Don’t Expect The Independent Group To Rescue Britain’s Broken Politics

Antichrist - end of the world

Chuka Umunna? Former choirboy, but most definitely not the Messiah…

In my limited spare time since commencing law school, I have been attending a wonderful Bible study group for graduate students, organized by the university’s Catholic Student Center. Having plodded our way methodically through the New Testament, last week we reached the Book of Revelation and alighted on the topic of the Antichrist – antichrists being false prophets preaching a deceptive gospel, and also a specific figure cloaked in seeming holiness and authority, whose arrival would presage the second coming of Christ.

In other, totally unrelated news, British politics seems to have been roiled in my absence by the defection of eight Labour and three Conservative MPs from their respective parties to form a flashy new association called The Independent Group. In selecting a spokesperson for their group, the breakaway MPs nominated Chuka Umunna, the ex-Labour politician best known for describing himself as Britain’s Barack Obama. As we shall see, this was a revealing choice – elevating a man who models himself on the US president who promised hope and change, delivered the former in spades back in 2008 but so little of the latter by 2016 that the people elected Donald Trump as his successor.

The cast list of TIGgers (yes, they actually call themselves that) on the ex-Labour side is a veritable who’s who of frustrated New Labourite centrists whose slick career ambitions have been put into stasis since Jeremy Corbyn’s takeover of the Labour Party and wholesale rejection of the Blairite/Brownite technocratic tendency (though some credit must be given to MPs such as Luciana Berger, who also had cause to flee the appalling, metastasizing antisemitism within Corbyn’s hard left faction). On the ex-Tory side, we have the likes of Sarah Wollaston and Anna Soubry, politicians whom one would never have guessed to be conservative in the first place but for the fact that they campaigned wearing a blue rosette during general election season.

The TIGgers had a number of justifications for their decision to leave their former parties (though notably, none had the courage to call a by-election and allow their constituents to positively affirm their presence in Parliament under a new party affiliation). Those coming from the Labour Party repeatedly stressed the antisemitism continually exhibited by those close to Jeremy Corbyn and tolerated by the Labour leadership, though their claims that it was the deciding factor fail the credibility test since antisemitism on the hard left and ultra-progressive wings of the Labour Party is hardly a new and surprising issue. More telling is ex-Labour Mike Gapes’ bitter complaint that “the Labour leadership is complicit in facilitating Brexit” – the idea that the Labour Party might support a policy popular among the party’s traditional voter base being too much for him to comprehend. Meanwhile, ex-Tory MPs like Anna Soubry complained about prime minister Theresa May’s dogged approach to Brexit and what they called the party’s reliance on the Hard Brexit fundamentalist ERG group of MPs and a takeover of the party by “right-wing, hard line anti-EU” forces.

All of this was covered portentously and near-reverentially by a Westminster journalistic class who tend to jump at any opportunity to breathlessly report on personalities instead of policy (the details of Brexit still eluding many of them) and which is near-uniformly progressive in socio-economic ideology and stridently anti-Brexit in particular. Thus we were treated to gushing hot takes by the likes of ex-PM Tony Blair (“embrace the spirit of insurgency!“), a Guardian journalist overcome with admiration as these courageous rebels dined at Nando’s, The Scotsman (which swats away inconvenient observations such as the fact that “they have no vision, coherent policy platform or leader”) and readers of the hateful EU propaganda rag The New European, who are desperate for the TIGgers not to subject themselves to by-elections and the indignity of seeking democratic approval of their party betrayal.

Naturally, all of this praise has gone to the TIGgers’ heads, and what started as an act of pure political calculation has now become in their minds an almost heroic declaration of political independence and bold purpose. Hence self-aggrandizing pronouncements such as this:

Heidi Allen thinks that “the two big parties [are] demonstrating more and more every day that they are not up to the challenges facing our country”. This is the same Heidi Allen who campaigned under the Conservative Party banner without a whisper of complaint in 2015 and 2017, maneuvering hard to get that coveted initial constituency selection in the first place.

And here is The Independent Group’s London branch, acting as though it is an oasis of reason in a desert of conformist thinking:

You would think that a brand new political party – a group whose ranks are filled with MPs who had the supposed “courage” to quit their parties and risk the wrath of their constituents because of their overriding concern about the country’s direction – would be positively fizzing with alternative policy ideas and solutions to the national problems they quietly tracked for so long before making their big move. You would be wrong.

But that’s fine. Maybe TIG is understandably reticent to commit themselves by announcing headline policies at this early stage, while they are still trying to woo other potential defectors and grow in strength. We should, though, still be able to parse a sense of what this radical new party stands for by analyzing the famous speeches and policy initiatives of its star members, right? “Oh, Bob? He’s the one who wants to create a network of community colleges to retrain people whose old careers are under threat from globalization and automation.” “Rachel? Isn’t she the one who called for a national Apollo Program for education, criticizing Britain for shooting for the middle with education outcomes and exhorting us to catch up with world leaders like South Korea and Finland?” “Rupert has a great plan for constitutional reform to bring government closer to the people and make leaders more accountable”. “Ayesha actually had the courage to reject calls for her to post a public love-letter to the NHS on Valentine’s Day, saying that we need to stop deifying the healthcare service and look to other countries for examples of best practice”.

Again, tumbleweeds. The British political firmament as a whole is hardly blessed with a multitude of bold, original thinkers, and such figures certainly aren’t among the fabulous seven, the daring eleven or whatever number of forgettable non-entities currently comprise The Independent Group.

All of which is a great pity. As this blog has noted over and over and over and over and over and  over again, Britain has entered a period of political discontinuity – a time when the existing political settlement, with its narrow range of policy options, are no longer adequate to the challenges at hand. Such periods of discontinuity require politicians to think the previously unthinkable in terms of policy solutions, not to flee their former political parties in an outrage that people are actually starting to do so.

