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Saturday, 15 August 2015

Vanity Project

Napoleon Bonaparte once said that you should never interrupt your enemy when he's making a mistake. I’d imagine that the Conservatives must be enjoying not interrupting the spectacle of the Labour leadership contest, in which Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign -having started out as a bit of a joke- has gathered enough momentum to make the prospect of victory quite realistic.

I happen to believe that Mr. Corbyn is wrong about most things, but I respect principled politics and principled politicians; our national discourse is all the richer when ideas (from the left or the right) are presented honestly to the electorate. Elections though, are usually decided by a huge number of floating voters and, as a consequence, pragmatism invariably trumps principle. The evidence of the last few decades indicates that the Labour Party doesn't do pragmatism very well, because it hasn't been very good at spotting -and picking- ‘winning’ leaders. Of its last seven choices, only one managed to win an election and his name (Lord Voldemort) is never mentioned now in polite company. 

With that in mind, the impulse to elect Mr. Corbyn looks -from the outside- like some kind of death wish, oddly reminiscent of when the Conservatives put Ian Duncan-Smith at the helm in 2001. IDS might have appealed to a large proportion of their grass roots supporters, but he had absolutely no chance of becoming Prime-Minister. Anyone who wasn’t a ‘grass roots’ Tory back then could see that, just as anyone who is not a grass roots ‘principled’ leftist now can see that the electorate will never hand Jeremy Corbyn the keys to 10 Downing Street. The Conservatives at least recognised their mistake quite quickly and, within two years of his coronation, Duncan-Smith was forced out. His successor, Michael Howard, knew that his job was not to win the 2005 election, but to stop the rot and lay the groundwork so that the leader who followed him could have a decent stab at victory in 2010.

The Corbynistas are perfectly entitled to follow their principles and 'go left', but they won’t get a Labour government; in fact, they’ll be lucky to have a Labour Party at all (although I suspect that some kind of schism is what some of them really want). If their candidate wins, they can -to paraphrase David Steel’s oft-quoted remark- go back to their constituencies and prepare for a decade of oblivion. The 2020 election can be written off and, perhaps, 2025 as well. The task faced by whoever succeeds Corbyn will be so huge that s/he might –like Michael Howard- be able only to lay the groundwork for his or her successor to win in 2030, by which point the electorate will presumably be fed up of 20 years of uninterrupted Conservative rule. It hardly needs pointing out here that a Corbyn victory would delight the SNP, because they’ll be looking to exploit what they would see as the rich opportunities afforded by continued Conservative hegemony.    

I can understand why folk born from the mid-seventies onwards might have a romantic view of the Corbyn candidature, because they may not know much about Labour’s last significant lurch to the left, when a ridiculously ‘principled’ manifesto led to humiliation at the polls in 1983. Older Labour supporters though, don’t have that excuse. If you’re old enough to remember 1983 and you’re still backing Corbyn, you can’t seriously claim to have Labour’s interests at heart, at least not the ‘broad church’ Labour Party that was once serious about winning elections. Anyone who thinks that it lost in 2015 because it wasn't far enough to the left is seriously deluded. The fact is that Labour loses UK elections when it goes left and, if you’re looking for evidence to back up that statement, I’ll simply refer you to every general election result of the last 50 years.

The British political system works best when there is a strong opposition to hold the ruling party to account. Without that, all governments become complacent and corrupt (or perhaps that should read: even more complacent and corrupt). The incumbents have to believe that there is a genuine prospect of them being evicted by the electorate at the next time of asking; in that sense, a Corbyn-led Labour Party won’t provide any sort of meaningful opposition.

As it pauses at this existential fork in the road, Labour should consider that it owes something to the country, not least to the 9.5 million people who voted for them and the millions of floating voters who could, in the right circumstances, be persuaded to elect a centre-left government. Instead of indulging in a vanity project, the party should reflect on the fact that it owes it to those voters to act like an effective opposition.

If it puts Mr. Corbyn at the helm, we might, over the next few years, get some interesting debates and some wacky ideas about wealth appropriation, but we won’t get the most important thing of all: a sense that here lies a government in waiting.

