Tory Bullies & Labour Woes

Two apparently very different stories are in the news.  The Conservative problem concerns the death of a young activist and its possible connection to a culture of aggression and bullying in the ranks.  Labour’s is the split in the Shadow Cabinet on the issue of bombing Syria.  But I would argue that both stories are, in reality, closely connected.

Politics has been hollowed out. Where once there were mass parties which rooted Westminster in the wider world, now there are ‘shell’ parties, which exist to provide employment for career politicians.

This process has gone furthest in the Tory Party, which has a shrinking and ageing membership base. This is not a massive problem for them. Rich individuals and corporate interests generate far more funding than the old rubber chicken circuit could provide. But it is an issue at election time.  A small band of elderly Conservatives are unable to provide the foot soldiers needed to get out the vote.

Enter Mark Clarke, the Tatler Tory.  He’s just one example of the way in which old local Conservative Associations have been effectively replaced by London-run ‘private’ initiatives – they’ve been ‘outsourced’, if you like.

Young right-wing activists now emulate, and aspire to join the likes of Guido Fawkes, Conservative Future, and all the rest of the gang of bloggers, think tankers, and ad-hoc groups like RoadTrip2015.

They speak the language of the radical right with gusto.  They revel in describing themselves as ‘Tory madrassas’ training the neoliberals in the art of ruthless guerrilla warfare to win elections.  But it’s not just political gaming; it’s a culture.  A youth sub-culture to some extent (though Clarke is 38), but on a continuum with modern professional political culture more broadly.

That culture has a ‘winner takes all’ mentality.  To lose, to fail, indeed, merely to slip down the pecking order, is not just one of those things.  It is utter humiliation, abasement, to become fatally contaminated.

One young man couldn’t take it.  The lying, the amassing of ‘dirt’ to use against opponents (within his own party), the physical threats and emotional abuse, the racism and misogyny were too much.

But Clarke was just practicing a version of politics as normal. They trapped a young activist into what the newspapers call “performing a sex act” on camera, and posted it on Facebook.  Isn’t that just an amateur version of what the Daily Mirror did to former Tory MP Brooks Newmark when they got him to send a compromising selfie to an imaginary youthful blonde admirer?  Rupert Murdoch and the whole phone hacking saga was/is nothing more than a giant surveillance operation on politicians and celebs designed to keep them in their place – subservience to the Murdoch Empire.  Ed Miliband’s front page bacon sarnie was effectively a form of Facebook bullying from an analogue source.

This is how modern politics is done.

And so to Labour.  Labour isn’t as good at all this as the Tories, because they have less money, and more of them have at least a few scruples.  Nevertheless, the dominant group within the Labour parliamentary party, and their SPADS, media cheerleaders, and hangers-on have come to practice a version of politics as a high-stakes game.

The rules are these.  Rule No.1 – win.  Ed Miliband didn’t win.  In the old days he might have hung on to learn the lessons, and fight again, as Kinnock did after 1987, but not any more.  A loser must be photoshopped out of all the family pics and never mentioned again.

Rule No. 2 – look like a winner. So who on earth thought Jeremy Corbyn was a good idea?  Even the people who voted for him probably hoped for a Susan Boyle-type moment when Jezza would entrance the electorate with his pure political voice, because he scarcely looks the part.

Rule No. 3 – you must be properly initiated into the caste. That means preferably Oxbridge, maybe some time at Harvard, some work with a think tank, or as a special advisor, perhaps even a media career.

I could go on.  Corbyn breaks all the rules.  He should not be there at all! Isn’t it bloody obvious?

And yet he is there, and even if they push him under a bus, the same electorate will vote for the new Leader.  What do to?

Why not bomb a country in the midst of a terrible civil war?

Do Labour MPs really think that Britain should start bombing Syria?

Actually, yes, some of them do. I don’t believe that any of them think it’ll make any difference in  practice.  I’d guess that for some, it’s a matter of reading the polls.  That’s how they’ve always made policy, with an eye on the focus groups.  If people say “something must be done”, do something. Anything.  Lob a bomb.

Others see it as an act of solidarity with France.  Hollande wants war. We should stand with him, a Socialist President under attack from the far-right Front National.

But I can’t help but see most of the fuss over Corbyn’s reluctance to agree to air strikes on Syria as stemming from a cynical desire to wound him so badly that he has to step down.

Cameron, too, knows that British air strikes are effectively meaningless, if judged from the perspective of defeating IS and resolving the Syrian civil war.  We’ve heard all the bluster about ‘surgical strikes’ before.  For Cameron this issue addresses two key matters.

The first is that he needs Britain to join the battle with France and the USA, because he likes the fun bits of being PM, like looking important on the international stage, selfies with Obama, late night telephone conference calls to Washington and Paris. He needs to bomb Syria to stay in this game.

A lower order concern, but also quite agreeable, is that this issue damages Labour.

And so that is how Mark Clarke connects to the crisis for Labour.  It’s all about how politics today is done.  It’s a game for the professionals.  Clarke messed up, so he’s out.  Corbyn refused to play by the rules, so they need to take him down, too.

So the game can go on.

What Happens When You Shrink The State?

The Conservatives under Cameron and Osborne have been shamelessly inconsistent. From “Greenest government in history”, to “ditch all this green crap”; from “compassionate Conservatism” to benefits sanctions on people on chemotherapy, this is a party which will happily say one thing one day and the opposite the next, all apparently without any concern to explain the U turn, the back track, the volte face. It’s a neat trick, if you have the confidence to do it.

All this has been most apparent when it comes to the economy.  For all the bluster about a “long term economic plan”, the most reliable guide to what Osborne will do in practice turns out to be to look to whatever Labour has been saying.  In 2010, Osborne trashed Alistair Darling’s plan to halve the deficit by 2015, and claimed that he, in contrast, would eliminate it altogether.  In reality, though with more pain and ineptitude, he’s basically delivered the Darling plan by halving the deficit.  And this week’s Autumn Statement is essentially a version of the Ed Balls plan, but with more handouts to the wealthy.  Osborne is a man who loves to wear a hi-vis jacket to hide the flames coming from the seat of his pants.

But there is something that the Tories have been consistent about.  The size of the state.  They say they want to ‘shrink the state’, and they are actively doing that.

So what is this ‘state’ that they want to shrink?

The state is a system of administration covering most of the things necessary for civilisation.  And that’s what they want to shrink.

The British state has a form that has evolved, grown, sometimes even been planned over centuries, but the form of the modern state owes much to the 19th Century. Before then, the institutions of the central state were essentially about organising and financing wars.  There was a legal system to resolve disputes and dispense justice.  Other bits tended to be done by the CofE – births, deaths, marriages.

But with the Industrial Revolution the populations grew, cities grew, and the requirements of society became more complex.  The Civil Service was created to train a class of administrators to manage this complexity.  Local government grew more important, particularly in the big industrial cities. The state – local and national, all linked together, but with areas of relative autonomy – took charge of such things as sanitation, education, the maintenance of public order.  Things we tend to take for granted today, but without institutions and administrators none of it would happen.

When the state disappears, other things fill the space it once occupied. In Parliament yesterday, David Cameron made his case for chucking a few more Union Jack-badged bombs on to Syria.  He acknowledged that the disaster in Iraq had been caused by removing the institutions of the state too quickly.  The chaos that followed was filled by alternative structures to those of the Baathist state – kinship networks, criminal gangs, but above all, religious and sectarian organisation.

This is the pattern when the state is weakened without alternatives in place to rebuild it.  In Egypt after Mubarak only the Muslim Brotherhood, which was organised on the ground, had the national networks capable of successfully contesting an election.  People here don’t realise it, but the Muslim Brotherhood is a bit like The Trussell Trust which runs food banks here – a religiously informed network which does practical work with people in need.  The same’s true of Hezbollah, which can equally well be translated as “The Salvation Army”.

