A Song for Saturday: The Connells – ’74-’75

I am an unabashed fan of this 1993 single by the little-known college rock band, The Connells. In the UK it was their only real hit.

It’s one of those songs that can sound so simple as to be trite, and it only yields up its pleasures if you really listen. There is a smoothness to the writing and a total lack of showmanship in the instrumentation that means it can just pass you by, which might explain its frequent appearances on easy listening radio.

But when you really listen, it comes alive. It embodies that feeling of a road left untravelled that every single one of us has. The lyrics are vague enough to allow everyone to identify with them, but the specific reference to a particular year (of high school, or so the video implies) in the chorus adds a personal edge.

I was the one who let you know

I was your sorry ever after

’74, ’75

Giving me more and I’ll define

Cos you’re really only after

’74, ’75

The music is also delicately judged. It has a distinct Celtic feel, but what really makes the song is how well it’s recorded. The acoustic guitars are so crisp, and the bass is so solid. And the lift into the chorus is just glorious: those foreboding low backing vocals and the thin, distant high harmony behind the main singer tip it from being passably affecting to deeply emotional, at least for me.

The way the song ends, as well, seems beautiful to me. It achieves the long, drawn-out sigh that the lyrics seem to imply, by having the instruments gradually take over and play it out. You can almost imagine the singer turning on his heel and walking away, shoulders bowed.

The video is equally simple and great.

Brexit: the potential political consequences

It is becoming painfully clear just a day after the result of the EU referendum where the UK is heading politically.

David Cameron’s decision to resign – albeit in a delayed and orderly manner – has confirmed my worst fears. Although I approve of the decision in itself, and could see no appropriate way for him to continue, the consequences are likely to be disastrous.

The effect of the decision is to prolong what has already been a proxy leadership campaign into the autumn. The referendum was only ever a battle for control – not of the UK, but of the Conservative Party. Caught in the crossfire, voters were asked not to give a considered view on the future of the country, but a judgment on the current occupier of 10 Downing Street and the next.

Their verdict is now clear. Yet it is unlikely that they realise what has happened. The referendum was in effect a slow motion coup. I dislike using the word, but the engineering of events by Michael Gove and Boris Johnson is so disgraceful as to deserve it.

The end of the beginning has begun. Whether it is Gove or Boris in Downing Street makes little odds: the scenario I’m about to paint remains broadly the same.

Whoever takes over from Cameron seems very likely to look for a redrawn, looser agreement with the EU that meets the definition of withdrawal but retains some of the economic benefits of the single market. In short, the EEA option looks the most likely; a settlement similar to those enjoyed by Norway and Switzerland may be the result.

This will cause enormous problems. The Leave campaign explicitly argued for reduced immigration, relentlessly attacking Cameron and his government for failing to meet their self-imposed target, and arguing that only leaving the EU would solve the issue. The EEA option will not achieve this. It will impose continued freedom of movement on us, possibly with fewer controls than we currently enjoy.

The result will be anger. Anger on a scale that the UK has not seen in many years. And the people who will be most angry will be the same people who bought the Vote Leave arguments most completely.

Now, take a step back and look at the wider political environment. It is clear that Labour is in total disarray. They failed to convince large numbers of their own voters to follow their line on the EU. Those sceptics are the same ones that will be angriest when the new regime takes Britain into the EEA.

They will look for a party that understands their views and “legitimate concerns”, and that has taken a consistent, resolute stance on immigration. They will find what they are looking for in Nigel Farage and UKIP, the party that helped them throw off the shackles of Europe and reclaim their country.

Before this referendum I was concerned about the rise of nationalist forces in the UK. After it, I am terrified. We could well be entering a new political era where the only real challenge to the Conservative Party comes from the fascist right, enabled by the masses of unrepresented, disenchanted voters who have acquired a taste for revolution.

It is not beyond the realms of possibility that by 2020 we will see UKIP become England’s second party.

Why the state of Jeremy Corbyn’s top button actually does matter. Honest.

When my family gets together we sometimes play a game called Scissors. It’s pretty cruel because it’s based solely on the ignorance of whoever hasn’t played it before; in other words, it’s more of a practical joke than a parlour game. In short, it involves sitting in a circle handing round a pair of scissors, with each person saying if the scissors are “crossed” or “uncrossed”. Obviously it has nothing to do with the state of the scissors: let the reader understand, but gradually the truth dawns on everyone and there is much chortling.

