And here are some more just for fun. Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Two books that Labour's next leader must read

Labour must avoid suffering its own strange death. 

The one thing that the candidates for the Labour leadership are not short of is advice. And I can’t resist asking them to take one essential step.  That is to read two books.

The first is The Strange Death of Liberal England by George Dangerfield. The second is Austerity Britain (1945-51) by David Kynaston.

The first is eminently readable and a perceptive reflection on how a political party can detach itself from the political, economic, social and cultural trends on which its success was based.

The second, which is much longer and more impenetrable, has some unwelcome home truths for all of us who have a rosy view of what we have often portrayed as the solidarity and mutuality of the immediate post-war years. Taking Mass Observation as the source for the snapshot of genuine attitudes at the time, Kynaston is able to avoid the pitfalls of modern opinion pollsters by getting into the thoughtful diary entries of literally tens of thousands of men and women musing on what they really felt rather than what they thought others would want them to say.

Dangerfield’s book has a great deal to teach modern social democrats not just here but across the developed world, where, unfortunately, left of centre politics is very much on the back foot.

The Tories have traditionally been much better at understanding the need to adapt albeit reluctantly, to the changing world they face. Hence David Cameron’s drives to adjust the Tories’ approach to major social changes in attitude and lifestyle.

Of course, their underlying raison d'etre of facilitating the operation of the free market economy and the protection of those with wealth privilege and power has not deserted them. But a knowledge and a keen ability to track the fears and ambitions of those from whom they seek votes, has been in marked contrast of the failure to do so of Labour over its 115 year life.

As Kynaston shows and those with any grasp of history know, the “working class Tory” has been a phenomena from which our opponents have been able to draw support. It was after all the collapse of the semi-skilled and unskilled vote that lost Labour the 1951 election although they commanded a slightly greater percentage of the popular vote. The emerging middle class were the ones who stuck with and appreciated the most, the achievements of the 1945 Government and it has to be said, did not share the overwhelming hopelessness, weariness and resentment that so many erstwhile Labour supporters experienced in that difficult time.

Whilst getting on for three quarters of voters profile themselves as “middle class”, David Cameron’s drive for “blue collar conservatism” is not just a play for Ukip voters but a reflection of the historic appeal to those, who sometimes paternalistically, metropolitan Labour supporters have presumed will be instinctively on-board.

So, understanding your opponent, their basic appeal, and yes their ability from 2005 onwards to  recover from the devastating defeat of 1997 is a prerequisite not just to winning the Labour leadership but for winning a future general election.

Without a debate which reflects hard-headedly on the contradiction of what wins internally might lose externally, Labour would really be doomed to a prolonged period as an ever resentful and bewildered opposition.

Since the departure of Tony Blair as Prime Minister in 2007 I have attended far too many meetings in which a phenomenal achievement of winning three full terms in office for the Labour Party has been disparaged as though it were tantamount to betrayal. Whilst that underlying feeling still exists, there is a danger that the Labour Party will have to go through yet another defeat to get the message that was last seen and understood in the post 1992 period.

In my own efforts to initiate a debate back in 2011 I published pamphlet to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the book by my old tutor Sir Professor Bernard Crick entitled “In Defence of Politics” revisiting the themes in that book, I endeavoured to raise some of the issues which are becoming predominant in the debate about the future of Labour.

If we are to answer the question “what is Labour for?” it might be helpful to start a debate about the nature of our democracy. The engagement of men and women in the decisions that are taken locally and globally which affect their lives and how the Party might be a driving force, not only for a different style of politics but for a fundamental change in the way in which in a highly complex world is understood and therefore how our democracy should work.

Ironically the reversal of Labour’s previous stance of opposing a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union offers an opportunity to engage in a meaningful debate about Britain’s place in a global economy where decisions are taken like it or not, way beyond the national Parliament in Westminster (never mind the devolved legislatures in Edinburgh or Cardiff). If the Labour Party’s contest for leader can be turned into a springboard for genuine engagement with the British people through the European Referendum and our response to global forces together with how to reinvigorate a new participative democracy, there is just a chance we might address the future rather than the past. Britain in 20 years’ time rather than Labour twenty years past and avoiding Austerity Britain in 2015 turning into the Strange Death of Labour Britain in 2020!

 

Getty
Show Hide image

To beat the Trump hype, we need a return to old-fashioned political virtues

If we want to resist the Trumpification of politics, what we need is restraint, duty and incorruptibility.

