It’s a Funny Old World

Five years ago I started this blog to record my thoughts on the general election.  It was, I suppose, a small act of hope.  The Coalition had felt like a gigantic confidence trick. Five years earlier I had assumed, as did many others, that whichever was the largest party after a general election would need to do a deal with the Liberal Democrats along ‘Confidence and Supply’ lines, which would essentially produce a government unable to do anything but keep the system ticking over.  But as we now know, the result was very different, a last, turbo powered gasp of the late 20th Century.

In 2015 I had hoped that Ed Miliband, an essentially decent and intelligent man trying to do politics in a vicious and grubby world, might start to restore Labour’s fortunes.  But that was not to be.  The 2014 Scottish independence referendum saw to that.  That first bid at partition mobilised latent English nationalism, which was then weaponised by the Tories as a way to wound Labour.  Ed Miliband was depicted as a puppet operated by Alex Salmond, a trick as cynical as the effective but untrue slogans five years earlier about Labour ‘crashing the economy’, or ‘maxing out the credit card’.  Once again it worked.  Too well.

Too well for its creators, certainly.  Cameron and Osborne won a great victory in 2015, and were out of office and out of power within a year.  English nationalism unleashed was a beast that turned on the overconfident men who opened the cage.  Thus, in the last five years we have had three Prime Ministers, and three Leaders of the Opposition, plague stalks the land, extreme weather threatens to fry us or drown us, and we are entering a Great Depression that could make the 1930s look like a cakewalk.

In this place and time it feels pointless to blog about the ins and outs of Westminster politics, even if it is as seen from outside the bubble.  I’m one of those lately labelled a ‘citizen of nowhere’ merely on the basis of a vote I cast four years ago, when in reality I’m a woman living in my unfashionable hometown observing the people around me; people who are as diverse in their attitudes, opinions, beliefs, hopes, fears and desires as any, anywhere.  Nowhere are there just two types of people, and government isn’t – or ought not to be – about serving only one type of person. The system we have does not fit the people we are, and it cannot make the future we need.

Because this is a revolutionary age.  The 21st Century began in January 2020.  It will sweep away all we have known.  And as in all periods of revolutionary change, we will have to decide which side we are on.

The trouble with revolutions is that whilst they are happening, who knows what the ‘sides’ are?  

The side we might call the ‘counter-revolutionaries’ are clearly visible.  The water-muddying tricksters, the sowers of seeds of doubt, the conspiracy theorists, the anti-vaxxers, the millenarian preachers (who accept PayPal), the Trumps, and Putins, Erdogans, Bolsonaros, Modis, Orbans, and yes, the Johnsons, and all their little counterparts, from Belarus to Zimbabwe.  These are people selling fear of the big wide world, whilst filling their own pockets, or those of their friends.  They are in power, or claim influence in many places, because they offer a vision that anxious people can grasp, a vague reflection of an idealised past when virgins with crocks of gold walked unmolested from John o’Groats to Lands End; when only temples stood in Ayodhya, only mosques in Istanbul; when men went out to work in mines and steel works, whilst women stirred pots on the range; a world of faith, and order, of people knowing their place; coal fires, and cups of tea, apple pie and home-made lemonade, Kinder, Küche, Kirche, harvests without fear of locusts or drought, you knew where you were when the rich man was in his castle, and the poor man at the gate.

Set out their prospectus like this, and it is absurd.  But it is powerful stuff because people know that things are changing in ways they cannot control, and can barely imagine.  What could be more appealing than the promise of a strong leader who takes back control, makes your country great again, restores national pride, keeps out foreigners, turns their backs on their neighbours?  When Trump promises to bring back the old jobs to the Rust Belt, or Johnson says he’ll reopen a few northern rail lines cut by Beeching, there is a poignant power to these pledges. But it’s a case of wielding nostalgia as a lethal weapon; the steel mills of old are gone forever, and those restored trains will fill with commuters from nearby cities attracted by lower house prices, fuelling more resentment from those ‘left behind’, in the condescending phrase used only by those who aren’t.

