British Conservatives And The Youth Vote: The Failed Promise Of Activate

Activate - Tory Momentum campaign - conservatism - youth vote

It is easy to mock youthful conservative activists when their attempts at social media outreach go awry, but at least they are trying – none of the supposed adults in the Conservative Party seem remotely interested in salvaging conservatism’s toxic reputation among younger voters

The media has been having a lot of fun today at the expense of an organisation called Activate, a newly-launched independent conservative campaign group of young people, by young people and for young people.

Some of this criticism has been justified – the launch on social media was uncoordinated and the messaging…suboptimal, at best. One could certainly argue that Activate tried to run before it could walk, entering the political fray before the values and priorities of the group had been fully defined and agreed.

(Full disclosure: I was very tangentially involved in the pre-formation of this group earlier in the summer, participating in several group chats and offering occasional words of advice. This was in line with my strong belief – stated many, many, many, many times – that British conservatism will die out unless it urgently finds a way to reach and inspire younger voters with a positive message).

Inevitably, the reviews have not been kind, with outlets from the Independent, New Statesman, The SpectatorHuffington Post, Political ScrapbookRed Pepper and Esquire all forming an orderly queue to mock the group and question its grassroots bona fides.

The Guardian was actually one of the kindest:

A new Conservative grassroots campaign inspired by Labour’s Momentum movement will attempt to engage more young people in rightwing politics, though the group’s launch has been widely mocked on social media.

Activate, which aims to “engage young people with conservatism”, has close links with senior party activists, and is chaired by former Tory campaign manager Gary Markwell, a councillor in West Sussex. A Conservative spokesman said Activate was “not officially linked to the Conservatives and it receives no party funding”.

The group’s constitution says it will be independent from the party, though all members are expected to be members of the main party.

The campaigning group launched with a Twitter picture of the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, followed by a picture of Star Wars character Admiral Ackbar, saying “It’s a trap”.

The group’s use of multiple hashtags and a meme that was last popular in the early 2000s led to widespread derision on the social network.

Somewhat cringeworthy? Of course. Not what I would have done or recommended. But you can look at this two ways.

On one hand, you can take the attitude of the scornful left-wing press (and even some of the right-wing blogs like Guido Fawkes) and make fun of Activate’s enthusiastic but undeniably amateurish initial foray into grassroots political campaigning. And indeed, many journalists and commentators have been only too happy to mock the sincere efforts of 17-year-old students who at least take the time to educate themselves about political issues and live up to their responsibility to be good engaged citizens. That is certainly one approach, albeit a rather cynical one.

But the other attitude – a far more constructive one – is to ask why the hell it is being left to a group of enthusiastic but inexperienced teenage and twenty-something activists to do what the Conservative Party should have been doing all along, namely trying to engage in meaningful outreach to sceptical younger voters.

Recall: Theresa May’s brilliantly inspired general election campaign saw the Tories lose the 18-19 year old first time voter demographic by a margin of 47 points. The Conservative Party is getting nowhere with young people and struggling with nearly everyone else because they cannot clearly articulate what they stand for and simply offer a bland, repetitive, uninspiring and entirely defensive message.

With no positive message to rally around, no formal conservative youth movement and national party leadership totally devoid of charisma, the combined forces of present-day young conservative activists could probably all fit comfortably within a League One football stadium, with room to spare. Unfortunately, people who unironically wear bow ties and read economics at Cambridge are pretty much all we have right now in terms of boots on the ground – would that it were otherwise. But at least Activate is trying to expand the appeal of conservatism.

Maybe rather than mocking the earnest sixth-former wearing a bow tie in his bio picture, the likes of Guido Fawkes should instead be asking why it has been left to young kids like this to take all the initiative of creating a grassroots youth conservative movement on their own, with almost no help from senior Tories, party grandees, external think tanks or anybody else with abundant time, money and influence.

Maybe they should ask what possible excuse party leader Theresa May and her CCHQ cronies can offer for falling down on the youth outreach job so spectacularly. Maybe they should try holding the prime minister to account for swanning off to Italy after having presided after this disaster of an election campaign rather than staying put to undo a small fraction of the damage that she has done to the Conservative brand.

Maybe the likes of the IEA, Adam Smith Institute and Centre for Policy Studies should be a little more concerned about where their pipeline of future fellows and supposed thinkers will possibly come from when nearly every young person in the country hates the Tories with the burning heat of a thousand suns, and retains that hatred well into middle age. Kate Andrews is great, and a breath of fresh air on Question Time, but there is a limit to the number of articulate young conservative thinkers we can import from the United States. At some point we will have to develop some more homegrown talent.

But no. Rather than engaging in the slightest bit of introspection, too many conservative voices seem content to continue writing their asinine hot takes about the daily developments in the Brexit negotiations, speculating pointlessly about the next Tory leadership contest or simply getting drunk on Pimms and having Jacob Rees-Mogg’s face tattooed on their chests. Because summer silly season nonsense is so much more fun than tending to the existential question of who will keep the flame of conservatism lit when its present custodians are no more.

Maybe Activate did make a really bad start to their campaign. Maybe their name lends itself too easily to mockery. Maybe their logo wasn’t produced by the best graphic designers that money can buy. Maybe their initial foray into social media was more worthy of a Jacob Rees-Mogg fanclub than a serious political entity. But everything they have done thus far, they accomplished without a scintilla of help from anybody else in the British conservative movement. Contra much of the leftist press, this really is an unaffiliated grassroots movement.

Faced with the immense tarnishing of the conservative brand and reputation among young voters inflicted by Theresa May, her Cabinet and all the other supposed adults in the room, a group of sincere and well-meaning young conservative activists stepped up at a time when our elected conservative politicians have effectively fled the field of battle. That counts for something, and deserves acknowledgement.

