Tag Archives: labour

Labour Clears The Way poster from 1911 general election

The anti-people’s budget and the constitutional crisis that isn’t

The government rhetoric about the House of Lords’ threat to derail their cherished plan to cut tax credits has been extraordinary over the last few days. To believe it, you would have to think that we are in the deadlocked position Parliament found itself between 1909 and 1911, when the then Liberal government attempted to force through David Lloyd George’s so-called “People’s Budget,” which established the foundations of the modern welfare state and, less successfully, sought to introduce a new system of taxation based on land values. It resulted in a constitutional showdown and eventually the Parliament Act 1911, which limited the powers of the Lords and sought to eventually replace it with a chamber “constituted on a popular basis”.

Then, the landed gentry clubbed together in the Lords to thwart a popular mandate for a more caring system of welfare for the working poor. Now, the Conservative government (which includes a number of members of the landed gentry) are throwing a hissy fit because our semi-reformed House of Lords is threatening to block an attempt to penalise the working poor. We aren’t talking about legislation here, which the Parliament Act prevents the House of Lords from being able to block, but an unamendable and thus unscrutinisable statutory instrument, which the government could retable the very next day if it wished to. In the past, governments have got extremely frustrated by the parliamentary ping-pong which has necessitated when the House of Lords and House of Commons disagree. Here, the government is losing its shit before the first serving volley has been fired.

I suspect this rather shrill reaction has more to do with George Osborne’s insecurities – possibly related to him seeing his future Prime Ministerial career retreating into the sunset – than it has to do with any true constitutional outrage. It was therefore extraordinary to hear this morning that Corbyn’s Labour have already capitulated. Of course, it is reasonable for Labour and the Lib Dems to have a fall back position to support if the crossbenchers are not prepared to support the fatal motion to kill the SI; but to go one step further and adopt the Tory position on constitutional sclerosis is bizarre. This puts Jeremy Corbyn in the odd position of a man who won’t bend the knee before the Queen but is all too eager to prostrate himself before the Prime Minister.

It should not be too hard to see that the Tory position on this is all bluff and bluster. The Tories can’t unilaterally suspend the Lords, as they were suggesting a few days ago. To change the powers of the Lords would require a new Parliament Act and re-open the can of worms on Lords reform, which they insisted was not a priority three years ago. To stuff the Lords with Tory peers would be an act of political suicide; it would make democratic reform of the Lords almost inevitable and make Cameron and the Tories look like the most corrupt administration in parliamentary history; don’t forget that even the Liberal threat to do the same in 1911 was part of an electoral pledge in the face of an overwhelming majority of flagrantly self-serving hereditary peers sitting in the Lords. Even Cameron cannot believe he is in the same position, not matter how great his powers of wishful thinking might be.

If this is their threat, I say bring it on. Fortunately, so does Tim Farron. I’m baffled that Jeremy Corbyn isn’t similarly energised at the prospect; just what is the point of him?

The Revolting Left

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about the protests outside the Conservative Party conference and direct action more generally. This has coincided with the release of a new film about the Suffragette movement, which I haven’t seen yet.

It strikes me that much of the debate surrounding direct action and protest exists inside of a bubble in which neither side is especially interested in the truth. We’ve had a week in which journalists and Tory delegates have been acting mortally offended at being called “Tory scum” and spat at and have rushed to draw a direct link between these protests and Jeremy Corbyn. Meanwhile, Corbyn supporters have been downplaying the connection between the two and talking about how these protests reflect genuine anger at Conservative austerity measures.

Both sides are full of it.

While I doubt that the protesters have exactly improved Corbyn’s public image, they have probably not done him any harm either. Both sides are simply too entrenched. Swing voters, watching it from afar, might well not exactly be impressed by the actions but it is unlikely to make them form a strong opinion of a party leader who has publicly called for a “kinder, gentler” politics the other week. The connection between the two can be made, but it is the political class who will make it, not floating voters.

Meanwhile, the people who claim this is some spontaneous outpouring of outrage are downplaying the fact that this is a deliberate strategy. And it is a strategy which, broadly speaking, has worked. It is hard to believe that the pressure on Cameron and Osborne about tax credits would have been anything like as intense if the conference hadn’t had a backdrop of angry protest. Yes, journalists complained about being spat at – but they also went out and spoke to the protestors, who had plenty to say about tax credits, benefits, housing and poverty more generally. It might be pretty unpleasant to be have to endure, and you can ask questions about what motivates someone to spend a week shouting angrily at passers by, but the fact is that it kept the issue they wanted on the agenda. If they hadn’t been there, Cameron et al would have had a much easier time of it.

The Westminster circus has a vested interest in dismissing the effectiveness of direct action, but the fact is that this sort of protest time and again simply works. The problem is that its most keen proponents all too often believe it is the only thing that works, and that all you need to do to win any campaign is get into a punch up outside Downing Street. I remember talking at a People and Planet conference a few years ago in which my fellow speaker extolled precisely this position. Among other things, he claimed, the woman’s right to vote was solely won because of the Suffragettes’ hunger strikes, damage to property and self-sacrifice.

He has a point. The suffrage movement had reached an impasse in 1906 due to the perfidy of the Liberal government. They managed to keep the issue alive at a time when decades of patient political action had reached an impasse. Here’s the thing though: the came after decades of political action, and it didn’t actually lead to women getting the vote. That happened later, after World War I and four years after the Suffragettes had ceased their actions. And it was another decade after that before we had universal suffrage.

This isn’t to disparage the Suffragettes, merely to point out that the heart of their success was rooted in the fact that their actions slotted into a wider political movement. One of the most frustrating things over the last five years has been watching the modern protest “movement” attempting to make similar progress without any interest in conventional political lobbying. UK Uncut is widely credited for pushing tax avoidance up the pole, but again there was already a political movement making waves about that topic (and it’s both low-hanging fruit and a political El Dorado which seldom delivers because it doesn’t look at the more structural problems with tax; but that’s another topic). Other than that, protestors have made a lot of noise but very little substantial progress over the past half decade.

The rise of Corbyn, in theory at least, could bridge that divide. If both Labour and the protest movement are both pushing in the same direction, then it could prove effective. My problem with this however, is that I think Corbyn represents a leap too far in the opposite direction. While it is great for the protest movement to have “one of their own” leading Labour, the benefits for Labour are less clear. And Corbyn has seldom demonstrated much interest in the boring work of actually persuading people inside his party – let alone across the Commons floor. At this stage I’m not ruling anything out, but I struggle to see how the optimism currently rippling through the hard left has much basis in reality.

If the hard left is going to really make progress, I suspect it will need to meet the centre left halfway rather than simply bypassing it altogether. A bit of pragmatism all round would be helpful.

382936 02: Actors from (l-r) Martin Sheen stars as President Josiah Bartlet and Rob Lowe as Deputy Communications Director Sam Seaborn on NBC''s West Wing which airs Wednesdays on NBC (9-10 p.m. ET). (Photo by David Rose/NBC/Newsmakers)

Where is Jeremy Corbyn’s Sam Seaborn?

One of the big challenges of criticising Jeremy Corbyn is that if you have any skin whatsoever in what is now deemed to be the “old politics” you’re views are instantly dismissed as irrelevant. So it is that I’ve spent the day looking at Twitter, with old politicos saying the speech was rubbish and the Corbynistas declaring it to be an outstanding and inspirational call to arms. And to an extent, I am open to the charge that I am just not getting it. I’m astounded at his rise to power, despite feeling and understanding the reasons behind it. There are examples across Europe of a populist leftwing party surging to victory in the way that the Corbynistas envision. They may be right.

There is however a real question of how far down the rabbit hole you’re willing to go. For example, we aren’t seeing much of a Corbyn bounce in the opinion polls. Do you dismiss all that as methodological flaws and biases in an industry that got the election result very wrong (apart from the exit poll)? And then, today: are criticisms that Corbyn’s speech was dull and directionless failing to appreciate that the public are hungering for more “straight talking” and less spin and thus will lap it up?

With that caveat, let me get this out of the way: Corbyn’s speech was dull as ditchwater. It was like a rambling recitation of a telephone directory. An 80s telephone directory, back in the day when you could fell a rampaging bull elephant with just volume one of your local Yellow Pages with a single blow. Indeed, from the cutaway shots of the audience in the television coverage, after the halfway mark it looked as if many members of the Labour conference had received precisely such a glancing blow.

It’s not that the policy content was bad; I agreed with most of what I can recall. It’s just that there was so much of it. There was no theme, no irreducible core.

At some point halfway through he apparently had a pop at the media, but I must have zoned out (I remember his japes at the beginning at its expense). This is ironic because the vast majority of people who will see this speech will do so because the news programmes, channels and websites will have shown them excerpts of the better parts of the speech, thus shielding them from the sheer tedium of it in bulk. So much of the praise he’ll earn this evening will be because of the eeevil media doing his spin for him.

It might well be “old politics” to say that he desperately needs a competent speechwriter, but I haven’t chugged down enough Kool-Aid yet to believe that it wouldn’t help. You don’t need to be the greatest orator to do a competent job with a little practice and good content. By all means, let Corbyn be Corbyn. But don’t let Corbyn get in the way of what Corbyn has to say. Is that really too much to expect?

What I saw today was a man who has started to believe his own hype and that somehow all the “new” politics needs to be is the opposite of “old” politics. Again, maybe I’m deluded and stuck in the old ways, but if you really think that can you explain to me what that speech today actually achieved?

jeremycorbynnewdanger

Jeremy Corbyn: Blairism is magical thinking

It is a dismal law of elections that you need to win in the centre ground. In the UK, it may well be the case that you can win a majority with nothing like 50% of the popular vote, but you can only do so by getting the votes of swing voters in marginal constituencies. No party can win a majority by simply appealing to their core base, and the single member plurality system we use for Westminster elections undermines any party which attempts to do so. In this respect, Jeremy Corbyn’s critics are absolutely correct; all things being equal, we can expect to see him leading the Labour Party into the political wilderness.

With that said, this isn’t the only law of election campaigning. The “centre ground” is constantly shifting, and not just along the right/left axis. Politicians can – and indeed do – shift the political centre ground. It’s a little thing we call “leadership”.

Despite this, the left has been obsessed with the centre and specifically triangulation (moving on your opponent’s ground in order to claim the centre ground) for two decades now. In fairness to Tony Blair, it got him some great results. But there’s a problem: it depends on your core supporter base having neither the option or the willingness to go somewhere else. If you can’t hang onto your supporter base then you aren’t triangulating; you’re simply shifting to the centre and risk losing more support than you gain.

This is something that Nick Clegg spectacularly failed to appreciate. His analysis was that the Lib Dems were taking a knock in the polls because of “protest voters” who never wanted power, and that he was better off without them. Weirdly, at a time when his base was abandoning him, he became extremely hostile to them. It was their fault for abandoning him, not his fault for abandoning them.

This is oddly similar to the reaction that most Labour establishment figures have had to the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, the apex of which has to be Tony Blair’s bizarre article published in the Guardian today. What I find interesting in all this is the asymmetry. If a (for want of a better word) “centrist” voter abandons Labour, then it is always deemed to be the party’s fault and an onus on the party to do better and reach out to them. If a “leftist” voter does the same (or in this case votes for the wrong candidate), it is because they are a protest voter, stupid or selfish (to quote Blair: “think about those we most care about and how to help them” – which apparently mean accepting that Labour has to go along with the wholesale cut in the welfare system and reducing employment rights).

What seems to have happened is that triangulation has become so internalised that it has reached a point where the centrist floating voter is now seen as all-wise. And yet we see on a daily basis evidence of the political centre being claimed by the right because they understand that changing minds is at least as important, possibly more so, as changing policy.

It is strange that at a time when the media institutions that used to hold such sway over public opinion are rapidly weakening, centre-left political parties are writing off their ability to influence opinion themselves. Basing your politics on chasing the centre ground is a form of magical thinking. It’s simply wrong to believe that Labour achieved its great victory because New Labour simply seized the centre ground.

There were numerous reasons why Labour won as comprehensively as it did in 1997. Yes, triangulation was a factor as it limited the number of areas which the Tories could attack them on. But the 1997 Labour government rode in on a pledge to introduce a national minimum wage, impose a windfall tax on privatised utility companies and rewrite a large part of the UK constitution. There’s this mistaken idea that Ed Miliband shifted the party to the left; if he had been half as radical as New Labour were in 1997, the media would have lost their minds.

The other two factors were the fact that the Conservatives had utterly disintegrated as a meaningful force and Tony Blair’s own charisma. As hard as it may be to imagine now, Blair at the time was enormously popular. He looked young, he smiled all the time, he seemed to have a sense of humour. The strange Gollum-like figure who occasionally pops up on TV these days claiming to be Tony Blair isn’t the man who lead Labour to victory.

More than anything else, finding a leader who is actually likeable is Labour’s problem. Ed Miliband may have been a bit weird, but that’s nothing compared to Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham or Liz Kendall. Jeremy Corbyn simply outshines them. If he came across as an inhuman technocratic android, he wouldn’t be getting anywhere.

I’m hardly the first person to point out that Corbyn is winning because he is managing to inspire people, but it is a message that Labour’s establishment seem to simply not understand, like it’s a concept that is totally alien to them. And in that respect, they don’t have any idea how Labour won in the 90s and 00s. Gone are the pragmatic idealists like Robin Cook who were willing to work within the system but still had something resembling a vision.

I don’t happen to think that Corbyn has what it takes to win a general election. In fact, if he wins the leadership contest, I’ll be very surprised if he last two years. This is for three reasons. The media will monster him, and while they may not be as powerful as they were, that pressure will be unrelenting. The left will abandon him the first time he makes a compromise in the interests of holding the party together. And fundamentally, I don’t think he has what it takes to be a leader; specifically, I don’t believe he is capable of eating shit on a daily basis and looking like he enjoys it. In this respect he reminds me of Menzies Campbell; someone who the media would fete on a regular basis as an expert, but who failed to appreciate that the sort of scrutiny he received would completely change once he became leader. It is striking that while he clearly loves protest and shoring up the political left, he has never sought to influence Labour on the inside, merely content to sit on the backbenches semi-detached.

But as much as I’d like to say Labour have a better option right now, I just don’t see it. Their best hope is to get this election out of the way as quickly as possible and find someone in good time before 2020 who is willing to work inside the party, capable of leading and actually has a personality. The policy stuff is ultimately a distraction. Sadly, I’m not optimistic that this would happen. My best guess is that we’ll see Tom Watson in charge by the next general election.

EDIT: Changed 4 instances of the word “weird”. Lazy writing. For the record, I love weirdos – it’s the ultra-normos who you can’t trust. 🙂

The Un-credible Shrinking Man (Nick Clegg / Labour PEB)

How Labour’s Lib Dem bashing backfired

I’ve already said what I think about Labour’s decision to target Lib Dem-held constituencies at the expense of Tory-held ones, so I won’t repeat myself here. This article looks at the bigger picture, and how the Labour’s Lib Dem obsession for the past five years ultimately backfired on them.

It is striking how the Labour Party opted to define itself in opposition to the Lib Dems over the last few years, rather than the Tories. The ultimate expression of that was the “EdStone”, a fairly explicit response to Nick Clegg’s broken tuition fee pledge and “no more broken promises” position in 2010. More precisely however, the EdStone was a failed attempt to get Labour out of a hole of its own making.

