Sunday, 12 October 2014

The Men In Grey

Shades of grey - 4 variations on the same theme; even if there is a more "exciting" range of suit shades; sort of.

Nick Clegg famously (well, sort of) "realised" that austerity was a necessary remedy for Britain's banking crisis one morning as he was shaving during the 2010 election campaign - although he neglected to share his insight with the rest of us until after the polls had closed. After all, perhaps sales of "I Agree with Nick" memorabilia (for that is all it is now) would not have been so brisk at the Lib Dem shop.

Wind forward to earlier this year - the morning of 27 March to be precise, and you might have wondered what Nick was thinking as he looked in the mirror that morning - perhaps he had to look twice when he thought he spied a little Nigel Farage dart behind him with a broad smile requiring no toothpaste. After losing the first of their two televised debates by a wide margin (57 to 36% favoured Farage), Clegg must indeed have pondered about what he had let out the linen cupboard.

Fact-stuffed to his finger tips, Clegg had set out to disabuse the public of Farage's claims about the EU. In typically misguided technocratic fashion, he thought that he could blow away the UKIP leader by showing his claims to be little but castles of sand: £55 million a day for Britain's membership of the EU? Nonsense, it's a snip as £33 million net after deductions and repayments! 70% of British laws set by Brussels? Nonsense - anyone could tell you that it is between 10% and %50 depending how you catgeorise things. How could Farage possibly win the debate after getting such facts wrong?

Clegg like so many in the political class, inured to years of tick box politics, is blinded by facts: but the fact is that their much-loved evidence-based research can prove just about anything: hospital queues have increased or decreased;  poverty is better or worse (or absolute or relative and if so what sort of relative?); people are better or worse off - all dependent on which sleight of hand or "weighting" is applied. All these statistics, they believe, can justify what they have done, how they have behaved and prove pesky people like Nigel Farage wrong.

Except it doesn't work. Because Farage cleverly represents how some people feel and very powerfully in some respects. Like so many populists, he has caught a mood, played on it and capitalised on it. Fear of the (supposed) unknown: foreigners taking our jobs, foreign governments telling us what to do while supposedly breaking all the rules themselves, and so on. And as we have seen this week even in a town with few migrants indeed, Clacton-on-Sea, it works powerfully to UKIP's gain - and nearly did so hundreds of miles away in the north at the Heywood & Middleton by-election on the same day as well.

Now these feelings may not be based on facts (although years of spurious facts being peddled by the media has very effectively created the impression that they are). They may even be factually incorrect - but that still doesn't matter; because facing declining living standards and joblessness, some people will indeed turn to the most visible scapegoats offered up by UKIP (and reinforced by the media) in their midst, however wrong it may well be to blame them. Similarly, the "fact" that UKIP stands for tax cuts for millionaires, deregulation for bankers and cuts to the NHS may not go far unless there is an alternative narrative that says we can feel ok about ourselves and others, that we can trust our neighbours and unite against disproportionate inequality. So far, none of the main parties offer such, nor, with all of them united on things like the benefits cap, are they likely too.

And what our stats-driven, pseudo-technocratic elite don't understand, perhaps because to their Vulcan-mindsets it isn't logical, is feeling. How emotional can you get over a table of even the most damning figures set against a tearful human face, or a photo of an empty factory, or a queue at a food bank? Yet they will happily, even sociopathically, reel off lists of these things, their smug, knowing faces turning to perplexed confusion when it dawns on them that it isn't working. For while facts are important, especially in laying low some of the lies propagated by UKIP and others on the right, if they are all you have, then shorn of any Vision all you have is an encyclopaedia of today, not a manifesto for tomorrow.

New Labour started this trend among our politicians of putting figures up in place of politics; of citing "key performance measures" over political change. And little wonder, given Blair's abandonment of political ideology - performance targets were all he had left to try to make out it doesn't matter if your liver scan is done by the NHS or by profit-seeking Virgin Clinics or whoever. The result is the Deputy Labour leader, Harriet Harman, flailing about on national TV this morning trying to outdo UKIP on tackling immigration rather than offering a counter-view. But how could she? After so many years of evaluating stats and focus group analyses, she may well not actually have her own view any more, her original thoughts, feelings even, long since lost in the smoke and mirrors of think-tanks and policy wonkery.

So now we face the outcome of this: bereft of belief or values, the self-created, self-serving "political class" (the two words that say it all, really) spread among the two and a quarter established parties are left floundering as UKIP and others advance. UKIP triumphed last week and at the Euroelections in May. Simultaneously, both at the May vote and in many opinion polls since the Greens are vying to overtake the Lib Dems nationally in spite of a virtual media blackout - quite the opposite of UKIP's wall-to-wall coverage of Nigel's every pint.  Meanwhile in Scotland, the enthusiastic Yes campaign seems almost undiminished in spite of the referendum defeat as all the three Westminster parties can, still almost literally, bring themselves to say is, indeed, No or possibly Not Yet. The three Yes parties - the Greens, the Scottish Socialists and the SNP have each experienced an exponential growth in membership - the latter party now approaching 100,000.

 People are looking for alternatives - to my mind, some of these seem very unpleasant alternatives indeed whilst of course I have my own preferences; but what they all do, is touch on humanity (both its good and bad aspects) infinitely more than the anodyne, focus group media politics of the established parties. With UKIP, the challenge for the left is to avoid the pathetic denunciation of their voters as "f***ing thick" and "just fascists" (both cited on a supposedly progressive webpage today) and look beyond vote totals to the actual beliefs of many UKIP voters (as distinct from UKIP itself) - pro-welfare state, pro-public NHS, pro-rail nationalisation and in favour of a higher living wage, in some cases more emphatically so than Labour voters. These are people who feel abandoned because the Labour Party especially took the view so eloquently articulated by that Tribune of the People, Lord Peter Mandelson, when he suggested that "traditional" Labour voters had "nowhere else to go". Well, they've gone and they won't come back to Labour or any other party that treats them so off-handedly.

We need to offer a different story; the one that says ordinary people's problems are not caused by their disabled, migrant, ethnic minority or unemployed neighbours, but rather by the tax-minimising elitists who, among other big parties, fund UKIP. And that UKIP, offering yet another Man-in-a-grey-suit, are not a challenge to the current system - rather just more or the same with a little extra bile and bombast.

The collapse of the political system that has effectively prevailed for the last century marks many dangers ahead - but also the greatest opportunities yet to build a new, fairer society: we can only achieve that by providing a positive way ahead, an end to the politics of fear and loathing and transition to the inclusive, more egalitarian democracy that so many are so desperately seeking.

Below: looking for a new way; so many people turned up at the first post-referendum meeting of Glasgow Green Party that surprised party officers had to move the meeting outside the booked venue.

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