Reflections on Conservatives and ‘speechgate’

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What. A. Disaster

This wasn’t a car crash, but a six-lane pile up on the Autobahn. A calamitious, pity-inducing, toe-curling, never-to-be-forgotten political moment.

Theresa May managed to deliver not a speech, but a metaphor for her own political career and the state of her party.

At one point, while she struggled on, the stage actually started to fall apart behind her. This stuff is lightyears beyond current political satire.

And on top of that, between the coughing and the pranking, the content wasn’t up to much.  Housing is the great issue of our age, vital for the party’s long term survival and key to beating a grim demographic forecast, but all the PM could do was announce a bit more money that local authorities could bid for.  I mean, was that really the best they could come up with?

It all underlined the fact that there is a crippling crisis of confidence in this party.

Time and again I heard delegates calling for new ideas, a narrative, a direction. They decried the fact that the Conservatives were endlessly reacting to Labour not producing bold, innovative visions of where the country needed to be.

It was a good fringe, full of interesting ideas and debate – but that intellectual energy showed no sign of getting anywhere near conference stage where it was a case of the same old, same old.

Ruth Davidson had lost patience by day two, telling a fringe that the party to ‘man up’ and take the fight to the left. However, most of the delegates and ministers I met just looked a bit scared.

Even the young Conservatives, usually the epitome of self confidence, hesitated to move out of the secure zone and clustered together in groups for safety, intimated perhaps by a hostile Northern urban environment.

There was booze, there is always booze, but in the Midland at midnight on Tuesday looked like the last days of the Roman empire, not a party at ease with itself.

No-one, absolutely no-one I met seemed to have any belief in Vicar’s daughter and I left on Tuesday, before speech gate.

A new leader won’t improve Conservative fortunes. What’s really needed is some ideas and some fighting spirit, both glaringly absent in Manchester.

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Postings from an alternative universe

manifesto20mainSomewhere in an alternative universe – far, far away – Labour has just swept to an historic victory in the 2017 General Election.

The UK has a true socialist Government and the bankers, bosses, landlords and journalists are running for the hills. JC has built Jerusalem and the political centre of gravity has forever shifted to the left.

Fantasy perhaps, but I briefly visited that universe this week in Brighton at Labour’s annual conference.

There really are some of the party faithful, indeed some of the shadow cabinet, who have chalked June’s contest down as a win, a success in the struggle for hearts and minds. One more push and Labour will prove the pundits wrong again.

And among the tribe, the mood is jubilant, they are within touching distance of political Nirvana. After decades on the outside, laughed at and ignored, they now call the shots.

On  Monday I saw an activist with a loudspeaker playing Billy Bragg’s Between the Wars at full volume,  wheeling it up and down in front of delegates outside a sun drenched Hilton Metropole.  This is the kind of thing that might seem odd anywhere else, but in Corbyn’s Labour it goes unnoticed.

Meanwhile, Jeremy – the man who represents so many of these hopes and dreams  -is adored every where he goes, his name chanted across fringe events, workshops and late night gatherings.

The sense of triumph was hard to escape in Brighton. The left has routed its internal opponents and some of those who once vehemently opposed Corbyn now mount the party stage to pay tribute with warm words.

The clock has been reset and it’s hard to believe that this was ever the party of Blair and Mandelson.

In fact, there was no physical trace of New Labour anwhere. Thet have not only lost the battle but left the field, climbed into ships and sailed off in search of neoliberal consensus elsewhere.

Perhaps some still wait in the wings, watching, hoping, to come back, but something about this conference felt decisive. The party has made its tectonic shift. There is no going back, only forwards, and on to inevitable, glorious, victory.

Watching Politics – American Style

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The other night I watched Get Me Roger Stone on Netflix – possibly the most depressing political documentary on US politics ever in a genre not known for its portrayals of the nicer side of the human spirit.

Frightening and hilarious by turns, it portrays Stone as an almost mythical chancer, a body building, alt-right Forrest Gump with the power to influence and create agendas who made millions lobbying and influencing politicians.