Activate received no help from from the increasingly unworthy political party that bears the conservative name, and certainly no help from the constellation of think tanks, institutions, media outlets or commentators who think themselves so well-connected and influential. Unlike Momentum on the political Left, Activate has no prominent champions in the wider conservative movement, no real mentors (so critical to getting a youth organisation off the ground) and no funding that I am aware of. If anything is embarrassing, it isn’t a dated Star Wars meme on Twitter – it’s the fact that besides these well-meaning if sometimes naive people, nobody else is even making an effort.

It is time to face a number of difficult truths. Conservatism as an ideology and a political movement is radioactive to the majority of today’s young people. We are in retreat in schools, on the university campus, in the world of the arts, in the laboratories, in popular culture and the media, not to mention the House of Commons. And our inability to connect with younger voters and inspire them with a positive message about how conservative values and policies will benefit them and benefit the country is arguably the biggest threat that we face.

Faced with this shameful lack of leadership from anybody in Westminster, Activate is at least trying to do something to face up to these threats and begin tackling conservatism’s huge deficit of trust and inspiration among young voters.

And that is vastly more than can be said of all those people who spent today laughing smugly at their struggle.

 

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British Conservatives And The Youth Vote, Ctd.

YouGov vote by age chart - general election 2017

Through their arrogance and sheer incompetence, the Tories have turned an entire generation away from conservative politics. But the solution is not to go marching off to the socialist Left

It doesn’t have to be like this.

It doesn’t have to be the case that people under 30 years of age vote so overwhelmingly for the parties of the Left, predominantly the Labour Party, while the Conservatives manage to sweep up barely a fifth of the youth vote.

The Tories have shot themselves in the foot by failing to court the youth vote or even speak to their concerns, the result of unbridled arrogance and sheer political incompetence. But the situation is not irreversible, if the right action is taken quickly. Unfortunately, the Tories – hopeless keepers of the conservative flame – look set to learn all of the wrong lessons.

I discussed this on my election night live blog and then again in this separate piece, but since that time several other commentators have jumped into the fray with their own takes, and it’s worth seeing what they have to say.

Former cabinet minister (sacked by Theresa May in her Weakness Reshuffle) and Harlow MP Robert Halfon won a lot of plaudits before the election for being one of few Tories to understand the need to reach out once more to the aspirational working class, and again after the election for criticising the Tories’ lack of vision going into the campaign.

From the Guardian:

Robert Halfon, who lost his frontbench role as minister for skills on Tuesday, said the Conservative party was “on death row” and had failed to offer a positive vision to voters.

The Harlow MP was scathing about the election campaign in which the prime minister lost her Commons majority, saying the Tories did not have a message to rival Labour’s promise to stand up “for the many not the few”.

Writing in the Sun, he said: “The Conservative party is on death row. Unless we reform our values, our membership offering and our party infrastructure, we face defeat at the next election – and potentially years of opposition.

“If we don’t change it wouldn’t matter if we had Alexander the Great or the Archangel Gabriel as leader. We face the wilderness.”

In an attack aimed at the Tory hierarchy – and campaign guru Sir Lynton Crosby – Halfon said: “Our election campaign portrayed us as a party devoid of values. ‘Strong and stable’ is hardly a battle cry. I cannot remember a time in the campaign when the Conservatives attempted to explain what we are really about: the party of the ladder, of aspiration and of opportunity.

“We let ourselves be perceived primarily as the party of ‘austerity’, failing entirely to campaign on our record of a strong economy or strong employment.

“Virtually nothing was said on the NHS or schools or the caring professions that work within them. Instead we created fear among pensioners, and threatened to take away school meals, handing a gift to our opponents. Is it any wonder that the Conservatives did not get a majority?”

Yes and no. Halfon is absolutely right to criticise the Tory campaign for its lack of a positive vision of any kind, let alone a coherent, recognisably conservative vision. But the specific targets of Halfon’s ire are all wrong. To follow his advice, the Tories should have engaged in a race with the Labour Party to shower praise and money on an unreformed NHS, wittered on endlessly about public services and exacerbated Britain’s corrosive culture of universal benefits, where everyone becomes accustomed to receiving handouts from the state regardless of their wealth or individual circumstances (see free school meals, the winter fuel allowance, child benefit and so on).

At least the Cameron/Osborne government, ideologically woolly as it was, made a token strike against universal benefits culture with their child benefit cap. Robert Halfon now sees support for giving benefits to people who don’t need them as the price of political survival. If this is true then there may as well not be a Conservative Party at all, because the Labour socialists will have won the war.

Here’s Nicholas Mazzei, writing in Conservative Home:

“Yeah I did; he was gonna write off my student loan. Come on!”

These were the words of a 25-year-old voter who text me early this morning, who had always voted Conservative and, up until the campaign began 5 weeks ago, was anti-Corbyn.

If you want to understand why the youth vote surged for Corbyn, I want you to read that line and look at the offer the Conservatives have made to the youth of Britain from our own manifesto. From this 25-year old’s own words, “the Conservatives have done nothing to reach out to those under-35”.

Now while most us would agree that the promises of wiping out debts and free university education by Labour were dangerous, unaffordable policies, we need to remember that the youth of the UK have been lumped with endless debts, rising costs in homes and education, and lower potential of earnings.

Much like in the US election, where voters turned out for Trump’s pro-employment message, youth voters in the UK turned out for a party which actually addressed their concerns.

Again, the problem is accurately diagnosed. The suite of Conservative Party policies, such as they were, did very little to even acknowledge the concerns of young people in a cosmetic way, let alone meaningfully address them. The Tories had no plan to encourage the building of sufficient houses to tackle the housing crisis because the status quo works just fine for their older core vote, thankyouverymuch. They remain obstinately committed to the most stubbornly self-harming form of Brexit possible, for absolutely no good reason, when most young people are sceptical of Brexit altogether.

