Tag Archives: tony-blair

Lordi

Labour’s headbangers: rebels without a cause

There’s a curious subset of democratic reform campaigners who maintain that the number one most significant reform we could make to our voting system would be to introduce a “none of the above” option. Apparently, at a stroke, this would solve all our problems as politicians face up to their massive unpopularity.

I am, it is fair to say, sceptical. But one thing I will give them is that this does seem to be the theme of our age. Opting out is what we do in modern society. We are all Pontius Pilate now.

This, it would appear, now extends to the significant elements of the Labour Party. After getting themselves into a mess at the start of the summer, agreeing to abstain on the welfare bill and thus expose the moral vacuum at the party’s heart which Jeremy Corbyn was more than happy to fill, 21 Labour MPs decided to do exactly the same thing in response to the government’s ridiculous Charter for Budget Responsibility.

(As an aside, John Major’s government was obsessed with “charters“; what does it say about modern politics that something that resembles a desperate gimmick during the fag end of the last Tory government is now something that Labour can tie themselves into knots over?)

None of this is to suggest that Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have exactly covered themselves in glory over the last few days. McDonnell’s u-turn over the charter is possibly the most inept act I’ve ever seen by a major party leader in British politics, and I’m including Nick Clegg, Gordon Brown and Iain Duncan Smith in that (feel free to list more inept actions in the comments below). It is perfectly understandable why the Labour Parliamentary Party was as angry as it was at the beginning of the week.

But anger doesn’t justify anything, and nor does “well Corbyn and McDonnell used to be serial rebels so I can be too,” unless you never took their rebellions seriously in the first place. Not everyone agrees with Corbynomics, but pretty much everyone understands the charter to be a gimmick and a political trap. The fact that McDonnell got caught in it is a reason to not leap into it yourself. All the Labour rebels did last night was make themselves look stupid and angry.

I hesitate to call them Blairites, but it is a better term than their apparently preferred label, “moderates”. They are anything but. The brigade within Labour that are fixated on bringing Corbyn down as quickly as possible have, for a long time, resemble the headbanger mindset, albeit a group of headbangers without a cause. At least you can quickly tick off a list of what the Tory headbangers believe in; it is hard to discern what the Labour headbangers actually want to achieve.

Perhaps that isn’t entirely fair, because at times it seems that whenever David Cameron manages to leave the house without forgetting to put his trousers on, there’s a throng of Labour right wingers who are quick to lavish praise on his latest act of political cunning and guile. Last week, Cameron made a few vaguely leftish comments in his conference speech. Completely ignoring the week in which the party defended its policies to cut the income of the working poor and make some blood curdling comments about immigration, Dan Hodges and John Rentoul could not have been more delighted.

Nor is this a new, post-Corbyn change of heart. Throughout the Ed Miliband era, Labour’s headbangers spent their time nursing perceived grievance after perceived grievance. Even after Miliband moderated his approach to appease his own right flank, the highly vocal attacks and grumblings persisted. What we never saw during that era was any kind of positive vision for what a “moderate”, “centrist” Labour might look like. All we heard was sneering.

And then there was Liz Kendall. Initially hailed as a potential game changer, Kendall’s leadership bid quickly ran out of steam. The reason? Because her vision for Labour was about as constructive and coherent as a typical Hodges or Rentoul whinge-fest. She had literally nothing to say beyond “we’re all doomed unless we sign up to all of the Tories’ most popular policies”. A more coherent Blairite might have challenged Corbyn; as it stood Kendall helped Corbyn hoover up more votes every time she opened her mouth.

I’ve yet to see an ounce of contrition by the headbangers over this. The constant anti-Corbyn refrain is that it is no good having principles if you can’t win a general election. This is true. But it is equally true that it is no good being a moderate if you can’t carry your own party with you. If you expect people to give up a serious amount of their time and income supporting your bid to win an election, not being able to offer even the most paltry vision of how you would do things different from your political opponents is a fundamental deal breaker. Yet somehow this fairly mundane idea escapes the so-called Labour moderates, and they don’t seem to be in any hurry to examine how they might to anything different any time soon.

As Zoe Williams wrote during the leadership contest, in terms of offering hope, Corbyn is more Blairite than the Blairites. What’s really odd is that with Corbyn’s leadership set to potentially end as soon as the elections next May end, you’d think that the headbangers would be more focused on finding and building up a potential replacement rather than toxifying themselves in the eyes of their colleagues. As it stands, if Corbyn does go down in a blaze of glory, what we’re likely to see is him replaced by a candidate who does at better job at bridging the divide between the parliamentary party and membership, only for the headbangers to spend all their time attempting to bring that leader down as well.

