Mind the Gaffe…

28 04 2010

In two days there has been two stories about two of  the men who would be Prime Minister. Neither reflect particularly well on the candidates, but Cameron seems to have escaped the media barrage which has firmly, and perhaps finally, destroyed the Labour Party. Even though Brown put a lot into the repair work following the ‘bigot’ remark, one cannot help but feel that in one small moment, a seemingly private moment, Brown revealed his true self to the nation.

I have long been a sceptic of Brown’s public persona. I have heard rumours of a fearsome temper, one which can be particularly short. Of course ‘his people’ do their best to mask this trait, and whilst the attempts to dress him up as warm and likeable seem destined to struggle, the effort is there on their part. So it was meant to be demonstrated today, and, in large parts of the meeting it was. He had most of the answers to Mrs Duffy’s questioning. He was inquisitive and friendly, asking how her grandchildren were dong at school. He looked damned uncomfortable, but he was doing what his rivals seem to find easy. The wolf was tarting up well in its new sheepskin clothing.

And then he threw it all away. As the leader of the Labour Party he is meant to be both accountable for and representative of the party as a wider whole. If this is what his party thinks of Joe Public then heaven help all of us. I realise, of course, that it isn’t what the party think of Joe Public, but that is what the newspapers and media outlets will run with. And that is what people will care about. A PM who isn’t willing to listen to his public. A PM who is willing to cast slurs on widows. Not even the apology was convincing. He apparently ‘misunderstood’ what Mrs Duffy had said. Except that, of course, being the intelligent guy he is, he hadn’t. He knew and understood everything that occurred. The trouble was that the only way out was to cast himself down, making it seem like he was not worthy of having a conversation with her. Like she was operating on some sort of higher educational level to him. She wasn’t, of course. She was, seemingly, a typical voter with typical concerns. The Labour Party as a whole should be concerned that for a party so defined by its concern for Joe Public, its leader does not seem to share that concern. The public wooing of the electorate seems so forced by Brown. He wants to get on with things. It’s like a particularly snobbish person coming into the shop where I work and treating me like I’ve just climbed out of a bin. It seems as though there is an air of it being almost beneath him to talk to the public. Or maybe I’m just reading it wrong.

The trouble is for the Labour Party, there is no-one to replace him. All the candidates are limited, and, in the case of Ed Balls, pretty unlikeable. When the election is lost the Labour Party will collapse, firstly into two factions (those who support Brown, and those who don’t). Then this will sub-divide further as those vying for consideration throw their hats into the ring. The party has become stale. It is no longer the voice of the working people it once was. If any further evidence is needed of this fact, just look at how the Conservatives are campaigning, using many of the traditional Labour watchwords. I wrote many, many months ago that the Labour fightback had already begun. It has. However, for the party there is likely to be a long period of grey days before there are any sunny ones.

On a lighter note, if you haven’t seen Newsnight’s musical campaigns, then you’ve missed a trick. Check out the Tory, Labour and Lib Dem songs designed to promote politics and voting to a younger audience. Especially check out the croquet playing Tory rappers. I kid thee not.


The Growing Clamour…

28 05 2009

As MP’s continue to live in fear for their jobs, and, as has been suggested by some, perhaps even their lives, the Independent has found ten “respected figures at Westminster” for their solutions to the problems. Which, it seems, is increasingly in the call for political reform. Which is, apparently, an idea that has been floating around in the heads of many surviving MP’s for a long long time. Apparently.

The cynic in me suggests otherwise. The only way out of the hole is to push the case for political reform. And so they are. I will come back to the issue of reform shortly, but first I want to look at the continuing issue of expenses.  I’ve written previously about the hypocrisy of the Great British public, but I want to elaborate upon this a little more. I am convinced that anyone in the same position would have done the same. If they were not being stopped by those who should have prevented such abuses, they were inevitably going to claim for what they thought they could. It is easy for the public to act all high and mighty over this subject, but it should be remembered that MP’s are only human, with the fallabilities that the rest of society has. Now I do not condone what they have done, but I think I can understand it.

