Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Notes on British politics

‘All political parties die at last of swallowing their own lies.’ James Arbuthnot, 1735.

I remember a time when I would read almost anything on party political conferences, the latest opinion polls etc. I seem to have given nearly all that up, though I have given the coverage in The Guardian of the current Labour Conference in Brighton a cursory glance. I am increasingly of the opinion that the three main parties’ conferences are a desperate attempt by their party hierarchies to convince the voting public that they are (i) different from the other two and (ii) they are worth voting for. With a bit of luck, none of them will succeed.

I think the current Government is suffering several syndromes the Conservatives suffered from in the years running up to their electoral annihilation in 1997 and which it took them a good decade to recover from (and if Gordon Brown had bit the bullet two years back, we would quite likely now be almost two years into a fourth Labour term with a Conservative Party in an advanced state of disintegration…). One is they may have done the right thing (ie pulled out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism, stopped the financial system from collapsing) but they will not get any credit for it, mainly because the actions they took contradicted a policy they had been advocating with enthusiasm for ages. I remember about a week before Sterling was pulled from the ERM John Major telling the CBI (I think) that it was ‘a dark lonely world outside the ERM.’ Of course, in fact it was the move that allowed Britain to get out of economic recession. Similarly, all Gordon Brown’s paeans to the City of London over the years (‘This is an era that history will record as a new golden age for the City of London. I want to thank all of you for what you are achieving.’ Gordon Brown’s Mansion house speech, 20th June ’07, quoted in Will Hutton ‘high stakes, low finance’ Guardian Review 2/5/09, p.8) makes his current attacks on the banks sound rather, well...pathetic.

Another similarity between the Cons then and NuLab now is the widespread feeling amongst their core supporters is that they are being dropped on from a great height. The high interest rates between 1989 and 1992 drove many small businesses to the wall- the very people who traditionally make up the backbone of local Conservative constituency parties. Although enough feared a Labour victory in 92 to get John Major back to office (then he stuck up VAT- tax bombshell anyone?) any small businesspeople that are left in political life are just as likely to be found in UKIP as the Tories. Similarly, NuLab’s management-speak cobblers about bringing ‘competition’ and ‘choice’ (ie bringing in large corporations to swallow up taxpayers' money with minimal accountability) into the public sector has alienated a wide swathe of people who stood by Labour through the Thatcher/Major years. If the great unsung reason for the collapse of the Tories in the 1990s was the destruction of the Nottinghamshire coalmines in 92/3 which kept open during the 1984-5 Miners Strike (I think the penny then dropped with many Tory voters that the Conservative Party would have no qualms about shafting them when the time came), I think the mass closure of Post Offices under New Labour will one day be seen as the reason why many traditional Labour voters deserted it.

Thirdly, I think it has reached the point where any new initiatives by the Government are greeted with the widespread question ‘Why didn’t you do that before? You’ve had plenty of time.’ Why House of Lords reform now? (Personally, there were three simple approaches to the Lords when Labour took over in 97: leave it as it was; make it 100% elected; & abolish it. Instead we’ve had 12 years of faffing about) Why a referendum on PR? (well at some point in the next Parliament we might just get something about a voting system based on the Alternate Vote, which like Single Transferable Vote, has many pros and cons, but it ain’t PR!) It’s all too little too late.

So is the Labour Party heading for total electoral annihilation? I am going to stick to the prediction I have been making for the last few years- that the Conservatives will be the biggest party, but will not get an overall majority and will form a ‘National Government’ with the Lib Dems and Blairites. (Lord Mandy looks like he'll be onto a winner whoever becomes PM on May 7th next year. Also do not be surprised if ultra-NuLab types like James Purnell end up in the House of Lords if they lose their seats in the Commons. As Harpy Marx suggests, Purnell's embrace of Government by 'Experts' has extremely undemocratic overtones). Maybe the Cons will get an overall majority, but I’m pretty sure ‘Call Me Dave’ will not want to be held hostage to the caprices of the EU-sceptic wing of his party and the ‘my EU, right or wrong’ types of the Far Centre inside the Lib Dems and NuLab will be ready to support the Cameroonies when the time comes. Put it this way, if Nick Clegg becomes Foreign Secretary, you can kiss goodbye to any chance of a Referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, whatever happens in Ireland on Friday. I think speculation that the Cons may call a such a referendum is merely a ruse by the Cameroonies to keep potential UKIP voters onside, which will be dropped ASAP after May 7th.

