Changing the conversation in 2012

Might a party leader attend to the growing dissonance between Westminster rhetoric and the daily rea

Low growth, high unemployment, deeper cuts, falling wages, and a further reduction in the living standards of working families. Just in case you were under any doubt, 2012 is going to feel like one long Groundhog Day, a darker version of its grim predecessor.

There will, of course, be many new twists and turns. But the raw material of the economy-driven news cycle is likely to have a certain haunting familiarity, even if it is far harder to predict the political ramifications and Westminster winners and losers.

Yet the very persistence and severity of the economic situation may start to force previously unmentionable issues and arguments onto the agenda. More of the same might -- just possibly -- prompt something different: that is, a slightly more honest conversation between politicians and the public.

Leading figures in all parties have long been told not to talk about certain issues, or to frame them in particular ways, in order to avoiding having to confront what is judged to be entrenched popular opinion. In relation to housing policy the iron law is to talk exclusively about home ownership, never implying that this will remain out of reach for millions of families. In relation to the long-term future of the jobs market, the received wisdom is to always talk about advanced manufacturing and low-carbon industries as a major source of new high-skilled employment, as well as beacons of a new economic modernity that lies just around the corner. In relation to generational politics, particularly how the pain arising from spending cuts is distributed across different age groups, the rule that must not be broken is never offend the grey vote -- their benefits must be protected above all else.

To a far greater degree than any of the party leaders would like to admit, these are the shared assumptions of today's politics (there are many others). They bind all parties close together at the same time as they move them further apart from growing ranks of the public. In a vibrant political culture, each of these (and other) nostrums would, at the very least, be subject to challenge; some already sound like political edicts from a bygone era.

The reason they persist, of course, is the continuing power given to opinion polls or, more accurately, what politicians often imagine public sentiment to be.

Take housing policy. It is perfectly sensible for someone on a low income to tell a pollster (as 86 per cent of the public do) that they want to own their own home, at the same time as they may be incredulous that no leading politician in Britain speaks on behalf of the swelling ranks who raise families in rented accommodation with little or no security. (The proportion of low to middle income households under 35 privately renting has almost trebled since 1988, so that now 41 per cent are privately renting).

Equally, large swathes of the public will of course say that it would be a good thing if there were more highly-skilled jobs that involved "making something" (even if all the key studies point to continued long-term decline in manufacturing employment) at the same time as they observe that in the town where they live it is low-skilled service sector work that dominates. They may think it would be good for the economy if there was job growth in new industries; but they might also yearn for someone to look like they have a plan for improving the prospects of those in insecure low-paid work.

Or take the question of how the burden of deficit reduction is shared across the generations. The current cross-party consensus (recently ruffled by Nick Clegg) is not much more sophisticated than "older people vote, and there are a growing number of them, so we should therefore be willing to do whatever we can to avoid upsetting them even if it means defending entitlements for more affluent pensioners at the same time as younger people and working families face swinging cuts". Again, it is perfectly possible for at least some middle-class pensioners to state in a focus group that they wouldn't be much pleased with the removal of their winter-fuel allowance, at the same time as they might be profoundly concerned about the diminishing prospects for their children and grand-children. They might, however grumpily, countenance some change in their own position if it helped soften the blow to those younger than them.

All this prompts the question of whether another dismal economic year might see some of these settled assumptions challenged. Might one of the party leaders decide the growing dissonance between Westminster rhetoric and the daily reality of large parts of the electorate is so large that that it is now in their interests to take a risk? Westminster sages from all sides are likely to snort with derision at this: as if political leaders would be seen making a fuss about rented accommodation, or highlighting the inevitability and importance of new retail jobs.

Inertia and conservatism may win out as they often do in contemporary politics. Perhaps, as some pollsters think, our economic position will have to get far worse, for far longer, before politicians decide to take risks with the electorate. But I'm not so sure. As 2012 drags on and people's sense of anger about their prospects intensifies, and with it their frustration with politicians who endlessly empathise about "the squeeze" but have very little practical to say about what to do about it -- indeed, as leading politicians themselves become ever more disillusioned with the inadequacy of their own words -- then the established rules of the game will come under pressure as never before. Is Clegg really going to go carry on feigning support for deeper cuts to working families at the same time as the most affluent pensioners are unscathed? Will yet more wheezes for first-time buyers continue to be presented by all parties as the real answer to the housing problems of families who have as little a prospect of getting to the top of the social housing list as they do raising a deposit to purchase a home?

