Wednesday, 2 November 2016

The Importance of Arguing Honestly

There's an interesting article in the latest edition of Progress Magazine. Crowded Ground by Robert Philpot takes a brief survey of the political scene before identifying emerging territory vacated, he claims, by ourselves and our Conservative opponents.

He makes some interesting points about May's flirtation with populism, another thing she borrowed from Ed Miliband. Yes, who knew? But it is an argument with some legs. As Ed was positioning Labour to mount his crusade against the predators of 21st century capitalism, it meant setting up a rhetorical structure in which the rip off merchants and spivs were opposed to the pure, unsullied, and virtuous electorate. May, during her Milibandist moment annexed those positions for electoral expediency. Lump them together with simplistic authoritarianism and clamping-down-on-immigration pitch, provided she carries through her promises May's in with a shout of patching up the post-1979 settlement and securing a lengthy period of government That is if Brexit and other unforeseen nasties don't spring any surprises.

The other thing in May's favour is personality, where conventional wisdom has it that she's a more serious and substantial figure than Jeremy Corbyn. Keep on saying it like Robert does and it must be true. Yet when you take the blinkers off and look at the evidence, we've seen nothing to suggest that so far. Her PMQ outings tend toward the blundersome and the wooden, suggesting the economic pitch isn't the only thing stolen from Labour's former leader. She's proven cackhanded in her Brexit appointments, has fallen out with big business (which, of course, doesn't mean they're about to beat a path to Labour's door), ducked a scrap over Heathrow, and doesn't appear any more competent in post than her predecessor. It's almost as if there is political value in Labour people talking her up. Yet when it comes to the role of personality in elections, despite the stress laid on the importance of having the right woman or man at the helm, actual evidence is much more equivocal. The classic study of the 1992 general election found perceptions of party leaders had a marginal effect. The influence it exerts is always heavily mediated by other issues. And so it also proved in 2015 - the drag of the blessed Ed was much weaker than is supposed. As ever, elections are defined and won on the basis of a small number of key issues, and even then it's a much more complex matter than owning the centre ground.

I digress. Robert's piece is interesting because he's among the first Blairite figures to catch the waft of coffee grains fanned by long-term demographic, occupational, and cultural shifts in all the advanced countries. Citing a policy paper that merely repeats stuff sociologists have been saying for years, he notes Britain is raising a generation "which is more socially liberal, internationalist and pro-immigration", but simultaneously aren't attached to the NHS in the same way preceding cohorts of voters were, and are more moderate on economic matters - whatever that means. It means long-term, May's project is in trouble - by implication, the hare-um scare-um of Tory campaigns will reach a use by date. But so is Jeremy Corbyn. It follows that as neither party are offering "a politics which is open, optimistic and future-focused" and are opting for "closed, pessimistic and backward-looking" positions, then we're screwed too.

Unless you believe Labour is offering something different, which it is. Yvette Cooper, for example, has been caught out on occasion (deliberately?) misunderstanding and passing off as fact the party's position on nationalisation. One would have thought that the nationalisation, democratisation, and cooperatisation of privatised utilities and rail is something that could catch the zeitgeist. Or the traction the basic income is getting among Labour's new leading layers, or the need for green industries, economic planning, life-long education (minus the tax on aspiration tuition fee debt represents), and the occasional use of QE for reasons other than bailing out banks and inflating property bubbles. Any casual observer without a dog in Labour's internal struggles would be hard pressed to agree with Robert that any of this is "pessimistic" and "backward-looking". In fact, its refreshing to see glaring social problems and future challenges spoken about plainly and addressed accordingly.

I get it. Robert isn't keen on the new leadership and thinks it's steering the party onto the rocks. Yet at his most polemical, he has to rely on insinuation, convoluted positioning, Delphic language and, I'm afraid to say, fibbing. It's as if a whole layer of Jeremy opponents are congenitally incapable of grasping his actual positions and offering honest, reasoned critique. And when they can't get to grips with their opponent properly, why should anyone else take their views on anything else seriously?


Paul Ewart said...

Progress and the Right of the party are vandals. If they loathe the leadership so much they should find another party. They're no good to anyone as it stands. Just bitter and destructive. They have no interest in socialism, simply using the Labour Party as a host for their parasitic ambitions.

Unknown said...

There's a Dr who sometimes locums with us who is a progress supporter and used to work for the LP.
When he's not winning an argument he literally just starts saying stuff like "you don't care about palestian women" and "Jeremy Corbyn sacked someone for having cancer".
It's bizarre.

Anonymous said...

You know its perfectly possible for someone to agree with much of what Corbyn says and align oneself with many of the positions he adopts, yet still find him to be sorely lacking in the qualities expected of a leader of a major political party.

Labour are starting to piece together something resembling a coherent set of policies. At last, people across the party are properly engaging in issues and thinking hard about the huge challenges the party, and our country, face. This is a very good thing.

But having a leader with baggage and very obvious limitations isn't remotely helpful.


johnny conspiranoid said...

Also, can you see a possible labour leader who will attract more votes?