The Obscurer

Category: Politics

Consigned To The Corbyn Of History

Two points:

a: I’m not a fan of Jeremy Corbyn. Never have been.

b: I spend a lot of time on Twitter defending him and retweeting sympathetic stuff from his supporters.

Point a hasn’t caused me any issues – it appears I’m in company – but point b has, at times, meant I’ve been labelled a cultist-fan of the Magic Grandpa by people without the power of original thought. So, if you’re one of those people, or if you are one of the many on Twitter who is nuance-deficient, you may be asking, “how can these two positions be reconciled?”

Well here are two more thoughts. I think that the most important and self-inflicted problems that cost Labour at the last election were

c: Jeremy Corbyn himself being leader, and

d: The civil war waged against him by much of the PLP.

So why does my Twitter timeline lead people to think I’m a Corbyn fan? Perhaps because point c happened once, five years ago, and I grudgingly accepted it, while point d occurred almost continually, with only brief respite, over the next four years. I know which I find the more annoying.

And the thing is, if anything, I think I’ve been too harsh on Corbyn. My main issue, individual policy differences aside, was that I didn’t think he was electable. Well ladies and gentlemen, anyone who can get over 40% of the vote at a General Election, as Corbyn did in 2017, is electable. But have I been too harsh on his detractors? My main issue there is that I agree with the longstanding opinion that divided parties don’t win elections. We all know what happened next. So in fact, no; I may not have been harsh enough.

But here we are, a bright new Labour leader, a party under new management, a poll rating proving that Labour would be 20 points ahead of the Tories under any leader other than Corbyn…oh wait, one of them hasn’t happened. Yet. And a lot of people now angry at Corbynistas for not lining up behind the new leader. I mean, what sort of hypocrite do you have to be to complain about Labour not backing Jeremy Corbyn if you’re not now going to go and back Keir Starmer?

And they have a very good point. It’s just that, as the last few years have shown us, this hypocrisy thing cuts both ways.

Concerning Immigration

There are, no doubt, some genuine concerns around regarding the matter of immigration; but there are undoubtedly some racist reasons for opposing immigration too. When we say “It’s not racist to want controls on immigration” then, whatever else we’re doing, we’re also placating racists by telling them their racism isn’t racist.

Genuine concerns about immigration tend to include such issues as the increased pressures that migrants bring to GP services, school places and the housing stock. We could cut immigration and that, along with a heroic dose of ceteris paribus, should alleviate these issues. But this broad brush approach would also mean we would be indulging the racists in their racism.

Alternatively we could respond to pressures on GPs, schools and housing by, you know, employing more GPs, expanding schools and building houses. This cunningly targeted plan should deal with those genuine concerns, meaning the only ones left are those that are intolerantly racist.

Show me a genuine concern around immigration and I reckon I can show you a solution which does not require tighter immigration controls, and so does not include the collateral damage of placating, indulging or tolerating racists and their racism. Sometimes the obvious needs spelling out; but for all of us opposed to racism, whatever our other concerns, the path we should choose seems pretty clear.

The Spirit Of ‘92

If you’d asked me five years ago who would be the most likely winner of the 2015 election, I’d have said the Conservatives. I always thought that, whatever else happened, by the time of the next election the economy would be recovering in one way or another, and so many people would be faced with a simple narrative; Labour wrecked the economy, the Tories are sorting it, don’t mess it up. And so I waited and waited over the subsequent years for the opinion polls to show the obvious, inevitable swing back to the Tories. Polling day got closer and closer, that swing was going to be late, then later, but it had to happen. And when it didn’t materialise my hopes were raised a little, then a lot. So, when the exit polls showed that I’d been right all along, thanks to my newfound false sense of security my expected result hit me with a hammer blow of shock.

Where did Labour go wrong? Far be it from me, a far from die hard, dyed-in-the-wool Labour voter to explain or understand, but I desperately wanted a Labour victory. I’d gladly have put my cross next to their candidate if they stood a chance in my constituency, and in the event my actual vote for the Liberal Democrats was mainly intended to help them by harming the Tories. I was pretty happy with most of Labour’s policies, but I did have certain misgivings over strategy. Take their response to the criticisms made by Boots boss Stefano Pessina. When he stated that a Miliband government would be a catastrophe, he didn’t actually criticise a single Labour policy; in fact the only party policy he did criticise was the Conservative pledge to hold a referendum on the EU. For me that’s your rebuttal right there, and Labour should have held out the hand of friendship and respectfully explained why they believed he was wrong. Instead it was reported that Labour strategists were delighted at Pessina’s attack, as it gave them the opportunity to show that they were on the side of the poor and squeezed middle and against the rich, tax avoiding fat cats. I find that a jaw-droppingly stupid way to respond, unless you deliberately want to alienate whole swathes of the electorate for little gain. Similarly, while I had no issue with the idea of a mansion tax, a higher top rate of income tax, and the abolition of non-dom status, either individually or collectively, I don’t think doing them all at once is a good look. I don’t think Labour and its policies were anti-business, but they didn’t make a pro-business case either, so leaving themselves wide open to inevitable attack. Much of this criticism of Labour, such as Pessina’s, were totally lacking in specifics, and reminiscent of the criticism Obama has faced in the US where business leaders substitute a wail of “we don’t feel appreciated” for any good reason. Is a fuel price freeze an attack on business? I’d say it’s a boost for every business but six, and a reasonable short term measure for dealing with an energy market everyone feels is dysfunctional and needs systemic reform; but I don’t think that case was ever effectively made.

So I can join in with the criticisms of Labour, why not, this could be just another of those articles picking over the corpse, and I guess it is. But I return to my initial point. Could a Labour party, held responsible for the recession, beat a Conservative party credited with the recovery? I have to think it vanishingly unlikely, and having read a few articles pointing out that no party has ever won an election when trailing in the polls on both leadership and economic competence, I can’t help feeling that Labour were almost certainly doomed even if they had addressed my critique above.

So, what should Labour do now? Fortunately there are many commentators out there who know the answer, and the answer is simple; move the party in the direction they believe in. For left wingers, the party must reconnect with its left wing roots, for Blairites it must occupy the centre ground, for Conservatives it must give up and deal with the fact that the Tories alone are in step with the British people (as exemplified by the massive 0.8% swing in their favour this election, reaching the heady heights of 37% of all votes cast). I doubt there is much to be gained from listening to such snap judgements; the truth, if it is out there, is more likely to come from someone who takes the election as a chance to pause and reflect, to assess and refine, to look objectively into their own soul and be ready to change their mind, rather than see it as an opportunity to justify their assumptions, score a few points, and settle the odd score.

For myself I’m beginning to wonder if this politics lark is all a bit simpler than it is proclaimed. Whatever the individual policies and priorities, perhaps for most people who bother to vote it comes down to the aforementioned simple consensus on leadership and economic confidence. In that light, let’s look again at what Blairites say we should learn; the so called “lessons of Blair” which flow from his uncanny ability to be a Labour leader who can win elections. You could therefore plausibly argue that Labour must do the following.

  1. Let the Conservatives reign for a further 13 years or so, going through a number of recessions as a consequence, and finally losing their record for economic competence. During that time, hope they ditch their strong leader in favour of a hapless oaf. Let the whole country be so thoroughly sick of them that even the Tory press batter them daily with spurious criticisms about sleaze. You’ll almost certainly earn your first election victory.
  2. Don’t mess things up in your first term, retaining your lead of economic competence. Allow the Tories to flounder around and pick another hapless no-hoper as leader just in order to prevent them from choosing a half decent one. You’ll be given another chance, and so win your second election.
  3. Piss yourself laughing as the Tories pick another leader so hapless they have to dust off an aging grandee to replace him just to limit the next set of election losses that even they can see is evitable. By now you can probably even do something truly stupid and massively unpopular like invade another sovereign nation for no good reason. It won’t matter; the opposition are still so useless and you still lead on what matters and the third election is in the bag.

Now, this is obviously very simplistic, and I’m not suggesting Blair shouldn’t get any credit for what he did for Labour, to some extent he made the weather; but I think these truths have to be borne in mind if we are to properly assess all the reasons for Blair’s success. At the very least it puts his victories into context and shows that simply trying to repeat the formula is tricky when some of the fundamentals were out of his hands. Certainly Ed Miliband didn’t have these advantages going into this election, whatever else he may have done wrong. Policy is of course always an issue, but perhaps not as big an issue as other basic electoral tectonics.

If Labour had had to deal with a recession earlier during its 13 years in power, if the Tories had elected a Ken Clarke or a Michael Portillo as their leader, then perhaps Blair’s talent for winning elections would have turned to dust. Similarly you may say that if Labour had turned to the other Miliband in 2010 then it may all have been so very different; but I honestly doubt it. The Conservatives would still have had all the benefits of incumbency in this election, they would still have an apparent record of economic competence to compare with the blame attached to “Labour’s crash”, and they would still have a staggeringly popular leader compared to any likely Labour alternative. For me Cameron’s slip in forgetting which football team he’s supposed to support is absolutely symptomatic of why I can’t stand him; an empty suit so empty-suity that it boggles the mind. But I must admit he does appear superficially impressive; in fact superficial is all he is, full stop. But in contrast Ed Miliband is superficially odd, and perhaps, for a general public not interested in day to day politics, superficial is all that matters. I was amazed at the number of vox-pops I saw during the election where people genuinely had no idea who David Cameron is. Is it too much of a stretch to think that, for many voters, they actually know very little more than that?

