Waving while drowning, the Labour left’s new optimism

In the week before Christmas, around the time every political hack in Britain was writing about Spanish exit polls or Jeremy Corbyn’s first 100 days, a strange message appeared that, depending on your point of view, either sums up reasons the left can be hopeful for 2016 or was some pre-Christmas surreal comedy.

George Aylett is a left wing Labour activist who stood for Parliament in May. He seems like a nice person and is quite ‘big’ in the weird, wonderful world of left wing social media. I’m certainly not trying to critique him personally. But he provides a near perfect example of the baffling new optimism of the Labour left as we enter the new year.

In case it is one day taken down, the tweet reads:

‘The rise of Corbyn in Britain., Sanders in the USA, the left bloc in Portugal and now we have Podemos in Spain. What a time for socialism’.

It is, I think, a very hopeful picture. Socialism on the march in Western Europe and the USA, with a democratic socialist alternative presented to the people via the ballot box. It is the sort of thing Billy Bragg could write one hell of a ballad about. It is also a succinct, two sentence summary of a position on the world currently held by much of the Labour left. A position that by many objective measures, seems to be built entirely on sand.

In America, Bernie Sanders has run a groundbreaking campaign for the Democratic nomination but his numbers outside of a few areas are hardly enough to give Hillary Clinton sleepless nights. This is not the West Wing and he is not Matt Santos (he is, for aficionados, more of a Howard Stackhouse in my opinion). In Portugal the left  gained ground in October but a right wing coalition formed a government after the election and it took a constitutional crisis to bring the left into power, which now governs the country (but with a centrist President). Spain, the latest European nation to turn to a youthful left wing party in the face of austerity, is now faced with the likelihood of unstable coalition government and a party of government that has no women in its upper or middle ranks.

This isn’t to say that, after decades of neoliberal dominance, the successes of socialist politicians in Greece, Portugal, Spain and New Hampshire should be ignored. Certainly any struggle to replace social democracy with socialism as the main opponent to conservatism in Europe and the US will be long and hard. However, to overplay these small successes as a turning of the tide is foolish.

Bernie Sanders on the rise…

Of course, we have yet to touch on Britain. Here, Jeremey Corbyn has won a huge mandate from members of the Labour Party to be their leader and, in all likelihood, his election has changed the nature of the party for some time to come. But among voters he is one of Labour’s most unpopular leaders and is ridiculed as out of touch, soft and eccentric in the press. This is hardly a ‘rise’, more like a gentle plateau in the foothills of opposition. But, despite this, most of Corbyn’s supporters seem happy to publicly declare him a success so far.

In the May General Election Labour was forecast by many pundits to sneak into government. The polls were tight but the left was hopeful and the right nervous. Just after 10pm that picture was shattered and David Cameron romped home to a majority, having needed to be propped up by the Liberal Democrats five years earlier. The manner of this defeat is one of the reasons why the Labour left’s new optimism has taken hold.

Simply put, to many the polls can no longer be trusted. The numbers show Labour flagging behind the Tories, poor approval rating for Corbyn and a lack of understanding among the general public about what Labour is offering. And yet, to those who feel rightfully angry that dozens of pre-election polls gave them so much hope, little of this is of consequence. The polls just cannot be trusted (although, perversely the polls showed Corbyn’s victory in the Labour leadership election for weeks before the event. Clearly they are still good for something).

The second reason the Corbyn, along with Sanders, Podemos and the Portuguese left, is hailed as a new hero for socialism is because it has been so long since there were any. In Britain the left has been led by, broadly speaking, ‘moderates’ since the early 1990s. Moderates that won elections and brought in the minimum wage, for example, but who were a long way from the traditional socialist position of Labour in the 1970s and 80s. In Europe, social democracy has rules the roost and even in nations where electoral systems and demographics allow for the hard left to be a more persistent presence, the struggle for socialism has had few champions.

But is all this optimism actually a problem?

Well, no political party has ever won an election running on a platform of introspection, self-doubt and pessimism. Voters will only ever believe in political leaders who appear confident in their own ideas. So on one hand the Labour left’s belief in its own strength can be a good thing.

However, if this optimism is truly built on shaky foundations, it will simply lead the party astray. The bottom line of politics is that no party, however confident or well intentioned, can make change without winning elections. The best evidence we have right now suggests Labour can’t win on the left wing platform it has moved to since May. So why should anyone be happy about this?

This, really, is the nub of the internal debate still raging within Labour. It has been characterised as a battle between electability and purity but that does disservice to both sides. However, what should be most frustrating to ordinary party members is that this battle of near sighted optimism and defeated cynisism is ruining the chance to build a very different, very new party.

Both of the broad factions within Labour are out of ideas. The Labour left finds itself unable to shape and articulate their ideas in a way that will appeal to the electorate. The Labour centre and right find themselves unable to make their ideas appeal to the rest of the party. Everything is going stale, while the Tories cherry pick Labour ideas for their own and continue to cement their position in the electable centre of British politics.

In this situation the only way forward is to have an honest, open and yes, radical, discussion about where the Labour Party stands and what it stands for. That is what many hoped for after May when the long leadership election was announced. Yet we have been left with is a pastiche of 1980s socialism that resonates with very few outside of the party. An amazing opportunity has been missed.

Corbyn during his leadership campaign.

And this is why the bright eyed, optimistic worldview of campaigners like Aylett saddens me. We could be having serious discussions about how to combine socialist ideas with the mainstream of British politics. Take, as one very brief example, new ideas about the role technology and automisation can play, not to increase profit and rob workers of their jobs, but to raise productivity and change the nature of work, giving people more free time and a higher quality of life. This could be Labour’s new ‘white heat of technology’ and is a perfect example of where the left of the party could meet the ‘moderates’ to forge new ideas.

However, as long as those who now lead the party continue to talk only to their friends, to be blinkered to the wider political terrain in which they are sat and to place their faith in optimistic feeling rather than pragmatism and cooperation, we won’t be discussing anything as interesting as the new white heat of technology. We’ll be bickering over the makeup of the Shadow Cabinet and trying to decide whether Ken Livingstone can attack the mentally ill and get away with it. Lord Ashcroft, the Tory donor and pollster, famously told his party to ‘wake up a smell the coffee’ during the Blair years. Somehow, the Labour Party needs to do the same. There are millions of Britons who need a Labour government and who will suffer under a Conservative one. Right now optimism and international solidarity with socialist abroad will not help them. We are failing them and doing it with a smile on our faces.


Take out the trash day…

They say you should never meet your heroes, but perhaps you shouldn’t even listen to them.

I’ve always admired Rob Lowe (some of my friends would say that maybe I border on obsession, but they just don’t understand him like I do…). He has acted in some of the best television to come out of America this century, is permanently sun tanned, not a Republican and has a hairline I can only aspire to. In fact, anyone who looks that good (see below) in their 50s must be doing something right, surely?

And yet, last Friday while the street of Paris were in chaos and I was glued to my sofa, one eye on my laptop screen and the other on the TV, he went and tweeted this:

Reading it, you can almost imagine him saying it. That emphasis on the ‘NOW’ is very Chris Treager isn’t it? And you can still read it, displayed on his timeline for all of his 1.2 million Twitter followers to see. Last Friday I was still one of them, and I was surprised and disappointed. Because I liked Rob Lowe and he was supposed to be a decent human being and decent human beings don’t spout uninformed xenophobia and then defend themselves for it. But then I thought about it and I realised, I actually knew nothing of substance about the man at all. Why did I assume to know what he thought?

Rob Lowe in glorious black and white…

The thing about celebrity is that the consumer, that’s you, will always have your opinion of the famous coloured by their public persona. This isn’t exactly a new phenomenon, it has been around as long as there have been celebrities, but in the age of television, mass media, the internet and social networks it has been taken to new heights.

