Post election update: Hoist by their own petard

This follows on from Schrödinger’s #GE2017: It is and it isn’t all about Brexit.
While it suited neither of the main parties to talk in any depth about the details, Brexit was still very much a factor. For a start,  I reckon a large part of the credit for the youth vote goes not just to the tuition fees issue, nor the matter of Corbyn’s authenticity: no, what happened in June 2016 was that the young woke up to the fact that things you’ve taken for granted can be snatched away from you by elections.

In the end, the Tory Brexiteers were hoist by their own petard. They peddled the line that Brexit wasn’t in any way going to be problematic: au contraire, it was going to be splendid, exciting, wonderful. So, when May called the election saying she needed a “strong hand”, those who have swallowed that line were genuinely a bit mystified. The Brexiteers couldn’t spell it out to them, because that would have involved admitting that the “scaremongers” were right all along.

Corbyn took advantage of this, by producing a manifesto at least partly predicated on the idea that UK plc will not be a complete basket-case when we leave the EU – and the Brexiteers, having for months encouraged the view that you can have anything you want as long as you believe in it enough, didn’t really have s strong basis for attacking him. When it comes to matters of economic reality and what economists (a sub-class of the dreaded “experts”) have to say about it, the Brexiteer Tories have been having their cake and eating it for over a year and finally it stuck in their gullets and choked them. And maybe that’s the closest we’ll get to any kind of social justice till the next General Election.

Advertisements

So … did God tell Theresa May to call the election?

May must always have been ambitious – things like being Home Secretary don’t just happen to you, particularly if you’re female – but she had never seemed to be a person who would be ready to sacrifice her integrity, let alone her grasp of common sense, in the cause of climbing the greasy pole. Careful, cautious, thorough: in the wake of Cameron’s abdication, she certainly looked like a firm pair of hands on the reins. She didn’t seem like a person who would make rash decisions. Even when she appointed Johnson as Foreign Secretary to work in tandem with the ghastly Davis and the disgraced and disgraceful Fox, it was possible to assume she was being politically adroit. I, for one, imagined her sitting back and thinking: ‘We’ll see what this trio of hapless fools make of it all’. I expected her to remain detached: poised to capitalise in the (extremely unlikely) event of things going well, but equally ready to sack the lot of them and go to the country if they made a hash of it.

But, somewhere along the way, May – or at least the person I thought May was – seemed to have been hijacked. She was hardly the most enthusiastic of Remainers, yet it seemed equally unlikely that she would throw in her lot so readily with the Brexiteers. Then again, Foreign Policy was never her strong suit; perhaps that’s why wrapping herself in the flag and spouting jingoistic nonsense came so readily to her – it was crucially, and disastrously, that bit closer to her comfort zone than any genuine attempt at dialogue with her EU counterparts. And it played so well – or seemed to. Certainly it went down a treat with Brexit-loving, billionaires’ bozos in the media. They gobbled it up and regurgitated it in their columns, straight down the gullet of an apparently ready and eager electorate. Nevertheless, whatever the poll readings may have meant, she was surely deluded to imagine that people were “coming together” over Brexit. A more careful reader of the entrails might have detected any number of alternative narratives, perhaps the most likely being: “if we’re really going to do this utterly crazy thing, we’d better have someone sane at the helm.”

Not that the decision to exploit her apparent popularity was entirely deluded and hubristic: John Sergeant on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Broadcasting House’i outlined the entirely rational reasons why Teresa May had to call an early election. But the thing about those reasons is that they applied from Day Zero, June 2016. Sergeant was right to say that, in the immediate post-referendum period, May had provided some much-needed stability, but he seemed also to be at least partly implying that May was almost obliged to say that there definitely wasn’t going to be an election, up to the point at which she decided to go for one. This may well be true, but it doesn’t sit well with the “daughter of the vicarage” branding that the Tories then began trying to sell to the electorate.