The age we are now leaving forever is one in which we saw our planet as a store of things we could use in whatever ways we wished, or could get away with.  We have as much right as any creature to shape our immediate environment to offer us food, shelter, and happiness. The radical alteration of the natural world through human civilisation has brought us great benefits, material and emotional.  But the age of nations, and of industrial capitalism had within it the seeds of its own destruction, a dialectic that is not about economic and social relations, but about economic and natural relations.

Our cupboard is starting to look bare, the next village is on fire, down the road the crops are under water, the castle has pulled up the drawbridge in a vain attempt at keeping out the pox, and the lake is awash with dead fish.  We can’t make society work for humans any more until we start to repair the damage we have done, and that means everywhere.  When Bolsonaro wishes rainforests would burn down, that’s the lungs of my city and yours, and of every square centimetre of the earth, river deep, mountain high.  The rare earths and minerals involved in making the device upon which I write this are finite resources.  We are going to have to decide who gets to use them, for what purpose, and how they might be reused.  We have to decide where people live, as coastal areas, even whole countries, sink into rising oceans.  Everything we have known materially and, indeed, economically and politically, needs to change. Because change is going to happen anyway.

So how do we get from where we are, to where we need to be?  It’s politics at its most essential – the distribution of resources.

For what it’s worth, I’m going to try to imagine what the next steps could be. That’s where this blog is going now. If you’ve done me the courtesy of reading this, I’d be very grateful for suggestions.

Get Serious

I’m a new member of the Labour Party, though a long time Labour voter. Not that I joined the party with any sense of hope, optimism, or even conviction. I joined wearily, just as I’d cast my Labour vote in the 2019 general election with a sense of fatalism about the outcome.

So to this seemingly interminable Labour leadership race. Viewed from my sofa, via TV screens and social media, it was becoming tedious, the candidates simultaneously bland and irritating. I found myself observing it all with a sense of detachment. I was always going to vote for Keir Starmer, though that was more a hard-headed assessment of who, of those on offer, would be best placed to make the party functional again. I have also watched the others with interest.

Early on, I was interested in what Clive Lewis had to say. As the field narrowed, the clear rift between sections of the so-called ‘left’ over Rebecca Long-Bailey, and her increasingly anxious attempts at presenting herself as a women in her own right, rather than the hostage of a faction, made me soften towards her, though strictly in personal, not political terms. Her rapid elevation with the patronage of old men who thought they could control her, could end up killing her career dead.

The third candidate, Lisa Nandy, was the biggest disappointment. She looked like an interesting contender at first, with important things to say, but as time has gone on, she has shown herself to be shallow and opportunistic. Her bid to paint all front benchers as equally complicit in the disaster that Labour has been as an Opposition over the last five years is not the ‘hard truth’ telling that she pretends it is. It comes across as a pitch to journalists to increase her profile as a political contrarian (they have been very fashionable of late). But it’s also divisive, and very negative. There are hard questions to be faced, but they need to be faced by putting forward answers, not by impugning the motives of others. Nandy has shrunk, rather than grown during the campaign, a combative performance with Andrew Neil notwithstanding. But no one had exactly excited the membership, let alone cut through with the public. There was a bit of a feeling of ‘going through the motions’ about it all.

So it was with no great sense of anticipation that I went along to a rally yesterday to see Keir Starmer. Like many Labour voters, I’ve spent several years seeing him as one of the few adults in the Shadow Cabinet, though his competence has plainly been a source of irritation and resentment to those in charge. Mostly Starmer has kept his head down, concentrated on the Brexit brief, and modelled loyalty to the leader. In this campaign the front runner according to polls, he seemed to be following the Boris Johnson rules for contesting a party leadership: say as little as possible in public, in order to cruise to victory.

As I sat waiting for the meeting to begin, watching people in respectable numbers coming through the doors, I thought of the only other such rally I have ever attended. That was in 2015, and the candidate was Jeremy Corbyn. The contrast between the two events could not have been starker.

