Enough With The Punditry

The political quote of the week belongs not to one of the three participants in Britain’s first televised election debate between the main party leaders, but to David Miliband. “When JFK said America would send a man to the moon,” the Foreign Secretary wrote on his blog, namechecking the same US President alluded to by David Cameron at the Tory manifesto launch,” he didn’t say ‘build your own rocket’.”

Margaret Thatcher used the non-existence of society as an excuse to gut the state; Cameron, with the counter-intuitive boldness of the PR man, has used its rude existence to do the same. Steve Richards called Cameron’s Big Society “reheated Thatcherism” this week, and that seems just right – as Eddie Izzard put it, “It’s Thatcher, but in new suits.”

The genius – if that is what it is – of the Tories’ little blue hardback is that it hides its big purpose behind its big idea: the state is to be supplanted by Victorian philanthropism, the contention that a volunteering sector happy to help the poorest part of society – the part least likely to set up their own schools, hospitals and welfare systems – and largely unsupported by a state cutting itself to ribbons, will somehow replace government. It’s a contention, not an intention, because the ‘modern’ Tory party doesn’t care a jot if that’s what the volunteers do. It just wants to do away with the state. It will do this beneath the cloak of the Big Society, but once that is whipped away this country, like the hand of a clever magician, will be emptied out.

A poll this week suggested that the deal might already be done – in the marginals, a Crosby/Textor poll for the Telegraph suggested, the Tories are safely in majority government territory. But would you trust a poll showing a similar figure for Labour, if it were conducted by Campbell/Gould associates? Lynton Crosby ran the dog whistle Tory campaign of 2005; Mark Textor was Boris Johnson’s campaign manager. One hesitates to accuse any poll of political bias – though the Tories themselves are not beyond it – but everything is still to play for. We can at least deny the Tories a majority; but who is best placed to do this for us?

Nick Clegg, who has done himself and his party huge favours with a creditable performance in that otherwise inconclusive TV debate, spoke at the Liberal Democrat manifesto launch of hardwiring fairness into society. The most obvious plans to achieve this involve breaking up the banks and reforming politics. But, as ever, Liberal Democrat fairness is not egalitarian in purpose: the party’s commitment to raise the income tax personal allowance to £10,000 does not help the poorest fifth of our society, which earns on average about £11,000 a year; their policy to restrict tax credits will actively damage it, since, according to the IFS, £6,453 of that average income is made up of … tax credits and benefits. (See table 1 here.) That’s not fairness; it may be liberalism, but it bears little resemblance to the leftist tone Liberals are known, when it suits them, to adopt.

Vote For Policies, a website touted this week at the Green manifesto launch for reasons that will be obvious when you hit their homepage, is a useful tool: you vote for policies blind, and the site will tell you where you are best matched. This has so far been a difficult election campaign for me, since I’m so used to being able to sit on the sidelines and commentate about how hopeless the Tories are. This is the first election of my adult life in which the Tories stand a chance, and yet I have been unable to provide full-throated support to any alternative party. I was ready to be won over by the Lib Dems; that tax problem I found in their manifesto felt like a deal-breaker. Vote For Policies, meanwhile, showed – confirmed – that on most issues I am over-whelmingly with Labour. This almost-but-not-quite match is all you can expect. On civil liberties, on the war, on immigration, I am set against the party of Attlee, Bevan and Brown; but in terms of sentiment, in the general direction of travel, they are my best option.

Here’s why: if you are against the Tories on married couples tax breaks, on eviscerating the state, on refusing to protect education funding and on pretending that a rise in VAT is fairer than a rise on National Insurance; if you think tax credits, Sure Start and partnership with the third sector have improved communities and brought them together in ways unimaginable in 1996; if your vision of a tax system is that it should ensure the bonds of society are strengthened rather than broken, and of the National Health Service that it is both preventative and comprehensive; if you think it strange that we can’t afford to protect frontline services but we can afford to give a tax break to the richest 3,000 estates; if you think it doubtful that frozen pay and innumerable lay-offs in the public sector will do anything to help a fragile consumer economy; if you find laughable the suggestion that the party which couldn’t trust real local government (Bob Piper on this) will now give up a coercive power it enjoys excercising in its own backyard (Michael Crick on that); if an invitation to join the government of Britain strikes you as an invitation to do its job for it, then Labour offers the alternative. The Liberal Democrats might, it is sure, make excellent and natural partners in a hung parliament – and this result may well enable a proper purge of the old system which forced Labour into its Blairite bondage in the first place – but their approach is too scattered, too confused, to ensure the fairness they profess to desire. (And where’s the commitment on a continued fox hunting ban, chaps?)

