Under Three Hundred

The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Saturday, 6 June 2015

The Fab Four

Today I popped into London for the Fabian Society summer conference. While I was there I tweeted, a little facetiously, that it was ‘the weirdest Doctor Who convention I’ve ever been to’. But, you know, that’s what it felt like. One of those conventions of the early 90s after the show had been axed after languishing in unpopularity for half a decade. And the similarity doesn’t end there; it all took place in an overcrowded lecture hall in a London university; the attendees had the same look of being terribly keen whilst not being altogether sure why they were actually there; there were the inevitable panel-questioners who would ramble on while you could hear the rest of the hall cringe in embarrassment; the audience members who would shout out during the panels, again while the rest of the hall tried to clench themselves into a less embarrassing parallel universe. And I had the same feeling of 'These are supposed to be my people... so why do I feel I don't belong?'

And when the four candidates for Labour leader came on at the end, it was just like the four actors who played the Doctor came on at once, the same hail of flashbulbs – except we had also a special surprise guest in the shape of Peter Capaldi! I mean, Jeremy Corbyn, the ‘70s time-warp candidate.

And at the end of the day I had the same too-long-in-a-darkened-lecture-hall headache. The only major difference is that we weren’t given name badges, which was disappointing. There also wasn’t very much cosplay, though I noticed that one daring soul had come as Ben Bradshaw.

In terms of the panels, first of all was What happened? What went wrong? (the answers being a) we didn’t win and b) see a. The panel included a slightly belligerent Owen Smith MP and Peter Kellner talking a lot of sense. Basically, he thought what Labour should do is to model itself on the version of Labour that won the elections in 1997, 2001 and 2005 and not on the version that didn’t win in 1983. It sounds like a statement of the bleedin’ obvious but it was contentious news to some.

Interestingly – and this is no way mocking – I noticed that some of the attendees were making notes of the discussions throughout. Which I didn’t bother to do, because I thought I’d remember it all, and now here I am writing a blog and I can’t remember any of it, so who’s the silly one now? Me.

I did put my hand up a few times; I wanted to make the point that by endlessly going on about how ‘disastrous’ Labour’s defeat was it was, in fact, creating a narrative reinforcing the idea that the Conservatives achieved a devastating victory and gained a public mandate, when in fact they got in by gaming the electoral system with barely more than a third of the vote, and now have an even narrower majority than they did when they were in coalition with the Lib Dems, so they are, in fact, going to be a very weak government. I mean, I realise the Labour people are going around saying it was ‘disastrous’ to show humility, but that’s part of the problem; they did the same oh-maybe-we-got-it-slightly-wrong routine with the economic crisis of 2006 and now everyone thinks it was their fault.

That was a common theme of the day, Labour’s inability or unwillingness to nail the lie that they somehow caused the global economic crisis or compounded its impact with their policies. Saying ‘maybe we were spending slightly too much’ or whatever just sounds like someone equivocating their guilt. You don’t gain anything by admitting mistakes – particularly not things which weren’t your fault!

After that panel I joined a discussion thing about ‘Your ideas for the left’s political renewal’. Now, if you know me, or read my previous blog, you’ll know I’m full of ideas. But the difficult of this discussion was... well, I think a lot of people just wanted to talk about what went wrong, and play the ‘If only’ game. Which isn’t really going to get you anywhere. I’m not convinced you can ‘learn’ from losing elections, as you never get to fight the same election again. The next election won’t be a rematch of 2015, there’ll be a different Tory leader, who knows where UKIP and the SNP will be, who knows what the economy will be doing, maybe we’ll all be living underwater and breathing through snorkels. So there was a lot of ‘maybe we need to get our message across better’ and ‘it was all down the media’ and ‘we need to engage more with communities’ and other stuff which is so wishy-washy and if-my-uncle-had-tits-he’d-be-my-auntie as to be almost entirely unhelpful.

Because, you know, what Labour needs is to treat the election defeat (the narrow election defeat) as a kick up the bum and adopt a scorched-Earth policy to the traditions of the past. Start afresh with a blank sheet. And come up with policies that are truly imaginative and creative. Radical is the word Labour gonks use, but a better word would be ‘modern’.

So I found the process a little frustrating because – and I mean this with all the respect in the world – I find most left-wing opinions really predictable and derivative. I kind of know what people are going to say before they say it. And I’d hoped the Fabian Society would have a more firework-up-the-bum approach to brainstorming. You know – yes, you might burn your buttocks but if you take off it’ll be spectacular.

