Local Variations – Labour & the local elections

“All politics is local…”: attrib. to Speaker Tip O’Neil.

politics-british-political-parties-united-kingdom-main-conservatives-labour-liberal-democrats-ukip-snp-plaid-cymru-53535632Can it only be a year ago Labour lost the  UK general election?

It was a short night for me after a three hour stint at the polling station. I went to the pub and then went home – not quite forlorn since as a lifelong Labour supporter I have sat through many disappointing election nights.

It was nevertheless quite a defeat. In the process of losing the election Labour lost all but one of its 40 odd Scottish constituencies. In Wales Labour also lost seats to the Conservatives and lost votes to UKIP. In England Labour managed to gain a few seats and votes and therefore in terms of total votes cast the total was somewhat better than at the nadir of 2010. In London alone was there was a swing to Labour – one of almost 3%.

The Liberal Democrats who had enjoyed a long period of electoral success from the early 1990’s until the 2010 General Election suffered a humiliating setback as devastating as Labour’s collapse in Scotland. Both their total vote and their seats fell dramatically. They were left with a rump of 8 MPs –  quite eclipsed by the SNP with more than 50 MP’s.

The Conservative Party benefited from the LibDem collapse and from Labour’s collapse in Scotland and its failure to make headway in England. Their national  vote increased by a fraction – and they gained a small overall majority of 12.  Small it maybe but in effect it was a large working majority given that the Official Labour Opposition Lab had 232 seats that was almost almost a hundred seats behind the Conservatives. As Mrs Thatcher found in the mid 1970’s it is very hard for any opposition to cobble together enough votes to bring down a government. It is even harder these days since the constitutional changes wrought by the Coalition after 2010. The first past the post voting system had once more permitted the Conservatives to divide and to rule. Nevertheless, this was only the first Conservative government since John Major’s in 1992.

In 2015 in England the main beneficiary of the election was UKIP. Although they ended up with no more than one MP because their vote was spread evenly over England – and to some extent  in Wales – nevertheless they won over 12% of the total votes cast and in that sense  they were clearly established as the UK’s third party.

The Conservative government immediately set about pursuing its carefully hidden radical agenda of further economic reform  – the planning reforms for example will make it easier for developers to make fast cash – combined with a further fire-sale of public assets and a fresh assault upon organised labour. Its ‘devolution’ revolution epitomised by the “Northern Powerhouse” is in reality a means whereby public expenditure is cut by central government but local government will carry the can….

 

Leadership Elections

These days party leaders who lose elections do not get a second chance. Since Neil Kinnock resigned the day after losing the 1992 election losing party leaders have followed his example. In 2015 this meant that neither Labour or the Liberal Democrats had a leader after early May 2015 until the autumn. This inevitably meant that  – as after 2010 – Labour (and this time also the Liberal Democrats) were not in a position to offer a coherent political critique of new government’s policy. This has the unfortunate effect of permitting a government to readily establish a narrative for their actions and policies. That can seriously hamper effective opposition later in a Parliament.

There had been a strong case for both losing parties to leave their respective leadership elections until after the EU referendum. However, heedless as headless chickens the two parties pursued their internal leadership elections. This left the door open to the SNP who with their usual elan took the opportunity presented them. It doomed any small chance the Labour Party in Scotland had of taking a long cool look at the causes of its precipitate decline and perhaps being in better position to defend their seats in Holyrood this year. But as hindsight is all knowing calamities create their own political momentum.

In the end the Liberal Democrats chose Tim Farron as their new leader. He has since struggled with his Media profile. He lacks the charisma of say a Paddy Ashdown or even a Nick Clegg.

Labour  – after what was without doubt an ugly divisive campaign – and operating what at its best might be called a flawed electoral system bequeathed to it by Ed Miliband –  elected the left wing and political outsider – Jeremy Corbyn as its leader. Corbyn’s election drew in a large new membership to the party in its wake. This Peasant’s Revolt against a well-heeled leadership used to having things mostly its own way since 1994 left the commentariat as bamboozled as the old guard were concussed.

Following from Corbyn’s election there was a counter-revolution in the Parliamentary Labour Party as a number of leading figures refused to serve in Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet. The PLP is most alarmed at the rapid move to the left and Labour’s abandonment of the politics of the ‘middle ground’.  The tension between the PLP and the Party leadership has since then been acute and at times rancorous.

The vastly enlarged  membership has since moved in the opposite direction. The claim from their side is that the tens of thousands of new members will bring in hundreds of thousands (or even millions) of new Labour voters if only the party holds to corbyn’s vision. There have been cries of “traitor” off stage and the term ‘Blairite’ is hurled with words like scum or Tory to those who disagree.

In this same febrile atmosphere Labour has undertaken a fundamental review of Defence Policy – even reconsidering the UK’s membership of NATO – long a Corbyn bete noir – and restoring old guard left-wingers like Ken Livingstone and Diane Abbott to places of influence. At the same time these same left-wingers found themselves skewed in the ‘hostile’ Media for their on-going associations with so-called ‘friends’ in organisations like Hezbollah. Just before voting in these elections this exploded into a toxic row over ‘anti-semitism’  within the party.

