CLUTCHING AT CONSTITUTIONAL STRAWS

An especially inspired sequence in the landmark 90s satire series ‘The Day Today’ featured Steve Coogan as a historian urging viewers to throw out the history books when video surfaced of PM John Major having a fight with the Queen; it was an unprecedented constitutional crisis that the news programme presented by Chris Morris responded to by cutting to a pre-prepared film assuring the Great British public everything was going to be alright. A montage of the kind of clichéd images of Albion once reserved for party political broadcasts by the Tories followed, with the addition of a uniformed PC sharing a spliff with a black reveller at the Notting Hill Carnival.

At times of actual constitutional crises, the history books aren’t so much thrown out as dug up. The uncertain state of affairs Theresa May is currently doing her best to turn a blind eye to as she carries on regardless isn’t necessarily unprecedented, though it’s been a while since we experienced this kind of mess. Yes, we had similar situations in 1974 and 2010, though both scenarios were resolved with the incumbent Prime Minister standing down; this is different, in that May has decided to stay put and labours under the misapprehension she will govern the country for the next five years. It’s possible she could stagger on with a minority Government as the Labour Party did from 1974-79, too fearful of calling another Election in the next few months; but the postponement of the Queen’s Speech suggests her desperation to hang on by using the crutch of the Brexit negotiations to justify her position is something new.

Theresa May went through the motions by dropping in for a chat with Her Majesty on Friday, but the haste with which she did so – in contrast to Ted Heath and Gordon Brown in 1974 and 2010 respectively, who both spent days contemplating coalitions – was another indication of her refusal to accept the reality of the situation; she simply acted as if she’d achieved a majority and it was business as usual. Her behaviour certainly contrasts with one of her Tory PM predecessors, Stanley Baldwin.

The result of the 1923 General Election saw the incumbent Conservative administration of Baldwin finish with the highest number of seats (268), but a long way from achieving a majority. Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour was in second place to the Tories with 191 seats while Herbert Henry Asquith’s Liberals ran a close third with 158. The age of three party politics was writ large back then; 1923 was the last occasion in which a third party won over 100 seats. Stanley Baldwin had succeeded Andrew Bonar Law as PM seven months previously, but sought his own mandate when he could easily have waited another four years. Sound familiar?

Baldwin’s gamble backfired and when Asquith offered tacit support to MacDonald (assuming Labour wouldn’t last long as the governing party, thus allowing the Liberals back in), Baldwin had the decency to fall on his sword after Parliament reconvened in January 1924 (the Election had been held in December), following the rejection of the King’s Speech. George V then invited MacDonald to form a minority administration. This first Labour Government only lasted ten months, defeated in the Commons on a motion of no confidence, the same action that brought down Baldwin; but when Ramsay MacDonald had taken charge, he didn’t have to form a coalition to make up the numbers or prove he had a functional majority. Interesting.

Five years later, Ramsay MacDonald was back in Downing Street; this time round, Labour had won a plurality of seats (287 to the Tories’ 260), despite having a lower share of the vote than Baldwin’s party and being some distance from having a majority. Again, the Liberals – this time with Lloyd George at the helm and boasting 59 seats – held the balance of power and once more supported Labour. Baldwin, already under immense pressure to quit by the powerful press barons of the day, Lords Beaverbrook and Rothermere, decided enough was enough and resigned as PM, though he hung on as Tory leader and even returned to No.10 six years later, eventually handing over the reins of power to Neville Chamberlain in 1937. Parliamentarians certainly knew the meaning of staying power then.

Yes, these examples are now so far back in time that one would have to be well over 100 to remember them, but they show how nothing is cut and dried when even the largest party in the Commons fails to reach a majority. In his book, ‘English Public Law’, Professor David Feldman is quoted as saying ‘If there is a Hung Parliament…the monarch invites first the incumbent Prime Minister to continue in office; if (they) are unable to do so, then the leader of the largest opposition party is appointed Prime Minister’. Those are the rules of the game and ones that all party leaders should be aware of before they embark upon an Election campaign.

If this is the system Parliament is determined to retain, then Theresa May can’t complain when finishing with the greatest number of seats still means she can’t command a majority and faces potential defeat should Labour and its ideological allies reject her delayed Queen’s Speech. If May fails to get her Queen’s Speech through Parliament, we could still end up with Jeremy Corbyn as PM, regardless of the numbers, and Labour wouldn’t have to enter into formal coalition with any other party for that to happen. It ain’t over yet, then.

© The Editor

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THE COALITION OF CHAOS

Once politicians cease to be politicians, it’s interesting how they belatedly come across as human beings; flicking between BBC and ITV coverage on Thursday night, I found the Saint & Greavsie double-act of George Osborne and Ed Balls on the latter quite entertaining and almost forgot why both provoked such loathing in me when they were in power. Perhaps there is a human being lurking somewhere in Theresa May and we won’t see it until she’s out of office; I would imagine most right now are thinking that day can’t come quick enough.

Anyone watching events on TV since Thursday night, albeit with the volume muted, might have found the images misleading. They could have come to the conclusion that Jeremy Corbyn had been elected Prime Minister and that both Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon were reflecting on relegation to the opposition benches. The expressions of the three party leaders mentioned were more a reflection of results catching them all by surprise. Jezza clearly never expected to do so well; May and Sturgeon never expected to do so badly. At the end of the day, Labour may still be in opposition and the Tories and SNP may still be the biggest parties in England and Scotland respectively, but the latter two both misjudged the public mood and paid the price. May is worse off now than when she called the Election and Sturgeon’s obsession with a second Independence Referendum has seen her lose 21 seats.