I first encountered Rob Lowe through, quite predictably, the West Wing (actually I may have seen Wayne’s World first, but I don’t that that counts). To me then, Lowe has always had some of the sheen of that particular show and his particular character within it, Sam Seaborn a White House staffer prone to soaring prose and bouts of social awkwardness. Come to think of it, as a socially awkward and politically obsessed teenager I probably wanted to be Sam Seaborn.

The West Wing is widely accepted as a somewhat unique cultural phenomenon. The sort of show that should have run for a few seasons on PBS, been well reviewed and then died a dignified death. Instead, in went and made politics, storytelling and the Democratic Party cool again. It made stars of its regular cast members and its creator, Aaron Sorkin (who incidentally, also turns out to be a bit of a jerk, despite writing some of the best TV scripts ever put to paper in the show’s first few seasons). It won awards and it tackled a wide range of topical social issues.

Can you tell I’m a fan?

The show has often be both praised and critisised for its liberal, some would say naive, some would say pushy, worldview. The ‘Left Wing’. The liberals usually win, they usually do so in style and while the show rarely paints conservatives as actually evil, it takes seven seasons until we get a major player from the other side of the aisle that viewers can actually like (Alan Alda’s fabulous Arnold Vinnick).

So, you can see where the problem might lie. In that kind of setting, surrounded by similarly flawed but well intentioned characters, Mr Lowe starts to get confused with Mr Seaborn.

In truth, Rob Lowe is a bit of a prat whose views on immigrations and asylum seekers seem to be that of a teenager who has just discovered that the world stretches a lot further than the boarders of his own hometown. But he’s also an excellent case study in just how easy it is to get wrapped up in the idea that what you see of an actor, a singer or a musician in the media is a reasonable representation of them in real life. This may seem obvious, after all actors are paid to act, not to be themselves, but it is something that is too easily forgotten. We all too easily build up public figures into perfect mirrors of our own views and aspirations, which makes it all the more depressing when they turn out to just be human after all.

So if you’re not going to meet your heroes, maybe you shouldn’t follow them on social media either…

Lord Ashcroft and the problem with pollsters

Everyone in politics loves Lord Ashcroft. Well, Ed Miliband might be wishing he’d disappear for a few weeks, but on the right and on the left the millionaire pollster is much respected. His constant, well presented and insightful polling is a helpful insight into, or as he would say a snapshot of, the electorate’s mood. Whether he is analysis margins in England or swing voters in Scotland, he spends his own money making sure his polls are detailed and well presented. They’re not, he insists, predictions (indeed his own polls can contradict each other impressively), but they give journalists a lot to write about and politicians much to think on. He’s also quite funny on social media and despite being a major Tory donor, fair minded in his approach to parties on both wings of British politics.

What then, could possibly be the problem?

Broadly speaking, pollster are white, male and middle aged or over. That, of course, is a fairly sweeping statement but if you take a quick survey of those in charge of the most influential polls in Britain, you won’t find much diversity. YouGov, Ipsos MORI, ComRes and Populus all have white, male Directors or Chief Executives and for most (Populus excluded) the same theme is present across their management team. This isn’t to say that any of the above organisations are intentionally biased, but such a lack of diversity is far from ideal. Similarly, provate individuals such as Lord Ashcroft (or Matthew Oakenshot, the ex-Lib Dem peer who has commissioned partisan polling in the past, mainly aimed at bringing down his party leader), should not be in a position to command such wide ranging attention and authority. Again, this is not to accuse Ashcroft of being deliberately biased, he is often as critical of the Tories in his commentary as he is other parties, but having a millionaire Conservative donor as a major source of information on what the electorate thinks is not the hallmark of a healthy democracy.

Yet, even if pollsters do produce unbiased surveys, there is another issue here. One must ask, what kind of reflection is it upon British politics that MPs and commentators need to rely of well of individuals and private companies to tell them what the voting public think? A lot has been said, and will continue to be said over the next few months as the election looms, about the disconnect between politics and the public. Look at Labour’s inability to notice their change of fortunes in Scotland or the Tories failure to find a message that will win them support, despite competing against one of the most public unsuccessful Opposition Leaders of modern times. The rise of the ‘alternatives’, the Greens, UKIP and SNP, is often cited as another example of this disconnect. But maybe the truth of the matter has been staring us in the face for much longer.

