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, Cummins 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 that over-written fantasist, the rope-topped Whirlygig of Lies otherwise known as 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 laughing at you – yes, you – to make 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 hates dogs. Johnson’s just a signifier of tedium now, 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. Since all tawdry vaudeville acts pall in the end, that godawful Weathervane of Deceit who likes to be called ‘Boris’ will at some point be bundled out of No. 10 by the force of sheer necessity. Labour will eventually see the goal, and then start shooting at it, hopefully before the 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.

Monday, 2 December 2019

So where are the don't knows now?

Regular readers will know that Public Policy and the Past is obsessed, absolutely obsessed, with the ‘don’t knows’ that you don’t usually read about when you scan the headline figures in voting intention polls. So - as we head towards the finishing line of yet another national election (thank the Lord), maybe it’s time to have another look at them. 

There are three reasons for going back over this territory. The first is a general point. The don’t knows form the background hum of where the voters are coming in and out of each big camp – where the parties don’t have to detach people from another tribe to rally them around their colours, but only from a kind of weak attraction or half-remembered past association.

The second reason we’re obsessed with this point is more specific, and it’s, well, once bitten, twice shy. When then-Prime Minister Theresa May called a snap General Election in 2017, Britain’s Labour Party looked completely dead and buried. Opinion polls put them twenty points and more behind. A couple even gave the Tories double Labour’s vote. But then they zoomed up and zoomed up in the polls. Eventually, they hit 40 per cent in the final vote.

Why? Well, partly because May ran the worst campaign in British political history (at least since Labour’s in 1983), but also because there was one key point most of us prognosticators had missed: the sheer number of people who had voted Labour in 2015, but who were saying ‘don’t know’ at the start of the 2017 campaign. They duly turned up and voted Labour when the chips were down. We’re not making the mistake of leaving them out of account again.

The third factor behind this latter-day voyage around the don’t knows? Well, the 2019 General Election is beginning to look a bit like the 2017 one. Not exactly, not precisely, but quite a bit. For one thing, both parties are polling below the levels they reached during that campaign, and secondly, Labour’s score doesn’t seem to be accelerating upwards as fast it did last time.

But Labour are all the same gaining ground now, cutting the Conservatives’ lead in a number of surveys to bare single figures. Not a single national Voting Intention poll has yet implied a Hung Parliament, but one might well soon (and, given normal variation, probably will) – sparking that panic in Conservative ranks that we saw in 1987 and 1992, before their polling woes abated.

So where are we with the don’t knows this time? Could they come to Labour’s aid again, cutting the Conservatives’ lead from – on average – maybe nine points, pushing it below the all-important six points which means thatthe Conservatives lose their overall majority? Well, the answer is the classic academic’s cop-out: sort of, and sort of not. If we could chuck one of those hands-in-the-air don’t know emojis at you, we would. Which is funny really. Okay, maybe you had to be there.

Let’s have a scoot around the figures. We’ve gone through the last eight pollsters to report (and put out their tables), and excluded Deltapoll and Kantar, who don’t provide a crossbreak for ‘don’t know’ now and party allegiance in 2017. That leaves us with the data from six companies – Survation, YouGov, Opinium, SavantaComRes, Panelbase and BMG. That should be quite enough to get a general impression of where the don’t knows are right now. There are lots of ways you could cut this data (by gender, for instance, which suggests that Labour probably will benefit from a late move), but for brevity's sake here we'll focus on the 'past vote' category.

The answers aren't as encouraging for Labour (and for those in search of a Hung Parliament) as they might be. There is a differential, in that there are more ex-Labour don’t knows than Conservative, but it doesn’t look like there are enough on their own to close that polling gap. Survation will give Labour people the most hope. That firm suggests that 7.6 per cent of Tory voters from 2017 are now ‘undecided’, against a much bigger 13 per cent from the red team – though on the other hand ‘refused’ amounts to 2.2 per cent of 2017 Tories and 0.6 per cent of Labour voters from the last election, so we’re probably better off saying 9.8 per cent Tory to 13.6 per cent Labour. If they all move back to their prior teams, that’s worth maybe a point off the Conservatives’ lead.

Elsewhere, the news is less rosy for the Left. The latest YouGov poll has 10 per cent of 2017 Conservative voters saying ‘don’t know’, or refusing to answer, and 13 per cent of Labour – with rounding, not much of a better result than Survation’s for Jeremy Corbyn’s party, but still worse (for reference, the split was 12 per cent to 18 per cent in the last YouGov poll before the Commons voted for an early election). Opinium does have 16 per cent of ex-Labour voters outside London saying ‘don’t know’, and only 9 per cent of ex-Conservatives – a differential that might be worth a couple of points extra to Labour – but with a pollster which shows than lagging 15 per cent behind Boris Johnson’s party.

