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Tuesday 9 July 2024

The Morning After The Fourteen Years Before

I need to say a few words about the other highlight of last week, the UK's general election.

In years gone by I've stayed up into the small hours watching the election coverage. It tends to be quite fun listening to all the different kinds of election speeches. Some are vacuous, some are unhinged - Peter Mandelson's "my enemies will taste my inner steel !" polemic comes to mind for the latter. And of course you have all the analysis, commentary, the silly graphics... it's an unusual excuse for a late night, one which doesn't happen very often.

The last few, though, my heart wasn't in it. Politics in the UK has become too depressing, the results too much of a foregone conclusion. Well at least this time the result was a foregone conclusion but one which finally went in a good direction.

I got myself nicely ensconced in my hotel room. Plenty of tea, plenty of snacks. No alcohol, which was an oversight on my part but probably a wise one, what with being in the middle of a conference and all.

My plan was to stay up pretty late, just enough to get a sense of where things were going. If it had gone the other way, quite honestly I don't know what I would have done. Quite probably, and I'm not being rhetorical here, cry. The mood of the country has been so dead against the Tories for so long that for them to retain power would be an abomination.

What actually happened was that by around 3am (local time), after some actually quite decent interviews, analysis, and endless fun watching Jeremy Vine slowly wear himself out jumping around the swingometer (and various incarnations thereof), it was pretty clear that there would be no great upset. Two cups of tea could see me no further so I went to sleep... for about an hour. Then I woke up, saw the news, saw that results were coming in thick and fast : LABOUR GAIN... LABOUR GAIN... LABOUR GAIN... LABOUR HOLD... and so on, and I couldn't get back to sleep. So up I stayed until the end. I saw Starmer's victory speech, I saw Rishi concede, I saw Jacob Ress-Mogg and... heeheheheee !.... Liz Truss lose her goddamn seat.

I also saw Jeremy Vine still swinging hard (if a little more slowly) at well after 3am.

And of course there was the inevitable oddity, the crazy results bucking the trend with TORY GAIN. Which made no sense, especially for poor Jonathan Ashworth, who I've liked very much throughout his career in opposition. He deserved better. Unfortunately, politics is random enough that a few inexplicable curveballs like this are part of the process.

The main result, though, was exactly in line with expectations. The Tories haven't suffered an extinction level event (that was never very likely) but by God they've taken a body blow. The Lib Dems have deservedly resurged with avengeance. Reform have shown themselves up as the useless protest vote that Farage parties always are. The Greens and Plaid have made at least a little progress, while the SNP - in perhaps the biggest surprise of the night - have truly collapsed. You'll recall I said exactly this possibility right back in 2015, when everyone else suspected that the SNP surge marked a permanent sea change in Scottish politics, that once they were in so deep, it would be very difficult to get them back out. 

To me the lesson was different, that politics can be potentially very unstable indeed, and that large majorities can flip to large minorities if a party isn't careful. Fortune's wheel is ever turning... the system is one always on the edge of chaos, predictable only if it sticks to its own rules. The SNP took their new-found dominance for granted, to their ultimate cost.


But of course the real result is that huge Labour majority. I have to confess, of course, to being biased. This is the result of which dreams are made (second only to the ultimate goal of a Labour - Lib Dem coalition), giving power back to the sensible, grown-up, boring people. I couldn't be happier. To me it's a eucatastrophe, an unexpected (well, not so much) anti-disaster of astonishing good fortune, a real opportunity, at long last, for the country to heal itself. To pick itself up after 14 years of Tory shenanigans (especially the last five of the utmost stupidity), dust itself off, and look everyone else squarely in the eye and declare, "Why yes, actually there was a reason we used to be renowned for our political system, bitches."

In short to me the result was absolutely joyous. I walked into the conference with a spring in my step and my head held high, although by the afternoon the adrenaline finally began to wane and I started to crash. But it was a truly cathartic moment of the utmost delight, even something approaching bliss.

I've said enough out my quasi-adoration of Starmer's Labour here and here (and probably elsewhere) that I don't need to, ahem, labour the point.

Sorry, I'll see myself out.

But I just want to add one small but important point. In terms of actual politics, I'm firmly on the left. I believe in a big strong welfare state acting as a safety net, liberal in its social policies (guaranteeing freedoms in a utilitarian sum, acting with as light a touch as possible to impose the smallest restrictions for the biggest gains) and socialist in its economics (government providing all the essential services, but leaving non-essentials by and large to run themselves, intervening only when absolutely necessary). 

In terms of the way I think politics should be done, however, I'm a centrist. I believe more in the process than the result. I believe that while my own opinions are valid, and some fraction will be correct, the same is true of everyone else. Well, nearly everyone, probably not Liz Truss. I'm not joking here : as I've said rhetorically, you simply cannot reason with pathological liars like Johnson or the delusional like Truss. Nor does this work with the politically feeble like Sunak, who find themselves craven to their own party and chronically unable to lead. A reasoned argument with someone who refuses to make up their own mind gets you nowhere.

Most people don't lie at these extremes of personality types, though unfortunately they seem to be disproportionately represented in politics. But when you clear out this lunatic asylum, this squawking henhouse of nonsense, I believe discussions are the ultimate answer. That a decision formed by consensus is by far the most secure. When you combine independent conclusions formed in good faith, then and only then do you get the best decisions possible, not from any one ideology or perspective, but from many. So while of course I want to see the policies I favour enacted, more important to me is to see this process of serious discussion taking place. To see people getting together, genuinely engaging with each other rather than shouting each other down, compromising when necessary, forceful on occasion, but always listening.

This is why I'm a Starmer superfan. I know, I know, people say he isn't inspiring. Fuck 'em. I've said it before and I'll say it again : this kind of boring, sensible politics is the best thing I've seen happen (politically) in my entire adult life. The idea that you can turn on the television and there isn't a political crisis, that politicians are actually working to solve the problems rather than create more of them to (largely subconsciously, I think) enrage and divide voters... Good God, can it be true ? 

Starmer, to be sure, doesn't have the easy charm even of Sunak (in his own greasy and cringe-worthy way, but nevertheless, he gives slick answers much more comfortably in television situations than Starmer), let alone Blair. But if he delivers on results, this is a skill he may not lead to learn. He's generally good enough to get the job done, interview-wise. And he understands perfectly a key lesson of Blair, that voters judge in aggregate*. Individual incidents, however overblown by the media, don't really matter, it's the sum whole (and, crucially the feelings it engenders) that really matters come voting time.

* And many others as well, especially that leadership involves saying no to your own side. If you don't do this, if you don't impose some direction on the group, you'll end up going nowhere and being visibly weak.

So in the rest of this post I want to cover three things. First, I'll look at the electoral strategy that got us to where we are now. Then I want to say a little more about why I'm optimistic that politics, at least so far as actual policies go, is likely to get significantly better given the immediate actions Labour have taken in government. Finally, I'll end on a bit more of a cautious note as to how it may be difficult to retain this kind of attitude in the future, and how we must always be on guard against a return to factional chest-thumping politics where believing one's ideology is considered more important than getting anything done.

1) When The Hurly-Burly's Done : Why The Tories Lost And Labour Won

It's pretty obvious why the Tories lost : they were shite. Not only were their pledges shite (and racist), but they failed to deliver on any of them. Johnson, in short, broke them, turning them into a confused quagmire, a dastardly mix of anti-woke culture wars mingled with populist and at times even socialist policies that were largely unworkable. Johnson, in his pig-headed way, cared not a jot, driving them into both a hole and wall at the same time, if that's metaphorically possible.

From this any sort of recovery would prove near-impossible in the short term. Johnson, a traditional tribal politician, had the peculiar attitude of not actually standing for his own tribe. This kind of rampant megalomania is not common in British politics. What Johnson in effect did was to set all the Tory factions against one another, each thinking that they were the true voice of the Conservatives, each equally determined to fight their corner and each unwilling to back down. The result is that it transformed the notoriously disciplined party into something little better than a bag of screaming cats.

One particularly stupid cat, however, briefly assumed the mantle of authority. But Liz was too stupid and her beliefs too crazy to assume anything more than the mantle, not the authority and control itself. By doubling down on Boris' approach of total tribalism in support of unworkable policies, but having absolutely no appeal to other segments of the party (still less among the general population), she was doomed. But she did enough damage in her less-than-lettuce tenure to make recovery all but impossible for Sunak. 

Such a feat would have required a political genius of the highest order. Starmer, with his quiet but ruthless expulsion of dissenters, could not have done it : such things take time Sunak was not gifted with, nor did he seem at all interested in building a power base. People drone on about how Starmer doesn't stand for anything (or at least they used to, see below), but what in the world Sunak's famed "plan" was ever supposed to be was something I could never make head nor tail of.

The Tories made themselves unelectable. The Labour party made itself look boring... and safe. Gone were the anti-Semitic overtones of Corbyn, along with all his other pro-Russia, anti-NATO, ambivalent-EU stupidities. There was just enough radicalism in Labour to make everyone curious (federalism, abolishing the Lords, Great British Energy) but not enough to be a concern (e.g. not cancelling Trident a la Corbyn). True, they didn't adopt anything really radical. There was to be no hint of UBI, a four-day work-week, precious little about proportional representation, and no hint of re-joining the EU. But in this softly-softly approach they gave their opponents not a single piece of ammunition to use against them. If they weren't daring enough to face the arguments head-on, they also weren't stupid enough to fight battles they couldn't possibly win*. As I said, Starmer doesn't have the easy charm needed to carry this off.

* Yes, polls show people are now against Brexit, but it would the utmost folly to assume another referendum would be anything other than a repeat of the last disaster. You can't undo such things at a whim. You need a detailed campaign strategy, one that must be carefully formulated to avoid the mistakes of the first attempt.

It's worth bringing in some counterfactuals here though. Had the Tories been in a better position, would Labour have adopted a different strategy with a more radical, risky agenda ? It's possible - we can't know for sure. It's also possible they never would have elected Starmer to leader at all. One can play endless counterfactual games, but the one that strikes me as most relevant is in relation to Reform. There's no doubt Reform hurt the Tories pretty badly, though as to exactly how much I await detailed statistical breakdowns. Would Labour still have won without Reform ? It's absolutely a valid question; to say that Labour weren't proposing good enough policies to inspire people (given the low turnout) is by no means a claim without foundation, though I'll avoid committing to an answer for the time being.

But... let's consider what might have happened had Labour still been in the doldrums of their pitiful 2019 state. This, I suggest, would have been an absolute disaster in which a major Reform breakthrough might have been a real possibility. By playing it safe, failing to unify the right against them, Labour not only ensured their own landslide but also neutered any chance of Reform gaining a meaningful parliamentary voice. This was, unequivocally, the right election strategy for the right time. It remains to be seen if and how they'll adapt to the no-doubt different circumstances of the next election.

A pertinent point being exaggerated quite properly by satirists but taken too seriously by the less credible political commentators is how bad Labour's share of the vote was. In terms of delivering a win, the absolute share of the vote doesn't matter, and Labour knew this. What matters is that their share increased hugely relative to the Tories. We've now got a huge Labour majority because they are the most popular of the parties, simple as. That's the system we've got to work with and that's the game of electoral calculus they very successfully played. Absolute numbers don't factor into it.

Whether this is inherently fair or not is something I'll return to at the end. For now, I'll just say that it clearly is possible for small parties to make big gains if they work within the existing system rather than insisting that it should be something else and campaigning as though that were already the case. The Lib Dems did very well indeed precisely because of that (as did the SNP in the past). As for Reform, their poor performance indicates that either a) they're too stupid to understand how the system works, in which case they probably don't deserve to be in parliament anyway, or b) they really are all about the protest politics, not interested in any actual power but simply having the chance to rant and rave and wallow in their own sense of petty entitlement and victimhood. 

Sadly we still have to put up with this twat. Oh well, you can't have everything.

Which leads me to my final point in this section. Throughout, the Lib Dems were very careful to target Tory seats where they were polling well, not Labour. What we have is a de facto combination of tactical voting and even, to a degree, a progressive alliance. It's not sold as such, there are no open statements of collaboration with Labour (save an open invitation to intellectual property theft). What such movements have failed to realise in the past, I think, is that this kind of direct, rub-your-noses-in-it approach ends up being the kind of "being told what to think" attitude that people don't like. People are happy enough to listen to arguments aimed at persuading them. But this attitude of entitlement that of course you want to vote for me to get these guys out, of course you already agree with our agenda... that winds people up the wrong way.

Telling people, "here's the evidence for X" is generally okay with most people. Telling them, "and here's why I adopt position Y in response to this" is usually fine too. But being told simply that you must believe Y in response to X, must feel something that you don't already actually feel, that you must simply be a bad person otherwise... this doesn't work. Progressive alliances turn people off, I think, when they're so explicit because they make this inherent assumption that of course it's what people want even when it was never on their agenda. Instead, this much more implicit and totally informal approach has delivered real, tangible gains in part because it avoids all of this almost culture-war aspect to the whole argument.

2) Reasons To Be Cheerful

I mean, apart from the stonking great Labour majority, which is more than reason enough.

Labour have said for some considerable time that they were in talks with the movers and shakers behind the scenes, putting them in a position to take advantage of power the moment they attained it. And this appears to be emphatically true. They proceeded from a presumption of actually being in government, a very different prospect from being a party of protest. And so while too many wrote their manifesto pledges off as being unambitious or "not radical enough", this looks very different in the dawning light of actual power. We've seen immediate action on almost all of their major pledges, and even some which were barely mentioned. Barely a week into the new administration we've seen :

Perhaps most emblematic of all is a commitment from Starmer to work with those of any stripe (albeit this is easier because now their are far fewer politicians on the right). The dramatic tonal shift away from conflict and brow-beating to one of collaboration is not something that should be underestimated. May, for instance, pathologically insisted that "Brexit meant Brexit" and completely ignored the beliefs of Remainers. Starmer returns to a time-honoured approach of at least pledging to govern for the whole country and not just the party faithful. "I will fight until you believe again", he said, echoing a sentiment he expressed very clearly throughout the campaign. Thanks largely to Johnson, trust in politics has collapsed. The idea that politicians might actually say what they mean has become something of a novelty.

And this is why, I think, people weren't all that impressed by the manifesto, even though it contained some extremely ambitious pledges. People expected yet more climbdowns and u-turns and judged it accordingly : on that basis, it does indeed look weak. The problem is of course that when you lose trust you can believe anything, pervert any statement to mean what you want it to mean. Things look very different when those commitments actually materialise. And to repeat from a previous post, yes, of course politicians have to lie sometimes, there's just no other way of working together. But not all lies are the same by any means : lies about who you like and who you don't like are the necessary grease of the political machinery; in contrast, saying the machine is a typewriter when it's actually a clock is of a different order. Lies about people and lies about policies are not the same.

But I'm getting carried away. None of those things have actually been delivered yet, because it's been a full four days since Labour assumed office. Nevertheless, to be shown to be already beginning the work needed is important. And of course, it would be foolish to assume that every policy will be delivered exactly as stated and on time and on budget. No government is that saintly. For certain, there will be corruption, scandals, and stupidity, That's the nature of the game. The test for the government is how it deals with this, how it seeks not to eliminate such occurrences (a fool's dream) but to actually and significantly reduce all this compared to the shitshow of the last fourteen years. And of course in how it responds when these things occur, how it defends or suspends the accused, how swiftly it responds or doesn't respond.

3) Reasons To Be Cautious

Which brings me to my final theme. The small voter share is, undeniably, a source of concern for the future. It's not anything to get into a blind panic about, not something to declare the results invalid over. But it should give any reasonable politician pause for thought : we're seen as the better choice by far, might think Labour, but it's a pretty low bar. The rapid turnaround of Labour's fortunes might yet be matched by a similar feat by the Tories. Unlikely, to be sure, but quite possible.

In years gone by the Tories too had this presumption that they were "the natural party of government". Consequently they formulated policies which were by no means very nice, let alone desirable, but were at least workable. They were things that, quite unlike bridges from Scotland to Ireland, could actually be implemented. They knew they'd have to deliver to at least some some extent on what they promised, so they didn't promise everyone the Moon when the rockets weren't available.

What this shifted into was entitlement. And in this sense this is quite a different outlook. Instead of merely assuming that they would be in government, they assumed they deserved to be in government : come what may, no matter whatever bullshit they spewed forth, they deserved it not because of whatever nonsense they said but simply because of who they were, that they were fundamentally better than the little people. Sensible, cautious presumption became the height of arrogance. Policy became unworkable nonsense.

The message for Labour is manifold. They have to actually deliver on their promises : not everything, not perfectly, and not exactly on time and/or budget either, but the goal of perfection must ever be their aim. Contrary to a media which exaggerates every slight miss as a major and totally unrecoverable failure, the public's standards are not so ludicrously high. But they must still aim towards... let's call it core delivery. Then they have to avoid the sense of entitlement which causes policy to drift from pragmatism to nonsense. It's honestly quite hard to envisage this happening to Starmer, but power can corrupt the best of us; if he's truly wise, he'll leave before it gets to him. And with a thumping majority, maintaining parliamentary discipline will be tough.

The other note of caution is of course Reform. Or rather, their combined vote share with the Tories, which exceeds Labour's overall (though not Labour plus the Lib Dems). We shouldn't be too gloomy about this : in the seats which Labour actually targeted for winning, their swing away from the Tories was far more dramatic than the national average, proof positive of the importance of a disciplined and controlled election campaign strategy. Nevertheless, that the country has still not yet decisively rejected the absurdity of the Tory mindset, and some have even embraced an even more hardline variant of lunacy in Reform (however much that may have been a protest vote), should absolutely be cause for concern. Especially combined with that low turnout. Labour won the election, but the battle for hearts and minds is going to need to pick up a gear.


The cause for celebration is very real. A push towards cheaper, more secure, green energy, a movement towards fixing the NHS rather than just blaming the staff, towards closer alignment with the EU if not reintegration, towards more devolution and local powers rather than total fragmentation, and best of all a push towards real dialogue and discussions... all this looks pretty good to me. Gone too is the Tory party's grim parody of diversity (let's pick racists of different ethnicities to prove we're not racist !), replaced with a Labour party committed to actually delivering egalitarianism and opportunities - which has already gone down badly with transphobics like Rowling. 

Replacing all these idiotic culture wars with productive discussions ? Yes please. All this may not deliver everything I'd ideally like, but if tempered with realism, then these expectations aren't unambitious either. The reasons to be cheerful outweigh by far any reason for cynicism.

The question arises, of course, as to whether the result is fair giving the disproportion of seats in relation to votes. Here I will elaborate on things I've been saying for years. We have representative democracy, and FPTP delivers on both aspects of this. It's an absolutely valid way of selecting local candidates to be your ambassadors to parliament to speak on your behalf. It's also democratic in that its tendency to return large majorities mean you can be confident that the party elected will have few fetters acting against its pledges : it will try to enact its policies as stated, and not have to water them down in a coalition.

This is not to say that proportional representation wouldn't be a valid solution either, however. It really depends on what you want your system of government to be. If it's ensuring everyone has a voice, then PR is the better choice. If it's more important to represent local communities, FPTP is better (though, a ranked voting system would be better still, and arguably a sensible compromise between the two). The difficulty is that neither of these perspectives has any strong intrinsic claim to be the better option either morally or pragmatically. There simply isn't any one right way to implement democracy, no single solution to how a country should be governed or decisions formulated (the difficulties of balancing the need for both local and national governments is something elaborated on at length in Isabel Hardman's excellent book).

Starmer's lack of a clear ideology has caused difficulties, but Laura Kuenssberg (of all people) mentioned the intriguing phrase of "moral socialism". Which, as she pointed out, could have been purpose-written for a Guardian headline. But might this phrase have actual value ? I've pontificated about liberal democratic socialism, trying to maximise both social freedom, political choices, and equality of resources all at once, an ungodly phrase for an awkward balancing act. "Moral socialism" at least rolls off the tongue a lot more smoothly. 

Starmer himself doesn't seem to think like this. He just wants to fix things. 

Fair enough, but for a lot of people, having some comparative ideological framework is of tremendous help. Starmer tends to assume, I think, that everyone is like him, that when a solution is clear to him that everyone else gets it too - a minor weakness which is an occasional annoyance, but he'd do well to learn this at least when communicating his intentions*. But I shall leave aside the thorny question of how much the system itself matters, to what extent can good people deliver good results in a bad system and vice-versa.

* For instance, in one of the debates, the fact that his two-stage (stop the gangs, process those already here) scheme would easily cut illegal migration far more than Sunak's Rwanda farce was easily lost in the verbal fog. Starmer doesn't seem to realise that implications aren't always equally obvious to everyone.

I believe in credit where credit is due. For all the scantily-clad villainy of their statements during the campaign, Rishi Sunak and Jacob Rees Mogg both gave very gracious concession speeches. If they'd only adopted such attitudes a little more during their terms of office, perhaps I might have been more sympathetic and trusting towards them. 

See, make no mistake, I despise the Tories. Loathe them. But I concede that, if brought back as a halfway-sensible, respectable party which would at least regrow its moral backbone, it would at least have some uses. Somebody is needed to hold the government to account. Somebody needs to provide a counterbalance, to act as a reminder if nothing else then at least why the alternatives are worse. Getting that important balance, maintaining that vital tension and stress in the system, the drive to do better or else we'll end up with that lot, is not at all easy. More difficult still is, to my everlasting exasperation, getting the majority to see that some choices are, quite plainly, utterly stupid. 

This though is an altogether bigger challenge, and for now I think I shall be content to accept the fact the government is not only "not a shitshow", but actually intent on delivering its promises. At the very least, there's the hope for a better tomorrow which we've not had in a good long while. And that is no small victory.

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