Labour Got Brexit Wrong – And Is Still Getting It Wrong

As soon as the scale of Labour’s election defeat last week became clear – at 10.00 pm on 12th December 2019 – the party’s Brexit divisions were mobilised once again as ‘explanations’ for the failure of the party under Jeremy Corbyn to win power against a ramshackle bunch of lying chancers in their 9th year of office.

And these explanations are bogus. Labour got Brexit wrong from the start, and how and why it was so mistaken reveals the conservatism at the heart of the Corbyn project.

A referendum on EU membership was in the 2015 Tory Manifesto, so Labour knew that it was on the cards throughout the leadership campaign that followed the resignation of Ed Miliband. The party also knew that the previous year’s Scottish independence referendum had ignited political debate on all sorts of issues way beyond the constitutional question, and ought to have anticipated that a referendum across the UK might have the same propensity to be about something, many things, not on the ballot paper. For whoever was to win the Labour leadership in 2015, the referendum was an opportunity to road test the new leader’s approach.

Corbyn won, and his approach to the referendum was essentially to ignore it. Paying lip service to party democracy, a key element of his leadership platform, Labour remained formally supportive of continued membership of the EU, but in practice the Labour Party under Corbyn opted out of the campaign.

Why they were so lukewarm, to put it mildly, was partly obvious, partly a mystery. The obvious bit was that Corbyn was, and remains, an unreconstructed Bennite. The EU was a ‘capitalist club’, a block on ‘socialism in one country’, went the view behind the scenes. It’s easy to pick holes in that threadbare Stalinist perspective, not least that the world in 2016 was very different to that in 1973. But is it true that unshakeable faith in the old Bennite religion was the primary driver of Corbyn’s inertia in 2016?

Look instead to the clique around Corbyn. The influence of Len McCluskey and his plants in the leader’s office. Perhaps they used the language of the 20th Century British left to justify their position (though they were always too cowardly to make the case publicly, hiding behind the language of ‘party democracy’), but one suspects that other factors were in play.

The first, and this is the weakness at the heart of Corbynism from the start, is a leaden footed inability to respond nimbly to new, unforeseen challenges. Their political playbook envisions a war between top hatted, cigar smoking, factory owners, and heroic male workers in ragged coats and flat caps. Perhaps it can also be clad in the garb of the National Coal Board Vs the miners, but the vision is much the same. ‘Class war’ is, like Premier League football, a game for men (though unlike soccer, a game for white men).

Race and gender don’t figure much in the Corbyn world view, even if both are now deeply entrenched in contemporary politics as much as in the wider world. His supporters made much of his ‘anti-racist’ credentials (and tried to use them as a defence against accusations of anti-Semitism), but the photographs of Corbyn on Anti-Apartheid demonstrations rather made the opposite point. He belongs to a ‘left’ that is more comfortable with the notion of anti-colonial struggles far away, rather than the complications of race and class at home. Other politicians of his vintage, like Peter Hain, managed to be both major figures in the Anti-Apartheid struggle, and in the Anti-Nazi League which took up the battle against the far-right on British streets in the 1970s. I’m not aware that Corbyn was ever a major figure in that movement.

So as the 2016 referendum campaign took off, noisily and nastily, Corbyn and therefore Labour, was ill-equipped to respond. Individual MPs were essentially on their own, ditto party members. There was a major political event unfolding, and the leadership was AWOL. Even the assassination of Jo Cox was treated by Corbyn as a shocking and unexpected event, rather than a consequence of the virtual civil war taking place on the streets and across social media. Why didn’t Corbyn at that point demand that the whole campaign be called off? It had all gone too far, dangerous political currents were being unleashed. Even if legally there was little that could have been done to halt the vote, some proper outrage, and, dare I say it, some statesmanship was needed, but none ever came.

All that has unfolded since goes back to that time. It doesn’t appear to matter to Corbyn’s uncritical supporters that most Labour voters, even in Brexit voting constituencies, were Remainers. Brexit was framed as an authentic (white) working class position, whereas the cities where the most loyal Labour heartlands are, were dismissed as somehow inauthentic, too Gina Yashere, not enough Bernard Manning. That’s not a ‘class analysis’, comrades. It’s something else entirely.

Having decided on their perspective on Brexit, they used it as an explanatory tool to understand everything else. Crucially the 2017 general election.

Labour got a huge 40% of the vote in June 2017. The Tories got 42%. But let’s look at the local elections the month before. The Tories then got a respectable 38%, Labour a derisory 27%. What changed?

Corbyn’s supporters say he had a popular manifesto and ran a good campaign. There is some truth in both, plus there was a fair wind from the media, in that as no one thought Labour had a cat in hell’s chance of victory, they didn’t bother with a serious attack strategy against the party.

For the truth is that Labour’s lack of a clear strategy on Brexit was not a brilliant triangulation to hold together Leave and Remain voters. Remainers, including many tactical voters backed the party as a means of trying to stop May in her tracks. It wasn’t an unambiguously pro-Corbyn vote, it was anti-Tory. It was gained despite, not because of Labour’s position.

And so to the big failure of 2019. Follow it back to the beginning. Labour opted out of the only big political battle that mattered in the period 2016-19. It was absent from the biggest political movement on the streets, its banners missing from marches of a million people. Yet nor was it making the case for Brexit, if that is what the leader believed. It was a party making no meaningful offer to either side, and its late position of trying to ‘bring together’ both sides was a nice try, just either far too late, or far too early, but certainly, painfully mistimed.

