One of the things that seems to happen, like clockwork, whenever a tragic event occurs, and people start talking about the causes is for others to say that it is either “Too Soon”. Or, also often “You shouldn’t politicise this” or some variation on that theme.
There are obviously various competing factors here. A desire to be respectful to those who have been affected by the event, their grieving families. But at the same time a desire to know why it happened. A desire to ensure it doesn’t happen again. A desire that if people have been guilty of wrongdoing that they are held to account, and punished.
In truth none of these are illegitimate. And in many ways they are not mutually exclusive. And where people are expressing sensitivity to the victims, particularly if they are directly connected to the victims this should be listened to.
All too often those claims are really about shutting off debate, about fearing to talk about the politics behind things because you are worried that the inevitable conclusion will challenge your political convictions, or political affiliations you hold.
When people in these circumstances say “You shouldn’t politicise this” or words to that effect, then I believe that is deeply insidious in a Liberal and Democratic society. It seems to hinge on the idea that tragic events are somehow “Ordained by a higher power” and nothing we could have done would of made a difference.
But I’m afraid that is palpable nonsense. Many tragedies are the direct result of either decisions by officials or organisations, or even of public policy. Or maybe they are the result of someone deliberately choosing to ignore the rules. Or maybe they are caused by incompetence. Or maybe they are caused by criminality in the pursuit of personal gain.
If there is even a suggestion that such a tragic event had any connection to any of those things, in any way, then it is political. Almost everything we do on a population level is political.
People often say that you “Can’t put a price on human life”. The overwhelming majority would agree with that statement without caveats. But the awful truth is in almost every sphere of public life people do put a price on human life. And when it is investigated that is often set at a level that people might find insultingly low.
In the Grenfell fire it seems that price might have been £2 per square metre for fireproof cladding. Now that decision was political. It might even have been criminal. And in light of so many people losing their lives; and so many more losing their homes it is entirely legitimate to ask these political questions.
But here is the other thing most of us would probably find examples where actually we’d consider the price too high too.
I mean say let’s look at traffic deaths. Last year (2016) in the UK around 1800 people lost their lives on the road, and a further 25000 were seriously injured. Another 150,000 odd received minor injuries.
Now if we say introduced a blanket 20mph speed limit in populated areas and vigorously enforced it say with very liberal (some would say illiberal) use of average speed cameras, or maybe mandatory GPS devices that constantly reported speed and automatically reported speeding drivers. That would almost certainly drastically reduce the numbers of deaths and injuries on our roads.
But that policy would never come to pass. There would be arguments against the cost of installing the speed cameras and limits. There would be arguments based on the effect on the economy of everyone having to drive so much more slowly. There would be arguments about civil liberties of the GPS devices. But most of all the underlying truth would be people would be against it because of the inconvenience to them personally of having to drive slowly and take longer to get to places.
That, is both putting a price on human life, and it is inherently political. Because it is the weighing up of costs and benefits against the risks and consequences and deciding what to do. And when it comes to it, getting to Sainsburys more quickly means we’ll as a society tolerate 1800 deaths and 25,000 serious injuries a year on the road.
Like I said political.
And this sort of stuff applies to everything, particularly tragedies, and particularly preventable ones.
So Hillsborough was political. The floods in 2012 were political. The BSE crisis was political. The Thalidomide crisis was political. The current A&E crisis is political.
Any anyone who ever tells you these things are not political are hiding in fear from what looking into the politics of those things would say. If Grenfell was preventable, if the fire was predictable, if lessons can be learned to stop this happening again. Then we have to have asked those questions.
Understand that officialdom will always try to obstruct the process of getting those answers. Look how long the families of the Hillsborough 96 had to wait to get proper answers, and proper justice. In the child abuse scandal the New Zealand judge Dame lowell Goddard wasn’t able to do the enquiry because the Home Office would not allow her to be independent and pick her staff insisting that they had to chose the people looking into their own department. Asbestos victims had to go through decades of legal challenges to get compensated; often posthumously.
So yes, now is absolutely the time to ask the political questions, and make the political points. Whilst the eyes of the world, and the country are on Grenfell. Where officialdom cannot weasel out of their responsibilities because people won’t tolerate it. If we don’t demand answers and actions now we could be consigning the victims to a Hillsborough like wait.
And I’ll finish by saying that know this; when someone tells you you shouldn’t make “political points” when something like this has happened. That you shouldn’t consider why, how and who? That we should just be sad but accept it as “One of those things”. Then they are being political in doing this.
