When Is An Opinion Not An Opinion?

There’s a YouGov app on my phone. Most days I get an alert asking me to answer some questions. Today the topic was alleged corruption in world football’s ruling body, FIFA.

That this was a body mired in allegations of corruption, and that some of its decisions have been murderously bad (look at the virtual slave labour conditions in Qatar), is something of which, as a citizen of sound mind and normal levels of curiosity, I have long been aware. The further developments yesterday, with arrests in Switzerland, were things I’d seen reported on news programmes. So without a moment’s hesitation I tapped away my assent to the view that FIFA was probably corrupt and needed to be changed. I also cynically agreed that Sepp Blatter would probably be re-elected nonetheless. It seems (the app goes on to reveal how others voted) that my views were entirely in line with most other respondents.

And yet that is not the end of the story. For it would be wholly dishonest to say I have much of an opinion at all on this story. It doesn’t get me excited or outraged. It doesn’t much matter to me one way or the other. The only sense in which I have an opinion at all is where the issue relates to, or is entangled in other, broader political, economic or cultural questions. I don’t care, is my honest answer.

I suspect that my response to these questions on football governance was emotionally quite similar to the response of many voters questioned by pollsters during the last election campaign, or, indeed, at other times. When reminded that there’s this thing called politics, voters recorded ‘opinions’ more or less vaguely acquired from somewhere else. NHS=Good. Deficit=Bad. SNP=Brilliant/Terrifying depending on which edition of The Sun you read. Having recorded their opinions, the voters went off to watch Loose Women or Top Gear or a sub-titled drama on BBC4 (other stereotypes are available).

Is there a moral to this story? There is, I think, but it is not simple. People who care deeply about political issues, about how we are governed, for whose benefit, at whose cost, and to what purpose, probably feel instinctively that everyone “ought” to care. That they don’t feels like a moral deficit, even if we’d never dare put it like that.

But the other moral is for us. I do care a little bit about the FIFA story because I can see ways it fits into a broader narrative about international politics, global inequality, gender and race, consumerism, the monetising of leisure pursuits, well, capitalism.  In this way I do ‘own’ a bit of the story. So how do we persuade our fellow citizens that they, too, are invested in politics? To make the casting of a vote something that matters deeply to their lives?

In other words, how do we turn a retail opinion picked up cheaply from workplace chatter, or a partisan media, or family habit into a carefully hand-crafted judgement based upon careful consideration? Can it even be done?

Most professional electoral politics assumes that it can’t. It’s assumed that people aren’t much interested, don’t really want to be informed, and so elections are just things to be ‘gamed’, and the winners will be the party that plays the game (it used to be called spin) best. Glorified marketing, rather than active political engagement, with parties as brands – “Labour Nouveau – With Added Aspiration!”

That’s depressingly cynical.  Surely, as with football, there must be another way?

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Is Politics Broken?

Is politics broken? After all, any political system is a messy compromise. There is no perfect way to ensure a 100% turnout on a voluntary basis for political parties that exactly reflect the spectrum of ideological inclinations and whom then meet in a parliament wholly reflective of the social composition of the country. Can’t be done.

So what constitutes a functional political system, and what a dysfunctional one? On many objective indicators, our system works. A good test of that is turnout which, though down on the heady days of the 1950s and 60s remains relatively high at 65%. Our elected representatives, reviled as they are, are mostly honest and hard-working. Most things that government is meant to do get done.

During the recent election campaign I came to the conclusion that I had to return to supporting the Labour Party. I’d seen that attempts at creating alternatives, such as the Democracy 2015 movement started by Andreas Whittam Smith, or the revitalised Green Party with its charismatic MP Caroline Lucas, all lacked the boots on the ground and the political experience and sheer savvy, as well as the brand identity, necessary to mobilise millions of votes for progressive causes.  Moreover, I’d read things said by Miliband and people close to him, by Andy Burnham, and by others suggesting that these were people who had learned from their mistakes.  So although I found many Labour policies timid, or naive, or simply repellent I was sufficiently convinced that it was a vehicle that might limp home with a driver who was heading in roughly the right direction. Sometimes you just have to be pragmatic.

In some senses I still think all that. If you ask the question, how do we get from where we are, with a government of hard-right short-termists who are both wrong on policies and inept at implementation (NHS? Schools? Prisons?), the answer probably has to include the Labour Party forming some kind of government at the next possible opportunity.