If the result of last year’s EU Referendum should have taught party leaders anything it was that the electorate don’t take kindly to condescending, smug, self-righteous arrogance in their elected representatives, and given half a chance they’ll reject being told what to do and how to vote by a pampered Parliamentary elite totally detached from their own lives. It would also appear that the antiquated assault on Corbyn by Fleet Street, utilising tired old tactics that seemed to work in the distant 80s, utterly backfired; our newspapers, like our politicians, still labour under the belief that the Sun can win it; it can’t. Few under 40 even buy newspapers now and the huge increase in the youth vote facilitated by Labour’s canny employment of the cyber language the majority of youth speak resulted in the highest turnout since 1992.

Jezza may have provided Labour with what was apparently the party’s biggest increase in the share of the vote since Clement Attlee, but it’s seats that count when it comes to a General Election. Sorry to take us back to February 1974 again, but it’s always worth remembering that Jeremy Thorpe’s Liberals received the largest share of the vote in the party’s history in that Election – greater than even the share they had in the Liberal landslide of 1906 – yet that only resulted in a paltry 14 seats. Similarly, May’s Conservatives won their largest share of the vote since Thatcher’s 1983 landslide this time round, yet their majority was wiped out. A good deal of these statistics could be attributed to the fact that the vote has been less thinly spread in 2017, with the two major parties claiming 82.4% of it, the first time since the 1970 General Election that Labour and Tory could claim such dominance over the other parties.

Were it not for the fact that the Brexit negotiations are imminent, I’ve no doubt Philip May would never have to put the Downing Street bins out again; as it is, the Tories are postponing Madame Guillotine for the moment, but it’s only a postponement. Theresa May is a dead woman walking after Thursday’s result, our own equivalent of a lame duck US President midway through a second term, knowing re-election is out of the question. Yes, her two toxic advisers Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill have walked the plank today (May ‘laying down her friends for her life’, perhaps); but their ex-boss’s brief speech after visiting Brenda yesterday, bereft of any acknowledgement of the disaster she’d presided over, spoke volumes. Theresa May is in serious denial of her own shortcomings, refusing to accept what is evident to everyone else, her own party included.

For all the success Labour managed, the fact remains that this is the third General Election in a row the party has lost; it now has more seats than it has been able to boast since 2005, but had it managed to push the Tories as tight it did under Harold Wilson in February 1974 the outcome of this Election could have been far closer and Jezza could have a more legitimate claim to form a Government than contemplating a half-arsed coalition comprising Labour, the Lib Dems and the SNP that still wouldn’t constitute a majority. However, for all the scaremongering stories about Corbyn’s good relations with Sinn Fein – standing alongside Adams and McGuinness well in advance of all the Prime Ministers that have done just that from the Good Friday Agreement onwards – the irony that Theresa May is having to reach out to the Democratic Unionist Party to prop-up her minority administration, a party whose past association with Loyalist paramilitaries is hardly spotless, can’t have escaped Corbyn.

The Northern Ireland Assembly has been in chaos for months now, and the Tories throwing their lot in with the Unionist side, regardless of the traditional ties between the two, hardly looks like fair play from a Nationalist perspective. Playing the impartial broker of the peace process has been the British Government’s role ever since 1998, and May’s desperate move to cling onto power will merely add to the political turmoil in Ulster at a time when the border with the Republic in the wake of Brexit has already provoked enough uneasiness across the Irish Sea. As for the DUP’s conservative stance on issues such as gay marriage and abortion, which has received the most coverage on social media, they’re largely typical of the hardline Protestant mindset in Northern Ireland, just as they are of the hardline Muslim mindset in the rest of the UK (Ooh – Islamophobia!); but that shouldn’t be the reason why this awkward alliance is a worry.

Yet, regardless of how both last year’s Leave vote and the inconclusive result of Thursday’s General Election have served as evidence of just how disunited this kingdom really is, the PM is content to keep churning out the vacuous slogans and sound-bites she thinks will save her own skin at the expense of the country. Considering I avoided predictions when the snap Election was called, I still imagined a Conservative landslide would be the outcome and said as much. I’m glad to have been proven wrong, but God knows what comes next. Only a fool would be a betting man right now, and I can at least admit I’ve never set foot in a betting-shop.

© The Editor

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A MESS OF THE BLUES

Even a face that gives away as little as possible as Theresa May’s couldn’t conceal the immense disappointment and disbelief at the catastrophic failure of her gamble last night; watching the declaration in Maidenhead, it was evident the PM couldn’t quite believe the General Election she could have waited another three years to call hadn’t seen her sweep all before her. The poll published a few days ago that predicted a Hung Parliament was dismissed by the experts, yet the shock of the exit poll unveiled at 10.00pm, strongly hinting that the party with a runaway lead over the opposition just a couple of months back wouldn’t get a majority, also seemed too good to be true; and yet, it has come to pass.

Flashbacks to February 1974 were hard to avoid as the fascinating saga unfolded; like Ted Heath (if for different reasons), Theresa May had called a snap Election confident she would trounce the competition; it was undoubtedly a gamble, but one she entered into with unassailable arrogance and an assumption she would walk it. Like Heath, May is in possession of a rather chilly aloofness and doesn’t appear very comfortable confronting the electorate, so did her best to avoid them; even putting the shoddy manifesto aside, this didn’t play well with the public. May also has the same stubborn intransigence as Heath, refusing to countenance advice from anyone outside of her close-knit cabal; her determination to cling onto power after failing to achieve a majority – when the outset of the campaign suggested a landslide – is another characteristic she shares with her 70s predecessor.

The main difference between June 2017 and February 1974, though, is that the two main parties were far closer then than this time round; however storming and surprising a performance by Labour, they’re still nowhere near having enough seats to legitimately form an administration without entering into coalition. Harold Wilson was in a far stronger position 43 years ago. One other factor that distinguishes 2017 from 1974 is that, unlike Heath, the PM has entered into an agreement with Unionists in Ulster; at one time, the Tories could always rely on Unionist support, though Heath lost it in the wake of Sunningdale; had he been able to call on it, he would probably have remained PM. May’s deal with the DUP, emphasised by her brief lectern speech this lunchtime – when she tellingly referred to her party by its full, rarely-used title of Conservative and Unionist Party – will hardly appease the anger within Tory circles at her reckless decision to call this unnecessary Election.

