Saturday, 27 June 2020

Where is Scotland going?


It may have escaped your notice, what with an ongoing, world-encircling and panic-inducing pandemic, but the British state has not escaped its many crises. Coronavirus can blot them out, accentuate them sometimes, light them up always: but it has not made them go away.

The most immediate of these is of course Brexit, and the extent to which the United Kingdom should or can pursue a deep and abiding deal with the European Union – not just on trade, but on health, education, travel, security and more. A deal is still quite possible, perhaps even likely, but it’s not on the table yet.

Beyond that, the next and even more daunting mountains – holding the state itself together. Most people have understandably got their attention pointed away from constitutional matters at the moment, but prospects for the cause of Scottish independence are looking brighter and brighter. That will cast a long pall over public affairs for some years to come.

Polling reveals the pro-independence camp to be at an all-time high. Where they were toiling at the end of last year, posting results of between 38 and 46 per cent, they now ride high, hitting 50 per cent in the latest Panelbase poll – a lead of seven per cent over Scotland’s unionists. And there’s more to it than the numbers: the cause of the union looks weaker, less enduring, more threadbare as the months tick by.

It’s not just that the young favour independence, though they do indeed feel like that – in huge numbers that make the world ‘landslide’ look a bit puny. It’s that Scotland’s No campaigners are now leaderless, rudderless, divided and just a bit punchdrunk. Increasingly, they just look like they’ve had all the fight knocked out of them.

The ruling Scottish National Party have colonised most of the civic institutions that used to be Labour’s for the asking. The three unionist parties hate each other almost as much as they do the Nationalists. Without Ruth Davidson, the Conservatives’ energetic leader up until 2019, Scottish Tories look colourless. No-one has so much as seen Scottish Labour’s leader for years.

Most of all, the present context helps the SNP no end. They basically have no opponents. A seemingly endless succession of Conservative governments in London boosts their case that ‘progressive’ Scots ought to want out of the Union. UK Labour’s unpleasant and unending civil war threatened, up until early this year, to make Labour the quintessential nasty party. The Liberal Democrats have just missed another gilt-edged chance to break into the really big time, just as they did in 1974, 1983 and 2010.

Most pressingly, coronavirus itself has boosted the SNP’s fortunes even further. Crass as it is to say this aloud – and the whole deadly mess weighs on all of us – Scotland is perceived by its voters to have done better than ‘England’ in the fight against the virus.

That’s not always fair. Scottish public policy has been all over the place. Care homes were left unguarded. Testing has been chaotic. Schools policy has veered all over the place. Scotland’s per capita deaths are not all that far behind England’s.

But two factors have made the Scottish public’s ‘rally round the flag’ focus on the Saltire in Edinburgh and not the Union Flag in London. One: First Minster Nicola Sturgeon is quite simply a much more plausible figure than Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Agree with her or disagree with her – and this blog does not believe that secession would be in the best interests of Scots – she somehow manages to be both more nimble and more weighty than that bloviating try-hard in No. 10.

Then, point two: Scotland has deliberately emerged out of lockdown just that little bit slower than England. It is not clear that this will make much difference to the prevalence of Covid-19. Frankly, all the ‘facts’ are slewing about journal pre-prints right now. But what it does do is create some bright yellow water between the SNP and the blue team in Downing Street.

As Johnson struggles to hold together a national consensus around reactivating the British economy (and, let’s face it, four national consensuses), his numbers sag back towards normal dislike: Sturgeon’s, and her government’s, soar. It’s not particularly fair, but hey. Nothing is, in the end.

And so the SNP will likely win an overall majority again when we get to next year’s Scottish Parliamentary elections, just as they did in 2011 (but failed to in 2016). That’s not certain – nothing is, in the age of the pandemic – but it looks pretty likely right now. That will set off yet another existential crisis for British politics. Stop us if you’ve heard all this before.

Holyrood will call for another referendum on independence. It will not even have been seven years since the last one. Like buses, referendums all seem to come bunched up together. But who can really say that the mandate won by David Cameron in 2014 has not run out, after everything that’s happened? The prospectus for the Union now seems fundamentally altered, not least because now it does not involve staying in the European Union.

The Scottish Government will, even so, now run into a problem. That’s because they can’t legally hold a referendum – not without a so-called Section 30 Order under the devolution legislation gaining permission for such a plebiscite from the UK’s central government. It will be at this stage that the long-running and chronic nature of this likely crisis may become apparent.

It will not be in Johnson’s interests to give way at this point. As the economy drags itself out of the coronavirus slump – if we’re lucky – and as his own government reaches mid-term after eleven years of Tory power, he is hardly likely to risk it all on a completely reckless gamble ‘north of the border’ (as he no doubt thinks of it).

If he lost, he would have to resign. And there is nothing, nothing in this world more important to Boris Johnson than Boris Johnson. Not his dog. Not his cardboard buses. Not his many indiscretions. Being Boris Johnson, Prime Minister, is all there is to the whole puppet show.

Nor will his small cadre of Vote Leave ideologues willingly give up the levers of power in Whitehall and Westminster for what they must regard as a sideshow and a bore. Their mission is, firstly, to rewire the British state to conduct single-shot missions of scientific and industrial renewal, and secondly to push back against the long hegemony of left-liberal ideas in the cultural and intellectual sphere. Who cares about Scotland when you’ve got those pieces on the table?

So Johnson will just say ‘no’ – and keep on saying no, all the way up to and including a General Election. What’s that, we hear you cry? That would be a democratic outrage? Well, let us introduce you to: the Prorogation of the last Parliament; voter ID laws; attempts to diddle shielding Members of Parliament out of their voting rights: and so on.

There’s a second reason why you’d let the SNP keep calling for a new referendum on independence. And that’s the way it gives you a wedge issue in England. You can warn against a Labour government reliant on the ‘foreign’ SNP; you can turn English voters against the ‘feather-bedded’ Scots. Although the evidence that the tactic worked in the 2015 General Election is sketchy and limited, it certainly didn’t hurt.

The Fixed-Term Parliaments Act mandates the next General Election be held in May 2024, but the legislation is likely soon to be repealed, and it may be that the Tories will go to the country as soon as 2023. That will make pressure from Edinburgh even easier to resist, in the run-up to the next election.

What better cry in England could there be than keeping the whole country together? What better toughness can be displayed than just saying ‘no’, ‘no’ and ‘no’ again to the SNP? There is of course the risk to both the Union and the Conservatives’ Scottish seats, but firstly no-one in the midst of those radicals now running the country cares much about the Union, and secondly the Tories only have six Scottish seats, two of which look highly vulnerable whatever happens.

So the gamble is all one way: the risk clusters very thickly around granting a Section 30 Order. It can’t be ruled out. Johnson may see the ball suddenly break out of the scrum, and decide to run for it, pell-mell towards another messy brawl. But it’s less than likely.

For these reasons, after coronavirus the British state will face the arduous task of putting back together its place in the world – and of staying together at all. A long-running battle will emerge, absorbing and exhausting, over whether to draw a new and hard border near Carlisle and Berwick. The Tories will keep shaking their heads. Scottish public opinion could get angrier and angrier.

Because of the frustrations and delays of what could well become a deliberate stalling strategy, the case for the Union may well then be lost. Johnson will deliberately be leaving the unexploded ordnance of a second independence referendum to a future Labour minority administration. The Tories will thus seek to hobble, and ultimately blow up, any left-wing government from the start. They may well succeed.

These strategies are not attractive. But they are rational. And they could well work – setting the scene for another set of ructions in Northern Ireland and Wales. Institutions seek to defend and replicate themselves: the continuity of government is all. But the continuity of British governance is now deeply in doubt.

PLEASE NOTE: This blog will be coming to an end in October. The very first entry was published on 25 October 2010, and exactly ten years later seems like the right time to bring down the curtain. There is so much to do, and some other people are very kindly asking me to write for them. The blog will therefore cease, although it will stay up as a reference point - for its hyperlinks, if nothing else. So, given the traditional August break, there are only three more monthly blogs to come. Hopefully they will be good ones...

Monday, 25 May 2020

All the damage they can do


This blog doesn’t think much of Boris Johnson or Dominic Cummings (above). You may have noticed. Way back in 2016, we called Johnson ‘a poor man's Silvio Berlusconi, endlessly replaying his own triumphs and legends back to himself’, and invited readers to boot him back into ‘the dustbin of history’. Hey, take our advice, don’t take our advice. It’s up to you.

As for Cummings, well. In February we labelled him a ‘one-dimensional… symptom of a much, much deeper rot – the gangrene that tells you where the worst of the wounds reside’. Never let it be said that we’re behind the curve here.

Together, the two of them give full rein to the worst id of the toddler’s instincts. I am strong. I can do as I like. You are nothing. You are stupid. I am powerful. Now you see where that gets them, you and everyone else – starring and crowd roles in a dark tragi-comedy that couldn’t be bettered if several skeletons and several lovers fell out of several wardrobes on several stages. All at once.

Cummings’ lockdown adventures in his native North of England are now a thing of record (if not of beauty). Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt, and believe his story (which doesn’t seem all that much less believable than lots of other things in British politics these days). His wife was sick. His son got sick. He was probably very scared. He wondered what on Earth to do. That’s fine, and understandable.

He took himself off to a site on his father’s property. He isolated. He didn’t see anyone else. Now, that’s pretty much a violation of the spirit of England’s lockdown rules at the time, and maybe, probably, of its letter as well. He still knowingly took the virus to a new chunk of the country, outside the capital that was its hotspot at the time. He still could have introduced it into the hospital his son ended up in (though he eventually tested negative).

It was a reckless, stupid thing to do. And Cummings should at least have given thought to how it would all look. Granted, no doubt he was frightened for his family. He knew where to find a bolthole. Maybe you’d have done the same. Maybe you wouldn’t. It was human error, of a type that perhaps the overconfident Cummings thinks he can build systems to guard against, though one - we should note - about which he has shown very little contrition.

Then he went out again. In a car. With his son in it. To test his eyesight. Yes, really. Now here’s where things get even more difficult. Quite frankly, that’s such a bizarre and Fawlty Towers-style detail that, like a ‘hard saying’ in Biblical studies, it probably did break down like that. But it was another stupid, foolhardy, rash and dangerous thing to do. We’re starting to maybe, sort-of, wonder about Cummings’ judgement. Are you?

There are a further series of dark undertones to consider. The first, and right now the least: the implications for Cabinet – and indeed all ordered – government. Can you imagine how the Health Secretary (and previously-designated fallguy) Matt Hancock feels about all this? Perhaps he's a bit angry. And the civil servants, at least one of whom let their true feelings out on Twitter when Johnson first came out to defend his man?

Governments must stick together, work together, speak together – and elected politicians, rather than a rather absurd but always-on angry Svengali, should in the last analysis make decisions. That’s how the chain of responsibility should work, and must work if the House of Commons – and by extension the voters – are to exert any influence at all.

And then there’s the immediate consequences on the ground. Covid-19 hasn’t gone away, although its immediate threat to life has abated. Spikes and flareups are happening all the time, and this government might have to order another full lockdown if things get out of control in the autumn. We don’t rate Boris Johnson. You probably don’t. But like it or not, he’s the only leader we’re going to get for some time to come. At this moment above all, we all need him to succeed - and to do that, people have to trust him, follow his advice, put some faith in him. Cummings just blew up loads of his credibility. That matters. Right now that matters a great deal.

The fight against Covid-19 has been put back by Cummings’ ridiculous odyssey, and then put back much more by his pallid semi-apology and thin attempts to brazen things out. The British public have to this point stuck at the very difficult changes to everyday life that they have been asked to bear. But consent comes from the ‘bottom’, allied to co-operation and contract from the ‘top’ (or what passes for the top these days). Take a hammer to that sense of community – to honesty, believability, transparency – and you are gambling with the whole edifice of compliance.

We can leave you with no more wisdom than that of that much-missed (and vastly-underestimated) political fighter, Jim Callaghan. During the 1979 General Election campaign, Jim was savvy enough to feel the sea-change around him. As he admitted to his driver at one point, sometimes politics is just buckled and transformed, and there’s nothing you can do. That change of feeling, he detected, was for Margaret Thatcher, and he was right.

It’s possible to imagine – though this might turn out completely wrong – that we are at a similar inflection point now. What do the Conservatives’ new voters really, really hate? Unfairness. The people ‘at the top’ – dare we say, the ‘elites’ – getting away with it. Well, this is them getting away with it redux. Had Cummings been, ooh, let’s say a dispensable scientist on an advisory body, he would have been out of a job. But because of who he is, he isn’t. It’s as simple as that.

After Labour’s betrayal of national security and Britain’s interests after the Russian chemical weapons attack on Salisbury – when they basically read out a Kremlin press release in response – something palpably and definitively changed about voters’ estimates of them. Are we at another one of those moments now? Could this be another of those periodic electoral shocks that change the landscape? It fees like it could be.

One of Callaghan’s other famous quotes came to him as he looked in the mirror one morning. Dragging Britain through yet another crisis, even this famously patriotic (and ex-navy) leader lost a bit of heart. ‘If I were a young man, I would emigrate’, he thought. If you take a quick look at the emigration figures, lots and lots of people felt the same.

It was hard, looking at that sunny Downing Street garden full of press waiting for Cummings, not to feel something of Callaghan’s ennui. While medics in visors and goggles literally battled to save people’s lives, the mind of the British state, its core executive, its policy-making community, its lobby journalists, was not on the crisis at all – but on one silly man and one stupid trip. It was pathetic, it was ridiculous, and it was embarrassing.

Lots of people looking at Johnson and Cummings right now can turn and look in the mirror too. And then they can turn again, and see the enormous strides that the Republic of Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and Canada have made against the virus. Many of them are young. Some of them are probably pretty restless. Perhaps they should, and maybe they will, start to consider Callaghan’s challenge.

