On Terror

I have never lived in a time free of terrorism. Possibly no one has, but somehow it feels personal.  Which is, after all, the intention.

Terrorism is neither warfare, nor politics. It certainly isn’t religion.  It is narcissism.  It is hyper-individualism.  It is a quest for fame, and glory, and sex.  In its essentials it is a youth cult like any other.  And like any youth cult, there are sometimes people behind it who are not young.  Schemers, manipulators, often rich; Malcolm McLaren, Simon Cowell, Osama Bin Laden.  But in a sense, it isn’t who thinks they are pulling the strings who are the problem – it is the mindset of the willing puppet.

The terror that dominated my childhood, and persisted into adulthood, was primarily from the IRA.  That they had a political wing, and clear political goals is irrelevant. The fantasies that motivate the individual have much in common, as does the narcissistic disregard for others, however benign they are towards the cultist.  I saw this when one of my colleagues was arrested, and eventually imprisoned as an active IRA member planning an action.  John Major was the Prime Minister, Tony Blair Leader of the Opposition, so I guess that the road to the Good Friday Agreement was already in train, but this man left a trail of devastation for those who had innocently befriended him.  I wasn’t one of them, by the way. I may have sensed something ‘not right’ in him, or he may have sniffed out that I was not going to be politically sympathetic to the way he wore his victimhood on his sleeve.  Either way, we had little to do with one another.

One of the problems with Irish Republican terror was that in its key markets, Britain and the USA, it was ‘racialised’.  Britain in the 20th Century still had a strong strain of anti-Irish prejudice upon which fear of pub bombers could be laid, thereby moving easily from a hatred of those bombers, to a propensity to dislike and distrust all who shared their ethnic and religious identity.  This worked the other way around in the USA, where a sentimentalism about Irish people in general led many, including senior politicians, to have no instinctive understanding of why ‘the Brits’ were so hostile.

With the rise of global Islamist terror we see similar patterns; a fusing of latent or overt prejudicial attitudes towards Arabs, or South Asians, or Africans, with legitimate abhorrence of terror groups.  This incubates a general sense of victimhood, which becomes both part of the motivation for the individual drawn towards death cults, but which also reinforces a sense in the wider Muslim minority population that it is hard to be regarded by others as a normal and legitimate part of society.

And so yesterday’s carnage in Manchester.  It was, in many ways, the ultimate terror act: ugly, mean, stupid, spiteful, devoid of purpose.  Yes, the ‘target’ was children and young people having fun, but I doubt somehow, that whoever did this monstrous act gave the slightest thought to that.

The narcissist-terrorist chose a stadium, a glamorous, glittering, showbizzy, venue purely for his own weak-minded purpose.  The real mantra of that pathetic fool is “Fame. I want to live forever.”

But he won’t.  He’s gone, he’s nothing, a zero.

We will instead remember those who are worth remembering – the victims and their families.  And the emergency services, those great battalions of the derided ‘public sector’ who step forward with a magnificence beyond the imagining of any lauded ‘entrepreneur’.  And the homeless man who’d gone to the venue to beg, but went in to try to help, cradling a dying woman so that she was not alone.  We will remember all the many acts of kindness of the people of the great city of Manchester.

Terror = failure.  The civil virtues always win.

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The Two Electorates

Election fever rages across the land.  Well, it may do in Iran, I believe they’re going to the polls next week.  Closer to home it’s all a bit ‘meh’.  Which is just how Theresa likes it – the first Prime Minister in history to go on ‘Avoid The People’ tours.

You can’t say the Labour leadership aren’t having a good time.  The jolly manifesto launch in Bradford. Those lovely, noisy rallies, with a relaxed Jezza making funny faces at dogs for those happy, social media-friendly pictures.  Corbyn really does look like a man who is enjoying himself, and I’m sure that if you are one of the thousands who have flocked to his meetings, it’s a real buzz.  The trouble is, the electorate is about 45 million people.

As one of the 45 million, I’m feeling a bit left out.  I consume political media. I know what’s going on. Or do I?

