Jeremy Corbyn Is A Blairite

Successful political parties have to have a purpose, and a constituency whose interests they represent.  Having shedloads of money can help to keep awkward questions at bay, but not for ever. Democracy’s a bit of a bastard like that – you can’t fool all of the people, all of the time.

Which brings us to the unholy mess that is British politics as we near the end of 2017. Omnishambles doesn’t cover it.  Malcolm Tucker is a mild mannered sweetie, temperamentally unsuited to our demented times. Alastair Campbell has morphed into the voice of reason.  For these are the End Times.

The total shitstorm, tidal wave, asteroid hit, sink hole, forest fire, flood, drought and zombie apocalypse through which we are living was made by the Conservative and Unionist Party.  Our dire, and deteriorating, position as a nation has its roots in, and its shape defined, by the decisions taken by the Tories.  The party used to look like a winner, a ‘natural party of government’, a shrewd player of the national mood, able to adapt to all the twists and turns of history in order to survive.  A party of aristocrats, firmly opposed to democracy, it invented modern political campaigning and the mass membership party.  Opposed to votes for women, it gave us the first and second women Prime Ministers.  Condemning the socialisation of medicine that was the NHS was quickly followed by the embrace of that institution. It seemed like the party of brilliant reinvention, nimbly able to own the zeitgeist.

It doesn’t feel like that now.  John Smith, Labour’s lost PM, mocked John Major’s government as one in which everything went wrong, from villages slipping into the sea, to the Grand National descending into farce.  But Major won an election when he was expected to lose, and carried on for a full term with his dignity intact.  This is much, much worse, and its quite hard to see how they escape from the mess.

The Tories have a small, elderly membership who lack the capacity for activism.  Their voter base is dying. Their purpose – other than to dread and fear Corbyn’s Labour Party – is hard to ascertain.  It certainly isn’t their purpose to deliver Brexit, because they still don’t know what it is, nor how to get it.  They don’t represent industry, they don’t even represent banking, maybe they represent some hedge funds, but that’s hardly a message to woo the electorate.  They’re a busted flush, dying before our eyes, and doing their damnedest to take the rest of the country down with them, the frightened, idiotic cowards.

But Labour.  Surely they’re in a similar mess?  The narrative of their opponents is that the party is a party of Remain, led by Eurosceptics, with a voter base which is dying a different kind of death – as Northern Leave voters wedded to industries that have gone, or are on their way out.  Contradictions all round.

Except that its not rue.  I remember writing, in 1997, that Blair’s Labour campaigned in denial of its own supporters.  They seemed to hold the Northern industrial working class – the “white working class” as some Westminster-bubbleists put it – at arms length, unwilling to be too closely associated with them and their curious ways.  A no doubt apocryphal story was that Peter Mandelson, taken to a chippy in Hartlepool, mistook mushy peas for guacamole. The story stuck, because true or not, it encapsulated an attitude.

Blair’s party also used iron control to ensure that certain kinds of black, and, particularly, Asian PPCs were not selected, mainly because they were, and looked and sounded working class, or “too black”, or “too Asian”.  The nervous Blairites wanted a party that looked and sounded youngish, metropolitan, and breezily ‘classless’ in the manner of the upwardly mobile graduates in their advance guard.

It was a neat trick to pull off at the time – but it was a trick.  They got small town, socially conservative, working class people to vote for an urban, middle class party.

Twenty years on, and small town, declining, ageing, working class areas that used to be the Labour heartlands, are Brexity places, hostile to immigrants, and receptive to, if still suspicious of Theresa May’s tall tales of ‘caring’ for the ‘just about managing’, and the ‘left behinds’.  The 2017 election gave Labour too little to be complacent about in those areas, even where they remain in the nervous hands of Labour MPs.

But 2017 showed that Corbyn was making Labour the party Blair had always wanted it to be – young, urban, educated, socially liberal.  Labour piled up voters, and new members, in the growing cities.  Its constituency, and its activist base, lies in exactly the demographic which alone can make Britain a successful country in the years ahead.  It’s in these hands – the massed ranks of the city-dwelling, first-graduates-in-the-family, articulate precariat – that both the party and the country’s future lies.

