The smoke and mirrors of small politics

This is supposed to be the most exciting election for decades, with the outcome still unclear only four days before polling day. But I can’t say I’m feeling it. With the exception of yesterday’s quite extraordinarily bizarre #Edstone stunt, it has all felt pretty humdrum, slightly surreal, and deeply infuriating. All at the same time.

It is humdrum because the spinners have tried to ensure politicians say as little as possible of substance and have largely managed to erect an impenetrable cordon between the politicians in their charge and anything resembling either a real person or a real question. So much of what’s happened during the campaign has felt rather anodyne. Last week’s special Question Time event in Leeds stands out so clearly as a consequence. The leaders had to engage with ‘the public’ in a way that was slightly less than rigorously stage managed – and for a change some of the bowling was overarm rather than underarm.

The election campaign has felt slightly surreal because politicans on most, if not all, sides have been allowed to get away with making all sorts of egregious pledges and commitments with very limited effective challenge. It would appear to be entirely acceptable for political parties to promise simultaneously to reduce the tax take, increase spending, and remove the deficit without thereby being derided as utterly incoherent. You would have thought adopting this sort of position should mean a party disqualifies itself from being treated as a serious party of government. But it seems not.

It’s as if tactics to achieve short-term impact on the headlines are everything. Promises are perceived to be consequence-free. You can promise anything you like, as long as it sounds enticing, because no one is really going to be able to hold you to account if you don’t deliver. Even if you chisel it into limestone. So our political debate carries on in a world unencumbered by concerns for prosaic questions of logical coherence, implementation and feasibility.

The debate is infuriating in so many ways it is hard to know where to start. [Read more…]


I can sort of see the appeal. But, then again, I really can’t. Is Boris the saviour of the Conservative party?

Back at the beginning of last year I saw him give an after dinner speech. At one point he was stood within two metres of me, but I didn’t manage to touch the hem of his cloak. He was speaking to an audience that wasn’t, I wouldn’t have thought, his natural constituency. Yet not long after he’d got going pretty much everyone in the room seemed to be on his side.

He clearly has buckets of charisma. He started off with a topical joke at the Liberal Democrats’ expense – “As Chris Huhne said to his wife over the breakfast table this morning, there are just three points I’d like to get over to you today …”. He then went on to make a speech that was rather incongruous in its interventionist tone – it advocated a more active policy stance on the topic than anything the Labour party has proposed in years. That particular audience loved it.

All this seems both characteristic and symptomatic.

Boris is a good showman. We know this. He’s smarter than he looks. He knows how to press an audience’s buttons. Likely as not he’ll say what needs to be said to ingratiate himself to them.

And now we will no doubt be hearing plenty more from him, and about him, over the next nine months. He only made his big announcement a couple of days ago and already Borismania seems to have broken out in sections of the commentariat. [Read more…]

Ed and Nick go courting







Today, as might have been anticipated, Andrew Rawnsley took as his subject the apparent thawing of relations between Labour and the Lib Dems. The opinion polls suggest that an outright Labour majority in 2015 is by no means assured. So it makes sense for them to leave the option of plan B open this time around. The major news this week was Ed Balls’ concession that it would be possible to work with Nick Clegg, rather than demand his head on a plate as the price of coalition. Others in the Labour party – notably Tom Watson in the New Statesman yesterday – are, however, holding firm to the Clegg’s-head-on-a-plate option.

[Read more…]

Fear and smear

Bird politiciansThe Commentariat might, for once, be pretty much unanimous. The run up to General Election 2015 is going to be vicious. The focus isn’t going to be measured debate on the pressing issues of the day – when was the last time that happened? – but mud slinging and character assassination. There are plenty of people willing to assert that the Tories, under the baleful influence of Lynton Crosby, are going to run the dirtiest campaign since the 1992 campaign to see off Neil Kinnock. The Tories, rather predictably, deny this is their strategy.

The Labour high command have been out in force over the weekend making the case that the Tories are going to be run a “fear and smear” campaign. Ed Miliband has claimed that David Cameron is demeaning the office of Prime Minister by stooping to unacceptably low tactics such as seeking to use the manifold failings of the egregious Rev Flowers as a stick with which to beat Labour. Insinuation of incompetence and unsuitability by association is a key part of the game plan, it is claimed. Labour’s Election Campaign organiser, Douglas Alexander, in an interview in the Guardian yesterday highlighted, among other matters, the importance of an effective social media operation in countering the smears. He argued that: “You have to counter lies with truth. When your opponents smear and vilify, you have to respond quickly and effectively with the facts”.

There are some obvious responses to Labour’s pre-emptive attempt to grab the moral high ground. We can be reasonably confident that it is about more than simply defending their good name.

What are they up to? [Read more…]

Harman has a go at unprincipled Liberal Democrats

Harriet Harman has post at the Huffington Post today. The theme of the post is that, regardless of what the Liberal Democrats say, they can’t be trusted:

Nick Clegg has repeatedly said one thing and then done another. Time after time Nick Clegg has tried to distance himself from the failures of David Cameron’s Government but the truth is he has ditched his principles and voted in Parliament with the Tories all the way.

Harman then goes on to list her top ten examples of the Lib Dems betraying their principles and promises. The post is slightly odd inasmuch as it doesn’t seem to say much for Labour’s – or at least Harman’s – understanding of how coalition works, particularly for the junior partner, and demonstrates a failure to grasp the concept of political compromise.

It is also useful to reflect on the extent to which things would have been different had the Liberal Democrats been in coalition with Labour.

So let’s review Harman’s top ten. [Read more…]

On “post-truth” politics

Over the last few days speeches by leading US Republicans have been scrutinized by the world’s media. Paul Ryan’s contribution has come in for widespread criticism for its lack of veracity. The Guardian published a piece subtitled A round-up of his most audacious untruths.

Even Runner’s World has joined the chase. They have been able to find no evidence that Ryan has ever, as he recently claimed, clocked a sub-3 hour marathon. For runners that would be worth checking because going sub-3 hours would make him a really top class club runner. Records suggest he has only run one marathon and he finished in just over four hours.

The completion of a marathon in a reasonable time seems to have been seen as a key achievement of many recent US (vice) presidential candidates. Something valuable to list on the CV. No doubt that’s because it’s seen as a sign of positive personal characteristics – determination, discipline, endurance and the like. So it is perhaps less odd than it first appears that it is part of the conversation. But if you are going to lie about something quite so easy to check … [Read more…]

Contortions and distortions – The party conference currency

Conference season brings out the worst in British politics. No question about it. Bad jokes intended to tickle the faithful. Set piece speeches designed to rally them if they’re flagging. All sprinkled with the odd soundbite designed to hit the news headlines in the mainstream media. We are offered question and answer sessions displaying differing degrees of robustness. Some appear genuinely challenging; some appear stuffed with planted questions from oleaginous party wannabes. Most of the material is delivered in a ponderous and uninspiring manner. The lack of gifted orators among the current generation of frontbench politicians is all too obvious.

But the most depressing aspect of conference season is how disconnected from reality it can all become. Hypocrisy is inevitable in politics. There are no doubt delicate diplomatic situations in which telling the unvarnished truth would be unwise or dangerous. But the industrial scale dissembling we witness at this time of year does little except bring politicians further into disrepute.

This is perhaps most evident at the current Conservative party conference. [Read more…]

Caring diddlysquat about democracy

[Originally posted at Dale&Co, 27/09/11]

One of the less pleasant characteristics of the Coalition government is its cavalier attitude towards transparency, accountability and Parliamentary process. This is part of a more general impoverishment of democratic practice.

We hear reports of serious, but relatively small scale, issues such as Ministerial advisors using private email accounts for Government business in order to evade oversight and avoid Freedom of Information requests. We have last week’s news reports of the proposed scheme of Ministerial buddying with big business. This is a scheme which, in many other contexts, would be condemned as tantamount to formalising the corruption of the political process.

The Government is not above ignoring the letter and the spirit of good Parliamentary practice. Examples proliferate. [Read more…]

Policy, evidence and dogma – the homelessness episode

A leaked memo from Communities & Local Government exposed in today’s Observer has already generated considerable comment. The memo, written by a senior civil servant at the start of the year, sets out perfectly clearly not only that the Government’s welfare reforms ran the risk of making an additional 40,000 households homeless and reduce the number of new homes constructed, but also that – taking these knock-on effects into account – the “reforms” won’t save any money. On the contrary, they are likely to impose an increased burden on the public purse.

A lot of attention has focused upon the former point. It raises important questions about whether David Cameron misled Parliament in statements about the downside risks of the policy. The memo suggests that statements may have been made in Parliament that contradicted the best available evidence and advice to Ministers. The memo also gives some indication of what sort of costs the Prime Minister considers worth paying to drive this policy through. There is a callousness there that many will no doubt find extremely distasteful.

It has been asserted today that Mr Pickles has distanced himself from the memo and is fully behind the Government’s welfare reform agenda. I’d expect nothing less. Or more.

The suspicion of Government hypocrisy is bad enough, but I think it is the second component of the memo is more revealing. [Read more…]

Is Cameron’s missing majority really the root of his problem?

Over at the Telegraph today Benedict Brogan posted an interesting piece under the title David Cameron isn’t a winner – and that’s where his problems begin. The thrust of his argument is clear from the title: Cameron’s failure to secure any sort of majority last May fundamentally weakens his position. Cameron is aware of this, Brogan argues, and that awareness infuses the whole business of government.

On closer inspection the rest of the piece turns out to be a rather loose collection of observations regarding things that are going wrong or not working very well. Or, as Brogan styles it, ‘the incidences of chaos are multiplying’. Anyone keeping even half an eye on the way policy is developing would agree that incidents that could appropriately be described as chaotic are not hard to find. But has Cameron’s lack of a majority got anything to do with it? [Read more…]