PLEASE NOTE: This blog will be coming to an end in October. The very first entry was published on 25 October 2010, and exactly ten years later seems like the right time to bring down the curtain. There is so much to do, and some other people are very kindly asking me to write for them. The blog will therefore cease, although it will stay up as a reference point - for its hyperlinks, if nothing else. So, given the traditional August break, there are only four more monthly blogs to come. Hopefully they will be good ones... 

Friday, 17 April 2020

On coronavirus and conspiracies


The Age of Coronavirus is also a Time of Conspiracy. Maybe the Chinese government made up the deadly disease in a lab, and then covered up just how many people it killed. Perhaps it’s those 5G mobile phone masts putting so many people in hospital, and killing so many others.

There’s plenty of WhatsApp messages hammering those messages home if you want to read them (and you can get hold of them). There are even celebrity videos backing these apparently outlandish ideas if you want to watch them. Rather than tutting and sighing, so often the reaction of the expert or the practitioner, it’s perhaps best to ask: why is this happening?

First things first: most people don’t believe the conspiracies. It’s a minority taste. According to polling by Opinium, ‘only’ seven per cent of voters think that new mobile phone technology caused the coronavirus outbreak. That’s fewer than think Elvis lived on after his apparent death in 1977. Second and even more important, that constrained conspiracism has policy implications. Most Britons aren’t going around blaming China or 5G (above) – they’re following guidelines with even more alacrity than the citizens of most other states, and for the most part they trust their scientists and their government.

Even so, a significant swathe of the population do believe lots of the stories they scroll through on their screens. That seven per cent of adults adds up to maybe four million people. Nearly a quarter of respondents have told YouGov that the novel coronavirus either ‘definitely’ or ‘probably’ came out of a lab. Some of them have gone out and vandalised 5G technology. The Government obviously thinks it can divert some of the blame onto China, or it wouldn’t brief newspapers that China will face some sort of backlash when this is all over.

This is part of a pattern. The same short circuits are everywhere. Trumpians and Eastern European authoritarians place the blame for the rule of capital at the feet of one man: George Soros. Donald Trump’s closing political broadcast during the 2016 campaign – his ‘Argument for America’ – blamed ‘the establishment’ and ‘global special interests’ for everything, a poisonous assertion played over footage of Soros and other public figures who happened, just happened, to be Jewish. 

Liberals blame Russia and Putin for Trump and Brexit. Agents of the ‘Deep State’ draw the ire of the authoritarian Right and the populist Left. Under Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party protested again and again about BBC ‘bias’, a line they knew played well among their activists and distracted them from Labour’s many sleights of hand over Brexit (they usually dropped those complaints once everything had gone quiet). Everything bad is laid at the door of ‘them’: ‘the bankers’ and ‘the elites’, or perhaps ‘the immigrants’ or ‘the foreigners’.

This is not, of course, an entirely new historical conjuncture. Those radicals who opposed the British Empire’s South African War at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries often detected in its prosecution the guiding hand of ‘the banks’, or diamond traders, or the fantastical ‘Jewish interests’ they imagined stood behind both. Many literate Edwardian citizens came to suspect the influence of the Kaiser and his spies behind every shift in international politics.

Conspiracy theories have always interlaced themselves around British politics and British public life. The ‘red scares’ of the interwar years paralysed Labour and delegitimised socialist policies. Lots of people always thought the moon landings were faked, and maybe between four and 16 per cent of British adults still do.

Still, this present outbreak of one-size-fits-all thinking does still seem rather different. It reaches across the political spectrum; disinformation from many bad faith actors and some states seem prevalent; it binds together tribes beyond as well as across formal politics (as anyone versed in the conspiracy theories of the anti-vaxxers will tell you); it involves outbreaks of sheer rage that are as remarkable for their intensity as they are notable for the relatively small numbers through which the wildfires run.

There are, of course, off-the-peg answers to why this type of thinking has become entrenched. Some writers look to social media, which does seem to focus the anger of deeply connected networks on specific targets. That’s a bit of a reach. There’s quite a bit of evidence that social media actually makes you more likely to change your mind, not least in the UK’s 2017 General Election. And who needs social media when you have Clunky Old Media, in the shape of TV presenter Eamon Holmes, to spread your conspiracy theories for you? You shouldn't just generalise about How Twitter Makes People Mad when The Washington Post and CNN put up stories about the Wuhan lab that some people think might just have caused all this.

Other analysts begin their own journey down the rabbit hole with the psychology of political rage itself (we've tried at our hands at this in the past), always easier to direct and channel against a single hated antagonist. Pop psychologists and psephologists alike have prodded and poked the supposedly very angry older white male until there isn’t much left to dissect. Coffee shops in Iowa and pubs in Hull have never been so full of notetakers. Yes, the psychology of older voters in ‘left behind’ places is interesting, and can be critical in electoral systems privileging their views: but this isn’t the full story either.

Deeper trends can also be detected – and they certainly have not been manipulated by any one actor. The Big McGuffin is, first and foremost, a comforting heuristic in a world of noise. It springs out of the politics of confusion, sometimes deliberate confusion - not so much of rage as head-spinning dislocation. The postmodern restlessness of the developed world in the twenty-first century can often be experienced as sheer chaos: so many screens, so many streams, so many voices, that Fake News is just one facet of the jittery, frameless, boundless hyperreal.

That was a feature of the Edwardian world, too, when time appeared to many observers to be ‘speeding up’ – now an exponential line that seems so steep that many citizens yearn to place their phones in a box and lock them away. But if you’re not going to place your phone beyond reach, what better way to escape the great gusher of events than pretending to yourself that it all has one particular source?

Our late (or perhaps post-) capitalist societies of course celebrate the individual. Thatcherite economics dictate that you yourself must pull yourself up by your bootstraps alone, rather than living and coping within groups that accept and validate their shared understandings. The last forty years have seen an inconsistent but overall absolutely clear demerging of risk – in terms of the benefits you’re entitled to, within the rules that govern your contracts of work, encoded in the value of your shrinking pension (or lack of one). Why should that not be paralleled by a kind of demerging of threat, that sees each citizen faced not by structures and systems that are hard to grasp, but by the malevolence of a personalised opponent?

There’s a genre effect in play here, too, which first began as one example of that kaleidoscopic imaginary, and which is now probably exerting its own feedback effects. The storytelling importance of the Big Bad can now be observed in every onscreen drama’s serial or box set. The Doctor must come to understand the true (and self-referential) nature of the Bad Wolf. The Netflix Daredevil would be as nothing without the mesmeric Wilson Fisk. Don’t you want to know who ‘H’ is in Line of Duty? It is a cultural phenomenon designed to keep you watching, but which predisposes people to look for the shadow behind the curtain.

The obverse of this insistence on the personal-as-political is our search for leadership. You can see this in the huge regard for President Obama in liberal circles, and the fierce adherence to President Trump among much of his base: Trump still has an average approval rating of just over 44 per cent (a low-40s rating has been pretty constant throughout this Presidency), even after his disastrous attempt to downplay the coronavirus crisis.