Corbyn in 2015

The event five years earlier had been closer in mood to a revivalist religious gathering than a political rally, albeit one in which quite a lot of the audience, myself included, were definitely in the agnostic camp. ‘Jeremy’ was raised up above us at his pulpit, and many of the young people in attendance gazed at him in awe, for his words, however anti-climactic his style, were wholly new to them, and thrilling. We old timers, who knew these hymns of old, had become amnesiac about the man who was singing them. Jaded by years of timidity in power, we had forgotten that the magic of 1945 was not the property of those whose real dream was of 1917. More pertinently, we had forgotten how those factions operate politically, and their obsession with ‘seizing the levers of power’ in the party to the exclusion of actually doing anything with that power.

2020 felt very different. A corporate events room in a chain hotel, and an audience of the battle-hardened made for an atmosphere of hopeful realism tinged with scepticism. Keir Starmer would receive a warm welcome, but he would have to work for his applause.

He must have given the same speech a hundred times, but it didn’t feel like that. Where Lisa Nandy has banged on in public about being ‘the only candidate to talk honestly’ about where Labour failed, and what it got badly wrong, Starmer calmly set out a devastating, but implicit analysis, all the time spelling out exactly what needed to be done, when, how, and by whom. He didn’t blame people, because he and we know where blame lies, and we know that the immediate satisfactions of the blame game are negated by the rancour and division it generates. We can’t afford the luxury of that.

I joined the party because I want to be able to cheer for a competent PLP with a front bench of all the talents, not place men and women chosen for their ideological purity or simpering obedience. Keir Starmer set out how he would build such a team with urgency, holding the ‘dangerous’ (Starmer’s description) Johnson and his government to account, refuting their lies with alacrity, and ruthlessly honing Labour’s message to voters from the start.

But others, perhaps most others, in the audience were more concerned about the party on the ground. As a new party member, I don’t think it my place to detail the stories told by good people frustrated beyond endurance by the institutional incompetence and sectarian myopia of party administration and governance over the last few years. But broadly, some of those stories included things I have read in the media, or heard discussed on podcasts, about the hobbling of CLPs, the imposition of unsuitable candidates, and a general drag on effective local political strategies by the party machine. As angry people laid out their frustrations in the starkest terms, it all felt very raw, and deadly serious.

For all the trappings of the modern political age – the selfies with Starmer, the handshakes and backslapping, the phones videoing the event – there was something fundamental happening in that room. The resetting of a political party of government at every level from grassroots to local and national power, and international cooperation and influence.

It was about much more than what had gone wrong. It was very much not about ‘reverting’ to some golden age. It was a very raw glimpse of a party recognising that being fit for purpose, rooted in community, and respected in the world was not going to be easy, but it could, with the right leadership, be done.

Labour, to be successful in the 21st Century, needs to let go of the 20th. The party’s history is honourable and inspiring, but it can’t be the message now. I’ve been as guilty of anyone in having been enraptured by Attlee’s government and its achievements, but that was a different time, and a different world. And even Attlee’s government made bad decisions.

The people Labour needs to speak for, and to, can’t be thought of in sentimental terms as ‘the working class’. Widening economic divisions no longer map those old class (and cultural) markers. There is no ‘Red Wall’. The skilled working class, the “labour aristocracy” that was the backbone of the party for much of the last century now consists of their grandchildren, the insecure but highly educated precariat, the urban public sector workers, teachers, medics, administrators, tech wizards. Many of them are, objectively, ‘poor’, with insecure jobs and pay, high rents, and a need for good services.

But nobody ever thinks of themselves as ‘poor’. There’s something alienating to normal people when Labour speaks a language of ‘poverty’. We don’t see ourselves in it. But nor is it better to speak a language of ‘aspiration’, of ‘entrepreneurship’, which can make people feel like failures, when the failure is that of politics.

There are big debates ahead for Labour on how the party roots itself once more in the reality of life as it is lived.

But first, we need a leader.

Labour Got Brexit Wrong – And Is Still Getting It Wrong

As soon as the scale of Labour’s election defeat last week became clear – at 10.00 pm on 12th December 2019 – the party’s Brexit divisions were mobilised once again as ‘explanations’ for the failure of the party under Jeremy Corbyn to win power against a ramshackle bunch of lying chancers in their 9th year of office.