And as icing on the cake, Theresa May and her lacklustre team preached a parsimonious message of fiscal restraint as a regrettable necessity – willingly accepting Labour’s framing of the economic debate! – rather than even attempting to sing the virtues of freedom, liberty and a smaller state dedicated to helping people in real need rather than a large state parcelling out insufficient morsels of assistance to everybody regardless of need.

Theresa May’s team seemingly forgot that people don’t become more conservative as they get older automatically or without some prompting, and that if the Tories continually screw somebody over through their formative years, young adulthood and early middle age then they won’t magically become Tory voters when they get their first grey hair. People become more conservative as they get older because historically, sensible government policy has allowed them to become greater and greater stakeholders in society, largely through property and equity ownership. Cut off millions of young people from this ladder to prosperity and security, and the conveyor belt which gradually moves people from political Left to Right as they age will come grinding to a halt. We see this in the YouGov poll. where the Tories now only overtake Labour among those aged over 50.

But while Mazzei effectively diagnoses the problem, his solutions also seem to involve lurching to the Left:

The UK has the highest average tuition fees in the world, second only to the USA (which is at around £5300 a year compared to £6,000 in the UK). We cannot lump all this debt on to young people. Education in general needs more investment and should be protected at all costs.

No. Why should somebody without a university degree subsidise the education (and future higher earning potential) of somebody who wants a free degree? While tuition fees at some American schools are horrendously expensive and poor value for money, UK fees are much cheaper, to the extent that they still often do not even cover the full cost of tuition. They are by no means outrageous, and those unwilling to make the investment in themselves are under no obligation to attend university. If anything, the presence of tuition fees clamps down on the number of pointless degrees in non-subjects being taken by students. Lower or remove tuition fees and we will likely see an explosion in gender studies and other pointless social justice-related pseudo-courses.

The unnamed government minister who spoke scathingly to the Telegraph about the Tory election campaign hits closer to the truth:

The Conservative Party has become “too shallow” and needs a “re-invigoration of political thought” that can draw young people to the party, a minister has said.

The MP warned that the Tory election campaign had relied on “poxy little slogans” to attract the youth vote and failed to counter Jeremy Corbyn’s offer of “free money” in the form of state-funded university tuition and other hand-outs.

The minister told The Telegraph: “You’ve got to persuade a new generation of people of what’s what. We never even tried, so Corbyn just came in and basically bribed people to vote for him with other people’s money that doesn’t even exist.”

[..] The minister said: “It’s all about political education and argument. The problem with the whole campaign is that it was about politics and politicians. “Everything is too shallow. Politicians have all got their experience but they lose if they forget to re-educate a new generation. You’ve got to persuade a new generation of people of what’s what.

“This is about political persuasion and think tanks and all that stuff.”

Another MP said the party had failed to properly engage younger votes on social media, where many users were instead targeted with videos attacking Mr Corbyn.

“Frankly the party has done very, very little to engage with young people,” he said. “We have made no real effort to garner support, even on social media, which is where everybody gets their news and views these days.

Yes, a thousand times yes. The case for conservatism has to keep being made for each new generation. The very presence of Jeremy Corbyn as the leader of the Labour Party should have been a huge wake-up call to the Tories that defunct, failed ideologies do not simply slink away to die once they are exposed and defeated.

Margaret Thatcher’s government may have rescued Britain from 1970s decline, but this was before the living memory of half the electorate. Two generations have come since the Winter of Discontent, with many in the millennial generation probably unable to even explain what it was, or how the failed socialist post-war consensus brought Britain to the brink of irreversible decline.

Thus we now have a generation of young people who take relative material abundance, peace and security for granted rather than appreciating that capitalism is the source of our prosperity, not a drain on it. A pampered generation who simply don’t realise that British and Western values need to be cherished and defended (as the Second World War and Cold War taught older generations).

Ross Clark makes the same point in The Spectator:

The under 35s have never been exposed to the negative images of socialism that were familiar to older generations. Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, to my age group socialism was inescapably associated with the failures of the Soviet bloc: it conjured images of queuing half a day for a cabbage, putting your name down on a long waiting list for the prize of a choking, belching Trabant – and of getting shot if you tried to escape. To my generation, capitalism was synonymous with freedom. But I am not sure that holds for a generation who see only large, tax-dodging corporations and bankers who wrecked the economy yet carried on skimming off vast bonuses.

Neither, when reading of Jeremy Corbyn’s renationalisation plans, do the under-35s have memories of nationalised industries in Britain in the 1970s. They don’t recall the three day week, the Winter of Discontent, dirty, late trains, or realise that the chaos on Southern Railway was once symptomatic of labour relations in huge swaths of nationalised industry. All they see are over-priced trains run by private companies which have ruthlessly exploited the private monopolies which they were granted in this, the most botched of the privatisations.

The Corbynite Left (and even Labour centrists) have been incredibly adept at presenting what are really regulatory failures or corrupt crony corporatism as failures of capitalism itself, which – as shown by the willingness of young people to vote for politicians like Bernie Sanders, Jean-Luc Melenchon and Jeremy Corbyn – has led many young people to demand that we throw the baby out with the bathwater. They sit and angrily Tweet about the evils of capitalism using handheld computing devices that only capitalism made possible, and nobody in British conservative politics seemingly has the balls to point out the absurdity to them.

The anonymous government minister is absolutely right to point out that Conservatives have an existential duty to “persuade a new generation of people of what’s what”, that showering public services with endless money and taking back state control of industry would have already happened if repeated lessons from history did not show that this approach simply never works.

The minister is right too when he says “this is about political persuasion and think tanks and all that stuff”. Yes it is. But you won’t reach young people with think tanks and white papers, and it is becoming increasingly obvious that the toxic Tory brand will not persuade them of the merits of conservatism either. That’s why we need strong new independent grassroots organisations to emerge, to promote the idea of freedom, self-sufficiency and a smaller, better-targeted state as an inherently good thing in and of itself, rather than a regretful response to recession.