If one thinks of voters faced with a sequence of chaotic or cold contracts between themselves and the world, a politics of a thousand cable channels and the call centre, this search for the warm, the personal, the charismatic, becomes more understandable.

This trend, too, gives itself over to a strange kind of antonym. Just as the disintegration of old groups and the constant coalescing of new ones can create a personal sense of threat to mirror our singular sense of self, so our yearning for a leader casting heat and light has as its other face our fear of anti-heroes acting as the agents of hidden forces. Hope and fear interact. Some inside the European Left see the hand of Israel everywhere. Some among the fiercest Trump activists believe that he pretended to be in league with Russia to recruit Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller into an anti-paedophile drive.

Political ideas are not just governed by formal ‘politics’ as we have come to understand them: the affairs of parliaments, politicians and civil servants. They are shaped, also, in the way that we think about ourselves – in our case, by the deluge of data, our individualistic self-image, new modes of entertainment and our attendant craving for something or someone better.

The Big McGuffin isn’t really out there. China probably didn’t mean to hurt you. 5G isn’t going to kill you. But the reasons why some of us think like this are full of clues to who we have become.

Monday, 17 February 2020

The crookedness of the crooked


Dominic Cummings is out of control. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s right-hand boremonger is going around Whitehall sacking people as if someone elected him, a process that’s bound to end in tears. First he told a bunch of worried Special Advisers that he was going to get rid of half of them. They thought he was half-joking, but he wasn’t. People that one-dimensional never joke. Most of those anxious Spads got sacked all right, as Cummings (above) tightened his grip on the machinery of government far beyond what Alistair Campbell managed in the high days of New Labour.

Not content with that rather unpleasant and unnecessary show of strength, Cummings then turned on the Chancellor of the Exchequer Sajid Javid, in recent months one of the few Cabinet Ministers to show a spark of at least proximate autonomy and humanity. First he let it be known that the Treasury were thinking about a pensions raid on the rich and a Mansion Tax – the Tory equivalent of attacking Windsor Castle with nukes – and then he said that everything in last week’s reshuffle was going to just be a steady-as-she-goes readjustment. Ah, clever, clever, dastardly stuff.

Subsequently, pow! The Chancellor was forced to resign after being told he had to replace all his advisers and row in behind a ‘joint team’ that was joint only in the sense that it was located somewhere between Cummings’ arse and his elbow. And Tories everywhere ate it up, because No. 11 was some sort of weird socialist hangout that wanted to raise taxes everywhere and, er, stop Cummings’ dreams of a great big spending spree. Classic, indeed, vintage Dom – manoeuvrings worthy of a PJ Masks-style caper in the night time we’re living through. It’s all so impressive and unexpected. If, that is, you live in a world where people talking about NASA control rooms is seriously mooted as some kind of amazing analytical breakthrough.

Let’s leave him aside for a moment, and consider the pygmies whose shoulders he stands on. Because Cummings is just a symptom of a much, much deeper rot – the gangrene that tells you where the worst of the wounds reside. The crooked tree can only stand in a crooked forest. His masters should sit in the Cabinet of the United Kingdom, and in normal times the kind of treatment he has meted out to staff in what is (let’s face it) a real place of work would be reined in by actual Secretaries of State. Unfortunately, these no longer exist, since they have been replaced by a mysterious group of Churchill nodding dogs who collectively seem to constitute a postmodern joke about how far you can push things. The sort of supervillain team that even the most avaricious late-seventies sci-fi ripoff merchant would have turned down as too tightly spandexed for its own good.

At their head is Boris Johnson – a man who would look away with the sweats if you showed him a diagram of what facts look like in a catalogue. An Attorney General in Suella Braverman who doesn’t much like the law, insofar as it applies to the Government as well as all those silly little people you can’t see from No. 10. Newly installed as International Development Secretary? Anne-Marie Trevelyan, who… doesn’t think much of overseas aid. Also, Grant Shapps. Dear Lord! Grant Shapps at Transport! A man who made up an idiot to detract from his own personality. And then there’s Dominic Raab, Lord Rictus of Grin. That’s it. That’s the joke.

To be charitable, Raab is just an arrogant couldn’t-care-less slab of heartless Easter Island impassivity that serves as mere accoutrement to an archipelago of evil ruled over by its own Queen of Death, Priti Patel – a woman who cares so little about you that she would even let you linger there, on the basis that extinction would be too easy. Oh no. On you live, forced to endure that spew of utter garbage that comes out of her maw, all the better to give in to all those stinking fish meats and piles of rotting dog food that have cornered you in an ever-emptying trash compactor, crying at the last that your imprisonment actually amounts to the sweet, sweet nectar of freedom.

So that’s it. Those are the people who are supposed to control the Pocket Spaceballs Darth Vadar that Cummings thinks he has become: a kind of cult Dark Helmet for politicos. An evil Blockbusters team from the late 1980s who think of themselves as so darn edgy that they even have a living mascot, Liz Truss serving along with their college scarves as some sort of irritating Tigger that forces you to atomise your teeth by grinding them together so hard they distintegrate. They had to retire Chris Grayling, a kind of overstuffed and unloved Charity Shop Teddy – a toy so cursed that the Cats Protection League outlet trying to sell him burned down two days after his bathos-laden arrival – because even they have, well, standards.
                                                                                                                           
Why is this happening? There’s a single reason the Legion of Unlikely Spandex are winning everything they touch, and it’s a lack of anyone to oppose them. The broadcast and print media, who once locked horns with big beasts such as Geoffrey Howe, Michael Heseltine, Nigel Lawson and Normal Tebbit, seem enfeebled somehow by the ludicrous spectacle before them – and let’s face it, that’s a Trumpian tactic that works everywhere.

Remember when Johnson said he liked to build model buses out of old wine crates? He doesn’t. He was just making the point that he could say anything he likes, whenever he likes. Life continued as normal, so he did it some more. And some more. You remember that he bought that dog? Look, hate to break it to you, but he probably doesn't like dogs. Johnson’s an important signifier, a postmodern marker of just how decadent we are, how decadent we know we are, and how decadent we are to laugh about it. Like the flaccid spectacle of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3, but without the action – a lozenge of exhausted ennui that would have been past its best under Harold Macmillan, but somehow lingers on in a blaze of reupholstered finery.

So while the Government looks at taking the judiciary and the legal system apart, all the better to execute its own will, and considers abolishing the BBC as we know it altogether, where is the official Opposition? ‘Who?’, we hear you ask, entirely justifiably, and to be honest we’re right behind you with the disbelief that they could be so bad and just irrelevant at one and the same time, but their startling absence from the battlefield since 2015 is so discombobulating and so important that we have to consider it somewhere.

Look, it’s been a litany of failure, a hopscotch across the political minefield aimed at stamping on every lurking detonation possible in an all-out push to end the agony. Their one hope? Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer, a patently decent and intelligent man who will very likely have the bad luck to inherit a rag-tag band of misfits and misfires who couldn’t even get into that 1979 Star Wars warmover that the ‘Cabinet’ feels embarrassed about. He faces a bit of, well, an endurance test.

