Constitutional Meltdown

When Constitutional guru Peter Hennessey is on the lunchtime news quietly saying that he hasn’t the faintest idea what might, can, or should happen in parliament within the next few days, we know that we are deep in uncharted territory. Anyone who thinks that, once Brexit is “out of the way”, it will be business as usual, is deluding themselves.  And sadly the delusional folk are in plentiful supply.

Let’s set personalities aside (if Theresa May can be called a ‘personality’).  This is not a war between May and Jacob Rees-Mogg, or Anna Soubry and Andrew Bridgen, or Nicky Morgan and Nadine Dorries, Tories all, and with as much in common as a vacuum cleaner has with a lute.  This crisis really is about the British constitution.

It doesn’t even begin with Brexit.  Brexit was a bomb under a rickety bridge.  We loved that old bridge, so ancient, so beautiful, but it was already crumbling.  It might have crumbled away further, sometimes slowly, sometimes with greats chunks falling off, but in the end, sooner or later, it was going to collapse.  Brexit just blew it up fast, and with maximum noise.

The myth of the British constitution is that it is ‘unwritten’, in the sense of having no foundational text, and elegantly flexible, accommodating itself to change without the need for revolutions, constitutional conventions, or any of the deliberative actions of ‘lesser’ nations without the British genius for stable and efficient institutions. Ha, bloody ha, as Walter Bagehot never said.

The real genius of the British constitution was to hide government from the prying eyes of the public.

TV cameras were kept out of Parliament until the 1980s. Daft conventions were used to ‘disguise’ lobby or ministerial briefings, so that political reporting had a language of its own, with ‘sources close to the Prime Minister’ being preferred to naming the bloke (or occasionally woman) who’d told a bunch of journalists something the PM wanted them to be told.  Freedom of Information was granted by Blair, but it was, in practice, hampered, delayed, or even blocked, and increasingly so after 2010.  Opacity suited government (and Parliament), and restricted access to information lent a certain collusive glamour to political journalism.  We all find it difficult to resist being in with the in crowd. But it was a weakness, not a strength.  It assumed that ‘ordinary people’ (that’s me and you) should know as little as possible, except where it was absolutely necessary, or highly convenient.

Add in the elevation of the cult of the amateur in British politics.  The Commons was once, genuinely for many, a ‘gentlemen’s club’, modelled on the most elite public schools and Oxbridge colleges.  It might have been quaint that the Front Benches are two swords’ length apart, or that until relatively recently an MP had to wear a top hat to make a point of order during a division, but it was all part of a pantomime of privilege.  The Commons used to have working hours from 2.30 – 10.00, to enable MPs who wished to, to make a bit of money in the City, or down at the Old Bailey, before tumbling in to the Palace of Westminster at some point in the afternoon, preferably after a good lunch at Rules.

As part of this theatre, MPs pay was kept deliberately low, by comparison with other professions, and certainly by international standards.  This was simply because MPs did not want to have to make the case for their worth to the public.  Instead they instituted a crazy expenses system which was a backdoor bung away from prying eyes.  Some MPs claimed little but their salaries, while most others claimed in lieu of salary, and some for every last paperclip (and duck house).

The resulting MPs expenses scandal which emerged, ironically, as a result of dogged Freedom of Information requests, was a ‘mini Brexit’ in its devastating effects.  It may have helped to bring down the Brown government as much as the financial crash, but its corrosive impact was far greater than that.  It fed a narrative of politicians ‘on the take’, who were ‘only in it for themselves’.  They were ‘all the same’, with ‘snouts in the trough’.  It all helped to alienate the public from their elected representatives.  Even the reforms that came about as a result did not much help. Raising MPs pay and clamping down on expenses and perks, like first class rail travel, did little to assuage the anger and cynicism of many voters.

So by the time David Cameron lazily lit the EU referendum time bomb, the groundwork for a populist firework show had already been well-prepared.  Just add lies, inflammatory rhetoric, clever data harvesting, and dodgy cash.  The poor bloody constitution never stood a chance.

Of course, this is only one aspect of a genuine constitutional crisis.  The public one.  The withering of the social contract.

The other is about power, and procedure.  Governments like to hoard power, and never so much as this friendless Prime Minister, her only confidents Bill and Ben, the Flowerpot Men.  May’s transparent aim right now is to ensure that the only options available to Parliament are her ‘deal’ – the exit agreement – or a cliff edge.

may flowerpots

But, like some parliaments in the past, this is an executive power grab that the legislative chamber is determined to fight.  And there is no mechanism in the constitution to resolve this grave situation except through actions which are without precedent in the democratic era.  It requires parties in effect to dissolve, and the Speaker to make it up as he goes along.  It looks like the 17th Century all over again.  It’s a kind of revolution.

Which is why this constitutional meltdown doesn’t owe everything to Brexit, and why it can’t be business as usual when Brexit is ‘done’, whatever that means.

Our entire political system is in an existential crisis.  The public seems without faith in the legitimacy of the system. We have local government in name only, reduced to the threadbare administration of statutory services.  A centre that hoards power and resources to itself and its region. And now an executive without discipline (the effective minutes of every Cabinet meeting are Tweeted by Sam Coates within minutes, so it seems), and a legislature game for a fight to the death with the PM. And I haven’t even mentioned the electoral system which once was hailed for producing ‘strong government’, but which is now primarily a source of weakness, anchoring a party system which no longer mirrors the key cleavages in society.

One of Theresa May’s favourite slogans is, “Nothing has changed”.  Too damned right.

Now everything must change.

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The Thrill Is Gone

Daniel Hannan has been banging on in the Daily Express about how the Remoaners have finally won dirty, and that they’re going to deny Brexiters their honestly earned prize. Expect more of this. Much more. The whinge is only just beginning, whatever happens this week, on January 21st, or on March 29th, or any other day forevermore.