After the 1992 US presidential election, Alistair Cooke’s celebrated BBC radio series Letter from America struck a poignant note. Cooke described Bill Clinton’s worn jeans and checked wool shirt, contrasting them with George H W Bush’s buttoned-up Wasp manners and buttoned-down Ivy League shirts. Clinton’s style, Cooke argued, was a rebuke to a tired social and political establishment. His casualness was the new America.

Cooke, then 83, was honest enough to admit unease about this departure from the old, patrician modes and manners. “Along with the passing of George Bush,” he said, “we shall see, I fear, the passing of the blue blazer.” Cooke seemed right at the time. But don’t write off the blue blazer just yet. As ruling elites change, so does the appropriate counterpoint. To topple Bush’s stuffy golf club elites, Clinton picked up his saxophone, took off his tie and felt everyone’s pain. And now? The subtext of these turbulent months (the inevitable second question, prompted by “How do you beat Donald Trump?”) is: “What should ­tomorrow’s leaders, the leaders we crave, look and sound like?”

My conjecture is that, to beat Trump and his type – bling, shiny suits, dodgy deals – we should push towards centre stage an underestimated set of political virtues: restraint, duty and incorruptibility. If it weren’t for the gender associations, I would be tempted to call this quality gentlemanliness. Aside from personal virtue – signally lacking in the Clinton camp – how might decency inform public debate as it comes under attack from maverick showmen trained in the media circus? How can the middle ground regain its confidence?

First, level with the public. Maybe liberalism hasn’t failed so much as its messaging has failed. Instead of smashing the electorate over the head with the idea that everything is just great, make the case that not everything can be for the best in all possible worlds. As populists reach for empty slogans, a new space has opened up. Accept and exploit those asymmetries: more people are ready to hear uncomfortable truths than politicians imagine.

Kingsley Amis once argued that a writer’s voice should stay close to his speaking voice: not the same, but close. Adapting that idea, if politicians stayed closer in public debate to the truths that they articulate in casual conversation – some things are impossible; almost every policy creates a losing as well as a winning side; there really isn’t any money – they would be surprised how many people are ready to hear that not all problems can be evaporated into thin air. Stray too far from awkward truths and elections become about simple lies v tricksy lies.

Second, centrists do more harm than good when they rush to categorise dissenting opinion as not only wrong, but unacceptable. “Any suggestion that liberal values are not humanly universal,” as John Gray wrote in a recent NS essay, “will provoke spasms of righteous indignation.” Instead, we need to be more tolerant in our tolerance.

Third, stop pretending that everything desirable can be shoehorned into the “progressive” agenda. “I really care passionately about persevering with the common-sense middle ground and doing it quite well” is a problematic political sales pitch, but not for the reasons that are usually given. The gravest difficulty may come at the beginning, with the faux passion, rather than with the substance – public service and competence – underneath.

It is revealing that those closest to David Cameron expended so much energy trying to persuade us that he was not an updated version of Harold Macmillan. That is why the gay marriage reforms, though admirable, were accorded too much significance. Ah, Cameron was a natural crusader! But he paid a price for dressing up as a “radical” when greater challenges arrived. It weakened some of his strongest cards – calmness, perspective, proportion – just as politics was coarsening. Aren’t Tories supposed to understand the virtues of yesterday? In other words, as an electoral strategy to beat Trump (or Nigel Farage), I’d put up a Macmillan type over a Clinton type every time.

Fourth, cut ties with “messaging experts”. It’s a fraud. They teach that everything must be asserted with powerful conviction. Yet ideas unworthy of powerful conviction are best left shorn of them. The electorate has endured a communications version of crying wolf. As a result of the messaging game, when something genuinely important crops up, it sounds simply like the same old shtick.

Fifth, ditch the bogus quantification. Few things signal untrustworthiness more reliably than fake precision. Something shifted in me when George Osborne argued that Brexit would leave households £4,300 worse off. What, no decimal point? Voters understand uncertainty better than politicians imagine. Precise quantification used to sound professional. Now it sounds suspicious.

Finally, think about tone. Conventional wisdom holds that the mainstream must fight the Trumpian revolution on its own terms: a simple solution, memorably expressed, a guiding vision for the country or the world. If anyone has a good one to hand, I’m all for it. But what if – after decades of ­sophisticated argument and counterargument, as politics has solved the easy problems while parking the difficult or insoluble ones – we have reached a state of such evolved equilibrium that no such easy answer can exist?

Pretending otherwise is no longer a point of difference. It takes you towards the lowest common denominator. As Trump has shown, that is well-occupied territory. Perhaps wooing the angry mob is not the solution. Instead, the admirable and successful politician of the future will have to win back the support of moderate, sensible but disillusioned voters. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage