A Thousand Points of Light

Few people will know that the Prime Minister’s Office issues a daily Points of Light award. The awards are designed to reward exceptional acts of community service or volunteering. Some of the people granted awards certainly represent the very best of philanthropic achievement and endeavour.


The phrase “Points of Light” is a direct quote from George H. W. Bush (right), who first used it when accepting his nomination as the 1988 Republican presidential candidate. His speechwriters were attempting to capture the idea of the American community as

a brilliant diversity spread like stars, like a thousand points of light in a broad and peaceful sky.

In the speech, this undeniably powerful image is immediately followed by a hard-edged passage on social policy, in which inter alia Bush issues his infamous pledge “read my lips: no new taxes”; sings the praises of capital punishment; and demands “zero tolerance” for drug dealers.

To me, the phrase has always seemed backward. Light itself is reliant on darkness in order to create a contrast. The use of the phrase in the speech makes that reliance explicit: these “points of light” are stars. To take the phrase literally, it suggests a predominantly dark environment.

In other words, Bush’s phrase – with its rhetorical intention to create a sense of hope – actually implied the opposite.


Bush went on to win the Presidency. He repeated the “thousand points of light” phrase in his inaugural address. He also wanted a “kinder and gentler nation” – a soundbite that quickly turned sour.

A month later, Neil Young performed a new song live for the first time. It was called “Rockin’ in the Free World”, and it was released on record in November 1989.**

A victim of circumstance, Young’s song would quickly become associated with the fall of communism and the break-up of the Soviet Union. But his poetry had a very different aim. The song was, and remains, a caustic assessment of Bush’s administration: its three verses seethe with ambivalence and anger about the state of American society and the country’s influence in the world – then at its absolute peak.

In the third verse, Young takes direct aim at the emptiness and hypocrisy of political rhetoric:

We got a thousand points of light for the homeless man
We got a kinder, gentler machine gun hand

In two sentences Young demolishes Bush’s insubstantial posturing. The first contrasts the hopey-changey rhetoric of “a thousand points of light” with the darkness that consumes millions of lives. The second mocks “kinder, gentler” by raising the spectre of Bush’s own history as CIA head and Iran/Contra collaborator – not to mention the wider US foreign policy escapades which, in the first verse, had left Young singing “don’t feel like Satan – but I am to them”.

But Young doesn’t stop there. The third verse takes in the US citizen-as-consumer, decrying “department stores and toilet paper/styrofoam boxes for the ozone layer”. He then goes on:

Got a man of the people says keep hope alive

And here is the sting in the tail. “Keep hope alive” was Jesse Jackson’s campaign slogan when running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988. The mocking tag “man of the people” shows just what Young thinks of it. Against a Republican candidate basing his campaign on shallow rhetoric, the American left in the late 1980s could muster nothing but equally vacuous slogans.


David Cameron’s “Big Society” was an attempt to find another way to say the same thing. Steve Hilton, for a while the Prime Minister’s Director of Strategy, used to be fond of wearing a tee-shirt that said “Big Society Not Big Government” (see example, right).

The idea presented to us was that as the bloated state got out of the way, it would be replaced by a more active and philanthropic civic society. But as this 2013 demolition of the policy’s pretended principles argued, it was a mere cipher, making room for the same traditional – and inadequate – paternalism.

No wonder it was quietly abandoned.

Nowadays, in the UK in 2015, the Conservative government so lacks ways to veil its continued campaign to unpick a comprehensive state-funded social security system that it is content simply to recycle Bush’s sloganeering. So it doles out daily Points of Light awards.

I do not suggest that the people receiving such awards are undeserving. Their work is valuable and, in many ways, increasingly so. But like the inexorable rise of food banks run by volunteers, the gaps opening up in our society are too wide for them to fill. They are sailors using tiny buckets to bail out a sinking ship as the icy ocean waters begin to freeze their blood.

Here is the nub of the matter: we live in dangerous times. We live in an era when the government is able to pass “reforms” to the social insurance system we have without a shred of opposition from, well, the official opposition. We live in a corrosive atmosphere where the foreigner is increasingly regarded not merely with suspicion but with outright hatred.

And the UK left is about to elect someone whose ability to hammer out an alternative is seriously questionable. In short, they’re going to elect a “man of the people” who says “keep hope alive”, but whose version of hope is as relevant as George H. W. Bush is now. A man who says on becoming leader he will apologise for a war that happened so long ago that the gap between it and today is already as long as the gap between it and the war that preceded it.

When people see that this “man of the people” is nothing more than a decent human being trapped in a vice of his own devising, slowly squeezed to death by a combination of a totally idealistic left and a resistant right, they will turn elsewhere. They will look for other populist movements. They will look for other plain talkers. And most of all, they will want someone whose politics match their fears.

Meanwhile those same fears will be amplified, by degrees and by stealth, by the government, which will chart a course that, by comparison, seems all moderation and good sense.

Got fuel to burn. Got roads to drive.

Keep on rockin’ in the free world.*


*The total usurpation of this song was completed recently by Donald Trump’s unauthorised decision to use it when announcing his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination. The wheel turns.

