Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Election Night on Guerilla Cricket

Tomorrow night is election night, and I will be broadcasting on Guerilla Cricket, the internet radio station that normally broadcasts, well, games of cricket. But we are diversifying for one night only from sport into democracy.
I have a long-standing obsession with election night broadcasts. You may have seen me on ‘Sixty Years of Swing’ with Peter Snow, and if you didn’t, you can still see it here –
I will be presenting the coverage, with the help of Carrie Quinlan, star of all the best comedy on Radio 4, including the News Quiz. Andy Zaltzman will be joining us on the phone. As will BBC cricket commentator Daniel Norcross, who will be sniffing out tenuous cricket angles in the evening’s proceedings.
The show will feature Guerilla Cricket’s trademark combination of jingles to illustrate the key events, and a constant Twitter conversation with the listeners. You can tweet us @GuerillaCricket throughout the show.
Show starts at 10pm, and we’ll probably go on til about 5am, or longer if it looks like something exciting is about to happen. Listen in at or download the TuneIn app on your phone, and find ‘Guerilla Cricket’.

Friday, 5 December 2014

What happens next?

Nothing ever really changes in British politics. It’s always basically the same three groups having the same old arguments. Every now and then, someone declares a revolutionary upheaval in British party politics, and everyone gets up and dances round in a circle. But when the music stops, no one’s removed a chair, so everyone sits back down again. At the end of it, all that’s really happened is that one of the parties has changed its logo.

The biggest party realignment of recent decades was the SDP. In 1981, the right-wing of the Labour party snapped off and formed a new party. Before the general election in 1983, the SDP gained 29 MPs in defections from current MPs - as well as winning a couple of by-elections. All but one of the defections were from Labour - one left-wing Tory joined them too.

As the SDP ultimately merged with the Liberals to form the Lib Dems, there is now little sign that the SDP ever existed, except the invention and addition of the lovely word ‘Dem’. The SDP did not change the landscape, it has just left a few marks for the interested to uncover. The residual effects of the SDP are not seen in political tectonics, but in the occasional piece of palaeontology. The SDP have left behind fossils, not mountains.

But sometimes things really do change. When the Labour Party came along in the early twentieth century, that was a genuine novelty. It wasn’t just a new name for an old thing, a re-brand, or an adjustment. At a similar time - possibly as a pure coincidence - the Liberals faded to become a third party. That was the last time there was a meaningful changing of the guard of political parties.

It’s possible that things might actually be shifting around again. For the first time in a hundred years, British political parties might actually be on the move.

The main reason that things might change amongst major British political parties is that there’s a vacancy. The Lib Dems have filled in the form applying for the abolition of their party - or the coalition agreement, as it’s also known. It has taken five years to process their application, but it now seems to be going through on the nod.

At the same time, UKIP have decided to become a real grown-up party - though no one’s told them that means they should keep the same policies regardless of who’s talking or which day it is. Once they tie themselves down to something as tedious as a manifesto, and they can’t base their policies on what mood they’re in, they’ll lose some of their fly-by-night appeal. But they will still do well enough to become the third party - in England at least.

The laws of political gravity would suggest that the UK can’t survive long with two right-wing parties, one left, and nothing in the middle but a big gap. Especially in a country that hasn’t actually voted in a Conservative government for more than 22 years, and where right-wing parties have not attracted more than half the vote since the 1950s.

On economic matters, the Labour party are in their furthest-left position for a generation, and the Tories in the furthest right ever devised by non-American humanity. This leaves a very large centre ground. Economics aren’t everything, but they’re not far off. The huge gap in the centre of British economic politics must surely be tempting to any centrist strategist.

Anyone who thinks that the NHS shouldn’t be sold off to the highest bidder, but also thinks the government shouldn’t impose a price freeze on energy companies, now finds themselves in a middle ground unserved by any major parties. Admittedly, UKIP oppose NHS sell-offs, but only on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and even then it depends on who answers the phone.

But that only answers the Why of a new British centre party - you also need a Who, How, and When, or else it never gets off the drawing board. The most likely moment is the post-election pre-coalition deal-making, and the most likely catalyst is UKIP.

