Jeremy Corbyn Is A Blairite

Successful political parties have to have a purpose, and a constituency whose interests they represent.  Having shedloads of money can help to keep awkward questions at bay, but not for ever. Democracy’s a bit of a bastard like that – you can’t fool all of the people, all of the time.

Which brings us to the unholy mess that is British politics as we near the end of 2017. Omnishambles doesn’t cover it.  Malcolm Tucker is a mild mannered sweetie, temperamentally unsuited to our demented times. Alastair Campbell has morphed into the voice of reason.  For these are the End Times.

The total shitstorm, tidal wave, asteroid hit, sink hole, forest fire, flood, drought and zombie apocalypse through which we are living was made by the Conservative and Unionist Party.  Our dire, and deteriorating, position as a nation has its roots in, and its shape defined, by the decisions taken by the Tories.  The party used to look like a winner, a ‘natural party of government’, a shrewd player of the national mood, able to adapt to all the twists and turns of history in order to survive.  A party of aristocrats, firmly opposed to democracy, it invented modern political campaigning and the mass membership party.  Opposed to votes for women, it gave us the first and second women Prime Ministers.  Condemning the socialisation of medicine that was the NHS was quickly followed by the embrace of that institution. It seemed like the party of brilliant reinvention, nimbly able to own the zeitgeist.

It doesn’t feel like that now.  John Smith, Labour’s lost PM, mocked John Major’s government as one in which everything went wrong, from villages slipping into the sea, to the Grand National descending into farce.  But Major won an election when he was expected to lose, and carried on for a full term with his dignity intact.  This is much, much worse, and its quite hard to see how they escape from the mess.

The Tories have a small, elderly membership who lack the capacity for activism.  Their voter base is dying. Their purpose – other than to dread and fear Corbyn’s Labour Party – is hard to ascertain.  It certainly isn’t their purpose to deliver Brexit, because they still don’t know what it is, nor how to get it.  They don’t represent industry, they don’t even represent banking, maybe they represent some hedge funds, but that’s hardly a message to woo the electorate.  They’re a busted flush, dying before our eyes, and doing their damnedest to take the rest of the country down with them, the frightened, idiotic cowards.

But Labour.  Surely they’re in a similar mess?  The narrative of their opponents is that the party is a party of Remain, led by Eurosceptics, with a voter base which is dying a different kind of death – as Northern Leave voters wedded to industries that have gone, or are on their way out.  Contradictions all round.

Except that its not rue.  I remember writing, in 1997, that Blair’s Labour campaigned in denial of its own supporters.  They seemed to hold the Northern industrial working class – the “white working class” as some Westminster-bubbleists put it – at arms length, unwilling to be too closely associated with them and their curious ways.  A no doubt apocryphal story was that Peter Mandelson, taken to a chippy in Hartlepool, mistook mushy peas for guacamole. The story stuck, because true or not, it encapsulated an attitude.

Blair’s party also used iron control to ensure that certain kinds of black, and, particularly, Asian PPCs were not selected, mainly because they were, and looked and sounded working class, or “too black”, or “too Asian”.  The nervous Blairites wanted a party that looked and sounded youngish, metropolitan, and breezily ‘classless’ in the manner of the upwardly mobile graduates in their advance guard.

It was a neat trick to pull off at the time – but it was a trick.  They got small town, socially conservative, working class people to vote for an urban, middle class party.

Twenty years on, and small town, declining, ageing, working class areas that used to be the Labour heartlands, are Brexity places, hostile to immigrants, and receptive to, if still suspicious of Theresa May’s tall tales of ‘caring’ for the ‘just about managing’, and the ‘left behinds’.  The 2017 election gave Labour too little to be complacent about in those areas, even where they remain in the nervous hands of Labour MPs.

But 2017 showed that Corbyn was making Labour the party Blair had always wanted it to be – young, urban, educated, socially liberal.  Labour piled up voters, and new members, in the growing cities.  Its constituency, and its activist base, lies in exactly the demographic which alone can make Britain a successful country in the years ahead.  It’s in these hands – the massed ranks of the city-dwelling, first-graduates-in-the-family, articulate precariat – that both the party and the country’s future lies.

The Tories have reason to fear that their condition is terminal.  Labour ought to be more confident.  And finding a way to remove the spectre of Brexit is the key to their historic mission.  To finish off the Tory Party which has brought this country to the edge of ruin.


The Mysterious Case of the City that Lost Its Voice

In another blog post, by Tom Forth  describing what he saw as the failure of Birmingham as a city, he had this to say:

If a group of lads “looks after you car” in Liverpool, they do it in the local accent. If a similar group in Manchester or Leeds are chatting while listening to happy hardcore on the back of the bus they do it in a suitably filthy Northern accent. One of the most jarring experiences for me in Birmingham is that the same genre of lads speak not like they’re fresh out of Peaky Blinders, but more like they want to be Dizzee Rascal.

And he’s right. Something strange has happened to a city of a million people.  Birmingham has lost its distinctive accent. In the space of, say, thirty years, the accent that once was the hallmark of the city, is now a minority attribute, largely confined to the city’s outer wards; the white edge lands, where the city bleeds into the Black Country, or Warwickshire, or Worcestershire.  Densely populated inner-urban Birmingham no longer says “Tarrah a bit”, “bab”, or “bostin”, whatever the fancy postcards sold in the city’s cultural venues say.  The accent of Jess Phillips resounds with many in her Yardley constituency, but it isn’t the voice of Small Heath, Ladywood, or Alum Rock. Why?

When I happen to be on a bus when the schools come out, which happens more often than I would like, the school kids, a multi-ethnic bunch heading back to the poorer wards in a poor city, have little trace of Jess Phillips in their tones. They sound, to my ears, blandly RP-ish, except when deliberately using Black English.  When I listen more carefully, the older Asians, many educated in the city, have a hint of Brummie in their speech rhythm, but younger Asians often don’t, either adopting the emergent British Asian working class accent, or, if middle class, speaking RP.

It wasn’t always like this.  I can still remember the middle class Birmingham accent. ‘Posh’, we thought it. There’s a hint of it in Enoch Powell, still more in the former Tory MP for Birmingham Northfield, Anthony Beaumont-Dark, a Birmingham stockbroker before he entered Parliament.  The former Liberal Democrat MP Lorely Burt was a rare recent speaker of posh Brummie, as is the one time Radio Four regular, David Stafford.  Frank Skinner’s West Brom accent is close enough, but these accents are now exotically rare.

The city is one of the youngest, most diverse cities in Europe. Herein lies the explanation, I think.  White flight emptied the inner-city of the old white Birmingham working class, depositing them in the housing estates on the city edges, or even moving them out to new towns, like Telford and Daventry.  The Birmingham-accented middle class of old belonged to an era of manufacturing industry, and the regional financial services that once supported them. They too have gone, literally having no business in the city any more.

The city’s new middle class is concentrated around the five universities, the many colleges, the large teaching hospitals, and the major cultural institutions.  They are Theresa May’s ‘citizens of nowhere’, more politely described as international, and career-builders in fields where you need to be geographically mobile.  They have accents of where they came from, but their children do not grow up with a local accent, because in the schools they attend, there isn’t one.

The new working class is also international. Diaspora communities of Francophone and Lusophone Africans are present in numbers in the city, with links across the EU, as well as Africa. There’s also a new EU white working class moving into the inner-city wards where once the Irish lived. The older New Commonwealth population from the Indian sub-continent and the Caribbean has seen class fragment their identities, with the upwardly mobile and economically successful moving into the Edgbaston mansions once occupied by the city grandees, the professional middle classes as accentless and mobile as their white peers, and the black and Asian working classes dividing into those fiercely protecting their identities (often through religious affiliations), and those who have melted into the white working class.  This is a very mixed-race city, and elderly couples in which one partner is white, the other black or Asian, is a fairly common sight.

To go through such an acute and numerically huge population churn in such a short space of time seems to have erased the Birmingham accent, driving it to the city limits, where it merges with the more enduring West Midlands accents of small towns in former industrial shires.

But a city that loses its accent must build its identity in new ways. And that’s another story.


What Is True In The Age Of Fakery?

The old model of democratic politics was that democracy, stable institutions, and the rule of law were mutually reinforcing.  Democracy kept the system more or less honest, the stable institutions – basically the state, but going beyond that to civil society more broadly – ensured that political change could be delivered in gradual ways which avoided chaos; and the rule of law was a trusted final arbiter.

No one can say it’s like that now in many places right across the world.  We may, in Britain for example, still have votes. They have votes in most countries, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.  For a vote to be meaningful, it has to be practical.  There has to be a link between what an electorate wants, who it can vote for, and the policies that result.  Iran, or Russia, let people vote, but the range of available and viable candidates is seriously restricted to ensure that real change cannot occur within their systems.

Our problem is different.  The malaise in our institutions has rotted the connection between votes and outcomes.  The result is Brexit.  Brexit is an ongoing case study in political failure.

Referendums have traditionally been frowned upon as not being consistent with the British constitution, and our form of representative democracy.  We had the first in 1975, and a shabby thing it was, called only to manage an unruly Labour Party.  The second, at the end of that decade, was on Scottish devolution.  Hedged around with caveats and thresholds, it was scarcely a meaningful vote, and it led swiftly to the fall of the Callaghan government, as the SNP threw in their lot with Thatcher and the Tories to pass a No Confidence motion.  Blair held two major ones, Cameron, Blair fan that he was, did likewise.  Cameron, interestingly, held advisory referendums, choosing to disregard the advice given by voters when it was against local mayors, but respecting the outcome over AV, Scottish devolution, and EU membership.