This is the Great Brexit Betrayal narrative, and it’s going to be epic. A tale of capricious gods, bold Knights of Olde, of the Golden City on a hill, and, for this is a tragedy, of the dastardly tricks played by their foes, those too clever by half ‘Citizens of Nowhere’ with their legions of saboteurs in their magic courtrooms.  Above all, there is the work of the Kingdom of 27 in their Palace of Pandaemonium in far-away ‘Brussels’. The stout yeomen and barefoot virgins of Blighty never stood a chance.

For Brexit was always going to fail.  Even success is failure in the Brexiter narrative.

Because the problem with Brexit all along is that there is nothing to it but the story.  And it’s a disturbing story.

The fevered wailing of the Brexiters was corralled by some of their clever leaders into the ultimate trailer for a Hollywood blockbuster. That was the 2016 Referendum campaign. They had straplines aplenty to tease and excite, and dash, glamour, and excitement.  Brilliant stuff.

But they didn’t have a plan. Or at least, some of them had a vague idea of a direction of travel (Hannan is in that category), and others, perhaps most of them, knew what they were against, but what they were for, that was trickier.  In the trailer/referendum campaign, some clever CGI effects could suffice as indicative, like the ‘serving suggestion’ on a packet of cream crackers, all luscious smoked salmon and glistening sour cream, when all there is inside is a dry biscuit. Brexit looked bloody gorgeous.

But then they won. As Lady Macbeth, Michael Gove’s missus said, “You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!”  And victory called for a plan.

A plan is a detailed set of preparations, diplomatic, constitutional, legal, administrative, economic, industrial, commercial, logistic, and every other tedious bit of hard work associated with delivering a big project on time, and on budget. This was a big, big project.  The time span was tight.  And they hadn’t a clue about what to do. Not a sausage.

But the Brexiters can’t honestly blame anyone.  Nobody stood in their way. No one.  The Opposition, so-called, trotted through the lobby to trigger Article 50.  Ambitious, formerly Remain supporting Tories saw a very attractive bandwagon with a big number on the side, and leapt aboard.  The new, Brexit Means Brexit, PM even gave the big job of ‘delivering’ Brexit, to them.  They were in charge.  They had the reins of power, new ministries, and every accoutrement of government at their disposal.

And you know what?  They blew it.  One by one, they walked away.

Theresa May is a control freak, but only latterly on the Brexit process.  She gave the Leavers their head, and only took on more and more of the burden, because she had no option.  Even when in power, people like Johnson, Davis and Fox were AWOL.  Indolent, stupid, clueless, who knows what the explanation is, but the blame for their failure is theirs.

And the blame is the Tory Party’s.  For incubating the fever, for letting it out of the pox lab, for letting the disease take a grip of swathes of the electorate.

And the blame is the Opposition’s, or at least its “leadership’s”, for a complete failure to do the job as written on the can.

But despite looming failure, the Brexiters aren’t yet cured of their delusions.  They probably never will be. For they saw, smelled the thing they most wanted.  It was pure lust.

As Brexit fever mounted, especially as their feared it might all be a tease, they wanted it harder, they wanted it riskier.  They were up for anything, as long as it was an exhilarating extreme. Crispin Blunt, for example, was desperately agitated  last week, more so even than in his confession to the Commons earlier this year of a passion for poppers, or amyl nitrate.  As for the rest of them, Mogg, Davis, Fox, Bridgen, Davies, Jenkyns, et al, they look like the sort of people who turn up at car parks in wooded areas for an exhibitionist thrill with a stranger.

Because Brexit is the next thrill, the next high, the next fix. It is never about the work, the planning, the sheer diligence, that delivers a plan.

And so, for them, it’s probably come down time.

The thrill is gone.

 

#VicarGate – A Cautionary Tale

Last week I was idly watching Newsnight and contemplating a bedtime cup of tea, when I caught the item billed as a ‘Brexit debate’, with a line up of MPs, and a small group of members of the public. Except that one ‘member of the public’ immediately captured my attention. She was a rather strange looking vicar.

To most British people, myself included, a dog collar evokes a distinctive status. It connotes a certain moral authority, even for those of us who are not of the Christian, or any other faith.  Put simply, we trust that the wearer of that collar will be honest, truthful, kindly, and well-meaning.  To hear the “Reverend Lynn” espouse sheer Brexity bigotry came as quite a shock.

The next day, Newsnight forgotten, I was scrolling through Twitter, and there was the distinctive face of “Rev Lynn”.  She was, according to these Tweets, an ‘actress’, or a jobbing extra, with a sideline in quack ministry of the sort which solicits cash from the gullible.  Everywhere there was outrage about the BBC  paying an actress to play a role on what was meant to be a news programme.  Which the BBC denied.

Vicargate

And I believe their denial.  But what can’t be denied is that, paid or not, the “Rev Lynn” had been cast. She was terrific casting. Weird, mesmerising, terrifyingly humdrum; a League of Gentlemen vicar with a bottle of arsenic next to the teapot.  And thus she was an example of “fake news”, on a public broadcaster paid for by us all.

I have always striven to defend the BBC. It is, like the NHS, a peculiarly British product, a little patrician, a little earnest, sometimes condescending, more often superb.  Unlike any other broadcaster it stretches across the land, with studios in places far from metropolitan glamour.  It spans the world, too, through the magnificent BBC World Service.  As such it is a trusted brand, at home, and more widely, with foreign language services which have been lifelines to many at times of oppression or war.  The English language World Service, and the BBC website have also been vital sources of information to people caught up in natural, or human-created disasters,  like the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, when people from all over the world searching for news of loved ones flocked to the BBC.

So why is this exemplary service under so much suspicion and pressure now, widely accused of partisanship, the false or misleading application of ‘balance’, snd poor judgement when it comes to showcasing extreme opinions, particularly from the far-right?

For once, Brexit isn’t the answer.  This problem with BBC news long predates 2016.  Nor has the BBC been squeaky clean historically.  From the General Strike of 1926, through the Cold War, when a spook had an office in Broadcasting House, with access to employees’ files, the BBC has always been aware of its proximity to the state.

