Category Archives: General election 2015

Those who can, organise; those who can’t, commentate

Lynton Crosby is certainly entitled to a bit of triumphalism.  Getting Boris to London City Hall is one thing, but getting David Cameron back to Downing Street with a majority against all the odds certainly ranks as one of the great Lazarus tricks of modern politics.  So well done Mr. Crosby.  If you weren't already in the super-league of international political consultants, I guess you must be not only in it but near the top of it now.

He's left us with a bit of a gift too.  Not a big speaker to the press (no good campaign manager wants to be the story during a campaign, as Alastair Campbell should have realised) he has now given a departing interview to the Daily Telegraph.  Amongst all the post-election ink flow, this one provides some of the more interesting and controversial analyses, coming as it does from the man who won.

As I read his interview, I warmed to the man, far more than I might have expected.  It was two points in particular that produced that feeling of positivity towards an undoubted political rottweiler of the right.  First, apropos of a more significant point, he quoted that well worn canard that "Those who can do, those who can't teach".  I sighed internally for a brief instinctive moment as I read that one.  No teacher in this country has gone through their lives without having that one quoted incessantly at them by hilarious friends heading off to their long lunches in the city, or gobby students who have just been told off for yet another tedious infraction.  But my sigh quickly turned to a gasp of surprise.  Crosby was quoting this to do it down.  His wife, it turns out, was a teacher and "I don't really agree with that" he said.   Well, well.  Here was a human side I hadn't realised before.  And a possible explanation for one of his earliest influences on the Conservatives' election campaign - the removal of toxic Michael Gove from the Department of Education to the hidden (until the fiasco of the attempt to unseat the Speaker) realms of Chief Whip.

But the second reason for warming to Mr. Crosby was his second, more significant point.  He claims that it is not only pollsters who should be hanging their heads for failing to misread the nation.  He has a very vigorous, and heartfelt it seems, pop at the world of the political commentariat.  He adapts his teacher comment for the world of politics to read "Those who can do, those who can't commentate."  It was a feeling I'd had myself.  Not, I hastily add, the insight that the commentators had it all wrong.  That was a Crosbian intuition based on extensive internal polling.  My feeling was an increasing level of irritation at the apparently all knowingness of commentators who hadn't stepped out of the metropolitan bubble.  I blogged about it here, getting particularly irate at the desire of the commentators to keep knocking the campaign for its dullness instead of perhaps trying to enagage a little more deeply with the actual issues.  Andrew Marr was an annoying example of one who praised the wonderful brilliance of the commentariat but thought the actual campaign being waged by, you know, actual politicians on the ground, was just "tooth-grindingly awful".

Well, Crosby has launched his mighty artillery at them, and is firing a shot in defence of those who have bothered to participate.  The street pounders, canvassers, representatives and their agents, all seeking to do something a bit more than carp from the sidelines.

We need good commentators.  At their best they provide a much needed guide to the often treacherous paths of political discourse.  Divorced from the need to please an electorate they can bring some objective perceptions that illuminate the world that should so fascinate all of us.  But Crosby rightly condemns those who seem to see politics more as entertainment.  Better paid than many of the ordinaries whose vote is the warp and weft of the active politicians' work and voice, they have become too comfortable in their carping sanctimony.  I don't agree with his picking out of Tim Montgomerie necessarily, who has after all been engaged with the political world of both policy and voters rather more directly than many writers, but I do laud his broader principle.

We get the politics we deserve, but very often it is the media not the politicians themselves who too often frame our polity.  Yes, they should start taking some responsibility for that.

The hell keeps on coming for Labour

There was an outpouring of Blairite angst over the Miliband election campaign last week, but the hell isn't over yet for the "Hell, yeah" leader.  Today's "Times" sees political columnist Philip Collins provide one of the most seering condemnations of the Miliband experiment that I've read.  It makes Peter Mandelson sound like Bagpuss.

Collins' first targets are the "cavalry of denial" who are lining up to contest the Labour leadership, so Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham.  Noting that Labour's electoral problem was as significant in England as in the much reported Scotland, he describes Yvette Cooper's recent article for the "Mirror" as "a platitudinous, intern-drafted press release for the Pontefract and Castleford Express", taking her to task for the blithe belief that the average voter really liked a lot of what Labour was saying.  Er, no they didn't, notes Collins.

On to Andy Burnham, whom he beautifully stilletos for being "close to tears about how much he loves the NHS" during the election campaign, and goes on to lambast for his belief that millions of people need to have an "emotional connection" with the Labour Party.  Responds Collins, "Normal people, in the normal world, have emotional attachments to their families not the Labour Party".  On Burnham's leadership bid, the columnist says that "I don't mind that Mr Burnham is Len McCluskey's candidate but it really worries me that he might be George Osborne's". (There is, by the way, a fantastically vituperative several lines aimed at McCluskey's wretched impact on the Labour Party concluding "belt up and leave the politics to people who know what they're doing.")