Another factor that saved absolute Conservative humiliation was the party’s remarkable performance in Scotland, something that can be attributed to Ruth Davidson rather than Mrs May. Both Labour and even the Lib Dems played their part in slashing the SNP’s majority, but the Tories were the biggest national success story north of the border, a situation unthinkable even just two years ago. It wasn’t the best of nights for the SNP, though – the loss of former leader Alex Salmond and Westminster leader Angus Robertson was something of a surprise, and any talk of a second Independence Referendum is considerably more muted now; along with Nick Clegg’s defeat, these were the biggest casualties in terms of famous names. Two leading Cabinet Ministers – Justine Greening and Amber Rudd – only just scraped through too; in the case of the latter, it really was a damned close run thing.

The collapse in the UKIP vote that many assumed would solely benefit the Tories undoubtedly helped Labour capture many of the surprising seats they took, none more so than Canterbury, a seat held by the Conservatives for a century. Labour’s share of the vote was almost on a par with the share they enjoyed during Tony Blair’s landslide years, yet they had so much ground to recover after 2010 and 2015 that even the most fanatical Corbynistas couldn’t envisage them becoming the largest party. But can Theresa May command the confidence of the Commons? Losing the majority she inherited from David Cameron is hardly strong or stable.

The threat of yet another General Election within a year and the prospect of staggering on with a minority administration that will severely limit her chances of success means May’s days as Tory leader and Prime Minister appear to be numbered. The same glum expression worn by May at the Maidenhead count was writ large on the faces of many Tory MPs interviewed last night, and the thought of one more Tory leadership contest being on the cards (and therefore another unelected PM) when Britain is poised to enter into the Brexit negotiations won’t alter that, nor will the fact that the UK’s immediate political future is effectively in the hands of Stormont. This is the worst possible outcome of a gamble Theresa May should take responsibility for; and as she’s sold herself as a solo artist in Presidential mould, it’s her responsibility alone.

© The Editor

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TALES OF THE UNEXPECTED

A Hung Parliament was predicted by pollsters in 1992; the Tories won with the largest share of the vote in British electoral history. A Hung Parliament was predicted in 2015; the Tories won their first outright victory since 1992; some are predicting a Hung Parliament in 2017 and…well, you can guess where I’m going. The publication of a poll yesterday that narrowed the Conservative lead over Labour to just a solitary point is undoubtedly one we have to take with the proverbial pinch of salt. Yet the fact a poll can even be published which shows the two major parties neck-and-neck is a remarkable state of affairs considering where we were when Theresa May called this snap General Election less than two months ago.

One unexpected development this campaign appears to have brought to the fragmented political table has been the resurgence of the two-party system. The selling of it as a Presidential Election – something Mrs May figured was her trump card – has probably played its part. To be fair, however, Jezza has also pursued this path, hogging the headlines and relegating his Shadow Cabinet to the periphery of the debate. The sudden withdrawal of Diane Abbott from the campaign due to ‘illness’ seems belated recognition by Labour of what a liability the Shadow Home Secretary is; at least the Tories have ensured their own liability, Boris Johnson, has been largely invisible, certainly compared to the high profile he enjoyed during the EU Referendum last year.

The chalk-and-cheese contest between May and Corbyn, a factor that seems to have intensified due to the refusal of the PM to share a stage with the Labour leader on TV, is something we haven’t seen in quite some time where British politics are concerned. Somebody quipped during the 1983 General Election that Margaret Thatcher’s greatest electoral asset was Michael Foot, and May (along with her Fleet Street allies) has attempted to apply this theory to her own opposition; but such a tactic draws comparisons that haven’t reflected well on her. The more she’s been put under the spotlight, the less flattering it has proven to be for the Prime Minister.

The old complaint that it was virtually impossible to tell the leaders, let alone their parties, apart has been blown out of the water this time round; and the surprise rise of Corbyn has grabbed a majority of headlines because the media was determined to portray him as a no-hoper from the off. The fact that this has been the first General Election for a post-Blairite Labour Party, essentially being sold to the electorate as a new party altogether, has perhaps injected a fresh zest into proceedings. It may still end in tears for Corbyn and his party, though bar a couple of awkward moments on the radio, Jezza has mostly fought a blinder of a campaign. Even the suspicious leaking of the Labour manifesto, something those within his own party figured would kill his campaign, utterly backfired; the Labour manifesto received a relatively positive reception, certainly when compared to the disastrous Tory one.

Perhaps surplus to the requirements of the Prime Minister’s Presidential approach, few members of the PM’s Cabinet (bar Amber Rudd) have been especially prominent in this campaign. They’d only have disrupted May’s Brexit express, even if that train has come close to being derailed on more than one occasion over the last few weeks. The last time a serving government experienced such a cock-up of a campaign as the Tories have in 2017 was probably Gordon Brown’s Labour in 2010. There hasn’t been an ‘ignorant woman’ moment for Theresa May, though probably only because she’s done her best to avoid members of the public at all costs; however, the humiliating U-turn on social care just days after the manifesto appeared was an unprecedented blunder that might still impact on the party’s fortunes.

If we take Scotland out of the equation, the focus on the head-to-head between Labour and Tory has been aided in part by the deterioration of support for the smaller parties. Both UKIP and the Lib Dems haven’t impacted in the way they have before, whereas Plaid Cymru and the Greens haven’t increased in notable support since 2015. All the half-arsed TV debates have relegated the rest to simply making up the numbers, and I suspect the leaders of those parties know it, despite their brave faces. In the immediate Brexit aftermath, the old party political certainties seemed to have been shattered forever; it’s remarkable how rapidly they’ve reasserted themselves at the expense of those who’ve punched above their weight in recent years.

