The Democratic Socialist Republic of Canterbury

3rd July 2017

By Keith Nieland-

The Democratic Socialist Republic of Canterbury


“Yes, Canterbury!”

“Do you the mean the Canterbury with the cathedral, archbishop and lots of niche shops? The middle England Canterbury?”


“It went Labour?”


Indeed so. By a swing of 9.33% Rosie Duffield stretched far down the list of Tory target seats and took middle England Canterbury. But why did the voters deliver this surprise result?

Water Pipes and Rail Lines

Were the voters of this corner of Kent attracted by the notion of civil servants running the trains of South Eastern or the state owning its water pipes? Psephologists have already started the process of taking apart the general election outcome but we already know 71% of Labour voters were Remainers and that Brexit accounted for half the swing to Labour ( It would not be, therefore, unreasonable to suggest that the voters of Canterbury were, in the main, rejecting Prime Minister May’s Hard Brexit characterised by “no deal is better than a bad deal”. Canterbury also has lots of students – the very group who have most to lose from withdrawal from the single market with its loss of the right to work, live and study in any of the EU’s 27 countries.

Sheep in Wolves’ Clothing

The evidence is that Labour became the refuge of choice for the 48% who did not vote for Brexit and those who rejected May’s apparent charge towards a hard exit. Labour racked up hung swings and big majorities in areas that had been solidly Remain (15.10% in Hove, 15.83% in Bristol West, 10.59% in Kensington). It would not have been unreasonable for voters to believe that Labour supported continued membership of both the customs union and single market. Indeed Keir Starmer’s 6 tests strongly suggest this with reference to an acceptable deal delivering the same benefits as both.

Labour’s manifesto did not lie easily with Starmer’s tests and, despite what was stated in the manifesto, Jeremy Corbyn hardly made exiting the customs union and single market the headline announcement at his rallies.

It would have come as a surprise to some who voted Labour as a protest against a Hard Brexit to discover on the Sunday after the vote John McDonnell committing Labour to that very thing. (See video)

Along Comes the Cavalry

Those downcast by McDonnell’s commitment to support May’s Brexit line would have been cheered a few days later by Chuka Umunna, who enjoyed a 9.60% swing in his own London constituency, and a group of 50 politicians from across the party announcing a commitment to a softer Brexit and continued membership of the Single Market and Customs Union.

Either by design or accident Labour had fudged its Brexit line during the election. The problem with fudges is that you get found out in the end.

Brexit! What Brexit?

It was supposed to be the Brexit election. The nation was being invited to give May a big majority and, therefore, a strong mandate for the exit negotiations in Brussels. It appeared May’s strategy was to harvest UKIP votes to the Tory cause with an unremitting commitment to a Hard Brexit. There was little debate about the nature of our exit – it was hard, take it or leave it – characterised by leaving the single market and customs union. No time was given to the potential different models of leaving and what would come next. There was little analysis of the pros and cons of remaining in both agreements or examination of the nature of our relationship with Europe going forward.

The reality was that May hardly campaigned at all and seemed to be relying on a strategy which suggested the more voters saw of Jeremy Corbyn the more they would reject him. For his part Corbyn’s election slogan could well have been “Brexit! What Brexit?” so little did he refer to it.

As a result the election settled little. If May went into the vote saying she needed a big majority so she had a strong negotiating hand, the fact she lost the majority she had must be interpreted as voters not willing to give her the mandate she craved. Voters seemed to be saying we wanted a more nuanced separation and less of the brinkmanship and threats.

It appears as if the mood of the nation has shifted but that of the two main party leaders may have not.

Has the election result, against all expectations, trumped the referendum outcome?

A Fight to the Death

Some commentators speculate that Brexit has split the country. The vote last June created two distinct camps that had not existed previously. No compromise has been created or even sought. This conflict was reflected in the election result with big swings to Labour and seats gained in Remain areas with the Tory vote holding up in Leave areas.

So is this simmering conflict now reflected in the House of Commons? We now have MPs representing strong Leave and Remain areas sitting in the House and some even in the same party. Anna Soubry, Ken Clarke, John Redwood and Jacob Rees-Mogg are in the same party but hear them speak about Brexit you would hardly believe so. Chuka Umunna, Peter Kyle and Wes Streeting are in the same party as John McDonnell, Kate Hoey and Richard Burgon but again on Brexit you would hardly think so.

This poses the question: will MPs put party loyalty above their views on Brexit?

Loyalty to Constituents or Party Leadership?

Once the Brexit negotiations are finished and voted on in Parliament that will be that. There will be no revisiting and no way back. The cast for decades to come will be well and truly set.

As things currently stand it appears May and Corbyn want the same thing – the UK out of the EU and no membership of either the customs union or single market. They can whip their MPs to support any vote. However, there is much double talk along the lines of enjoying the same benefits of both agreements without actually being a member (the cake and eat it option). At the same time Liam (Air Miles) Fox continually zooms around the world and has yet to announce any commitments to new trade deals to replace those we may lose with the EU.

So is it possible soft Brexit MPs of both main parties will say enough is enough? That they will abandon tribal party loyalty, defy their leadership, take control, and guide the ship of state to a soft Brexit with continued membership of the customs union and single market? That they will prioritise close links with our European partners over some as yet undefined championing of international free trade?

So the game is far from complete and there is much to be played for. Many MPs are currently keeping their powder dry but will keep a close eye on the opinion polls, what happens to the economy over the next two years and what constituents are saying.

It is just possible they will unify across the Commons and bring down the Hard Brexit house. 71% of Labour voters plus SNP and Green voters and the soft Brexit Scottish Tories and the DUP will cheer them on no doubt.

With Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell on the same Brexit page as Jacob Rees-Mogg and John Redwood perhaps our politics will change in such a fundamental way that a new centrist grouping will emerge.

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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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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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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