So I had an interesting discussion with some good comrades on the old Facebook about Brexit and what it means for the Labour party; and some interesting arguments were put my way and got me thinking about the issue. And so I decided seeing as I have my blogging muse in operation at the moment I’d jot something down.
I’d long thought that Europe was one of those issues that mattered loads to very political people, particularly Tories, but was of much less importance day to day to ordinary voters. The referendum last year rather shook my confidence in this.
However I think one of the striking things in this election is how little it seemed to actually be about Brexit. The Tories clearly wanted this to be the “Brexit” election. And, after the chance (or so they thought) to bury Labour; dealing with Brexit was the principal reason for the election. But as it happens to large parts of the electorate, and particularly for the Labour vote it really wasn’t the most important issue.
M’learned colleague Rob pointed me in the direction of Lord Ashcroft’s big detailed post election poll about voting reasons. Apparently Brexit was only the most important issue for 8% of Labour voters.
So I think it is fair to say a couple of things. Europe/Brexit isn’t as important to Labour voters as it is to some activists (like yours truly), and also that Labour’s policy on the issue had been very effective at closing off the issue, at this election at least.
It was a very clever, and skillfully done tactic to be honest. We adopted the Boris doctrine. Have your cake and eat it. And given the Tories were also lying through their teeth to the electorate about what is possible they weren’t really in a position to flush this out.
So our position was that we have ruled out no deal, promised to avoid a Tory “Hard Brexit”, maintain Tariff Free access to the Single Market, and end the free movement of people. And committed to respecting the result and the UK leaving the EU. It was a deliberate fudge that allowed us to look in multiple directions at once. People were able to read really what they wanted to read in that.
And it worked, a potential very difficult square for us to circle, getting a policy that won’t alienate the majority of Labour Voters and Activists who backed remain, particularly in cities, and at the same time isn’t harming us in the North and Midlands in places that voted leave.
Trouble is, it probably isn’t actually deliverable. The EU27 have made it crystal clear, time after time, that the only way to have tariff free access to the single market is to accept the four freedoms. And there seems no indication whatsoever that they are likely move on this. And the current omnishambles that is the state of the UK Government means we are really not well placed to be getting massive concessions out of the EU27.
Now my comrades with whom I was debating are adamant that this is not likely to be a big issue; that Brexit is causing the Tories problems and that we shouldn’t interrupt the enemy when they are making a mistake. That domestic issues are much more important to our new electorate.
All of which are fine positions; but personally I don’t buy it. I think that our position on Brexit is fine as a short term tactic, particularly with us not in Government and at the time of writing the manifesto unlikely to be so. But in the medium term it can and will cause us real problems.
For all that we should be delighted at the result last week let’s not forget that whilst we had a really good night we didn’t actually win the election. The Tories still got the most votes, and the most seats. And they are still the Government.
We need to build on our coalition from last Thursday and things that threaten that will threaten our chances of Seeing Corbyn walk into Number 10 as the new PM next time out.
So I don’t buy that it isn’t important because it has the potential to crack our coalition.
If the Labour Party is faced with a position where the Tories put “No Deal” to the commons as the only option where do we go? How do we please the Labour voters who are remainers and those who want to leave the EU?.
More likely though is what do we do if May is putting a really bad deal to us that does get rid of free movement but doesn’t achieve any of our aims (A Bankers Brexit say?)
Or what happens if we are given two options join the EEA and accept free movement or crash out on WTO terms?
In any of those scenarios the Labour party is going to significantly piss off a big part of it’s support base on an issue that might not be number 1 to many but is very important to some. Even if only 8% consider Brexit to be the main issue that is still 8% that we can’t really afford to lose if we want to form the next Government. And there are no doubt other consider this an important issue if not a key one.
According to the same survey Rob pointed me at 43% of Labour voters would still like to stop Brexit if possible. That certainly chimes with my anecdotal evidence, and I’d bet that figure is actually higher amongst activists and party members.
Another thing that has been rammed home to me in glorious technicolour is how out of sync I am with what “young people” think. My delusions that I am “Down with the kids” have been totally shattered by the creeping realisation that I am actually now pretty much just a middle aged Granddad. Having said that though everything I have seen about the referendum last year, and anecdotally in this election, suggests to me that for our younger activists fighting Brexit is a more important issue than it is for the wider Labour electorate. I’d love to see some proper research into what this looks like.
