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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“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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If not Blair, then Who?

24th February 2017

By Keith Nieland-

If Not Blair… then Who?

The earth began to move and slowly part. A bony, emaciated hand grasped at the dank, putrid air. This was followed by a swivel-eyed, scab ridden head. Mothers held their firstborn close, the Daily Mail closed the window blinds in fear, Boris went hunting for stakes while Nigel ran in panic through the streets seeking a sledge hammer. Yes! Tony Blair had risen!blair-martin-rowson-guardian

The Hammer House of Brexit

The response in some quarters to Tony Blair’s Bloomberg Brexit speech was more akin to a horror film script than a continuing political dialogue that, despite the wishes of some, will be with us for years to come. The immediate reaction was to play the man with little attempt to respond to the real issues he raised so well, summarised in Steven Duckworth’s post. Blair was irrelevant, speaking out on an issue already settled, he was yesterday’s man forever blighted by the Iraq war.

The usual suspects, many of whom would have agreed with his every word just a few short months ago, ran for the nearest microphone and TV camera to do their bit to stick the knife in (or perhaps the stake!) Jeremy Corbyn went all pious saying the decision of the people should be respected.

The trouble with all the responses were that they were based on what his political foes had wished he’d said rather than what he did say. He was simply saying that while he fully respected the referendum outcome, and that there was little appetite for revisiting it, the great British public might just want to have a rethink once the fine details of the EU divorce become clear.

So, what exactly is wrong with that? It might happen automatically without any prompting if the exit negotiations do not go well and/or speedily. It all rather begged the question “why the excitable reaction?”

“Don’t Panic, Mr Mainwaring!”

Perhaps the real reason for the hysterical response was those at the front of the rush for the EU exit door – May, Corbyn, Farage, BoJo, Davis, Fox, etc do not want an articulate, clever, analytical figure with considerable gravitas – who still enjoys respect amongst sections of the electorate and commands media attention, from looking too closely at what they plan. They want everything neatly under their control, with limited information for Parliament, no public briefings on the exit negotiations and, above all, not to be held accountable for the Leave campaign promises.

The last thing May’s control freakery wants is to find Tony Blair smiling back at her as he dissects her every EU exit move. The Prime Minister wants the status quo – an anti-EU Tory backbench and a lukewarm EU fan leading the opposition.

I would suggest the driver for control of the process is those dodgy Leave promises sitting uneasily on the notion of the settled will of the public.

We All Loved Ratners Once

It’s an unwritten, unarticulated human right – the right to change our minds.

The deal was simple – if you do not want an EU army, the country invaded by Turks coming for our jobs, Europeans turning up when they want but would welcome a cut in VAT and an extra £350m each week for the NHS then vote Leave.

So what happens if and when these promises evaporate and issues never mentioned in the referendum campaign come to the fore? Voters might just feel let down, as if the whole thing was not worth it and, as bad as it was, that perhaps things were better inside the EU.

So how are we doing on the promises just eight months on? Well, there are no plans for an EU army, Turkey will not be joining the EU any time soon (or ever given the current state of the country) and, surprise, surprise David Davis tells us the free movement of labour will have to last until… well nobody knows! The VAT cut has never been mentioned again and the extra NHS funds have been spray painted over and dumped somewhere on the M1.

Davis, Fox and Boris have yet to sit in front of the EU negotiating team but already we know that, far from there being an exit financial bonus, there will be an exit bill, a sizeable one: fifty to sixty million Euros appears to be the opening figure. After all, not unreasonably, the EU will want us to cough up for developments we have already agreed to over the coming planning period.

Nobody mentioned that during the campaign and, if they did, it would have no doubt been branded as part of Project Fear.

Will the EU team want the exit bill issue settled before they are willing to discuss any other matters? Well, what do you do think?

It is still too early to say what the impact on the economy will be but we have to accept that leaving the world’s biggest free trade area cannot be achieved without any negative effect. It’s a bit like leaving the golf club and then demanding all the benefits of membership without paying a subscription. If the UK wants access to all, or selected parts, of the EU free trade zone there will be a cost. It is delusional to think we can abandon up to 45% of our trade and somehow replace it with deals elsewhere in the world.

IoD members are not full of confidence. The impact of Brexit on our vital banking and car manufacturing sectors will be watched with keen interest. It just needs bad news in one of these key areas, particularly car manufacturing, for the public to go sore on the whole Brexit idea.

