THEY’RE ALL GOING ON A SUMMER HOLIDAY

It may not be a long hot summer ahead of us – give or take the odd ‘phew, what a scorcher’ day – but it promises to be one in which our nation’s elected representatives plan and plot their enticing battle strategies for the autumn. As Westminster covers its furniture for a couple of months, MPs return to their constituencies and prepare not so much for government as for the next stage of the war. Being an observer and writer on events of this nature, I find these are invigorating times to be doing so. In the last three years, we’ve had two referendums (one regional, one national) and two General Elections; and none appear to have resolved any of the issues that prompted them in the first place. We seem to be in a permanent, if fascinating, state of flux.

I was talking to a friend the other day on how cinema and television mirror the political uncertainties of the day in their output; current offerings from ‘A Handmaid’s Tale’ to ‘The Walking Dead’ and even the revived ‘Planet of the Apes’ series seem to me to reflect the mistrust and diminishing faith in the institutions that govern western society, a factor that has gathered pace post-9/11 and in the wake of the 2008 financial crash. Interestingly, the last time this trend was so prominent was back in the 70s – with everything from ‘Survivors’ and ‘The Changes’ on the small screen to ‘Network’, ‘The Omega Man’, ‘Logan’s Run’ and ‘A Clockwork Orange’ on the big screen, dystopian portrayals of the near-future that characterised the contemporary concerns of the era that produced them.

Go back to the 50s – supposedly a far more stable era – yet we have the likes of ‘Invasion of the Body-Snatchers’ acting as a metaphor for McCarthyism, ‘Quatermass’ satirising the pre-war establishment’s flirtations with fascism as the British ruling class is infiltrated by aliens, and the post-Hiroshima fear of what the Atom Bomb left in its wake manifested as mutant creatures in ‘Tarantula’ or the Godzilla movies. After a rare bout of international optimism in the 90s – following celebrated events such as the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, the release of Nelson Mandela and the end of apartheid that followed it – the shift in mood that for those on the left has been exacerbated by Brexit or the election of Trump has resulted in a return to the apocalyptic narrative in fiction.

How this relates to the current state of play in Blighty is easier to describe in escapist terms via the fresh upsurge in fantasy trash such as ‘Love Island’ or the ongoing and increasingly desperate talent show franchise acting as television ostriches with heads firmly buried in the sand. When the TV news is so relentless in its assault on the lingering shreds of naive belief that things can only get better, however, it’s no wonder the populace turns to the modern-day equivalent of the dance marathons of the Great Depression for superficial consolation or even the comforting embrace of Regency England in the likes of ‘Poldark’.

In a way, it’s no great surprise that this has happened when the public look to their leaders for guidance and see people at the top who appear to have such a slender grip on power that it could slip away at any given moment. When one considers we have a minority Government led by a Prime Minister so in denial of her own shortcomings and eager to enter into deals with anyone that can provide her administration with the illusion of strength and stability, whether Trump, the DUP or Saudi Arabia, it doesn’t inspire much in the way of confidence. Theresa May now takes time out from what must have been a personally devastating couple of months for her to calculate how she can survive until the end of the Brexit negotiations two years hence. She’ll dust herself down for the party conference season in September, but she knows the knives are out within her own Cabinet and she’s very much living on borrowed time. Who would envy her?

A year ago, it was Jeremy Corbyn who was facing assaults from his own side, yet Jezza has emerged from the wreckage of the General Election with his position undoubtedly strengthened and his Labour opponents weakened. His remarkable winning over of the general public from such a lowly starting point has both shown the irrelevance of Fleet Street in dictating opinion and how people respond positively to the relative novelty of a politician who seems to have genuine beliefs that aren’t necessarily dependent on the shifting sands of the consensus. His response to recent terrorist events and Grenfell have captured the public mood far more effectively than May’s awkward and stilted reaction, something that won’t do him any harm come the next visit to the polling station, whenever that may be.

The euphoric mood of the Corbyn wing of the Labour Party right now couldn’t contrast greater with the shambolic infighting of the Tories, and it certainly feels that electioneering for them didn’t end on June 8. Few would argue that should the realistic possibility of another General Election at any time over the next few months come to pass, Labour appear more likely to win it than the Conservatives; and the Conservatives are all-too aware of this, which is why they’re putting the inevitable leadership contest on hold for the time being. It doesn’t say much for their prospects that the attitude they’ve adopted seems to be ‘any Prime Minister is better than no Prime Minister’.

The reduced ambition of the Lib Dems, despite moderately increasing their Parliamentary head-count after the wipe-out of 2015, has been reflected in the unopposed election of Vince Cable as leader; this backwards step is reminiscent of when the Tories had Michael Howard in the hot-seat after William Hague’s retirement in 2001, almost an admission of irrelevance. Pursuing an anti-Brexit policy that includes a desire for another EU Referendum might win them a few fans amongst diehard Remainers, but the wider electorate have already accepted Brexit and just want it to be over and done with as quickly as possible.

So, the recess is with us and the respective parties are taking a break from daily duties in the Commons; but as Mrs May heads off for a hike in the Welsh mountains and Mr Corbyn retreats to his allotment, I doubt either will view the summer as a holiday. Both have challenges ahead of them that negate putting their feet up, and the business of either running the country or preparing to run it won’t pause just because there are sandcastles waiting to be built.

© The Editor

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B-DAY

It’s been quite another eventful week for the B word – the one that has no doubt already earned its inclusion in the Oxford English Dictionary because of its ubiquitous presence on so many tongues; I wasn’t even going to write about it again today, but how can one ignore it when that retired Messiah Mr Blair has intervened yet again? His long exile from the political arena apparently over now, Blair’s intervention in the ongoing debate has kept it at the forefront of popular discourse. Discredited by adventures in Iraq he may be, but Tony knows when he speaks, people pay attention; whether or not what he has to say is what people want to hear is debatable.

Blair’s own concept of a ‘Soft Brexit’ was aired today as he put forth the notion of the UK remaining in the single market with an EU compromise on the contentious issue of free movement. His idea of an ‘outer circle’, a one foot in/one foot out proposal he believes would suit the Remain crowd whilst simultaneously satisfying moderate Brexiteers is not one that most would regard as remotely feasible.

Tony’s latest light-bulb looks on the surface like an unrealistic and unrealisable fantasy that is essentially rejecting the will of the British people (or at least the majority that voted Leave) and hinges its hopes on Emmanuel Macron’s promises of far-reaching EU reforms that many on this side of the Channel would take with a pinch of Great British salt. It has no more credibility than the EU assurances given to David Cameron during his desperate attempts to secure a new deal for the UK in Brussels before the Referendum.

This new crumb of comfort for Remoaners comes at the end of a week in which the so-called Repeal Bill has been unveiled in a cauldron of controversy. Opposition from the devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales has been complemented by Labour demands for no opting out of the European Convention of Human Rights – something the Government denies is part of the process, anyway. For Labour, of course, the autumn debate on the issue presents it with an opportunity to trigger another General Election should its promise to vote against the proposed bill as it stands receive enough support to defeat it in the Commons. That would effectively be a vote of no confidence in the Government, and the outcome could be catastrophic for the Tories.

So much emphasis has been placed on the much-publicised (and criticised) mock-coalition with the DUP, some might think the bribery involved can carry any legislation through Parliament; but the ‘repatriation’ of certain EU laws to the British statue book being the first crucial stage of the post-Article 50 Brexit process means a good deal of future aspects of the process hinge on its success – and that success is in no way guaranteed at the moment, DUP support or no. A week that began with a minor aristocrat being reprimanded in the courts for essentially offering to finance a hit-and-run of Gina Miller, whether or not it was a tasteless tongue-in-cheek quip on social media, demonstrates that this issue continues to enflame passions on both sides.

Labour’s own take on Brexit has never really been as clearly defined as the Conservative one; Jeremy Corbyn’s invisibility during the Referendum campaign last year was much commented on at the time and arguably played its part in the doomed challenge to his leadership from Owen Smith that followed. Perhaps reflecting Jezza’s new strength as Labour leader, he met with the EU’s chief negotiator Michael Barnier in Brussels a couple of days ago; the meeting would suggest Corbyn reckons he’ll soon be in a position to orchestrate the direction of the UK’s Brexit strategy. Theresa May’s own position is so precarious, even after the cry for help to Ulster, that it would be a surprise if Corbyn hadn’t made approaches to Brussels to set his own party’s stall out on Brexit.

Yes, there are undoubtedly more Remainers within the Labour Party than on the Tory backbenches, but their eternal opposition to Jezza’s leadership had little bearing on the party’s performance in June’s General Election; if another Election is called before the year is out, their voices will be largely irrelevant in the overall picture when it comes to Labour’s Brexit stance, relegated to the same unloved echo chamber as the Lib Dems. Unless the most vocal Remainers of all parties unite their grievances under a new party banner soon, their constant interference in the democratic process will serve to further alienate the electorate from Parliament and further erode trust in the ability of Westminster to do its duty.

Boris Johnson, displaying his usual bullish theatricality in the Commons, declared the EU could ‘go whistle’ if it expected an ‘extortionate’ payment from the UK as part of the divorce bill; yet David Davis appeared to contradict the Foreign Secretary’s comedy Churchillian turn yesterday by admitting the cost of the divorce would probably be rather extortionate after all. Conflicting statements such as these emanating from the same Cabinet don’t really help clarify matters, though perhaps they reflect the absence of certainties that continue to bedevil the whole issue.

© The Editor

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SILLY CULT

When it comes to precedents of an old man inspiring hysterical fanaticism amongst the young, the omens aren’t great. The Ayatollah Khomeini’s return to Iran from exile in 1979 was especially well-received by students, some of whom stormed the US Embassy in Tehran and took 52 American citizens hostage, keeping them there for 444 days in the name of the Revolution. Just over a decade earlier, Mao Tse-tung decided the best way to neutralise his rivals within the Communist Party of China was to instigate a ruthless purge made possible by the personality cult of Mao himself, something that particularly appealed to teenagers in the absence of pop stars.

The Red Guards were fanatical student groups given Mao’s blessing to essentially run amok on a campaign of chaos throughout the country, denouncing anyone they regarded as traitors to the true Communist cause and destroying ancient shrines, temples and books; anyone either old or in a position of authority (such as university lecturers) was fair game and labelled ‘counter-revolutionaries’. Possessing vitriolic and violent contempt for anything that contradicted their twisted take on Communism, the Red Guards’ disregard for their nation’s heritage was as illogical and destructive as that seen in recent years via the likes of the Taliban and ISIS. But it was the human cost of this grim period in China’s history that marks it out as a remarkably gruesome and shameful stain on the country; public humiliation, persecution and imprisonment were for the lucky ones. Estimates vary, but some claim as many as 3 million died as a consequence of the Cultural Revolution.

Obviously, this is the most extreme example of how youth’s natural energy, anger and appetite for destruction can be harnessed by outside forces and used to promote a political career; but none of it could have happened had not Mao projected himself as the adolescent messiah for a generation denied the outlet of football hooliganism or Beatlemania. When one looks at Mao, however, one doesn’t see George Best or John Lennon, so the ability to inspire a devoted following clearly doesn’t depend on physical charisma. But it is a crucial element to the grip Mao had over his teenage storm-troopers that Chinese youth under the system that then operated in their country were deprived of the pop culture experience so prevalent in the west at that time. It seems youth requires such an experience in order to get youth out of its system.

Right here, right now, there is no pop cultural divide that youth can claim as their own like they did from the 50s through to the 90s, let alone the figureheads that these divides revolve around. Who the hell have they got – Harry Styles? Ed Sheeran? Sure, there’s an abundance of leisure industry distractions previous generations didn’t have, but very little the young today can attach the same intense importance and meaning to as they did their tribe of choice in the past. This is a generation worse off in cultural terms than any of its predecessors over the last half-century; it is also one armed with degrees not worth the paper they’re written on, knowing it will be saddled with debt for life, probably unlikely to buy a house until youth is a dim and distant memory, and presented with little that offers hope or salvation from the long slog ahead of it. And then…along comes Jezza.

A couple of weeks ago, Jeremy Corbyn was on the cover of what passes for the NME today; those of us old enough will remember the same magazine featured Neil Kinnock as a cover star thirty years ago, something I greeted with similar cynicism then as I do the Jezza cover now, though I suspect there are fewer today who would react in such a way. The cult of Corbyn is a remarkable phenomenon that even the not-too dissimilar cult of Obama can’t compete with. It has a messianic quality to it way out of proportion to what the man himself actually represents, and Neil Kinnock was never invited to appear onstage at Glastonbury; the Welsh wonder preferred to hold his own festival in the environs of the Sheffield Arena. Aaaawright!

In a way, though, Jezza appearing at Glastonbury says a lot about him, about his audience, and about the festival itself. Glastonbury is a corporate shindig masquerading as a cutting-edge music event, albeit something it once was a very long time ago; even if I was seventeen in 2017, I’d instinctively detest it. I temporarily buried the hatchet to watch Radiohead on Friday night and was blown away by their performance; but I was able to buy their first hit on seven-inch single in my local Virgin Megastore at the time it charted; I didn’t download it. When they sang ‘Creep’, the camera kept focusing on faces who won’t have even been embryos when it reached No.7 in 1993; I was wondering why they were there to see a band whose members are the same age as me, and then I realised they don’t have a Radiohead of their own. They have Jezza.

Of course, Corbyn is old enough to be Thom Yorke’s dad, but this isn’t an impediment to his elevation to Che Guevara status in terms of the thinking teen’s pin-up. A generation too young to even have fallen for Blair’s con-trick in ’97 has only known the Cameron (public) school of politician, something Jezza is such an extreme contrast with that his enthusiastic embrace of traditional socialist rhetoric not only chimes with the standard lefty leanings of youth, but he’s an actual veteran of the ideological wars of the 80s; he was there, man. Respect!

Yes, the Corbyn cult may have utilised youth in a far more positive way than Mao or the Ayatollah did, but it still wasn’t enough to win the General Election. Unless Theresa May’s Queen’s Speech is voted down and Jezza is offered the crown, we’re going to have to wait a while until the Coronation; but this doesn’t matter to the Corbynistas under-21. As far as they’re concerned, he’s the People’s Prime Minister, conveniently free from the compromises that come with the actual job and sever the link between electorate and leader in the process. He can do no wrong in their eyes, but their adoration is also something some of their elders share, those I’d probably regard as old enough to know better. I can see his appeal as an alternative to the production-line politicians, but as a youth icon I would’ve hoped youth could do better.

© The Editor

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A TALE OF TWO CITIES

‘They thought they could snub the conventions of decent society when they seized the sixty-room mansion and transformed it into hippie house!’ No, not a Daily Mail leader, but the booming tones of the British Pathé News reporter covering the end of the celebrated squat at 144 Piccadilly in 1969. The film clip covering the Met’s raid on the property after it had been taken over by the London Street Commune, a loose collective of ‘hippies’ formed to highlight homelessness in the capital, is unsurprisingly one-sided in its perspective as what the narrator describes as ‘the spongers who call themselves hippies’ are evicted from the residence they’d occupied for a week. The commentary goes onto say ‘by their shameless actions, (they) disparage the plight of decent people who cannot find homes’. Decent as in those who regularly visit a barber, one wonders?

There’s no doubt what began as an admittedly ‘radical’ (in the jargon of the time) attempt to bring homelessness to the public’s attention worked as a PR campaign, and whilst there would have been deserving cases taking advantage of the operation, there would also have been a fair few rich kids slumming it and bumming around from one squat to another as they indulged in a bit of counter-cultural backpacking; the additional infiltration of Hell’s Angels and drug-dealers then made its dramatic ending inevitable. But the roots of many homeless charities we take for granted today were in such stunts and in that respect they served a purpose, even if the media coverage was more or less entirely from the viewpoint of the short-back-and-sides generation.

It’s interesting when watching the Pathé report to notice that virtually all of those being herded out of 144 Piccadilly look to be under 30. A good half-decade of Swinging London propaganda had attracted young people to the capital from across the globe, like monochrome moths drawn to a psychedelic flame, even though many of those arriving soon found themselves in a similar situation to the one that befell the lead character in Ken Loach’s landmark BBC TV play ‘Cathy Come Home’ in 1966. Today, London retains its attractiveness to the overseas eye, though there’s a glaring divide between those imported as a cheap labour force (with employers recycling the hackneyed excuse that ‘British workers won’t do these jobs’) and those with the big bucks to buy up huge chunks of the capital.

The tragedy that occurred at Grenfell Tower in North Kensington in the early hours of Wednesday morning has already been politicised, though not necessarily by politicians themselves. Whilst the cause of the appalling event would appear to have been an accident, the shoddy corner-cutting workmanship and lacklustre fire safety precautions that enabled the inferno to take hold of the tower block with such frightening speed seems to be symbolic of a vast chasm between rich and poor, not just in the capital as a whole, but in one specific corner of it, where the haves and have-nots sit cheek-by-jowl. London Mayor Sadiq Khan received a rough ride from residents when he attempted to give a media statement at the site, whereas Theresa May’s decision to avoid residents and speak to fire-fighters away from cameras and microphones was the latest PR own-goal of a PM giving Gordon Brown a run for his money in the ‘most unsuitable candidate for the job ever’ stakes.

Far be it from me to imply there’s any political mileage to be got out of this terrible disaster, but Jeremy Corbyn seems to have captured the mood of the moment in a completely natural manner that contrasts sharply with his awkward opposite number in Westminster. His ease with the general public has been demonstrated yet again in the wake of Wednesday’s events; of course it won’t do him any harm with the electorate, though it really would be churlish to suggest his visit to North Kensington and to the church where many of the survivors have congregated was some sort of points-scoring exercise. If it was, then he once again trounced Mrs May, who doesn’t seem capable of doing anything right at the moment.

During an emergency session of Parliament, briefly recalled to respond to the tragedy, Corbyn made a salient point about the housing crisis in London. ‘It can’t be acceptable that in London we have luxury buildings and luxury flats left empty as land banking for the future while the homeless and the poor look for somewhere to live,’ he said, and then added: ‘Kensington is a tale of two cities. The south part of Kensington is incredibly wealthy; it’s the wealthiest part of the whole country. The ward where this fire took place is, I think, the poorest ward in the whole country and properties must be found – requisitioned if necessary – to make sure those residents do get re-housed locally.’

The new MP for Kensington, Emma Dent Coad, is (lest we forget) Labour, though it has emerged she was actually on the board of the discredited quango running the flats on behalf of Kensington and Chelsea Council, the one that gave the green light to the fatal refurbishment of the block last year. That naturally doesn’t look good, though this fact has been overshadowed by the predictably hysterical headlines from the likes of the Mail claiming Jezza has called for private property to be ‘seized’ for the benefit of those made homeless by what happened at Grenfell Tower. This isn’t another example of his so-called ‘Robin Hood’ policies, but seems to me a genuine attempt to once more underline the social inequalities of life in the capital.

It goes without saying that these social inequalities have been part of London life for centuries; after all, what better chronicler of the capital than Dickens, who documented the disparity between rich and poor in fictional form over 150 years ago? Yet, the nightmarish scenario in North Kensington now looks like something that was a long time coming, just as the collapse of the Savar sweatshop in Bangladesh was in 2013. Jeremy Corbyn has managed to articulate the anger arising from Grenfell Tower better than any other politician, but people are angry. And they’ve every bloody right to be. That’s why they stormed Kensington Town Hall today. This could prove to be a crucial turning point in the way this country is run as much as Hillsborough was for the way our national sport is run. Time will tell.

© The Editor

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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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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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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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BONFIRE OF THE SEVENTIES

Anyone remember the Big Society? In conjunction with David Cameron’s grand scheme to get us all collective (bit Socialist-sounding, really) there was a survey carried out intended to establish a ‘happiness scale’; there had been precedents, though. Previous surveys along similar lines had come to unexpected conclusions. According to records, the happiest the British populace has ever been recorded as being was in 1976. That’s right – the year when Labour Chancellor Denis Healey went cap-in-hand to the IMF for a loan to prevent Britain’s bankruptcy and Punk emerged as youth culture’s reaction to the perilous state of the nation. Lest we forget, however (if we’re old enough, of course), it was also the year of the Long Hot Summer; whether or not the survey was undertaken when the country was basking in the sunshine history doesn’t record, though it might explain the surprising results.