For Labour to recover from the election defeat it needs to look long and hard at Brexit. Don’t try to fudge it again, don’t try to pretend that it’s all over now, nothing to see, move on. A proper post-mortem is necessary.

The next Labour leader needs to tell the party that Brexit remains a dangerous project of the hard-right which is not over, not done, nor will it be for a decade or more. The future, whether it’s around trade, the economy more broadly, or the key questions of security and the climate emergency, will require cooperation across borders, indeed the very notion of borders will become increasingly untenable.

Brexit sank Labour because it is useful only to the right. That’s the truth.

The Resistance

The general election of 2019 was like no other. The Tories defied political gravity to emerge with a healthy majority after their 4th election as the largest party in Parliament. Labour was eviscerated, or perhaps was guilty of a massive act of self-harm, and returns as the Official Opposition, but badly shaken and still led by the team responsible for the debacle. The Liberal Democrats got a bigger percentage rise in their vote than even the Tories, but from a low base, and in Commons terms they have shrunk, and are now, perhaps happily, leaderless. The SNP has a load of MPs, and nothing much for them to do, and Northern Ireland may be turning their backs on Westminster sooner rather than later. I didn’t mention Wales. What is there to say?

None of those things actually explain why this election is different. It’s different, because the Tory Party is different. Johnson is mercurial World King at the head of a party of the similarly grandiose and dangerous. And they are planning to ensure that it stays that way, using any means necessary.

The election campaign run by the Tories was far dirtier than that run by any other party. They are a party that wants power for power’s sake. Where there are other centres of countervailing power, they will seek to weaken, sideline, or even abolish them.

In that sense, they’re continuity Tories, Thatcher-style. The over centralisation of power in Westminster was turbo-charged in the 1980s. Powerful centres of local government were abolished completely (the Greater London Council and the Metropolitan Counties), and the others had their ability to decide policy locally around such crucial things as education and housing severely curtailed. Tories have form when it comes to power grabs.

But this time their sights are on the fundamental nature of the state. A professional, politically impartial, Civil Service is set to be weakened further, in the American manner, with political appointments from outside to “shake things up”. International Development is to be turned into a highly politicised tool of, not British, but Tory foreign interests. The House of Lords is first to be packed with stooges, then ‘reformed’ until it becomes nothing more than a pleasant London club for retired Tory Grandees. As for the judiciary, they look likely to be an early target.

For in strength the Tories plan not magnanimity, but vengeance.

Expect a lot of rule changes immediately to restrict the power of the Commons to hold the government to account. They’ll be technical measures, will probably be scarcely reported, but they will change the balance of power, handing No 10 the whip hand over mere MPs.

The courts, and the wider criminal justice system, have been weakened steadily since 2010. Access to justice for the average citizen is now much more difficult, with a loss of legal aid, a raising of fees, the restriction of access to timely redress through the closure of courts, and much else. But all that was merely ‘shrinking the state’, the punitive effects being merely an amusing by-product. Now they mean business.

The abolition of the Supreme Court seems likely. It could merely be made less powerful, but the Tory taste for vengeance suggests that abolition would be more ‘popular’ with right-wing newspapers and Tory MPs and members. Elsewhere expect legislation to limit the power of the judiciary to hold the executive (government) to account.

This is radical stuff, only hinted at in the manifesto, but within the power of a government with a solid majority facing a feeble opposition.

Which is why we cannot wait for other parties to sort themselves out. By the time they have done so, the government will have done a whole raft of things, particularly around electoral boundaries, voter suppression measures, and more. The resistance must begin now.

A lesson of the last few years is that this country has a taste for extra-party political movements with clear goals. The campaigns for another referendum lost, but we were defeated by a rigged system. What we won was a moral authority which ought not to squandered now. Our side marched in our millions, organised local groups which worked their socks off on High Streets and in market squares around the country come rain or shine. We know what can be done, and we’ve all learned skills which are transferable to other political tasks.

We need a Resistance!

The Resistance can happen now. It doesn’t need to wait for the parties to lick their wounds. We need in the first instance to establish some kind of loose convention to come up with things we can agree on, whatever party we support. Defence of the judiciary, the restoration of local government with power to do things, reform of parliament, and a new voting system ought to be on the list.

Personally I’d like to see a wider movement calling for all state education to be secular and under democratic local control, the restoration of a nation-wide professional public library service, and a ‘culture covenant’ to protect local museums, galleries, theatres, parks, and municipal sports facilities, giving them enough money to run properly, professionally, and with free or inexpensive access for all citizens. But even if we just stick to the nuts and bolts of democracy, that’s a start.

For the government needs to know that we are watching them. They are not our masters. They can rig, lie, scheme, dissemble, bamboozle all they like, but we need an amplified voice to call them out, and above all, to spread knowledge of how the system works, to train up active citizens, and to campaign on specific, concrete constitutional demands.

So how do we do this, people?

Apocalypse Now

Who is to blame?

The election that never should have happened is over, and the result, almost every pundit is saying, will gift the Tories the country (or what subsequently remains of it) for the whole of the Twenties, for no Opposition has ever come back from such a bad defeat in a single election.