The public mood could easily change – after all we once loved Ratners and would hear no word of dissent.

What the Opposition Should Be Doing

The Labour Opposition has a big problem – a very big problem.

It has a leader who is indifferent to the EU, who chose to go on holiday during the country’s most important referendum campaign in over 40 years, who gave the EU 7 marks out of 10 in a TV interview, whose support for his own party’s campaign was criticised by the campaign’s leader and who called for Article 50 to be enacted the morning after the result. 60% of Labour voters wanted to Remain as did 48% of total voters, the Party’s official policy is to support membership and to give every opportunity for voters to have a say once the conditions of Brexit are known. The Leader is out of step with many, and perhaps a majority, of Labour voters, members and MPs.

I would suggest that Corbyn’s lacklustre EU campaign and disinterest since runs the real risk of his party getting none of the credit should Brexit go well and some of the blame should it not. While others make the running, Labour has become an invisible player in the EU exit debate. Corbyn three line whipping his MPs through the lobby to support Brexit at any cost could well come back to haunt him and his party. How can Corbyn suggest that is not the case given his party’s failure to at least abstain in the final vote once it became clear the Government were not willing to compromise on any of the assurances being sought?

If Parliament is to have further opportunities to influence the exit deal, when and how will that happen?

I doubt the electorate know what Labour’s Brexit position is and, indeed, care much given the Party’s, and Corbyn’s, dire poll rankings.

Blair has a Blueprint

Is it possible the old class-based dividing lines that defined the core Labour and Conservative votes are fading to be replaced with a nation of Remainers and Leavers? Only time will tell, but I suggest it is a possibility. Labour runs the risk of being discarded into history because it failed to adopt a clear position on Brexit.

As the main opposition party, it has a duty to oppose May’s form of Brexit – what Blair would describe as “Brexit at any cost” – for two reasons. It is what oppositions do, but more importantly, given the Party’s beliefs and values, it is the right thing to do.

Labour should be saying that while Article 50 may well be triggered shortly, the Government has no blank cheque and the Party will resist a Brexit for Brexit’s sake. What the Government proposes will be crawled all over and the public will be advised of the consequences for them. The Party should be painting a picture of the post-Brexit UK which it believes is in the best interests of all its citizens but in particular, those sections that have traditionally looked to it for leadership.

The Party’s position on the Customs Union, the Single Market, EU citizens living, working and studying here and UK citizens doing likewise in Europe should be made clear and articulated. Labour should be highlighting the many, many issues that need a negotiated solution. It should be putting pressure on May to explain regularly where we are on new trade deals, on what they cover, who they are with and how long negotiations are scheduled.

Most importantly, if Labour believes what May and her team are doing is not in the wider national interest, they should be nudging voters to have a change of mind.

Regrettably Labour has put all its lifejackets in the Leave lifeboat, but the situation is not beyond recovery. If we put aside Corbyn’s poor personal poll ratings the Party can get back into the Brexit debate by following Blair’s lead because the Party will be clearly saying May has no blank cheque, we will watch and analyse her every step, she will be held to account and, if we believe the direction of travel not to be in the wider UK interests, then we shall urge voters to think again.

Blair pointed a way forward and Labour should follow it.

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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Charisma and Corbyn

20th February 2017

By Keith Nieland-

Charisma and Corbyn

Charisma! I love the word – it sounds a bit like Christmas and all those warm connotations of mulled wine, mince pies and open fires. My ever trusty Penguin English Dictionary defines the word as –

1. the special magnetic appeal, charm or power of an individual e.g. a political leader, that inspires popular loyalty and enthusiasm

2. an extraordinary power divinely given to a Christian.”

So the question of the day is does Jeremy Corbyn have charisma and does it matter?

The Populist Right

Those of us who like to describe ourselves as progressives despise the populist right. We reject their playbook of divide and rule. They promote the politics of hate and victimhood: it’s immigrants who take our jobs, suppress wages, jump the queue for housing and healthcare and live a life loafing on benefits (despite taking all our jobs at the same time!) They long for a never-never land like the 1950s when, apparently, all faces were white and Christian, we hung criminals, measured in feet and inches, weighed in ounces and pounds and bought things with shillings and pence. A Wagon Wheel was a foot wide, a Penguin bar weighed a pound and passports had a blue cover. Most importantly all foreigners began at Calais.

