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.

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.

Mr Ed

Hi, kids!

Ed Miliband has spent his leadership campaign posing as the trendy supply teacher – all informal authority and ideas attractive but somehow received, for which he has a great deal of enthusiasm but possibly not the skill to implement. Having given the supply teacher a permanent contract, Labour now get to see whether he’s as good at the daily grind as he is at letting the kids off the toughest homework; even more so, the awkward kid at the back of the room who was most keen on the teacher can now expect a bit of discipline from Mr M, just to show who’s now boss.

That awkward kid, of course, represents the unions, whose members gave Miliband the leadership on the waferiest of wafer-thin majorities – 50.65 to 49.75. The post-1980 federal electoral college has delivered tight results like this before (think Healey-Benn), but never has it seen a victorious candidate lose both the MPs and party members. This makes the job of my party’s new leader more difficult than it might have been – his enemies will have a ready-made line of attack, however disingenuous, and in the coming years a potentially arid dividing line between cutters and cutted must be avoided.

Not, you’ll understand, that a member who voted for Ed Balls would accuse Ed Miliband of being too left-wing – if anything, quite the opposite. Miliband’s conversion to cuddly leftism hasn’t quite convinced me, as long-term readers will know, and what Roy Hattersley is calling the new leader’s “gentle and joyous philosophy” will require a good deal more grit if it is to carry a general election. Matthew D’ancona trots out all the emerging right-wing talking points in his latest column, but is on to something when he casts the Leader of the Opposition as a preacher rather than a persuader.

Another always astute commentator, Steve Richards, this week fingered Vince Cable, who had a fairly disastrous joint appearance with John Redwood on Question Time this week (followed, on Friday, by a ranty Chris Huhne on Any Questions), as the Coalition’s cover man par excellence. Labour’s job must be to have no truck with empty leftie populism, but to espouse certain and credible alternatives to the true programme of the government. Ed Miliband spoke a lot about making Labour a movement again. This requires uniting and providing practical purpose to the party, and that would go a long way to capitalising on the clear lack of public enthusiasm for the Coalition’s direction of travel. Maybe the party, which predates my membership by some considerable distance, knows better than I do after all …