Lastly, there are three pollsters which show only a one point difference between the don’t knows among 2017 Labour and Conservative voters: Savanta ComRes, Panelbase and BMG. Those firms are showing 6 per cent of Conservatives undecided against 7 per cent of Labour, 5 per cent and 7 per cent, and lastly 9 per cent and 10 per cent. Not much comfort there.

What does this mean? It means that Labour can’t rely on the don’t knows. It will, in all likelihood, get a bit of uplift from that source, but not the three or maybe four points extra it needs to force Boris Johnson into another round of Brexit hell – or even, perhaps, form a government themselves. Labour will need to seek votes elsewhere. This will, of course, prove a harder task.

Labour’s chances therefore now rest on squeezing the Liberal Democrats and the Greens even harder, since the real battleground seems to be across the English Midlands and North, where the Conservatives are hoping to win a string of seats that have been traditionally (and culturally) Labour. That will be hard. Not impossible given a very volatile and uncertain electorate, but more difficult than convincing the don't knows. Labour have already pulled over a lot – and we mean a lot – of those votes already (the Liberal Democrats are five or six points down from their autumn peak). And those votes are unusual and sparse in many of these areas – in Great Grimsby, for instance, which at this point looks fairly doomed as a Labour seat. Hoping to convert almost all of Grimsby's remaining Lib Dems seems like a long shot.

So we’ve got a fix on the don’t knows. There aren’t that many of them left: very likely not enough on their own to force the Tories below 322 seats and into an effective minority. But Labour have climbed two ladders. They’ve definitely relegated the Liberal Democrats into second. They’ve powered up with ex-Labour returnees. Now they’ve released those gravity-defying rockets, the third stage is the hardest: get back Labour voters going Tory in small town England. Those afterburners might fire. They might not. A lot hangs on what happens when Labour presses that button.

Monday, 7 October 2019

Can Labour surge again?

So, first things first: welcome back after the summer break! It’s been nice not to have to think about politics and public policy for a while, hasn’t it? Though that brings us to second things second: the deadening pass-the-turd that passes for political life in the United Kingdom these days. Sorry, but it’s got to be done – and, given that you’re here, you might as well come along for the ride.

Given the looming near-certainty of a General Election, this month we thought we’d take a really close look at the likely prospects for such a contest. Away from the rather tawdry prospect of what one might laughably call the Government’s ‘ideas’, and its hyperventilating throw-it-all-at-the-wall approach to Brexit, the great standing fact in British politics these days is just how unpopular the Opposition is. Will that last all the way through a campaign? Let’s take a look.

Labour is very unpopular. In fact, both the party and particularly its histrionic eye-rolling leader, Jeremy Corbyn, are not so much unpopular as extraordinarily, cosmically, stratospherically loathed. There’s never been an Opposition this low in the polls just before a General Election (of which, more in a moment), and there’s never been a Leader of the Opposition who’s this unpopular. It’s hard to look beyond that to see them forming a new government.

But Labour also plumbed the depths of public opprobrium early in 2017, managing to lose a byelection that should never have been in doubt and to take a fearful hammering in that year’s local elections. Just a few weeks later, in early June, they got to 40 per cent in the popular vote – some fifteen points above where they stood early in that year’s election campaign.

We think there were four reasons for this. The first was that Labour were able to bring their undecided or wavering ex-voters back, whether it was from other parties, don’t know or wouldn’t vote. Secondly, Mr Corbyn’s own ratings improved as he moved into campaign mode – since he’s hopeless at running anything, but actually very good at rallies. Thirdly, Labour put out some really popular policies that attracted the attention of an electorate weary of seven years of public sector spending cuts. Fourth and last, the polls probably always undersold Labour, since some pollsters were putting on ‘likely voter’ screens that turned out to be based on inaccurate calls on turnout by age and outlook. So, can Labour repeat the trick? Let’s look at each of those factors in turn.