The last 24 hours of campaigning have consisted of the images that have dominated news coverage ever since Theresa May called the Election – the PM addressing a small hall of placard-waving Tory activists, Corbyn addressing a large outdoor rally of old lefties and blue-haired student girls, and the front covers of the Mail, Express and Sun recycling the same shock-horror stories of Jezza’s ‘IRA connections’; if what the leaders of the two major parties were doing thirty years ago had any bearing on 2017, perhaps Theresa May should still be warning against ‘the dangers’ of lesbianism, as she was when trying to make her name as a Parliamentary hopeful.

Following one final push tonight, television (which is, for most of us, the source material for any political event) will enter into an Election armistice tomorrow; only when the clock strikes 10.00 and the BBC, ITV and Sky exit poll results are unveiled will the final act of the trilogy that began with the General Election of 2015 reach the end of its natural life. Where we will be five years from now, let alone Friday morning, is now in the lap of the electorate. Go forth and tick that box!

Oh, and be careful out there too…

 

© The Editor

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OPERATION GROUNDHOG DAY

Yes, we’ve been here before, and not that long since either. As a matter of fact, the way in which I heard of events in London late last night was more or less identical to the way in which I heard of events in Manchester just under a fortnight ago, right at the point whereby I was winding down online for the evening. I won’t even use the word déjà vu because it seems such a cliché, but at the moment it feels as though we are living in a permanent rolling news channel, with atrocities on a loop; the media barely has time to get over blanket coverage of one incident before the next one comes along with all its attendant visual signposts recycled once again.

I actually avoided the real rolling news channels this time round because the manner of reportage is too close to the style I spoofed on a YT video a week or so ago. Part of me was also worried I was beginning to become jaded with it all, in the same way US television viewers did with the Moon Landings after Neil Armstrong’s one small step. But the pattern is well established now, as much for the media as for the perpetrators, and the worry is that we become so accustomed to terrorist attacks that they lose their power to shock. It would be sad if the kind of fatigue sets in that is often the response to the latest gun crime incident in the States, though incessant exposure to the same TV presentation and the same newspaper headlines can make this possible.

What happened on London Bridge and around Borough Market brought a disturbing new interpretation of the phrase ‘White Van Man’ to the colloquial table. Having been confronted by the considerably rarer tactic of the suicide bomber as a means of fast mass murder in Manchester, the public were reunited with the same haphazard approach to Jihadi brutality as occurred on Westminster Bridge in March – a vehicle deliberately driven into pedestrians, followed by knife-wielding lunatics emerging from it to wreak havoc in the name of Allah before being gunned down by armed police. What comes next we can already write the script for.

COBRA will reconvene; the PM will issue the same platitudes and promises from the Downing Street lectern; Fleet Street editorials will either preach tolerance or advocate internment; arrests around the country will be made; the terrorists will be named and FB profile pics of them will be unearthed as their road to martyrdom will raise few eyebrows; some on social media will question the timing of events and enter into conspiracy theories as to how they will benefit the Tories; we will be constantly reminded Islam is a peace-loving faith; and on and on it goes before the next attack.

Right now, it’s impossible to say if this is a co-ordinated sequence of assaults on the UK conducted by individuals in touch with each other at the planning process or if one attack inspires another in spontaneous copycat incidents, though the latter seems more likely; the chillingly clinical team effort that Paris experienced a couple of years ago was closer to a guerrilla operation; this still has the feel of DIY amateurishness. But it’s indisputable that after a decade of relative immunity to the bloodshed enacted on mainland European soil it now appears the twelve-year armistice since 7/7 is well and truly over. Are we in the thick of an Islamic equivalent of the IRA bombing campaign of the mid-70s or is it mere coincidence that all these attacks have taken place in such quick succession? Nobody knows yet; but whether the climate of fear one presumes the Jihadists intended to create will influence the thought processes of people going about their daily lives remains to be seen.

Of course, the timing of the incidents, so close to a General Election, means what began as the Brexit Election is in danger of becoming the Terror Election. National campaigning has been suspended by at least the Conservatives and Labour for today as a mark of respect for those who lost their lives last night, though business as usual will resume tomorrow; when we’re just four days away from the nation going to the polls, the campaign has no choice but to continue. It’s difficult to predict what kind of impact the current onslaught may or may not have on how the electorate decide to vote, for at the moment it seems whoever happens to be occupying No.10 on Friday is pretty powerless to prevent this from happening all over again.

I suppose it’s inevitable that the compulsory mouthpiece of social media is awash with opinions and reactions that reflect the confusion of the generations that have come of age with no memory of the last time this country was in a state of high alert. When the IRA were inflicting their own nihilistic ideology on mainland Britain, a large majority of the population had lived through the Second World War and didn’t scare easily. As far as the UK is concerned, the 1990s was a relatively peaceful decade to be born into when compared to the couple that preceded it; and even 9/11 as a game-changing event is something that now happened sixteen years ago; one would have to be at least twenty to have a clear memory of it.

Therefore, as easy (not to mention lazy) as it is for someone of my age – as well as slightly younger and slightly older – to react and respond differently to each incident, with less sense of feeling the world is going to Hell in a handcart, it’s worth acknowledging there are a lot of people out there who have no precedents to fall back on. These are indeed unsettling times, but they don’t alter my own personal outlook on the good, the bad and the ugly inherent in my fellow-man. Let’s just keep buggering on.

© The Editor

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90-MINUTE PARTY PEOPLE

A few years ago there was a famous edition of ‘Have I Got News for You’ in which Roy Hattersley pulled out of the programme at the eleventh hour and was replaced as Paul Merton’s fellow panellist by a tub of lard. Last night’s second General Election leaders’ debate (this time on BBC1) saw Theresa Jong Un absent once again, an absence that was highlighted even more than the Great Dictator’s absence from ITV’s equivalent show by the last-minute appearance of Jeremy Corbyn, fresh from a grilling on ‘Woman’s Hour’ that raised the hackles of the Mumsnet harpies. In the PM’s place wasn’t a tub of lard, but Home Secretary Amber Rudd, a woman who seems to be morphing into Theresa May when she had the same job, haircut included; that she was prepared to step in even though her father had passed away a couple of days beforehand is something else that doesn’t reflect well on her superior’s no-show.

The inclusion of Jezza seemed to spice things up a little; on ITV’s show, there was nobody from Labour or the Tories; this time round, the presence of Corbyn and Rudd made a notable difference, as did Angus Robertson, the SNP’s main-man in Westminster, in place of Nicola Sturgeon and her lucky earrings. The debate was considerably livelier than its predecessor, possibly because – as happens in a family of several children – everyone had to shout to make themselves heard; on occasion, devil’s advocate Mishal Husain struggled to control the cacophony as the leaders began to resemble a party of old ladies in a tea shop fighting for the right to foot the bill.

In 2010, broadcasters recognised it made sense to limit such a programme to the leaders of the three main parties in Britain; but the success of the SNP and the decimation of the Lib Dems in 2015, not to mention the significant role of UKIP in creating the climate for the EU Referendum, means that will probably never happen again. No debate of this nature can now be undertaken unless everyone is included. The fragmentation of traditional party politics at the last General Election has created a climate in which there are many voices vying for the electorate’s attention, and television feels the need to reflect this fact, hence the seven-way showcase we received yesterday evening.

The selected questions from the audience were pretty predictable; when the subject of events in Manchester last week was raised, that drew pretty predictable responses from those on stage as well. Regarding those events as an abomination should be a given, but most standing at the lecterns felt compelled to express that before answering the question, which conveniently limited the time available to airing their solutions, though only Paul Nuttall went against the narrative pedalled by the rest; Corbyn and Angus Robertson fell back on a rather lazy blame-game by accusing UKIP of labelling all Muslims as terrorists, which Nuttall didn’t actually do. This seemed to back-up the left’s persistent accusations of any criticism of Islam as ‘Islamophobic’, something that has hardly borne positive fruit at Salford University.

Jeremy Corbyn is accustomed to playing before large and largely favourable audiences and it appeared he had sizeable support in Cambridge last night; as Home Secretary, Theresa May once stood up to the Police Federation and told the country’s most inept public service to get their house in order, something I thought took considerable balls for a Tory Home Secretary to do. She proved then she could face a hostile audience; why can’t she do so as Prime Minister? Corbyn, as well as Tim Farron, Leanne Wood and Caroline Lucas, played upon the PM’s absence and it was hard at times not to feel sorry for Amber Rudd, saddled with having to defend her boss’s record rather than her own; however, she did make the valid point that she’d have preferred to have faced her shadow counterpart in the shape of the perennial car-crash that is Diane Abbott.

Paul Nuttall recycled many of the statistics he used during his Andrew Neil interview on Monday and locked horns with Leanne Wood again (without mistakenly calling her Natalie this time) in a manner that suggested they perhaps should settle their differences by having sex. Caroline Lucas did her usual hectoring primary school headmistress routine and Tim Farron tried his best by harking back to his working-class upbringing in Preston once more, though his closing statement – advising viewers to switch over to ‘Bake Off’ on BBC2 and not bother with the debate because Theresa May couldn’t be bothered with them – at least showed a degree of welcome humour.

One week from today, you can have your say; whether you vote tactically or for the party you had handed down to you like a hereditary peerage or you simply go for your constituency MP because you like them (regardless of which party they represent), your vote will count. Whether or not it results in the party you think is best suited to running the country actually achieving power is another matter, but let’s face it, it’s the sole say we have and we’ve no choice but to make the most of it. It’s the only shot we’ve got.

And lest we forget, something serious could always happen to influence our vote…

© The Editor

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HOW THE MIGHTY HAVE FALLEN

For any political anoraks, it was nice to see the brief resurrection of David Butler in a ‘Newsnight’ interview last week; the one-time analytical mainstay of the BBC’s General Election night broadcasts – the go-to man if seeking facts and figures about swings in marginal seats – was asked for his opinion on the current campaign. He reckoned the about-turn in Labour fortunes was the most surprising development he’d seen in any run-up to polling day since 1945, though he was still of the belief that the Conservatives would retain power. Last night on Channel 4 and Sky, we sadly had no David Butler and had to make to do with Jeremy Paxman.

Oh, dear. If ever the old phrase ‘never go back’ had any real relevance, it was in Paxo’s return to political interrogations after a two-year absence; he was akin to the former high-school hunk turning up to a reunion with a paunch and a bald patch, yet for a good couple of decades, Paxman was a giant, simply untouchable when it came to getting blood out of elected stones. Few MPs emerged unscathed from a Paxman grilling; he could make them squirm in a way that made other political interviews seem like scripted ego-stroking on ‘The Graham Norton Show’.

He was the natural inheritor of the mantle that had so long belonged to Robin Day, possessing the same pompous vanity yet equally capable of going for the jugular like no other interviewer when faced with such meticulously coached evasiveness. It seemed he was just as frustrated as the viewers by politicians who were incapable of giving a straight answer to a straight question and he attacked their spin-doctored defences like a battering ram pounding the walls of a besieged medieval castle. We cheered him on because he was doing it for us – our man in Westminster. When it was announced his successor as the main ‘Newsnight’ frontman would be Evan Davis, I remember thinking it was a bit like when Peter Davison succeeded Tom Baker as Doctor Who – a lightweight for a heavyweight; but now I wonder if the Davis approach isn’t preferable.

Semi-retirement making cosy Sunday evening documentaries about Victorian paintings and British waterways appears to have blunted Paxman’s once-impeccably precise interviewing instincts, and last night he was closer to a Rory Bremner impersonation of his former self. He interviewed both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn – separately, as he had with David Cameron and Ed Miliband in 2015 – and came across as someone with a vague memory of how this thing works, adopting a blustering, belligerent tone of basic rudeness without any of the subtly sneaky assassin’s nuances that had proven so effective in his heyday. I was so dismayed by his embarrassing show midway through that I actually switched over and watched ‘Coronation Street’ on ITV.

What once happened to David Frost – whose initial mercilessness when confronting crooked public figures slowly morphed into a chummy chinwag technique as a legacy of sucking-up to too many showbiz stalwarts – now seems to have happened to Paxo. The Corbyn interview was the one I saw in its entirety last night and Paxman’s refusal to allow Jezza to attempt an answer without butting in and bombarding him with another question was reminiscent of Terry Wogan’s tactics on his 80s chat-show; it was as though all those years of anticipating evasiveness on ‘Newsnight’ meant he can no longer ask a question without expecting a non-answer and doesn’t even give the politician the opportunity to be evasive – yet enabling them to be evasive had always presented Paxman with his trump card in the past.

What this approach inadvertently did was to make the viewers side with Corbyn, and for Jezza this was something of a life-saver, as I wasn’t very impressed by his performance when he took questions from the audience; he appeared unexpectedly nervous in the way David Cameron had during the first leaders’ debate of 2010. After Labour’s surge in the polls following Team Theresa’s humiliating U-turn on a key manifesto pledge, Jezza seemed taken aback by the swift decimation of the Tory lead, as if he didn’t quite know what to do with his sudden advantage. However, once he sat down for a Paxo grilling, Corbyn was far more relaxed and his demeanour when faced with someone who had the air of an angry old man still coming to terms with decimalisation was one guaranteed to win the audience’s sympathy.

I suppose it made sense to employ somebody with such an impressive track record to handle the interview segment of the programme, and who has more of an impressive track record over the last couple of decades than Paxman? But there’s a clear division between mocking students on ‘University Challenge’ as they struggle with questions Paxman himself has the answers to printed on a card in front of him and giving the country’s two main political leaders the kind of interview the public wants to see when both have chickened out of sharing the podium with each other. We didn’t get that last night. Maybe they should have hired Andrew Neil to do it instead.

© The Editor

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A HARE’S BREADTH

Gerald Kaufman’s recent death may have necessitated a by-election that the unexpected announcement of a General Election has now negated, but the late Labour MP’s oft-quoted description of his party’s 1983 manifesto under Michael Foot as ‘the longest suicide note in history’ has resurfaced yet again just a few months after Kaufman’s passing, revived as the right’s response to the 2017 Labour manifesto, ‘mysteriously’ leaked a week in advance, which gave both the Conservative Party and its Fleet Street mouthpieces time to rip it to shreds and implant the requisite doubt in the minds of floating voters.

The interesting aspect of this predictable reaction, however, is that – unlike 1983 – any negativity on the part of the electorate towards Jeremy Corbyn’s ideas stems less from the proposed policies offered in the manifesto and more their professed dislike or distrust of Jezza himself – or at least the motley crew surrounding him. Few members of the public when asked have actually dismissed the policies as either undesirable or unenforceable. Indeed, many of those policies seem to be engineered to capitalise on the general apathy towards mainstream politics and the detested bedfellows of the mainstream that last year’s EU Referendum exposed. On paper, all the right targets are highlighted and there’s a lot in there that seems surprisingly sensible, only ‘radical’ in the sense that it doesn’t compromise and make allowances in ways we’ve become accustomed.

In contrast to Labour’s proposals, ‘Team Theresa’ are so overconfident re the foregone conclusion of a Tory triumph on June 8 that the Conservative manifesto seems rooted in the belief that it doesn’t matter however unpopular the policies proposed are, for a win is guaranteed. The Tories could propose the decriminalisation of slavery or the legalisation of paedophilia and they’d still be convinced of a landslide. Alienating significant swathes of the electorate, whether mothers whose children are entitled to free school meals, elderly home-owners, the young unemployed or supporters of the fox-hunting ban doesn’t appear to matter to them. Theresa May just keeps on turning the conversation away from domestic issues and back towards Brexit in the hope that will suffice.

Theresa May’s unassailable conviction that her Strong and Stable personality is enough to swing it for the Tories has seen her party’s Election literature dominated by the leader, whereas with Labour it’s the local candidate who has been emphasised at the expense of their leader. The PM evidently regards the Presidential battle as the way to go and she reckons when it comes down to her and Jezza, there’s no contest. An episode of ‘The Thick of It’ in which opposition spin-doctor guru Stewart Pearson declares his party needs to appeal to ‘One Show Man’ seems – as with so many elements of that series – uncannily prescient following May’s PR exercise sharing a sofa alongside hubby the other week.

If it comes to personality, however, Corbyn has the edge in terms of campaigning; Jezza is in his element when addressing a crowd, permanently on the road, whereas ‘his opponent’ prefers the occasional appearance on the small screen – as long as she’s directing events, of course. At the moment, May is acting like a reclusive rock star in a Kate Bush vein, whose first album in years requires little or no self-promotion to ensure it will shoot straight to the top of the charts on the strength of an impressive track record of groundbreaking and innovative efforts decades before. This attitude is founded on a remarkably high opinion of herself as a politician; considering her six years at the Home Office saw her constantly fail to achieve her aims to reduce immigration numbers to the figures she specified, not to mention the relatively low profile she’s cultivated ever since promotion to No.10, one wonders where this high opinion comes from. Her career in public office is hardly a Strong and Stable basis for such conceit.