The great criticism of Labour – one I share, and one I have trouble getting over – is that it is overly authoritarian, too fond of CCTV cameras and DNA databases. But the Tory anti-statist response is too much – ravenously, hungrily – the reverse. In reverse is the last direction this country needs to go. The Tory manifesto launch was glitzy, but it’s big idea seems to have fallen flat, not particularlty mentioned since by any Tory in any media appearance. As was revealed in ITV’s debate, Cameron’s sleight of hand is yet to rival Paul Daniels, let alone David Blaine. This is a progressive moment. You can find that quote on page 0:5.

The EU Elections, The BNP and the Labour Party

EU FlagThe papers are naturally filled with more leadership speculation and deconstruction of the reshuffle fall-out today – the frequently confused Trevor Kavanagh in The Sun and the always potty Melanie Philips in the Mail (who chooses to repeat Iain Dale’s little breakdown meme) in particular have scathing words for a Prime Minister they see as bereft of all authority, commanded by an unelected, shadowy First Secretary of State. (Guido discussed all this in his usual conspiracy buff tenor on Saturday.) The full text of those Mandelson-Draper emails reveals just how much (and, contrary to the Mail’s reports, how sympathetically) the Baron of Foy and Hartlepool understands our Prime Minister; he was undoubtedly instrumental in ensuring that Purnell was left out on his own by Friday morning.

Still, step forward people like Charlie Falconer and Jackie Ashley (is this really the best the rebels can muster?), demanding that Gordon go today – perhaps following what will be a fractious meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party at 6pm this evening. Because, of course, all of the weekend’s maneuvring has been superceded by yesterday’s atrocious results for Labour: 15% of the national vote, beaten in Scotland by the SNP and, for the first time since 1918, defeated in Wales; wiped out in the South West (in Cornwall coming sixth) and South East (scoring just 8%), losing out across the non-urban Midlands, and seeing their vote collapse in the party’s Northern heartlands, heralding the election of two fascist MEPs. Dismal, dismal stuff.

Renewal is therefore the order of the day, and already last night the left was out in force – Nick Brown talking down the privatisation of Royal Mail, Michael Meecher talking up social housing, and, er, Polly Toynbee being Polly Toynbee. This post at LabourHome refers to ‘redefining our core values’, but I’m not sure that’s what needs doing at all. Bob Piper might be missing the point a bit when he moans that the media are wots causing it, but he’s spot on in this call to arms: whatever the details of policy, going back to core values, back to the party’s  roots in an electorate which has abandoned them (and yet who have not sided with the Tories in doing so), is what needs to happen.

It’s not often I agree with Eric Pickles, but when he said on the BBC last night that a vote for the BNP is a sign of disaffection, he was spot on. Back in April 2006, around the time Margaret Hodge courted controversy in speaking candidly about the BNP problem in Barking and Dagenham, I wrote in another place:

It is a denial of the truth in these areas to ignore – and thus fail to combat – the racist motive of BNP voters. Equally, it is a denial of the roots of working class facism simply to ignore people because they are saying things we would rather not hear. You don’t get seven per cent in a poll only from the ‘go out on a Saturday night and kick the Paki’ crowd. You don’t even get it from the types of people who routinely discriminate against non-whites. You get it from, well, the older lady in the shop. This type of seasonal racism is a way for disenfranchised people to explain their misfortunes. It is usually born of ignorance, of course – the BNP’s strongest shot in Birmingham, Kingstanding, has a significantly lower number of non-whites than the city as a whole, which seems to cope with integration quite well, thanks – but, again, that ignorance, whilst uninteresting in itself, tells us something of more lasting importance. It is not often considered that the BNP makes people into racists by pretending to have easy solutions to difficult problems too often swept under the political carpet. The real racists are few in number – remember, a few months ago, BNP support wasn’t showing on the map. These racists can be talked down, weaned away yet again from the same old rumours and knee-jerk assumptions, but only if we understand not just their concerns, but also their racism. (Johann Hari starts to delve into it here, but it’s not all about the Daily Mail being horrid, however much we’d like it to be.)