Keir Starmer, the future monarch in the dungeon who can see the watery light shining through the window far above him, but is so far down beneath it that he can only touch the illuminated column of dust that it lights up within his reach. Tragically, as he tries to pull on it, the illusion of solidity will likely dissolve in front of his face as he stands there in the Marianna Trench of political prisons that Seumas Milne and Andrew Murray have dug for him. Maybe they’ll make a Lego set of the scene as a whole, and kids can light up different policies around Starmer’s feet like that diving bell that picks out bits of the Titanic’s dining room.

Keir Starmer, a prince among the quarterwits who ram-packed the court of Bad King Lazy McTemper by virtue of the one awful truth that he must hide from them all, the long-feared revelation that he has recently read a book. Keir Starmer, the man forced to tolerate The Leader Who Must Not Now Be Named – a political bad guy so tedious that he was even more poorly sketched than Voldemort (and twice as derivative). Keir Starmer, who turned into The Human Sigh as he had to stand next to Nu-Voldemort in Brussels. He’d make a good Victoria Wood song, but there’s not enough syllables in his name for a really good rousing chorus along the lines of that much-loved classic, ‘Ann Widdecombe’. At least no-one has to hear that Seven Nation Army chant again. Thank God.

All this Carnival of Revelry is precisely why Dom can do his vintage stuff – because there’s no-one to stop him, the press stultified by the sheer stupidity of what they’re seeing, Labour having formed an inward-facing firing squad straight out of Reservoir Dogs, most of the Liberal Tories having been vanquished, and the Liberal Democrats having all but disappeared. So he’ll push and push and push, until he is forced to up the ante once more by saying stuff so poisonous that it’ll do for him. It’ll probably be his sad devotion to the long-discredited concept of IQ and the pseudo-science of eugenics that spins him off into furious renewed exile on a farm full of books. But the pretext doesn’t matter. He’ll just have to cross the road, and cross it again, to pick a fight – with himself. No-one else seems to want the hassle.

Reader, you are tethered to them – for now. But most of this has happened before, and lots of this will happen again. Cummings will overreach himself. He will be sacked soon. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but someday in the not-too-distant future. The Cabinet will blunder. Labour will eventually see the goal, and then start shooting at it, hopefully before our Sun goes nova and swallows us all. Until that day, remember: never flinch, never weary, and never despair.

Sunday, 19 January 2020

So what should Labour do now?


The UK’s Labour Party is starting to pick up the pieces after an epic defeat – leaderless, rudderless, and to be frank rather desperate. It must now winnow out the reasons for its historic reverse, and find a way forward that will prevent it ever being hammered in the same way again. We’ve been here before, of course, though history never quite repeats itself: Neil Kinnock said that the 1983 election debacle could ‘never, ever’ happen again when he took up the reins of Labour leadership later that year. Well, it has. And although the lessons must be somewhat different, the search for them is not. Here’s what we’ve taken away from the disaster of 2019: ten things that the party needs to think about, and to solve, before it can ever hold power again.

One. Get better leaders. It was, without doubt, Labour’s top team that turned a possible defeat into a rout. You can’t go into an election led by the most unpopular major party leader in the entirety of British polling history and expect to get anywhere. But Labour members decided to stick with their totem, come what may – fervent, for the most part, in their support for a totally inappropriate Mr Grumpy with more baggage than British Airways. He lied and he lied and he lied, on issues big and small, outside and inside the Labour Party, and indeed at times it was possible to believe that he could not open his mouth without an untruth escaping. We’d make a list, but to be honest it would probably bust all those servers on which we’re relying. By 12 December it appeared that he might turn up in a mask and call himself Ceremy Jorbyn. Well, it caught up with him in the end.

But it wasn’t just Jeremy Corbyn that did Labour in. With a few honourable exceptions, the rest of the Shadow Cabinet was composed of a seriously strange group of oddballs from whom the electorate ran a mile. For some devil-may-care reason known only to themselves, the Labour Party decided to flood the airwaves with footage of Barry Gardiner, a caricature of black-and-white Flash Gordon villains lacking only the moustache-twirling believability of the original, and Richard Burgon – Richard Burgon! – a man who quite frankly makes the Cookie Monster look plausible. Although, on reflection, that’s not really very fair to the Big C-Mon. Rule one: just put out some spokes who aren’t complete whackjobs.

Two. Stop talking complete nonsense. If we put Brexit to one side for a moment – and it is more than fair to say that on this biggest of issues, Labour found itself impaled on a cruel dilemma – then the next most important thing to say about their 2019 ‘campaign’ was that they should shred their manifesto. Before dumping it in an unmarked lime pit. We have to say, dear reader, that we have never seen such an unmitigated laundry list of fantasies hit the printers. According to Labour, they were going to nationalise all the utilities, while unbundling Openreach, nationalising broadband and providing it for free; they were going to take Universal Credit apart and put it back together; they were going to organise a big council house drive while insulating every new home in the country (and, eventually, every single house, however old); and they were going to build a National Education Service and a National Care Service. Not that anyone every really knew what they meant by either of those last ideas. Oh, and expand High Speed Rail. In a country that has only ever managed to build 68 miles of the stuff. All at the same time.

The cost issues were similarly befuddling. Labour said they’d issued a fully funded manifesto, but then said they’d refund women who’d ‘lost’ their pensions at the age of 60 (though they wouldn’t say how) – to the tune of £58bn. They said that their nationalisations would cost nothing because they’d own the assets on the credit side of the ledger, while saying that they’d sweat and degrade those assets by slashing prices. They fibbed that tax rises would be limited only to the top five per cent of earners, while pushing up Capital Gains Tax for anyone with shares or property and cutting the tax allowance for all married couples. They seriously underestimated the cost of abolishing university tuition fees in England. And so on. By the end, voters actually laughed as Labour offered them a free speedboat and a new swimming pool. Maybe pare down the promises next time, guys.

Three. Your policies were not popular. One of the most depressing sights of recent days has been Labour people going around saying ‘our policies were popular’. Repeat these words, please: they were not popular. Yes, if you ask people if they think certain things are a good idea, without attaching costs to them, and without asking them if they believe they will hang together as a whole, people might like to nationalise the trains (it might even be a good idea). But together? With this team? Voters hated it - and with good reason, before you go and start second guessing them. Even post-election, the same pattern has been repeated again and again: if you ask voters whether they want, say, energy nationalisation, or more spending on the National Health Service, they’ll straight away put their hands up and say ‘yes, please’. But if you associate those ideas with Labour, and most of all with Corbyn, they’ll put those hands right back down again. Exactly the same thing happened with Michael Howard in the run-up to the 2005 election, for exactly the same reasons: the Conservatives did not have the credibility to speak out about anything, and they hadn’t put the hard yards in to convince people that they might. The outcome was the same: defeat.