I was reminded of it today when England’s journalists, in their wisdom, decided that the state of Jeremy Corbyn’s top shirt button – “done” or “undone” – was a suitable subject for political reportage and punditry.

Urgh. The state of him. (Photo: Jonathan Brady/PA)

This in turn led to the usual Twitter feedback loop, with Corbynistas (Corbynites?) deriding the vacuity of the press. The same could be said for Corbyn’s refusal to sing the national anthem, which according to Conservative MPs apparently marked him out – along with his scruffy appearance – as the sort of dangerous madman who would probably sell us out immediately to the Bolsheviks if he had the chance.

But it does matter. And I’ll tell you for why.

Corbyn could have decided not to attend today’s Battle of Britain memorial service at St Paul’s. There’s another one in Westminster Abbey on Sunday, after all. But he did.

He could have decided not to wear a suit, or, as his general wont, he could have gone open-necked. But he didn’t.

Implication: he grasps the importance of ceremony in British society and, especially, British politics. He was attempting, in some way, to reflect this in his mode of attire and in being present in general.

I have no doubt that he was also being sincere in his attendance and in paying his respects.

The problem is that UK politics is currently dominated by a narrative of competence. I’ve talked about this before in extremely negative terms. The Tories are past masters at defining what competence is (even if it turns out not to be competence as anyone else would understand it), and then putting themselves on the right side of that line.

If Corbyn is going to try to play that game, he needs to get much better at it. His undone top button may not seem like much, but every time he does something like that, it undermines him. He is going to get a lot of harsh treatment in the media as it is – he already does – so he needs to do everything possible to avoid self-inflicted injuries.

Either you spin properly or not at all. Either you play by the rules set out by your opponents or you completely flout them. Acknowledging the rules, and then failing to stick to them, is the worst of all worlds.

Based on his performance so far, maybe the better course is for Corbyn to recognise that, as in WarGames – which I like to imagine is one of his favourite films – the only winning move is not to play.

Only the Lib Dems are listening to the NHS

Most of the political debate around the NHS, certainly in the Leaders’ Debate on Thursday night, has focused on who should deliver NHS services. In particular, the anti-austerity parties, as well as the Labour Party, are extremely sceptical about what they call “privatisation” – the provision of NHS services by private companies.

This is ironic, as the NHS itself has made its position very clear. Before Christmas, a document called the Five Year Forward View (FYFV) was published. This was really a manifesto for the future of the NHS – written by senior management figures within NHS England, the central body that controls much of the NHS’ commissioning and funding decisions, and based upon the collective and specialist knowledge of the NHS itself. The NHS FYFV doesn’t talk much about “privatisation”. Instead, it focuses on what are really the biggest challenges for the NHS. To summarise:

  • The NHS needs to focus much more on prevention and public health – this is aimed at stopping a sharply rising burden of avoidable illness
  • The NHS needs to move towards new models of integrated care – at the moment there’s a big divide in lots of places between GP surgeries and hospitals, between hospitals and care homes, and between physical and mental health

The FYFV also made it clear that without making the right sort of changes, and assuming funding levels stay broadly as they are over the next five years, the NHS will be under-funded to the tune of around £30 billion by 2020. Given the entire NHS budget currently stands at around £100 billion, that constitutes what some might call an existential threat. The document sets out various ways to meet that challenge. In short, NHS England thinks that with the right service reform and the introduction of these new models of care, it can make efficiency gains representing about £22 billion of the shortfall.

But that still leaves £8 billion of extra funding. And this is where the political parties come in. They are the ones who make the decisions about where tax is spent on our public services. They have a choice as to whether they will listen to the NHS itself – which is effectively lobbying them to put in this extra funding – or whether they will prioritise other public services, or indeed whether they will simply spend less overall and give people more tax cuts instead.

This graph shows how the parties are planning to fund the NHS over the next five years:

(h/t Paul Valentine @iampav)

As you can see, only one of the major parties has actually listened to the NHS itself when it comes to the vital funding needed to maintain “a comprehensive taxfunded NHS”.

If you believe in the value of such an NHS – one that doesn’t need to go cap in hand to private companies to provide vital services, or force people to rely on private medical insurance, or introduce new or increased charges for GP appointments or minor surgical treatment or prescriptions – then there’s only one choice at this election. The Liberal Democrats are the only party that truly wants to protect the NHS.

