Power Grab Or Victor’s Spoils?

Last week a Liberal Democrat (remember them?) complained about the way the Tories had, during the coalition years, embraced their junior colleagues with the close concern of a boa constrictor.  “They destroyed us,” he whined.

What he didn’t seem to understand was that that was the purpose and mission of coalition for the Conservatives – to get their hands on the levers of power and to use them with the absolute determination never to relinquish them again.

This remains their purpose.

The blue veins of ideology run deep in the modern Conservative Party, but for most Tories ideology is less important than power.  They feel themselves entitled to rule.

Look at the duo at the top – Cameron and Osborne.  Whilst it is indeed a government of the hard right, on many details it is flexible beyond the point of inconsistency.  The economic policy of the coalition was essentially Alistair Darling’s plan, but to a slower timetable and executed with bumbling ineptitude.  The economic policy now, under a wholly Conservative administration, is pretty much the Ed Balls prescription, though once again without the competence.  Osborne’s ‘Long term economic plan’ is a better phrase than Gordon Brown’s ‘neo-classical endogenous growth theory’, but it has less substance.

Because Osborne is not an economist, but a politician.  So is his front man, David Cameron.  The question is, what sort of politician?

An answer came in the House of Lords last week.  It came from a man once known as Michael Forsyth.

In the 1980s Forsyth was a young right-wing Thatcherite.  In the 1990s he was an ideologically driven minister on the ‘axe ’em’ wing of the party.  Forsyth remains true to his beliefs.  And a core belief, for him, is in democracy.

So it was that he lambasted his government for setting out to destroy effective Opposition in Parliament, and further, to wreck the ability of the principal opposition party to contest elections fairly.

Forsyth warned that effective government is kept sharp by keen opposition.  That the checks and balances of the democratic system required limits to the extent to which any one party could outspend the others. That all MPs are legitimate and equal.

Thus he denounced changes to the trades union political levy which would hit Labour income to the tune of around six million pounds a year.  He opposed cuts to Short Money, the money that funds the Opposition machine in Parliament. He warned about EVEL, boundary changes, and the host of ways by which the present government is trying to crush the ability of other parties, but especially Labour, to contest elections, mount campaigns and hold government to account.

Forsyth, Dominic Grieve, Ken Clarke – they are all from different ideological currents within Conservatism, but what unites them is a profound belief in the democratic system,

Osborne and Cameron, on the other hand, find all that stuff tiresome.  They don’t see the point.  Watch Cameron at Prime Minister’s Question Time.  He answers no questions, is imperiously brusque, coldly rude, frequently sneering.  He has the swagger of the leader of a street gang so self-absorbed he fails to understand or even to notice the bigger picture all around him.  His self-confidence masks the simple fact that he doesn’t understand democracy, and so, is not up to the job.

There are victor’s spoils in a democracy.  They get the limos, the outriders, the weekends at Chequers, the army of SPADs and personal stylists (yes, Cam’s got one of them, too).  But they aren’t supposed to grab all the levers of power and fence them off from anyone else forever more.

Many wondered why Cameron took the Tories in the European Parliament out of the group with conventional centre-right parties, such as the German CDU, and joined up with ultra-nationalists and neo-fascists from Hungary and Poland instead.  Now it is clear why.  Cameron doesn’t identify with the likes of Angela Merkel.  He’s more at home with Viktor Orban.

When people like Michael Forsyth think Cameron’s gone too far perhaps the rest of us should wake up and listen, too.

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Of Democrats And Despots

Who cares about democracy any more?  The question needs to be asked, because it feels like the ‘democratic nerve’ in British politics has been dulled to the point of absolute numbness by political trends over the last thirty years or so.

So let’s begin with ‘democracy’.  A lot of people seem to think that ‘democracy’ is a synonym for ‘elections’.

Russia has elections.  International observers saw no evidence of stuffed ballot boxes or intimidation at polling stations.  Iran has elections – lively and vigorously contested ones.  But who here argues that either nation is a model ‘democracy’?

Democracy is a culture, as well as a system.  It’s about habits of thought and behaviour just as much as it is about institutions like Parliament, and councils, and the like.

The culture of a democracy accepts that a very wide range of political thought and opinion should be tolerated.  That where political opinion is itself anti-democratic, it ought to be met with rigorous, and even ferocious counter-argument.  It is intrinsically anti-democratic to seek to close down or constrain within tight limits a narrow range of ‘legitimate’ thought.

Democracy, in this way, seeks to guarantee minority rights.  It is definitely not ‘dictatorship of the majority’.

So let’s move from the abstract to the concrete.  And there is little more concrete than the numbskull that is John McTernan.

I can find out nothing about McTernan between his English degree at Edinburgh and his appointment as Director of Political Operations to Tony Blair in 2005.  His profile on Wikipedia has been heavily and repeatedly edited, and its bland tone suggests that his “friends” may be those diligent editors.  Guido Fawkes throws up a little more on the man, suggesting that he has also worked for The Scottish Arts Council and Harriet Harman, as well as on Frank Dobson’s reluctant and doomed London mayoral election campaign, and for Julia Gillard in Australia (that went well).  Some have attributed to him the meltdown of Labour in Scotland.  All good stuff, but no mention of him ever standing for election, let alone serving as a councillor or member of any parliament.  He’s one of those for whom elections are a game of winner takes all (not that he ever won much).

Nonetheless, this man in his mid-fifties with no CV before 2005 is a fixture in the media, cropping up on TV, radio and in any print forum he can find, usually to give first Ed Miliband and now Jeremy Corbyn a good kicking.

So it was that I heard him a few days ago on the Today programme being interviewed alongside Ken Clarke giving ‘advice’ on Jeremy Corbyn’s reshuffle.

McTernan was close to exploding, whether with pleasure or pain was hard to tell, when yelling at the Parliamentary Labour Party to rid itself of Corbyn, expel (he didn’t say ‘expel’ – he may have meant ‘burn at the stake’) all the new members, those half a million young Trots and Commies we never knew existed, and to get back to business as usual, where politics was reserved to the political class, i.e. the dupes, or elected politicians in Westminster, and the clever operators, i.e. him.

It took a level-headed, mildly amused, Ken Clarke to wind down the blood pressure meter.  The former Tory Chancellor’s words of advice to Corbyn were drawn from his own experience of how Margaret Thatcher operated, slowly replacing her critics in the Shadow, and later the actual Cabinet with those more sympathetic to her position, or else younger and therefore simply grateful for the patronage.

But what struck me most about Clarke was the philosophical position from which he spoke.  Unlike McTernan, who raged against those who dared to espouse views at odds with his own, Clarke began with an assumption that Corbyn was a legitimate party leader and Leader of The Opposition.  Clarke stressed the importance of a vigorous and effective opposition to keep government on its toes.  Clarke is a democrat.  McTernan gave no impression that he had the faintest idea of what democracy might mean in practice (or even in theory).

Now I understand that John McTernan is a sort of political Katie Hopkins who must keep ramping up the venom and saying the kind of stuff that will get him paying work with The Daily Telegraph or the BBC.  This is the age of the precariat, after all, and needs must.

But he’s just a particularly visible and irritating example of those people, perhaps a majority in national politics, who are not democrats.  The Tory ones are happy enough, as they are delighted not to have party members any more (so tiresome).  But for the Labour Movement not to want to be a movement any more, to cower at the uncongenial prospect of a mass party, is appalling.  The party that grew out of the fight for majority representation, minority rights, and a fair and representative political system must embrace, revel in, champion democracy.  That is the point of the Labour Party.

I’m not a Corbynite, but I don’t see any other credible leaders on the scene.  Corbyn’s the accidental leader doing his bumbling best whilst his own colleagues throw banana skins under his feet each time he seeks to take a step in any direction.  He can’t appease or oppose without the PLP chucking a bucket of slop over his head.  How that’s going to make Labour effective in parliament and credible in the country escapes me?

But all that demonstrates why Corbyn is necessary for Labour, and for democracy more broadly.  Something, someone, had to stop the juggernaut in its tracks.

The old politics of cynical gaming of elections, of spin, of triangulation, of polls almost killed democracy.  Corbyn’s election at least has made it necessary to go back to the basic question of what is democratic politics, who is it for, and how should it work?