Summer lethargy is not a good look for Labour right now

Silly season can be a time of opportunity for dynamic politicians. Where is the opposition's fighting spirit?

No-one is surprised when the news thins out during the summer months. The season when silly stories get bumped up the agenda even has its own name. It’s a thing. And it’s a thing that politicians know about and for which they plan. They can take advantage of the media lull in one of two ways.

First, they can have a bit of a rest, read some books, think some thoughts and, if they are diligent, catch up on some constituency contact. (That can be arduous so it is unkind to claim MPs all benefit from jumbo holidays.)

Second, they can try to generate a few headlines, knowing that journalists are hungry for stories and will give a more lavish airing to something that, at busier times, would be buried.

Conservative co-chairman Grant Shapps has had a go at that second approach. He made a speech yesterday attacking Labour for all the usual things. It’s the same old trade union-obeying, Brussels-fancying, benefit-boosting, immigrant-coddling, debt-ramping, tax-hiking party, said Shapps. Or words to that effect. The speech was briefed out a day early and picked up some decent coverage given how void it was of serious content. In places it was downright bizarre:

Who here shares my appreciation of the phone’s flash – which doubles as a torch – when you’ve come home late and dropped your keys?

Who indeed, Grant?

The intervention briefly threatened to make the wrong kind of headlines. Shapps appeared, in a question and answer session after the speech, to admit having taken a cavalier approach to employment law in a company he set up. Tory sources clarified afterwards that he was speaking illustratively and not referring to anything he had done. A minor gaffe flared up and was hosed down. Someone from Labour muttered something disapproving. I forget what.

In other news, a Tory peer and government advisor appeared to say that environmental degradation should be visited on the North-East because no one would care or even notice. He then clarified that he had meant the North-West. Jeremy Hunt was slapped down by the High Court. A judge ruled that the health secretary had acted unlawfully in trying to shut down services at Lewisham hospital. Labour's response? A statement saying the Tories are out of touch, adding that you can’t trust them with the NHS. Obvs.

The absence of opposition energy is mystefying. Since pretty much anything with a flicker of political content can make headlines, why doesn’t Labour have a campaign lined up to seize the initiative? Where is the shadow cabinet? Where is everybody? The most visible opposition figure in the past week has been Stella Creasy, MP for Walthamstow, who has valiantly and very effectively taken on the issue of violent misogyny online.

But as far as I can tell, since parliament rose for recess, there hasn’t been a big news story generated deliberately by Labour to discomfort the Tories or Lib Dems. Ed Miliband’s MPs may be working hard behind the scenes in their constituencies but as a dynamic force for taking on the coalition they really are on holiday. The Archbishop of Canterbury is currently doing a more agile job of sustained moral activism. I am not alone in thinking the opposition look oddly lethargic. Most Labour people I have spoken to wonder why their party has given up politics for the summer.

The usual defence from Ed Miliband’s aides against charges of this kind is that the obsessions of the Westminster bubble are a peripheral concern. There is a bigger picture, the say. Work is being done on some interesting announcements that will rock the political landscape. I have been told many times by allies of the Labour leader to “watch this space.”  The other standard response is to bemoan the ineffectiveness of the front bench. Ed can’t do it all himself, say Miliband’s friends. The rest of the team need to do some of the “heavy lifting”. It is a fair point. If the hapless Grant Shapps – trader in internet snake oil under a dodgy alias  - can grab the spotlight for a political cabaret turn, why can’t a shadow cabinet minister plant a half-decent story in the middle of silly season?

It feels as if Labour has lost its mojo. This is partly a function of being adrift between two positions. There is the old default of decrying everything the coalition does. Then there is the new challenge: credibly promising a better alternative in recognition of the fiscal squeeze that will endure beyond the next election. Labour has relinquished the first proposition – it isn’t pledging to reverse the cuts or spend much more – but it doesn’t have clear attack lines based on the second one. It is in a limbo of hating what the coalition is doing without being able to articulate what it would do differently.

Some clarity is promised at the annual conference in September. Some, but not all of the plan for a brighter Labour future will be revealed. (“Watch this space.”) This hiatus is consistent with Miliband’s long-game strategy. His friends talk up his unflappable nature and the way that he is not distracted by the daily froth of 24-hour news, nor by the chatter of impatient commentators on New Statesman blogs. He expects the Tories’ reliance on shabby, short-term tactics to unravel. Cameron’s superficiality and complacency will be exposed.

It is all supposed to unfold rather like the fable of the tortoise and the hare. Cameron is cocky and energetic at the start, supremely sure of his race-winning credentials. Miliband is wiser, appearing slower but ultimately more steady.

There is just one problem with the analogy. The tortoise didn’t win the race by having a more profound grasp of economic imbalances in the race track. He won because the hare took a nap. If the hare had carried on running at his usual pace, he would have crossed the finish line first. Right now, of the two parties, it isn’t the Tories who look as if they are lying down prematurely.

Now is not the time for a nice quiet sit down. Image: Getty

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Getty
Show Hide image

It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

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