And these explanations are bogus. Labour got Brexit wrong from the start, and how and why it was so mistaken reveals the conservatism at the heart of the Corbyn project.

A referendum on EU membership was in the 2015 Tory Manifesto, so Labour knew that it was on the cards throughout the leadership campaign that followed the resignation of Ed Miliband. The party also knew that the previous year’s Scottish independence referendum had ignited political debate on all sorts of issues way beyond the constitutional question, and ought to have anticipated that a referendum across the UK might have the same propensity to be about something, many things, not on the ballot paper. For whoever was to win the Labour leadership in 2015, the referendum was an opportunity to road test the new leader’s approach.

Corbyn won, and his approach to the referendum was essentially to ignore it. Paying lip service to party democracy, a key element of his leadership platform, Labour remained formally supportive of continued membership of the EU, but in practice the Labour Party under Corbyn opted out of the campaign.

Why they were so lukewarm, to put it mildly, was partly obvious, partly a mystery. The obvious bit was that Corbyn was, and remains, an unreconstructed Bennite. The EU was a ‘capitalist club’, a block on ‘socialism in one country’, went the view behind the scenes. It’s easy to pick holes in that threadbare Stalinist perspective, not least that the world in 2016 was very different to that in 1973. But is it true that unshakeable faith in the old Bennite religion was the primary driver of Corbyn’s inertia in 2016?

Look instead to the clique around Corbyn. The influence of Len McCluskey and his plants in the leader’s office. Perhaps they used the language of the 20th Century British left to justify their position (though they were always too cowardly to make the case publicly, hiding behind the language of ‘party democracy’), but one suspects that other factors were in play.

The first, and this is the weakness at the heart of Corbynism from the start, is a leaden footed inability to respond nimbly to new, unforeseen challenges. Their political playbook envisions a war between top hatted, cigar smoking, factory owners, and heroic male workers in ragged coats and flat caps. Perhaps it can also be clad in the garb of the National Coal Board Vs the miners, but the vision is much the same. ‘Class war’ is, like Premier League football, a game for men (though unlike soccer, a game for white men).

Race and gender don’t figure much in the Corbyn world view, even if both are now deeply entrenched in contemporary politics as much as in the wider world. His supporters made much of his ‘anti-racist’ credentials (and tried to use them as a defence against accusations of anti-Semitism), but the photographs of Corbyn on Anti-Apartheid demonstrations rather made the opposite point. He belongs to a ‘left’ that is more comfortable with the notion of anti-colonial struggles far away, rather than the complications of race and class at home. Other politicians of his vintage, like Peter Hain, managed to be both major figures in the Anti-Apartheid struggle, and in the Anti-Nazi League which took up the battle against the far-right on British streets in the 1970s. I’m not aware that Corbyn was ever a major figure in that movement.

So as the 2016 referendum campaign took off, noisily and nastily, Corbyn and therefore Labour, was ill-equipped to respond. Individual MPs were essentially on their own, ditto party members. There was a major political event unfolding, and the leadership was AWOL. Even the assassination of Jo Cox was treated by Corbyn as a shocking and unexpected event, rather than a consequence of the virtual civil war taking place on the streets and across social media. Why didn’t Corbyn at that point demand that the whole campaign be called off? It had all gone too far, dangerous political currents were being unleashed. Even if legally there was little that could have been done to halt the vote, some proper outrage, and, dare I say it, some statesmanship was needed, but none ever came.

All that has unfolded since goes back to that time. It doesn’t appear to matter to Corbyn’s uncritical supporters that most Labour voters, even in Brexit voting constituencies, were Remainers. Brexit was framed as an authentic (white) working class position, whereas the cities where the most loyal Labour heartlands are, were dismissed as somehow inauthentic, too Gina Yashere, not enough Bernard Manning. That’s not a ‘class analysis’, comrades. It’s something else entirely.

Having decided on their perspective on Brexit, they used it as an explanatory tool to understand everything else. Crucially the 2017 general election.