But that’s a part of the strategy for changing the direction of travel in this island. It cannot be the whole story.

I’ve lived in some of the parts of Britain where Labour used to weigh their votes rather than count them, and where now they have UKIP breathing down their necks.  Those ex-Labour or weakly Labour voters come from areas, and probably from families who in the past were card carrying members of the labour movement. Socialised by chapel and union into the ways of the movement and the party, they were a genuine part of the coalition between workers by hand and workers by brain, as the old phrase has it. But those jobs and industries have in many cases gone. The experience of work is different. There has been a withdrawal from a wider involvement in community with a loss of social solidarity. Racial divisions are also often pretty raw in those areas, mainly exacerbated by ‘white flight’ from inner urban areas and educational segregation.

Similar economic and social forces have applied in the post-industrial parts of Scotland, but the ex-Labour voters there seem to have embraced the SNP. Why was the SNP able to speak to those people in ways Labour never came near to matching?

Nationalism mobilises latent identities in ways which have emotional resonance. The antics of the new SNP MPs taking selfies at the despatch box and applauding when told not to, look an awful lot like the Labour MPs who sang The Red Flag on the floor of the Commons in 1945.  But the bonds of class solidarity are not merely cultural, they spring from an analysis of politics and economics which is inherently progressive. The bonds of nationalism, on the contrary, are by their nature exclusive and divisive, and opportunistically they can steal their clothes from the left, but also from the right. Which is also the appeal of UKIP to some Labour voters in England.

Labour was strongest in big, diverse cities, even though Labour is beginning to lose affluent sections of the BAME vote. Younger people with higher education plus migrants (you won’t find anyone more aspirational than a migrant) in the cities were a block for the left. It is quite hard to see what, culturally, they have in common with the mill towns and foundry towns and former coalfields that used to be Labour.  They probably have a lot in common with many in Glasgow and Edinburgh who flocked to the SNP, but that cultural affinity can’t also be political affinity beyond small tactical deals, because nationalism by its nature is about setting a limit defined by geography. The people of Birmingham, or Manchester might admire the charisma and oratory of Nicola Sturgeon, but they can’t vote for her. By definition, as a nationalist she has no interest whatsoever in them. It’s a one way street.  That’s not much of a basis upon which to build a progressive coalition.

An analogous argument might be constructed about the political right. The Tory party is not at ease with itself. Social liberals, economic liberals, social authoritarians, nationalists and little Englanders, globalisers, followers of Burke and followers of Hayek, it’s got to fall apart.

All that binds the two main parties, unstably and probably not for long, is the electoral system. The people, the parties, and the voting system are out of synch, and so is the entire constitutional settlement upon which the system rests. Broken.

A constitutional convention to sort out the mess is only one, (huge) necessary step. We also need to recognise that the old party divisions based upon class don’t work any more, either. Social class is a real force, and trades unions are important to aggregate the latent power of workers against over-mighty companies, but politically perhaps more and more diverse parties and movements are needed? As the ‘flat pack politics’ movement shows, progressive politics can take root in seemingly unlikely areas when it takes a form which is culturally attuned to its environment.

What Hope For Radical Politics?

Two weeks after the 1992 general election I could scarcely drag myself out of bed. So how come, two short weeks after another  heart-sinking election victory for the radical right, a large group of assorted radicals of the left managed to assemble in Birmingham to discuss the way forward for forms of politics that challenge the narrative of austerity?  What’s the difference between now, and then?

For the radical right, probably not a lot. The language changes. Thatcherism and Reaganomics are terms that belong to a sepia coloured past, when there were four TV channels and WH Smith sold a magazine called Marxism Today. But today’s neoliberalism might have swapped double breasted Armani suits for hipster homespun, but it is essentially the same old same old. George Osborne is Nigel Lawson on the 5:2 diet.  They believe in shrinking the state, cutting taxes, flexible labour (easier to sack, with fewer rights), and carrots for the big guys and sticks for the rest.

The left, however, is almost unrecognisable. Across Europe the old parties of the left, with their roots in the 19th Century, have been disintegrating. The experience of a particular kind of work – selling one’s labour for cash – has ceased to have the salience it once did.  We’re more aware of the value of unpaid labour, or our weaknesses and potential power as consumers, or our vulnerability in the face of climate change.  The radicalism of the left has no choice but to address the lack of security we face in everything from where we live, how we work, how we are educated, whether our food is fit to eat. Big questions, but real questions.