We reject all this partly because it is not evidence-based but more importantly it runs counter to the progressive dream of an inclusive, tolerant and sharing society where people are given opportunity and not judged by their skin colour or religion. Every year speeches at the Oscars and BAFTAs reinforce the progressive brand. This year’s Oscars should be good for a bit of Trump bashing.

So why is the populist right apparently in the ascendancy?

Trump, Le Pen, Farage et al

The answer to that question is complicated and will no doubt fill column inches and books for years to come. I would suggest, however, that one of the reasons is that the populist right is good at finding charismatic leaders who talk eloquently in a style that appeals to their audience.

They do indeed inspire loyalty and enthusiasm amongst their followers as they preach a sermon of blame and division. Many of us scoffed at Trump’s election campaign. His ignorance and limited vocabulary shone through as did his evidence-free policy platform. None of this mattered as he filled venues in a way Hilary Clinton could only dream of. He told his audience what they wanted to hear in a way they understood. None of their problems were of their own making and blame should be allocated to Mexicans, Muslims, the Washington elite (who for some reason live in a swamp) and the trade cheats China and Germany.

Whether we like it or not, folks like Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Nigel Farage etc can captivate an audience and inspire unyielding loyalty. Evidence that charisma is an important quality in the world of politics.

It begs the question where are the progressive charismatic leaders on the centre left? Macron in France perhaps, but who else? In the UK it begs an urgent question: does Jeremy Corbyn have the necessary charismatic qualities?

Charismatic Corbyn

So does Jeremy have that special magnetic appeal, charm and power as an individual to inspire popular loyalty and enthusiasm? That question alone will inspire guffaws of laughter in some quarters for clearly he does not – just look at the opinion polls.

Despite the wishes of his band of merry followers not all the polls can be fake news as he lags behind the Tories by whatever means you choose to cut the electorate – by age, class or political loyalty. Not even Labour voters want him. The Tories hang around 40% in the polls while Labour slumps ever downwards towards 20% and perilously close to UKIP’s vote share. Amongst working class people they already prefer UKIP to Corbyn’s Labour.

His best opportunity to establish his charismatic qualities comes once a week at Prime Minister’s Questions. He can ask what he likes, he has the right to have six goes and May has no prior notice of his intentions. The press and TV await. The opportunity is laid before Corbyn for some charismatic sound bites to get the attention of evening and night time news watchers and listeners.

Open Goal to Bullet in the Foot

Jeremy Corbyn has plenty of material to chose from to establish his charismatic credentials. May’s disastrous management of the NHS and social care; her cavalier approach to the Brexit negotiations; the plight of the wider public sector and problems of the prison service. They lie before Corbyn like sweets in a sweetie jar but he is unable to register a hit partly because he lacks the personal charismatic qualities (he was just born without them) but partly because of a wall of his creation.

If Corbyn tries to pin May down on the NHS, her response is that Labour had 13 years to fix the NHS, and it did not but the Tories now are. He cannot counter this nonsense because admitting Blair and Brown actually did fix the NHS and all but eliminated waiting lists and times would be to surrender the Corbyn play book of hating all things Blairite.

One of the few things that glues his band of supporters together is the hatred of everything they consider Blairite.

If Corbyn tries to do likewise on social care back will come the same answer from May. He cannot claim Labour tried to get in place a new cross-party settlement on social care but the Tories rejected it because that would again require acknowledgement of those who names dare not be mentioned.

Defence is a no-go Corbyn area. Remember submarines going to sea without missiles or NATO being redundant or the “tragedy” of Bin Laden’s death? If you do not, May will be all too pleased to remind you.

The economy is just as bad as Corbyn has no coherent economic policy beyond a number of unfunded spending commitments (remember he got elected on a promise of abolishing tuition fees), vague calls for nationalisation and hints at tax rises. His contradictory desire for a closed shop economy with open borders is a hard sell at the best of times. I suspect that deep down he would like to return to the 1960s and call for nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy and sweeping powers for the trades unions. Now that would get him onto the BBC 9 O’clock News but for all the wrong reasons.

What about Brexit? Sadly Corbyn and May are singing off the same song sheet now and that particular fox bolted last week when Corbyn tried to straddle the Leave/Remainer divide and fell down the gap in the middle.

For Jeremy PMQs is an open goal but sadly the ball is chained to his ankle.

Why Does Jeremy Hang On?