But the current crisis, exemplified by VicarGate is different.

Whilst much news and discussion broadcasting now seeks ‘sensation’ in various forms, provoking an instant and ratings-driving response from the approving and the aggrieved alike, this is something more.  Pitting boring climate change scientists against a glib lobbyist or an ex-politician turned corporate-interests defending gun-for-hire was just the beginning of the normalisation of something very abnormal.

The first time I heard that Steve Bannon’s outfit, Breitbart, had a British website, was when I started seeing James Delingpole as a regular on programmes like The Daily Politics.  It made me look at the Breitbart website, where I was truly shaken by what I saw.  Ditto The Conservative Woman website, a domain name, last time I looked, owned by a man, which became the go-to place for a feisty youngish woman who would argue the case against women’s rights.  No accident, I suspect, that the man in charge at that time is now Theresa May’s Communications Chief.

The BBC still employs, worldwide, many decent, diligent correspondents determined to uphold the highest standards of journalism.  But its public face at home is increasingly coarse, and compromised.

The question is why?  Why “fake news”, gratuitous sensation-seeking, false balance?

The “Rev Lynn” example would not have been out of place as a tale in Peter Pomerantsev’s book, Nothing Is True And Everything Is Possible.  It’s about how Russian media has perfected the art of distracting, confusing, contradicting, alarming, and anaesthetising the audience so that no one knows what to believe, or who to trust.

But how could that possibly benefit the BBC?

It doesn’t.  But if it undermines public trust, and mutes the influential voices of support, eroding, tarnishing the brand, then the rest of the BBC – Eastenders, Radio 3, Countryfile, Strictly, period drama, kids telly, Asian Network, 6 Music, and all the stations, all the online content – eventually goes down with it.

There are a lot of powerful commercial interests in the world who’d like that very much. And we see their placemen and lobbyists on our screens, or behind the scenes, every single day.

There are worms in the apple.

Walking On Sunshine

Why was yesterday’s People’s Vote such a happy event?  Had the BBC bothered to cover it properly, they could have sent their new Royal Correspondent to describe the cheerful procession, the eye-catching costumes, the mother and daughter duos with their witty placards, the dog walkers, and buggy pushers, and all the slightly scrappy homespun razzamatazz of the British in party mood.  Who’d have thought we were protesting about  the gravest crisis in British political and economic life in more than 70 years?

Make no mistake, the exhilaration of the mood was due neither to unseasonably warm weather, nor to a failure to grasp the seriousness of the imminent catastrophe of Brexit. The people who marched, from all corners of Britain, hadn’t been mobilised by slick campaigns, or by organisations with deep roots and an ability to ‘get out a crowd’.  Every adult who marched had made their own commitment to the cause, had mostly foregone a Saturday lie-in, and had paid their own costs to get there.  This was a march which could never be dismissed as a ‘rentamob’.

There is no point rehearsing once again the reasons why Brexit is a trail of errors, snowballing onward towards a cliff edge; a campaign of lies led by spivs and chancers; a giant confidence trick, probably aided by foreign interests, possibly using illegal means.  This is all a matter of record, however much pressure is piled onto the Metropolitan Police to refrain from a criminal investigation into the cheating cheaters who are  laughing into their off-shore swill buckets.  Take it as read – Brexit Means Toxic.

So was our joy on the march due to that well known psychological phenomenon whereby people who ‘will’ themselves to die reach a stage shortly before death of perfect bliss?

I don’t think so.  Many of the conversations I had, or which I overheard,  as well as the clever and pointed placards and banners, most of them home made, were tentative, questioning, puzzled, even.  What was really happening?  Where was the country heading?  Could a People’s Vote actually happen, and if it did, what might be the result – not just of the vote, but of the aftermath.  These were conversations which were hesitant,  yet also somehow conscious that this is a time of profound change, where nothing can ever be the same again, and where the solid political ground of the past is dissolving before our eyes.   Yet the shape of whatever will emerge is not yet visible.  Unsettling, yes, but energising too.

NHSVsBrexit

That energy comes from a sense that this thing, ‘Brexit’, that has diseased our politics and riven our society, is a plague that must and will burn itself out, leaving nothing substantial behind.  It has no vision, no programme, no policies, no strategies, and its advocates stand before us, naked and ridiculous, if, still, clinging to power.

Which brings me to two questions that must be addressed by our side.

The first question is, who are we? In a strangely convoluted Twitter thread yesterday,  former journalist-turned-Corbyn cheerleader, Paul Mason, wrote,

“A warning. If 17 m voters see Brexit overturned + blame the socio-economic group dominant yesterday we will see marches 2x that big and they will be a lot less pleasant..”

The bit of that I want to focus on first, is “the socio-economic group dominated yesterday”.  What, exactly is that ‘group’?

I wasn’t in any position to poll them, set-up a focus group, or hand out questionnaires, alas (I’m a woman, not a think tank). They seemed more white than the general population, and ‘middle class’ (which, if you crunch the numbers, is also a description of the bedrock of Brexit support).  It’s important to take the concept of class seriously, probably more seriously than the categories used by pollsters, and lazily recycled by journalists and commentators into phrases like ‘middle class’, or ‘white working class’. Insofar as one could discern anything, they seemed to reflect the divisions of our times, with older, retired people materially secure and comfortable, and those of working age increasingly precarious, even where their educational levels were high.  That they were mostly city dwellers seems to be the key distinction.

I can’t share the demonisation of 17 million Leave voters, even if I recognise a certain truth in the ‘wall of gammon’ stereotype of those ‘members of the public’ cast by Mentorn  (makers of Question Time for the BBC).  We know that they tended not to live in cities, but in more ethnically homogeneous small towns and rural areas, and that they had fewer educational qualifications. But when looked at in qualitative detail – such as in journalist John Harris’s films made in places like Dorset, and Walsall – it is clear that, in common with the marchers on 20th October, they were people looking for answers, and not finding it in conventional political parties, or in the functioning of the political system. That some of them were persuaded to choose a bad answer doesn’t make them bad people, any more than having a higher degree, and earning diddly squat doesn’t make you part of the metropolitan elite.  We share a yearning for answers, and for leadership. That’s who most of ‘them’ are, and that’s who most of ‘us’ are.

The second question is more specific: where is Labour, what is it for?

On the People’s Vote march in June, as we moved into Whitehall the chant went up, “Where’s Jeremy Corbyn?”  Not this time.

Not this time, because Labour was irrelevant.  An absence. A party with fewer members than we had mobilised without organisational clout.  A party with no answers to our questions. They simply didn’t matter.  There were some branch banners on the march, and Another Europe Is Possible, and Left Unity (bless them and their great good humour), were very visible, and the Greens made a lot of very welcome noise.  That we walked alongside Lib Dems (midwives to Austerity which inarguably made Brexit happen), and anti-Brexit Tories did not matter.  While’ Jeremy’ was out meeting someone about Pinochet, I remembered (I paraphrase) something a Chilean political exile from from Pinochet’s regime said – “When democracy is under fatal attack, you see who really believes in democracy.  Some of your own side will desert you, and some of the other side will stand staunchly beside you.”  Because the heart of the matter is the principle.

Had Labour embraced a People’s Vote in June, it would have led that march, and owned this one  – and it would have had the Tories running for their political lives.  Instead they keep up their dreary non-position, which pleases no one, and languish in the polls against a Tory Party that is busily destroying itself.  This is why their absence didn’t matter yesterday.

What did matter yesterday were the conversations.  The questions – ‘What do you think will happen?’ ‘How do we get out of this?’ ‘Will there be a new party?’ ‘ ‘What happens next?’  And the answers – ‘We need a new constitution’, ‘change the voting system’, ‘restore fair access to the law.’  ‘let’s look at new local economic models’.

To put it bluntly, we’re the people trying to avert disaster.  And we’re the people trying to come up with a plan to make the future better. And we seem to be edging our way there.

This is why we were walking on sunshine.

Traf Squar Oct 2018

Constitutional Crimes

When Boris Johnson, channelling Steve Bannon in Trump speechwriter mode, said that the Prime Minister had “strapped a suicide belt around the British Constitution and handed the detonator to Brussels,” he was echoing the American President in more ways than one.  When Trump lashes out at critics, he tends to accuse them of having his own worst attributes – “crooked” Hillary, “lying” media, “fake news”.  Likewise, the British blond occupant of some of the highest positions in the land accuses others of his own worst tendencies.

For It is Johnson who has led the campaign that has in reality detonated high explosives in the vicinity of the British Constitution.

What is The British Constitution?

It’s not a document, amendable only with difficulty, and with widespread assent across the branches of government.  Indeed, if it had been, it’s hard to see how the 2016 Referendum would ever have been permitted to happen, at least, on the terms upon which it was run.  The British Constitution is, and this is something its admirers have long revered, both a set of statutes, and a vague and amorphous ‘culture’ formed from custom and practice, which adapts almost seamlessly to changing times, thus maintaining an orderly polity, malleable, pragmatic, yet steadfast in the face of revolution.  Thus we are a democracy, with an hereditary Head of State, and an unelected second chamber; a secular and liberal country with a State religion; an extender of the franchise and the rights of citizens from above, rather than from below.  A nation safe for a rich man in his castle, and a poor man at his gate.  Very Tory.

Some of this still applies, of course.  The Houses of Parliament, a crumbling, rat-ridden place (that’s actual rodents, not a metaphor), is still there, surrounded by scaffolding and under dust sheets, it’s true, but recognisable.  The process of lawmaking has not changed. Elections are held according to rules which are overwhelmingly accepted, and to which almost everyone adheres. All is well.

Except it isn’t.

There’s is a good reason why the institutions of the British Constitution of old were pretty sniffy about plebiscites, until 1975.  Unlike the subtle, malleable, conveniently fudgeable old Constitution, referendums are binary, and absolute.  Some countries that make more use of such tools than Britain does traditionally, set high thresholds for change, in order to avoid any doubt about “the will of the people”, but even so, plebiscites are rightly viewed as a hazardous substance in the ecosystem of representative democracy.

The problem is, we’ve actually had a referendum.  The rules were sloppy, the careless promises of the then PM were a hostage to fortune, the Opposition was in the midst of a Leadership contest when the referendum bill went through Parliament, but bad laws get passed all the time.  Except that bad laws can be repealed.  A democratic vote cannot be annulled.

The 2016 referendum was the high explosive. The detonator was in many hands, from the pathetic nonentity  who murdered Jo Cox, to Nigel Farage, to Dominic Cummings, to Gisela Stuart, et al.   But the man who above all has his fingerprints all over the device, is Boris Johnson.

Posing as a man of the people, with a flair for both Latin, and the demotic, Johnson knew what he was doing, just as much as Arron Banks, or Vlad, Lord of the Bots. It scarcely matters whether Johnson’s ‘game plan’ was to play an exciting game, but ‘lose’, whilst usefully cementing his place in the hearts of the elderly and dwindling ranks of the Conservative Party; or whether he actually did want to ‘win’ the prize of Brexit, the thing that remains as unknowable as ever, even as we enter the final countdown to it becoming a reality.  Johnson can use words like ‘national sovereignty’ all he likes, but the fact is that he was prepared – and remains prepared – to blow up the constitution for perceived personal advantage.

By “blow up”, I mean this: people were offered a vote on something so legally complex, economically uncertain, and politically untested, that even its advocates in Parliament still can’t describe it, except in slogans. Honest people will accept that none of us really knew much about what the vote was about.  But the vote happened.

