by Martin Odoni

Can you imagine if what has happened over the last three days had happened in the 1970s?

Can you imagine what the Conservative Party and the media would be saying right now if what happened to Carillion today had happened under a Labour Government?

Can you imagine what the Conservative Party and the media would be saying right now if what happened to Carillion today had happened to a nationalised industry?

Can you imagine the rants and rage we would have to sit through from boorish right-wing ideologues likes Boris Johnson and Tony Blair about the obsolescence of ‘Old Labour’ and public ownership?

But of course, this would never have happened to a nationalised industry.

An industrial calamity

The cause of today’s calamity is that Carillion have done something very free market and capitalistic in nature. They repeatedly ‘under-bid’ for public service contracts. This is to say, Carillion kept hoarding jobs that were contracted-out by the Government, but so desparate were they to beat all opposing firms to the contracts that they charged dangerously low fees for carrying out the work. So low, it turns out, that they hardly made any real profit from them. The exact reason for following such an insanely, needlessly risky strategy is not yet completely clear. The ugly suspicion is that Carillion was playing ‘corporate hardball’; trying to starve its competition of work until they folded, wih the intention of massively increasing its fees when it had a virtual monopoly in place. But with the pressures of a frequently declining pound in a Brexit environment, the cost of importing necessary materials kept rising, faster than rival firms would decline. The company’s debts rocketed to a starling £1.5 billion. In the unnecessary race to the bottom, it seems, Carillion crumbled first. A last-gasp request for a Government bail-out was refused (perhaps because Carillion is not a bank). The conglomerate is now going into liquidation.

Carillion exploding

Carillion is immediately to blame, but this would not have happened to a public firm, as, even if it had to compete with a private firm for the contract, it would not be allowed to under-bid without permission from the Government.

Where the Government went wrong

The Government itself is also to blame though. Somehow, even when Carillion were quite openly declaring profit-warnings about how dangerously high its debts were climbing and how low its revenue was falling, and when the share-prices kept plummeting, somehow, somehow, somehow, the Government still kept awarding the conglomerate new long-term contracts.

To demonstrate what a bewildering saga of stupidity this is on the Government side, see from the graph below (from the BBC) just how dramatically Carillion’s share-value fell last year. It was around £2.30 as recently as May, and then slumped to around 20p by November, with a particularly disastrous plummet in July, on announcement of the first profit-warning. And all the way through that time, the Government seemed not to notice, and just carried on handing Carillion new contracts.

Carillion shares value graph

Why the Government went wrong

Why did the Government behave in this idiotic way? There are three possible explanations I have been able to think of so far, and all of them are bad.

First, and likeliest, is that the Government were just being unbelievably lazy and mechanical, and simply failed to notice how bad things were getting in the Carillion losses column. Therefore, when issuing contracts, the Government were only looking for the cheapest bid, and not verifying the viability of the bidder. They may even have just carelessly assumed everything was fine because “Hey, it’s Carillion, they’re huge, so they must be in good shape financially!” (EDIT TO ADD: This is close to Mike Sivier’s findings, although the Government behaviour he describes is slightly more complicated – but no less idiotic.)

A second possibility, and somewhat more intelligent, but still reckless beyond all reason, is that the Tories were deliberately trying to stabilise the company’s share-value and therefore stave off a total cave-in. A little like the way the Bank of England buys pounds at a high exchange-rate any time sterling’s value is depreciating, in an attempt to increase demand, the Government may have hoped that by throwing more and more contracts Carillion’s way, they would restore stockholder confidence in the firm, and convince them to stop dumping its shares. While this would be a less complacent explanation, it is still inexcusable. No Government is entitled to make such a gamble with so many public services and facilities. Whenever any Government behaves in this way, it is a classic symptom of a company that has been allowed to become ‘Too Big To Fail’ i.e. so large and with so much of society forced to depend on its continued function that if it collapsed, it would cause an industrial or economic disaster. This is why the Gordon Brown Government bailed out the banks ten years ago. In 2017, the Tories wanted to prevent the collapse of a firm like Carillion, because it runs such large sections of public services, and the knock-on effects would potentially be enormous.

Sure enough, what has happened today could cause a wide range of other companies to fold as well. Carillion has played the role of work-broker to them for many years; a lot of these firms are much, much smaller and lack the ‘reach’ to secure these contracts without a much bigger firm to play as the go-between. They could go to the wall as well without being able to maintain the same amount of business – and there are a lot of these firms. Many of them are already owed cash for work they performed on Carillion’s outsourced behalf, cash they will now probably never receive.

A third possibility, for which I have so far seen no evidence, is that someone at Carillion did a dirty deal with someone in the Government to keep the contracts arriving. By applying Occam’s Razor, it seems the least likely explanation – I usually subscribe to cock-up theory more than conspiracy theory – but it can hardly be ruled out as yet.

The Tories are too slapdash to run the economy

It is likeliest that the Government were just being negligent – where have we heard that song before? But should the real explanation for the Government’s stupidity prove to be carelessness, recklessness, or corruption, what are unmistakable are the echoes of the slapdash handling of Brexit. David Davis showed deceit and casual negligence over the non-existent Brexit impact-assessments, and now someone in Government has shown breathtaking negligence in dishing out contracts to a firm that was clearly on the brink of insolvency.

In rapid succession, the Tories have twice shown themselves to be too foolish to be trusted with the British economy and its industrial base. They are simply too impatient, too sloppy, too careless, to bother with necessary fine detail before making key decisions.

To reiterate, the problems do not stop with what happened today; a lot of smaller firms who received work via Carillion are now in bother, plus a wide range of public services could soon have to be suspended while alternative providers are found. The Government has only guaranteed it will pay Carillion’s suddenly-stranded workers until Wednesday. After that, the workers will be unemployed – around twenty thousand of them – and the services they provide may well be in limbo. If the next few weeks are not handled very precisely, there could be a serious collapse in UK industry.

Compare today to the 1970s

Recalling the occasional paralysis in British industry in the 1970s, and the neverending catalogue of right-wing warnings of how a return to that nationalised era must be avoided at all costs, it is noticeable that developments today in a strictly capitalised era could lead us to precisely the same paralysis. Trade union power is not causing it, corporate power is causing it. It raises once more the old doubts about what really caused the problems of the 1960s and 1970s. They may not have been due to nationalisation in and of itself. They may have been due to the phenomenon of an industrial body simply being too large – too large for the left hand to know what the right hand is doing, but also too large to be dismantled without causing severe difficulties across the wider economy. That can happen in either the public sector or the private sector. There is no reason to assume a private sector body that gets too big for its boots will be any less of a problem than a public one. And given that nationalised industries in the post-war era had a lot more autonomy than is often recognised, they also had far more in common with their private counterparts of today than neoliberal ideology would like us to notice.

If there is not a fundamental change of direction in the ownership of British industry after this, therefore, I do not wish to hear ever again about what went wrong in the 1970s. Because it will be all-too-clear that the people who keep feeding us these one-sided scare-stories about that era do not really care about how well or badly the British economy was functioning back then. Because it has not functioned noticeably better in the neoliberal era (it is often less sluggish these days but it is also far more chaotic with recessions and outright financial disasters more commonplace than before) and all the scaremongers were ever really upset about back in the day was that people like themselves could not have much power in a Keynesian economy.

I am not arguing for the old-style nationalisation model to come back, incidentally. There were significant problems with it, especially a cultural tendency it encouraged to try and maintain old practices when they were no longer viable. But the same problems, and more besides, happen with large private firms too. I cannot emphasise enough what an undiluted shambles the Carillion liquidation is, or the enormity of the damage it could lead to if the Government gets its response strategy wrong.  The Tories should be getting annihilated by the media right now for their stupidity. Typically, they are getting off fairly lightly instead. Labour, who would not be treated nearly so leniently, are doing their bit to hold the Government to some measure of account, with Jeremy Corbyn highlighting the toxic role of the Private Finance Initiatives that his ‘New Labour’ predecessors were so tragically fond of, and which the Tories had initiated under John Major. And Rebecca Long-Bailey has demanded a full investigation into the Government’s handling of public service contracts issued to private firms.

