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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder