Some thoughts before voting

Two items of required reading before Thursday’s election:

In the London Review of Books, Vol. 32 No. 8 · 22 April 2010, Jonathan Raban analyses David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ philosophy which apparently steers many Conservative Party policies and plans.  We knew already that it derived from the strange ramblings of one Phillip Blond of Respublica, the Conservatives’ “Red Tory”, but Raban shows just how strange Blond’s ramblings really are — unsurprisingly, since they in turn derive from the reactionary politics of those two right-wing ex-fascist-sympathisers Hilaire Belloc and G K Chesterton, the now mostly and justly forgotten Chesterbelloc.  It’s seriously alarming that the man who may well be our prime minister this time next week sets his moral and ideological compass by his admiration for these weird and faintly sinister cranks.  Raban has done a definitive demolition job on the lot of them.  A must-read.  (Hat-tip for spotting this before I did: Bob Knowles.)

The second piece of required reading before Thursday has to be Nick Cohen’s piece in today’s Observer newspaper (2 May 2010).  It’s not necessary always to agree with the sometimes erratic Mr Cohen, but here he hits some nails accurately on the head in setting out the case, even now and in spite of everything, for voting Labour.  Another must, especially for the many last-minute waverers.

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Cohen mentions one feature of the LibDem programme for government which seems to have gone almost unnoticed, although Nick Clegg boasted shamelessly about it in the third television debate and inexplicably neither Cameron nor Brown picked him up on it.  This is St Vince Cabler’s extraordinary proposal to raise the level at which income tax becomes payable to £10,000, a wildly expensive give-away and election bribe that would do nothing whatever for the poorest of our citizens but would mainly benefit the fairly well-off middle class.  It seems a very peculiar policy to put forward when everyone else is agonising over the desperate need to raise taxes, not lower them, and to reduce public expenditure in order to free resources for paying off the enormous debt — not to distribute it as largesse for the LibDem-voting bourgeoisie.   Poor doomed Gordon Brown is right to say that some of the LibDems’ policies are laughable:  but of course they have long lacked the disciplines instilled by the responsibilities of holding office, or (until the debates) expecting to do so;  they have no roots in the unions or any other major interest group in society;  they are overwhelmingly white and middle-class.  Any illusions about their essential decency and progressiveness have been exposed by their performance in local government, often in partnership with the Tories, where their ruthlessness in campaigning and wielding power has often outstripped that of the other parties.  Even the LibDems may have been brought up short, though, by the normally sober Will Hutton’s suggestion, also in today’s Observer, that if the new parliament does turn out to be well-hung, Brown should be made to stand down and Labour should invite Clegg to head a coalition LibDem-Lab coalition government — yes, Clegg!  In No. 10!  Well, in this chaotic election, almost anything can happen.  Even that.

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Nick Cohen spells out the case for voting Labour in spite of everything;  it’s hard to take many LibDem policies seriously;  and Jonathan Raban exposes the reactionary follies that apparently underpin Cameron’s ideology.  But there are several other strong reasons for voting in such a way as to spare us the depredations certain to be inflicted by a Tory government.  Labour has rightly concentrated its fire on the dangers of starting to axe public services immediately after the election, as threatened by CamerOsborne, well before the tentative recovery of the economy is firmly established, thereby probably driving us into a double-dip recession.  But there are at least two other powerful reasons for dreading a Cameron government:  first, the Tory commitment to repealing the Human Rights Act, one of the Labour government’s greatest and bravest achievements, and an indispensable bulwark for the private citizen’s rights against an over-mighty executive (and we can only guess at what the Tories would replace it with);  and secondly, the certainty that William Hague, as a committed Europhobe, enjoying the feverish support of the even more Europhobic wing of the Conservative Party, will destroy what little influence we still have in the EU, having already thrown his party’s lot in with a raggle-taggle group of right-wing, sometimes antisemitic, homophobic, neo-fascist European fringe parties when Britain’s natural partners are the moderate, liberal, socially responsible parties of the European centre, including the governments of Germany and France.  No-one should even contemplate voting Conservative  who understands that Britain’s future lies in Europe, and that only in active collaboration with our European mainstream partners can we hope to make progress  over climate change, economic recovery, reform of the banks, the defence of liberal democratic values or the assault on world poverty.

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Most of the media have predictably hailed the ‘leaders’ TV debates’ as a triumph of democracy.  In my view the debates have irretriveably debased and trivialised it.  On substance and issues, Gordon Brown manifestly outperformed Cameron and Clegg in all three debates, especially the last, yet in most of the instant-reaction opinion polls he came a poor third in all three.  This was partly because responses to the polls clearly reflected pre-debate attitudes to the three leaders:  people mostly thought their party’s man had done best.  But it was also because the media relentlessly portrayed the debates as a talent contest on the lines of Britain’s Got Talent or Celebrity Big Brother, in which charm, charisma, good looks and breezy self-confidence score the points, and sound political judgement, experience, and political and economic literacy count for nothing.  If you’re BORING (i.e. serious), you get voted off in short order.  Coverage of the election campaigns has been dominated to an absurd degree by prolonged and mostly superficial discussion of the debates, crowding out serious analysis of the issues.  If the debates have really changed voting intentions to any significant extent (and it’s far from clear at the moment whether they have), the lookout for Britain is extremely gloomy.  Sadly, though, I fear that we’re stuck with debates like this at every election from now on.  No future leader will dare to refuse to take part in them.  Such is the malign power of our generally deplorable media.

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In a comment on another Ephems blog post, a friend and former colleague has accused me of allowing political partisanship to influence my analyses of and commentaries on current political issues, calling on me to write sine ira et studio (without anger or partisan zeal).  How anyone can comment on the current political and social scene without anger is quite beyond me.  As to my comments being coloured by political partisanship:  Guilty, m’Lud!


1 Response

  1. Brian,

    A different view. You were spared the horror of working for these people, so can be forgiven (almost) for not understaning the depth of their awfulness:

    A senior Labour FCO couple told me the other day that they are voting Conservative.  Enough being enough. Hurrah.


    Brian writes: I enjoyed your stand-up comic’s knockabout polemic against Labour, and it’s true that the current Labour government came into office several years after I retired from the public service, so I didn’t work for some of the graceless Labour figures whom you describe. But I spent just as long working for Conservative governments before that, and found them in many ways just as objectionable, if not more so. Most (but by no means all) of the Tory personalities may have behaved in a somewhat more gentlemanly (or ladylike) fashion than the Labour successors whom you describe with such scorn, but their policies were generally far more appalling. But the choice in the polling booth tomorrow concerns the future, not how rude the late Robin Cook was to a foreign minister in the Balkans. And in tomorrow’s election it’s very hard to identify a single area of policy in which the Conservative manifesto is preferable to Labour’s, and in many of them the Tories clearly threaten us with disaster, unless their civil servants rescue them from their own folly.

    Also, isn’t it just a little bit early to be waving a farewell, fond or otherwise, to New or Old Labour? The centre-left parties will, on all available evidence, win a majority of both votes and seats and should with a modicum of adroitness be able to form an effective centre-left government between them. Whether it will benefit them in the medium term to be in power, and to have to impose the draconian and regressive measures on ordinary people that the bankers and the markets are about to force on us, is another matter. From their point of view, but not the country’s, it might turn out to be a rather good time to be in opposition.