How right they are. Between this and the fiasco of Hinchingbrooke Hospital (the privatisation of which the Tories eagerly endorsed shortly before the Trust running it went bust – again, the Tories have never been taken properly to task by the media over it) it is quite clear that this ‘private company’ model for public services is unworkable.

We cannot keep on throwing money at it, it just is not working!

If that phrasiology sounds familiar, there is a very good reason why. The Tories have used it for most of the last half-century to demand the end of many public sector industries. They cannot have it both ways.

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by Martin Odoni

Kenny Dalglish, the former manager and perhaps greatest ever player to represent Liverpool Football Club, is the subject of a controversy not of his own making. With the New Year’s Honours List announced in the last couple of days, supporters of Liverpool have been getting very angry at the ongoing absence of their club’s most revered former star from Britain’s roll-call of Knights-of-the-Realm.

There has been talk for many-a-year about ‘King Kenny’ being overdue for a knighthood. Such talk is perfectly understandable. Not only was he one of the greatest footballers of all time – I personally rate Dalglish as even better than George Best – he was also a most shrewd coach for the team over two spells totalling seven years, which saw Liverpool win every trophy in the domestic game, including three Championships. His achievements as both player and manager were all the more remarkable given that he was witness to three of the four worst stadium tragedies in British history; the Second Ibrox Disaster, the Heysel Stadium Disaster, and the Hillsborough Disaster.

Dalglish was manager at the time of Hillsborough, and, still only in his thirties, he found himself having to lead the entire city of Liverpool through a grieving process for nearly a hundred lost souls. His handling of several dreadful months of despair across Merseyside was so sensitive and so dignified that his status as a legend on the field became matched by his legend off it. For more than any other reason, it is because of the way he led the city through the mourning process post-Hillsborough that Liverpudlians want Kenny Dalglish to receive acknowledgement in the Honours List.

One aggravation for many is that Dalglish continues to be overlooked (supposedly) while politicians with blemished histories – in the current instance the former Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg – receive gongs like chickens receive feed. Given Clegg’s shabby history of promises broken for the sake of power, the anger is quite well-placed.

I am not arguing with these points as such. I yield to none in my disgust that a second-rate, non-achieving promise-breaker with a very limp grasp of basic economics like Clegg is getting a knighthood. (For what exactly?) But some of the expressions of dissent I have read on social media have been a little wide of the mark. Not so much because of what is said about Clegg, but because of what is said about Dalglish.

For instance, the following image has been doing the rounds quite a bit; –

Dalglish myth

Now before I state my irritation with this tweet, let me make clear; Dalglish was one of my heroes as a child, and I have no hesitation in adding my voice to the chorus of praise he gets for his role in the aftermath of Hillsborough, as well as for his fantastic charity work. But Mr Gudgeon is not correct. He is quoting a very over-proliferated myth. Dalglish did not attend all ninety-six funerals of Hillsborough victims. We are unsure exactly how many he did attend – even Dalglish himself lost count – but it was certainly not all of them. I am fairly sure it would not have been possible for him to do so, as some of the funerals took place roughly simultaneously, and many of them happened in different parts of the country. Dalglish made sure that there was at least one representative of Liverpool Football Club at every funeral, but, formidable a man though he is, there was no way he could attend them all in person.

Another irritating refrain I keep reading is of the “Well-he-wouldn’t-want-it-anyway!” variety, from people getting angry on Dalglish’s behalf when they hear he has been snubbed once again. It would be something akin to a teenager asking a girl out on a friend’s behalf, and when she says no, saying that his friend never fancied her anyway. The people getting angry are making ridiculous politicised remarks about how Dalglish supposedly “will never be given an award because he is not part of the Establishment [always undefined], and he would never accept one anyway because it would be against his principles” or words to similar effect.

The assumption is nonsense on both counts. Dalglish may not have a knighthood, no, but he was given a Royal/Imperial Honour, way back in 1984, when he was awarded the MBE. Now, with Dalglish’s working class background and his not-altogether-articulate Glaswegian accent, it is fair to suggest that he cuts a very unlikely figure to be a part of the Establishment, true enough. However, the reality is that, in spite of his background, he was offered an Honour. Furthermore, he did accept it. So the assumptions are clearly untrue.

I am not judging Dalglish on that, by the way. While I would never even consider accepting a Royal/Imperial Honour (in the astronomically unlikely event that I would ever be offered one), especially any that bears the name ‘British Empire’, I see that as a matter of personal choice. So I respect Dalglish’s right to accept such an Honour if that is his wish, and I will not think any the less of him for it.

But those who claim on his behalf that he would not accept such an award are not only unaware of the real facts, they are also trying to exploit him and his good works in order to score ‘anti-Establishment’ political points. Throughout his public life, Dalglish has been, if anything, somewhat apolitical, and therefore it is disingenuous to use him in this manner.

Whether we like ‘the Establishment’ or not, is there really any merit in exploiting Dalglish and his work after Hillsborough in this shabby fashion? I will think less of anybody who does that.

by Martin Odoni

One tradition I do find fascinating at the close of every year is the publication of National Archives’ documents after their 30-Year-Rule protection expires. It is always a bug-bear of mine that this country does not feel its people are entitled to know much about what it does until three decades after the fact, but three decades later is better than a full lifetime later, I suppose. And it can be engrossing to learn more about the struggles that happened behind-the-scenes a generation ago.

One revelation in this year’s releases that got the BBC in its thrall is one that has been published a few years early – a row between Margaret Thatcher and her successor John Major, just weeks after he had taken over as Prime Minister in 1990.

By all accounts, when Thatcher had accepted the inevitable and resigned as Prime Minister in November that year, she had hoped Major would succeed and carry on her policy program. But in later times after he won the leadership, Thatcher increasingly undermined him as he moved in a (somewhat) more social-democratic direction. The row highlighted in the papers released this week – a row that took place on 3rd January 1991 – appears to have been the point that the divisions between them began.

The argument hinged on the issue of the Conservative Government of the time setting a very high minmum interest rate. Major had been Chancellor of the Exchequer before Thatcher had resigned, and had largely maintained the high interest rates around the 15% mark set by his predecessor, Nigel Lawson. Because of the neverending difficulties with high inflation, which had tormented the British economy since the late-1960’s, both Lawson and Major had become obsessed with getting it under control. A frequent cause of inflation is excessive demand for goods; the more people buy goods and the scarcer they become, the more suppliers can charge for them, meaning prices go up, and so money in effect becomes less valuable. So one way of attempting to combat inflation – one whose effectiveness varies quite widely – is to encourage saving and to discourage manic spending by raising interest rates: A higher interest rate means people are likely to get extra money when saving up, while anyone borrowing money in order to purchase unnecessary goods would find themselves paying more interest on their loans. A Chancellor raising interest rates also encourages currency speculators to buy more sterling, as they will know that if they hold large numbers of pounds in UK accounts, they will again get more interest on them, which therefore can increase demand for the pound, and in turn make it more valuable.

But to discourage purchasing of goods is only a sensible move when there is too much economic activity, and when that is the main reason inflation is high. Inflation can happen for other reasons though, which means that a slow-moving economy is no guarantee that the currency will not lose value. As it happens, in late-1990, despite annual inflation being up around 7.5%, the UK economy had been in a slowdown for over a year as the (massively over-rated) ‘Lawson Boom‘ of the late-1980s rapidly ran out of steam, and the country was now moving into a recession. In any recession, more growth in Gross Domestic Product is required, which means more spending activity must be encouraged. Thatcher was therefore right to criticise the high interest rates; they were too high for a country that was in a recession. They needed to be set lower so that people would be discouraged from saving up as much, and even encouraged to borrow-and-spend more.

However, it must also be noted that Thatcher was being a hypocrite about the matter, because it was substantially her own fault that the interest rate had to remain so high. It was not for reasons of high inflation or low GDP as such.

The obstacle that Thatcher and Major had put in their own way was that the UK had joined the European Economic Community’s Exchange Rate Mechanism in October 1990 – just weeks before Thatcher was deposed. She had always opposed joining the ERM, but had finally given in to the inevitable when Major spoke out in favour, and having accepted it, she just decided that the UK would join the very next day – no planning, no calculations, no negotiations with the rest of the countries in the Mechanism. On 8th October, sterling entered the ERM.

