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Life after London 2012

Narratives are easy to construct; lasting social change is much more difficult.

‘‘I'm not racist,” Rose told me over a cup of tea at her home, “but immigration has got too much.

“I used to know every family in this street,” she went on, her voice shaking a little, “but now I hardly recognise anyone. People come and go and you don’t know them – it’s like a different country.”

It was 27 August 2011 and I was in Essex on the first day of a three-month tour around the UK seeking the views of ordinary people about the state of British society for my book, British Voices. Rose was my first interviewee that day, an elderly widow who’d kindly invited me into her house when I met her by chance in a residential street in Romford.

I have thought back to my conversation with Rose many times over the past six weeks, as I read newspaper commentaries about Britain’s “golden summer”, a period during which we have “changed for the better”, “looked in the mirror and liked what we have seen” and “emerged as a nation comfortable with ourselves”. I wonder whether Rose’s feeling about the country will have changed at all as a result of events in the Olympic Park, less than ten miles from her home.

I met Rose three weeks after riots spread across English cities in early August 2011. At the time, the prevailing narrative was that Britain was “searching for its soul” in the aftermath of the unrest; some commentators had rediscovered the “Broken Britain” narrative, painting the UK as a country of “problem families” and “feral youth”. Yet the riots themselves came just three months after the royal wedding, a time when the nation had “come together in celebration” and “put on a great show for the world”.

Story time

These contrasting narratives about the same society demonstrate howany national story constructed on the basis of a single event will inevitably lack nuance – particularly if they paint a wholly positive or negative picture. The people I met on my travels were complex and contradictory, capable of both kindness and ignorance, prejudice and understanding. As I interviewed them about their hopes and fears, I could almost see the good angel and the devil sitting on their shoulders.

If we want the Olympics and Paralympics to be part of real and lasting change in Britain, these are exactly the people we should be paying attention to: having watched Mo Farah win Olympic gold, will someone like Rose now be less concerned about people from overseas coming to the UK in the same way that Farah did? In the Olympic spirit, will Rose’s neighbours put themselves forward to do something positive in a community where Rose felt isolated, and, crucially, will they maintain that commitment?

Narratives are easy to construct; lasting social change is much more difficult. But without it the “Great Britain” story may soon feel dated and empty, and someone, somewhere, will dust off terms like “Broken Britain” once again.

Joe Hayman’s “British Voices: the UK in its own words” is published by Matador (£9.99)

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Who comes next?

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The Tories' aim is to put Labour out of business for good

Rather than merely winning again, the Conservatives are seeking to inflict permanent damage on the opposition. 

The Conservatives are numerically weak but politically strong – that is the peculiarity of their position. Their majority is the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974. Yet, to MPs at the Tory conference in Manchester, it felt like “2001 in reverse”: the year of Tony Blair’s second election victory. Then, as now, the opposition responded to defeat by selecting a leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was immediately derided as unelectable. Just as Labour knew then that it would win in 2005, so the Conservatives believe that they have been gifted victory in 2020. David Cameron has predicted that the party’s vote share could rise from 37 per cent to a Thatcherite 43 per cent.

For Cameron and George Osborne, who entered parliament in 2001, this moment is revenge for New Labour’s electoral hegemony. They believe that by applying Blair’s lessons better than his internal successors, they can emulate his achievements. The former Labour prime minister once spoke of his party as “the political wing of the British people”. In Manchester, Cameron and Osborne displayed similarly imperial ambitions. They regard Jeremy Corbyn’s election as a chance to realign the political landscape permanently.

Seen from one perspective, the Tories underperformed on 7 May. They consistently led by roughly 20 points on the defining issues of the economy and leadership but defeated Labour by just 6.5 overall. It was their enduring reputation as the party of the plutocracy that produced this disparity. Those who voted for Labour in spite of their doubts about Ed Miliband and the party’s economic competence may not be similarly forgiving of Corbyn. To maximise their gains, however, the Tories need to minimise their weaknesses, rather than merely exploit Labour’s.

This process began at conference. At a dinner organised by the modernising group the Good Right, Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, affirmed their belief that, contrary to Thatcherite orthodoxy, inequality is a problem. Only the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, an admirer of the libertarian heroine Ayn Rand, insisted that equality of opportunity was the defining metric.

George Osborne’s assured speech was most notable for his sustained appeal to Labour voters. Several opposition MPs told me how unsettled they were by the Chancellor’s declaration that Labour’s new leadership calls “anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy and the country living within its means” a Tory. He added, “It’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right. Because we’re now the party of work, the only true party of labour.” The shadow minister Jonathan Reynolds told me: “We’ve got to be extremely clear that this is not business as usual. This is a real attempt by the Tories to put us out of business – possibly for ever.”

The Conservatives’ aim is to contaminate Labour to the point where, even if Jeremy Corbyn were deposed, the toxin would endure. For those opposition MPs who emphasise being a government-in-waiting, rather than a protest movement, the contrast between the high politics of the Tory conference and Corbyn’s rally appearance in Manchester was painfully sharp. They fear guilt by association with the demonstrators who spat at and abused journalists and Tory delegates. The declaration by a rally speaker, Terry Pullinger, the deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, that Corbyn’s election “almost makes you want to celebrate the fact that Labour lost” was regarded as confirmation that some on the left merely desire to run the party, not the country.

But few Tory MPs I spoke to greeted Corbyn’s victory with simple jubilation. “It’s a great shame, what’s happened to Labour,” one said. “We need a credible opposition.” In the absence of this, some fear the Conservatives’ self-destructive tendencies will reassert themselves. The forthcoming EU referendum and leadership contest are rich in cannibalistic potential. Tories spoke forebodingly of the inevitable schism between European Inners and Outers. As the Scottish experience demonstrated, referendums are almost never definitive. In the event of a close result, the party’s anti-EU wing will swiftly identify grounds for a second vote.

Several cabinet ministers, however, spoke of their confidence in Cameron’s ability to navigate the rapids of the referendum and his pre-announced departure. “More than ever, he’s the right man for these times,” one told me. By this December, Cameron will have led his party for ten years, a reign exceeded in recent history only by Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That the Conservatives have so far avoided cataclysm is an underappreciated achievement.

Yet there are landmines ahead. An increasing number of MPs fear that the planned cuts to tax credits could be a foul-up comparable to Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax rate. Despite the appeals of Boris Johnson and the Sun, Cameron and Osborne have signalled that there will be no backtracking. At such moments of reflection, the Tories console themselves with the belief that, although voters may use Corbyn as a receptacle for protest (as they did Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband), they will not elect him. They also acknowledge that the current Labour leader may not be their opponent in 2020. The former paratrooper Dan Jarvis is most often cited as the successor they fear. As with Cameron and Blair, his relative lack of ideological definition may prove to be a strength, one MP suggested.

William Hague is fond of joking that the Tories have only two modes: panic and complacency. If the danger before the general election was of the former, the danger now is of the latter. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.