Dissecting the General Election – the difference between narrative and reality

So I’m going to just come out and say it – I called it. In my last blog post I wrote that there was a realistic chance of hung parliament and Tories being the largest party. Realistic, but slight, compared to the wider polling predicting a Tory landslide, but still, I thought quite plausible. I gave it a 1 in 4 chance.

Now, consider, is that a convenient narrative on my blog post, or is the reality that I gave more chance to an outright Tory victory and I was just covering lots of bases? I’ll let you decide.

The point I’m making is about the difference between narrative and reality, and why both are important in politics.

First up, let’s consider what happened. Theresa May gambled and she lost, big time. Considering from where she started at the beginning of the campaign, her defeat is even more stark. Catastrophic for her and the Tories. For the 5th time in twenty years they’ve failed to get a majority in Parliament. It’s questionable as to whether she’ll be able to stick it out or not. The DUP might give her the votes she needs, but I know little about them, outside of their general conservatism. Who knows what kind of bedfellows they will make. 

Whichever way, it’s a big defeat for May and her reputation lies in pieces.

What else occurred? Well, I’ll get to Labour in a moment. How did everyone else fare? The SNP had a disastrous night, and I can’t see how independence is on the table now. What’s worse is that they lost seats to the Tories, undermining their own reputation as progressive alternative to Labour in Scotland. It’ll be a sore pill to swallow for them.

The Lib Dems surprised no one by doing poorly, although perhaps by low standards they did very well, finally returning to double figures once again.

The Greens lost votes to Labour, but kept their one seat. 

UKIP…well, they just died on the night. No doubt though such electoral disaster will go unremarked on news broadcasts and programs like Question Time, which they frequently dominate. 

So Labour. The big winners? Yes, in many respects, that is the narrative. They’re even talking about forming the next government such is their confidence after the election (Labour that is, not the abstract ‘they’). Of course, it’s not the reality. The truth is, Labour lost, with as few seats, give or take, as Gordon Brown in 2010. 

Most pundits and commentators, and of course Theresa May, were expecting a Tory landslide (or solid victory) and the pummelling of Labour. In that regard Labour won, so the loss is technical. To put it another way, it’s a bit like a non-league side getting to the FA Cup final but losing to a Premier League side. Technically they lost, but who do you think would be hailed as heroes and the ‘real winners’?

It says a lot about Labour’s situation that they could be painted in such terms – non-league. After terrible local election results just a few weeks ago, it looked likely everything was only going one way. Thanks to the social care debacle, as well as Theresa May’s quite frankly bizarre refusal to engage with voters, and lots and lots of young voters, Labour surprised everyone, even themselves. 

They set themselves a low bar – stop the Tories having an overwhelming majority – so to end up the way they did helps build the narrative.

So which matters more? Reality is important, because, well, it’s reality. You can’t force legislation if you don’t have the seats to do it. You can’t direct policy even you’re not in government. On the other hand, if you have the strength of narrative behind you, you can make it seem like you are stronger than you are really. It can force even confident governments to make concessions when now were required. Positive narrative helps motivate, and propel action. If you don’t get carried away and believe the hype, it can be a potent force.

So what should Labour do now? 

Firstly, I think they need to consider the future. It’s possible there might be another election in a few weeks, if all the coalition/agreements break down, or there might be one in Autumn. At the latest, there will be one in five years time. I look at the electoral map, and while Labour held up handsomely in the north, midlands and London, there was a notable gap in the south. Sure they picked up some great seats like Brighton Kemptown and in Portsmouth, but these are islands of red surrounded by Tory blue. Labour needs a southern strategy, because without more seats in the south it cannot hope to get a majority. That doesn’t mean sacrificing principles or watering down its message, it’s more about how to tailor that message to the right people, but it has to be done to achieve victory.

Is Corbyn secure in his position? Almost certainly. Many of his critics were quick to lavish praise after the election, and at this point his position seems untouchable. Perhaps he’ll grow into the role more. The narrative is about his leadership, turning about a result that once destined to go awry. The reality is that his opponent slipped up more than once. However, I always think you make your own luck, and we saw a different Corbyn in the election campaign. Being behind in seats is maybe a boon, because it will make him continue to campaign, keep up the momentum. That doesn’t correct all his deficiencies. I don’t buy this zen leadership thing; I genuinely think he struggles to make a decision and still doesn’t convince. He needs time to grow into the role perhaps.

It’s a precarious position Labour are in, how to play the minority game. They could do with a determined message of intent. Stating a desire to form government is good enough I suppose, and the narrative supports it today. Tomorrow though, I think reality sinks in  and most realise it won’t happen. So what then beyond that? Labour still needs clarity over Brexit – lacking in the campaign I have to say – and needs to think about what kind of economy they will have in 2-5 years. 

Right now the narrative favours Corbyn, but as May returns from Buckingham Palace, the reality is she’ll still be at the top. Being Prime Minister is still being Prime Minister. Even if Theresa May’s forced to go, her successor will occupy the same spot, and maybe bring their own narrative – a breath of fresh air perhaps? Corbyn, and Labour, need to find a way to give people a viable, realistic alternative for the UK, otherwise the reality is that people will keep with the Tories, however unpalatable it may seem. Labour can be happy today, but without setting a determined course they risk falling into the trap of fighting old battles not new ones. That’s the difference between realities and narratives; the latter is the same over and over and becomes staid. The former helps bring clarity for the future; it hurts, but it’s the truth.

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The Cult of Corbyn

I do wonder if Corbyn realises what’s happening in Labour right now. Sometimes his manner of affable socialist can be quite disarming, other times I think it is a ruse.

It’s a precarious position Corbyn finds himself in. A lot of the membership have put a lot of faith in him. If it turns out he’s not the Messiah, it may turn out badly for him. 
It’s a divisive time for Labour. Members with common cause across a broad spectrum of left wing thinking, but wracked with disharmony, discord and outright vilification.

I remember when I was a member in the party. My tendencies in principle were left wing, but I was startled at how mundane the policy thinking of many on the ‘hard left’ of the party was. They often had sound principles, and some good policies, but they struggled with the concept that they would have to ‘sell’ the idea to the public. In particular, they really struggled with the idea of simplifying the message for public consumption. They seemed to live in a world where everyone was as passionate about politics as they were, and so would take the time to read long tracts of literature put through their door. 

Worse still any opposition to their ideas (sometimes they had naff policies too) was met with instant labelling of ‘Blairite’ or ‘you’re just New Labour’. I also detested that claim, not least because it was untrue,  but also the hypocrisy that many of the ‘old Labour’ brigade were happy to accept the benefits of New Labour when it brought success. The broad church of the Labour Party was only broad if it accommodated the hard left and nothing else.

Still, for the most part they were good people, hard working in terms of campaigning and dedicated to tackling social injustice. Despite my many disagreements, I would never withhold support for them, I accepted the whip, and I’d actively campaign for them. I knew that whatever disagreements we had behind closed doors ended when we opened them – we all walked out Labour.

So to see some of the madness that has overtaken the party is both saddening and sickening. Yesterday, while on the Andrew Marr show, John McDonnell took a moment to look straight into the camera and appeal for unity. It was appalling, not least because he dismissed opponents Corbyn and (tellingly) himself as wanting to ‘destroy’ the party.

So it comes to this – dissent against the left and you are no longer just on the right, no longer just a Blairite or New Labour, you want to destroy the party. Yesterday McDonnell exposed the authoritarian nature of the leadership and Corbyn’s, shall we say, gentler politics.

This extremism is disturbing. It reminds me of the US Republican Party in it’s modern day zeal, denouncing Democrats and liberals as enemies of the US. There’s no middle ground, no acceptance unless there is conformity. McDonnell’s plea was no different, and he attempted to  delegitimise dissent in the party.

I’d also note the talk into the camera moment came at the same time he was being pressurised about an alleged break in to an MP’s office in Parliament. It seemed convenient misdirection, and suggests to me it was pre-planned.

It’s a disturbing turn of phrase that denotes the true intentions of this new leadership. It is why I wonder where Corbyn is in the scheme of things. How much control does he have? Is he genuinely ignorant of the very great difference between mindless opposition and critical feedback? I don’t know enough to about the man on a personal level to have insight like that. I can only judge what he’s done. 

He’s sowed the seeds of discord, and Cold War paranoia. Labour has gone from divisive to ugly. It may be that this ‘momentum ‘ needs to burn itself out. Perhaps only a general election defeat will deliver the realisation for the party.

The problem is that there is considerable irresponsibility with his supporters. Everything is someone else fault. Poor election results? Blame the media. Poor polling? Blame the rebels. Poor PMQ’s, blame the MP’s. Under Corbyn, failure is everyone else’s fault. He is crucified because of everyone else’s sins.

I see some talk of the Overton Window. I see some suggestion of a wider scale of change. Perhaps it is the case that we are in the midst of a major reset, and that the left is reorientating itself. It is possible, but I don’t see any political nounce in the likes of Corbyn, McDonnell or McCluskey. They close off the realities of the world because it’s too inconvenient to try and deal with them. I genuinely think, that despite 30 years of being an MP, Corbyn is no closer to understanding the nature of leadership and substantive policy than he was when he started.

It’s a scary thought. A group of narrow minded, unimaginative bullies trying to form government. How would they function in government? They look terrified, because the halo might slip and they’ll be seen for the frauds they are.

Politics is about the exercise and use of power. In the wrong hands it can be disastrous; in the right hands it can deliver deep and meaningful change for generations. For hundreds of thousands of party members, I fear they are about to learn the hard way that the exercise of power under Corbyn will be akin to using a rubber mallet to open a steel door.

It’s a pity, because with this desire for social change this mass movement could mean something, but under Corbyn, and his inner circle of extremists, I fear it so no more than the surging charge of lemmings. The great mass movement towards annihilation.

What Corbyn needs to do to be an effective leader

Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign kicked off yesterday, and in some ways it came off more positive than I expected. In other ways though he failed to articulate successfully why he can lead effectively. In some parts he looked almost bilgerent and authoritarian.

There’s already been some interesting analysis of Corbyn’s chances of leading Labour to victory. For the record, it doesn’t look good

So what does he need to do to be an effective leader?

Firstly, he has to be able to build a effective team and manage resources he has. Like most leaders, Corbyn has limited choice over the team he puts together. He can establish a shadow cabinet, and his advisors, but he has no control over who are the MP’s and employees of the Party. 

For this reason he has to be able to show flexibility to engage with the strengths of those around him. Since all team dynamics involve political dimensions, he needs to be sensitive to differing perspectives and opinions. Of course, he’s got to a point where MP’s are no longer disgruntled but are out rightly in opposition to him. This didn’t happen in isolation – Corbyn has been leader for 9 months. If his MP’s are in open revolt he needs to take responsibility and resolve this.

Simply saying ‘I am the leader’ is not enough. There has to be negotiation. Luckily for Corbyn he has some advantage here. Labour is a broad church of left wing, centre and occasionally soft right opinion, but married by common principle. On a lot of issues he needs to negotiate common cause, work out what everyone can agree on and then negotiate on the rest. He needs to apply sensible application of leadership in cases where opinion is intractable (like Trident), or sometimes just make the hard call and say ‘this is what we’re doing’. Note that he can only do this if he has demonstrated a genuine attempt to listen to all sides.

He needs to be responsive. This means being able to make decisions in timely manner. A LOT of MP’s have complained about his inability to do this, with a running theme of non-communicative. I suspect this may be the biggest underlying problem. Ed Milliband had marginally  better but still poor electoral results. A big difference was his engagement with the PLP.

In some regards he has shown adaptability, but in others he seemed woefully dense. It was not sensible to mention selection issues and boundary changes. There was no other way for his critics to see that as anything other than an outright threat.

Another aspect of responsiveness is understanding cause and effect, and a little bit of systems theory. That is, the wider implications of a decision, and knock on effects. It’s important in politics because it’s the difference between a slogan and a policy.

A good example of what not to do lies in Corbyn’s comments about pharmaceuticals. While he was undoubtedly aiming for the leadership race his comments have wider implications. He’s raised the question of whether he wants to nationalise pharmaceuticals in the UK. Maybe he does, but he needs a policy ready to do this effectively – I suspect he hasn’t got one. Also, a large number of employees are union members – the same ones he is relying on for support. I’m not sure he considered all the ins and outs of his comment – it was a cheap hit against his opponent, but in the longer term might have greater drawbacks.

He needs greater innovation. Some ideas, like questions from actual people for PMQ’s, were genuinely intriging. Unfortunately they have limited benefit if applied in a scattergun approach (Corbyn rarely sticks to one or two subjects in PMQ’s so his impact is lost).

He also lacks nuance. When asked about deterrence, Corbyn said he wouldn’t use it. What he could have said is ‘hopefully we’ll never have to find out’. That way he leaves enough doubt about which way he would go, without compromising in his beliefs. Being honest doesn’t mean you have to be openly honest all the time.

This is also an electoral issue. Labour has lost a huge number of voters to UKIP and the Tories. The former probably on immigration, the latter on the economy. It’s not likely that Corbyn is going to sacrifice his principles to appease these voters. Tony Blair would probably have sought some policies to appease theses voters (contributing both to his success and also source of criticism from the left).

