Monday, June 12, 2017

The post-election liberal narrative is hopelessly wrong

There seems to be a popular liberal narrative emerging about the present state of British politics which is largely summed up by (1) the Tories have got us into a mess over the past couple of years and (2) they, especially Theresa May, should apologise for getting Britain into this mess.

Utter bilge.

There may be a number of things Mrs. May needs to apologise for - a poor campaign, an overly insular leadership style, the loss of a number of Conservative seats - but all these apologies need to be directed purely at the Tory party that she leads and its candidates.  Further, an acknowledgement that she has learned lessons from the election and will seek to adapt her premiership to suit those would be helpful and politically adept.  But an apology to the country?  What a fruitless, pointless, unnecessary exercise that would be.

I presume the apology in question that liberal commentators have in mind would be along the lines of saying sorry for calling an election.  Really?  In a democracy?  The election may have been called for opportunistic and rather venal reasons, but the idea that we should somehow ration the amount of democratic engagement at the polls that the people should participate in is ludicrous and reeks of political class elitism. Mrs. May's motives in calling the election may have been ever so ignoble, but in the end she remained at the mercy of the voters.  Hubris did indeed come to rest at her door as a result, and she may wish to ponder many lessons from this, but we should not be demanding apologies from a wounded leader for the decision delivered by the people in an election.

Neither should there be an apology for calling another election in a few months if one is needed.  We are a democracy.  It is the people's right and responsibility to hire and fire their political leaders, and if that has to be done on a more regular basis until the people become satisfied with their collective decision then so be it.

There is an extraordinary feeling afoot, and it is embedded in the post-election liberal narrative, that calling elections too often is a Bad Thing.   We may be a democracy, harbouring rights that have been fought and argued for over many decades and which are still denied to the majority of people in the world, but we really shouldn't ask people to listen to political debate and hobble along to a polling booth too often.  It is the ultimate elitist nonsense, and it caters to a terrible view which suggests that we should cravenly give in to the anti-politics brigade who believe that a national political discussion shouldn't be allowed to get in the way of everyday lives to often.

This is the same view that we hear expressed about the referendum held last year which led to the Brexit process.  Now as it happens I am no fan of referendums, but I can't deny that they are the ultimate expression of the popular will on a particular issue.  It is a virtue of democracies that the popular will for change doesn't need expression in a revolution because it has a ballot box to use. 

The sub-text of much of this criticism, of course, is that the vote didn't go as liberal commentators wanted.  Rather than blame the people, however, it has become easier - though a lot more cowardly - to lay the blame at the feet of the leaders who dared engage the people in such a momentous decision.

If there is a "mess" in British politics then the responsibility lies squarely with the voters.  They have had the chance, more than they have ever had before, to direct events.  They have chosen to do so in a messy and sometimes indeterminate way.  But that is democracy, and we get the one we deserve because we are intimately involved in it.  Don't like the leaders?  Then do more than just vote.  Do more than just write well-paid columns about how bad it all is. Take some responsibility and get involved.  Stand, argue, persuade.

As it happens, I don't think the result of Thursday's election was a bad one.  It has yielded a humbled government, more willing to moderate its previously inflexible approach on Brexit, more willing to operate on a collective basis, more willing to appreciate the aims and aspirations of the voters who chose to withdraw their support.  This is what democracy should do.  The voters also, by a smidgeon, determined that they wanted the same government to continue in office.  For all his and his allies' blow-harding, Jeremy Corbyn didn't win and has no chance of forming a government with the present parliamentary make-up.  He hasn't got the numbers.  Because the voters didn't give him the numbers.  And yes, the DUP do actually count as a legitimate party.  Enough people in a part of the UK voted for them to send ten of their representatives to parliament.  They get the same rights as every other representative and that is the right, under the full scrutiny of voters who will be asked to deliver another verdict again at some point, to support or deny the biggest party its political programme.  

This isn't a "mess".  It's democracy in action and I'm sorry so many liberal commentators aren't very happy with it.  It doesn't require an apology from the prime minister.  The only people you can demand an apology from are the British electorate, and they are simply exercising the right hard won by their ancestors to nudge the government whichever way they want.  Live with it.



Saturday, June 10, 2017

Tone-deaf May is absolutely the wrong person to lead us into Brexit

If you thought Theresa May was tone-deaf and unresponsive during the actual election campaign, then that's nothing on her performance since.

Following her seriously reduced circumstances I initially thought it was right for her to continue in office.  The electoral arithmetic suggested it as the only viable option, at least until the parliamentary circumstances changed.  She could have chosen to take on board the disastrous result that her cavalier election calling produced and govern as a minority leader but with significant consultation with other parties on Brexit.  That her own Brexit stance - which has been irredeemably, if unilluminatingly of the "hard" variety - would need modifying seemed evident too.