Just as we, even if we are not religious, or Christian, usually feel no animosity towards the do-gooders of the Sally Army or the food bankers, and often commend them as they hand out soup to the homeless, or bag up baked beans for the working poor, so in other countries there are analogous institutions which are seen as socially useful in areas where the state has retreated.  My point is that what might be seen by the Tories as the ‘Big Society’ in action might also be something less benign.

See how the Tories have tried to remove ‘the state’ from state education.  Academy chains, free schools?  Often these are led by religious outfits, or established by moneyed individuals with religious motivations.  When you replace the secular state, in the form of democratically elected local government, with private institutions, whether commercial or religious, the result is a locally coloured variant of what we see elsewhere.  Sectarianism, communalism, social division, the breakdown in social cohesion.

Many years ago I met someone who had worked for the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone.  This person told me how they’d been criticised in the media for giving small grants to black community groups. He explained that they’d discovered that by offering money, the groups, previously informal, had to organise in proper, legal ways.  Charismatic individuals had to submit to having committees, treasurers, AGMs, agenda and minutes, and to become accountable for their actions.  They also had to learn to engage with the local state (in this case the GLC), which meant attending meetings, presenting their case, public speaking.  These became transferable skills, and so previously isolated groups became integrated into society.  The state as the agent of social cohesion.

So looking around the world, and well as here at home, I see the institutions of the state not as a remote bureaucracy of pen pushers – the “back office” that Tories deride.  The state, central, devolved and local, is fundamental to social decency, social cohesion, and a civilised life.

And ‘shrinking the state’ is the opposite.

Right To Choose?

There’s a line of dialogue in Jonathan Coe’s new novel, Number 11, in which a character says, “For Roger, it was about welfarism, and having a safety net,  and above all,… not being so weighed down by choice all the time, I suppose. He hated choice.”

What sort of person hates choice? Choice is a good thing, surely?

Well, I’m not so sure.  Yes, I want to choose what I eat, what I wear, the books I read.  I want to choose my friends, my bedtime, my curtains.  I really want to be able to choose my government, and I’m quite keen on having a choice about our system of government, our voting system, our constitution.

But the fetishisation of choice has gone way too far. Choose my electricity supplier? What a chore! Choose my broadband supplier? Boring. My postal service?  For god’s sake, what was wrong with the old Royal Mail?

What I choose is a reliable service that doesn’t rip me off, but ‘choice’ actually works against that.  Choice in certain areas complicates, obfuscates, confuses.  It virtually ensures that whatever we get, we get fleeced into the bargain.

Psychological research, inevitably done with a commercial imperative in mind, found that the optimal number of choices for most people was a choice of three.  Offer a tasting choice of three flavours of jam in a supermarket, and jam sales go up as people buy the flavour they most enjoyed.  Offer a larger number of choices, and jam sales stay flat.  Too much choice overwhelms us, and we become passive.  We are paralysed by the scale of the decision.  There are too many variables to be considered. We can’t be arsed.

I demand a new right to choose.  I want us to have a say in where we need a wide range of choices, and where we don’t.  Trains, buses, utilities?  Schools and hospitals and care homes? Just a good service, please.  Films, fashion, sport, art? Let a thousand flowers bloom.

Now, can we have a referendum on that?

Ideal Homes

Do you have somewhere to live? Is it big enough for your needs? Is it possible to keep it clean, properly heated and ventilated? Is it a pleasant retreat after a hard day? Is your tenure secure – can you stay there for as long as you like?

Congratulations if you can answer ‘yes’ to those questions. Many people can’t. Fifty years on from ‘Cathy Come Home’, the Ken Loach Play For Today that outraged a nation at the scale and consequences of the housing crisis, indeed, fifty years on from the founding of the pressure group Shelter, we face another crisis that is arguably much worse.

The mid-1960s was a time which had seen 100,000 -250,000 social houses built per year for the previous decade and more. Moreover, there were quality standards for social housing to ensure that they were spacious and designed for modern life  (some were also badly constructed, but that’s another story). Housing quality in the private rented sector was often poor then (as now) – see Alan Johnson’s memoir of growing up in Notting Hill for the grim details – but a much poorer country still made the effort to address housing need regardless of which party was in power.