The main lesson of the Clegg’s 2010 campaign should have been that politicians claim the moral high ground over trust at their own peril. Any party which has been in power for any amount of time knows that not all promises can be kept, even with the best of intentions. After all, I’m a member of the generation of students who was told by their NUS president, a certain Jim Murphy, that we had to drop our support for student grants to help ensure Labour stood by it’s promise not to introduce tuition fees. In the event, Labour – and Jim Murphy MP – did no such thing. More recently in folk memory was of course the notorious Iraq dodgy dossier, and more recent still, the country was still reeling from the 2009 expenses scandal.

The risk that politicians take when they explicitly attempt to taint their opponents with dishonesty is that they end up getting tarred by the same brush. Clegg could get away with it to a limited extent in 2010 because he was a relatively unknown and seen as an outsider. He didn’t need his opponents to do much work making him look shifty after the tuition fees debacle, but Labour went for it like a dog with a bone, even producing their own re-edit of the original Clegg zombie apocalypse PEB.

Did this damage Clegg and the Lib Dems? Undoubtedly. But it didn’t give voters a single reason to support Labour; in fact it reminded them why they abandoned Labour in the first place. Every time Labour focused on this issue, they ceded ground to the Greens, UKIP and SNP who didn’t fit the public’s perception of the politician mold. And as a consequence, they found themselves in a vicious circle, having to up the stakes every time they made an issue out of it. That they ended up having such a problem with trust that they felt they had to engrave their election promises literally in stone for people to believe them should have been a lightbulb moment; when you reach that stage, the truth is that you’ve already lost.

As has been expressed to me on and off the record by numerous Labour activists over the last few years, one of their key objectives over the last few years was to wipe out the Lib Dems, and thus revert back to two party politics. The Tories were keen to see the same thing happen, and so we have seen several examples over the last few years where they have actively colluded to undermine the third party. Miliband himself, to be fair, did briefly put himself above all that during the AV referendum, but lacked the authority to restrain most of his party from signing up with the Tories. They did it again during the attempts to reform the House of Lords. I’ve upset many Lib Dems arguing that they have to accept their own share of the blame for this failure, but that wasn’t to suggest that Labour weren’t also shortsighted.

The attacks were repeated and personal, at one point producing a highly glossy election broadcast in the run up to the European Elections to brand Clegg as the “un-credible shrinking man“. And again, it was extremely effective.

Labour may have been successful in wiping out the Lib Dems, but as we are now all too aware, the attempt to revert to two-party politics went absolutely nowhere. Anyone with any awareness of political and social trends in the UK over the past 50 years could have predicted that would happen. When Labour should have been worried about the Tories, all they seemed capable of focusing on was the Lib Dems and their so-called “betrayal”. It smacks of all-too Old Labour bullying, and like all playground bullies, it revealed a distinct lack of self-confidence and deference to the even “bigger boys”. While he was busy hitting Clegg over the head at every opportunity, Miliband was letting Cameron set the terms of the debate. For all this talk of the Conservatives being stuffed by members of the upper classes, whenever they were in the room Labour couldn’t tug its collective forelock hard enough.

I don’t actually believe, or even particularly make sense of, the idea that Miliband failed because he wasn’t “Blairite” enough. Blair fought his first election campaign when the Tories’ economic reputation was in tatters due to events he could not claim credit for; Miliband faced a party which was, putting to one side how for a moment, steering the country through an economic recovery. Arguing that Miliband should have both taken more responsibility for Labour’s economic mismanagement and claimed more credit for the golden age of Blair, the First Lord of the Treasury who deregulated the City spent money like water during an economic boom which any Keynsian would tell you should have been tackling the national debt, is simply rubbish. Surely they aren’t suggesting that Blair was so weak that he daren’t stand up to Gordon Brown?

But one thing Blair understood was that to govern, he needed to take seats off the Tories and not sweat the small stuff. It is hard to believe he would have achieved the 179 majority he had done if he’d spent so much time and energy trying to stop the Lib Dems from making their own breakthrough, citing the ancestral hatred borne out of the 1983 “betrayal” of the SDP.

If Labour had taken twelve more seats from the Tories instead of the twelve they took from the Lib Dems last week, Cameron would have been denied a majority. More than that however, if it had focused on the Tories over the last five years and not allowed itself to have become obsessed with the notion of restoring a two party hegemony, it would have done better still.

History consistently tells us that the right has always done better out of the two party system than the left, yet this is a lesson that Labour have stubbornly refused to learn. If Labour is serious about coming out of this slump it now finds itself in, it will have to correct this mistake. Membership in the Greens, UKIP, SNP and now, apparently, the Lib Dems, is surging. Like it or not, the smaller parties aren’t going to be going anywhere. It is time they evolved or stepped aside.

Ed Miliband stone pledges

Random thoughts on the election

I haven’t had much sleep, but here are a few random thoughts about the election.

I’m angry with the Labour Party. I did my bit: I voted Labour in a constituency where they are in second place to a Tory with a majority of 106 (Hendon). I admit, I didn’t do that last time, high as I was on the prospect of the LDs getting 30% of the vote, which turned out to be a false dawn. But I didn’t make that mistake twice.