Jenni Russell on Nick Clegg

The Times’ political coverage is, I tend to think, the best of the non-specialist newspapers (I’m not including the FT in that group). Ok, it’s a Murdoch paper and inevitably leans centre-right – but it’s no Daily Telegraph. It’s also distinguished by having a stable of extremely sensible commentators and columnists. These come from disparate backgrounds but are chiefly notable for their fair-mindedness.

Chris Furlong/Getty Images

So it is that last night’s debate receives a wide range of different reviews on the Times website. In particular I was struck by Jenni Russell’s piece which culminated thus:

For me, Clegg was the underrated performer of the night. I didn’t share in the Cleggmania of five years ago; but tonight I was impressed by the sheer determined decency of the man who has seen his party immolated in the cause of the coalition, but who is still positive and hopeful in telling people that only the Lib Dems can moderate Tory cuts and Labour overspends.

You may not agree with him, but you ought to salute his spirit.

This very much reflects my own view of the Lib Dem leader. After five years of coalition government I can’t help but admire his tenacity, bravery and optimism, whatever I might feel about some of the decisions he’s made on behalf of the Lib Dems.

Classic satire The Day Today once again overtaken by real events

The Guardian has a story today on DIY dentistry, which is apparently on the rise in the UK due to cost and lack of access in certain parts of the country:

In a country that prides itself on free healthcare, DIY dentistry is an almost Victorian notion of hardship. But poverty and inequality – and the increasing stigma attached to both – are blocking access to healthcare for the poorest people in the UK, and grim tales of a black economy are on the rise.

The cost of dental treatment on the NHS is relatively uncontroversial, politically, which has always surprised me. Compare, for example, the outcry whenever a kite is flown for GP appointment charges.

The current government claims it has increased access, and is in the middle of piloting a new dental contract that would refocus attention on hard-to-treat patients and particularly those from poorer backgrounds. But it’s easier said than done.

Of course, Chris Morris was onto this more than two decades ago, with this classic clip from The Day Today:

Two Worlds Collide in the #LeadersDebate

I’ve never really been the kind of person to give an instant reaction to anything. My sister is the complete opposite: you could tell us both the same news and you’d know instantly what her response was – usually incoherent rage righteous anger. I’m usually slow to react, either because I’m still trying to get my head around what I’ve heard, or because I am feeling conflicted about it, or because I want to maintain my lofty rationality in the face of base emotion. (That last one’s more theoretical.)

So having watched the heptagonal #leadersdebate, aired on ITV last night, I’ve taken some time to chew over what I saw. I am sure that there has been no end of commentary, and with the Easter Bank Holiday weekend now in full swing, most politically-engaged people will have read much of it already.

Certainly on Twitter and Facebook there seems to have been some consensus emerging. A lot of this was around the fact that Nigel Farage is a horrible individual. I’m not sure how surprising that is, but it certainly bodes well for any future EU referendum that even naturally right-wing voters (and I know and love quite a few of those) simply find him appalling.

(h/t Financial Times)

The other thing that came out strongly from many of the responses I saw was that it was great to see some diversity in the debate. Certainly it was good to have some balance, although it was painfully white. I always flinch a bit, too, at the idea that it’s in any way surprising when politicians of the calibre and experience of Nicola Sturgeon – who is, after all, the current First Minister of Scotland, and who has been in government for longer than anyone else on the panel – prove themselves articulate and competent.

My main reaction to the debate was that it really was a collision of worlds. There were two separate conversations running simultaneously, each only including some of the leaders. Nigel Farage was of course having his own personal conversation, aimed at people who already think he is Churchill reborn.

On one hand, you had a serious-minded, largely managerial discussion between David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband on the realities of government and policy. This was painfully familiar to those of us who live and breathe the political process, but would still have been relatively new to most voters. I thought all three leaders did well in stating their case, but that as in 2010, Clegg did a particularly effective job in demonstrating that there is a middle ground to be found. It felt far less fresh this time around – and will have a drastically diminished impact on the Lib Dems’ fortunes – but it will still have an impact on the ground.