As I wrote the other day:

For reasons of branding and basic administrative competence, any future small-C conservative movement hoping to gain traction with young people must be distinct from the Conservative Party, free of that residual toxicity and free to criticise the Tory party in government and in opposition when it proposes policies which either betray core values or threaten the interests of young people. A British CPAC and Young Brits for Liberty-style organisation could nurture talent of its own, outside the corrupting, nepotistic influence of the Conservative Party hierarchy, and would greatly increase their collective clout by helping or withholding support from future Tory election campaigns and individual candidacies based on policy, not party loyalty.

It is only through outside groups like this that the image of conservatism stands a chance of being rehabilitated among young people. It is only through a British version of CPAC or YAF that young conservative or agnostic students at university stand a chance against being steamrollered by the fashionable left-wing identity politics which are almost de rigeur for social acceptance and advancement.

[..] We need a strong external repository for conservative principle, capable of engaging with young people who have been continually taught that leftist progressivism = forward-thinking “compassion” while liberty, independence and self-sufficiency from government are evidence of greed and moral failure.

We particularly need to work closely with conservative organisations in the United States, which face a similar uphill struggle in overcoming a historic disinterest in the youth vote but which are now starting to have some success, generated in part by their opposition to the illiberal Cult of Social Justice and Identity Politics sweeping American university campuses, with its disregard for freedom of speech and toxic obsession with the politics of victimhood.

We should be sharing best practice back and forth with American conservative organisations as to how to build strong redoubts for conservatism in overwhelmingly leftist places, so that conservatism isn’t washed away altogether. Frankly, British conservatism is in such a parlous state that we need their help. And then, once things have stabilised, we can look to reclaim some of the ground we have lost among young voters.

Skot Covert, Co-Chairman of the College Republican National Committee in the United States, offered this advice for a young conservative revival in the United States:

Due to an extended absence on the right’s part, winning the youth vote won’t be easy and it certainly won’t happen overnight.  However, when the GOP communicates our policy positions in culturally relevant terms in the right mediums, we see progress.  This means understanding how and where young voters communicate and having a discussion on the issues most important to them.

I believe it’s also critical to understand that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to winning young voters.  My generation is diverse and vibrant.  We thrive on uniqueness and self-definition and instinctively reject the notion that we should “go with the flow”.  Crafting an effective youth outreach strategy must be developed around this understanding.

This is certainly true. People crave authenticity in a politician – somebody willing to speak extemporaneously and answer straight questions honestly without first running them through a focus group or a Comms Team. Young people especially, it seems, like an optimistic, forward-looking message rather than lashings of grim tidings delivered by a malfunctioning, cautious android like Theresa May. Who knew? That’s why young people preferred socialist firebrand Bernie Sanders to calculating, establishment Hillary Clinton. That’s why Americans elected Donald Trump as their next president.

But there is no reason why these qualities of openness and relatability cannot be vested in a politician who doesn’t hail from the hard left or the populist pseudo-right. There is no reason why a liberty-minded Conservative MP could not similarly enthuse young people with a message of individual liberty, economic freedom and the advantages (rather than the costs) of restraining the state.

Anoosh Chakelian explains in the New Statesman just how Jeremy Corbyn and Corbyn-supporting outside groups used this quality of authenticity to their advantage:

Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign focused heavily on young people – a key manifesto pledge being to scrap tuition fees. His campaign style – rallies across the country, and fewer stage-managed speeches and press conferences than Theresa May – also appealed more to this demographic.

In addition, Labour had viral news on its side. As BuzzFeed reported, pro-Corbyn articles by “alt-left” sites were shared on an enormous scale on social media. I hear that nearly 25 per cent of UK Facebook users watched a Momentum video on the website in the penultimate week of campaigning. This is a particularly effective way of reaching young people, and inspiring them to vote – something the Tories weren’t as good at.

But who in the current Conservative Party hierarchy is remotely equipped for this task? Boris Johnson is probably the most charismatic of the senior Tories, but even he could never pack a large 2000-seat theatre for a political rally the way that Jeremy Corbyn can. And of course Boris Johnson is something of a charlatan, with sky-high negative ratings and absolutely no fixed political compass.

The cold hard truth is that the Tories don’t have anybody who can match Jeremy Corbyn for charisma right now – and how depressing that is. The best we can hope for is to give some of the better backbenchers (I keep banging on about Kwasi Kwarteng and James Cleverly) some ministerial experience to groom them for a few years down the road, but rather than looking to the future, Theresa May seems to have decided to keep her cabinet stuffed full of bland non-entities with her latest reshuffle. In her infinite wisdom.

That’s why we cannot rely on the Conservative Party to save conservatism from itself. The Tory party is corrupt, inbred, nepotistic, dysfunctional and ideologically bankrupt. Right now they are seriously considering skipping after Jeremy Corbyn on a fun political jaunt even further to the hard Left. Yes, somehow the Tories squandered the opportunity to use Corbyn’s rise to move the Overton Window of British politics further to the right, and instead are doing all they can to help him shift it to the left. These people are incompetent clowns who cannot be trusted to walk with scissors, let alone safeguard the ideology and worldview which we depend on to keep us prosperous and free.

We need outside groups to pick up the burden so shamefully dropped by Theresa May and her dysfunctional party. Student organisations, business organisations, bloggers, the works. The Tory Party as it currently stands will never persuade any more young people to vote Conservative. We need outside organisations with legitimacy and untainted reputations to make the positive case for conservative, pro-market values, and then pressure the Tories to hold the line rather than fight every battle on Labour’s terms.

I repeat: do not look to the Conservative Party to successfully engineer an improvement in the youth vote. The Tories are not going to make things any easier for themselves when it comes to youth outreach, and given the level of competence exhibited by CCHQ they have the potential to make things a whole lot worse.

