What’s Going On (Again)

During the 2015 general election, when I began this blog, I used the title, “The Marvin Gaye Election” for one post, because I really had no idea what was going on. I’d gone into the election expecting either another hung parliament, or possibly a narrow Labour victory, or at least a Miliband government with a Confidence and Supply arrangement with another party. What we now know is that David Cameron, largely through his ruthless efficiency in crushing his Coalition partners, and the tenacity of Tory voters in Scotland, was cruising to a narrow, but decisive win. And all our woes….

Three elections (and a referendum) in four years feels like a really dire mass participation reenactment of the First World War. It’s futile. The politicians and diplomats seem to have stumbled into it by accident. The generals went into battle without a plan. We, the poor bloody infantry, have been mired in our trenches smoking Woodbines and occasionally falling asleep as a comrade plays a mournful version of ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’ on a harmonica. On then Home Front the jingoist press ramp up the xenophobia (without, alas, any “plucky Belgians”). And so, lions led by donkeys, we prepare to go over the top. Without a cunning plan.

Because who has any idea what’s going on?

The parties have created competing myths about the last battle, aka the 2017 general election. Whether either myth contains any wisdom, we’ll have to wait a couple of weeks to see.

The Tories went into 2017 with an even more commanding lead in the polls than they have this time. Their view now is that they then had the wrong leader, and the wrong manifesto. But is that right? May was so popular in the middle of 2017 that they built an entire campaign around her, downplaying the Tory brand, and promoting ‘Theresa May’s Team’. They got a three word slogan of power and simplicity – ‘Strong and Stable’. And the polls remained pretty favourable. The local elections happened during the campaign, and seemed to suggest that May was on course for her landslide.

But May wasn’t comfortable in the spotlight, and the more the public saw of her and her vacuous slogan, the less they liked it. As for Nick Timothy’s manifesto….

So this time the Tories have a celebrity leader, another three word slogan that they’re flogging to death, and a backroom campaign that is ruthless to the point of sheer dishonesty. That’s not exaggeration – you can Fact Check it on Twitter.

They also have a manifesto with less content than the Daily Star on a thin news day. What could possibly go wrong?

Labour myth has turned 2017 into the election won single handedly by Jeremy Corbyn (it’s a mere detail that he didn’t actually win). The ‘brilliant campaigner’ would have got the party over the line if only they’d had just another week. As for that magical manifesto. Pure electoral gold.

So why not re-run the whole thing with extra manifesto? When you’ve got a winning formula…. (Reminder: you didn’t win.)

In 2017, as a slightly despairing outside observer, I felt things shift over the course of the campaign. The polls looked good for the Tories despite a few wobbles, but there was a sense that the Tories were losing the impression of being a juggernaut about to mow down all who stood in their way. I did begin to hope that things might not be as bad as I’d initially feared.

But in 2015, there were so such feelings, either of hope, or despair. The campaign felt unreadable. The electorate seemed disengaged. And Cameron got his majority.

2019 feels more like 2015 than 2017.

In 2017, there was more of a sense of unity and purpose to Remain voters. Our mission was to try to deny May the landslide she wanted to push her Tory Brexit through Parliament. Enough of the Remain vote was willing to mobilise tactically, which is the real reason why Labour did so much better than expected. It worked, insofar as it derailed the Tories, and we are still in the EU.

This time around Remainers are split. Tactical voting may still happen, but there’s much less goodwill in the Remain camp. There’s a sense that the SNP is happy with any outcome as likely to be good news for them, and the Lib Dems appear more focussed on damaging Labour than on stopping Brexit. This election was essentially their call. Without the Lib Dems choosing to side with the SNP, there wouldn’t be an election in December. We’d still have an impotent Tory minority government, and enough MPs to back an alternative minority government with a single item mandate to run another referendum. It was their call, and it’s a very big gamble.

So, what’s going on? All parties are running poor campaigns, taking voters for fools. Voters may deserve to be taken for fools, so angry, cynical and disengaged are we. Dirty tricks, foreign interference, suppressed reports, suspended inquiries (did I forget to mention American IT tutors with a sideline in pole dancing?). It’s all so grubby, tawdry, unedifying.

Is this going to be our worst election ever?

What’s The Worst That Can Happen?

One week in to the 2019 general election campaign, and I have already turned off the television, tuned the radio to 6 Music, and my media browsing is fully focussed on cats. How did it come to this?

It’s the nastiness, of course. There is nothing too trivial to be weaponised, nothing so serious that it can’t be treated with absolute cynicism. It’s the politics of the ‘Sidebar of Shame’. Throw out noisy taunts, circulate memes in Comic Sans, “Your economic policy is too fat!”, “Your fiscal strategy is too ugly!” It’s hard for a voter to think straight when it’s less a question of competing parties trading arguments about policies, or offering rival visions of what they want the country to be, and more a case of a really bad Marvel movie. The Incredible Sulk meets The Invisible Man. The sort of film Hugh Grant thinks is much too loud. I’m with Hugh on this.

