are these days). If put on the spot with a question, I’d reach for whatever has permeated my skull. Manchester United, Liverpool, Spurs, Arsenal. I’d have a benign view of the England team, and I’d remember the name of the manager. Asked about Scotland or Wales, I’d be stumped.

That’s probably how most members of focus groups are. They know what’s in the ether. And what’s in the ether when it comes to politics tends to come from a Tory-supporting perspective.

Which surely must lead to the conclusion that focus groups are an expensive way of amplifying a Tory hegemony in public discourse, which offer no serious evidence of how to challenge it. Listening to their ‘wisdom’ entrenches the Conservative hold on our politics, and stops Labour, and any other party wasting their money on such ‘research’, from doing the things they can do to change the political weather.

If public opinion in the past, as measured at the time, had been ‘respected’ as it is now, we’d never have had a raised school leaving age, votes below 21, the end of the death penalty and theatre censorship, the decriminalisation of homosexuality, race relations legislation, equal pay, equal marriage, and much else. These things happened because enlightened politicians, who recognised the truth that democracy isn’t dictatorship of the majority (like Brexit), but a guarantor of minority rights, used political leadership and statecraft to steer the country along a better course.

Political leadership soon convinced most voters that initially controversial changes were the right thing to do. Political followership, which is what reliance on focus groups involves, is a dead end. It permits the worst, most reactionary instincts to hold a veto on change.

The Total Politics approach to gaming elections is cynical, narrow of vision, unambitious, and rigged in favour of a wholly unsatisfactory status quo. With one of its exponents leading Labour’s “strategy”, the party is paying to take an expensive ride on a road to nowhere.

Class Act

Class. Like politics and religion, it’s one of those things that is supposed to make fastidious Brits uncomfortable if the subject comes up in polite conversation. Yet everyone’s talking about it.

I used to be a very simple soul. I thought that class was, in essence, a category used in social science to describe and explain the distinctive patterns of experience and behaviour of large social groups. There are major disagreements in sociology about definitions, of course; the Marxist idea of classes that power social and economic change through a war of wills and agency (“All history is the history of class struggle”), is very different from essentially descriptive definitions, such as those bloodless categories used by psephologists – AB, C1, C2, DE. But Marx, Weber, Durkheim, poor things, are not the source of today’s arguments about class on this island.

Class is now overwhelmingly a badge of identity. A manufactured identity sometimes pinned on others, sometimes claimed for oneself, and linked materially to consumption , and emotionally to sentiment. It’s become a tabloid concept for a vapid age.

The dominant class, hailed for its ‘authenticity’, is the “white working class”. Old Etonians and academics on the make write books about these stout, commonsensical folk, mostly male, in their distinctive white vans, with their proud banner, the cross of St George. They hate immigrants, especially darker skinned ones, and that is why they commonsensically voted to leave the Pakistani-led European Union. These salt of the earth types love fish and the fishing industry, but won’t eat mackerel, preferring a good British curry. Very importantly, they must not make any effort at school. They must reject the damaging practice of reading books, although they are allowed to “do their own research”. Educational achievement confers no benefits on these people, as evidence shows that white working class men earn more than many professional workers of colour, despite their lack of qualifications. They can be found in towns, preferably those without a university. Their main social activities are watching football in pubs, and giving interviews to the BBC in Dudley market. They used to vote Labour, but now they say that their dad will be spinning in his grave, but they just had to vote for ‘Boris’.

The non-white working class does not exist. Nor can any white working class be found in cities, except, occasionally, in constituencies on the poignant peripheral areas.

When I say that the non-white working class does not exist, I am taking the theorists of the white working class at their word. But not everyone agrees with them.

For there are other definitions which include people of colour. This is where people ostensibly on the left, but eschewing Marxism in favour of identity labels, see ‘working class’ as applying to anyone with a sentimental attachment to some real or imagined aspect of their family history. Generally speaking, such working class people do not have working lives spent on the factory floor, or Amazon warehouse. They are more likely to be found in the creative industries, in education, and other professions, as a study this year from the LSE and published in the journal Sociology, reported.

