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.