Let’s start with the racism, which saturates everything political right now. The anti-Semitism is real, and ugly, and has not been addressed effectively for far too long. The Islamophobia is real, and ugly, and there hasn’t even been a pretence at addressing it. But there are other racisms and hatreds being weaponised, too, those we scarcely want to look at. Why isn’t this a Windrush election? A Grenfell election? There’s plenty of tokenism about, but little systematic analysis of why some people’s life chances are structured to be lesser than those available to others.

There’s also the importation of some of the worst hatreds of Indian sub-continental politics into Britain. The brave and principled MP (now candidate) for Slough, Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, who earlier this year was applauded in the Chamber for calling out Johnson’s racism, last week Tweeted this, “I urge my Hindu and Sikh British compatriots: don’t fall for the divisive tactics of religious hardliners, trying to wedge apart our cohesive community, circulating lies on WhatsApp. They won’t silence the likes of me, who will speak up for human rights.” It’s part of a clear Tory strategy of trying to woo the ‘Indian vote’ by BJP-ish appeals to communalism. David Cameron started it when he shared a stage at a BJP rally in Wembley with Narendra Modi. I thought then that it was dangerous for a British politician to lend the sheen of international statesmanship with an Indian PM with a long record of encouraging, even inciting, communalist anger, hate, even riots, sometimes leading to deaths. The Tories might legitimately see the growing Indian middle class as a new ‘vote bank’ for the party, but that shouldn’t be done by feeding the worst of bigotry.

As a voter I long for sensible, sober, secular elections, in which parties don’t shrilly rule out working with others, or lie on their election literature, or weaponise hate, or circulate disinformation, or take money from shady sources. I long for a news media that reports fairly, accepts honest disagreements, and separates news from opinion. I want to lower the temperature, and raise the excitement. A democratic event should be a festival of ideas, not a sewer stuffed with fat bergs.

Now for a nice cup of tea. In silence.

Trivial Politics for a Serious Age

When I started to write about the general election of 2015, I assumed that once the vote was over, I’d close the blog, and move back to writing about other things. But David Cameron won an unexpected outright victory, was committed to a referendum, and so I kept this occasional exercise in one voter’s observations from outside the bubble going. Barely four years later, and I’m looking at general election number three, Prime Minister number three, and a country that looks more fractured and unhappy than at any time in my life (and I lived in Yorkshire during the Miner’s Strike).

Today Boris Johnson stood outside No 10 and made an election campaign launch speech that was extraordinary. In expression, in content, in delivery, it was a speech that made no effort whatsoever to convey a sense of statesmanship, of leadership for the whole country, indeed, no sense that the country he was seeking a mandate to lead was in any way serious.

He began by saying, in a faux exasperated way, that he didn’t want an election. He was forced into it by MPs having the temerity to do their job of holding the executive to account. He reeled off, in a bored manner, a list of things the Tories were doing, naturally including building “40 new hospitals” (they’ve committed some cash to the refurbishment of six). He went into a riff, which he plainly enjoyed a bit more, accusing Jeremy Corbyn of plotting with the Kremlin to poison people in Salisbury. The only crime he forgot to mention was the killing of the Kulaks, but as he’d put that on the front page of the Telegraph, all bases were covered. It was a speech that insulted the intelligence of everyone who heard it, but what did that matter? He is World King.

What’s more, he’s a World King with “steel balls”, according to a hairdresser from Merthyr Tydfil interviewed by David Dimbleby for Panorama tonight (6th November 2019). For that’s the kind of country we are now. We’re hitting the point at which half of all young people will have degrees, but the media and political ‘elite’ thrust their microphones before, and take their political cue from, people who have been groomed to be coarse and emotional. A part of me wonders whether these ‘left behind’ people, those ‘citizens of somewhere’ about whom journalists and think tankers write books, have become so elevated in the ‘national conversation’ because if the media spoke to the pharmacists, the librarians, the teachers, the tech start-ups, the poets of small towns they might find that the public school/Oxbridge/London stranglehold on the published expression of ‘informed opinion’ was unearned?

Britain’s always been a country where posh dilettantes have been indulged, but it didn’t matter so much when behind the scenes there was a strong administrative infrastructure holding everything together, and not just Whitehall, but right across the country. If the PM was a lush, the secretary of state an indolent know-nothing, it didn’t matter when Sir Humphrey Appleby was there to keep things ticking over nicely. Ditto in the town and county halls of the nation. But decades of deliberate deskilling, of outsourcing, of just cutting, has hollowed things out so much that the clowns in charge are now exposed. It makes sense that to provide them with cover, the rest of us should also be ‘represented’ in public discourse by the loud, the shouty, the aggressive and the irrational.