The Tories have reason to fear that their condition is terminal.  Labour ought to be more confident.  And finding a way to remove the spectre of Brexit is the key to their historic mission.  To finish off the Tory Party which has brought this country to the edge of ruin.

The Mysterious Case of the City that Lost Its Voice

In another blog post, by Tom Forth  describing what he saw as the failure of Birmingham as a city, he had this to say:

If a group of lads “looks after you car” in Liverpool, they do it in the local accent. If a similar group in Manchester or Leeds are chatting while listening to happy hardcore on the back of the bus they do it in a suitably filthy Northern accent. One of the most jarring experiences for me in Birmingham is that the same genre of lads speak not like they’re fresh out of Peaky Blinders, but more like they want to be Dizzee Rascal.

And he’s right. Something strange has happened to a city of a million people.  Birmingham has lost its distinctive accent. In the space of, say, thirty years, the accent that once was the hallmark of the city, is now a minority attribute, largely confined to the city’s outer wards; the white edge lands, where the city bleeds into the Black Country, or Warwickshire, or Worcestershire.  Densely populated inner-urban Birmingham no longer says “Tarrah a bit”, “bab”, or “bostin”, whatever the fancy postcards sold in the city’s cultural venues say.  The accent of Jess Phillips resounds with many in her Yardley constituency, but it isn’t the voice of Small Heath, Ladywood, or Alum Rock. Why?

When I happen to be on a bus when the schools come out, which happens more often than I would like, the school kids, a multi-ethnic bunch heading back to the poorer wards in a poor city, have little trace of Jess Phillips in their tones. They sound, to my ears, blandly RP-ish, except when deliberately using Black English.  When I listen more carefully, the older Asians, many educated in the city, have a hint of Brummie in their speech rhythm, but younger Asians often don’t, either adopting the emergent British Asian working class accent, or, if middle class, speaking RP.

It wasn’t always like this.  I can still remember the middle class Birmingham accent. ‘Posh’, we thought it. There’s a hint of it in Enoch Powell, still more in the former Tory MP for Birmingham Northfield, Anthony Beaumont-Dark, a Birmingham stockbroker before he entered Parliament.  The former Liberal Democrat MP Lorely Burt was a rare recent speaker of posh Brummie, as is the one time Radio Four regular, David Stafford.  Frank Skinner’s West Brom accent is close enough, but these accents are now exotically rare.

The city is one of the youngest, most diverse cities in Europe. Herein lies the explanation, I think.  White flight emptied the inner-city of the old white Birmingham working class, depositing them in the housing estates on the city edges, or even moving them out to new towns, like Telford and Daventry.  The Birmingham-accented middle class of old belonged to an era of manufacturing industry, and the regional financial services that once supported them. They too have gone, literally having no business in the city any more.

The city’s new middle class is concentrated around the five universities, the many colleges, the large teaching hospitals, and the major cultural institutions.  They are Theresa May’s ‘citizens of nowhere’, more politely described as international, and career-builders in fields where you need to be geographically mobile.  They have accents of where they came from, but their children do not grow up with a local accent, because in the schools they attend, there isn’t one.

The new working class is also international. Diaspora communities of Francophone and Lusophone Africans are present in numbers in the city, with links across the EU, as well as Africa. There’s also a new EU white working class moving into the inner-city wards where once the Irish lived. The older New Commonwealth population from the Indian sub-continent and the Caribbean has seen class fragment their identities, with the upwardly mobile and economically successful moving into the Edgbaston mansions once occupied by the city grandees, the professional middle classes as accentless and mobile as their white peers, and the black and Asian working classes dividing into those fiercely protecting their identities (often through religious affiliations), and those who have melted into the white working class.  This is a very mixed-race city, and elderly couples in which one partner is white, the other black or Asian, is a fairly common sight.

To go through such an acute and numerically huge population churn in such a short space of time seems to have erased the Birmingham accent, driving it to the city limits, where it merges with the more enduring West Midlands accents of small towns in former industrial shires.