It is an odd form of political nihilism. While cast out in the political wilderness, the hard left at least had an agenda. The hard right complain about moves within the party to oust them; but shouldn’t they find a purpose before complaining about plots?

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. 🙂

Gethsemane: feel the fear (SPOILERS)

I went to see Gethsemane by David Hare at the National Theatre last night. Political drama is always hard to get right, and even harder to keep politicos content. Even so, I was particularly disappointed.

The basic plot (spoilers) revolves around the teenage daughter of the Home Secretary being gang raped by a group of men at a party, one of which turns out to be a high profile political sketch writer for a major national newspaper. Alienated from her mother the girl acts up, leading to the threat of expulsion from her prestigious public school. Fearing a scandal, the Labour party machine moves in, utilising a rather unethical fundraiser to essentially bribe the school into suppressing the incident. But this bribe backfires and the story gets into the press anyway. Meanwhile the teenage daughter goes into hiding with her former comprehensive school’s music teacher – who also happens to be an employee of the fundraiser (as well as a former civil servant in the Home Office).

So much for that; the plot is largely immaterial really. Rather, the play is a meditation on the state of politics today. “Gethsemane” is a reference to Jesus’ Agony in the Garden, his momentary loss of faith just before being captured by the Romans and, eventually, crucified (you can understand the bloke’s reluctance). In modern parlance this is known as “feel the fear but do it anyway.” The school teacher in the play, played by Nicola Walker, keeps referring to her decision to quit teaching being her “Gethsemane” – as the play makes plain at the end however, she didn’t really have one: she quit, Jesus didn’t. By contrast, the character who does have a Gethsemane is Tamsin Greig’s Home Secretary.

This is all very clever and literary, but is it really that revealing? The problem with this play is that it is neither allegorical or satirical, but instead wades about in a stodgy middle ground. Stanley Townsend’s engaging and flamboyant fundraiser isn’t Lord Levy, just a character with enough incidental characteristics to make it obvious who he is based on. The result, though entertaining, perhaps lingers too closely near an anti-semitic caricature – this is Levy-as-Fagin. Anthony Calf’s Prime Minister isn’t Tony Blair either, but again has many of the same superficial characteristics. This isn’t an attempt to understand either men, merely an opportunity to traduce both of them. All good fun but… so what?

The problem with having both these two characters so obviously sourced from reality is that the brain inevitably then starts making links with the other, more allegorical characters. The Home Secretary isn’t really Jacqui Smith, but with her corrupt husband she is plainly modeled in part on Tessa Jowell. Adam James’s sketch writer (from the newspaper which has a proprietor locked up for tax evasion) and former medieval historian (the PM at one point echoes Charles Clarke’s infamous contempt for medievalists) is remarkably similar to Quentin Letts; does Letts have a sleazy child rape past we don’t know about (to avoid being sued, I should add: I sincerely doubt it)? And then there is the daughter; clearly echoing Kathryn Blair.

The problem with all this real life intruding into something that Hare describes as “pure fiction” is that it becomes impossible to pretend that this play is a comment in individuals rather than a system. And that point is reinforced by the fact that despite its premiere taking place in 2008, it only deals with Blair-era politics. There is an attempt to wash over this when one of the characters asks “what happens when the money runs out?” but the clear inference is that those bastards were bad and it should all be different now.

The closest the play comes to any sort of insight is the implication that the ex-teacher – who we are to understand is an Everywoman – is essentially as culpable for What Has Gone Wrong as everyone else. She quit. If we don’t keep fighting, of course these bastards will end up in power. That is a perfectly legitimate point to make, but it isn’t really dwelt upon. The audience – for it is us who are the target of this message – is ultimately let off the hook.

For me, the real final denouement of the play is not this, but looking at the back page of the programme. This is where you find the real twist, because here you discover that this play about how nasty corporate interest infects and corrodes politics, is supported (presumably tax free) by J.P. Morgan. You literally could not make this up. We are told that “at J.P. Morgan we believe that the arts have the power to do many things: Inspire; Challenge; Stimulate; Question; Entertain; and Enlighten.” As part of the National Theatre’s “New Views” programme in association with J.P. Morgan, “students will undertake a challenge to change one thing in the world that gives them a sense of injustice. Their work will explore the power of critical, creative and polemical writing to promote change and their endeavours will culminate in a ‘Day of Protest’ to be held at the NT in December 2008.”