Anyway, returning to the issue of reform. David Cameron is climbing out of the political wreckage with a lot of credibility, if only because it has given him the opportunity to look more like a man of the people than ever before. His suggestions for reform, whilst not entirely new, certainly carry a lot of weight in the midst of the current predicaments. He has talked of “Progressive Conservative”, in much the same way it seems as Tony Blair once talked about “New Labour”. Two of the suggestions that have emerged are set-term parliaments and a change of system. Of course there are others, but it is these I wish to discuss.

I think I agree with the notion of a fixed-term parliament. The notion is easy to talk about and promote at the moment, with the clamour behind the idea, but in reality it is much harder to bring into practice. Fixed-term parliaments would tone down the level of party-politics that exists at the moment. Rather than the PM calling an election when his party is performing well in the polls, instead he would be forced to have it at a certain time, regardless of poll performances, regardless of situation or circumstance. Regardless of anything. It takes away frustrating uncertainty that grows with not being able to have a say when the chips are down for any government. There are problems with the idea of fixed-term parliaments, I will admit, but I think that for politics to move forward, steps such as this need to be taken.

The second issue is that of the system. People have criticised the ‘first-past-the-post’ system as being too ineffective, and not representative of enough of the electorate. Chuka Umunna, a Labour candidate, writes that it’s a “ridiculous situation” where “around 100,000 voters in a few marginal seats decide the outcome of an election”. Possibly. However, I do not think that the alternative is much more conducive to a strong, and more importantly, a stable country. PR, I would suggest, only serves to weaken any government into a fragile coalition incapable of making significant progress. I have never been convinced by the PR system and cannot see it providing any more answers than the system we currently have.

As I mentioned previously, there are  many more issues that come with political reform, many of which will be explored by the politicians in the coming weeks. There is one thing that is clear though. The idea of reform is very clearly on the table, and it won’t be going anywhere for a long time. What is to be seen though is whether Cameron can manage the pressures of promises with the reality of government.

To Be Lived In Or Learned From…?

12 05 2009

As a historian, this question is one which poses problems. In essence the answer is simple, learn from the mistakes, but never repeat them. In the real world though this is somewhat more difficult to achieve. Instead the solution seems to be to live in the past, using it as a justification for the now, when, in reality, it is far from any such thing.

As someone who not long ago finished university, I still have friends who are currently plodding their way through another set of exams. It is for this reason that I make no apologies in the two cases in point which I wish to use to illustrate my point.

The first comes from the Birmingham University Conservative Future blog, which can be found here. The people over on this blog, of whom, I will admit, I either do not know, or know by name or sight alone; write about, naturally enough things pertaining to the Conservative way of thinking. The trouble is, this invariably leads back to a certain individual, whose shadow sits long on the political landscape. Margaret Thatcher is a name which is as synonymous with political divisions as it is with miners, or the Falklands. Those over on BUCF, perhaps unsurprisingly, seem to write about her and her legacy, with almost metronomic regularity.

Now I do not have a problem with posts about her in small doses, she did divide the nation with her actions. However, the regularity with which she is held up and talked about by those on the site is, for want of a better word, boring. Perhaps more valuable would be a stringent analysis of why the Conservatives, despite Brown’s continuing failings, are failing to impress as the other option. I still see the Conservatives winning the next general election, but smaller groups such as UKIP, the BNP, the Green Party etc will be much better represented than ever before, and I think, certainly in the case of the BNP, this is a political failing of the mainstream parties. For now, the Conservatives seem to be content to ride on the wave of Labour’s self-destruction to the election. This is reflected in the blogging of the folk on BUCF, which seems, to my mind at least, to ignore the larger political issues of the moment in exchange for Labour bashing (which, as fun as it may seem, is counter-productive in the long run).

All of which leads my nicely onto the next problem. Hopping over the political spectrum to the folk at Birmingham University Labour Students, I find a similar problem. They too are stuck lauding over past success in exchange for neglect of current predicaments. In their case, the past success is much more recent, but still, to my mind, is barely enough to hang their hopes on. The minimum wage, undoubtedly a good thing, seems to be left high and dry as the one thing that Labour now really has left following twelve years of government. Their record on child poverty is in tatters, unemployment is now no better, legacies in Iraq, Afghanistan and Ireland have all been left, but we wait to see how soon these may fall apart in volatile areas of the world. It is entirely questionable as to whether healthcare has improved all that much, and whilst there are some shining lights in education, there are really not that many. There was a general enjoyment of success whilst Britain was riding a wave of optimism and big spending in the early years of the government, but this has spectacularly fizzled out as we have hit the ‘bust’ section of the cycle. Labour too has had the misfortune of being the party in power at a stage where increased litigation has forced in the country down a route of increased bureaucracy, something the wider public seems to be growing increasingly frustrated with. All of which inevitably spell curtains for the party as the British government, and this is before we hit the media problems which have dogged the party in recent times. Those on the blog though seem to be ignoring the problems. There is rarely any comment about negative Labour headlines, something I feel is to the detriment of themselves and their readership.

Perhaps it is me, floating around in my idealistic bubble, but I think I would prefer to discuss the problems, agree that there are some, and work out what the party can be doing to overcome these problems. I feel that public acceptance of the problems would be a start, and is certainly better than anonymity. Both sides at the ‘grass-roots’ level of the party perhaps have to move out of the realm of comfort blogging and start considering the bigger issues, which, sooner rather than later one would guess, will become their problems.

The Greatest…?

26 09 2008

An image on the BBC Homepage caught my eye as I was performing my usual review of frequented websites this morning. The caption beneath the image read “Who’s our Greatest Post-War PM?”.

Certain names immediately present themselves. Thatcher, Blair, Churchill (although his post-war legacy is somewhat sketchy), Attlee. All have a certain iconic status to them. All contributed to shaping Britain, however much you may disagree with what they did and how they did it.

The article asks you to list in order of preference, who you consider to be “the greatest”. It’s a simple task really, which PM do you like the most?

The trouble is, it is not a simple task for a plethora of reasons. I will list but three:

1. Few people who will vote will remember all the candidates (there are comments to be made here about the average age of internet users, and the age of people who will be able to remember all the candidates). Therefore the judgements they make will be based upon books/ recordings/ papers etc, ie, all second hand material (I will return to this point later).

2. It very much reflects the political views of those who vote, that is, if more Conservative voters take part in the poll, there will be inevitable skew (almost certainly in favour of the Iron Lady).

3. A good leader and success rarely go hand in hand (Churchill was, I believe, a good leader, but his overall record, as mentioned above, was sketchy). Leaders will get judged more on their failings than their successes (perhaps this is the right way to do it?), and for example Blair’s reputation will be forever tarnished with the gloomy spectre of the Iraq war, despite some notable success (Ireland for example).

So, it is with difficulty that one can choose who is “the greatest”, which, in itself is something of a misnomer as it encourages people to compare like with like (obviously impossible as the Britain of Macmillan, for example, is hugely different to that of Brown.)

Returning therefore to my first point of contention, the use of second hand material to judge people. The whole issue of source material is one which, as a history scholar, I have become very aware of during my academic life.  Warnings from teachers to not take the source at face value seem a long time ago, but still are (and forever will be) hugely relevant. When reading a newspaper, or watching the television, I seem to be thinking more about the angles things are portrayed at now than ever previously. I think you have to be very careful about so nonchalantly critique-ing people based on the value of a brief synopsis of their career written by a hard line left-winger, for example.

I therefore have refrained from voting in such a poll simply because it is a simple piece of time-wasting which companies such as the BBC can leap upon and claim that “Thatcher is the Greatest Post-War PM” (replacing ‘Thatcher’ with any such suitable candidate – for the record, I do think Thatcher will win such a poll, with Chuchill and Blair completing the top three). Obviously the poll is entirely inconclusive, and reflective of little more than the people who vote (shock horror, for example, that a poll in which 59% were Conservative voters, Thatcher won).

If, unlike me you do wish to vote in this poll, the link is here. Perhaps you are confident of making an informed, unbiased decision on who was the greatest post-war PM. I can’t, and I’m reasonably certain most people couldn’t either.

Democracy Rules?

