The Marvin Gaye Election – What’s Going On?

Do you know what’s happening in this election campaign? How voters are feeling? Are they moving in one direction, or another? Is Scotland, now firmly in Rupert Murdoch’s tender embrace, really going to be a one-party state? Will a celebrity class warrior deliver da yout to the polling station? What’s going on?

Objectively, we have the numbers. Pollsters use differing methods, and they have been known to get things wrong before, most notably in the 1992 election.  All stress that there’s a margin of error, and when the polls are this tight, that really matters. And yet the picture across all polls is consistent. The Tories are slightly ahead of Labour.

The caveats are these: the boundaries favour Labour over the Tories; Labour has more members on the ground knocking on doors; the Tories are doing best amongst those voters, particularly the old, who are more likely to turn out and vote; the change in voter registration has knocked many voters off the electoral register, especially students.

Then there’s the campaign itself, a bizarre, insular, bubble-wrapped set of political actors set against the background of Nepalese rubble, drowning refugees, barbaric civil wars, and an American city in flames as kids on bikes do wheelies around tear gas canisters.

And there’s us. The voters. What do we see?

Newspaper sales are up – slightly.  Not sure that’s a good thing when I scan the front pages. The Sun’s effort yesterday was “Monster Raving Labour Party”. Murdoch wants to kill the Labour Party. His rage knows no bounds. I hope the SNP knows what their Faustian pact might mean.  But that’s besides the point.

For increasingly we voters see the world from a social media bubble in which opinions are narrow and partisan.  If it wasn’t for The Daily Mail and the odd vox pop on TV I’d never know that most people don’t think like me. During the last election I Facebook friended people like Iain Dale, Tim Montgomerie, and Nick Clegg to see what Tories and Lib Dems were up to, but now I don’t bother.

For the commentariat don’t know much, either. I watch pundits on news channels and think, “You didn’t see Scotland coming, did you?” They don’t seem to have any more idea about Leeds or Birmingham, for that matter.

When Marvin Gaye asked, “What’s Going On?”, he knew the answer. A movement still ongoing, as we see on Baltimore streets.  What’s going on here isn’t a movement with clear goals and leaders, rather a shifting of political tectonic plates as politics tries awkwardly to realign itself with new social and economic global forces.  As Ed Miliband told Russell Brand, “It ain’t gonna be easy….”

The Political Narrative

Some of my writer friends detest the appropriation of the term ‘narrative’ into the political lexicon. I can understand their squeamishness. ‘Narrative’ is the friendly new form of that toxic word, ‘spin’ – telling tall tales to voters.

But I don’t object to politicians wanting narratives. “And I’ll tell you why,” as politicians often say.

There was an item on the Today Programme this morning, looking at a Manchester constituency with one of the lowest turnouts at the last election. An 18 year old mechanic said he wouldn’t be voting because he didn’t know how to vote. He said he didn’t understand politics. When asked who was Prime Minister he offered, in this order, Nick Clegg, Boris Johnson and Ed Miliband.

Was that non-voter a disengaged idiot?  Plainly not. His job takes a high level of knowledge and skill, and the fact that he offered three political names suggests that he is aware of who is in the news. And yet his bewilderment is real and understandable.

In the past, when politicians didn’t talk about narratives, the stories parties told about themselves and their beliefs were clear, and clearly communicated. The mechanic might then have been a member of a trades union, who lived in a council house, and who drank in the local Labour Club. A narrative of class solidarity and the meshing of daily life, at work or play, into a voting choice would have felt wholly natural.  The same for a young articled clerk, going to Young Conservative dances in search of love.

Now that politics has largely disengaged from lived experience in the old, tangible way, there have to be new stories to connect bigger political ideas to those atomised and alienated voters. Narratives are better than ‘retail offers’ – the euphemism for legal bungs, bribes to voters, like discounted bank shares, special interest rates for pensioners, or whatever.

Of course this is where my fastidious writer friends raise their objections again, with angry moral force. For the narratives offered by politicians are not true.

Take the most successful narrative of the last five years – “Labour wrecked the economy, maxed out the credit card, left Britain a basket case like Greece, until, at the Eleventh Hour along came Cameron and Osborne, and Little Danny Alexander, the missing Osmond, to fix it.”  It’s a great story, that everyone can understand, especially when the megaphones in the press and broadcast media repeat it until we know every word.  I’ve heard countless vox pops during the campaign where people on the street repeat this tale as if it were true.  It isn’t true.

