What’s Left?


The image above has been doing the rounds of social media, and speaks strongly to the moment at which the British (or English) left – for which read (or do not read) ‘the Labour Party’ – finds itself in the wake of last Thursday’s General Election. It purports to map the locations of coalfields at the dawn of the Labour movement to those places in England and Wales which voted Labour in 2015, a hundred years later (I say ‘purports’, because, as Newsnight’s Duncan Weldon has usefully collated, Mike Bird has effectively shown how the image is misleading). The left posts this image online as if to say, “You see? Class matters, and we forget it at our peril;” the right shares it around to emphasise just how inadequate Old Labour is to the task of governing contemporary Britain. That one image can be interpreted in two such different ways, or at least be made to serve arguments so clearly opposed, says it all about the post-Miliband – perhaps the post-Blair – Labour Party. It lacks a compass: on the blasted heath of the British left, north can very often be south.

This is why Sam Fawcett at The State of the Left in England can justifiably say, on the subject of the current hand-wringing within Labour about the timetable for the election of a new leader, “The left are saying ‘we weren’t left enough’, the right are saying ‘we weren’t right enough’ and the centre are trying desperately to defend their platform after suffering the worst defeat since 1983 on it. The difference between a long debate and a short one is either we hear this for two months or we hear it for six months.” This is a position backed up by the experience of recent history. It is apparent that the Tory campaign (of which more later) was brutishly effective at hammering home the conception of voting Labour as a risk to economic stability; it could only do so, as Flip Chart Fairy Tales amply demonstrates – with graphs! – because, during the long leadership election of 2010, the Conservatives were given all the time in the world to spin a more or less fictional story about the 2008 crash and the defecit:

If Gordon Brown had not run deficits in the early and mid 2000s, the public debt might now be a little less, but not much. Most of the sharp increase [in] debt came about as a result of the recession. But politics is just as important as economics and the Conservatives won the politics hands down before Labour had realised what was going on. A lot of people are still convinced that the Blair and Brown governments were responsible for the rapid increase in debt in the late 2000s. It will take a long time for Labour to persuade them otherwise. If it ever does.

Already this is happening again: David Cameron opened his first Tory Cabinet by claiming that his was the party for ‘real’ working people; and he has appointed a minister, no less, for Osborne’s pet project, the Northern Powerhouse. With UKIP – who, Nafeez Ahmend’s conspiracy-theory thinking aside, are far closer to outriders for the Tory party than not – clearly eating into Labour’s working-class vote in cities further north of the Trent where many Conservatives daren’t tread, already the stage is being set for a repeat of 2010’s agenda-setting: if you want a vision of the long leadership campaign future, imagine a Tory stamping on a Labour face – for six months.

So let’s think shorter. I’ll put that graph to the right for now, because it’s worth remembering: UK debt was lower than many other major economies’, and it rose precisely in line with everyone else’s. Labour failed to make this case quickly and confidently enough, and in so doing it lost the election. At Policy Network, Patrick Diamond puts it plainly: “Miliband’s team believed an appeal to people’s living standards could trump the core issue of credibility. It would draw a line under the 2008 financial crisis, turning the page on New Labour. The problem was that voters still blamed the previous government for the crash.” This is absolutely key: it doesn’t particularly matter how left- or right-wing you are if you cannot either change or engage with the core argument of an election campaign, and the central concerns of the voters. There is a fairly apolitical, numbers-based argument to be made against the Conservative narrative of Labour failure post-2008; had Labour made it, it may also have been able then to make the weather. But it didn’t – and it risks doing the same now.