As described in the influential Stepping Stones report:

In normal times a majority is enough. The task of government is to steer a basically healthy socio-economic system past hazards which are primarily external, while ensuring that the system’s fabric is maintained and making improvements to it here and there.

But once the system itself starts to show signs of fatigue, instability, disintegration, then we start to talk of discontinuity. In discontinuity, solutions can only be found by breaking constraints which we had assumed were unbreakable. It is not enough to settle for policies which cannot save us, on the grounds that they are the only ones which are politically possible or administratively convenient.

So what is The Independent Group’s grand unified theory for fixing Britain? Besides thwarting Brexit, they don’t have one. But they did roll out their very first policy initiative with tremendous fanfare:

Today we launched a petition calling for an end to the Government’s four-year freeze on working age benefits. Ending the freeze on working age benefits would lift 200,000 people – who are working, but struggling to make ends meet – out of poverty.

We believe that all policy should be evidence-based, especially when that policy affects some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

There’s no reason to persist with the final year of the freeze, especially when the past three years significantly exceeded the savings originally envisaged.

Is this the best that the courageous breakaway radical thinkers of British politics can do -a feel-good policy about relaxing benefit freezes? As part of a broader overhaul of welfare policy, this may indeed be a valid and “evidence-based” approach. But The Independent Group have not conducted any such broader review of the welfare system; they simply cherry-picked the low-hanging policy fruit designed to appeal to middle income swing voters, without any consideration of the knock-on effects on public finances, incentives to work or anything else. There’s certainly no bold leadership here, no telling difficult truths to the public about necessary trade-offs in public spending.

Indeed, The Independent Group will not be able to formulate meaningful policy on any number of issues, welfare included, being comprised of defector MPs from opposite parties with different views on the subject. If the party is to survive for any length of time, it would have to strike a balance between the ex-Labour and ex-Tory factions, and would likely produce policies almost identical to any government or opposition which sought to woo the same swing voters by meeting them where they are (rather than doing the much harder – but necessary – job of convincing them that they, too, need to update their thinking about what is both desirable and politically feasible).

Contra Heidi Allen’s complaint that the two main parties are “not up to the challenges facing our country”, The Independent Group exists precisely because the two main parties were captured by forces which seek to overturn the “old established politics” – Labour by the Corbynites with their faith in 1970s-style, red-blooded socialism and the Tories by the ultra free trade zealots of the ERG (though on non-Brexit matters, the Tory Party remains as uninspiringly centrist and authoritarian as it ever was – a fact which Anna Soubry and Sarah Wollaston should have valued, given the fact that they emblemize that sentiment within the party). The two big parties may not yet be responding to this period of discontinuity the right way, but both are shifting their thinking. It is The Independent Group who seek to stand athwart history, yelling “stop!”.

These are not People of Action, bristling at the stultifying ideological confines of their former parties. Rather, they are Captains of Inaction, career machine politicians who thrived on the Old Politics – that comforting bygone era when New Labour would be nanny statist and indulge centre-left interventionist tendencies as the Tories accused them of socialism on steroids, while the Tories would be ever so slightly less nanny statist and interventionist as Labour screamed that they were a libertarian Ayn Rand dystopian outfit made flesh.

However much they may strut and preen, the TIGger MPs are not frustrated free thinkers yearning to push the boundaries of the Overton Window in British politics or advocate for daring new solutions to the problems we face in the early 21st century – they are establishment refugees seeking a lifeboat to take them back to the New Labour, centrist consensus of the 1990s and 2000s. The root of their discontent is not the fact that British politics has become stale and conformist – their anger stems from the fact that the two main political parties have reacted to voter dissatisfaction by moving in direction which reduces their own personal influence (and/or hopes of future high office).

Pete North, welcoming what he sees as the death of centrism, puts it better than me:

Progressivism (whatever that actually means) has become a byword for sanitised cellophane wrapped politics which produces the androgynous clones like Chuka Umunna designed for maximum media inoffensiveness. Like Ken dolls one wonders if these people even possess genitalia. The political version of morning TV magazine show presenters. And as repellent as they are, these people don’t actually know anything.

This much has been made abundantly clear during the course of Brexit. They have no idea why we voted to leave, and no idea how we got where we are, or indeed how to get ourselves out of it. Instead of seeking to understand what is upon us, they have invested all of their energies into sweeping Brexit under the carpet with a view to going back to their consequence free normality where they soak up media attention but take on none of the responsibilities and obligations.

It is telling that the new Independent Group have elected to promote themselves on a handful of recycled populist slogans. They speak of a “different way of doing things” under the “ChangePolitics” hashtag, with all the self-awareness of a diarrhetic hippo. Chris Leslie in all seriousness went on BBC Question Time to tell us “The big political parties want to keep everything as it is” when this bunch are the very essence of the establishment – the rotting corpse of centrism.

Frustration with Britain’s dysfunctional politics is quite understandable, and the growing realization that something has broken beyond repair is encouraging to witness. But to see in the cast of The Independent Group anything resembling salvation from our problems is to put one’s faith in a false prophet.

The politicians who made headlines by flouncing out of their respective political parties aren’t preaching a bold new gospel which the country can get behind. They aren’t currently preaching a message of any kind at all, beyond a furious opposition to Brexit and the inchoate yearning for a return to the time when uttering bland platitudes about Tory heartlessness or Labour profligacy was all it took to sustain one’s political career. If anything, these are avowedly Old Testament politicians, furious with incomprehension that their message no longer resonates in New Testament Britain.