So why wasn’t the Labour Party able to frame those questions within ‘a narrative’ that people recognised and understood?

Ruth Lister began by describing the Compass Radical Hope event in London last Saturday. The participants there ranged across the spectrum of the left, from Caroline Lucas to Yuan Yang, from Jon Cruddas to Victor Adebowale. These are serious figures whose participation in a common debate is something that would have appeared remarkable (and very niche – like Charter 88) twenty years ago. It’s a measure of the state we’re in. It’s also a measure of a political renewal on the left that is genuine cause for hope.

The discussion in the room last night was also tentatively hopeful. The ‘tentative’ thing matters. Several contributors spoke as though they expected to be challenged, or sneeringly dismissed for their views, but no one was. (I felt a bit guilty at one point for challenging someone who has wondered aloud about whether the election had been rigged. I’ve seen a lot of this talk on social media, over-spill from the Scottish referendum, and its a distraction from the real issues, but as a naive current in oppositional politics it perhaps needs more gentle de-bunking.)  Most people modelled politics as listening, courteous.

Which is not to say that there wasn’t passion.  Real people are being hurt by this government and their world view, and more will now be hurt, and often very badly indeed.  In any case, as one contributor said, one of the few moments in the election campaign which put party leaders on the spot was the Question Time from Leeds Town Hall.  I happen to think that some of those clashes were ill-tempered and misdirected, but the point was nonetheless well made – we have political leaders who are so insulated from voters that they recoil in fear when confronted by people from outside their bubble.  Our politics can’t afford to replicate that isolation, comfortable as it might be only to talk with those we find sympathetic.

What emerged last night was a shared sense that we can’t afford to let politics be a luxury we enjoy every five years or so, like a sort of geeks’ Olympics. We need to engage politically all the time, in ways which flow from our own positions as citizens, as men and women, as young and old, as parents, or carers, or passengers on the bus.  We ‘own the narrative’ when we live it, and make it explicit.

But three (of many) things we didn’t really discuss are these:

1. The local and regional dimension.  Our city, the biggest outside the mega-city of London, has had quite a kicking from this government, and it is set to continue. Perhaps being the youngest, most-diverse city in Europe is not to Tory tastes?  ‘English votes for English laws’-style non-devolution will only exacerbate our problems. Some of our regional leadership is of poor quality II’m thinking of the MEPs, especially here).  We do need to focus on the city-region in this, the home of municipal socialism.

2. Social media and political communication.  If 2015 wasn’t quite a ‘social media election’, it is of rising importance. The Tories didn’t spend a fortune on Facebook without a purpose. How do we make better, more strategic use of social media?

3. How, specifically, do we take politics to people who’ve stopped listening, who’ve lost hope, and can see no point in using their votes?

Compass and Equality West Midlands have done good work in making a space for those engagements to happen. Let’s keep the momentum going!

Why The Next Labour Leader Should Be A Guy In A Frock

The sun shines, but these are miserable days for anyone with even the slightest interest in the politics of the left. There’s the occasional outbreak of jollity, such as when the UKIP pantomime kicks off,  but even that fades when one remembers that they got four million votes.  As for the Labour leadership campaign. The heart sinks.

The noise around Labour mainly seems to come from assorted Blairite undead, and their media echo chamber. Their view, it seems, is that anyone who isn’t a messianic egomaniac who is intensely relaxed about the filthy rich will never command the assent of the British people. Obviously that explains the loss of Scotland.

Blair, they say, or someone with Blairish gifts (oh, Alan Johnson, please come rescue Labour from the threat of Andy Burnham and Len McCluskey) will be able to communicate with the electorate in ways the geeky Miliband could never manage. Because he couldn’t do ‘normal’.

There are so many things wrong with this analysis, most of them self-evident (who lost all those votes between 1997 and 2005?).  But there is one aspect that is worth inspection.

Communication. Labour didn’t communicate a clear message in the manner of the Tory tag lines, but I’m not sure I want to encourage a form of politics that relies on cynical over-simplification and straight untruths. But Labour didn’t communicate a sense of enthusiasm and purpose, either. I’m persuaded by the view that the polls got it wrong not because ‘shy Tories’ lied to pollsters, but because ‘lethargic Labour’ supporters were not sufficiently motivated to turn out and vote.

So how can the Labour Party communicate a complex message about Britain and its prospects, and to do so in ways which don’t over-simplify, which model empathy, and an ability to listen, and which makes people aspire to something that is about lives well-lived, and not mere material consumption?

Step forward the guy in the frock.

Britain’s most loved contemporary artist, Grayson Perry, shows us the way.  Does he care whether he looks ‘normal’? A guy who can turn up at a building site wearing a mini dress and patent platform shoes makes Cameron and Osborne with their hi-vis jacket and hard hat obsession look like amateurs.  But what Perry does so successfully does have lessons for political communicators.

Contemporary art is ‘difficult’. Perry called a recent touring show he curated, ‘Unpopular Culture’. Contemporary art is often baffling, without obvious, crowd-pleasing appeal.  It can feel excluding, elitist, and irrelevant to most people’s lives – just like politics. So how come Grayson Perry has become a rock star who can range across the class, ethnic, gender and regional divisions of our society, and end up being loved?  Why does his art move people?

Perry’s series for Channel Four, The Vanity of Small Differences, looked at social class in Britain, and then turned it into art. His approach, often more ethnographer than artist, saw Perry engage with everyone from tattoo obsessives to aristos on their uppers.  Collectors of china ornaments, karaoke singers, ‘executive home’ dwellers with label fetishes, white van men, hijab ladies, Perry makes art that speaks to them all.

I made repeated visits to the exhibition, The Vanity of Small Differences (as I had to Unpopular Culture).  Both exhibitions were constantly busy, and with a much more diverse crowd than is usually seen in galleries.  People looked long, and closely at the work. Perry is unusual in also demanding that any merchandise associated with his shows are priced with a mass market in mind.  I saw a brisk trade in his catalogue, greetings cards, and scarves in the shop afterwards.

Perry’s latest project was shown in a Channel Four programme this week. The Grayson Perry House (available on the All Four app for another three weeks) showed Perry’s approach to a commission to build a house to his own design in the Essex countryside.  The entire village turns out to listen to the man in the frock, greeting him with rapturous applause. The building crew grow to love their mad mission, the gaffer confessing to shedding a tear. Cheery Lancashire tile manufacturing workers glue nipples onto goddesses, Ladies called Julie cycle through Basildon on a pilgrimage, before dissolving in tears when they get to the house. It’s all intensely moving, and it is genuinely about art.

My point is that Perry’s very political art is a masterclass in popular communication. He listens, he observes, he never judges, and yet he somehow sorts the genuine from the bogus and crafts it into something that speaks to people who might otherwise have no need for contemporary art.  Perry understands and loves his society and communicates that authentically without fudging the inherent difficulties and contradictions.  These are things able politicians should be able to do, too.

If we can’t elect Grayson Perry, let’s at least emulate his approach.

Euro Referendum – What’s That All About?

The first referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Economic Community in 1975 was less about securing democratic consent, than about internal party management for the governing party. Forty years on, what’s changed?

Since the UK joined the old EEC, a lot has happened. The EU has a different name, an elected parliament, much wider membership across the continent, and a free internal market.  Opinion polls, should we be minded to believe them, suggest that popular support for remaining a member of the EU continues to be stronger than that for leaving Europe. Which is surprising, given that all the noise in the referendum argument has been made by the anti-EU right.

Perhaps ‘popular support’ is overstating it? ‘Passive aquiescence’? ‘Grudging acceptance’?  For the case in favour of the European Union has never much been made in this country, and under pressure from an often vocally Eurosceptic press, even pro-European politicians have rarely shown much political leadership when it comes to building support for the institution.

Like much else in this country, the roots of this attitude go back to the 1980s and the Blessed Margaret.  At a time when the German taxpayer might willingly have given us the money to improve our transport infrastructure in the under-developed or post-industrial regions of the country, and to finance a wide range of other socially or economically beneficial projects, Thatcher turned it down.  All over the continent new roads, schools, leisure centres, museums and galleries, and the like, proudly displayed the EU symbol to show how they’d been built, but that public acknowledgement of the benefits of solidarity rarely happened in this country.

Thatcher’s approach to Europe was shaped by a toxic combination of petty prejudice and a grandiose neocon vision. That the Soviet Union, and its hold over Eastern Europe began visibly to crumble and then fall in that decade, fed a triumphalist attitude. Where some European leaders might have thought it best to finish the job of raising up the former fascist countries to higher standards of governance, economic stability, and social progress before widening that task to include the former communist countries, Thatcher was adamant that expansion eastward was necessary as quickly as possible.  The gangmasters of the Fens with their Romanian vegetable pickers and Bulgarian abattoir workers are Thatcher’s children.

The ills of the European Union are much less important than the benefits, however.  The EU economy is the biggest in the world, and one of the aims of the EU is to ensure that higher living standards and a good quality of life are enjoyed across Europe. Workers rights, safety standards, food quality, educational opportunity, and scientific and cultural co-operation are underpinned by the institutions of the EU.  Many things we take for granted, like flying off for a weekend in Prague, or working for a while in Berlin, or retiring to a villa on the Med, are things that were once almost unimaginably difficult to do.

And so to the referendum. There will be a campaign.  The danger in referendum campaigns is that they are often about a question that isn’t on the ballot paper.  This one could easily be about whether David Cameron is still sufficiently popular to win the vote.   There’s also a danger that the campaign could be dull, turnout low, and motivation to vote highest amongst the Europhobes.

Those of us who are on the left, and who want success for the left at the next election, should regard the EU referendum as a challenge and an opportunity.  We should learn from the Scottish referendum campaign.

There should not be one, unified ‘Yes To Europe’ campaign, which would inevitably be dominated by business and policy wonks. The SNP were able, however unfairly, to tarnish Labour by association because they worked with the Tories on the ‘No’ campaign. This time, distinctive ground should be staked out in making the case for ‘Yes’.

There is a good business case for Europe, and many jobs and industries need continued EU membership to thrive. But let business make its own case, separately.

A popular campaign for Europe needs to highlight the other benefits which aren’t just measured in accountancy terms. There should be Scientists For Europe showing off their EU supported research. Artists For Europe. Educationists For Europe. Europe for safe food, Europe for animal welfare, and above all, a focus on the rights of men and women in the workplace that Europe guarantees against the worst practices of global capitalism.

Campaigns in these terms should start as soon as possible. In mobilising people, in seeing what works, what enthuses people, what has traction, lessons can be learned and a head-start made on winning hearts and minds. If we do it well, we can use it as a laboratory for the next general election.

The Cult Of The Superhero.

American culture gave us the superhero. Via Nietzsche, maybe. And they gave us superhero politicians.

Blair loved all things American, so he thought we should have superheroes, too. Bring on the Mayor of London. We’ll have our own Ed Koch, or maybe a Bloomberg. Someone who’ll kick ass, and clean up the streets of Gotham.  But back then,  Brits knew better. They went for a beige bloke with an Estuary accent and a serious newt habit. Ken Livingstone won as the first elected Mayor of London as a mass two fingers up to Tony Blair. They basically re-elected the GLC.

But then came Boris. He is truly a superhero. He’s on his own, a one-off, a maverick, a man who makes it up as he goes along. Boris-envy drove the Tories mad. They started thinking they could have city mayors and sheriffs everywhere.  Unfortunately the voters had other ideas, and rejected elected mayors in most cities where the idea was put to a referendum.  We had less choice when it came to the sheriffs – Police and Crime Commissioners were imposed upon us. We responded by not voting. My PCC got elected on a turnout of 10%.

But the Tories aren’t giving up.  Devolution to city-regions is being planned, just as long as we also have elected mayors.

So does it matter?  I think it does.

One issue concerns the nature of local government. All towns and cities have social disparities within them. City-regions, with millions of inhabitants, will contain highly diverse communities with competing, sometimes irreconcilable interests. A council, with members representing all those communities, both formally, and through the diversity of elected members, ensure that all interests have the prospect of being heard.  One person – a mayor – with the best will in the world cannot replicate this aspect of the British local government tradition.  Local government, where it has power, produces strong personalities and elevates them to leadership. But they get there through the process of negotiation, alliances and a record of achievement. They are tested first.

The example of the Police and Crime Commissioners does not inspire confidence.  Apart from the low turnout, there is already some evidence that distorted policing priorities are being pressed on constabularies by zealous PPCs.  It’s hard to see that either democracy or effective policing by consent is enhanced by the PPC system. For every experienced, intelligent PPC, like Vera Baird, there’s a dolt, obsessed with hobby-horses.  Some PCCs are making the lives of chief constables a misery for no reason, whilst others are played like patsies by chief constables who run rings around them.

But the main problem with superhero politics is that, like superhero movies, it is all fantasy.  Simple, hero and villain fairy tales in place of the messy reality of local government.  The only calculation that rings true is that in cities that have rejected the Tories at the ballot box, a mayoral system may give the Tories a way back to power.  Just find your local Boris, stick a wodge of campaign cash and some celebrity endorsement behind the candidate, and maybe Manchester turns blue?

The Mayor of London doesn’t really have a lot of power. But mayors in city-regions with devolved budgets and responsibilities for things like the NHS will have massive power compared to today’s local government leaders whilst all power resides in Whitehall.  There is nothing to suggest that this experiment is going to end well.

Was It The Sun “Wot Won It”? Did Twitter #Fail?

Before the election, hopes were high that the “first social media election” would dilute the impact of the partisan, right-wing press. I certainly thought that there’d be a ‘Twitter Effect”.

Hence the agonising on Twitter and Facebook as distraught and baffled lefties wondered how we could all have been fooled. Meanwhile, the spittle-flecked hacks at The Daily Beast cackled as they resumed the hacking of phones, and braying hoorays popped corks, and Savile Row-suited hedge fund bosses stepped out onto the terraces of their penthouses to survey the glinting towers of Moneyopolis, faint smiles playing about their lips.

I could write a story like that, for a non-existent, lefty version of The New Yorker, with stylish illustrations in the manner of George Grosz. Perhaps I may? But fantasy is of no help to us now.

Undeniably, the dead tree media still wield a lot of clout. On one level that tells us less about the power of the press, and more about the geography of power in our country.  London-based newspapers have editors and commentators who go to school with, to parties with, go to the gym with, sleep with, marry, the business and political class. They are gatekeepers, mirrors, amplifiers of what power will allow.  They set the agenda, rule on what opinions are legitimate, and pour bile over anything that threatens their interests.

But press power, though it can and does fight fiercely and dirtily, is still on the wane. We may have erred in thinking that the decline in circulations and the excesses revealed by Leveson might have altered the climate sufficiently this time for Labour to hang on to the prospect of government.  Nevertheless, the truth is, the media ecosystem is changing. By 2020 it will have changed again, and we can play a part in this through the way we use social media.

Some have pointed out that we were fooled by the echo chamber effect of only talking to those with whom we agreed. That is probably true. In any case, venture out of the safe zone in which we stick with our own kind, and trolling will happen, and it’s a pretty lonely and dispiriting experience.  But I am not convinced that the politics of social media is qualitatively different from the politics of social life. We have always tended to have political conversations with those with whom we agree, punctuated by the odd argument in the pub. So it continues.

We need to look at the election in the context of the last five years, if not longer.  The press had backed David Miliband for leader. When they got Ed, the narrative of the fratricidal leader began, and never let up.

When Ed Miliband failed to bow his knee at the Court of King Rupert, the knives were sharpened further.  And Labour’s modest proposals to curb the excesses of the rich and powerful were more than sufficient to ensure that their avowed enemies in the rest of the press would pound away at the Miliband image day after day.

In other words, the trashing of Labour in the 2015 campaign actually started in 2010. The trashing of Labour in 2020 has already begun.

But we know what they’re doing. Where once we might have walked past a news stand and groaned with despair at yet another distorted front page, swallowing our rage along with the bitter taste of our powerlessness, now things are different. Some wit will photoshop the thing, and within minutes it will be RT’d around the Twittersphere and posted in a million FB timelines.  We haven’t any experience of what five years of such grassroots subversion might be. But we will have, in 2020.

Above all, we have to crowdsource effective narratives to counter those honed by the hired Sultans of Spin and their eager little helpers in the newsrooms.

The Sun won? Twitter failed? Not exactly. What happens next is up to us.

Who Cares Who Leads Labour?

The Blairites were quick to start a narrative about the election result. It was worse than 1992. And it was all Ed Miliband’s fault for failing to appeal to ‘aspirational’ voters. Hang on a minute?

The election was strange, unpredictable (literally – all the predictions were wrong), and dominated by Scotland to an extent that both bored and alienated many voters.  The Tories and the SNP gripped one another in a fatal embrace – fatal to Labour, whom those two smooth operators, Sturgeon and Cameron, locked out of Downing Street.  The numbers tell the story most clearly. Not the big numbers, seats won and lost, but the numbers on the ground, constituency by constituency. Labour and the Tories probably were neck and neck in lukewarm popular esteem. Without the ‘Scotland card’, Ed Miliband might yet have become the leader of a minority government.