Here's hoping that amidst the impending gloom of 2012 there are some growing flickers of political candour.

Gavin Kelly is a former adviser to Downing Street and the Treasury. He tweets @GavinJKelly1.

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Hilary Benn has been sacked. What happens now?

Jeremy Corbyn has sacked Hilary Benn, effectively challenging his critics to put up or shut up.

Hilary Benn been sacked from the shadow cabinet, following an article in the Observer reporting that the former shadow foreign secretary had told Labour MPs he would challenge Jeremy Corbyn should Corbyn lose the vote of confidence in his leadership that the PLP are due to discuss on Monday.

Anti-Corbyn plotters are convinced that they have the numbers to pass the no confidence motion in Corbyn’s leadership. Passing that motion, however, would not formally trigger either Corbyn’s resignation or a leadership challenge.

The word from Corbyn’s inner circle is that he would remain in post even if he were to lose the confidence vote, and dare his opponents to collect the 50 names they would need to trigger a leadership challenge.

Should that come about, Corbyn’s allies are certain that they would triumph over whoever ran against him. As one senior source said “they lost really badly in September and that’s not gonna change”.

Labour’s rebels are convinced that they have the numbers necessary to trigger a formal challenge to Corbyn’s leadership.

What happens next is fraught as the relevant clause in Labour’s rulebook is unhelpfully vague: 

“ii. Where there is no vacancy, nominations may be sought by potential challengers each year prior to the annual session of party conference. In this case any nomination must be supported by 20 per cent of the PLP. Nominations not attaining this threshold shall be null and void.”

The question that no-one is certain of the answer to: whether the challenged leader would have to seek nominations as well or if they would be on the ballot as by right. My understanding is that the legal advice that Corbyn’s critics have is that Corbyn would not automatically have a place on the ballot. But Jolyon Maugham, a lawyer who writes regularly for the New Statesman, looked over the clause for us and believes that he would.

More important than the legal basis, though, is what the party’s ruling National Executive Committee, which would rule on whether Corbyn had to seek nominations to stand, believes.

Although Corbyn has received the backing of 12 of Labour’s affiliated general secretaries, a well-placed source tells me that they are confident the NEC would rule that Corbyn will need to seek nominations if he is to stand again.

But control over the NEC is finely balanced, and could shift decisively towards Corbyn following this year’s elections to the NEC; one reason why Corbyn’s opponents are keen to strike now.

In that situation, Corbyn’s allies believe they can secure the 50 nominations he would need – the threshold has been raised due to a rule change giving Labour members of the European Parliament the same nominating powers as their cousins in Westminster – thanks to a combination of ideological support for Corbyn and pressure from the party’s grassroots. Senior sources believe that once Corbyn reached shouting distance of 50 nominations, the bulk of the shadow cabinet would quickly fall in line. Another estimates that the “vast majority” of the PLP accept Corbyn requires more time and that the plotting is the result of “a rump” of MPs.

But Corbyn’s critics believe that the European result, which saw Labour voters reject the party line in large numbers, has left Labour MPs with large majorities in the party’s ex-industrial seats more spooked by their voters than by their activists, putting them in the same group as those MPs with small majorities. (The two groups who currently pose the biggest danger to Corbyn are MPs who are old enough to be eligible to collect their pension at or before the next election, and MPs with majorities of under 2,000.) 

Who's right? Much depends on the disposition of Labour's 20 MEPs. Prior to Britain's Brexit vote, they were believed to be the most sensitive to the concerns of the party's activists, as Labour members vote on the order of the party's list, making anti-Corbynites vulnerable. Now all 20 MEPs are out of a job at, or before, the next European election regardless, the question is whether they decide to keep Corbyn off the ballot, or try to curry favour with Corbyn's supporters in the membership prior to making a bid for seats at Westminster. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.