Jeremy Corbyn

The clock has struck thirteen: Left and Right delusions

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

George Orwell, 1984

Since Friday a lot of people on my timeline have been quoting Orwell. It may be a bit extreme to state that the new world is now plunging headlong into a 1984 abyss, but there are some worrying signs that, on both sides of the Atlantic, our politicians are distorting or brutally avoiding facts to suit their case.

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Did 1984 come a bit closer with the weekend’s events?

Nothing new there, you might say. Well no, but it legitimises such malpractice and undermines trust and authority in the political system.

Three instances in speeches and interviews over the weekend struck me most:

  • President Trump’s and his colleagues’ narcissistic assertion that the inaugural event in Washington DC was the biggest ever and attended by up to 1.5m people. Despite the photographic and metro authorities’ evidence to the contrary, Team Trump had “alternative facts”.
  • Prime Minister Theresa May three times failing to answer if she knew about British Trident missiles misdirected to Florida in test conditions before Parliament debated nuclear weapons renewal last year (now belatedly admitted) and
  • Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn’s failure to recognise his party’s loss of 22 Council seats in 2016 by stating there was a positive swing in one by election last week.

Each of these undermines trust.

If Trump (whom you’d expect to be more concerned with the US economy than TV and event ratings) can mislead about what ought to be such a trivial matter, on what else might he and his aides deliberately misinform?

If May can wriggle and avoid transparency on such a key matter of state, what else will she be hiding from the public?

And if Corbyn deludes himself that one plucked-out-of-the air council result is evidence of a general reversal of persistently dire electoral and polling fortunes, then how can his judgement be trusted on anything?

In a 1946 essay Orwell wrote “Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”.

It is chilling to read this again. As someone who was once a professional political operative, I don’t recall ever actually lying. Economic with the truth, probably. Selective facts, yep. But a real fib – no.

The currency of all business, including politics, is facts and evidence. Once these are sidelined, rational debate is futile. And once that ceases, democracy and the integrity of business are threatened and 1984 comes just a little bit closer.

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Would Owen be a political night-watchman?

There’s a cricketing metaphor for every occasion.

“Get on the front foot”, “being on a sticky wicket”, “getting caught out” etc . They tend to translate badly outside a narrow group of cricketing nations but they describe so many situations so well.

One of my favourites is the “night-watchman”. A lower-order player sent in to bat towards the end of the day simply to avoid the loss of any more wickets before the close of play. They are not meant to score runs, but simply to stay there to protect the position of more recognised run-makers and prevent further decline.

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Will Owen Smith score as well as Alex Tudor?

That is the lowly expectation of their job. On rare occasions, such ordinariness converts into a spectacular innings when the night-watchman heroically scores a surprising number of runs.

In the current England team James Anderson, better known as a fast bowler, has performed this role well. But the most spectacular achievement in this position was fast bowler Alex Tudor who overperformed by scoring 99 runs to help England to a convincing win over Australia in 1999.

Get the picture?

Now this brings me to ask if Owen Smith is a night-watchman for the Labour Party? There he is, standing by to become its new Leader next month following the Party’s unprecedented decline and disunity since Jeremy Corbyn took over in 2015. If (a big if) the rather untested Smith wins, would he merely stabilise the situation or, unlike his opponent Corbyn, soar ahead with the public?

It is quite possible that he would simply hold the fort before a really big hitter comes along in a year or two to take on Theresa May’s Conservatives before the 2020 election. Anyway, she might call an election well before then to minimise the time for Labour to get its act together.

But if she doesn’t, and Smith is elected, he will need to rapidly overcome the impression he is a mere night-watchman and score some Tudoresque political runs. Otherwise he will be seen as an unremarkable stand-in for figures such as Rachel Reeves, Keir Starmer and Dan Jarvis – people tipped as a future Labour Leader.

So if he does not want to be their substitute, he will need to show he is an effective opponent to May and a credible Prime Minister in waiting. It’s a tall order. But being lacklustre is an asset he exploits well for now.

Whether he will get to exploit it to its full is  another question and depends on Labour and Corbyn’s stunning ability to keep scoring own-goals.

But that is another story and another sporting metaphor altogether.

Britain’s policy bakeoff

The word “turbulence” does not do justice to the Hadron Collider pace of political change in Britain this summer.

The fallout from June’s EU referendum has yielded a new Conservative Prime Minister, Theresa May, and a challenge to opposition Labour Party Leader, Jeremy Corbyn, from a former colleague, Owen Smith.

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Samantha, wife of ex PM Cameron, on a bakeoff episode. The heat is on in Britain’s political kitchen this summer.

All three are desperate to distinguish themselves from the rest and tackle that old trilemma: balance what they want to do with what their party wants and what is good for the country overall.

So May has to carve out policies that adjust to the reality of Britain’s exit from the EU whilst distinguishing herself from her predecessor David Cameron. With her one final leadership opponent dropping out before a ballot began, the party constraint was eased.

She entered Downing Street as Prime Minister for the first time with a speech which could easily have come from the mouth of a left of centre politician.

She highlighted the disadvantages of being poor, black or a white working class boy in Britain. Her theme was a “a country that works for everyone” whilst pledging “the government I lead will be driven not by the interests of the privileged few.”

Here was a resounding echo of Tony Blair’s mantra of Labour working “for the many not the few.” And with that she made a new Conservative landgrab on fast-shrinking Labour territory.

She has already abandoned her party’s pre-referendum fiscal targets, recognising the economy will be weaker with Brexit coming and the likely need to provide a stimulus from public investment to boost sluggish growth rates.

Meanwhile, Labour’s second leadership race since the 2015 general election pits its left-wing Leader Jeremy Corbyn against a “soft left” contender, Owen Smith.

For most of the past year Corbyn has maintained popularity among party activists by sticking to the same lines of “anti-austerity”, anti military intervention and nuclear modernisation, pro human and trade union rights. Beyond this, he has offered discernibly few, if any, specific proposals for an incoming Labour administration. His strength has always been in protest, not policymaking for government.

But since the challenge from Owen Smith, following the no confidence vote in Corbyn from four out of  five of his Party’s MPs, he has suddenly been forced to give some details.

In his campaign launch speech he marked out what he intended to be a differentiator to Smith by proposing equal pay audits of employers with over 21 staff. It’s not a new idea as Corbyn’s predecessor Ed Miliband backed it in 2014, albeit for organisations with over 250 employees.

This oversight illustrated the novelty of such policy work for team Corbyn. But at least it was recognition that the ingredients of a winning campaign have to include detail. This is especially so given that Smith has positioned himself also as anti-austerity,  having committed to a £200bn public investment in infrastructure, but also pro-prosperity.

In response, Corbyn has committed to a series of new policy pledges over the next few weeks. Forced by the contest, but having had ten months to do so since taking office, his inner circle will now suddenly have to leaven detailed proposals – from the economy, to health, to education and defence – to contrast with Smith’s in a short period of time. So far he has outlined “five ills” – inequality, neglect, prejudice, insecurity and discrimination. We await the remedies. It will be a hard and novel test.

As the election campaigns unroll, observers – like bakeoff judges – will be kept busy digesting and dissecting this new flow of policy ingredients. So standby for a summer of cooking and tasting in the Britain’s political kitchen. Steady with the vanilla.