**The performance Neil Young gave of RITFW on Saturday Night Live in 1989 is justly regarded as one of the greatest live TV performances of all time. He worked himself into a frenzy backstage in order to mimic the feeling of performing an encore after a full two hour set. And it shows.

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If Julia Hartley-Brewer really wanted to save democracy, she’d back electoral reform

Today Julia Hartley-Brewer has an article on Capx urging non-aligned voters who care about their country to join Labour as a supporter in order to back “Anyone But Corbyn” – the so-called ABC campaign.

To be honest I’d always Not a Tory - officialthought Hartley-Brewer was a signed-up Tory. She frequently writes for the Telegraph, used to broadcast on LBC, and Capx is one of the trendiest new right-wing blogger hang-outs going, often populated by other strongly Conservative commentators such as Iain Martin and Daniel Hannan. To be fair to her, she claims in the article never to have been a member of a political party, so let’s give her the benefit of the doubt.

The problem with her article is that it fails on its own terms. Her argument is that a government should be scared of the alternative; that without a functioning opposition, we risk losing democracy itself. She claims to object to “power with no end in sight”.

If that’s the case, why doesn’t she try pointing out that the “majority” government we have was elected on just 36.9% of the vote? If the seats in the Commons reflected anything like the reality of how ballots were cast, we would not be in a position where the choice of opposition leader would determine the result of the next general election (as she seems to believe) – because we wouldn’t have a system where the winner takes all.

The temptation is to think that Hartley-Brewer, far from cherishing democracy and wanting to protect and extend it, is more interested in shutting down legitimate debate by preventing the rise of a genuinely left-wing Labour leader. If that’s the case, very well, but don’t use the figleaf of a commitment to democracy to cover it up – say so.

To win, we have to beat the Tories at their own game

Attempting to understand the mindset of the typical voter is a fool’s game. The last election bequeathed upon us a huge amount of commentary attempting to explain why it was that the Tories had such success – not least from the Tory high command itself, hastily moving to pretend that a majority government had always been on the cards.

The Labour leadership campaign, meanwhile, has seen much of the same discussion, with the Blairite remnant arguing for soft Toryism on the basis of nothing much at all, and the Corbynite insurgency cherishing the fond myth that if only some more non-voters would vote, a reheated and insubstantial version of soggy socialism will take the country by storm.

I don’t pretend to know the “average voter”. I do know my fair share of people who, when it comes to elections, um and ah over which party merits an X by its name. For such people, elections are not about neatly packaged sets of policies, or coherent ideologies. They are instead typically about the feeling that each party gives them, along with perhaps one or two ideas that have burst through the media ether and captured their hearts.

Usually the former trumps the latter, though, and I think a cold hard look at the facts of the 2015 general election bears that out. The Tories aren’t in power because of their frankly creepy “plan for every stage of your life“. They’re in power because voters in the right places looked at them and thought “well, they’ve been in government for five years and we haven’t been forced into indentured servitude yet, and by the way have you SEEN the other guy?”

The central question of British politics right now is not who leads Labour (or even the Liberal Democrats). The question is how far the Conservatives can push their ideological agenda along before voters start to object to it. At the moment they are making excellent progress on this; George Osborne’s summer budget was the supreme example of a viciously regressive set of policies made palatable by sugary, centrist presentation.

The spending review that looms in November will be another step down this road. But as others have written, there will have to come a point during this Parliament where the impact of spending restraint on public services begins to bite in places where it has yet to do so. As the Financial Times’ recent superlative in-depth exploration of austerity Britain pointed out, the cuts to date have fallen on services catering to marginalised social groups which are almost invisible in political terms, having no natural media presence or support behind them.

But this can’t continue. If the Conservatives continue to cut public spending “until the pips squeak”, sooner or later the “typical voter” will start to see, or rather feel, it.

It’s my hunch that adult social care might well be the tipping point. This is an area that doesn’t just affect a small group of marginalised people but an increasing number of relatively well-off and middle class voters. Crucially, it’s not just the service users that are affected by the strain on the system, but their children and sometimes their grandchildren too may well be of voting age.

The story in the Observer this weekend, in which the Chief Inspector of Adult Social Care warned over the bad care being created through systemic pressure, could be the starting point. But in order for this to change voters’ minds in the longer term, the effects of such bad care will need to be seen far and wide. It’s not until such stories start appearing in the Daily Mail or the Daily Express that they are really taking root.

The Conservatives have nurtured a reputation for competence which is actually a mask for an ideology that simply doesn’t want well-funded public services. Unfortunately, they are so good at wearing that mask that the underlying ideology can’t be challenged on its own terms. So instead the task must be to challenge and destroy that reputation for competence. When that has been done, then, and only then, will voters seek a true alternative.

The lesson for Labour and the Lib Dems? Make arguments personal. Go and find people whose lives are being ruined by this government. Make sure they are people with whom the “typical voter” can easily identify, and tell their stories. Don’t talk in abstract technocratic terms about “integration” and “personalisation”.