Now we are in a situation where nearly all options are bad.  To let Brexit happen, in some form or another, is a bad option.  Parliament ‘taking back control’, and pausing or halting Brexit in a variety of ways, with a variety of pretexts available is constitutionally possible, and yet one can’t see MPs, most of whom seem to be terrified of their own voters, having the guts to do that, and even if they did, it would not ‘feel’ legitimate, given the 2016 vote, and the narrow victory for Leave.  Then there is the People’s Vote option.  It is the least worst way to move forwards, by giving voters a further vote on the final deal – including the option of hitting the restart button.  But that we are here at all is a fatal fissure in the legitimacy of the political system.  Oh that poor constitution!  Can it survive this bloody mess?

Does it even deserve to survive?

A strong, stable political system with a clear basis in law would never have got to this point.  What Johnson and company blew up was an edifice even more unfit for purpose than the Palace of Westminster.

When Brexit is ‘resolved’ enough to think about other things, we need to have a movement to create a new constitution fit for a modern democracy.  One robust enough not to become a plaything for “loonies, fruitcakes, and closet racists”, as David Cameron, worst PM in history, once quipped.  A constitution in which there is a clearly understood, robust social contract between people and the politicians they elect.  One in which our rights and responsibilities as citizens and denizens are properly embedded and defended, with proper respect for minority rights. One which is constructed to recognise that the nation-state is a declining institution, and that regional and international cooperation has to be the norm to handle the problems of a world as networked and inter-connected as the one in which we now live.  Borders?  You can’t “take back control” of them. Borders are on the way out.

But above all, we have to start thinking, talking, and planning for these things with urgency.

Why?  Because Boris blew up the constitution.

Fighting Brexit With One Hand Tied Behind You

Last night’s meeting of the Another Europe Is Possible‘s tour to promote a left opposition to Brexit was a strange, melancholy affair.  One had a sense of people, honest, decent women and men of the left, who understood and despaired at the catastrophe that is Brexit, who could see how it is not one in a shopping list of ‘issues’, so much as an existential crisis which puts everything else, up to and including democracy itself, at risk, and yet somehow were holding back, fearful of the fight.  Why?

The first speaker, Ravi Subramaniam, West Midlands General Secretary of Unison, put it clearly. We were all, he said, “of the left”, the people in the hall, and those outside who voted to leave the EU, and on everything else could and would continue to work together, as on the picket line at at dispute of low paid care workers he’d recently come from.  And on one level, that is true. Yet the statement felt suffused with bathos.  This man from a union movement which mostly stayed neutral during the referendum campaign, despite TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady’s spirited performance in one of the televised debates, felt he had to hold back, even as he stood on a platform pledging support for a People’s Vote on the final ‘deal’. The tone was simply wrong, and it wasn’t his fault.

The two speakers from other EU countries, Dr Lorenza Antonucci, and Marina Prentoulis, were not constrained by this very English reticence. Antonucci made a point which perhaps resonates more in her native Italy, yet ought to ring alarm bells here, when she urged us to look to the detailed polling data, and to reject the narrative that Brexit had much to do with ‘the working class’. Brexit’s bedrock vote was the middling sort of people seething with resentment at others whom they presumed to be doing better than they were at ‘milking the system’ – in other works, the social group that historically has always anchored authoritarianism – and fascism.

The youngest speaker (who made that point herself), was Aimee Challenor, the Green Party’s Equalities spokesperson.  But she was speaking to an audience of the middle aged and the elderly.  Where were all the young people who have most to lose from Brexit?  The Labour Party’s hundreds of thousands of Remain-voting teens and twenty-somethings?

Labour wasn’t exactly the elephant in the room, because people were actually talking about it.  The ghost at the famine, perhaps?  A spectre haunting our Europe debate?

Zoe Williams tackled the subject head-on, and with some passion.  An active member of the Vauxhall CLP now locked in a battle with its disgrace of a ‘Labour’ MP, UKIP’s Kate Hoey, Williams must be in the thick of it on an almost constant basis.  It was Williams, in a reference to the previous evening’s meeting in Nottingham, who gave a glimpse into the problem.  There had been a stand-up argument with an angry Momentum activist, but one had the sense that many of the Another Europe Is Possible campaigners were in almost constant battle with people whom they exasperatingly thought ought to be on the same side.  Nor was there even any sense of why all these mostly Remain voting people thought the 2016 vote had acquired an almost sacred quality demanding the utmost respect.  Well, there was. It was all about “Jeremy”.

A women in the audience, Labour and Momentum member, who spoke later made it plain.  She was as desperately anxious to stop Brexit as anyone else there, but she was also in almost palpable distress at what this might mean for “Jeremy”.  How could they be so cruel as to push “Jeremy” to do a U-turn? Wouldn’t it make him look weak at a general election they just had to win?

Zoe Williams responded that all the evidence was that Tory/UKIP leavers voted on the basis that Brexit was the number one issue, subsuming all others, whereas for for Labour Leave voters, in any case a minority of Labour voters, Brexit was about fifth in their list of priorities.  Labour, Williams said, had more to lose by alienating Remainers.

Williams also made the point that time was short, little more than weeks, really, and that realistically only Labour,  through a change of heart, and of strategy, and increasingly of parliamentary tactics, could stop Brexit.  We had no other vehicle.  As she put it, “these are the institutions we have”.

What I’ve described is an angst-fest where sincere, mostly Labour lefties railed against their own side, who ought to have been packing the Town Hall to the rafters, and marching, scarlet banners aloft, on Downing Street, but who instead had chosen to expend their energies on backing slates for the NEC, or compositing motions on buses for conference.  There were a few lone cries from the audience for a campaign proper – for doing practical things.  One woman stressed the need for cross-party work, which everyone knows is true, but daren’t say it, because the “Jeremy” people think this a betrayal of the purity of the project.  John Bloomfield, the mildest of men, with a lifetime as an activist and writer of the left, heckled from the floor, and eventually spoke, to list the alliances we needed to make with every section of the economy and society if we were to build support of a new vote. But this wasn’t a place for that kind of practical argument.

Perhaps the best point was made by Marina Prentoulis, speaking of the 3 million EU citizens in the UK denied a vote in the 2016 referendum.  There is something deeply offensive to democracy, when the people most sharply affected by a vote are excluded from participation.  Add that to the lies, and now the fraud, and the covert meddling of foreign powers, and the sanctity of the referendum vote starts to look indefensible.