After lunch there was another panel, on Building Economic Credibility. Dan Corry of NPC was very interesting for the first 15 minutes or so and then never spoke again. A pity, really, because he was right about the various looming global economic threats.

I put my hand up a few times; I think one way Labour might Build Economic Credibility would be to act as an economic Cassandra and be the ones to warn of all these looming threats (from China, from the bond market, the EU etc) so that when it does inevitably all go tits up (there is a cycle to these things of about 58 months, boom and bust) Labour can go ‘Well, we did warn you’. Because the narrative could be – should be – Labour were in power during the last economic crisis so they have the experience to spot the warning signs and know what to do to avoid a repeat of the same disaster. Because they were there. They should be pushing the Conservatives on ‘What are you doing to avoid us falling prey to another disaster? What regulations have you put in place to prevent another banking crisis?’ The answer is, of course, none at all, which will become clear when (and it is when, not if) there is another banking crisis. Things will go wrong – things are already going wrong – and rather than prepare us for it by, you know, developing our manufacturing industries and making our energy sources import-independent so they’re not subject to the vagaries of the international market, the Conservatives have stoked-up a house-price bubble so that when things do go wrong, they’ll go seriously pear-shaped wrong.

Maybe it’s a good thing they didn’t ask me for my question, that is rather a lot.

The next panel was How should Labour change for the 2020s which was disappointing because, let’s face it, it would’ve been funnier to call the panel 2020 Vision! Never mind. The panel included two of my twitter blockees, Polly Toynbee and Owen Jones. They’re blocked because there are few things I find more annoying than a sanctimonious lefty (what was I doing at a Fabian Society conference, you may ask). Fortunately Polly was only acting as chair so we were spared her opinions. To give him credit Owen Jones is a very good speaker, he genuinely, passionately believes in what he says, all that Ragged Trouser Tolpuddle Martyr stuff, and it went down very well with the audience, because there’s nothing people like more than easy answers to difficult questions. Owen Jones is very good at identifying the policies that make Labour unpopular; problem is, those are the policies he’s in favour of. It’s like a gypsy curse, he is condemned to forever say the diametrically wrong thing.

Which made it a bit confusing when he said two things that I agreed with. He thinks it’s a good idea for the Scottish Labour party to be properly independent (which would seem a good thing, just to allow it to be more localized and nimble in its policy-making, but obviously it’s up to the members of Scottish Labour to decide between themselves. Over to you, Jock and Morag.)

And he’s also in favour of Labour being in favour of PR. So I don’t know what to believe now, as he and Polly Toynbee are always wrong about everything. If they ever disagreed about anything my head would explode like a computer at the end of Star Trek.

I didn’t have a question for them. I did have a question for the Labour leader’s panel, which was:

How can a party committed to equality be in favour of an electoral system where some people’s votes count more than others?

But again it wasn’t chosen. Bah. The questions that were chosen weren’t that great, alas. They certainly didn’t tease out any differences in policy between the four candidates (plus ‘70s throwback Jeremy Corbyn). It was like, I don’t know if you’ve ever been to The Comedy Store, but it was like one of their games, to have four people sitting in a row where the aim of the game is to make exactly the same point that the previous person made but without using any of the same words and phrases. That’s what it was like. Any differences between Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, Mary Creagh and Liz Kendall were very subtle; one is more proud of Labour’s record than the others, one thinks higher education is more important than pre-school education, and so on.

On the basis of policy, I think Liz Kendall still has the edge because she, out of all the candidates, has the most pragmatic attitude, of not opposing every Conservative cut because the fact is that cuts do have to be made and if we oppose them all then Labour will look like the spend-more-money-on-everything party.

But Andy Burnham has more drive, he comes over like he is raring for a fight, that he actually has a plan of how to win. Of all the candidates, I think he has the best chance of taking the initiative, and I think – I hope – that like Liz he is prepared to modernise Labour’s policies in big, daring, eye-catching ways.

(However, he really needs to sort out his vocabulary and stop using the bloody word ‘aspirational’. It doesn’t mean what he thinks it means. He says ‘aspirational’, and it sounds like he’s talking about giving people false hope. Because that’s what aspiration is: FALSE HOPE. The American dream. Lottery win fantasies, they’re aspirational. What he means – what I think he means – is AMBITION. Optimism. Faith in the future. Whereas ‘aspirational’, to me, just means early 2000s comedy-dramas with enormous wine glasses and fairylights on the stairs.)