Although, of course, what sits even worse with that image of moral integrity is the way May joined in with other leading Tories in not just making the most of Corbyn’s weaknesses but in deliberately mis-representing him, particularly in the aftermath of the Manchester atrocity. Peter Brookes’ cartoon in ‘The Times’ii said it all, or almost all: May parading in full battledress with a machine gun and a ‘Level Critical’ badge, emblazoned over where her heart should be, says to Corbyn (beige jacket and red star badge on his peaked cap): “How DARE you politicise the Manchester bombing?“

How did May let this happen? I imagine it was something to do with the idea of “giving it her best shot”. One imagines her sitting down with the men in grey suits and the masters of the Dark Arts and agreeing to commit wholeheartedly to what they managed to persuade her would be in this country’s best interests. Perhaps she struck a bargain: they would give her head on some of her far-out ideas about Standing Up for Little People as long as she otherwise danced obediently to their tune on the merry-go-round of political power.

So, where does Goddeiii, moving mysteriously as ever, come into all this? Well, as always, you don’t actually need Her at all: there were plenty of reasons, good and bad, for May to reach the decision she did. She may well have reached it prayerfully, but unbelievers and agnostics can easily point to a much simpler explanation: a combination of imagination, wishful thinking and self-interest flatteringly disguised as obedience to a Higher Power. And even believers might want to add overweening conceit to that list. Because it is conceited – isn’t it ? – to imagine that God speaks to us? That God condescends to help a Prime Minister out with how to run a country?

Well, no – only if one sees God as entirely transcendent, the ultimate CEO, up there somewhere on His Big Gold Throne, passing on directives to key subordinates. But, like most mystics, not just Quaker ones, I believe that Godde, as we most usually experience Her, is primarily immanent: the still, small, inner voice. Godde is within us all – but for that very reason, it is so very easy, so frighteningly and dangerously easy, to confuse that voice with our own inner drives and desires, the promptings of our ego and wishful thinking. That is why people who try to practise a proper prayer life need support from others; that is why Pride is the most dangerous – indeed the deadliest – of our sins; that is why Humility is such an important spiritual quality. Nietzsche got it entirely wrong: humility is not about self-abasement, it is just about being very, very careful about which self one is asserting.

The point of a prayer life is not to recruit God to serve your purposes, but to try a little harder to align yourself with Godde’s purposes – without ever making the appalling mistake of thinking you clearly understand what those are. (Though I think we can safely rule out the possibility that God is secretly an Ulster Unionist, Democratic or otherwise.) And the one thing that a prayer life can do for you, is to help with that – to draw you, sometimes, just a little bit closer to becoming the person you are truly meant to be. So maybe the decision to call an election was what Quakers would call a true leading. Perhaps May dressed it up, as we are prone to do, by imagining that Godde envisaged a very different outcome. If so, she might now feel bemused, betrayed, or simply rather foolish, but she should at least consider the possibility that Godde, knowing her better than she knows herself, was offering her the chance to step off that primrose path of power-drunk delusion and try instead to find her footing on the firmer and much stonier pathway of hard reality.

28th May 2017

ii 27th May 2017

iii Mainly for the annoyance value.

Schrödinger’s #GE2017: It is and it isn’t all about Brexit.

Brexit seems to have taken a bit of a back seat in the campaign at the moment, though it’s still doing better than climate change, which barely rates a mention in the mainstream.

So, here we are, planning to jump off the top of the EU cliff, basing all our hopes on a parachute supplied by that well known firm of tissue-thin paper manufacturers, Tweedle, Tweedle & Fox. Early on in the campaign, May claimed on the Marr show (30/04/17) that this election is “about the future of the country. It’s about the national interest”. Difficult to think of a general election that wouldn’t be about the country’s future, actually – or the national interest either for that matter – but, essentially she called the election to secure a mandate for a hard Brexit a “red, white and blue Brexit” or perhaps a bilberry yoghurt Brexit with a crunchy nut topping.

But then May also claimed that (as always) it’s about the economy, stupid: a strong and secure economy which is somehow going to create highly paid jobs (doing what, exactly?) for workers with no rights. Because it’s a well-known fact – isn’t it? – that taking away workers’ rights always leads to stronger and more secure jobs, higher pay and better working conditions. Sorry, what was that you said about Alice in Wonderland economics? Oh no, my mistake, that was that well known radical left-wing agitator, Ken Clarke. Anyway, according to May, that all depends on getting the Brexit negotiations “right”. Yes, that’s right – those negotiations led by the diplomatically skilled Tweedle brothers, Johnson and Davis. (Which one is Dum? So hard to tell.)

The LibDems have been absolutely clear all along that it’s all about Brexit. They can’t promise to stop it , of course – but they’re planning to place a mattress underneath our estimated touch-down point. Or two mattresses. Or a trampoline.

On the other hand, Labour’s message – its official message, that is – is that this election was never just about Brexit: It’s about the NHS, it’s about the rich paying their share, it’s about tenants’ rights.

But here’s the thing: even Brexit isn’t about Brexit. Pretty much any issues you care to name, including dealing with challenge of terrorism and combating climate change, will be affected by our termination of EU membership. No doubt the consequent disruption to (aka “exciting opportunities for”) our economy will provide the Tories with yet another set of excuses to punish the poor, the sick, the disabled and anyone dependent on the state or sector to pay their wages or fund their care. One of the greatest ironies of all is that it’s the Tories who argued for years that it was better to have a bigger cake, albeit unfairly divided, than a small socialist cake – yet now their leadership is working overtime to convince us of the benefits of a really, really small cake. Still, at least it will be a strong, stable and secure cake,

Corbyn and his team have made the call that fighting on a stop-Brexit agenda will be counter-productive for them – and, it’s just possible they may be right. Certainly, their vision of what a post-Brexit Britain might look like seems to be helping them gain ground. And as May herself helpfully reminded us, the Tories only have to lose 6 seats for Corbyn to become Prime Minister. But which six might they lose? Well, I’m still hoping that there are enough pissed-off Remainers voting tactically to make a very Liberal dent in May’s majority in the south-east of England, but not so many elsewhere that they cost Labour too dearly. Then, if the Greens can pick up another few seats, we could actually be on our way to a coalition of common sense.

So the campaign began with Brexit, is gaining energy from Labour’s vision of post-Brexit Britian, and the aftermath will, at least initially, be all about Brexit (or non-Brexit)… but how big an effect will the Great British Brexit divide have on the final outcome? We won’t know that for sure until, constituency by constituency, the ballot boxes are opened.

Post election update: Hoist by their own petard.

While it suited neither of the main parties to talk in any depth about the details, Brexit was still very much a factor. I would argue, for example, that a large part of the credit for the youth vote goes not just to the tuition fees issue, nor the matter of Corbyn’s authenticity: no, what happened in June 2016 was that the young woke up to the fact that things you’ve taken for granted can be snatched away from you by elections.

In the end, the Tory Brexiteers were hoist by their own petard. They peddled the line that Brexit wan’t in any way going to be problematic: au contraire, it was going to be splendid, exciting, wonderful. So, when May called the election saying she needed a “strong hand”, those who have swallowed that line were genuinely a bit mystified. The Brexiteers couldn’t spell it out to them, because that would have involved admitting that the “scaremongers” were right all along.

Corbyn took advantage of this, by producing a manifesto at least partly predicated on the idea that UK plc will not be a complete basket-case when we leave the EU – and the Brexiteers, having for months encouraged the view that you can have anything you want as long as you believe in it enough, didn’t really have s strong basis for attacking him. When it comes to matters of economic reality and what economists (a sub-class of the dreaded “experts”) have to say about it, the Brexiteer Tories have been having their cake and eating it for over a year and finally it stuck in their gullets and choked them. And maybe that’s the closest we’ll get to any kind of social justice till the next General Election.

To Hell with Integrity: Let’s have some slimy political wheeler-dealing instead.

“Let go of the shore, push off into the middle of the river, keep our eyes open, and our heads above water. And I say, see who is in there with you and celebrate.” An unnamed Hopi Elder

Many, many years have passed since I joined and then subsequently left the Lib Dems, but – on the firm principle of “anything but the Tories” – I helped out in the 2010 election, as I had in 2005, as indeed I did in the autumn of 1974 for an election in which I should have been able to vote for the first time, but couldn’t, because my father, who didn’t believe in 18 year olds having the vote, left my name off the household return. I still have (stuffed away in a drawer) my old unSmart mobile with the message from Nick Clegg, saying that my support had “made all the difference”. I keep it to remind me of the ultimate futility of all human endeavour.

No, but seriously I remember that, despite feeling sick to my stomach, I defended Clegg’s decision to form a coalition with the Tories – basically, he did the Math. Politics is the art of the possible and he made a judgement call. He was doing okay, in my view, until he decided that student fees were one of the priorities he’d have to ditch: a decision I personally find hard to forgive, and one for which he and his party are still paying a high price. He got stitched up over electoral reform as well, of course, but at least he tried on that one.