It does seem strange or perhaps simply symptomatic of the Tories’ arrogance that they can take their traditional pensioner vote and disregard it with their plans for social care, or the so-called ‘Dementia Tax’; this appears to be a bizarre miscalculation on the part of the PM, especially considering the huge proportion of over-50s who actually drag themselves to the nearest polling station to vote Tory when compared to the teenyboppers who constitute Jezza’s cult following. Surely it makes sense from a Conservative perspective to court the blue-rinse brigade that has proven to be the party’s strength-in-depth at the ballot box in recent years? Apparently not. And now the polls are telling us the previously-astronomical lead the Tories had over Labour has considerably narrowed; according to the Sunday Times, the gap between the two is currently down to just nine points – and this despite the usual reliance on ‘Project Fear’ tactics whenever a Conservative Government seeks to prevent a Labour Government.

Wobbles are not uncommon during a General Election campaign, especially when a party has gone into it so far ahead of its main opponent that confidence can easily become complacency. Whilst it still appears that a Conservative victory is the most likely outcome, Theresa May is taking a hell of a lot for granted at the moment, and dispatching senior Cabinet Ministers to take the flack on the airwaves while keeping her own head down does raise the question as to which party has penned this Election’s suicide note.

© The Editor

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FOLLOW THE LEADERS

It was akin to a rock festival where the two top-of-the-bill bands pull out at the last minute and the unlucky punters who have spent a small fortune to see them are stuck with those lower down the bill who they thought would be worth enduring as long as the big acts followed them. ITV’s leaders’ debate last night, following on from the well-remembered television events of 2010 and 2015, had five politicians on the podium. Two of them – Leanne Wood and Nicola Sturgeon – won’t be standing for election at Westminster, whereas of the other three, Paul Nuttall probably won’t be elected to Westminster, Caroline Lucas will just about scrape by again as the sole Parliamentary representative of her party, and Tim Farron will most likely make it along with perhaps half-a-dozen other Lib Dems.

Our big chicken PM wasn’t present, of course; the thought of her participating in any debate she can’t control with the martinet tendencies of an old-school auteur film director is unimaginable; she can clearly only cope with a choreographed audience of Tory activists if her electioneering so far is anything to go by, so her absence was no great surprise. Having her policies placed under a spotlight she herself isn’t operating is something she is worryingly averse to. Those policies being scrutinised by her political opponents before a nationwide audience might be tolerable on the BBC Parliament Channel, where few but the most devoted political anoraks will be watching; but being exposed on ITV with an audience of millions fresh from ‘Emmerdale’? No chance!

And what of Jezza? He refused to take part if Mrs May refused to take part. The ‘Presidential approach’ to this General Election, in which the Conservative and Labour leaders are sold as candidates going head-to-head regardless of the rest, obviously isn’t merely the responsibility of the media; Corbyn clearly views May as his sole opponent and will only take on her. If she’s not there, neither is he. Mind you, Jezza enjoys preaching to the converted as well. Which 68-year-old man would choose facing a difficult audience of floating voter don’t-knows that might not be convinced by his messianic charisma when he can be welcomed by screaming girls that make him feel like Harry Styles at staged events in Labour strongholds across the country?

So, with the absence of the two party leaders that everyone with an interest would like to see confront each other on this type of programme, ITV had to make do with Ringo, Ringo, Ringo, Ringo and Ringo. Paul Nuttall, the nominated punch-bag of the other participants, lacks the comic talents of his predecessor as UKIP leader; Nigel’s blustering presence helped liven up the equivalent debate during the last General Election, yet Nuttall is the Syd Little to Farage’s Eddie Large. The only humorous contribution he made was accidental – referring to Leanne Wood as ‘Natalie’ more than once, confusing the Plaid Cymru leader with the former coughing commander-in-chief of the Greens, Ms Bennett.

Caroline Lucas took a leaf out of the Ed Miliband book by constantly addressing the camera whenever answering an audience question. She also played to the gallery when an elderly audience member suffering from MS mentioned her working life in the NHS and Lucas began her response by paying tribute to somebody she’d never met before to the expected round of applause. Her opinions stuck to the tried and untested Green manifesto, something that must appeal to those groovy hipsters living in Brighton but doesn’t seem appealing to the electorate on a national level. She hit the mark when bringing up the topic of the Lib Dems’ role in the Coalition as Tim Farron was droning on about the NHS, though that was the only real point she scored.

Leanne Wood has now dispensed with the ‘beehive’ that gave her a distinctive appearance last time round, a seemingly trivial touch that nevertheless made a politician with such a small backyard stand out from her better-known national rivals; and as happened to Mari Wilson’s chart career when she too dropped the same haircut, Ms Wood’s change of image strangely seems to have rendered her less effective as a performer. Plaid Cymru in Wales lack the clout of their ideological allies the SNP in Scotland, and any arguments Wood put forward as policies to cover the entire country can barely be supported in her own neck of the woods. She did have the most amusing exchanges with Paul Nuttall, but she appeared to be present last night just to make up the numbers.

Nicola Sturgeon took advantage of Theresa May’s absence perhaps more than any other participant in the programme, shrewdly highlighting the PM’s manifesto threat to remove free school meals when the subject of education was raised. But limited by the fact she only really cares about what happens in Scotland at the expense of the rest of the UK, her experience as an orator on more major platforms than some of those she shared last night’s with couldn’t be utilised for that very reason. The dominance of the SNP north of the border may have given her the authoritative demeanour that comes with power, though even making the occasional valid point on the subject of inequality was essentially ineffective in this context if one lives south of Berwick.