As a general rule of life, it it looks too good to be true, it probably is. The Independent Group doesn’t even manage to look good on cursory examination, but even if one finds oneself falling for their polished Twitter hashtags about changing politics, the point remains that given the rather pitiful raw material at their disposal, The Independent Group’s promise of political renewal is indeed too good to be true – no matter how strongly one wishes that Chuka Umunna and his unlikely gang were the real deal.

 

Antichrist

The Independent Group

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Left-Wing Groups Continue To Outpace The Conservative Party On Strategic Thinking

Young Fabians - Global Ready Britain - Taking Stock As We Go It Alone

While Theresa May’s rootless Conservative Party tears itself apart over Brexit and continues to fail to provide a clear, positive vision for Britain, one currently has to look primarily to left-wing groups for a systemic analysis of Britain’s challenges — and ideas to fix them

Depressing as it is to write, still it must be acknowledged that with the Conservative Party permanently stuck in neutral under the leadership of a failed prime minister, nearly all of the intellectual and political energy currently resides on the left and centre-left of British politics.

Not Jeremy Corbyn’s faction of the Labour Party, of course – Corbynism still doesn’t seem to amount to much more than reheating the planned economy policies of the 1960s and 1970s, which only failed last time because we didn’t throw ourselves behind them lustily enough when they gave us the three-day week and rolling blackouts. And an important caveat should be made that some forward-thinking Conservative MPs are doing their utmost to shock some intellectual and ideological life back into the party – George Freeman and Nick Boles being the two most prominent examples.

Yet it remains the case that when it comes to acknowledging that Britain has entered a period of discontinuity – a time when we face a new configuration of challenges which are unresponsive to the policy remedies of the past and causing people to lose faith in existing political parties, processes and institutions – the Left seems to “get it” far more than the Right. This might be forgivable if conservatives were actively using their time in government to enact an agenda of their own, however misguided. But there is no agenda, save what appears to be a concerted effort to move the Conservative Party to the left of Ed Miliband’s losing 2015 Labour Party manifesto.

By contrast, Ria Bernard, chair of the Young Fabians, has one eye fixed on the future. Writing for LabourList, Bernard urges:

As the UK prepares to leave the European Union, we need to be thinking about our position globally to ensure that we can compete and prosper economically and socially on the international stage.

While understandably most parliamentary activity is currently focused on the Brexit deal, we need to consider what happens next as Britain seeks a more independent role for itself in global trade.

The idea of auditing our strengths and vulnerabilities as a nation should not be something brought about by the decision to break ties with the EU – it should be something we are routinely doing to enable us to reach our potential and ensure prosperity for everyone in society. But it seems particularly important that at this time we consider where we stand in terms of a range of domestic policy areas and how we measure up to nations around the world.

If we look at our domestic policies, are we functioning at full capacity? Do we have the skills, expertise and structures in place to ensure that domestically we are supporting the population, and internationally we are able to compete? Which areas of domestic policy will put us in a strong position as we go it alone, and where will we need to be focusing our efforts to ensure that we can compete and participate in the global economy?

Apparently the Young Fabians have been working on this initiative for awhile, and have now published a report with the fruits of their labour. The report itself grew out of discussions around three specific questions:

  1. What are the strengths and vulnerabilities of Britain’s domestic policy in comparison with other countries?
  2. What are our core strengths as a nation that will enable us to effectively compete in the global community?
  3. What will undermine our place on the global stage?

These are absolutely the kind of questions that need to be asked in order to engage in strategic thinking. Serious political leaders ought regularly to conduct a dispassionate analysis of where we stand vis-a-vis our peer countries and competitors. They ought to fearlessly scrutinise our current strengths and weaknesses, confronting any serious liabilities rather than ignoring them. And perhaps most importantly, serious political leaders should be able to outline a clear vision for domestic political reform or management together with an unambiguous declaration of what Britain stands for in the world – and with whom we stand.

Does anybody honestly think that the incumbent Conservative government is engaging in any of these basic acts of strategic thinking? Does anybody honestly believe that they have done so since Theresa May came to power? Or even since 2010 and the coalition government led by David Cameron? In the former cases, the answer is surely no. Instead, ministers scurry around putting out fires or chasing positive headlines, picking up or dropping policies based on the next day’s news cycle rather than doing what is right, guided by conservative principle. And all of this under the “leadership” of a prime minister whose primary objective every morning is to survive the day.

Obviously it is easier to engage in strategic thinking from the luxury of opposition, when one has nothing but time to kick ideas around and undertake the kind of analysis that leads to good policy. But being in power is no excuse for a failure to plan – this government should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time, otherwise what are we paying them for?

Meanwhile, as Conservative MPs and activists glumly try to discern whether Amber Rudd or Philip Hammond is the more inspirational, charismatic future leader to replace Theresa May, the Young Fabians correctly identify many of the major challenges facing the country:

It is widely acknowledged that we are performing poorly in terms of growth, productivity and underemployment. We have a generation of young people who are encouraged to go to university, then face a limited pool of graduate-level jobs, leading to a huge mismatch between skills and demand across the skills bands. The “gig economy” and the rise in automation is at risk of eroding hard-won rights and making job security a luxury. Our levels of productivity are some of the lowest in the world and yet we are working some of the longest hours in Europe.

If we look at health and education – are our systems the most effective way to ensure a healthy, prosperous and highly skilled population? The NHS is under phenomenal strain as it performs in a context of under-funding, staff shortages and the demands of an increasingly ageing population. A country with a healthcare service that is entirely free at the point of use, and provides services far beyond the scope of when it was initially founded in 1948, spends a significantly low proportion of its GDP on it. The NHS is likely to face challenges around funding for new research and negotiating with pharmaceutical companies, as well linking up with social care and the correcting the failure to invest in prevention.

The increasingly fractured education system, which comprises a wide range of schools from privately-funded institutions and state comprehensives to academies, free schools and faith schools, is leading to postcode lotteries and a disparity in access to specialist provision. Yet, in terms of skills and innovation, we need to be evaluating whether our national curriculum is fit for teaching the skills and knowledge that will be needed to compete in the international job market. Is the next generation prepared for the new world of automation and able to compete in the era of globalisation?

At one point in the report, the Young Fabians – the Young Fabians! – even question the continued viability of the National Health Service:

Turning to the NHS, there was much discussion on whether it is the most cost-effective way of delivering high quality, free at the point of use healthcare or if the system is no longer sustainable.

Meanwhile, Conservative MPs, terrified of showing anything less than fawning deference to our national religion, continue to tweet out bland banalities and paeans of praise to the NHS without engaging in any kind of strategic or comparative analysis to determine whether that dated organisation still best serves our needs:

What is impressive here is that rather than wasting time in a divisive effort to thwart Brexit or impose an ideologically pre-determined left-wing wishlist of policies on Britain, the Young Fabians chose instead to look forward, not back. They started with a blank sheet of paper and  sought to identify all of the various challenges (and presumably opportunities) facing Britain in order to inform joined-up policymaking.

The next step – for which we have not yet seen any evidence from the Young Fabians, though hardly their fault when nobody else has led the way – is an attempt to join up these various diagnoses and identify the connections, dependencies and shared root causes between the various issues. This is an important step if we are to ensure that future policies work in concert with one another to achieve positive outcomes rather than interfering with one another or leading to the kind of confused messaging which can erode political support for a course of action.

It should be a source of abiding shame to Theresa May and those with prominent positions in the Conservative Party that one has to turn to groups such as the Young Fabians for the kind of strategic analysis that most competent governments (and nearly all major corporations) undertake as a matter of course. It should not be necessary for blogs such as this one to plead with MPs and ministers to lift their gaze from the daily news cycle for long enough to articulate a positive vision for their respective departments or for the country as a whole, and yet here we are.

When Britain last went through a period of discontinuity in the late 1970s, Labour represented declinism, fear of the future and a slavish commitment to the failing policies of the post-war consensus. Their punishment for failing to show political courage at that time was eighteen years in the wilderness of opposition, and the destruction of much which they claim to hold dear. The Tories now find themselves in a nearly identical position, painted as grim custodians of a failing status quo, an obstinately un-visionary party of technocrats and chancers who want to cling onto power only for power’s sake. Some of the issues feeding into our current period of discontinuity are different, but the political threat is identical.

And unless the Tories can stop being bested at strategic thinking by a group of earnest twenty-somethings of the centre-left, Labour’s fate of 1979 awaits them.

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The Conservative Party Has Lost The Pulse Of The Nation

Laura Pidcock - Labour MP North West Durham - 2

Labour’s statist, redistributionist policies are as bad as ever, but unlike the Tories they increasingly have the pulse of the nation

Once again I find myself in the strange position of agreeing with a stridently left-wing MP in their criticism of this drifting Conservative government and the failing centrist consensus which it represents.

As Jon Trickett continues to curate LabourList for the week, North West Durham MP Laura Pidcock writes:

Those people who sit on the government benches, who speak very well and pronounce their excellence and their firm grasp of the system, probably do believe it was their hard work that got them there. I’m sure they believe that it was some unique brilliance that put them in a position of power, not their childhood classrooms with numbers in single figures; not their personal allowances whilst at university: not their ability to recover from failures, because of the large cushion they sit upon. Not everybody who is wealthy and privileged is like this, but it certainly – and evidently – it makes it harder for those that are to understand the reality of what is happening to ordinary people.

This is why you get a system like universal credit, like the bedroom tax, the rape clause, the sanction system, the work capability assessments and he hugely alienating disability benefits system. It is why there are fines and punishments associated with all aspect of working class life: parking, smoking, littering, debt payments, libraries, electricity meters. When I had a book that was overdue to return to the Commons Library, I did not receive a fine. Undoubtedly it was assumed that I was too busy, that I had better things to be doing. Do the same presumptions apply to 99 per cent of Britain? Of course, not. On the contrary, they seen are lazy, feckless and are perceived to be “cheating” the system for turning up minutes late to a benefits assessment. Then they are hit where they won’t recover: through their finances, and so the cycle continues.

Of course, Pidcock ultimately goes on to spoil it all with economically illiterate class envy and a programme based more on tearing down the privileged rather than giving greater opportunities to the underprivileged:

We must expose the absurdity of our current system, we should shine a light on the cosy, privileged networks which lock out our people, our communities and our class. We have to call out poverty pay for what it is: it is robbery from the real wealth creators.

This much at least is socialist piffle. Yes of course there are some exclusive, exclusionary networks that are unwelcoming to minorities and working class people, and this is reprehensible when it occurs. And yes, recruitment to the SpAdocracy and cadre of parliamentary researchers and advisers which acts as a recruitment pool of future MPs is often too narrowly targeted at people from the same homogeneous background. But as this blog discussed yesterday in the wake of the Oxford University diversity non-scandal, the real issue is a problem with the supply of qualified people from under-represented backgrounds, not a lack of demand for them.

Most institutions remotely connected with government are under huge pressure to improve their diversity ratios, and face constant political pressure and bad publicity when they fail to do so. The fact that insufficient progress has been made tells us that the pipeline of qualified (or interested) candidates remains restricted, not that willing and capable people are necessarily being turned away.

But strip away the leftist agenda and the rest of Pidcock’s criticism is spot-on. Of course there are honourable exceptions, but MPs sometimes manage to display a remarkable lack of empathy for the struggles of the squeezed middle. This manifests in a multitude of ways, and is by no means restricted to the Conservative Party.

The London-raised metro-left Labour MP parachuted into a safe Northern constituency but boasting a voting record more attuned to the priorities of Islington than Darlington is every bit as out of touch as the privately-educated Tory MP who cannot comprehend why a six-week gap between applying for Universal Credit and receiving a payment might be problematic. Or the Tory MP who is confused that a selfish housing policy which chronically restricts the supply of housing stock to benefit older homeowners simultaneously alienates younger voters. Or the rural Tory MP who devotes all their energy to supporting NIMBY causes and then wonders why each election leaves him with fewer and fewer colleagues from urban constituencies.

My concern is not that the Labour Party is suddenly coming up with compelling, inventive new solutions to the problems we face as a country. By and large, they are not. My concern is that Labour are at least correctly identifying some of those problems and speaking to them in a way which makes people think they care, while the Conservative Party steams on in the same dismal direction as before, bereft of vision or policy ideas and with an unfortunate tendency to loudly insist that everything is great when everybody can see otherwise.

My concern is that more than four months after a general election result which has seemingly prompted no change in strategy by Theresa May’s government, Labour MPs are starting to make more sense – and sound more like they live in the real world – than their Conservative counterparts.

And when that happens, it usually means that the out-of-touch party is heading for a spell on the Opposition benches.

 

Laura Pidcock - Speech

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Conservatives Are Conceding The Battle Of Ideas Without A Fight

Jeremy Corbyn thumbs up

Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party is hard at work promoting their beguiling new left-wing vision for Britain while the Tories offer nothing but drudgery and incompetence

Every day now brings more ominous warning signs for the squabbling, directionless Tory government that the only people in Britain offering a clear, articulable vision for the country are those on the Corbynite hard-left wing of the Labour Party.

Four months after the general election, and all of the political energy and momentum is still on the Left. Jeremy Corbyn is more wily than he was in 2015, less prone to gaffes or accidentally handing his enemies the initiative. His centrist rivals have fallen into line, discredited and with no strong candidate to unite behind. Moreover, while most conservatives spent the summer licking their wounds far from the ideological field of battle, Momentum continued to organise and prepare for what they believe is one final push required topple the Tories and seize power.

And this newfound confidence is starting to creep into the rhetoric used by Labour politicians. Jon Trickett, Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office, writes this week in LabourList:

There was a time after the second world war when government saw its central role as creating a socially just Britain where full employment, adequate housing for all and free education was the right of the many.

In that time, there was always more to achieve but the national sense of purpose was clear.

It was a time when jobs were secure and for the long term. Policy was designed to make communities feel secure, when the past was a bad place of mass unemployment, slum housing and no hope. But the future was full of promise, where strangers were welcomed into communities because no one felt their jobs were under threat.

And in the time, it was not acceptable that the growing wealth of the country was only distributed to the wealthiest.

A coherent set of progressive values aimed at building a social contract in which we had a sense of duty to the community, and the country agreed to stand behind those who could not care for themselves.

Note what Trickett is doing here. He is building a narrative, talking about the kind of country we once were and citing the great endeavours from our past in order to build a link with the present and generate enthusiasm for future Labour policies.

President Lyndon B. Johnson did something very similar (albeit at a much more sophisticated level) when introducing the Great Society initiative in 1964, not merely proposing a raft of random new socialist programmes but making them collectively seem almost inevitable by deliberately linking them with the American founding, history and national destiny:

The purpose of protecting the life of our Nation and preserving the liberty of our citizens is to pursue the happiness of our people. Our success in that pursuit is the test of our success as a Nation.

For a century we labored to settle and to subdue a continent. For half a century we called upon unbounded invention and untiring industry to create an order of plenty for all of our people.

The challenge of the next half century is whether we have the wisdom to use that wealth to enrich and elevate our national life, and to advance the quality of our American civilization.

Your imagination, your initiative, and your indignation will determine whether we build a society where progress is the servant of our needs, or a society where old values and new visions are buried under unbridled growth. For in your time we have the opportunity to move not only toward the rich society and the powerful society, but upward to the Great Society.

In fact, this is a simple device which even mediocre politicians and rhetoricians were once capable of using before technocratic centrism sucked the soul and energy out of politics. It is the exact opposite of anything written or spoken by a Conservative minister in Theresa May’s administration, because great political rhetoric can only exist when there are great ideas to be expressed or arguments to be won.

Trickett goes on to give a perfunctory but devastating indictment of the state of Britain under the Conservatives:

But now you would struggle to discover a shared sense of national purpose. You could describe a sense of anomie in Britain where a sense of common values, duty to others and co-operation for shared ends are, to one extent or another, lacking.

Too often: post-industrial communities have been abandoned; young people have less hope than ever before of acquiring a home at reasonable cost; education has become a commodity rather than a public good; where that which was common is frequently private or suffering from severe spending cuts; and, where the wealth of the most privileged is growing exponentially at the expense of the rest.

How do we explain this shift in the national culture?  Or rather, how do we account its disintegration and fracturing? Is this a uniquely British problem? And can we begin to rebuild a renewed socialist project based on 21st century.

At this point a five-alarm fire warning should be sounding in CCHQ and inside the head of every single Tory or small-C conservative in Britain, because Jon Trickett has just eloquently and concisely diagnosed the ailments of modern Britain – the fact that we are effectively drifting as a nation with no core unifying purpose or attachment to one another and a diminishing sense of obligation to our fellow citizens. In other words, Trickett has created an itch, a burning discomfort with the status quo, and now stands ready to offer voters the calamine lotion of Jeremy Corbyn’s socialist policies.

One does not have to agree that building “a renewed socialist project” is the answer. The point is that Trickett has clearly defined a problem and proposed a solution, all in the space of three short paragraphs. The Tories, meanwhile, are stuck defending a mediocre record with the huge distraction of Brexit, and seem to be loudly insisting that everything is great despite mounting evidence to the contrary (see Universal Credit). They have chosen to be cheerleaders for the status quo rather than agitators for change, even though the Conservative leadership election-that-wasn’t last year presented the perfect opportunity for unflinching self-assessment followed by an ideological reset.

That opportunity was squandered. And it has really come to something quite appalling when a Labour politician is responding to the priorities of this blog before the Tories pay proper attention. Jon Trickett is hardly known as Labour’s greatest thinker, but at least he understands that mandate-bestowing electoral victories are won on the back of selling the electorate an inspiring vision for the future.

Having a narrative is important. Good leaders and successful political movements understand this. The Attlee government alluded to by Jon Trickett certainly had a clear vision of the New Jerusalem they wanted to build out of the rubble of war. Margaret Thatcher had her urgent mission to save Britain from a failing post-war consensus and terminal national decline. Even David Cameron had his “Big Society”, an idea which might have been genuinely transformative if only it was bolstered with more thought and political courage.

In America, Franklin Delano Roosevelt had his “New Deal”. LBJ championed the “Great Society”. Ronald Reagan beguiled the nation with his promise of “Morning in America” after years of perceived stagnation under presidents Ford and Carter. And while President Obama’s soaring rhetoric often exceeded his relatively pedestrian governing agenda, his 2008 message of “hope and change” also strongly resonated with many Americans (including millions who deserted the Democrats to vote for Donald Trump in 2016 after no positive change appeared in their lives).

British politics has been stuck in such a dismal slump because for two decades an incredibly narrow, self-serving consensus was allowed to crowd out all other perspectives. And while this consensus served many people fairly well, its policy outcomes focused almost exclusively on funnelling material benefits (either wealth and career opportunities or literal welfare benefits) to certain specified groups of people rather than calling all of us together as a society united by a common bond, culture and purpose.

That approach has been found wanting. When the bipartisan political consensus (favouring EU membership, social liberalisation, globalism and corporatism) goes unchallenged it feels no need to respond to the concerns of those who do not benefit from existing policy. That is why for all the material progress seen in Britain we are still blighted by low productivity, family breakdown, divisions over immigration and a lack of any meaningful government response to the negative side-effects of automation, outsourcing and globalisation.

By electing Jeremy Corbyn as leader, some within the Labour Party recognised that continuing to stand up for a failing political consensus was no way to address these problems or win a decisive mandate for left-wing government. As incumbents, the Tories were left as the only major party championing the status quo, and rather than develop a radical, inspirational right-wing message of their own they continued to double down on bland, uninspiring centrism under Theresa May.

What makes it especially galling that the Left rather than the Right have recognised the need for a positive, bold new narrative is that it is the Left who are most in thrall to the Cult of Identity Politics which does so much to atomise society and make people see themselves as members of persecuted identity groups first and foremost rather than fellow citizens of a united country. Somehow, despite this increasingly prevalent mindset within their ranks, some on the Left still managed to recognise the need for a coherent, inspiring national message, a message with the potential to unite a broad swathe of society behind it (though whether it succeeds is another matter).

As John Prescott boasted earlier this year:

Finally, we’re talking about ideas and policies – not splits and personalities. Twenty years ago next month, Labour won an ­election landslide because we were united, trusted and had policies people could understand. When we lost in 2010, I felt we lost our way. We didn’t want to defend our record in government and by 2015 we accepted Tory austerity.

At least Labour is now ­developing clear red water between us and May. Not with soundbites and brickbats, but with popular policies.

Ideas and policies over splits and personalities.

Meanwhile, what do the Tories offer? False promises of being “strong and stable”, a moronic slogan which described an unattainable state of being rather than a clear direction for the country. More dull, technocratic drudgery in which eliminating the budget deficit (painstakingly slowly) is considered an aspiration worth putting in neon lights and making the focus of their government. Division and incompetence on Brexit, with the only optimistic Tory voices now belonging to free trade fantasists who want Britain to unilaterally lower barriers to trade and who think that crashing out of the EU and defaulting to WTO trade terms is a smart decision. Barely concealed leadership rivalries between a cast of identikit Cabinet ministers who seem to be competing with one another based on personality rather than different visions for the country.

Yet even now, the Conservative Party has no idea of the terminal danger it is in. Despite a few plucky efforts to re-inject some proper thinking and ideas into the party, the prime minister and her Cabinet offer no real ideological leadership whatsoever. Consumed by Brexit (and doing a pretty poor job at that) they seem to have abdicated any responsibility for using government to lead the country to a better place. Everything they do is reactive and cynical, like Theresa May’s university tuition fee freeze and Chancellor Philip Hammond’s age-based tax proposals, transparently cynical attempts to court the youth vote which are laughable in their inadequacy.

A couple of days ago I mused about whether the Conservatives can renew themselves ideologically and spiritually while still in office. This already slim prospect looks less and less likely by the day, both because senior people within the Tory Party seem to be too busy lurching from crisis to crisis to see the bigger picture and because all of the ideological energy and political momentum is on the Left right now.