The middle class has always been a minefield in this island. There are many gradations of class within this category, as the eminent sociologist Grayson Perry has described so well. But ‘middle class’, as James O’Brien has quite rightly suggested, is now primarily a synonym for ‘educated’. Many live in cities, which, far from being large and dynamic places, are actually voids, rendering their middle class inhabitants ‘citizens of nowhere’. They are also known as the ‘metropolitan elite’.

People who went to public schools, attended posh universities, and entertain themselves with ‘work’ in the media, in right-wing ‘think tanks’, or who take interludes doing serious work in The City or the law, before entering politics at the highest level, are not ‘middle class’ in this sense. These people are above labels. They can safely sneer at the labelled ones.

Or at least, that’s what they tell themselves. I have made a study of these people. It’s quite right not to see them as a class, or even as a sub-section of a class. They are a court.

Courts are places of hierarchy. Traditionally the top of the pyramid has been hereditary, but these days to ascend to the top of the court requires a series of markers to be passed, rather like ascent through the levels of a computer game. Prep school, public school, Oxford, the Bullingdon Club, Oxford Union presidency, The Spectator, perhaps a right-wing tabloid or a Murdoch or Barclay Brothers broadsheet, before the inevitable Tory seat, preferably in the ‘Home Counties’.

Others admitted to the court are there as supplicants. Thus they must learn to speak a code, a ‘court patois’ that amuses those who are there by divine right. Phrases like ‘cultural Marxist’ and ‘critical race theory’ are used as incantations, praise songs.

But this metropolis-dwelling, exclusive set (not a ‘metropolitan elite’, nothing so common), somehow brings to mind not the complacent upper classes of the past, but something new, something befitting ‘Global Britain’. For in this court, Johnson, Cameron, Osborne, they are men sliding down the ladder of privilege, and their hangers on, Patel, Williamson, Raab, Javid, et al, descend with them.

Rishi is the cuckoo in this nest. Johnson surely fears him not because he is more popular in polls, or with the party membership, or because his Thatcherite orthodoxy is more in tune with the party’s self-image than Borisian excess. Sunak, unlike any of the rest of them, is a real Sun King.

The angst at the top of the Tory Party, and in the ruling class of this island more generally, has been stoked by class envy. Old Toryism was built on a successful cross-class alliance between the wealthiest in society (Johnson isn’t one of those by a long chalk – the Johnson family faked it till they made it), the ‘respectable’ middle classes, the professions, and business, with a large, but minority tranche of the deferential working class to add voter ballast. But globalisation, the continuing free movement of capital, has unanchored business and most finance from a need to have deep bonds with a ruling class in one country. The expansion of education has democratised the middle class, who no longer cling to one party as a defence against a no-longer organised working class. And London has become a global city, (second) home to the international billionaire class.

The psychological stress this has caused to the old ruling class ought not be to underestimated. All accounts of Johnson, even from his friends, speak of his money worries, his status anxiety. But the chillaxed, insouciance of the likes of Cameron is an act now. His desperate pursuit of Lex Greensill, his fawning over the killers of Jamal Khashoggi, his anxiety to ingratiate himself with Rupert Murdoch, these are the signs of a decaying class desperate to retain wealth and status in the face of the stark reality of their relative fall from the summit.

But Rishi Sunak is one of the new, global citizens. His own efforts (with a leg up from wealthy parents and a public school education) made him seriously rich, and marriage into the billionaire class puts him in a different place to the plodding, dreary millionaires at the top of the Tories. He represents power in a way that they do not. And they hate it.

Class isn’t about identity, it isn’t about morality. It’s about power, who, collectively, has it, who doesn’t, and how that is contested.

The rest is a lot of mildly diverting nonsense.

Me? I’m a socially mobile peasant from the tea growing hills of Asia. A middle class pauper. An authentic white working class kid turned citizen of nowhere. The metropolitan elite. I’m quite content with that.

What Is The Point of Dominic Cummings?

Like many other people, I gave up an hour of my life to watch the BBC’s Political Editor, Laura Kuenssberg, interview celebrity SPAD Dominic Cummings about his recent time working with Prime Minister Boris Johnson. And like fewer people, I then listened to the longer version of the interview available on BBC Sounds. So what did I learn?

My initial response to the TV interview was to satirise it. Cummings would be strange casting for an evil genius. He appears, with his twitching, uncomfortable body language, and slightly truculent Durham accent, like someone you’d be more likely to encounter in a police tape of an interview with a suspect in a missing persons case. That he takes himself extremely seriously only adds to his risibility. He’d have fitted into The Office very well, muttering darkly about getting shot of David Brent, whilst misfiling invoices.

But the air of bathos is misleading. The man is not destined to be at most a mere footnote in the political history of early 21st Century Britain. He has been, and plainly still sees himself as a player at the very top of high politics.

There has always been something usually unspoken lurking at the fringes of the British Establishment which surfaces briefly from time to time, usually when there’s an air of crisis. We last glimpsed it in the 1970s, when some military and intelligence figures were rumoured to be plotting coups against the Labour government. But mostly the collective might of party politics and the institutions that constitute or surround the state have rallied in stout defence of democracy.

I think that Cummings is currently the most publicly visible manifestation of that malign tendency. He is also the most indiscreet. Where the ‘think tanks’ of Tufton Street mostly operate in the shadows of party politics, or use PR gloss to second their operatives to the media to peddle their influence, Cummings eschews metropolitan smoothness for smirking aggression.

Let’s take what he actually said in the interview. He indicated that he was one of a group of “dozens” of people working together to change the nature of the British state. He said that they intend to destroy the party system, either by entryism, taking over an existing party, or by setting up a new and insurgent vehicle for their ambitions.

Cummings was imprecise about what the ultimate purpose of this would be. He spoke in vague generalisations about ‘networks’, ‘data’, and ‘science’. Prodded occasionally by Kuenssberg about what this might mean for democracy, for popular consent, Cummings sidestepped the question.

By the end of the interview I was minded to add it to the file in my mind which also contains Branson and Bezos’s recent trips into the fringe of space. It’s all an oligarchical fantasy of reshaping, or even escaping, the world as it is, and imposing an order that suits the interests of the powerful who have enough to be unanchored from the societies in which the rest of humanity lives.

The trouble is, Cummings’ dream of smashing up everything in order to put ‘brilliant’, unanswerable, unaccountable people in charge, is one he has been well placed to advance, both through the Vote Leave campaign – which he admitted might have been a bad idea – and through effectively running the government for a year. Presumably some of his “dozens of people” are still there, at the highest levels of power and influence.

Cummings, of course, is wealthy, and married to wealth and old Establishment privilege, but he’s not remotely an oligarch. He is, like Johnson himself, and those who still surround him, a courtier. They are not power, they serve power. If we have a PM who calls the Daily Telegraph “my real boss”, as Cummings plausibly asserted, we can see that concentrated media power, and the wealth that buys baubles like fancy wallpaper, is more in control than the actors who go through the motions.

It’s tempting to see Cummings as indiscreet, wounded, angry and lashing out. But that would be to mistake style for purpose.

Cummings is not the puppet master spurned by his marionettes.

He’s got strings too, and someone, something else is jerking them.

How Galloway Won It For Labour

Perception is everything. By the time the result of the Batley and Spen by-election came in after dawn on the 2nd July, the articles had been written, the running order, and guests for the breakfast shows had been decided, and the opinion pieces for the weekend papers had already been drafted.

Which just goes to show that overnight is a long time in politics.