On the other hand, you had a far more free-wheeling conversation led by the anti-austerity brigade. Sturgeon in particular took on Clegg’s 2010 mantle as the sharp, intelligent and human alternative to “politics as usual”. She also capitalised well on the other leaders’ ignorance of Scottish politics, which enabled her to make bold assertions on issues like privatisation and funding of the Scottish NHS that, on closer inspection, simply fall apart.

To me, the big tactical question of the evening was whether Ed Miliband would get dragged into that debate. He will be pleased today that he largely avoided it. The decision he had to make was whether to present himself as the main challenger to David Cameron, or to spend his time fending off attacks from smaller parties. He chose the former – correctly – and emerged unscathed.

What does it all mean? In terms of this campaign, very little. None of the parties will receive a major boost in the polls as a result of the debate. While Sturgeon probably “won”, as far as anyone could, her party has already risen as high as it can in Scotland alone.

Does a seven-strong debate change the view people have of general elections? Perhaps. But until we have seven parties capable of having one conversation, not much will change.

Compassion – the Missing Ingredient in our Politics

Yesterday I posted about the lack of ambition in UK politics. Of course, it’s not quite true to suggest that many of the parties or their leaders have low expectations. What I’m saying is that their ambition is limited only to the immediate, and based almost completely on the interests of a subset rather than of everyone.

My suggestion is that if you want people to be interested in the political process, this is shortsighted. It’s well known that people, and often those who don’t vote regularly, care and sometimes passionately about many inherently political issues. They just don’t link the issues to the people and institutions who are supposed to be sorting those issues out. Or worse, they do link them but think those people and institutions simply don’t understand or don’t care.

Political parties occasionally fixate on the gaps in their own reputation that seem to prevent their reaching more people. David Cameron famously attempted to “modernise” the Conservative Party when he became leader. More recently, Michael Gove (of all people) gave a speech in which he suggested that the Tories should be the “warriors for the dispossessed”, mirroring the “Good Right” movement spearheaded by the prolific and tireless Tim Montgomerie, the Times columnist and one-man Conservative think tank. Even Boris Johnson has been making noises about more moral politics in the press this week.

It’s easy to be cynical about such rhetoric. In Gove’s and Johnson’s case, it’s easy to see why they might be hammering out a slightly different message from their party’s suffocating but undeniably disciplined economic message. What’s perhaps harder is to recognise that they might be on to something. They may have stumbled upon the most important missing ingredient in our politics.

That ingredient is compassion. This is often thought of merely in terms of sympathy for those who are suffering, but it goes beyond that. Compassion is to suffer with others, with an accompanying desire to alleviate the suffering.

Our politics sorely lack compassion. I was struck reading this horrific BBC article about just one failed asylum seeker in London how a senior politician would naturally react (in public) to such a story. They would make some sympathetic noises, certainly; perhaps even offer to write a letter to the relevant Minister. They might refer back to policy decisions their party had taken, especially ones that were tangentially related, in an attempt to suggest that they have helped the person by association. But they’d also be cautious – perhaps suggesting that it’s important to look after the vulnerable but at the same time referring to the equal or greater need to ensure that only people who have a legitimate reason to be in the UK should stay here.

This is particularly true of the way we treat immigrants and asylum seekers. A friend of mine commented on a recent Facebook post:

I really think the way we treat immigrants as a society is the issue above all others that we’ll look back on and say ‘how did we ever think this was acceptable?’

But it applies, probably just as much, to the vulnerable in our own society – a group that encompasses the homeless and disenfranchised, disabled people, sexual or lifestyle non-conformists, low-skilled workers, even people in receipt of any kind of benefits other than pensions.

Most of all, in order to be truly compassionate, you have to be able to feel compassion for people that you might at best ignore. That’s what our politicians are particularly bad at. We’ve moved so far away from that as a society that it’s now not only acceptable to ignore such people; it’s part of political campaigning actively to sneer at them, to judge them and to punish them.

I’m not suggesting this is easy. But if politicians truly believe in public service and the public good, they must start to grapple with this – and how to reintroduce compassion into what they and their parties say and do.

Labour To Ban Non-Exploitative Zero-Hours Contracts

Yes, that headline is correct. The BBC reports:

Ed Miliband said a future Labour government would guarantee zero-hours workers the right to a formal contract after 12 weeks of regular work, a move which he said would reduce economic insecurity but which was criticised by employers.

<snip>

The proposal, which has been welcomed by the unions, would see an end to more than 90% of existing zero-hours contracts, Labour said.

