Show Hide image

Who owns our democracy?

From the success of the BNP to the expenses scandal, we are lurching from one moral crisis to anothe

While D-Day veterans remembered the sacrifices of those who fought fascism, two racists from the British National Party were elected to represent us in Europe. What an appalling way for that generation’s grandchildren to honour their memory. It has been a sickening time to be involved with British politics. Buoyed by success, Nick Griffin took to the airwaves, boasting of how he will free the white population from the “racism” it suffers at the hands of an arrogant liberal elite. Less than six months after the United States elected its first black president, Britain is witnessing the rise of a politics of racial grievance. Something is deeply wrong in our democracy.

Some will interpret the BNP gains as a signal for harsher rhetoric in months ahead. As always, the temptation will be to triangulate to the right. Yet this would be a mistake. People are rightly becoming wary of triangulation as an inauthentic way of addressing their concerns. As such, mainstream politicians must resist the urge to play the “immigration card”. It is the easy way out and offers no lasting solution. We must recognise that the success of the far right reflects anger at the failure of mainstream politics to address deeply felt grievances of cultural loss and injustice. In many Labour heartlands, people feel disenfranchised and abandoned. There is a profound sense of cultural loss and injustice in many Labour heartlands, and it is no coincidence that the BNP frequently describes itself as Old Labour. Its nationalist socialism represents the politics of class, soured by racial hatred and bitterness.

We must also recognise that the success of the far right reflects wider voter disillusionment with politics itself. For every person who voted BNP in the European elections, another 29 decided not to vote at all. Britain is in a dark mood. Over the past six months, we have lurched through a series of moral crises – starting with the furore over Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand, followed by public outrage over the case of Baby P, widespread anger over bankers’ bonuses, and now outright indignation over the abuse of MPs’ expenses. In each case, politicians have been slow to respond to events. They have been able only to follow the public mood, rather than to shape it.

More than this, in each of these cases mechanical reform – changes to systems of governance and
accountability – has been necessary but not sufficient. Reforms to children’s services, new banking regulations, a new expenses system for MPs, even a new constitution: all are needed, but none is enough. These are moral, ethical, social problems, not just technical difficulties.

And yet, too often, our politics is unable to reflect this. The dangerous drop in voter turnout, the rise of fringe parties, the political gains of the zealots in the BNP: these facts reflect not just a perceived lack of difference between the main parties, but the failure of any party to make a moral and emotional connection with people.

In response to the latest crisis, Gordon Brown is leading the debate on constitutional reform, rightly identifying it as unfinished business. How we elect our rulers and how they run their affairs matter enormously to the health of a democracy. The debate we are now having illustrates both how important New Labour’s modernising mission was – and how damaging it is that it was never seen through. Similarly, David Cameron has offered his own contribution on behalf of the Conservatives, making an argument about pushing power down to people and communities, expressing sentiments that many progressives share.

The problem of British politics is not simply one of a lack of accountability, however: it is that it has become managerial and unambitious. Politics today has become obsessed with what works, losing sight of what matters. The language of targets, delivery and governance feels so far away from the things that matter in our everyday lives.

In such a technocratic politics, the only response to crisis can be mechanical reform, which is incapable of reflecting big questions back to society itself. Yet questions about how we look after children, how we treat the professionals who try to help us, or what kind of market economy we want, are questions for all of us.

For Labour in particular, we must return to a discussion about fundamental values and beliefs if we are to provide the moral leadership that an ambitious politics demands. A clear vision of the good society is a prerequisite of a more sophisticated and authentic relationship with the public. Only then will we equip ourselves to respond to both voter apathy and the insurgency of parties of the extreme right with more than the usual short-term fix.

This is obviously no easy task, but it is a discussion we must have. So here is a starter for debate: the good society is one not just where we are free and powerful as individuals, but where we recognise that each of us is part of something bigger. The job of Labour is to reflect that idea and give it practical expression. It is our task to build common ground out of our cultural differences.

The big challenges of our age – addressing climate change, regulating financial markets, eradicating poverty, caring for the elderly, improving life chances – are issues of the common good, not simply of personal power. In each of these cases the role of politics is not just to aggregate the choices of millions by counting up the votes, as on Britain’s Got Talent. Governments must set the rules of the game and ensure they are not broken, putting limits on markets, establishing entitlements to care, setting minimum income levels and maximum carbon emissions.