But we who pride ourselves on being crafters of narratives have no right to denounce the evil spin-meisters for telling tall tales. After all, it’s our art that they compliment by mimicry.

Three act structures, inciting incidents, points of no return, we know how to manipulate.  To withhold information, to invent unreliable narrators, to play tricks with point of view, we are forever seeking to arouse empathy, or sympathy, or antipathy. We do this every day.

The fact is that stories help us to make sense of the world, to process our experience, to give us hope. But stories can also manipulate, can turn people against others, can breed hatred.

In these times when political affiliations are no longer rooted and organic for many people, narratives are necessary. But as with any story-telling, we need to have a discerning readership, or audience, or electorate, who can tell the difference between the cynical and the sincere.

Vote For Writing!

Yesterday I went along to the Pow Wow Festival of Writing. In a short time it has become a fixture on the Midlands writing scene, along with the Literature Festival and Writers’ Toolkit, though it has a fringe feel to it, like Hay might have been before it became a massive international institution. Writers talking to writers in the midst of a general election.

No one mentioned the election, of course. They didn’t have to. Writers deal in narratives, and politicians just love those.

So what’s our narrative? It is that these are difficult and frightening times, but that emergencies can lead to emergence – to new ways of thinking, new ways of doing things, new ways of connecting readers and writers, consumers and producers.

Danuta Kean, writer, industry analyst and Book Editor of Mslexia sketched out the terms of the debate with verve and style. She described a publishing industry too heavily concentrated in London; drawn from a shrinking social base, and almost impossible to get into unless one is able to work as an unpaid intern in central London for a couple of years. As gatekeepers to publication, their narrow tastes risk limiting readers’ access to stories which reflect diverse lives.

She authored the recent report ‘Writing The Future’ which looked at BAME access to the publishing industry, and described a situation which might stand for that in many professions. In the 1990s, she suggested, fine new Black and Asian voices were breaking through, but that that process has now been choked off. A similar situation obtained for people who came from economically disadvantaged sections of the population, and from some regions. Accessibility has gone into reverse.

Oddly, some of this was echoed, perhaps inadvertently, by the final speaker of the day, Andrew Davies. The star screenwriter responsible for Colin Firth’s soaked shirt, for the original House of Cards (he said he’d tried to turn the Tory novelist’s novel into an anti-Tory satire), and a forthcoming War And Peace, Davies reflected on how the industry he’d worked in for over fifty years had changed.   In particular, his experience of radio drama as an accessible training ground for new writers, with producers having the power and authority to progress projects without too much interference from above recalls a time long gone.

Most frightening is the constant decline in pay to writers.  The average full-time writer now earns well below the minimum wage – £11,000 p.a. and falling – and they may be the lucky ones with the contacts and the networking skills to keep those tiny contracts rolling in.

The event was not miserably pessimistic or nostalgic, though.  In the middle of the afternoon came a session devoted to new ways to work in publishing, or to get published.  The state of the conventional publishing industry, nicely satirised in Howard Jacobson’s Zoo Time, may be one in which agents blow their brains out, but the problem remains. How are writers to get their work out to readers in a fit state to be read, i.e. having been properly edited and proofed? And how are readers to know that a new author is worth reading. Indeed, how is a reader meant to find anything fit to read in a jungle of self-publication?

Whether the ideas posed by Scrolla, Alchemy Press and Macguffin will resolve that problem, who can say as yet. But there has to be some way that is neither self-publishing and self-promotion, nor the conventional agent-editor-marketing department combo.

On one level, the scene in the tent yesterday was a world away from manifestos and opinion polls. But on another, it was exactly what the election ought to be about. Serious, diverse, committed people, some talented, some hesitant, some successful, some deluded, all hopeful, despite the difficult circumstances in which we work.  People who need the BBC to reconnect with all regions fairly, and who need publishing not to be as geographically concentrated an activity as hedge-fund management, but to have hubs right across the country. People who value the arts, and libraries, and education, and creativity. People who – to my mind, at least – ought to be mad as hell!