We few young small-C conservatives need to pick up the slack ourselves.

 

Jeremy Corbyn - youth vote - t shirt

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General Election Leaders’ Debate 2017: We Get The Politicians We Deserve

BBC Election leaders debate 2017 - Tim Farron jumping from stage

Think that all of these TV political debates are starting to look and sound the same? You’re not wrong. But that’s because we keep demanding (and rewarding) the same destructive behaviour by politicians

Does this sound familiar? It is a distilled version of what we all heard at the televised BBC general election debate in Cambridge this past Wednesday, and at nearly every TV election debate that has ever taken place in this country since we imported a dumbed-down version of American presidential debates back in 2010:

Vote for me, I’ll keep you safe from terror. Just gonna need your Facebook password, please. No, vote for me, I’ll keep the economy strong because we all know the only point of a strong economy is to raise more tax to spend on the NHS. Liar! You want to destroy Our Precious NHS! You want people to die in the streets when they get sick, just like they do in America. No, we are now the true party of the NHS! Anything for Our NHS, oh god, anything and everything, my very life for Our Blessed NHS.

Oi! Look over here, free university tuition! Yeah, it’s subsidised by the taxes of other people who never went to university and whose earning power has not been boosted through having a degree, but still. Fairness! Young people are the future! No, no, no, it’s all about the environment. That evil party wants to build an experimental nuclear fusion plant in your grandmother’s basement, and frack for oil in the middle of Lake Windermere. But we will bulldoze nasty, Brexit-supporting Stoke-on-Trent and replace it with a massive solar panel field. Much better.

No, look over here! We will bring back British Rail; remember how great British Rail was? Who needs Pret when you’ve got a trusty British Rail egg and cress sandwich? Nice and warm, of course, just like the good old days. Let’s have car-commuting taxpayers in Gainsborough subsidise the travel of London-based city commuters, because fairness. British Rail? Scoff. I’ll see your British Rail and raise you British Leyland! Woohoo – nationalisation, baby! For the Common Good.

All immigrants are a godsend, to the last man. If it weren’t for immigrants, your inflamed appendix would have been dug out by a native-born, chain-smoking school dropout with a can of special brew in his spare hand, and don’t you forget it. No, of course we should have a sensible, measured conversation about immigration. It’s just that I’ll stand here and shriek into the TV cameras that you’re an evil, divisive racist if you disagree with me. But please, go ahead. No no, we should listen patiently to people’s concerns and then carefully explain to them why they are wrong. People love that.

Oh, you? No dear, you don’t have to do anything. We, the politicians, are here to promise you stuff, to pander to your every passing whim. If I’m prime minister, I will make it my overriding personal concern to fix the broken chairs at your GP surgery waiting room – I’ll come round and do it myself, I’ve got some tools in the shed – and make sure that New British Rail adds free wifi to your single-carriage metro train between Stoke and Crewe. Seriously, no worries. I’ll call the boss at 6AM every day until it happens. NATO summit? Geopolitics? Statecraft? Boring! Why be a statesman when I can be a glorified town councillor for 65 million insatiable people? I’m on the case for you, and your every last petty concern. I’ll read foreign policy briefings when I’m on the can, that stuff doesn’t matter.

Heavens no, of course we don’t need to properly empower local politicians to make decisions in the local interest, raising and spending taxes independently of Westminster. For I am running to be Comptroller of British Public Services, and my sole job, my only care in the world is to make your passage through life as easy and painless as possible. You and 65 million of your fellow citizens. The buck stops with me, because public services are everything. After all, Britain didn’t do anything of value or renown on the world stage until we starting implementing the Beveridge Report. Not a damn thing. And now we’ve jacked up the size of the state so much and you have to deal with it so bloody frequently that we’d darn well better make sure you come skipping away happy from every last interaction – too many bad experiences for you are political suicide for us.

All hail the NHS!

All hail the NHS!

All hail the NHS!

The problem is not that television debates cannot be substantive – they can. While US presidential elections in recent years have devolved into tense shouting matches with cringeworthy one-liners and a partisan audience clapping and whooping along like trained seals, this was not always the case. Go back even a few election cycles and you’ll find issues discussed in depth and sometimes even thoughtfully, even if they still adhered to the ludicrous “one minute response and 30 second counter-response” format.

No, the problem is with us. As I wrote in more depth immediately after the BBC’s general election party leaders’ debate in Cambridge, we have been trained and willingly led to a place where we expect our politicians to do nothing but flatter and bribe us all day long. We sit in the television studio audiences at Question Time or other venues, sullenly waiting to hear how politicians will come up with new ways to ease our passage through life, divesting ourselves of more and more responsibility with every passing day.

(It also doesn’t help when you have four irrelevant party leaders clogging up the stage who command no more than a handful of MPs between them and whose tiresome leftist bloviating and virtue-signalling hugely detracts from what should be a no-holds-barred slugfest between the two people with a plausible chance of running the country.)

A friend reminded me on Facebook that immediately after the BBC election debate, they aired an ad featuring a montage of British voters staring into the camera and barking out phrases such as “But what will the parties do for me?”, “What’s in it for me?” and “How will these policies affect me?” – the clear inference being that by watching the BBC’s election coverage we can learn all about how policy will personally benefit us, Number One, me me me. Because that’s all that matters. No need for voters to think in a broader, more strategic way about what’s good for the country or society. No, just keep demanding more and more goodies for ourselves.

But then a wise commenter made the following observation on Twitter:

Interesting but the ‘public’ is not infantilised, people talk about political, social & ideology at length & intelligently…

… arguably it’s the media that does the infantilising. People are patronised by the broadcasters.