But it is Ed Miliband for whom Philip Collins reserves his most scathing ire.  Noting that Mr. Miliband shows little sign of acknowledging that his whole election strategy might have been wrong, based as it was on a misguided belief that the country had somehow moved, or could be persuaded to move, sharp left, Collins takes the former leader to task for his vain and misguided campiagn.  Suggesting that the Miliband strategy was to speak only to the 2% of the rich and 8% of the poor, but not to the unsqueezed middle in between, he writes:

"The Labour party in 2015 became the victim of a ghastly atavistic dispute, the lab rat for Mr Miliband's experiment in proving that his father, who insisted there was no parliamentary road to socialism, was right all along."

It is a tour de force of an article, well worth the price of today's "Times" (it is behind a paywall online, but cough up for a copy; if we don't pay for our journalism we'll end up with only having uninformed free stuff and that's no future for comment or reportage).  Andy Burnham is overdue for a bit of well placed lambasting.  A ghastly, over-emotional head in the sand denier of even his own previous record as Health Secretary, he must indeed be the preferred choice of the Tory Party for next Labour leader.  He's good for another few constituency defections in five years time if anybody is.  But Miliband too, in his absolute conviction that he was the right leader for Labour, a conviction that took him to fratricide and then to five years of sheer bloody torture for his party as they tried to convince themselves that he would come good in the end, is overdue for a bit of effective dousing.

Collins suggests that there could be optimism for the Labour party if they bother to heed the lines of the re-awakened Blairites and go for a next generation leader like Umunna, Kendall or Hunt.  He's almost certainly right.  If the Tories are worried that the next five years will watch them slowly unravel and expose their fractious tensions to the electorate, they will be praying that Len McCluskey remains the most influential player in the choice of the next Labour leader.  

Was it a bad campaign, or are we bad voters?

It's the anniversary of the defeat of Germany in 1945 today.  Many have said that the western countries were fighting to preserve liberty and democracy.  At least in part.  So it might be worth considering the state of the democracy that today's anniversary kept in being.

As commentators use up the last of their "what sort of coalition are we likely to have" scenarios, they've turned to the "what a dreadful campaign it's been" ones.  This has been most eloquently - and perhaps lengthily - illustrated by Michael Deacon's piece in today's Telegraph, but he is not alone.

It's a moot point as to how seriously we should take the journalistic moaning of stagnant campaigns.  Politicians are where they are, and do what they do, largely as a consequence of the way our brave journo have covered previous campaigns, and cover politicians generally.  Douglas Murray has identified this aspect of the state of our democracy most clearly in this piece for the Spectator.

He notes, first, that:

Of course the result is aggravating, in part because we keep trying to enjoy contradictory things. For instance at some point in recent years it was decided that any statement outside a vague centre-left orthodoxy constituted a ‘gaffe’. Such ‘gaffes’ get highlighted by the media who then seek denunciations of the ‘gaffe’ from any member of the public. The result is that politicians now treat words like landmines and try to speak only in the bland language of political orthodoxy. We are obviously not entirely happy with this arrangement because at the same time as having created this type of politics we complain that our politicians are all similar, dull identikit figures.
Or take the striking reluctance of the major party leaders to meet any ordinary voters. There was a time, not long ago, when even a Prime Minister could get up on a stage at election time, address an audience and take the risk that the audience might include doubters, hecklers and even political opponents. But then the cameras began to flock to anyone who challenged the politicians and presented them not as one person with an opinion, but as the authentic voice of the people and a possible game-changer in an election. After several rounds of this, the parties clearly recognised that the negatives associated with meeting the general public vastly outweighed any positives. This isn’t so much the case for the small parties, who have less to lose, but for the main parties, meeting just one angry member of the public can now derail a whole campaign.
And he goes on:

Whose fault is this? Well it is the media’s of course. But it is also the fault of us, the public, for pushing politicians away even as we complain that they are ignoring us. In the same way that it is our fault for wishing for impossible things from our leaders while giving them a pass for failing at possible things.

There is a great deal more in his article, one of the must-reads for anyone wondering how we have got where we are today.  But today of all days, when we get to exercise our right to freely choose the men and women who will represent us and form our government, in a process that we've kept not least because of sacrifices made in a war which concluded 70 years ago, we might like to ask whether there are any, rather smaller, sacrifices we ourselves could make to ensure its health.

An Unusual Election – three defining characteristics

Three things mark this election as unusual. 

One is the remarkable paucity of actual policy debate.  Yes, there’s been some to and fro on housing, a modicum of difference on tax generation, but outside of the narrow-cast debate on the economy very little of substance has been thriving. 