It is very possible that neither Tories nor Labour will get enough seats to govern alone, and that the Lib Dem return will be so low that teaming up with them wouldn’t give a majority either. It could be that, to make the parliamentary maths work, someone might have to think the unthinkable and talk to Farage. The Labour leadership should be able to resist it, as they won’t want to drown in an avalanche of ripped-up membership cards.

But the Tories may not. They may look at the pure numbers of Tory and UKIP MPs returned, and conclude simplistically that adding those two numbers together gets the desired total. And then the changes start.

The left wing of the Tory party, currently the subject of an exhibition at the Natural History Museum, will reanimate. They will leave the party, loudly, and with righteous indignation. The striking thing will not be the number of defectors, but the quality. Ken Clarke, obviously, but Heseltine and Patten too, and many others who are Tories exactly because they have despised Ukippery since before it was invented.

The exodus won’t be reflected in the House of Commons. Very few current Tory MPs will feel affronted by a UKIP match-up because the parliamentary party does not closely resemble the country, even the portion of the country who might consider voting Conservative. The Tory party could alienate half its voters without alienating more than half a dozen of its MPs.

Clarke, Heseltine, and Patten would surely be branded as ‘yesterday’s men’ by remaining Tories. But people prefer yesterday’s Tories to today’s. This ‘class of 92’ got 14 million votes. The Cameron-Osborne generation couldn’t get 11 million when the alternative was Gordon Brown, who half the country hated more than athlete’s foot.

But if the ex-Tories will amount to any kind of political force, they will need allies. The most obvious candidates would be Blairites who find Miliband’s policy brew too strong. There would also be room for any Lib Dems disaffected with Nick Clegg’s leadership. Which, after the election, will be both of them.

With the anti-UKIP element in the Tory party gone, Tories and UKIP would be free to merge, and normal three-party politics will resume. The new ConUKIP party will be further to the right, and Labour minus its Blairites further to the left. In the middle, a different kind of centre party. Previously, the middle party has represented some kind of liberalism, claiming that the cause of liberalism over authoritarianism is more important than the battle between left and right.

But this new centre party would fight firmly on the left-right axis, by placing itself exactly in the middle. Instead of a traditional Lib Dem principle of swinging left or right depending on the liberal qualities of each proposal, a new Centrist Party would know exactly where it stood between left and right, and would define itself in those terms. It would embody moderation.

And that is potentially a powerful offer to the British people. A centrist party, a moderate party seems to be one very closely suited to the British character. What could be more appealing to British voters than a party whose main message is: ‘Let’s not over-react. I’ll put the kettle on’?

Friday, 28 November 2014

Truth decay

Politicians don’t tell the truth.

This is hardly an earth-shattering revelation. Though surely we should all be recalibrating our gauges of newsworthiness in the week when ‘David Mellor is obnoxious’ was considered front-page news.

Politicians don’t tell us the truth partly because they only ever speak to the public through a media engagement. If we hear David Cameron it is because a media organisation and the No.10 press team reached an agreement that this would happen. The subject was agreed and the messages rehearsed. It’s not real, it’s not a slice of life, even if the politician is in his kitchen making pancakes for his children. In fact, especially if the politician in a kitchen making children pancakes. It’s probably a studio, and those kids are probably off Outnumbered.

An interview is not a conversation, so the normal rules of polite society do not apply. It is much more like a verbal game, like Articulate. The interviewee draws a card with key messages on it (‘Sensible policies for a safer Britain’, perhaps) and scores a point every time they manage to say it; the interviewer draws a card with a list of gaffes on it (‘I distrust the poor’ or ‘I hate vans’) and scores a point every time they force the interviewee to say one of them.

The general public listen in and hear two people behaving in a baffling, and pretty beastly way. So they switch over.

There is always some truth in what a politician says. They tend to avoid any verifiable inaccuracies, as they can be embarrassing later. It is the truth and nothing but the truth - but never the whole truth. If politicians were forced to swear a court-style oath ahead of interviews, they would have to claim that ‘two out of three ain’t bad’.

Politicians don’t answer the question, because they are playing the game. But equally interviewers don’t often ask real questions. They prefer to set traps, because they’re playing the game too. Take the question: ‘What did you do last week?’ What is a true answer to that question? First you have to decode what is meant by it. If you are asked the question socially, it means: “Did you do anything last week interesting enough to warrant inclusion in this conversation?’

In the unlikely event that a politician was asked that question in public, it would have a different meaning. During a friendly interview it would mean, ‘Give us a flavour of what it’s like being you.’ If it was asked with venom, it would mean, ‘Name a single thing you did last week to justify your continued existence.’

But the politician hears the question as, ‘Which of your well rehearsed key messages is in any way relevant to something that happened last week?’

Interviews where the politician just repeats their message are pretty irritating. But even worse are the ones where they say nothing, then high-five themselves at the end of an interview for not having been caught out. Why did they ever agree to the interview? They seem to think that to avoid saying something stupid on the news you should stonewall an interview. But actually the best way is to decline the interview and stay at home practising the bassoon, or watching New Tricks.

Of course, if you entirely avoid the question, you end up looking like Michael Howard in May 1997. Howard didn’t realise that if Jeremy Paxman asks you the same question 12 times, people are going to feel that it’s you being evasive, not Jezza being irritating. Howard, in his answers, was trying to suggest that Paxman’s question was in some way not valid. It didn’t work.

This comes across most clearly in the magnificent moment just after Paxman announces that he is going to be “frightfully rude” and ask the question again (a tenth time). Howard, with a staggering lack of self-awareness, says, “You can put the question and I will give you an answer.” Howard really thinks it now looks like Paxman is not asking the right question. Instead, it suddenly seems like the most important question in the world.

The problem with communicating entirely through this media game is there’s not a lot of truth knocking around. And when people hear the truth, they recognise it, and respond positively. And this is a gift-horse to Farage.

UKIP tell their fair share of political lies. They will bend, ignore, or misrepresent the facts. They will be partial, misleading, and evasive. When they are talking about policies, it’s the same game everyone else is playing - get your message across, and try not to say anything too racist.

But if you ask Farage about elections, votes, and UKIP’s chances of success in individual seats, or nationally, he just seems to tell the truth. There’s no great moral virtue to it. He’s not doing it because he’s a wonderful person, nor necessarily as an evil Machiavellian double bluff. But, whatever is behind it, when you ask Farage to play election pundit, he seems to say exactly what he thinks.

Imagine asking the party leaders about a hopeless constituency. Ask Cameron what the Tory in Kirkcaldy is hoping for, and he’ll say something bland. Ask Ed Miliband about Labour’s chances in Witney, and he’ll say ‘hardworking families’, possibly in a sentence.

But ask Farage how UKIP are going to do in Peckham, he’ll say, ‘We don’t stand a chance.’ Ask him how many seats they will win next year, he says, ‘Could be 30 or 40, if it goes well’. He seems to be giving the same answer as he would behind closed doors. He’s telling the truth. It’s weird.

And it puts him at a very unfair advantage. He gets to tell the truth in public sometimes, where the other leaders are not allowed to. Eventually, politicians get the questions they deserve. No one would ever ask Nigel Farage how he feels when he sees a white van, because he’d probably tell them it was a bloody silly question, and ask them if they were foreign.

If UKIP get some sustained success, then this truth-telling won’t last. Soon, they’ll be calculating and over-thinking every answer like proper politicians, and they’ll have lost their advantage along with their novelty. When Farage tells a UKIP conference, ‘Go back to your constituencies and prepare for government,’ then we’ll know the UKIP threat has finally passed.

But until then, their truth-telling example must be followed. It doesn’t matter what you’re talking about, if a politician has even the most occasional opportunity to tell the truth to the public, they should take it. The public will notice, and give them the benefit.

Anything will do. The classified football results. The rivers of Yorkshire. The films of Denholm Elliott. Anything, just as long as it’s true.

Friday, 21 November 2014

The death of the swingometer

At the last election, no one party had a majority. At the next one, we may go one further: no two parties will have a majority.

It is very likely that no two plausible partners would have enough seats. The only pairings that could combine to make the 326 seats needed are the impossible Tory ones: with Labour, and with the SNP. A majority coalition government would require at least three parties.