Given that most of his Parliamentary colleagues think he is useless, the electorate certainly does and he is lampooned in the media most days, why does he not just bow out gracefully and go back to his allotment? He would have plenty of time to return to what he does best, which is lurk on the backbenches with his few House of Commons pals whining about the next episode of socialist betrayal by the Party’s frontbench.

Cynics might suggest that Corbyn does not care tuppence about his unpopularity and total inability to create a narrative voters will listen to. There is an old management training saying about “only getting one opportunity to make a first impression”. Corbyn blew his as he was unprepared for those first testing radio and television interviews when he became leader. Everything he said and did from then on just serves as conformation bias. He is beyond recovery.

While the hard left is pretty hopeless at public politics it is pretty good at plotting and planning its way to success when it comes to party meetings and conferences. Perhaps all Corbyn really wants is to ensure the dreaded Blairites are banished to the margins of the party for good and preferably out of it. He could be just hanging on for a party conference rule change that will make it easier for a hard left MP to get on the leadership slate, who would then be swept into office by the only group in the country that has any faith in Corbyn – his loyal band of followers in the Labour party membership. It might make Labour unelectable for a generation but that is not the point.

Where Are the Charismatic Hiding?

If Jeremy Corbyn has all the charisma of a hearth brush, where are the potential charismatic leaders on Labour’s benches? Where are those who can hold an audience in the palm of their hand? Can preach a progressive message that resonates with people? Who are policy-sound, evidence-based but with magnetic personalities? Who are clear, articulate and can give a good sound bite off-the-cuff to a reporter in the street and not run away? Who can command the House of Commons and ask a short, succinct question without having to read it?

Will our charismatic potential leaders please step forward – your country needs you, Europe needs you and the world needs you to stand up to Trump and Putin. Most importantly I need you!

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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Straddling Two Horses Rarely Ends Well

30th January 2017

By Keith Nieland-

Straddling Two Horses Rarely Ends Well

I try to avoid them if I can as they are not good for the blood pressure. I refer, of course, to television interviews with Jeremy Corbyn’s inner cabinet members. But recently I accidentally came across interviews with Diane Abbott and Emily Thornberry. They were about the hot topic of Brexit and Labour’s stance. I usually avoid interviews with the holy trinity of Abbott, Thornberry and McDonald as they shed little light and just usually reflect Corbyn’s thinking that morning with little discussion with other Labour MPs or indeed anybody as far as I can gather.

I Will Say This Only Once

This is a summary of both interviews:

Q. What is Labour’s position on May’s Brexit plan?

A. Labour respects the verdict of the Referendum and puts the protection of jobs, workers’ rights and business as top priority.

Q. Does that mean Labour supports membership of the Single Market and the Customs Union which includes signing up to the free movement of labour?

A. Labour believes in maintaining access to the Single Market and Customs Union.

Q. Does Labour support the free movement of labour?

A. Repeat first answer.

Q. Repeat previous question.

A. Repeat first answer.

Q. If Labour does not support the free movement of labour but wants to negotiate access to the Single Market and the creation of some kind of new Customs Union does not that make Labour’s position the same as the Tories?

A. No, as we would not wish to turn the UK into some sort of offshore tax haven.

Q. So Labour does support membership of the Single Market and Customs Union?

A. We are only the Opposition; that is a question for the Government.

Riding Two Horses

I am old enough to remember the days when circuses actually had animals in them and Jeremy Corbyn’s Brexit position reminds me of the rider who entered the ring with one foot on one horse and the other on a second horse. It looked pretty spectacular but after one circuit the rider usually dismounted before something nasty happened. Here we have Jeremy Corbyn doing a political version. He has one foot on the Remainer horse marked “single market and customs union” and the other foot on the Brexit horse marked “border and immigration controls”. His justification for this is that Labour needs to appeal across the board to both Leavers and Remainers and that the Party cannot win if it pins its hopes on one side or the other. After all there are Labour MPs from both strong Remain and strong Leave seats.

Opposition are Supposed to Oppose

As we currently stand the only nationwide political party implacably opposing Brexit are the Liberal Democrats and they have less than 10 seats. If for no other reason the 48% who voted to remain deserve better Parliamentary representation than that. It is not the job of the Opposition to quietly acquiesce with any Government’s plans particularly on such a vital issue – the clue is in the title. Being clearly set against Brexit and wanting a second referendum on the final exit deal with the EU is not doing the Lib Dems any harm as they take council seats from Tories in staunch Remain areas and rise in the polls albeit from a very low position. This has the virtue of the Party being able to present a clear and concise position which you can agree with or not, but Labour’s position is about as clear as the Thames’ mud.