1. Don’t know and won’t vote. When Labour reached its polling nadir in the second half of April 2017, many of their voters were in a funk. They had been put off Labour by its revolving door of rows and splits, and frankly they thought Mr Corbyn a liability. In the YouGov poll of 18-19 April 2017, 22 per cent of people who’d voted Labour in 2015 said that they didn’t know who they’d vote for, or they wouldn’t vote. The figure for the Conservatives? Just 11 per cent. Then something happened that very few observers had taken nearly seriously enough: these voters started to return to their previous colours. Under conditions of forced choice, what else could they do? Vote Conservative? Many of them had cultural, familial and ideological objections to that, whatever their doubts about the new model Labour Party. So the squeeze was on – and in YouGov’s last pre-election poll, that figure for ex-Labour don’t knows plus won’t votes was down to just seven per cent.

What’s the situation now? Well, there’s still that gap between ex-Labour protestors that might come home and the same figure for the Conservatives. Except this year, it’s somewhat smaller. The last three YouGov polls have seen that weak disaffiliation run at between 17 and 20 per cent for Labour, versus 13 to 14 per cent for the Tories – a smaller gap than in 2017, but a gap nonetheless. So there’s less opportunity for a squeeze here, and of course there’s also less room to power up from other parties’ numbers – because the Liberal Democrat surge is allowing liberal Labourites and Remainers to adhere to a new loyalty that often feels stronger and more pressing than their older view of the dichotomy between Left and Right. Labour can still put the heat on these voters, especially because very few Liberal Democrats think they’re actually going to win an election, but it looks like a less likely source of votes than it once did.

2. How high can Corbyn climb? During the last election campaign, Jeremy Corbyn pushed his numbers up very quickly – even more quickly, in fact, than Neil Kinnock managed during Labour’s well-managed and glossily-packaged 1987 campaign. Alas, that still put him underwater by polling day (at -11 with Ipsos-Mori), but just a few weeks before, in Mori’s March survey, he’d been at -41. It was a phenomenal achievement, in part linked to the popular policies he was espousing (such as the end of undergraduate tuition fees in England), but also the fact that he just believed what he was saying. He’s been opposing Tory austerity from one end of a megaphone all his life. Small wonder he proved to be good at it.

Gallingly for both his own best interests and Labour’s, things went south again pretty quickly after that. Corbyn and his key allies spent all their political capital in disappointing factional battle after scarcely believable blunder after badly handled falsehood. Instead of reaching out, they doubled down. And so Corbyn’s numbers fell again, so much so that now they’re even worse than just before the 2017 campaign. His Ipsos-Mori rating is now at -60 (the worst ever for an Opposition leader).

We should again be cautious here. Then, Corbyn’s ‘best Prime Minister’ rating fell to 14 per cent with YouGov: in May 2019, he bottomed out at again at about the same level – 15 per cent. Interestingly, too, there’s just a few signs of life here. Some of Mr Corbyn’s approval and performance ratings have begun to recover a little, driven by Remainers warming to him just slightly. You can track the numbers by checking in with this very interesting Twitter account, which we recommend. All this looks to us like Mr Corbyn can indeed recover again, just like Ed Miliband did in 2017. But it’s a deeper hole than before. Are those real signs of life? Or just the wiggling legs of an upturned Texan armadillo cooking in the desert? It’s not entirely clear, but if we had to bet, we’d say it’s all uphill from here.

3. Labour’s new policies. What a great big slice of the public really wants is just some respite from the torture their political class have been putting them through. Brexit: make it stop. Austerity: take it away. Public services: get them working. You get the picture. So when Labour in 2017 came out with a load of anti-austerity spending plans, albeit ones that were so fuzzily funded they looked like a blurry shot of Bigfoot striding through the mountains, people liked it. More police officers? Great. No more cuts to schools and hospitals? Super. Fighting the rising scourge of homelessness? Sign us up. So far, so explicable - and right. More deeply, the understandable feeling has risen and risen among the electorate that there’s much that’s not fair and not right about British capitalism. That’s natural enough after nine years of right-wing government. So a dash of nationalisation and a side order of redistribution went down nicely. Polls show that a number of Labour’s flagship policies were and are (more or less) popular.

Now, there’s more room for doubt. Both quantitative and qualitative evidence shows that the more radical shores of Corbynism 2.0 unveiled or passed at Labour’s recent conference are not going to go down nearly so smoothly. Abolish private schools? The public don’t like that idea one bit. Step in to save the travel agent Thomas Cook? No – in widescreen. Big likely increases in Inheritance Tax via a lifetime gift tax, possible land taxes, extra income tax rises to fund all of Labour’s even bigger spending plans that time round, freer movement of peoples, state pharma, even a four day week – most voters are unlikely to think of these as the radical, but still plausible and believable, plans they heard in 2017. It’s not clear in what state any of this will make Labour’s manifesto, of course, but if it sounds like that shopping list, fewer voters will go out and buy it.