And where there is new conservative thinking, it tends to counsel more, not less, accommodation with the Left. Some MPs, like Sam Gyimah, talk the right language of purpose and ambition but then disappointingly default to predictable, Left-leaning “compassionate conservative” solutions. And even these efforts at conservative renewal tend to focus more on what the government could and should do for us rather than what we collectively might accomplish together as a people. Time and again, the present Conservative Party capitulates to the Left and apologises for its own principles.

This is frustrating because conservatives should be able to come up with a far more inspirational, compelling message than the one they have been peddling. The Left’s entire focus is fixed firmly on inequality. Yet even die-hard Social Justice warriors would surely admit that equality is a hygiene factor, the absolute baseline for which society should aim (though they might then go on to disagree about whether equality or opportunity or outcome should be the goal).

Therefore, as eloquent as Jon Trickett’s words are – and as much as they should scare conservatives who are yet to join the ideological battle – equality remains insufficient as an organising principle for society or a shared national ambition. We need more concrete goals toward which we can all strive and move together, while in the background we are working hard to achieve a just society (however we choose to define it).

And luckily for conservatives, this is what the Left still does not get. Though they have woken up to the need to talk in terms of vision and ambition while the Tories are still lost at sea, the Left still sees achieving equality as the ultimate goal. One gets the distinct impression that many on the hard Left would not much care if we never really accomplished anything great as a country and even regressed somewhat in terms of material comfort and economic development, so long as society was flattened and the gap between rich and poor reduced. To listen to many a Labour speech, one almost pictures a country with a state-of-the-art NHS hospital on every street corner but a population so busy marvelling at their wonderful state of equality that they forget to go out and change the world.

So there remains an opportunity for conservatives to sneak in with an improved narrative and national ambition, one which aspires to something more than mere equality. Something which actually seeks to organise and harness the best of our energies and skills as we strive to make our country and the world better, not just more equal. Such a vision, carefully crafted and persuasively argued, would beat the Left’s narrow-minded focus on equality any day of the week.

So who will step up to the challenge and help develop a worthy conservative response to the re-energised Left? Because right now they are the ones fizzing with energy and ideas, while conservatism seems content to trudge wearily to its grave, quite possibly dragging the country along with it.

 

UPDATE – 17 October

Evgeny Pudovkin makes some good points over at Comment Central, specifically around how the Tories can potentially keep Theresa May in place as a “bad bank” repository for public dissatisfaction with the status quo while developing new ideas and new talent in parallel:

Some argue for replacing May with a fresh candidate who could offer the Tories a new vision. Yet May is still at Number 10 due to the very reason of her being a fulfiller and not a prophet. Her main role entails overseeing already introduced reforms – Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit, George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse, the house building programme and, indeed, Brexit. That doesn’t leave much time for blue-sky thinking, at least not until future relations with the EU are at least broadly defined. Just what exactly will toppling May achieve, apart from spawning new rivalries?

Any vision for post-Brexit Britain must be cultivated in parallel with May’s premiership. First of all, prospective candidates should establish a stronger presence on social media. The time when David Cameron could simply dismiss digital communication with his “Britain is not Twitter” jibe is over. As historian Niall Ferguson explained (here and here), the successes of both Donald Trump and the Leave campaign can be explained at least partially by their presence on social media. Secondly, the next leadership candidate might want to spend more time with the grassroots. Finally, a prospective challenger could create a new platform for developing policy. The Centre for Policy Studies served an important vehicle for Thatcher’s revolution, while Policy Exchange helped to inject a more coherent vision into Cameron’s project.

The dichotomy between May’s stable rule and the need to reinvigorate the Tory party is false. You can do both at the same time.

I agree in principle. Of course, this approach depends entirely on the public retaining patience with the Tories long enough for them to come through the other side of Brexit with an attractive new philosophy of government ready to go and an equally attractive leadership candidate to pick up the torch.

Right now, I struggle to see where the seeds of a new 21st century conservatism are germinating. Certainly the think tanks are nothing like the humming centres of creative energy that they were back when they propelled Margaret Thatcher to power with a copy of the Stepping Stones report in her pocket.

On paper, what Evgeny Pudovkin proposes makes perfect sense. In practice, I don’t see where the new ideas or the leadership talent are going to come from. I sincerely hope that this is due to my political myopia rather than a genuine dearth of new ideas within the British conservative movement, but I do not think it likely.

 

British Ambition - underground tube sign

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Don’t Mistake Labour’s Party Conference Triumphalism For Complacency

The World Transformed - Labour Party Conference - Momentum - Brighton - 3

Don’t waste time laughing at over-enthusiastic Labour activists who claim that their party “won” the 2017 general election despite falling 56 seats short of the Conservatives. Labour will soon be celebrating for real unless the Tories can close the enthusiasm deficit with Corbyn’s motivated activists

Abi Wilkinson makes an important point in Total Politics today, refuting the growing accusations that the ebullient and positive Labour Party conference in Brighton is somehow a sign of derangement or complacency on the part of left-wing activists:

To dismiss the jubilance on display at the party’s recent conference as hubris is to misunderstand what’s going on. The MPs who claimed, at fringe events and on the main conference stage, that they believe Labour will win the next election were not, on the whole, complacent about what such a victory might require. Nor were any of the smiling, energetic young activists I met at Momentum’s The World Transformed parties and panel discussions naive about the challenge the party faces.

These are individuals who’ve spent the past couple of years campaigning and persuading, as the majority of the mainstream media and parts of their own party screamed that they were idiots, wreckers and dangerous hardliners. They’re people who were determined enough to drag themselves out door-knocking even when the polling gap appeared uncloseable. They built apps, organised car pools and slept on sofas to ensure that key marginals were flooded with volunteers. Many of them donated their time and skills to outmatch Tory efforts on a fraction of the budget.