I don’t think Yvette Cooper has that willingness; she struck me as the more-of-the-same candidate, she’s more personable and passionate when she can speak her mind rather than reiterating policy by rote, but I don’t think she has much of any originality to say.

And the same goes for Mary Creagh, who was most memorable for her mind-bending ability to randomly mix and match metaphors like a snowball gathering moss in a china shop. The mental images she creates! She would be a gift to satirists but I have no idea why she’s even standing.

And Jeremy Corbyn was there too, to let us know what Tony Benn would say if he was still alive.

And then I came home and wrote all this and that brings you bang-up-to-date.

Monday, 11 May 2015

The Dignity Of Labour (Part 1)

Some thoughts on what Labour should do next. Don’t know if it will make any difference, but please feel free to draw people’s attention to it if you think it might.

1) Democratically choose a new leader. Now, this sounds like a statement of the obvious, but it’s not what happened last time. And while Labour’s failure to win wasn’t entirely Ed Miliband’s fault, when someone is putting themselves forward as a potential Prime Minister they are going to be judged on their personality, and their ability to persuade, to look like leadership material. Ed failed to coherently rebut the childish lie that it was Labour’s borrowing that caused the economic crisis and not a bunch of banks mis-selling subprime mortgages to each other. (However, given that the banking sector was acting like a magic money tree during the Blair years Labour did become too reliant on that tree’s tax yield). He failed to make the story about Labour coming to the rescue to save the UK from the consequences of the crash, which is what actually happened (I was there at the time, it was definitely on the news).

The point is, it was clear a couple of years ago that Ed wasn’t making any headway with voters, that he was a politics gonk, someone who had gone from student politics, to time-serving at Labour party HQ, to a safe seat in Westminster, without ever seeing daylight. One of those people who tweets about the X Factor without having watched it. Yes, he improved over the course of the campaign, but it was too little, too late. He should’ve jumped when it became clear he was a liability two years ago. And if not, then somebody should’ve pushed him (or at least, given him a kick up the arse). Any new leader should have, let’s say, two years, and if they’re a liability not an asset, they should make way for someone who stands a better chance of winning.

Which brings me back to ‘democratically choose a new leader’. The parliamentary Labour party and the members didn’t vote for Ed for their first choice as leader, and you know, maybe they knew what they were doing. Polling your membership isn’t just a democratic act, it’s a popularity contest – a contest to find out who will be best equipped to win the general election popularity contest. You don’t ignore or over-rule such an excellent opportunity for market research (yes, I realise Labour members might not be representative of the entire UK, but remember they are not voting for the candidate they like most, but the one they think other people will like most).

2) Labour should be in favour of proportional representation. By which I mean proper proportional representation, not the ‘miserable little compromise’ of AV. For too long Labour has let the fact that FPTP gave it an advantage over-rule the fundamental principle that PR is fairer. Any party which is committed to equality of opportunity and responsibility has to be in favour of equality of voting power. Every vote should matter and matter equally. Any parliament that represents the people should be representative of the people.

And, if we’d had PR at the last two elections, maybe Labour would have been in power, as part of a coalition, so there’s that too. Thing is, there’s quite a bit of policy overlap between Labour, the Greens, the Lib Dems and even the Welsh and Scottish nationalists, so it’s more important – and more representative of the wishes of the electorate – to not have a Conservative government than to have a singlehanded Labour government.

Following on from that, until the happy day where PR is introduced, Labour should co-operate with the Greens and the Lib Dems in by-elections and future FPTP elections, in the way outlined by Caroline Lucas a few days ago. The Greens and the Lib Dems are unfairly underrepresented in parliament. Labour should not step aside in by-elections, but instead we should field joint candidates. After all, many Labour candidates are already joint candidates of the Labour Party and the Co-Operative Party, why not candidates standing on a joint Labour and Green Party ticket? The differences between the parties are so small it is incredibly counterproductive for us to be fighting each other –depriving each other of supporters, votes, and seats – when 95% of the time we’re on the same side. In any upcoming by-election, whatever party that has the best chance of defeating the Conservatives should be the one the Labour party endorses, with the other parties reciprocating where Labour is best placed. After all, if we’re prepared to work together in a coalition, we can field candidates that are standing on a coalition ticket. This is not about panicking, or cheating – it’s about making the commons more representative, and getting us to a point where we can introduce PR and such arrangements will no longer be necessary.