The Tories may remain the biggest party, but they will not be able to form a government. Even if the Lib Dems wanted another coalition with them, they won’t have the numbers. The two coalition parties need to lose 34 seats between them to lose their majority. The Lib Dems could easily do that on their own. And if they don’t, Tory losses to UKIP will make up the difference.

There is no one else the Tories could do a deal with. The elephant wearing a barbour jacket and insisting on smoking in the room is, of course, UKIP. But because every UKIP gain is likely to be a Tory loss, they won’t give themselves more MPs by allying with UKIP: you don’t make a cake larger by cutting more slices.

And the Tories would be very reluctant to give UKIP the validation of power. Teaming up with the Tories may have been electoral hemlock for the Lib Dems, but it may be viagra for UKIP. And the major parties will be united in making sure they don’t get any.

Anyway, a Tory coalition with UKIP would need the Lib Dems too to make the maths work. Surely the Lib Dems would bail out of a coalition if UKIP joined it. The Lib Dems may do anything for power but, even for Nick Clegg, the offer of sharing a cabinet table with Farage would be his Meatloaf moment: ’I won’t do that’.

UKIP will only achieve a moderate breakthrough, and get less than ten seats. This will be terribly unfair, as they will have got about a tenth of the votes. However, they will be unable to complain about it, as the only solution would be proportional representation, which smells foreign.

The ‘swing’ that has traditionally defined British elections may scarcely happen at all. In all elections up to this one, there has been a swing from Conservatives to Labour or vice versa. But there is no sign of it this time. Very few people who voted for one of the major parties last time will now change their mind and vote for the other one.

Some Tory seats will go UKIP. And some Labour seats will go SNP, and slightly more Lib Dem seats will go to Labour. And this is all that will happen. It will be like a round of musical chairs where the two favourites are allowed to stay in their seats playing Yahtzee.

Before the last couple of general elections, the period of the campaign has made no net difference to the parties’ standings. The opinion polls fluctuate wildly - in 2010 this was mainly because you never knew if the electorate would wake up thinking Nick Clegg was Churchill or Dr Crippen. But the opinion polls would end up exactly where they started, and the election result would agree. This shows that every single campaign dollar has been wasted, and the parties would have been wiser spending the money on filling a swimming pool with tinned peaches.

This time the feeling of futility is similar, but amplified. This time, it is not three weeks of campaigning that has failed to inspire any voters to change their minds, but five years of government. The Conservatives have not won anyone over as they put their plans into practice. More depressingly, Labour have not landed enough convincing punches on the government, let alone set out an inspiring alternative. Neither party has attracted a significant number of supporters from any source, other than the sinking Lib Dem ship.

In replacing Gordon Brown with Ed Miliband, Labour have simply replaced one kind of electoral liability with another. And David Cameron having power has had very little effect on people’s opinion of him. Before he became prime minister, large parts of his natural supporter base had serious reservations about him. And five years on, they still have.

A very large number of voters are planning on voting for a different party in 2015 from their 2010 choice. But this is a feature of UKIP coming from nowhere, and the Lib Dems travelling in the opposite direction. In terms of the two major parties, very little has changed. Those who vote for the two major parties in 2015 will do so with little enthusiasm, and without changing their minds from 2010.

If the result is a coalition of ‘everyone against the Tories and UKIP’, this may not be the worst thing for Labour. The current coalition has seen Tory plans (very occasionally) diluted by Lib Dem priorities. In a coalition you expect compromise. But if Labour forms a government with nationalists and Greens, then the junior partners will be pressuring Labour into more truly Labour policies. Labour may end up as the most right-wing party in their coalition.

Even the Lib Dems are likely to choose a more left-wing leader after the 2015 election, to draw a line under the Tory coalition years. This would also make them comfier partners in a left-wing coalition. Labour could be falling in with a very improving crowd.

So the BBC may have to retire the swingometer, and stick it in a storage cupboard with Posh Paws and Jan Leeming. But there is a more meaningful change in British politics. No major party has ever written a manifesto expecting a coalition. Labour and Tory manifestos have always been a plan for government, and the Lib Dem one has always been piece of fantasy fiction.

