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Laurie Penny: Don't be fooled by the Fred Goodwin sideshow

Gesture politics are good for only one thing: taking the edge off public outrage.

Bang goes the knighthood. Last week, one of the men most responsible for the financial crisis in Britain was stripped of his honorary title by the queen, following public outrage around the extravagant bonus that was due to be lavished upon his successor. The former Sir Fred Goodwin was chief executive of the Royal Bank of Scotland, which had to be bailed out by the British taxpayer and is still largely publicly owned. It is somewhat of an indictment on the limp, panting capitulation of the so-called opposition in Britain today that the confiscation of this meaningless imaginary trinket by the constitutional monarch actually looks like rebellion of a sort.

Every party has joined in the scrum for empty symbolic gestures to placate creeping public fury against bankers. The unfairness is terrifically difficult to spin: as disabled people and terminally ill cancer patients are threatened with pauperisation by the state, there are those at the top to whom the much vaunted "end of the something-for-nothing culture" seems by some margin not to apply. We are supposed to applaud meekly at this point. We are supposed to clap and be quiet as one or two of the best-reported travesties of financial feudalism are rectified in a manner likely to make little practical difference to the current and former chief executives of RBS, who remain fabulously wealthy men. Removing knighthoods from bank directors, of course, is no likelier to democratise contemporary capitalism than spending the winter in a tent city - like the Occupy protests, the trend is a portent rather than an agent of change. But what change?

Many liberal critics have grudgingly conceded that the removal of Fred Goodwin's knighthood and Stephen Hester's bonus are a step in the right direction. They are absolutely no such thing. They are a vacuous, cynical sideshow designed to distract attention from the fact that not a bloody thing is being done to rein in the power of the financial sector to do precisely whatever the hell it likes and force the global poor to pick up the tab. Away from the field of the symbolism Cameron and his Bullingdon bag-carriers have been lobbying hard at Davos against the proposed EU financial transactions tax, which might actually oblige actual banks to take slightly fewer crazy risks with other people's money. It's not much. It won't do anything to combat wage repression or the exploitation of workers on the breadline in Europe, and its sub-clauses make it laughably escapable for the larger multinationals, but it's a start - and our government is determined to stop it. It's okay, though, because Fred the Shred is no longer a knight of the realm.

Goodwin's humiliation is part of a broader cultural trend: the suggestion that the worst excesses of capitalism can be reined in by authoritarianism. You see it when the Archbishop of Canterbury suggests that bankers' bonuses and urban riots are equivalent symptoms of moral decline rather than of economic chaos - although they hardly come with equivalent penalties. You see it when the MP for Tottenham suggests that we'd have had fewer riots if only black and working-class youths had been beaten more thoroughly in childhood.

Free-market feudalism adapts to survive. Capitalism has always been able to neutralise its own discontents by absorbing them, and the politics of moral gesture are fast becoming a part of that process. There is an idea slowly growing in the public consciousness that Queen, country, duty, respect, faith and family can get us out of this fix. Removing a piece of royal frippery from a man who can do no more damage to our economy is part of this new code, the idea that fiscal ethics can be played out purely in the terrain of symbolism - although the young people serving jailtime for celebrating the August riots on Facebook could be forgiven for failing to see anything symbolic about their prison walls.

Gesture politics are good for only one thing: taking the edge off public outrage. Ultimately, walloping individual city workers is no more likely to make them behave than brutalising poor children is likely to keep them quiet the next time a young man is gunned down by police in inner London. All of this showmanship is about mood management - as if the entire country had been invited to go away and punch a pillow until we feel a bit calmer.

Gesture politics can give us a dirty thrill, but that's all they can do. We could insist that a tithe of bankers be sent every year to be publicly spanked with a traditional bristle birch in Hyde Park by a cohort of unemployed, low-waged and disabled people and indignant left-wing bloggers, and I'm sure we'd all feel a bit better about things, but at the end of the day they would still walk away rich and we would walk away poor. The idea that Britain is undergoing a moral rather than financial collapse - a moral collapse that can be rectified with selective public humiliation for the super-rich and beatings and prison for the rest of us - is not just deceptive. It's dangerous.

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

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A To-Do List for the next Labour leader

Whoever wins in September faces an uphill task. IpsosMori's Gideon Skinner lays it out. 

While all the media attention is focused on the prospect of a victory for Jeremy Corbyn on September 12, it shouldn’t be forgotten that whoever takes up the leadership mantle, there’s an uphill battle ahead to turn around the party’s fortunes in time for 2020.

Ipsos MORI recently spoke to a panel of former Labour voters in Nuneaton and Croydon Central for BBC Newsnight. These are both the kind of seats that the party really must take back if it is to stand a chance of electoral success in 2020 – and so we asked them what they want from the next Labour leader. 

Here’s the big themes that came during our discussions with Labour’s lost voters:

1.Style matters

Ed Miliband may have tried to reframe the debate around his personal leadership qualities by explicitly admitting that "If you want the politician from central casting, it's not me, it's the other guy. If you want a politician who thinks that a good photo is the most important thing, then don't vote for me." But style and personal image still matter[1], and to win back former voters the next leader needs to recognise that coming across well is an important part of the job. That Ed Miliband couldn’t connect with people was highlighted as a real problem; for most people, the television is the only way in which they have contact with politicians so their media appearances need to count. 

2.But so does talking about the issues that bother people

Immigration reached a record high in our regular Issues Index this month, with half (50 per cent) of the public listing it as one of the most important issues facing the country.  Concern about immigration is real (especially in many marginals - UKIP increased its share of the vote by 14.4 per cent in Nuneaton and 7.1 per cent in Croydon), and is seen as being at the root of many social issues affecting people. People want their concern to be acknowledged (and more than just slogans on mugs) and an action plan set out.

“They need to focus on the things that matter and immigration is a big one with a knock-on effect on housing, education, the NHS….it’s a real big one for them to tackle”

3.Big ideas and ideological commitments mean little if they don’t resonate

You want to renationalise the railways? Scrap Trident? Introduce universal free childcare? Fine – but these aren’t necessarily the policies that are going to win back Labour’s lost voters. After years of being told that there is no money left in the country’s coffers, any big policy statement is met with two immediate questions; 1) how much is this going to cost and 2) where is the money going to come from? Without answering both of these points, any policy is quickly discredited.   While participants valued backbenchers with strong principles and ideologies who can hold the executive to account, they judge potential Prime Ministers differently. 

“If Labour got back in they would just spend, spend, spend again and we would be paying that money back for years- and we already are but it would be far worse under a Labour government”

What’s more, these aren’t the issues that matter to people. Over and above immigration they want to know what the next Labour leader plans to do to help people like them – how they will be helped onto the housing ladder, how they can be sure their children will be sent to a good school in their local catchment area, and how the NHS will be reformed so they can get a GPs appointment when it suits them.

“We want to hear them give a sermon on housing for our young people, the NHS, education, terrorism – stuff about nuclear isn’t in the here and now, it isn’t on our doorstep”.

4.But being passionate about what you believe in gets you a long way

Despite that, just as much as what is being said, it matters how it is being said. Passion and conviction is taken as shorthand to mean politicians will do what they say and can be trusted. Tony Blair was highlighted as a good example here; participants stated that even though you might not like what he did, he spoke from the heart and followed through on his beliefs (Nigel Farage is another who gets this “everyman” image right). Furthermore, conviction can only come if politicians have empathy with the people they’re representing and understand the trials they face – something not thought to be possible for those who have led a life of privilege. As one participant said: “If they lived our lives, normal job, normal schooling, you could see it….they’re not real though. If they lived for two or three months on the money we had to live on they might understand”.

“A leader should be someone that is representative of more of the people of the country, not just the top 2 per cent of the country – just ordinary”

5.So does saying sorry

While participants understood that the financial crisis of 2008 was about more than just Labour spending, they still feel that their policies had a part to play in the resultant austerity that followed. Indeed, they’re considered culpable enough to warrant giving an apology some seven years later – particularly those contenders for the leadership who were key figures in the last Labour government. Because of this, participants felt more disposed to those candidates who acknowledged that Labour had made financial mistakes and learnt the lessons – particularly as they assumed that deficit reduction would have to continue and were keen to hear how the next Labour leader would go about this.

6.Identify a point of difference

With all parties eager to speak up for hardworking people, what sets the Labour party apart? Participants weren’t able to think of much – and without this difference, there’s nothing to for them to rally behind and, what’s more, it encouraged a sense that all politicians are the same. With this in mind, few felt inclined to engage with what is on offer, and what the actual choice is.

7.And unite the party behind you

Regardless of who the next Labour leader is, one thing is for sure; without a united party behind them, they simply won’t be seen as a credible leader. Participants expressed distaste for the ‘constant bickering’ that was thought to characterise UK politics – they certainly did not want to see party in-fighting on top of this. As one participant put it: “as a party, they need to be united…if you’re party aren’t behind you, why should we?”

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An impossible wish-list that no one could ever meet? Well, while the next Labour leader will certainly face an uphill struggle to win back voters who have lost confidence, the Conservative government was not talked about in glowing terms either – rather, they were routinely described as being ‘the best of a bad bunch’.

“We need to be given a credible alternative to be able to vote for Labour, someone with clear direct policies that are believable and that we understand….clear messages that enable us to vote for them”.

Nevertheless, while there still may not be lots of affection for the Conservatives, the onus will be on the next Labour leader to win back lost voters, whoever he or she is.  As participants bluntly acknowledged “they’ve lost our confidence” – something they traced back to 2008 and the financial crisis. And, in the absence of a credible Labour leader who can revitalise the party and engage with the voters on the issues of importance to them, then sticking with what they know will be the preferred option.  As one participant said:

“I’ve got a mortgage and two young kids and I feel secure right now…if Labour come in would they rock the boat?”

  • Ipsos MORI conducted two discussion groups on behalf of BBC Newsnight. One was conducted in Nuneaton on Thursday 20th August and the other in Croydon on Wednesday 26th August. Participants were all former Labour voters, who had voted for a different party (either the Conservatives, UKIP or the Liberal Democrats) in 2015. All were aged between 30 – 50 and were social grade C1C2.  Each discussion lasted around 90 minutes and was structured by a discussion guide. The full focus group will be broadcast on Newsnight tonight on BBC Two at 10:30pm.
 

[1] See for example Milazzo, C. and Mattes, K. Pretty faces, marginal races. Predicting Election Outcomes using Trait Assessments of British Parliamentary Candidate. This paper is also covered in Cowley, P. and Ford, R. (2014) Sex, Lies and the Ballot box – 50 things you need to know about British General Elections.

Gideon Skinner is Head of Political Research at IpsosMori. He tweets as @GideonSkinner.