EU referendum: Beyond liberal economics

The official campaigns from both sides of the EU referendum debate are both so exasperating I frequently find myself wishing I could vote against both of them.

Neither campaign deserves my vote, and yet, it is an historic question, which is bigger than both official campaigns. It is bigger than David Cameron or Jeremy Corbyn; certainly bigger than Nigel Farage or George Galloway.

While the official campaign representatives haggle over how best to reduce immigration and cut benefits, the rest of the serious, complex issues that are affected by EU membership never seem to get a look in. It isn’t surprising; this EU referendum debate, and the reason we are having it in the first place, is all down to the fight in the UK between different types of conservative; between economic liberals and social conservatives. No wonder the spectrum of debate is narrow. 

Take Lord Stuart Rose’s comments to the parliamentary select committee last week. Lord Rose asserted that Brexit (specifically, an end to the ‘free movement of people’ between EU member states) would lead to fewer people on the Labour market, and, consequentially, higher wages. Will Straw, the Labour Executive Director of Britain Stronger In Europe campaign, was asked about this on the Daily Politics and replied that the evidence shows free movement of people is ‘good for the economy overall,’ while Conservative Danny Finkelstein said that higher wages aren’t always a good thing as they could increase unemployment. It’s not just the In campaign. Look at the way Boris Johnson, on the Andrew Marr Show, dismissed concerns about job losses as a result of Brexit, by saying that leaving will be good for the economy overall.

What if you simply want to know more about the impact of staying or leaving on your wages or on your job? You’d be forgiven for getting the distinct impression that this debate isn’t about you; that both sides consider you to be at best an annoying irrelevance.

These things are gold dust for the likes of Ukip, a party which loves to play the ‘anti-establishment’ card whenever it can. Without so much as having to lift a finger over workers rights or wages, Suzanne Evans, Louise Bours and Douglas Carswell get opportunity after opportunity to frame themselves as the only people in the room with any concern for low waged workers. (Or, I should say, for some low waged workers. They do not even pretend to care about all workers.)

With the arguments we keep hearing both for and against EU membership so rooted in classical liberal economics, it is unsurprising to see that Jeremy Corbyn flat out refuses to say he is “on the same side” of the debate as David Cameron. He is right, of course. He is on neither side in the fight between the two kinds of Tory. He is neither a classical liberal conservative nor a social conservative. His cautious, carefully-weighed answer to the question of which ‘side he is on’ may be intellectually honest, and to many it will be admirable, but unfortunately it leaves a gaping hole in the referendum debate which Alan Johnson cannot fill by himself. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party needs to be asking – and, ideally, answering – the question: what are the modern left-wing arguments for and against the EU project, and how do we weigh them up? 

The Labour party should not be scared of debating this openly. No-one can accuse them of ‘splits’ or ‘division’ when the Tories are practically plotting a leadership coup over the issue. And it’s not like the Labour party is taking the opportunity to criticise the Tories for being divided on Europe – they’ve had a bat and ball handed to them and they’re choosing not to even attempt to swing a hit; the least they could do is take the opportunity to work up a modern, social democratic vision of the EU while the government is busy fighting among themselves.

Besides, for all the critical talk of ‘splits’ in the Tory party over Europe, I find it rather refreshing to see politicians drop the ridiculous pretence for once that everyone in one party agrees on every single thing all the time; that they must all stick to the lines they are given, even if it doesn’t fly, even if it makes no earthly sense, even if everyone in the room knows full well that they do not believe it because they have said so in the past, on camera. 

And here lies one of the big risks for the In campaign: that the freedom to speak authentically puts the Brexit campaign at an advantage. Brexit is mostly made up of people who have spent years, decades, perhaps their whole political lives pondering the issue of the EU. While sometimes coming off as slightly weird and monomaniacal, it is evident from listening to these people that they care deeply about the subject, and know the arguments inside out. Michael Gove, Owen Patterson, Douglas Carswell, David Davis, John Redwood (although not, quite noticeably, Boris Johnson): these men give the distinct impression that there are very, very few questions about the EU that a journalist could throw at them which they haven’t spent hours considering for many hours over the course of their lives, while boiling an egg, waiting for petrol, sitting on the toilet, and basically any time their minds wander.

In contrast, many of those who are part of the In campaign are striving to stay on message, and repeat the approved lines. Many of them – not all, but many – appear as if they have not given the subject much profound or careful thought at all; in some cases because they never imagined Brexit to be on the cards in any serious way, and in some cases because they simply don’t see it as that important.

While sticking to a clear, agreed message might give the In campaign a more professional image, especially to the usual analysts, who tend to work in communications, media, or both, and therefore view everything through the lens of whether it looks like ‘good communications’ or not, we only have to look to the successes of people like Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump to see that this isn’t always a winning strategy these days. To many undecided voters, David Cameron and his colleagues risk sounding stilted, unenthused, arrogant, and – perhaps the biggest risk to the In campaign – elitist. The narrative that the ‘establishment’ wants us to stay in the EU and ‘the ordinary people’ want us to leave is helped further by stories about vital documents being withheld from pro-Brexit ministers or John Longworth being suspended from the British Chamber of Commerce over pro-Brexit comments. (Both these things may of course be entirely reasonable, but they feed into a perception about the fairness of the debate.)

And this is where Jeremy Corbyn’s voice is so sorely missed for many in the EU referendum debate – and where it is conspicuous by its absence. His ‘USP’ as we all know is his authenticity and his tendency to formulate policy positions on the basis of evidence, and by listening to the people affected, rather than choosing them as part of a communications strategy or ideological narrative. It is a strength, but it is also a great challenge to pursue intellectual honesty – and not just in politics. When you follow evidence and logic on complex issues you often end up with a conclusion that displeases those with much more power than yourself, or, a conclusion that does not fit under any labels, and it is therefore not saleable.