Although I predict a Con-led 'National Government' after the next Election I can see circumstances (short of Spain arranging to invade Gibraltar to give Gordon his own 'Falklands Factor') where events may conspire towards pushing the Election towards a lot tighter finish than many expect. For a start, there is no enthusiasm out there for a Conservative victory. Not so long back, I read in Private Eye a report from the wedding of former Sun editor and rising News International star Rebekah Brooks (nee Wade) where Shadow Chancellor George Osbourne declared 'It's just like '97!', referring to when Tony Blair became PM. To which comment former Indie editor Simon Kelner replied 'Yes, but there is a difference- nobody likes you.' If you look at the opinion polls the Cons are barely in the 40s, while in the run-up to 97, Labour was often getting over 50%. Maybe it will be enough, but some commentators have expressed their doubts. As Splintered Sunrise has argued, 'Call Me Dave' gets away with a lot, which Gordon Brown does not, as he is an ex-Carlton TV PR flak (one described by erstwhile Sun Business Editor Ian King as a 'poisonous slippery individual' and a 'smarmy bully who regularly threatened journalists who dared to write anything negative about Carlton- which was nearly all the time.' (The Sun 5/12/05 , cited in Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson Fantasy Island, p.73) and the Media Class love looking after one of their own. If the next General Election is not the Cameroonie mudslide the opinion polls currently suggest, the inabilty of most London-based media to see beyond their noses may be one reason why it will be treated as a shock.

In addition, I think the Government may perform rather better than currently expected if it was to borrow Stanley Baldwin's slogan from the 1929 General Election: 'Safety First.' (This somewhat suggests that the really big economic apocalypse is a few years down the line yet!) Let's be honest: that is how John Major slid home in '92, despite fighting a General Election in the midst of economic recession- fear of something worse. There is something else which makes Neil Kinnock's situation in 92 similar to how David Cameron's situation will be in 2010. That is, both are leading parties that have lost 3 consecutive General Elections. Both after the third defeat faced economic boom times and both saw the only real way of winning the next General Election was by adapting to economic boom times on the assumption that they would continue, although only an economic downturn, casting doubt on the Government's economic competence, gave them a real glimmer of hope. Kinnock had his Policy Review, which embraced the Exchange Rate Mechanism as an anti-inflationary measure. Then Thatcher's Economic Miracle petered out, she got Britain to join the ERM (great patriot as she was) and was replaced as Tory Leader by her Chancellor. Kinnock's New Model Labour Party (as was the phrase then) was confronted with economic recession but was saddled with a deflationary economic strategy based on the assumption of boom times. The rest is history. The Cameroonies thought the Blair/Brown boom would last for ever, and embraced greenery, 'quality of life', wind turbines on roofs etc to try and convince the public or at least media types that they were the true 'heirs to Blair.' Then the Great Boom turned out to be more fart than hurricane and the Cameroonies were left stuggling. They may get away with it- after all Labour supported ERM membership and they were not punished politically when Norman 'Green Shoots' Lamont had to oversee our withdrawal (I don't know what it's like elsewhere but in Britain the expression 'green shoots' is associated with Norman Lamont, who in the 90s was like a 'right-wing' version of the SWP- if you wanted to discredit a policy or cause, you got Norman to endorse it). I can definitely see with economic bad times still a distinct possibility Cameron getting some political fall-guys on board - hello power-hungry Lib Dems and NuLab types. I can see George Osbourne being accompanied on begging bowl trips to Brussels, Beijing and Bombay (ok it's Mumbai, but let's keep the alliteration going here- and it was renamed Mumbai by a Hitler fan!) by Lord Mandy and Vince Campbell (who could be the next Chancellor, despite not being as nice as some think).

Although we have managed thus far to avoid armed police outside every bank, no-one knows how the economic situation will pan out. Whatever the politicians' spin on the matter,the public spending cuts all three main parties are promising after the General Election will be painful, with unknown social and political consequences. There has been a constant drone throughout the Blair/Brown years from Corporate Boot Lickers in the Media and Political Classes about the need for wholesale 'reform' and 'modernisation' of the public sector. (The wonderful thing about this is that you can never 'modernise' or 'reform' chases constant, moving targets). The Droners agree that it is purely electoral considerations which has prevented 'reform'. In other words, if you want public sector 'reform' you have to ignore the 'public'. Get a Government that has no fear of the public voting it out (massive Commons majority + Purnell's 'GOAT: Government Of All Talents'- without much talent, a cynic might say) and the 'reforms' can go ahead.

On that uplifting note, I will leave you. I've got a copy of one of those books always cited, but hard to get, to read: Alec Nove's 1983 Economics of Feasible Socialism. I need inspiration- I really do!

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