4. Counting the voters. One reason pollsters missed the Conservative majority of 2015 was down to turnout. They were, quite simply, sampling the wrong people. Their ‘frame’ was out. Older, conservative Britons were just more likely to actually turn up on the day. So some of the pollsters – notably ComRes, which pointed out the discrepancy on the eve of poll in 2015 – started to weight all their numbers like that. Young, urban, renting? Your scores got marked down a bit. What this meant – when for instance older Britons appalled by Theresa May’s proposed social care charges sat out the 2017 election – was a set of polls out in the other direction, scratching off some Labour numbers and puffing up the Tory score. That’s a very, very crude description of what was going on, and we wince to write it. But stay with us here.

This time, there’s a bit of feeling about that the polls might be overstating Labour slightly. The party’s final polling average just before the European Parliament elections was about 19 per cent. They actually got 14 per cent of the vote in Great Britain. The Liberal Democrats, on the other hand, were registering at about 16 per cent in those same polls, but they managed to attract 20 per cent of the vote. Something kept the Labour numbers too high, and pegged back the Liberal Democrats. What seems to be happening is that pollsters who weight by recalled past vote – ComRes, for instance – are boosting the Labour vote share. People are forgetting they voted Labour, and to beef up the ‘2017 Labour’ share of the sample, surveyors are pulling more Labourites in. That inflates both the number of past Labour voters and the Labour score in the final voting intention headlines, as work by both Kantar and YouGov has demonstrated (both open as PDF).

So there we have it. Some of the context now looks like 2017. In particular, the number of ex-Labour voters wary of saying they’ll vote Labour next time is not vastly lower than in 2017 – though there are indeed fewer of them. Jeremy Corbyn’s numbers have already started to show a tiny bit of life, though on some measures he’s starting from lower down this time. But other elements, both in terms of Labour’s new and more Corbynite stance as well as geeky details hidden deep within the polling methodology, militate somewhat in the other direction. Can Labour climb again? Yes. Will they? Almost certainly. Will it be as steep an upward curve as last time? It looks unlikely.

Here’s the real kicker, though. The lift-off doesn’t have to be as vertiginous. Some – but only some – of the elements that made for Labour’s afterburners last time are there again. Some of them might not work as well this time, but they don’t have to. That's because the Tories are lower, and not so far ahead. If we look at the polling averages, they’re about eight points in front of Labour, not the 16 per cent of April 2017. Boris Johnson is nowhere near as popular as Theresa May was then: his Ipsos-Mori score is -18 to Mrs May’s +13 just before the 2017 campaign. Yes, voters think of Mr Corbyn as an unpalatable mix of Wolfie Smith and Keith from Nuts in May – but in Mr Johnson he faces a nasty old cross between Billy Bunter and South Park’s Cartman. Shilling shop Rasputin versus penny shop Disraeli: no wonder voters are uncertain.

To reiterate: can Labour surge once more? Yes. Can the same forces behind their 2017 surprise work for them again? Not to the same extent. Will they achieve critical velocity this time? No-one knows. They can and might close the gap enough to govern as a minority. That’s all we know. Sorry, but them’s the facts. As we always say: it’s not nothing, but it is something.

Thursday, 11 July 2019

It's all over... for now

So that's it. It's a wrap for the academic year 2018/19. It's been another pathetic and embarrassing year for British politics, with the fall of one Prime Minister and the rise of another who makes Captain Caveman look like Socrates. With the Government in chaos, and the official Opposition a disgusting rabble, there isn't much to cheer about. But what there is, while you're here, is the summer - with plenty of opportunities, whatever your fitness and abilities, to get out into Britain and beyond. Enjoy, recharge, and we'll see you back here in September. Then, the long crisis will resume, with potentially one or two more General Elections, and one, two or more referendums. You lucky people. Be well, be kind, and remember: we have more in common than that which divides us.

Thursday, 27 June 2019

Advance, Britannia!

It’s hard to maintain much optimism about British politics. The structural faultlines look too great to be surmounted. Something’s going to have to give – probably in the midst of the huge constitutional crisis we look to be heading into this autumn. One or more General Elections, another referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union, another Scottish independence referendum, a border poll in Northern Ireland – they are all set to divide us in the years to come. Instead of getting on with maybe making schools and hospitals better, Parliament will be tearing itself to pieces over the constitution, just as it did in the 1880s and the 1910s. It’s depressing stuff. Where once Prime Minister Winston Churchill bellowed ‘advance,Britannia!’ at the moment of victory in 1945, our leaders now squeak out a litany of retreats into the obscurity to which history will surely condemn them. 