2 05 2008

So the post mortem is underway in the Labour party. Following the worst results in local elections for forty years, the result in London is looking increasingly like Boris is going to come up trumps. I think these elections reflect the first public critique of Gordon Brown more than they reflect the merits of either the Labour, Conservative or Liberal Democrat candidates in most areas. Whilst Brown has suffered at the hands of the media for various problems (the non-election last autumn and the recent 10p tax row are the two biggest), Cameron has, in all reality, failed to impress much more. An article in one of the Guardian supplements (left littered on our kitchen table) showed how the editor of the Evening Standard in London was encouraging people to not vote for Ken, which, he insisted is not the same as encouraging people to vote for Boris. Few remain convinced, this race has long been a two horse one, and whilst Paddick continues to talk the talk (I was impressed, to some extent, with him on QT last week) it really matters little.

Is this the problem then? Are the Conservatives and Lib Dems winning because of a backlash against Labour? I would certainly suggest so. Having had Brown now for roughly eight months, the relationship between him and the public has initially waned, and then broken down. He is not distrusted. More he is a figure of pity or of mockery. His indecisiveness has been seized upon by the ruthless media and impressions of him are getting worse. The 10p tax row did nothing to help this image (although I agree with the sentiment expressed on last weeks Have I Got News For You. Brown was very clearly in the middle of a rock and a hard place. He was damned for the initial problem, and criticised as weak following his backtracking), but the damage was quickly done. This came at just the wrong time for him and pretty much every other Labour candidate across the country.

An oft expressed sporting analogy is that one team did not win a match, but the other lost it. This notion can be applied to some extent here (this is not to say that the Tories or Lib Dems are completely incompetant, quite the contrary, they have done well to seize the initiative and run with it). The trouble is using the big picture of national politics to judge the regional level. Obviously the various candidates in the various regions have policies relevant to that area. But the big picture undoubtedly plays some part. Without, I feel, offering anything really substantial in terms of policy the Tories and the Lib Dems are capitalising well upon the failings of Labour, and this is reflected in the results.

I wish to leave British affairs, enough will be said on them (including numerous posts today on BULS), and instead look briefly at the other election that is rumbling on. In Zimbabwe the failure of either big party to gain the requisite 50% has meant that a second round of elections will take place. Which if you are Morgan Tsvangirai is bad news. The five week delay in annoucing the results has raised many eyebrows across the world, and the news that another round of elections will deepen fears that Mugabe will worm his way into power once more. Claims that there has been widespread intimidation and threatening actions undertaken by Mugabe’s militia are, whilst unproven, likely to founded in some degree of truth. The plight of Zimbabwe is one which is felt across the world I feel. Most people are sympathetic to the people of the country so ravaged by internal strife.

So it is I am trying to put this in perspective. I have heard the grumblings of many Labourites and non Labourites alike regarding Boris’ ability to run London in the build up to 2012. I am thankful. Despite his failings (of which he undoubtedly has some, but who doesn’t), the issues in Zimbabwe indicate that things could be a lot, lot, lot worse.

The times, they are a changing…

4 03 2008

Whilst trawling through one of the oh-so-enjoyable books that I have to read for one of my courses I was interested to find the following quotation. The book is about British Radicalism in the 1790s.

“the press free, the laws simplified, judges unbiassed[sic], juries independent, needless places and pensions retrenched, immoderate salaries reduced, the public better served, taxes diminished and the necessaries of life more within reach of the poor, youth better educated, prisons less crowded, old age better provided for, and sumptous Feasts, at the expense of the starving poor, less frequent” (Cited in H.T. Dickinson British Radicalism and the French Revolution 1789- 1815)

The quote itself was written in 1792. It lists what the so-called radicals aimed to achieve. There is two very interesting things to note about it.

Firstly, that the issues highlighted here are still the same issues with which we are dealing today. Prison overcrowding, taxes, education, poor people and the poverty line, care for old people. All sound like watchwords from either Labour or the Conservatives spring conferences. Which leads me to wonder

a) If politics has gone round in a circle (ie changing things and then changing them back) over the course of 200 years.

or b) If in reality, nothing much has changed since the 1790s. With the exception of modernisation of course. At heart, the problems of the 1790s are the same problems of today, just dressed differently.