Batley and Spen was never going to be a re-run of Hartlepool. The constituency is one spanning a clutch of towns and villages on the Yorkshire side of the mid-Pennine belt between Leeds and Manchester. Anyone who has ever taken the scenic rail route linking Yorkshire and Lancashire, essentially Scarborough to Blackpool, can see the ways in which prosperity is generated by cities on the up, which seeps out to the hinterland, as commuters move out to find bigger homes, or prettier landscapes, within reach of a railway link or the M62. It’s a complicated part of the country, long hindered by the inadequate transport infrastructure, but not at all stifled by it. The insularity of old mill towns is being diluted by new blood.

The Batley and Spen constituency turned Tory with Thatcher, and Labour with Blair. But it’s no political weathervane. That it didn’t turn Tory in Johnson’s 2019 landslide is significant as an indicator of the salience of local factors, or rather the ways in which disaffection with the major parties can be expressed in idiosyncratic ways. Who had heard of the Yorkshire Heavy Woollen District Independents before the by-election? Only the 12% of the local electorate who voted for them at the last general election, not to mention the other 88% who presumably got a leaflet through the door.

For the truth is that over-centralised parties, and a London-centric media are often not very good at seeing things through local eyes. Assumptions are made, stereotypes mobilised. ‘The white working class’, no longer with flat caps and whippets, but Brexity types with St George flags and white vans, are pitted against ‘scary Muslims’ with beards who vote as a bloc just as the ‘community leaders’ or ‘elders’ tell them. Neither stereotype is much help at understanding the complexities of a real place undergoing the profound change that we are all experiencing now.

This was meant to be a by-election gift to Boris Johnson. The ‘white working class’ allied to the grateful vaccinated folk (also implicitly white) were to rally to the Tories, and Labour’s bedrock ‘ethnic minorities’ were supposed to break for George Galloway and his embrace of Hamas over Heckmondwike, thereby sending Keir Starmer and Labour into dark perdition. How could it be otherwise?

That didn’t happen, to the astonishment of the media, and, let’s face it, the rest of us. What was happening, that those people in the constituency as our eyes and ears, didn’t see?

Enter the women who grasped the nettle, who made a victory happen where none was predicted. Kim Leadbeater herself, obviously. But less acknowledged has been the role of Shabana Mahmood and Naz Shah. Shabana Mahmood was recently installed as Labour’s National Campaign Coordinator, and might well be the most important figure in the party right now.

For this is where the old, failing politics fell prey to the new. Starmer has not been an MP for very long. Siren voices sought him out, Alastair Campbell, Peter Mandelson, the brains and enforcers of New Labour’s victories were assuring him that they knew the secret of electoral success. And they did, perhaps, in 1997. But that’s a long time ago, before most people had a smartphone, or a home computer, and a time when Rupert Murdoch could be a kingmaker. A time when the stereotypes of class and race, gender too, had larger traces of truth to them. Shabana Mahmood represents a new perspective, just as sharp, disciplined and professional as any 1990s suit, but radically different, attuned to things as they are now, not as they were once.

The team in Batley and Spen was thus very different from the ill-fated campaigners of Hartlepool. Kim Leadbeater knows the terrain. The only candidate on the ballot who could vote for herself (as she alone is on the local electoral register), she can, with her own life, map the subtleties of each town, each ward.

Shabana Mahmood is the brilliant organising mind. She galvanised the operation, pumping MPs and activists into the constituency and phonebanks into the backup.

And Naz Shah, the woman with experience of taking on Galloway and winning, was sent to take up residence in her neighbouring constituency. Those WhatsApp groups of Muslim women who took on Galloway’s goons? I doubt that Naz, a woman who has seen oppression up close and very personal, was far from that initiative. Connecting with women voters to take down Galloway’s misogyny, and to assert women’s own political agency.

Labour’s leadership deserves some respect for realising that Batley and Spen was lost without something bold. Questions at PMQs about Palestine had looked crudely opportunistic. The leaflet about Modi and Johnson has been condemned by hypocritical Tories who have been dog whistling ever since PM David Cameron shared a platform at a BJP rally in Wembley. So it’s not fair? This has never been a level playing field. They needed to do what Ed Miliband in his new role as sage has said – Go Big.