And, even more disturbingly, he looks a bit like an Armani-suited Jimmy Savile.

Roger, of course, revels in the attention, particularly the idea that he is the controlling voice at the court of the Trump White House. Although I’ll leave you to make your mind up on that one.

What really stands out from Get Me Roger Stone is the polarisation of US politics and how people like Stone will literally do and say almost anything to undermine a candidate or advance a cause.

Look at Stone’s Twitter account and you’ll find a timeline full of conspiracies and strange tales. There’s someone on there claiming to be Bill Clinton’s illegitimate son and a chance to buy a genuine ‘Lock Her Up’ Tee Shirt.

But don’t worry. If you can’t stomach Roger, there’s plenty of other docs on US politics on Netflix – and other places – to keep you going.

If it’s car crash, gut-wrenchingly awful, television you’re after, try Weiner (trailer here on YouTube), a fly on the wall account of Anthony Weiner’s attempt to become New York Mayor in 2013 against a backdrop of ‘sexting’ allegations. Weiner is as much a portrait of an abusive relationship than a study of a doomed campaign. It’s compulsive and uncomfortable viewing.

Netflix also has Mitt, a magnificent inside account of Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. The access is remarkable and he comes out of it well. And, btw, the Storyville on Ronald Reagan is also worth seeing on YouTube.

Finally if you, like me, believe everything is political, then set aside the eight hours it’ll take to watch OJ: Made in America (DVD). Starting with the Watts Riots and ending with the former quarterback’s 2007 incarceration, this is really an epic story of race and identity. A long watch. Definitely worth it.

 

This blog first appeared in the Birmingham Press

 

No money and little power – so why do people become politicians?

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With a new term about to begin, it’s time for a poser – why do people become politicians?

I don’t think it’s the money. After all, the vast majority of our nation’s elected officials aren’t exactly minted.  Remember, there are far more councillors than MPs, MSPs and and AMs and most of them are paid allowances that don’t even touch the average national wage for ‘normal people’ which £27,600.

The money only starts to get seriously good at the peak of Westminster politics – the political equivalent of the Premier League – but a mid-ranking cabinet minister still struggles to take home over £130,000 – peanuts in terms of other areas of public life. High profile ministers in other UK national parliaments aren’t on serious money either.

Remember, successive PMs should be on around £200,000 but choose to take less, because to claim their full allowance would be politically toxic. The fact is that wages for the top job have been artificially deflated over the years due to the ‘bad optics’.

There’s no doubt some national politicians do remarkably well – -particularly after leaving office – but for every George ‘five jobs’ Osborne there’s a parish councillor beavering away on a planning application earning the equivalent of the former Chancellor’s stationery budget.

And it’s not the most secure of professions either. At Westminster level there are safe seats, but they are hard to get and once larger majorities – particularly for the blue tribe- seem more vulnerable due to the Corbyn effect and boundary changes.

Remember, Home Secretary Amber Rudd’s political career almost came to a juddering halt back in June when she came within 400 votes of losing her seat.

And even if you do beat the odds, get a safe-ish seat, work all the hours God sends making it through to cabinet or shadow cabinet level, one single lapse of judgement can spell career Armageddon.

Sarah Champion found this recently, but there are other once household names who have fallen even further. Anyone remember, Simon Danczuk, Ron Davies and Neil Hamilton?

And along with the poor pay, the job insecurity and the terrible hours you can add in a whole range of other reasons not to do it, everything from the public probably won’t like you to the fact that –  particularly at a national level – you will be subject to serious scrutiny.

There’s obviously the allure of office, but many who embark on political careers get nowhere near the corridors of power. Instead they find themselves fielding hostile questions about the green belt in their local leisure centre on a Friday night.

But despite that there are no shortage of people wanting to be candidates. Recently 11 people -yes 11 – applied to be leader of UKIP. Surely, the political equivalent of rushing up to the bridge of a doomed Titanic and asking Captain Smith if you can have a go at getting the ship to New York.

