Parsing Politics in 2015

election2015And so the General Election of 2015. I used to write a lot more about politics on these pages. In one of my last two posts on the topic, I said this: “it’s hard to argue with Dave Osler that the poor don’t have a party“; in the other, I said this: “When there is a political voice that will speak out against those sort of veering right-turns, expect more politics in these pages.” The absence of any such posts since should say the rest.

There is a palsied incapacity in our body politic to express any alternative to the preening austerity of the Coalition Government. The Tories have abandoned any One Nation credentials in their pursuit of a self-appointed task, pursued with temerity since the economic crisis of 2008, to conjure multiple excuses from that single event for various infringements upon the state. The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, emblazon their election literature with the words “stronger economy”, by which they unimaginatively mean “more cuts”. The Labour party, too – powered by Ed Balls’s increasingly macho face-off with George Osborne – are committed to the era’s standard-issue white-bread version of “fiscal responsibility”. The hyperventilation which greeted the election of Syriza in Greece reflects the dicky ticker of our late capitalist pessimism: there is no other way but retrenchment.

This was one of the topics of Adam Curtis’s latest documentary, Bitter Lake. In an interesting experiment, this was released only on the BBC iPlayer, negating the need to split it into a series of episodes, or to edit it into manageable length or conventional structure. I’m not sure this helped the film – it goes for long spells without adding to its own argument, instead focusing on lengthy tessellations of images which tend all to reflect the same contrasts between rhetoric and reality. Indeed, that gap is Curtis’s primary target in the film: he suggests that, following the oil crisis of the 1970s, Western democracies allowed big banks, reigned in since the reforms of the Great Depression, essentially to take charge of economic policy in exchange for social stability. Bitter Lake not entirely successfully splices this idea with the various wars in Afghanistan since the Second World War, arriving at the conclusion that our ruling elite knows its narrative makes no sense – but lacks the imagination to reshape the world as Franklin Roosevelt did.

It may be deeper than that, however. The current political malaise drills down to an issue of the language in which our politics – our identities – are expressed, not just the imaginative capacity of a few politicians. A month or so ago in an edition of the BBC’s horse-race-heavy This Week, the Green MP Caroline Lucas (who on the same programme made a terrible hash of attempting to describe why The Sun‘s Page Three is a bad thing) corrected Andrew Neil on the subject of the Chilcot Inquiry: “You are hoping for vindication, aren’t you?” Neil asked, suggesting that the primary interest of the pacifist Greens in an investigation into the Iraq War was the gaining of political capital. “Well, I rather hope it’s about learning lessons,” Lucas replied, rather nonplussed by the cynicism. As our politicians have become, or reframed themselves as, managers rather than directors of state policy, so the way in which we in turn analyse and assess their motivations and relations has migrated from the ideological to the positional.

This cynicism is present in our political literature: Anna and I have since the New Year burned through the first two seasons of the US remake of House of Cards. The original series, of course, also focused on a fairly venal and dispiriting stripe of politician; yet Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood lacks not only the original Francis Urquhart’s cultured airs and graces, but mostly importantly his political ideology: Underwood appears not to have anything approaching a political position, whilst Urquhart was always identifiably a member of the Tory right, with consistent policy aims that, whilst often presented as straight-forwardly villainous, at least suggested some form of point to holding power. In the US, as in the UK, it has become a governing assumption of our culture that politicians have no guiding principles, only a careerist approach to office-holding.

In this context, political language suffers. Lucas struggled to defend her position on Page Three because the vocabulary of belief is excluded from the discourse; in the days following that appearance on This Week, the Green leader, Natalie Bennet, was judged to have been savaged by Neil on The Sunday Politics when she failed to justify a range of positions he had more or less randomly selected from the more or less crowd-sourced Green website for scrutiny. There is an ideological underpinning to Green policy, even when a particular element has not been adopted by the party as a manifesto commitment; but ideology is either demonised (and not always, as is traditional, by the right) or, and this is something new, simply disbelieved in the way an unsophisticated historian might interpret medieval religion – as a figleaf for the real purpose, which is to hold power cynically and selfishly.