Shabana Mahmood, Naz Shah, Kim Leadbeater played a blinder.

But they couldn’t have done it without Galloway.

Galloway’s candidature compelled Starmer to confront his ignorance. To make crystal clear that the ‘advice’ of Mandelson and others is, in 2021, irrelevant. To accept that each constituency is an island to itself. To hand over control to those who were fit to do the job. That’s a lesson that can’t be purchased from a communications agency.

And so the new team forced Galloway and his macho men to slink away as bad losers. For Galloway that doesn’t matter. He pitches his tent, then moves on leaving not a trace. But his local army? They’ve been beaten back by the women with their WhatsApp letters, locally challenging, and defeating, the patriarchs of old.

That’s the delicious irony – Galloway inadvertently won it for Labour.

The lesson is that any party, even Johnson’s Tories rampant, can be defeated by hard campaigning on the ground led by those who understand the terrain, and the latent, or evident, fissures in a complex electorate. Labour looks, finally, to be building an operation that understands that truth.

Three Word Slogan

Like the three chord song of legend, the three word slogan is the catchy riff that can storm the charts, sweeping aside the ponderous and the earnest, and lodging like an ear worm in the head. Take Back Control! Get Brexit Done! Build Back Better! Gordon Brown’s ‘Neo-classical endogenous growth theory’ is like a heavy dose of Tangerine Dream in comparison with the Gerry Goffin/Carole King numbers the other side dreamt up. Do the Locomotion, indeed.

The three word slogan is deceptive. It seems simple, but it really isn’t. ‘Hope Not Hate’ has three words. ‘Black Lives Matter’. ‘Coal Not Dole’. Short isn’t necessarily either sharp or sweet. The first of these slogans is typical left liberal abstraction. Hope, hate, are words that describe feelings. But often the most powerful feelings are the ones that are evoked by political rhetoric, but crucially are not named.

BLM is another unsurprisingly moral demand. Sadly many people have been primed to be impervious to morality in politics, or to see it in relative rather than absolute terms. The ‘All Lives Matter’ retort is political homeopathy, in which the power of the injustice named by BLM is diluted to nothing in a sea of vagueness.

‘Coal Not Dole’ a relic of the 1980s Miners’ strike, is elegant, a synecdoche in which the simple product, coal, denotes the dignity of labour, and the popular name for unemployment benefits is its rhyming opposite. But the slogan is slightly wistful, elegiac even. It isn’t just hindsight that makes it feel more than a little desperate.

For these short slogans to work, the powerful three words ought to be imperative, with a strong, active verb. That’s the genius of ‘Take Back Control’. Action is there, in the first short, simple word. But we’re not being urged to ‘take’ anything that requires effort to imagine, something new, or different. We are told to take ‘back’ something we used to have, but which, by implication, has been stolen from us. It powerfully combines nostalgia with resentment. The final word is an abstract one, in some ways, but not a difficult or challenging abstraction. All people like to feel they have some control over their lives, but there’s also a slightly gendered feel to ‘control’, implying power and even coercion. The point is that ‘control’ is open to different interpretations, depending on the disposition of the individual. But the real power is in the taking back.

Interpreting things doesn’t change them, as Marx once almost said. Does this mean that we must accept that the Right will always have the best three word tunes?

I’m inclined to recommend a bit of ironic plagiarism. The three words on my light box at the moment read ‘Lock Him Up’, and I’ll certainly be yelling them at the PM when the Public Inquiry finally starts. The never ending Brexity chaos makes ‘Take Back Control’ the ideal Remainer revenge taunt. But I’m not sure we’re looking in the right place if we waste our time trying to create a tribute act. As another three word slogan went, on a placard at an AUT rally long ago, ‘Rectify the Anomaly!’ It’s never going to work.

Short slogans and misleading analogies have been weaponised by the right in an age dominated by retail politics, in which bigger visions of the world we want to create are swapped for popular, but disparate policies, as tested to death by pollsters and focus groups. These are the techniques of Madmen, applied to democracies, and they are, ultimately, as we now see, corrosive.