This is about race. But it isn’t about the cartoon, simplistic racism that we can easily reject as the purview of skinheads and, er, the BNP. (And which Searchlight et al campaign against well and need more help in doing so.) It’s something else – a soft-headed, certainly ignorant but also predictable attempt by those of us not so fortunate as to type rubbish into a blog to explain how the gap between rich and poor is growing, and no one seems to care.

Labour RoseMost of that, alas is still true: again last night, talking head after talking head lined up to say that BNP voters aren’t racist. This is much too simplistic. Voting for the BNP is incontrovertibly a racist act (as John Austin might have said, by saying something, we do something), but, importantly, a voter can make a racist vote without being in their everyday conceptions a racist. One of the first things the Labour Party could do in returning to their core values is to begin to engage with what makes a non-racist voter feel so disaffected as to cast a racist vote. To deny they have done so is to miss a real opportunity to hit two birds with one stone.

Define:Labour

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Guido Fawkes responds strongly to something of a negative profile of him in the Telegraph this morning. (Though he can’t say all that negativity is untrue, merely that it is, er, unbalanced.) He has developed an intensifying rivalry with the paper over the last week, in which the Torygraph has taken a curiously defensive line on the ‘smeargate’ debacle – most days, it has underplayed the story’s severity where every other paper has talked it up – and the profile is likely in part a response to Guido’s comments on the paper’s site. A week after the story began, the personalities still seem to be taking centre stage. This is of course how the ‘personalities’ want it.

A post on LabourHome yesterday bemoaned Labour’s lack of ‘branding’. This is getting towards the truth – Labour is suffering because it has ceased to control its own profile, to define its own destiny. The news that the former MP Alice Mahon is quitting her party is being spun by these Tory personalities as a result of the smear story, as a matter of process rather than policy. This feeds into their grand narrative, but isn’t the case (as Bob Piper has also cottoned onto today). Her resignation comes as a result of what she perceives to be real policy failures: the privatisation of Royal Mail, the lack of a Lisbon referendum, the failings of the Welfare Reform Bill. The McBride scandal was in some versions of the story the last push she needed, but to ascribe it central importance is self-serving. (“In Alice Mahon’s case she has left, not because of Labour’s policies, but because of the way the Party is conducting itself in office,” says Iain Dale, thumping his usual tub. He even labels the story a ‘defection’. Yawn.)

Alistair Campbell wrote this week about the media prism: if you’re perceived to be on the up, you’re given space; if you’re not, you’re not. If your enemies can succeed in reducing your (moral or otherwise) authority to such a low that you can no longer effect meaningful policy change in order to meet the criticism of your friendly critics, then they win the wider battle. Gordon Brown take note: the politics of personality (in which you have both chosen and been forced to take part) cannot win you the fight.

This sort of thing is much more the ticket.

A Coming of Age

We won't be seeing this again.
We won't be seeing this again.

After Hain comes McBride – another scalp for Guido. (The Economist’s Bagehot has some useful background on the hole in Brown’s armour which he leaves behind.)

The inimitable Bob Piper, who sits on my council but alas does not represent my ward, is a hoot on the subject of Iain Dale’s Iaincentric world, and certainly this story is now far, far bigger than him. We expect more details of the contents of those emails tomorrow, and the next target will surely be Tom Watson, himself a noted political blogger. As Political Betting had it this morning:

Email, text bulletins and online donations played their part in Barack Obama’s campaign, and Ron Paul didn’t really leave the internet at all. But more than the use of these tools, the most important impact of New Media on the 2008 elections in the US (and the 2006 Midterms before them) was in breaking ‘Snipergate’ (Hillary’s remembrances of Bosnia), the George Allen ‘Macaca’ scandal that cost him his Senate seat in Virginia, the leaking of the Rev Wright sermons on YouTube, the ‘birth certificate’ questions, the Bristol Palin pregnancy, and Obama Girl. These were picked up by TV Networks and Newspapers, and characterised the campaign and drove its narrative.

It’s not the effect of a single blog which is most interesting and different here. It’s the interconnectedness of all these writers, and the combined weight of their comment – although it is also true that, like any blogosphere, there is also a sense of its own self-importance. Whatever, high times for the UK political blogosphere, which has before now been very much the poor relation compared to the US’s.