Foreign Bodies

So foreign policy issues are hitting the election headlines? Not exactly. All I’ve seen across the media has been synthetic outrage at Miliband’s supposed ‘slur’ against David Cameron over the lack of post-conflict planning in Libya.

Those bodies in European waters did not become an election issue. The election issue is whether there is a ‘personal attack’ on the Prime Minister. That, in summary, is precisely the problem.

British politics too often has small horizons, small ambitions, and petty policy prescriptions. ‘English votes for English laws’. ‘Full fiscal autonomy’. ‘New runway for Heathrow’. All these things matter, if not necessarily in the terms in which they are framed, but foreign policy matters, too, and it matters big time.  Ultimately all else follows from it.

Perhaps the problem lies in the label? “Foreign policy” – it has a curiously old fashioned ring to it. It reeks of FCO mandarins sending amusing despatches, or moustachioed Premiers intent on gun boat diplomacy. A world of far away countries of which we know nothing.

The far away countries of which we know nothing tend to be the Channel Islands, or Monaco, where the press barons squirrel their squillions. The rest of the world is very much our business, and we need to know what our government-to-be intends to do.

The world was carved-up and conceptualised by European powers and the USA in the centuries preceding this one, but that order has been crumbling away for a long time.  Some old fissures have re-emerged, most notably in the Middle East, or the former Soviet, former Tzarist empire.  But there are new questions, such as the impact of climate change upon involuntary population movements, food, water and energy security, and human rights and dignity.  The Mediterranean’s human tide is caused by a combination of all of these issues.

Planning for post-conflict state-building in Libya is a mere detail in all of this.  Indeed, I’d argue that ‘liberal interventionism’, that macho pose so beloved of modern boy-politicians, is less a doctrine than a tag-line to justify playing with big weaponry. Arguably (and I’d argue it) speedier, less timid intervention in the Balkans in the early 1990s could have saved lives and been no more costly or messy than what actually happened. Intervention in Sierra Leone was probably the crucial one. Blair was feted as a hero over than one, and I suspect it gave him a taste for military adventures. But since then – Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria – disasters all, and only partly because there was no credible strategy for ‘after’ the firestorm.  The bigger problem was in not seeing things in historical and sociological context. Countries aren’t like real estate – they have histories, cultures, world views of their own.

Then there is Europe.  We are part of the largest economy in the world. Not China, not the USA – Europe. So we want out, do we?  Cameron would risk this, for reasons of expedient internal party management. For all his metropolitan gloss, Cameron reveals himself to be a little Englander.

But the EU is in a mess. It has been badly run for a long time, not least in part because of British disengagement or mischief. Thatcher and Major urged overly hasty eastward expansion and were cheerleaders for the single market, including free movement of labour.  The Euro project wasn’t wrong, but it was executed with ineptitude. There is a need for a new UK government to be serious about taking a stronger, more constructively critical position.

Does much of this feature in the election debate? Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary who is so grey he makes John Major look like Conchita Wurst, isn’t the man for the job, that’s for sure. I’ll watch Miliband’s speech with interest, but the best I can say is, we’ll see…..

Let’s Have Some Passion!

Compass and Equality West Midlands last night held a meeting to discuss the up-coming election. I had been dimly aware of both organisations, Compass being a kind of re-born Fabian Society, and Equality West Midlands a campaign for greater income equality, but it’s fair to say I went along because I had a vague sense that these were ‘leftish’ groups, and I’m a leftish kind of person. I had no idea of what to expect.

That it was a small group of people did not surprise me. Meeting going has become a minority activity; much easier to ‘Like’ or ‘retweet’, or add your name to an online petition. I don’t remember Clarkson’s millions getting off their sofas to attend mass demos.

The event was mild-mannered, open and tolerant. A guy from TUSC, the Trades Union and Socialist Coalition, turned up with a stack of leaflets, but the days when a luvvie from the Workers’ Revolutionary Party turned up with a megaphone to shout abuse at cowards and traitors have long gone. Political meetings have gone the way of training days at work, with little post-it notes upon which to write our key questions, which we then stick in clusters to arrive at a painless consensus about the issues we want on the agenda. It’s a long way from Walter Citrine, when the art of chairing meetings was about steering everyone towards a pre-ordained conclusion, and thank heavens for that.