This is the problem with the EU debate. The right-wing case for the EU (that it facilitates globalisation in the modern world and is good for business in general) is saleable. The right-wing case against the EU (that it brings red tape and regulation, and allows too much immigration or the ‘wrong sort’ of immigration) is saleable. The left-wing case for leaving (that it is a “capitalist club,” which dilutes and overrides parliamentary sovereignty) is saleable. And yet, even though the EU is a social democratic project in so many ways – indeed, this is why so many right-wingers want out – it seems to be beyond the wit of the Labour party to articulate a saleable, authentic, progressive case for staying in the EU. Jeremy Corbyn, Labour leader, with a large mandate, a philosophical thinker with an authentic voice who has credibility among left-wingers, seems the ideal person for the task. We may ask ourselves why he seems so cautious about stepping up to it? 

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What happens to Labour if ex-Lib Dems vote Green?

The week that Ed Miliband made his speech about being less photogenic than David Cameron, the Green Party announced a new economic policy: a wealth tax, affecting around 300,000 people, of 1-2%. This tax would only fall upon people with over £3m, making it difficult for those who oppose it to obfuscate with philosophical questions about who we can legitimately consider rich and thin ends of wedges and where do we draw lines. There may be a debate to be had about all of that, but whether you define ‘rich’ in terms of capacity to buy things, comparative living standards, whether you measure it by median wealth or by mean, it’s really beyond argument that £3m places you firmly in the ‘rich’ box.

The objective of policies like this is often not so much a matter of putting them into practice (I doubt the Greens are expecting to win a full parliamentary majority any time soon) but to flush out your opponents and lead them into a trap.

I’ve written before about why I’m not convinced that the 50p rate of tax is much of a solution to inequality, but if it was intended as a political trap for the Tories, as I suspect (cynically perhaps) that it was, then it worked beautifully. As soon as Miliband declared he would bring it back, the likes of Philip Blond were denouncing it as an attack on “average” hard-working families. They were either trying to spin the policy’s impact in a dishonest way, or they actually think £150,000 a year is an “average” income.

Similarly, the Green Party’s wealth tax may not make a huge difference to inequality either way (the rate of tax people are supposed to be paying is somewhat irrelevant if they don’t pay it) but it flushes out the worst logic against progressive taxation, and highlights the ridiculous extent to which it can be taken. We hear arguments that a wealth tax will disincentivise hard work. Because having £3m minus 1% is just peanuts, a totally demotivating low wage. Who would ever work for that, right? Never mind the fact that the second part of this argument is usually that these people have such high earnings in the first place because they have such a strong work ethic.

Around the time the Green Party was publishing its wealth tax proposal, former Labour leader Tony Blair was making jokes to the think tank Progress about the exact number of millions he is worth. That he believes the difference between £100m and £20m is significant enough to be worth correcting, that he thinks it’s funny to laugh, self-deprecatingly, at only having £20m, tells us a lot about the former Labour prime minister and the circles he moves in. Perhaps it also tells us something about the Labour Party; or rather, it reminds us of something about them. It reminds us of one reason why the British public grew slowly more and more sickened by the hypocritical smell of money sloshing around the same people who lectured us about morals and values and British citizenship every day of the week.

Labour has been rightly nervous about losing some of their more traditional Labour voters to Ukip, but they must not forget that the core of their strategy has been based on the presumption that the bulk of the disgruntled Lib Dems who turned to them in 2010 will stick with Labour into 2015. To get the majority they need, they are dependent on winning enough votes from those disgruntled Lib Dems to push them over the mark. That is a group of voters often mocked but not to be taken for granted, electorally speaking. These are people with strong values, who would often much rather vote for a small party that reflects those values, than vote tactically for the biggest party able to ‘keep the Tories out’. In other words, these are people who would very seriously consider voting Green in a general election.

The Labour Party needs to do more than just not be the Tories or the Lib Dems to secure those voters. Firstly, it needs to show it takes seriously human rights and civil liberties. These aren’t abstract philosophical concepts to be discussed over brandy on a rainy day to Lib Dems; they are central grounding principles which underpin everything else, from foreign affairs to welfare reforms, from policing to economics. Making Sadiq Khan shadow justice secretary is a good move but it may not be enough to win the trust of yellow voters, particularly given Labour’s pretty sour record on civil liberties.

Secondly, Lib-Dems-in-refuge and other potential Green voters will be looking for meaningful commitments on electoral and constitutional reform. Modernising the House of Lords is a policy area which sounds abstract and irrelevant to many, but is in fact essential to making any sort of real progress in all kinds of areas: education reform, welfare spending, and the right to die are all heavily influenced by the makeup of the upper house.

And thirdly – which is where the Green Party’s wealth tax comes in – former Lib Dem voters want to see fairer taxes, although not necessarily higher taxes. That’s something Nick Clegg likes saying because it sounds universally lovely yet it’s vague enough to mean more or less anything you want it to. But the sentiment underneath is actually an important point of principle for many Lib Dem voters. Many people don’t want taxes put up for the sake of it, but do want a modern tax system that reflects the disparity of wealth in the country, reflects wealth rather than income, and applies the same rationale for taxation to everyone.

Our tax system feels extremely outdated, with an entire scale of different bands up until £150,000 a year, and then from that point on, a flat rate of tax whether you earn £200,000, £1m or £50m. And that’s even if you ‘earn’ it in the way that Tony Blair is ‘worth’ £20m.