True, to an extent – possibly even a large extent. Go back to the Kennedy – Nixon debates, for example, and you’ll find a serious, measured discussion of issues. Seriously, watch them. Even as recently as two election cycles ago you might expect a proper in-depth discussion of foreign policy, war and peace, national security, America’s place in the world, economic policy, domestic and social policy. The standard has of course greatly declined of late – as anybody who watched Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton fling faeces at each other for 2 hours on three separate evenings last year can attest.

And it is hard to point to anything other than the fracturing of the media landscape – something which should have been a promising development but which has led instead to shrill partisan outlets of all stripes catering to their niche audience’s basest fears and prejudices. And that goes for “prestige” outlets like the Washington Post and New York Times, with their soft and persistent bias, as much as it does with those outlets that peddle in outrageous, obviously fake news.

Interestingly, the media market in Britain is not yet as fractured. The BBC (particularly the news website) and the major newspapers (whose websites have worked tirelessly to suppress the independent blogosphere) still have considerable reach. There are no strongly partisan news channels, and political sites have much smaller reach. But like America, Britain’s politics has been upended by the internet and social media. And just as we now expect our Facebook, Twitter or Instragram feeds to serve up a constant diet of things that we like and with which we already agree, so we now seem to demand the same of our politicians. Nothing challenging, nothing which shocks us out of our preconceived ideas and prejudices, nothing which threatens to change or undermine our worldview.

The soundbite-ification of the television news also certainly doesn’t help, and is the principle reason why there has not been a good or memorable political speech by a major British politician (at least outside the House of Commons) in the living memory of anybody my age. When speeches are written so that the campaign’s key message is included in every other line, to ensure it gets picked up in a 30-second TV news piece, they essentially become meaningless word clouds of platitudes and focus-grouped phrases. Strong and stable, anyone? It is very difficult to inspire, to lift people’s thoughts above their own petty daily concerns to higher and more noble subjects when you have to keep saying “coalition of chaos” twice in each paragraph.

But again, who is to blame? Yes, it’s the fault of the media and the politicians who accept the terms of engagement and play along with the whole artificial construct. But it is also our fault. We watch the news bulletins. We buy the newspapers and take out the web subscriptions. We reward the godawful work that so many establishment Westminster journalists do, day in and day out.

Expecting the herd to change on their own is a recipe for disappointment. We need one brave politician, or perhaps a few, to just stop playing along with the rules. To stand up and give speeches where audiences and journalists actually have to listen to the whole thing before they understand the purpose or can write their Op-Eds. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn probably comes closest at present. As anathema as his politics are to this blog, Corbyn is capable of giving a speech – such as the one to the Durham Miners’ Gala earlier this year – which is actually formed in complete sentences and paragraphs, not one-liners and soundbites. The fact that Jeremy Corbyn is a conviction politician with a coherent worldview goes a long way to making this possible, and also explains why Theresa May so often sounds like a malfunctioning android.

Of course, another politician to break the mold is Donald Trump – but not in a good way. His long, rambling and unpredictable speeches were also free of canned lines and soundbites (or at least pre-planned ones) but he kept the television news networks transfixed, giving him hours of unearned airtime simply because you never knew what he might say next or what incendiary thing he might do. But Trump also won the presidency by promising things which he could likely never deliver, and many of which are actually deeply un-American, such as security over opportunity, protection from every conceivable harm and turning back to an easier past time rather than boldly facing the future.

So clearly what we need to do is genetically engineer a hybrid of Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump, and indoctrinate them with some good solid small-government impulses before letting them loose on Westminster. We need somebody with Jeremy Corbyn’s consistent worldview and fixed principles, though each of those principles should be reversed almost 180 degrees. And we need somebody with Donald Trump’s watchability and pseudo-charisma, but only after extracting the egotism, ignorance and vengefulness. And when these two forces collide, like matter and anti-matter, it will create more power and political energy than we can possibly imagine.

Okay, maybe not. But something needs to give – or somebody needs to step up; somebody who is not a cautious careerist who intends only to get to the top of the Westminster pole by being as blandly inoffensive as possible and by playing along with the media’s prescribed game. Someone needs to take a chance and dare to hope that the British people might actually respond well to somebody who talks up to them rather than down to them, who levels with them about difficult issues and necessary sacrifices, and who can present an attractive and believable vision of a future Britain worth striving to attain.

The alternative is that we will continue being bribed, flattered and lied to by a cohort of vacuous and craven politicians who never even think of calling us to any form of real citizenship or higher common purpose because their own political and moral horizons have been so limited by the infantilising system under which we labour. A system which encourages the people to shout petulantly for treats like angry toddlers with a gun, and exhorts our would-be leaders to frantically dance for us in response.

There may just be a small window of opportunity before the dust settles from the election results on 9 June. Future Thatcher, if you are out there, it’s time to emerge…

 

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Stop Applauding “Election Fatigued” Brenda From Bristol

If you are emotionally taxed by having to trundle off to your local polling station once a year, maybe you don’t deserve the privileges of citizenship

I know that the cardinal rule of politics is that the people are always right (unless they happened to vote for Brexit) and must be praised, flattered, bribed and otherwise pandered to at all times, but sometimes individual people are wrong and need to be told as much.

Among this category of people: those who have been extravagantly expressing election fatigue, as though having to spend 30 minutes travelling to their local polling station and putting a cross in a box is far too arduous a task to be demanded on anything more than a biannual basis.

On the day that Theresa May announced that she would seek an early general election on 8 June, “Brenda from Bristol” became an overnight celebrity for her comically exaggerated negative response to a BBC reporter’s request for a vox pop asking her opinion on having to choose a government again.

Naturally in this day and age, Brenda from Bristol immediately went viral, as George Osborne’s rag the Evening Standard reports:

A woman from Bristol whose nonplussed response to news of the General Election sparked a wave of support across the country has told reporters she cannot believe her new “celebrity” status.

Brenda from Bristol caused a stir this week when she was asked what she thought of the election and replied: “You’re joking? Not another one!”