Everyone had their say, and there were nuanced views in the room. Although most people, as far as I could tell, were from the Labour Party, there seemed to be a slightly weary acceptance that politics was something done by a small group of the well-intentioned which connected little with most lives, even where any objective observer might see that politics has the potential to transform those lives.  The air of pointless ritual hung in the air – the knocking on doors, addressing envelopes, delivering leaflets. There was little sense of politics as action, as, dare I say it, power.  The politics of incremental gain is, realistically, what real politics is, but it would be nice to feel that all this is done for a greater purpose. We may not see the Promised Land, but we’d like to think that’s where we’re heading.

I’ve made the meeting sound bloodless, but that would be unfair. People who do turn up to meetings care deeply, and give up their own time to try to ensure that a democratic political culture has no barriers, and is not controlled by party machines, press barons, or self-interested big business.  There was even a very clear division in the room between those who think that politics is about reforming capitalism to curb its destructiveness, and those who oppose the system itself, whatever form it takes.  That’s no small philosophical difference.

As a political flaneur, I find myself beginning to reach some conclusions arising from the meetings I’ve attended, and the political engagements I have observed.  But for now I will confine myself to saying that the strangers I have met who give their time to politics are good, decent people who are little different from their workmates and neighbours. Once upon a time, most people knew this, because grassroots politics was knitted into the fabric of daily life. One task is to reconnect the two.

But the other thing we need is effective leadership at every level.  Some of that is organisational, the necessary basis of any political movement. But organisational leadership is insufficient.  We also need the ability to inspire others. Most of our national leaders – across the board – lack that passion. Of course, the stump speech of old cuts no ice in a TV studio. But there is still a place for rhetoric, and there’s still a need for parties and movements to train the next generation in those arts.

Tories On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown

Like most voters, I know what I expect from politicians on the campaign stump. Photo-ops, sound bites, slick spin and oodles of massaged statistics, with a little bit of negativity towards opponents thrown in. That’s the formula.

There are differences between the parties, though. Those differences basically come down to two things – money, and the media. The money thing is only slightly constrained by the laws on election expenditure. These forbid parties to bribe voters with cakes and ale, and limit the amount that candidates can spend in a constituency during the official election campaign. But what the parties do nationally, well, that’s a bit of a free-for-all.

Except that it isn’t. Only the Tories have the dosh to run a Rolls Royce campaign. Bespoke polling, nationwide poster campaigns, a hundred grand a month spent on Facebook alone – and the big spend, Lynton Crosby, Australian spin-assassin, the Nabob of Negative Campaigning. I fully expected a campaign of slick brilliance, casually kicking Labour to a pulp, kebabbing the Lib Dems (as easy as drowning a kitten), and playing the grubby little Englander to stick one to the Nats. Through it all would shine Dave, the fragrant Sam Cam at his side, smiling indulgently at the plebs.

After all, as well as the money, they have the media. After Ed Miliband took on Murdoch – something the SNP has conspicuously failed to do (never forget Salmond’s wooing of Murdoch’s support) – and the outcome of Leveson, the Non-Doms and tax avoiders who own the press have been doubly up for being the Tories’ most loyal cheerleaders. Given that the newspapers set the agenda for the broadcasters, particularly the craven and cowed BBC, this ought to have left the Tories playing on a field aiming at a goal rigged to be three times as wide and twice the height of that faced by their opponents’.

But things don’t seem to be going to plan, do they? The electorate – unwashed ingrates all – don’t seem especially keen on “Aren’t I Prime Ministerial?” Cameron.  When he bangs on about the “long term plan”, “Labour maxed out the credit card” and a load of other Aussie-authored bullshit, the bloody oiks don’t seem to be listening. When he bungs us some tax cuts, we yawn. So he raids the Thatcher songbook for the old tunes – like selling off social housing, or offering discounted Lloyds Bank shares (which we’ve paid for once already) – but nothing seems to please us.

But never fear – Nasty Nicola and the Mars Bar fryers can be deployed to frighten the English into running back into the safe, strong embrace of what used to be called the Conservative and Unionist Party.

Will this last ditch attempt at winning Middle England by conjuring up the Pictish hoards work?