Opinion polls play an important roll in shaping political campaigns and informing commentary, but they seem to have replaced much of the importance of ‘values’. While we’re still a long way off the massive, data rich polling of elections in the United States, numbers have become more and more important in shaping perceptions and policy over the last decade. Parties seem more comfortable using polling to tell them what voters think, rather than sending their MPs and campaigners out onto the streets. In the Heywood and Middleton by-election last year, Labour strategists decided that the NHS would be a real vote winner and instructed volunteers to make it their key message on the doorsteps. When Labour only narrowly held the seats, ending up a few hundred votes from losing it to UKIP, the same volunteers reported that first most voters they spoke to, immigration, not the health service was the first issue on their mind. Similarly, MPs have sat on massive majorities in Scottish safe seat for years without noticing the changes happening around them. It says a lot then that even after fours years of political confusion and disconnection from the voters, we are still seeing polling used in leu of politicians actually trying to understand voters.

Of course, a cynic would just suggest that this lack of diversity and unwillingness to leave Westminster is simply an extension of the conditions in which British politics has existed for years. Why should pollsters represent a cross section of society when both chambers of Parliament are overbearingly white and male? Why should MPs feel the need to spend meaningful amounts of time on doorsteps and in their constituency offices when none of their colleagues can be bothered to? Whatever the reasons, politics is never going to change if the way we gather information about it doesn’t change with it. The future is going to bring more data, not less, but we should strive to use it properly, or else there is little point bothering to use it at all.

Ole Solskjaer and the changing face of English football

Everyone has a set of ‘Where were you?’ memories. Events that have left such a lasting impression that one has instant recall of what you were doing and where you were. For me, on of the first is in the early summer of 1999.  I was in the front room, sitting on a two seater leather sofa. I distinctly remember eating spare ribs and sweet and sour chicken from the Chinese take away, Blossoms, up the round. I sat there, fixed to the television, as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer fired the ball into the net to win Manchester United the Champions League.

My magic moment… (Image from Daily Mail)

I grew up in a house without digital TV so the Champions League was the only live football I got to see regularly. For most of my childhood watching football meant either sitting down, half asleep, on a Sunday morning to catch the repeat of Match of the Day (I still remember the Des Lynham days) or Wednesday evenings glued to ITV, wishing the ad breaks would speed up. Even now, long after my full throttle love affair with football has ended, the atmosphere of a Champions League night can still make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

The baby-faced assassin was, along with Scholes, Giggs, Schmeichel and Sherringham, one of my football icons. For me he is linked to a time when football was still fun to watch, England could go to the World Cup with at least a vague hope of doing well and big money hadn’t yet monopolized success in the domestic game. This weekend Ole was back, winning his first game in charge of Cardiff City, and I couldn’t be happier.

It is not just teary-eyed nostalgia that makes me hope Cardiff under Solskjaer can remain a Premier League club. The coming together of the Norwegian, widely cites as a calm, mild mannered manager who builds strong relationships with his players, and Vincent Tan, Cardiff’s divisive billionaire owner, is set to be fascinating.

Tan is everything that a stereotypical billionaire owner is expected to be. Big spending, unfeeling and with no real knowledge of how to run a football club. Having already changed the club’s name, shirt colour and installed the son of a business partner as the club’s head of recruitment, he then turned on manager Malky Mackay. There were times when he must have noticed that Cardiff’s supporters were more enthusiastic in cheering their under fire manager’s name than the team itself. Not that the support of fans and commentators across England could save Mackay, who was fired in late December, in circumstances that did nothing but further soil Tan’s reputation at the club. If there were a handbook on how not to run a football one would expect Tan to own a well-thumbed copy.

