The Tolpuddle Martyrs and Marie Antoinette

A couple of sublime moments plus a trip to rural West Dorset

Amid all the disappointments and upsets that life has to offer there are fleeting moments when things can feel pretty perfect.

For example in 2002, on holiday in a remote town in the Masurian lakes, I came across a European Union roadshow touring Poland in a bid to persuade people of the merits of EU membership. The lyric blaring out of its loudspeaker system was ‘Oh I’m wicked and I’m lazy’. It may have been the language barrier, but the vote was a resounding 'yes'.

Food for thought for David Cameron if being cuddly doesn’t pay off…

Then there was the man so enraged, because I honked my horn after he cut me up, that he spat at me from three lanes away coating the inside of his passenger window. Wound up? He most certainly was!

I imagine the people of Fair Isle get a similar lift from the disappearance of the darkness of winter and arrival of Spring. And it’s that topic that Malachy Tallack turns to in his latest blog. Living that far north a bit of sunshine does wonders for the spirits – even if the joy is shortlived…

Simon Munnery meanwhile gives his tips for a perfect holiday. For example he suggests getting your house burgled in advance because it saves the worry of it happening when you’re away.

And Victoria Brignell explains why she doesn’t want to become a daredevil plus we’ve got our agony aunt Marina Pepper on the chocolate Jesus.

Talking of which I hope you all had a happy Easter. Personally I headed to an idyllic corner of Dorset with my spouse for a bit of much needed country air and some pretty decent pub dinners.

It strikes me that this county offers pretty much all you could wish for in terms of scenery, eye-catching coastline and pleasant diversions.

It was also the setting for much of Thomas Hardy's writing and home, of course, to the Tolpuddle Martyrs – framed and transported for starting a union in reaction to the appalling wages they and other agricultural workers earned in the 1830s.

Nowadays Dorset is home to Poundbury – Prince Charles’s fantasy of a village, Hugh Fearnley-Whatsisface founder of the River Cottage dynasty plus a bunch of wealthy weekenders from the capital.

You know the balance has tipped in the wrong direction when more or less every nice house in the prettier villages has a BMW or Mercedes on its drive bought at a London garage. How can local people now afford homes?

For some reason I was reminded of Marie-Antoinette. She had a fake village in the grounds of Versaille where she could divert herself by playing at rural life for a few hours at a time.

Still, must have done her good because, as we all know, she lived to a ripe old age dying secure in the knowledge that she had contributed greatly to the rural economy…

Or did she?

Ben Davies trained as a journalist after taking most of the 1990s off. Prior to joining the New Statesman he spent five years working as a politics reporter for the BBC News website. He lives in North London.
Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: How should Labour respond?

The government always gets a boost out of big setpieces. But elections are won over months not days. 

Three days in the political calendar are utterly frustrating for Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition – the Queen’s Speech, the Budget and the Autumn Statement. No matter how unpopular the government is – and however good you are as an opposition - this day is theirs. The government will dominate the headlines. And played well they will carry the preceding with pre-briefed good news too. You just have to accept that, but without giving in or giving up.

It is a cliche that politics is a marathon not a sprint, but like most cliches that observation is founded in truth. So, how best to respond on the days you can’t win? Go to the fundamentals. And do the thing that oddly is far too little done in responses to budgets or autumn statements – follow the money.

No choices in politics are perfect - they are always trade offs. The art is in balancing compromises not abolishing them. The politics and the values are expressed in the choices that you make in prioritising. This is particularly true in budgets where resources are allocated across geographies - between towns, cities and regions, across time - short term or long term, and across the generations - between young and old. To govern is to choose. And the choices reveal. They show the kind of country the government want to create - and that should be the starting point for the opposition. What kind of Britain will we be in five, ten, fifteen years as these decisions have their ultimate, cumulative impact?

Well we know, we are already living in the early days of it. The Conservative government is creating a country in which there are wealthy pensioners living in large homes they won, while young people who are burdened with debts cannot afford to buy a home. One in which health spending is protected - albeit to a level a third below that of France or Germany – while social care, in an ageing society, is becoming residualised. One where under-regulated private landlords have to fill the gap in the rented market caused by the destruction of the social housing sector.

But description, though, is not sufficient. It is only the foundation of a critique - one that will succeed only if it describes not only the Britain the Tories are building but also the better one that Labour would deliver. Not prosaically in the form of a Labour programme, but inspirationally as the Labour promise.

All criticism of the government – big and little – has to return to this foundational narrative. It should connect everything. And it is on this story that you can anchor an effective response to George Osborne. Whatever the sparklers on the day or the details in the accompanying budgetary documentation, the trajectory is set. The government know where they are going. So do informed commentators. A smart opposition should too. The only people in the dark are the voters. They feel a pinch point here, a cut there, an unease and unfairness everywhere – but they can’t sum it up in words. That is the job of the party that wants to form a government – describing in crisp, consistent and understandable terms what is happening.

There are two traps on the day. The first is narrowcasting - telling the story that pleases you and your closest supporters. In that one the buzzwords are "privatisation" and "austerity". It is the opposite of persuasion aimed, as it is, at insiders. The second is to be dazzled by the big announcements of the day. Labour has fallen down here badly recently. It was obvious on Budget Day that a rise in the minimum wage could not compensate for £12bn of tax credit cuts. The IFS and the Resolution Foundation knew that. So did any adult who could do arithmetic and understood the distributional impact of the National Minimum Wage. It could and should have been Labour that led the charge, but frontbenchers and backbenchers alike were transfixed by the apparent appropriation of the Living Wage. A spot of cynicism always comes in handy. In politics as in life, if something seems to be too good to be true then … it is too good to be true.

The devil may be in the detail, but the error is in the principle – that can be nailed on the day. Not defeated or discredited immediately, but the seeds planted.  

And, if in doubt, take the government at their word. There is no fiercer metric against which to measure the Tories than their own rhetoric. How can the party of working people cut the incomes of those who have done the right thing? How can the party who promised to protect the health service deliver a decade of the lowest ever increases in spending? How can the party of home ownership banish young people to renting? The power in holding a government to account is one wielded forensically and eloquently for it is in the gap between rhetoric and reality that ordinary people’s lives fall.

The key fact for an opposition is that it can afford to lose the day if it is able to win the argument. That is Labour’s task.