Selling things to the electorate isn’t about publishing a list of things they might like, and it isn’t even about getting out an essay packed with stuff they agree with: it’s about creating an overall narrative, an impression, mood or emotional bond, that they identify with, can believe and which resonates both with them and with people they perceive as being like them. That’s why the impression that Labour politicians and members still think they put a good case to the people – that they ‘deserved’ to win – is so lethal. It threatens, and in Labour’s case has nearly severed, that bond of emotional connectivity and trust. Many voters are still watching, you know. Those that are will now say ‘okay, you didn’t listen to my beliefs and wishes yet again, so I’m going to punish you one more time until you do’.

Four. Take your lessons. Labour people are dazed. Many of them put their heart and soul into a campaign that went so wrong it could be hung up as a picture of wrongness. It’s no wonder that they don’t want to admit fault. That’s natural, and understandable. But they’ve already wasted more than a month refusing to admit the reality of their plight while Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been on the beach laughing at them. They’d better start to take their December lessons to heart, and in a big way, before they get labelled for the purposes of the 2024 election – just as David Cameron was able to define them as a bunch of big-spending wasters between 2010 and 2015. This doesn’t mean undertaking any particular intellectual exercise. Labour does too much thinking. Plenty of people could come up with new or amended policy suggestions. What the party doesn’t do enough of is that deep and truth-telling emotional reflection that permits discourse rather than confrontation.

Admit it: you failed. See those people sleeping rough? You failed them. See those people suffering on those hospital trolleys? You failed them. See all those young people losing their European passports? You failed them too. Because you were too self-centred to see yourselves as others saw you. It’s like an alcoholic: before you can start to move forward, you have to be honest with yourselves. You have to realise that you’ve hit rock bottom. Those party members still coming out with that Seven Nation Army chant, or talking about how they got more votes than Tony Blair did in 2005, or moaning about the press? They’re never going to make it into recovery, because they’re not being truthful. Make no mistake about it: there are lots and lots more Labour seats vulnerable to exactly the same type of Tory surge that we’ve just witnessed: on our count, about 40 of them. Act now, and you can save the house: lie to yourself about your true situation, and you’ll be out on the street with your furniture arrayed around you.

Five. Why don’t you cheer up for a change? One thing Boris Johnson has is tiggerish enthusiasm. We can’t stand him, and like as not neither can you – but he exudes (or at least pretends to exude) optimism. Labour doesn’t. It’s always moaning on about how bad things are. About how broken Britain is. About how there’s only 24 hours to ‘save the NHS’. Now there’s a truth there, and a problem. The truth: Britain’s public services are in a total mess. Accident and Emergency admissions are feeding back their worst ever numbers. The public realm, or at least those bits of the public realm cash-starved councils are responsible for, is falling to bits. Taxes are really high (at their highest medium-term level since the 1940s), but no-one has much to show for them. It’s totally fair enough, and in our view correct, for the social democratic party that Labour should be to make that case. 

The problem is that most people don’t feel like that, for good reason. Real wages were going up at the end of last year, which they weren’t at the time of the 2017 election. Unemployment is low. Self-reported happiness has been rising, and hasn’t been this high for a very long time – most likely, in fact, since the 1950s. Britain is a relatively open, liberal, cosmopolitan, thoughtful, tolerant place, certainly in comparison to many other European states – and despite Johnson’s successful appeal to some of its more socially conservative and insular instincts. Most British people are living ever more enriched and enriching lives, even as under-35s are finding it harder and harder to start making their own way. They’re going to the football and the theatre, reading more and buying more books; they’re doing their gardening; going running and cycling; watching box sets at home; going to the pub; knitting, jam making, birdwatching and rambling. Just as British people’s very dense and associative lives insulated them psychologically from the Depression of the 1930s, hampering Labour’s progress then, the party’s basic emotive case just makes no sense to most people. They don’t think Britain’s broken. Labour should stop talking like it is.

Six. Get organised. Labour could have saved some of those seats that went blue. Not all of them, by a long way, but by marshalling their ground forces more efficiently, and actually listening to experienced campaigners, they could have held on to Bury North, for instance, and maybe a dozen or more others. Instead, they went all out for a ’90 per cent strategy’, attacking across a broad front in a hopeless and doomed full-on assault. ‘Forget the polls’, they said: ‘we know better’. ‘We’re going to go after every seat in the country’. Yeah, well. Trying to win Wycombe and Altrincham which, yes, one day might fall to Labour… didn’t work out. 12 December 2019 wasn’t that day, as anyone who can read a map and some charts could have told you beforehand. Labour apparatchik Karie Murphy, however – at whose door some of the blame for the disasters of the last few years must rest – knew better. And since she was in charge of Labour’s campaign, that was that. The Tory majority ballooned out to eighty, when it could have been cut pretty simply to maybe fifty or sixty. That might prove to be important if Johnson’s Brexit deals ever run into trouble.

More illuminating is the question of what Murphy was doing running an election campaign in the first place. Since she has absolutely no qualifications to be doing so, what on Earth was going on? One, she is close to Len McCluskey, Labour’s number one power broker. Two, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell insisted on pushing her (and most of her team) out of Corbyn’s office back in the autumn. McDonnell saw her as an obstacle to Labour’s new policy on a second referendum, but couldn’t get rid of her entirely. So Labour HQ at Southside was lumbered with her, to predictable effect. In the end, Corbynism became such an insular and nepotistic phenomenon, of just a handful of mates who’d known each other for decades, that most of the data and analytics team were ignored. They’ve just survived an attempt by Murphy and General Secretary Jennie Formby to abolish them altogether. Here’s a hint: don’t do that. Hire more data people. It's the amateurs you need shot of.

Seven. Clean up your toxic culture. Voters can see inside parties. They do read the papers and search the web, you know. They can read. They often draw lessons from how parties are run, as a way of imagining how they might run the country if they get into Downing Street. And what they saw when they looked at Labour was and is not pretty at all. Labour has quite simply become an absolute sink of anger, hatred, rage and racism. We must make clear at this point that the vast majority of members are not like that at all. Most of them are Soft Left devotees of a fairer society and a bit more socialism. They’re probably about to vote for Keir Starmer (above) as leader. They’d have voted for Andy Burnham in 2015 if Corbyn hadn’t made the ballot. They like Sadiq Khan. But a minority of them have completely lost the plot. You can scroll through plenty of Corbynite Facebook groups if you want to see what we mean. Apparently all the leadership contenders this time are ‘Zionist stooges’ for accepting the Board of Deputy’s ten-point plan for ridding the party of antisemitism, a racist assertion which rather makes the Board’s point for it.

The problem goes wider than antisemitism (though that affliction is by far the most poisonous of Labour’s problems). Labour has been turning a blind eye to a culture of bullying, abuse and sexual assault for a long time. It’s been giving loads of leftie men – and of course the vast majority of the offenders are men – a pass on their nasty old ways while pretending to be all trendy about workplace rights, sex, gender and women’s bodies. In with the clique? Why, sir, why don’t you have a free pass. Ideological enemy? Out on your ear. It was ever thus of course in Westminster’s many corridors, and there is no doubt that other parties have similar problems, but when placed alongside Labour’s deep problem with online abuse, the kickback against whistleblowing and denialism reached across from the party’s antisemitism crisis and spread out across the machinery’s upper echelons. Labour’s next leader must crack down – hard. On the rash of antisemitism that is disfiguring the British Left wherever you look, but also on the wider atmosphere of intolerance. If they do nothing, just on this one point, they’ll lose yet again, and what’s more they’ll deserve to lose.

