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Laurie Penny on Tony Blair's The Journey: Bring the political classes to book

Moving Tony Blair's autobiography in bookshops shows that young people are not willing to be sold the wrong story.

In bookshops up and down the country, a new kind of literary movement is taking place. Hundreds of young protesters are strolling in to stores and quietly moving copies of Tony Blair's autobiography from the display stacks on to shelves devoted to mystery and crime fiction. Blair's smug visage on the dust jacket of A Journey is of a man who knows that the public is finally buying his side of the story, at least technically speaking. By placing that creepy grin firmly underneath a big sign that says "Crime", these guerrilla librarians are trying to make sure that people know what they're getting into.

It's this sort of thing that gives me hope for my generation. The protest group, which coalesced spontaneously online, is polite to the point of self-parody. A serious and energetic discussion is taking place on the group's Facebook page about whether or not the demonstration will overly inconvenience hard-working bookshop employees.

Waterloo sunset

While they're about it, there are a few more political tomes that could do with a little reshelving: Phillip Blond's Red Tory, for example, would fit well in the folklore and fantasy section. Behind the cheeky rag-week japery, however, is a nuanced message about political narrative and how it is deployed.

The public outrage that has accompanied Blair's book-signings - with shoes and eggs flung at the former premier in Dublin early this month - is no longer really about Blair himself. It's not even wholly about the hundreds of thousands of civilians killed in Iraq since 2003 and in Afghanistan since 2001. Ultimately, this is about us - about the generation that came to political awareness in the earliest years of the 21st century and the stories we tell ourselves about neoliberalism, globalisation and the articulation of politics.

The years of Anglo-American warmongering that followed September 2001 shaped my awareness of government and its role. Still far too young to vote, I skipped school to travel to London to protest against the proposed invasion of Iraq in early 2003, shinning up some traffic lights to watch a seething swell of human outrage shuffle politely along Waterloo Bridge to say firmly and definitively: "Not in our name." Weeks later, we went to war anyway and it was in our names. The memory of that betrayal hasn't faded.

It was a defining political moment for those of us who gained language after the fall of the Berlin Wall, after what Francis Fukuyama prosaically called "the end of history". Unlike previous cohorts, we did not grow up with any variant of socialism as an implicit alternative to public policy.Instead, we had the monolithic, cartoonish neoliberalism of the Blair years.

It came as a painful shock when we suddenly learned that neoconservative narratives don't have to be true or even convincing for the public to swallow them: they just have to tell a strong story.

More protests are planned for every leg of Blair's book tour, but our rage at Blair is partly angry embarrassment at ourselves for buying his story the first time round. We are justly furious at the public and parliamentary consensus of 2003 for accepting a simple children's fairy tale of international politics, with goodies and baddies who need to be dealt with. The trouble is that it's happening again - this time with Tory economic policy.

Little by little, David Cameron's simple story about the unavoidability of public spending cuts and the importance of sharing the pain equally between single mothers and the long-term sick is gaining public credence.

Cry wolf

The fable that Britain has been living beyond its means and now needs to cut back is being swallowed, just as the simple story about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was swallowed in 2003. Nobody is really convinced - but this is the narrative that the public has started to accept, suspending its disbelief yet again, instead of considering that the government might not have the best interests of the people at heart.

That the leering Aesop of neoliberal contumacy - Tony Blair himself - comes out in cheery support of Cameron's economic policies in the pages
of A Journey should alert us that we are being spun another dodgy story with the potential to shatter lives.

The only proper response to these brutally cartoonish versions of events is to keep moving the suspicious stories to the right part of the bookshop. It's a habit that needs to be preserved. Even at the height of our dissidence, my generation will never be the type to burn books. We will, however, wilfully and deliberately recategorise them, especially when we feel we're being sold the wrong story.

Laurie Penny's column appears weekly in the New Statesman magazine.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 13 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, France turns right

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Labour and Tory MPs fear the political forces Brexit could unleash

The Liberal Democrats and Ukip are offering Remainers and Leavers alternative homes. 

Two years ago this month, MPs felt the tremors of a political earthquake. The 45 per cent of Scots who voted for independence had driven a surge in SNP support. Five months later, in the general election, old loyalties dissolved. Forty Scottish Labour MPs and ten Lib Dems were swept away.

The referendum realigned Scottish politics along nationalist and unionist lines. The Conservatives, once considered irrelevant, acquired new purpose as the SNP’s antithesis. Labour was pushed to the margins.

At Westminster on 5 December, MPs asked whether another tectonic shift was under way. That afternoon, Sarah Olney, the Liberal Democrat who overturned Zac Goldsmith’s 23,015 majority in the Richmond Park by-election, was sworn in to parliament. Like the Scottish Conservatives, the Lib Dems had been the subject of derision. But by adopting a resolutely anti-Brexit stance they ended their political exile. In a seat where 72 per cent of people voted Remain, the pro-Leave Goldsmith was caught on the wrong side of his constituents.

Three days before Olney’s election, the new Ukip leader, Paul Nuttall, declared it was his party’s mission to “replace Labour”. In a mirror image of the Lib Dems’ strategy, the Liverpudlian aims to unseat pro-Remain MPs in pro-Leave constituencies.

There is reason for caution in predicting Scottish-style ruptures. Brexit is a less defining issue than independence (turnout was 72.2 per cent in the former vote and 84.6 per cent in the latter). The SNP has formed a devolved government since 2007, allowing it to claim the mantle of incumbency as well as insurgency. The Liberal Democrats, punished for coalition in 2015, and Ukip, with a sole MP, cannot replicate this feat.

Though it felt churlish to say so following Olney’s triumph, by-elections are a historically poor indicator of general election results. In 2013 the Lib Dems hailed their victory in Eastleigh as proof that most of their 59 MPs could defy electoral gravity. Only eight did (Eastleigh’s was not among them). In 2014, after two Ukip by-election victories, excitable commentary suggested that the party could win as many as 30 seats. It won one. Supporters of both parties defected to the Conservatives when faced with the prospect of Labour taking power.

However, there are plausible reasons why the next election could upset these precedents. Brexit is a process, not an event. It will define UK politics for a decade or more. The next election could become a de facto second referendum. The Liberal Democrats will speak for aggrieved Remainers, Ukip for “betrayed” Leavers. Both Conservative and Labour MPs fear an electoral price.

“Remainers feel that they’ve been sidelined, pushed to one side, made to feel small,” Anna Soubry, the former Tory business minister, told me. She lamented that Theresa May’s “wonderful” words when she entered Downing Street were “undermined” by her “hard Brexit” conference speech. Soubry warned of the next election: “When 2020 comes along, those aged 15, 16, 17 now will be able to vote. A large number feel that they have had their future stolen by an older generation.”

To some, the potential for Lib Dem gains appears limited. Only two of their top 30 Tory targets (Hazel Grove and Lewes) are Remain seats with Leave MPs. But Conservatives worry that the Lib Dems could triumph by forging a pro-EU coalition of Labour and Green supporters. Under first-past-the-post, as the SNP can testify, seats can be won with significantly less than 50 per cent of the vote.

By far the greatest anxiety, however, is felt among Labour MPs. “We face a tougher electoral map than at any other time in our history,” Jonathan Reynolds, the shadow Treasury minister, told me. The party remains marooned in Scotland and fears a three-way squeeze in England between the Tories, Ukip and the Lib Dems. Labour’s poll ratings, which last month averaged 29.5 per cent, were described as “dire” by its general election co-ordinator, Jon Trickett, at an NEC meeting on 22 November. Jeremy Corbyn’s ally warned that the party would have to “defend some seats” at the next election, rather than focusing on targets alone.

MPs speak of a gnawing sense that Labour is the party of the past. In a less tribalistic age, when voters are no longer defined by their work, it risks political redundancy. Across Europe, social democracy appears in structural, not merely cyclical, decline.

Rather than pitching solely to Remain or Leave voters, Corbyn’s team intend to target both through a vision of “the kind of country we want to live in”, and a focus on jobs, living standards and the economy (though they do not rule out supporting a second referendum). Others, feeling the electoral ground shift beneath them, advocate more radical action. After Richmond, Clive Lewis, the shadow business secretary, reaffirmed his call for a “progressive alliance” under which Labour would not stand candidates in certain seats. Reynolds, a fellow pluralist, told me: “We can’t pretend that people have the class allegiances of the past.”

Another group, in the words of one MP, will “follow the Lib Dem playbook, treat the party as a franchise and run ultra-local campaigns”. Leaflets will be free of references to Corbyn and national policy. “You’ve got to cut the mother ship adrift and row yourself to safety.”

At the very moment that the UK is preparing to leave the EU, its politics has never appeared more European. Britain’s fractured opposition of socialists, nationalists, liberals and greens has long been common on the continent. Amid this tumult, Conservatives hope that Theresa May will predominate in the manner of Germany’s Angela Merkel. In the absence of a Labour recovery, they anticipate at least another decade in government. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump