Drowning in a sea of policy and Pinot Grigio

conference-picOne of the perks of my job is getting to attend party conferences. Journalists, politicians, and party activists all swimming in a sea of room temperature booze, buffet lunches and small talk. It’s most people’s idea of hell, but I find it strangely enjoyable.

One tip, if you’re a recovering alcoholic or detoxing, try to avoid party conference season.

Both Labour and Conservative events are soaked in the hard stuff. Most people, from senior party figures to lowly activists, appear to be trolleyed on copious amounts of free hotel-branded Merlot and Savignon Blanc.

The drinking starts at lunchtime and tends to continue until the small hours. This year, at Conservatives, I went to a reception that started – yes, started – at 11.30pm. Predictably by then, everyone was steaming drunk. Too drunk to hear the Secretary of State when he started speaking just past midnight.

But being a capable politician and probably the only sober person in the room, he sensed the mood and cut to the chase, urging everyone to elect more Conservative councils and drink even more – to loud cheers and another stampede to the free bar.

Walking out of the conference hotel in the small hours, past a number of  distinctly refreshed cabinet ministers and MPs, I got to wondering what politicians in ‘dry’ countries do to oil the wheels. How does stuff get done in countries where alcohol isn’t culturally acceptable?

What else, apart from the alcohol? It was well reported that Labour was ‘flat’, and Liverpool did seem strangely empty. Most of the delegates I met were depressed at the state of their party and British left.

And I thought Labour also displayed a noticeable policy vacuum.At their best, party conferences are political festivals full of interesting and dynamic events that sketch out the big ideas of UK politics. At Labour there seemed to be little of this.

Conservatives had the better fringe and, in my experience, the better events. One I attended with Policy Exchange and Conservative Home on the concept of social reform was outstanding.

It left me thinking that part of the centre left’s problem might be its paucity of bright new ideas and thinkers and a lack of intellectual ‘heft’. At the minute, the right appears more willing to engage with the big ideas – everything from drug reform to devolution.

And one more thing struck me about Conservatives in Birmingham – a noticeable lack of triumphalism.

Given the state of the British left you might expect your average Tory activist to be doing the Samba down Broad Street, but the shadow of Europe and Article 50 hung over this conference, creeping into fringe discussions and ministerial speeches. It was quieter and more reflective than it should have been.

But I’m writing this watching the news from Syria – close to 100 children have died n the continued bombing of Aleppo in the last 24 hours.

News like this, underlines the essential meaningless of these boozy annual political jamborees.

Thoughts on politics and GB medal success

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One of my core beliefs is that politics is everywhere, around us every day, in most of the things we do or engage with.

Even Joey Essex gets this – see here.

Few things irritate me more than the argument, ‘it should be about – and delete as applicable – sport/music/architecture/education/health, not politics’.

So there was no shortage of commentators sympathetic to left, right, remain and leave, diving – with considerably less grace and elegance than Tom Daley – into the debate around Great Britain’s medal success.

For those on the right, coming second in the medal table, as seems likely at time of writing – demonstrates the value of a free market, stand on your own two feet, approach to doling out cash.

It’s not about the amounts you put in, but about rewarding success. If sports don’t succeed – for example basketball – then they don’t get funding. If they do, they get more money and – as we’ve seen with women’s hockey and cycling – the results can be stunning.

It’s survival of the fittest played out in Lycra and a triumph of aggressive capitalism. You can read the Telegraph’s Jeremy Warner on this here.

Even better, the National Lottery, which funds much of GB sport, was the brainchild of a Conservative government. This cash doesn’t come from the general tax take, but from a voluntary levy. If you choose to buy a ticket, then you contribute.

Even John Major, whose premiership was widely regarded as a disaster, saw himself rehabilitated. The National Lottery, and therefore Olympic success, was his legacy.

But if you’re of a left-wing persuasion, you might work this out in a different way. I saw Tweets and letters that argued that GB Olympic success was strongly linked to the power of a well-resourced – centrally planned – state. 

And from my own personal experience, people on the left can often be a little uncomfortable with the idea of lottery funding. The argument that the National Lottery is a regressive tax on the poor has been around for some time.

As if left and right wasn’t enough, leave and remain seized on GB’s remarkable run of gold, silver and bronze, to back up their own arguments.

For leave, the UK’s success is proof that Britain is a formidable power on the world stage and has the strength to compete and succeed outside the trading bloc. Our success compared to Germany and France – traditionally seen as the two stalwarts of the EU -is often cited.

It all ties into the argument that the apocalyptic warnings of remainers were wrong, Again, her Majesty’s Daily Telegraph, sums this argument up better than I could.

Some in the remain camp responded to this, at one point showing how many medals the EU would have won if it were a country. Some also hinted that EU funding may have had a hand in some medal successes.

Meanwhile, the SNP appeared to be quieter than usual. After all, many of the most successful teams featured Scots competing under the flag of a union the party that controls Scotland wants to break up. 