This is the reason, it seems to me, that the Labour Party under Ed Miliband have struggled so thoroughly to offer an alternative to the Coalition’s slash-and-burn narrative. When Miliband suggested in 2011 that capitalists can be split into ‘predators’ and ‘producers’, he risked, as any dichotomy does, reductive thinking; but he also touched on a sense of an unjust capitalism, a need to reign in its wilder excesses, which is felt across the political spectrum. Without the capacity to express that feeling in ideological terms, however, Labour have been left tacking from one tactical formulation to another, adding up to an appearance (and sometimes a reality) of incoherence – and, finally, defaulting to a sort of austerity-lite, which only buys into and reinforces the dominant and destructive managerial paradigm of our political age.

In his defence, in last week’s televised Q&A (if we’re being critical of our political language, let us not hide David Cameron’s frit-ness beneath the word ‘debate’), Miliband reached for some of That Vision Thing: he talked about general directions, opposing Cameron’s statistics-heavy delivery with a sense of passion and vision. Though a snap ICM poll for the Guardian gave the Q&A to the Prime Minister, Miliband’s low-boil attempt to begin to break out of the technocratic strait-jacket had a more lasting effect: more considered polls with larger samples in the days following last Thursday put him ahead, and on Sunday a YouGov poll for the Times put Labour four points ahead.

A ComRes poll today, however, gives the same advantage to the Tories. If we lack a new language to reframe an increasingly sterile political debate (a point of frustration on the right as much as the left, where there is fury that no apparent means of communicating a Tory message for the 21st-century is available to the Conservative leadership), we also lack the means to think about the reasons for this weirdly wheeling public opinion. In the Guardian, Paul Mason suggests that this is due to a fracturing of the British electorate into three tribes: a financialised one residing in the south-east; a Scandinavian one in Scotland; and a more amorphous, ‘post-industrial’ tribe residing in the north of England and in most major cities. These don’t seem entirely convincing – UKIP surely straddles at least two of those groups, whilst what is going on in Scotland seems rather more complicated than a continental drift towards Oslo. But the theory that the tensions of the early 21st century have shaken out the last vestiges of the twentieth, and have left our political classes adrift amid a proliferation of new, baggier identities, feels about right.

Identity politics is a matter of controversy. In the LRB, Jackson Lears recently wrote, as part of a sad assessment of Hilary Clinton’s inevitable ascendancy to the Democratic nomination for President:

The rise of identity politics in America was a tragic necessity. No one can deny the legitimacy or urgency of the need felt by women and minorities to have equality on their own terms, to reject the assumption that full participation in society required acceptance of the norms set by straight white males. Yet even as the public sphere grew more inclusive, the boundaries of permissible debate were narrowing. Critiques of concentrated power, imperial or plutocratic, became less common. Indeed, the preoccupation with racial and gender identity has hollowed out political language, the void filled by an apparently apolitical alternative – the neoliberal discourse of antiseptic intervention abroad and efficient productivity at home.

The danger of identity is that it is so fissiparous that it reduces all ability for publics to join forces in pursuit of something greater. This is the phenomenon of breaking-down described insufficiently by Mason; it is the fracturing that threatens the Tory vote from the right and the Labour vote from the left; and yet it represents the single greatest challenge of this general election campaign. If a new language can be found, and a new narrative acceptable to a unity of interest groups expressed, a breakthrough will be had. If not, we will spend the campaign, its aftermath and potentially another five years of a fractious parliament, playing instead to our increasingly segmented national gallery. Should that be the case, the debate around electoral reform – for the introduction of a system which can at least better reflect, channel and make sense of this Disunited Kingdom – should surely be renewed. It is hard to develop a new language without the appropriate grammar.

On Margaret Thatcher

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Back in the dog days of 2008, I did something I do not usually do: I cut out a newspaper cartoon and pasted it on my door. It was a Steve Bell piece, a portrait of the City of London, at the time resembling Rome under Nero, all harsh sunlight, glass and chrome; in the foreground, and in shadow, was a green wheelie dustbin. In the dustbin, you understand, was Margaret Thatcher.

That Thatcher could still appear in a political cartoon in 2008 – that she appeared in them well afterwards, and will dominate them tomorrow – is, of course, eloquent testimony that she remained the dominant politico-mythical figure of our age. Not only that, but I wasn’t yet eight when she left office – and yet I cut out that cartoon because it seemed to me to capture quite profoundly (if optimistically) a jonbar point, a moment when paradigms were in flux. Her bodily death is neither here nor there, except to those who knew her personally – we could have had shot of her half a decade ago.