It doesn’t deserve to. Scotland may be over-represented at Westminster (population-wise) but its MPs are still a small fraction of the Commons numbers. If this island is one state, which it is, it is a small-minded and constitutionally-illiterate politician who seeks to delegitimatise democratically elected MPs from any region. I’m not a nationalist, so the SNP, which is first and foremost a nationalist party, has no appeal for me, but to paint it as illegitimate and malign, as the Tories do, is nothing more than a silly, shrieking hissy fit that demeans them as a serious party of government.

I’m not in the prediction biz. Nothing in this election is turning out as I anticipated. But the Tories on the verge of a nervous breakdown over half way through the campaign? I really didn’t see that coming.

The Jumblies, and other stories – Election Diary

The detachment of electoral politics from what is actually going on in the world continues apace. I don’t wholly blame the politicians for this. We, the electorate, do it, too. We turn away, rather than face down the challenges around us. We put fingers in our ears, close our eyes, pretend it’s not happening.

Because there’s big stuff going on. The entire settlement of the 20th Century – lines on maps, the economic system, social relations, industrial production – it’s all unravelling. It is the world of The Jumblies.

Edward Lear’s nonsense poem, The Jumblies, tells quite a tale. “They went to sea in a sieve, they did/In a sieve they went to sea….\And when the sieve turned round and round,/ And everyone cried, ‘You’ll all be drowned!’/ They called aloud,’Our sieve ain’t big,/ But we don’t care a button, we don’t care a fig!/ In a sieve we’ll go to sea.”

in Lear’s world they sailed on the Western Sea, and so one might call the Mediterranean today, for it is the border between the West and the Rest. Carving up continents, spheres of influence, colonialism and imperialism, to WMDs, regime change, and liberal interventionism, it’s all falling apart. Children march, traumatised, across lands littered with the beheaded and the crucified, before boarding their sieves to drown within sight of beachfront apartments.  Peasants flee from fields without water, or from bandits, or kleptocrats, or from fools with a religious book in one hand and a machete in the other.  But we can trace the causes of all of these things, and we can learn lessons. That’s one of the basic responsibilities of democratic politics.

But even on home ground, we don’t seem capable of clear thinking. The election campaign bears so little resemblance to the realities in our country that we might as well vote on the basis of whether someone “looks prime ministerial”, or even whether we like their hairstyle, or their ability to prop up a bar in a pub.

So what do I want the politicians to do? If I were to be in the position to advise them, what would I say?

There’s the problem. “Philosophers have only interpreted the world; the point is to change it.”

I’m A Voter, Get Me Out Of Here!

David Cameron studied politics, so he ought to be familiar with the concept of ‘political culture’. I was taught that the way in which politics happens in a country isn’t simply about formal political systems – who has a vote, free and fair elections, that sort of thing – but also about the customs, manners, and tone of politics.  In a democracy, I was led to believe, courteousness and tolerance of opposing opinions, mass political participation, and respect for minority rights, was fundamental.  So, for example, Russia, with free elections, but little respect for dissent or minority rights, looks a lot less ‘democratic’ than, say, Germany, which doesn’t tend to imprison or poison critics of the Chancellor.

So what of Britain? How ‘democratic’ is our political culture?

The so-called ‘Challengers’ Debate’ last night illustrates just how hollowed out our democratic reflexes have become.  This absurd ‘debate’ featuring only one Member of Parliament, Ed Miliband, plus a bunch of wannabe back-benchers and the SNP leader who isn’t even standing for election to the UK parliament, was risible in its conception.  It wasn’t the debate the public or the media wanted; it happened because David Cameron has embraced a political strategy designed to flatten and constrain any kind of public engagement that might not be susceptible to manipulation by his well-funded team of mind-benders.

The result is that we have had some absurd shows that bear no relation to electoral realities, and which are designed to insulate the Tory leader from voters, even at the cost of our democratic political culture.

Consider this. The leader of Plaid Cymru, the 4th largest party in Wales, gets a national platform, despite being less popular than UKIP in the Principality.  And this: Nicola Sturgeon gets applauded by an English audience, because far from the 55 million on the island scorning the 5 million in the northernmost bit, as seems to be believed in Scotland, the English and Welsh have by and large also had a bellyful of the Westminster elite. It’s all pretty tangential to who gets to form the next government.