Unfortunately, Thatcher’s timing was pretty awful. Joining the ERM was not necessarily a bad idea in itself, and might have worked pretty well if it had happened, say, in 1987, when the UK economy was near the height of the ‘Lawson Boom’. But by late-1990, the economy was back in its second annual recession in less than ten years. The Treasury therefore needed to cut interest rates to boost economic activity, but under ERM rules, the conditions of the time – the inflation-rate of the pound was fluctuating quite wildly and was at some stages roughly three times higher than the inflation-rate of the German Deutschmark – required higher interest rates to stabilise sterling’s relative value.

Joining the ERM in 1990 was therefore bound to pull the economy in two diametrically-opposed directions. The need to stimulate growth was at odds with the primary aim of the ERM, which was to fix the relative values of the currencies within it at roughly the same levels – the pound was meant to peg itself to the value of the Deutschmark.

With far higher inflation rates in the UK (almost 11% early in 1992) than in Germany (2.7%), but also with a high exchange-rate of 2.95DM to the pound, the British Treasury was giving itself a very difficult target exchange-rate to maintain right from the outset. The far higher rate of UK inflation meant that, right from the moment of joining the ERM, the pound’s value was already drifting away from the required valuation.

It was possible for the UK to join the ERM in 1990 and make it work, but only by artificially devaluing the pound first, say to a more manageable rate of 2.75DM. An artificial devaluation might well have slowed depreciation of sterling; any holders of large amounts of sterling who might have been planning to sell it off would suddenly find there was nothing to gain by doing so, and hence retain them, while any speculators would find a cheaper pound more appealing to invest in, increasing demand for the pound. More pertinently, a devaluation would also set a more realistic target exchange-rate to try and maintain. But at the time, devaluation of the currency was still seen in rather jingoistic “don’t-insult-our-beloved-pound!” terms by a wider British public who had little-or-no understanding of how currency exchanges work, and therefore would have seen such a move as somehow ‘sullying’ the country.

Thatcher never even paused to consider such matters in any event. Having lost Lawson as Chancellor of the Exchequer largely over the matter of joining the ERM less than a year earlier – he was heavily in favour while she was dead-set against – she could hardly risk losing Major from the role as well when he swiftly announced that he was in favour of the idea too. Clearly wanting the argument just to go away, Thatcher decided simply to leap in feet-first, without making sure conditions were right.

So Thatcher has to take a big chunk of the blame for the very problem she was complaining about. But Major also should not be let off the hook for the calamity that would eventually follow, as he too did not appear to consider the implications of joining the ERM during a recession with a much higher inflation level than the ‘target’ currency. Once that decision was made, Major’s hands were rather tied by ERM rules by the time that he took over at 10 Downing Street. Of course, he could have un-tied his hands at any time by suspending the UK’s membership of the ERM, but to compound the intial mistake he had shared with Thatcher, he stubbornly refused to suspend due to his narrow fixation on getting inflation down at any cost – something Kenneth Clarke and Gordon Brown were able to do more consistently in later years from outside the ERM.

To add to the UK’s ERM woes, international conditions became even less favourable. German state spending had increased markedly since 1990 due to the inevitable strains of reunification between East and West Germany, and this extra spending had led to a (relative) upswing in inflation of the Deutschmark. This caused the Bundesbank to increase interest rates to combat the effects, and under ERM rules, that made it impossible for the UK Government to lower its own interest rates. Britain’s finances were in a long-term double-deficit (exports lower than imports alongside public spending above tax income), made worse through early-1991 by a startling depreciation in the value of the US dollar, in which many British export goods were valued.

With the recession showing no signs of abating, speculators became convinced by September 1992 that suspension from the ERM would be unavoidable, probably followed by a devaluation of the pound to make sterling more attractive to purchasers and imports of British goods cheaper in other countries. The rise in German interest rates had lured currency speculators to start buying Deutschmarks in order to cash in on the higher dividends, often in exchange for pounds. This drop in demand for sterling and increased demand for the Deutschmark meant the pound was under growing pressure. Worried that their holdings would soon become less valuable, on the 16th, speculators brought about a familiar self-fulfilling prophecy; they dumped sterling in a frenzied rush of selling – a run-on-the-pound so notorious that it was given the nickname ‘Black Wednesday‘. As demand for the pound went through the floor, its value tumbled out-of-control.

The Bank of England spent billions in gold and foreign currency reserves to buy up pounds at the high ERM rate, in a frantic struggle to prop up sterling’s value. It did little to slow down its nosedive. Major ordered two large increases in interest rates during the course of the day, up to 15%, to tempt holders of sterling to resist selling with the reward of higher interest dividends on their pounds. Again, the rises failed, while also increasing the pain of the ongoing recession.

The pound lost 15% of its value in a single day, and it was clear that more was to come if drastic action was not taken immediately. Therefore, that very evening, the UK officially withdrew from the ERM, and the pound was artificially devalued, deterring holders of sterling from selling any further. Interest rates were eventually cut, giving the economy the breathing space to start growing again.

Ejection from the ERM was a complete reversal of the central pillar of Major’s entire economic policy, which had been built around the pound staying in the Mechanism, and on which he had staked his whole reputation. Black Wednesday was therefore a political disaster for the Conservative Party as much as it was an economic disaster for the country. Thousands of people lost their homes in the fall-out, and the Major Government’s reputation for economic ‘soundness’ was irredeemably destroyed. Even though economic growth did finally recover healthily under Ken Clarke’s Chancellorship, Labour would win the 1997 General Election with the biggest landslide for any party since before the Second World War.

The story of who officially got the blame for the chaos instead of either Prime Minister is quite unjust. Norman Lamont, Major’s immediate successor as Chancellor, had lost his job within a year of Black Wednesday, scapegoated for an economic policy that he had faithfully tried to implement but with which he had never altogether agreed, and for a disaster that he was powerless to prevent. It is therefore perhaps ironic that one of his special advisors at the Treasury at the time would become a Prime Minister seventeen years later; –

Norman Lamont and a young David Cameron in 1992

Norman Lamont was Chancellor of the Exchequer during the notorious ‘Black Wednesday’ financial crash of 1992. Look who was one of his special Treasury advisers…

It should be noted that joining the ERM had not been a complete failure; inflation of the pound was brought down very substantially over the two years Britain was a member, and it paved the way for a new economic framework over the next ten years that helped keep a lid on sterling’s depreciation.

inflation-89-600x433

But the real drawback was that the pound had joined the Mechanism at least two years too late to get the most out of being part of it – by joining at the end of an economic boom rather than near its beginning – and then stayed in it at least three months longer than the time that it was able to provide the economy with any benefits while in the midst of a recession. Britain only joined when it did because of Thatcher’s bludgeoning impatience, and only stayed in as long as it did because of Major’s stubbornness. Both of which are examples of economic policy formulated by letting the heart rule the head. Cold, hard numbers seldom co-operate with that.

Britain’s dabbles in the ERM were not all that far from working well, but the mistakes of timing turned the whole exercise into a humiliating fiasco. Black Wednesday is therefore just one more example of how nonsensical is the notion that the Conservatives are ‘better’ at running the economy than Labour.

by Martin Odoni

Just before Christmas, journalist and Labour campaigner Abi Wilkinson confessed in the Guardian to having temporarily ‘lost faith’ in her party’s current leader.

Though I was too pessimistic to publicly back [Jeremy Corbyn], a part of me started to wonder, what if? What if the conventional wisdom was wrong and it really was possible to win a general election from the left? What if the tide of hope that was sweeping the party could be replicated at a national level? … … … But I came back down to earth with a bang… there are several reasons for the struggles the party initially faced under Corbyn’s leadership. By the time of the 2016 leadership challenge, almost every committed Labour supporter I knew was in a state of despair – no matter what faction of the party they belonged to. A few kept their hopes up – how I scoffed at their naivety.

I feel compelled to point out that Ms Wilkinson has made more than the one wrong assumption she is aware of.  In fairness, the other is a mistake a great many in the British public make, and one I subscribed to for a long time myself.