However, that is simply the beginning of the work needed to build the good society. In addition to ensuring clear rules from the state, politics must also connect with the energy of movements in civil society itself. For the centre left, the ambitious political project involves establishing the new progressive institutions for the 21st century that will bring people together.

Clement Attlee’s institutions sought to address social deficits. The state stepped in to provide a safety net and to establish a basic social minimum. We still need to pool risk and provide high-quality universal services. But the institutions of the 21st century must move beyond a deficit model. They must also connect people, on and offline, providing practical ways for people to make a contribution to society.

As a wave of reforms opens Westminster up to much greater scrutiny, we need to apply the same ideas in the private sector. In finance, we need not just more oversight from above, but greater transparency in society to hold companies to account from below.

On the high street, we should recognise that consumerism is empty only because we allow it to be – and arm people with the information they need to make ethical daily choices. At work, we need models of ownership that allow people to work with one another, not just for someone else. In public services, patients and parents need to be brought together to help and advise one another. We are in danger of becoming a society of strangers. There should be opportunities for younger people to contribute and to learn habits of citizenship through a national civic service. For the elderly, we need to learn from systems of mutual and community support pioneered elsewhere, in countries such as Japan.

The principle behind all these ideas is the same – progressive politics must be about finding new ways to bring people together to create a better society. New Labour’s mantra was to help people to help themselves. That can no longer be enough. Progressive politicians must be in the business of helping people to help each other.

People are crying out for a politics they can believe in. Whatever you think of the policies of Ukip or the Green Party, their authenticity and consistency of message are compelling. Mainstream politicians have to understand that. The three main parties have dominated British politics for more than a century, but none of them – least of all Labour – can be complacent. We cannot take our position for granted.

Instead, we must offer a compelling vision that brings people together to answer big questions and encourages each of us to see our own choices as part of something larger. There is no short-term fix to the events of recent weeks or the rise of the BNP. The only answer is the politics of the good society.

David Lammy is Labour MP for Tottenham and the minister of state for higher education

David Lammy is Labour MP for Tottenham

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Tragedy!

Picture: David Parkin
Show Hide image

The humbling of Theresa May

The Prime Minister has lost all authority. The Tories will remove her as soon as they feel the time is right.

Being politicians of unsentimental, ruthless realism, the Conservatives did not linger in the grief stage of their collective disaster after the general election. Disbelief, too, was commendably brief.

Currently, their priority is to impose some sort of order on themselves. This is the necessary prelude to the wholesale change that most see as the next phase in their attempt at recovery, which they all know is essential to their career prospects – and believe is vital to a country whose alternative prime minister is Jeremy Corbyn.

For that reason, talk of Theresa May enduring as Prime Minister until the end of the Brexit negotiations in two years’ time is the preserve of just a few wishful thinkers. Some sort of calm is being established but the party is far from settled or united; there is a widespread conviction that it cannot be so under the present leader.

Elements of the great change have been executed, as Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s former advisers, will testify.

However, this is only beginning, as shown by the debate in the media about how long May can survive in Downing Street. There is dissatisfaction about elements of her recent reshuffle, but it is quieted because few believe that some of the more contentious appointments or reappointments will last more than a matter of months. Her colleagues are also alarmed by the meal she has made of doing what was supposed to be a straightforward deal with the DUP.

The climate in the party at the moment is one in which everything – jobs, policies and, of course, the leadership – will soon be up for grabs. Debate over “hard” and “soft” Brexits is illusory: anyone who wants to be Conservative leader will need to respect the view of the party in the country, which is that Britain must leave the single market and the customs union to regain control of trade policy and borders. That is one reason why the prospects of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, are being talked up.

Some of May’s MPs, for all their hard-mindedness about the future, speak of feeling “poleaxed” since the general election. Even before the result changed everything, there was dismay about the bad national campaign; but that, it was felt, could be discussed in a leisurely post-mortem.

Now, instead, it has undermined faith in May’s leadership and credibility. “The social care disaster was key to our defeat,” an MP told me. “It wasn’t just that the policy damaged our core vote, it was the amateurishness of the U-turn.” A more seasoned colleague noted that “it was the first election I’ve fought where we succeeded in pissing off every section of our core vote”.

The limited ministerial reshuffle was inevitable given May’s lack of authority, and summed up her untenability beyond the short term. Most of her few important changes were deeply ill judged: notably the sacking of the skills and apprenticeships minister Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow in Essex, and a rare Tory with a direct line to the working class; and the Brexit minister David Jones, whose job had hardly begun and whose boss, Davis, was not consulted.

George Bridges, another Brexit minister, who resigned, apparently did so because he felt May had undermined the government’s position in the negotiations so badly, by failing to win the election comprehensively, that he could not face going on.

Much has been made of how Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, was marginalised and briefed against, yet reappointed. Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, suffered similarly. Conservative Central Office was largely shut out from the catastrophic campaign, though no one got round to briefing against McLoughlin, who kept his head down – unheard-of conduct by a party chairman in an election.

As a political force, Central Office is for now more or less impotent. It has lost the knack of arguing the case for Conservatism. MPs are increasingly worried that their party is so introspective that it just can’t deal with the way Corbyn is spinning his defeat. “An ugly mood is growing,” one said, “because militant leftism is going unchallenged.” That cannot change until May has gone and the party machine is revived and re-inspired.

***

Nobody in the party wants a general election: but most want a leadership election, and minds are concentrated on how to achieve the latter without precipitating the former. One angry and disillusioned ex-minister told me that “if there were an obvious candidate she’d be shitting herself. But most of us have realised Boris is a wanker, DD isn’t a great communicator and is a bit up himself, Hammond has no charisma, and Amber [Rudd] has a majority of 346.”

On Monday a group of senior ex-ministers met at Westminster to discuss next steps. It was agreed that, with the Brexit talks under way, the most important thing in the interests of restoring order was securing the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Then, May having done her duty and steadied the proverbial ship, the party would manage her dignified and calm evacuation from Downing Street.

Those who agree on this do not always agree on the timing. However, few can make the leap of imagination required to see her addressing the party conference in October, unless to say “Thank you and goodnight” and to initiate a leadership contest. Many would like her out long before then. The only reason they don’t want it this side of securing the Queen’s Speech is that the result, as one put it, would be “chaos”, with a leadership contest resembling “a circular firing squad”.

That metaphor is popular among Tories these days. Others use it to describe the ­apportioning of blame after the election. As well as Timothy and Hill, Lynton Crosby has sustained severe wounds that may prevent the Tories from automatically requesting his services again.

Following the Brexit referendum and Zac Goldsmith’s nasty campaign for the London mayoralty, Crosby has acquired the habit of losing. And then there was Ben Gummer, blamed not only for the social care debacle, but also for upsetting fishermen with a vaguely couched fisheries policy. These failings are becoming ancient history – and the future, not the past, is now the urgent matter – yet some Conservatives still seethe about them despite trying to move on.

“I haven’t heard anyone say she should stay – except Damian Green,” a former minister observed, referring to the new First Secretary of State. Green was at Oxford with May and seems to have earned his job because he is one of her rare friends in high politics. He is regarded as sharing her general lack of conviction.

Older activists recall how the party, in 1974, clung loyally to Ted Heath after he lost one election, and even after he lost a second. Now, deference is over. Most Tory activists, appalled by the handling of the campaign, want change. They would, however, like a contest: annoyed at not having been consulted last time, they intend not to be left silent again.

That view is largely reflected at Westminster, though a few MPs believe a coronation wouldn’t be a problem, “as we don’t want a public examination of the entrails for weeks on end when we need to be shown to be running the country effectively”. Most MPs disagree with that, seeing where a coronation got them last time.

With the summer recess coming up, at least the public’s attention would not be on Westminster if the contest took place mostly during that time: hence the feeling that, once the Queen’s Speech is dealt with, May should announce her intention to leave, in order to have a successor in place before the conference season. It is then up to the party to design a timetable that compresses the hustings between the final two candidates into as short a time as compatible with the democratic process, to get the new leader in place swiftly.

Some letters requesting a contest are said to have reached Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. One MP told me with great authority that there were eight; another, with equal certainty, said 12. Forty-eight are needed to trigger the procedure. However, engineering such a contest is not how most Tories would like to proceed. “She has had an international humiliation,” a former cabinet minister said, “and it is transparently ghastly for her. Then came the [Grenfell Tower] fire. There is no sense our rubbing it in. I suspect she knows she has to go. We admire her for staying around and clearing up the mess in a way Cameron didn’t. But she is a stopgap.”

MPs believe, with some justification, that the last thing most voters want is another general election, so caution is paramount. None doubts that the best outcome for all concerned would be for May to leave without being pushed.

Her tin-eared response to the Grenfell disaster shocked colleagues with its amateurishness and disconnection. “I’m sure she’s very upset by Grenfell,” someone who has known her since Oxford said. “But she is incapable of showing empathy. She has no bridge to the rest of the world other than Philip.” Another, referring to the controversial remark that torpedoed Andrea Leadsom’s leadership ambitions last year, said: “You would get shot for saying it, but not having had children hasn’t helped her when it comes to relating to people. Leadsom was right.”

***

May was quicker off the mark on Monday, issuing a statement condemning the appalling attack at Finsbury Park Mosque swiftly after it occurred, and going there shortly afterwards to meet community leaders. No one could fault her assurance that Muslims must enjoy the same protection under the law as everyone else, or the speed and sincerity with which it was made. She is learning what leadership entails, but too late.

Her administration has become unlucky. This happened to John Major, but, as in his case, the bad luck is partly down to bad decisions; and the bad luck that comes out of the blue simply piles in on top of everything else. Grenfell Tower, lethal and heartbreaking for its victims and their families, was merely more bad luck for the Prime Minister because of her slow-witted response and failure – presumably because shorn of her closest advisers – to do the right thing, and to do it quickly.

But then it turned out that her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, had in his previous incarnation as a housing minister received a report on improving fire safety in tower blocks and done nothing about it. That is either more bad luck, or it shows May has dismal judgement in the quality of people she appoints to her close circle. Form suggests the latter.

The idea aired last weekend, that May had “ten days to prove herself”, was a minority view. For most of her colleagues it is too late. It was typical of Boris Johnson’s dwindling band of cheerleaders that they should broadcast a story supporting Davis as an “interim” leader: “interim” until Johnson’s credibility has recovered sufficiently for him to have another pop at the job he covets so much.

They also sought to create the impression that Davis is on manoeuvres, which he resolutely is not. Davis has been around long enough to know that if he wants to succeed May – and his friends believe he does – he cannot be seen to do anything to destabilise her further. It is a lesson lost on Johnson’s camp, whose tactics have damaged their man even more than he was already.

Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary and a close ally of Davis, told the Guardian: “. . . it is simply untrue that he is doing anything other
than focusing on his incredibly important brief and giving loyal support to the Prime Minister. Anyone suggesting otherwise is freelancing.” That summed up the contempt Davis’s camp has for Johnson, and it will last long beyond any leadership race.

There is a sense that, in the present febrile climate, whoever is the next leader must be highly experienced. Davis qualifies; so does Hammond, who before his present job was foreign secretary and defence secretary, and who has belatedly displayed a mind of his own since May was hobbled. Hugo Swire, a minister of state under Hammond in the Foreign Office, said of him: “He’s got bottom. He was very good to work for. He is an homme sérieux. I liked him very much and he would calm things down.”

But, as yet, there is no contest. Calls for calm have prevailed, not least thanks to Graham Brady’s steady stewardship of the 1922 Committee, and his success in convincing the more hot-headed of his colleagues to hold their fire. Yet MPs say the 1922 is not what it was 20 years ago: ministers have become used to taking it less seriously.

However, many MPs expect Brady, at a time of their choosing, to go to Downing Street and deliver the poison pill to Theresa May if she is slow to go. Some who know her fear she might take no notice. If she were to play it that way, her end would be unpleasant. As the old saying goes, there is the easy way, and there is the hard way. Remarkably few of her colleagues want to go the hard way but, like everything else in the Tory party at the moment, that could change.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

0800 7318496