I don’t know what’s going on, because I don’t matter.

That’s right.  There are two electorates, they are roughly of equal size, and I’m in the one that doesn’t matter.

The electorate that doesn’t matter consists of the ‘designated losers’ – the ‘un-Elect’, if you like.  People who are supporters of opposition parties, and who are unlikely to be swayed by Tory-Brexit Party propaganda.  Sure, I’ve had the odd rogue ‘suggested post’ from a local Maybot candidate, but it’s half-hearted stuff, probably the work of enthusiastic amateurs in unwinnable seats.  The sort of stuff I saw on Facebook routinely during 2015 is entirely absent today.

The electorate that matters, on the other hand, is getting the full political malware attack.  Those clever, expensive, guns-for-hire analytics people, who mine your data the better to target the sort of mugs they think will be susceptible to their highly-crafted ‘narratives’, they are on the case.

May is way past the crass old days when they stuck posters on lorries telling foreigners to ‘eff off’.  Now the message (The Message – they don’t like subtle), is being slipped around the net, under the radar, hidden from the eyes of people like us in the sub-prime electorate, but on every phone and tablet of their own, carefully chosen electorate of people who they think will prefer a meme to a graph, an emotion over a fact.

Because of the ‘first past the post’ system, British voters have never been equal at the ballot boxes.  In ‘safe seats’, a vote for the ‘wrong’ party never stood a chance of counting for anything.  Swing voters in marginal seats were all that mattered.  Nonetheless, in a general election, it was a carnival open to anyone.  We all got the leaflets, we all saw the advertisements, we were all at the party, so to speak.

Ironically, there are fewer safe seats now.  But the technology is such that that fact is largely irrelevant.  The richest side in a vote can now sideline the portion of the electorate whom they can’t win, and pour all resources into those they can win.  They can whisper in ears, without the rest of us knowing.

Clever stuff, modern electioneering, if you’ve got the money to do it.

And it stinks.

It’s An Election, Jim….

Ceci n’est pas un election.  Surreal is an abused word sometimes, but the General Election of 2017 really does not feel like any election before.  Magritte’s painting, La Trahison des images, would be a good logo for the election. The treachery of images, the treachery of slogans, the treacherous election.

Firstly there is the almost comical one-sidedness of the election.  The Conservative Party, odds-on winners by a landslide unless the fabled young get off their arses and vote for once, is afraid to mention its own name!  ‘Team May’, it says on the bus, now hastily re-sprayed from its old, banished, ‘Stronger In’ livery.  Don’t mention the Tories!  Local newspapers are being sold with wrap-around covers for Madame May and her Team (but not her Party).  I saw a ‘suggested post’ on Facebook this morning from a Conservative PPC.  It did not mention his party, nor any policies, but had a lovely picture of the candidate as a blond toddler playing with kittens.  As May once famously said, “I’m not making this up”.  Incidentally, she was also talking about cats (and asylum seekers), but unlike me, she really was making it up.

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Then there’s the boring policy stuff.  Labour can’t announce a policy without being pounced upon and asked to explain how much it will all cost, but May’s Team have no such problem, because their policies have no costs!

How so, you might ask, though they rarely are asked.  Because Ceci n’est pas un policy!

Take their policy announced at the weekend.  They will build unspecified but massive numbers of new social houses for rent.  There’s a figure attached to it – a billion quid – but as that is money already earmarked for local government, and local government is charged with delivering this policy, what the policy announcement amounts to is a statement that central government – sorry, Team May – wants there to be more homes to rent, but that they won’t put any new money into it, and they aren’t to be held responsible when the homes aren’t built, because it’s not the government’s job to make their policies happen.  FFS, as we say these days.

Today’s un-policy is even more brilliant.  It has no numbers, and no mechanism to make it happen.  There will be a fabulous gift to workers of rights such as they have never known!  Including the jewel in the crown, the right to take a year off work to care for a sick or frail dependent.  Yes, the ‘right’ not to be paid for a year whilst taking on the caring role that the state no longer wants to pay for.  And if your boss says no to your request?  You can always go to an Employment Tribunal – if you’ve got thousands of pounds up front to cover court costs and legal bills.