I don’t want to sound too cynical here, or be a counsellor of despair, to make it seem that nothing Labour does can make a difference. I have great respect for many people who get involved in politics, motivated by a desire to help people, to fight for their honest held beliefs, whatever they are, to make a difference and do what they feel is right. Keep on keeping on, I’m right behind you. And of course Labour can make things harder for themselves, just as the Tories did during the Blair years. The next leader must look credible, as Ed, bless him, never did. The don’t need to be all things to all people and ditch their beliefs, but they should put forward a positive series of polices in line with their long-held values while also trying to appeal to a broad coalition of views without willingly seeming opposed to any section of society. Easier said than done, I know, but most people will react to the mood music rather than the full manifesto, and any missteps have to be avoided. Beyond that, with the outlook for next five years far more uncertain than it was for the last five, there’s still all to play for and the tiniest thing could be decisive for Labour; but much will also be down to luck, how the economy holds up, and how the Conservatives respond to their own battles, and any prescription for Labour, no matter how “right”, simply may not be enough. It’s not a sophisticated view of politics, and all a bit depressing to the idealist in me who would love it if a centre-left party could stand on a progressive and inclusive platform and sweep all before it whatever; but I’m increasingly beginning to believe that when it comes to actually winning general elections, much is out of any one parties hands, and simply down to time and tide.

Divide And Rule

The worst thing about yesterday’s strike by public sector workers was the fact that you just knew it would give rise to some people trotting out a load of tired old bollocks in the ongoing private sector versus public sector ding-dong; and you were right, witnessing the testing of the “little knowledge is a dangerous thing” motif to destruction by people missing the point by several counties. You know the sort of thing, so I won’t go into detail (although, for what it’s worth, I’m beginning to deduct points for those who refer to the private sector as the wealth-creating, productive part of the economy, as that’s just too hackneyed and ignorant to ignore any further).

That said, one of the complaints I read, numerous times over, was the furious assertion that don’t you know it’s the private sector that pays for the public sector in the first place, providing the slackers with their pensions, and their wages?! Now this, it seems to me, is undeniable. It also doesn’t appear to be a problem. Where does this sense of grievance come from, I wonder?

Put another way, rather than clefting the nation in twain and labelling us as either public sector workers or private sector workers, why don’t we use the terms government workers and non-government workers instead? Lest we forget that it’s the non-government workers who are the ones who pay their taxes to finance those wages and pensions for government workers? It’s a disgrace I tell you, something must be done!

Oh really? How about, just for fun, we cut the pie a different way? Talking of pies (and pasties!) how about we divide the country into Greggs employees and non-Greggs employees? Did you know that it’s down to the non-Greggs employees to hand over their hard-earned cash to feather the beds of those pampered Greggs workers, with their wages, and their pensions, and their natty uniforms! It’s an outrage! Oh…er…hang on; that doesn’t actually sound unreasonable, does it? More like a mere a statement of fact, in fact. What’s the difference?

Basically, nothing*. Taxpayers pay for government, customers pay for Greggs. Otherwise, it’s as you are. The reason they are considered differently is down to ideological oafishness. No one would dream of getting angry at Greggs workers for having a decent pension paid for by the likes of you and me. And yet…and yet…

…we get the common sight of newspaper columnists, sneering down their noses at public sector workers who earn a fraction of their salary, and demanding they endure a shittier retirement. And incidentally that, if anything, is the problem with Jeremy Clarkson’s comments. Not that he’s said something controversial (yawn†); he made a joke, and as is his way, it wasn’t all that funny. It’s the suggestion that behind the joke lies the unsurprising lack of self-awareness of a pampered rich man looking down on others while pocketing a handsome cheque from the state broadcaster. He’s a tit.

In summary, then, yes; it’s the private sector that pays for the public sector. But that isn’t a matter to feel aggrieved about; it’s a matter of bookkeeping.

PostScript: Another post! And a vaguely topical one! Good God! Can I keep it up?

*You get further points deducted for stating that we can choose to shop at Greggs but we’re forced to pay for government. True, but irrelevant.

This, for what it’s worth is the correct response to whatever Clarkson says or does. For heaven’s sake don’t complain. It just makes you look silly.

Taken For Granted

In announcing 2,000 redundancies, Manchester City Council was in no doubt about where the blame really lies.

The unfairness of the government’s financial grant settlement for Manchester, one of the five worst in the country, has been widely reported.

We now have to find £110m in savings next year – £60m more than expected – because of front-loading and the redistribution of money from Manchester to more affluent areas.

The accelerated cuts mean we can no longer achieve the staffing reductions we have been forced into through natural turnover, which is why we are proposing a time-limited offer of voluntary severance and voluntary early retirement.