That instant wisdom may, or may not be true. It’s not even the immediate question. We need to apportion blame before we can work out what to do. Which is where it all gets very tricky. Because who, or what is to blame rather depends on who or what you want to blame. The left, the right, centrists, dads or otherwise, the media, old people, feminists, fascists, immigration, bigotry, fake news, globalisation, take your pick. If you don’t fancy any of those I’ve got plenty more excuses for the fact that the least suitable Prime Minister of my lifetime, and I’ve seen some shockers, is now safely tucked up in Downing Street for five years or more.

So I’m not going to apportion blame to any of the actors in this tragedy. The quicker the losers shuffle off stage, the better. Instead let’s look at the causes of the Tory-Brexit ascendency.

All across the world we see unhappy populations causing political upsets. The Middle East and North Africa is in tumult, from Turkey through Eastern and Central Europe we see people turning to ‘strong men’ promising national pride and traditional values. The Superpowers, (and the ex-superpower with nukes), currently favour leaders with little appetite for democratic norms. Then there’s India, Brazil, the Philippines – the list seems endless. Why should Britain be immune from the contagion?

We aren’t, we can’t. However, what we do have, in common with the USA, is a mature democracy which not even the experience of war has shaken. That’s supposed to be what gets us through difficult times.

And I think that our current crisis speaks to the failure of our democracy.

The British Constitution is a ‘bodge job’, a bit like the Palace of Westminster itself. It looks fantastic. Great location, (fake) Gothic drama, a swoon of flying buttresses, thrones, Woolsacks, Black Rod, Sergeants at Arms. But it’s falling down, not fit for purpose, riddled with vermin, dry rot, flooded basements, crumbling ceilings, and too small for the job.

Walter Bagehot, a Spin Doctor of the Victorian Era, told a comforting tale of the British Constitution evolving to meet the needs of changing times, whilst preserving the essence of government through Parliament. No need for a founding document, no need for revolutions, stable government in perpetuity guaranteed by the Crown in Parliament.

And we’ve all sort of bought into this nonsense. We lobby, we petition, we hold demonstrations and marches, and write to our MPs. If we are in parties we contest elections, thinking, somehow, that we need one more heave, one more twist left, or right, better organisation, more members, more money.

But look honestly at our system. It’s not working.

The referendums of 2014 and 2016 showed us exactly what was wrong.

The binary nature of the votes combined with the nebulous nature of the questions meant that each campaign could be about anything the voters wanted. To be fair to supporters of Scottish nationalism, they have a clear nationalist agenda, and well developed plans for a new Scottish Constitution, and for the challenges and consequences of independence. The Brexiters had nothing. But in 2014 the thrill of the referendum campaign for many voters lay in the fact that they could project anything they wanted onto it. The campaign was frequently a rejection of ‘Austerity’ and a song of praise to the NHS. Neither of which has anything much to do with a major constitutional change.

A similar scenario played out in 2016 in England and Wales, albeit with more savage rancour, and actually, at least in England, with much more vicious nationalism. But what both referendums had in common was that, unlike elections, they seemed to promise fast and major change that would deliver voters from their problems at a single bound.

Because British democracy isn’t working. It is a rigged system designed to concentrate power in the capital, and to ensure almost perpetual Tory rule. This is what has frustrated voters. That meaningful change, and government responsiveness to voters’ problems is so slow and inadequate.

I first reached that conclusion as a canvasser in the 1983 general election, the last election in which the left were in the ascendency in the Labour Party, and in which the party was lucky to survive in second place, narrowly defeating the SDP-Liberal Alliance (the Tories had a majority then of 144 seats). My memories of that election are mainly of arguing with my fellow canvassers about the electoral system. Wasn’t it time for a PR system?

Had Blair won narrowly in 1997 he would probably have introduced some form of PR. It was a part of a constitutional reform programme which included devolution. But a landslide victory swept away the immediate pressure for change, which, for me at least, was one of the reasons for becoming a Blair-sceptic well before the Iraq war.

That was the last opportunity to have a fair voting system. And it has made me sceptical about relying on a political party that wins office under FPTP ever delivering voting reform.

Which is the point of this reflection on yesterday’s nightmare election result.

The Tories and Brexiters, and Labour and the other second referendumers, got a roughly equal share of the votes. The Tories will disappoint their voters, inevitably, and the other parties have also disappointed their voters. The cycle continues, with voting producing earthquakes that usually change little, and power remains centralised, and remote.

However, the last 4 years have seen the emergence of a mass movement resisting Brexit. For all that there were campaigns like the People’s Vote Campaign, and others, mostly the movement was highly localised and grass roots, crossing party lines. Tellingly, nothing comparable emerged on the Brexit side.

So I’d like to make a suggestion to people who want to renew our democracy, and to make it responsive and fit for purpose. Change the anti-Brexit movement into a movement for constitutional change, starting with (but not ending with) voting reform.

12th December was a bad day for Britain. But it could be the point at which things finally begin to change.

Zombie Election

This election is dead. It’s still going to happen (I assume, though take nothing for granted). It’s just that there’s not a flicker of life in the campaign.

It’s not as if the stakes aren’t high. They couldn’t be higher. Brexit blue in tooth and claw, Vs the prospect of escaping via another referendum is quite a choice. And it’s not as if there’s nothing to choose between the parties, despite the persistent lament of the voter presented with a microphone that “They’re all the same. They’re only in it for themselves.” Not true, and the competing visions on offer are starkly differentiated.

That the election matters profoundly only makes it more worrying that the campaign is so flat, the voters so apparently disengaged. What can explain this lack of excitement as we enter the last few days of the campaign?

Including the Scottish independence referendum, we’ve had two plebiscites and three general elections in five years. Polling fatigue might just be a thing. We keep voting, but nothing seems to change. But I’m not at all sure I buy that argument.

There’s the time of year. Winter elections at a time when the days are at their shortest aren’t usually seen as ideal for electioneering. It’s nearly Christmas. We should be disgracing ourselves at the office party, rather than pondering the manifesto of a political party. But that doesn’t explain it, either.

Most elections happen at a time that ‘feels’ right. Whether it’s the four or five year interval and the sense that the time is right to renew the mandate, or, more rarely, when there is an obvious quickening of the public pulse, a feeling that the time is right for change, then the public intuit that a ‘democratic event’ is only right and proper. But this election isn’t like that.

This is a completely unnecessary election. The new Tory leader wanted it badly, because the hard grind of trying to get his Withdrawal Agreement Bill through all the stages of parliamentary scrutiny looked like a lot of detailed work, and no fun. He wants a big majority so that he can put his feet up and let the minions and wonks get on with the boring business of government.

Johnson wanted it, but he couldn’t have got it without the active assistance of the SNP and, crucially, the Liberal Democrats, who ably assisted the Tories in painting Labour into a corner whereby they looked ‘frit’ if they weren’t up for the fight. They should have resisted anyway. The longer Johnson was snookered by his own cleverness in destroying his own majority, the better for the official Opposition. But we are where we are. In the last stages of a campaign actively desired by the ruling parties of England and Scotland (and their useful idiot party), but bemusing to an electorate who have lost interest in anything much.

Even arguments for Brexit amongst voters seem to have dwindled to a plaintive demand that a democratic vote be honoured, rather than any excited expectation that sunny uplands lie ahead.

The lack of enthusiasm suits the Tories. Their electorate of choice is now older, poorer, whiter than it has ever been. The Tory tone of aggressive hectoring and false Johnsonian bonhomie resonates with those voters, and they are voters who are more likely turn out on election day. The YouTube advertisements currently being run by the Tory Party depicting nice, normal looking voters having their lives ruined by shrill, argumentative parliamentarians who won’t shut up about bloody Brexit, and their campaign slogan, ‘Get Brexit Done’ are nicely calibrated to reassure voters that it’s ‘the politicians’ (but not the Tories) who are making something very simple into something unnecessarily complicated. It’s also the perfect lie.

Those three words – ‘Get Brexit Done’ – are freighted with meaning not yet understood by most voters. ‘Get’? A short simple imperative covering an endless legislative, diplomatic, and economic nightmare. ‘Brexit’? In three years it’s gone from magic potion to bitter medicine we must nevertheless swallow. ‘Done’? The one thing we can say for certain is that this thing will never be done.

I’ve said nothing about Labour. What is there to say? It looks like the farewell tour for Corbyn. He and the people around him have concentrated all their energies, over the four years he has been leader, on seizing the levers of power in the Labour Party. So solipsistic is his inner clique that they interpret everything insofar as it conforms to their conspiratorial mindset. Clever and competent MPs are sidelined or silenced, especially in this campaign, for they might outshine the Dear Leader. The unexpectedly good result (though they lost) in 2017 was interpreted as being about the wondrous campaigning skills of ‘Jeremy’ and the brilliance of the manifesto, when to anyone looking objectively at the evidence, they were primarily beneficiaries of some very effective tactical voting where it mattered. Their campaign looks a lot less sure-footed this time, though the tactical vote might still enable them to hold on to their delusions.

The Lib Dems deserve a mention. It was a bad call to push for this election. People who might know about these things suggest that a combination of the European Parliament election results and some optimistic private polling made them think they had nothing to lose and much to gain, mostly at Labour’s expense, from an early and unnecessary election. The polls don’t support that now, though this time they may benefit from Labour voters in the south and south west voting tactically against the Tories. Those of us who want to stop a Tory victory must hope that that happens, but it won’t be an easy thing to do now that all vestiges of Social Democratic Party DNA have been bred out of the party. They look petty, opportunistic and unlovely. Their good luck is that they’re not the Tories. And if they get a leader with more competence, they could begin their rightful task of eventually replacing the Tories as the major party of the centre-right.

This time next week it might all be over. Or only starting. Damned if I know what’s going to happen. But there is unlikely to be a good outcome, only something from along a spectrum of bad outcomes.

What’s Going On (Again)

During the 2015 general election, when I began this blog, I used the title, “The Marvin Gaye Election” for one post, because I really had no idea what was going on. I’d gone into the election expecting either another hung parliament, or possibly a narrow Labour victory, or at least a Miliband government with a Confidence and Supply arrangement with another party. What we now know is that David Cameron, largely through his ruthless efficiency in crushing his Coalition partners, and the tenacity of Tory voters in Scotland, was cruising to a narrow, but decisive win. And all our woes….

Three elections (and a referendum) in four years feels like a really dire mass participation reenactment of the First World War. It’s futile. The politicians and diplomats seem to have stumbled into it by accident. The generals went into battle without a plan. We, the poor bloody infantry, have been mired in our trenches smoking Woodbines and occasionally falling asleep as a comrade plays a mournful version of ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’ on a harmonica. On then Home Front the jingoist press ramp up the xenophobia (without, alas, any “plucky Belgians”). And so, lions led by donkeys, we prepare to go over the top. Without a cunning plan.

Because who has any idea what’s going on?

The parties have created competing myths about the last battle, aka the 2017 general election. Whether either myth contains any wisdom, we’ll have to wait a couple of weeks to see.

The Tories went into 2017 with an even more commanding lead in the polls than they have this time. Their view now is that they then had the wrong leader, and the wrong manifesto. But is that right? May was so popular in the middle of 2017 that they built an entire campaign around her, downplaying the Tory brand, and promoting ‘Theresa May’s Team’. They got a three word slogan of power and simplicity – ‘Strong and Stable’. And the polls remained pretty favourable. The local elections happened during the campaign, and seemed to suggest that May was on course for her landslide.

But May wasn’t comfortable in the spotlight, and the more the public saw of her and her vacuous slogan, the less they liked it. As for Nick Timothy’s manifesto….

So this time the Tories have a celebrity leader, another three word slogan that they’re flogging to death, and a backroom campaign that is ruthless to the point of sheer dishonesty. That’s not exaggeration – you can Fact Check it on Twitter.

They also have a manifesto with less content than the Daily Star on a thin news day. What could possibly go wrong?

Labour myth has turned 2017 into the election won single handedly by Jeremy Corbyn (it’s a mere detail that he didn’t actually win). The ‘brilliant campaigner’ would have got the party over the line if only they’d had just another week. As for that magical manifesto. Pure electoral gold.

So why not re-run the whole thing with extra manifesto? When you’ve got a winning formula…. (Reminder: you didn’t win.)

In 2017, as a slightly despairing outside observer, I felt things shift over the course of the campaign. The polls looked good for the Tories despite a few wobbles, but there was a sense that the Tories were losing the impression of being a juggernaut about to mow down all who stood in their way. I did begin to hope that things might not be as bad as I’d initially feared.

But in 2015, there were so such feelings, either of hope, or despair. The campaign felt unreadable. The electorate seemed disengaged. And Cameron got his majority.

2019 feels more like 2015 than 2017.

In 2017, there was more of a sense of unity and purpose to Remain voters. Our mission was to try to deny May the landslide she wanted to push her Tory Brexit through Parliament. Enough of the Remain vote was willing to mobilise tactically, which is the real reason why Labour did so much better than expected. It worked, insofar as it derailed the Tories, and we are still in the EU.

This time around Remainers are split. Tactical voting may still happen, but there’s much less goodwill in the Remain camp. There’s a sense that the SNP is happy with any outcome as likely to be good news for them, and the Lib Dems appear more focussed on damaging Labour than on stopping Brexit. This election was essentially their call. Without the Lib Dems choosing to side with the SNP, there wouldn’t be an election in December. We’d still have an impotent Tory minority government, and enough MPs to back an alternative minority government with a single item mandate to run another referendum. It was their call, and it’s a very big gamble.

So, what’s going on? All parties are running poor campaigns, taking voters for fools. Voters may deserve to be taken for fools, so angry, cynical and disengaged are we. Dirty tricks, foreign interference, suppressed reports, suspended inquiries (did I forget to mention American IT tutors with a sideline in pole dancing?). It’s all so grubby, tawdry, unedifying.

Is this going to be our worst election ever?

What’s The Worst That Can Happen?

One week in to the 2019 general election campaign, and I have already turned off the television, tuned the radio to 6 Music, and my media browsing is fully focussed on cats. How did it come to this?

It’s the nastiness, of course. There is nothing too trivial to be weaponised, nothing so serious that it can’t be treated with absolute cynicism. It’s the politics of the ‘Sidebar of Shame’. Throw out noisy taunts, circulate memes in Comic Sans, “Your economic policy is too fat!”, “Your fiscal strategy is too ugly!” It’s hard for a voter to think straight when it’s less a question of competing parties trading arguments about policies, or offering rival visions of what they want the country to be, and more a case of a really bad Marvel movie. The Incredible Sulk meets The Invisible Man. The sort of film Hugh Grant thinks is much too loud. I’m with Hugh on this.

Let’s start with the racism, which saturates everything political right now. The anti-Semitism is real, and ugly, and has not been addressed effectively for far too long. The Islamophobia is real, and ugly, and there hasn’t even been a pretence at addressing it. But there are other racisms and hatreds being weaponised, too, those we scarcely want to look at. Why isn’t this a Windrush election? A Grenfell election? There’s plenty of tokenism about, but little systematic analysis of why some people’s life chances are structured to be lesser than those available to others.

There’s also the importation of some of the worst hatreds of Indian sub-continental politics into Britain. The brave and principled MP (now candidate) for Slough, Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, who earlier this year was applauded in the Chamber for calling out Johnson’s racism, last week Tweeted this, “I urge my Hindu and Sikh British compatriots: don’t fall for the divisive tactics of religious hardliners, trying to wedge apart our cohesive community, circulating lies on WhatsApp. They won’t silence the likes of me, who will speak up for human rights.” It’s part of a clear Tory strategy of trying to woo the ‘Indian vote’ by BJP-ish appeals to communalism. David Cameron started it when he shared a stage at a BJP rally in Wembley with Narendra Modi. I thought then that it was dangerous for a British politician to lend the sheen of international statesmanship with an Indian PM with a long record of encouraging, even inciting, communalist anger, hate, even riots, sometimes leading to deaths. The Tories might legitimately see the growing Indian middle class as a new ‘vote bank’ for the party, but that shouldn’t be done by feeding the worst of bigotry.

As a voter I long for sensible, sober, secular elections, in which parties don’t shrilly rule out working with others, or lie on their election literature, or weaponise hate, or circulate disinformation, or take money from shady sources. I long for a news media that reports fairly, accepts honest disagreements, and separates news from opinion. I want to lower the temperature, and raise the excitement. A democratic event should be a festival of ideas, not a sewer stuffed with fat bergs.

Now for a nice cup of tea. In silence.

Trivial Politics for a Serious Age

When I started to write about the general election of 2015, I assumed that once the vote was over, I’d close the blog, and move back to writing about other things. But David Cameron won an unexpected outright victory, was committed to a referendum, and so I kept this occasional exercise in one voter’s observations from outside the bubble going. Barely four years later, and I’m looking at general election number three, Prime Minister number three, and a country that looks more fractured and unhappy than at any time in my life (and I lived in Yorkshire during the Miner’s Strike).

Today Boris Johnson stood outside No 10 and made an election campaign launch speech that was extraordinary. In expression, in content, in delivery, it was a speech that made no effort whatsoever to convey a sense of statesmanship, of leadership for the whole country, indeed, no sense that the country he was seeking a mandate to lead was in any way serious.

He began by saying, in a faux exasperated way, that he didn’t want an election. He was forced into it by MPs having the temerity to do their job of holding the executive to account. He reeled off, in a bored manner, a list of things the Tories were doing, naturally including building “40 new hospitals” (they’ve committed some cash to the refurbishment of six). He went into a riff, which he plainly enjoyed a bit more, accusing Jeremy Corbyn of plotting with the Kremlin to poison people in Salisbury. The only crime he forgot to mention was the killing of the Kulaks, but as he’d put that on the front page of the Telegraph, all bases were covered. It was a speech that insulted the intelligence of everyone who heard it, but what did that matter? He is World King.

What’s more, he’s a World King with “steel balls”, according to a hairdresser from Merthyr Tydfil interviewed by David Dimbleby for Panorama tonight (6th November 2019). For that’s the kind of country we are now. We’re hitting the point at which half of all young people will have degrees, but the media and political ‘elite’ thrust their microphones before, and take their political cue from, people who have been groomed to be coarse and emotional. A part of me wonders whether these ‘left behind’ people, those ‘citizens of somewhere’ about whom journalists and think tankers write books, have become so elevated in the ‘national conversation’ because if the media spoke to the pharmacists, the librarians, the teachers, the tech start-ups, the poets of small towns they might find that the public school/Oxbridge/London stranglehold on the published expression of ‘informed opinion’ was unearned?

Britain’s always been a country where posh dilettantes have been indulged, but it didn’t matter so much when behind the scenes there was a strong administrative infrastructure holding everything together, and not just Whitehall, but right across the country. If the PM was a lush, the secretary of state an indolent know-nothing, it didn’t matter when Sir Humphrey Appleby was there to keep things ticking over nicely. Ditto in the town and county halls of the nation. But decades of deliberate deskilling, of outsourcing, of just cutting, has hollowed things out so much that the clowns in charge are now exposed. It makes sense that to provide them with cover, the rest of us should also be ‘represented’ in public discourse by the loud, the shouty, the aggressive and the irrational.

So here we are. Day one of the election. The PM lies on live TV. The Brexit Election (2.0) is being fought by the Leader of the Opposition on a “Don’t mention the Brexit!” ticket. The third biggest party in parliament only contests seats in a place with just over 5 million of the UK population of 66 million. The fourth biggest is pitching a ‘moderate’ message of refusing to work with anyone else in any conceivable circumstances. Meanwhile the party that most scares the ruling Tories is the party with no members whose leader is too scared to contest a seat himself. I once did a training course in how to write for ‘continuing drama’ (soaps to everyone else). Our first piece of advice was to start at a pitch of unbearable intensity, and to ramp it up from there. That’s British politics right now – high emotion and a complete absence of credibility.

In my everyday life I meet, work with, intelligent, competent, highly skilled, pragmatic, forward thinking people of high seriousness. All over the country these people quietly get on with making most things work. They don’t derail rape trials, suppress inconvenient or embarrassing reports, pretend that the major issues facing them can be ignored, or pretend to be things which plainly they are not. Being caught out lying carries costs, failing to deliver a task has consequences. Real life is a bloody responsible business.

But British politics right now? I know it’s full of good people trying their best, and often succeeding. But they’re not the ones in charge. And until they are, I don’t see an easy way out of here. I just hope this election proves me wrong.

Election Fever? (Really?)

British politics is now characterised by endless noise. It is a fake battleground of loud bangs, sudden flashes of light, thick, choking eruptions of smoke, and a terrain of glooping mud through which we must trudge, never knowing, seeing, in what direction we are heading. Front lines move inches at excessive toll.

For politics has become a permanent election/referendum campaign in which no actual governing has happened since 2016. That we now have a vote date in December doesn’t necessarily change that. The odds are that it’ll merely prolong the stalemate.

But we can’t go on like this. There are too many urgent questions that can’t wait until we’ve sorted out who is going to occupy No.10 for a couple of years, or less. Brexit, of course, that maggoty corpse of a mandate, needs to be interred, but the state itself, and its capacity to make and deliver policies upon which people’s lives depend, needs to be nursed back into health. And somewhere in this mess stirs the answer. But it won’t be where all the noise is now.