Just as the Tories managed to successfully tap into the lack of sympathy among people struggling to pay for a bigger mortgage towards council tenants with allegedly ‘spare’ bedrooms, and just as they managed to tap into the lack of sympathy for striking public sector workers among private sector workers with no pensions, the same populist attitude exists towards many left-wing policies. Politicians may very likely find that the majority of the public – be they unemployed or minimum wage workers, families earning £55,000 between them, and even many of those with twice that – will struggle to muster an enormous amount of sympathy for people whose wealth reaches into multiples of millions claiming they’re no longer motivated to bother working their hardest because they’ve been asked to pay an additional 1% in tax.

The Green Party might not be a huge electoral force, and they might not be all over the news in the way Ukip has been, but they could still win over enough ex-Lib Dems and disillusioned Labour voters to keep Labour from nailing down that nervously held together majority that they so keenly need to get back into power. Ed Miliband should spend less time making speeches about how he’s so much above the trivialities of politics, and get on with behaving like he’s a future progressive Labour prime minister, with a competent grasp on the severities of it.

Ukip and the myth of the alienated oppressor

Ukip and the myth of the alienated oppressor

This week I can’t turn my head without seeing articles, tweets, blogs and comments about how Ukip is representing alienated voters, and if we ‘label’ them as racist or bigoted we will further alienate those people. This is where journalists start to opine about the ‘white working class’ – presumably hoping that class is so rarely mentioned explicitly that everyone will be distracted by ‘working class’ and forget that they’re specifying ‘white people.’

I guess it’s easier to pretend you’re standing up for working class people who happen to be white and conservative than to say you’re standing up for conservative white people, some of whom happen to be working class.

Anybody who did GCSE history knows that it’s common to turn towards extremism when people are alienated, particularly in challenging economic times. But that doesn’t mean we have to pretend in some patronising way that everybody who turns to the far right is ‘alienated’ or that there’s no other factors involved. Ukip voters are slightly more likely to be working class than Labour or Tory voters but  overall they span all different class demographics – and that’s before we even analyse the backgrounds and wealth of the party officials themselves.

The thing is, lots and lots of people feel alienated, and don’t turn to extremism. And a lot of those people don’t get pandered to like this. A lot of those people don’t get heard at all. Is it because they aren’t scary? Is it because Nigel Farage, with his fag hanging out his mouth is ‘likeable,’ while disability rights campaigners, or asylum seekers asking for basic rights, or trans people denied healthcare, are somehow less fashionable to leap up and defend?

Is it just me or are some people just a tiny bit too enthusiastic about listening to the voices of the ‘alienated’ racist, homophobic, sexists – out of compassion and decency, they insist – but not the voices of the alienated people who end up on the receiving end of that bigotry? It’s not to say all those trying to engage have an ulterior motive but fake concern for the alienated far right voter can be a way of expressing sympathy for the bigotry without owning it.

It’s a pretty common thing, after all, for people in politics and in journalism to project less than pleasant views on to us, the public, rather than defend them. They like to present their ‘discomfort’ at same sex marriage or women having casual sex or ‘Romanians moving in next door’ as the views of ‘ordinary people’. And I don’t know about you, but as a member of the public, I don’t want that kind of crap said in my name.

If someone feels alienated and they turn to a far right party, there are two things happening. One of them is alienation. The other is what they do with that alienation. If you choose to take your vote and use it to show the ‘political class’ (a term increasingly applied to anyone who watches the news and dislikes Ukip) that you care more about sending them some vague message of being pissed off than you do about racism, homophobia, misogyny, rape apology and Islamophobia, then expect me, and others, to conclude certain things about your priorities.

As I type, I know what the response will be. Farage doesn’t care what I think. I’m not his target voter. And his voters don’t care about these issues. (Well, quite.) So it isn’t ‘productive’ to talk about the party’s problems with bigotry. But I’m not here to filter every opinion I have through the prism of political tactics. That suggests to me a mindset too obsessed with positioning, a world where opinions aren’t rooted in anything real, but are only expressed as a means of political strategy.

It also gives an awful lot of power to ‘oppressor’ or dominant groups, as soon as you allow them to dictate what counts as an acceptable response to their behaviour, and what does not. If we’re not allowed to call things sexist in case we alienate sexists, if we’re not allowed to call things racist in case we lose the approval of racists, if we make the broader debate about what is oppressive or bigoted and what is not conditional upon appealing to the most oppressive and bigoted mindsets, then it’s over, we’ve lost, we might as well go home. It’s wrong to police people’s reactions to bigotry and, worse, actually blame those reactions for fuelling the rise of the far right. Bigotry isn’t caused by people standing up to it. Racism isn’t caused by people talking about racism. Homophobia isn’t caused by gay people demanding too many rights too fast.

I know what else people will say. That I should shut up and listen more. I agree. I do listen to people. I listen to friends who say they’ve no interest in politics but they are thinking of voting Ukip. I listen to other people too. I listen to all sorts of people, some I agree with and some I don’t. I listen to a lot of people that many of the ‘don’t-call-Ukip-names’ brigade never even notice exist.

So I do listen but not just to you: I don’t think that by virtue of being angry and loud, you are entitled to my attention any more than the voice than, say, an asylum seeker being held in a detention centre without basic medical care. You are not entitled to a larger platform than the Muslims on the receiving end of hate crime which spikes dramatically when the far right up their rhetoric. You don’t get a bigger microphone than gay people who want to get married and feel safe in the streets. You aren’t entitled to a bigger platform than everybody else just because you’re loud and aggressive, and claiming to be ‘alienated by the modern world’ rather than intolerant.

Listening is good, but listening is an active thing, and if you’re listening properly to things, they usually spark a reaction. To assume an ‘alienated’ person isn’t capable of engaging with any kind of disagreement is far more patronising than telling them you disagree with them and having a conversation about it. That’s what you do, ironically, when you don’t actually care about what they’re saying. Let the disillusioned Ukip voters have their rants, they’re almost saying, because it’s all they have. Ignore them, don’t challenge them, they don’t know any better and can’t be expected to expand or explore their ideas.

It’s telling that so many of the apologists feel the need to frame discussions about bigotry with phrases like ‘screaming racism,’ ‘shouting racism,’ or ‘playing the race card,’ or spike accusations of sexism or homophobia with words like ‘hysterical.’ The assumption seems to be that in calling an opinion racist or homophobic or misogynistic, you aren’t engaging with it, or you must be seeking to silence it. But defining things is part of how we debate them. Words like ‘racism,’ ‘homophobia’, and ‘misogyny’ exist for a reason – and bigots hate them for a reason, too. Those words allow us to name and challenge broader structural issues behind what they say, instead of treating each occurrence as a random, isolated incident – which is exactly what Ukip want us to do when they demand we only use words they are comfortable with.

Saying that Ukip aren’t intentionally a racist party and it’s just a coincidence that they attract so many bigoted people isn’t good enough for me as a voter, and I’m entitled to say so. When I say there’s a problem with bigotry in Ukip I’m including people who are quietly okay with other people’s bigotry. When we say we shouldn’t focus on racism, or homophobia, or sexism, because that’s not why their voters are voting for them, we are accepting an ugly premise: that those things are side issues, not important to most people. We are saying that people’s views on equality shouldn’t be a central part of how we judge them. We are accepting that we can only talk about racism if the racist actually wants to be called a racist, and isn’t a potential voter. In other words, we can never talk about this. The fact that the bigotry isn’t a factor one way or the other in how so many people choose to vote, far from being a reason to change the subject, is exactly what I am so concerned about.

Ukip want to present the case that the party is accidentally stirring up racial tensions with their xenophobia, and accidentally riling up homophobes, but they don’t intend to do that. I don’t think it matters as much as they do what their intention is. If you vote for someone you know could be a racist or a homophobe or a rape apologist, then what use is it to me that your vote was cast because you wanted to send Westminster a message? If pissing off ‘the political class’ is really more important to you than whether the person you’re choosing to represent you and pass laws on your behalf is hateful or not, then, well, what exactly are we supposed to conclude from your priorities?

He’s not the heir to Blair, he’s a very naughty boy

I had a horrible realisation the other day. I miss Tony Blair. I am actually quite surprised to discover it about myself, because one of my pet hates is usually those actors with so-called ‘charm,’ who believe that those little junior salesboy tricks, like calling you by your name when they talk to you, raising their eyebrows to look serious at the appropriate juncture in conversation, and mimicking your body language, are satisfactory substitutes for genuine empathy, or an emotional range. But when I saw Blair speaking at Leveson – owning the conversation, commanding respect, making everybody in the room smile and trust him even though he is clearly about as trustworthy as a hungry rat – I thought about our current Prime Minister, and, against my will, I longed for a leader with that kind of statesmanship.

David Cameron likes to frame his endless u-turns in terms of the Coalition being “a listening government” but the truth is, he isn’t listening on any of the things people are actually bothered about, like the Health and Social Care Bill. He’s just weak. He doesn’t trust his own policies, and he’s frightened of his own party. There’s a happy balance: Tony Blair could have probably done with a few more u-turns (on one issue in particular). But there’s something awfully dispiriting and worrying about a government that quite clearly doesn’t speak to the experts, or do their research before launching a policy. The u-turns on the charity tax or the caravan tax or selling the forests may have been welcome, but surely there was some reason they believed these were going to be good ideas in the first place? Surely they consulted experts and did some sort of cost-benefit analysis? Surely they know more than we do? Because, frankly, if the government knows less than I do about things, then we are all well and truly headed for the dustbin lining.

Yet Cameron is apparently the heir to Blair. Everyone keeps saying it, don’t they? Well, no, actually;  if you remember, David Cameron himself says it. No-one else really does – except people who utterly despise Blair so much that all they really mean by such a comparison is “I despise Cameron as much as I despise Blair.” Does anyone else believe Cameron is heir to Blair? The sentence would never even be uttered if it didn’t rhyme. We might as well say he’s going to drown like Brown. Or he’s a disaster like Thatcher. A villain like Macmillan. I rhyme therefore I am.

There are similarities, of course. They both like the public relations bit of the job. Cameron, ever the PR man, hears a soundbite – for example, ‘Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’ – and think it works because it rhymes, like a toothpaste advert or a pop song. He, along with many of Blair’s critics from across the political spectrum, miss the fact that the soundbite works because it rhymes and it also means something which genuinely resonates with people. We want crime to be nailed – that’s why Labour introduced ASBOs (which I hate, but that’s irrelevant), promised to protect police spending, locked (far too many) people up, and tightened up firearm laws; they were, basically, tough on crime. But people also need to know that their government understands that there is a socio-economic context to crime, and that recognising this doesn’t mean you’re making excuses, it’s just that it’s stupid to pretend there is no link between poverty or unemployment, and crime. So they also reformed and improved public services, built schools, built hospitals, introduced a minimum wage and an EMA, set up Sure Start centres and flexible working, created a Future Jobs Fund and tried to make welfare payments match up to the ever-increasing costs of basic living, properly implemented the Macphearson report and brought in new equalities legislation. This is not about praising or criticising all, some, or any of these policies; the point is that ‘Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’ wasn’t just a rhyming slogan, it was a rhyming slogan which had a substantive policy basis that people understood and liked, and what’s more, crime fell under Labour as as result of those policies. The difference between ‘The Big Society’, which means nothing and has achieved nothing, and the Blair soundbites is like the difference between a simple rhyming Cheryl Cole lyric and a simple rhyming Beatles lyric.

Much is made of Tony Blair’s constant praise for David Cameron. But it’s hardly in the same league as the enthusiastic praise Blair is capable of showering on the likes of Princess Diana or even George Bush, is it? Blair’s statesmanlike pleasantries about Cameron sound more like a grown up boy generously telling his copycat little brother that his new haircut looks cool than a statesman declaring another statesman to be his heir and equal.

The fact is, Blair doesn’t need to point out that rivals aren’t on his level in terms of political intelligence or power, because they are no threat to him; he is secure enough to just damn them with faint praise.

A key test of leadership is management of your enemies, surely. Blair’s most serious political enemy was Gordon Brown. Blair made him Chancellor, tied Brown’s record and achievements to his own, and kept him dangling in the increasingly undignified position of desperately wanting the premiership, until it was politically appropriate for him to step down and let Brown take responsibility for the unraveling economy – and then he took credit for Brown’s achievements in his autobiography. This is not a moral argument, needless to say. But the comparison between Blair and Cameron doesn’t lie in their moral fibres, it revolves around their talents as leaders and politicians. David Cameron has no Gordon Brown in his cabinet. David Davis, his original leadership rival, sits on the back benches, free to insult Cameron for being posh and out of touch.

Where Blair flatters and then dismisses his enemies, Cameron ignores his, then insults them, making relations worse. Clare Short wanted to resign over Iraq; Blair made her look self-serving, untrustworthy and politically cynical – just think of that for a minute; Blair made her look self-serving, untrustworthy, and politically cynical, in comparison to himself – by managing the resignation so that she was going to resign, then she wasn’t, then she did. When Brian Sedgemore criticised the Iraq war and called Blair a liar, Blair didn’t even bother to answer the criticisms properly. He simply said, “Frankly, I don’t know how Brian Sedgemoore would know, because I don’t recall ever discussing it with him. In fact I don’t recall ever having any conversation about anything with Brian Sedgemore.” What a wonderfully horrid way to dismiss someone when they are making a valid moral argument. Ouch.

David Cameron, far from managing the resignations of Jeremy Hunt, Liam Fox, Andy Coulson and even Chris Huhne to his own advantage, appears terrified of his own staff and lets them hang on in their jobs until the last possible moment, stinking up his own reputation by association. Imagine if David Cameron really was the heir to Blair. Imagine if he turned around and said, “Well, frankly, I don’t know how Douglas Carswell or Tim Montgomerie or John Redwood or Nadine Dorries or Priti Patel or Simon Heffer would know about my motivation and achievements, because, frankly, I don’t recall ever bothering to talk to them about anything.” It would sound ridiculous. You wouldn’t believe him. He’d sound bitter and silly. He would sound that way because he’s not convincing when he says things. He doesn’t speak with authority. He doesn’t have any particular aura of power that makes you automatically understand that being ignored by him would be some kind of an insult to your credibility. In other words, he’s just not Tony Blair.

There are other parallels people draw between the two men. David Cameron gets credit – well, sort of – for reforming his party and pulling it – sort of – to the centre, and making it – almost – electable. But even that slow, hiccuping ‘achievement’ should rightfully be attributed to Blair. Blair says that one of his greatest achievements is not changing the Labour party, but changing the opposition. And he’s right. So successful was Tony Blair in shifting the entire political centre that by the time David Cameron became party leader in 2005, the Tories knew they could never win a general election by talking about ‘Tory’ issues. They had to promise to protect the NHS and keep Labour’s excellent record on gay rights and carry on funding international development and commit to tackling social justice. And these aren’t issues the Tories can win on. Fighting on Labour territory was always going to be a struggle for the Tories, and in 2010, in spite of everything, struggle they did.

To put David Cameron’s 2010 election ‘win’ into perspective: Tony Blair embarked upon a war in the Middle East based on what can only be described as a complete mistruth, and even before it all went to hell in a hand grenade on the ground, the war in Iraq was supported by about 30% of the population, at best – yet he still won his third election in a row afterwards. Meanwhile, David Cameron, fresh-faced and energetic, with a public sick to death of Labour, dying to give him and his party a chance, could not secure a parliamentary majority against Gordon Brown who is basically the most unpopular person to run the country since King John. (This is hyperbole. I am sure Richard III was less popular than Gordon Brown. As were several of the Hanoverians. But that’s probably about all.) Can anyone really deny that Tony Blair is a monstrous political talent?

Well, yes. Owen Jones is the latest Labour commentator to argue that Labour’s three stomping election wins were more to do with the Tories being “unelectable” than Tony Blair being an “absolute beast at elections” (as a Labour friend of mine once put it). It’s understandable why Labour activists who are loyally, and admirably, committed to Labour values like Owen Jones want this to be true. There are a lot of people in the party who attribute Labour’s success not to Blair’s masterful political skill, but his (to put it mildly) right-of-centre positions on things like wealth hoarding and foreign policy. This is a mistake. People didn’t vote for Blair because they adored deregulation and thought the war on terror was a great idea and felt proud to be publically allied with a figure like George W Bush. Anyone who thinks a Labour leader without Blair’s political game would have got away with these kinds of policies is deluded in the extreme; Blair was so masterful he repeatedly beasted the Tories in election in spite of his right-wingery, not because of it. So yes, it must be infuriating, even heartbreaking, to be a committed Labour member, supporter or donor watching your party torn into bits by people who don’t care anything for its history, traditions, or purpose, but merely use it as a vehicle for their own selfish political ambitions. It must be tempting to panic and insist that Blair himself is an irrelevance; that it was simply the unpopularity of the Tories which led Labour to victory, and that, essentially, any reasonably decent Labour leader would have fared the same, because it was all down to the Tories being “unelectable.”

