Morning Lemmings and welcome once again to the agonizing grind that is my Curmudgeonry Corner. Now that we’ve managed to make it through the hell that is conference season, I thought it might be opportune to look back and heave a collective “WTF?!” at the frankly confusing events that occurred during those three weeks. But first, a brief wander down memory lane.
Many years ago, I was a fresh faced A-level student who uncool enough to take Politics and Government as one of my subjects. Part of our studies revolved around political theory and ideology, something that I thought would probably be quite interesting at the time. As it turned out, our lecturer managed to extract any semblance of relevance or meaning from it and managed to convert what should have been an inspirational eye-opener into the dried out husk of a reverse engineered exam. However, I did learn stuff…and things for that matter. One of the greatest bits of stuff (or perhaps a thing) was Hans Slomp’s Projection Of The European Political Spectrum, handily displayed below.
It’s basically a graphic crib sheet that you figure out where certain people were on the political spectrum. For example, Old Labour were usually pretty progressive in both social and economic matters so we could plonk them squarely in the top left segment, just about where social democracy sits. The Tories, on the other hand, were pretty much conservative on both fronts so they got to sit in the bottom right pane while the Lib Dems, being all things to all men had the joy of hovering around the middle. Looking at it, there was a nice sort of symmetry to it…the little X’s for all the major parties were pretty evenly spaced , formed a nice straight line if you connected them and stayed away from the dangerous corners of communism and fascism. To me, that looked like a pretty good recipe for a healthy democracy, a fair spread with something for everyone but nothing for real lunatics. And like all things great, I bloody well took it for granted. Fast forward 10 years and a very different picture emerges, a picture that this conference season threw into sharp relief, but more on that later. So without further ado, let’s delve into the maw of the beast and pray to god that we somehow manage to clamber back out.
In the Used To Be Red Corner…..New Labour:
I feel a bit sorry for Gordon Brown these days. No matter what he does, it is always spun in terms of ‘the fight of his political life’ or ‘the speech of a lifetime’. I’m sure that if he makes a cup of tea in the morning some hot headed apparatchik will burst into the kitchen to yell “Gordon, for God’s sake man! This is your cup of tea of a lifetime! DON’T FUCK IT UP!”. And so the scene was set for yet another ‘[insert activity here] of a lifetime’. Where I start to lose sympathy for Gordon Brown is the way he always just manages to scrape through but never has the guts to try something that veers too far from the script. The performance is usually muddled, lacklustre and a hodge-potch of ‘whatever looks good this season’, thrown together in the hope that this scattergun approach might spray enough political buckshot over a wide enough arc to at least clip someone and leave them with a nasty scratch. What he doesn’t do is radical departures or bold thrusts into the unknown and that’s pretty much what we got from the conference.
Let’s look at the economic side of things first, because this is where Brown has the greatest leeway for calling bullshit on the Tory’s. It’s no great secret that pretty much every economist worth their salts (so minus the crazy free market fundamentalists) are frankly appalled at the Conservatives latest take on money matters. Their plan basically amounts to paying back everything we owe in record time and a middle finger to public services. It’s a seductive argument, if you’re into the business of relating the macro-economic behemoth to a simple household budget, but also an argument that is made of bricks of pure stupid. If Brown had any sense/gumption he would have trashed the Tory’s plan in the crudest terms and then proudly declared that he would continue spending with wild abandon until it became clear that the world as we know it was in no danger of imploding. Instead, he did what New Labour usually does and fudged it by basically saying “Yeah, we won’t cut back that much and we will pay back a little”. The very act of doing that is bloody stupid because it credits the Troy plan with a modicum of sense, rather than shitload of crazy that it actually is. As a result, the Tory’s now have the initiative and are dictating the terms of the economic argument. Nice one Gordy, way to miss an open goal. As for the bankers, Gordy tried to sound well ‘ard, but ended up sounding just a bit bland. Again, this is another fumbled ball as he could well have got away with a policy aimed at tarring and feathering errant bankers. The public would have happily obliged, feasted riotously on the pound of flesh that they have (justifiably) hankered after so long and then gone to the polls with a song in their heart and blood round their chops. Alas, it was not to be.