But what do I know about housing policy? Just what I read in newspapers. This is about what I see with my own eyes all around me.

There are posters on buses with helplines to call if there are rats infesting your rented home. Lawyers touting for business if your landlord is intimidating you. I see council estates like the one I used to live on now a foul mess of buy-to-let greed and public misery.   And then there are the people who live on the streets.


This is a home in a British city. I first started noticing these homes when I was stuck in traffic on the top deck of a bus. They are tucked in odd, slightly sheltered corners, like the nooks inside flyovers, or under bridges.  I call them homes, because people live in them.

I began writing this post whilst sitting in a pleasant cafe. I was a bit annoyed at being asked to leave, as they were getting ready for a private reception. As I walked out, they were putting out the champagne glasses and trays of canapés. I know someone who had been invited to that reception. He took the photograph above.

Out on the street it was the city rush hour. People hurrying past heading for the train station, or to buy a ready meal from M&S. Not rushing were two men, curled up, head to bottom across a doorway, trying to sleep.  Outside M&S, in his usual place, squatting on the pavement, was the usual man with a biblical look about him, begging for coins. He looks to me like a failed asylum seeker (such people are destitute). I know I should ask him why he’s there, but I don’t.

Back in my pleasant suburb, one of the few places outside London where quite ordinary looking houses on normal streets can sell for a million pounds and more, the street people are also visible.  The Big Issue seller who had a pitch outside Waitrose died recently, and the store put up a memorial to him, with many staff attending his funeral, but his place has already been taken. A man wrapped in a blanket pleaded for small change.  The guy who looks like a ‘tramp’ from my childhood, wild haired, bearded, went on his rounds, obsessively picking up litter. He sleeps between the menswear store and the travel agent not far from a restaurant with a Michelin star. This is Britain today.

Am I alone in seeing these things? And in feeling outraged by them? I suspect that many people don’t see. Cocooned in cars, in ‘executive’ homes in the outer suburbs or in the commuter villages, why would they see?  Yet others have grown used to the sight of people wandering, with nowhere safe to lay down for the night, who are perhaps unaware of the time, not so long ago, when we thought that living in a civilised country meant not putting up with such cruelty.

Will there be a revolt against the resurgence of private affluence and public squalor?

How Parties Die

Watching Labour MPs queuing up to praise David Cameron, and walking out on their own party leader is uncomfortable, but somehow unsurprising.  It is part of the problem that’s been troubling me for some time – why do Members of Parliament hate their own party members?

For this is not a phenomenon confined to Labour.  Tory leaders have long despised their members; so much so that they have a party constitution designed to minimise the influence of members over most things, especially policy.

But in the case of the Tory Party that makes sense.  They didn’t begin as a mass membership party, but as a Parliamentary clique.  They acquired a membership when the franchise widened, democracy requiring foot soldiers on the ground to fight elections.

Labour was a party created by the trades union movement to campaign for working class representation in the political system.  It was, by definition, a mass party.

And it’s a mass party again.  I even considered rejoining again myself. Except that there’s a little problem. Labour MPs.

Most Labour MPs, wherever they are on the political spectrum, are probably good people who care about their constituents and want what’s best for the people they represent.  That’s not the problem.  The problem is much more profound than simply the quality or ideological orientation of Labour MPs.  Nor the quality and ideological orientation of the new leadership.

The problem was summed up well by the Spanish journalist Pedro J Ramirez.  He was talking about Spain after Franco, and how key Spanish institutions worked together to ensure stability and provide space for democracy to take root, but his central insight can be applied to Britain, too.  He said that “…with the passing of time, democracy became a particracy – or a concentration of power within the hands of those at the top.”

In other words, most people have been penned away from power.  Trades unions have grower weaker, beset by restrictions on what they can do, and how they do it.  Successful pressure groups tend to be corporate lobbyists for narrow interests, not mass membership organisations.  Local government – where small neighbourhoods elect one of their own to run the services closest to local needs – is dying, starved of resources and autonomy.  And the parties themselves are essentially a combination of corporate PR and management consultancies in which only career politicians, talent spotted as youths and groomed to fit the brand image, can be taken seriously.  The rest of us are mere polling station fodder.

Indeed, it’s worse than that.  Changes in both voter registration and in housing tenure mean than there is fast becoming a Victorian-style ‘property qualification’ for voters.

Professional, career politicians like this system.  I don’t blame them. Iron Law of Oligarchy, and all that. No wonder they hate Corbyn for spoiling everything.  It’s as though the lowliest office junior at Labco PLC has suddenly and unfairly been given the chief executive’s job.  It’s galling.

Because, let’s face it, Corbyn is deeply unsuited to the way politics is now done.  When he was first elected someone quipped that it’s a pity he’s not 35 and female.  He doesn’t like the cameras, he’s not a natural orator, he is exasperated with the tactical agility needed in Westminster.  His colleagues would rather throw away the next election than try to help him out with a job with which he struggles.  One senses that there are plenty of formerly senior Labour figures looking longingly at the Tory benches, not because they are Tories, but because they envy the slick leadership of idle Dave and hyperactive Gideon.  They want some of that.

What they don’t want is us.  The bloody public, whining, and bleating.  We saw it on all sides during the general election campaign.  The politicians are frightened of the public.  And they are frightened of their own members.

I don’t buy all the crap about 80s-style entryists, and Trots, and deselection campaigns. There might be some of those amongst Labour’s new members, but I doubt there are many.  Some I’ve talked to are much like me.  I was in Labour in the 1980s.  I was, indeed, a ‘moderniser’ when Anthony Blair was an anonymous new back bencher.  My constituency was sociologically much like the New Labour electoral pitch, all John Lewis sofas and National Trust memberships. I fitted in well.  I left the party when I moved to a new area and found myself with an MP who was of the Old Labour right, locked in a macho battle with equally macho Trots.  It was horrible. Those of us who lost faith in Labour during the New L:about era are not  ‘hard left’ ideologues, so much as socially concerned people who think that politics is about more than winning elections in order to provide a career structure for people who despise us.

So is Labour dying?  With all those new, young, energetic and idealistic members?  Surely not?

Alas, I think probably it is dying.  For the entire political system is rotten.  The electoral system, the party system, the monstrous British press, all unfit for purpose – if that purpose is democracy.

The Tories don’t need roots, because they have money.  Who needs members when you have The Sun and The Mail?  Big business, especially finance, can keep the Tories in cash out of the small change of their bonuses.

Labour MPs need to look all this in the eye.  What Corbyn’s victory represented was a revolt against particracy.  It was a cry for root and branch change.  It was a desire for clean politics, done in the open.

Unless Labour recognises this, and starts to demand real constitutional change, serious devolution to the regions, decentralisation, a moral renewal of the public service ethic, and an end to the ‘free for (not) all” system of unfair political funding, the party will die, and it will deserve to die.

But spare a thought for those who will suffer if there is a vacuum in the place where a party of the left should be.


Things Fall Apart

Who said this: “To me, it’s a tragedy of governmental thinking since the 1980s that we do not have any centralised planning in pretty much any area.  The areas of government that used to exist to plan for the long term don’t exist any more…. Everyone likes to criticise civil servants, but the reality is, you do need people to think about where the country is going, and what the right decisions for the long term are.”

No, it wasn’t some mad leftie obsessed with the big state.  It was a man called Guy Hands.  He’s a billionaire tax exile who runs a ‘private equity group’, an anodyne phrase which means ‘an amoral, ruthlessly efficient money-making machine’.  So why the apparent nostalgia for the very state machinery that George Osborne has declared he wants to cut back further to 1930s levels?  Surely this very model of the modern finance capitalist ought to want less government, not more?