What the ‘back to the future’ crowd in Labour are arguing, in effect, is that now is the time to look again at Labour’s retail offer. Hire a good-looking, media savvy performer to act as leader – Eddie Redmayne, perhaps? – and grab a focus group of ‘aspirational’ suburbanites who, in Tristram Hunt’s words “would like to shop at John Lewis”. Find out what the normals want, and give it to them in nice, shiny words.  Bingo. Three terms in office are yours (just don’t mention the war).

This is metropolitan bubble nonsense at its most vacuous.  The comeback will work if it is led by those on the ground who know the specific needs of their own communities.

Take Naz Shah’s victory against George Galloway in Bradford West.  Labour’s been mishandling Bradford for decades. It took a rock solid Labour vote for granted, and ceded control of some CLPs to ethnic clan politics in the iron grip of ‘elders’.  Young people, highly politicised, but without a forum for debate, voted not so much for Galloway, as against their elders.  But when faced with one of their own, they knew where their interests lay.  The campaign was often raucous, with packed public meetings, like something from the 1970s. And Shah’s win was by no narrow margin. She triumphed.  Whether she will be a good MP, who can say? Partly that will depend upon the party left behind to work locally. But she showed that, even as a last minute candidate, when local party and candidate work with the grain of the local electorate, political renewal can happen, and fast.

Labour did well in English cities – proper cities, with diverse populations, effective local parties, and popular and hardworking MPs.  That is where many lessons can be learned.

Labour failed to make it in smaller cities and towns, and in rural areas. Basically, where people use public transport, live cheek-by-jowl, and eat out in local cafes and restaurants, Labour thrives. Where people are atomised in suburbia, commute by car, and shop in hangars and malls, Labour fails.  The reasons for this, and the ways in which it can be countered, need to be explored.

The Scotland question will play itself out. The Nationalists will take what they want, and Cameron has an interest in letting them consolidate their hold north of the border. It is for the Scottish Labour Party, region by region, to address that problem.  But it is unlikely that Scotland will be the deal breaker in England come the next election.

And so to the leadership.  Who the leader is may matter less than the grassroots rebuilding exercise.  But a leadership that is London-centric, and focus-group obsessed is a tired, old, failed notion.  Like Blairism.

Blame The Pollsters! But What About The Pundits?

Half listening to the radio this morning I heard the FT political correspondent George Parker, the Indie’s Steve Richards and The Spectator’s Isobel Hardman discussing the election result. I normally like Parker, and Richards and Hardman, though partisan in their different ways, are usually interesting and fair. But this time I found myself not wanting to listen.

It wasn’t the ‘1992 not wanting to listen syndrome’. I felt the unexpected Tory victory 23 years ago like a bereavement. This was different. I was simply irritated by their chatter.

For if the pollsters got it wrong, so did the pundits. And they, I would argue, are more important, and more culpable, for the state of British politics.

Polling is subject to all the usual objections to quantitative social research methods, and no doubt there will be conferences galore in the coming months to fix the problem – though I suspect that the major issue is one of interpretation, not method. But that’s one for the geeks.

Punditry is something else. Political journalists are part of the Westminster eco-system.  They mix with politicians, SPADs, senior civil servants, and lobbyists in the gyms, cafes, restaurants and dinner party circuits of the capital. When they go out into other parts of the country, or into other sections of society, the visits are fleeting, and often mediated by someone who interprets that world for them. Aditya Chakrabortty of The Guardian recently described the incredulity of people he interviewed in Edmonton, North London, when he revealed that he was himself from the area. I recognised his portrait of the ‘other London’ from my time teaching in at a tech college in Tottenham. People acted as though there was an electric fence penning them out of the West End. The undercover work done by the likes of Polly Toynbee to understand the lives of the poor and marginal remains the exception, rather than the rule, most particularly when it comes to parliamentary reporters, who define their brief with comfortable narrowness.

Hence the astonishment of the political journos when they went up to Scotland during the referendum campaign. How did this happen? Who’d have known? Well, you, if you’d ever paid the place any attention. I was certainly aware of some of it, and over a long period. I recall being interviewed by the distinguished Scottish journalist, Arnold Kemp, when he did a tour of the UK to look at attitudes to nation and Europe in the 1990s.  He found, in much of England, a profound alienation from Westminster, even back then.  But few of his London-based equivalents even began to look.