But a city that loses its accent must build its identity in new ways. And that’s another story.


What Is True In The Age Of Fakery?

The old model of democratic politics was that democracy, stable institutions, and the rule of law were mutually reinforcing.  Democracy kept the system more or less honest, the stable institutions – basically the state, but going beyond that to civil society more broadly – ensured that political change could be delivered in gradual ways which avoided chaos; and the rule of law was a trusted final arbiter.

No one can say it’s like that now in many places right across the world.  We may, in Britain for example, still have votes. They have votes in most countries, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.  For a vote to be meaningful, it has to be practical.  There has to be a link between what an electorate wants, who it can vote for, and the policies that result.  Iran, or Russia, let people vote, but the range of available and viable candidates is seriously restricted to ensure that real change cannot occur within their systems.

Our problem is different.  The malaise in our institutions has rotted the connection between votes and outcomes.  The result is Brexit.  Brexit is an ongoing case study in political failure.

Referendums have traditionally been frowned upon as not being consistent with the British constitution, and our form of representative democracy.  We had the first in 1975, and a shabby thing it was, called only to manage an unruly Labour Party.  The second, at the end of that decade, was on Scottish devolution.  Hedged around with caveats and thresholds, it was scarcely a meaningful vote, and it led swiftly to the fall of the Callaghan government, as the SNP threw in their lot with Thatcher and the Tories to pass a No Confidence motion.  Blair held two major ones, Cameron, Blair fan that he was, did likewise.  Cameron, interestingly, held advisory referendums, choosing to disregard the advice given by voters when it was against local mayors, but respecting the outcome over AV, Scottish devolution, and EU membership.

Blair’s referendums were on clear constitutional questions, and voters knew what they were voting for.  Cameron’s referendums were ‘easy’ ways to finesse political management problems – the AV vote to secure Lib Dem support after 2010, the Scottish vote to deal with what he regarded as a noisy distraction, and the EU vote as a copycat Callaghan tactic to neutralise divisions in his own party.  But whatever the political motivations behind the deployment of the referendum weapon, the fact is that their disruptive arrival on the British political scene has been congruent with the decay in our democratic political culture.

On top of all this is the new form of warfare that has been facilitated by technological change.

We’ve always had propaganda.  Governments have often sought, overtly, or covertly, to influence political events beyond their borders.  There’s been the ‘soft power’ of bodies like the British Council, the Goethe Institute, and the diplomacy conducted by pandas and Bolshoi Ballet tours.  But these things are overt, and subject to the law in the countries in which they operate.  We know who is behind them, and for what purpose.

We are now in an age of disruption.  Governments, and private bodies, may wage wars of chaos, deliberately designed to sow confusion, division, and fear.  And, unlike the past, each and every one of us is in the front line.

Can I believe that ‘fact’?  That graph look scary.  Ha ha, share that funny meme!  We are on our own in a sea of ‘stuff’, in which our trusted ‘friends’ and ‘followers’, bestowers of ‘likes’ and emojis, may be bots, or contract workers in disinformation factories, or bored teenagers in far away villages, in the pay of god knows who.

Faced with all this – the difficulty of being an active citizen when we can’t even reliably identify who are our peers; the problem of weak institutions; the lack of a direct connection between our votes and our lives – it is sometimes tempting to just give up.

But that’s the last thing we should do.

We need to build our resilience, maintain our scepticism, get better at distinguishing between truth and noise, and, above all, start demanding better from those who seek politically to represent us.  In that way we can begin to see a way through to a new democratic settlement.

The truth is out there!

Those Brexit Impact Assessments….

“We’ve had enough of experts.”  So said Michael Gove, gentleman and amateur, and self-confessed uninformed cheerleader of Brexitism.  But I’m one of those sad souls who sometimes likes to know things, so I took myself along to an event held by the University of Birmingham as part of the Economic and Social Research Council’s Festival of Social Science.  On Brexit.

To my surprise, I wasn’t photographed by the Tory Whips on the way in.  No Daily Mail hacks sought a quote from anyone around me in denouncement of pointy headed saboteurs. It was all quite civilised.