Eight. You’re not better than other people. One of the things that really gets up voters’ noses is that Labour members seem to think that they’re a cut above. It’s taken for granted that Labour’s policies, and even more so its ideas, are better and on principle more moral than others – as if a bigger and more powerful state is per se more likely to lead to the better life. That might be the case, and in our view given Britain’s dilapidated infrastructure it is very likely so, but you don’t have to sound so smug about it. Firstly because it makes you look like you’re walking round with your noses in the air, and secondly because it makes you look ridiculous whenever you try to do some real politics. The claim to be all principle, and no pragmatism, has been made much worse by Corbynism and all the years in opposition, but it’s always been there – the idea that the further Left you go, the more self-denying and genuinely caring you are.

This is nonsense. Politics is about choice. Every leader, everywhere, must choose between ends and means, and indeed between ends and between means. It is in fact more moral to get through to the end of the day without disaster – and without too many people getting hurt – than it is to blow up a public policy catastrophe because you meant it and you thought you were right. So you don’t ‘triangulate’ or compromise, is that it? You triangulated on the biggest issue of the decade, namely Brexit. You triangulated on the ultimate question, talking out of both sides of your mouth about Trident. You triangulated on the Union between England and Scotland. You triangulated on Universal Credit and the benefits cap. You triangulated on immigration. You triangulated on private schools. All well and good, because that’s politics, but don’t come out and tell the voters that you’ve got some hotline to what’s good and right. In the end, you know all those times you said that you hated everybody else - especially those evil Tories? Well, the joke’s on you, because you got a third of the votes on a 67 per cent turnout. Nearly half Labour's Remain voters said they would have voted for another and more pro-European party if they were best placed to win. So around 13 or 14 per cent of the electorate loved what you were selling. Maybe it's not the Tories that everybody hates.

Nine. Enough of the Live Action Role Playing. Labour’s present leadership election has witnessed an outbreak of ‘prolier than thou’ game-playing that really has to be seen to be believed. Apparently, you have to have grown up in a paper bag if you want to lead Britain. This is all very well, and like other entries in this ten-point list contains a valid truth: you are only really likely to understand what poverty really feels like – truly, deeply – if you’ve lived through it. But Labour are pushing this far too far when they’re primarily a middle-class party made up of older graduates who live in the South (the single biggest group are Londoners) and who’ve paid off their mortgages – a flaw that feeds into policy, as well as presentation. The language in which laudable appeals to ‘workers’ control’ and a big increase in trade unions’ power was couched would have had a slightly ludicrous whiff about them in the 1990s, let alone the 2020s.

The ‘prolier than thou’ crowd often make Labour look absurd. No-one else says ‘comrade’. No-one else poses with clenched fists. Very few Britons talk about ‘socialism’. Especially not when many of the adherents of this politics of the Durham Miners’ gala had fairly comfortable upbringings which in fact allowed them to get a foothold in the Labour Party in the first place (yes, we’re talking about you, Laura Pidcock). Labour is in danger of becoming, not a political party, but a beleaguered subculture with a language and a self-referential outlook all its own. Remember that rash of Corbynite wordplay, in which everyone was a ‘melt’ or a ‘slug’ who had to be ‘salted’? No-one took that seriously, even at the time, but Britain’s Left is at serious risk of spinning off into its own lexicography: of ‘neoliberalism’ not cuts, ‘resistance’ not power, ‘class’ and not culture. Get off Twitter, leave your meetings and stop going to conferences. Just meet some workaday voters, like most MPs have to – explaining, of course, their widespread horror at what’s been going on.

Ten. Stop trashing your record. The maiden speech made by Coventry South’s new Member of Parliament certainly made a splash. In it, Zarah Sultana gave in part a good account of her generation’s worries: the concentration of economic power, the threat of insecure work, the climate crisis. But there was something else there, too, which won’t and can’t help Labour: the characterisation of the last forty years in British public life as ‘Thatcherism’. Now it might have escaped your notice, but Labour was in office and in power as well for thirteen years between 1997 and 2010. They had a big majority. The Blair and Brown governments were hyperactive on the domestic stage. Some of their policies leaned to the Right by present-day Labour standards – on crime and justice, for instance, although Labour yet again tried to have its cake and eat it in 2019 when it said it would recruit many more police officers.

But they also led radical and reforming governments that, and let’s check our notes, brought in a big windfall levy on the utilities to pay for an attack on youth joblessness, halved child poverty, massively increased Child Benefit, legislated for the National Minimum Wage and the Right to Roam that the Left had been fighting for since the beginning of the twentieth century, secured devolution across the United Kingdom and peace in Northern Ireland, practically abolished cancer treating waiting lists, virtually eliminated rough sleeping… and so on. Voters know this. Once again, they are not stupid. They know humbug when they hear it. And they’re not going to vote Labour while you tell them both that the evidence of their own eyes is wrong, and that the Coalition and Tory governments that have gutted many public services are no different to others. Why should they? It’s fine and right to say that Labour in office got plenty of things wrong, and that Labour today would do things very differently: slagging your own party off? Not so much.

So there are ten ways we’d recommend that Labour change. Elect and appoint more plausible leaders. Stop promising everything to everyone. Admit that you got it wrong, and allow yourself a truly honest and affecting self-examination. Speak optimistically. Get yourselves straight. Stop it with the hate and the jibes. Stop walking around like you’re the big I am. Break out of your bubble and take credit, not brickbats, for your achievements. Stuff like that. If this sounds like Politics 101, it is – it amounts to just saying ‘sort yourselves out’. It’s a mark of how far Labour has fallen that most of this needs to be said at all.

Labour’s malaise is deep-seated. It is a party that is very unsure what it stands for, and even whether it wants to make its case in the media at all. It deploys outriders when it could put out MPs – asteroid mining enthusiast and boor Aaron Bastani, technically-challenged ‘economist’ Grace Blakeley, social media sensation and flat-track bully Owen Jones, ultra-partisan Lexiteer Lara McNeill. Every time they appear on TV, Labour loses votes. It’s as simple as that. The party could put out Lou Haigh, or Rachel Reeves, or Yvette Cooper, or even Angela Rayner. Every time they appear, from most wings of the party by the way, Labour probably gains votes – votes they desperately need, as they continue to go backwards and away from power.

But does it have the will to get out there and fight, or will it just continue to huddle together around the camp fires of its own comfort, holed up in cities and university towns when it could be getting out into the wider country and winning arguments? Can it start to make progress measured against the tough yardsticks above? The voters as a whole – who desperately need a functioning Opposition, let alone an alternative government – must really hope that it does. If it doesn’t, very many long years in the wilderness lie ahead.