Obviously I think there is plenty of scope to reform/abolish the house of lords but I don’t think it’s a vote winner or a priority.

3) Policies. I might offer some specific suggestions later on, I might not, but the fundamental principle has to be this; what actually works. I’m rephrasing a Facebook post I sent to a friend here, but the thing about Labour is that it shouldn’t be driven by ideology, it should be about practicality. Pragmatism. We should be in favour of nationalising the railways not because nationalisation is a good thing in and of itself, but because when you travel in Germany, for instance, you can’t help noticing that their nationalised railways are run more efficiently and cheaply than ours, it’s like living in the future. On the other hand, where the private sector and the free market have been shown to be more efficient and deliver a higher quality service, we should be in favour of the private sector and the free market. Absolutely. Never mind ideology; do what actually works.

It’s like with medicine. You follow best practice, where it has been proven to work. You conduct clinical trials, and you act according to the evidence, not what you would like the evidence to be. It’s nothing to do with ideology, but about being rational. Scientific.

(I do happen to believe that in many cases the state sector is more efficient than the private sector, but I am open to being proved wrong and changing my mind, that is the whole point).

Ah, you might cry. But isn’t our ideology what makes us different from the Conservatives? No. The difference is that they are the ones who blindly follow their ideology over the facts. That’s what’s so fucking terrifying about them. That they believe the private sector is a panacea, irrespective of the evidence from history or elsewhere in the world, and they are hell-bent on following that belief with a fundamentalist zeal. Never mind if it makes things worse, the free market can never be wrong! Never mind if our health service gets worse, our schools get worse. They are the ones who are happy to ignore facts that don’t fit their worldview. They have often shown themselves to be hapless, blinkered and corrupt, and it’s inevitable they will again.

So that should be what makes Labour different. It’s largely the approach that was taken under Tony Blair. Never mind considerations of left and right, just do what actually works. What makes people’s lives better, what makes services better. The only test of a policy is whether it will work to address a problem; not whether it is ‘the right thing to do’, not to do something because it looks left wing, not to do something because it will piss off people who are right wing.

The uncomfortable truth is that the Conservatives are going to get a few things right over the next government. Not very many, and by accident rather than judgment, but the law of averages states that some of their policies will be effective, even if they don’t fit our ideology. And Labour should recognise that. We should change our policies to fit the facts. We should be the party of best practice, of proven effectiveness, of good management. Do what actually works. If that means nationalisation, fine. If it means a mixed economy, fine. And if it means the private sector, fine.

4) Changing the narrative. We live in a very strange world where the prices of food, fuel, cars and train tickets coming down is a good thing, but where house prices going down is a bad thing. Because they are not buildings for people to live in, but investments, like old paintings and copies of the Please Please Me LP in stereo with the gold label. When, of course, house prices don’t reflect value at all, just how much debt people are willing to take on and how much debt the banks are willing to risk them with. Rising house prices just mean, for those who are paying off mortgages, more people with a negative-equity Sword of Damocles hanging over their heads, desperately hoping the ever-inflating bubble won’t burst (like bubbles ever do anything else). There are all sorts of things Labour can do with housing – adopting best practice as shown elsewhere, see point number three – but I think stabilising house prices would be a start. There’s no point in trying to help people get on the bottom rung of the ladder if the bottom rung is rising faster than the help you’re providing.

The same applies to immigration. If a company is employing foreign workers instead of people who live nearby who would cost the same, it’s the company that’s the problem, not the foreign workers. But if foreign workers are cheaper than British workers, it’s not the company’s fault, any company is going to employ the cheapest workers it can find – the problem is that the cost of living for British workers is too high. The point is, immigration is not a bad thing. But sometimes it is a symptom of underlying problems in the economy, problems that need to be addressed. But it’s important to make clear, it’s not a cause, it’s an effect. Foreign workers are doing nothing wrong going where they can find the best work; companies are doing nothing wrong employing the cheapest workers they can find.