Blair’s referendums were on clear constitutional questions, and voters knew what they were voting for.  Cameron’s referendums were ‘easy’ ways to finesse political management problems – the AV vote to secure Lib Dem support after 2010, the Scottish vote to deal with what he regarded as a noisy distraction, and the EU vote as a copycat Callaghan tactic to neutralise divisions in his own party.  But whatever the political motivations behind the deployment of the referendum weapon, the fact is that their disruptive arrival on the British political scene has been congruent with the decay in our democratic political culture.

On top of all this is the new form of warfare that has been facilitated by technological change.

We’ve always had propaganda.  Governments have often sought, overtly, or covertly, to influence political events beyond their borders.  There’s been the ‘soft power’ of bodies like the British Council, the Goethe Institute, and the diplomacy conducted by pandas and Bolshoi Ballet tours.  But these things are overt, and subject to the law in the countries in which they operate.  We know who is behind them, and for what purpose.

We are now in an age of disruption.  Governments, and private bodies, may wage wars of chaos, deliberately designed to sow confusion, division, and fear.  And, unlike the past, each and every one of us is in the front line.

Can I believe that ‘fact’?  That graph look scary.  Ha ha, share that funny meme!  We are on our own in a sea of ‘stuff’, in which our trusted ‘friends’ and ‘followers’, bestowers of ‘likes’ and emojis, may be bots, or contract workers in disinformation factories, or bored teenagers in far away villages, in the pay of god knows who.

Faced with all this – the difficulty of being an active citizen when we can’t even reliably identify who are our peers; the problem of weak institutions; the lack of a direct connection between our votes and our lives – it is sometimes tempting to just give up.

But that’s the last thing we should do.

We need to build our resilience, maintain our scepticism, get better at distinguishing between truth and noise, and, above all, start demanding better from those who seek politically to represent us.  In that way we can begin to see a way through to a new democratic settlement.

The truth is out there!

Those Brexit Impact Assessments….

“We’ve had enough of experts.”  So said Michael Gove, gentleman and amateur, and self-confessed uninformed cheerleader of Brexitism.  But I’m one of those sad souls who sometimes likes to know things, so I took myself along to an event held by the University of Birmingham as part of the Economic and Social Research Council’s Festival of Social Science.  On Brexit.

To my surprise, I wasn’t photographed by the Tory Whips on the way in.  No Daily Mail hacks sought a quote from anyone around me in denouncement of pointy headed saboteurs. It was all quite civilised.

So what did Professor Long Hair have to say? Well, there were six of them, or eight, if you add in the PVC for International Affairs (a title probably better suited to Boris J than his actual one), and the Head of School.  50 short of the full set of impact studies, but more hard information than the government has yet released.

First up was Dr. Nando Sigona.  He flew through his data packed slides at a frustrating pace, for I would really have liked time to study them in detail (perhaps he’ll make them available online for attendees of the event?).  His work of late has been on EU families and ‘euro children’ in Britain.  Because of course a relationship of 45 years since Britain joined the then EEC has led to migration, relationships, and families who reflect that history.  Untangling those relationships is impossible – they are literally in the DNA of many British citizens, especially a whole generation of children.  Listening to Dr. Sigona, it was impossible not to think of how the referendum campaign might have played out rather differently if the Remain campaign had used some of these human stories to show the wrenching complexity of the very idea of leaving the EU in an abrupt manner without considering the impact on real lives.  It also set me thinking.  I know that the polls have barely moved on support for Brexit amongst those who voted for it, but it is at least anecdotally interesting that when a small number of people call in to phone-in shows to express regret for voting Leave, they are nearly always men with EU nationals as partners, often longstanding ones, and multilingual children.

Dr. Kelly Hall followed, with research on the impact of Brexit on British pensioners living in Spain.  I could see that her work was useful in enabling preparatory work to be done by the British Consulate to prepare for various outcomes to Brexit negotiations, but in truth, most of them don’t look particularly good for the individuals involved. In a worst case scenario, tens of thousands of frail elderly people with few material resources could end up air ambulanced to Britain, and to an NHS and social care system without the resources to cope.  (I’d have liked to have known how some of these people voted in the referendum, too, and not just to be mean. As with the phone-in callers with their Dutch, or Polish wives, I wonder whether the Brexity pensioners on the Costas had failed to link their votes to their own lives?)

Two presentations followed which concerned health.  The first of these, by Professor Mark Exworthy, looked at the impact of Brexit on patients and the NHS.  His evidence debunked the tabloid view that EU migrants are a strain on the NHS.  Quite the opposite is true, from the impact of their tax contributions, to their labour as clinicians and carers. Whatever might have been written on the side of a bus last year, Brexit doesn’t look like being a bonus for the NHS.

Prof. Exworthy was followed by Professor Jean McHale.  A legal scholar, Prof. McHale looked at the impact of Brexit on regulating pharmaceuticals and clinical trials.  This is an important sector of the British economy, and one of the few which is highly technical and often world-leading.  The integration of regulations isn’t simply a matter of custom and practice arising from four decades of proximity – it is about best practice to ensure effective research and development, and swift and safe routes to market for new treatments.  I did not feel reassured that the tight Brexit timetable is remotely suited to dealing with these vital issues both for our health, and for our economy.