The Green’s Molly Scott Cato has received an awful lot of signal amplification for a piece in the New Statesman in which she argues that Labour’s key mistake has been, time and again, not just to fail to challenge but to accept the Conservative narrative: “His decision to resign instantly following the announcement of the result is being interpreted as indicating his nobility, but accepting that Labour was roundly defeated on Thursday is just another example of how Labour has accepted the narrative of its opponents.” Some think Miliband should instead have ‘done a Michael Howard’, remaining as a caretaker and thus allowing the party to fully debate its future – a process from which David Cameron emerged. That is not the world in which we live, however, and, as the Fabians’ Andrew Harrop has pointed out, recovery for Labour is difficult however long the leadership contest and whoever wins it; so it’s brass-tacks time: where next?

Cato, like Andy Beckett in the Guardian, now believes that Lynton Crosby is an evil genius, deliberately fooling us all into thinking the Tory campaign was poor, and ensuring voters scared by neck-and-neck polls would, in the handful of crucial marginal seats, break for the Tories. Certainly the campaign was not the all-conquering success we are now encouraged to believe it to be: the Tory share of the vote went up less in England than Labour’s; only 700,000 more people voted Conservative than in 2010. They did so, however, where it matters: small swings to Labour in safe Tory seats such as Daventry (0.8%!), or constituencies long red such as Michael Dugher’s (“Working-class voters are not core vote any more,” the pit-lad made good bemoans), barely matter; holding vote-share in marginals like Warwickshire North, and ensuring significant shifts to the Tories in Liberal Democrat citadels, is what pushed them over the line. This is attritional electoral warfare fought in the maddening context of First Past the Post.

So Labour should, perhaps, start by mending fences and proposing political reform that would ensure cynicism such as Crosby’s can no longer make the difference in who rules Britain. Labour face a generational challenge in Scotland, and yet the SNP need not be their enemy: Paul Hutcheon’s excellent inside story from the Labour campaign in Scotland shows just how ham-fisted the worst of tribal Labour can be (“He has big ideas,” one source says of Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy, “and a big reputation, but it turns out he doesn’t understand Scottish politics and can’t get anyone to play for him”). This sort of stuff has to stop if Labour isn’t to continue to haemorrhage votes in Scotland; likewise, making common cause with the Greens – allying a vision of the future with a party of governance – could pay real dividends.

But in another way this left-wing coalition is the pipe-dreams of a Jon Trickett tilt at the leadership. Labour must look both ways. It did not pull enough votes away from the Tories; it actually lost votes to UKIP, especially in the north. That is, to quote the historian Dominic Sandbrook, “the British people don’t like hectoring left-wing politicians telling us how to run our lives.” Though Ed Miliband improved his dire poll ratings during the campaign, he came across on the BBC’s Question Time programme a week before the vote very much as an academic giving a series of lectures . He was asked tough questions by an audience in little mood to hear why they were wrong about how they perceived the world; Miliband’s apparent inability to explain why Labour did not over spend whilst also acknowledging voters’ fears is a big reason why the Labour campaign failed. It would not meet people in the middle – it was convinced they would come to it, that they would turn left. Without a reason to do so, without an understanding of why Miliband believed what he did, they would not.

And thus the clarion calls for the party to move rightwards now. In one sense, this is bizarre, as if Miliband ran a Marxist campaign. On immigration, he did not; on benefits, he did not. Rather, the problem was at least in part one of communication as much as substance, a muddiness of argument powered by a nervy pick ‘n’ mix approach to policy. Take this analysis by Business Insider of what is now government policy on free childcare: “It’s probably an indicator of just how bad Labour was at communicating with voters prior to the election that the Tory pledge was for a straight doubling of care to 30 hours, whereas the Labour pledge was an increase to 25 hours plus some other hours if you qualified via a set of definitions.” Business Inside too right-wing for you? IPSOS-MORI say that left-wing voters stayed at home rather than respond to the Labour campaign, too. Worried that’s being reported in the Telegraph? Even Owen Jones understands that Labour has failed to make aspiration its own, when it absolutely must: “Don’t let the apologists of the rich steal “aspiration” for their own purposes,” he says. “Reclaim it.”

To reiterate: from whatever angle you look at it, left or right, Miliband’s campaign failed to convince. “Much is made of the idea of ‘aspiration’ in politics,” says Kieran Pedley in an important post-mortem of the Labour campaign (also at The Staggers, Tim Bale is fair and balanced on the issue of Miliband’s personal culpability), “but this just means recognising what the public want from government and giving it to them. Labour still has a potential majority here.” So. What might left-wing aspiration look like?

umunna-mandelsonIt doesn’t look like Blairism anymore, that’s for sure: despite Peter Mandelson’s appearance on the Andrew Marr show this weekend, and then the bizarre decision by Chuka Umunna to allow himself to be seated next to the Prince of Darkness days before he clumsily announced his candidature for Labour leader on Tuesday, what worked twenty years ago will not today. Bar some waffling about ‘technology changing everything’ in that Marr interview, Umunna seems the back to the future candidate of this new election, insisting that the same triangulation that worked in the mid-nineties will pass now, too. That apparently entirely ignores the extent to which the electoral map of Britain has been chopped up by the 2015 General Election. Recovering from its butchery will take a new approach.

If not Umunna, then who? Liz Kendall, the neo-Blairite, is at least, as one of her supporters, Hopi Sen, archly implies, ideologically more consistent than the former Ed Miliband supporter Umunna, but she may lack gravitas. No others have yet declared, but of the hotly tipped runners and riders, Andy Burnham’s social conservatism lends the lie (for UKIP-bashing good or liberal-losing ill) to his left-wing reputation, whilst Yvette Cooper kept so low a profile in the last parliament that it’s hard to know what to make of her current political position. In other words, no leadership candidate is currently expressing a positive vision of Labour’s future – and, by extension and crucially, the country’s. We should give them time, of course, but there cannot be another failure to engage with what the electorate want, and to explain how – inevitably, given their continued narrow focus – the Tories do not and cannot fulfil those aims.

David Cameron is a PR man to the last: he knows how to govern only in so far as he knows how to campaign for his party via legislation. That requires a robust and powerful vision, whoever becomes leader. A battle-line of this Parliament will be rights and protections – human ones, trades union ones, ones provided by EU regulations. There is anger in the ‘traditional working-class’ about all of these; a Labour leader must simultaneously be able to deal with that scepticism and make the case that it is within the context of rights we all share that aspiration can be most easily achieved. The Tories are committed already to paring back these protections, and they will do so by repeating their General Election trick of fear-mongering; it will be a Labour leader’s job to show how improving one’s lot does not involve reducing the lot of others – or the eventual Pastor Niemöller-like reduction of your own.

Right-wing aspiration is about brute individualism, whatever its One Nation dressing; Left-wing aspiration is about environment (and I evoke the Green agenda deliberately). The new Labour leader will need to show they understand how to craft, argue for and create the conditions in which all can experience success – and yet all can also feel secure. Those are not conditions they will inherit, and so the question is not one of Blairite or Brownite, right or left. It is one of remodelling – and of accessible, pluralist radicalism. The electorate are not stupid, and nor are they students. But they do need to be convinced – and, whilst the Labour right has no monopoly on communication, the left needs to accept it is not impure.


Conversations in the Short Campaign

Ballot-Box-4x3There are, amongst all the other ersatz-yet-eternal regulations which commentators and politicians bring out almost newly-minted to prove their passing points, two rules of British politics: never write off the Conservative Party, and never underestimate the capacity of the Labour Party to alienate its allies. Were we to seek a narrative which might explain the static, enervating and gutless General Election campaign of 2015, these verities might be at its centre. In a period of political flux, in which the two major parties can no longer muster the support to command a majority of the Commons even under an electoral system designed precisely to fix it for them to do so, the Tories and Labour have each remained true to form: an astonishingly weak and witless Conservative campaign has nevertheless edged resiliently ahead in recent polls, despite all the dire warnings about governing parties always losing seats and shares of votes; and a schizophrenic Ed Miliband, on the one hand over-performing to the occasional extent of charming the public (no, really: watch his interview with Geoff Lloyd), has nevertheless gone out of his way to rob his party of any advantage the parliamentary arithmetic may provide it in the face of a larger Tory party, by telling the SNP and everyone else that he would prefer not to govern than work with fellow left-wing travellers.

What we have witnessed, then, is a defensive election campaign: the Tories scaring voters with absurd visions of chaos occasioned by the arrival of actual representatives of Scotland at Westminster, the Labour Party issuing mugs for sale with the words ‘Controls on Immigration’ printed on their sides in satirical socialist red. I have sympathy for both strategies from a purely pragmatic perspective: David Cameron faces a full-throated attack from his right, and knows from his party’s stubborn poll rating that being positive on the subject of the Coalition’s patchy record on the economy isn’t working; Labour also faces a revolt from that constituency which was once at its core – the white working class – and is loath to appear any longer to dismiss apparently widespread concerns about the impacts of globalisation (although, according to May2015, Labour voters at least rate immigration fairly low in their priorities).

Whatever, though, happened to leadership? Both leaders have spent five years denying a core vote strategy, and yet in this short campaign that is clearly what each have been pursuing: hoarding, not winning, votes. It can be little surprise in this context that the polls have shifted so minutely, if at all, or that in frustrated response the mainstream media has resorted to some of its most partisan reportage in a quarter of a century. This has been a grudge match of an election campaign, one in which the balance is so fine that the participants have chosen to avoid mistakes rather than aim for triumph. The Liberal Democrats have adopted an unimaginative and blandly centrist offering, openly placing themselves as useful only as a counter-point to eternally frustrated hard-right Tories or frankly chimeric hard-left socialists. Even UKIP’s Nigel Farage has been relatively tame, as if the speakers of right-wing truth to power have just as much to lose by opening their mouths as their sold-out brethren. The Greens, too – joined with UKIP in being punished by our electoral system – have doubly hobbled themselves, either deliberately or by design, by inexactly and timidly communicating if not their rather confused policy platform then the ideology that sits behind it, which one day might allow a more organised party to craft something a little more coherent.

Only the SNP, of those parties able to make much of an impact on Thursday night, seem to have produced something close to a positive campaign – and a message that seems both forthright and outward-looking. They look set to be rewarded by FPTP with a disproportionate number of seats. And there we reach the rub of this election’s undiscovered country: something remarkable is happening in Scotland, powered by David Cameron’s post-referendum cynicism, but its implications for the future of the United Kingdom are unclear, occluded by fear-mongering and parliamentary chicanery. In deference to the Middle England which the Conservatives’ campaign manager, Lynton Crosby, has sought to terrify with visions of a rampant Alex Salmond, Labour has – perhaps unavoidably, perhaps not – failed to make a crucial twin argument: first from a unionist perspective, as part of the better-together tone of the Yes campaign last year, that representation from all corners of the UK, and all stripes of opinion within it, is welcome at Westminster; and simultaneously from a leftist perspective the important point that nationalism undermines our society’s ability to withstand the pressures of corporate interest (and, should the more conservative position also need to be embraced, geopolitical flux). This rather old-fashioned and myopic Tory-Labour showdown has led us all down an unedifying cul-de-sac of sectional argy-bargy and dancing-on-the-heads-of-pins posing.


Perhaps all this is why the most striking aspect of this campaign has emerged in my conversations with other voters: that is, their almost universal lack of satisfaction with the choices on offer. As most of the parties have sought to play defence, so most of the voters have identified a vacuum at the heart of each of them. Take an estimable friend of ours who considers himself a natural Conservative but bemoans the decision to give the most successful political party in the Western world back to the Etonians: he considers David Cameron a Liberal or a Blairite (it’s not clear to either of us which is worse), and sees no useful place for his vote in the current system; in a seat in which the Tories could win, he’s attracted to UKIP’s defence policy, and its deficit-busting machismo, but understands how limited their voice and impact will be. He is in this way (and few others) no different to a voter who would love to full-throtedly endorse Labour but, say, finds its range of ceramic drinking vessels less than encouraging.