All of which leads us nicely into the shock-horror headlines on the front of today’s Mail and Telegraph, announcing Jezza’s apparent intentions to take us back to that much-maligned decade; aside from me wondering whether or not a journalist from those esteemed organs had stumbled upon the video I attached to a post on here a couple of days ago, my first thought was that their opposition to the prospect was understandable from a Tory perspective. Bar three-and-a-half years between June 1970 and February 1974 as well as the last seven months of 1979, the Conservative Party was out of office; and its 1970-74 government was led by the perennially-discredited Edward Heath. Mrs T came into office too late to make a real mark on the 70s. To regard a return to the 70s as the worst nightmare of the said papers and their readership is something of an understatement.

The claim of Corbyn’s intent derives from the leaked Labour manifesto for the upcoming General Election that hardly contained much in the way of surprises. Renationalising the railways has been a stated policy ever since Jezza became Labour leader and one that many old Tories – Peter Hitchens included – have no ideological argument with; privatisation of the railways was not one of the most successful or celebrated privatisations, after all. Reversing part-privatisation of the NHS is another policy few would dispute; Blair’s public-private partnership project is one whose disastrous legacy is all-too evident. And then there’s the abolition of tuition fees; when a generation of journos and politicos who enjoyed the luxury of state student grants oppose the revival of the system they benefitted from, one cannot but question their opposition.

The right and the left’s negative narrative of the 1970s has merged in recent years so that the decade has been rebranded as an era when bolshie commie unions held the country to ransom whilst the establishment allowed them to get away with it because it was too preoccupied with molesting children on an industrial scale; the people, on the other hand, turned a blind eye because their attention was distracted by the desire to acquire the latest must-have household appliances and dressing like the Diddy Men, preventing them from sitting up and taking notice. Operations Yewtree, Midland and Conifer have all played their pernicious parts in this historical revisionism, along with endless ‘wise-after-the-event’ clips programmes on crap channels fronted by talking heads who weren’t even around at the time. Like any negative narrative, however, there is an alternative viewpoint.

One could cite the democratisation of popular culture, when the 60s revolution enjoyed by an elite few finally filtered down to the masses and Joe Public experienced a brief liberation from both sartorial and moral straitjackets, as a plus; ditto the increased significance of that popular culture in daily life, where it had an importance above and beyond the leisure industry it now represents. New releases by David Bowie or Pink Floyd were artistic events rather than coffee-table merchandise; ditto small-screen landmarks such as ‘The Naked Civil Servant’ or ‘Roots’, giving a voice and opening eyes to those who had previously been denied a wider spotlight, reflecting the genuine and valid rise in political awareness of women, gays and ethnic minorities.

The police force may have been inherently bent and guilty of persecuting said minorities, but no more than they are in the twenty-first century. A female head of the Met means bugger all beyond politically-correct tokenism, particularly when Cressida Dick’s role in the disgraceful Jean Charles de Menezes affair is taken into account.

For the Mail and the Telegraph, a return to the values and ethos of the most revised and reviled decade of recent history being the ultimate horror story makes logical sense from their perspective, though no politician can turn back the clock in the way their headlines imply. If that was literally possible, then I’d have to head back to my primary school in the autumn, even though it closed about ten years ago. Whilst getting ready for school, I’d be able to switch on the radio and be faced with a choice of Noel Edmonds or Terry Wogan, and the only telly I’d see before the late afternoon would either be a solitary schools programme in the library or (if I decided to go home for dinner) ‘Pipkins’ and ‘Farmhouse Kitchen’. I’d also not have to concern myself with bills and rent, though 50p-a-week pocket-money might just cover them, anyway.

Yes, that’s how silly this storm-in-a-teacup really is; and if this is the best the right-wing press can come up with to combat a threat from Labour that they’re simultaneously telling us isn’t a threat at all when Theresa May’s coronation is a nailed-on certainty, one has to wonder what all the fuss is about. It couldn’t be that they actually believe the unthinkable is possible, could it?

© The Editor

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