That noise is intemperate, viciously partisan, short-termist, highly aggressive, and almost entirely focussed upon the wrong things in the wrong ways.

Is the electorate equally up for all out war? You’d certainly think so, if the surly audiences of Question Time, the raging phone-in shriekers, and spittle-flecked vox poppers are any guide. It’s a wonder we’re not installing flame throwers in the front garden, and hiring wolves to patrol the streets.

But we’re not. When Mark Francois claimed that the country would “explode” if we hadn’t left the EU by 31st October, I’m sure he probably believed it. Certainly more than his leader ever desired a a deathbed in a ditch. I write this on 1st November, and, from what I can see, the bins got emptied this morning, the buses still run down the High Street, and the odd jogger is still braving the rain. Nothing “exploded” at midnight .

There are just under 46 million voters in the UK. That number has been declining, fractionally, but a recent surge in people seeking to go on the electoral roll may have made a difference in the last few weeks. 17.4 million voted to leave the EU in 2016, though the age profile of those voters suggests that the number is now smaller, but even if it is the same, that’s little over a third of eligible voters. It’s hard to believe that even 10% of that number are angry enough to “explode”, as if they were, they’d have been able to mount marches of the size of those staged by the non-combustible Remainers.

The point is, the noise is coming from very few people, but it has the assistance of the ear-splitting amplification system that is the British media.

That includes pollsters. Polls are growing ever less reliable. This is not so much through partisanship, though clients may commission polls for slanted reasons, but because polls are political players, influencing opinion as much as they record it. That’s possibly even more true for focus groups, which turn people into lab rats. I saw a report last week of an experiment in which rats were taught to drive tiny perspex vehicles. Rodent Top Gear is entertaining, but it’s not what rats do in their natural habitat. Ditto voters.

So let’s look not at where all the noise is coming from – politicians, media, and the ecosphere of politics – and concentrate instead upon the 45.7m.

Most of them do not live along the M62 corridor. Few live in Workington. Under 62,000 live in Gareth Snell’s Stoke-on-Trent constituency. The seaside towns of the east coast of England are not vast metropolises. Older white men without degrees are numerous, it is true, but there are still more women.

Women, I suspect, will be the source of change. Not city school-run mums in Range Rovers, nor Millenial tech entrepreneurs, nor shiny haired vegan vloggers on Instagram, nor any of the stereotypes of modern womanhood visible to politicians and advertisers. It’ll be Brenda from Bristol and her friends.

All across the UK there are women, often unglamorously middle aged, who are holding communities together. They are volunteers in libraries, or the minimum waged managers of charity shops in small towns, or those running food banks, or whose hard earned OU degrees have given them thankless administrative jobs keeping half-dead local services going.

These women are ‘doers’. They know how to run things, how to manage tiny budgets, how to care for the people and things around them. They’ve become adept at managing bureaucracy, of getting social care for dependents, or assessments for children with special needs. They know what difference functioning government makes, and what harm underfunded government does by commission or omission. They could well hold the key to this election.

So don’t get distracted by the noise, enraged by the deliberate provocations, and look instead at those in whom the Westminster machine sees nothing of interest. If this election is to resolve anything, it will be because a party manages to speak to those people, especially the women.

Walking In The Rain

I’m not a reluctant marcher. If anything, I’m a demo veteran. But I’ve always felt a little bemused, slightly semi-detached on anti-Brexit demonstrations from the very first I attended at Tory Party Conference in 2016 in the immediate aftermath of the referendum, and the ascension of a triumphant Theresa May (‘New Iron Lady’ – Daily Mail).

My ambivalence puzzled me. I would look at my fellow marchers with curiosity. Who were there people? So white, so middle aged, so middle class? On the first big London march I tried to fit in better, donning a yellow top and a blue jacket and scarf, but I felt a bit daft.

Perhaps it was the proclamation on placards, and in snatches of conversation, that others felt their identity to be European? I didn’t feel particularly European. Except when I remembered, with a jolt, giving an interview to the distinguished Scottish journalist, Arnold Kemp, many years ago, declaring that I felt more connection to the institutions in Brussels which provided a lifeline to regions like mine, than I did to institutions in London which were hell-bent on the immiseration of the North. My identity, like those of the people around me on the march, was a mass of latency and contradiction. “You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.”

But finally, on Saturday 19th October, I think I came to understand the source of my unease with the anti-Brexit marches.

There was melancholy in the air this time. There were fewer home-made banners and placards. The Open Britain/People’s Vote campaign were thrusting free tee shirts and placards at people from boxes on street corners, like something from the end of a car boot sale. And yet here we were once more. I counted at least six coaches from Daniel Kawczynski’s Shrewsbury, a similar number from Nadim Zahawi’s Stratford constituency. The coaches from Aberystwyth set out at 5.00am, and the Scots had travelled overnight. The Met Police won’t issue estimates of numbers any more, but a German news helicopter overhead was able to calculate that an estimated 2.2 million marchers were on the streets.

And that is the problem. The vote in 2016 looks in retrospect like a very temporary episode of mass hysteria, in which ‘Brexit’, a magic word, an incantation summoning forth the solution to any problem, a healing of any ill, an excision of any source of grievance, radicalised and mobilised a narrow, but significant, majority at the ballot box. But it didn’t create a Brexit movement.