Just a thought, but if I was a political opponent of Nicola Sturgeon’s party I’d be thinking about using GB’s medal haul as an argument in next May’s Scottish local government elections.

In politics there are few stronger and more emotionally resonant metaphors than sporting success.

(Photograph from http://www.britishcycling.org.uk)

Revolver and the Summer of 1966

I say in speeches that a plausible mission of artists is to make people appreciate being alive at least a little bit. I am then asked if I know of any artists who pulled that off. I reply, “The Beatles did.”

Revolver

It’s the late Summer of 1966, there is a newly re-elected Labour Government, swinging London is at its peak and, as if to complete the national mood of confidence and new beginnings, England has just won the football World Cup.

On August 5th – a few days after Bobby Moore lifted the Jules Rimet trophy – The Beatles released Revolver, an eclectic 14 song collection featuring some of their best known works Eleanor Rigby, Yellow Submarine and Here Comes the Sun.

Half a century later and people still maintain that Revolver is The Beatles first masterpiece – better and more complex even than Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

This is a blog about politics, and it’s important to say Revolver is not a political album, certainly not in the conventional sense.

True, it is probably the only Beatles’ album to name-check domestic politicians. On track one, Tax Man, ‘Mr Wilson’ and ‘Mr Heath’ get a mention as The Beatles rail against the unfairness of a 95p in the pound tax rate. (Yes, Neo Liberals, that’s 95p in the pound).

But to say that Taxman is about the pitfalls of re-distributive taxation is like saying Eleanor Rigby is simply about loneliness.

Listening to Revolver 50 years on, I’m struck not only by the fact that it still ‘holds up’ as a piece of great art – it is their best and most complete piece of work, narrowly beating Abbey Road.

But I’m also struck by the essential weirdness of this mix of songs. There is no story to Revolver, no narrative to be savoured, but the quality of the material means it still soars.

We veer from the bonhomie of Good Day Sunshine to a portrait of a doomed relationship in For No One, from the happy children’s story book quality of Yellow Submarine to the early feedback weirdness of Tomorrow Never Knows.

There’s no pattern to Revolver, its genius is its unpredictability. In She Said She Said – my favourite track and based on an experience dropping LSD with Peter Fonda – Lennon writes:

‘I know what it’s like to be dead

‘I know what it’s like to be sad

‘And she’s making me feel like I’ve never been born’

Revolver came half way through The Beatles frighteningly short seven year spell as the most famous pop group on Earth. Already things are changing, a few weeks after Revolver’s release they would play their final concert for a paying audience.

As their hair grew and their clothes changed, The Beatles would become virtually unrecognisable from the suited, clean cut band that had appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show and become a worldwide sensation just two years earlier.

Revolver is a snapshot of a high Sixties summer, a burst of creative expression at a moment of artistic and personal transition. Fifty years on, it remains as fresh and relevant as ever.

 

So you’ve decided to resign, what happens next?

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William Goldman famously said about Hollywood – ‘Nobody knows anything’.

That quotation could easily be applied to British politics following the vote to leave the European Union.

And the most visible sign of the post-Brexit political upheaval is the never-ending stream of resignations.

It seems barely half a day has gone by without someone else deciding that they don’t fancy their chances in the increasingly febrile world of Westminster politics as the establishment reels from a vote they didn’t expect and certainly didn’t want.

Within hours of the referendum result, David Cameron was resigning outside Downing Street. Barely 13 months after an impressive General Election win his political career appeared to be over.

When watching Cameron’s speech I was reminded of Enoch Powell’s maxim – ‘all political lives….end in failure’. (this is misquoted a lot, you can find the original at the end of Powell’s Economist obit here).

But the PM appeared to start something of a resignation orgy, it was followed by most of the Shadow Cabinet, followed by Boris (who you could argue withdrew rather than resigned), followed by the England football manager, followed by Farage, and maybe, although this looks increasingly unlikely at time of writing, by Jeremy Corbyn.

I’m interested not in the personalities, but in what happens after that final letter or speech. How do once powerful people cope with life after politics – life after office?

In some cases, the loss of the big job is the start of a downward spiral into ill health and ultimately death.

There’s a stark reminder of this at the end of HBO’s excellent dramatisation of LBJ’s first two years in office All The Way when we’re reminded that Johnson didn’t seek the nomination in 1968 and died of a heart attack less than five years later  – worn out by a brutal term and a half at the White House.

A couple of generations earlier, Neville Chamberlain lasted even less time after office – dead of bowel cancer just months after he resigned as Prime Minister in 1940, his reputation forever tarnished by Munich.

These are extreme examples, most leaders go on to live long, productive and seemingly happy lives after they find themselves back on civvy street – being gently shuttled between continents via business class, happy to talk about past triumphs and failures on what Americans call the ‘rubber chicken circuit’.

Gorbachev, Bill Clinton, Major and Blair, are regulars – along with others who played less of a starring role in recent geo-politics, ever heard of Guy Verhofstadt for example?

David Cameron is probably lining up speaking options as I write.