Then came the day after.  The prime minister's speech outside Downing Street was one of the most misjudged exercises I have come across.  She made no reference at all to the lamentable election result.  She simply announced she would be forming a new government, and for good measure she replaced the old "strong and stable" with the word "certainty".  I began to wonder if somehow she had been kept isolated from the election results.  It was a performance of astonishing misjudgement and ineptitude.  Compare it with David Cameron's eloquent and moving "mea culpa" after the referendum.  So utterly disconnected was her speech that she had to follow it up with a hurriedly organised television interview in order to "apologise" to all of the Tory MPs who had lost their seats thanks to her calamitous campaign.

More than anything else, this speech captured exactly why Mrs. May must not be allowed to carry on as prime minister.  The speech bespoke an absolute determination to ignore any circumstances that don't suit her.  It shed light on Mrs. May's utter inflexibility.  Here was someone who was so myopic and incapable that she couldn't even acknowledge the earth-shaking circumstances that everyone else was talking about and which had brought her to this pass in the first place.  She couldn't move from her script.  She couldn't develop a quick response to her massively changed circumstances.  She couldn't find it within herself to express any sort of empathetic understanding to her disappointed supporters and allies.

And if she couldn't do this simple task, part of the basic toolbox of political leadership, then how on earth could we expect her to manage the infinitely more challenging unpredictable and difficult Brexit negotiations?

I thought originally that Theresa May should stay and provide some continuity in difficult times, even if those times were largely of her own creation.

Now it seems to me that if we are to have any chance of a successful start to our increasingly unwanted and unloved Brexit negotiations, then Theresa May has to be replaced immediately.  All those foolish Tories who think she will be able to open such negotiations with imagination and flexibility, who have you been listening to?  For Theresa May, alarmingly and bizarrely, "nothing has changed".  This is a woman who can row back on a policy and claim it is the same one.  That level of delusion has now been extended to some sort of weird understanding of the election that suggests it has said nothing of value to her.

The Tory Party may be in a bind because of the lack of top rate talent in its upper echelons, but at the moment almost anyone - obviously excluding Liam Fox - would be better than the delsuional, mad force currently in charge.  Instead of ringing their hands and moaning about her advisers, Tory MPs should step up to the moment and actually try and serve their country.  And they should do it by providing new and better leadership.  If they do, in time we might forgive them for the Mayist aberration.


Friday, June 09, 2017

Lessons from an election

1.  Don't take the electorate for granted.  Theresa May's party (she abdicated the Conservative name for the duration) did this twice.  It assumed everyone would ignore the opportunistic nature of the election, and that they would then happily respond to a patronising campaign of empty slogans.  Turns out they didn't.

2.  Every vote matters, even under First Past the Post.  Young voters complained about Brexit, but their complaints carried little weight given the fact that many didn't vote in that ill conceived referendum.  This time they voted, and the change has been palpable.

3.  Traditional campaigning still matters.  Theresa May's party thought they could win this with a big data machine and by programming, without variation, key phrases into the political dialogue.  They thought they could avoid real voters with impunity, whether in televised debates or in the streets.  Jeremy Corbyn suffered a media monstering, but built up support through a consistent round of old fashioned rallies.  Crowds matter, it seems, and he was able to appeal to a decent proportion of the electorate through these rallies.  We're a democracy, and he met people.  Somehow it seems to work.

4.  Manifestos should not be insulated efforts.  Whatever the fine aims of Theresa may's manifesto, it was drawn up quickly by a tight group of May loyalists who failed to road-test it within the wider party.  It then backfired.  Surprised?

5.  Leaders should be able to campaign.  As everyone is noting, this election was entirely the product of Theresa May's desire.  There was no reason at all to call it, and certainly not the one she gave.  In consequence, though, one might have expected her to show some campaigning vigour and ability.  Alas, when calculating her election gamble, she failed to factor in her own dislike of campaigning.

6.  When you have a venerable party with all its traditions and brand, use it.  Theresa May's team confined the party name to a footnote and insisted that all of her candidates do the same on their official campaign literature.  Prospective MPs once called Conservatives simply became people "standing with Theresa May".  Once the electorate decided they had their doubts about Theresa May, there wasn't anywhere else to turn.

7.  We are a parliamentary system, not a presidential one.  See 6 above and remember that for all the dominance of party leaders, constituency candidates do still stand on their own merits as well.

8.  The "vision thing" still matters.  When all was said and done, there wasn't much of a discernible vision behind the May campaign.  "Brexit means Brexit" was as empty a slogan as has ever been uttered on a campaign trail, coming as it did with absolutely no enhancing narrative or vision at all.  Compare that with Labour's ability to appeal to a range of people with a clear vision of what needed to be done for Britain.  Agree with it or not, it gave the impression they were thinking about what to offer.

9.  Personalities are important.  Theresa May would have obviously been a dominant figure even without the quasi-presidentialism of her campaign. just as Jeremy Corbyn was on the other side.  The problem for May is that she failed to project any warmth or spontaneity and appeared to actively avoid contact with ordinary voters.  In a modern democracy it isn't possible for a leader to survive without a decent skill at communications.  May utterly lacked that.  Contrast her with the cheerful and positive Ruth Davidson, leading something of a Tory revival in Scotland.

10.  Is politics being re-set?  There is a case for this.  The election has seen the return of two-party politics, the effective icing of another Scottish independence referendum, and the likelihood of a more pragmatic, Europe friendly Brexit.  Are we coming through a nightmare period, for all the veneer of chaos that exists today?

Saturday, June 03, 2017

Theresa May will be returned as a damaged prime minister

After the scares for the Conservatives of the past couple of weeks, the broad consensus is still that they will return to parliament as the biggest party in the Commons after the election - and by some margin.  Or perhaps, in Conservative campaign terminology, the emphasis should be on Theresa May returning to office as prime minister, since the party itself has had very much second billing in this campaign.

The problem with the way May and her people have decided to run the campaign is that they had no way out once it went bad.  And it did go very bad.  If you are going to relegate the actual party to a virtual afterthought, and insist that your candidates announce on their election addresses that they are "Standing with Theresa May", rather than "Standing as Conservatives", then you do need to be very sure that the product you are selling is up to the billing.  In this instance it wasn't.

While the Tories are clawing back some points in the polls, the latest Comres poll is interesting in that it graphically shows the damage the campaign has done to May's own standing.  The Conservative Party remains at 12 points ahead of Labour, but May's personal negative ratings have soared by 10 points.

Having started out with the "strong and stable" mantra, Mrs. May seems to have done everything in her power to disprove it.  Michael Crick's "weak and wobbly" accusation was seized upon by many.  A quick review of the campaign shows up the problem.  Mrs. May didn't vary from the lines she had been given from the start, causing negative comment from thinking observers and a damning belief that she was a robotic campaigner taking people for granted.  She was insulated from ordinary crowds, and when she did face them it went wrong, as in the Abingdon market square.  She avoided the televised debate and failed to provide a good or credible reason for so doing.  She put out a daring manifesto pledge which had been ill tested and then rowed back within a day once it caused upset, refusing to acknowledge that that was what she had done.  On the single issue which she claimed the election was about - Brexit - she has failed to give any information whatsoever.  No-one is any the wiser now than they were at the start of the campaign exactly what this Prime Minister's approach to Brexit, the single most important issue of the election by her own admission, is.

The Tories may still win a significant majority in the Commons, but they do so behind a seriously damaged leader, and it is almost entirely her own fault, and that of her notoriously tight team.  Many voters started the campaign with a broad belief that Theresa May was the best person to be negotiating our exit from Europe.  I doubt few hold that belief now.  The best that can be said is that she is likely to be better than Jeremy Corbyn,  although in Keir Starmer he has a putative negotiator who would wipe the floor with the likes of Liam Fox and Boris Johnson and easily hold his own with David Davis.

She didn't intend it to, but the campaign has exposed Mrs. May's shortcomings under a harsh and unforgiving light.  She will never wield the same authority after this campaign that she did before, whatever the majority.  The days when her Director of "Communications" Fiona Hill could send dismissive messages with impunity to senior ministers should be over.  If nothing else, there needs to be a sea change within Team May and at the top of government.

The two chiefs of staff need to be downgraded as soon as the new government starts.  A proper, civil service trained chief of staff needs to be appointed, and an effective Communications Director - this campaign has suffered appalling communications as well as much else.  As for the senior ministers, Philip Hammond - who has been hung out to dry by No 10 several times - should be kept on with his authority enhanced and his ability to make an independent contribution to the counsels of government kept intact.  Liam Fox, virtually invisible in the campaign and unable in any case to speak without putting his foot in his mouth, should be relieved of his duties and an able minister appointed in his place.  I would also replace Boris Johnson with a more low key and effective foreign secretary too; either move Amber Rudd (leaving space for the promotion of Damian Green, perhaps, to the Home Office) or possibly promote the well regarded Michael Fallon.  Liz Truss, incidentally, should definitely be moved away from Justice and a more rigorously independent minster put in her place - Dominic Raab perhaps, or even the return of Michael Gove who was well regarded there previously.

Sadly, that is a wish list.  Mrs. May has never been the most flexible of people and she may well not see the need to make any changes, for all the evidence of her terrible campaigning.  One thing we might consider though.  After an election such as this, will she really want to fight another in five years time?  More to the point, will the Conservative Party really want her to?