The Myth

That assumption is that Labour has a history of getting hammered in General Elections when campaigning from the left, and does better from the centre ground. On close examination, it is quite clear that the only time Labour truly tried to get elected from the left since the Second World War was under Clement Attlee in 1945 – and they won in a big landslide.

Contrary to popular myth, no Labour leader between Attlee and Corbyn (with the possible exception of Michael Foot, but his 1983 General Election campaign does not count for reasons outlined below) has been a ‘Real Leftist’.

Labour leaders since WWII

The leaders of the Labour Party since World War II.

Gaitskell, 1955-1963

Attlee’s successor, Hugh Gaitskell, spent much of his fruitless time in charge of the Labour Party fighting against the left wing as much as he fought the Tories, and he never won an Election. Gaitskell was the first Labour leader to attempt to abolish Clause IV, due to his centrist policies meeting with frequent opposition from Trade Unions.

Wilson, 1963-1976

Harold Wilson won three General Elections (arguably four, depending how one chooses to view the Hung Parliament of early-1974), as a social democrat who managed to unite the Labour Party, largely by fooling the left into believing he was a socialist. Like Gaitskell before him, Wilson was, in practice, frequently at loggerheads with the likes of Tony Benn, and had a notorious dislike of Marxists. Wilson, always far more effective as a Labour leader than as a Prime Minister, governed Britain for roughly eight years, but beyond his establishment of the Open University, radical – or even significant – policy achievements in his time are barely detectable among long periods of treading water.

Callaghan, 1976-1980

Jim Callaghan epitomises one of the enduring myths of the 1970s. The popular notion long espoused by the British right, including most particularly by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, was that ‘Labour socialism’ was the cause of the industrial chaos and economic stagnation of the 1970s. The notorious ‘Winter of Discontent‘ industrial unrest of 1978 almost certainly guaranteed Callaghan’s defeat by Thatcher in the following year’s Election. But in reality, the problems of the 1970’s had become a crisis far earlier, under the Conservative Government of Edward Heath during 1972-to-1973, and spiralled out of control due to international conditions created by the OPEC Oil Shock. As for the suggestion that Callaghan’s administration was ‘socialist’, this is insanity. He would have been better suited to the Liberal Party, and during his brief time as Prime Minister, he effectively laid the foundations for Thatcherism by following the International Monetary Fund’s demands for drastic cuts in Government expenditure, to combat the hectic inflation-rates of the previous few years. As the late Tony Benn revealed in subsequent years, Callaghan and his Chancellor of the Exchequer, Denis Healey, were well aware that these cuts were no longer necessary, due to the potential ‘inflation-brake’ that could be applied via North Sea Oil e.g. the Government could have insisted that all oil exports from the UK had to be paid for in sterling, increasing demand for, and by extension the value of, British pounds. The spending cuts that Healey insisted on carrying out anyway in fact arguably provoked the Winter of Discontent – and the cuts were effectively anti-socialist, and began the nationwide move to the neoliberal right. It was not the ‘socialist’ nature of the Labour Party in the 1970s that was causing the hardship, it was its centrism.

Foot, 1980-1983

While Michael Foot was a left-wing party leader, Labour’s 1983 General Election campaign cannot be realistically viewed as a true attempt to win power on a left-wing platform. This is partly because Foot never had any real control of the party in the three years he was in the role, but mainly because the party’s National Executive Committee of the time were not really trying to win. Thanks to long in-fighting between factions led by Healey and Benn, and the break-off of the Social Democratic Party, Labour was in no shape to return to Government, while Thatcher’s success in the Falklands War the previous year had given the Conservatives a massive boost in chest-banging, jingoistic popularity. The Labour NEC therefore realised, even before their Manifesto was written up, that the Election was already lost, but that it also presented them with a perfect opportunity to discredit the left wing for generations to come; by campaigning on a very left-wing ‘Bennite’ platform in an Election that was already lost, they could then blame the platform for the defeat when it was confirmed. And that is precisely what happened.

Kinnock, 1983-1992

Neil Kinnock might have been a left-winger before becoming leader, but as soon as he was voted into the job to succeed Foot, he moved the party even further to the right than it had been under Wilson or Callaghan, by effectively cutting off the left wing altogether. He is especially vilified by the miners of the 1980s, after he effectively abandoned them during the Miners’ Strikes of 1984-85, during which he left them with nobody prominent to speak up for them in Parliament.

Smith, 1992-1994

John Smith is sometimes held up as a real socialist whose premature death in 1994, after two years as leader, somehow deprived the UK of a proper left-wing Prime Minister. (Apologies to the Angry Yorkshireman, but his endorsement of Smith earlier this year is based almost entirely on one speech, doubtfully taken at face-value.) Smith is a little like many loved political/leadership figures of the past – such as Richard The Lionheart or Vladimir Ilyitch Lenin – in that he is only assumed to be a man of wise and benevolent Government because he died before the full effects of his policies could be felt. “If only he had lived on, his country would have been a much better place…” is the classic refrain. But if the world had had more experience of what their governance was really like, it is doubtful that we would be able to see much difference between them and the much-vilified successors who ruled in their stead. (Judging by his actions on Crusade, morally, Richard the Lionheart is difficult to distinguish from his maligned brother ‘Bad King’ John, and it was Lenin, not Joseph Stalin, who was responsible for the ‘Red Terror‘ of the Chekhists in 1918.) The clue that should lead us to doubt that Smith was greatly different from those who followed him is that, for better or worse, he made constitutional changes to the party,  weakening the Trade Unions, and saw Tony Blair and Gordon Brown as his natural successors. Given he knew them better than anyone else in party circles, and effectively mentored them both, he could only have seen them as his successors if he was roughly as far from the left as they were.

Blair, 1994-2007, & Brown, 2007-2010

So when Tony Blair established ‘New Labour’ in the 1990s, yes, he was even more conservative than any of his predecessors, but he was really just formalising an unspoken reality; that the Labour Party was a centrist political faction that was manipulating and controlling the British Left. ‘Old Labour’ as he called it – by which he meant left-wing-and-soft-left socialists in the Labour Party – had never really been in charge in the first place. And despite the personal animosity that developed between them, Gordon Brown was much the same. All ‘New Labour’ were really doing was making the party’s portfolio glossier while reducing the scope for the ‘Real Left’ to rebel against them effectively.

Miliband, 2010-2015, & Corbyn, 2015-?

As for Ed Miliband, he did try to move the party a little to the left while he was leader, but by his own admission, he was still a member of New Labour and needed to be more radical than he dared to try. Other Parliamentary Party members tried to blame the calamitous defeat in the 2015 General Election on his move to the left, when in truth it would have been wiser to blame his failure to move far enough to the left. And while Jeremy Corbyn in this year’s General Election was making a very strong attempt to get elected from the left, an awful lot of his party were clearly doing no more than going through the motions.

Centrism keeps failing

The long years of electoral under-achievement by the Labour Party were more to do with centrist failure than socialist ‘dreaming’, and stretch decades further back into history than the emergence of Blair. ‘Old Labour’ and ‘socialist Labour’ have not been synonymous since at least 1950, and the peculiar economic turbulence of the 1970s had nothing to do with socialism going wrong, but with underlying weaknesses in British core industries that had needed phasing out and replacing during the long-running feud between Wilson and Heath. (Wilson’s failure to try, and Heath’s foolish-but-understandable attempt to prop up these industries early in the 1970s, demonstrate the former’s lack of daring and the latter’s lack of imagination.)

Corbyn therefore differs from the past to which he is often accused of trying to return, whereas the likes of Blair were always more consistent with that past than his own rhetoric would have us believe. Abi Wilkinson is far from the first person, and very unlikely to be the last, to be taken in by the fiction that the Labour Party of the 1980s-and-before was left wing, and centrist thereafter. But it is another of those fictions that is in sore need of being combatted. Neoliberalism did not solve the problems left behind by socialism, because the British Governments of the 1960s and 1970s were not socialist, and the problems were caused by a mix of obsolete industries and international fuel crises. And far from being a solution, neoliberalism simply added rapid recession-cycles to the other problems.