So how about social policy, surely he’ll fare better here? Well, yes and no. As is obligatory at New Labour Conferences, he did The Big List. “We got X-million benefit claimants into crappy temporary agency jobs, X-million families in poverty into the arms of Cash Converter, blah blah blah”. OK, I sound a little churlish now, but that’s the nature of the beast. Labour has done some good things, to which I doff my cap, but I’m a fickle voter and I don’t want to hear about what you’ve done. I want to hear about what you’ll do. On that front, he got into even more of a pickle with an epic exercise in hedge betting. For the left, there were the back down on compulsory ID cards, the commitment to foreign aid, abolition of means testing for elderly care and the protection of school spending. All well and good, except that some of these things will really wind up the right of the party and the overly powerful Middle England crowd. To remedy this problem, some of the other announcements pandered to that end of the spectrum (tighter booze controls, gulags hostels for single mums and benefit cuts for parents of ASBO kids who don’t fall into line) but also had the effect of then pissing off the left. In the end, you get the political equivalent of Modest Mouse’s “Good News For People Who Like Bad News”, an album that is half solid gold, half turgid shit. The same applied to electoral reform. The bold move would be to realise that the chances of winning the next election are pretty much slim to nil and to go out with a scorched earth policy by allowing a referendum for PR (thus restoring a modicum of sanity to a lunatic political system and denying the Tory’s any future landslides). Again, he went for the triangulation approach and opted for a referendum on AV if they win the election. Given that AV is widely regarded as worse than first-past-the-post and that their current chances of winning look like a turd in the rain, this was nothing more than a fop to shut up the awkward squad. Which pretty much sums up the Labour Conference.
Maybe I’m doing to harsh here. For a party that’s been in power for as long as New Labour have, it’s pretty hard to learn new tricks. While their future prospects look grim and changes are needed, a wholesale deviation from the blueprint is a tricky thing to pull off (remember, for every Sgt. Pepper there’s a St. Anger). However, I can’t help but think that what we got here was the worst of both worlds, a wrong headed attempt to fuse together the incompatible (much like my partners brain wave to try All Bran with orange juice instead of milk. Trust me, it didn’t end well).
Final Verdict: File under ‘L’ for ‘Lacklustre’
In The Probably Still Blue Corner: The Conservatives
This was the scary one. If, like me, the sum of all your fears boils down to the Tories back in power then this was the conference to watch. After all, the pressure was on and it was apparent that they couldn’t carry on by just making vague statements and praying people will vote them in on account of not being Labour. This was the time when they had to look a bunch of people who could govern rather than just criticise. From my point of view, it got off to a belting start with Ireland giving a resounding ‘Yes’ to the Lisbon Treaty. “Thank God!” I thought, “Europe is here to plunge the Tory’s back to the Dark Ages and spare us all 4 years of Bullingdonocracy!”. David Cameron tried his best to defend the indefensible by resolutely refusing to answer any question about what happens if the Czechs also ratify the treaty but was soon outflanked by Boris who took it upon himself to make numerous harebrained and impossible proposals in the opposite direction, all good times in my book. As it stands, we’re yet to hear a definitive answer on the question of “will you really tell the entirety of Europe to get bent and thus undo decades delicate diplomacy” question. It could yet prove to be their undoing.
However, the glory of a foes folly was short lived and the conference began to take a very scary turn with George Osborne’s speech. As you may well have guessed by now, I have little love for the boys in blue, but I reserve a special ring of hell for Osborne. To me, he is the embodiment of everything that is wrong with British politics. His perma-sneer, that look of a raging cokehead (speculation, of course), the old school tie elitism and his complete disconnection from reality as we know it all combine to make me shudder whenever I see him. The only thing in his favour is that he is very bad at disguising these character flaws and usually comes across as Head Smarmy Bastard, something that tends not to endear him to voters. So imagine my horror when he gets on the stage and somehow manages to conceal these usually all too obvious traits under a veil of bullshit. Somehow, I guess with the aid of superglue between gums and lips, he managed not to sneer and present himself as vaguely credible. I say vaguely, because the content was all over the show but in the world we live, presentation pwns content to the power of ten. So what of this content? Well, how about the (oft repeated) “We’re all in this together” line? Excuse me? From a party that has both a base and a front bench full of multi-millionaires? A little fatuous don’t you think? Then came the “We have become the party of the NHS” swizz. Now don’t get me wrong, I have no love for New Labour’s meddling with NHS and having spent three years as a front line clinician during the height of their reforms, I can tell you that they were wrong headed, ill-conceived and destined to failure. That fact, however, does make the Tory’s (who have said or done nothing to indicate otherwise) any better on that front. And the bankers? Osborne apparently “reserves the right” to get hot under the collar about it so I wouldn’t hold your breath for that pound of flesh you so desperately crave. Finally, there was the “age of austerity” business, designed (I suspect) to conjure up wholesome images of 50’s nuclear families settling down to a hearty meal of rationed spam before darning their socks and counting their blessings. Personally, I see all this as a softening up manoeuvre for another bout of ‘for your own good’ Thatcherism, clad in the clothing of ‘compassionate conservatism’. The thing that bothers me is that he may have got away with it.
Worse was to come as Call Me Dave performed a similar trick. Credit where credit’s due, he has worked some sort of miracle in decontaminating the Tory brand, from the point of view of perception at least. In his speech, this boiled down to a masterclass in political cross dressing. On the one hand, he paid lip service to the old touchstones of conservatism: Labour are too statist, love taxes too much and want to monitor how many times you go to the toilet each. It was your basic ‘down with Big Government’ call to arms’. So far, so Tory. However, the surprising bit was his sudden new found social responsibility: It will be the Conservatives who save the poor (who stand to do sooooo well out of their inheritance tax reforms) and heal the sick, who will stitch our fragmented society back together and go back to the good old Blighty of cricket and young boys in short shorts and knee high socks. All those people we used to call slackers and scroungers are now the downtrodden we will lift out of poverty with our benign and paternal endeavours. While I can’t disagree with such a mobile intention, I have grave reservations about whether they really mean it. For a start, the funding for all these plans is fanciful. The general plan is that services will be cut, waste will be dealt with ruthlessly, taxes won’t go up and then spontaneously a recovery will appear and we’ll all be made up, free to pursue our now poverty free lives without the state getting all up in our faces. The trouble is that the economics just don’t stack up. The service cuts will hit the poor the hardest, the ‘savings’ probably won’t materialise and the cuts themselves only cover a tiny fraction of the money we owe. Again, I see this as pretty much the same old Thatcherism, just this time garnished with New Labour platitudes. In short, it’s a fantasy, but one he sold very well. Colour me worried.
In other news, the party as a whole were under strict orders not to look like a bunch of multi-millionaires, yahooing their way to power and Bono made a video appearance. Just when I thought I couldn’t hate Bono any more.
Verdict: File under ‘F’ for ‘Frightening’.
In the WTF?! Corner, The Lib Dems.
*sigh* Ok, I’m going to be brief here because I found this to be a heart breaking experience. On the face of it, the Lib Dems should have making a shitload of hay for the last 5 years, but are still scoring around the 20% mark. Part of that is not their fault and is to do with our demented political system. However, a lot of it is to do with the fact that they are simply not coherent. They’ve got some great political real estate in the shape of Vince Cable (who would look great in a shop keepers jacket a la Ronnie Barker in Open All Hours) and Shirley Williams (Sarah Tether and Norman Baker put in some good work as well), but it is squandered because a) the party as a whole have no idea what they’re doing and b) they’re leader is as memorable as whoever came 7th in The X-Factor last year. Take for example Cable’s proposal to tax homes worth over a million. I’m on board with this and there’s an appetite for it out there. Not only that, but it would put clear water between the Lib Dems and the other parties. However, once it received a savaging in the right wing press the party simply fell apart on the issue and ended up looking a bunch of startled cattle. And that’s the problem: they don’t seem to have the ideological gumption to find a cohesive position on anything. Sense would dictate that now is the time for them to move left as there is no competition and plenty of demand, but they simply don’t have the stones. And that’s tragic.
Moving onto the next problem, WHY THE FUCK DID YOU ELECT CLEGG? His speech was the political equivalent or weak lemon drink in a plastic beaker. Seriously, whenever he’s on TV I seem to suffer some sort of absence, only to come round five minutes later wondering what just happened. The speech itself was crap. Every time he claimed he could be PM (which was many, but I simply don’t have the will to look it up), something inside of me died. He wants to out Cameron Cameron and out Blair Blair but just ends up coming across as a creature with all the substance of a set of net curtains. Seriously, have a coup. You guys are quite good at that now so why not do us all a favour and send him quietly into the night.
Final Verdict: File under ‘F’ for ‘Futile’
So that was the conference season, but there’s another point here. Go back to the marvellously named Slomp Projection and have a crack at plotting where the parties stand now. In fact, don’t bother, I’ve done it for you.
As you can see, it is by turns mind boggling and depressing. The left has completely caved and what we are left is an amphorous mass, slowly cannibalising each other and offering voters a choice of basically nothing. Over the last 12 years, politics in this country has gradually turned from a real battle between competing versions of reality to a pissing match in which the distinction between parties is measured only in tone and the issue of substance is but an afterthought. The more frightening aspect is that leaves the door open for real nutters like the BNP. With such massive gaping holes in the graph, the people left in the desolate sections have no choice but to gravitate to the extremes, much to the detriment of all. Politics should be about offering people a hopeful narrative and the promise of something better. I fear that in this country we have lost that fire and now simply treat politics as an exercise in management, a mundane necessity that whirs away in the background while life trundles on. And that cannot be a good thing.