But where the hell were Labour? During the campaign proper, just one highly generic Labour leaflet was hand delivered in our area. By me. It was clear that the guy in charge of distribution was overwhelmed and didn’t really have a clue what he was doing. Sure, they hurled a load of equally generic and uninspiring literature out in the post, but there was virtually no evidence of a campaign at grassroots level. My wife and mother in law, who had offered to help, were given nothing to do (apart from the aforementioned leaflet and a target letter a few weeks earlier). You’d be forgiven for thinking Hendon was a safe Tory seat from the level of activity either party were putting into it on the ground.

Meanwhile, Labour activists in North London are busy patting themselves on the back for booting Lynne Featherstone out of Hornsey and Wood Green. Leaving aside any personal feelings I might have about that, Labour winning in Hornsey did not help to deny the Tories a majority government one iota. A win in Hendon would have.

That’s elementary electoral maths. Of course, you can’t predict what is going to happen in each individual seat. But if you put zero effort into the Tory marginal and bust a gut winning the Lib Dem marginal, then it is hard to deny that you had rather skewed priorities. And this pattern seems to be reflected across the country, with Labour going all out in Lib Dem constituencies and just tinkering in Tory seats. Norwich is another clear example, with Labour failing to gain Norwich North whilst slugging it out with the Lib Dems and Greens in Norwich South.

Labour made a huge deal out of their doorstep operation at the start of the campaign. I suspect it may have been exaggerated, but assuming for a moment that it wasn’t, it’s clear they were marching on the wrong bloody doorsteps. Who was making these calls? Presumably the same person who commissioned that ridiculous pledge stone. Presumably the person who decided on those meaningless “pledges” which were carved onto the pledge stone.

Anyone who says that Miliband failed because he went back to the politics of Michael Foot deserves to have their head rammed against that blasted lump of rock. Because say what you like about Michael Foot, he’d never have lead a campaign which was based around six vague and meaningless pledges like those ones. And he certainly wouldn’t have dreamed of doing something as hubristic as engraving them anywhere. I mean seriously. Would Michael Foot have cribbed an abbreviated Tory campaign slogan from ten years ago like “Controls on Immigration”? If you’re going to blow a racist dog whistle, at least find one that isn’t so ineffectual.

Labour didn’t lose because it veered to the left. It lost because it has no idea what it is. Either an authentically left wing Labour Party or an authentically right wing Labour Party would have done better than this vague shower.

The country didn’t turn to the Conservatives. Seriously, look at the results. Overall, they gained 0.8% of the share of the vote. Labour gained 1.5% of the vote share (if they hadn’t lost votes to the SNP in Scotland, they’d now be neck and neck). That the former shift gifted the Tories 23 more seats while the latter even larger positive shift cost Labour 26 seats isn’t just stupid; it’s morally repugnant.

The examples of how this voting system has denied the British public its voice are everywhere: the SNP winning 95% of the seats in Scotland with just 50% of the Scottish vote. The fact that the Tories have done virtually the same thing in the South of England. The fact that the SNP won 56 as many MPs as UKIP despite winning almost a third of their UK share of the vote (4.7% versus 12.6%).

The thing that seems to be giving some people pause for thought about electoral reform today is the prospect of it leading to a Conservative-UKIP coalition. That’s a hard bullet to dodge; all things being equal, it’s exactly what would have happened, albeit with the slenderest of majorities. However, it is also the case that all things wouldn’t have been equal. For one thing, the Greens would almost certainly have got more votes. For another, we wouldn’t have seen Tories voting tactically in the north for UKIP because their own party was a wasted vote. And UKIP’s own populist leftwing positioning would either force them into getting some concessions from the Tories or would have bitten them in the bum.

I’d go as far as to say that even a UKIP/Con coalition would be better than what we got for the simple reason that it would have included Conservative and UKIP MPs from across the UK. The “Maggie Simpsonification” of the UK would simply not have happened. Given the choice between a monolithic one party rightwing government with no representation north of the border and a wafer thin majority and a two party government rightwing government with some representation north of the border, I’d take the latter every time.

Maggie Simpson UK election map

I would strongly urge you to sign this petition and get stuck into the campaign for voting reform in the UK.

There is nothing good about the Lib Dem humiliation. It’s no secret that I was no Nick Clegg fan. I didn’t quit the Lib Dems because of him, but he certainly wasn’t doing anything to keep me there. But I certainly don’t take any pleasure over what happened to them yesterday. They didn’t deserve it, and British politics is the worse for losing them. Hell, it’s the worse for losing the bloody Orange Bookers.

The dismay I’ve seen online in response to the prospect of a majority Tory government bears this out. The capacity for leftie magical thinking never ceases to amaze me. Somehow people can vote for a party that they no has zero chance of winning in a Lib Dem-Conservative marginal seat and still be dismayed when the Lib Dems get wiped out as if magical pixie voters were going to keep them elected so they didn’t have to. So many people who spent the last five years insisting that the Lib Dems made absolutely no difference in government seem to now be reeling off lists and lists of dreadful Tory policies which will now be implemented without the Lib Dems in the way to stop them.

Let’s be clear: yes, the fact of the coalition, the tuition fees “original sin” and Nick Clegg’s unpopularity were strategic dead albatrosses around their necks. Yes, they ran a dreadful, confused and negative campaign (at least the air war; I can’t comment about campaigns on the ground because I wasn’t there). But at the end of the day they lost in no small part due to a fit of pique by voters more concerned about their own political purity than stopping the Tories. That’s on them. It was on me when I did the same thing five years ago, so I know how it feels. I don’t condemn anyone for doing it – I understand the temptation – but I do expect them to accept responsibility for it.

England toilet paper

Have we reached peak flag?

There are some days when I couldn’t feel more alienated from UK politics, and today is one of them. While we are still struggling to comprehend why the people of Rochester and Strood just re-elected an MP who is a virtual caricature of every worst Westminster character trait imaginable in what they seem to think is a defiant anti-Westminster rebuff, Labour opted to lose it completely. They sacked Emily Thornberry from the front bench for posting a picture of a house with three England flags in the window alongside in a way that might be construed as mildly passive-aggressive. Sacked immediately by an apparently furious Ed Miliband, we’ve been bombarded today by pictures of the house’s occupant, nicknamed “White Van Dan” riding around Islington in his van, which has now been covered by Sun newspaper stickers. Meanwhile, asked what he thinks whenever he sees a white van, Ed Miliband came up with the ultimate Thick-Of-It-ism by replying “respect“.

Hanging over all this is the spectre of Gillian Duffy, the pensioner from Rochdale who Gordon Brown unwisely called a bigoted woman while wearing a live microphone during the 2010 general election campaign. In both cases, the response has seemed as out of touch if less authentic than the original offence. In fact, the only thing less authentic is the manufactured outrage whipped up by the media and Labour’s rivals which caused the apologies in the first place.

Labour aren’t just the victims of this. Just yesterday, Labour’s new anti-Green unit had managed to get the Evening Standard to publish a story attacking Green Party leader Natalie Bennett for the apparently egregious offence of travelling across Europe in a comfortable train instead of the indignity of squatting in one of those flying toilets that passes for a RyanAir plane. As someone who did something rather similar last month, albeit mostly out of a desire for comfort rather than wanting to minimise carbon emissions, I struggle to understand what the fuss is about. I certainly struggle to understand why Labour thinks this is going to alienate potential voters from the Green Party.

Much of what I wrote about Norman Baker’s treatment following his resignation earlier this month also applies to this latest debacle. I’m growing increasingly despairing of politicians’ craven need to indulge every reactionary twinge, as long as it emerges from a housing estate. Don’t be fooled into thinking this is genuine concern for the poor and marginalised in society however; I have no idea if White Van Dan receives benefits or not, but under different circumstances he is exactly the kind of bloke that the Sun typically vilifies for being a scrounger, with Labour cheerleading behind it. If you’re poor, the political class hate you; yet if you say something like “it’s not racist to want to kick brown people out of the country”, you are fêted and patronised as the authentic voice of the working classes. Meanwhile, the under-25s are looking at having their benefits slashed regardless of whether Labour or the Tories win a plurality at the next general election. And despite housing being one of the biggest single causes of poverty and social immobility, none of the parties appear to be interest in doing much about it.

The thing is, as a strategy for marginalising the far right, it doesn’t work, at all, as Ukip’s surge in recent years and the BNP’s upswing before that has repeatedly demonstrated. We are fortunate in this country in that most of our far right parties are so venal that they tend to turn in on themselves as soon as they get a whiff of success (helped along by organisations like Hope Not Hate). The BNP and English Defence League both spectacularly self-destructed, as indeed did Ukip 10 years ago following Robert Kilroy Silk’s attempts at a takeover. And looking at the oddballs which Ukip got elected as MEPs this year, there’s a good chance they will self-destruct again.

But by not challenging the very thing they stand for, all the main parties have achieved is to grow the reactionary core vote. As parties collapse, new ones rise up and quickly take their place. If Nigel Farage does self-immolate at some point, you can bet that there’s another smooth talking, slimy public former public schoolboy ready to take his place.

As it is, when people say idiotic things like immigration is a taboo subject in British politics, the main parties all nod their heads sagely, despite knowing that it’s all they ever talk about. I’m hardly the first person to notice that “Ukip are right, don’t vote for them” has spectacularly failed as a political message. And while politicians are falling over themselves to come up with ever harsher anti-immigration policies, whilst straining to appear non-racist, immigrants themselves meanwhile are shoring up the NHS, the treasury and our cultural life.

With the vast majority of the public not willing to even consider voting Ukip, is it really that inconceivable to actually challenge their bullshit? I don’t mean in a mealy mouthed, apologetic way as Labour currently practices, but in a robust and pro-active way. It did not, admittedly, work particularly well for the Lib Dems during the last European elections, but their credibility has been shot to pieces. Imagine if Ed Miliband had decided to take Ukip to task at his party conference this September, instead of spending the last couple of months indulging them? He certainly wouldn’t be in a worse position than he is at the moment. I suspect that his failure to do so has more to do with the rise in Green Party popularity than any newfound concern for the environment.

I’m not a fan of nationalism, but I will confess that some people seem to be capable of practising genuine civic nationalism, and I respect them for it. In the run up and aftermath of the Scottish independence referendum, I came across dozens of examples of it campaigning for Yes. As someone who has always been quite dismissive of SNP claims to be this generous form of nationalism, as opposed to the defensive, hateful kind, this has represented something of a challenge for me (for the avoidance of doubt, I’m not suggesting that all SNP supporters are twinkly civic nationalists; far from it).

The Anglo-British political class however seem to be reacting to the nationalist challenge by adopting an equally reactionary form of nationalism. Throughout the Scottish independence referendum campaign, my twitterfeed seemed to be dominated by No campaigners and English politicos talking about how a Yes vote would force them to erect a border between Scotland and England – not to keep the nationalists out, you understand, but all the dreadful immigrants that the SNP was going to be willing to accept into the country. Self-defined lefties, progressives and Europhiles were talking about Schengen in increasingly shrill tones. This seems to be all that British nationalism has to offer; togevverness in the face of the awful outside world, and nothing but spite for Scotland if it chose to go its own way. As someone who simply doesn’t understand why I should treat Scots as any more or less comradely than the French or Danes – or Liberians for that matter, I found it weirdly alienating.

The Ango-British are really bad at nationalism, not least of all because no-one seems to be able to decide whether to wrap themselves in the English or British flag. I don’t doubt the integrity of people like Billy Bragg wanting an English civic nationalism, but even he isn’t very good at articulating it, and no-one is really listening to him in any case. Instead of trying to invent something that isn’t there, the progressive, civic nationalist thing to do is to simply not worry too much about it, and instead focus on values such as mutual respect and solidarity. Those ought to be our starting points, not a concern about alienating people who have become intoxicated with nationalist lies.

There’s a possibility that Labour might actually realise this over the next couple of months and respond accordingly, but I’m not going to be holding my breath. If they don’t however, I suspect that all we’ll see is a further fragmentation of the Labour vote as haemorrhages between the Greens and Ukip. In many ways, this isn’t a bad thing – the collapse of the established political order is looking increasingly inevitable. But while it might be a positive thing in the long term, in the short term we are likely to just see British politics adrift on a tide of racist and hateful effluent.

Labour and Lords Reform – a short history lesson

Steve Bell cartoon on Lords reform

Labour has announced that it would replace the House of Lords with an elected senate. There are reasons why supporters of Lords reform should be cautious about celebrating too hard about this, as Labour’s promises in this area have failed to blossom into meaningful action so many times in the past. But it is progress – a fully elected senate and no caveats about needing a referendum first – and it is something to hold them too if they win the next election.

The Liberal Democrat response has been curious and revealing. Speaking on their behalf, Sir Malcolm Bruce said:

“We could have given the UK greater representation in parliament, but when presented with the chance, he bottled it; turned his back and ran. This is simply lip-service from a Labour party who have no intention of actually delivering.”

You would think that the Lib Dems would be a bit more cautious about labelling others as dishonest, given the hole that they’re in. Leaving that aside, it is simply not true to say that the reason Lords reform fell in 2012 was because Labour walked away. They were no angels, but to pin the blame on them is to ignore Tory treachery, different Liberal Democrat priorities.

Talk to a Lib Dem MP between May 2010 and September 2012 for more than five minutes and it will be perfectly clear what their main preoccupation was: boundary changes. Seriously, I personally spoke to around a dozen of them in that period and that’s all they ever wanted to talk about. As the boundary changes were published, it increasingly dawned on them that they had signed a suicide note by agreeing to the boundary changes and a reduction in the number of MPs, and they were fixated by how they might be able to break that promise. Everything they did during that period was going through that lens.

Thus is was that as soon as the Lords reform proposals were published, the Lib Dems started threatening to block the boundary changes if the Tories failed to fulfil their promise on Lords reform. From the point of view of actually replacing the House of Lords with an elected second chamber, this was disastrous. Tory backbenchers don’t respond well to threats, especially from junior partners they are determined to squash, and the message Labour were getting was that if they helped scupper Lords reform, they would be freed from boundary changes as well.

The fact is that Labour was split on Lords reform. Managing to derail the process helped to avoid them looking that way. It became increasingly clear that the Tories were even more split (despite promising Lords reform in their manifesto) and that Labour would have to carry the government through the entire process, at every stage. It also undermined the Lib Dems and got them a policy concession they wanted. Under those circumstances, even the most strident supporter of reform would struggle to not make the decision that Ed Miliband did.

If the Lib Dems had not made support for boundary changes a precondition, has said that that deal was done and that they would stand by their coalition partners, there would in all likelihood have been fewer Tory rebellions over the issue and Labour would have had less of an incentive to dissemble. Of course, it would have looked weak, and would have meant that the Lib Dems would be facing even more losses in the next election. Given the choice between party and principle, they chose party. I don’t especially blame them for that either, but please spare me the self-righteous indignation over how Labour behaved in response.

That was all two years ago. What concerns me about the Lib Dems now is that an awful lot of them seem to believe their own hype. I’ve read an awful lot of tweets this morning from Lib Dems denouncing Labour betrayal on this issue. Yet the fact is that if you want House of Lords reform then your best bet is Labour winning at least a plurality in the next general election. It certainly won’t happen if the Tories win. And it certainly won’t happen if what remains of the Lib Dems in the Commons in 2015 sit around whingeing about missed opportunities.

