Give the voters credit

Don’t disdain the voters if they focus on character and credibility more than any single policy. They’ve got a point

They say the first step to recovery is recognising you have a problem. Perhaps it’s unsurprising, just before Christmas, that much of Labour hasn’t got there yet. More strikingly, much of Labour has decided that it’s other people who have a problem instead. For some it’s the media; for others it’s Brexit; for still others, increasingly, it’s the voters themselves.

But actually, even if we ignore the truism that the voters are never wrong, they deserve more credit than many are willing to give them. And looking at the early indicators of why they demurred, the reasons seem thoroughly fair. Labour would do well to start by recognising as much.

Fitness to govern

Challenged on Corbyn’s political record, many Labour supporters asked: ‘which Labour policies do you disagree with?’ That’s reasonable as far as it goes. The left places a great deal of weight on what manifestos say. It often dismisses those who focus on the character of those who seek to govern. They can sometimes ignore their own hero-worship in the process (this includes moderates, by the way). But more importantly, they miss the point of elections if they treat leaders as mere channels for manifesto delivery.

In every term, governments have to make decisions they never even considered before the election. They wield a great deal of power independently of Parliament. They usually set the agenda to steer through Parliament. And Prime Ministers have to take ultimate responsibility for all of that — and personal responsibility for decisions in a supreme national crisis. That makes a Prime Minister’s character, background and personal beliefs supremely relevant.

So it was entirely reasonable for voters to ask whether Corbyn was more or less fit to govern than Johnson. It is widely agreed that Corbyn’s personal stock was badly hit by the Skripal affair before the election, and that’s completely fair enough. People were murdered on British soil. Voters had good reason to question whether a man who suggested getting Russia to verify the Novichok it deployed could be trusted on national security.

Credibility

Many Labour people say their manifesto policies were popular. Ultimately, well-received Labour manifestos don’t end up producing large Tory majorities. But it’s true to say voters seemed to like a lot of Labour’s policies, in isolation and in theory. In combination and in practice, it’s a different story. And again, whether you agree with their judgment or not, the voters’ point is a fair one.

Basic common sense — or experience of trying to run any project — will tell you people have limited capacity. The same applies to a state — especially given that the British state’s capabilities have declined a great deal since 2010. So it’s not just understandable if lots of voters say they support a raft of Labour policies and then worry about their ability to deliver. It made good sense for voters to worry.

Similarly, whatever you think about the costings of Labour’s manifesto — regarded pretty dubiously by many — the way it behaved in the campaign made voter doubts very reasonable. Labour threw a £58 billion pledge (for the WASPI women) into the middle of an election campaign after its manifesto was launched. There seemed to be (because there was) no sense of prioritisation from Labour. According to YouGov, voters tended to say Labour had a lot of policies which didn’t seem to be thought through. And voters had good reason to be sceptical.

Leadership

I would have preferred a Brexit compromise to the fight to the finish we ended up with. I found Johnson’s ultra-hard Brexit too much to live with and disliked the Liberal Democrats’ pledge to simply revoke Article 50 (even if I knew it was just a symbol). So in 2019, while I doubted what kind of Brexit they proposed and the timescales in which they proposed to work, Labour’s policy was my least-worst option.

Except for the part where Corbyn refused to say which side he was on. I found it irritating, but it looks like the voters cared about Corbyn’s unwillingness to pick a side more than I did. It looks like it reinforced their pre-existing view of his inadequacy as a leader — more than taking either side would have done. And again, voters were right about the choice facing them. Labour didn’t want to take a clear Remain- or Leave-aligned position. Its leader didn’t want to tell them what he thought. That reluctance was where its policy position ultimately came from.

Leave voters were right to think that if they wanted to ensure Brexit happened, then the Tories were the party to do that. Remain voters were right to think the Labour leadership’s heart wasn’t in its Remainier pledges — but that probably mattered less in practice. Not unreasonably, Labour Remainers were much more likely to stay loyal than Labour Leavers.

Ethics

Antisemitism’s impact on Labour’s fortunes seems harder to pin down than broader fitness to govern, lack of credibility and obfuscation on Brexit. But anecdotally, more than one Labour candidate reported that it did real damage. Anna Turley reported: ‘what they said was, “My parents or my grandparents — they fought the war over this.”’

This was reasonable and right. Under Corbyn, two female Jewish MPs were driven out of Labour, antisemitic incidents soared and Labour found itself investigated by the EHRC for institutional racism. Corbyn himself was (rightly) challenged for antisemitic tropes he’d used in the past. Corbyn’s antisemitism became a point of near-consensus in the Jewish community.

Did the voters as a whole go so far? Possibly not. But doorstep unease suggests a lot of ‘less-informed’ voters deserve a lot more credit than some very well-informed people who found excuse after excuse to avoid the obvious. Frankly, the latter could do with learning from the former. Voters who recoiled at the Corbynite record on antisemitism were absolutely right.

The voters had a point

Blaming the voters, who cannot after all be deselected, never gets you far in a democracy. But even leaving that pragmatic reality aside, Labour will do itself no favours by ignoring their overall message. You might be appalled by the alternative (and I’d agree with you), but Labour’s thumping was richly deserved, and the voters’ main apparent objections to their offering were right.

The voters neither trust nor much like Boris Johnson. Labour shouldn’t rail against them for looking at their man and deciding he was even worse. It should, instead, take a long, hard look at how they came to put the public in a position where they came to that conclusion.

This post was originally published on Medium.com on 24 December 2019.

Decency

London’s my home. Our ‘leaders’ making capital out of an attack on it, whether to play tough cop or to berate the West, repels me

London Bridge happens to be my hub station. A good friend of mine lives walking distance away. I’ve got a favourite pub there (Mc & Son’s — it’s a properly good Irish pub, it plays good live Irish music, the Thai food’s not bad). There’s a great Indian nearby (the Mango Indian — not cheap, but good). It’s very much on my day-to-day map.

Most of us tend to get a bit more of a shiver running down our spine when something terrible happens near us. But my reaction wasn’t quite the same on Friday as in 2017, when London Bridge was also attacked. Two years ago, I was shocked as well as saddened: I still had it in me to be shocked. This time, I still felt despairing, but deadened — no longer shocked, because now I’ve come to expect such horrors from time to time. I profoundly wish I hadn’t.

That both the two victims were former students at an event marking a programme which gave students and prisoners a chance to study together to help reduce reoffending — and that while one prisoner was the attacker, another tried to stop the attack — feels particularly heartrending. The decency and principles of both Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones come through. And Mr Merritt’s response shows the kind of principle most of us wonder if we could ever manage to display, were that sort of tragedy ever to crash into our lives.

So there’s something particularly repellent in the sight of Boris Johnson, less than 48 hours after the crime, making hay out of the horror for partisan gain. Politicians have no duty to agree with the policy prescriptions of victims, of course. But sometimes the Prime Minister should act as Prime Minister, not just a party leader. The BBC gave way to Johnson’s demand to be interviewed by Andrew Marr this morning without agreeing to be interviewed by Andrew Neil for that very reason. They deemed it, in a quixotic triumph of hope over expectation, ‘in the public interest’. For all her faults, in Theresa May’s case that might have been true. Her successor makes for a sad contrast.

Johnson took a traditional ‘lock ’em up and hang ’em high’ approach. Would a different sentencing framework have produced a different outcome? Would the attacker have persuaded the Parole Board had that been required? What were the merits of the Court of Appeal’s decision to replace a sentence of detention for public protection with an extended sentence? Does the current sentencing framework (under which the attacker was not sentenced) need reform? My instincts are liberal, but I won’t try to answer here: others will do so and it’s not my point. The point is that the Prime Minister has chosen to inflame and divide, to use a national tragedy and families’ heartbreak for partisan advantage. It insults families, disgraces his office and demeans us all.

The Leader of the Opposition’s speech today was somewhat less blatant. For the avoidance of doubt, I don’t presume to know the foreign policy views of those affected on Friday. Nor do I dispute that foreign policy is a legitimate matter for national argument. But terrorist attacks aren’t an excuse to make that argument. Jeremy Corbyn did, in fairness, say ‘The blame lies with the terrorists, their funders and recruiters.’ But his next sentence was ‘But if we are to protect people we must be honest about what threatens our security.’ And as is so often the case, this was a classic example of being able to discard everything before the ‘but’, implying that in some sense the West brings this on itself.

Corbyn made a longstanding argument against Western foreign policy and intervention in almost any circumstances. Is there some causal connection between Western foreign policy and attacks in the UK, or at least a probabilistic connection? Would an already-existing fundamentalist ideology have kept away from our shores, unlike other countries which didn’t take part in most interventions, had we and the US taken a different foreign policy stance? Where does an ideologically anti-interventionist policy leave the people of Syria, Kosovo or Sierra Leone? My instincts are qualifiedly interventionist, but again, that’s not my point. The point is that the Leader of the Opposition used the immediate aftermath of Friday’s horror as a chance to push anti-Western foreign policy.

There was a time when we could have expected the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition to put partisan politics aside for at least a few days when it came to national tragedies. It wasn’t all that long ago. As I’ve said, Johnson is not May. And while Corbyn has form from 2017, Ed Miliband would have known better. This is a recent debasement.

I expect it will continue. But families have lost loved ones and the city I call home and the country I love have suffered a further attack. I don’t expect any better from either ‘leader’, but I should be able to. Mr Johnson, Mr Corbyn: shame on you both. A plague on both your houses.

This post was originally published on Medium.com on 1 December 2019.