Monday, 29 May 2017

Theresa May vs People

The British General Election has entered an unexpected phase for the Tories - weak and wobbly, as it has been oft-lampooned these last few days, rather than the strong and stable narrative originally envisaged and carefully packaged and promoted by the dark powers that are party strategist Lynton Crosbie. For even with the pause in campaigning following the Manchester bombing atrocity, the fall of Theresa May's always rather flickering star has continued relentlessly.

First there was the decision to call the election at all after her repeated insistence that there wouldn't be one. Then came a slew of disastrous policy announcements possibly intended to show her as decisive, but in fact radiating the hubris and arrogance at the heart of the Tory agenda: no assurance of no tax rises; dropping the triple lock on pensions; ending free school meals; and of course the utter confusion of new charges for homecare for older people and the inclusion of property in calculations for eligibility - May's attempts to row back (or clarify as she put it) simply served to illuminate her panic.

Given that the central premise of the Tory campaign, and indeed of the whole purpose of the election, was to supposedly cement this allegedly powerful, charismatic and "strong and stable" leader's authority to speak for The Nation ahead of the Brexit negotiations, due to start a few days after the 8 June vote, it is little surprise her ratings have tumbled, with her party sliding along behind, steadily if not as precipitously as its leader.

Corbyn is having a good campaign.
By contrast, Labour's Jeremy Corbyn has been having a good campaign. Polls show that while people's main memory of the Tory manifesto launch is the negativity of the social care plans, Labour's launch of policies such as nationalising the railways, taxing the rich and funding the NHS and abolishing university tuition fees have stuck in the collective mind in very positive ways. Similarly, to the confused surprise of many rightist commentators and the Blairite wing of his own party, Corbyn has often seemed far more calm under pressure than May. Faced with a slew of slanted and at times ill-informed questions by BBC attack-dog Andrew Neil, he parried well, unflustered and measured in his responses, as he also was with a speech linking the threat (not the culpability) of terrorism with adventurist foreign policy. May's coterie's screaming denunciation of the latter highlighted their own weaknesses rater than any of Corbyn's.

But perhaps the most interesting and most telling things about Theresa May these last week's haven't been the policy muddles and the campaign wobbles, but rather what we have learned about her as a person. And given the almost Erdogan-like elevation of her as the National Leader in the Tory campaign, the contrast between the Image and the Reality has rarely been as nakedly apparent as it now is.

Tory candidates around the country have clearly been instructed to subsume themselves to her: in Batley & Spen, a Tory prospect at the start of the campaign though somewhat unlikely now, their candidate at a hustings last week introduced herself not as the Conservative but as "Theresa May's candidate." Similarly, in the tight Labour-held marginal next door in Dewsbury, the Tory candidate's Freepost leaflet has no mention or photograph of the local candidate but simply pictures of the PM and the injunction to "Vote for Theresa May." These are not at all untypical examples of a strategy founded on the Prime Minister's personality; a strategy that is clearly now sited in an earthquake zone.

May - posturing at home; ignored abroad.
Repeatedly and ridiculously central to the Tory message has been an almost Trump-like claim that May would be a "good negotiator" for Britain in the Brexit talks. Yet quite aside from the fact that she will not be undertaking any of the actual negotiation discussions in any case, what evidence is there to support this assertion?

First of all, her actions on Brexit have been, frankly, counter-productive. There was the frankly bizarre threat to withdraw co-operation on counter-terrorist intelligence if she didn't get the trade terms she wants with the EU. Next she followed up with a fictitious and hysterical "crisis" over the sovereignty of Gibraltar where she clearly thought it a good idea to let some of her party grandees mutter loudly about going to war with Spain. No friends nor partners nor any influence were won in either debacle.

A rare occasion - confronted by a real person.
But perhaps the most striking thing about this allegedly smooth operator with her supposed abilities to influence and foster "win-win" situations is just how dreadfully awkward she seems to be with other people. Time and again, other than in carefully scripted, party-planned events which have minimised and even eliminated all human contact, she seems completely outside her comfort zone. Whether guffawing irritably in an extremely laboured manner when challenged in the Commons, or uncomfortably trying to eat chips in the street, or accidentally confronted about the impact of Tory policies on her life by a disabled woman who left her stammering and furious-faced, May gives the impression of a rabbit caught in headlights rather than a cunning fox in the hen coop.

Her refusal to meet any other party leaders in any of the TV debates - she is sending the ever-irritable Amber Rudd to represent her at the BBC one this week - simply adds to the impression of someone ill at ease with people whose views and lives don't accord with her own. In the difficult days ahead, as we negotiate our future arrangements with Europe, we need a Prime Minister with a rather more balanced mindset, someone who can relate to others and seek a lasting, beneficial deal that works for all sides. We need someone able to venture beyond their hermetically-sealed bubble to accept, deal with and embrace people with different views, needs and outlooks to their own. Both within our divided country and as we forge new relationships overseas, we need Government with a genuine human touch.

We do not need someone who fantasises about being Nelson or Churchill. Especially when she is neither.


Saturday, 6 May 2017

Comrade Corbyn's Last Chance

Labour's losses in yesterday's local elections came as little surprise; and nor for anyone reflecting on how our first-past-the -post voting system works was the collapse of UKIP to just one councillor (from 145) a true shock. Even the Tory resurgence in Scotland was predictable given their showing in last year's Scottish Parliamentary elections (and nor was it that spectacular - one "incredible" result was on the basis of 629 votes on the tenth count to win the last seat in a 4-member ward; not the stuff of revolutions, or perhaps more appropriately reaction).

Unsurprising too was Jeremy Corbyn's vow to fight on and John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor, explaining it all away as not as bad as expected. What politician doesn't try that - UKIP after all claim their losses were because they are victims of their own success, while the Lib Dems "Tiny" Tim Farron hailed their net loss of 42 councillors as a stunning success. Among opposition parties, only the Greens (up 6) and Plaid Cymru (up 33) actually had any concrete good news, but both were studiously written out of nearly all news stories.

What is surprising is Labour's attitude, both before but especially now after their bad local showing, to those smaller opposition parties given Corbyn's previous calls for political pluralism. In the face of all reality, they continue to talk as if it is still 1950 and the Tories and Labour stand to poll 97% of the vote between them.

The Greens have debated the idea of working with Labour and others in a "Progressive Alliance". The objectives of such a beast - was it to gain electoral reform or simply beat the Tories? - generated more greenhouse  heat than light at times, as did the vexed question of whether or not the Lib Dems might be welcomed to root among the progressive compost. But with Theresa May's snap election called three weeks ago, the overtures to Labour gained a real urgency given the Tories' commanding lead in the polls.

Green leaders Caroline Lucas and Jonathan Bartley both offered to talk with Jeremy Corbyn, while in almost every region of the country, local Green parties offered to consider local accommodations where Green voters are numerous enough to make a possible difference to the outcome. So far, a couple of agreements have been reached in Brighton Kemptown and in Ealing where the Greens will back the Labour candidate in return, among other things, for a commitment to support proportional representation. Greens have also stood down in Shipley, along with the local Lib Dems, to back the Women's Equality Party against the odious Tory incumbent Philip Davies, but so far Labour are adamant they will stand in spite of having little prospect of success. With a few honourable exceptions such as Clive Lewis, this is typical of their national stance: Labour are prepared to stand down absolutely nowhere at all, for any one else. Period.

On Radio 4 just yesterday, Labour's Lord Faulkener insisted the "minor parties" have been wiped aside and it is a straight contest between Tory and Labour ignoring the fact that these same parties had just won almost exactly the same number of council seats as Labour. A few days previously, speaking in Batley (where, ironically, all the major parties stood down in favour of Labour after Jo Cox's murder), Labour Front Bencher Emily Thornberry responded to a question asking if she felt only two parties - Labour and Tory - should be standing in the elections with a plain, "Yes."

So much for Corbyn's pluralism. And so much for any chances of stopping a Tory tidal wave.

We are where we are in good part because of our undemocratic voting system: first-past-the-post, with its winner-take-all outcomes, had repeatedly produced election results completely at odds with the wishes of voters. Time and time again, Government's have gained outright power with a minority of votes cast - only once since the war, in 1955, has the winning party achieved over half the vote.

Keir Hardie, the first leader of the Labour Party, recognised this. He declared first-past-the-post as unfit for purpose, especially outside a two-party system, and the Labour Government of 1929-31 actually introduced a Bill for electoral reform which was held up by the House of Lords until the Government collapsed. With Labour's success in 1945, the party's commitment to a fairer voting system was quietly forgotten.

And so we are left with this impasse: Labour decry those on the Left who stand against them as stooges for the Tories because of how the voting system works. And yet they refuse to change that system for all sorts of spurious reasons, but at its core is the repeated mantra that we are a two-party country and the choice we face is purely binary.

These claims however are a denial of reality. While in 1951 97% did indeed vote Tory or Labour, in 2015 that figure was just 65%, with more people (35%) voting for "minor parties" compared to Labour's total of just 29%. Just look at Scotland, where the SNP virtually eliminated Labour and where the party continues to fall relentlessly and the claim that UK politics are binary is immediately swept away. And while UKIP is clearly on the wane in England, this is largely because the hard right Tories have adopted their agenda - there is no dividend for Labour. The Greens, meantime, while not at breakthrough, have continued to grow steadily in elected representatives and their current poll ratings show them at least likely to equal if not just yet better their record 2015 showing.

So what on earth possesses Labour, including Jeremy Corbyn, like some sort of Death Wish?

The announcement of a Progressive Alliance and real reciprocation between Labour, Greens, Plaid and the SNP up to the close of nominations on Thursday would produce a wave of support far beyond the current sum of its parts. The Tories have decried such an entity as a "Coalition of Chaos", but it is in fact the thing they fear most - because far more unites these parties than divides them. Faced off against the lacklustre Tory campaign, an alliance would catch the popular imagination and reinvigorate the political landscape.

And yet, although it is technically possible even now, there is little sign of it from the Labour ranks. Regrettably, and almost certainly in vain, Corbyn puts his party's tenuous and frankly impossible unity ahead of the needs of the country. For the sake of trying to conjure up the illusion of a two-party contest, Labour risk delivering Britain into the grim reality of a One Party state.