But life post power does take some adjusting to. Carol Thatcher tells the story of how, after Downing Street, her Mum used to reach for the phone while watching a big crisis unfolding on TV, only to realise that she had no power to wield any more. There was no-one to call.

It is certainly harder to forge a strong reputation after office, particularly if – like Tony Blair – the repercussions of your mistakes continue to worsen your reputation.

But a few manage to enhance their standing. Jimmy Carter was a below average President, but somehow transformed into a global elder statesman after leaving the White House.

Perhaps Powell was wrong and political lives don’t have to end in failure after all.

Millennials and the consumerisation of politics

 

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Why can’t they just register to vote on time?

That was the complaint on social media when the voter registration website for the EU referendum crashed partly due to the weight of last-minute registration.

And figures would indicate that the bulk of that late surge was from so-called millennials. People born in the mid to late 1990s – don’t worry, it makes me feel old as well – who are now engaging with formal politics for the first time.

In one of the other big myths of UK politics, this generation are often unfairly characterised as a lazy and apathetic when it comes to civic engagement. ‘Slacktivists’ with more interest in Big Brother than big politics. For many of them the machinations in Westminster must seem a world away from their daily cares and worries.

But research from a variety of sources indicates exactly the opposite of this. Our young people are increasingly political – just not in the ways in which older generations define it.

They also drink, smoke and get pregnant less often, don’t commit as much crime and care more for other generations. In fact you could argue that young people have more of a sense of civic duty than ever before – but this isn’t a statement you’ll see repeated in mainstream media.

But back to voter registrations. It struck me that one reason behind the sudden late rush by those aged 18-24 might be related to the consumerisation of politics.

The theory goes like this, since the dawn of the television age in the early 1960s, politicians and ideas have been ‘sold’ to an increasingly cynical public. This began in the US, and has accelerated over recent years, with some citing Saatchi and Saatchi’s advice to the Conservatives and the famous ‘Britain Isn’t Working’ poster as a key moment this side of the pond.

Meanwhile at the same time, a growing consumerisation across the developed world, means we now expect ideas to be sold in the same way that brands sell stuff to us.

People used to vote along family lines, but now we approach voting like we approach buying a washing machine – weighing up the options before choosing the party – or brand – that best matches our current needs and our future aspirations.

So people, particularly young people who have grown up during the last twenty years in an increasingly digital environment, are more likely to have a different relationship with politics and the state. For them, politics is a transaction, a service provided and to be consumed.

Therefore, it should be ready to use when they are and it should operate in a mechanism and language that they understand.

Just for fun, here’s a short piece of YouTube video showing the state opening of parliament. If it looks outdated and arcane to you, imagine what it must look like to someone born before Tony Blair became Prime Minister.

Now, can you imagine how outmoded and old-fashioned our existing ‘cross in the box’ system must seem to people who have never voted before. To people who engage with the world through a smart phone and social media?

So next time you hear commentators decrying lack of engagement, think about it carefully. The fault may be with an outdated establishment, rather than our young people.

Pandas, Lesbians and Scottish Tories

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Scotland – a profoundly left wing nation where you’ll find more pandas than Conservative MPs.

On the face of it, the omens are not good for the centre right in Scotland. Only one MP – David Mundell, who helpfully manages to also be the Secretary of State – a declining share of the vote and a dominant SNP that has changed the game and removed Scottish Labour’s reason to exist.

Even Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson MSP alluded to the party’s perceived unpopularity north of the border when she said she wasn’t sure what was harder, coming out as a Tory or as a lesbian.

However, I suspect Ms Davidson – one of the right’s brightest political talents – was cleverly portraying herself and her party as underdogs.

In truth, she knows the political picture in Scotland is more complex. For a start, social attitudes surveys consistently show that people north of Hadrian’s Wall are not particularly left wing. On most issues they either match what the English think or are only slightly more progressive.

And the idea that Scots had an undying hatred of Mrs Thatcher doesn’t hold up to scrutiny either. Polling shows she was relatively popular during the first part of her term, and in 1987 almost a quarter of the electorate voted for the Iron Lady and her party.

That share actually went up in 1992, and that’s despite the poll tax and the enduring myth that somehow Scotland was used as a Guinea Pig for the hated tax.

There’s been lots written on Conservatism in Scotland but this piece from Spiked is one of the best.

It underlines what many English commentators forget – partly because the Scottish political narrative is currently devoted to one issue – there is a deep strain of fiscal and social conservatism north of the border.

And Labour’s collapse gave Ruth Davidson the opportunity she needed to stress her party’s unionist credentials. Cannily, she argued that the Scots Tories wouldn’t win, but they were the best credible opposition to nationalism.

If you wanted the UK to stay together – there was only one realistic alternative to the SNP.

Hence the Scottish Parliament election result earlier this month, which saw the Conservatives become the second biggest party North of the Border.

Of course, the big disruptive factor is still the rise of the SNP. Nicola Sturgeon’s party remains miles ahead while Labour struggles to define itself in an era when the question of nationhood dominates Scottish politics.