It’s true that the Tories were flippering about like seals for most of Blair’s premiership, with campaigns to ‘save the pound’ and be on your toes looking out for bogus asylum seekers, hiding under our sofas and inside our ice cream cartons or wherever they were all supposed to be. But an interesting question is, why were the Tories so unelectable? Why were they so obsessed with these teeny-tiny core-vote-only issues? After all, Iain Duncan-Smith might have been a bit embarrassing, but Michael Howard was a seasoned politician, and William Hague is widely considered nowadays to be one of the frontbench’s most heavyweight politicians. And in 2005, the Tories won 31% of the vote. Even as early as 2001, before the noxious love-in with George W Bush began, polling had the Tories dancing around the 29-32% mark, which is roughly where Cameron’s Tories are polling right now. The Tories were polling 32% in January 2001, only four points behind their actual ‘winning’ result (36.1%) against a hated Labour government in 2010.

Couldn’t it be argued that the Tories were essentially unelectable because even though they were taken seriously on ‘Tory’ issues, the political ground itself had been totally re-defined by Tony Blair? Every election was being fought on Labour’s terms? It wasn’t just that Blair was good at answering questions, or pretending to answer questions; he owned the entire parameters of debate. Public service reform, social mobility, racial hatred, aspiration, crime, the causes of crime, education, access to democracy, access to information, playing a central, not a sulky, peripheral role, in Europe: he made everything, every argument, every discussion, every debate, about these things, and these are the issues Labour can win on. The Tories were left with asylum seekers and the pound because what else was there?

This isn’t a Blairite argument. The so-called Blairites are often not actually people who appreciate Blair’s talents at all, but just right-wingers who find it easier to make a career in the Labour party than elsewhere, writing columns slagging off Labour’s leader under a Labour byline, for example. People like Luke Bozier (who I genuinely respect and admire) and Dan Hodges seem to think that if Ed Miliband embraces cuts or demonises welfare claimants or shouts at the unions just a little bit more, he’ll win over all the middle voters. But that is a gross underestimation of what Blair actually did. You don’t inspire faith in your ability to lead by copying the opposition’s answer to each question. Leaders decide what the question is going to be in the first place. They pick the topics; they frame the debate. It’s not really a matter of left or right but of political skill because Tim Montgomerie makes the same criticism of David Cameron; that he won’t ‘out-left’ the left or ‘out-liberal’ the liberals, and if the argument is the NHS or social injustice, the Tories will lose that argument every time. To win, the Tories need the country to care about crime and immigration and the Queen. Similarly, it’s absolutely a valid criticism of these so-called Blairite cheerleaders that Ed Miliband will never ‘out-Tory’ the Tories, and if he allows the argument to be about who can be toughest on unions, for instance, he will lose that argument every time. This is not about praising Tony Blair for being right-wing, but about praising him for his ownership of political discussion. That is something Ed Miliband would be a fool not to drink in and learn from.

Just look at Blair’s performance at Leveson. He doesn’t bother with any of these apologetic “I can’t quite recall” explanations about why he’s not answering the question properly. He just makes his answers into mini speeches about how many schools and hospitals Labour built, until you can’t remember whether or not he actually did answer the question. You can’t even remember what the question was. And – this is another important point – he makes everyone smile while doing it.

That isn’t something the Labour party should pretend they don’t notice or pretend isn’t a big deal. Most politicians don’t make people smile. Most politicians don’t even make each other smile. Some of them probably don’t even make their own kids smile when they come in the front door. No matter how morally repugnant, how borderline sociopathic, how dishonest you may find Tony Blair on a personal level, no matter how much you want to cringe at his shameless acting, pretending that the ability to make people smile, in the middle of a situation like the Leveson inquiry, has nothing to do with how he hammered out three rock solid election victories is to fail to understand the very same electorate you are trying to win over right now.

Every time Blair compliments Cameron, or Cameron tells us he’s the heir to Blair, we – the largely undecided, unaffiliated electorate – can’t help but compare the two men. And Tony Blair, by nature of his strengths, even the strengths you hate him for, highlights the absolute worst weaknesses in Cameron’s leadership talents without even trying.

And what’s more, it is quite difficult to see how anyone can believe that the Tory cuts being made now will decimate society and explode inequality, without believing that the Blair-Brown government deserves a reasonable amount of praise, respect and gratitude for accomplishing these things in the first place. Ultimately, whatever you think of him, Blair has an overall objective. The word messianic is used all too often in conjunction with him; what is the opposite of messianic? Opportunistic? Shallow? Aimless? Devoid of aspiration? Whatever the word is, that’s Cameron.

By adopting the gloss without the substance, the words without the policies, the listening face without actually being in touch; by telling us he’s listening instead of just making us believe it, David Cameron has missed the whole essence of Blairism. It’s typical of Cameron and his government, of course, to treat the public with such patronising contempt. Of course he thinks we voted for Tony Blair because we liked his haircut. He thought we’d support his immigration policy because he spoke to a black man in Plymouth about it. He thinks we won’t see him as out of touch because he ate a Cornish pasty and likes Pink Floyd. The man clearly thinks we’re all morons. So it doesn’t surprise me that David Cameron doesn’t get why Blair was popular – because he was, there’s no way around it, he was respected and listened to and people voted for him and over and over and over. But it does surprise me that Owen Jones doesn’t understand it.