I’m inclined to think that the latter view is the more accurate one, and as politicians have for 200 years strived to solve these issues, it seems that people still have the same basic wants and needs as they used to. Politicians have not sorted out some of the basic issues facing many people. I would maintain that politics is still an elitist conception (although nowhere near as bad as back in the 1790s), and consequently, politicians are still failing to adequately bring politics to the people. Because this hasn’t been done, it can therefore be worked out that those basic issues people have will not have been adequately sorted.

Onto my second point, and this is rather briefer. As the books title suggests, these ideas were very much “radical” at the time. I would though, challenge anyone to suggest that either Brown’s Labour or Cameron’s Tories are “radical”. Both are jostling for the occupied middle ground, and are about as far away from “radical” as you can get.

Which therefore leads me to conclude that the goalposts have shifted somewhat. That the things which were radical are no longer considered radical implies to me that standards have changed. Those things which were radical are not any more. Free speech, unbiased judges, universal suffrage. These are all things we sort of take for granted now. Back in the 1790s these were radical. I’m thankful they aren’t any more.

He’s finally done it…

1 03 2008

So good old Dave has finally come out and said something I agree with. At the Conservative Conference in Wales, Cameron has, amongst other things called for “broken politics” to be mended. He has insisted there is too much in the way of spin in politics, and that because of the actions of a few members of parliament, there has been a ‘breakdown of public faith'(BBC).

I agree, at least in part, with his whole speech. Blaming ‘spin’ on the Labour party though, although probably accurate, is almost like shooting yourself in the foot, as the Conservatives now employ spin too.

Bur I do agree that politicians have become concerned with personality politics, which leads to a collapse of public confidence, as Cameron suggests. The trouble is, if you live by the sword (employing personalities to sell something) you inevitably die by it (when things go wrong for those personalities, they go really wrong). The public do not know which way to turn, there is no good option now, the question is about who is less bad. Consequently, the final option to them is to turn away. Be that in the form of not voting at all, or emmigrating to the continent or further afield.

Disillusionment is rife in Britain, and it should be the politicians job to do something to eradicate this frustration. As it is, the politicians are more concerned with political one-upmanship. They wish to outscore their opponent with a witty repost, or a bigger and better way of saying basically the same thing. The Conservatives have recently launched a nice new advertising campaign with promises of more police (surely paying the current ones a better wage first should be a priority?), an improved NHS, and a more stable economy. Which is all very well and good, and honestly, I think the campaign looks smart. But I’m asking myself whether the Labour camp will say the same thing, because, lets face it, they are not going to win any voters by offering a worse economy, or a failing NHS are they?

Returning to the point, I have long championed the argument that communications between MP’s and their electorate should be vastly improved. I still consider this the best way of removing disillusionment. If politicians talked more to their voters, then the voters can have fewer complaints about being ignored, and the MP’s would have a much greater understanding of what the people want.

That does not mean that I, as a voter, should simply wait for my politician to come and talk to me about what I think needs improving etc, but I maintain that the there should be a greater onus on communication, something which works both ways.

And so I am very much relieved that those in the Guild have finally clicked this. Checking out the manifestos for those running for President, and the same things seems to crop up (thus reflecting politics in general?). One of which is communication. They are beginning to understand that to be representative of the people is not simply to win votes but to actually talk to the people and act upon what they are saying.

Last week I was involved in a discussion with members of my department (both teaching and student) about the proposals for a restructure of the course. The staff wanted to know what we thought. There were (I think) three groups of roughly 10 people each who volunteered to learn more and offer criticisms or suggestions about this syllabus change. From this I’m led to believe that voluntary actions won’t work as well. Those at my meeting all had thoughts and opinions about the plans, and were keen to speak about it and discuss it. Students aren’t apathetic, they just need a push. If such meetings were compulsory (and I know of the difficulty of logistics) then I’m sure feedback would be useful as students would have concerns about their course, or university life in general. By making engagement compulsory, then maybe people could start getting enthused with things again.

It isn’t just small university admin-type politics either, there is no reason the Guild couldn’t have meetings, through the Guild Councillors, with the students to discuss things and give feedback on issues which affect them.

I’m just trying to propose some ideas with the main premise that people aren’t engaging because those in control do not engage with them in the first place. Improve communication, and I think you will go a long way towards improving politics.