Appointing Solskjaer may be the only sensible move Tan has made this season, and it comes at a time when, for the first season in many years, the top flight of English football feels ready to change. Big money investment, from Roman Abramovich, Sheikh Mansour, the Glazer Family and others, has become the norm. Even clubs without famous billionaire owners are spending eye-watering sums on transfers, Tottenham Hotspur parting with around £100m on new players over the summer. The league is the most open and competitive is has been in a long time. In the pursuit of instant gratification the big spenders may well have changed the nature of the league for good, with money being spent up and down the table. How Solskjaer balances the needs of a demanding owner and the realities of the Premier League, and whether he can convince Vincent Tan to give him a fair shot at building a team for himself, will be test case for English football in a wider sense. If he succeeds it will be a triumph of football over business that might make others sit up and take notice. No pressure, Ole.

Drug policy is high as a kite

I love Matthew Perry. As an actor he’s always made me laugh and he seems, for all I know, to be a good person. My propensity to employ sarcasm would make his portrayal of Chandler Bing in Friends the odds on favourite to be my preferred Perry performance. Actually, it is the three episodes of The West West in which he plays White House council Joe Quincy that I enjoy the most. Maybe it is something about seeing him in a more serious role that I really like. Whatever the reason, there was a small bit of fanish glee running through me when I settled down to watch him debate in favour of ‘drug courts’ on Newsnight last week.

Enforcement has issues…

Perry looked more than a little bemused in the face of the flow of single mindedness sent forth by Peter Hitchens, one of Newsnight’s other guests. I’ll forgive him though because one imagines that it takes a couple of encounters before you realise that whatever you say will be stubbornly ignored.  The debate, on whether ‘drug courts’, where first time, non-violent drug offenders are judged by magistrates who are themselves ex-addicts, was somewhat hijacked by an argument over whether addiction is an illness.  Apparently Perry, the ex-addict in the studio, had never been ill at all but had simply lacked willpower. You could almost feel his incredulity at such a bizarre accusation.

By coincidence this came the week after Uruguay became the first South American country, and only the second in the world, to fully legalise marijuana. Indeed Uruguay looks set to be only the first of many countries to make such a move. There is a growing feeling, especially among the largely socialist governments of South America, that the global War on Drugs is not working. Taking a hard line, inflexible stance on drugs has done more harm than good.  It appears that however much is spent, on policing, on prisons or on direct action against producers, the drug business is as big as ever. In his history of narcotics, ‘The Pursuit of Oblivion’, Richard Davenport-Hines points out that 75% of drug shipments would have to be intercepted to reduce dealer’s profits. As it is only 10-30% of shipments are seized.

An error that is often made when discussing drugs is to forget that, stripped back to its bare bones, the drug trade is a simple business. Certain people, mainly in South America and Afghanistan, control the supply of drugs. People throughout the world demand drugs. Unlike the supply and demand of televisions or furniture or clothing, there is a powerful third agent in the economic equation, addiction. Those who demand drugs are largely unable to stop demanding them unless their addiction is treated. The cat is out of the bag and the horse has bolted from the stable all at the same time. Demand will always outweigh supply, so isn’t it best to tackle the issue there?

That’s why the argument for legalization can be so compelling, especially in the case of marijuana that is widely considered to me less harmful than alcohol as well as being a gateway drug that leads to harder drugs. One must ask why a non-addictive high can be the first step towards greater depths of addiction. Is it perhaps that the very same people who sell pot also push pills and coke. Again, the drug trade is an industry like any other, once a regular customer is buying one product that can be tempted to try others.

It seems that when it comes to drugs rational thought is allowed to flee the scene. Common sense suggests that addiction is indeed an illness. The addictive properties of a drug make it nigh on impossible for an addict to kick the habit alone.  Despite this, it is far more common to treat addicts as criminals than patients, unless of course they can afford expensive stints in rehab. Similarly the case for legalisation of less harmful drugs seems clear cut. Yet the idea that any drug outside of the holy duo of alcohol and nicotine should be sold, taxed and enjoyed is taboo in most societies. Despite the misery of the War on Drugs and the absurd logic with which it is justified we seem to be in thrall to its basic premise of criminalization and stigma. Until we shake free of that as a society, following the examples of Uruguay, the long, pointless struggle against drugs will continue.