Can socialism, even of the mild variety that Corbyn stands for, resolve the chaos of monetarism and the limitations of Keynesianism? Maybe, maybe not. But we will never find out the true answer to that so long as people wrongly imagine that the economic and industrial policy Corbyn is proposing is merely something that has ‘already been tried’.

by Martin Odoni

Muslim scholar Salman Rushdie is mainly famous for being sentenced to death. In 1988, he wrote a novel called The Satanic Verses, which caused wide offence to many across the Islamic world. The following year, Rushdie became the subject of a Fatwa issued by the Clerical ruler of the Shi’a Republic of Iran, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. To date, it has still not been officially withdrawn.

I tried reading The Satanic Verses back in the 1990s, and to be honest, I was unable to finish it. I might cope with it better today, given I would understand many of the symbolic references in it now more than I did then. But nonetheless, I found the book to be a little like Arthur Koestler’s Darkness At Noon, in that it is an overlong, uncompromisingly slow, and monotonous story that has received acclaim more for what it represents than for what it is.

The reason I mention the general ‘unreadability’ of Rushdie’s work is that I suspect his views are influential more because of his controversy, than because of his intellect. I am certainly not denying that Rushdie is a man of intellect, doubtless far greater than my own, but at the same time, that does not preclude a narrowness of perspective on his part. If he is controversial, the thinking seems to be, he must be ‘daring’, and he must have a perspective that is quite ‘outside-the-box’ in which everybody else’s thoughts are sealed.

However, Rushdie was making an appearance on Real Time With Bill Maher on Friday 15th of September, and one of the remarks he made suggested to me quite the reverse; that he is unimaginative, unquestioning of official narratives, and very conventional in his thinking.

It also made him sound quite absurd. Here is what he said, in reference to the defeat suffered by Hillary Clinton in last year’s US Presidential Election; –

“This problem where… there’s a section of the Left that wants the purest, more-snowy-than-driven-snow candidate… It’s not only a problem in this country. It’s a problem in England, where they want Jeremy Corbyn, who represents that ideal of ‘leftiness’, which can’t possibly be elected, or in France, the [Jean-Luc] Mélenchon people, who don’t want to vote for Macron, because he’s not purely left enough. And what all this does is to drive a wedge through which the right can come… We have to learn to distinguish between an imperfect friend and a deadly enemy.”

This is yet another example of centrists blaming the ‘real left’ for the accession to the US Presidency of Donald Trump. Not only is it incredibly patronising, it is quite a reversal of reality. Let us look closely at some of the real facts; –

Firstly, we can see on both sides of the Atlantic that the intolerance of a candidate outside a narrow ideological window is at least as prevalent in the centrist sphere as it is among real leftists. Furthermore, we see that the centrists are more willing to fight dirty to prevent or offload the outsider.

In the USA, the Democratic National Committee did all in its power short of breaking the letter of its own rules to prevent Bernie Sanders from winning the party’s nomination last year. The Committee was clearly dead-set against Sanders from the start, even though he consistently polled more positively in the head-to-head ratings against Trump than Clinton did. While no particular law, or even party rule, had been violated by the Democrats, they had rigged the contest in every way they could get away with – from deliberately scheduling debates between the candidates at times unfavourable to Sanders, to arranging so few debates that Sanders had little exposure compared with his already-famous opponent, to bizarre anomalies in votecasing machine behaviour – in order to secure the nomination for their ideological ‘soulmate’, Clinton.

One example of how hideously, and even anti-Semitically, opposed to Sanders the DNC have been is in the area of official merchandise during last year’s Primaries. There was a wide range of pro-Clinton goods for sale with DNC approval, but nothing promoting Sanders. Indeed the only item with a Sanders image was a grotesque parody of a Nazi-Germany-style caricature, portraying him as a sort of ‘Jewish rodent’ – see the bottom picture below.

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As for in the UK, even before Jeremy Corbyn became Labour Party leader two years ago, the Blairites in the Parliamentary Party were already plotting to overthrow him. Once it became clear that Corbyn was going to win, many Shadow Cabinet members from Ed Miliband’s time in charge publicly spat-their-dummies-out, stating that they would never serve in a Corbyn Cabinet or Shadow Cabinet. Within minutes of Corbyn being declared leader, Jamie Reed announced his own resignation from the Shadow Cabinet. All of this had happened before Corbyn had even been given a chance to get started. Then, the PLP attempted to remove him in a notorious ‘chicken coup‘ last summer, the details of which were forewarned in the media nearly two months beforehand, giving the lie to claims by the plotters that the coup was not premeditated or orchestrated. The use of the Brexit referendum vote as the pretext for the coup was absurd, given Corbyn had devoted more campaign time to promoting a Remain vote than any other Labour member. Even so, Corbyn won the leadership contest again, and generously offered an olive branch to those who had betrayed him, only for more back-stabs to follow after the New Year. Since Corbyn’s superb General Election campaign performance this year produced the shock result of a Hung Parliament, the back-stabbing has quietened down, but one can sense the resentment still simmering below the surface even now.

Both the Democrats during last year’s Primaries, and the Labour Party in both leadership contests won by Corbyn, had purged huge numbers of voters from their registers, the vast majority every time being those from the real left. (In 2015, this led to the grotesque absurdity of a left-wing writer and campaigner, Kerry-Anne Mendoza, being barred from voting in the Labour leadership contest, while a former Tory Cabinet Minister was allowed to proceed.)

On this evidence, Rushdie really needs to explain how he has concluded that the rejectionism and ‘ideological puritanism’ (for want of a better term) is more prevalent among those further-left than it is among the centrists. There is an ugly element in the Momentum movement that does seem to take confrontations with other factions in the Labour Party to a fanatical extreme, but that element is not in the majority by a long way, and one could well argue in any event that it is only giving the centrists a taste of the medicine dished out the other way for over thirty years. In Rushdie’s own terms, the centrists view Sanders and Corbyn as ‘imperfect friends’, and undermine them and reject them far more frequently than vice versa, to the undiluted benefit of conservatives. And yet Rushdie has no apparent condemnation to offer when that happens.

Secondly, it is a wild exaggeration to call either Sanders or Corbyn ‘pure left’. They are not. Corbyn’s philosophy, as I have pointed out more than once, lies somewhere on the theoretical boundary between socialism and social democracy. Sanders, while very left-wing by US standards and calling himself a socialist, is also a social democrat – a couple of notches to the right of Corbyn on the old-style political spectrum. In wider-world terms, Sanders is probably more a centrist than a leftist himself. It is only because of the ridiculously narrow-right-wing focus of the Overton Window of the last forty years that either of them is seen as a ‘hard-left Marxist’. It would be an interesting-but-difficult task to establish for sure, but it seems likely that most of their supporters would probably oppose a lot of genuine hard-left policies; for instance, I doubt they would be eager for total state-ownership of all industry, land being divided into communes, or the abolition of major private property.

So there is no great appetite for ‘puritanical leftism’ from ‘Corbynistas’ or ‘Bernie-Bros’. There is just a wish for the left to rediscover its ambition again, instead of continuing the pusillanimous compromises of ‘The Third Way’, which largely just boil down to giving the poor slightly more of the crumbs that fall off the dinner table of the rich.

Thirdly, the blame-shifting of Clintonites is just more of the usual centrist emotional blackmail: “Support us or it will be your fault when someone from the right wing gets in.” Surely, by the same reasoning, the centrists should have supported Sanders in the first place, given that he was doing better in the polls than Clinton? And is it not completely disingenuous of the centrists that they keep blackmailing and scaremongering the left into backing their candidates, only then to claim subsequently that the real left obviously cannot win because centrists are the only Democrats/Labourites who seem to win these days? A self-fulfilling prophecy, if ever there was one.

Fourthly, Rushdie’s claim that Hillary Clinton is an “imperfect friend” of the Sanders support-base is really quite insulting. She and her allies effectively cheated the real left support out of their candidate’s chances of taking the Democrat nomination. They frequently smeared and falsely-accused the Sanders supporters of violent or intimidating behaviour, and Clinton was simply not offering them anything very much that they wanted. Sanders’ policy platform did noticeably drag Clinton unwillingly to the left somewhat, but, despite the claims in her semi-fictional new book, she had no Wall-Street-unfriendly ideas of her own. Why should Sanders supporters see her as a ‘friend’ of any degree of perfection, let alone reward her with their support, after her dishonesty, high-handedness, half-hearted approach to progressivism, and insulting accusations?