But why worry about policies anyway?  The NHS crashed because it’s running crappy software on outdated hardware.  But no one has seen the Health Secretary.  It looks like he isn’t in Team May.  They sent in the Four Weddings and a Funeral woman to sort that one. Not.

Because, honestly, the government isn’t responsible for running anything, for doing anything.  They are there to blame others for anything that goes wrong, and take the plaudits for anything that happens to go right. If anything has gone right, apart from the Tory Party’s extraordinary luck.

As Magritte never said, ‘Put that in your pipe and smoke it’.

Things Must Change

The evidence just keeps stacking up. Fox hunting ban? The public loves it. Nationalising the trains? Bring it on! Zero hours contracts? Outlaw them, yay! Grammar schools? What?  Tory policies are not very popular, and Labour ones are commanding majority support.  So that’s why the Tories have a 20 point lead in the polls.

How to explain all this?

The answer the newspapers give is that it’s a beauty contest.  Annie Leibovitz photographs May for American Vogue; Corbyn is lucky if he’s asked for a selfie by a member of Momentum.  Or it’s Presidential.  Madame May, the self-styled ‘strong and stable’ Commander-in-Chief, versus Jezza C, the bloke in the library.  It’s all about leadership.

Any objective observer (is there such a person?) would see that neither May nor Corbyn exude the magnetism of the ‘natural’ leader. Indeed, there’s more of the improbable rock star about Corbyn, who enjoys campaigning, than there is about May, who rarely seems comfortable in her own skin.  May’s greatest personal asset is simply that she isn’t David Cameron or George Osborne; her cold, control-freakery somehow comes across as unshowy competence by comparison.  Dave and George called Tony Blair ‘The Master’ – and they are now as peripheral as him, perhaps more so.

So how to explain the May phenomenon?

She certainly fits the mood of Brexiters, being old, cold, a bit dreary, with a boring voice and no discernible sense of humour.  She is beloved of Paul Dacre of The Daily Mail, which, along with the patronage and condescension of Rupert Murdoch, is worth a battalion of ‘Sir’ Lynton Crosbys.  But the Tories always have those advantages. Dacre may have preferred the son of the manse Gordon Brown to flashy Bullingdon boy David Cameron (he really did), but the Mail’s natural position as the anchor of the hard and humourless Right in Britain has never wavered.  We can take a partisan press as a given, whatever happens.

So why has a popular menu of policies not had much effect on the sentiment of voters?

This has been troubling me for some time.  There are many particular and specific British impediments to the wider centre-Left in Britain; but social democracy has been struggling elsewhere, too.

I had put much of Labour’s loss of traction with their ‘traditional’ working class voters down to the loss of collective identity and institutions that used to bind the party culturally to its voters.  Trades unions, the Co-Op, the local working men’s club, jobs-for-life, heavy industry, the concept of the ‘family wage’, a respect for local democracy, and a belief in The State as a force for social good – all weakened, or gone.  And this really does matter.  Hollowed out communities, insecure employment, a housing crisis, the loss of social solidarity.  People who feel on their own stop listening to people they think are speaking down to them. Even if they then start listening to people who really do take them for fools.

But the bigger problem is that once upon a time, democracy and the economy ran in synch. The terrain commanded by the democratic system – the nation state – was also, largely, the terrain commanded by the economic system.  There were multinational companies, but broadly money and political power shared the same borders.  Not any more.

Capitalism is now a footloose, turbo-charged beast, which can go anywhere, seemingly do anything.  Democracy, by contrast, has had power sucked out of it.  Raise taxes on the rich? They won’t pay them.  Get the biggest, most successful companies to pay for the roads their delivery vehicles  drive on, the schools that educate their workers and consumers, the hospitals that keep their customers alive? No way.