“Oh for God’s sake, I can’t honestly… I can’t stand this.

“There’s too much politics going on at the moment. Why does she need to do it?”

She was later tracked down by BBC reporter John Kay who asked her what she thought of her newfound fame.

According to the same report, Brenda from Bristol is now being “inundated with offers” from other media outlets to offer her comically exaggerated world-weary take on the election campaign on an ongoing basis, by news outlets that would rather get their viewers to chuckle along to something inane than attempt the hard work of educating them on matters of policy.

Meanwhile, nobody seems to have stopped to question whether throwing a hissy fit about being summoned back to the polling station is actually praiseworthy behaviour in the first place.

Even the normally aloof and anti-populist New Statesman sycophantically applauds Brenda from Bristol’s anti-election tirade:

What was your reaction when you found out that there would be yet another election?

That your doormat would no longer be a doormat but a hellish rectangle tiled with garish leaflets of smiling white men making hollow promises? That the only thing on the news now will be people saying the word mandate with increasing passion and intensity? That your Facebook wall will no longer be a heartwarming collage of when you first virtually connected with your lifelong friends but one long sincere ill-written political screed with neither paragraph nor point, but asterisks nonetheless? That you will have to wake up, yet again, dead-eyed and clammy-skinned, on the morning after an election, yet again, to your radio telling you your country voted, yet again, to kick itself wholeheartedly in the teeth?

From the highbrow to the lowbrow press, in other words, Brenda from Bristol is being held up as a role model, lavishly rewarded for a fleeting moment of pointless fame in much the same way that Abby Tomlinson was forced into our collective consciousness after creating the “Milifandom” on social media.

‘Twas ever thus. Pitch a memorable hissy fit on Question Time or heckle a senior politician while the cameras are rolling and the nation’s political media will beat a path to your door as though you are some kind of political oracle, uniquely able to capture and channel the zeitgeist of the moment. Spend your time wading through important but impossibly dense documents and breaking them down so that regular people can get to grips with complex policy issues (as Richard North of eureferendum.com and Pete North do so well) and you can look forward to toiling in semi-obscurity, senior journalists well aware of who you are but determined to keep the spotlight away from anybody they consider to be a professional threat.

In a year’s time, Brenda from Bristol will likely have her own talk show, in which fawning politicians will appear to be mockingly berated for trying her patience. Or some enterprising millennial will have set up a YouTube channel for her, in which she records two-minute rants about various policy issues which grind her gears or overly stretch her powers of concentration.

And why? What did Brenda from Bristol do to deserve this fame and this overwhelmingly positive public reaction? She suggested that there is “too much politics”, and that it is unreasonable for ordinary people to march themselves down to a polling station as frequently as once per year to offer their input as to how the country should be run.

Brenda from Bristol is essentially Richard Dawkins’s haughty attitude about non-experts daring to dabble in politics made flesh. Dawkins is famously of the opinion that matters like Britain’s membership of the European Union are so complex and so technocratic that they should be taken permanently out of the hands of ordinary people and left to self-described experts, who of course think dispassionately at all times and are never prone to biases or antipathies which colour their judgments.

This is the real reason why the media is so overwhelmingly supportive of Brenda from Bristol, and why she is receiving so much unearned airtime. Most political journalists are themselves members of the political and cultural elite who have been most upset by Tory rule and further destabilised by Brexit. Nearly to the last person, they support the EU and revile populism because at their core they believe that the people and their base passions should be kept at arm’s length from the levers of political control.

Sure, the political and media class were happy for us to vote once every five years so long as we were picking from a palette of political opinions which are all just varying shades of beige – pro-EU, pro-mass immigration, pro-globalisation, pro-multiculturalism, pro-NHS, pro-welfare state and so on. But when true democratic choice becomes available – as it was with Brexit, and as Jeremy Corbyn currently offers with the Labour Party – they take fright, worried that the British people will select a future for themselves other than the one which the elite have carefully laid out.

No wonder that Brenda from Bristol unwittingly became their idol. Albeit for very different reasons – sheer laziness on the part of Brenda, a desire to regain the initiative and take back control on the part of the elite – both of them want the same thing. Both Brenda and the political elite want ordinary people to outsource the major decisions impacting their lives to an elite class of self-described experts. They essentially support technocracy over democracy.

The rise of Brenda from Bristol therefore damns us all. It puts much of our political and media class to shame for disrespecting democracy and seeking to put down the growing rebellion against self-interested rule of the elites, by the elites and for the elites. But it also puts we the people to shame for being so lacking in political engagement and civic virtue that we genuinely consider it an unwarranted imposition to have to remain educated on political matters throughout the five-year electoral cycle.

Brenda from Bristol represents a shared desire for a return to the stale old status quo, where bipartisan consensus on all the core questions made a mockery of democracy and rendered general elections a mere “rubber stamp” occasionally given by the people to the political elite.

For the sake of all the work we have done to overthrow this failed model of governance, we should stop praising her.

 

Brenda from Bristol - UK Britain General Election 2017 - Voter Apathy

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Is Widespread Voter Apathy Acceptable In a Country Like Britain?

Voter Apathy Party - Futurama

Britain’s relative peace and prosperity are no excuse for us to shirk our duty to be informed and engaged citizens

This blog has little time – and much contempt – for voter apathy and the politically disengaged.

Only last September, while the Labour leadership contest raged, I was complaining about low-information “swing voters”:

What if the fabled political centre doesn’t exist – or is only a small group casting a large shadow, while another unacknowledged mass of voters goes unnoticed and un-courted by the main political parties?

[..] What if rather than there being a rich goldmine of real centrist voters out there – people who pay close attention to politics and legitimately arrive at a position somewhere between Labour and the Tories – there is instead just a massive, congealed fatburg of low-information voters bobbing around, people who simply haven’t paid enough attention to come to an informed opinion about the great issues of the day?

By contrast, Janan Ganesh has an interesting and thoughtful piece in the Financial Times, basically defending non-voters and holding them up as an example of everything that is going right with our society:

All politicians understand Yes, No and Undecided. Only the winners understand Don’t Much Care. Mr Cameron communicates crisply because he knows most people only tune in for a few minutes a day. He does not lose himself in marginalia that no swing voter will ever notice. Rousing a nation through force of personality is something leaders do in films: the real art of politics is accepting apathy and bending it to your purposes.

[..] Apathy is a respectable disposition in a country where, for most people most of the time, life is tolerable-to-good. There are nations with much hotter politics, and they tend to send refugees to tedious old Britain.

This should be the most obvious thing in the world. You will have several friends who match this profile of contented languor. But among politicos, on the Labour side especially, it is a shock finding. They priggishly elide apathy with dysfunction: if voters do not care, something must be wrong with the body politic.

Ganesh concludes:

Apathetic Britons are not waiting to be redeemed. They just have lives to get on with. Not only are they apolitical; they rouse themselves to vote every five years precisely to stop hot heads and crusaders from running their country. They like Mr Cameron because he governs well enough to save them having to think about politics. He is prime minister because someone has to be.

I don’t necessarily disagree with Janan Ganesh’s view of the political landscape and voter apathy as it currently stands. But I do take strong exception to any suggestion that this is how things should be in an ideal Britain, or a prosperous Britain.

Do I have the right to expect and demand that everyone else share the same interests and obsessions as me, or that they campaign for them and partake of them as loudly and vociferously as I do? Clearly not. Everybody should be free to pursue their own happiness in any way that they like, so long as they do not infringe on the rights of anyone else.

But what happens when one bloc of people acting as a bovine herd of politically disinterested consumers allows the dominant political class to get away with just about any scheme, machination or conspiracy that they choose? Such people may have the right to stay glued to Britain’s Strictly Come Bake Off On Ice while our democracy erodes and collapses from within, but does their apathy and lack of interest not infringe on my right to live in a society where the government is properly held to account? I would argue that yes, it does.

Now, I can’t tie the politically disengaged to a chair, clamp their eyes open and force them to watch Today In Parliament on an endless loop. Nor should I be able to do so. Even if we could take the hugely illiberal step of forcing such people to pay attention to politics or even make voting mandatory, by their bovine nature many of them would make ill-informed, capricious or spiteful voting choices which would hardly enrich our democracy.

But if we can all accept that the right of the non-voters to sit on the couch and fester in their own KFC grease trumps my desire to make them sit up and pay attention to several highly pressing political questions which will have profound consequences for how Britain (and even humanity as a whole) is governed in future, can we at least stop putting these bovine people on a moral pedestal?

Where Janan Ganesh goes too far in his article is when he praises the politically disengaged as a symptom of a well functioning system where all of the major existential and ideological questions have been settled, leaving nothing to argue over besides pernickety points about the technocratic management of our public services.

For in truth, some of the biggest questions facing human civilisation have indeed not yet been settled. They have just been masked and papered over by an artificial political consensus among the major British political parties and the Westminster-dwelling establishment.

There is a political consensus that the NHS is a glorious institution, a bureaucratic idol to be worshipped and uncritically praised from dawn to dusk, as well as the best way of delivering universal healthcare to a large, developed country. But the NHS model does not exist in any other major modern democracy – there is, in reality, no intellectual consensus that it is the best solution. There is just a lazy ideological consensus of convenience among the political class, who prefer to pander for votes by singing hymns of praise to the NHS rather than talking critically about how to make British healthcare better.

There is a near-universal political consensus among the establishment that the European Union is a Good Thing. That this one particular very dated mid-century form of internationalism represents the future of European governance, and that the nation state is antiquated and passé. A vocal minority of British people begged to differ, and now – despite the kicking and screaming of the establishment – we are going to have a referendum to decide whether or not we want to remain part of the Brussels club. The Westminster elite always claimed that there was such a popular pro-EU consensus that a referendum was unnecessary, but clearly this was not so.

And so it goes, from issue to issue. What are in fact gross and damning failures of imagination or political courage from the main political parties are continually presented as some high-minded form of consensus that Britain has got all of the major questions figured out. But the rise of UKIP, the Green Party, the SNP and the coming EU referendum tell us that this is in fact not the case at all.

Therefore it is worth going back to Janan Ganesh’s assertion and asking which came first: the chicken or the egg? Are many voters really disengaged and apathetic because they are broadly satisfied with the status quo and an often-artificial consensus between the main political parties? Or is this dull, suffocating consensus actually the reason why so many people are politically disengaged in the first place?

Nothing in Ganesh’s article provides convincing proof that it is the former – that millions of people stay home on election day because they are broadly happy with the way things are. That’s not to say that such people do not make up an element – potentially a sizeable part – of disengaged voters. But even these voters are not excused.

Maybe these people really are content with the status quo and impatient to get on with their lives, more concerned with moving up the property ladder or buying the latest iDevice to show off to their friends than they are with tedious subjects like welfare reform or the EU referendum.

But such people should be criticised and urged to step up, not praised or held out as an proof that the system “works”. There is nothing noble about forgetting one’s duties as a citizen as soon as one reaches a position of economic comfort and security. Having 2.4 children, a house with a paid-off mortgage and some cash in the bank does not alleviate one’s responsibility to think about how best to secure prosperity, security and freedom for everyone else. And so long as the state has the power to regulate the things which we are allowed to drink, smoke, eat, read, hear, associate with or say, we are derelict in our duty as citizens if we blithely ignore what the government of the day is doing.

Janan Ganesh does an excellent job of summarising where we are, of describing what Britain is like at the moment. But where he and I part company is our differing view of whether the status quo is anything to be remotely pleased about.

Swing Voters - Couch Potato

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