Of course, through the back door and without the popular support Thatcher once enjoyed, since 2010 the Coalition has ensured that, like Pavlov’s well-trained dog, we have snapped firmly back to the paradigm Thatcher set. Indeed, hers was a paradigm which has not stood still: in the 1980s, welfare reached its lowest level relative to wages in thirty years; it is now 8% lower. We now spend almost half the amount of GDP we spent on welfare then, and yet the Coalition continue to demonise claimants as the great drag on our economic and social life (and not, naturally, the elite irresponsibility the neoliberal Big Bang helped inspire). The position of those against whom Thatcher’s government was set continues not to erode – the vicious passive voice – but to be eroded.

So, where there is despair, there might seem to be little hope. When a Prime Minister times a statement to appear live on the 6 O’Clock News, as David Cameron did tonight, it is because he believes the potential benefits outweigh the risks; a St Paul’s funeral for Thatcher, and the hagiography which will precede it and ensue, will help the Tories further entrench her vision of society and of her opponents which they are peddling anew. For trades unions read benefit claimaints. For Kinnock read Miliband. For all-powerful self-correcting markets read … well, more of the same.

That’s why, and perhaps here I’d think differently had I the same bitter and immediate political memories of the 1980s as some of my friends, the gloating over Thatcher’s death isn’t just misplaced – it makes the Left look counter-intuitively spiteful, even when they may be that correct that public figures who reject compassion as Thatcher did give up the right to the obligatory respect due to private individuals. No, that schadenfreude is missing the point: Thatcher was an avatar of capital, of its interests and stratagems, and capital has not gone away. In fact, unlike creepily reverential young Tory bucks, it moved on from her long ago except as a sort of fairground animatronic to be wheeled out on special occasions.

Gloat all you like (and, in case I am being unclear, I will shed no tears on the day of the over-emphatic funeral). The Disability Living Allowance will still be gone in the morning.

The Party Conferyawns

A graphic depicting not least the heart rate of conference-goers this year.

David Cameron, looking tired and not a little strained, dutifully took to the stage at the Conservative party conference yesterday and proceeded to handwave for a while. “Our plan is right,” he insisted in reference to his government’s economic policy. “And our plan will work. I know you can’t see it or feel it yet.” He went on to describe the plan as similar to, you guessed it, building a house: “The most important part is the part you can’t see – the foundations that make it stable.” In the absence of detail or even underpinning logic, listening to this section of the speech resembled sitting through a sermon: the evidence of God’s existence is everywhere, oh ye faithful. It’s just invisible.

The week before, Ed Miliband hadn’t fared much better: “The tragedy of Britain is that it is not being met,” he intoned. “My mission. Our mission. To fulfil the promise of each so we fulfil the promise of Britain.” This sort of clumsy phrase-making marred and muddied a speech which some have characterised as wildly left-wing but which was in truth less coherent than a piece in the New Statesman by Miliband’s ex-speechwriter. Cameron had a finer turn of phrase, but the hollowness and timidity at the heart of his speech was also what, ironically, make Miliband’s sound scarier and more off-piste. There may be a bone to flesh in the latter’s speech, but all was thin gruel this past month. There has been a wooliness about the conference season that is symptomatic of a political class without the courage to spell out their nascent responses to dumbfounding events.

Even following Miliband’s mincing repositioning, it’s hard to argue with Dave Osler that the poor don’t have a party: each political tribe, and Cameron chases Miliband even as he mocks him (for instance on the division between predatory and productive businesses Tories had been lampooning all week), have focused on the squeezed middle. The problem, of course, is that the longer our political leaders opt to be mealy-mouthed the more likely it is that many more of us will be poor. They spent the last three weeks desperately trying to ensure nothing actually happened – a boo here, a catflap there were treated as cataclysms. There is much worse to come, and as Steve Richards so rightly comments today, no evidence in rhetoric or deed that we’ll have an answer when it does.

Why Liberal England Slept

Lib Dem ministers eye up their latest crush

Are Liberal Democrats naive or merely foolish? This seems to be the key question of current British politics: their apparently genuine shock and amazement at the extent of the Tory betrayal on the AV campaign suggests that at the very least the party’s leadership were too credulous when negotiating with the Conservatives, or that the were positively cavalier, ignoring all previous experience in the face of an Old Etonian smile. The Lib Dems are notoriously dirty campaigners themselves; that they have been knocked for six by a Tory-funded No campaign that spared no one’s blushes, and certainly not the terms of some paltry prenuptial, strains credibility.

Labour, of course, were sadly split on the AV issue – not least because the party’s Scottish MPs, who saw their bailiwicks turn to Alex Salmond on Thursday, rely in large part on FPTP to shore up their  majorities. But it seems a trifle rich to blame Ed Miliband, a leader who continues to speak the language of the ‘progressive majority’ despite all evidence of its existence tending to the contrary, for the failure of a campaign  that mattered apparently so much to Lib Dems (though not so much that all the party’s supporters could bring themselves to vote Yes). The blame must fall on whomever under-estimated small-c conservative opinion and large-c Conservative dishonesty – and over-estimated the chances that the public would turn to constitutional revolution at the merest flimsy word from an admittedly cuddly liberal.

Nick Clegg will continue that under-estimation of the electorate at his peril – yet his transparent positioning on the rolling back of Andrew Lansley’s NHS reforms suggests that the Lib Dem leader, who is oh-so bravely choosing to do away with a Bill already abandoned by many Tories, including Cameron himself, will forge ahead in the only way he knows how: blindly, but with an increasingly forlorn hope that something will turn up. One might welcome the demise of the proposed NHS reforms, but Clegg will need not to halt Tory policies already in the process of being abandoned by Tories themselves, but succeed in implementing Liberal Democrat policies which people care about. It’s not enough for Ed Miliband to invite Lib Dems into his own party – he should be supporting any sign of a sort of fifth column within the Coalition. But with Labour under-performing and the Lib Dems at such a loss, that Old Etonian smile grows broader by the day.

Well OK Then to AV

Over-stated, under-sold

Has constitutional reform ever been so unsexy? It’s hard not to see in Nick Clegg’s acceptance of the Tory offer to hold a referendum on AV the germ of today’s poll numbers: the problem with AV is that it only excites people desperate to stick with First Past The Post. Even the greatest proponent of the Yes To AV campaign can find only lukewarm arguments in favour of the system we will all be voting under should it prevail tomorrow. Most of these arguments have to do with how AV is not FPTP – and a negative argument is rarely a convincing one. The rest – that MPs will work harder, or that it will make every vote count – are various shades of nonsensical.

And this, of course, was always the Tory plan. AV doesn’t change the game so much as add a modifier; and therefore conversion to one side or the other is difficult. This leaves the sort of rallying cries and dog whistles we’ve seen each campaign resort to with depressing ease – because the aim can only be to fire up those already against voting reform, or to enthuse those in favour of it. I believe FPTP is unfar; I don’t particularly believe AV is the silver bullet. Nor do I believe that a Yes to AV will mean further reform soon – though I agree with Ed Miliband that should the result be a No, then there will be little chance of revisiting the issue voting reform for some time to come.

Thus, of course, the dilemma: faced with a choice between AV and many other alternative voting systems that could replace FPTP, I would not choose the Alternative Vote. Our Tory overlords, however, have connived to ensure I have only a choice between a broken system and a slightly less broken one (or one that’s still broken, but in different ways). Vote Yes, and I risk contributing to the adoption of a system I don’t like that much, either; vote No, and not only do I side with John Reid and David Cameron – I in effect register my disinterest in further debate on voting reform. In the absence of the zeal of conversion, however, both campaigns tomorrow face a referendum set to default – few have been convinced by anything more than their pre-existing prejudices, and the rest have largely ignored the whole affair. Does anyone expect turn-out to be very high? Thought not. Over on Labour Uncut, Dan Hodges didn’t need a crystal ball to call the result as early as yesterday.

Doomed to a forlorn hope and incrementalism, however, I shall vote yes. But as I do so I’ll hear David Cameron’s cackle all the way from Downing Street.

Perception is Reality, Neophyte

Ed's media strategy has become more complex.

Over the weekend, it was increasingly easy to tell that the Labour Party have invested in some press people. In December, Ed Miliband appointed two stalwart political journalists, Bob Roberts and Tim Baldwin, to his communications team, and their effect is already being felt: it’s not, frankly, that Miliband is saying much of anything that is different or new; it’s simply that he’s having more success in getting the messages placed. From his Fabian Society speech on Saturday to the continued positive coverage of the Oldham by-election victory, Labour are punching about their weight in column inches. Not all those inches are favourable – Melanie Philips today does her usual turn on the subject of Miliband’s supposed turn towards small-c conservatism – but, at a time when the Coalition are being talked about largely in the negative (either from the right or the left), this breadth of coverage is no bad thing.

They are being helped along by a Coalition agenda tottering under its own weight; appearing on the Today programme this morning, David Cameron was unsure on Coulson and under-briefed on the looming fight over the NHS. Nick Clegg, meanwhile, continues to get a bad press. Even Fraser Nelson has to admit it’s going well for the reds. Those rumours, repeated on This Week by Jon Cruddas, of an early General Election in May start to look more tempting from a Conservative standpoint.

After all, the news from Oldham East and Saddleworth was not all good: yes, Lib Dem voters switched to Labour; but Conservative voters switched to the Lib Dems in considerable numbers, and the net impact was, despite an increased Labour majority, a slightly increased Lib Dem share of the vote. That this still wasn’t enough to tip a majority of 103 towards Clegg’s party is a bad sign for them; but any nascent political union between the two Coalition parties is more worrying still for Labour. If, given time, Tories choose to vote for Lib Dems in other marginals, Labour will lose seats; whether Lib Dems will do the same for Tories, of course, remains an open question. Unfortunately for the yellows, of course, most of their own seats are Tory marginals – and it’s difficult to say how comfortable Labour voters will now feel in voting tactically.

So the picture is confused – not least because the AV referendum may now be delayed. But what is increasingly clear is that Labour – ahead in the latest polls by some distance – now have at least some space to make their counter-weight felt. Tactical nous is not strategic victory, however – and the party’s platform remains somewhat dazed and confused. A job for heavy lifting in the background, to be sure – but it means the Coalition yet retains the real, rather than the perceived, initiative.

“We’re Here To Listen And To Work With You”

Purposeful David is Purposeful

The developing view of David Cameron is as a reasonable pragmatist. To confirm this, one need only look at two recent BBC radio productions: 5 Days In May was a rather ponderous dramatisation of the coalition negotiations following the General Election, in which Nick Clegg was cast as a dithering bride, and Gordon Brown as the bombastic, dogmatic suitor. David Cameron, played with a hint of Hugh Grant by Samuel West, was the consensual new man, all understanding circumlocutions and soothing respectfulness. More interesting has been Number 10, in which Damien Lewis has played a bold and unideological Tory PM, a very thinly veiled Cameron stand-in, whilst various other thesps provide a West Wing-lite coterie of well-meaning but frustrated aides.

Both dramas could have easily taken their conception of Cameron and his coalition straight from David Laws’s new book, the rather less snappily titled 22 Days In May. Serialised in the Mail, Laws’s self-serving account of a glorious coming-together saves special spite for Ed Miliband, and depicts the Labour negotiation team not just as under-prepared – as Nick Robinson’s documentary on the topic suggestions – but actively mendacious (5 Days in May had Ed Balls bellowing at the Lib Dems about how they were stupid-heads – I exaggerate, but only a bit). Even Cameron’s humiliating climb-down after appointing Tory party photographers to the civil service payroll was spun as a pragmatist’s response to public outcry; even as student protests plunge the capital into gridlock, Cameron – like Blair before him – can pose, perversely, as peacemaker.

This is some considerable feat, and is achieved largely by force of personality. If Blair was warm and winning, though faintly studied and oleaginous, Cameron is cool but in control, though faintly aristocratic. Cameron’s strength, then, is his appearance to be driven by ends rather than means; his weakness will likely prove to be the very distance that approach implies. Fow now, though, what’s most interesting about his premiership is that, unlike Blair, he does not command his party: the radio dramas and reality alike depict, yes, a pragmatist – but one struggling to hold together a party often anything but.

Both Lord Young and Lord-to-be Flight have, in successive weeks, given voice to the right-wing passions and prejudices which animate Cameron’s party, to gasps of outrage and rapid rebuttals from Number 10. But this, too, is inevitably part of the PM’s public persona – the sense that he is constantly keeping the lid on the true motivations which lie beneath his party’s policy. This is a tension of public identity which Blair better managed to neutralise: all those ‘New Labour, New Danger’ smears didn’t stick. If Cameron can’t do the same (and it is this blog’s opinion, of course, that he can’t and shan’t), he won’t, alas, last as long as his forebear. Shame.