Professor Raquel Ortega-Arguiles offered a broader economic overview of the impact of Brexit on the UK, its regions, cities, and sectors.  Actually, she roamed wider, demonstrating clearly that with the obvious anomaly of Ireland, the UK would be more adversely affected by Brexit than the rest of the EU, and within the UK it would be London and the South East which would be least negatively impacted by Brexit, and the manufacturing and industrial areas, often Leave voting, which would be most disadvantaged by leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union.  The slides she showed were powerful evidence of this; maps shaded to show degrees of impact.

Finally Professor John Bryson looked at the local and regional impact of Brexit.  Birmingham and the West Midlands is a manufacturing area, so no surprises there.  But he did offer an important sense of perspective on Brexit – that in the scale of challenges on the horizon, it is relatively insignificant.  The impact of robotics and AI on jobs is rolling towards us and gathering speed.  He might have added climate change.  Brexit kind of looks like a self-indulgence in face of the real issues the world has to face this century.

And so to audience questions. It seems that there was not a Brexiter to be seen in the house.  We’d been treated to a series of impact studies, with real data, and much serious food for thought, and no politician or voter from the winning side seemed to have the slightest interest in knowing more about their favourite subject.

Funny that.

The English Civil War

Brexit shimmers, or looms, depending on taste, either tantalisingly within grasp, or as an iceberg of stupidity towards which the British luxury liner, captained by a terrified and indecisive Theresa May, is heading at speed.  I tend to the latter view.  The band plays on, conducted by a ‘white face’ Cab Callaway, in the far less elegant form of the Foreign Secretary. Jumping Jive.

The question now is why?  Why are we still in the grip of the Brexit toxin?

The politicians all know it is a catastrophe.  The voters, most of whom didn’t give a toss about the EU either way before 2016, are confused, and, so the polls suggest, are gradually becoming more worried.  They don’t know what is happening, but have an uneasy sense that it is all going wrong.  Business is screaming, scrambling for bases in Frankfurt and Amsterdam, or sullenly hoarding the money the country needs them to invest, for fear that hard times – seriously bad, as Trump might say – are around the corner.  So why not ditch the whole thing?

I got a sense of the answer whilst watching the film, The Death of Stalin.  Like the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet in 1953, our leaders wield their power with assertions of determination, and an inner dread.  They, too, cannot trust their colleagues – every alliance can turn on a sixpence from a strength into a death sentence.  Beyond the walls of the Kremlin were the people.  Some of those people, (shall we call them ‘experts’?) are doctors, intellectuals, artists, scientists.  These are people the politicians hold suspect.  It is imperative to threaten and crush them, to imprison, and exile them.  And then there is the mob, the people they sentimentalise in public, and sneer at in private.  They fear the people.

They fear the people here, and now.  For ‘the people have spoken’.  Brexit is ‘the will of the people’. I heard a Tory MP say, “I didn’t vote to Leave, but the people made a decision, and we must deliver what they voted for.”

There is no way to get around the fact that a vote was held in June 2016, and a simple majority of those voting, on a high turnout, voted for the proposition that Britain should leave the European Union.  Yes, it was stupid to call the referendum at all on such a complex issue, and yes, it was even more stupid not to impose some routine safeguards on a vote of such huge importance, such as thresholds for turnout, and for a 2/3 majority.  But David Cameron’s stupidity is now being compounded, because the Tory Party, and to some extent, the other parties in England, really do think that something called ‘the will of the people’ has been expressed – and it frightens them to the core.

The referendum campaign unleashed sentiments, licensed modes of expression, toxified politics to the point of murder.  Not hyperbole, but fact.  Brexit incited the assassination of one of their own.  Before the referendum I heard it said that politicians are frightened of the voters, and it struck me as true. After the referendum, those fearful ‘leaders’ think their fears were justified.

The Scots obviously don’t share that fear.  In the North of Ireland, different rules apply.  But it is instructive that the Welsh devolved government, despite the pro-Brexit vote in the Principality, also doesn’t fear riots in the streets of Merthyr if Brexit were to be stopped.  It’s a matter of integration, if I can borrow a phrase from the opponents of multiculturalism.  The politicians outside Westminster have integrated with their voters in a way that the priestly caste in London have not.  (This also explains the phenomenon of Corbyn.  Whatever else one might say about him, he doesn’t fear the voters.)

For the referendum in England ignited a kind of English civil war.  Not the one the Tories tried to exploit in the 2015 general election, an English nationalism defined against the Scots.  This is a true English civil war, a war of myriad grievances and many sides, and one over which Westminster has little control, and the London media has little comprehension.  It’s a war caused by political failure on a grand scale.

Most local government in England now has little power, and even less money.  Voters don’t completely understand this, and it suits Westminster to deflect the blame. This has all whittled away confidence and trust in politicians, as they seem (and often are) powerless.  Forces over which we have no control run our services.  Academy chains looting schoolchildren, energy companies raiding our bank accounts, social housing in the hands of businesses with an eye on the bottom line.  It has all weakened the implicit social contract.