Defence?  Michael Fallon wants us to fear the SNP’s bid to get rid of Trident, but offers little in the form of positive defence policy for himself.  Foreign Affairs?  Ed Miliband briefly attended to an area that has never been an interest of his to accuse David Cameron of responsibility for migrant deaths.  But foreign affairs spokesmen have been so low-key as to be rendered unpersons, barely able to stop the traffic in their own constituencies, never mind the rest of the globe around which they potter so un-noticed.    Education?  Once hugely controversial, with Michael Gove’s disappearance from the issue it has sunk into the backwaters of little regarded speeches and rarely referenced manifesto promises that vary imperceptibly.  What about Health?  Well, yes, it’s a big issue, and that one has received coverage, but only in the “we all want more health care but aren’t sure how to pay for it” sense.  Welfare has just hit the headlines because Danny Alexander wants to fire the smoking gun of Tory plans to cut it drastically.  Otherwise, everyone has been keen to keep their plans under wraps.

There has been some notion that this has been a much more localised election instead, although such localisation often extends little further than objections to new housing plans and a desire for more health provision (as was the case in a true blue constituency I was recently canvassing in).

Two is the impending indecisiveness of the final result.  If this election produces the second hung parliament in a row, it will have dealt a decisive blow to the idea that our favoured First Past the Post system of voting essentially secures single-party governments (misleadingly also often seen as “strong”).  Since this has long been one of the main reasons for continuing to uphold a manifestly disproportionate electoral system, it may be reasonable to question what the other virtues of FPTP might be, especially if the other consequence of it materialises – the forming of a government by the second placed party in terms of vote share and possibly seats.   Like the Scottish referendum, the AV one may also be up for re-issue sooner than we could have imagined.

Mention of Scotland brings us, of course, to the third characteristic of this election.   The role of the Scottish National Party, and the future of Scotland itself, has played  a larger part than ever before.  For the first time in over a century, a block of MPs from one part of the United Kingdom have the opportunity to significantly influence the agenda of the rest of the UK in their favour.  Like the Irish Nationalist politicians before them, no-one doubts that, whatever Nicola Sturgeon may be saying for election purposes, the aim of the SNP block in the House of Commons will be to ultimately secure independence for Scotland.  It is true that the party’s extraordinary success this time round has arisen in part from the failure of the three UK-wide parties to maintain the engagement of the Scots in the mundane routine of legislation.  It is also true that the once dominant Labour Party has neglected its fiefdom too much and finally sent it revolting – the failing of one-party systems the world over.  But it is the issue of devolution which has really spurred the SNP rise, keeping the issue of Union firmly on the Scottish agenda despite the rejection of independence last year.

Nonetheless, the eventual impact of the SNP has been exaggerated.  They may become the third largest party in the Commons, but their actual ability to sway the agenda there is far more limited than the campaign paranoia has suggested.  George Eaton makes the point well in the New Statesman.  Nicola Sturgeon’s absolute refusal to countenance a Conservative government has in reality limited her room for manoeuvre with respect to a Labour one.  She cannot act against a Labour government without incurring the significant wrath of those of her supporters who take her anti-Tory commitments at face value.  Ed Miliband has actually got a pretty free space for action without SNP interference.

For all the Scottish noise and fury though, it is still England which is at the heart and centre of the election, and it is English issues – some institutional and long-term – which have moulded its course. England remains an ultra-centralised country which does not have its own dedicated government.  It is a country where localism fails to engender any local support, but scepticism towards the centre also remains endemic.  To have a good understanding of England today requires a strong sense of the country’s history and evolution.  Robert Tombs, the author of the sort of brilliant, sympathetic and perceptive study that England is not often fortunate enough to have, has produced a wonderful distillation of some of the key aspects of England’s past that shed light on our current election.  It is an article that bears further comment, but for now I urge you to read it at the New Statesman’s site.

How the three characteristics above play out after May 7this part of the fascination of the present contest.  We may know the allocation of seats on May 8th., but I suspect we will still be some way off knowing which party, and which leader, is going to be able to take us through the next few, constitutionally turbulent, years. 

The Union Under Threat?

The devolution referendum proved a hollow victory in the end for unionists.  Losing the campaign for hearts and minds, the southern party leaders came up with an extraordinary pledge that stretched the idea of union to breaking point.  It also added something into the referendum mix that wasn't actually on the ballot at all.  No-one can say whether or not the final result really was a vote for the Union, or in actuality a vote for the devo-max that English leaders were offering by the end.  Then, as soon as the vote was passed, David Cameron, the quintessentially English leader with the very Scottish name, sought immediate political advantage by demanding English Votes for English Laws.  He has also been happy to put himself forward in this election campaign as an English, rather than British, leader.

Well, the SNP advance in Scotland continues apace it seems, such that polls today suggest they could sweep the board and take all of Scotland's 59 MPs.  What has so signally failed with the Union, we should be asking here in England, that the Scots have turned so wholly towards its nationalist party.  And this despite the distinctly chequered record of that same party in the Scottish government.

Is the Union under threat?  It would certainly be foolish to imagine that it is safe and cosy.  The Spectator's Scottish editor, Alex Massie, has been writing regularly and forcefully about English and Conservative indifference to Scotland, and his piece today strikes an even harder note.  It is quite probable that while the election comes up with an ambivalent result in England and Wales, it produces a very clear result in Scotland.  A result that says the Union as we know it is over.