I understand that these are dangerous times, and leading politicians may need protection from guns and bombs, but they neither need, nor deserve, protection from voters’ sharp tongues. There was a time the ukulele man advising Cameron to “piss off back to Eton” was an everyday occurrence.  He was the unsung democrat, preserving our right to be rude to our rulers.

Cameron – if you daren’t face either us, or your main challenger, head-to-head, you are no democrat, and you coarsen and weaken our political culture.

Are They Human? – Election Diary

Five years is a long time in anyone’s life. Once past the glowing perfection of youth, it’s pretty much downhill all the way. Unless, of course, you are a leading coalition politician. Look at them! Positively shiny! Austerity? The austerity of the health spa for them, all tai chi, kale smoothies, and seaweed wraps. They look fabulous!

The thought struck me last night watching Nick Clegg on Newsnight. He’s just loved being in government. And he’s hungry to stay there.  With all the desperate, open-faced longing of a BGT contestant pleading for admittance to the instant fame machine, Clegg wills the electorate to love him, to understand him, to give him another chance.  Because power is just so goddamn more-ish.

Cameron, too, looks untouched by the worries of government. Mr. Smooth is rather less puppyish about power than his ornamental Deputy Prime Minister; he was born to it, after all. Dave looks for all the world like a man with a healthy work/life balance; a life of chillaxed brunches, country suppers, box sets, date nights.  OK, so for half an hour a week, six months a year, he has to psyche himself up to bully a nerdy comprehensive school oik across the despatch box, but it’s all just another blood sport, like riding to hounds. A manly pastime that gets the endorphins going.

Osborne’s had the full health spa make-over package followed by a session with a personal shopper.  He’s lost the incipient gut, got himself a butch hairdo, and that new wardrobe, well, what can I say?  It’s stunning. A full range of hi-vis jackets, Village People-style hard hats, and a supporting cast of a business donor’s workforce press-ganged into listening with rapt attention to his every repetition of “long term economic plan”.

So, my fellow voters, ask yourself this – do you look younger, lovelier, more chilled, more sexily contented now than you did five years ago? You may even want to ask whether your home’s a bit colder than it used to be, or whether you’ve taken to hiding Lidl cereal in a branded box so the kids don’t know that you’re struggling with the grocery bills.  No, not the last bits; that would be churlish.

Because the Con-Dem Coalition has been very good indeed for the people who matter.

Poll Fatigue

Once upon a time opinion polls were conducted by people with clipboards stopping strangers on the street. Each clipboard-wielder had a quota of ‘types’ of person to question, and back at the poll HQ the ‘sample’ would be carefully balanced and weighted to reflect the composition of the electorate.

In theory they still do that today. In practice it is more complicated. There are more polling companies conducting more polls than ever. The number crunching is faster – instantaneous, even, for some polls, and samples are still carefully weighted. And yet….

There’s a divergence between internet polls and telephone polls (by which I mean cold calls made by phone, rather than polling done via a smartphone app). Phone polls give a markedly higher rating to the Conservative Party. Given that when questioned, both pundits and the public think that the Tories will be the largest party after the election, despite polls of opinion suggesting a dead heat, should we conclude that internet polls aren’t worth heeding?

I’m on the YouGov panel. Like all those on the panel, I’ve chosen to be involved. It means that I’m already politically engaged, a heavy internet user, and a smartphone owner. Like an awful lot of people I know, I’m also someone who no longer answers the landline. My guess is that I’m especially useful to pollsters, as I’m a middle-aged, ethnic minority woman, and I’m assuming that fewer of us/them are volunteers for such panels.  But it also means, I’m not ‘typical’.

So, as a mere scrap of poll fodder, what do I make of polls?

Firstly, I think they are likely to be broadly accurate as a barometer of opinion.  But they are only as good as the data they put in, and so the methods they use will skew results.  Phoning people at home will increase participation by older people who still answer landlines. They’ll also under-represent the poor, who, increasingly, do not have landlines at all, but do have pay-as-you-go mobiles.  But older people turn out to vote in high numbers, and poor people don’t. Could the two balance out? Maybe.

But are they right about the likely outcome of the election?  There I hesitate.  This still feels like the weirdest, least predictable election of my life.  I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this didn’t turn out to be the election when the people called the pollsters’ bluff.  But how?  Now there’s the question….