The same applies to benefits. Is it right that the hardworking taxpayer (or, in my case, the lazy, do-the-absolute-minimum-I-can-get-away-with taxpayer – we still pay our taxes, our voices should be heard!) should subsidize multinational companies paying low wages by making up the difference through income support and housing benefit? Is it right that the hardworking taxpayer should be paying off buy-to-let mortgages and generating profits for landlords through housing benefit? Is it right that we subsidize people owning second homes when there is a housing shortage? Is it right that foreign companies get grants and tax breaks that British companies don’t get – meaning British companies are at a competitive disadvantage in their own country (doesn’t seem very patriotic, or very nurturing of business – how are British businesses supposed to become the multinationals of the future when the government is more interested in helping their foreign competitors?) You have the bonkers situation where the SNP has given Amazon a grant (far more than Amazon pays in tax) to put Scottish bookshops and mail order companies out of business. For every job they create, at least one is lost. Bonkers.

The point is, the narrative should be about ‘How do we do the best for the taxpayer and for British companies?’ (And foreign companies too as well, of course, they are not all entirely evil).

And to all the people in low-paid shitty jobs; I’m not sure Labour promising them that their jobs will be paid very slightly better but still be equally shitty, or have slightly better contractual arrangements but still be low-paid, is going to make much difference. If you’re in a low-skills job, you know that the company can always replace you with somebody else rather than pay you more or give you a better contract. I suspect making Labour the party that says ‘Never mind your current shitty job, you will be able to go and get a better job somewhere else’ might work better. I don’t know how to do that, though. I am not an expert.

Those are my main thoughts. I think if Labour adopts policies which are best practice – where they can point to examples in other countries and go ‘Look, it works over there, we are literally copying’ then they will regain support and confidence of voters. I don’t think voters are looking for the party with the most ideologically pure politics, I don’t think most voters give a shit about left wing or right wing, I think all they care about is which bunch of suits will actually run the country better. Which means a leader who inspires confidence, a party that co-operates with other parties it shares common ground with rather than arguing with them, and policies which are not pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking but which are proven to work.

Because here’s the thing. There will be another financial crisis. No matter what party is in government, the global economy is a bubble machine and there will be another financial fubar. That said, the Conservatives have managed to create their own fubars in the past, and given that we’re in for two years of uncertainty and in-fighting over being in or out of the EU, our economy is – at best – going to be in a holding pattern waiting for a decision to be reached. The Conservative’s policies are doing nothing to protect us from the next disaster – if anything, they will leave us more vulnerable – and when it comes, Labour has to be ready.

Thursday, 30 April 2015

Ship Of Fools

Yesterday saw the release of another Jonny Morris audio adventure, featuring investigators of the infernal Jago & Litefoot in The Flying Frenchmen, the first in their ninth series of adventures. You can order it by clicking a series of links, starting with this one.

Obviously to tell you all about it would be to give away all the surprises. But I will say this. It is to Christopher Priest and parallel universes what The Theatre of Dreams was to Philip K Dick and virtual reality. ‘Entirely unrelated to’ being one potential answer.

One of the fun challenges about writing adventures set in Victorian times is the research. I mentioned a short while ago how incredibly helpful it was of Charles Dickens to make such detailed sketches of his time (under the guise of Boz). I should also give credit to the site The Victorian Dictionary, which I’ve had bookmarked ever since I wrote The Haunting of Thomas Brewster. It’s an invaluable  resource, particularly as it’s about documents written about Victorian life at the time so you’re leapfrogging a bunch of middle-men and cutting straight to primary sources.

Of course, Jago & Litefoot isn’t really set in the ‘real’ Victorian times, it’s set in the fogbound London of Sherlock Holmes and his ilk, a Victorian London of the imagination created in films during the twentieth century. I highly recommend Matthew Sweet’s Inventing the Victorians for anyone interested in what the 19th century was really like, and how it became mythologized. You can see the same thing happening with films now, creating a certain version of the 60s, all false eyelashes and mini metros and top hats, the 70s, all migraine-inducing wallpaper and everything being a murky greeny-brown, of the 80s, where everything, even run-down mining villages, are wildly colourful (particularly favouring salmon pink, the official colour of the 1980s).

The same applies with Jago & Litefoot, it’s set in a mythological, almost dateless version of the 19th century. Although we do specify that the stories are set in the 1890s, they don’t take place in the real 1890s, they’re more set in a sort of 1850-1900 version of the past (following the precedent of The Talons of Weng-Chiang). In reality the 1850s were as different from the 1900s as the 1960s are from today; Dickens’ London was very different from Doyle’s – but in the Victorian London of the imagination, the Artful Dodger walks the same alleys as the Baker Street Runners.

Anyway, new box set, four brand-new adventures performed by the fantastic Trevor Baxter and Christopher Benjamin, buy it now.