Weekend Round-Up -- 8 September 2008

Following Charles Clarke's intervention in the New Statesman last week, the commentariat turned up t

Alastair Campbell used an appearance on Newsnight to call on Charles Clarke to stop acting like a newspaper pundit and rally to the cause of the Labour Party. It may be the case that the former Home Secretary's intervention did not lead to open insurrection, but it certainly led to a flurry of further commentary.

Matthew Parris was devastating in The Times on Saturday. For those of us on the centre-left this is his most cutting paragraph:

And yet even outside the formal confines of the Labour movement - in the universities, in the newspapers, in the broadcast media - where are the voices raised from the Left, prepared to acknowledge this spasm, and distinguish between the failure of an individual, and the failure of an ideology? Is Polly Toynbee almost on her own? Has the whole centre left project lost its self-belief, taking refuge only in days, hours and minutes left profitlessly in office?

Actually those voices are everywhere. As a Tory, I wouldn't expect him to hear them. Perhaps Polly Toynbee is the only person on the left Mr Parris listens to or reads. However, this is an article that everyone on the left should read because it is a challenge to us to help save the Labour Party from the impending cataclysm.
Parris could not have known that Polly Toynbee was preparing another broadside, but she chose Saturday for another full-frontal attack on the Prime Minister. From a woman who treated Gordon Brown as a god when he took over a year ago, this is terribly damaging. The title, "Unseating Gordon Brown may be Labour's last hope", pretty much says it all. This is her killer paragraph:

Soon Cameron's lead will be gold-plated, his succession virtually inevitable. Another year effectively unchallenged by Labour, his contradictions and vacuities unridiculed and unexposed, will gift him an almost unopposed victory. Already at conferences the lobby groups and voluntary organisations hang on every word of shadow ministers, yawning through mere ministers on their way out. Already power, money, glamour, foreign interest and attention flock to Cameron in a political tide whose undertow knocks Labour off its feet with every wave.

On Sunday, Matthew d'Ancona was on form in the Telegraph. He has identified the dangerous return of sectarianism in Labour politics:

In the spirit of Nineteen Eighty-Four, Tony Blair is becoming the Emmanuel Goldstein of today's Labour party, the fabricated enemy, and his followers - or imagined followers - the seditious "Brotherhood". Can it be long before huge tele-screens appear in public places to beam out pictures of the grinning former Prime Minister for the daily "Two Minutes Hate"?

John Rentoul was saying the opposite of what you'd expect (as ever) in calling for a show of loyalty from Charles Clarke and other Labour Party critics.
Today Jackie Ashley couldn't bring herself to call for the Prime Minister to go again. Instead, she suggests the beginnings of a way forward, not just for the Labour Party, but for politics in general:

What is needed is the arrival in the Commons of people who have not learned professional politics, have never served as advisers and have no idea what Populus means. Local parties need to start taking risks - I'm not talking about quotas but about sparky individuals, with the odd skeleton, the occasional surprising view. The media has to celebrate different voices and faces where they appear, and not pick on every unexpected remark as a "gaffe". For all that the mainstream media seized on Alastair Darling's pessimistic assessment of the economy as a stupendous own goal, the general public seem to like the fact he "told the truth".

Perhaps not quite the reassessment Matthew Parris is calling for, but hats off to Jackie Ashley for trying.

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How to think about the EU result if you voted Remain

A belief in democracy means accepting the crowd is wiser than you are as an individual. 

I voted Remain, I feel sick about this result and its implications for what’s to come. But I’m a believer in democracy. This post is about how to reconcile those two things (it’s a bit unstructured because I’m working it out as I go, and I’m not sure I agree with all of it).

Democracy isn’t just fairer than other systems of governance, it’s smarter. It leads to better decisions and better outcomes, on average and over the long run, than countries that are run by autocrats or councils of wise men with jobs for life. It is simply the best way we have yet devised of solving complex problems involving many people. On that topic, if you’re not averse to some rather dense and technical prose, read this post or seek out this book. But the central argument is that democracy is the best way of harnessing ‘cognitive diversity’ — bringing to bear many different perspectives on a problem, each of which are very partial in themselves, but add up to something more than any one wise person.

I don’t think you can truly be a believer in democracy unless you accept that the people, collectively, are smarter than you are. That’s hard. It’s easy to say you believe in the popular will, right up until the popular will does something REALLY STUPID. The hard thing is not just to ‘accept the result’ but to accept that the majority who voted for that result know or understand something better than you. But they do. You are just one person, after all, and try as you might to expand your perspective with reading (and some try harder than others) you can’t see everything. So if a vote goes against you, you need to reflect on the possibility you got it wrong in some way. If I look at the results of past general elections and referendums, for instance, I now see they were all pretty much the right calls, including those where I voted the other way.

One way to think about the vote is that it has forced a slightly more equitable distribution of anxiety and alienation upon the country. After Thursday, I feel more insecure about my future, and that of my family. I also feel like a foreigner in my own country — that there’s this whole massive swathe of people out there who don’t think like me at all and probably don’t like me. I feel like a big decision about my life has been imposed on me by nameless people out there. But of course, this is exactly how many of those very people have been feeling for years, and at a much higher level of intensity. Democracy forces us to try on each other’s clothes. I could have carried on quite happily ignoring the unhappiness of much of the country but I can’t ignore this.

I’m seeing a lot of people on Twitter and in the press bemoaning how ill-informed people were, talking about a ‘post-factual democracy’. Well, maybe, though I think that requires further investigation - democracy has always been a dirty dishonest business. But surely the great thing about Thursday that so many people voted — including many, many people who might have felt disenfranchised from a system that hasn’t been serving them well. I’m not sure you’re truly a democrat if you don’t take at least a tiny bit of delight in seeing people so far from the centres of power tipping the polity upside down and giving it a shake. Would it have been better or worse for the country if Remain had won because only informed middle-class people voted? It might have felt better for people like me, it might actually have been better, economically, for everyone. But it would have indicated a deeper rot in our democracy than do the problems with our national information environment (which I accept are real).

I’m not quite saying ‘the people are always right’ — at least, I don’t think it was wrong to vote to stay in the EU. I still believe we should have Remained and I’m worried about what we’ve got ourselves into by getting out. But I am saying they may have been right to use this opportunity — the only one they were given — to send an unignorable signal to the powers-that-be that things aren’t working. You might say general elections are the place for that, but our particular system isn’t suited to change things on which there is a broad consensus between the two main parties.

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.