That’s why the European Union, for all its faults, shows the way of the future.  If the nation-state and its political institutions can’t harness the economy to serve people, co-operation across national boundaries can exert more leverage.  But to maintain popular consent, political institutions need also to develop their internationalist reach, and forms of practice.  The borders in our heads need to be taken down.

Until we start to do those things, as individuals, as citizens, as voters, as members of movements, and pressure groups and parties, the mess we are facing in this election will continue.  We have to find a way to organise that tells our failed political leaders, and our fellow citizens, that they need a bigger vision, greater ambition, and the moral courage to  face down narrow nationalisms.

Surely things can be better than today’s dreary reality?

Don’t Mention The Election

There’s a house on the High Street, in a little terrace squeezed in between a pub and some offices, and it sports big Liberal Democrat posters in both lower and upper windows.  And that is the only sign of political allegiance I have seen locally since the election was called.

At the last election this area was a sea of Labour posters, voluntarily displayed in windows of houses grand and tiny alike.  The Tory candidate had paid-for billboards, making much of his title, “Dr”, but minimising his branding. I don’t remember much Lib Dem activity, but then this is a Labour/Tory marginal.  Or it was.

For it’s hard to have a handle on anything in this strange, unwanted, election built upon a personality cult around a woman with all the charm and human warmth of a vacuum cleaner.  There is little excitement about the election, and at the same time the country feels to be divided down the middle in mutual incomprehension and barely suppressed anger.

The ‘divided down the middle’ thing is key.  On one side is the Cult of May, aka Brexit, a Trumpean, Le Penesque, Five Star swamp of vague resentments, petty jealousies, fear and loathing.  At the centre of this movement, and very much in control, is the Conservative Party.

The Conservative Party is not the oldest, most successful party of government without reason.  Their genius is to adapt and change, in order to remain the same.  The thing they seek most assiduously to conserve is the right of the Conservative Party to rule Britain.  So we have seen their ingesting of the UKIP vote, and the deployment of UKIP rhetoric, the mirroring of UKIP ugliness, whilst the likes of Dominic Grieve, and Nicky Morgan rediscover iron self-discipline and return to the fold, dutifully uttering strong and stable slogans in the expectation of resuming their internal fight after securing a landslide for their party.

The Liberal wing of the Tory Party must surely view the UKIPpy masses as a bit infra dig?  May, herself, in her £10 million home, and £1,000 leather trews, fears the public so much she is running a campaign in which she is literally helicoptered about in splendid isolation, meeting only hand-picked party hacks.  She must wish that, like the Queen, she could wear white gloves to keep a physical barrier between Leader and voter.  There is an in-plain-sight dishonesty about the Tory campaign.  And it doesn’t matter.

Arguments about Brexit – what it means, what is wanted, how to play it – are strictly behind closed Tory doors.  The rest of us are kept out, told firmly that its none of our business.  Which at one level is fair enough.  This whole bloody mess only came about because of the rumbling Tory civil war.

Except that it isn’t fair.  They have made it a national question, and they are putting it to an election.  An election in which it is forbidden to discuss the reasons why it was called. There is, indeed, a white rabbit in a waistcoat with a fob watch at my elbow as I write this.

On the other side in this election is an un-alliance of flailing not-Tories.  Jeremy’s happy army. Tim’s ecstatic brigade.  Plucky little Greens. Bemused business leaders, anxious trades unionists, mutinous head teachers, end-of-teather medics, the people who do, and make, and run things are shut out of it all.  We look at the script and find we have no lines.

This election does not feel as though it has any connection to that precious thing called democracy.  It is a spectacle, an ugly circus, serving no greater purpose than the reinforcement of the party that has dominated British politics since the early 19th Century (with roots that go back much further than that).  And it will work. May will get what she wants.

And then what?

It’s one thing to have a British election in which no one talks about why it is happening.  But after the red, white and blue Brexit bunting has been taken down, there will be the process which is outside the control of May and the Tories – negotiations with our neighbours.  There is only so much disaster that can be dressed up by the Tory press as May-ite triumph.

And it leaves the unresolved matter of the low level civil war still rumbling along in our sad little country.

After The Local Elections

No one believes opinion polls. So they say. The only polls that matter are the ones where real voters push real ballot forms into boxes. You can’t argue with those numbers.

And the numbers, at least as national projections, were 38% Tory, 27% Labour, 18% Lib Dem,  5% UKIP, and others 12%. Those others include bigger parties, with a national profile, like nationalist and Green parties, as well as a rag-bag of others.  As many have pointed out, this means a clear balance of opinion in the country between the Right and the Left, broadly defined.  The Tory-UKIP, or Brexit Party has 43%, and the Labour-Lib Dem Party has 45%.

So in most other countries, this would be a neck-and-neck battle to see which coalition could form a government.  But not here.

The forecast is of a Tory landslide in June, with a projected majority of at least 60 seats, and possibly a hundred or more.

Today’s Daily Telegraph sums it up well. “The Right Unites”.  Or as someone on Twitter said, UKIP lost all its seats and took control of the Tory Party.  However you look at it, the right has played a blinder.  They forced a referendum.  They won it through audacity and mendacity in equal measure.  Now they have united to maximise their assets in a FPTP electoral system in order to take control of the state for another five years. Brilliant work.

So could this strategy work for the broad left? Uniting around the things we share in order to establish a basic programme of shared policies and principles?  Progressive Alliance, even?

On paper, the numbers are clear.  45% even in these difficult circumstances, and that’s not counting the Greens (on side already), and even the nationalists, who might acquiesce when it came to supporting a left-liberal government in Westminster.

Yet we know that there isn’t a cat in hell’s chance of cooperation.  Instead, we are fractious, bad tempered with one another, quick to defend our heroes, and quick to abuse our potential colleagues.  We nurse grudges which ought to be buried.  As Marina Hyde observes in today’s Guardian, after a couple of years of Corbynistas yelling at other members of the Labour Party that they ought to “fuck off and join the Tories,” the voters have taken the hint.

Even shriller are, as is often the case, converts.  In this case, converts to the Lib Dems abusing anyone from Labour, or thinking of voting Labour, as ‘supporting a pro-Brexit party’.  A nonsense, and profoundly unhelpful to the anti-Brexit cause.

A fantasy currently doing the rounds on social media, and also in sections of the press, is a longing for a British Macron.  We’re about 5 weeks out from a general election in which   voters who favour left-liberal positions are about to be slaughtered.  We can’t afford fantasies.  We have to work with what we have – against the enemy we have.

That, alas, also looks like being a fantasy.  Some of us will vote tactically.  Many more of that 45%+ of the electorate who don’t want a Hard Tory-Brexit government, and who fear for the state of our public services, and who worry about the prospects for their children, and care for their parents, and who want fairness in the workplace, and decent homes – these people aren’t hearing about how to vote to get those things.  And so they’ll get the opposite.  The Brexit cliff edge off which we leap, or are pushed, into a hollow state, without welfare.

After the local elections? More of the same.

Free And Fair

At the recent referendum count, in one, random polling station, a woman pointed her phone at some men sitting around a table, stamping and stuffing ballot papers into an empty box.  “I’m filming this,” she said.  One of the men glanced up, unconcerned. “And they don’t care.”

That was Turkey, where stuffing ballot boxes, imprisoning journalists, silencing political opponents, stuffing the state broadcaster with political cronies, and all the other crude methods of the autocrat were only just about enough to scrape a narrow 52%-48% result for Putin and Trump’s buddy, Erdogan.  Britain is a very different place.

Our election frauds can be uncovered by diligent investigative journalism, examined by the police, and dossiers of evidence prepared by the Crown Prosecution Service.  Had Madame May not called a general election, we might now be facing the prospect of a string of awkward by-elections eating in to her slim majority over the next few months.  We have the rule of law.

So that means we have free and fair elections, right?

I can vote tomorrow for a metropolitan mayor.  The polling station is in the community hall belonging to the local Catholic church.  I don’t fear intimidation as I walk up the drive at the side of the church.  The women (it’s usually women there) behind the trestle table where I pick up the ballot form won’t be monitoring me for anything other than possession of a polling card.  I don’t fear spy cameras recording my voting intentions, and I fully expect my vote to be counted, and the results the next day to represent an accurate tally of votes cast. Free, and fair.

