Thursday, 30 April 2015

The emerging rage with Labour

It isn't an uncommon experience during the election to stare open-mouthed, night after night, at the television - staggered that nobody else seems to see things the way you do.

That is partly a sign of mild instability, of course.  But it may also be a ubiquitous experience for sane people as well.  It is an odd election, after all.

And I'll tell you what the oddest element is for me.  It is the apparently universal opinion, in the commentariat, that Ed Miliband is having a good campaign.

I'm aware, of course, that expectations were low.  I'm aware that most people believed he and the Labour Party would fall on their faces in the first week of the campaign, and they didn't.  But compare Labour's performance, stuck on one of their lower vote shares in the history of the party, with what might have been expected of them in years gone by.

This is after all the official opposition, facing a not particularly popular coalition in the midst of austerity and worryingly tight budgets.  Yet, the BBC poll of polls last night put them on just 33 per cent.

Of course, this is partly about Scotland, where the latest poll I saw showed Labour just within three points of the hated Tories.  An unheard of reverse.

But Scotland is a symptom of the same basic problem - the slow but inexorable decline of Labourism, the dawning understanding of what Labourism has meant in Scottish cities, just as in English ones.  Also perhaps (or maybe this is just me) the bizarre way in which Andy Burnham can stomp around complaining about the 'marketisation' of the NHS when he was part of the government which marketised it in the first place.

So here we are: three of the deep reasons why this election appears to mark a hopeless nadir for the Labour Party, not a hopeful challenge after all:

1.  Because of the policy gap.  This has been a huge gap since the Second World War between what they argue in opposition compared to what they do in office: PFI contracts, nuclear energy, massive controlling IT projects, and the enthusiastic McKinsey-isation of public services.

2.  Because of public housing.  Again, Scotland is at the sharp end here.  Look what Labour did to Glasgow - the miserable, soulless slum estates, prisons for the poor, that Labour built there.  No wonder they appear to have brought such rage down on their heads.

3.  Because they think the own the poor.  Try to oust them from places they consider their own (Tower Hamlets springs to mind) and the bitterness with which they will fight back is really staggering.  No, the dark side of the Spirit of '45 is alive and well and living in slum housing, PFI contracts and the inner city machine.

The problem with Labour is that it stands for nothing (I agree that the Lib Dems have done passable imitations of this too in the past).  It has no coherent, unifying ideology.  It has no continuity between opposition and government.  As we watch, it appears to be being left behind by parties which - for all their faults - have a purpose and a vision.

I would suggest that this is the real story of the 2015 campaign, the emerging rage with Labour.  But I appear to be the only one who thinks so, in England at least.  What does that make me?

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Wednesday, 29 April 2015

If the Old Pals Act looms again? Stay out...

The biggest constitutional crisis since the Abdication, says Theresa May. It isn’t that yet. Heavens, we haven’t even voted. But the various scenarios certainly point to confusion, as we know only too well.

So let's go a little further into this confused, post-election world.  What will the Conservatives do, faced with what they appear to be calling an ‘illegitimate’ link between Labour and their hated opponents in the SNP? There is no doubt in my mind what they ought to do, if the prospect is really as dangerous as they say it is.

They should hammer out an agreement with Labour for a government of national unity.

A week from polling day, that is hard to imagine. It is hard to see Labour MPs backing a Conservative-led government. It is hard to see Cameron serving under Miliband, but then Cameron will be gone if that situation arises.

That much is familiar. But what would the Lib Dems do in those circumstances? William Hobhouse has written a thought-provoking blog suggesting that PR should be a red line in any post-election negotiations.  The current system is justified on the grounds that it produces strong government.  It manifestly doesn't.

Given that it hasn't, and there was some kind of attempt at a government of national unity, there would be intense pressure on Clegg to take part. I hope very much that he would refuse. For three reasons:

1. The timid leading the dull.  A governing arrangement between Labour and Conservatives would not be difficult ideologically – there isn’t enough difference between them. But it would be a government of the bland leading the conventional, of the timid leading the dull. My goodness, it would be a Stanley Baldwin style 'safety first' government.  It would need an effective opposition.

2. A Scottish leader of the opposition?  If the SNP can’t be in government – though I don’t see why not – they can’t form the official opposition either. Nor should we allow Nigel Farage’s party to take on that mantle.

3. Articulate Liberalism.  The nation needs an articulate Liberalism. It would be time we escaped from the exhausting embrace of Whitehall, and set out to provide one. I can’t think of a more important task.

In the 1980s and 90s, when Liberals were turning a dull and semi-corrupt local government world upside down and inside out, they used to be opposed by a desperate series of local alliances between Labour and Conservative. The Liberals, and then the Lib Dems, used to call it the Old Pals’ Act.

That also seems bizarre looking back, but those were the days when Liberals projected something to say which could not be described as splitting the difference between the other two – and which could be seen as dangerous enough by their opponents that they had to unite in opposition.

If the Old Pals unite again, in a government of national unity to keep out the SNP – and they might – then there would be no useful role the Lib Dems could play inside such a horrific amalgam of a stultified, constipated establishment.

But an absolutely vital role outside it.

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Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Submarine under the Dardanelles, exactly a century on

The Dardanelles in the early hours of 27 April 1915, exactly a hundred years ago yesterday morning. Here Agamemnon and the Greeks landed for the attack on Troy. Here Xerxes had ordered the sea to be lashed for destroying his invasion bridges. Here Lord Byron swam against the Hellespont current.

Now it was the very portals of the Ottoman Empire for the crew of the British submarine E14, staring silently into the darkness from the small conning tower, eight feet above the waves. It meant mines, forts, searchlights and wire submarine nets. It meant a formidable current pouring fresh water over strange and unpredictable layers of salt water up the 38 mile passage from the Mediterranean to the Sea of Marmora, and through one narrow point only three quarters of a mile wide. It meant undertaking possibly the longest dive ever contemplated in a submarine.

It also meant passing the wreckage of the submarines that had tried to pass that way in the days and weeks before, the French submarine Saphir and the British E15, lying wrecked and battered on a sandbank off Kephez Point, their dead buried on the beach, their survivors in captivity.

The sea was absolutely smooth and there was only a breath of air from the movement of the submarine itself. The canvas screens around the bridge had been removed to make the conning tower less visible. The electric batteries that would power their motors underwater had been charged to their highest pitch, as they waited in their harbour of Tenedos with its medieval castle, its windmills and its Greek sailing caiques, just a few miles from the site of ancient Troy.

E14 had weighed anchor at 1.40 in the morning. There was no escort for their lonely voyage. The goodbyes had been said. They had written their farewell letters, knowing that the chances were now against their survival, and given them into safekeeping.

The submarine’s captain, Lieutenant Commander Courtney Boyle, had written three – to his wife, his parents and his solicitor – in the three hours warning he had been given at Mudros harbour the day before. Now he stood in his navy greatcoat, holding onto the rail, his binoculars around his neck, staring ahead in the blackness at the navigation lights of the allied warships, the greens and reds slipping away behind him.

Next to him, his navigating officer, Lieutenant Reginald Lawrence, only 22 years old, a reserve officer from the merchant navy, who had been there just a year before in peacetime. Below, the executive officer, Edward Stanley, was supervising the control room, listening to the rhythmic pulse of the engines.

It was a flat calm and there was no moon. From the northern shore in the distance ahead of them came the boom of guns and the flash of high explosive, a reminder that British, Australian, New Zealand and Indian troops were now dug in on the beaches, after their dramatic and perilous landings 48 hours before. Closer to the invasion beaches, they could see the shimmer of tiny glows from the trenches, the cigarette ends and makeshift fires of the soldiers dug into the dunes.

On their left hand side, there was a huge searchlight by the Suan Dere river; Boyle’s first objective was to get as close as possible to the estuary there before diving. Beyond that, he could see searchlights on both shores, sweeping the sea ahead of them. He and Lawrence reckoned the one past the white cliffs on the southern shore must be Kephez Point, where E15 had come to grief and, further ahead, a more powerful yellow light, was the great fort at Chanak.

One diesel engine drove them ahead, and the noise and the fumes were horribly apparent to anyone on the conning tower, where the exhaust pipe was. Boyle was as experienced a submarine commander as any other afloat, but he was aware that he had not quite earned his commander’s confidence. The calculations about speed, battery endurance, current and all the rest had been going through his head constantly since the dramatic meeting in the fleet flagship just two weeks before when – like all but one in the room – he had judged the venture impossible. The single dissenting voice was now dead.

But Boyle did have a plan. It was to get as far as possible to conserve their battery before diving, to dive as deep as possible under the obstructions, but to rise to periscope depth as often as possible in the most difficult sections of the journey, where the current was most unpredictable, to make sure the submarine did not drift He was acutely aware that his own skill and experience was now the determining factor, above all others, in his survival, the survival of the other 29 men on board, and of course of the success or otherwise of the mission.

They passed a brightly lit hospital ship, with its red crosses illuminated under spotlights, and then they were alone at the mouth of the Dardanelles. The crew were sent below and the engine room hatch was closed as a precaution. The Suan Dere searchlight loomed ahead, swept over them and then came back. Had they been seen? It flashed away again. It was not clear either how much the stripped down conning tower was visible.