And finally, Rushdie insists that the sort of socialist/social-democratic philosophy that Sanders and Corbyn (and Jean-Luc Mélenchon) stand for “can’t possibly be elected”. He makes no coherent case for why anyone should assume that that is true. The odds are probably against it, I would agree, more due to opposition from influential rich and power-broking factions, especially in the media, but Rushdie argues that it is not even possible. That is ridiculous in any circumstances. In the current circumstances, with Corbyn’s Labour ahead in every UK opinion poll since mid-June, and Sanders the most popular politician in the USA by a country-mile, Rushdie’s assertion seems mildly deranged.

Of course, while Rushdie’s assertion is divorced from reality, it is very, very familiar, and this is why I say that he is unimaginative and unquestioning of official narratives; he is simply restating the perceived wisdom that has dominated the mainstream media and careerist-politician-speak on both sides of the Atlantic over the last two-and-a-half years. Both Sanders and Corbyn have been repeatedly written off as too old, too obscure, too obsolete, too eccentric, too naive, too unrealistic, and too much the outsiders. Rushdie has been so deafened by this official noise that he is unable to hear the news of what is really happening. Rushdie has failed to notice that Labour registered about forty-one per cent of the popular vote under Corbyn at the General Election in June, forced a Hung Parliament, and have been in front in the polls consistently since just a few days afterwards. Rushdie also failed to notice that Sanders closed a sixty-point gap behind Clinton to just two points, and was consistently rated above Trump in the head-to-heads, and so would surely be President by now, if only the DNC had allowed the nomination contest to unfold fairly and without interference.

Rushdie does not think outside the box at all, at least not when it comes to the struggles within the left. Instead, he toes the line of powerful interests, regurgitating the narrative that the media, and the Wall-Street-loyal elite within the Democratic Party, want everyone to believe. He does far worse than confuse an imperfect friend with a deadly enemy; he confuses a slightly-less-ruthless enemy with an imperfect friend, and mistakes centrism for some kind of ‘natural default’ in politics. And above all, he subscribes to the common fallacy that democracy means the electorate must follow the politicians, rather than the politicians having to offer the electorate what they want.

Centrism, forever patronising both the right and the left with exhortations to “grow up” and to try and be “realistic”, has some growing up of its own to do. Partly, it must learn that realism involves assessing what is happening in the physical world, rather than focusing on its assumptions about what ‘should’ happen. And more particularly, it has to find the maturity to recognise when it is throwing stones in a glass house.

by Martin Odoni

Roll up! Roll up! Have I got a deal for you?!

If you are looking for a holiday to the Bahamas, and you have slightly more than enough money to afford it, but want a bit more left over afterwards, this is your lucky day.

Because I am prepared to offer you an arrangement where you give me all of that money, and in return, with absolutely no strings attached, I will give you slightly less than enough to afford the holiday back, and then you can try and borrow the rest of the cash off of a few religious fanatics from Northern Ireland.

How does that sound? What a great offer, right?

So far, I have had one enthusiastic customer taking me up on this generous deal – I shall refrain from revealing her identity except to let you know that her name is Theresa – but I am sure that plenty of you lucky people will leap at this chance too. I mean, you were happy enough to take up an offer of £350 million for the NHS last summer….

Theresa May has committed the biggest blunder in British political history. That is not an exaggeration. I have thought hard about this over the last forty-odd hours and, terrible though some were, I can genuinely think of no other that was this bad. She needlessly called a General Election late in April, in an attempt to dig a very deep hole in which to bury Jeremy Corbyn. But when she tried to push him into the hole, he simply stepped to one side, causing May to over-balance and fall into it herself. Somehow, from a starting lead of twenty points in the polls, facing a deeply divided and dysfunctional Opposition Labour Party, and with the confident expectation of winning a one-hundred-seat majority in the House of Commons, May managed to lose the smaller majority she already had, and is now trapped in a Hung Parliament.

With this mistake, Theresa May has turned herself into the greatest laughing stock in Europe. While polite noises of concern have been expressed by leaders in the European Union over the fresh confusion Thursday’s Election result is likely to cause, there have also been plenty of contemptuous noises. One cannot help suspecting that the contemptuous noises – especially from Radoslaw Sikorski or Guy Verhofstadt – are the more truthful ones.

Brexit is becoming more and more a form of self-harm

A Dutch cartoon highlighting how the British, and in particular Theresa May, are becoming increasingly self-destructive.

The whole pretext for calling the Election was that May wanted a proper mandate for negotiating withdrawal from the EU. This was not as untrue as it might appear. There were a few reasons for it, but it would genuinely have been useful to her to have a larger majority for the negotiations, but not for the reasons she presented. She made it sound like she wanted it to increase her credibility when dealing with EU leaders. In truth, it was more about trying to protect herself against rebellions by Euro-skeptic MPs in her own party, should the eventual deal extracted from the EU prove not to their liking.

But the reality is that, whatever the reason for calling the Election, May has simply wasted six weeks of precious negotiation time, and surrendered three more years of governing with a small-but-workable majority, just to be hamstrung by operating a minority Government propped up by a party of homophobic sectarian terrorists.

(NOTE: If any supporters of the Democratic Unionist Party happen to read this, and find the terrorist references objectionable, I feel it only fair to point out that they have never hesitated to call Sinn Fein ‘part of the Irish Republican Army’. Given the overlap between the DUP and Loyalist Paramilitaries in Ulster, especially the Ulster Defence Association, is at least as great as the overlap between Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA, it really is time Unionist fanatics grew up a bit and accepted that they cannot have it both ways.)

I struggle to think of a more meagre return on an investment in the history of British Elections than what May has sifted from this one. So when she arrives at the negotiating table, if the EU delegates want to push her around, she has handed them fantastic material with which to do so.

As for May’s prospective alliance with the DUP, it is unlikely to remain stable for long at all, given genuine differences between the two parties on social policy, and on leaving the EU. The DUP want a ‘soft Brexit’, retaining access to the single market and keeping the Irish border open, whereas the Tories, perhaps at the insistence of the lunatic, UKIP-bordering fringe in the House of Commons, are looking for a total severance from the Union.

Furthermore, with the DUP’s crazed attitudes to homosexuality, climate change, creationism, and abortion, soft-right Conservatives will really struggle to stomach an alliance. There are already very public rumblings of alarm from some of the (relatively) moderate members of the Parliamentary Conservative Party.

Screenshot from 2017-06-10 17-15-46

The unhappiness of Tory MPs about working with the DUP will be heightened by the narrow margin of some of their constituency victories in the Election. The swing towards Labour across the UK was very dramatic, and even in seats the Tories retained, the winning margin at the ballot box was often slight. The most prominent example of that was Amber Rudd in Hastings, who only retained her seat after two nail-biting recounts. But she was by no means the only one to survive a close shave. A range of Tory MPs are now only in place by knife-edge margins, and none of them will therefore be enthusiastic about supporting any controversial policies. But given the throwback nature of the DUP, it is hard to imagine any policies May can come up with that will simultaneously be uncontroversial enough for her own backbenchers while still being hard-line enough for the DUP to see as worth the bother of continuing to support her.

Not for the first time in recent weeks, May’s handling of her chosen approach has done her and her party no favours. While it is understandable that she sees an alliance with the DUP as the only way of establishing some kind of majority – it is objectively true – she really needs to be more careful about how she speaks about it. On announcing that she was looking to form the alliance on Friday, she dropped yet another clanger by referring to the DUP as “friends”.

Given the endless tidal waves of accusation aimed at Jeremy Corbyn over once, purely as a diplomatic nicety, referring to Hamas as “friends”, it is frankly nauseating that May has not been taken equally to task in the media over referring to the paramilitary-allied DUP in the same terms. This is doubly unsettling given what a serious danger Brexit poses to Northern Ireland and the peace process there.