Where our frustrated Tory might be right, however, is that, for left-wingers who fell out with Labour during the Blair-Brown years, Ed Miliband is their reddest option since dear old Neil Kinnock. He may be keeping TTIP, but he would exclude the NHS from its provisions; he might have supported the Libyan action, but he more or less sabotaged intervention in Syria; and, in his refusal to accept in front of a hostile BBC audience that Labour had spent too much, he is bravely and gamely wearing a Keynesian tin-hat of proportions entirely alien to New Labour. Here’s another conversation we’ve had during this campaign, however: with a leftie who will be voting for the Greens, in a Tory constituency where they have no chance of winning. Any support for TTIP, in his book, is a deal-breaker; Trident must go; Labour is simply not ‘left-wing’ enough. Here is a mirror image of our Tory: a voter faced with signing away any influence on the actual government that is formed in the week following May 7th (assuming, as we all must, a hung parliament), making an imperfect (and arguably self-defeating) choice on the back of the sort of negatives which have defined this campaign.

“Make the Labour party the party you want it to be!” responded another friend of ours when we spoke about this issue. He’s not a member of the party but, like me, grew up in a rock-solid Labour seat, in which paradigms that may now be forever long-gone influenced at least my own political thinking. This sort of hopeful activism, the sort that has done the SNP such good in Scotland, is inspiring, even as it acknowledges the currently broken politics of the left – but is of little use in the voting booth tomorrow. “Vote tactically,” suggested another of our friends, herself marooned in a safe Tory seat and therefore urging us to avoid letting in another chap in a blue rosette via a vote of principle in our own, more marginal, constituency. She is joined by yet another friend, who would prefer to vote Green but, she has said, will vote otherwise in order to hold off the Tories. The siren voices of tactical voting are compelling – is your vote an anti-Tory (or anti-Labour) one more than it is actually committed to an alternative? – but in a feintly rotten borough such as ours, in which the sitting MP has more or less ordered his minor opponents to stand down in order to give him more negative ways to win, they are also fork-tongued and depressing: if we continue not fully to represent in our voting patterns the range of political opinion in today’s UK, will we not continue to suffer under an electoral system struggling to keep up with us?

All of these imperfect decisions look set to leave us with a messy photo-finish on Friday morning. I expect a surprise mini-swing to the Conservatives which may allow them to cobble together a wafer-thin majority with the Liberal Democrats, but inevitably the DUP and UKIP will have influence there. If Cameron fails to get to the magic number of 326 or thereabouts, however, Labour faces a rabid press for months or years – depending on how robust the Fixed-Term Parliament Act turns out to be in practice (and even Nick Clegg has, along with Labour, had a conversion on its rigid strictures in recent days). This may do long-term damage to the left generally and also (and counter-intuitively, given the alternative is government essentially by England) the Union. (To wit: “The House of Lancaster lost the crown in 1461 because Margaret of Anjou did a deal with the Scots.” Oh.)

In many ways, the story of this campaign is why Cameron has been so absent from it – it certainly seems he is not onboard with the bluer-than-blue approach of Crosby; but the story of its aftermath will be how well – or, more likely, how badly – Westminster deals with the SNP. It will be easy to be narrow and factional – more or less the definition of Cameron’s Conservatives (he has not looked good even next to Sir John Major’s contributions during this campaign), and also the direction in which Labour is being pushed by the right-wing press. But this approach will make our next Parliament even more, not less, fractious. First Past The Post, a system once lionised for providing strong government, is now contributing to the political uncertainty which in 2015 is enraging press barons, flummoxing politicians and, most importantly, thoroughly frustrating voters.


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.

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.