Labour got a huge 40% of the vote in June 2017. The Tories got 42%. But let’s look at the local elections the month before. The Tories then got a respectable 38%, Labour a derisory 27%. What changed?

Corbyn’s supporters say he had a popular manifesto and ran a good campaign. There is some truth in both, plus there was a fair wind from the media, in that as no one thought Labour had a cat in hell’s chance of victory, they didn’t bother with a serious attack strategy against the party.

For the truth is that Labour’s lack of a clear strategy on Brexit was not a brilliant triangulation to hold together Leave and Remain voters. Remainers, including many tactical voters backed the party as a means of trying to stop May in her tracks. It wasn’t an unambiguously pro-Corbyn vote, it was anti-Tory. It was gained despite, not because of Labour’s position.

And so to the big failure of 2019. Follow it back to the beginning. Labour opted out of the only big political battle that mattered in the period 2016-19. It was absent from the biggest political movement on the streets, its banners missing from marches of a million people. Yet nor was it making the case for Brexit, if that is what the leader believed. It was a party making no meaningful offer to either side, and its late position of trying to ‘bring together’ both sides was a nice try, just either far too late, or far too early, but certainly, painfully mistimed.

For Labour to recover from the election defeat it needs to look long and hard at Brexit. Don’t try to fudge it again, don’t try to pretend that it’s all over now, nothing to see, move on. A proper post-mortem is necessary.

The next Labour leader needs to tell the party that Brexit remains a dangerous project of the hard-right which is not over, not done, nor will it be for a decade or more. The future, whether it’s around trade, the economy more broadly, or the key questions of security and the climate emergency, will require cooperation across borders, indeed the very notion of borders will become increasingly untenable.

Brexit sank Labour because it is useful only to the right. That’s the truth.

The Resistance

The general election of 2019 was like no other. The Tories defied political gravity to emerge with a healthy majority after their 4th election as the largest party in Parliament. Labour was eviscerated, or perhaps was guilty of a massive act of self-harm, and returns as the Official Opposition, but badly shaken and still led by the team responsible for the debacle. The Liberal Democrats got a bigger percentage rise in their vote than even the Tories, but from a low base, and in Commons terms they have shrunk, and are now, perhaps happily, leaderless. The SNP has a load of MPs, and nothing much for them to do, and Northern Ireland may be turning their backs on Westminster sooner rather than later. I didn’t mention Wales. What is there to say?

None of those things actually explain why this election is different. It’s different, because the Tory Party is different. Johnson is mercurial World King at the head of a party of the similarly grandiose and dangerous. And they are planning to ensure that it stays that way, using any means necessary.

The election campaign run by the Tories was far dirtier than that run by any other party. They are a party that wants power for power’s sake. Where there are other centres of countervailing power, they will seek to weaken, sideline, or even abolish them.

In that sense, they’re continuity Tories, Thatcher-style. The over centralisation of power in Westminster was turbo-charged in the 1980s. Powerful centres of local government were abolished completely (the Greater London Council and the Metropolitan Counties), and the others had their ability to decide policy locally around such crucial things as education and housing severely curtailed. Tories have form when it comes to power grabs.

But this time their sights are on the fundamental nature of the state. A professional, politically impartial, Civil Service is set to be weakened further, in the American manner, with political appointments from outside to “shake things up”. International Development is to be turned into a highly politicised tool of, not British, but Tory foreign interests. The House of Lords is first to be packed with stooges, then ‘reformed’ until it becomes nothing more than a pleasant London club for retired Tory Grandees. As for the judiciary, they look likely to be an early target.

For in strength the Tories plan not magnanimity, but vengeance.

Expect a lot of rule changes immediately to restrict the power of the Commons to hold the government to account. They’ll be technical measures, will probably be scarcely reported, but they will change the balance of power, handing No 10 the whip hand over mere MPs.

The courts, and the wider criminal justice system, have been weakened steadily since 2010. Access to justice for the average citizen is now much more difficult, with a loss of legal aid, a raising of fees, the restriction of access to timely redress through the closure of courts, and much else. But all that was merely ‘shrinking the state’, the punitive effects being merely an amusing by-product. Now they mean business.