But this time, all manifestos will be written more like a menu, with negotiable options. People will know that, whatever happens, they’re not going to get everything the manifesto promises. Of course, that’s always the case - but previously it’s been the fault of incompetence and duplicity. This time it’ll be for the healthier reason that democracy is complicated.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Ed's invisible campaign

The Labour Party knew what it was getting when it chose Ed Miliband. When they went for him over David, they picked someone with policies they liked over someone more likely to win. It’s a choice familiar to game show viewers - they gambled. They could have made winning easier, but with a reduced prize - but they didn’t. They asked Hughie Green for the jackpot question. They took the larger offer, but let the Chaser come one step closer. In ‘Bullseye’ terms, Ed Miliband is the speedboat.

It was the act of a party that had its fingers burnt by Tony Blair, a man who couldn’t have lost them an election if he wanted to, but who scarcely ever warmed their hearts. Ed was the opposite of that. He said exactly what they wanted to hear, but he made them fear he might turn Labour into a pamphlet-writing pressure group, rather than a manifesto-writing, country-running party.

And Labour did choose Ed Miliband, by the way. You may have heard, from everyone who has ever said anything about it anywhere, that Ed Miliband was elected by the unions. He wasn’t. Ed’s leadership victory was largely down to trade unionists, which is a very different thing indeed. Unions are large, fairly rich organisations run by more or less democratically chosen leaders. Trade unionists (or trades unionists, if you want to pretend you’re Tony Benn - and who doesn’t?) are people - human beings with bicycles and nail clippers and opinions. From the way that trade unionists were blamed for Ed Miliband’s win, you would think they’re not allowed to vote. That’s not trade unionists you’re thinking of there, that’s the sovereign and/or the insane.

If Ed Miliband had been elected by the unions, that would be sinister. But he wasn’t, so it isn’t. Anyone caught saying Ed Miliband was elected by the unions should be locked in a cupboard with Dennis Skinner until they’ve had a really good think about what they’ve done.

There’s a grand old American political saying: you campaign in poetry, you govern in prose. It’s very wise, very true and, for Ed Miliband, entirely unhelpful. Ed should avoid poetry, or any kind of campaigning that could be vaguely compared to it. Getting Ed to lift his eyes to the corner of the room and murmur ‘I have a dream’ will just make the country cringe. Even simple rhetorical techniques fail in Ed’s hands: when he told us stories of people he’s met, we didn’t picture charismatic walkabouts, we just imagined how relieved those people must have been when he left.

Instead, Ed should take an entirely prosaic approach to forming the next government. He should start doing, immediately, whatever his policies require for successful implementation. He can’t just start governing the country, or behave like he is, before he gets the job. But if Ed Miliband enters Downing Street on 8th May next year and starts work, there will unquestionably be things he’ll wish he’d done six months earlier. And those are the things he should be doing now.

It may seem a bit previous, because there’s an election to win yet. Is it presumptuous to plan for government now, when so much remains to be done to ensure the victory? The fact is, if you start doing the right things now, as much as you can, then that is the campaign. You won’t need to convince people that you’re up to the job if they can all see that you’ve started work already.

And when people see him doing these things, they will see ideas, direction, and purpose. In other words, he will have communicated his passion and his vision without ever having to tell us how darn much he cares. He will never persuade the country by talking - Ed needs to do. And then the country will realise that he’s the leader we need in our lives. Imagine the next six months as a romantic comedy, and Ed is the male lead, and the electorate the female. The point when she falls in love with him is not when he blurts out his feelings in a heart-wrenching speech. It’s when the boiler explodes and he turns up at 3am with a large spanner and a pile of blankets.

When Tony Blair entered Downing Street in 1997 he said, “Today, enough of talking. It is time now to do.” This line smartly deflected the allegation that New Labour was all about saying things, rather than doing things. When he persuaded us that he was all about the doing, he did it by saying. We really should have smelt a rat.

But Ed Miliband could actually do it. His could be a non-campaign campaign. It could be the ‘I’m too busy to campaign’ campaign. Instead of delivering a speech about Labour’s plans to freeze energy prices, let’s have him convening a meeting with energy companies and poverty campaigners - or some other, much smarter tactical move - and not even having a press conference afterwards.

Ed needs to be carrying out the policy equivalent of measuring up for curtains. The problem of opposition is often that you have to create the illusion of action. Being a minister is an incredibly busy job - being a shadow minister really isn’t. A minister is helping run a department of government with thousands of employees doing countless things. As a shadow minister, if you spend a couple of weeks in your pyjamas watching Netflix, there’s a serious possibility no one will notice. And being leader of the opposition is the same problem magnified.

The non-campaign campaign also helps an opposition move the narrative from negative to positive. First you must persuade the country that the government’s approach is wrong, then show them that yours is better. The ‘cost of living crisis’ is a good phrase, but it’s a critique of the current lot, rather than an outline of your own plan. When the slogans change to describe Labour’s plans, the criticism of Tory plans will then be implicit, and so be much more powerful.

If you stop members of the public on the street now and ask them, ‘What is Ed Miliband doing?’ you wouldn’t get many replies that would warm the hearts of Labour campaign managers. ‘Getting stabbed in the back’ would probably win, ahead of ‘gurning’ and ‘bacon’. The non-campaign campaign should be focused on that question, and how to get better answers. By election day, they should be hearing a whole range of positive answers.

Then the papers will have something more interesting to write about than a leadership crisis. Leadership crises are the easiest stories to magic out of thin air. If you decide there is one, then there is one. If you mention it a few days running on your front page, then it’s getting serious. Then the actual politicians start to think that it’s real, and start ringing their friends. And before you know where you are, it’s actually happening. And all because some left-wing publications decided, probably rightly, that a Labour leadership story would sell a few extra copies.

To any anti-Ed plotters, there must be two questions. Firstly - those flaws in Ed’s electability - you’re only noticing them now? What kind of honeymoon-goggles were you wearing for the first four years of his leadership that made you think getting into Downing Street would be a straightforward task?

And secondly, how long did you think this parliament was? Why would you wait four and half years before unseating the leader? Bearing in mind it took Labour four and a half months to get from election day 2010 to Ed’s appointment, that would give his successor a cool six weeks in the job before polling day - and that’s if you persuaded him to fall on his sword this weekend. Or, more likely, the candidates would make that calculation themselves, and decide that a cobbled coronation is a better option - which it is, but scarcely.

Ed’s not going anywhere. And if he carries on as he is, he is going to lose, or win very badly. A strategy to get Ed Miliband decisively into Downing Street must be very, very bold, but also utterly realistic. If you think that soundbites and photo opportunities aren’t important, for God’s sake stop making speeches about soundbites and photo opportunities. Instead, decide what’s important. Then don’t even tell us about it - just do it. And if the country and the media have to work slightly harder to understand what you’re up to, that’s fine - it’ll be good for us.

A totally different campaign would prepare the country for a totally different kind of government. And people will queue round the block to vote for that.

Friday, 7 November 2014

How not to attack the right

The debate between right and left can sometimes seem quite unequal, when we get onto the subject of each other. The right accuse us on the left of being unrealistic, idealistic dreamers. Then we accuse the right of being evil. It just sounds like we’re not playing nicely.

For some reason, when left-wing people look at right-wing people, they see them as belonging to a continuum that stretches as far right as you can possibly go. Left-wing people feel that the whole of the right side of political thought is a slippery slope, and if you fall to the right of the gravitational centre, then the only thing preventing you from being Hitler is lack of time or ambition.

It’s ridiculous, obviously. Conservative moderates can be as sound on their ground as anyone. But on the left, we feel that unless you’re as far left as we are, then you lack a foothold, and you will eventually slide inevitably Hitlerwards. As if Ken Clarke really wants to send all the gypsies to concentration camps, he just doesn’t know it yet.

For some reason, the feeling is not mutual. Conservatives seem to understand that their Labour opponents don’t secretly dream of a communist utopia. Tories are happy to mock the left for their stated opinions, without imagining secret ones. Cameron has been known to use ‘socialist’ and even ‘left-wing’ as insults during prime minister’s questions, seemingly unaware that to many people these are simply statements of fact (or even sources of pride). It’s like insulting the opposition bench by calling them ‘suit-wearers’ or ‘bipeds’.

Maybe the right don’t exaggerate their opponents’ views because they got all that out of their system years ago. If a Tory accuses a lefty of being a secret communist, it all sounds very 1970s. It harks back to a very specific allegation - that the Soviet government is running you as a secret agent. The communist double agent was, they assumed, being rewarded handsomely by the Soviet Union. So the communist was a traitor - a greedy, greedy traitor. If you call someone a communist now, it doesn’t sound like an attack on their political credo; it sounds like you haven’t noticed that the Soviet Union’s gone away.

We had it easy in this country, of course, compared to the United States. There they were obsessed with communists for a very long time. In the absence of Ebola, they needed something to channel their baseless terror into, and communism fitted the bill perfectly. Anyone to the left of an arbitrary political norm was a dangerous ally of an enemy state, regardless of whether their address books actually contained any Sergeys or Alexeis. And you didn’t have to be a politician or public servant to be targeted - in fact, they preferred it if you made films.

These days, the extremes of left and right are used as insults, rather than actual allegations. But they’re used differently on each side: a bad-tempered left-winger may call an opponent a fascist, but a right-winger won’t accuse anyone of communism. And not just because Tories don’t want to seem out of date. On the contrary - some of them love being out of date, it’s their favourite thing.

It’s because we think we know what an extremely right-wing government looks like: it look like Hitler. But for some reason, we don’t think an extremely left-wing government looks like Stalin. If you get more and more right-wing, the logic seems to go, you will eventually be Hitler. But if you get more and more left-wing, you would have to take a wrong turn to become Stalin. Stalin, we feel, is a perversion of left-wing thought. Whereas Hitler is a perfect distillation of the right. Stalin got left-wing wrong; Hitler got right-wing horribly, horribly right. They both murdered millions, but only one of them did it by being true to his ideology.

It’s not fair, it’s not reasonable, it’s not right - but it sits behind some of the more virulent anti-right rhetoric. When the left implies that a Conservative policy is tantamount to Nazism, for some reason we can come across as a little judgmental - even impolite. It should be guarded against, because the left will never win any arguments by claiming that Tories are basically very, very diluted Hitlers - that the Conservative Party represents a kind of homeopathic Nazism. There are many, many dangers to the right-wing agenda of the Tory party, but that’s not one of them.

When the left becomes intemperate in its criticism of the right, the right gains a moral superiority it ill deserves. Left-wingers are much more often accused of hypocrisy than the right. Left-wingers send their children to selective schools, they use private health insurance, they under-pay their cleaners, they wear t-shirts. Left-wing views go along with hypocrisy very easily - like fish and chips with guacamole.

The assumption is that left-wing people lack the moral spine to apply their beliefs in practice. There must therefore be something wrong with either the beliefs or the people who hold them. Right-wing people, however, happily embody all the principles they espouse publicly - with the occasional exception of sexual fidelity.

Is this because left-wing people are weak, or their ideals are other-worldly? Are the left a more morally wobbly bunch? No - it is because left-wing principles guard against the human frailty of selfishness. So when a left-winger succumbs to selfishness, they clash with their stated political principles, and hypocrisy is the result. Right-wingers don’t think you should be forced to regulate your behaviour in any way, so they couldn’t be hypocritical if they wanted to be.

If you lionise individual liberty, then selfishness is built into the system, or even celebrated. When a right-winger says that you should be allowed to do whatever you like, it is hard to see what kind of behaviour might constitute hypocrisy. If a Conservative minister led a crackdown on begging, and then was seen giving change to a homeless person, would that be seen as hypocrisy? Surely not. A right-winger’s personal compassion would not undermine their hard-line political stance.

Right-wingers still have the human instincts of compassion and generosity - often to a very considerable degree. But they believe that generosity has no place in a political system - it belongs to the worlds of charity and philanthropy. A system built on universal selfishness makes the whole of society sit up straight and click into place. Selfishness may be no part of their personal character, but it is an essential driver of their political credo.

Yes, we should condemn hypocrites. But we should condemn more strongly those whose policies make so few demands upon the comfortable that no one could ever fall short. Why should we praise anyone for ‘walking the talk’ if their talk mainly comprises shouting obscenities at strangers, and their walking style involves kicking pensioners in the shins?

Living by your principles is only really admirable if you have admirable principles.

Friday, 31 October 2014

Conspiracy? What conspiracy?

If you think there is a conspiracy to prevent your voice being heard, it is important to remember one thing: there might not be.

If you really think there is one, you should do all you can to smash it. But first check and double check that the conspiracy definitely exists. There are few surer ways of looking silly than trying to smash something which isn’t there.

Some conspiracies do exist, of course, including some very unlikely ones. For many centuries, half of the human race were complicit in ensuring that the other half had very little power, and encouraged them not to worry their pretty little heads about it. Feminism spotted this and objected to it, and the rest of the world has slowly conceded that they’ve got a pretty bullet-proof point. Now only a small minority disagree, normally for reasons of religion or golf.

For a few thousand years there was another conspiracy that legitimised the idea of owning humans. Bad enough in itself, that conspiracy also ensured that people were often divided up into ‘owners’ and ‘owned’ based largely on skin colour. Another conspiracy made sure that men who want to have sex with men feel really awkward, and women who want to have sex with women feel impossible. And there’s probably another massive conspiracy going on right now which we’re entirely unaware of, which will make future generations look back at us and tut - probably something to do with robots.

One conspiracy that is definitely not happening is the liberal conspiracy. There is not a secret group of powerful people forcing the masses to adopt tolerant, compassionate opinions against their will. No such group exists, and even if it did it wouldn’t have the means, motive, or opportunity to carry out their vile plan. Yet some people demand that this is what is happening.

Some people get suspicious when they hear liberal opinions. Why are they saying these things? Why don’t they say what they really think? It doesn’t occur to them that liberal people exist. Liberal people are saying what they really think, they just think different things from you. To claim that no one could possibly think anything different from you shows a dreadful lack of imagination.

This is what was behind the ‘Are you thinking what we’re thinking?’ Tory campaign at the 2005 election. They wanted us to reply, ‘Yes, and we’re relieved you’ve finally said it out loud’. But the electorate’s actual response was, ‘No, and please stop asking such creepy questions.’

Healthy debate requires disagreement. But it also requires respect. When someone says, ‘I believe in X,’ it takes a special kind of arrogance to reply, ‘No, you don’t.’ 

If a local council, a quango, or a comedian on a panel show (or a blogging comedian who’s never been on a panel show, but is available at surprisingly affordable rates) - if any of these demonstrates sympathy towards the vulnerable, they are not doing it to annoy you. They are doing it because they believe in it. The fact that it annoys you is just a happy by-product.

The real problem with the imagined liberal conspiracy - compared to the real male or white conspiracies - is the question of who benefits. Sexism and racism prevailed because they benefited the powerful, so the powerful made sure they continued. But what advantage do liberal opinion-formers gain from their stance? There is no evidence that their motive is in any way ulterior. Any prominent liberal mouthpiece rubbing their hands in glee and cackling evilly is kidding themselves.

If the liberal consensus really has gone too far, if political correctness really has gone mad, then society’s project to protect the needy is over.  Since early last century we have, as a society, decided that the poor should receive healthcare, education, and a basic financial safety net; that the sick should receive treatment regardless of their wealth; and the old should be given a third option that is neither ‘work’ nor ‘starve’.

Opponents of the imagined liberal consensus must feel that this project is finished - that the hungry now have a constant reliable source of food, and the poor have been abolished. In fact, they must think this was managed a while ago, and every effort made since then has been wasteful and counter-productive. Society is now too compassionate, and the biggest problem the needy face is that they get too much help.

That is a caricature of the right-wing position, but it’s the best guess we have about what they think. We never hear their position properly outlined - not because the liberal consensus is so all-powerful that it silences all right-wing voices. The real problem is that right-wingers, when given a platform, use it to complain that they’re never given a platform. They refuse to talk about the real issues, they just speak constantly about how they’re not allowed to speak. It makes you wonder what they have to hide.