Why does this matter?  Journalists tell stories that get to be believed as truths. The stories have tangible effects. They skew the world, and how we respond to it.  We often rail against partisanship and trickery in the press, as when a Murdoch paper trashes Miliband, or Kinnock, or whoever. But the most damaging thing is when there is no ulterior purpose, no intention to deceive. When they are simply, hopelessly, out of touch.

We can’t fix our politics without understanding our country and its people. That means better, truer, journalism turning the spotlight onto places beyond Westminster on a regular basis, and from an informed position.  Ideally we’d have some national newspapers based outside London, as used to happen in the past. We’d have a more devolved BBC.  I listen to 5 Live from time to time, and it is good to hear how the capital-centricity of its news, and its approach to news has changed radically since it went to Salford.  But we need more of this.

Maybe then we won’t be caught out by the changing faces, and worries, and hopes of this country. And we’ll be better able to hold our leaders to account.

The People Have Spoken. The Bastards.

The polls were wrong. The Tories, against all odds, got the outcome Lynton Crosby promised. Labour has been crushed, in a defeat both unexpected and profoundly unfair. The people have spoken. The bastards.

So what do we do, those of us who disliked the coalition, and fear a full-blooded Conservative administration?

Firstly we need to brace ourselves for the next five years.

The Conservatives have a majority. But it is a slim one.  All governments face by-elections, and they usually lose them.  It is entirely possible that this will not be a majority government for the full five years.  That opens the door to clever Opposition tactics.

A major factor in the election result must surely have been Scotland. The Tories and the SNP worked hand-in-glove to play the post-referendum game to their own advantage. Cameron has no interest in Scotland.  He doesn’t need them to win, indeed, he’s better off rid of them, one way or another. He’ll give them full fiscal autonomy, and be done with it.  But this does mean that the Tories cannot play the ‘Scotland Card’ again. It’s a one-use-only Joker.

The economy is not in good shape, and there are plenty of pitfalls ahead globally. The sunny uplands that feature in Cameronian and Osbornean rhetoric are largely illusory. There will be trouble.

Housing is a time bomb.  All across the UK there are places where few younger people and families can afford to buy a home, and where renting is insecure and of low quality. It can and must be a key issue and pressure point on the government, for the market has no answers here. We need to be making waves on housing, with real solutions on offer. Danny Dorling has suggested some good ones.

Education is also a pressure point. The government’s education policy has no answers to the problem of securing an adequate number of school places in many areas. Sometimes education policy seems abstract or abstruse, but a place for every child is a simple matter that anyone can understand, and it can’t be fudged. Pop up Free schools in old garages are no solution. Most parents attended proper schools in proper building staffed by trained teachers. They can see with their own eyes if their kids are being fobbed off with something sub-standard. We have to own this story, too.

But our immediate priority is around constitutional reform. Cameron today is repeating “English Votes For English Laws”. That’s not the issue. The issue is electoral reform and devolution to the regions. Both should be decided by debate and not by diktat.

Electoral reform firstly, because plainly the voting system is bust. It does not accord with multi-party democracy, regionalism, nor basic fairness. We need a system where every vote counts. Our narrative, from this day on, must be that the system isn’t fair. We need to repeat that like a drumbeat.

Regional devolution is a harder sell. It took the Scots years and much effort on the part of political activists and academics to make the case for devolution into a popular cause.  Our system of local government encourages insularity, and the calibre of some local leaders isn’t always good.  We need larger regional units, even where this upsets local rivalries.  The Tory solution – imposing Mayors – is a bad system (as are Police and Crime Commissioners, but that’s by the way). Regional assemblies representing a range of opinion, urban and rural, and all demographics, is necessary.  Local government need to be pressured into taking a lead on modelling what such a change might be.  Regional devolution from below.

We also need a serious voter registration drive coupled with voter engagement. People in rental property, younger people, and poorer people are less likely to be on the register. They must feel able to get their voices heard.

Today David Cameron basks in his success. God knows how, but he did win an election. Let him enjoy it even as we weep.  But hard times, for him as well as for us, lie ahead.  Let us harness our anger and turn it to resolution.  Let us hone our own stories and repeat them with wit and imagination and fervour until others own them, too.

We can create a movement for change. After all, there are still millions of us out there.