And, as someone who would like to vote Labour but usually doesn’t, it’s a worry. It’s probably painful and anger-making for them, but the left of the Labour party need to be able to separate Blair’s right-wingery from his political talent. Pretending and denying that he wasn’t a knockout electoral force makes the whole anti-Blairite wing of the Labour party look out of touch and delusional. And that is dangerous, for the Labour party and consequently for the rest of the country, because if the left of the Labour party fail to understand the electorate, and make themselves look out of touch, it means that the future of the country’s only serious, electable left-of-centre political party will be left in the hands of people who want it to be a right-wing party.

Admitting that Blair had political skill doesn’t mean you have to adopt Blair-style policies. It’s nothing to do with left or right-wing; most of the electorate don’t think of themselves in those terms. They don’t care if public spending is 30% or 60% of GDP as long as the economy is moving. They don’t care if hospitals are funded mainly by the state or by PPI as long as they are clean and safe and available at the point of need. And they don’t care if their leader is blue Labour or red Tory or Orange or Yellow. They want a leader, above all else, who seems as if they know what the bloody hell they are doing. Whether you like every bit of what they are doing? That comes next. But David Cameron’s inability to recognise the public’s attraction to competence and leadership, his belief that he can substitute those with gloss and spin, that’s his glaringly obvious Achilles’ heel. It would be a terribly ironic missed opportunity if the Labour party themselves made the same mistake whilst trying to beat him.

2001 – http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/talking_politics/1162569.stm

2001 – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Kingdom_general_election,_2001

2005 – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Kingdom_general_election,_2005

2010 – http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/shared/election2010/results/

Keep your Whig on: should Lib Dem voters just give up on true liberalism?

One of my favourite political jokes is the one about the MP who gets caught up in a terribly embarrassing sexual scandal. “Apparently he was secretly into humiliation and stuff, too,” says one commentator. “Secretly?” says another. “He was a Lib Dem!” And never has it seemed more appropriate, or more fun, to make Lib Dem jokes like this. But, with Andrew Lansley’s NHS reforms coming dangerously close to being taken seriously, with welfare being cut by £7bn and counting, with the AV vote decidedly lost, and with the kind of local election results that would make even Norman Tebbit cry, has the time come for Lib Dem voters to give up on the dream of a genuinely liberal Britain? Should yellow voters follow Ed Miliband’s invitation to save themselves from permanent blushes and, er, just go red instead?

Well, in some ways, the Labour party really do have a lot of nerve to even ask the question quite frankly. Let’s take the two biggest ‘betrayals,’ if it’s not too melodramatic to use that word, of Liberal Democrat voters by the party. Raising tuition fees is probably the most controversial, and most publicised u-turn. Well, after introducing tuition fees themselves, in 1998 (when they had a 179-seat majority), commissioning Lord Browne in 2009 to review the future of higher education funding without any particularly strict guidelines at all about, say, capping costs, and leaving it until after the 2010 General Election to implement the report, an election they knew they were unlikely to win, thereby in effect deliberately leaving the reform of higher education funding in the hands of the Tories, it is ridiculous and insulting for the Labour party to suddenly pretend they have some great moral desire to look out for the interests of students. People aren’t goldfish: we remember that Labour promised us that they “would not introduce top-up fees” and even that they had “legislated against them” before bringing them in. We also know who commissioned the Browne Review in the first place.

Despite the infamous (and rather idiotic, given that there were no electoral mathematics amongst even the most optimistic Lib Dem pollsters that suggested the Liberal Democrats would get a chance to form a government without being in coalition with at least one pro-tuition fees party) ‘pledge’ signed by Nick Clegg on tuition fees, their policy of abolishing them altogether wasn’t actually considered, by a lot of senior Lib Dems – David Laws, for example – to be a particularly central aspect of their manifesto. More important, argues Laws, is the targeting of educational funds at a much earlier age, and making sure that there are good, well-funded schools, with competent teachers, and proper levels of discipline, in the country’s poorest areas. In short, policies like the Pupil Premium, and Free Schools (50% of which, so far, are being planned with the specific aim of providing education for children from low income backgrounds), are more important to a lot of high-ranking Lib Dems than whether graduates earning over £21,000 per annum have to contribute something towards their own higher education. And these views weren’t secret: even though the Orange Book was officially rejected as party policy under Charles Kennedy’s leadership, it has never been a secret that the main contributors are also now some of the most heavyweight political figures in the Lib Dem party.

None of this gets them off the hook: they never should have promised something they almost certainly knew would be impossible to deliver, given the electoral mathematics of the situation, if nothing else. But sometimes, when a u-turn happens, it’s worth actually considering if there was a genuine reason for the change in policy. The tuition fees plan isn’t perfect of course, but, given that no major party is proposing anything much better, is it really, in the cold light of day, much of a reason not to vote Lib Dem?

The other enormous turnaround in policy from the Lib Dems is their approach to the economic crisis itself. There is simply no denying that they campaigned furiously on a platform of being anti-cuts. Even Orange Book libertarian Lib Dems tend to be against a big state in principle, but not necessarily in favour of cutting corners with social justice, just to save pennies. The only explanation they’ve offered for this complete reversal of belief is that they didn’t fully comprehend quite how bad the UK’s debt was until they got into power.

Do we believe them? I find it hard to. As many Lib Dems pointed out (before they went into coalition of course), even though the Tories are aiming extremely harsh cuts at the public sector, Public Sector Net Borrowing (PSNB) for 2010/11 was only 11.7% of GDP*. And the national debt was at 60.1% of GDP until government intervention in the collapsing financial section pushed it up to 148% GDP*. All of these figures have been in the public domain and none of them are particularly changed since May 2011; certainly not for the worse. In fact, some commentators say that the economic situation is a lot better than was thought during the 2010 election campaign. For example, government projections allowed for a further £500bn of potential financial sector liability costs, for things like mortgage securities, but this money seems more and more unlikely to be needed. Surely a tiny slice of that £500bn could be put into rescuing things like disability benefits?

So the excuse about the economic situation being worse than was once thought doesn’t seem to cut much ice. Even if it were true, it seems illogical to say that if the national debt is £910.10bn then spending will help to compensate for the recessive effect of increased private sector wealth-hoarding, as we often see in a recession, but if the national debt is £2252.90bn, then fast spending cuts, much deeper than the actual size of the debt, suddenly become a good idea (necessary, in fact), and that there is suddenly no need to worry about the impact of fast, deep cuts on, say lowering tax receipts and slowing the actual circulation of cash.

So there’s no hiding from the fact that on the economy, the issue that concerns the most British people according to the vast majority of polls, the Liberal Democrats really do deserve a bit of a kicking for their help in legitimising what many consider to be nasty, ideological cuts – Iain Duncan-Smith’s Welfare Reform Bill, for example – and also for insulting our intelligence by imagining that we can’t look at a graph of public spending for the past twenty years and see that public debt has been more or less the same throughout the Labour government as it was during Thatcher’s government – with a couple of spikes for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, of course.

But is even this enough of a reason to not vote Liberal Democrat again in four years time? Perhaps it would be, if the next question were not: if not the Lib Dems, then who?

Surely it cannot be Labour? Looking at welfare, the most disappointing of the cuts, only ten Labour MPs voted against the Welfare Reform Bill, and that was in defiance of the party whip: the official Labour line was not to oppose the bill. I have heard many Labour campaigners and bloggers saying this was for tactical reasons but I don’t believe them. If it was for tactical reasons, they would be constantly campaigning about welfare reform , trying to win the argument. They are not. Ed Miliband has accepted Disability Living Allowance reform, for example, which is possibly one of the cruellest and most unnecessary cuts happening within welfare, with only 0.5% of claimants ever being considered false, by the DWP’s own figures. The Labour party have done a lot of shouting about their ‘amendments’ to the bill, but in actual fact, their amendments aren’t much better than the content of the original paper. An example of a Labour amendment is that they want to limit Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) eligibility to two years, instead of only one. If Iain Duncan-Smith had proposed limiting it at two years, they’d probably be making a fuss out of capping it at three. The concerns of the many charities and experts who object to this policy don’t relate to how many years you give claimants, they relate to the fact that the entire principle of time limiting a benefit like ESA is ridiculous, because overwhelmingly people do not choose to be on it in the first place. You’d think that the Labour party would know that. And don’t even get us libertarians started on the Labour party’s record on civil liberties. This is one of the big issues that won Labour voters over to the Lib Dems, and I’m still waiting to hear them apologise for all the people they locked up or placed under house arrest without ever convicting them of a crime.

So Labour shouldn’t be winning Lib Dem votes over spending cuts and welfare reform any more than they should be winning them over tuition fees. I suppose you can always vote Green, if you’re a left-wing Liberal Democrat; a refuge from the Labour party, perhaps, who was unhappy with the Iraq war and the bank bailout, but still intrinsically socialist rather than liberal. You could vote Socialist Worker Party (SWP) if you’re more interested in abstract ideology and Russian history than you are in actually helping anybody. And you could vote for the Communist Party of Great Britain if you’d like to have an MP who enjoys long philosophical discussions whilst handing out free sandwiches. (Incidentally I have nothing against free sandwiches. More politicians should hand out free food to people. Some days I actually think the Communist Party of Great Britain’s habit of handing out free, healthy sandwiches all the time is the most useful thing I’ve ever seen a politician do.)

But meanwhile, in the real world, where does that leave honest-to-goodness liberals, who actually believe in low taxation and decent standards of living; who believe in personal responsibility, but want to see it encouraged in landlords and employers as well as poor people deciding how many kids to have; who believe community and family are better at taking of people than the state, and therefore don’t want to see people being shovelled out of the areas they’ve lived in their entire lives because private landlords are too greedy to show any personal responsibility to their community, because local authorities house people in silly, inappropriate ways, and – most importantly – because successive governments have been all too happy to pass heaps of taxpayers’ money right into the hands of private landlords without questioning the price for fear of deflating the pumped-up housing market. Who do we all vote for?

Well, I’m afraid that as much as I shall continue to give them a kick whenever I see fit (which is often), I still can’t really see much better an option – for now – than to stick with the Lib Dems. And although it might feel like it sometimes, I know I’m not the only one: despite the appalling local results overall in May, ConservativeHome blogger and Tory strategist Rob Haywood points out that the Liberal Democrat local vote actually held up reasonably well in areas where the party currently has a sitting MP. Where Labour and Tory candidates for parliament often focus their campaigns around national issues, the Liberal Democrats are extremely good at engaging with their own constituents about important local issues, and their genuine local concerns. With more and more minority governments likely in future, perhaps that’s something worthy of a few Lib Dem brownie points as well.

*Figures from the Office of National Statistics (ONS)

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