Sunday, 25 September 2016

England's new grammar schools: playing with fire?


Prime Minister Theresa May (above) has recently announced that she wants to allow more selection by ability in England's schools, and will remove New Labour's ban on expanding or opening grammar schools. Now that's probably because she wants to appeal to older voters who might be tempted to come over from the United Kingdom Independence Party to the Conservatives. Maybe she also wants a flagship policy that will stamp her authority on the Government, or a new initiative that will stake out her differences with outgoing premier David Cameron. If so, she should be careful what she wishes for: because grammar schools are an academic, intellectual and above all political hazard that might be best avoided.

We've been here before. The grammar schools that dominated many post-war Britons' imaginations - either set up under the 1944 Education Act, or newly-accessible for free by any children who passed the famous 11+ examination - were a subject of enormous controversy when both Labour and Conservative administrations abolished most of them in the 1960s and 1970s. But there was lots of very good reasons why they did that. They weren't just driven by ideological fury, whatever myth-making you may read or hear from grammars' advocates. No: the reason that politicians took the system apart in those two decades is that the scholarly, popular and political consensus upon which any success might have rested collapsed before the whole system had been in operation for even a few years.

You can read all about this if you'd like, because (ahem) this blogger has already written about exactly that process, in chapter nine of a book about post-Second World War governance in general. What were the processes that brought the brief golden age of the state grammar to a close - closing or merging schools that formed a huge chunk of the secondary sector, and shaking up a much, much more significant slice of the schools system than Mrs May will probably ever dare to even tinker with?

First reason: parents' views of education were changing. Most children never went to grammars. They had to go to secondary moderns, if they 'failed' academic aptitude tests, pushed into schools which never really developed an ethos or educational rationale of their own. This was inevitably very unpopular, and parents' patience soon began to run out. No longer would they accept the majority of their children attending poorly-equipped and badly-run schools until they could be released from what often amounted to little more than a holding pen at the age of fifteen. Just one instance of this: a popular Campaign for Education, mounted in 1963-64, both helped put pressure on the flagging Conservative government of the time, and helped to implant the idea of better education for all children in the public consciousness as an unalloyed good. Ministers of all parties began to feel that they could not possibly relegate most voters' children to the academic sidelines - a burgeoning acceptance of reforms's necessity that was then reinforced by a revolution in the way education was conceptualised, let alone experienced.

So, secondly: the 11+ exam that decided which schools children went to at the age of eleven rested on the idea of stable IQ tests that could objectively tell which children were 'suited' to the grammar school, or the Secondary Moderns and Technical Schools to which other children were to be apportioned. But an increasing number of university studies showed that IQ score reports were very unstable, and subject to change for the same children over time - damning enough for a supposedly 'scientific' process. And even more lethal to the tests' credibility was that evidence quickly mounted that supposedly academic testing was in fact a form of social selection (just as it still is where the 11+ survives) - a test than ran the sliderule over ways of scanning, thinking, problem selection and language that owed much more to young people's replication of their home environment than any future abilities they might be able to draw on.

Third and last: education spending was gradually coming to be seen as a necessary outlay for upgrading the nation's human capital. The Soviets and the Americans were pouring money into science, technology and engineering in schools, the argument went: Britain must follow their lead. Though there was a great deal of the fashionable techno-nationalism of the era bound up in all that - as if national virility and honour could not be sated without splurging money here, there and everywhere - the idea that education spending would garner a return for everyone gained a hold. Why, then, spend much of that money - and reserve all the qualifications - on just the small number of children who might emerge from poorer backgrounds and do well in these schools? The idea made no sense at all. Training accountants, lawyers and army officers was fine. But who was going to check on the abilities and progress of the black-coated technical workers so beloved of a technocrat such as Harold Wilson?

No-one in Whitehall or Westminster had much of an answer to these growing parental demands, the end of selection's academic credibility, nor the new idea that education overall was a national investment rather than a personal test. Or, at least, they had no idea of how to meet any of those challenges without rowing back from selection at the age of eleven. So one civil servant accepted privately in 1960 that: 'the system under which failure to win a place in a selective school at 11+ meant complete and irrevocable denial of the coveted opportunities associated with a grammar school education could not hope to win the support of parents, and could not survive the day when their wishes could gain a hearing'. While another feared that, should they do nothing about Secondary Moderns' apparent disregard for most pupils' prospects, 'this country is pouring out its human wealth like water on the sands'. There wasn't much arguing with either case. That's why comprehensives are there - not as some theoretical experiment, but as the most practical and semi-popular system Ministers from both main parties thought they could press into the service of national re-training and efficiency.

If Mrs May goes too far down this track - if all this means more than just a few satellite schools and extra classrooms here and there - then all of that parental angst is going to come her way. All that 'failure' is going to be placed at her door. And all that pouring out of human capital, so obvious now as it was then - and the waste and hurt and confusion that selection at eleven involves - will get blamed on her. Most parents are not going to like this. They are going to get very, very anxious. Things could get ugly. It's not much of a sell for any politician.

Grammars were abolished because politicians came to understand that they were toxic in the country, and harmful to the economy. Now that we need every single individual's skills to be stretched to the utmost (especially when Mrs May's own government wants to reduce immigration), and now that parents have mounting educational expectations for their offspring that seem to surge ever upwards with every passing year, the only thing that's changed is that a return to academic selection could shred even more reputations than it threatened to in the 'sixties.

So here's what we think: the new grammars policy will be watered down until it is very, very dilute indeed: or it will become a long-running sore that will cause Mrs May more trouble than any extra reservoir of votes is worth. This idea has got trouble written all over it, right from the start.

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Where did the anti-Corbynites go wrong?


In just under a week, Jeremy Corbyn will almost certainly be re-elected as Leader of the Labour Party - and, if all the credible indications we have are correct, perhaps by a wider margin than the 60 per cent or so of the votes that he received last year.

Yet less than a couple of months ago, his position looked worse than precarious. His first nine months in office had been marred by laughable debacle after ludicrous gaffe after embarrassing spectacle. Most of the organised, professional Labour Party at the centre were deeply unhappy with Mr Corbyn's role in the Remain camp's defeat in the referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union. He had either under-performed so badly that he was not fit for his office, their argument went: or, in fact, he had actually connived and plotted, along with his top team, to help the Leave camp that he so obviously backed in private. Whatever the truth, he had to go. His Shadow Cabinet disintegrated; his Parliamentary Party passed a huge Vote of No Confidence against him - something that would have ended any other leader's time in office then and there - while large numbers of councillors, the Labour London Mayor and the Party's Leader in Scotland, Kezia Dugdale, all lined up to condemn his ideas, or his performance, or both.

So what happened? How did the views of the Party's General Secretary, its Deputy Leader, almost all of its MPs, the majority of its Members of the Scottish and European Parliaments, all of its living ex-leaders, a great big basket of Labour luminaries and celebrities, and indeed almost everyone the wider public has ever heard of within Labour, turn out to be s irrelevant? How could a leader beleaguered on almost every front even hope to survive, let alone lead anything resembling a political party? Well, here's some thoughts on how the anti-Corbynites got so badly beaten.

They don't have enough alternative ideas. Mr Corbyn is identified with a very clear world-view. The private market does not provide. The state should spend more. Austerity is unnecessary, punitive and just plain wrong. The United States often acts against the interests of the wider peace. The UK should stay out of foreign conflicts altogether, if at all possible. Now, you may not like those views (or you might find them inspiring), but they're clear - at least on the surface. The Labour leader's opponents? Well, not so much. There are elements of a novel Labour agenda floating around that derive from neither of those absurdly over-polarised alternatives, 'New Labour' and 'Corbynism'. But Mr Corbyn's opponents are both so multifarious, and so stunned both by Labour's 2015 defeat and the Party's descent since into full-on existential crisis, that they are struggling to get their intellectual case together. One idea they have got is moving towards a really, really strong localist and devolutionist agenda (as advocated here, as elsewhere) - something ex-leadership candidate Liz Kendall has been talking about over the last few days. But how are they supposed to argue against Labour's equivalent of motherhood and apple pie: more spending, more intervention, less austerity, more nationalisation? That seems like a lost cause, at least for now.

They don't have many big hitters. That mention of Liz Kendall gives the game away somewhat: a brave and doughty fighter for her brand of social democracy, she is rather unusual in that she is both a 'name' that means anything at all outside Westminster, and is prepared to put her head once more over the parapet. Elsewhere, the long shadow of the Blair-versus-Brown wars has fallen over the Party. There's just so few convincing leaders left. The Special Adviser class of the 2000s - the Andy Burnhams and the David Milibands - have fallen by the wayside, at least in terms of returning Labour to national office. Other figures that might once have aspired to lead Labour - Keir Starmer, say, or Chuka Umunna - have not exactly been conspicuous by their engagement in the fray. Perhaps they think that more sensible times will one day return; or they genuinely have to taste for the hand-to-hand; or think that the cause is lost anyway. Whatever the reasons, it's been left to Owen Smith (above) - a perfectly admirable Secretary of State, perhaps, but not a readymade national leader - to carry the banner of the Corbyn refuseniks. He's made too many mistakes for comfort. Of course he has. He wasn't oven-ready, or enough of a confidence, experienced power-broker, to expect anything else. And he's been beaten, fairly easily, by a candidate with better spin and clearer branding.

They haven't moved with the times. Mr Corbyn's opponents have been running behind his bandwagon ever since he was nominated for the leadership last summer. At first, they ignored him, because he was a 'fringe' candidate who had no chance of winning. Then, they tried to paint him as a loveable-but-muddleheaded outsider who would do quite well, and who had won the right to be listened to, but actually wasn't all that serious about wanting the job. Then, once it became clear that he'd win, many Labour MPs simply decided to serve their constituents, write reports for think tanks, and appear on the TV - anything to avoid co-operating with Seumas Milne, Andrew Fisher and the like. Simply put, Mr Corbyn himself has been an irrelevant sideshow at Westminster for so long, and his type of Leftism has been dormant for years that are hard to count. So everyone else underestimated him - and his ideas. That has cost them. Maybe if they'd put up Owen Smith last year - a fresh face, and a credibly Left-wing one - they might have won, or reduced Mr Corbyn's famous 'mandate' to the extent that it was easier to get rid of him. No doubt they'll put up someone more impressive next year, or the year after, when membership churn has made the selectorate even more favourable to Mr Corbyn. Then they'll lose again, by an even greater margin. If they'd tried that this year, they would have got closer. They've been behind the game throughout. Labour's non-Corbynites are paying the price.

A networked revolt has overtaken them. Once upon a time, what the Mirror thought would have made a big noise in Labourworld. Then, when it joined in the revolt against Mr Corbyn in a way that the newspaper had never come out against Gordon Brown or Ed Miliband, it would have looked even worse for him. But that's not how things work now. These days, Facebook and Twitter allow Mr Corbyn's committed supporters to communicate with each other, and like-minded friends, much more than they ever have to listen to unexpected sources of dissonance or dissent. The fantasist clickbait wrongfest that is The Canary website is rapidly growing to rival more established outlets such as The New Statesman and The Economist. Aaron Bastani's Novara Media and economics journalist Paul Mason's blog are replicated endlessly on Facebook, to the great consternation and confusion of less politically-active Britons faced with memes, tropes and language that they just don't recognise from their position within the reality-based community. Mr Corbyn's Facebook following itself has just completely steamrollered Mr Smith's. The Labour Party is now the preserve of hundreds of thousands of inter-connected campaigns, blogs and 'news' sites that look nothing like The Mirror or The Guardian. If they want to challenge that, Labour's centrists have to construct their own social network. That will be hard work. It will mean that groups such as Progress and Labour First may have to dissolve themselves and create one single-minded and focused campaign like the Corbynite Momentum group. It will mean that they have to get new ideas, a leader, a set of causes. That they have to really define themselves, way beyond the fuzzy calls of 'not-Jeremy' or 'Jeremy-but-competent' that we hear today. It's probably the work of many, many years. It might even need decades to coax moderate, workaday British people into a party that looks increasingly nothing like the country it seeks to lead.

Labour's just too far gone. Practically no-one believes that Labour are going to win the next General Election outright. A few more perhaps think that they might be able to play some sort of role in forming a majority that could lock Theresa May out of No. 10. But let's face it: neither group is very numerous. There's never been a Labour Opposition that's polled this badly. There's never been a Labour leader (with the possible exception of Michael Foot) who's this unpopular with the public. Local government by-elections are going badly. Westminster by-election swings are way down on 2011 - the last proper comparator - and the local election results in May were just very, very poor indeed. Labour came third in Scotland, when it was a key Corbynite claim that a 'Left-wing' offer could 'win Scotland back' - as if something as momentous as Labour's rout there had a one-trick-pony answer. The problem this creates for Labour people actually interested in elections is this: they can't offer electoral salvation. 'Owen Smith offers you the chance to lose less badly' is not a great slogan. 'Owen Smith: you won't be routed, and one day you might rise again': it doesn't set many hearts aflame. So Labour will march on, knowing that the next time we all see an exit poll it will probably be a grisly, icy, tragic moment of blue-lightning clarity, all the while thinking 'well, if he's going to fail, Jeremy must be allowed to fail on his own terms. Then we'll start again'.

They're not and they weren't particularly ruthless, the anti-Corbynites. The so-called 'coup' launched in June was really an overlapping series of revolts - partly planned among really hard-core anti-Jezites, in all probabilily, but across the Soft Left and among large swathes of the councillor base, more of a 'riot of despair' than anything else. They could have gone even further. They could have collapsed the Whips' Office and dissolved the official Opposition altogether. The Parliamentary Party might have elected its own leader and just got on with things, daring members to tear them down. They certainly could have come out and told their stories of disgraceful negligence and downright failure much, much earlier - and in a more concerted way. The fact that they didn't tells you how much of a 'coup' there has really been.

We can all see, now, just how perilous previously-mainstream Labour's position really is. In all likelihood electorally irrelevant well into the 2020s, and faced with a wall of totally convinced certainty on the part of their internal adversaries, many anti-Corbynites are probably on the way out whatever they do. There will very likely be a Corbynite leader in the next Parliament - Emily Thornberry, perhaps, Richard Burgon, or Clive Lewis - and there may not be anything that the Labour rebels can do about it. But they can still perhaps cling on to a little bit of hope, and hang on in there for the next decade they will have to endure, because before them is a good example of a huge political comeback: just how hopeless things looked, just a few years ago, for the insurgent Left that seemed so irrelevant for so long. By thinking - really thinking - while also coalescing around a plausible Party and national leader, by reaching out beyond politics, and by drawing hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, of people to the banner of a really inclusive, dynamic, open party that isn't just for political enthusiasts, they might get a chance to lead again.

For now, they've once again been caught in the headlights. They didn't see any of this coming, and most Labour people would have acted differently if they had. At least now they see the size of their challenge, and they can act accordingly - if they think it's worth fighting on at all.

Saturday, 10 September 2016

Could a 'progressive alliance' save the Left?


There's been some recent talk about a 'progressive alliance' that might save the British Left: Corbynite Shadow Cabinet member Clive Lewis, and newly re-elected joint Green Party leader Caroline Lucas (above) have both recently floated the idea. Although the details are usually fairly opaque, the concept seems to involve some form of electoral and campaigning co-operation between Labour and the Greens, as well as perhaps the Welsh nationalists Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National Party. Given that to achieve even a tiny absolute Commons majority on its own Labour would have to pull off near-miraculous wins in seats like Canterbury (where the party trailed in nearly 10,000 votes behind the Conservatives last time), these calls have a superficial attractiveness. But could the whole idea fly?

Let's start with the electoral battleground. Here the stark fact is that, by allying with the Greens, Labour could hope to win at the very most eleven seats from the Conservatives on the existing boundaries that are likely to remain in force until 2018/19 - even if every single voter from that party moved over to its side. That's enough in theory to rob the Conservatives of their overall majority, but they'd undoubtedly just continue to govern as a minority with some help from the Democratic and Ulster Unionists. And if we get a bit more realistic - we assume that only half of the ex-Green voters move over to Labour - then we go down to a gain of just eight seats. Adding Plaid to the mix gives you just another two seats on top - Vale of Clywd  and Cardiff North - but Theresa May would still be in No. 10.

That's a puny reward for a lot of effort, and no doubt a great long round of negotiations that will probably do more to confuse voters about Labour's core principles than it will fire them up at the sight of Labour's big-tent ecumenicalism. It's no wonder that Green activists, in particular, are signalling that this is an idea that's at best still at the incubation stage, and why many Green thinkers are more than clear that the whole idea would require an ideological rejig that might take some time - not a quick list of electoral deals conjured up out of nowhere.

Bear this point in mind also: the two seats that the Greens look like they have even a hope of winning, Norwich South and Bristol West, are Labour fortresses that the local Constituency Labour Parties will surely not, under any circumstances, give up. What, then, can Labour offer the Greens in return for a free run at maybe ten to fifteen sitting Conservatives? A bye on the Isle of Wight, and in Portsmouth South as well as Truro and Falmouth, all seats where the Greens might therefore be granted the high-but-not-particularly-productive honour of finishing a creditable second? It doesn't seem like much of a carrot, really. And what could Labour offer Plaid? A free tilt at their first Conservative target of Clywd West, where they've pretty much got no change and where Labour came second last time anyway? We doubt that local Labour activists would hear of it.

What about the situation in Scotland? Well, there the idea of some sort of pact just seems like a fantasy, as Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale as well as ex-Scottish Secretary (and last remaining Scots Labour MP) Ian Murray recently made clear. First point: the near-ancestral loathing between the SNP and Labour would make any deal almost impossible. Second point: what on earth does Labour have to give the SNP that they don't already have? Standing aside to take the heat out of not-entirely-plausible Scots Conservative runs at Berwickshire (where Labour got under 3,000 votes last time), Dumfries and Galloway, and Aberdeenshire West? When those last two seats would need a six per cent swing for the Conservatives to oust the SNP? Big deal. Third point: Scots politics doesn't rotate around the 'left' to 'right' axis that English 'progressives' who don't actually spend that much time in Scotland think it does. It is still (understandably) centred around the constitutional question - a fact that might in time allow Labour to bring some unionist voters back into its camp, as experience in Edinburgh South as one of the only bright spots in its dire performance at the 2016 Holyrood elections suggests. It's a thin hope, but it's probably all they've got. In this situation Labour throwing in its lot with the SNP would be the embrace of the graveyard - because what, then, could it possibly stand for in terms of the great question of independence or the Union? Voters who favour separation from the rest of the UK are already long gone. If they're going to help the SNP, they might as well ring up Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson and say 'we're giving up, have most of our votes. Would you like the buildings and all the canvassing data as well?'

So the answer to our original question is this: no, there can and there will be no 'progressive alliance'. Most of the parties supposed to get involved wouldn't want it. It wouldn't deliver many - if any - gains to the widely (and erroneously) defined 'Left' even if it did take hold. Voters probably wouldn't like it, and they might well take umbrage at being told what to do by party elites denying them a full choice of candidates in each individual seat.

What this long-running hare is really about is distracting people on the left from the realities of electoral life. Like its closely-allied bedfellows, the mythical progressive 'non-voter' and the 'disillusioned Ukipper', both conjured up in the last year or so as lifelines for Britain's left, this is a refuge from an ideological and demographic map that anyone with a bit of basic maths and some sociology can read. The road to any sort of non-Conservative government is long. It runs not along the broad-but-error-strewn path towards this supposed 'progressive alliance', but on a much narrower, rockier, harder and steeper track: via England's small and medium-sized towns, where most people drive to work, through provincial English cities and the working class districts of big conurbations, around and about suburbs and exurbs mostly free of political enthusiasts and rallies, and it takes in big slices of the West and East Midlands along the way. Places where voters want to see a coherent plan, a plausible leader, a language that chimes with how real people actually talk, a bit of consistency, a scarlet thread of patriotism, a little dash of competence, understanding, humility and the self-confidence that's displayed by actually listening to what people are telling you. Right now? Labour is showing off none of these things. Quite the opposite. Why teaming up with the SNP, Plaid and the Greens would change that seems a bit of a mystery.

Victory runs through Nuneaton, Plymouth Moor View, Telford, Loughborough and the like - a wall of blue that should have gone or stayed red in 2015's 'hidden landslip', a contest in which the Conservatives strengthened their hold on ex-Labour areas - and even gained a few ex-Labour seats themselves. In none of those constituencies would adding the Green vote to the Labour pile mean that the MP changed his or her party colours (though they'd get pretty close in Plymouth). In all of those seats, any high-falutin' pact between national leaders might also lose voters as quickly as the fear of an SNP-Labour alliance did in 2015: because voters don't like to think they are being taken for fools; because they think that party manifestos should be more than the first draft of a bargaining round; and because English voters, rightly or wrongly, would resent being dictated by by Scots or Welsh MPs when those nations have their own versions of self-government.

If you don't like Britain's government, you can campaign to change it. What you can't do from Opposition is circumvent the system by changing the electorate, altering voters' roster of choices, or tinkering with the system. If you want to do those things, you have to get into power first - an act of imagination, will and daring that a 'progressive alliance' would do nothing to foster.

Monday, 5 September 2016

Corbynism and the 'sociological imagination'


Since we've all recently been challenged to take our sociological imaginations on a journey around Corbynism, and because it's always important to analyse what's going on rather than just shout about what we might think of it or believe about it ourselves, the new blogging season kicks off this week with a (we hope) honest look at the belief structures behind Jeremy Corbyn supporters' support for 'their' man. Since he seems almost certain to be re-elected leader of the Labour Party later in the month, this seems all the more important. Mr Corbyn, someone like him, or someone who shares most of his views and outlook, seems likely to lead Labour for a long time to come. So what do Corbynites believe, and why?

Blair was wrong about almost everything. Here's the first and perhaps most important of the Corbynites' beliefs. Tony Blair (above) and the Labour governments of 1997-2010 may have done some good things, they say, but in general they did not restructure the economy enough to serve working people, they relied too much on big business to renew the public realm (especially in the case of the expensive Private Finance Initiative), they did not launch a concerted enough attack on poverty, and they generally frittered away public goodwill with a liberal and centrist agenda that ended up dry, dusty and without sufficient moral will to create a new consensus. You can deny most of this all you like. Inequality on most accepted measures did fall in these years, despite the enormous increases of those at the top of the income scale. Most private companies do not make a king's ransom out of government spending (though some do): even those notorious robber barons, the Train Operating Companies, make rather meagre or tiny profits, and preside over a railway that - despite popular myth - is not much more expensive than that in other countries. But there is no denying the fervour or power behind these arguments, especially as the Blair-Brown years came to an end amidst widespread public disenchantment with those administrations' closeness to those blamed for the economic meltdown of 2007-2009, namely the big banks.

The Iraq War is an original sin. This is the touchstone, really, without which Corbynism would be impossible. Labour progress on the domestic front is incontestable, and indeed most Corbynites would be happy to say that tax credits, the National Minimum Wage and increases in Child Benefit (for instance) did help people on lower wages. But in terms of foreign policy, the Blair government's decision to join the US in the 2003 invasion of Iraq - and the disastrous civil war in that country that followed - explains most of the Blair-hating rage of this movement. It explains why Mr Corbyn won't rule out putting Tony Blair on trial over the Iraq debacle (though on what charges, it's never quite made clear). It helps us to see why the Stop the War movement's views have become so influential in Labour, despite that grouping's often-ridiculous and manytimes-offensive views of the world beyond Britain's borders. It explains to some extent why Blair's foreign policy successes - from foreign debt relief to Sierra Leone, through Bosnia, Kosovo and up to the Gleneagles Summit of 2007 - are now to be airbrushed out of Labour history, perhaps permanently. And understanding Iraq's absolutely vital role in Labour's new insurgent identity should help any observer understand why Mr Corbyn's own deeply toxic and unpleasant views - on Northern Ireland, the Bosnian tragedy of the 1990s, on Ukraine and Syria - are so easily excluded from the realm of debate. Put simply, Iraq is the original sin of New New Labour, and blots out everything else around it.

Winning elections isn't the be-all and end-all. This point rather follows on from the current rejection of the Blair years. What's the point of being in power, Corbynites say, if you're just going to be 'Tory-lite', 'Red Labour', capitalist, reformist mealy-mouthed sweeper-uppers? What's the point of campaigning for a Labour government if they're then going to 'privatise the NHS' (they didn't, really, or at least not in the way critics mean), pander to the roads lobby (that's not what the roads lobby says), cut Inheritance Tax, let corporate profits rip, hollow out high streets, preside over homelessness, rely on food banks? Again, it's all very well detailing the actual picture - that rough sleeping fell by about two thirds under Blair and Brown, that food banks on any scale are a phenomenon of the tough coalition years, that the NHS had the shortest waiting lists and highest satisfaction ever when Labour left office in 2010 - that in short to do anything at all you have to be in power - but it's also important to deal with the reasons behind this widespread worldview. It can't just be ignored, or dismissed with a few statistics. The very real hardship of the post-Great Recession world has made many people feel quite desperate about the world that surrounds them: that it has no moral heart, no point to its politics. The overly-technocratic view that got Labour in this mess in the first place requires adjustment. Government must have a poetry, as well as a prose. Labour lost that. Left-leaning Labour supporters who ordinarily wouldn't have gone anywhere near Mr Corbyn wanted to put it back. They might well have accidentally filled that moral space with a new rage and hatred possessing a darkness all its own, but Mr Corbyn has all along been reaping the benefits of his Labour opponents' apparent loss of vision.

Polls are often wrong. Look at the polls. They are dire, so awful that in fact that they are grotesquely and in the modern era uniquely bad for Labour. Any other political leader would have been drummed out of office long ago - as, indeed, the vast majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party, including many of its most left-wing members, would dearly like. How do Corbynites parse this gap between their own enthusiasm and the wider public's apparent deep dislike of their man? Well, they point to the 2015 General Election and the 2016 EU membership referendum. Polls were wrong then, they say. Then they say: well, experts predicted that Labour would lose 150 councillors in the last local elections. They actually 'only' lost 18. The polls might be wrong, Mr Corbyn's defenders say. Why should we trust them? Look at Westminster by-elections. Look at Sadiq Khan's capture of City Hall in London. Now most of this is just plain wrong. General Election polls were a little off in a tight contest - enough to make a big difference. EU polls weren't that wrong: half the polls in the immediate run-in said Leave would win, and the final poll of polls put things pretty neck-and-neck. Westminster by-elections at the moment are returning a much, much lower swing to Labour than even Ed Miliband managed in 2011. The 2016 local elections saw the Labour vote share fall by six per cent on the last time those wards were fought - six years into a not-very-popular austerity government. And so on. But again there's enough of a germ of truth here for everyone to see what Corbynites are getting at. Polls can be wrong. There are quite possibly three and a half years to the next election. Polls are not everything: Labour definitely outperformed predictions at (say) the Oldham by-election last year. Pollsters might think such a defence misguided. It almost certainly is. But it can't just be dismissed. Polling has to prove itself again - as it began to, for instance, in Mr Khan's battle for the London Mayoralty.

There's no point talking to the established media. Any other political movement would be appalled at its press. There's no nice way to put this, but the current Labour leadership team aren't even a laughing stock among Westminster's closest observers - the press pack that follow all the ins and outs of formal political life. They're either pitied, or plain ignored, or actually resented quite a lot for just not doing the job that they are paid to do - oppose the Government. Even the Labour-supporting Daily Mirror has called for Mr Corbyn to go, with as much effect as almost everyone else in the party's power structures begging him to step down. Corbynites aren't interested in any of this. They're not worried, firstly because they think (with some justification) that they could never get a hearing for any of their views whatever they did among the 'capitalist media'. But they don't think this really matters for a second and even more powerful reason: the idea has gained currency that social media will do their job for them. Facebook and Twitter will stand in for newspapers and the television. It's hashtags, not headlines. Powerful stuff, in a world that is undoubtedly seeing many people empowered by the immediacy and new usefulness of interactive technology. And Facebook does have a big reach (Twitter really doesn't). There's always a 'but' though, isn't there? Here, it 's this: since it's pretty clear that Corbynites (rather like the UK's EU Leavers and Remainers) in the EU referendum are really talking to fellow-thinkers when they make their case in countless Twitterstorms, blogs and pictoral memes, this seems like another very worrying example of a belief structure that won't be borne out by reality. Still, they can have a go.

Build a social movement. The polls are against you. The media is against you. At times it seems as if everything is against you. What do you do? You fall back on each other. Yes, the road will be long and hard, as many Corbyn supporters accept (a recent poll showed only a bare majority of them thought that Labour's leader could win a general contest with the Conservatives). The next election is probably lost. Maybe the one after that, too. But look at Podemos in Spain. The Five Star Movement in Italy. Syriza in Greece. Perhaps you can build a bottom-up social movement out of a rainbow alliance of Left groups - the more left-wing unions, the popular campaigns that have sprung up against austerity, campaigns on social issues. Get petitions going. Hold meetings. Fire people up. Then, and only then - perhaps some years down the road - string the whole thing together. Maybe it won't work, the logic goes, but it's better than just accepting a set of vanilla soup compromises as your politics. In vain might you say that Podemos came third in the most recent Spanish elections. Without purchase would be your observation that this obviates, at least for now, the very point of having a 'Labour Party' at all - to win and use power in working people's interests. The idea of a pure or 'right' social movement, which would contain a perhaps much smaller Parliamentary Labour Party as only one element in a wider Popular Front, seems a beguiling one.

There you have it: six building blocks of a political phenomenon. The sociology of the support we can leave for another day, but perhaps older, less-metropolitan Labourites who feel that they want something a bit more 'authentic' and a little more 'real' might cover it for now, given what we know about the shape of the Labour selectorate's like (or dislike) of the man.

So we hope we've done justice to the whole phenomenon. If you elected a Labour government that disastrously tried to part-privatise (for instance) the Tube at the same time as progress on reducing inequality stalled, if you got angrier and angrier about the political classes' behaviour over Parliamentary expenses, if you listened to a slick ex-lawyer tell you that Iraq could deploy weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes and then you found out it couldn't, if you felt that compromising your values in 2015 didn't even get you very far, if you thought the polls were usually wrong, if you kept watching in despair as the Daily Mail and the Sun bent, distorted and downright broke the truth, if you'd looked on in dismay as 'politics' became professionalised and centralised, what would you do?

But, but, but. We mustn't make the mistake, as the great historian and controversialist A.J.P. Taylor put it, of equating massive events with huge or deep-rooted causes. Beyond talk of mentalities and belief-structures, next to our analysis of 'movements' large and small, and just as important as sociological interpretations that risk shading into free association, is the historian's sense that some events might involve only small pushes, inconsequential flashpoints, little drivers. For MPs' decision to nominate Mr Corbyn was caused by as much chance - by a sense that he would never get anywhere - as the situation demands, just as many of his supporters think that Labour can't possibly win in 2020 or 2025 so they may as well be represented by someone who speaks up for their truest instincts.

That's led to a situation that is not as close to the much-discussed Trumpification of Labour politics as its Seinfeld-ification: a ludicrous sitcom about almost nothing, in which a newly Labour Kramer now bursts into the room at regular intervals to shout 'you'll never guess what Diane Abbott's just said!' or 'you can't imagine who John McDonnell has just threatened!' If it was an emoji, it would that yellow head looking down to the right with a wavy mouth to make it look as if it's enduring something piquant-but-painful - a spectacle almost too embarrassing-but-funny to bear.

So yes, imagine ahead and sociologise away - but there's still a balance to be struck between structure and chance, causation and happenstance, analysis and, well.... stuff just happening, in this case launching a darkly absurd, tragi-comic, smash-into-all-the-walls skidfest of Clouseau-esque misadventures in which the same cast drives banana-skin-spewing Mario carts around the same poorly rendered blocks again and again and again.

History has causes. But choices - bad as well as good - also have consequences.

Friday, 12 August 2016

What I learned at my Labour nomination meeting


This blog is supposed to be on hiatus until September. However, on Wednesday night I attended the leadership nomination meeting of my own Constituency Labour Party. I thought I’d let you know what happened there, firstly as a bit of reportage (my journalism limbs having grown rusty for quite a while) and secondly as a bid to lay down a teeny, tiny historical document in its own right – one more bit of the national jigsaw reported by many others from their own nomination meetings.

I also thought that the detail should remain anonymous, to allow for a bit of frankness in the report, so let’s just say that this meeting took place in England outside London, in a seat with a Labour MP, and in an area fairly starkly divided between affluent areas to the north of the seat and some pockets of deep deprivation to the south of the constituency.

We met, nearly 200 strong, in the early evening of a fairly cool and cloudy weekday evening, in a stocky old 1930s barn of a redbrick community centre. There was a huge queue of slightly self-conscious looking Labour people snaking out of the door; inside, the layout was a load of round tables, like at a wedding or an open mic comedy night, at which some fairly good-natured chat was well underway when I arrived, about halfway through the attendees’ filing-in. First impression: this was a pretty huge turnout for a Wednesday night in the school holidays. Second impression: the room was overwhelmingly white, and quite old, with only a scattering of under-30s dotted about here and there. Third impression: there was quite a lot of energy in this room. Jittery doesn’t cover it.

The Chair first announced all the arcane rules that the Labour Party specializes in – that we had ten minutes to look over the statements of the two candidates, and then that although we were supposed to have three minutes each to get up to speak before moving to a vote, she felt that a minute and a half each would give more people time to speak. Each ‘side’ – Smithites and Corbynites, as it were – would then speak in turn, one from each camp. Having elicited at least a sense of assent in the room for that procedure, off we went.

My table had one of my friends at it, and some young-looking members who were keen to talk about the European referendum, Theresa May’s likely future problems, and the wider picture of Britain’s post-Brexit challenges. So far, so good – if you didn’t have the uneasy sense that everyone was trying not to look at anyone else in the eye about the leadership bust-up that we were there to actually address. Still, I thought, when did the British ever come at something unobliquely? Who wants to get in a shouting match with someone they’ve never met before?

So. Speeches started. First up was an Owen Smith supporter, articulate, sharp and clipped about what she saw as Mr Smith’s speech-making passion, socialism and commitment. There was a bit of a charged stillness at this point, as perhaps those supporting Jeremy Corbyn (above) wondered why a first mover advantage had been granted to the challenger, or were taken aback at the pointed nature of this first speech’s portrait of Owen Smith’s virtues – an intentional contrast, perhaps, with ‘their’ man. ‘Do we wish to remain a party of power?’ she asked, rather nailing one of the central questions before the meeting straight away.

Next was the first Corbyn advocate. This was a young, tall man who very quickly said that ‘first we were told that it was Jeremy’s policies that were unelectable, and now we are told that it’s his personality… it won’t wash with me, and it won’t wash with anyone else’. He seemed angry but hardly incandescent, perhaps ‘put out’ and nonplussed at most, but he wasn’t exactly what you’d call furious about it. There were a few scattered cheers at this point, but there was nothing like any overwhelming pro-Corbyn feeling washing around the meeting.

The rest of the speeches proceeded in a very similar pattern. The next speaker, a young woman near the front, said that ‘we need to achieve power to do good’. But there was a subtle change of mood going on, an emotional and biographical connection with Corbyn and his ideas that defied the dry and instrumental reasons so far mostly given for the Smith candidacy. The next person to speak, a middle age woman, countered with ‘I am a child of the Labour Party… this was where I feel I belonged’. The past tense was important here, for she was clear that the Blair and Brown years had lost her to Labour: ‘it’s going to be a long road and a hard road’, she said, ‘but we don’t need to sell out in order to gain our principles’.

Some pushback against this claim to unique moral (and Labour) virtue was inevitable, and it came fairly rapidly when an older woman argued back that she had been ‘inspired’ by listening to Owen Smith: ‘he is left wing, and you can see it shining through’. Having to claim that your candidate has the virtues often seen as uniquely or quintessentially attaching to his opponent, and having to plead ‘left wing-ness’, did however put Mr Smith’s supporters rather on the back foot.

The meeting gradually heated up, though it remained to be honest pretty tepid. It didn’t look and sound much like a set-piece ideological confrontation: it was more like a cut-up-rough staff meeting at a fading, failing conglomerate outmanouevred by nimbler new rivals. The next idea to be highlighted was one of the themes heard murmured through the hall: that Labour MPs had no right to overturn the members’ views. The next Corbyn supporter up spoke with some vigour to the effect that the Parliamentary Labour Party had tried ‘to deny us [our] democratic rights and deny us our leader’. They had ‘joined the Tories and the right-wing press in criticizing him’. The point about the media was another running theme: another pro-Corbyn speaker said in terms that since the media wouldn’t help Labour anyway, why should we co-operate them rather than building up our own media?

The meeting gradually built up towards a pro-Jeremy crescendo. I was at this point prompted to speak myself (something I hadn’t intended, since I have to do it all the time as a job anyway, and wanted to remain an observer). But the number of Smith supporters willing to speak seemed to dwindle pretty quickly, and I got poked in the ribs and given the microphone. I made two points: since the breach between the PLP and their leader seemed irreparable, and given the terrible things that had been said, how did anyone expect us to reunite if Jeremy was returned to the leader’s office? Further, if people wanted a say over the Brexit negotiations – and perhaps a second referendum on the terms of separation – they should vote for Mr Smith, not Mr Corbyn, who had ruled out any return to the polls on the issue. Anyway, a few points of process like that made not the slighted impression in the room, and perhaps they shouldn’t have anyway when the choices before members were on this scale.

Two further contributors stuck out for me. The first such speech, from a woman near the back of the room, said that she hadn’t felt able to be a Labour member because of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; that she’d moved instead into trade union social activism via Unite; and that she felt that something more truly Labour and representative was now in place under Mr Corbyn. Then a passionate, fired-up and emotional speech came right at the end, from a woman who said of Corbyn that ‘he’s just changed everything. I’ve got hope. I’ve got something for my sons. If we move away from Corbyn now, the kite that we’ve put up will just deflate, we’re going to lose this moment, and I don’t care how long it takes’. There was a real sense of fervour here, a visceral hunger for social change, a deep attachment to one man as a transformative figure who just might change British politics forever.

These deeply-felt and highly-charged feelings centred and carried the room easily, with an energy and vibrancy all of their own that pushed the anti-Corbyn voices to the margins of the acceptable. You could basically argue until you were blue in the face, but the tide was going in only one direction. So it proved in the final vote: Owen Smith gained only about a quarter of the votes. It was a pro-Corbyn landslide.

I was able to see, here at the grass-roots, exactly those themes that will almost certainly carry Mr Corbyn to victory nationally. In the background was anger at New Labour’s ‘betrayals’: ‘part-privatisation', PFI and a perceived widening of the gap between rich and poor, as well as fury about Iraq, that paradigmatic betrayal and summation of all that is seen as wrong with the New Labour years of media management, spin and sterility. At one point Mr Smith’s smooth delivery and ‘sharp’ suits (and his previous career at the pharmaceuticals giant Pfizer) were held against him: what people seemed to mean was that he seemed to herald a return to business as usual, and perhaps that he reminded them a little of Tony Blair.

There was enormous anger at the actions of Labour MPs, who were felt to have acted anti-democratically and in an underhand, hidden, dishonest manner. Clearly present also was a sense almost of desperation – that this was a last chance for a more honest, decent, true, moral and above all socialist politics that may not ever come back. There was a once-and-for-all millenarianism in the room, a sense of hope and expectation, a deeply-held faith that something many members thought would never return– ‘true Labourness’ – had suddenly, unexpectedly, by chance and even magically, been returned to them.

What there was not was any claim of electability. Almost all the pro-Corbyn speakers deployed forms of words that said that they knew that the next election was lost, and had accepted it perhaps long ago – leading, all the more inexorably, to the idea that you might as well say (with Jeremy) what you meant in the first place. All the urgency, the ‘truth’, the moral drive, was with that side of the argument, just as it still is with the SNP in Scotland.

There was, however, little outright confrontation. Many members seemed to make a point of applauding speeches from both ‘sides’: there was only a little bit of groaning or murmuring at some statements; there were no grotesque claims made or slurs cast (unlike in some other nomination meetings, if reports are to be believed). Younger pro-Smith members, who mainly spoke with feeling about how betrayed they felt at the Labour leader’s half-hearted commitment to the European cause during the referendum, were particularly well-received even though the general feeling of the room was against them.

One supplementary: as I filed out of the hall, one of the pro-Corbyn speakers came up to me, praised what I had said, said he’d think over the point I’d made about a second European referendum. We shook hands. I said that the challenge, Jeremy or no Jeremy, was to harness all the thirst for change we’d seen in the room – and that the party’s new leftwards lean had encouraged. We parted on good terms.

Overall, there was still some comradeship on display here. Labour was still just about glued together. But there was also an undertow of anger, even fury, that the Corbyn experiment – defined as ‘natural’, ‘real’, ‘old’ and ‘true’ Labour – wasn’t being allowed to take root or even being given a chance. That feeling will only grow as the Corbyn leadership struggles unhappily on over the next few months. It may explode if MPs do stage an even more audacious revolt (such as seizing control of the party in Parliament), or if Labour is routed in an early General Election, an event which will cause many members to blame the MPs. Labour definitely isn’t disintegrating, if we go just by this one meeting: but it is probably heading at full tilt towards a very, very dark and bitter place indeed. 

Sunday, 3 July 2016

The end... for now


So it's been an enormously dispiriting and exhausting year, in which the idea that you should conduct public policy calmly, wisely and with some evidence has taken blow after blow after blow. It's been a year, indeed, in which rationality itself has often seemed to retreat headlong in the face of the angriest, shoutiest, most over-committed people in every room - a long retreat of reason that, yes, has to be fought every day, but which for now is still well in progress. From the Labour Party's seemingly-inexplicable detachment from reality to its more recent attempts to blow itself up, through Boris Johnson's disgraceful and ultimately failed attempts to sell his principles in return for some power, to the rise of Donald Trump in the USA and the UK's self-harming and quixotic vote to leave the European Union, it's not been a great time to advocate good governance. Sometimes - let's be honest - it's been a trial to continue.

But we'll have a go. We'll be back to monitor the UK's post-Brexit fallout, and a US Presidential election, in the autumn. Look for us to return with a new sequence of blogs on Tuesday 6 September. Until then, have a holiday. Take a break. You deserve it. Let's reconvene when we've all had time to get our breath. So: have a lovely summer. Let's hope that the next academic year is better for public policy than this one. It can hardly be worse, now can it?

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

How did Leave win?


Leave shouldn’t have won the UK’s referendum on the European Union. They were a very uneasy coalition. There were huge ructions at the top of their campaign. With just weeks to go before the vote, their whole effort basically amounted to Boris Johnson bussing around the country shouting about bananas. Almost every single expert in the world thought that their claims were nonsense. The official UK Statistics Authority trashed their main slogan and pledge – to spend more of ‘Britain’s money’ on the NHS. Solid, trusted, dignified figures such as the Governor of the Bank of England himself came out to say that they were charlatans. And yet – here we are. They won. If you’ll forgive us a detour into geekery, a load of Ewoks with sticks just derailed the Galactic Empire. Their tactics shouldn’t have even functioned, let alone delivered victory. Um. They have just unseated a Prime Minister, unscrambled an admittedly-fragile Labour Party, thrown the European Union’s institutions into chaos, and reshaped British politics for decades to come. How did they do it? Here’s five quick answers.

Immigration. There’s no other issue on many doorsteps. Everyone knows it. Everyone’s heard it. If you asked us three main issues that face us now, they would be immigration, immigration and immigration. It tops polling lists of voters’ concerns. It comes up everywhere. It’s poisoning the well of British politics, leading to a rise in hate crime, turning up the dials on the pressure cooker of some Britons’ sense of who they are, and what their country should be like. It’s an easy peg to hang tough times and tough lives on. It’s a good shorthand for globalisation’s damage and discontents in many of our most deprived communities. And it stands in for older Britons’ worries about a rapidly-changing, multi-layered and almost inexplicable world that they often don’t recognise and don’t like. But let’s be frank about it: immigration is high. It can lead to difficult hotspots of demand for housing and school places, brilliantly (if darkly) played upon by the Leave campaign. There’s bound to be tension. Overt racism is relatively rare in British life these days, though it’s there, it’s nasty, and it’s growing. So an influx of newcomers became both a lightning rod for other worries, about our rapidly accelerating sense of vertiginous economic insecurity, and a really viscerally-felt set of concerns about economic pressures that can be seen and easily conceptualised. No-one urging a Remain vote could say, in truth, that much could be done about the level of European migration if we stayed in the EU (though that's less than half the total). So we left.

Latent Euroscepticism – or the lack of it. It’d be easy to say that the British hate Europe. You could replay some footage of football fans chanting that they wanted Out; or put up some tabloid front pages about immigration and ‘Europe’. But actually, it isn’t quite like that. Most British people are quite open to, and admire, 'Europe' (opens as PDF). They like the food. The wine. They like free movement. They like the ability to live in Spain. They quite like our neighbours. They’d rather prefer to be part of the Single Market. It’s not anti-European feeling that’s important here. It’s the utter, utter lack of knowledge about the European Union and its institutions. Few Britons know anything about the Commission, the Council and the Parliament – and now it’s all too late. Apart from a few rather pathetic feints at instilling ‘Europeanism’ among the British at the start of our membership, successive governments have preferred to ignore or to fight about European governance. That’s left a complete blank space where knowledge of the EU might and should have been. That was easily filled by a load of Boris' stories about straight bananas and tabloid scare stories about toasters and kettles. None of it was true. But the lack of attachment to ‘Europe’ – something that’s perhaps rather more central to other Europeans’ identity – allowed a load of nonsense to flood in where true engagement and real debate might have been. By the time our now soon-to-be ex-Prime Minister David Cameron launched his bid to keep us in, it was all far too late to rectify any of this.

Anti-intellectualism. This was a Leave vote from those who enjoyed fewer years of education than the Remainers. The moment that leading Brexiteer Michael Gove said that ‘people have had enough of experts’, you knew he was on to something. Not just because this tapped effectively into long traditions of anti-scholarly and anti-intellectual British thought – that’s evident across the developed world, and perhaps a bit less in Britain than elsewhere – but because it took advantage of a whole slew of resentments. Yes, those experts who didn’t see the banking crisis coming? Those elitists who think they know what’s best for you? Those technocrats who pull the levers of the arrogant, distant, demanding state? What do they know? Well, they are pretty clear that growth will be slower, and that we will all be poorer, now that we’ve voted for Brexit – but why should you listen to them? They’re just as arrogant as those scientists who think that Genetically Modified foods might feed the world, with their unpopular Frankenstein technologies; and as high-falutin’ as all those politicians who think that everyone should accept gay marriage and multiculturalism. Or so the hemmed-in, angry and unhappy drumbeat of Leave resentments would have it – to great effect among the general public.

A sharper campaign. On one level, it’s all so simple. As soon as Leave pivoted towards talking about immigration, they sliced through every conversation and argument. They won. But there’s much more to this. Dominic Cummings and Matthew Elliott, veterans of the ‘No to AV’ campaign in Britain’s last referendum campaign, grabbed two or three issues like a rag doll and shook them until they broke. Don’t keep sending our money out in EU membership fees, they said: spend it on the National Health Service instead. That was a clever way of appealing to older working-class voters who need the NHS, and worry about immigration’s impact on the Service. Don’t let Turkey into ‘Europe’, they said – cynically and opportunistically playing on voters’ fears of Muslim immigration given that Turks would be free to come to the UK if they did join the EU. And control our laws, they shouted – even though the UK might well end up with less control over the legislation that affects all our lives if we want to stay in the Single Market, perhaps via membership of the European Economic Area. Firing back, Remain could only make very complicated points, about the UK’s votes in the European Council and Parliament, about nebulous and hard-to-account-for gains to the macroeconomy overall that many voters thought would only go to ‘big business’ and the like. ‘Look after ourselves’: ‘pull up the drawbridge’. Powerful, simple words – from the better campaign, well backed-up and targeted on social media. It worked. The lesson? Bold, technicolour, almost outrageous claims – they’re great if you want to win.

Lying big. Leave didn’t play fair. There’s no reason why they should, of course, but they smashed the ball out of the park with their blatant untruths. Turkey is about to join the EU, they said. No, not true. We can take back £350m a week and spend it on the NHS, they said. No, that wasn’t true either. If we had stayed, they threatened that we might have to join an EU army. That was nonsense as well. But they said it so loudly, so confidently, and with such conviction, that it just seemed so straightforward and believable. And if you challenged these falsehoods, you just publicised the Leave camp’s many misrepresentations rather than calling them out. It was a lose-lose situation for Remain. Stay silent, and the lies shot by them, slipping straight into voters’ minds all the while Remain said nothing; or fight back, and risk voters just saying ‘well, if it’s not £350m, it still seems quite a lot’. If you keep a straight face, and you can make it to the short campaign governed by statute, you can take advantage of broadcasting rules that force producers to give you equal time with the reality-based community: the BBC, bending over backwards in the service of supposed ‘balance’, was particularly easily manipulated in this respect. Basically, Leave had clearer attack lines. They had to bodge them up from less than nothing – to fabricate them from totally untrue factual remainders and nonsense scraps – but whoever said life was fair? Not us.

So there you have it – a good guide of how to win power and influence people in the late modern, and semi-decadent, West. Frighten people about foreigners. Take advantage of gaps in people’s knowledge. Lay into experts. Rage at people like a latter-day Foghorn Leghorn on a particularly ultra-patriotic acid trip. Trample all over people who know what they are actually talking about. Rely on television journalists’ impartiality to spray lies all over the place. Then, dear reader, you can take Britain towards danger and away from safety – if you want. It is a doleful prospect. But then again, as Britain’s political ice age has tightened, what aspect of its collective life does not present such an unappealing face to the world?