Then the searchlight was back and this time it stayed on them for 30 seconds. Lawrence gave a strained laugh. They had been seen. Boyle sent Lawrence below and ordered diving stations. By the time the hatch had been shut behind them, and they had swept down the iron ladder into the control room, two shots had been fired.

Lawrence settled down with his notebook in the control room. “Now we had really started on our long dive,” he wrote later. Everything now depended on the captain’s skill and the resources of their electric batteries to drive them underwater...

Find out what happened next in my book Unheard, Unseen (£1.99) (also paperback version).

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Monday, 27 April 2015

40p a minute - why isn't it an election issue?

I had to phone the HMRC’s tax credits helpline last week. I had to report that my household income had risen this month. I’m obliged to do so for fear of the most appalling consequences if I don’t. I can’t apparently do so online, at least until my annual information pack arrives in July.

The experience was so infuriating and has made me think rather differently about the election campaign.

The helpline is not a freephone, it's an 0345 number. I had to hang on twice – first for an hour and a quarter, after which someone rang my front door bell and I had to ring off. Then I tried again and eventually got through the switchboard after 45 minutes. That is about 120 minutes at 9p a minute which comes to just over £10 I paid for the privilege of hanging on listening to their music tape.

I can afford £10, though it is infuriating that I should have to pay for their official incompetence. If I had been too poor for a landline and had to hang on via a mobile at the rate of up to 40p a minute, that is nearly £50 I would have been expected to pay via my phone bill.  Just to do what the law insists or to ask advice about it.

That kind of incompetence, enforced with all the weight of the law, is absolutely scandalous. Yet it apparently has no place in this or any other election campaign. 

So I sympathise with Aditya Chakraborrty and agree with him about the issues that are not being hammered out in this election. It is hard to list any that have, at least in any way that spreads light rather than confusion.

Labour says nothing (though the announcements about housing today were at least a shot in vaguely the right direction, though it wouldn't have the right effect.  And the Conservatives say nothing, and stay silent about how they are going to pay for it.  When they do say anything, the others say something fatuous about their "sums not adding up" (who was that today, I wonder?).

I agree with Nick Tyrone also that the lack of debate, lack of ideas has also been staggering. Dull in the extreme as the Westminster village gets excited about the prime minister’s football allegiances. But the issues, in what is supposed to be the most important election for a generation, go undiscussed.

The traditional answer is that the election campaign must focus on ‘bread-and-butter’ issues. This usually means long screeds of meaningless statistics about childcare, wages or the cost of living.

What is doesn’t apparently encompass is the sheer incompetence and arrogant authoritarianism of the central government services the poor have to deal with, at great expense and inconvenience in time and money.

Of course it isn’t just the poor who are at the sharp end of this bread-and-butter issue. As a company director, I’ve been warned by Companies House that I must offer my one employee (me) a pension by 31 March or face a stiff fine. I’ve been warned to expect log-in details. But can they be bothered to send the log-in details by their own deadline? No, they can’t – and presumably the stiff fines they were preparing for me don’t apply to them.

This isn’t a complaint about privatised services – they are just as bad, just as arrogant, bullying and incompetent. This isn’t about public versus private, and is therefore not recognisable as a relevant election issue. Yet it affects everyone, every day.

Election issues need to be expressed in an approved way, with enough technocratic jargon to make them sufficiently obscure. They need to be about issues where there is some obvious division between the parties.

This doesn’t. Nor do all the other incompetences and inhumanity we have to deal with in the labyrinthine services, state and corporate, that we face every day. Yet personally, in my current mood, I would imprison whoever is responsible.

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Thursday, 23 April 2015

Rupert Brooke, the antidote to Big Englandism, died a century ago today


Today is April 23, a date of some significance.  It is St George's Day.  It is Shakespeare's birthday and deathday.  It is a number of other people's birthdays too (many happy returns, Andrew!).  It is also the day that Rupert Brooke died, exactly a century ago, in 1915.

We could argue about his significance now, and I have done in my short ebook about his death, Rupert Brooke: England's last Patriot.  There will certainly be people who dismiss him as twee, mixed up or naive, or all three. But he was, in a small way, a pioneer.

He articulated a twentieth century Englishness, calm, green, nostalgic and unthreatening (even his famous war poem The Soldier was about death in war not military glory).

His hymn to The Old Vicarage, Grantchester came from this nostalgic, gentle tradition - it is about the quiet which might potentially smooth his nervous breakdown.  It is about a little place, not a big place.

He paved the way, it seems to me, for the mid-century revival of pastoral Englishness, which you can see in the work of Eric Ravilious, now on show at the Dulwich Picture Gallery.  Like Ravilious and Piper and others in the new romantic tradition, Brooke's poems have a kind of glowing transcendence about them (perhaps ntot he one about being sick on a Channel ferry, but Grantchester and others).