Nigel Farage can raise millions of dollars from his billionaire contacts, but he daren’t form a real political party with local branches and a collectively agreed policy platform. Too risky. The people just aren’t there in sufficient numbers. They’ve given up trying to organise official demonstrations. Their ‘Jarrow March’ was a desultory Ramblers outing.

As for the Tories, they’ve had a membership fillip from the middle class elements of UKIP rejoining the party, but it’s hardly a mass movement.

It can be too easy to blame the media for all our problems, but Brexit voters were an exotic new thing to an over-centralised press and broadcasting establishment, exciting and dangerous. They saw Trump rallies in rust belt towns screaming “LOCK HER UP!”, and wanted a bit of that. TV audiences were ‘cast’ to ensure the constant presence of red-faced intemperates, and viewers and readers were groomed to know what to say to any roving vox pop mic in Stoke or Grimsby. “We voted.” “It’s democracy.” Latterly, “Just get on with it”. But for all the heat and noise on Question Time, there is no significant Brexit mass membership movement.

Not so for the Remainers. The millions who march, the local groups and their Saturday ‘Mood Boards’ in hundreds of High Streets, the six million who signed a petition to Revoke when enraged by the arrogance of Theresa May. The numbers are demonstrably there for a huge movement.

What’s more, that nascent movement is stuffed full of the sort of people who run things, who know how to do things, who can make speeches, and organise events, and probably run councils, and stand for election.

But we have not become a movement. We know what we are against, and so we can cheer platform speakers who run the breadth from a former Defence Secretary who was the persecutor of the Women of Greenham Common, to Ken Livingstone’s young treasurer at the GLC. A Red/Green like Caroline Lucas can share a stage with people who were recently Tory ministers. But that leaves the question, what are we for?

Stopping Brexit, obviously.

But that’s no longer enough. Brexit is a consequence, not a cause of our broken politics. There’s no return to the status quo ante.

On Saturday I’d mostly marched close to the head of the demonstration, and managed to complete the distance before the rain came down. Like Superman, I took shelter in a red phone box, emerging from it in something like a cape (actually an orange plastic rain poncho). But as I looked through the panes of that box at my fellow marchers, some well-prepared for the weather, some drenched, I thought that what we really need is what isn’t yet there, and perhaps can’t, won’t be there.

We need a philosophy and agreed principles, potential leaders with a clear vision of the necessary direction of travel, and the organisational means to develop a practical programme, and to popularise it more widely. The existing parties in various ways don’t come close to that, and I’ve no illusions that the millions who march, or who support the anti-Brexit movement, all share the same outlook.

But it’s hard not to think that the ranks of PV marchers, XR activists, anti-fracking campaigners, and others will provide the seeds of an urgent new politics fit for the global challenges of this century.

How can we make it happen?

Why Fear Matters (sadly)

I’ve attended two local protests in the last few days. The second, on Saturday 31st August, was one of many all around the country. I signed a petition, too, within hours of it being posted on the Parliament website, when it stood at around 100,000 signatures. It passed a million within 24 hours. I marched in the capital with a million fellow citizens. None of this appears to have much troubled the media, and it hasn’t given the government a moment’s pause for thought. The question is why such protests have had so little effect?

Try thinking of what might have happened if the street protests, the marches, the petitions, had been the work of people who voted to leave the European Union?

A Question Time audience of a million people outside the gates of Downing Street. Spontaneous protests of radio phone-in stalwarts in towns and cities across the UK? 2,500 Leavers turning up on the Promenade in a seaside town of perhaps 12,000 inhabitants? Can you imagine the press reaction to that?

There would have been panic in Westminster, Cobra meetings, alarm across the land.

Two obvious questions arise from this. One is the question of why the Leavers have never matched our protests in frequency and scale?

They have surely tried. Soon after the 2016 vote Arron Banks was said to have offered to pay for free buses and free beer for pro-Brexit marchers, but even such inducements couldn’t attract the numbers that would matter. (Remainers mostly pay their own way.) The recent attempt, fronted by Nigel Farage, at reenacting the Jarrow March attracted fewer people than a regular Sunday afternoon with any local Ramblers group. The Brexit Party Ltd has regular rallies attracting up to a few thousand attendees paying a fiver to gawp at Farage and his band, but press coverage has suggested than some attendees are groupies who travel to each event. In any case, the numbers amount to rather less than the average footfall in our public libraries. Most Brexit voters, one must conclude, aren’t especially committed.

The other question is why do our protests seem to have so little political impact?

The answer to that, surely, is that power does not fear us. They fear the carefully selected Question Time audience, but they don’t see us as any kind of threat.

My guess is that they don’t fear us, because they know us. We have taught them, or their children. We tend them when they are sick. They’ve worked alongside us in the jobs they did before going into politics (I was struck, at last Saturday’s protest in the rain, by the number of umbrellas bearing the names of prominent law firms). They assume that they can take us for granted, because we have too much to lose to start tearing up paving stones, and hijacking buses to make barricades. None of us has ever assassinated a Member of Parliament.

It’s a basic psychological response to others. If they seem like ‘us’, we relax, we don’t fear them as dangerous strangers. I’ve often thought that politicians on the election campaign trail look like people in a state of perpetual terror. They really are frightened of voters. Just not us.

So, sadly, we need to make them fear us. We need to invent forms of protest which cause them alarm. Like the Extinction Rebellion protesters, who in reality are probably also often the educated, urban middle class, we need to find forms of action that surprise and discomfort the powerful.

In short, we need to frighten the Bejesus out of them!

Any ideas?