Saturday, 1 August 2015

You're allowed to change your mind

If you're one of those folk who have been critical of the anti-democratic drift of the EU over the last 20 years or so, you’ll have been surprised /delighted /relieved (delete as appropriate) to find that some of the most quoted members of the chatterati are beginning to suggest that continued membership might not necessarily be in Britain’s best interests. Up until fairly recently, voicing that opinion in polite company (or, in the case of social media, impolite company) would have you labelled as a ‘xenophobic, immigrant-bashing little Englander’. So embedded is this tiresome cliché in the dusty attic of the bien pensant worldview that Alex Salmond recently felt emboldened enough to state that a possible ‘Brexit’ vote in the 2017 Euro referendum was one of the reasons that made another plebiscite on Scottish independence ‘inevitable’. In playing to his gallery, the former first minister would have been more honest to state that another referendum was inevitable ‘because of reasons’, because that is all that his followers require. He could have named a plague of frogs as a ‘reason’, or Jeremy Paxman’s beard or perhaps Zane Malik leaving One Direction; he doesn’t need an actual reason, because we all know what his party is after and what they’ll be doing over the next few years to further their aims.

In assuming, however, that his voters believe the EU to be an unequivocal force for good, he may just have miscalculated. True, there are still plenty of folk prepared to trot out the line that has been gospel since sometime in the mid-eighties. A few weeks ago, I was speaking with an acquaintance on the topic of the Euro referendum; this individual was very pro-EU and couldn’t understand why anyone could get worked up about what she described as "essentially just a trading block". This struck me as something more than just ignorance, more than just a stock phrase trotted out by someone who hasn’t been paying much attention to the news; it belonged somewhere in the realms of cognitive dissonance.
Yes, the EU was initially sold to the British electorate as a trading block (some readers may be old enough to remember when it was actually called the Common Market), but it has clearly metamorphosed into something that is bigger, more powerful and -as more and more folk are realising- quite unwilling to be swayed from its agenda by anything as tiresomely inconvenient as ‘democracy’.
And this is the point that can’t be made often enough to those who would trot out that party line about xenophobic, immigrant-bashing little Englanders: The EU is not Europe. The EU is a concerted attempt to run Europe from a central source. You can be in favour of increased co-operation, trade, labour movement and so on without being in favour of central planning and big, unaccountable government.

There will be plenty of opportunities over the next couple of years to discuss the merits (because there are some) and demerits (because there are some) of our EU membership but, with the interventions of people like George Monbiot, Caitlin Moran and Owen Jones, there are signs that the intellectual sands are shifting.

In a recent column in The Guardian, Jones said:

"Let’s just be honest about our fears. We fear that we will inadvertently line up with the xenophobes and the immigrant-bashing nationalists, and a ‘no’ result will be seen as their vindication, unleashing a carnival of Ukippery. Hostility to the EU is seen as the preserve of the hard right, and not the sort of thing progressives should entertain. And that is why – if indeed much of the left decides on Lexit – it must run its own separate campaign and try and win ownership of the issue.”

This is going to be difficult for some folk on the left to handle. So distasteful is the notion that they might be sharing some common ground with those xenophobic, immigrant-bashing little Englanders, that the 'progressive' possibility of leaving the EU has had to be given its own cute little name: Lexit. Did you see what they did there?

To get back to the point: how should you react to these developments if you’ve been one of the folk who have been critical of the anti-democratic drift of the EU over the last 20 years or so?

The so-called intelligentsia is always a few years behind the beat, so should you sit back and feel a bit smug about the fact that they are just beginning to understand something that you’ve known for a very long time? Should you rejoice in the possibility that there might now be a chance of a reasoned debate on the topic of EU membership without some nitwit comedian, singer or actor labelling you as a xenophobic, immigrant-bashing little Englander?

Or should you take the optimistic view that, if the likes of George Monbiot, Caitlin Moran and Owen Jones realise that they have been wrong about the EU that they might just consider the possibility that they could also be wrong about some other big issues?

I’ll stop right there.

I don’t want this blog to get too ridiculous.