And so the meeting ended unsatisfactorily, neither a rousing call to arms, nor with a practical plan for what ought to be a busy summer.

On the bus going home afterwards I thought of Tim Shipman’s book, All Out War, on the Brexit campaign.  It is suggested there that David Cameron lost his referendum gamble because he prioritised the post-referendum unity of the Tory Party over the national interest.  Unlike his opponents (in his own party), be fought with one arm tied behind him.  Ironically, that’s where we are now, a left itching to fight, but gagged by its own side.

This crisis is too big for us to accept that.  Labour must be pushed, this conference season, into long overdue action to stop Brexit.  It is its historic duty.

Local Wealth Building: Constructive Resistance – Or More?

The Local Wealth Building Summit organised by CLES in association with other partners, including City-REDI at the Birmingham Business School, took place in the week of extraordinary events at home and abroad.  The UK Constitution looked to be rocking, its electoral laws too weak, Parliament gridlocked, the PM without authority, the major parties divided.  As for the once familiar ‘World Order’ – what World Order?  With such a backdrop, who wants to talk procurement, co-ops, local government?

It seems that many people do, and with good reason.  Mid-way through the afternoon session I Tweeted that no one had yet mentioned Brexit.  Over the last two years I’ve attended many meetings, conferences, seminars, even literary festivals, in which the B word was inescapable. Indeed, a decade into ‘austerity’, there were few mentions of central government, and that mainly confined to the dead hand of the Treasury upon local initiative.  This feels new, indicative of something qualitatively different in the practical politics of living in today’s Europe (and further afield).

The Centre for Local Economic Strategies is a ‘think tank’.  Most of my engagements with think tanks over the last few years has tended to be with those of the right, like Bright Blue, Localis, and others. (I even attended the triumphant launch of Britannia Unchained in 2012, the book that launched the careers of Dominic Raab, Liz Truss, and others on the young Tory right.)  It is instructive sometimes to look at these events not as being about different kinds of political approach to knotty policy issues, but through the eyes of an amateur social anthropologist.  The ‘right-oriented’ gatherings tended to be of policy wonks, SPADs, would-be MPs, lobbyists and journalists; a professional political caste operating, or hoping to, at the highest levels of government.

The Local Wealth Building Summit was not at all like that in feel.  One complaint from a delegate at the end was that he’d expected more of a practical exchange of ideas about how to do things on the ground at a local level.  It was a fair point, although I suspect that more than a few such exchanges happened over lunch, or coffee.  But there were other things going on that are, I suspect, even more important to our times.

CLES, and even more so, City-REDI, are not politically partisan outfits.  Both, particularly City-REDI, work pragmatically with all relevant actors and stakeholders on the basis of meticulous research to inform rational, evidence-based policy-making.  This is itself at odds with the tenor of our time, which makes them, whether they like it or not, representatives of something different from the world view that has dominated our political and economic thinking for more than a generation.

Explicitly a lot of the discussion was couched in terms which were profoundly critical of neoclassical economics.  Politically, too, there was little expectation placed on formal political institutions, except in the most pragmatic ways.  ‘These are the tools we have’, seemed to be the assumption.

Even more clear was the absence of the language and methods of lobbying.  It is as if, at least in the context of the Local Wealth Building community, methods which once dominated our political practice have been shrunk back to the second order tools they used to be.

In this context, the banishing of today’s political dramas from discussion felt significant, indicative of change.

Which is why I left the summit with more optimism than I have felt in a very long time.

I was left with the impression that, however difficult the situation individuals, organisations, and institutions find themselves in in the here and now, there is new thinking emerging, building upon practical approaches to change.  The ‘top down’ models were rejected as too slow, too sclerotic, too jealous of their power.  There was a recognition that small initiatives could be, as Neil McInroy put it, “stitched together”, “embroidered” into a whole, so that the sum became greater than its parts.

The day had started with Councillor John Cotton of Birmingham City Council talking about their programme of “Energy and Water Socialism”, which is talk to quicken the pulse of any true citizen of Birmingham, the home of “gas and water socialism”.  He made reference, too, to a local bank, bringing to mind the old Birmingham Municipal Bank, which had once powered local economic prosperity, and citizen’s financial security   (with its slogan ‘Thrift Radiates Happiness’).  But this was no rose-tinted nostalgia for the age of municipal pride, but rather new thinking about how to recalibrate ‘the economy’, and with it, political power, to ensure that wealth no longer flows out of most of the world, but irrigates the places where it is made.

In short, I felt as though I had been privileged to have witnessed a moment in which things were starting to change.  About time.

(Photograph: A stained glass window from the headquarters of the Birmingham Municipal Bank, featuring the City Crest, with its motto, ‘Forward’, and figures representing ‘Industry’, and ‘Progress’.)

The Meaning Of The March

Why drag yourself out of bed early on a Saturday morning and trudge into a steamy central London to march against a vote you lost two years before? Because democracy is a culture, and a continuous process, irreducible to a single, one-off vote. And because, more pointedly, Brexit is, as the banner politely put it, Bonkers.

There is no longer any point in making the argument against Brexit. Even its most ardent fans don’t bother to say how good it’s going to be. They are busy inventing their excuses, which mainly seem to consist of blaming the other side for their epic failure.  The march, ostensibly for a vote on the final ‘deal’ (a negotiated breaking of a set of treaties can hardly be called a deal), is more accurately described as a response to a political vacuum.

At least 100,000 people marched because it was all we could do.  We’ve emailed our MPs, and got insolent standard letters on House of Commons headed paper in reply.  We’ve Tweeted our MPs and been blocked.  Politicians take a lot of abuse on social media, I know that, but not from us. It wasn’t our side who assassinated an MP, and made death threats to others.  We marched as a cry of anguish, and as a demand for action.  And neither the government, nor the opposition, is listening.