But it doesn’t feel that way.  Because there are many ways to skew a system.

In tomorrow’s election, one candidate spent a million pounds on his campaign.  There are strict limits on election expenses – but these only kick in once the ‘official’ campaign period has started.  He spent the money in advance of that, so it doesn’t count.  He was also name-checked on live TV and radio in the run up to the election almost every week, unlike any of the other candidates (on PMQs).  Free, and fair.

What’s more, although I shall vote, and not for the Million Pound Man, I feel little investment in the outcome of the election.  The role of Mayor carries little power to do anything.  In many ways, I know that the outcome might be best for my region if Million Pound Man wins.  This isn’t because he’s any good, but I know how this system works, and if Madame May and her Brexit party get their man, they will reward this area, and if they don’t, they will punish us.  They’ve been punishing us ever since 2012 when the Tory-Lib Dem local coalition lost control to Labour.  All the evidence is that this government treats ‘friendly’ or client local states more favourably than one’s they don’t own.  Free, and fair.

Then there’s the voting system.  First Past The Post (FPTP).  I know the arguments in favour of it, and perhaps they had meaning in the past where we essentially had a two party system in which over 90% of voters voted for one of the two major parties.  But partisan alignment has been in a steep decline for years.  Most people are no longer ‘born’ into a political tribe, and stick to it for life.  Instead, we vote like consumers mesmerised by brands.

It would make much more sense now to acknowledge our fickle political choices by having a proportional representation system.  But when did ‘sense’ matter?  FPTP suits the brand leader, entrenching their power. Free and fair.

Then there’s our whole political culture.  At the moment, it is necessary to keep repeating the fact that democracy is not a “winner takes all” vote, but a wider atmosphere of mutual tolerance and respect for a wide diversity of opinions.  Opposition is an honoured and honourable thing in our system – in theory.  In practice, this is an age in which demurring from Madame May’s orthodoxy is monstrous insubordination which must be crushed.

For as with a plural political landscape in which the game is rigged to the benefit of the governing party, our plural media environment is also skewed to their side.  The top selling newspapers are, righly, free to use their power, but one has the feeling that this is less a matter of the fearlessness of a free press, and more the capricious (and rapacious) whim of off-shore oligarchs who own newspapers.  As for the state broadcaster, still the most trusted source of news for most voters, the BBC has to try to operate with a government tightly holding its purse-strings, constantly meddling with its governance, and with a Murdoch man as head of News and Current Affairs, and a former Telegraph and Evening Standard editor heading its top rated radio news programme.  No wonder there’s a permanent seat for UKIP on Question Time, and Breitbart people pop up as regular pundits on political shows, as though they were somehow within the ‘normal’ political spectrum.

And all this is about the politics we can see,  There is a whole, shadowy world of lobbying and influence-peddling out there.  Lobbying used to be about trade organisations and the like trying to get a meeting with a minister to push their sectional interests.  That’s now something harmless and innocent from another age.  With a hollowed out state, the functions of the civil service are now done by private companies like Capita, Serco, and others.  The consultancies like KPMG and PWC slip their people in and out of the Treasury and No.10.  Ministers slide from their political jobs into ‘advisory’ roles with the businesses they once favoured.  High level politics is something from which most of us are completely excluded.  It’s done in Michelin-starred restaurants, super yachts, and private jets.  Free, and fair.

I’m not one of the ‘metropolitan elite’, alas.  Nor am I a crazed revolutionist wanting to tear down the whole rotten system.  My wish, and it doesn’t seem radical to me, is to reform the system, to move from what we have now, to something more open, more transparent, and more clearly reflective of all shades of opinion, and sectional interests.  Votes that count for something, politicians who tell the truth, ‘facts’ which don’t come with ‘alternatives’, and news that isn’t fake.

Free and fair.  Is that really to much to ask?