The alliance itself also creates problems for Northern Ireland. Its legality may be in doubt, due to the Tories’ own ‘English-Votes-for-English-Laws’ rules, and due to the Good Friday Agreement’s requirement for non-partisan British governance within Ulster. For the DUP to exercise an influence on Westminster’s administration that Nationalist or Republican parties, such as the Social Democratic Labour Party or Sinn Fein, do not is a probable violation.

There are so many obstacles, both to setting the alliance up, and to maintaining it, that I find it very hard to believe that May’s new Government will see in the year 2018. If there is, as I currently suspect, a second General Election to happen later this year, I can only see the Labour Party winning it. Theresa May has been made to look hopelessly inadequate, while her party has no serious alternative candidates to put forward to replace her, and their public image is already being further-harmed by association with the DUP. Meanwhile, Labour’s support is continuing to surge without a post-Election pause for breath. If May’s new Government has to resign, Jeremy Corbyn will, after so many people insisted he could not, become Prime Minister.

Here are a few other, miscellaneous conclusions I have drawn from an extraordinary Election Night; –

1) YouGov should abandon its usual model of polling and focus on the one they used for the Brexit Referendum. It correctly projected all the way through that Leave would win, and it was also the first model to predict a Hung Parliament for the General Election. The final poll of YouGov‘s standard model, by contrast, proved to be hopelessly wrong.

2) The Hung Parliament could embolden a lot of MPs in the UK who have long been much too afraid of upsetting right-wing press barons like Rupert Murdoch. (This failure-of-influence is probably why Murdoch apparently threw a childish hissy-fit when the BBC/Sky Exit Poll was announced). For Jeremy Corbyn to run the popular vote so close after two years of unending smears by the Tory red-tops and even the supposedly ‘liberal-left’ media like The Guardian, it is becoming obvious that the influence of mainstream newspapers on public opinion is on the wane.

3) Following on from 2), my hypothesis when Corbyn became Labour leader was that social media was beginning to erode the grip of the traditional press. The  General Election appears to confirm this. Not only is social media effective as a high-speed ‘debunking’ tool, it is also far better at getting through to and mobilising younger voters. When it comes to tapping the potential of the Internet, Corbyn’s Labour (especially support groups like Momentum) appear to be streets ahead of the Tories, whose campaigning style in cyberspace seems not to have advanced since about 2010.

4) A lot of Blairites and ‘soft-left’ Parliamentary figures in the Labour Party have not only been made to apologise to Jeremy Corbyn – and what delicious fun it has been watching them squirm – they are also coming to realise that a very central article-of-faith they have followed for half their lives and more was wrong. They have insisted for years and years that old-style Labour policies will never chime with the British Electorate anymore. But, while Labour still have work to do before they can secure an actual majority in the House of Commons, the Blairites have nonetheless seen that the ‘Real Left’ does have considerable appeal to the public. The last General Election in which Labour secured over forty per cent of the popular vote was Tony Blair’s first as leader in 1997. In Blair’s two subsequent victories, in Gordon Brown’s defeat in 2010, and in Ed Miliband’s humiliation in 2015, the total Labour vote declined sharply and consistently. Thanks to Corbyn’s invigorating campaign, for the first time since 1997, Labour’s vote-share has gone up again, nay, surged up, from a dismal twenty-nine percent to over forty per cent in the space of just two years. In terms of vote-count, Corbyn’s performance is even more startling. With nearly thirteen million votes going to Labour, in most Elections he would have had plenty to secure Number 10 there and then. All of which means the Blairite ideologues have a toe-curling question to ponder; just how much potential support have these fools spurned over the last fifteen years or so, by ignoring the young and disengaged, and insisting on trying to poach Tory voters with half-baked offers of queasy-conscience neoliberalism instead? How many supporters might they have earned by offering a more daring policy-platform? Or indeed, how much better might they have done by trying to engage with the public in a less-television-centred way? Now in fairness, Blairite campaigning approaches worked in the infant age of the modern Internet, because social media still did not really exist back in the late-1990’s. Looking good on television and sounding suave on the radio were still sufficient. But that mainstream-only style is now obsolete, and until Thursday night, the Blairites appear to have missed that development completely.

5) Corbyn’s own campaign-style, in some respects, is even more old-fashioned, but unlike the Blairites’ mainstream-media-dominated approach, it remains effective. Corbyn was going on rallies, talking to people face-to-face, getting on the soapbox and addressing crowds in their thousands. In short, he showed up. He was there in person, which is always good politics. That side of his approach is no different from the campaigning style of politicians from the distant past, such as Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone. But for all its oldness of style, it still works consistently, and probably always will. Indeed, hand-in-hand with modern social media technology, providing live video streams of big events, and avalanches of digital photos that can be shared around the world within seconds, it is probably more effective now than ever. By contrast, radio-and-TV-only skills are really quite hit-and-miss these days, because a lot of the electorate will only have passing contact with them.

6) The main argument for retaining the hopelessly-outdated First-Past-The-Post system for British General Elections is that they are more likely to “create strong Government” than Proportional Representation systems. However, the post-Credit Crunch era in Westminster has given the lie to that once and for all. There have been three General Elections in just the last seven years. Two of them have led to Hung Parliaments, and one of them led to an overall majority of just twelve – with the Prime Minister therefore left at the mercy of the extremist fringe of the governing party. So clearly it is high time to dump the assumption that the older system protects the Government from instability, because the facts do not substantiate it.

7) My my, but Tony Blair has been awfully quiet, has he not? Has there been some development from this General Election upon which he now finds it embarrassing to reflect? I wonder what that might be…?

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No, nothing springs to my mind either. So maybe Blair is just too busy preparing his defence case for when he is standing in the dock in the Hague in the fairly near future?

by Martin Odoni

The televised leaders debate last night was too chaotic and cluttered again, and it often got to the point that the opposing participants were talking over each other so much that no one could be heard. I was originally in favour of enlarging these debates to include more parties, but I am starting to wonder whether it makes the process a little pointless. All the candidates to a greater or lesser extent were repeatedly guilty of speaking out-of-turn, interrupting, and not respecting the others’ space to speak. If candidates will not follow the rules and let others finish speaking, there will have to be a reassessment of the format for these events in future. One option the producers could try is to shut down all the microphones bar the one of the candidate whose turn it is to speak.

Anyway, here are my thoughts on the performances; –

Paul Nuttall – – – The UKIP leader continues to say stupid things, even repeating stupid things he said at the ITV debate, without apparently realising they were stupid. Someone needs to sit him down and explain to him that the Australian Immigration System will not reduce the number of incomers, as the points system lets in more per head of population than Britain’s current set-up. Also, does Nuttall really not recognise the absurdity inherent in saying, “[Donald Trump] is the leader of the free world whether we like it or not”? If Trump leads a ‘free world’ – of which Nuttall presumably imagines Britain is a part – how can we not have a say in who the leader is? Nuttall also did himself no favours at all with an inaccurate cheap shot at Corbyn about Hamas.

Caroline Lucas – – – The joint-leader of the Green Party spoke well again, sounding a lot more positive than most of the others, and she avoided making any silly remarks. I am just starting to wonder whether there is any point in her being there though, as most of what she says echoes the Labour and Liberal Democrat positions very closely, and as Green is the smallest party, it would have to be the one that gives way to reduce the numbers and confusion on-stage.

Tim Farron – – – The LibDem leader was probably the top performer on the night again. He did well in both large debates, although it has to be conceded that, as no one else was targeting him at all, he was a lot freer to go on the attack than some others were. His ‘Bake-off’ line at the end to take a swipe at Theresa May was very funny.

Angus Robertson – – – The deputy leader of the Scottish National Party started somewhat poorly, sounding like his every word was read off a teleprompter. But once he got past the early nerves, he improved dramatically and began to speak far more assertively and effectively. Unlike Nicola Sturgeon on the ITV debate a couple of weeks ago, Robertson remembered at all times that he was speaking to the whole of the UK and not just to Scotland, which meant he was a lot less prone to the appearance – fair or otherwise – of drifting into irrelevance.

Jeremy Corbyn – – – The Labour leader did reasonably well, given he was, as one might expect, targeted by the others an awful lot. He seemed to struggle at certain points, especially on the subject of the renewal of Trident, due to being constantly interrupted, especially by Robertson. But Corbyn can hardly really complain about that as he did his share of interrupting too. I doubt this performance in itself will have gained him significant ground on May in the polls, although he may gain a point automatically by virtue of simply being the one who had the guts to show up.

Leanne Wood – – – This seemed like an uncharacteristically tetchy performance from the leader of Plaid Cymru, sometimes bordering on rude. Maybe she was still feeling irked at Nuttall for repeatedly getting her name wrong during the ITV debate. Wood’s performance was not bad as such, but you get the feeling that her normally-cooler head was needed at times, and it just never quite seemed to be there. As a result, she was as prone to interrupting and speaking out-of-turn as anyone, and one or two of her answers sounded somewhat ratty. Unlikely to have won too many fresh admirers on this occasion.

Amber Rudd – – – It was quite wrong that the Conservative leader was not there, of course, but I will come to that later. Looking at Rudd’s performance, she cannot be faulted on her speaking voice, which is certainly stronger and less monotonous than ‘Blowhard-the-U-Turn-Queen’s’. But the content of what Rudd said was shaky, and she did drop a couple of real clangers during the discussion. Her most disturbing transgression was dressing up Britain’s amoral sales of weapons and aircraft to the House of al-Saud as somehow ‘defending Britain’. Meanwhile, her near-obsessive pursuit of Jeremy Corbyn throughout the debate turned some of her answers into non-sequiturs, as she tried to twist every question into an attack on Labour. Rudd’s insistence on soundbiting repetitively about a ‘Magic Money Tree’ (highlighting the economic illiteracy of her own party) probably did the Tories no favours, and she came across as a little down-the-nose and obstreperous throughout. Allowing for the fact that her father had passed away at the start of the week however (that she was sent to the debate as the Tories’ ‘sacrificial lamb’ only underlines how frighteningly lacking Theresa May is in human feeling), Rudd held it together quite well. She was a bit blundery, and used some very odd metaphors – someone needs to explain to her the rules of Monopoly – but a bit like May’s scratchy performance on Monday, at least it was not an outright disaster. Given the month the Tories have had, that may be a relief to them in itself. But what a sad reflection it is on their campaign that ‘not-an-outright-disaster’ could be seen as one of its high points.

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Moving on, I discussed May’s absence from the debate at some length yesterday, but I would like to draw attention to a video that has gone viral on social media. It was created by Momentum from an excerpt from a press conference May gave yesterday evening in Bath. It can be accessed via their Facebook page here.

The horrendous forced laugh that May put on in response to the opening question from Faisal Islam was actually disturbing. It was reminiscent of the notorious Natalie Portman laugh at the 2011 Golden Globes. Islam asked her, if May is strong and Corbyn is weak, why was Rudd at the debate instead? May followed up her laugh with a totally evasive answer, layered over with another of her favourite robotic catchphrases of “best possible deal for Britain”. The look in her eyes as she spoke was one of mortifying terror.

It shows what an unbridled pig’s breakfast that the Tories in general, and May in particular, have made of their campaign, that even the BBC’s Chief Tory-with-a-press-pass, Laura Kuenssberg, can no longer tolerate trying to defend it. When she asked the second question, she simply re-iterated the first one, suggesting flat out (and correctly) that May is frightened of going head-to-head with Jeremy Corbyn.

Watching this moment, it is clear that May was unable to stop fidgeting throughout. Her response, in a voice that sounded just a little too high-pitched and a bit too fast, was one of the most profoundly stupid, self-undermining remarks I have ever heard from a Tory politician – and the competition for that title is fierce. May said that taking questions from members of the public is part of the electoral process, hence why she was at this event in Bath, and not going to attend the televised debate.

The reason this answer was so stupid should not need pointing out, but just to be on the safe side, I shall explain; the questions at the televised debate were all going to be asked by members of the public. There was also a likelihood that far more members of the public would get to see the televised debate than to see this press conference in Bath. Furthermore, the implication was rather insulting to Amber Rudd; if televised debates are really so unimportant, why is it fair to waste Rudd’s time by making her take part in them?

May then followed up this imbecilic moment with a very nervous and painfully-unfunny attempt at a wisecrack about Corbyn not attending the ITV debate. The response of the ‘audience’ was so quiet, you could have heard an amoeba clearing its throat in embarrassment.

I honestly get the impression that May is not only scared, she appears to be suffering from hyper-tension. She thought this campaign was going to be a breeze, but it has turned into a horrible, exhausting struggle, one in which she has lost every battle that she has been made to fight. The news in the opinion polls has been increasingly unhappy for the Conservatives over the last three weeks, and there now appears to be a serious danger that they are going to lose seats at the General Election next week. Perhaps even fall into a Hung Parliament. Given that May had three more years available before she had to call the Election, were the outcome to be a Hung Parliament, or even a reduced majority, this campaign would have to go down as one of the greatest-ever backfires in British politics.

The stress and strain of being in a situation that May does not know how to control is clearly weighing very heavily on her, and it looks like she is not quite coping.

I am not making fun here, by the way. I am no stranger to the misery of stress and depression, and to my surprise I was starting to feel oddly sorry for May as I watched the video. But at the same time, her misery is not exactly what I would call ‘undeserved’. She has brought it on herself by her mixture of hubris and cowardice. And if her inability to cope with the demands of an Election campaign, in which she had every advantage it was possible to have at the outset, is anything to go by, just how ‘Strong-&-Stable’ can her leadership really be, should she remain Prime Minister? Just how effectively can she negotiate a deal with the European Union? (Not that the Prime Minister will really be doing that; these details are sorted out by civil servants and lawyers, the politicians will largely just sort out the press conferences.)

May knows that she is in trouble. Her party has suffered more damage this week, and the latest YouGov poll from last night puts the lead over Labour down to just three points.

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May’s campaign has been about her, not the Conservative Party. “Vote for me!”, not “Vote for us!”. But at the same time, she has desperately tried to avoid engagement with the media or the public except at the longest-of-arm’s-lengths. Therefore, she has tried to make the campaign into a kind of ‘personality-cult’ of herself without offering any of her real personality – I am generously assuming there is far more to her than we see from her public image – for people to follow. (This makes it doubly confounding that she sent someone else to debate in her place last night; if the Election campaign is about May, it needs to be May who speaks for it.) So the Tory campaign has inevitably been a whole lot of nothing, apart from ill-defined soundbites talking up May’s own capacity to lead, which in this isolation just sound horribly superior.

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Contrast that barrenness with Jeremy Corbyn and Labour, who have been out-and-about, talking to everybody they can, taking every opportunity to engage with the wider public, full of energy and ideas, not afraid to talk about policies in detail, and always bringing a firm and consistent message that their campaign is about the people and not about any one man or woman, or even one political party. Now some parts of this are a good deal less substantial than others, sure, but the point is that it does engage people, not least because it gives people something positive to hope for, other than just someone who will negotiate ‘Brexit’. People are given something to get hold of when they listen to Corbyn.

May, being a sort of ‘dull-but-sound’, pre-manufactured politician, has nothing to compete with that. She often looks very uneasy when mixing with people, at least when it is not a stage-managed meeting, she shows mediocre energy, lacks sufficient principle to realise when she is doing something immoral, is easily frightened into backing down subsequently, and is too scared of verbal slips to risk articulating policy details. The result is a campaign of chaos and public alienation. Her assumption that this was an Election she could win without even trying has made her vulnerable, while her innate powerlessness to change the tide has put her under growing strain.

May knows that, if the current trend continues, then by the Election next week, Labour may well have enough support to guarantee a Hung Parliament. Then, all that talk of a ‘Coalition of Chaos’ is sure to rebound on her, as she looks around desperately for a partner to prop up her Government, while her own backbenchers start wondering why they are making do with a leader who could not win a majority from a campaign in which she started with a twenty-plus-point advantage.

She is entitled to feel overwhelmed. I know I would in her shoes. But then, recognition of the brutality of politics is precisely why I have never seriously considered standing for election (many people have suggested to me that I should). I truly do not believe I could cope with the hostility. I therefore do not condemn May for struggling to cope, but I should point out that my inability on that score is why I am not a politician.

If May has that same inability, why is she in Government at all?