My Grant Shapps obsession

The Tory minister who has demanded my attention.

I suppose it's a bit odd to admit to a growing preoccupation with a Tory minister. But the unavoidable truth is this: I'm becoming increasingly obsessed with Grant Shapps MP.

Our current generation of front bench politicians are largely sensible, sober, and utterly downcast men and women. On a media day they drone out their pre-prepared sound-bites at some ungodly hour to Evan Davis, then they trudge around Millbank saying exactly the same things to Jane Hill, then Dermot Murnaghan; then they might have to pretend they find Andrew Neil's jibes on the Daily Politics amusing and by 2pm they're often trembling, broken husks, sloping back to their departments with the air of someone who's been stuck in the job for forty years.

Shapps gives an altogether different impression. The man simply loves being a politician. His Twitter feed is a curiously engrossing stream of Tiggerish minutiae. Whether he's making a five-minute appearance on Radio Luton or holding a surgery in Hatfield, you can always rest safe in the knowledge that Grant will keep you up-to-date.

I find myself getting increasingly excited as I wait for his next tweet. Exactly how frivolous will it be? And then it comes, and his 40,000 followers learn he's "On way to Partnership Accreditation for Landlords launch at University of Hertfordshire," and you think: brilliant. Who cares about that? Obviously I do, because I'm slightly obsessed, but what about everyone else? I suppose it's like following Joey Barton or Jedward: never mind if you find his updates boring; he clearly doesn't. You end up being buoyed along by the enthusiasm.

Frankly I'll take that over whichever spambot is responsible for, say, Andrew George's feed. Maybe you think Shapps is a fraud, and he doesn't care half as much as he makes out. Well - you tell me that the man who stars - I mean, really stars - in this video doesn't love his work.

But passion apart, what matters is how well the man's doing his job. And here, the jury's out. First, he's done some excellent work on homelessness prior to coming into Government. Few would dispute he understands the problem and is committed to solving it. But on housing, while it's early days, his record is already patchy.

Make no mistake: this is a huge issue. It's one of the oddities of political discourse. Outrage over tuition fees, cuts, NHS and welfare reform is understandable, but in terms of our day-to-day existence, the steady refusal of successive Governments to intervene in the market and provide affordable housing is one of the greatest political betrayals of our time - but protests have been conspicuous by their absence. The cruel vicissitudes of the private rental market create misery for millions. Yet when in October last year the Chartered Institute of Housing, the National Housing Federation and the housing charity Shelter declared that overall house building is at its lowest level since 1924, it was met with barely a murmur of dissent.

Shapps seems to have an somewhat contradictory attitude to social housing. On the one hand, he clearly wants to remove the stigma from it and make it provide a first rung on the property ladder. His announcement of flexible tenancies seems a sensible step in the right direction, and he's been praised by housing professionals for ending the complex subsidy system. The aforementioned CIH report also commended him for his work to improve mobility within the sector.

It was therefore a bit of a shock two months later when he was laying into social housing without a shred of evidence to back up his claims: "For years the system...has been associated with injustice - where rewards are reaped for those who know how to play the system best." His remarks sparked outrage from a number of beleaguered providers, and getting Andrew Gilligan on board did little to dampen their rage.

Then there's Shapps's new version of right-to-buy. Inevitably, there will be a shortfall in terms of revenues received - one estimate claims each house will raise just £10,000, and the chief executive of Plymouth Community Homes has stated publicly that he will probably have to sell two, perhaps three, discounted homes to build one in the same area. There's no new money to make it up - so the fears are other development will fall by the wayside as the Government seeks to provide "one for one". Shapps claims that the affordable rent programme means it's possible to build a public home by investing less money than previously. But hovering over all this is the question of who keeps the receipts - council or Government - if it's the latter and a grant is provided, will it be given in addition to existing affordable housing programmes? How can he ensure the money is spent wisely?

Shapps's serene public mask has only slipped once, on the Today programme. The accusation was that he'd tried to bury bad news by avoiding a discussion regarding the slowdown in the number of social houses being built in Britain - the day after the Government made a major house-building announcement. He didn't take it well, and ended up sounding outraged at the accusation he'd choose to miss out on any media appearance, regardless of the timing. The very idea. Once the discussion finally did get under way he asked to be judged over a longer period of time. Fine. But for all the initiatives he's introduced, it doesn't look promising. He's only managed to deliver 106,000 homes to September last year.

He has a hell of a job ahead of him. One thing in his favour is that he doesn't seem to mind rocking the boat a bit. Last week he was on Channel Four News discussing the proposed council tax freeze. Krishnan Guru-Murthy made the point that several of the councils that were refusing to accept the Government money being offered to enable the tax freeze were Tory. Shapps narrowed his eyes and stared down the lens. There was a hint of Clint Eastwood on the dirt road, facing off against a particularly vicious band of outlaws. He growled: "Don't confuse localism with meaning we don't encourage people to do the right thing. We're saying where councils refuse to pass on the cash they might have to face their electors." Take that, Surrey Council! Your own Government minister just suggested your constituents vote Labour or Lib Dem if you don't do as he says. You can't even call that playing hardball - it's just plain maverick.

It's pathetic I know - but I find myself rooting for Grant Shapps. He's the best kind of Tory: enthusiastic, self-made, and devoid of airs and graces. Quite apart from that, his cousin was in The Clash. If that isn't a decent enough reason to follow someone on Twitter, I don't know what is.

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National & TLS. He lives in London and tweets @aljwhite.

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change