Quick as a wink, local government minister Grant Shapps shot back

Labour hypocrisy on this issue is breathtaking. They admit there need to be cuts but can’t say where they would fall. Ed Miliband needs to go back to his blank piece of paper and come back with a plan.

We have been quite clear that if councils cut chief exec pay, join back-office services, join forces to procure and cut out the crazy non-jobs, they can protect frontline services. Yet Manchester has a chief exec on a pay packet of nearly a hundred thousand pounds more than the prime minister who won’t lead from the front and take a pay cut and a Twitter tsar on nearly £40,000.

But quite how full is the government’s “piece of paper” when it comes to the cuts? In the main it seems to consist of a series of percentages, the size of which is dependant upon the individual minister’s proximity to the centre of influence and their negotiating skills with the treasury, and with the detail on what is actually to be cut generously devolved away, along with the blithe instruction to “do more with less” and that “you must protect frontline services you simply must”. So, lucky Messrs Gove and Lansley get smallish cuts to education and health (presumably because they have expensive departmental rejigs to waste money on) but weak negotiators or gleeful masochists like Theresa May and Eric Pickles are looking at 25% budget cuts in the home office and local government, but with the decision on “how” to be made elsewhere.

Now, I have no issue with the “how” being made as near to the coalface as possible, that is as it should be. The problem is that the “how much” figure seems to have been cooked-up in an ivory tower in Cloudcuckooland. And, as with Manchester council, when those cuckoos come home to roost and the departmental percentage for cuts is translated into actual losses of jobs and services, central government adopts a “not me, guv” attitude, and blandly asserts that savings of wasteful back-office paper-shuffling jobs can be made and the front line saved, but with no indication at all of how it can be done. So we should perhaps be grateful that on this occasion Grant Shapps has shown us the way, put some meat on the bones, and pointed out an efficiency that can be enacted; namely the sacking of that wasteful and indulgent Twitter Czar. (I prefer Czar to Tsar, because it’s nearer to the word Caesar; but you may say it as you choose.)

Except Manchester City Council don’t employ a Twitter Czar, or even a Twitter Tsar, do they? That much should be blindingly obvious to anyone in a state of consciousness, or so I thought when I heard the allegation on the afternoon news. Sure, they’ll have an internet communications manager or something, who will, among his or her other responsibilities, ensure a presence on twitter (an excellent idea, in my opinion), but you’d have to be pretty jaundiced, or moronic, or, apparently, a government minister, to believe that they employ someone on £40k whose sole responsibility is to tweet all day (which means, sadly, that there’ll be plenty of people readily lapping up that crap in blogs, and message boards, and, apparently, cabinet meetings).

Confirmation came during the PM programme, where it was announced

In the item earlier in the programme, you’ll remember, about 2,000 job cuts at Manchester City Council, we quoted Grant Shapps, the local government minister, saying the council employed a ‘Twitter tsar’. Well the council have been onto us to tell us they’ve have never employed such a person, though they do have a website manager which the Daily Mail referred to as a ‘Twitter tsar’ last October.

Okay, but that doesn’t mean the Daily Mail is wrong, does it? Perhaps Grant Shapps and the Mail were using the same, accurate source for this Twitter Czar claim? Eddie Mair continued

We’ve checked with Grant Shapps’s department and they said the newspaper report is what he based his comments on.

Brilliant. Tell me this isn’t representative of the wider picture. Tell me this doesn’t show, even in part, how the government has formed its theory about what cuts are or are not deliverable. When those actually responsible for effecting central government’s cuts complain, are their complaints really being dismissed based upon bullshit stories from the Daily Mail’s agenda-book? And is Grant Shapps so stupid that it didn’t occur to him that the Daily Mail story was a nonsense, here as elsewhere? Or does he simply not care, knowing that the reality won’t get as wide an airing as the convenient myth?

But perhaps we shouldn’t be too harsh on Grant Shapps. He had to come up with some figure for local government cuts, and with the scrapping of the Audit Commission I guess thin air is as good a place as any. If he can’t himself specify where cuts can be made and has no idea what can genuinely be delivered, what is he to do but to work from Daily Mail headlines? Perhaps if we knew a bit more about Manchester council’s expenditure, if their processes were a more transparent, then he’d be able to make a statement that isn’t a bundle of idiotic gibberish piggy-backing upon a twisted tabloid half-truth? For as he also says

It’s equally disappointing that the council has so far failed to put all expenditure over £500 online so it can exposed to full public scrutiny.

Quite right too. Let’s get this stuff up on the website, so everyone can decide where the cuts can be made, so we’re not having to operate in the realms of guesswork and fantasy. Let’s do it, and yesterday.

Hmm. I wonder whose job it is to put all that information online?

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