Progressive politics can be popular, but not by being simplistic and manipulative. The periods in which the left has thrived have been times when a combination of practical policies and a clear vision based in action on the ground have taken root. These have usually been times of radical and unsettling change, like the Great Depression in the USA, of the Second World War here.

We are in such a period right now. The pandemic, climate change, fire and flood and pestilence, anyone who thinks that the 21st Century is going to ‘go back to normal’ hasn’t been paying attention. This is a time for big visions, and for dissolving borders. It’s a time to mobilise people for action. And we need leaders who are bold and brave enough to be honest about the future we face, and the actions we can take to make it better than the past.

Now how can I get that on a tee shirt?

Focus Pocus

Focus groups are things that are ‘done’ to that mysterious category of citizens, the ones who aren’t the well-connected metropolitan professionals (or, indeed, trust fund dilettantes) who make up the ‘Official Political Classes’.  Those who run focus groups, such as James Johnson, who once ran No 10’s polling for Theresa May, and ex-Labour pollster, Deborah Mattinson of Britain Thinks, are latter day ring masters.  They set up groups of exotic types from places like Stoke or Boston, in safe pens, and let politicians or journalists ‘observe’ the ring from behind two way mirrors. 

These things used to be known as ‘freak shows’, and for good reason. Bearded ladies, people of restricted growth, riders of unicycles, were paraded to reassure respectable, god-fearing folk that whilst the stuff of their nightmares did indeed exist, it was possible to corral, to tame, and to render inert the dangerous wildness that exists in the world.

So it is today. Bearded ladies now epilate, short people can become unremarkable citizens, or glamorous celebrities, as suits their ambitions, and unicycle riders are now confined to Extinction Rebellion protests. The old circuses have been replaced by a trade that provides a stage and a megaphone for ill-informed bigotry, a relish for aggression, and a taste for vulgarity.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m fascinated, too, when I get a peek at those freaks. Channel Four News did a series of focus groups with voters in the Birmingham Northfield constituency, where the Tories took the Brexity edge of city seat from Labour in 2019.  I didn’t see any bad people in the focus group run by James Johnson. I saw quite normal people from a constituency in which I once lived, the sort of people I’d have lived next door to, or gone to school with. The sort of people who would normally be unlikely to find themselves sitting with a group of strangers being asked to discuss their own political attitudes.  Not surprisingly, this novel situation has a similar effect to, say, putting an assortment of lobby journalists, fellows of Oxford colleges, and unpaid interns from Conde Nast in a Novotel meeting room and asking them to discuss Grime music, daytime television, and bus services.  They might need a convenor to get them going, but no doubt they’d be able to fill an hour or two with half remembered nonsense on subjects they’d never previously given a second thought to.  Whether the exercise has the capacity to tell us much is debatable. Whether the uses of focus groups includes grooming the public to think barely considered assumptions and prejudices widespread and acceptable is less debatable.

Deborah Mattinson describes a particularly sadistic focus group exercise in which two groups of actual, or former, Labour voters are assembled.  One group, younger, urban, often graduates, are 2016 Remain voters. The other, small town, older, non-graduate, are Brexiters.  They are first asked to meet in their bubbles, and to create their ideal political party, including a sense of who would lead it, and what the key policies should be. They then come together, each group presenting their ideal vision of a party to the other.

Brexity-small towners wanted a party led by ‘Spoons magnate, Tim Martin. The urban eggheads preferred a leader “like a young David Attenborough”.  From this unpromising start, the groups had to imagine that they had no choice but to form a coalition to work together. What were their red lines? Where could they make compromises?

Unsurprisingly, the Brexity bunch wouldn’t budge an inch. They couldn’t see the need for compromises. The boffins, understanding how democracy is supposed to work, could.  Mattinson said that the only way they could work together was if the urban voters capitulated to the whims of the resentful ex-Red Wall folk.

