Jeremy’s Politics – more no brand than new brand

Not long into the Labour leadership contest I made a decision. I decided to stop writing about politics and, by extension, about anything. Scroll down and you’ll see the evidence of that. The election of a new Labour leader was dominating a lot of my spare thinking time, but there were a whole brigade of writer who, through contacts, experience or skill (and often all three), were much better suited to write about it than I was. So I simply sat back and watched the chaos unfold.

Now I guess I can start again? Is that ok?

Labour’s new ‘happy warrior’…

In the last three days, Jeremy Corbyn has managed to preside over possibly the shortest honeymoon period in political history. One day, Saturday, was all he got. After that, calamity.

Two cancelled national media appearances (at a time when everyone under the sun seems to recognise the need for Corbyn to ‘define’ himself before the Tories do it for him), a bungled Shadow Cabinet announcement, a quiet first PLP meeting and an incomprehensible speech to the TUC. The new Labour leader is scoring own goals in places it should be impossible to do so and he’s making the Tories’ job far easier than it should be.

It was always going to be problematic to have a man who has called members of Hamas and Hezbollah his ‘friends’, invited the IRA to Parliament during the Troubles and has a strong belief in homeopathy leading Labour. Disregarding any context or the views you, the reader, might have on these subject, there is a lot of ammunition to be presented in a way that makes Corbyn look, at best, like a far left eccentric. This was never going to be easy. What is baffling is how simple Team Corbyn is making it for their man to be mocked.

Corbyn, and those around him, have presumably known for weeks that he would win. The polling, the massed rallies, the lethargic campaigns from this opponents. They all suggested he was on course for victory. Perhaps there was an understandable wish to avoid looking arrogant (this is a ‘new brand’ of politics after all). But the chaos that has greeted his first days in power suggests that no one near Corbyn was prepared for victory.

Why was the Shadow Cabinet seemingly formulated on the back of am envelope, with the Labour leader having to call MPs late into Sunday to persuade them to take important jobs? Why was there no thought as to how failing to appoint any women to shadow one of the four ‘great offices’ of state might not square with the campaign pledge for the most diverse Shadow Cabinet ever? Why did someone apparently decide that briefing the press about a mooted ‘Minister for Jews’ would be a great way to tackle the accusations of anti-semitism that have dogged Corbyn’s campaign?

I don’t have answers to any of these questions and I suspect there are many within the Labour Party who share my bafflement.

I’m also baffled by another aspect of Corbyn’s disastrous three days. He appears to be making no attempt to really challenge the image of a one dimensional, bearded bogeyman he is being painted as.

I’m not talking about politics here, just simple PR. Getting lost while walking onstage at the TUC (and coming on after a rendition of ‘Hey Big Spender’…), failing to sing, or even mumble, the national anthem at a service commemorating the Battle of Britain and struggling to do up his tie properly for his first appearance on the Labour front bench. These may all seem petty or trivial, but they are very basic own goals that only reinforce the negative messaging being broadcast by the Conservatives and the more right wing press. No wonder he is being begged to hire a Press Officer

So, ignoring his policies (which I am, in many ways, far more inclined to approve of than the way he is going about them), Jeremy Corbyn is in trouble. Perhaps it is harsh to judge him after only a few days, but considering how long he had to plan for this moment, I feel dubious that he’ll improve over time. He is making it far too easy for his political enemies to define him and he doesn’t seem to care. Admirable, in many ways, but having a serious ‘brand’ is part and parcel of winning in politics. So far, Jeremy Corbyn’s new brand of politics has no brand at all.

Please Labour, ditch the name calling and get organised.

What is in a name?

The first election I have a decent memory of is 1997. I remember Tony Blair, beaming and youthful, walking up Downing Street. I remember everyone seeming very happy about this broad grinned new broom. Although I wasn’t really that switched on to the policy agenda of the 1997-2001 Labour government – I was too busy trying to get picked on the school football team despite possessing two left feet – looking back I can recognise a radical, genuinely progressive movement. I can see why, despite the awful mess of the post-2001 New Labour years, there are plenty of people within the party who would quite like to turn back the clocks.

The heart of New Labour (Source: The Guardian)

I remember, in greater detail, the 2007 ascension of Gordon Brown, the financial collapse during my late school and early student days and then the last five years of stop start movement to the left, awkward photo opportunities and two steps forward, one step back. Yet for all the post-election pain, there is also still a strong appeal both in the old school, social conscience Labour of Brown in continuing the leftward tack embarked on by Ed Miliband. Labour is, and always has been, a broad church.

The narrative of an impending Blairite v. Brownite, Right v. Left battle in the Labour Party over the next few months seems, less than two weeks after Ed Miliband was driving down from Doncaster to hand in his notice, to be well established. Depending on where one stands, Labour either shot itself in the foot by abandoning the success of the Blair years, or began a long overdue transformations under Miliband that must be seen through if the Tories are to be defeated in 2020. To anyone outside of Labour it must seem like a dull, semantic slogging match. But the outcome will shape the next five years of British politics.

For a long time, the Tories had a similar problem. It might be assumed that the memory of Margaret Thatcher would only haunt the left. However, after her deposition in 1991, the Conservatives spent years in her shadow. Not only the shadow of her success, the benchmark for all future leaders of her party, but also of her divisive ideology. As the Tories suffered successive defeats in Westminster and in the polling stations of Britain, there was constant talk of revitalising Thatcherism and connecting again with the ideas that had brought the Conservative Party their greatest successes of modern history.

But, crucially, by May 2010 the Tories had finally stopped talking about Maggie. David Cameron’s election campaign that year was fraught, messy and ultimately indecisive, but he had succeeded in turning his party about face. The Conservatives, by the large, had their cheeks turned towards the future and not the past when the nation went to the polls.

So, while Tony Blair has often been compared to Britain’s only female Prime Minister for his neoliberal, often presidential approach to government, there is a more nuanced similarity between the two former PMs. Both left traumatic, but often not obvious, legacies on their respective parties. While the controversies of their time in power may draw the most attention from the public, in purely political terms it is the retrospective pull of their success that is most damaging. In the wilderness years of opposition, any party will find itself looking to the past for answers. But the danger is that serious reflection becomes idolatry and a rose tinted view of past successes is allowed to form, holding back reform and new ideas.

Interviewed last week, one of the senior architects of the Conservatives election victory gave perhaps the most deconstructed sound bite yet on the surprise result. ‘Elections are won by parties that look forwards’ he said and, having just won an election he should know. Any party that’s policies and approach seem stuck in the past will never be trusted with the reins of government by the electorate. Labour, more than any other party, should know that.

This is why it is vital that, in the weeks of necessary debate that are to come, Labour drops the Blair and Brown rhetoric. The party has spent five years stagnating in the name of unity and stability and in doing so allowed itself to be defined by the mistakes and controversies of the past. If it spends the next months, and then the next five years, being defined by the figures of its history then a Tory majority in 2020 is all but certain.

One hundred days of misery: a guide to the General Election

There are exactly one hundred days until the general election and they’re not going to be pretty. A lot can happen in three and a half months, and a lot will happen, but the chances of any hopeful changes in British politics between now and May 7th are slim, if not already gone. Don’t believe what you may have heard. It is more than likely that today simply sees the rounding of the final corner in a five-year race to be the people’s least unpopular politician.

Two party politics is, for now, over. But you wouldn’t think that from the way both Labour and the Tories are carrying themselves. Much like the people they govern, politicians in Britain are no more used to the idea of coalitions and minority rule than they were in January 2010. Both major parties are focusing their campaigns on the elusive goal of a Parliamentary majority. Both hope, against the odds, to avoid another forced political marriage. Should they fail then it will be the first time since the early 1900s that Britain has been governed by two coalitions in succession.

Labour hopes their focus on healthcare (‘100 days to save the NHS’) and inequality, coupled with their small but stubborn poll lead will carry them over the line. The Tories are relying on their more charismatic leader and the slow economic improvement that they have engineered. Both parties have major problems in terms of trust from the electorate. Labour’s association with the 2008 crash and the suspicion that a Conservative government would enact cuts far deeper than the party has so far suggested are key issues here. Both parties are also struggling, so the polls suggest, to improve on their share of the vote from the last election. A few years ago members of both parties would have been quietly counting on winning over support from disaffected Liberal voters yet now that seems like a distant, naive dream.

The collapse of the Liberal Democrats, who if recent polling is accurate will be left in sixth place and with only one Welsh MP come May, has been spectacular. It is perhaps the greatest collective fall from grace in British political history. No one likes Nick Clegg and no one trusts him. One can now suggest that the moment Clegg walked out onto the Downing Street lawn in 2010, the final nail was driven into coffin of two party governance. The Lib Dems had prospered, both in 2010 but also for long before, on being the alternative to the often-stale battle of Labour vs. Tory, Left vs. Right. In many ways they’re continued, moderate electoral success had kept the system balanced. Now dissatisfied voters, who exist in greater numbers than ever, have to look elsewhere.

This elsewhere comes in the form of UKIP, the Green Party and for Scottish voters, the SNP. All three parties have gained more than anyone could have predicted even twelve months ago and all three are claiming that they will be the ones to hold the balance of power come May. The increasing support these three parties have gained from voters outside of the traditional Labour or Tory bases has been the defining narrative of the last two years. It will continue to define the last hundred days of this government. The SNP, with their projected triumph in Scotland against a Scottish Labour party lead by Blairite MP Jim Murphy, are most likely to be king makers but it isn’t beyond the realms of possibility that, in a very tight Parliament, the Green or UKIP might be called upon to pass or block legislation (as could the DUP, one party constantly forgotten in Westminster commentary). On one hand this diverse break from two party slogging matches over the dispatch box sounds like a welcome change. On the other, the thought of either the Greens or UKIP being able to influence laws is somewhat alarming.

This then, is the landscape of the last hundred days. A messy, disjointed world of swing voters and marginal seats and contradictory polling. We’ve already seen the party election machines warming up for what almost every commentator agrees will be one of the dirtiest elections yet. A race to the bottom as well as a race to the electoral finish line. At some point there will be a televised debate, probably with seven or eight party leaders shouting well honed attack lines at each other. Don’t expect nuance and don’t expect clarity. Don’t expect the big parties to play fair and don’t expect their smaller alternatives to stay ‘nice’ for long. Welcome to one hundred days of televised misery.

Is #CameronMustGo news?

There is, in the strange, blue tinted world of Twitter, a furious political campaign being carried out as I type. An organised, passionate insurgency to use micro-blogging to bring down a government. It is called ‘Cameron must go’ or, to be correct #CameronMustGo. Having become one of the top trending hashtags in the UK and, apparently, the third most popular topic on Twitter world wide, it is somewhat of a social media phenomenon. Except you won’t read that much about it in the media (meaning anything not online or more complex than a TL;DR format). Because #CameronMustgGo is being ignored by the a media that is too cosy to the establishment. Or so the theory goes.

What started out as a snappy, if not wholly original campaign criticising, largely from the left, government policies brought together under the same hashtag has, in a few days, opened up a war on a second front. Rather than just being a way of drawing attention to reasons why David Cameron is not fit to run Britain, it has become increasingly about what should, or should not, be considered news. The issue is that aside from the online arms of a few papers, there has been next to no coverage of the campaign. Those involved feel aggrieved, because as one can imagine, were a celebrity or sporting story to sustain such a high profile on social media, it would probably have been given coverage. However a political story, especially one that appears to show widespread dissatisfaction with the government, has been ignored. The BBC, as ever, appears to be a prime target. Rather unfortunately for the corporation, it has an online service, BBC Trending, designed to pick up stories gathering attention on social media. So far it, and the rest of the BBC, has failed to cover the #CameronMustGo movement (if it can be called a movement that is). Quite predictably this has lead those pushing the campaign most energetically to turn much of their attention onto the BBC and other news outlets, demanding that they ‘report the news’.

There are a few issues here that need to be addressed. Firstly, it is actually quite easy to get something trending on Twitter. While hashtags linked to global events of import will always find their way into wider circulation, it only takes a few hundred committed Twitter users to start moving a hashtag in the right direction. Once this happens, and if it is continually used, figures with large public followings (politicians, journalists, whatever Russell Brand is etc) and more left-field (no pun intended) media outlets with big social media operations, of which there are plenty, are bound to pick it up. A few mentions by such accounts and suddenly the hashtag has acquired a whole new reach. And thus it will continue to grow, quite possibly with only a relatively small number of people continually using it.

This of course, touches upon another fact about the #CameronMustGo campaign. Anyone who has met a politics bore will know that we’re an energetic bunch. People of strong opinion, on any side of the political divide, are always more vocal than those who do not, for example, care about what the latest round of Ashcroft Marginal Polls say. As it happens, current opinions polls suggest that, were the election to be held right now, David Cameron and the Conservatives would not win an overall majority in terms of seats or the popular vote. This means that actually, more voters in Britain agree than disagree with the #CameronMustGo sentiment, but most of them just don’t care enough to take to social media about it.

As mentioned, one of the main media targets for criticism has been the BBC. While it is true that the BBC’s record for covering political issues is not perfect, it seems unrealistic and a little churlish to expect it to devote coverage to a relatively small campaign on Twitter. The BBC didn’t, to my knowledge, cover the Tory’s farcical social media experiment that was ‘#Longtermeconomicplan’.  Why then should it cover a largely Labour inspired campaign that has achieved little but to raise awareness of some of the coalition’s most unpalatable policies? It is interesting that the BBC once again finds itself, as it does on an almost weekly basis, accused of a political bias. Perhaps there is, as the saying goes, no smoke without fire. Certainly the Beeb has been remiss in its failure to cover large, popular protest movements in recent years and it’s presenters are often guilty of failing to question lazy stereotypes about immigrants, benefits and the economy. But equally it has excellent foreign and investigative reporting and provides a depth and breadth of news coverage that, on reflection, is quite staggering. It is easy for those of a strong political bent to forget that the BBC’s general worldview, socially liberal and economically conservative, is the same as that which has prevailed in Britain for most of the the corporation’s history. Certainly it offers reporting far superior to many, if not most state funded news outlets. One wonders if the corporation’s most vocal critics would be begging for it to return if they were forced to watch nothing but Russia Today. It is possible that, seeing as it is constantly criticised from both the right and the left, the BBC is actually striking a decent balance in a time of division.

And yet, the root of the entire argument surrounding #CameronMustGo is not whether the BBC is biased or if political campaigns on social media are newsworthy. The real question is, can such a campaign really work? Anyone who grew up during the rapid, viral growth of the web into modern life will have come across the sentiment that the internet would set us free. And in a sense it does. It provides a platform for the voiceless to speak, the oppressed to interact and the angry to shout. It brings people together and it allows for ideas to be exchanged at a rate that boggles the mind. But it is not, ultimately, a tool for real change. A social media scandal may cause an MP to resign or a company to change its ways in some slight, cosmetic way, but it will never tackle the root of an issue. In Britain, real change will involve the fall of governments and the shaking of a complacent political class.  Only the ballot box will do that.

Ed Miliband, a man alone?

In politics, the old saying goes; a week can be a very long time. It follows then that the thirty weeks or so between now and the general elections next year should be an eternity. But for the Labour Party and Ed Miliband, riding uncomfortably low in the water after a poor conference season, it must seem an awfully soon.

It wasn’t so long ago that Miliband was setting the political agenda. Ahead in the polls and grabbing the headlines with policies such as the proposed freeze on energy bills, Labour were beginning to look, if not comfortable then at least confident. Confident that they were heading in the right direction and confident in their leader.

Ed’s bacon moment… (Image from The Metro)

Yet on Monday, when ex-Labour adviser Damien McBride wrote in The Times that Miliband’s future as leader was in question, one couldn’t help but thinking that it made sense. McBride has hardly been a serious player within the party or offered much insight into its working for some time, but his narrative of a stubborn, isolated Miliband trying to run a party and election campaign on his own seems to fit with the chaotic public face the party now possesses. Local activists complained that during the recent Heywood and Middleton by-election, which saw Labours majority fall  from around 6,000 to 617, the instructions from upon high to focus the campaign on the NHS jarred horribly with the emphasis on immigration as an issue by voters on the door step. A controlling central authority, unaware or uninterested in the realities of the campaign. Sound familiar?

The reality is that, while Miliband may have been a highly competent political adviser in his day, and while he is surrounded by a number of bright, capable politicians, if he’s chosen to ignore them and keep his own council then Labour are poorer for it. As Labour List’s Mark Ferguson and The Guardian’s Rafael Behr have pointed out in recent articles, not only has Miliband moved away from more radical figures such as Arnie Graf, who inspired much of his earlier success, he also appears to be backing himself as the key author of the manifesto for next year’s election. This despite of the wide ranging and well thought of policy review conducted by John Crudas, which had been considered to be the basis for a strong 2015 election campaign. As Behr puts it ‘It is widely expected that the manifesto will be a cautious affair, put together by the wonks in the leader’s office, with droplets from the policy review added for flavour.’

None of this is helped by Miliband’s image problem, which his forgetful conference speech did nothing to improve. Yet, paradoxically, Labour still hold a lead in the opinion polls, a lead which the Conservatives have found nigh on impossible to shift. This is the real head scratcher, that despite all of Labour’s internal problems and its chaotic public image, if the polls are to be believed, Ed Miliband will be leading the largest party after the next election. However, a recent YouGov poll managed to show that while Labour are on course to win the election, more people think David Cameron will be Prime Minister post-2015 than Miliband. This demonstrates neatly the real issue facing Labour. They may be ahead but they’re having trouble convincing anyone that their lead will last or that their man will look good in Number 10. Over the coming months that will have to change, something that will be doubly hard to do if Ed doesn’t learn to trust his friends again.