Making Lords reform a partisan issue in the way that the front bench Lib Dem team seemed determined to make it won’t actually make it happen. Once again, they seem to be putting party ahead of principle – and on this occasion I’m a lot less sympathetic.

Scapegoating Nick Clegg is the lowest form of populism

Owen JonesMy ire was particularly roused yesterday by Owen Jones’s latest attack on Nick Clegg. Now, regular readers of this blog may be aware that Nick Clegg is not exactly my favourite person, I actually agree that Clegg is populist with little in the way of actual principles, and that this latest capitulation to crack down on virtually non-existent use of the UK welfare system by EU migrants is an apt if depressing example of this. But Jones’s analysis has one fatal flaw: he’s a member of the Labour Party.

You don’t have to agree with Martin Shapland’s equally flawed analysis that the fact that Labour have equally let down EU migrants and indeed the UK electorate that that somehow makes the Lib Dems’ own actions more acceptable to agree that Owen Jones and his cohorts are in no position to criticise.

If Clegg’s “scapegoating” of EU migrants (which is to ignore the fact that the Lib Dem position is far less coherent than simple scapegoating) is “unforgiveable”, then what does that make Yvette Cooper’s claim that the coalition are playing catch up behind Labour on this issue? Indeed, so behind the coalition were Labour on Tuesday that they set one of their lead attack dogs to smear Laszlo Andor, an EU commissioner who had the unmitigated gall to criticise the UK for adopting such a policy, wrongly claiming he was a fascist.

This isn’t the first time, and won’t be the last, that Clegg’s team has concluded that with Labour and the Tories united on an issue they might as well go along with it for fear of being singled out. It was the same reasoning that made Clegg so keen to not come out against the snooper’s charter. Clegg isn’t a liberal, although he wore that mask for a while, and his mission is to be seen to be in the centre of politics between Labour and the Tories, no matter where that centre happens to be (he’s only sticking with the party’s pro-EU stance because he knows that dropping it would lead to a split the party would not survive from). He’s pretty despicable. But does anyone really believe that is more despicable than the party leaders he is slavishly following? Miliband could have caused a split within the coalition by adopting a pro-migrant, and fact-based stance on immigration. Leaving aside his ethical and moral responsibilities, he had a responsibility to do so as the leader of the official opposition. Cringing in fear of how Lynton Crosby would respond, he chose not to.

I’m not suggesting the Lib Dems should be let off the hook, merely that they are irrelevant. Even if every single Lib Dem voted against these measures, the combined Labour-Conservative hegemony would get it through parliament. If Owen Jones truly had the principles he has pinned his professional career to, he would have chosen to lay into who is possibly the next prime minister for his cowardly stance, rather than the leader of a declining third party. Does anyone else see the irony in choosing to pull his punches on Miliband and ramp up the rhetoric on Clegg in an article denouncing the political practice of scapegoating? This is black propaganda indeed.

Yellow Peril

Being a comic geek, “Yellow Bastard” makes me think of Frank Miller and the eponymous paedophile and child-murderer of one of his Sin City stories. I never cared much for it. Still, there are worse things to be called I suppose. Labour members call Lib Dems Yellow Tories.

Still, the noises off within cabinet have inadvertently given us something to aspire to at last. It is a generally good rule of thumb that if Tim Montgomerie doesn’t approve of you, you must be doing something right, and so Conservative Home’s decision to launch a Yellow Bastards League Table suggests that the Lib Dems are finally starting to have an impact in government.

All in all, it suggests that the party has finally woken up to the fact that some of us have been shouting about for over a year: by occupying the centre ground in Parliament, the Lib Dems needn’t negotiate with their coalition partners as a junior party in government with just 57 MPs. Rather, in a great many policy areas, our true negotiating position is as the vanguard of the ragtag anti-conservative consensus which, on most days, can defeat any proposal David Cameron tries to bring forward. The Tories are the minority in this Parliament, yet for most of the past twelve months we’ve behaved as if they are in the ascendant.

Of course, it isn’t enough to simply know there are a lot of Labour MPs out there who don’t like the Tories; it is incumbent on Nick Clegg to build bridges. That’s why his inept talk about “new” versus “old” progressives and of never being able to resist and opportunity to take a potshot at Labour is so unhelpful. David Hall-Matthews outlined a more sophisticated way of dealing with Labour a couple of months ago on Left Foot Forward, but his advice seems to have gone largely unheeded. Clegg’s failure to even resist taking swipes at Labour in his speeches on AV during the referendum campaign period suggested that he was beyond rational thinking on the subject.

Clegg’s new doctrine of a more “muscular liberalism” at least shows that he has finally got the message about the need to show more distinctiveness, but if it is to amount to more than the Deputy Prime Minister flexing his biceps in a yellow posing pouch, he needs to start reaching out across the House of Commons. After all, we’ve seen with the referendum quite how willing many Labour MPs are to side with the Tories if they think it will help further destroy the Lib Dems. However futile and counter-productive their thinking is, many Labour politicians see the return of two-party politics as a strategic aim worth any number of Tory policies being introduced.

Perhaps, instead of replacing one futile attempt of toughness with another, he ought to try a bit of soft power for a change?