Add to all that the generational inequalities now made stark, the specifics of regional deprivation after the deliberate deindustrialisation of swathes of the country, and the growing cultural gap between the city on the one hand, and smaller towns, and the shires, and the coastal belt, on the other, and we have the shape of this messy English civil war.

‘Delivering Brexit’ won’t fix any of that.  It’s already making it worse.

England had a civil war in the 17th Century, too.  The dominant narrative about that time is that there was an Interregnum under Cromwell, after which the natural order was restored along with the Monarchy.  The alternative view is that the English Civil War was a revolution, which led to a fundamental change in the state and its institutions, and in the relationship of the state to the people.

History doesn’t repeat itself.  Which is not to say there aren’t lessons.

Our politicians need to integrate with the people once more.  The state and its institutions must be reformed to be fit for the 21st Century. Power must be decentralised, and democratic accountability for services restored.

We must have fundamental change. And we mustn’t have Brexit.

Theresa May – What’s She For?

Who didn’t feel a bat squeak of pity for Theresa May as her political life ran into the buffers on live TV?  But the instinctive human sympathy we may feel is of a generic, rather than a specific, kind.  For who thinks they ‘know’ Theresa May? The Maybot label stuck for a reason.

A long time ago, though still after she, and her party, had lost power, I had reason to think about Margaret Thatcher.  And I could not get my head around her at all.  Men from the more patrician wing of her party spoke of her as ‘lower middle class’, a shopkeeper’s daughter, a provincial grammar school girl. I’m some of those things, but they gave me no way in to Thatcher’s brain, her motivation, her stubbornness, and her astonishing resilience.  I couldn’t crack the enigma of Thatcher until I read something said by one of her near contemporaries and political opponents, Barbara Castle.

Castle’s diary entry on the day Margaret Thatcher became leader of the Tory Party has the then Labour Cabinet minister describing Thatcher standing before the flashlights of the press photographers, smiling.  “I know that look,” says Barbara Castle of Margaret Thatcher. “She is in love.  In love with power, and with herself.”

Did Theresa May ever look like a woman in love?  She was a bit of a looker at Oxford, if the photograph I’ve seen of her in sultry mood, her pre-Raphaelite locks cascading down her back, is anything to go by.  But politically, May has never seemed to embody that iron self-confidence.  Political love, like political hate, is a powerful, unsentimental thing.  It emanates from a clear sense of political purpose.

And here we have the problem with Theresa.  She doesn’t have any sense of political purpose.

From the time she was old enough to make sense of social conditions in the mill towns of Lancashire, Barbara Castle had burning political convictions, and one way or another, the architect of the Equal Pay Act strove to make them happen.  The young Margaret Roberts might have come of age in Attlee’s socialist paradise, but no mere social climber on the make, the second Mrs. Thatcher wanted to project her vision of individual responsibility and a small state onto the whole nation – and she did it.

Theresa May wanted to be Prime Minister from her teenage years, and was apparently a bit miffed that Thatcher denied her the opportunity to be the first woman in that role.  That much is in the public record.  What is harder to understand is why?  What did she enter politics to do?

May, is a cultural Tory, not an ideological one.  The traditional cultural Tory of her generation thought ideas a little suspect, ideologies rather vulgar, and valued hard work and obedience over natural brilliance and creativity.  May’s views on any issue seem to come from whichever trusted figure is speaking into her ear – Vicar father, teacher, political aide, whoever – rather than issuing from her own core beliefs.

This is evident in May’s ill-fated conference speech this week. She can steal a policy from Labour without the slightest sense of discomfort, because a policy is just a ‘thing’ – what matters is that it is implemented (or probably not) by a Tory like her.

It’s even more evident in her response to Brexit.  Many commentators have spoken of May in Machiavellian terms, backing Remain, but keeping below the radar, better to snatch the crown from Cameron if he lost the referendum vote.  I was prepared to buy that, too, until May showed that we were projecting too much cleverness and guile onto her.  May was able to embrace Brexit, because like anything else – energy prices, social housing, racial discrimination, student fees – Brexit is just a ‘thing’ which can be bodged together as some policy announcements and maybe a bit of legislation to the accompaniment of a cheerleading press.  Easy-peasy.

And so we reach this point. Because politics isn’t a game.  It is about having principles, a view of human nature and what is possible, a clear sighted sense of how we got to where we are, and how we might proceed to somewhere better.  From those things, and those things alone, come policy prescriptions.

May doesn’t seem to have any identifiable principles, she doesn’t have an analysis of the state we are in, and therefore she cannot put together a clear set of policies.  She is out of her depth.  And so is her whole party.

What We’ve Learned Since The Referendum – And What We Haven’t

A year ago an ecstatic Theresa May was queen of all she surveyed, an unassailable leader  confronted by an opposition of staggering weakness (and that was only the opposition within her own party).  Perhaps she might well have reflected, from her suite in the Birmingham Hyatt, that one year before that, David Cameron was looking out at the view from his hotel room, triumphant at being the first Tory leader in 23 years to deliver a parliamentary majority. Next year they’re back in Birmingham, and it’s quite likely that the next occupant of that suite will be a different person – and, quite possibly, not even PM?

So what changed in June 2016?  Everything, and nothing.

The Tories who gather in Manchester today are the same old same old they have been since John Major described his own Cabinet colleagues as “bastards”.  It ceased to be a conservative party under Margaret Thatcher, but somehow the membership didn’t notice.  They ‘conserve’ nothing, cherish no tradition but their own iron grip on the levers of power, and regard electoral politics as a cynical game.  That they lost office between 1997 and 2010 is unimportant – because the politics of that era was dominated, and constrained, by the small state, free market, globalist assumptions of the Tories.  Margaret Thatcher looked upon Tony Blair and said as much.

And yet the Tories are, as Norman Lamont once said of his colleagues, “In office, but not in power.”  Authority, confidence, certainty have drained from the Tory Party.  The election result in June isn’t what brought about their catastrophe, though.  It was the 2016 referendum.

Forget fevered speculation about the loutish and embarrassing Foreign Secretary and his ambitions, or the supposed plots of the desiccated calculating machine that is Philip Hammond.  The Adams Family retainers, IDS and Chris Grayling, may whine on, forever spouting their grubby Brexity fantasies.  None of that matters.  Brexit still only means Brexit.

For Brexit still has the same leaders.  BoJo the Clown.  Kermit Farage. The absurd Daniel Hannan.  The ageing groupies, Kate Hoey and Gisela Stuart.  Think about it.

In the wake of a great victory, people leap upon the bandwagon.  They see the direction of travel, and, opportunists, or chancers, or dedicated followers of fashion, they want to be where its at.  And 2016 was a great victory for the Brexit leadership.  So why haven’t their ranks swelled?  Why aren’t seekers of power and influence after a piece of the action?  Why aren’t the politically ambitious young swamping social media with their witty Brexitry?

So ask the other relevant question.  Who now leads Remain?

Not David Cameron, that’s for sure.  Alan Johnson’s an author now.  Those who fronted the Remain campaign – and badly – have fled the scene of the accident.  But no matter, for Remain in the EU has new leaders now.  And just look at them!

The key (effective) leaders of Remain are largely extra-parliamentary, often youthful, highly expert, and inventive and committed.  They are grassroots activists, most effective when they are cross-party.  I know all this, because I watched it happen, from the first day after the referendum result.  Strangers discovering one another through social media, crowd-funding initiatives, like the EU flags at the BBC Proms, or disseminating one anothers’ memes.  Brainstorming ideas for novel protests, creating Twitterstorms, coalescing into local groups, and becoming a genuine insurgency.

This is the biggest problem for the Brexiter leadership, for the voters they mobilised in 2016 saw in the referendum whatever they wanted to see, rather than a single, concrete cause.  Moreover, those voters were older and less educated than their opponents.  For all the wild imaginings of those fantasists, Farage, and Arron Banks, there will be no ‘riots in the streets’ if Brexit (whatever that is) doesn’t happen.  However much the Brexit campaign may have fired up small movements of the far right, and radicalised lone extremists and political assassins, there is no Brexit ‘movement’.  From Liam Fox’s ludicrous vision of an Anglosphere, to Dan Hannan’s world fit for hedge funds, these are not visions that command any popular resonance – as the election result showed.

And yet the pantomime of Brexit talks continues, the hapless Michel Barnier locked up with the Brexit Bulldog and ‘master negotiator’, David Davis, talking over one another to no effective purpose.  Because my side is very good at exposing the absurdity of Brexit to the satisfaction of ourselves, but we are not good enough at playing the political game.

Today’s march in Manchester is a case in point.  The strategy so far has focused on legal challenges, technicalities, and pressure on political parties.  We did well to mobilise a sufficient degree of tactical voting (and young voter registration) to deprive May of a Brexit Mandate in June, but while that is necessary, it is not sufficient.

To stop Brexit, we need to change the polling numbers.  It’s the only thing to which politicians will respond. (Look at the Tory panic, throwing out previously unthinkable policy ideas, and seeking magic money trees, as they fear the iron logic of polls showing that younger voters find them toxic.)  But so far, the 48/52 polling numbers on Brexit seem largely stuck.  They may have reversed, but that’s not good enough.  Until we hit at least 60/40 in favour of Remain, the parliamentary political dynamic will not change.  Tory Remainers will cling to party loyalty, and Labour will strive to maintain its opacity and ambiguity.

So how do we change the poll numbers – and fast?

By first, understanding the Leave voters.  Those who persist in labelling them all ‘thick’, ‘stupid’, and ‘racist’ help to keep the polls static.  No one holds their hands up and says, “yes, I was a thick racist, but now you’ve pointed it out, I’ll change my mind.”  So an end to abuse in any serious debate (what the Daily Mash does is another matter).

