Where do we go from here?

16th June 2017

 -By Steven Duckworth-

Where do we go from here?

A week after the people spoke, politics appears to be in an unholy mess, or so we are led to believe. While the nature of the general election campaigns and the level of political debate were unremittingly awful, the end result need not be. A hung parliament with a minority Conservative government will not please activists of either main party, but it could be a platform for a period of sensible and pragmatic government. For this to happen, all parties will need to play a part while keeping one eye on how they best prepare for the next election. What will not be in doubt it that two issues: Brexit and ‘austerity’ will loom large.

One indisputable point to be taken from the 2017 general election is that the Conservatives ran a terrible campaign. Once Theresa May had been locked into the ‘strong and stable’ mode of campaigning, she was completely unable to change tack and style as the election developed. Once her plans for adult social care had been dubbed – slightly unfairly – as a ‘dementia tax’, she started losing ground and the decision to signal a future parliamentary vote on fox hunting is still inexplicable.

But beyond style and (some) substance it became clear that some voters wanted to punish the Conservatives over the decision to leave the European Union and for seven years of unrelenting deficit reduction. Previous electorates had taken David Cameron and George Osborne at their word; that the UK needed a short, sharp fiscal corrective, but this time they signalled enough was enough. Also the Conservative-supporting press felt that a few lurid – though essentially accurate – headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s past would damage the Labour leader. They didn’t; either because people had already factored it into their view of Corbyn, or they simply saw the reports as desperate smears.

There is one thing that will buoy the Conservatives and it is that they are now, or should be, fully aware of what faces them and the reasons for failing to win a majority. In response to the dangers facing them the Chancellor Philip Hammond could signal a significant easing-off on deficit reduction and pave the way for both a public sector pay rise and funding for early years and secondary education. Theresa May could also state that she intends to soften her Brexit stance by staying in the European Customs Union. Both would be anathema to the right of her party, but it may pay dividends in the run-up to the next election.

It’s possible that such decisions may add life to the barely breathing frame of UKIP, though the Conservative managers may conclude that could hurt Labour just as much as their own party. As it is, Theresa May will probably survive a fair way into a five year term and then be replaced by a warmer and more engaging leader. Write off the Tories at your peril.

Labour has a different if equally interesting set of issues to deal with. Jeremy Corbyn had a fantastic election campaign that surprised a lot of people, perhaps himself included. His warmth and engagement with people was the perfect counter to his opponent’s cold aloofness. However, the Labour leader has a decision to make: whether to embrace a more conciliatory relationship with his parliamentary party or to stick with the base support that has served him well. Corbyn should probably stick with left wing populism for the first phase of opposition until the fallout from the election is fully understood and the options become apparent. Corbyn is a product of the left, but he is not as doctrinal as, for instance, his shadow chancellor. Over a period of time he will need to decide which wing of the party can better serve Labour’s electoral chances. Two issues could also threaten Labour in the next parliamentary term. While the party managed to ‘look both ways’ over Brexit and get away with it, repeating the trick again may prove more problematic.

Labour’s other major problem is its more general policy platform which is left wing (mainly in the style of Nordic social democracy) but not especially progressive. Offering free degrees to the children of middle income earners while you are not helping the poorest by using the tax and benefits system might have passed voters by this time. But as with Brexit, Labour may not be so fortunate a second time. One certain thing is that Labour has momentum (if you’ll excuse the pun) and should allow themselves a celebration at their loss, but not for an extended period of time.

Both the party and its leader – neither of who have the benefit of being underdogs any more – will come under serious scrutiny. In such circumstances over-confidence could be very damaging.

One leader who didn’t see out the election fallout intact has been the Liberal Democrats’ Tim Farron. Never intended as the leader to fight an election, rather a transitional repair man, he fell on his sword over issues of faith, ostensibly. Practically his position was untenable. Poor leadership sat at the heart of the Liberal Democrats’ campaign; an increasingly two horse race meant that Farron quickly got sidelined. But his inability to even try and punch above his weight became obvious.

In contrast with Labour the party did have a broadly progressive policy agenda that sought to increase public spending and use fiscal levers to improve the position of some of the poorest in society. Unfortunately for them this may well have been viewed as too technocratic in the current climate of populism.

Brexit was also an issue that the Liberal Democrats tried to grapple with and would have got more support had the leader been able to project himself more successfully. Under a new leader (whoever she may be) the party could be able to sell their vision of a leaving the EU with minimal damage to the country’s economy and reputation. Indeed the Liberal Democrats could make a public offer to support the government on limited terms – no more coalitions – in order for securing a softer Brexit and a vote on any final deal. Such a deal would almost certainly be rejected by the government and anger Labour loyalists with memories of the ‘Con Dems’, but could well get the Liberal Democrats some wider recognition and respect from an electorate that has largely ignored the party.

So the upcoming parliament will be both intriguing and fraught. None of the main parties at the election really talked about the challenges that face the country going into the 2020s: such as how technological innovation will impact on the economy and society, how to reform benefits, the changing nature of work, the knowledge and skills agenda, the reform of (not just spending more on) public services and how our public institutions often get in the way of people rather than supporting them.

In fact both main parties appeared to have decided that it was time for one last hurrah for their previous greatest hits. If they try that again, the public may well decide that they are starting to rather like the idea of hung parliaments.

By Steven Duckworth


Please note: articles and posts on ‘Middle Vision’ reflect the views of the individual authors and not of all involved in ‘Middle Vision’

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The Mirage in the Desert

13th June 2017

By Keith Nieland-

The Mirage in the Desert

Success is often measured against expectation. When Theresa May called the General Election in April the expectation was that she would win with a thumping Commons majority, perhaps in three figures. For Jeremy Corbyn expectation was very different. He was expected to lead Labour to one of its worse defeats ever.

Never Believe the Evidence!

The evidence for these predictions was overwhelming. May enjoyed record level poll leads for both her party and her personal competence. Most weeks she wiped the floor with Corbyn at PMQs. For his part Corbyn’s Commons performances were usually appalling and listened to in silence by his own benches and often his backbenchers did not even bother to turn up. He could not form a shadow cabinet so how could he form a government? He could not command the respect of his MPs so how was he ever going to command the respect of the country?

Corbyn has views that many considered outside the British mainstream on defence, Trident renewal and foreign policy. He had in the past kept some dodgy looking company – the IRA, Hamas and Hezbollah. In over 30 years as an Member of Parliament Corbyn had not even been a minor shadow minister let alone held any office of significance. He has, as a matter of routine, voted against all the different leaders of his Party.

So what could possibly go wrong for May?

Campaign What Campaign?

The 2017 General Election turned out to be one of few where the outcome was heavily influenced by the campaign. It was almost a text book example of how to snatch defeat from the jaws of certain victory. I say ‘almost’ because the Tories did actually win albeit by the skin of their teeth with help from friends from over the water.

Quite simply May did not engage. She had no press conferences, did not turn up to debates and had no forensic examination of Labour’s manifesto. Her public appearances were obviously stage-managed and the Tory Party manifesto launch was one big bodge. How could a party so dependent on the votes of the over-60s come up with the “dementia tax” proposal? Didn’t anybody think to stress test it beforehand?

She had little to say to anyone beyond bad news and voters noticed.

It’s the Economy, Stupid!

May christened the campaign ‘the Brexit election’. She was seeking a strong mandate to take to Brussels. However, beyond a few empty platitudes, she hardly mentioned Brexit, and Corbyn even less so. Since 2010 the Tories’ ace card has been economic competence but May did not seek to built on that reputation. She made a major miscalculation by assuming voters were prepared, if not happy, to continue with austerity. After all they had endorsed it by a majority of two million votes two years ago. It turned out voters, while apparently liking the talk of deficit and debt reduction, did not like the reality and declared they had enough and wanted to move on.

Corbyn in the Wheat Fields

May’s campaign left Corbyn free to do what he does best – run a leadership campaign.

Free of the restraints and challenges of the House of Commons he was able to roam the country talking to sometimes huge adoring crowds of supporters. He talked in positive terms and used the word “hope” a lot. He promised an end to austerity and new investment in public services. He promised one of the biggest public spending binges of all times to be supported by a record level of tax take. This was wrapped in a promise that the rich would pay for it all. No mention was made of the deficit or the level of national debt or how the wealth from which the tax would be taken was to be created. The IFS had done a demolition job on Corbyn’s tax and spend plans but the arrogant, over-confident Tories did not bother to follow up.

While May was saying little, Corbyn was telling many voters what they wanted to hear, albeit it in generally vague terms. He looked good on television in comparison to May’s edgy and defensive performances. You just do not tell a nurse live on national TV who expresses concern about no pay rise for years that there is simply no magic money tree. Corbyn was left free to cultivate a wise old uncle act. He often looked like a kind, cuddly Jackanory reader.

So Corbyn toured the country making a very similar speech free from any forensic examination of his programme while instead the Tories resorted to insults. The Tories made the fatal mistake of thinking Corbyn would self destruct and that the Corbyn they see in the Commons would be the same Corbyn speaking to the crowds in the wheat fields.

But Hang on a Minute!

If May was so bad, and believe me she was, if voters had had enough of austerity, if they had rejected the “no Bexit deal is better than a bad deal” mantra, how come Labour did not win? Why couldn’t Labour overturn the narrow Tory Commons majority? Why did it feel like the loser won and the victor lost?

The answer to that goes back to the levels of expectation when the election was announced.

A few days have passed and the celebrations in the Labour ranks have calmed. If Labour is to progress further it faces some steep challenges. The reality is that the Tories won the most seats and May is planning to embed herself for a number of years. Frantic work is going on behind the scenes to present a united Tory front.

Labour’s Mountain

Over the weekend Twitter presented me with some interesting statistics informing me how well Corbyn did, that by some measures he actually won and that Labour is but a short skip from being landlord for Larry the Cat.

So let us have a look at the numbers that really count:

  • Labour remains 56 Commons seats behind the Tories
  • to close that gap they would have to gain twice the number of seats taken last Thursday
  • to achieve that they would have to bank last Thursday’s popular vote number and increase it by a further one million (at least)
  • Labour remains 64 seats away from a Commons majority of just one
  • Labour would have to further increase its vote share by 3 to 4 per cent
  • the Party is 90 plus seats away from what Blair achieved in the 1990s
  • the more we revert to a two party system the more votes Labour needs to rack up in winnable seats
  • for Labour to do well history tells us it also needs the Lib Dems to do well also by taking seats in more traditional Tory areas

Quite simply, to win the next election Labour needs to win more seats directly from the Tories.

It needs to win in places like Milton Keynes, Crawley and the Kent and Essex estuary seats. Some seats it would need to target have five figure Tory majorities. It would need to reverse the drift away evident in some midland and northern seats and make further gains in Scotland. Labour will need to advance further beyond the suburbs into rural areas (remember when Labour held a seat in Dorset?). It short it would need to perform well all over the country.

Socially Conservative Labour Voters and Liberal Tory Voters

What worked for Jeremy Corbyn this time will not work next time – the Tories will not underestimate him again. They will be ready and waiting.

If Labour is serious about gaining power again it will need to develop a strategy that not only appeals to its 2017 voters but also to those it needs to gain. They are more likely to be middle-of-the-road socially conservative Labour voters or more liberal Tory voters; voters who are wary of extremes, cynical about grand promises and hold more traditional values. Voters who put store in family, thrift, hard work and turning a profit.

To capture these Labour’s strategy will need to stretch towards the middle ground of politics. This is ground occupied by what some of Corbyn’s less informed supporters define as “Red Tories, Tory Lite” and sometimes worse.

Jeremy Corbyn’s 2017 manifesto was not new – it reflected views he has held for decades – nationalisation, trade union rights, higher public spending levels, more state intervention and higher corporation and high wage earner taxes. His challenge is to go beyond that with a programme even more relevant to the opportunities and promises of the 21st century that will inspire an even wider group of voters than last Thursday.

Lake of Opportunity or Desert Mirage?

Little was expected of Corbyn by many before last Thursday. His better than forecast result has saddled him with a hopefully welcome level of expectation. Will he take the view that the tried and tested is sufficient and one more heave will get Labour over the line? Will he take the view that there is more to be milked from the alliances he built last week?

If he does Labour will go backwards at the next election. If it fails to build new bridges, levels of trust among new voters, to reach out to areas which have been no-go for over 10 years, then the promise of last Thursday will be lost and the lake of opportunity will turn out to be have been a mirage in the desert.

By Keith Nieland

Please note: articles and posts on ‘Middle Vision’ reflect the views of the individual authors and not of all involved in ‘Middle Vision’

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Isn’t this supposed to be the Brexit Election?

2nd June 2017

By Keith Nieland-

Isn’t this supposed to be the Brexit Election?

It seems an age since Theresa May announced the snap, surprise general election. If I recall correctly it was necessary because of Brexit. She feared those dastardly Labour, LibDem and SNP MPs would gang up on her and bring the workings of government to a halt if they did not get their own way.

Her second reason was that she believed having a large majority in the Commons would strengthen her hand in the negotiations with EU leaders.

If that is the case why are we not all talking about the types of Brexit on offer? Why are options not being identified and debated? Why are politicians not setting out the pros and cons of these options for us all to consider?

A One Way Ticket to Ride

Now, I am not suggesting we re-run the referendum. We voted to leave and leave we will. What nobody voted for was a model of the economy post-Brexit. No doubt some people think they did but the reality is there has been little debate about the new model for our economy. Do we pursue the Canadian, Norwegian or Swiss models or resort to WTO rules and have no agreements with the EU?

People did not specifically vote to leave the Single Market and certainly did not vote to leave the Customs Union. I doubt many voters had ever heard of the Customs Union or knew what its function was. People did not vote for their jobs to be potentially moved to Dublin, Paris or Frankfurt.

I live near Oxford and if BMW decide not to build the new electric Mini at Cowley it will cause job losses, hardship and undermine the local economy. Nobody voted for that either. Nobody voted for a 20% drop in the value of the pound, higher inflation and an end to the Open Skies agreement or compensation for flight delays (very topical of course). Nobody voted to surrender their EHIC card.

Different political parties should be championing different models so voters can debate and decide how they wish to go forward. This is why it is quite scandalous that May and Corbyn are basically singing from the same Brexit song sheet.

The Elephant on the Table

I would suggest Brexit has become the elephant in the room because, for different reasons, it is not in either Theresa May’s or Jeremy Corbyn’s interests to venture into the murky world of Brexit.

First, May’s reasons for calling the election are quite spurious. There is no cross-party plan to bring government to a halt. The opposition parties do not have the numbers to do that and in any case Corbyn’s Brexit position is much nearer May’s than Tim Farron’s. Remember, Corbyn marched as many of his troops as he could into the lobbies in support of the Tories when the House of Commons voted.

Secondly, the size of May’s majority is of no significance to the EU negotiating team. They have already laid out publicly their negotiating position and for them there are agreements to be reached on the status of Northern Ireland and EU nationals living and working in the UK plus the size of the divorce bill. These will have to be settled before anything else is considered and May will not be able to link these issues across to trade etc. For the EU there is nothing to negotiate just agreements to be reached.

Those Damned Experts

The conspiracy theorist in me thinks the Treasury economists have warned May about the damage to the economy immediately post-Brexit and she does not want to have to handle an election in 2020, the year after the full impact of our EU departure begins to hit home.

Assuming May wins next week she could hold off having another election until 2022 in the hope the economy might be on the up again.

There is no doubt the terrible events in Manchester have affected the election but the debate on security, terrorism, integration and alienation has not knocked Brexit off the front page as it was not there in the first place. Apart from a controversial venture into foreign policy Corbyn continues to talk about the NHS, education and public services and May continues to talk about nothing very much no doubt hoping exposing Corbyn to public scrutiny will deliver her a victory.

Strength and Stability for the Many and not the Few

So May has been mouthing “strong and stable” at every opportunity and promoting the Tories’ reputation for economic competency which was severely undermined by her dementia tax gaff. I know Twitter is alive with charts of the Tories’ cuts to public services, reductions in police numbers and the size of the national debt etc but we need to remember a little over 2 years ago 11 million people voted for a continuation of austerity and prioritised reducing the debt and deficit over everything else. Ed Miliband offered a different route but by 2 million votes it was rejected.

So “strong and stable” May plus economic record plus red meat for UKIP voters is May’s strategy. The polls appear to indicate that UKIP is imploding and its voters going to the Conservatives by a sizeable majority. It’s here we find May’s reasons for not wanting to talk Brexit. The hard line Brexit supporters are to be found in the UKIP vote. Farage and co are watching the Tories like hawks and anything that smells of the slightest weakness towards our EU partners will be pounced on. Hence hints about walking out of the negotiations if we don’t get our own way plus tough measures on immigration. Any hint of remaining in the Customs Union or Single Market will also be pounced on. The UKIP doctrine is to cut ourselves off completely from Europe, have nothing to do with its institutions and create a new world role for ourselves. May needs their votes and will, therefore, say nothing to put that at risk.

Debating Brexit during the Brexit election is just too risky for May.

Corbyn’s reasons for not debating Brexit are different. Prior to his lacklustre efforts during the referendum (remember him going on holiday!) he has traditionally voted against all things EU and given where he lies on the political spectrum he probably see it as a capitalist club operating for the benefit of corporate business. Turning to this election he will be aware of the complex Single Market rules about state intervention and subsidy and would see this as a risk to his nationalisation plans.

The Size of One Side of the Coin Decides the Other

I have had Corbyn fans on Twitter (ah yes the wonderful world of Twitter) say to me that while they are unhappy with Corbyn’s Brexit position as they had voted to remain, they love his other policies. I have pointed out to them that Brexit and our public services are two sides of the same coin. If post-Brexit the economy shrinks and confidence falls, as is already beginning to happen, the amount of money available to invest in the NHS, education, police etc also diminishes as the tax take falls. A Chancellor McDonnell, instead of going on a £49b tax raising and spending spree, could find himself struggling to keep services at their current level while keeping borrowing down and the debt and deficit under control. I doubt Keynes would have endorsed raising taxes when profits and wages and the pound were falling and inflation rising.

So there you have it – May does not want to talk Brexit for fear of alienating UKIP voters on a journey to the Tories and Corbyn does not want to because it will expose the risk to his state interventionist and nationalisation plans.

It’s the Economy Stupid!

The Brexit model we end up with will affect us all for decades to come. It will determine how the economy will perform. The 48% who voted to remain have been largely marginalised and ignored during the campaign.

Our future economic model will now be determined by politicians in secret meetings more concerned with the fortunes of their parties rather than the wider interests of the whole population. Nobody will have a say over the chosen model going forward – not even Parliament who will get a ‘take it or leave it’ offer. This cannot be good for democracy and will possibly alienate large sections of the electorate for years to come.

By Keith Nieland

Please note: articles and posts on ‘Middle Vision’ reflect the views of the individual authors and not of all involved in ‘Middle Vision’

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An Election Without Leadership

Politics is a funny old game, but it is a game nonetheless. If I cast my mind back to GSCE Sport we talked endlessly about “knowledge of performance” as compared to “knowledge of result”. In politics, as in sport, numbers and outcomes are of course fundamental. However, the utterly intangible concepts of “tone”, “leadership” and “principle” in politics (or the defeat despite magnificent performance in sport) receive almost equal coverage and column inches.

Another way to put it is that whilst people can theoretically measure the impact of election pledges on themselves and those around them; they are often more likely choose to vote based on a candidate or party’s intent. Put another way still; people expect political parties and governments to show leadership, but are willing to let government’s work out the details later on.

That said, whilst politicians can show leadership and that in itself can catalyse change; ultimately they must understand and interact with what people want, to use an unattributed quote, “a leader without followers is just somebody talking a walk”. The vast numbers of people who are not members of political parties, along with the vast numbers of floating voters are testament to the idea that people (and their views) are movable. The same must apply political parties.

I’ll be honest, I didn’t enjoy Ed Miliband being leader of the Labour Party; too many of his ideas seemed to involve legislating societal change, or legislating an outcome. He may not have won, but he didn’t collapse the Labour Party and I still voted for him. Why was that? Well he seemed to be a man of integrity, who was intent on addressing the needs in people’s lives such as energy prices, housing, and zero hour contracts. He may have got the detail wrong in his ideas and policies, but they were just that, ideas. Looking back, I feel I was too critical of him. He showed leadership through his ideas and his understanding of people’s dreams and their concerns.

Most people; the man on the Clapham omnibus, the electorate behind their front doors, the old lady being interviewed at the community centre want that approach- ideas, not ideologies. I can and will remain critical for a great many reasons of Cameron and Osborne in their leadership of the country. They did, however, grasp that they had to understand the things that were important to people; retaining the NHS, taking people out of tax, regeneration of the North of England and immigration to name a few examples. Their deeds may not have lived up to their election promises, but their promises at least showed an understanding.

The next general election however, has all the hallmarks of a car crash waiting to happen. Why? Well all of the parties seem to have shrunk into themselves; I have never seen so many people at odds with the party they usually vote for (but then again, I’m not that old, so I probably can’t make too much of a big deal of it). I have seen Tory voters furious about the headlong and undefined dive into hard Brexit, Lib Dems wishing their party would shut up about Brexit, and Labour voters simply deflated by at the whole situation. I saw somebody I know put an “X” in the Conservative box of their postal ballot for the local elections whilst simultaneously complaining that they simply couldn’t vote for them in a general election. And another first-past-the-post loving friend somewhat oddly profess that “what we need is a bloody hung parliament”.

I retain my belief that there is more than one way to Brexit (although I am not wild about Brexit being a verb!) and there should be some heavy and involved cross-party collaboration on how to get the best deal for Britain. I think Theresa May should use Parliament as a stick to beat EU with; but instead her election announcement had an authoritarian tone that showed no leadership “give me more power, because some people are threatening to be difficult”. The Lib Dems are leading the charge the other way, perhaps as a way of expunging in the minds of the public their own coalition collaboration with the Tories.

Jeremy Corbyn meanwhile, said the right words in his launch speech, “It is only Labour that will focus on what kind of country we want to have after Brexit”. Brilliant stuff, except that the Britain he wants after Brexit is no different to one he wanted before Brexit. A Britain based on his ideological commitments to disarmament, nationalisation, and maximum wage caps. Ideology, ideology, ideology.

The Tories have in recent years made the case that receiving state benefits (or being poor for that matter) is exploiting normal hard working people. Meanwhile the current Labour leadership claims that high earners are doing the same. I don’t think either statement is true. So whilst I accept that there are benefit frauds, and I accept that there are high earners that avoid tax for example… (and we shouldn’t ever stop trying to sort these issues by the way), we should be trying to find innovative ways to help those in need without dragging everybody else down and get people away from benefits without demonising them.

I am a centrist, because I think government should be for everybody and that means policies normally need two sides; rights and responsibilities. We should be trying to help people with the things that are of concern, but we cannot and should not being pitting one part of the electorate against another. I could be wrong, but it feels a lot like people want the politicians to focus on the issues that affect their lives, rather than on their own priorities.

By Barnaby Howard

The Past is a Foreign Country: They do Things Differently There

20th March 2017

By Keith Nieland-

The Past is a Foreign Country: They do Things Differently There – L. P. Hartley: The Go-Between

What is it that Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson and Tony Blair have in common? No… it is not as obvious as being the only Labour leaders to win General Elections over the last 72 years (for those interested it was 9 victories in 19 attempts but only 5 with workable majorities. The Tories achieved 10 victories in the same period with 5 different leaders and 9 of those victories had workable majorities).

Back to the Future

The answer is that each ran campaigns based on hope and aspiration for a better future. Each saw the world as it was during their time and built support by defining a better future and inspiring voters to believe in it. There was no harking back to a mythical utopia from bygone years but instead a steady focus on a different but better future.

Attlee did not paint an image of a romanticised 1930s and urge a return to the pre-war days of peace and certainty. Instead he faced up to problems of unemployment, poverty, poor health, poor housing and destitution which had blighted the country since the end of the First World War. He inspired voters to believe in a better future for themselves and their families that was a complete break from all that had gone before. Through improvements to education, the introduction of the NHS and the welfare state and a massive house building programme he was able to set in place the building blocks for greater prosperity for more citizens than ever before. This was to last until the Tories started to dismantle the welfare state in response to the 2008 economic crash.

Wilson’s 1960s platform was not a return to the relatively settled days of the 1950s but a bold vision of the future built on his understanding of the emerging technologies. He is still remembered for his “white heat of technology” speeches. He understood about the potential of mechanisation and computerisation and established the new Department of Technology. His government invested in the new technologies and introduced the Open University to give opportunity to those who may have missed out first time around. Like Attlee before him he was able to persuade voters to buy into his vision of a better, bolder but different future.

Blair in his turn avoided the lure of an attractive but ultimately false utopian world from the past and again focused on a better future for more people based on improvements to education and giving more people the opportunity to chase their dreams. Sure Start helped the very young get off to a better start in life, particularly those from deprived backgrounds. More young people went to university than ever before to the extent that going to university for every 6th former became the norm rather that the exception. He invested in public education and health programmes to a record level. New schools and hospitals were built and old ones modernised.

Labour’s three most successful leaders were social democrats. Social democracy changed the game in the 20th Century. It transformed daily life in the UK and most other advanced economies, as governments delivered virtually full employment, rising wages and access to social programmes and public services.

If Attlee, Wilson and Blair are bound together in understanding that the only way to inspire voters to support the Labour Party is to built a picture of a better, bolder but different future that people believe the party can deliver, to what extent are the main party leaders of today believers in a similar way forward?

Andy Pandy, Quatermass and Rael Brook shirts

I would contend that Theresa May’s offer to the British people is based on a romanticised vision of the 1950s. Brexit, grammar schools and the undermining of local authorities’ ability to support their local communities is about recreating an image, albeit false, of a past that exists only in the minds of many of Brexit’s core supporters. Many of these are elderly, they are my generation, and when I talked to them during the EU Referendum campaign they often referred back to days when we had little to do with Europe and, in their minds, we managed okay. Hints, such as those we had from Boris Johnson recently, of constructing a new royal yacht all play into the agenda of a future built on a past that never really existed.  Empire 2.0 as a shorthand for replacing EU trade with Commonwealth country deals is a fraud, but it does not stop it entering more and more into the conversation about post-Brexit UK.

May, driven on by the right wing of her Party, is seeking to deny the progress that social democracy has brought by focusing on a return to a mythical, utopian past that exists only in the imaginations of those who believe such twaddle. It’s as if the last 40 years never happened.

I wonder where this fascination with the past will lead us next – ration books, first, second and third class carriages on trains, forelock tugging and, more worryingly, the return of hanging?

Hoola Hops, flares, hot pants and Peyton Place

If Theresa May is all about recreating the 1950s it begs the question – is Jeremy Corbyn the heir to the social democrat tradition, taking it to a new level appropriate to the 21st century?

While May is fascinated by the 1950s, the decade of fascination for Corbyn is the 1970s. In his world there is a longing for pits, mills and factories and mass trade union membership. His personal manifesto is more relevant to the distant past than the challenges of the early 21st century. I suspect his sweet dreams are about shouting down a megaphone to Leyland workers in a car park before calling them out on strike. He stresses about issues long settled in the minds of voters. Issues that still obsess Corbyn and his circle:

  • nationalisation – a long ago discredited organisational form that has little appeal to voters. But his manifesto calls for the nationalisation of the railways and energy companies. Putting aside the cost of such moves there is no appetite for having the Treasury run essential national services. The railway franchise system needs sorting out and the energy companies need to be held more to account, but the solution is not putting civil servants in charge.
  • collective bargaining – Corbyn wants a return to this and apparently is prepared to legislate to achieve it. Now I doubt if the majority of working people know what it is and that is because workers are increasingly self-employed or working for small scale employers. It might have had relevance in the days of mass mill and factory employment but there is no evidence of a call for its return by those in the modern world of work.
  • NATO – as part of Corbyn’s foreign policy he has long called for the abolition of NATO. This is another non-issue for voters who, from all the evidence, have been long content with the arrangements for defending North America and Western Europe.
  • Nuclear power – Corbyn, we are told, is a man of principle who has long campaigned against nuclear power and weapons. Well, that is fine by him but like NATO this is an issue long settled in the mind of voters. They may not be wildly enthusiastic but they accept the important link between the nuclear deterrent and the UK’s role in the world. They also accept the role of nuclear in the country’s energy portfolio as well as being a large scale employer. John McDonnell has said a Labour government would start to dismantle nuclear weapons within its first 100 days. 

This is a good read on the unworkability of Corbynism and, therefore, its irrelevance.

Reading Corbyn’s 10 pledges is like going on a journey back to the 1970s and 1980s and are as about relevant to today as May’s 1950s back to the future project. Corbyn and May have much in common. They have both taken the easy route by appealing to their core supporters with a tempting re-creation of a past they believe to be better. The reason May is in power with a nearly 20 point lead over Corbyn is that her offer is built on the Tories’ reputation for economic credibility. It may be undeserved but that is what voters believe.

Social Democracy Mark 2

Voters deserve better than conflicting offers of a return to the past. Labour needs a leadership that is interested and prepared to put in the hours of work on identifying the problems not just of today but the challenges of the coming decades.

  • globalisation – the benefits need to be praised and greater world trade encouraged but work needs to be done on sharing the benefits more widely so that communities do not feel left behind.
  • artificial intelligence – an opportunity but also a threat to many existing ways of working. What will we do when AI takes over most of the jobs people do? How do we embrace the benefits to create more wealth while ensuring that wealth is shared?
  • changing demographics – as the age structure of the world population changes, how do we embrace the opportunities it provides and how do we prevent whole sections of society being seen as problems?
  • recreation – there could be more time for this so how do we create the opportunities?
  • liberal values of equality and universal human rights – how do we ensure these survive following the potential creation of a massive new class of individuals who are economically useless?
  • democracy – how will democratic elections survive when Facebook, Google, Twitter, Whatsapp etc know our political preferences better than we do?

(I referenced Yuval Noah Harari’s On the Rise of Homo Deus for assistance with bringing together this list of strategic challenges).

These are the real but difficult challenges of the first half of the 21st century. Social democracy can make itself relevant again by facing up to them and working on strategies that deliver the traditional social democrat values of equality of opportunity, wealth creation, wealth sharing, human rights and access to social programmes.

This would be a much better use of time than re-creating grammar schools, nationalising the commanding heights of the economy and building a new royal yacht. Oh, and negotiating a hard Brexit.

By Keith Nieland

Please note: articles and posts on ‘Middle Vision’ reflect the views of the individual authors and not of all involved in ‘Middle Vision’

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Mind The Language Gap

15th March 2017

 -By Steven Duckworth-

Mind the Language Gap

Last week, amid fallout from the budget speech and its political consequences, Jeremy Hunt addressed a Reform conference in central London. At the event, the Secretary of State delivered a speech that was perceptive, engaging and strong on detail, which will be utterly unsurprising to those who know the man and his interest in improving healthcare in Britain generally and the NHS in England specifically. Hunt didn’t – “I bet he didn’t”, I hear you cry – focus on funding or NHS operational issues, apart from a commitment to the A & E performance target. He did, however, drill down specifically and with precision on the importance of all healthcare providers making patient safety their one overriding mission.

The Secretary of State used the examples of failure that had led to the tragedies seen at Mid Staffs, Southern and Morecambe Bay NHS Trusts and the pain this had caused to patients and their families. He made the compelling case, clinically, economically and morally for making the improvement in patient safety the NHS’s driving focus, using the examples of patient safety campaigners and leaders such as Julie Bailey and James Titcombe – among others – to make his point.

In short, Hunt talked about people.

In contrast to the Hunt speech was an interview the shadow education secretary Angela Rayner had given to the Today program a couple of days before. Rayner was on the program to respond to the much trailed leak that the chancellor was going to earmark £500m pounds for education spending in the budget. Apart from the fact that Rayner was at times aggressive and difficult it’s harsh to blame her much for this. John Humphrys’ interview style would drive most to distraction, although she should probably learn to deal with it.

The striking element of the interview was the language she used, describing increased education funding as “a vanity project” and “ideological dogma”. An absolutely awful way to respond to a rise in school spending. There are many sound arguments opposing selection in schools and some against the creation of Free Schools, but the shadow secretary could not get beyond her leftist based rhetoric to make these points.

In short, Rayner talked about politics.

It would be unfair to single out Rayner, partly because the interview format is more challenging than a prepared speech but also because she is only following the course set by her leader and followed by many of her front bench colleagues. In fact she is one of the better members of Labour’s senior team and given time to find her feet could turn into an effective politician. Her interview is an example of how Labour is developing a way of engagement that is becoming ever more closed and inward focused, throwing rhetorical red meat to its more extreme supporters while at the same time turning off most voters.

A cycle is now in motion where every poor opinion poll is met by an increased infusion of hard sloganeering and protest, which in turn leads to more public distrust. None of this is to say that the government are getting public policy right, they are most certainly not, but that Labour’s response to it is becoming staid and predictable and even confirmed Labour supporters are switching off.

So how does Labour break the cycle?

Quite simply, Labour must start talking to people about issues that matter to them, which in relation to public services usually revolves around ease of access and quality of service, in language that is accessible and, to be blunt, vaguely normal. Most voters are put off by talk of fight and struggle, just as they find it odd to see politicians on marches and protests – especially when they appear to be surrounded by Socialist Worker placards – and they become frustrated at an opposition that constantly decries government policy but doesn’t appear to want to offer alternatives beyond slogans and platitudes.

The share of the vote at recent by elections suggest that people are not listening to Labour any more and that the party is drifting down a political cul-de-sac. They seem also to have concluded that there is one party pushing “ideological dogma” and it isn’t the Conservatives.

By Steven Duckworth


Please note: articles and posts on ‘Middle Vision’ reflect the views of the individual authors and not of all involved in ‘Middle Vision’

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“Facts All Come With Points of View…”

13th March 2017

By Keith Nieland-

“Facts All Come With Points of View. Facts Don’t Do What I Want Them To”

 By Jay McInerney, Bright Lights, Big City

Sadly, I am nearer to 70 than 60 so I’ve been around the block a few times including living through 18 general elections and I can remember them all vividly with the exception of the first 3.

My first recollection is of the 1959 election when I sat with my Labour voting parents in front of our newly acquired flickering black and white television with me filling in the results in a very handy pullout section from the Radio Times. I remember my mother complaining that Hugh Gaitskell had conceded defeat too early.

Watching all those elections into the small hours of the morning, even when my beloved Labour Party was doomed to defeat, has let me into a secret – the secret of winning general elections.

Do You Want to Know a Secret?

I do not need sophisticated opinion polls or university professors who specialise in politics, or TV pundits come to that. The secret of success is obvious and has been there to see in all those 18 general elections and it only has two parts.

The first is that party leaders must look like a prime minister in waiting. They need to look and dress the part, present as authoritative, articulate and in control whilst at the same time calm and sympathetic with a listening ear. They need to appear as being able to stare Putin down whilst at the same time being kind to dogs and willing to kiss any passing baby.

The second factor relates to how we feel a leader will manage the economy – more precisely each of our personal economies. Voters need to be assured their wallet or purse is safe in the hands of the chosen Prime Minister. Let me be precise here – not the national economy but our personal financial affairs. Voters don’t fret about the GDP, the difference between national debt and the deficit or the RPI but they are concerned about things that directly affect them. Watching those pre-Budget TV vox pop interviews reveals people worrying about their personal finances – tax credits, help with child care, pensions, etc. They do not demand major change but instead look to be better off at the margin. I suspect this is because voters rarely believe politicians who promise major change suspecting it will never happen and/or will be at the cost of increasing their taxes.

Down Memory Lane

So let’s apply my 2-part theory to those elections that kept me up all night. Macmillan won in 1959 because he said “most of our people have never had it so good” and that was how people felt. Gaitskell never had a chance as voters were harvesting the benefit of the post Second World War boom.

Come 1964 and the boot was very much on the other foot. Sir Alec Douglas-Home looked like a relic from the 19th century as Harold Wilson mocked him for doing economics with match sticks and spoke of “the white heat of technology”. Wilson looked like a PM in waiting and voters turned to him (narrowly) but even more convincingly in 1966.

By 1970 it was a turnaround again with voters doubting Labour’s ability to run the economy as inflation began to rise. The June general election brought Edward Heath’s Conservative Party to power with a surprise majority of 30 seats. I recall lots of TV advertisements rubbing home the fear of inflation and what it would do to families’ incomes. Never had the price of a loaf of bread been so hotly debated; but it meant a lot to voters.

1974 saw two elections with Wilson winning narrowly on both occasions (the first without an overall majority) as voters again turned to Wilson’s experience to resolve the industrial disputes damaging the economy. 1979 saw Callaghan soundly defeated by his inability to resolve “the winter of discontent” (a phrase that was to haunt Labour for years to come) and in strode the Prime Ministerial Margaret Thatcher.

In the eyes of some she may have been the “Marmite” PM, but a combination of an authoritative stance and an economy that served most people quite well, meant that she swept all before her through the 1980s. She may have overseen the decline of the UK as a manufacturing power but did it in such a way as to keep sufficient voters onside to ensure election victory after election victory. When she departed John Major looked sufficiently Prime Ministerial with an economy ticking along nicely to deliver a victory in 1992. 1997 saw the arrival of Tony Blair who knew full well the importance of both looking the part and not frightening the horses when it came to voters’ wallets and purses and this was followed by two further big election victories.

The crash of 2008 saw Gordon Brown given the unwanted label of incompetence when it came to managing the economy which delivered David Cameron into Downing Street in 2010 and 2015. Cameron knew enough about Blair’s route to power to recognise the dual importance of personal and economic credibility.

The 2020 Crystal Ball

So what does 2020 look like through the prism of personal and economic credibility? It looks like a battle between May and Corbyn but there is an outside possibility that the choppy waters of Brexit and Corbyn’s travails within the Labour Party might change the runners and riders.

In the spring of 2020 voters will ask themselves those two crucial questions again. Some will have made their minds up already, some during the campaign and some in the voting booth with pencil poised over the ballot paper. Even though, apart from in two constituencies, May’s and Corbyn’s names will not be on the ballot paper they will be very much in voters’ minds.

  • Which looks most Prime Ministerial and as if 10 Downing Street is their natural home?
  • Which will represent the UK’s best interests when at meetings in the White House, the Kremlin or Brussels (yes, Brussels still)?
  • Who do they trust most to guarantee the nation’s security including against terrorism?
  • Who will keep inflation low, deliver marginal increases in their income, and not raise their taxes?
  • Most importantly: to which of those two do the voters trust stewardship of their wallet or purse?

So when it comes to personal and economic credibility will voters turn to May or Corbyn? The opinion polls suggest a clear answer with May’s Tory party around 18 points ahead of Labour and Corbyn’s credibility at rock bottom.

It is suggested in some quarters that Corbyn’s problems are because voters tell opinion pollsters what they want they to hear and that there is an establishment/media plot against Corbyn. I think we should give voters more credit and be less dismissive of the view they have come to about Corbyn. Labour would be best served, in the interests of wider democracy and those who need a Labour government to deliver their potential, if it were to focus on the skills of their leader and his offer to the wallets and purses of the UK.

If the present leader cannot establish his personal and economic credibility he needs to be replaced before there is a catastrophic collision with voters.

By Keith Nieland

Please note: articles and posts on ‘Middle Vision’ reflect the views of the individual authors and not of all involved in ‘Middle Vision’

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