It was right that people on the march came from all parties.  The reason why is clear from looking at this week’s Turkish elections.  When the culture of democracy is strained, even though its formal institutions remain, opponents of the government must work together on the things on which they agree.

This is not the same thing as diluting one’s own political beliefs, as Caroline Lucas made clear in a powerful speech in Parliament Square.  She spoke fully aware of her status as co-leader of a small party, and its only Parliamentarian; but she also spoke as a true Leader of the Opposition ought to have spoken at the rally.  She emphasised the need for an uncompromising radicalism, and projected a vision of something more than merely stopping the UK from going through with a pointless, divisive and damaging Brexit.  She spoke with honesty and friendship to the people who were not of her party or her political persuasion, whilst also holding true to her own egalitarian, feminist and internationalist beliefs.

‘Where’s Jeremy Corbyn?’ sang the crowd. His absence was bitterly resented by the many  Labour voters and party members in the streets on Saturday. The biggest march for jobs and social and workplace rights seen in the last more than 30 years, and no official Labour Party representatives or banners visible?  That is shameful.

Labour’s official absence was pitched on social media, by its cheerleaders, in sectarian terms.  ‘Socialists’, it was said, can’t be contaminated by contact with the likes of other Labour MPs and members, let alone other parties.  Don’t they understand that sects are little, inward-looking things, ever concerned for their own ideological purity, and doomed to irrelevance?  Confident, outward-facing socialism is unafraid, ever willing to take the argument to others.  The practical socialism of Labour at its best has always been a wider vision, taking good ideas from wherever they originated.  That’s what created the settlement of 1945.

Moreover, it’s not 1945!  The Five Giants then were Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor, and Idleness.  That was resonant language for the time, but today we need a new way of characterising what is wrong with our society and our world, and a new vision of what to do about it.

This is an Age of Insecurity. Insecure jobs, insecure housing tenure, uncertain access to health and social care, underfunded schools, private debt, and then the huge giants, which know no boundaries, looming ahead – like climate change, population movement, the end of the era of fossil fuels, and the automation of much work.

Insecurity is corrosive.  It makes us fearful and mean.  The Brexit against which we marched, the US President against whom we will next march, and much else in our politics which is ugly and amoral, even immoral, is fuelled by insecurity.

The march for a People’s Vote made a minimum demand for a constitutional concession, but for many of us, stopping Brexit is merely a way of removing a huge roadblock in the way of addressing the really big issues of unfairness and insecurity in the world.  Today’s problems, even the vast ones requiring international cooperation, are capable of resolution, if we choose to do things differently.

This is a rich and inventive planet.  We are clever people, and each of us in our own ways, through our own lived experience knows some of the things that would make our lives more secure, and fairer.  Politics, a true radical politics, is about turning all that into practical plans.

That is where Labour should be.  On the march, and looking way beyond it, brimming with ideas, communicating them with vigour and optimism, and running rings around a failed and exhausted government.

We’re waiting.  But we haven’t got much time, or patience left.

fuck off boris

Brex(it) In The City

A flippant headline, because this is a very far from lightweight subject. Sometimes being a conscientious citizen trying my best to understand the world feels like drowning. It certainly does where Brexit is concerned.

So last Friday I headed off to The Council House, as Birmingham’s grand palace of local government is quaintly called, for a workshop on Brexit organised by City-REDI at the Birmingham Business School. City-REDI is concerned with the study of city-regions around the world, with the task of developing a sound empirical understanding of the dynamics of regional economies, and associated political and structural questions.  These are my words, and I may have misrepresented their mission, so, also my words, they are clever people who know stuff. and they have been working on a project to study the economic impacts of Brexit on the UK, its regions, its cities, and its sectors.  Basically all the stuff David Davies said they’d done ages ago, then admitted that he was only kidding, and they’d done sweet FA.

And is it terrifying? You bet. But perhaps not in the terms I had expected.

Firstly, the shock of Brexit to the economy, already being felt, but not nearly as much as it will be once we leave the EU, is likely to be three or four times the impact of the financial crash of 2008.  There’s around £140 billion of UK economic activity each year directly at risk because of Brexit.  We know that the regions likely to be worst impacted will be the Leave voting areas, but I hadn’t also realised the extent to which the jobs at risk tend to be more productive than average, so Britain’s already serious productivity problems will be exacerbated by Brexit. Slide after slide was shown, and pretty much all of it looked bad. And remember, we voted to do this to ourselves.

But I’m not writing about this because I want to plagiarise other people’s numbers. I’m sure you can find lots of information on City-REDI’s website if you want to enjoy the jaw-dropping stats for yourself. What really hit me, right from the start, at this workshop was the absence of politics.

Not the careful non-partisanship of the key speakers; that much is to be expected from policy wonks and number crunchers. Brexit is a highly political project, yet the guiding hand of political leadership was seemingly absent without Leave. Ostensibly about manufacturing in the West Midlands city-region, it was two and a half hours in before anyone even mentioned the Mayor, and central government and Parliament more generally, was scarcely referenced.  Senior planners in the Core Cities and the LGA complain that, “Government won’t speak to us”.  And as for the academic experts, they seemed politely stunned by the low level of understanding of some of the biggest political names.  One economist described the ongoing parliamentary debate about Brexit and trade as a political narrative based on a “Corn Law level of understanding of trade” which is irrelevant to global value chains.  A 19th Century ding dong about 21st Century trading relationships? Hell and handcarts beckon.

So next time you hear all the slogans about “they do more trade with us than we do with them”, and big figures about imports and exports, remember this.  They’re talking in terms that made sense in a long gone world of Lancashire cotton, Welsh iron, and Kentish coal.  Surplus/deficit arguments are irrelevant. There are new phrases which some of us have started noticing, about ‘just in time supply chains’, and ‘global value chains’, and what matters in trading systems which operate in ways which are not regulated by national boundaries; indeed, national boundaries are a serious irritant (don’t mention Ireland).