So what did Professor Long Hair have to say? Well, there were six of them, or eight, if you add in the PVC for International Affairs (a title probably better suited to Boris J than his actual one), and the Head of School.  50 short of the full set of impact studies, but more hard information than the government has yet released.

First up was Dr. Nando Sigona.  He flew through his data packed slides at a frustrating pace, for I would really have liked time to study them in detail (perhaps he’ll make them available online for attendees of the event?).  His work of late has been on EU families and ‘euro children’ in Britain.  Because of course a relationship of 45 years since Britain joined the then EEC has led to migration, relationships, and families who reflect that history.  Untangling those relationships is impossible – they are literally in the DNA of many British citizens, especially a whole generation of children.  Listening to Dr. Sigona, it was impossible not to think of how the referendum campaign might have played out rather differently if the Remain campaign had used some of these human stories to show the wrenching complexity of the very idea of leaving the EU in an abrupt manner without considering the impact on real lives.  It also set me thinking.  I know that the polls have barely moved on support for Brexit amongst those who voted for it, but it is at least anecdotally interesting that when a small number of people call in to phone-in shows to express regret for voting Leave, they are nearly always men with EU nationals as partners, often longstanding ones, and multilingual children.

Dr. Kelly Hall followed, with research on the impact of Brexit on British pensioners living in Spain.  I could see that her work was useful in enabling preparatory work to be done by the British Consulate to prepare for various outcomes to Brexit negotiations, but in truth, most of them don’t look particularly good for the individuals involved. In a worst case scenario, tens of thousands of frail elderly people with few material resources could end up air ambulanced to Britain, and to an NHS and social care system without the resources to cope.  (I’d have liked to have known how some of these people voted in the referendum, too, and not just to be mean. As with the phone-in callers with their Dutch, or Polish wives, I wonder whether the Brexity pensioners on the Costas had failed to link their votes to their own lives?)

Two presentations followed which concerned health.  The first of these, by Professor Mark Exworthy, looked at the impact of Brexit on patients and the NHS.  His evidence debunked the tabloid view that EU migrants are a strain on the NHS.  Quite the opposite is true, from the impact of their tax contributions, to their labour as clinicians and carers. Whatever might have been written on the side of a bus last year, Brexit doesn’t look like being a bonus for the NHS.

Prof. Exworthy was followed by Professor Jean McHale.  A legal scholar, Prof. McHale looked at the impact of Brexit on regulating pharmaceuticals and clinical trials.  This is an important sector of the British economy, and one of the few which is highly technical and often world-leading.  The integration of regulations isn’t simply a matter of custom and practice arising from four decades of proximity – it is about best practice to ensure effective research and development, and swift and safe routes to market for new treatments.  I did not feel reassured that the tight Brexit timetable is remotely suited to dealing with these vital issues both for our health, and for our economy.

Professor Raquel Ortega-Arguiles offered a broader economic overview of the impact of Brexit on the UK, its regions, cities, and sectors.  Actually, she roamed wider, demonstrating clearly that with the obvious anomaly of Ireland, the UK would be more adversely affected by Brexit than the rest of the EU, and within the UK it would be London and the South East which would be least negatively impacted by Brexit, and the manufacturing and industrial areas, often Leave voting, which would be most disadvantaged by leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union.  The slides she showed were powerful evidence of this; maps shaded to show degrees of impact.

Finally Professor John Bryson looked at the local and regional impact of Brexit.  Birmingham and the West Midlands is a manufacturing area, so no surprises there.  But he did offer an important sense of perspective on Brexit – that in the scale of challenges on the horizon, it is relatively insignificant.  The impact of robotics and AI on jobs is rolling towards us and gathering speed.  He might have added climate change.  Brexit kind of looks like a self-indulgence in face of the real issues the world has to face this century.

And so to audience questions. It seems that there was not a Brexiter to be seen in the house.  We’d been treated to a series of impact studies, with real data, and much serious food for thought, and no politician or voter from the winning side seemed to have the slightest interest in knowing more about their favourite subject.

Funny that.