Let’s walk through this step by step.

  1. Zero-hours contracts are something generally used by businesses that need flexible staffing in order to deal with demand which can peak and trough quite radically. Think, for instance, of restaurants or cinemas.
  2. When people talk about “exploitative zero-hours contracts”, they are generally referring to the fact that workers on such contracts have very little certainty over when they will be working. They’re powerless, at the beck and call of their employer.
  3. The reality about zero-hours contracts is far from conclusive. For one thing, there are no clear statistics on the number of people who are on them, according to the ONS.
  4. However, that’s a little by the by. If what Labour is looking for is increased certainty for workers, then by all means, this is an area to consider making policy in.
  5. You would think, if exploitation is centred on uncertainty, that the policy response would be to limit that. In this case, the best way of doing so would appear to be to require employers to set a minimum number of guaranteed, regular hours on each contract. The downside of this is likely to be less opportunities for prospective employees – but it would improve conditions for existing employees (at least, the ones that are kept on) by giving them guaranteed and regular hours.
  6. As it turns out, Labour has decided to do exactly the opposite by proposing to ban only those zero-hours contracts where employees have been working guaranteed and regular hours. In other words, by the commonly used definition, they intend to ban non-exploitative zero-hours contracts.
  7. The meaning of this is that only exploitative zero-hours contracts will remain legal.

This is another example of a party making policy based on a set of assumptions that are at best hazy and, at worst, lazy. It may well be that there is a problem with some types of zero-hours contracts. It was commonly agreed, for example, that forcing employees to sign such contracts exclusively (i.e. barring themselves from working anywhere else) was wrong. It has subsequently been banned by the coalition government.

However, Labour’s proposal simply generates heat rather than light, and actually runs the risk of employers putting more, rather than fewer, people on such contracts. Why? Because if you’re an employer, and you know you’ll have to give someone a regular contract if they work regular hours, you might just decide to employ more people and give them sporadic work to do. Some jobs can’t be done that way – sure – but a lot can. And we should bear in mind that zero-hours contracts only represent around 2% of the overall workforce anyway.

All in all, for a policy that has dominated Labour’s third day of the election campaign, this is a bit of a dog. I’m tempted to suggest they spent zero hours – or at least very few – thinking it through.

Lack of Ambition is Killing Politics

Aside from the usual April Fool’s Day tomfoolery, today has begun with debate over a letter from 100 prominent business people to the Times warning about the impact of a Labour government on the economy.

As one would expect, the responses to such a letter are tiresome and predictable.

The Tories crow over their economic record and the support they have “won” from people who would probably always have voted for them.

Labour point out that these people would always have supported the Tories and anyway they are all tax avoiders.

A few Lib Dems pipe up to suggest that if the past five years have gone well, maybe it’s something to do with Vince Cable being Business Secretary. They are ignored.

It’s all pretty unexciting and unedifying. But it does serve as a good illustration of the problem of lack of ambition. This is a big part of what is crippling our politics, and why voters often don’t care, or say all the parties are the same.

A voter (even one like me) looks at this letter and goes through this kind of thought process.

So the Tories are content to rely on the support of their core voters at this election? That’s fine if you’re a wealthy businessman, or looking to become one, but what about me? I’ve got nothing in common with people who work in glass towers. I’m not sure I want to vote for a party that so transparently values such people higher than the rest of us.

What about Labour? They don’t seem interested at all in addressing what these people are saying. Their argument amounts to “well, we could never have reached them anyway, so why bother?” I’m not sure I want to vote for a party that isn’t willing to appeal to voters that aren’t a natural fit.

Hmm. Anyone else about?

This isn’t to suggest that other parties don’t fall into this trap. I’m a member of the Lib Dems partly because I believe they want to represent and speak for the whole of society. The party has very few vested interests.

But the party has suffered in government from the same affliction that affects the larger parties. The campaign this time around is based on warnings about the other two and what they would do on their own. That’s fine as far as it goes – some might say it’s even a necessary part of modern politics – but it’s hardly ambitious or visionary. For the fictional voter above, it gives nothing to grab on to.

If parties genuinely want to avoid a further haemorrhage of political support to the fringes and backwaters of nationalism and xenophobia, they must address their own lack of ambition. It’s highly ironic that their desperation to hold on to power blinds them to this greater and more strategic need.