But look out beyond the politics, and the country is not actually on fire. That’s something important to remember when writing about the apparent state of crisis in Westminster and Whitehall. Yes, growth is slowing, but it’s still there. True, wage increases are only now taking us back to those halcyon days of 2007 and 2008 when we thought that the economy might expand forever – but there is wage growth. Yes, we face a climate emergency. But the United Kingdom is doing its bit. It’s on target to meet its Copenhagen commitments in the short-term, and it might be able to hit its targets in the medium- to long-term as well. Indeed, the Government has just legislated to take us to net zero carbon by 2050. The planet is in trouble, but the UK is at least trying to do something about it.

We can in fact look back at lots of crises that seems just as bad, at the time, if not worse. The summer of 1940 was an immeasurably more acute crisis – not that it’s much relief that Britain's armed forces aren't now in full retreat from fascists who wanted to crush the country's entire way of life. Narrowing in a bit more to the comparable disasters of the post-war age, the Suez Crisis of 1956 was an unmitigated catastrophe that saw Britain’s diplomatic position completely obliterated in just a few short weeks – and which claimed the lives of 16 British servicemen. The country often seemed on the brink of ungovernability in 1972-73, especially given the chronic breakdown of civil order in Northern Ireland. In 1976, the UK was forced into painful austerity by the International Monetary Fund, while in 1981-82 Britain’s cities went up in flames as unemployment and poverty soared.

Our present crisis is in most respects nowhere near as acute as it seemed during those previous disasters. Employment growth is strong, indeed puzzlingly so, and it’s concentrated in full-time permanent jobs. Inflation is very low, though it’s crept up a little as the pound has been hit by Brexit uncertainty. Mortgage and interest rates remain in their historic troughs. Things are very, very hard indeed if you rely on any element of Britain’s fraying welfare state, and public services (particularly those run by local councils) are beginning to run into the sands. But for most people, in most places, things are just about okay. They go on living their lives, their rich, dense, detailed, multi-hued, familial, variegated, fascinating, comforting, challenging, infuriating lives – just as they did during the Depression and the long post-war boom alike. Life goes on, and seems to have been getting better, at least in so far as long term trends in self-reported happiness tell us anything. 

Consider the latest instalment of that magisterial text of post-war social history, 63 Up. Ever since 1964, and for the most part helmed by filmmaker Michael Apted, these documentaries have heralded the ups, downs, sideways and diagonals of normal people from all walks of life. And what have they been doing? Getting on with things. You can watch one of the first episodes here (it aired as 7-Up), and ITV has recently shown the latest in the serial. If you want our advice, you should go and watch these right now, and maybe catch up with the rest of the series, but the point we’re trying to make will hopefully stand whether you’ve seen these programmes or not.

There’s cabbie Tony, doing okay for himself; Nick, who became an academic in the United States, but who is now very, very ill; Bruce, who used to teach in some pretty difficult schools, but who latterly moved into the independent sector; Lynn, who held onto her job as a children’s librarian through change after change at the council, but who’s sadly now died; Paul, long troubled by being brought up in a children’s home, who’s since moved to Australia; John the barrister, now doing good works in Bulgaria, his mother’s native country; and the star of the show, Neil (above), once homeless in the Highlands, but now serving as a lay preacher and a Liberal Democrat County Councillor in Cumbria. 

They might not have been splitting the atom. They may not have been storming the beaches on D-Day. They haven’t been living a glamorous high life with the elite, like John Maynard Keynes, choosing to spend his health on what he saw as his mission to save the British economy. None of them have won a gold medal. It’s not been that kind of heroism. But they have been living heroic lives nonetheless: teaching kids from tough backgrounds, taking the mobile library out, raising money for orphans in Eastern Europe, serving the community as councillors, coming to terms with their own struggles with the past and the present, building new lives in new nations, bringing up their children. It is here, and not in what passes for the directing mind of the political nation, where true leadership lies.

We may well all have been let down by those fraudulent pipsqueaks who have the temerity even to use the word ‘leader’ in the face of such citizens. But their endeavours continue to inspire, even all these years after 1964 –  that year of Labour’s re-election among hopeful talk of that ‘white heat’ which would reforge the nation itself. Our ‘leaders’ are in retreat. But Britannia? Well, Britannia advances.