British politics is now just a question of maths and time

I consider Matthew Parris to be the finest columnist in the UK, and today’s article on Labour is one of his best.

He suggests that Jeremy Corbyn’s victory is an opportunity – rather than a defeat – for the centre left: a “gift”. He paints a painfully accurate picture of what is likely to happen to the Labour Party now that Corbyn is in place:

The party may (as I suggest) go out with a bang. Equally likely, some residual instinct for self-preservation will kick in, they’ll defenestrate Corbyn, and replace him with a less astringent nonentity, capable of papering over the cracks.

In which case the party will go out with a whimper, on a long, gentle amble into that good night: drifting on towards the next election – and the next, and the next – never winning, forever compromising, softly losing support in a sort of quarter-century slow puncture…

Arguing that Labour is the same old beast it’s always been, and that three election victories under Tony Blair couldn’t reshape its identity, he pleads with Labour’s moderates to abandon the brand. There is a fairly strong hint at the end of the piece that he is suggesting they should either start a new party in the mould of the SDP or join another party.

Parris is a liberal Tory who, it is fairly clear, harbours some fairly warm feelings towards my own party and to whom the coalition government was probably close to the ideal blend of ideas and policies. So I think it’s quite clear which home he is envisaging for these liberal Labourites. In any case, the same argument is being made on a regular basis by senior Lib Dems too.

Unfortunately, it’s completely unrealistic.

Labour MPs bow to no one in their tribalism. Even now most Labour people – even the moderates – are still pretty pleased about what happened to the Liberal Democrats in the general election: this is despite the fact that if the Conservatives had not won seven seats as a result of Lib Dem voters switching to Labour, they would not have a majority in the Commons.

More importantly, it’s a simple question of mathematics. If to be in politics is to exercise power, then Labour moderates have two ways of doing so. One is to stay where they are, grit their teeth and hope for the best: that somehow, in two or three years, the tide of left-wing support will ebb as quickly as it flooded in, and their party will allow someone “sensible” to take over in time to avoid total destruction in 2020. The other is simply to join the Conservatives, on the basis that they are closer to people like George Osborne than to Jeremy Corbyn.

Neither scenario is at all plausible.

If there were a third party with, say, 50-60 MPs, around 20% of the vote and a relationship with the electorate that hadn’t entirely curdled into a poisonous mess, things might be different. But there isn’t.

For the UK opposition (which doesn’t include the SNP, a party so obsessed with its own nationalism that it may as well be given the opportunity to hang itself at this point), politics is now simply a waiting game. We must wait for the Conservatives to make some kind of mistake; to get so complacent that they try to do something so utterly insane that even voters who believe in their competence wake up to their fallibility.

It might take a very long time, and our country will almost certainly be a very different place – a poorer, harsher, more insular place – at the end of it.

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Appointing a convicted arsonist should be applauded, not admonished

The political media is breathlessly reporting, in its usual shocked and horrified tones, that Jeremy Corbyn has appointed someone to his frontbench who was once sent down for “wilful fire-raising”.

Mike Watson, who has been appointed a shadow education minister in the House of Lords, went to jail for 8 months in 2005/06.

We are still supposedly a country committed to the concept of rehabilitation through the criminal justice system. The strength of that commitment is sadly frequently called into question, given the two major political parties’ mutual predilection for totemic “tough on crime” one-upmanship.

The idea that by banging more people up for longer you make society safer – “prison works” – only has superficial merit until you realise that its logical conclusion is to bang up everyone for ever.

But Justice Secretaries still like to bleat on meaningfully about rehabilitation and restorative justice from time to time, because they know they will reduce “recidivism” – i.e. re-offending.

So Jeremy Corbyn’s decision to appoint a convict should not be denigrated, but praised. Especially as Watson’s crime was committed long ago, he served his time, and he has rejoined civil society and worked in the private sector successfully for almost a decade with no apparent recurrent desire to set fire to the curtains.

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.

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.

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.

A Few Reminders about Labour and NHS Spending

Today the Tories have made my previous blog post on the NHS slightly obsolete, by officially pledging to find the extra £8 billion per year the NHS says is required to safeguard the service by 2020. Obviously there are some problems with the practicalities of that pledge. You can read about those anywhere you like: here, for example.

It’s clear to me that Labour should really have nothing to say on this though. There are several reasons for that:

1. Labour still hasn’t taken responsibility for the party’s contribution to the state of the UK’s economy in 2010. That doesn’t mean I buy into the narrative the Tories (and the Lib Dems to an extent) have painted, that says “forget the enormous global financial crisis- it was all Gordon Brown’s fault”. But it is true to say that the Labour government was running deficits before the crash, and stimulating unsustainable levels of consumer debt (particularly around the property market), and it’s also true to say they were warned – many times – by people who foresaw what was to come. Here’s an example, from 2003:

On the housing market, is not the brutal truth that with investment, exports and manufacturing output stagnating or falling, the growth of the British economy is sustained by consumer spending pinned against record levels of personal debt, which is secured, if at all, against house prices that the Bank of England describes as well above equilibrium level?

In case you’re wondering who asked that – it was Vince Cable, in the House of Commons, asking the then Chancellor, Gordon Brown.

2. Labour planned not to protect NHS funding in 2010. This is a key point, and something that is seemingly entirely forgotten. The Lib Dems took the same view, in fact; it was only the Tories that committed to real-terms increases in NHS funding – something that has been delivered.

It is therefore entirely disingenuous and wrong of Labour to scaremonger about the level of funding the NHS is likely to receive under a Tory-led government. To scaremonger, for example, by putting up posters like the one below. Bear in mind that this is the party that has been so keen to take the moral high ground over “negative campaigning”. The hypocrisy is staggering.

3. Labour still hasn’t committed to giving the NHS the funding it needs to survive. Under Labour’s plans the NHS would get only an extra £2.5 billion a year, well short of what the NHS itself says it needs. Today they are decrying the Tories’ pledge as “fantasy funding”. Yet only a couple of weeks ago, their main political goal was to get the Prime Minister to rule out various tax increases – something that rather blew up in Ed Miliband’s face at the final PMQs of the Parliament, and meant Ed Balls had to rule out NI increases similarly hastily.

If you want to talk about fantasy funding, maybe don’t waste time on tactical manoeuvres that will narrow down the options available to any government to raise revenue – revenue that needs to be put into vital public services such as the NHS.