Tim Farron did his best without the guiding hand of Captain Birdseye and must have been relieved nobody asked a question about gay sex. He made the most of being ‘A Northerner’ and working-class as well as the fact he represents a constituency way up in Westmorland, which isn’t exactly home to the most thriving economy in the country; he also tried to steal Caroline Lucas’ thunder by shoehorning climate change into the debate. But as a public speaker he doesn’t possess the slickness of his predecessor as Lib Dem leader, even if that slickness did backfire on Mr Clegg in the end. Farron’s real problem remains that everything with him seems to come back to Brexit.

The host Julie Etchingham’s hair was a little longer than last time round and, along with dropping her serious specs, it didn’t give her the same Anne Robinson aura; events unfortunately weren’t interrupted by a stage invader dropping his pants, unlike the Eurovision last Saturday; and whilst a refreshing change from the standard dumb-ass fare ITV routinely serves-up between 8.00 and 10.00 of an evening, the no-show by the Tories and Labour reduced the spectacle to a minor sideshow in this General Election campaign.

© The Editor

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CRISIS? WHAT CRISIS?

Around twenty years ago, a friend of mine who was a student at the time we met graduated from university; her degree enabled her to enter the profession she wanted to and within three or four years of doing so she bought a house. The timescale of this progression is inconceivable now, yet it happened to her when this very century was still in nappies (i.e. not that long ago). She was from an unremarkable working-class background – indeed, her family home was on the fringes of an estate you wouldn’t want to walk through on a dark night – and her parents were hardly ‘wealthy’ by today’s terms; they certainly didn’t play a part in her rise from student to homeowner; it was all down to her own endeavours. It struck me when I thought about it that her story is one we probably won’t be told again for a long time. It reads like a blast from a past that is now firmly out of reach.

Sobering statistics aired last week spell out how the climate has changed in such a short space of time. In London, over two-thirds of average earners’ income is now spent on rent. By the time the original scheduled date of the imminent General Election comes around (2020), it’s estimated that first-time buyers will need to be earning the best part of £60,000 a year in order to buy their own home; the current average annual UK wage is £27,271 – though David Cameron can set £25,000 aside to erect a shed in his back garden for the purpose of writing his memoirs; I’m pretty sure an estate agent could market that as a ‘micro bijou residence ideal for a small family’.

Another factor worthy of mentioning concerns the domicile status of many homeowners in this country. In the centre of the capital, 28% of buyers purchasing property don’t reside there, and almost 10% of this country’s entire housing stock is currently in the hands of foreign investors – those who view houses not as an essential roof over a homeless head, but as bargaining chips on the gaming tables of the international capitalist casino. Unlike many other countries around the world, there are no rules in place here to limit home ownership to tax-paying residents of this country. When so much of UKIP and Tory energies have been devoted to scapegoating foreign workers ‘coming over here and taking our jobs’ in recent years, it’s odd that rich overseas homeowners taking our houses without even coming over here have evaded attention for so long.

Amongst all the issues being bandied about as crucial to the Election – Brexit, the NHS, education etc. – for me personally, housing is the most pressing of them all; whilst much has been made of the fact nurses are using food banks, few are pointing out it’s probably because the majority of their income is going on rent. Yes, the Tories made a big announcement on housing over the weekend, but the Government has recently changed public investment in housing from social rent (falling much lower than the market level) to so-called ‘affordable rent’ and ownership schemes. It also intends to put pressure on local councils to sell upwards of a third of their empty homes to draw Housing Association tenants into the Right to Buy project. Currently, for every five council homes sold under Right to Buy, one solitary replacement council house is being built.

At the same time, local councils spent over £840 million on temporary accommodation for the homeless last year alone, which amounts to a 46% increase in just five years. Add the removal of Housing Benefit for unemployed 18-21 year-olds and the cap on the same benefit for those in sheltered housing and it’s plain to see how highly this issue really ranks on the list of priorities penned by the powers-that-be.

Despite a few vague promises, housing hasn’t been at the forefront of the electioneering so far. I suspect the fear of losing votes from homeowners paranoid that their investments will diminish in value should house prices drop has played its part in this criminal neglect by the leading parties, though that simply isn’t good enough. Maybe if the UK was on the same level as, say, Bangladesh, our housing crisis would be regarded as an improvement on past statistics; but as far as the world’s fifth richest economy is concerned, there’s no excuse. Compare then and now – then being the first twenty-five years after the end of the Second World War, when this country embarked upon the most radical programme of public building since the Roman occupation.

Whilst the creation of New Towns, the erection of sprawling council estates and the demolition of slum housing condemned before the war (many of which survived into the 50s and 60s) was a necessary response to the damage done by the Luftwaffe, this key policy of Attlee’s reforming administration nevertheless became a long-term project carried on by Tory Governments led by Churchill, Eden, Macmillan and Home before finally drawing to a close under Harold Wilson. In the space of a quarter-of-a century, a housing crisis was dealt with as consensus politics weren’t affected by a change of colour at the top. The common good was recognised by all. Yes, some of it may have been shoddy and some of it may have left an aesthetic blot on the nation’s landscape, but the motivation behind it was laudable. The housing crisis of the twenty-first century may be down to massively different circumstances, but the need to resolve it is no less urgent, even if few in public office dare to admit it to the electorate.

I know I’ve written about this topic on numerous past occasions, but I find it baffling how housing isn’t at the forefront of the party manifestoes, even if the fact it isn’t doesn’t really surprise me. Yes, it’s being mentioned now that the individual party policies are being unveiled as media events day-by-day, but it’s not exactly dominated conversation in the campaign to date. Other than ensuring British citizens – or subjects, if you prefer – have enough food in their bellies, I can’t think of anything else more important than the right of each and every one of us to have a roof over our heads. Or is it just me?

© The Editor

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