This is absolutely true. Politics is an expectations game just as much as it is a net results game. Surpassing expectations can inject unstoppable momentum into a political party or movement, while failing to meet expectations can drain energy and enthusiasm faster than air escapes a burst balloon. That’s why Theresa May’s Conservative Party has the unmistakable pallor of death about it; grey-skinned, dead-eyed and utterly bereft of purpose, it shuffles forward to its party conference in Manchester like a zombie.

But even more than expectations, politics is about narratives and ideas. This was seemingly forgotten in the centrist, technocratic age ushered in under Tony Blair and growing to full fruition under David Cameron. For a long time, political elites have professed bland managerialism, aiming to do just enough to keep the population quiet with “good enough” public services and not much more. There was certainly no soaring national ambition or optimism for a different future preached the whole time that I grew up under Tony Blair and came of age under Brown, Cameron and Clegg. And the people miss it. You can explain Brexit and the rise of Jeremy Corbyn a million different ways, but one absolutely irrefutable component is the fact that people responded to politicians who offered something more than to hire a few more nurses and make the trains run on time.

Jeremy Corbyn has a compelling narrative because he actually believes in something, and people know he believes in something because he has been banging on about the same things for thirty-odd years, and doesn’t have to consult a focus group before he opens his mouth to respond to a question. So Labour’s confidence comes from a combination of new-found charisma at the top (say what you will about any of Corbyn’s centrist leadership competitors, but none of them could be described as charismatic) and huge energy and enthusiasm within the base. This is a potent combination, not to be sniffed at by cynical journalists and arrogant Tories who utterly failed to predict the 2017 general election result.

Wilkinson continues:

Enthusiasm is one of the most important resources Labour has. A party pursuing an agenda of increased tax and redistribution, regulation and nationalisation is never going to have a cosy relationship with media barons and big business in general (though it’s worth noting that the corporate lobbyists who stayed away from last year’s conference came flooding back this time) but it can reach people in other ways. Keeping activists’ spirits up ensures they’ll keep doing the work that’s necessary to maximise the likelihood of a Labour win.

Maybe it’s possible the current mood could tip over into slack triumphalism, but I’ve seen little sign of it yet. Many of the conference fringe events I attended involved smart discussions about what the party’s strategy going forward should consist of. Is it realistic to think that youth turnout could be increased further? Are the Tories capable of coming up with a decent answer to the housing crisis, and if they do so how will that impact our vote? What can we do to win over pensioners? What about self-employed tradespeople, a demographic we performed comparatively poorly with?

Does this sound like complacency? Hell no – it is determination. Labour might not be measuring the curtains in 10 Downing Street, but they have certainly tapped the address into their GPS and turned towards Whitehall.

This should be enormously worrying for conservatives, not least because the Conservative Party conference in Manchester promises to be a constant parade of recriminations and mediocrity, with Theresa May’s vacuous Labour Lite conference speech the rotting cherry on a very stale cake. The only enthusiasm on display will be among the cheerleaders and acolytes for the various potential Tory leadership challengers, waiting in the wings lest the prime minister make one more fatal error of judgment or messaging.

And if the government falls or the country otherwise gets dragged to the polls again before the Tories have had a chance to get their act together, what then? Corbyn is already on the brink of becoming prime minister, and increasing numbers of Britons are swallowing his story. The Conservatives, meanwhile are organisationally, intellectually and ideologically exhausted after seven years of being in office, but never really in power.

This blog has already warned how Labour’s hard left wing spent their summer busily plotting and organising for the next election to get them over the finish line, not licking their wounds, sunning themselves in Italy or plotting future leadership challenges. Momentum has been actively learning from the surprisingly viable presidential primary campaign of Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, who fought Hillary Clinton nearly all the way to the Democratic convention. And now groups of Momentum activists from sixteen to sixty years old are gathering in meeting rooms to learn how to make better use of online campaigning coordination and voter turnout software, while others are learning how to run a viral video campaign on social media even more successful than the 2017 effort.

Unfortunately, aside from last week’s Big Tent Ideas Festival and a series of articles in Conservative Home, the Tories have been engaged in no introspection and no reorganising of any kind.

As I recently fumed:

Meanwhile, what are we conservatives doing to retool ourselves to better fight the next general election? We are creating juvenile Jacob Rees-Mogg fanclubs on Facebook, engaging in pointless speculation about a cast of future leadership contenders all alike in blandness, and spending more time trying to ingratiate ourselves with the Tory party machine in constituency and at conference than figuring out what we should actually stand for, and how we can persuade others to stand with us.

Abi Wilkinson and I obviously come at this from opposite angles – she does not want Labour complacency and is reassured because she sees the frenetic organisation efforts taking place on the ground, while I would love to see a bit more Labour complacency and am disheartened by the fact that left-wing activism and organisation so utterly outstrips any efforts on the Right.

I campaigned for the Tories in 2010. God only knows why, in retrospect, but I pounded the pavements in my hometown of Harlow, Essex to help unseat Labour incumbent MP and minister Bill Rammell and elect Tory Rob Halfon in his place. But today you couldn’t pay me enough money to slap on a blue rosette and stump for Theresa May’s Conservative Party, which has somehow managed to blend barking authoritarianism, a statist, centre-left approach to the economy and the general incompetence of Frank Spencer. And if the Tories can no longer get enthusiastic conservatives like me to actively support them at the constituency level, then there’s a real problem.

Abi Wilkinson is right – there is no general complacency within the Labour Party, only a frightening seriousness of purpose. The only complacency for the past seven years has been on the Right, and specifically within the Conservative Party.

And now that complacency is metastasising into something even more deadly and hard to eradicate – resignation and defeatism.

 

Theresa May - General Election 2017 - vote count - Elmo

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