We’re not keen on coalitions in Britain, are we? And yet, since politics is the art of the possible, the place where soaring dreams collide with the rock face of reality, coalition government is really just politics at its most naked. The public say they want honesty and integrity and that they despise political wheeler-dealing, but, actually, it’s the wheeler-dealing and the juggling and the compromising that gets things done – and that, it seems, is what most people vote for when it comes to the crunch. Political leadership – like all leadership – is a balance struck between vision and integrity on the one hand and, on the other, the art of getting things done in an “I wouldn’t start from here” world. PMs working on a single party ticket can afford more of the former; PMs leading a coalition need more of the latter.

And so we come to Corbyn: long on vision and integrity, but very, very short on the other stuff. Even at the best of times (which this isn’t) running the “broad church” of the Parliamentary Labour Party is probably not entirely unlike running a coalition and I’m clearly not the only one who’s come to the conclusion that he’s not exactly a natural at the job. I find it deeply ironic that a political party sprung from the loins of the Trade Union movement can find itself in a situation where huge numbers of sort-of employees (in the PLP) are saying how unhappy they are with their boss and the response from the left is that they’re shifty double-dealing trouble-makers who probably deserve the sack.

Because, whatever else Corbyn is, he’s clearly not a great team manager. Part of the tragedy of the moment is that so much Labour talent is languishing on the sidelines, when people who probably belong in the second XI have been sent in to bat. I mean, I like Diane Abbott: she’s got guts, and she made a good start on the morning of May 2nd, standing up well to Humphrys on ‘Today’. The way she’s been pilloried over a simple fluff later that day is disgusting, and the biased coverage stinks: as others have said, compare May forgetting the name of the town she’s in, or promising to stop tourism. Having said all that, though, she’s still a second XI player, compared with the likes of Liz Kendall, Yvette Cooper and Chuka Umunna. McDonnell and Thornberry are holding their own – and their emergence from the shadows is definitely part of the upside of Corbyn’s leadership – but the team is still far too short of skilled players. Kendall, I’m sure, would have run rings round Humphrys, though he would probably have given her an easier ride anyway.

There may be some who would argue that it’s not solely Corbyn’s fault that all those First XI players are sulking on the sidelines – but, In the end, isn’t it always the manager’s fault? The buck stops on that desk. And, the point is, if Corbyn can’t manage the PLP, then he’s not going to manage a coalition, either. He has integrity by the bucketful, but apparently lacks the necessary willingness to compromise.

For although ‘compromise’ can be seen as a slimy, weasel word, it can involve all sorts of basic decencies: recognising that you can’t have it all your own way, recognising that those with a different point of view might actually be right, and working together for the greater good. Despite a certain in-built scepticism, one of the tributes to Jo Cox that I found most touching was the one from that ‘wicked old Tory” (his words)i Andrew “Plebgate” Mitchell, describing how, amongst other things, how they worked together in the All Party Parliamentary Group on Syria.

Don’t get me wrong: I have absolutely no interest in “coming together over Brexit” – at least not in the sense that May meant it – but I deeply regret that, in the apparently scanty debate on the possibilities of a Progressive Alliance, bone-headed integrity seems to have beaten slippery compromise into a corner. That’s bad news for the poor, the sick and the disabled, to say nothing of the rest of Europe and, indeed, the whole damn planet.

If we had PR, would we be in this mess?

Neither Labour nor the LibDems seem to be showing much interest in an electoral pact with each other and with the Greens – though, the last I heard, Caroline Lucas was saying that the door might still be open. It seems to me that Labour are very suspicious of Proportional Representation (PR) – which has surely got to be a deal breaker – and that is deeply, deeply sad.

I say this because, as luck would have it, about a week before the election was called, I took delivery of ‘The Alternative’i and have been dipping into it occasionally, particularly during the long, dark night of the soul which followed a claim that the Tories had hit 48% at the polls. (Incidentally, let’s hope this means the era of the ‘shy Tory’ is now well and truly over).

Anyway, I flipped through to Katie Ghose’s chapter on PR (‘Embracing Electoral Reform’) and it struck me, whilst reading it, that if we had had a decent system of PR, we probably wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in now. (If you don’t agree we’re in a mess, it’s probably not worth your while reading any further.) Continue reading “If we had PR, would we be in this mess?”