Did that Day of Protest pass you by? It did me. Notably, all reference to it has been expunged from the National Theatre’s website. Somehow I doubt it resulted in many windows getting smashed. Ultimately then, this play is as much a creature of the corporate machine as the system it is denouncing. I doubt David Hare had a “Gethsemane” himself.

I wanted insight and all I got was cynicism. If this is theatre doing its best to hold politics to account, it is failing abysmally.

UPDATE: Had an interesting chat with the gf and her mother this evening. She didn’t get the Everywoman thing at all (although she admitted I had a point), so either I’m wrong and the play didn’t have a discernable point at all, or I’m right and the message was too sotto voce.

Tony Blair “lead from the front” in by-elections? In WHAT universe Mr Cameron?

Having a pop at Gordon Brown for failing to show his face in Crewe and Nantwich is all fair and good, but why does David Cameron have to go and spoil everything by talking unmitigated bullshit like this?

Mr Cameron taunted him by saying his predecessor as PM, Tony Blair, “led from the front” at by-elections.

During the Blair years it was a standing joke, as it is now, that the Prime Minister never attended by-elections. Indeed, in the last general election, using a picture of Tony Blair (almost always with George Bush) on your literature was one of the easiest ways to pick up votes (assuming you aren’t the Labour Party of course). Blair was ballot box poison, at least after 2003.

David Cameron, having as he does a bit of a schoolboy crush on Tony Blair, may like to think different, but that’s the way it goes.

Will the Conservatives join the progressive alliance against corruption?

Simple question: Nick Clegg has repeated Lib Dem calls for an inquiry into the scrapping of an anti-corruption investigation into the Saudi arms deal following revelations that Blair wrote a “who will rid me of this turbulent priest?“-style letter to the Attorney General on the eve of the investigation being dropped. Will David Cameron join this progressive alliance, or not?

Since we are apparently all progressives now, this is surely a no brainer? A basic fundamental tenet of progressivism is the idea of equality under the law, with no exceptions for special status. Who could argue against such a thing?

It is a simple question that demands a simple answer. Perhaps my Tory readers would care to try answering it.

If you thought Tony Blair’s cameo on the Simpsons was bad…

…check out his guest slot on George Bush’s dog Barney’s Christmas video in which he manages to not only look deferential to a miniature dog but even comes up with some excrutiating dialogue about how they’re both Scotties. I’m only comforted that they decided to cut to another scene before Blair got a chance to proffer his balls to Barney to lick. It’s for kids Tony – show some decency!

It’s one thing to be a poodle to a halfwit. It’s quite another to be a poodle to a halfwit’s poodle. Suddenly Gordon Brown doesn’t look quite so bad after all.

Joseph Goebbels: “honestly, it’s like living in a police state!”

Reading Sarah Helm‘s article in yesterday’s Observer severely pissed me off, on at least two levels.

  • The complete lack of contrition from Blair’s inner-circle that they had done anything wrong. Lest we forget that if anyone tried raising funds via undeclared loans now, they would be committing a criminal offence. They might not have committed any laws, but they were going around bending them like it was going out of fashion. If Sarah Helm was capable of self-introspection, she might be a little less quick to bemoan how her family has been treated these past few months.
  • If anyone, say the makers of Taking Liberties say, were to go around claiming that the police under the Blair regime have become equivalent to the Gestapo, the Blairistas in the press would tear them several new arseholes. Yet here we have a member of Blair’s inner circle bemoaning that fact that the police, under Blair, have become like the Gestapo. If the police are mob-handed these days, which Prime Minister spent 10 years indulging such behaviour?

Finally, a note of caution about Guido’s attempts to bring a private prosecution on this case. Firstly, I wouldn’t bet your shirt on this getting anywhere. Proving anything over this in a court of law will be difficult even with the CPS behind it. Secondly, is Guido going after all the individuals implicated, or just the Labour ones? After all, the Conservatives are up to their necks in cash-for-honours as well; Michael Howard was even interviewed by the police. I wouldn’t want naive people to think they are giving money to clean up politics when what they are actually doing is funding a partisan exercise in mudflinging. Thirdly, Guido is a cautious soul when it comes to the law and his pledge seems to be deliberately vaguely worded. This isn’t a tenner you’re being asked to cough up for, it is a “donation” of no fixed amount. Sign it and you may find yourself jointly and severably liable for the legal costs incurred, with no say over what is spent and how.

Me? I wouldn’t touch it with your’s, mate.