The Leave vote is not monolithic.  Scottish fishermen voted Leave for different reasons from unemployed people in the South Wales valleys.  The comfortable, elderly middle class in the Tory shires had different motivations from angry WASPI women protesting against pension unfairness in the North East of England.  South Asians who were misled about Brexit making it easier for their families to get visas to attend family weddings are surely open to other arguments?  We need to map out where the Brexit vote is softest, and strategically target those groups with our honest, friendly, constructive messages.

That is what we haven’t done, because it is not a message we have yet learned.

The Remain campaign now needs to step up its popular appeal, and to speak honestly to people outside our circles.  We can do this.  And we must.

Politics In A Land Of Broken Dreams

Dismaland. That was the ‘holiday resort’/art installation created by Banksy in Weston-Super-Mare. It needed no explanations, no careful curation, to ensure that visitors got the message.  Dismaland is where we live.

For we are all dismal now.  From Ranty Remainers, desperate in fancy dress, to Rabid Leavers foaming at the mouth, from Northern plebs in our deindustrialised, disinvested shells of once great municipalities, to Southern metropolitans paying penthouse rents to share sub-standard hovels, unhappiness stalks the land like a manic Skeletor.  Even the wealthy and secure middle classes feel terrible discontent, as their privilege feels puny compared to the staggering wealth of the plutocrats, kleptocrats, and oligarchs now living in the London homes that were once their birthright.  As for our political leaders, who range from the robotic to the bathetic, their capacity to offer hope – not as a tone, but as a programme – seems much diminished.

To be fair to the Labour leadership, they really are trying. The last manifesto was a glorious, and effective, dog’s dinner; part nostalgia, part hard-headed retail politics.  That it didn’t result in a Labour government is an inconvenient truth, but anyone who denies that the campaign pulled a kind of, if not victory, a vindication, from what looked like being an historic defeat is really being unfair. The boy Jez done well.

But doing better by failing to address the Brexit pachyderm in the chamber does look bathetically unambitious to the point of wilful myopia.  I keep hearing loyal Corbynistas repeating, as truth, that the referendum happened, a decision was made, no point fighting it now. Corbyn himself said as much to Jon Snow on C4 News last night.  And it is not good enough.

I could go with a Brexit fudge for a little longer, if I believed it was part of a greater plan. That plan would be a version of John McDonnell’s scenario-planning for a run on the pound in the event of a radical Labour victory in the very near future.  For a victory night speech calling for a revocation of Article 50, and a resetting of the clock on Brexit would have a different kind of effect on the markets.  That might be fiendishly clever.  I can see Keir Starmer coming up with something like that. (What followed such an announcement could take many forms, but it is unlikely that Brexit would be one of them.)

The trouble is, I have no sense that this is Labour’s direction of travel.  Like much of the British public, the Labour leadership, and swathes of its too loyal membership, are dealing with Brexit by pretending it isn’t happening.

As a result, Labour is being too timid, too unambitious, too un-radical.

At present, there is a penchant in the media, and on social media, for framing politics in the UK as Tory/populist right, Vs Labour/populist left, with a gaping centrist hole.  Realign the Centre, call many siren voices.  But this is no time for ‘centrism’.  There is no centre position ‘between’ Brexit, and not-Brexit. There is no centre position between white supremacism and civil rights. This is a time not for ameliorating putative extremes, but for restating, defining, and creating programmes for action based on philosophical first principles.

Yes, Brexit is a distraction from such an important job as redefining politics (and our whole constitutional settlement)  in an age of globalisation and insecurity.  But it is also a real thing that must be fought and defeated before anything else becomes possible.

Fight Brexit as the first stage in a programme of real, long lasting, ambitious radicalism!  Dreams need not be broken.

Mrs May’s Chicken Lasagne

The most exciting revelation in a new book about the Tories’ nightmare election campaign concerns the fact that May served her campaign team a meal, at Chequers, of chicken lasagne with boiled potatoes.  I’ve just been asked by YouGov whether I thought this sounded “delicious”, or “disgusting”.  Because at a time when people are contemplating nuclear war, climate chaos, ethnic cleansing, an airhead in the White House, and a chimp on a zip wire in command of Britain’s foreign policy, there is no subject more serious than Theresa May’s election menu.

And yet, there is something highly revealing about that scummy supper.  It is the very essence of Brexitism, which is what contemporary conservatism must now be called.  Chicken lasagne with boiled potatoes might be the Daily Mail Diet – white food for white people.  Unlike the suet pudding nostalgia of Orwell, or the boiled cabbage cut into sections hailed by T.S. Eliot, this is the food of the English today, probably available in the M&S Thames Valley Range.  The pasta signifies the ‘sophistication’ of the timid and unadventurous, the cheese sauce speaks of a desire for a comfort blanket, and the chicken (soon to be chlorinated) is the ‘diet meat’ of preference for Daily Mail ladies, bland and fat-free, at least before being coated with the cheesy slop.  As for that accompaniment – boiled potatoes – it’s the perfect, unInstagrammable food.  No vibrant green leaves, no modish beetroot, chia seeds, amaranth, none of that jungly-looking food, in which beasts might lurk unseen, to be forked into the unfortunate germophobe’s mouth.  It is the modern equivalent of the days of old where true English people would swear that they couldn’t tolerate onions (a vegetable associated with moustachioed men in Breton shirts and berets).  Chicken lasagne is Englishness in a baking dish.