The Concerned Citizens Club in the audience for this wholly informative, non-partisan event seemed to consist solely of anxious Remainers.  This did surprise me, anxious Remainer that I am.  Surely the Brexit supporters would be out in force to hear how their Grand Project was faring, and to offer their analyses and prescriptions?  Their absence was very telling.  Basically the only argument they seem to have left is “Will of the People”.  They won a vote. End of.  That really isn’t good enough, and you can sense they know it.

The only Brexit voice came from a speaker, Justin Benson of KPMG, who had voted Remain, but claimed cheerfully that he would now vote Leave, if another vote were to be held. His reasons seemed entirely pragmatic.  Like everyone else questioned, he shared the assumption that Brexit would happen. So for him, and for the businesses in the automotive sector on which he advised, it was a simply question of as much certainty as possible in the here and now.  Unfortunately, the way he illustrated this, entirely rationally, was by showing how decisions on new models, and where to build them, were made.  And they are made in Munich, or Tokyo, Seoul, or Mumbai.  If Brexit screws up JL-R Solihull, the vehicles will still get made.  Just not here.

But there is a much bigger political, constitutional question which Brexit has brought into focus.

Although no one said it in these words, there was a baseline assumption that central government, and the state itself, was largely irrelevant.  It had caused the circumstances, Brexit, but it was playing little in the way of an effective guiding role in how the country was responding to Brexit, and was doing even less in the way of detailed planning, including contingency planning for an event ostensibly less than a year away.  Local government was doing its best, but was too fragmented, and had too little power, particularly fiscal power.

So my key conclusions from the day were less about Brexit, than about our entire political culture.  The hollowing out of the state, the loss of capacity, the reliance on outsourcing, the replacement of parties which represented sectional interests with parties which game elections, the growth of a career political cadre, and the associated centralisation, and above all, the four decades long battering of local government, all have wreaked havoc on political legitimacy.  One phrase that came up several times through the day was ‘Devolution works’.  The regional authorities set up by Ted Heath in 1974, the Metropolitan Counties, are now being reinvented as Mayors with Combined Authorities, but they have less power than in Heath’s vision.  There’s an awfully long way to go.

We need root and branch constitutional reform, including electoral reform, regional devolution, a less centralised system overall, and a ban on referendums.

And that is just the start.  But first there’s a little matter of Brexit.

Rivers Of Bile

Today is the 50th anniversary of Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, and it seems a fitting week in which to look back on the Tory politician’s triumphant achievement.  His “wide grinning piccaninnies” (a racist term recently also used by the Foreign Secretary) are now older people, blinking unexpectedly on our TV screens, or staring balefully from newspaper front pages, their long lives ripped asunder by policies inspired by Powell.

‘Rivers of Blood’ was a deeply political speech, in the very worst sense of ‘political’.  It was written, orchestrated, and performed for a very precise purpose – to advance the purposes and ego of the politician who gave it, and to discomfort his enemies.  (Remember that in politics, your enemies are in your own party; the other lot are just opponents.)  Powell had observed the effectiveness of racism and xenophobia in creating a populist tide which was difficult for political leaders to control.  His former near neighbour as a Conservative MP was Peter Griffiths, who defeated the Shadow Foreign Secretary in Smethwick in a notoriously racially offensive campaign in 1964.  Monday Club member, Harold Gurden, the racist Tory MP for Selly Oak, sat with Powell as a West Midlands MP at the time, and there were others, who walked the walk, and talked the talk well before Powell began to dabble in inflammatory rhetoric.

Powell, the vain dilettante with few real political achievements to his name, was resentful of Edward Heath’s leadership of the Tory Party. ‘Rivers of Blood’ was above all a bombshell aimed at Heath, a liberal, modernising, pro-European politician, who represented a world Powell pretended not to understand, and into which he did not comfortably fit.  Powell took advice from the media savvy, and ensured that he made his speech with an unusually large media presence, timed to make the evening news, and the Sunday papers.

The speech was a sensation, but, at the time, also a failure.  It didn’t rock Ted Heath’s leadership; indeed, it probably made him Prime Minister, when the Tories did unexpectedly well in the 1970 general election.  It didn’t prevent the 1968 Race Relations Act coming into effect.  It exiled Powell from the Front Bench, and eventually from the Tory Party altogether.  Powell ended his career as an Ulster Unionist and ardent Europhobe.

And yet, what a staggering success the speech turned out to be.

It proved that race hate is a potent political weapon for the right.  It reaches the parts of the electorate other policies and attitudes cannot reach.  It mobilises and radicalises people in ways the political Establishment cannot control.  It speaks to the romantic, mythic past of an England that never was.  It is authentically Conservative, because it is a brake upon the hated forces of modernity and change.

Powell’s legacy is Brexit, a victory bought by anti-immigrant mania.  Powell’s legacy is Theresa May, the scourge of the children Powell disparaged and abused in his various speeches on ‘race’.

And yet, might this be both the highest, and the lowest point for the Powellite toxin in the Tory bloodstream?

He could get away with his “piccanninnies” “with no word of English” (really?  From Jamaica?), because the newspaper editors, and the great and the good, knew little of the people from the New Commonwealth in their midst.  But now, in 2018?

The Windrush Generation are people we know, people we are.  The policy of a ‘hostile environment’ on immigration, the obsession with ‘getting numbers down to tens of thousands’, look like bureaucratic heartlessness teamed with political malice.

There is a lesson from 1968, and specifically from ‘Rivers of Blood’, that needs to be learned again.

Heath, the Party leader, and Harold Wilson, the Prime Minister, faced Powell down.  The petitions and marches subsided.  The refugees from Kenya were admitted. The Race Relations Act was passed, and later made tougher, in 1976.  The mob was thrown no red meat. And there’s a phrase for that: political leadership.

Stop focus grouping everything, basing policies on polling, following the crowd in search of electorate advantage, and concentrate on principle, and evidence-based policy making.  Political leadership can lead us away from this 50 year dead-end of immigration mania.

So make it happen….