It is a gentle, unassuming, patriotism in the tradition of Jerusalem (see my short book on the history of the song), and it is worth remembering now that there is a more strident, intolerant nationalism abroad at the election hustings.

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Wednesday, 22 April 2015

It was actually John Major's fault (partly)

I was press officer for Democracy Day in 1992, seven days before polling day in the general election.  It was a highly successful stunt organised all over the country by Charter 88.  It nearly killed me at the time.  The conventional media was pretty insulated against anyone 'intervening' in the election campaign from outside Westminster, and publicity was a frustrating business.

It was as if it wasn't really our business.

I seem to remember that Democracy Day achieved two things.  First, it successfully put the constitution on the political map - PR for elections, devolution to Scotland and Wales and so on.  Not at the time, but for later.

Second, a Conservative official had overheard Roy Hattersley talking about Labour's campaign plans over lunch at the Atrium restaurant - the plotter's eating house of choice in those days - and because of that, they knew Labour was planning to respond positively.  They were also ready for them.  A deluge of criticism engulfed us all the next morning.

It particularly energised John Major on his soapbox.  "The United Kingdom is in danger," he said.  "Wake up, my fellow countrymen!"

I was reminded of that today with Major's mildly hysterical intervention in this campaign, nearly a quarter of a century later.  But the Major sentence which really grabbed my attention yesterday was this one:

"This is a recipe for mayhem. At the very moment our country needs a strong and stable government, we risk a weak and unstable one..."

It is worth thinking back 23 years to remember why we are risking this 'weak and unstable government'.  It is because no action was taken then or later to make the voting system more representative.

The usual failure of the voting system to reflect Lib Dem support goes almost without much mention these days.  It looks as though Ukip or Green support may be almost as big (I think the Lib Dems will overtake Ukip in the popular vote) but may end up with one MP each.  You may not like their message, but virtually excluding them from Parliament will only bring the whole caboodle even further into disrepute.

But the real problem is looming in Scotland.  Because Major, Blair, Brown and - let's face it, Cameron too - failed to act, there is a serious prospect that the SNP will take most of the seats in Scotland with around half the vote.

I don't buy the argument that this is an unprecedented disaster in itself - the Victorian Liberal governments were supported by the votes of the Irish Nationalists - but if it doesn't reflect the democratic vote, then of course it will be unstable, possibly violently so.

I don't want to blame Major personally for this failure, though he has to take a share of the blame.  But it is part of a wider, more complex problem.

It is this.  Because the two old parties of government are insulated by the system, they tend to exemplify the two great British political skills - doing nothing about a clear and present danger to life in the UK for decade after decade, then riding roughshod over everyone by cobbling together a last-minute sticking plaster solution.  

So if you want to know why we are in danger of the 'weak and unstable government' that John Major describes, it is worth remembering that it was eminently preventable.

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Tuesday, 21 April 2015

The rise of nationalism is Labour's fault

The burst of excitement about politics in Scotland is really unprecedented.  It requires a little explanation, and why people who have been turned off from politics appear to be turning - to some extent at least - to nationalists.  Nationalists, with all their intolerance too, which is all too obvious as they shout down opposing candidates in the streets.

Why?  It seems to me that there are two reasons.

First, the idea of imagining your own nation has an empowering effect, whether it is practical or not.  It allows people to imagine solutions to intractable problems which appear to have been ruled out by an exhausted elite at Westminster.

In Westminster, nothing appears to be possible.  Issues tend to be framed in terms of gestures within existing institutions, or in terms of budgets, which might have little or nothing to do with the basic problem.  The independence debate appears to have allowed politicians to sidestep their besetting sin: the worship of existing institutions, and a blindness to their manifest failures.

It is bound to be energising when you find yourself in a political culture that is prepared - rightly or wrongly - to think boldly.  It is worth remembering this in the future if, as seems increasingly fraught, we are ever going to persuade Scotland to stay in the union.

Second, it  seems pretty clear that the swing to the SNP is primarily an anti-Labour swing.  It means that people have suddenly grown up, have looked around themselves and feel a sense of rage that they have been trapped, abused and taken for granted all these years by the old style arrogance of the Labour Party.

In this respect, again, the swing to the SNP must appear like a liberation.  And look at the housing around Glasgow and you realise the appallingly inhuman mess that Labour rule has made of Scotland since the Second World War.

When I saw some of the estates in Glasgow for the first time, they took my breath away.  In fact you could see that Labour-style mass houisng, inhuman and technocratic and degrading, as a vision of everything that has gone wrong with politics in the UK over the same period.

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