So, if Corbyn won’t sacrifice his principles on these issues, he needs to find clever ways to engage on those subjects. He can’t simply ignore the problem (because it won’t go away AND people will think he’s out of touch), and he can’t simply reject the assertion outright (because people generally don’t respond well to being told they are wrong). Unfortunately, this is an area he has struggled with. Without finding a way to deliver effective policy and messaging, he and Labour will go no where.

Corbyn needs to have perseverance on issues. In some respects he’s demonstrated this already – he certainly hasn’t backed out of a bruising fight with his MP’s. In other regards though, he still struggles. For example, he is attempting to bring a different style to the House of Commons arena. That’s fine, but he seems to have gone no where once it became apparent that the Tories weren’t going to go along with this. Now his approach seems weak and ineffectual. He needs to find other ways to put pressure on the Tories about this matter if he wants to make change.

For Corbyn to establish himself as a leader he needs to display qualities well beyond those he has demonstrated. He might have integrity in some regards, but while good leaders need integrity, not everyone with integrity will make a good leader.

I honestly think Corbyn’s biggest problem is his inability to compromise and negotiate with his PLP. Ultimately, party membership doesn’t win elections – only seats in the Commons do. It is the natural focal point of public opinion on political effectiveness, not flash mob rallies of Socialist Worker Party supporters.

He and other MP’s would see eye to eye on many, if not most, issues. The difference is that his approach is leaving something to be desired, and he seems thus far unable to bring the two sides together. Threatening them is not going to resolve his problem – if they think they will be deselected automatically they may take a collective plunge and resign on mass. Extreme behaviour pushes people to extremes. 

Corbyn doesn’t need to compromise on every principle – indeed, if he’s sensible he doesn’t need to compromise on any principle. But he does need to show that he can listen, take on board opinion and respond effectively. Thus far he has failed to do, and his leadership credentials lie in tatters.

Only by making a massive fundamental change to his approach – some kind of epiphany – can he begin to rebuild his party image and establish himself as a genuine alternative to Teresa May, and credible option as PM.

I look across at the UK political landscape. New Prime Minister, Brexit has happened but isn’t going to happen this year, Boris Johnson is the UK Foreign Secretary. That really is a ‘fuck you’ to the rest of the world. 

Of course, these things might pass me by. I feel indifference to the new PM (a Tory is a Tory is a Tory), only distant frustration at Brexit, and general amusement at Boris Johnson (I mean, fucking hell, did anyone think about that decision properly?).

My main source of woe is Labour, and what a topsy-turvey party it has become. It makes me feel sad, to see friends so torn and angry, and unfocused. Really unfocused.

The problem, of course, is the chasm of belief between MP’s and Jeremy Corbyn. There seems to be a genuine schism between the need for integrity (which Corbyn is perceived to have), and leadership (for which he is less so renowned).

I have all kinds of problems with this scenario. A good leader must have integrity, but not everyone with integrity is a leader. 

Corbyn, for me, is not a leader. He lacks conviction, and his approach to the stories is remarkably passive. When the Tories were last in opposition they turned the narrative into ‘if we were in power we would do A,B and C’. This meant questions to the Labour government were put in the context of Tory policy, not government. That wasn’t the only problem Labour had back then, but it was a central one.

Labour under Corbyn though, is generally of perspective of ‘what are you going to do about these problems?’ It allows the Tories to give any answer they want, and the narrative is still about Tory policy.

Ed Miliband’s biggest problem was that despite some excellent, sensible and popular policies, he failed to provide a narrative for his leadership. Like Corbyn, he became leader thanks to the trade union block of voters, and a sizeable chunk of regular members. Corbyn’s victory was more emphatic of course, but both sourced from the same place.

Despite this popular support from members, Corbyn has failed to materialise with a narrative. In fact, far worse, he has failed to materialise. He has made no headway in Scotland. His canpaigning on Brexit was woeful, and the victories trumpeted in his name are minor in electoral terms (London mayor, for which he had little to do with, and Bristol mayor, which should have been won anyway). 

I find disturbing the lack of critical perspective from his supporters. There is a willingness to back despite acceptance that he will probably lose a general election anyway.

It’s even more alarming that there is no real alternative. The PLP’s best offerings are not likely to set the world on fire. Although in fairness, this is uncharted territory.

I’m losing my train of thought. Already at Freo. I’ll continue this tomorrow, or maybe I won’t.