Hands, from a sphere normally insulated from the everyday realities of we common people, has run slap bang into the reality of a world without planning.  He bought a care home group, and it’s losing money.  With any other business, he’d strip out the assets and flog them off, and if that meant lots of people losing their jobs, so what?  But with a care home (or many care homes right across the country, to be precise), there’s no way of making the residents ‘redundant’.  You can’t sell off their homes to turn into flats when there’s a load of eighty and ninety-somethings inconveniently sitting around waiting to be fed, and washed and helped into bed.  He’s found that capitalism has consequences, and that only a strong, regulating, long-term planning state can create the conditions in which capitalists can operate without fear of a public backlash.

But his insight is yet to be understood by those most able to do something about it – the politicians, and especially the government.

As Hands observed, since the 1980s, unimpeded by the New Labour non-interregnum, the idea that the state (including the local state) is a good thing which enables us all to lead decent lives free of fear, has been abandoned.  Yesterday’s Daily Mail had a headline about ‘Public Sector Fat Cats'(the very highest salaries in the public sector remain a fraction of what the same skill-set and responsibilities would command in the private sector).  A newspaper owned by tax exiles typifies the way in which, for over thirty years, we have been groomed to love those who abuse us, and to fear and loathe those who would do us good.

But it is hard to battle this mindset, as it has seeped into everything.  We are a sub-prime society.

Remember those sub-prime mortgages which helped to bring about the financial crash (no, it wasn’t caused by Labour “maxing out the credit card”)?  It was profitable to sell mortgages, so banks sold mortgages to anyone who could stick a thumb-print on a credit agreement with no regard to whether the poor dupes could repay the debt.  Then they bundled all the potential bad debts together and sold them on, essentially as a giant, multi-billion dollar punt.  The belief was that by chopping everything up into little bits, risk could be spread and thereby minimised.

The key point here is the ‘chopping up’, That’s the mindset.  Think small, think short term.  Don’t look ahead, don’t consider the bigger picture, above all, maximise the returns in the here and now, and pocket the bonus before the whole bloody thing goes pear shaped.

So education has been chopped up.  Local government – chopped to bits.  They’re starting on health.  And it is a disaster.

Take education.  The latest crisis is for further education.  FE colleges used to be local powerhouses, modest places which punched above their perceived weight by educating people into trades and technical professions, plumbers and chefs, engineers and journalists.  They also provided opportunities to people who’d perhaps missed out the first time around, or who needed a second chance through the very laudable British institution of the ‘night school’.  Run by local authorities, they met local needs very efficiently.  But now?

‘Freed’ from local councils, made to ‘compete’, told to emulate the ways of the private sector, further education has become a pitiful shambles, with ego and misconceived ambition where it shouldn’t be, and a level of contempt for the staff, students and local communities for whom FE colleges were once beacons of opportunity. “Where there is excellence, let there be failure,” seems to be the mantra.

Schools?  From LEAs to a rag bag of academies, free schools, sponsors, creationists, all in the space of little more than a generation.  Who’s in charge?  The Secretary of State might micro-manage the curriculum to squeeze every last bit of fun and creativity out of the Gradgrind Academy, but the responsibility for ensuring that there are sufficient places, teachers, buildings? Nothing to do with the government.  It’s all been chopped up, you see.

Local government used to be a very effective and democratically accountable part of our system, as those fine Victorian municipal buildings remind us.  But now?  All they can do is employ a few stressed out staff to pay the bills for contracted out statutory services.  What that means?  It means you can vote out your local councillor, but you can’t vote out Veolia or Serco who actually ‘do’ the local government services.  Chopped to bits.

This chopping away at things is also apparent in employment. Where once companies employed people, offering a level of security, the prospect of training, promotion, and a pension at the end. Now there is little but insecurity as evidenced by the growing ranks of the so-called self-employed and freelances. You are on your own.

The fact is that it wasn’t always like this, and it doesn’t need to be like this. As Guy Hands said, we need sober, intelligent, evidence-based long term planning, and this must start with the state.  Without that planning function, and the means to deliver, things fall apart.  As we can see, if only we look around….