Labour’s position is costing it voters. As was pointed out in the Emily Thornberry interview, the polls indicate the Party has lost 400,000 voters to the Lib Dems since the last General Election and a similar number to the Tories and UKIP combined. The extent to which this is due to Corbyn’s general unpopularity or Labour’s Brexit position (or both) is unclear. Some Corbyn fans will rejoice as what they see as Red Tories going elsewhere but those with the true interests of the Party at heart will just put their head in their hands.

The Flaw

It could well be that one unintended outcome of the Referendum was a move away from the old class-based party loyalties to irreconcilable groups of Remainers and Leavers. If that is the case Labour runs the risk of being trampled to death in the rush.

However, there is a flaw in Labour’s whole Brexit approach and that is, quite simply, if they think the Government is wrong why are they supporting it? If they think, as they appear to, that May’s Lancaster House speech put jobs and workers’ rights at risk; that the fall back position of an off-shore tax haven is unacceptable, why is Corbyn planning to support the Brexit Bill come what may? They should either vote against or at the very least put down amendments about guaranteeing access to the Single Market and Customs Union and rejecting the tax haven option.

Corbyn should be working with other parties to try and put together an alliance to defeat the worst aspects of May’s plan. It might not work but at least there will be credit in trying. By some indications there is a Remain majority in the House of Commons so there is potential to attempt to tie May to something less ideological and more realistic.

Corbyn’s current position runs the risk of sharing the blame if May’s plan falls apart and getting none of the credit if it succeeds.

An Honourable Position

It is quite tenable for Labour to say that while they respect the outcome of the Referendum they feel the Government’s plan is not in the best interests of the country, it is not what voters voted for, and Labour will, therefore, vote against the Brexit Bill. The fact the Government cannot give guarantees about job losses, workers’ rights, UK citizens living abroad and the dependence of many services (particularly the NHS) on EU labour are grounds enough for voting against. Labour should not fall into the trap of zero based decision making.

Secondly, Labour should be making the case for remaining in the Single Market and Customs Union. The economic priority should be the protection of 45% of our export market plus the potential for the future in the world’s biggest free trade zone. This is more important than running around the world begging other countries to fill the lost trade gap.

Thirdly, it is not immigrants that are putting a strain on the public services, instead they fill much needed skills gaps. Labour should be making the case for immigration and setting out plans for supporting immigrants and the communities into which they settle.

The Three Line Whip

Corbyn’s decision to impose a three line whip on voting for the Brexit Bill will be ignored by Leavers and will infuriate Remainers. In all likelihood it will split the PLP and, possibly, the Shadow Cabinet. At least the Party will get an audience if it were to adopt the position set out above and it might get some grudging respect from its detractors.

One of the reasons Corbyn drew support during the leadership campaigns was because Party activists were fed up with MPs voting with the Tories and supporting, as they saw it, Tory policies. I wonder what they think now particularly as Corbyn’s position is not in line with the policy adopted by the Party as last September’s Conference?

As Nick Cohen and others have pointed out on Twitter, Corbyn has now lined himself up with the Conservative Party, UKIP, Daily Mail, Daily Express, Sun, Putin and Trump.

The Labour Party has truly passed through the looking glass.

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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May May Land

23rd January 2017

By Keith Nieland-

May May Land

Queen May has spoken! We now know the door through which we will exit the European Union is the one marked the “hardest of hard exits” – no single market and no customs union.

Everything thrown into the air, 45% of our trade with our nearest neighbours put at risk, cordial relationships with our longest standing allies also put at risk in exchange for a new order based on immigration control and an as yet to be negotiated set of free trade agreements. All to be achieved to the background music of the UK taking its ball home if it does not get its own way, and becoming a North Atlantic tax haven.

The University Professor

The PM’s speech was the ultimate triumph of political ideology over evidence-based decision making. In decades to come, professors on business Masters’ degree courses will be using it as a case study. The intention of all those fine words against the reality will consume thousands of essays. How many years before the new order of comprehensive worldwide free trade agreements is in place is anybody’s guess (assuming Trump does not turn us all into dust beforehand)? But one thing is for sure – the task will outlast May and her little gang of Euro sceptics.

