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The Importance of arguing honestly

maxresdefaultThere’s an interesting article in the latest edition of Progress Magazine. Crowded Ground by Robert Philpot takes a brief survey of the political scene before identifying emerging territory vacated, he claims, by ourselves and our Conservative opponents.

He makes some interesting points about May’s flirtation with populism, another thing she borrowed from Ed Miliband. Yes, who knew? But it is an argument with some legs. As Ed was positioning Labour to mount his crusade against the predators of 21st century capitalism, it meant setting up a rhetorical structure in which the rip off merchants and spivs were opposed to the pure, unsullied, and virtuous electorate. May, during her Milibandist moment annexed those positions for electoral expediency. Lump them together with simplistic authoritarianism and clamping-down-on-immigration pitch, provided she carries through her promises May’s in with a shout of patching up the post-1979 settlement and securing a lengthy period of government That is if Brexit and other unforeseen nasties don’t spring any surprises.

The other thing in May’s favour is personality, where conventional wisdom has it that she’s a more serious and substantial figure than Jeremy Corbyn. Keep on saying it like Robert does and it must be true. Yet when you take the blinkers off and look at the evidence, we’ve seen nothing to suggest that so far. Her PMQ outings tend toward the blundersome and the wooden, suggesting the economic pitch isn’t the only thing stolen from Labour’s former leader.

She’s proven cackhanded in her Brexit appointments, has fallen out with big business (which, of course, doesn’t mean they’re about to beat a path to Labour’s door), ducked a scrap over Heathrow, and doesn’t appear any more competent in post than her predecessor. It’s almost as if there is political value in Labour people talking her up.

Yet when it comes to the role of personality in elections, despite the stress laid on the importance of having the right woman or man at the helm, actual evidence is much more equivocal. The classic study of the 1992 general election found perceptions of party leaders had a marginal effect. The influence it exerts is always heavily mediated by other issues. And so it also proved in 2015 – the drag of the blessed Ed was much weaker than is supposed. As ever, elections are defined and won on the basis of a small number of key issues, and even then it’s a much more complex matter than owning the centre ground.

I digress. Robert’s piece is interesting because he’s among the first Blairite figures to catch the waft of coffee grains fanned by long-term demographic, occupational, and cultural shifts in all the advanced countries. Citing a policy paper that merely repeats stuff sociologists have been saying for years, he notes Britain is raising a generation “which is more socially liberal, internationalist and pro-immigration“, but simultaneously aren’t attached to the NHS in the same way preceding cohorts of voters were, and are more moderate on economic matters – whatever that means.

It means long-term, May’s project is in trouble – by implication, the hare-um scare-um of Tory campaigns will reach a use by date. But so is Jeremy Corbyn. It follows that as neither party are offering “a politics which is open, optimistic and future-focused” and are opting for “closed, pessimistic and backward-looking” positions, then we’re screwed too.

Unless you believe Labour is offering something different, which it is. Yvette Cooper, for example, has been caught out on occasion (deliberately?) misunderstanding and passing off as fact the party’s position on nationalisation. One would have thought that the nationalisation, democratisation, and co-operatisation of privatised utilities and rail is something that could catch the zeitgeist.

Or the traction the basic income is getting among Labour’s new leading layers, or the need for green industries, economic planning, life-long education (minus the tax on aspiration tuition fee debt represents), and the occasional use of QE for reasons other than bailing out banks and inflating property bubbles.

Any casual observer without a dog in Labour’s internal struggles would be hard pressed to agree with Robert that any of this is “pessimistic” and “backward-looking”. In fact, its refreshing to see glaring social problems and future challenges spoken about plainly and addressed accordingly.

I get it. Robert isn’t keen on the new leadership and thinks it’s steering the party onto the rocks. Yet at his most polemical, he has to rely on insinuation, convoluted positioning, Delphic language and, I’m afraid to say, fibbing. It’s as if a whole layer of Jeremy opponents are congenitally incapable of grasping his actual positions and offering honest, reasoned critique. And when they can’t get to grips with their opponent properly, why should anyone else take their views on anything else seriously?

2 Comments

  1. Bazza says:

    Yes the good news for Labour is May is Mediocre.
    The Tories with May are pretending to be the party of working people – for the many and against the few but her practice – supporting big business Frackers, corporations over Brexit etc shows it is all a CON;the CONservatives are the party for the rich and we need to make the Masque of Pandora slip.
    Oh and one tip for Jeremy in PMQs – ask a question and anticipate the answer and address it then destroy the Tories arguments in the process.
    Example Jeremy attacked the Tories quite rightly on welfare cuts and said May should watch ‘I Daniel Blake’ but if he had added this was all part of the Tories ‘Rwanda Strategy’ setting neighbour against neighbour for their own political gain (although not as extreme) setting those in work against those on welfare whilst distracting people from tax cuts for millionaires (who are distant from most working people’s lives) then he could have crushed May’s dull response.
    Anticipate the answer and attack it and screw the Tory simpletons in the process!
    Solidarity!

  2. David Pavett says:

    There are quite a few points in this article that I can’t make a lot of sense of.

    1. We are told that of Miliband’s “crusade against the predators of 21st century capitalism, it meant setting up a rhetorical structure in which the rip off merchants and spivs were opposed to the pure, unsullied, and virtuous electorate”. In fact that wasn’t it at all. The predators were rhetorically set up not against the “unsullied and virtuous electorate” but against “responsible capitalism”.

    2. In the shifting and uneven ground of Brexit arrangements it is too early to say what May’s game is. The danger in Phil B-C’s commentary is of taking the rhetoric for the reality. Also why does he say that May “ducked a scrap over Heathrow”. How so? She has gone for expansion and that is definitely not going to avoid a scrap and it is one that cannot fail to sow confusion in Labour’s ranks.

    3. Saying of young voters, or any other section of the electorate, that they are “pro-immigration” is so ambiguous that it is impossible to know what is being claimed. The real battle over immigration is not over whether their should be any but whether or not it should be managed. Even UKIP was saying prior to the last general election that around 80,000 a year would be acceptable. So what does it mean to be “pro-immigration”? It is clearly possible to recognise the necessity and benefits of immigration AND to believe that it should be managed/controlled.

    4. We are told that May’s project is in trouble. But at a 16% lead in the polls would we say the same thing of Labour if the poll figures were reversed. I somehow doubt it.

    5. We are told that Labour is offering “nationalisation, democratisation, and co-operatisation of privatised utilities and rail”. Where? Here, again, there is a need to mark the difference between rhetoric and the realities of substantial policies fought for and won in the process of putting members in charge of party policy-making.

    6. I don’t know what the reference to Yvette Cooper is about. Maybe I am not keeping up with the news enough but should we be given some clues when a politician is mentioned in this critical way?

    7. The next paragraph (following the one mentioning Yvette C) continues the description of Labour’s offer by saying “Or the traction the basic income is getting among Labour’s new leading layers”. I don’t know what to make of this at all. McDonnell has said it is an interesting idea and should be looked into. That is not a policy and is certainly not an offer.

    8. The talk of “life-long education” also has not developed beyond the stage of rhetoric. There are no details, even basic ones. And as for QE Phil B-C doesn’t mention that the once much spoken of “people’s QE” has disappeared without trace and without discussion from Labour rhetoric. I can’t see how any of this quite measures up to “glaring social problems and future challenges spoken about plainly and addressed accordingly”.

    I hold no brief for the Blairism of Robert Philpott (the main butt of Phil B-C’s article, ) but if it is to be demonstrated that his claims about the poverty of Labour’s policy offer are wide of the mark then surely we need to show how substantial that offer is. I can’t see that anything in the article does that. I strongly disagree with much that Philpott writes in his article but I really don’t think that the key to understanding what is wrong with his views is their lack of honesty. A difference in political philosophy is just that and not a question honesty/dishonesty.

    If the policy development from the left were anything like as well organised and substantial as those from the Progress camp then we would be in a better place than we are in fact in.

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