The abolition of the Supreme Court seems likely. It could merely be made less powerful, but the Tory taste for vengeance suggests that abolition would be more ‘popular’ with right-wing newspapers and Tory MPs and members. Elsewhere expect legislation to limit the power of the judiciary to hold the executive (government) to account.

This is radical stuff, only hinted at in the manifesto, but within the power of a government with a solid majority facing a feeble opposition.

Which is why we cannot wait for other parties to sort themselves out. By the time they have done so, the government will have done a whole raft of things, particularly around electoral boundaries, voter suppression measures, and more. The resistance must begin now.

A lesson of the last few years is that this country has a taste for extra-party political movements with clear goals. The campaigns for another referendum lost, but we were defeated by a rigged system. What we won was a moral authority which ought not to squandered now. Our side marched in our millions, organised local groups which worked their socks off on High Streets and in market squares around the country come rain or shine. We know what can be done, and we’ve all learned skills which are transferable to other political tasks.

We need a Resistance!

The Resistance can happen now. It doesn’t need to wait for the parties to lick their wounds. We need in the first instance to establish some kind of loose convention to come up with things we can agree on, whatever party we support. Defence of the judiciary, the restoration of local government with power to do things, reform of parliament, and a new voting system ought to be on the list.

Personally I’d like to see a wider movement calling for all state education to be secular and under democratic local control, the restoration of a nation-wide professional public library service, and a ‘culture covenant’ to protect local museums, galleries, theatres, parks, and municipal sports facilities, giving them enough money to run properly, professionally, and with free or inexpensive access for all citizens. But even if we just stick to the nuts and bolts of democracy, that’s a start.

For the government needs to know that we are watching them. They are not our masters. They can rig, lie, scheme, dissemble, bamboozle all they like, but we need an amplified voice to call them out, and above all, to spread knowledge of how the system works, to train up active citizens, and to campaign on specific, concrete constitutional demands.

So how do we do this, people?

Apocalypse Now

Who is to blame?

The election that never should have happened is over, and the result, almost every pundit is saying, will gift the Tories the country (or what subsequently remains of it) for the whole of the Twenties, for no Opposition has ever come back from such a bad defeat in a single election.

That instant wisdom may, or may not be true. It’s not even the immediate question. We need to apportion blame before we can work out what to do. Which is where it all gets very tricky. Because who, or what is to blame rather depends on who or what you want to blame. The left, the right, centrists, dads or otherwise, the media, old people, feminists, fascists, immigration, bigotry, fake news, globalisation, take your pick. If you don’t fancy any of those I’ve got plenty more excuses for the fact that the least suitable Prime Minister of my lifetime, and I’ve seen some shockers, is now safely tucked up in Downing Street for five years or more.

So I’m not going to apportion blame to any of the actors in this tragedy. The quicker the losers shuffle off stage, the better. Instead let’s look at the causes of the Tory-Brexit ascendency.

All across the world we see unhappy populations causing political upsets. The Middle East and North Africa is in tumult, from Turkey through Eastern and Central Europe we see people turning to ‘strong men’ promising national pride and traditional values. The Superpowers, (and the ex-superpower with nukes), currently favour leaders with little appetite for democratic norms. Then there’s India, Brazil, the Philippines – the list seems endless. Why should Britain be immune from the contagion?

We aren’t, we can’t. However, what we do have, in common with the USA, is a mature democracy which not even the experience of war has shaken. That’s supposed to be what gets us through difficult times.

And I think that our current crisis speaks to the failure of our democracy.

The British Constitution is a ‘bodge job’, a bit like the Palace of Westminster itself. It looks fantastic. Great location, (fake) Gothic drama, a swoon of flying buttresses, thrones, Woolsacks, Black Rod, Sergeants at Arms. But it’s falling down, not fit for purpose, riddled with vermin, dry rot, flooded basements, crumbling ceilings, and too small for the job.

Walter Bagehot, a Spin Doctor of the Victorian Era, told a comforting tale of the British Constitution evolving to meet the needs of changing times, whilst preserving the essence of government through Parliament. No need for a founding document, no need for revolutions, stable government in perpetuity guaranteed by the Crown in Parliament.

And we’ve all sort of bought into this nonsense. We lobby, we petition, we hold demonstrations and marches, and write to our MPs. If we are in parties we contest elections, thinking, somehow, that we need one more heave, one more twist left, or right, better organisation, more members, more money.

But look honestly at our system. It’s not working.

The referendums of 2014 and 2016 showed us exactly what was wrong.

The binary nature of the votes combined with the nebulous nature of the questions meant that each campaign could be about anything the voters wanted. To be fair to supporters of Scottish nationalism, they have a clear nationalist agenda, and well developed plans for a new Scottish Constitution, and for the challenges and consequences of independence. The Brexiters had nothing. But in 2014 the thrill of the referendum campaign for many voters lay in the fact that they could project anything they wanted onto it. The campaign was frequently a rejection of ‘Austerity’ and a song of praise to the NHS. Neither of which has anything much to do with a major constitutional change.

A similar scenario played out in 2016 in England and Wales, albeit with more savage rancour, and actually, at least in England, with much more vicious nationalism. But what both referendums had in common was that, unlike elections, they seemed to promise fast and major change that would deliver voters from their problems at a single bound.

Because British democracy isn’t working. It is a rigged system designed to concentrate power in the capital, and to ensure almost perpetual Tory rule. This is what has frustrated voters. That meaningful change, and government responsiveness to voters’ problems is so slow and inadequate.

I first reached that conclusion as a canvasser in the 1983 general election, the last election in which the left were in the ascendency in the Labour Party, and in which the party was lucky to survive in second place, narrowly defeating the SDP-Liberal Alliance (the Tories had a majority then of 144 seats). My memories of that election are mainly of arguing with my fellow canvassers about the electoral system. Wasn’t it time for a PR system?

Had Blair won narrowly in 1997 he would probably have introduced some form of PR. It was a part of a constitutional reform programme which included devolution. But a landslide victory swept away the immediate pressure for change, which, for me at least, was one of the reasons for becoming a Blair-sceptic well before the Iraq war.

That was the last opportunity to have a fair voting system. And it has made me sceptical about relying on a political party that wins office under FPTP ever delivering voting reform.

Which is the point of this reflection on yesterday’s nightmare election result.

The Tories and Brexiters, and Labour and the other second referendumers, got a roughly equal share of the votes. The Tories will disappoint their voters, inevitably, and the other parties have also disappointed their voters. The cycle continues, with voting producing earthquakes that usually change little, and power remains centralised, and remote.

However, the last 4 years have seen the emergence of a mass movement resisting Brexit. For all that there were campaigns like the People’s Vote Campaign, and others, mostly the movement was highly localised and grass roots, crossing party lines. Tellingly, nothing comparable emerged on the Brexit side.

So I’d like to make a suggestion to people who want to renew our democracy, and to make it responsive and fit for purpose. Change the anti-Brexit movement into a movement for constitutional change, starting with (but not ending with) voting reform.

12th December was a bad day for Britain. But it could be the point at which things finally begin to change.

Zombie Election

This election is dead. It’s still going to happen (I assume, though take nothing for granted). It’s just that there’s not a flicker of life in the campaign.

It’s not as if the stakes aren’t high. They couldn’t be higher. Brexit blue in tooth and claw, Vs the prospect of escaping via another referendum is quite a choice. And it’s not as if there’s nothing to choose between the parties, despite the persistent lament of the voter presented with a microphone that “They’re all the same. They’re only in it for themselves.” Not true, and the competing visions on offer are starkly differentiated.

That the election matters profoundly only makes it more worrying that the campaign is so flat, the voters so apparently disengaged. What can explain this lack of excitement as we enter the last few days of the campaign?

Including the Scottish independence referendum, we’ve had two plebiscites and three general elections in five years. Polling fatigue might just be a thing. We keep voting, but nothing seems to change. But I’m not at all sure I buy that argument.

There’s the time of year. Winter elections at a time when the days are at their shortest aren’t usually seen as ideal for electioneering. It’s nearly Christmas. We should be disgracing ourselves at the office party, rather than pondering the manifesto of a political party. But that doesn’t explain it, either.

Most elections happen at a time that ‘feels’ right. Whether it’s the four or five year interval and the sense that the time is right to renew the mandate, or, more rarely, when there is an obvious quickening of the public pulse, a feeling that the time is right for change, then the public intuit that a ‘democratic event’ is only right and proper. But this election isn’t like that.

This is a completely unnecessary election. The new Tory leader wanted it badly, because the hard grind of trying to get his Withdrawal Agreement Bill through all the stages of parliamentary scrutiny looked like a lot of detailed work, and no fun. He wants a big majority so that he can put his feet up and let the minions and wonks get on with the boring business of government.

Johnson wanted it, but he couldn’t have got it without the active assistance of the SNP and, crucially, the Liberal Democrats, who ably assisted the Tories in painting Labour into a corner whereby they looked ‘frit’ if they weren’t up for the fight. They should have resisted anyway. The longer Johnson was snookered by his own cleverness in destroying his own majority, the better for the official Opposition. But we are where we are. In the last stages of a campaign actively desired by the ruling parties of England and Scotland (and their useful idiot party), but bemusing to an electorate who have lost interest in anything much.

Even arguments for Brexit amongst voters seem to have dwindled to a plaintive demand that a democratic vote be honoured, rather than any excited expectation that sunny uplands lie ahead.

The lack of enthusiasm suits the Tories. Their electorate of choice is now older, poorer, whiter than it has ever been. The Tory tone of aggressive hectoring and false Johnsonian bonhomie resonates with those voters, and they are voters who are more likely turn out on election day. The YouTube advertisements currently being run by the Tory Party depicting nice, normal looking voters having their lives ruined by shrill, argumentative parliamentarians who won’t shut up about bloody Brexit, and their campaign slogan, ‘Get Brexit Done’ are nicely calibrated to reassure voters that it’s ‘the politicians’ (but not the Tories) who are making something very simple into something unnecessarily complicated. It’s also the perfect lie.

Those three words – ‘Get Brexit Done’ – are freighted with meaning not yet understood by most voters. ‘Get’? A short simple imperative covering an endless legislative, diplomatic, and economic nightmare. ‘Brexit’? In three years it’s gone from magic potion to bitter medicine we must nevertheless swallow. ‘Done’? The one thing we can say for certain is that this thing will never be done.

I’ve said nothing about Labour. What is there to say? It looks like the farewell tour for Corbyn. He and the people around him have concentrated all their energies, over the four years he has been leader, on seizing the levers of power in the Labour Party. So solipsistic is his inner clique that they interpret everything insofar as it conforms to their conspiratorial mindset. Clever and competent MPs are sidelined or silenced, especially in this campaign, for they might outshine the Dear Leader. The unexpectedly good result (though they lost) in 2017 was interpreted as being about the wondrous campaigning skills of ‘Jeremy’ and the brilliance of the manifesto, when to anyone looking objectively at the evidence, they were primarily beneficiaries of some very effective tactical voting where it mattered. Their campaign looks a lot less sure-footed this time, though the tactical vote might still enable them to hold on to their delusions.

The Lib Dems deserve a mention. It was a bad call to push for this election. People who might know about these things suggest that a combination of the European Parliament election results and some optimistic private polling made them think they had nothing to lose and much to gain, mostly at Labour’s expense, from an early and unnecessary election. The polls don’t support that now, though this time they may benefit from Labour voters in the south and south west voting tactically against the Tories. Those of us who want to stop a Tory victory must hope that that happens, but it won’t be an easy thing to do now that all vestiges of Social Democratic Party DNA have been bred out of the party. They look petty, opportunistic and unlovely. Their good luck is that they’re not the Tories. And if they get a leader with more competence, they could begin their rightful task of eventually replacing the Tories as the major party of the centre-right.

This time next week it might all be over. Or only starting. Damned if I know what’s going to happen. But there is unlikely to be a good outcome, only something from along a spectrum of bad outcomes.

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.