The way such an outcome is no doubt being ‘explained’ to Starmer and his team right now, is that the urban voter is open to compromise, having nowhere else to go, whereas the Blue Wallies won’t ever back down on flag and bunting patriotism, kicking out Muslims, and bringing back dead industries.  But is that the right conclusion to draw from a deeply suspect research method?  And more to the point, is it politically advantageous, or even necessary?

To hell with principle, some might say, bring on power! Win an election in order to do something, or sit on the sidelines in powerless purity forever.

There’s a cautionary tale here. James Johnson told similar stories to Theresa May. May’s known for her defeat, but she actually raised the Tory vote considerably in 2017, and basically did the groundwork for ‘Boris’ Johnson’s victory two years later. May’s ground campaign was exemplary, the problem was that her leadership lacked ‘authentic’, vulgar, conviction. Despite her solid record at the Home Office of deep and enduring lack of simple human compassion, including the hostile environment and the Windrush cruelty, May failed to understand that “it ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it”.  A classic ‘gin and Jag set’ Tory, May lacked that magic Wetherspoons touch.

It’s not merely a question of style. May could not, in all conscience, ditch “her people”, the materially comfortable middle class of the southern shires.  Yet the focus group logic for the Tories is that those Home Counties voters need to ‘compromise’, to pay more, get less, in order to transfer wealth and power to the new part of the Tory coalition. I’m not at all sure that this is a stable long term realignment.

Nor is it clear that Keir Starmer, or any other plausible Labour leader, is capable of being convincing as an Ing-er-lund  flag-waver, up for a fight with ‘feminazis’ and readers of books, a loud, proud, John Bull vulgarian. Even if a Labour leader could act the part, would Labour’s urban, graduate, feminised membership, and those urban voters they resemble, actually compromise on their social liberalism? I’m not convinced, at least not long term.  We saw what happened under Blair. There are limits to triangulation, and it’s a trick that loses potency with repetition. 

Focus groups are money-spinners for those who service the political class, but are they useful for much beyond road testing a three word slogan?  

If electoral politics is merely about the retail transaction – find out what the punters will buy, and sell it to them – then perhaps there’s a point to focus groups.  But if democratic politics is about more than that, and many of us believe it is, or at least it ought to be, then let’s put focus groups back in the box marked ‘Open With Care’.

Instead how about a new kind of ‘authentic’ politician?   People who believe in things, say what they mean, and lead people through complicated problems with honesty.

I really do think that even people in focus groups, once they’re back in their normal lives, will respond to the good honest truth with a sigh of relief.

It’s a Funny Old World

Five years ago I started this blog to record my thoughts on the general election.  It was, I suppose, a small act of hope.  The Coalition had felt like a gigantic confidence trick. Five years earlier I had assumed, as did many others, that whichever was the largest party after a general election would need to do a deal with the Liberal Democrats along ‘Confidence and Supply’ lines, which would essentially produce a government unable to do anything but keep the system ticking over.  But as we now know, the result was very different, a last, turbo powered gasp of the late 20th Century.

In 2015 I had hoped that Ed Miliband, an essentially decent and intelligent man trying to do politics in a vicious and grubby world, might start to restore Labour’s fortunes.  But that was not to be.  The 2014 Scottish independence referendum saw to that.  That first bid at partition mobilised latent English nationalism, which was then weaponised by the Tories as a way to wound Labour.  Ed Miliband was depicted as a puppet operated by Alex Salmond, a trick as cynical as the effective but untrue slogans five years earlier about Labour ‘crashing the economy’, or ‘maxing out the credit card’.  Once again it worked.  Too well.

Too well for its creators, certainly.  Cameron and Osborne won a great victory in 2015, and were out of office and out of power within a year.  English nationalism unleashed was a beast that turned on the overconfident men who opened the cage.  Thus, in the last five years we have had three Prime Ministers, and three Leaders of the Opposition, plague stalks the land, extreme weather threatens to fry us or drown us, and we are entering a Great Depression that could make the 1930s look like a cakewalk.