I’m afraid it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that most of our elected officials must do the job because they think they – and the parties they support – can make a difference.

Touchingly uncynical, I know, but there we go.

In the meantime, some careers advice. If you want money, power and fame, don’t even think about elected office.

 

This blog first appeared in the Birmingham Press

 

Why the ‘Youth Quake’ should be worrying the Conservatives

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Let’s be frank, the Conservative Party has enough to worry about at the moment. A super slim majority, a party full of jumpy MPs who think the Vicar’s daughter is toast, an uneasy and expensive alliance with the DUP and a bland legislative programme designed around Brexit and nothing else.

Plus, at time of writing, a number of higher profile cabinet members are starting to hint heavily about a rise in public sector pay, something that will focus more attention on the PM’s famous ‘magic money tree’ confrontation with an angry and underpaid nurse.

But I’m going to throw one more worry into the mix, voter demographics.

I met a Conservative activist the other day who confessed one of the party’s biggest fears, that by the 2030s/40s there simply won’t be enough Tories to win majorities anymore.

By this he meant that too many young people are abandoning the Conservative cause and that they risk becoming a ‘toxic brand’ to anyone under 30.

And at the same time, too many of their older voters are dying off and aren’t being replaced with a fresh crop of blue-rinsed ladies and blazered golf club secretaries.

As Michael Heseltine has noted:

“One thing which is just worth having in mind, and you can’t do anything about it, two per cent of the older part of the electorate die every year – they are 70 per cent Conservative. Another two per cent come in at the young end of the electorate – they are about 70 per cent Labour… There isn’t much time.”

This movement towards a more progressive country could be partly driven by social changes, that go against the Right.

The death of the property owning democracy, the rise in graduates – people with degrees tend to have more progressive views – increasing urbanisation and the growing sexual and racial diversity of British society mean the Conservative cause could be in trouble.

And to make things worse, Corbyn has found a way to get young people to actually vote – promise them loads of free stuff – a prime factor behind some of election night’s surprise results.

Nationally, pollsters estimate the Conservatives were 30 per cent behind Labour among 18-35 year olds, a massive gap.

The Conservatives aren’t blind to this problem, it’s why David Cameron embarked on a widespread party modernisation programme and why George Osborne has talked of the need for a modern, metropolitan Conservatism.

Damian Green also ‘gets’ it, talking of the need for a rethink on issues like tuition fees.

It seems the so-called natural party of government needs to do some serious thinking over the years ahead.

This article originally appeared in the Birmingham Press.

 

 

Views from outside the Tribe – five things I learned at a Corbyn rally

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The other day Jeremy Corbyn came to town. In a spirit of political curiosity, I went along in the pouring rain to stand in an overflow car park to listen.

He’s still a massive draw

According to organisers, 10,000 people attended the event I was at. Walking there felt like going to a football match, people sang songs, waved flags and walked on the road. I’d say a good three quarters of the crowd looked between 18-24 years old, including quite a few young families. Whatever your reservations about JC’s policies, his ability to reach people who wouldn’t normally engage in mainstream politics is remarkable. This event wasn’t widely advertised, was organised at short notice with little publicity and took place in almost constant rain, yet still thousands turned up, with many charging up a hill past hapless police officers to try to get a better look.

He’s behind you

Like any big event, this came with warm up acts of varying length and quality – the most impressive of which was Labour’s General Election co-ordinator Ian Lavery who knows how to rouse an already excited crowd. But if audience participation isn’t your thing, don’t go to a Corbyn rally, it requires you to boo, hiss and cheer on cue. It’s a bit like political pantomime with the nasty party as the Ugly Sisters. Top of the boo list was Mrs Thatcher, followed by Mrs May, Boris Johnson, Bedroom Tax, Tories in general and the Home Counties. Judging by the cheers, scrapping tuition fees is Labour’s most popular policy, followed by dismantling welfare reforms and reversing austerity.

No-one’s talking about winning

I heard JC referred to as ‘the next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom’ by just one speaker. This felt like a rally to celebrate a valiant, but ultimately unsuccessful struggle, three days before the poll. One speaker told the crowd that they might not win this time – due to the usual suspects of a biased media and a mocking establishment – but that they were the majority and would one day be on the ‘right side of history’. At the heart of this is an interesting argument which I’ve heard before – the UK isn’t quite young and diverse enough for Corbyn to win yet, but in 20 years it might be and a winning Obama-esque coalition could rise to power.

Corbyn loves a ramble

JC has spoken to more rallies than I’ve had hot dinners, but whisper it, I think his speaking style is patchy. His most frustrating habit is building to a rhetorical point, but then drawing back at the last second to qualify or add policy context. He also rambles between subjects as diverse as pensioner poverty and climate change. He twice described manifesto policy initiatives as ‘quite large’ – hardly the most dynamic use of language. I know this is part of his untutored appeal, and this crowd would have cheered if he’d announced plans to bomb North Korea on June 9th, but I did sense a bit of frustration within the audience at his inability to come to focused points.

Talking to the tribe

All politicians love to preach to the converted, see the Vicar’s Daughter’s interactions with ‘ordinary people’ who stand aimlessly in warehouses and happen to wear blue rosettes, but JC does it on a bigger and more successful scale. If Corbyn thought he could really win, would he be wasting an evening in the run up to polling day in a town with a 15,000 Labour majority? The crowds were extraordinary both in numbers and demographic make-up, but this wasn’t an event for the undecided, this was one for the tribe.

This article first appeared in the Birmingham Press

The big interview versus the big fight

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Stories. People like them, politicians should tell more of them.

True stories, not Paul Nuttall’s flights of career fancy, but tales of where we are now, where they want to take us and the endless possibilities on the road ahead.

But on Sunday morning I watched the Prime Minister continue her one woman mission to turn this election into the most boring political contest in living memory.

When interviewed by Andrew Marr she didn’t just fail to set out a vision, she actively reduced her Government’s programme to little more than a technocrat’s shopping list. There was no beginning, no middle, no end. No picture of where we could be, no vision for the future, no narrative.

At a key time in our nation’s history we have a foregone conclusion and a dull one at that. There’s not even the prospect of a live TV debate to look forward to. 

The Vicar’s daughter is good on the figures, but to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, she knows the price of everything, but the value of nothing. She appears to say a lot, but when analysed says little new or interesting.

Strong and Stable Leadership faces some pretty stiff competition, but is likely the greyest election tag-line of all time.

Maybe I’m being particularly harsh on the Vicar’s Daughter because the night before I’d gazed at a huge screen enthralled as two six feet six inch men knocked seven bells out of each other.

Klitschko vs Joshua was good, really good. The best fight I’ve ever seen. Eleven rounds of see-sawing drama, courage and exhaustion – an epic contest.

The word epic applies, because the story of Joshua vs Klitschko , was a narrative right out of Hollywood. The 41 year-old former champion, coming back from the career wilderness to fight the 27 year-old bright young thing who has risen from the streets in one of the richest title fights ever.

They go at each other for 11 rounds. One falls, then the other. One staggers to the ropes, then the other. It seems as if there is no way back for either man at various stages, but somehow it lasts until the 11th, when Joshua summons his last bit of energy in a winner-takes-all effort to finally see off his rival.

When the referee finally stops in, saving Klitschko from another knock down, 90,000 people at Wembley go mad, in the pub I was in total strangers hugged each other as drinks flew.

Then, instead of gloating or hatred, both men embrace. Klitschko thanks the crowd, AJ calls the Ukranian a legend. Everyone is happy, they feel better about themselves because of what they’ve witnessed and secretly we all pray that a re-match won’t happen because no fight between them could be that incredible. To do it all again would sully the memory.

This was a compelling ‘event’, a thing to see, a contest to remember, a story to tell – everything our current political slug fest is not.