Now I’m very passionate on this issue, and I therefore am quite probably giving this far more weight than others do. You know since I was old enough to vote I have put my cross by the Labour candidate every single time I had the opportunity. Even during times (like after Iraq) where it was very, very difficult for me to do so. If Labour’s policy was, when push came to shove, to go for a Hard Brexit in order to stop free movement. If that is actually the official policy of the Labour front bench and what they planned to do in office then that streak would be broken. I doubt I’d vote for someone else but there is no way I could vote for a party in favour of a hard Brexit. I’m almost certainly a minority in this; but I don’t think I’m in a tiny minority.
So because our official policy is probably not on the menu, then at some point we are going to need to grapple with what we chose to do when we have to jump, and which portion of our base/support to we want to annoy and alienate.
For what it is worth my 2 cents are that when push comes to shove the Labour Party will end up prioritising the single market and as soft a Brexit as possible over ending free movement; though given my recent record of predictions not sure why anyone would ever listen to me on this sort of thing ever again!
Now we have just seen an election in which the electorate have shown that Brexit wasn’t as important an election issue as many expected it to be. And I totally acknowledge that.
However voters having different priorities in deciding how to vote doesn’t make any difference to how significant a thing the actuality of Brexit really happening will make to public policy. Let’s be clear Brexit, whatever form it takes, will be the biggest and most comprehensive change to our legal, economic and political systems since the second world war. It is hugely complex and will affect pretty much everything in British public life.
If Brexit is botched, and causing significant adverse consequences for the economy and public finances (and even its most delusional dewey eyed advocates acknowledge that is likely in the short term), even if Labour manager to get through that process without any mud sticking to us, then that is still a problem for any incoming Labour Government.
If the economy has taken a massive hit, if tax revenues are down, if we are suffering a larger than expected balance of payments, if unemployment is higher due to Brexit job losses. Then all of that makes it so much more difficult for Labour in office to make lasting changes to our society and makes the job of government so much more difficult for us.
Brexit might not have been the biggest issue for electors, but only a fool wouldn’t see that it’s consequences will be the biggest issue of public policy for the next 10 years or so.
So I think our tactics on Brexit in the short term has been right. But for the party we need a strategy for how we continue to square the circle when we can’t fudge it any more. And more than that we need to know what we are actually going to do when the party has to make a big choice about it’s role in whatever kind of Brexit happens.
And it is clear that isn’t settled at the top of the party. Two of Corbyn’s “Big Beasts” in John McDonnell and Barry Gardiner have struck quite different lines on this since the election. That needs to be bottomed out soon. Facing both ways can work for a bit but sooner or later you get found out, because the choices served up won’t allow us to satisfy our manifesto promises.
Brexit has the ability to break the Conservative party. But I believe we have to recognise that it is comparably risky and toxic for us too.
Post election as time passes by you start to be able to step back a little bit and think a bit more about where things are, what it means, where we are going.
And as of today I think things are starting to look a little clearer. On Friday I was jubilant; literally singing and dancing in the office (much to the chagrin of my CWU colleagues who had to put up with it). And rightly so, it was a result that was miles better than I expected; loads better than almost all of us expected if we are honest with ourselves (Props to my political officer Jeff though who wasn’t surprised!).
We now have an excellent platform. In a really good article here; George Eaton from the New Statesman outlines some of the numbers. At a forthcoming general election we will need just a 1.6% swing to become the largest party; and only a 3.57% swing to have a majority. Those numbers mean we are in touching distance.
On top of that the whole narrative about Corbyn, and about Labour has changed. The broadcast media will in future now cover Corbyn like a likely potential PM; and Labour like a likely party of Government. Because he is now, and we are.
Furthermore the Tories have exhausted most of their attack lines on Corbyn; they threw the kitchen sink at him and that kind of negative; anti-Corbyn, personal campaigning just won’t have anything like the same power when re-used. And the grubby little Tory-DUP pact undermines much of their credibility there anyway (more on that later!).
And in terms of campaigning and party organisation we will surely now start riding a crest of a wave. A huge number of enthusiastic youngsters in the ground war made a difference. But in the next election the campaign will also have expectation as well as hope from a larger number of people. And it will be easier for the party to raise election funds.
And the last really big feather we have is the reality of Brexit is really going to start biting I wonder if the tide is already turning a little:-
But as the reality bites the Tories are going to own the bad stuff now. And with no real majority very little they can do about it.
So there are some really good reasons to be optimistic.
But; let’s not get carried away. Despite the jubilation from us we still lost and lost big. Just because we performed massively above expectations; just because we have genuine reason for optimism about the future, it doesn’t mean we are there yet. We aren’t. We were 50 seats short of Government and it will be the Conservative party (if not Theresa May) in power, doing Tory things. And we shouldn’t forget that.
The Labour party has to unite; between his two leadership wins and this fabulous increase in the Labour Party vote share Jeremy Corbyn is untouchable and will be the leader of the Labour party either until he wants to go or we suffer a catastrophic defeat in a general election. Those people within the Labour party who have had doubts needs to accept that this is the way things will be.
So for many of us; great swathes of the “Soft Left” our principal objection to Corbyn was that we just couldn’t conceive of him ever getting us into a position to win a General Election; let alone actually winning one. That has been blown out of the water now so there a a very large number of people who will now get behind him because the objection has been removed.
For the others; those who have deeper ideological concerns it is more difficult. Frankly either you dig in for the long haul and hope that the political pendulum swings back in your direction in time (what I did under the Blair years) or you stay and fight, but fight constructively, for your ideas to have a place in the Labour Party. If you can’t do either of these things though it probably is the case that the Labour Party really isn’t the right place.
And you know what some of that fighting over ideas is needed. We did well on Thursday but not well enough. There is no low hanging fruit for the Labour Party to easily win votes any more and to get those swings that we need we not only have to keep Friday’s coalition together we need to add to it; and yes having a Government will require some of those who voted Tory on Thursday to switch to us.
I’m hopeful that if the party unite; and fight together, that we can bottle what we had, broaden our appeal enough and take the fight to the Tories in this time of crisis.
And on that for those of you who are hard core Corbyn fans and true believers; I’ll say this. I had to eat industrial quantities of humble pie and was happy to do so. But I have been detecting on social media and the like a pretty unedifying current of outright hostility toward people saying “I was wrong”.
Folks that won’t help anyone. You can’t on one hand say “Imagine where we’d be if the coup hadn’t happened and we all had united after Brexit” and then at the same time spurn the advances of those sheepishly saying “Yeah maybe you were right”. In life it is easy to be a magnanimous loser; but harder to be a magnanimous winner. Now is not the time for score settling.
So that is why we should be optimistic; and that is what the party needs to do (IMHO) but let’s not pretend the garden is rosy and there are no problems or pitfalls. There are real threats to us moving forward and no one should be sloppy enough to feel that the next election is in the bag. It isn’t.
The Tories are a formidable enemy. There is a reason why they are the most successful political party in the western world. They are able to be adaptable and pragmatic and they have lots of systemic advantages and bonuses.
So first up at the next election they will not be hampered by Theresa May. She ended up being a manna from heaven for the Labour Party. A truly awful campaigner. Even taking aside the manifesto omni-shambles everything about her campaign and what she did was terrible.
The thing I keep hearing from Tories is what a mistake it was to have a leader who hadn’t had to go through a leadership election; hadn’t had to face the fire of hustings and a competitive campaign, hadn’t had to show they had what it takes in an election. They won’t make that mistake again and whomever comes through will either be Boris; or someone able to beat Boris on the stump. Whomever it is will present more of a direct challenge in the setting of an election campaign that May did.
But much more worrying than that is that they are, believe it or not, ideologically flexible. Just like Sir Alex Ferguson was able to adapt and change his squad and tactical approach time after time; the Tories have always adapted to new ideological frameworks and still survived. Disraeli adapted to the franchise expansion by creating “Ten bob Tories”, Macmillan accepted the post war consensus.
They will look at what happened last week and they will inevitably try to make a policy pitch to undermine us. And it is easier for them; they are never subjected to the same scrutiny over spending that we are. So they will promise some giveaways to try and undermine our support. I bet the next manifesto, and this short time they have in office will see giveaways on say in work benefits, big increases in Police numbers, something for students.
On top of this they will probably try to tempt some Liberal remainers. I think that a “Hard Brexit” is now dead unless it is imposed by the R27. If May goes then whomever wins is very secure for a time. I can imagine a newly elected Boris lamenting at Tory Conference that “Unfortunately the price of minority government is that we have had to reluctantly accept that we temporarily cannot deliver then end of free movement. But we have delivered on leaving the EU with our EEA application” (though said very differently).
At the next election they will have a different leader, a different policy platform and they won’t be underestimating us or Corbyn again. And that should frighten every single one of us.
So we absolutely shouldn’t be thinking it is job done. It isn’t even half done. We are in the best position the Labour party has been since 2007; but there is still a mountain to climb.