In this place and time it feels pointless to blog about the ins and outs of Westminster politics, even if it is as seen from outside the bubble.  I’m one of those lately labelled a ‘citizen of nowhere’ merely on the basis of a vote I cast four years ago, when in reality I’m a woman living in my unfashionable hometown observing the people around me; people who are as diverse in their attitudes, opinions, beliefs, hopes, fears and desires as any, anywhere.  Nowhere are there just two types of people, and government isn’t – or ought not to be – about serving only one type of person. The system we have does not fit the people we are, and it cannot make the future we need.

Because this is a revolutionary age.  The 21st Century began in January 2020.  It will sweep away all we have known.  And as in all periods of revolutionary change, we will have to decide which side we are on.

The trouble with revolutions is that whilst they are happening, who knows what the ‘sides’ are?  

The side we might call the ‘counter-revolutionaries’ are clearly visible.  The water-muddying tricksters, the sowers of seeds of doubt, the conspiracy theorists, the anti-vaxxers, the millenarian preachers (who accept PayPal), the Trumps, and Putins, Erdogans, Bolsonaros, Modis, Orbans, and yes, the Johnsons, and all their little counterparts, from Belarus to Zimbabwe.  These are people selling fear of the big wide world, whilst filling their own pockets, or those of their friends.  They are in power, or claim influence in many places, because they offer a vision that anxious people can grasp, a vague reflection of an idealised past when virgins with crocks of gold walked unmolested from John o’Groats to Lands End; when only temples stood in Ayodhya, only mosques in Istanbul; when men went out to work in mines and steel works, whilst women stirred pots on the range; a world of faith, and order, of people knowing their place; coal fires, and cups of tea, apple pie and home-made lemonade, Kinder, Küche, Kirche, harvests without fear of locusts or drought, you knew where you were when the rich man was in his castle, and the poor man at the gate.

Set out their prospectus like this, and it is absurd.  But it is powerful stuff because people know that things are changing in ways they cannot control, and can barely imagine.  What could be more appealing than the promise of a strong leader who takes back control, makes your country great again, restores national pride, keeps out foreigners, turns their backs on their neighbours?  When Trump promises to bring back the old jobs to the Rust Belt, or Johnson says he’ll reopen a few northern rail lines cut by Beeching, there is a poignant power to these pledges. But it’s a case of wielding nostalgia as a lethal weapon; the steel mills of old are gone forever, and those restored trains will fill with commuters from nearby cities attracted by lower house prices, fuelling more resentment from those ‘left behind’, in the condescending phrase used only by those who aren’t.

The age we are now leaving forever is one in which we saw our planet as a store of things we could use in whatever ways we wished, or could get away with.  We have as much right as any creature to shape our immediate environment to offer us food, shelter, and happiness. The radical alteration of the natural world through human civilisation has brought us great benefits, material and emotional.  But the age of nations, and of industrial capitalism had within it the seeds of its own destruction, a dialectic that is not about economic and social relations, but about economic and natural relations.

Our cupboard is starting to look bare, the next village is on fire, down the road the crops are under water, the castle has pulled up the drawbridge in a vain attempt at keeping out the pox, and the lake is awash with dead fish.  We can’t make society work for humans any more until we start to repair the damage we have done, and that means everywhere.  When Bolsonaro wishes rainforests would burn down, that’s the lungs of my city and yours, and of every square centimetre of the earth, river deep, mountain high.  The rare earths and minerals involved in making the device upon which I write this are finite resources.  We are going to have to decide who gets to use them, for what purpose, and how they might be reused.  We have to decide where people live, as coastal areas, even whole countries, sink into rising oceans.  Everything we have known materially and, indeed, economically and politically, needs to change. Because change is going to happen anyway.

So how do we get from where we are, to where we need to be?  It’s politics at its most essential – the distribution of resources.

For what it’s worth, I’m going to try to imagine what the next steps could be. That’s where this blog is going now. If you’ve done me the courtesy of reading this, I’d be very grateful for suggestions.