For all the instant mythologising of the Brexit vote, that it was all the fault of the beer and pork scratchings classes, the real backbone of Brexitism is the insecure, less educated, older middle classes, fearful of anyone ‘below’ them, and resentful of being patronised by those ‘above’ them.  May brooded for six years (or eleven, if you count the years of Opposition) over how the posh boys looked down on the plodding vicar’s daughter.  May must have watched Cameron with seething resentment across that Cabinet table.  He just had the effortless self-assurance of his class.  He was thoughtless, indolent, had never had to work hard for anything.  Until Brexit took him down.

Brexit took him down.  Perhaps we are imputing too much clever manoeuvring to May when we observe her under-the-radar ‘Remain’ stance before the referendum?  Perhaps this is simply a matter of opportunism?  When Cameron limped away to his Cotswold shed, May seized her moment with the sharp elbows of the English middle class with a grievance.  It was no more, or less, than the revenge of the chicken lasagne people.

May owes them.  And fears them, for they know no loyalty, save to themselves.

Dear Tory, (A Letter To The Tories)

Dear Tory,

By which I mean Tories in positions of power.  Your voters and your party members don’t really matter here. They are ageing and ill-educated, which is not their fault.  I’m talking to you, Tory MP, Tory peer, Tory councillor, Tory MEP, Tory AM or MSP.  You are the ones I see on TV, read about in the press, over whom I sometimes stumble on social media. You are the public faces and voices of a party which has long sought successfully to win the democratic vote.  So how do you look to those who are not of your tribe?

There’s no easy way to say this.  You look bad.

There is not the slightest shred of authority about you.  You are like a street gang, tooled-up with knives, or bottles of acid, fighting senseless postcode wars that make no sense to anyone who doesn’t share your tiny, narrow, ill-informed world view (almost everyone else).  Your deadly feuds are with one another, and you’ll wield a weapon as the first, not the last response to some perceived threat or sleight.  Much of the Cabinet is like this.

Though, as in any gang, there are the more passive-aggressive members who make up the numbers, but are rarely required to think for themselves.  The backbench member of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee who was wheeled out on TV and radio to attack the BBC on pay yesterday was a fairly typical example.  A sweaty man with the flushed demeanour of someone who had recently been studying a porn site on his phone, this creature could scarcely string an argument together, because the only matter of any significance in this affair was to do the bidding of the gang’s Mr Big dealers, the commercial rivals of the BBC.  I looked at this odious man and thought, “No way are you worth £76,000 of anyone’s money.”

Then there’s the Tories who are so Old School that they have forgotten about 200 years of British history, and have no concept of democracy, or of public service. Step forward Councillor Rock Fielding-Mellen, former Deputy Leader (with responsibility for housing) of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.  This is the man whose response to council tenants wanting a say over their services said, “The village cannot dictate to the Estate”.

Think about that phrase, dripping with a contempt for ‘the little people’, those without property, status, wealth and power.  It’s the language of the Second Estate, the privileged nobility for whom the notion of public service, still less the equality of all citizens, is wholly alien.  This is a face of the modern Tory Party.  Cold, literally careless.

And who was the relatively youthful Tory (Brexiter) MP who, in a state of drunken euphoria on referendum night rejoiced as the value of Sterling fell off a cliff, declaring that he didn’t care?  He was rich. He’d always be all right.  Kate Maltby, his appalled fellow Tory hasn’t shopped him, but I think we can all guess who this ‘potential candidate for future leadership of the party’ might be.  Because there are just so many who fit this Ancien Regime template.

Theresa May, narrow, slow-thinking, Thames Valley Tory that she is, may have wanted, sincerely, to re-position her party as slightly more sympathetic and inclusive, but she lacked the wit, the words, the policies and the support for it to be anything more than a few speeches written by Nick Timothy.  No matter. The public didn’t buy it. Neither did her party.  She is now the prisoner-PM, chained to the leg-iron of Brexit.

For I must say this, Tories.  You are not only cruel, self-interested, avaricious, undemocratic in instincts, and unconcerned with public service – you are inept.

The level of incompetence you Tories display – across the board – is staggering.  A former miner created the NHS from scratch in three years. His partner built the Open University. Once we had leaders who could lead, create, make change happen.  Now we have you, Tories, who are the embodiment of cluelessness.

That, my Tory fellow citizens, is how you look to the rest of us.

Have a nice day,

Yours faithfully,

A Voter.