The Strange Undeath of Liberal England

People who check this site often will have spotted that I haven’t written about politics properly in some time – this despite the fact that, in the wake of the last General Election, I actually joined a political party for the first time. I was thinking about this falling away of the blog’s political content – and it could easily be seen as a function of my lower levels of blogging activity in general – whilst watching last night’s Newsnight coverage of Nick Clegg’s speech to the Liberal Democrat conference.

The segment ended with Fraser Nelson, the endlessly juvenile editor of the Tory house magazine, the Spectator, snorting with amused discomfort as Paxman moved on to the paper review. See, the other panellist, the Guardian’s Deborah Orr, had just spoke at some emotional length about the ‘hollowing out’ of our political system. A disillusioned Liberal Democrat, Orr railed against the duopoly of Tory and Labour for years, but now finds her party in power and plainly manifesting as another sad iteration of the 21st centuries enervated, discredited, and directionless free market consensus. Nelson, a fully paid-up member of this great politician-manager’s game, didn’t quite know where to put himself – he had been expecting the usual knockabout fun.

Minus the emotion, this was her argument in yesterday’s paper: “Fresh thinking is needed, if we are to move on politically, economically, socially, even morally. Instead the Lib Dems have allowed themselves to become the focus of the nation’s frustration, a dire warning, supposedly, of what happens when a party doesn’t know whether it’s left or right.” The difficulty for Orr, and perhaps having watched Clegg’s speech between the piece being published and Paxo putting her to the question she had realised this, is that the modern Liberal Democrats know exactly where they stand. It is on the right.

These may not be easy times for us as a party. But much more importantly: These are not easy times for the country. Economic insecurity. Conflict and terrorism. Disorder flaring up on our streets. Times like these can breed protectionism and populism. So times like these are when liberals are needed most. Our party has fought for liberal values for a century and half: justice, optimism, freedom. We’re not about to give up now.

This conference centre is on the site of the old Bingley Hall where William Gladstone stood a hundred and thirty years ago to found the National Liberal Federation. Gladstone observed that day that Birmingham had shown it was no place for ‘weak-kneed Liberalism’. No change there then.

This is not the rhetoric of a social democrat – indeed, that half of his party was entirely absent from Clegg’s speech, with its focus on financial rectitude and moral goodness, on bashing Labour and out-flanking the Tories. Tim Farron, the party’s president, can tell as many jokes about the Conservatives as he wishes; Chris Huhne can conjure a phantom tea party tendency from nowhere in an attempt to burnish his left-wing credentials; and Vince Cable can continue to look pained and isolated every time he posits a policy position, only for it to be torn down by Andrew Neil hours afterwards: Nick Clegg has put it better than anyone else could. What are the words that best some up the Liberal Democrats’ policy positions? “Not easy, but right.”

Still, he was correct in one key regard: Labour continue to seem clueless as to how to respond to the economic nightmare engulfing Europe and the USA. In an interview with his critical supporter Mehdi Hassan in the latest New Statesman, Ed Miliband promises to “tear up the rule book”: “what I am going to be arguing is that the set of things I’ve talked about – the squeezed middle, what’s happened to young people, responsibility at the top and bottom – they’re not coincidences or accidents; they’re part of an economic and political settlement of some decades and that settlement’s got to change.” This sounds OK – but to do any of this effectively Labour must emphasise truly collectivist policies, and Miliband find it in himself and in his party to abandon cold political calculation for an evangelical spirit that can shift a paradigm. The last party leader to achieve such a shift from consensus, and to set up a new one in turn, was of course Thatcher – and she had the luxury of springing it on her electors whilst in office. Labour has in the last eighteen months shown none of the muscle necessary to begin this work in opposition, despite some notable hard-hitting during the phone hacking scandal. They need to find that strength now, in no small part because the leader of what was once one of the two main progressive parties in the United Kingdom yesterday argued that union ‘barons’ are morally equivalent with bankers and media moguls.

When there is a political voice that will speak out against those sort of veering right-turns, expect more politics in these pages. Meanwhile, I’ll be with Deborah Orr in the corner.


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.