It’s the sort of thing the Tories do. It’s part of how they win. They are past masters at manipulation and fabricated fear. The only way to beat them is to play them at their own game. If you can make people feel the true impact of a regressive government, you can earn the right to offer them something else. But you have to earn it.

Labour’s craven, undemocratic ineptitude leaves vacant ground for a principled government-in-waiting

I have never been attracted to the Labour Party because all I have ever known of it has been a consistent attempt to match the Conservatives for authoritarianism. Latterly that has also developed into an attempt to match the Conservatives for “economic competence”, which actually appears to be a euphemism for regressive policies designed to force people off “welfare”, even if it pushes them into penury.

Today Harriet Harman has confirmed the next phase of this process, by agreeing that Labour, at least under her interim leadership, will not seek to oppose one of the most offensive policies in the Budget: the limitation of child tax credits to the first two children. This is effectively social engineering, attempting to force families who rely on social security payments to change their family planning arrangements – a kind of two-child policy, albeit one that is much softer than its equivalent in China. Labour are also supporting the reduction of the household benefit cap to £20,000 a year outside London.

Harman’s reasoning for this is insidious and reveals the muddled thinking at the top of Labour. She’s argued that her party cannot do “blanket opposition” because it lost the election. This is terrifying and undemocratic, implying that whoever wins the election has been given a blanket mandate. As Nelson Jones, who blogs at Heresy Corner, put it:

As bad as this is her other argument, though, which is based on the comments of people who were jealous of the state support given to other people. Look at her views here:

“When I was going around the country on the pink (election) bus, talking specifically to women, so often they would say we’ve got one child, we’d really love to have another but we just can’t afford it, what with our homes not big enough and the childcare is too expensive,” she said.

“They’re working hard and they feel it’s unfair on other people that they can have bigger families that they would love to have if they were in the position to do that. We have to listen to that.”

This is just total capitulation to the Tories’ divide-and-rule tactics. The answer to voters with views like that is certainly to listen, but it is also to argue back; to say that the reason these people have state support is because the way our economy is structured means that they are working, but do not earn enough to live without that top up from the state. What we need to do is change the way people are employed and paid, not set different groups against each other. That is difficult and requires careful thought, but you can’t just give up.

Predictably, Labour leadership candidates are lining up to oppose Harman’s views – so far I think Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Jeremy Corbyn have come out against her remarks. For now, though, Harman is vacating the reasonable centre ground of British politics, leaving space open for a party that is able to offer the right balance between work and a proper safety net.

Andy Burnham and the Myth of Competence

No, that’s not the title of a new Harry Potter knock-off – although Andy Burnham has the makings of a put-upon junior wizard with numerous chips on his narrow shoulders. Rather, it’s a response to Burnham’s latest contribution to the moribund Labour leadership battle, replicated below for your viewing pleasure:

Now, there are a number of problems with this. Burnham is clearly making a pointed comment about the attempts of other candidates – particularly Liz Kendall, who he probably sees as his main rival – to move Labour back to a position which could be loosely described as “Blairite”.

As an aside, I personally think that with Kendall leading Labour and Tim Farron leading the Lib Dems, the latter party would have vast acres of space to be a real, vote-winning opposition. Tony Blair’s success is often considered solely due to his brilliance as a winner of elections. But this is a hopelessly simplistic view of history, and one that ignores the fact that a donkey in a red rosette – not a proverbial donkey, a literal donkey – could have won in 1997 given the mess that the Conservatives were then in. So it shouldn’t be taken as axiomatic that moving Labour to the centre and to the authoritarian makes the party more electable.

I digress. Burnham, of course, has also rejected that analysis, although in a number of important ways he has indicated that he does want to move the party to what might be considered more Blair-like positions – if only in their tactical ingenuity rather than in their substance. On immigration and Europe, for example, he is tacking close to the Tories, which I suspect Blair might consider good politics if not good policy.

But the line he is trying to hammer in this tweet is silly. And it’s silly because it actually does exactly the thing he claims to want to avoid. The first statement criticises Kendall for “copying the Tories”. But the second line suggests that the measure of a political party’s success is to be “better” than the Tories.

Without further explication, this is a troubling idea – that the viability or the electoral success of a political party is based purely on competence. I have to say that competence is one of the attributes I look for last in a politician. I tend to think that integrity, compassion and a coherent set of beliefs are far more important. With those attributes in place, I would feel relatively relaxed about entrusting the delivery and implementation of policies based upon them to the apparatus of the state.

The myth of competence, though, has infected the whole of our political culture. The irony of Burnham’s statement is that it is a Tory invention – that politics is primarily about management. The genius of it is that by forcing others to fight on the basis of competence, the Tories ensure that everyone is clustered on their natural territory at all times. I’m not talking about political left and right here; it’s far more about semantics and semiotics than anything else.

I haven’t got time to go further into why this is such a damaging concept this evening – perhaps another time – but Andy Burnham really should give some more thought to the matter. His attempt to paint his rivals as soft Tories would be more successful if he didn’t back himself into the same corner in the process.