Brexiteers will shout against the evidence base for remaining in the single market and customs union, but here it is.

The Evidence

We export more to Ireland that we do to China; almost twice as much to Belgium as we do to India; and nearly three times as much to Sweden as we do to Brazil. It is not realistic to think we could just replace European trade with these new markets.

In a stand-off between Britain and the EU, 44% of our exports is more important to us than 8% of the EU’s exports is to them.

Remaining inside the EU does make us more secure, it does make us more prosperous and it does make us more influential beyond our shores.

Now the three paragraphs above are not my words but Theresa May’s. And she finished by saying “I believe it is clearly in our national interest to remain a member of the European Union.” She uttered them during the Referendum campaign. So what changed her mind?

May the Populist

If you listen to May’s speech it is quite easy to hear it being delivered by President Trump. His populist dog whistle tunes were all there if you listen hard enough. Our problems are created by meddlesome foreigners and unwanted immigrants. “Britain First” was her unsaid cry to be achieved by breaking away from Europe and creating a new order based on worldwide free trade agreements and tough immigration controls at home. If things get difficult there was an appeal to the Dunkirk spirit and British bulldog traditions and a threat to piss off our allies of 70 years by becoming an offshore tax haven. She forgot to mention the extra £350m a week for the NHS this new order would allow, but I can only guess she ran out of time.

On one level May’s speech was a meek and pathetic surrender to the saloon bar politics of Nigel Farage. No wonder he welcomed it. The politics of blame and envy in full flow with a flourish of nationalism thrown in. At best it was a gamble (which some would describe as reckless) in basically stating we have got it all wrong for 40 years so let us start again.

The Reality

Very soon May and her team will face the reality of their offer to the UK populist vote which they hope will keep the Tories in power for years to come. Already the unrealistic amongst Brexiteers do not understand why we have not yet left the EU and for some of them any form of immigration control will not be enough. Any TV news vox pop interview on the streets finds them with ease. They will soon get bored with the lack of apparent action but UKIP will always be on hand to offer even more extremist policies to keep them happy.

Meanwhile, in the real world, May’s government needs to find and recruit an army of skilled, experienced negotiators to both get us the best EU divorce deal possible and negotiate an as yet unspecified number of free trade agreements. The EU, of course, already has a team of experienced negotiators as do some of the countries we will be trying to do deals with – China and the USA amongst them. Our lack of skills and experience could find us paying a heavy price. We will always want to close deals more quickly than the other side of the table as the future of our economy will depend on it, but that will not be a mutual risk.

America First v Britain First

So May’s first big test comes in a few days when she goes to Washington. Her office will make much of her being the first foreign leader to meet Trump but for many the reality is that they do not want to meet him – ever! Does anybody believe, given Trump’s inaugural speech, he will do us any favours? His aim will be the issue of a 140 character tweet informing his fans of the UK’s role in making America great again.

Is it outrageous to suggest Trump may want us to block car imports from Europe through tariffs so as to make US-made cars a more attractive proposition in the UK? Will he want the UK to take its steel from the US? Port Talbot could be under threat again. Will his aim be to make the UK just another state of the Union? What will Trump’s reaction be if May just says no to something he might want? I would suggest we have few bargaining chips beyond Marmite and bagless vacuum cleaners.


If you scratch the surface of some communities it is easy to find discontent with immigration: there are too many immigrants, they depress wages, take houses and jobs and change the character of communities. However, we rarely look at the issue through the lens of the countries from which immigrants come.

I know from personal experience of Australians who have given up trying to come to the UK because it is just too difficult. Many countries now see us as unwelcoming and their citizens do not want to come and work and study here. So how will this go down, say with India, Australia, China and New Zealand, when it comes to trade deals? Will we be saying that we want you to take our goods and services and will take yours but not your people? May could find herself being bitten by that part of the populist vote that does not want Indians and Chinese people here at any price. May could find herself revisited by the ghost of the free movement of labour.

Calling the Bluff

What will May do if a country just says “Thank you, but no thank you. We just do not want to do a free trade deal with you”? Or the negotiations simply collapse or take years and years? Given how desperate we could be to strike deals to keep employment in the UK and the economy buoyant what will we do if, for example, Switzerland say “non”? Is there a risk the EU will happily negotiate our divorce then say – given your threats we have no desire to negotiate any form of free trade deal with you – and just leave us to stew? After all we could have maintained our trading status by remaining in the single market.

A Reckless Gamble

In many ways May’s speech was duplicitous. It played light with the practical consequences and time frame for basically achieving such a major rebalancing of the economy. Her response to challenges was a mixture of threats and appeals to the national spirit. Already some of the forecasts of what was branded “project fear” are coming to pass. The 20% fall in the value of the pound against the dollar has fuelled a 20% increase in the cost of petrol. Inflation is rising and thousands of high paid banking jobs are planned to disappear over to the continent. Those cheering the departure of the bankers conveniently forget that the high paid pay high amounts of tax and the spending of their disposable income provides jobs for others.

When Article 50 is triggered the uncertainty will only increase and there is nothing markets dislike more than uncertainty. At best it is highly ambitious for May to be able to negotiate our divorce from the EU and a totally new economic model within a two year time scale. Many would say it was totally impossible. It took the EU seven years to negotiate a pretty straightforward trade deal with Canada, which ironically we will not be part of once we leave.

Holding May to Account

It is little wonder May wants to keep the House of Commons as far away from the EU negotiations, and whatever follows on, as possible? There are greater minds than hers lurking on the backbenches to ask searching questions. I just wonder to what extent May was emboldened by a weak and poorly led official opposition – that’s the Labour Party if anyone needs reminding. The only nationwide party committed to representing the views of the 48% of voters who did not vote for May’s vision has less than 10 MPs. Corbyn’s long personal dislike of the EU makes him totally unsuitable to fulfil the proper opposition role to what May proposes. Labour should seek to amend any Article 50 legislation to maintain single market and customs union membership – the only assurance to stop May playing Russian roulette with the economy and jobs and livelihoods of millions of people. The minimum Labour should do is to lay down an amendment that reflects official party policy adopted at September’s conference.

May could be right and it will turn out fine. If that was the case why has it not been done before? The reality is she has dressed up in populist rhetoric what is a complex, time-consuming and potentially extremely damaging way forward.

It must also be mentioned that if the PM is such a convert to free trade why is she turning her back on the world’s largest free trade zone?

The House of Commons has not very long to get its act together to not just scrutinise what May proposes but to replace it with something more realistic and less risky. Otherwise, cheered on by her backbench Brexiteers and a compliant press, May will have a free hand.

Corbyn’s Brexit performance has so far been inept so he needs to step up to the mark and make Labour a serious opposition. The current situation is bad for democracy with 48% of voters all but disenfranchised. May needs to be properly held to account.

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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“Welcome to the Newly Opened Brexit Superstore!”

19th December 2016

By Keith Nieland-

“Welcome to the Newly Opened Brexit Superstore!”

“Welcome, Sir and Madam, to the brand new opening today of The Great British Brexit Superstore. Our guarantee to you is that everything we sell is manufactured in the UK by UK workers.”

“Excellent! Too many of our jobs have been going to Johnny Foreigner abroad. I say ‘British jobs for British workers’ that’s why I voted Brexit. We need to show those damn Europeans and Chinese a thing or two.”

“Fantastic! Now can I interest you in today’s launch special – this smart phone? I can assure it was made in the UK by our workers. Look here is the symbol of authenticity – this little union jack on the back.”

“Does it take good photos? Must keep up with the tech savvy grandkids. We oldies can show them a thing or two.”

“It certainly does and to the highest quality. Just right for Whatsapp and Facebook.”

“I will have one then. How much?”

“Well, with our special opening day discount just £650.”

“What?! I can get a similar model on the internet for £550. That’s a rip off!”

“But Sir I should explain. This model is assembled in this country from imported materials by our workers. We have to pay more to get the raw materials imported as they do not already exist in the UK and, of course, UK workers earn more than Chinese and Far East workers. This model is aimed at good, decent patriotic people like your good self who wish to support the post-Brexit economy.”Bak In The Day

“Not at those prices I don’t. I blame the unions and those overpaid, lazy British workers. I am off to the Apple Store.”

“But, Sir, you could consider our rental option.”

“Will that cost me more as well?”

“Only a tad.”

“Forget it!”

Back In The Day

Do you remember when Marks and Spencer proudly boasted that it made all its clothes in the UK? What about the Bruce Forsyth-led “Buy British” campaign from the 1970s? Both were short-lived as British consumers could not afford home-made goods at home-made costs with UK levels of wages. In order to sell, manufacturers searched the world for cheaper sources of labour and costs. This might have led to the decline of the home manufacturing industry but only crocodile tears were shed for closed mines, mills and factories as we lapped up imported clothes, cars and electronics at prices which brought more and more of these goods within peoples’ budgets. To replace lost industries the UK carved new niches in the service and banking sectors and focused on the added value and high tech worlds.

The problem was, of course, while the benefits of globalisation were gleefully reaped, the consequences were not properly attended to. The economic crash of 2008 saw the sticking plaster come off and ever since the UK has become a more and more unequal society and hence a divided one.

It may not be very scientific but from my own observations I see more and more people homeless and begging in various city centres while at the same time more and more upmarket shopping centres open and those that can afford it flock to them. Those wishing to know more about the consequences for unequal societies should dip into Richard Wilkinson’s and Kate Pickett’s excellent “The Spirit Level”.

The division in the UK is shown, according to the latest opinion polls, in the near even split between EU remainers and leavers. In the US it has been illustrated in the near 50/50 split in the Trump/Clinton popular votes even though the Electoral College tells another, perhaps misleading, story.

A Seismic Shift?

Is the UK on the verge of a seismic shift in political loyalties, not between Labour and Conservative, but between Remainers and Leavers? As inequality spreads, populist parties of the right gain traction. This has been seen to varying degrees across Europe in major countries like Germany, Italy, Austria, Holland and France. The far right may not be gaining power but they grow in popularity.

In the face of the economic consequences of globalisation combined with the aftermath of the economic crash, what has been the response? Have we looked back at the last time something similar occurred in the 1920s and 30s, learnt the lessons and applied new thinking? Sadly the answer appears to be a resounding “NO!” The call now, as then, is to tighten borders, repel immigrants, apply tariffs to imports and turn inwards to ourselves. For evidence we need look no further than Donald Trump’s attacks on China and threat to apply tariffs to imports. Trump is the modern day flag carrier for isolationism. We should not need reminding where the politics of blame and envy led the world in the 1930s.

Trade Matters

The reality is that ever since men and women first stood up and looked around we have migrated around the globe and societies have grown richer from trading. The British Empire grew on the back of trade – “the flag followed trade” – I well remember from school day geography lessons. Trade enriches us both personally and culturally. Our place as one of the richest countries on the planet owes itself to the foundations laid in the 19th century. A United States more unified after the Civil War of the 1860s industrialised and took its place on the world stage. China has done likewise since the 1980s.

If the world does not trade, individual countries become poorer and, of course, so do its citizens. Since its economic reforms of the 1990s, Vietnam has moved from having over half its population living in poverty and not being able to feed itself to now being a net exporter of rice.

How should progressives respond to the rise of the far right, isolationism and restrictions on trade aimed at boosting home markets? How should we also respond to the xenophobia, fear, hate and discrimination that are the markers of isolationism? Well, not by joining in or marketing a watered down version, that’s for sure.

Progressives should be promoting the benefits to economies and workers that comes from expanding markets through international trade. Just think of the benefits if a British company invented an easy to install conversion kit that changed the 7 million mopeds in Ho Chi Minh City from petrol driven to electrical power. Less pollution, lower running costs, etc.

While making trade more difficult by the imposition of tariffs may look attractive on the surface, there is no evidence home markets can compensate.

However, the left should be arguing that we cannot return to “business as usual”. There needs to be a stronger social and cultural influence on trade negotiations. There should be a focus on fairer tax regimes, particularly corporation tax, and explicit undertakings by governments expressed as part of trade deals that there will be a dividend for the whole of society in the form of skills training for life, improved housing, infrastructure investment and more equal wage structures. The government needs to be clearer about society’s dividend from striking trade deals. Trade deals are not just for the benefit of wealthy investors, shareholders and large corporations.

Progressives need to be honest with communities but at the same time be giving them hope by making commitments on infrastructure improvements and new work opportunities. It is just deceitful to hold out the prospect of coal mines, mills and factories reopening. What can work is building design and manufacturing around “added value” goods and services.

While the right looks to the failed and potentially dangerous solutions of the past the progressive left should be re-defining and promoting a new notion of “responsible capitalism” built on hope, opportunity and aspiration and attacking prejudice and social injustice. For the Labour Party this means truly becoming the party of work and workers and being willing to work positively in partnership with business.

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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