So here we are. Day one of the election. The PM lies on live TV. The Brexit Election (2.0) is being fought by the Leader of the Opposition on a “Don’t mention the Brexit!” ticket. The third biggest party in parliament only contests seats in a place with just over 5 million of the UK population of 66 million. The fourth biggest is pitching a ‘moderate’ message of refusing to work with anyone else in any conceivable circumstances. Meanwhile the party that most scares the ruling Tories is the party with no members whose leader is too scared to contest a seat himself. I once did a training course in how to write for ‘continuing drama’ (soaps to everyone else). Our first piece of advice was to start at a pitch of unbearable intensity, and to ramp it up from there. That’s British politics right now – high emotion and a complete absence of credibility.

In my everyday life I meet, work with, intelligent, competent, highly skilled, pragmatic, forward thinking people of high seriousness. All over the country these people quietly get on with making most things work. They don’t derail rape trials, suppress inconvenient or embarrassing reports, pretend that the major issues facing them can be ignored, or pretend to be things which plainly they are not. Being caught out lying carries costs, failing to deliver a task has consequences. Real life is a bloody responsible business.

But British politics right now? I know it’s full of good people trying their best, and often succeeding. But they’re not the ones in charge. And until they are, I don’t see an easy way out of here. I just hope this election proves me wrong.

Election Fever? (Really?)

British politics is now characterised by endless noise. It is a fake battleground of loud bangs, sudden flashes of light, thick, choking eruptions of smoke, and a terrain of glooping mud through which we must trudge, never knowing, seeing, in what direction we are heading. Front lines move inches at excessive toll.

For politics has become a permanent election/referendum campaign in which no actual governing has happened since 2016. That we now have a vote date in December doesn’t necessarily change that. The odds are that it’ll merely prolong the stalemate.

But we can’t go on like this. There are too many urgent questions that can’t wait until we’ve sorted out who is going to occupy No.10 for a couple of years, or less. Brexit, of course, that maggoty corpse of a mandate, needs to be interred, but the state itself, and its capacity to make and deliver policies upon which people’s lives depend, needs to be nursed back into health. And somewhere in this mess stirs the answer. But it won’t be where all the noise is now.

That noise is intemperate, viciously partisan, short-termist, highly aggressive, and almost entirely focussed upon the wrong things in the wrong ways.

Is the electorate equally up for all out war? You’d certainly think so, if the surly audiences of Question Time, the raging phone-in shriekers, and spittle-flecked vox poppers are any guide. It’s a wonder we’re not installing flame throwers in the front garden, and hiring wolves to patrol the streets.

But we’re not. When Mark Francois claimed that the country would “explode” if we hadn’t left the EU by 31st October, I’m sure he probably believed it. Certainly more than his leader ever desired a a deathbed in a ditch. I write this on 1st November, and, from what I can see, the bins got emptied this morning, the buses still run down the High Street, and the odd jogger is still braving the rain. Nothing “exploded” at midnight .

There are just under 46 million voters in the UK. That number has been declining, fractionally, but a recent surge in people seeking to go on the electoral roll may have made a difference in the last few weeks. 17.4 million voted to leave the EU in 2016, though the age profile of those voters suggests that the number is now smaller, but even if it is the same, that’s little over a third of eligible voters. It’s hard to believe that even 10% of that number are angry enough to “explode”, as if they were, they’d have been able to mount marches of the size of those staged by the non-combustible Remainers.

The point is, the noise is coming from very few people, but it has the assistance of the ear-splitting amplification system that is the British media.

That includes pollsters. Polls are growing ever less reliable. This is not so much through partisanship, though clients may commission polls for slanted reasons, but because polls are political players, influencing opinion as much as they record it. That’s possibly even more true for focus groups, which turn people into lab rats. I saw a report last week of an experiment in which rats were taught to drive tiny perspex vehicles. Rodent Top Gear is entertaining, but it’s not what rats do in their natural habitat. Ditto voters.

So let’s look not at where all the noise is coming from – politicians, media, and the ecosphere of politics – and concentrate instead upon the 45.7m.

Most of them do not live along the M62 corridor. Few live in Workington. Under 62,000 live in Gareth Snell’s Stoke-on-Trent constituency. The seaside towns of the east coast of England are not vast metropolises. Older white men without degrees are numerous, it is true, but there are still more women.

Women, I suspect, will be the source of change. Not city school-run mums in Range Rovers, nor Millenial tech entrepreneurs, nor shiny haired vegan vloggers on Instagram, nor any of the stereotypes of modern womanhood visible to politicians and advertisers. It’ll be Brenda from Bristol and her friends.

All across the UK there are women, often unglamorously middle aged, who are holding communities together. They are volunteers in libraries, or the minimum waged managers of charity shops in small towns, or those running food banks, or whose hard earned OU degrees have given them thankless administrative jobs keeping half-dead local services going.

These women are ‘doers’. They know how to run things, how to manage tiny budgets, how to care for the people and things around them. They’ve become adept at managing bureaucracy, of getting social care for dependents, or assessments for children with special needs. They know what difference functioning government makes, and what harm underfunded government does by commission or omission. They could well hold the key to this election.

So don’t get distracted by the noise, enraged by the deliberate provocations, and look instead at those in whom the Westminster machine sees nothing of interest. If this election is to resolve anything, it will be because a party manages to speak to those people, especially the women.