Monday, 23 December 2019

Getting it wrong, getting it right


So it may not have escaped your notice that the UK has just held a decisive General Election (above). The Conservatives triumphant; the Scottish National Party celebrating; everyone else flatlining or crushed. The age of English and Scottish Nationalism is upon us, and our next constitutional battles are likely to see those two forces fight it out for the future of the United Kingdom. Oh good.

But where does that leave our predictions, here at Public Policy and the Past? One of the main losers on 12 December was Britain’s main Opposition, the Labour Party. They got run out of town in whole areas of the country where they used to dominate – not just stereotypical ‘Northern England’, where if you read some of the papers you’d think there was a whippet and a pint of warm ale on every corner – but in parts of the Midlands and South where they used to dominate.

Let’s go to Harlow and Stevenage, shall we? Two New Towns full of blue-collar workers where Labour held the historically-marginal seats until 2010. Now it’s a sea of blue as far as the eye can see. What about Cannock Chase, or Redditch in Worcestershire? They’re now so far out of Labour’s reach that they would need arms like a Mr Man to get anywhere near. There are simply not enough urban, young or studenty seats (hello, Edinburgh South and Truro and Falmouth) to make up for Labour’s historic collapse across Deep England – North, South, East and West.

That presents us with a problem, because, er, we said Labour could win this – not as a majority (without any real presence in Scotland, that looks impossible), but as a minority governing with the say-so of other parties – particularly the SNP and the Liberal Democrats. That was, well, let’s not gloss this… wrong.

That’s okay in a way though, because as we’ve said before the job of speculating (let’s not call it forecasting, shall we?) is to learn – to see clearly where you thought the pieces would fall, and the reasons why you thought that, against how they actually broke down. So this election result is a great opportunity to test our priors against reality. Why did we think Labour could get so close to the Tories, and why didn’t they?

Here’s what we thought back in the summer: Labour was deeply unpopular, but it still had three advantages over the Conservatives. One, the Tories were imploding. Their Parliamentary Party was in the process of what looked like a historic split between Liberal Conservatives and Tory particularists (as in 1846). Two, Boris Johnson was a great leader for Labour, deeply, deeply unpopular among all those swathes of liberal and Remain England in which the red team had to get a hearing and win back Liberal Democrat and Green defectors (and those famous Don’t Knows). Three, Labour had and has a huge membership that could give them a big advantage in the ground game – flooding marginal seats with activists that might not be able to convert people to their cause, but sure could Get Out The Vote.

Turns out this was really wrong. But we’ve at least got three categories in which to ask the question: why? Setting up opinions, and setting yourselves up to get shot down or proved wrong, is a good thing for these reasons. It allows self-reflection. It permits self-audit. It gives you the colour-in boxes to fill in after the event, and maybe to ask better questions and get it wrong more narrowly next time.

So, category one. The Tories didn’t implode. Prime Minister Johnson was able to expel the dissident pro-European wing from his Parliamentary Party and lose almost no electoral support. Amidst all the talk of Labour Leavers and their desertion from Labour, there’s been nowhere near enough talk of Conservative Remainers. In the end, a big majority of them stayed with the Tories. Why? Well, they were simply afraid of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. On top of (and related to) that, the Liberal Democrats had a torrid campaign in which yet again almost everything went wrong for them, as in 2017 - though the experiences of the February 1974 and June 1983 elections ought to have alerted us earlier to the possibility that two unpleasant extremes might tear their voter base apart rather than glue it together. In any case, a more emollient Labour leader and a more humble, focused Liberal Democrat advance might have rumbled the Tories. It didn’t happen.

On to category two. Johnson was indeed unpopular, but there are two reasons why this didn’t matter in the end. He wasn’t all that unpopular in Leave England (or Leave Wales): and because his mission was to unite the Leave vote around himself, and not around Nigel Farage’s upstart Brexit Party, that was all fine and dandy for him. The Brexit Party crashed to almost nothing, and despite having a couple of what amounted to good by-elections amidst the din (in Barnsley and Hartlepool), the very darkly comic character known as ‘Boris’ in the end looked like the best bet for everyone who wanted to leave the European Union.

The second reason why Johnson triumphed, despite being one of the most unpopular PMs ever at this stage of his stay in No. 10, was that he was pretty popular when set against Corbyn. Johnson was the political equivalent of a McDonald’s: divisive, likely to make you pretty unhealthy in the end, but a fast and dirty meal. Corbyn was more like a Little Chef: much talked about, never visited.

What about three, Labour’s ground game? Well, that didn’t work that well. You can’t polish a turd, of course – and Labour’s manifesto was absolutely deadly in that it made people laugh, not read. But the interesting points here go deeper. Activist turnout and effects were good in Putney, Labour’s only gain of the night, where the party was able to put out hundreds and hundreds of activists. Anywhere near a train station, on the Tube, at the end of a tram line? Great. Young engaged activists could pour in and make a big difference. Anywhere else – anywhere where you needed a car, say, oh… everywhere in Deep England? Much less successful.

Labour’s targeting operation also sent those really fresh and optimistic troops into dead-cert Tory seats, thus throwing away one of their only advantages. They did that partly because election supremo Karie Murphy doesn’t really know anything about elections, to some extent because their reading of 2017 was that they weren’t aggressive enough to gain more seats, and in places because they wanted to move people away from where they might actually save Labour MPs who don’t like Corbyn. As so often, one of the most tragic elements is just how much hope and goodwill has been squandered by the Labour-haters who now occupy the Labour cockpit.

One last thing. As so often, the feeling from the gut, and the first trigger movement, were right – and all the intellectualising and post-hoc data were wrong. Here at Public Policy and the Past, our first instinct was that Labour was heading for a terrible defeat from the moment it elected Corbyn. That’s not a Left-Right point so much as a point about the people around him, the long associations and ideas with which he was associated and would by which he would become known, and the poisonous influence of the super-union Unite – which has now taken over the Labour Party in all but name.

Many Corbynite insights are right. Britain does need much better public services, better organised public transport, more lifelong education. But as we’ve said again and again, these weren’t the people, and their presumptions weren’t the ideas, by which to carry that argument. Let’s end this experiment where we began, in the autumn of 2015:

There is a difference between inspiration and the peddling of false hope. Because what will happen when Mr Corbyn is either ousted by his Parliamentary colleagues, or – even worse for Labour – is actually allowed to collide with the electorate, like a piece of space debris burning up as it smashes into the atmosphere? The eye-popping but fake sugar rush of this microwaved Tony Benn’s elevation having passed, the subsequent crash will be terrible. There will be the blankest, darkest, most painful despair you can imagine, followed by blame – of Blairites, the media, the public themselves – who were not clever or far-sighted enough to accede to the Corbyn revelation… And then what? Then what? The answer, you know in your hearts, is this: decades of unbroken Conservative dominance. And a Britain that becomes less fair, less equal, less open, less liberal, less European – and less respected – with every passing day.

So there are three interesting academic lessons to be learned from the 2019 General Election: about the nature of the Conservative vote, now quite dependent on older, more socially conservative Britons who live in towns; the importance of relative and not absolute popularity; and the limits of a load of activists carrying a message that voters just don’t like. But the most important lesson of all? Sometimes, trust your instincts.