The EU referendum:

Whilst the opposition has been consumed by its own fight the government has been desperately trying to get the EU referendum – a sop to its rightwing membership – out of the way.   This has led to a series of quite extraordinary missteps by the Conservative government.  The EU renegotiations – such as they were – and the politics of the referendum have consumed the Conservative Party in its own brawl and perhaps lulled by Labour’s disarray the anti-EU faction have increasingly felt at liberty to stick rhetorical knives into the pro-EU majority in the government. .

None of the main UK opposition parties have been able to take much advantage from this largely Conservative civil war for a variety of reasons: Labour because its own political house is not yet in good order after the devastation of last May; UKIP like the government is consumed with the EU referendum; and the SNP has been similarly preoccupied with the politics of the EU and how it might steal advantage for their primary political cause – Scottish Independence.

 

The Elections of 2016:

This then provides the context for the recent elections.

Cognoscenti of the political commentariat predicted Labour would receive a drubbing – losing perhaps 200 seats. The polls had said so and so they framed the narrative for election night. The Scottish results were first in and Labour’s further collapse in Scotland to third place – losing yet another swathe of constituency seats – seemed to conform to the story. However,  very soon it was apparent that local results In England saw Labour retaining control of most of its councils; whilst in wales it lost a single seat in the Assembly despite a drop of 7% in its vote..

The mismatch between the voting reality and the doom-laden predictions if anything  have subsequently strengthened Corbyn’s position and the loyalty of his supporters in the party.  Corbynite naysayers see only the light of justification by survival alone; and the Media doomsayers read the runes of political disaster for Labour as set forth in the Scottish play.

Neither side has yet seem the true significance of the results  – partly because the results themselves came in three parts over as many days  – and partly because the disaster for Labour in Scotland – where is became the third party in Holyrood behind the all dominant SNP and a mildly resurgent Conservative Party – set the tone which fitted the doomsayers narrative – and partly because neither side of the argument are much inclined to take into account any facts that do not fit their prejudicial prejudgement.

Therefore it might be helpful to look at the facts and then try to figure out what is going on rather than figuring what you think has gone on and finding the facts to fit the argument.

The last time the elections were run was 2012. Then the turnout was around 35%.  The turnout this time was much higher  – around 45% but in the mid 50’s in some places.

In 2012 this translated into  a PNV ( Percentage of National Vote)

Labour 38%; Cons: 31% LibDem:  16%

2013 in the first election where the PNV calculation inlcuded UKIP

In 2015 the Local election PNV was:

Labour: 29% Cons:  35 % LibDem: 11% UKIP: 13%

This compare with the General election result – votes as it happens cast on the same day:

Labour: 30.5% Cons: 36.8% LibDem: 7.9% UKIP: 12.4 SNP: 4.7% Green 3.6% Plaid 0.6%

In 2016 the PNV ESTIMATES are:

Labour: 31% Cons:  30%  LibDem:  15%   UKIP:  11%

In 1996 – the first year of Blair

Labour: 46% Cons: 25% LibDems 24%

2006 – first year of Cameron

Labour 24% Conservatives 36% LibDems 26%

Source for  PNS

The gain and loss of either seats or of councils are a less helpful guide simply because the Labour vote is well down on 2012 – the last series of elections before the dramatic rise of UKIP – and the Conservative vote this time has dropped since last year’s election.  For the record Labour lost only 18 seats and the Conservatives lost 46. Labour gained Bristol but lost Dudley; the Conservatives gained Peterborough from NOC ( No Overall Control) but lost two other councils and the LIbDems gained Watford from NOC.

In Scotland Labour lost another tranche of seats in its Strathclyde heartland – mainly to the SNP  although it was second in the overall number of constituency votes cast. However, Labour the under-performed in the Party list supplementary vote and this permitted the Conservatives to emerge as the second party in Holyrood and thus as the official opposition.

Wales was a repeat in the minor key of Scotland’s major disaster for Labour. although Labour emerged with 29 seats – largely because its constituency dominance – its total vote fell from just over 40% to just under 35%. Again its performance in the regional list, as in Scotland , was worse than its polling in the constituencies.

By way of contrast both in London and in Bristol Labour made serious progress. It not only gained both mayoralties it also retained  control of the the Assembly in London and gained Bristol from NOC –  indeed in London it fell less than a 2000 votes short of taking 13 seats in the Assembly – a result in the Greater London area akin to the SNP in Scotland. Though there is much talk about London being a ‘Labour city’  – akin to Scotland in the 1980’s –  this is now rather a region that is taking a definite turn away from the Conservatives. This will have long term and important consequences for both Labour and Conservative parties.

The GLC area was first created in the 1960’s to ensure the Conservatives were competitive in controlling the metropolitan area through its dominance in the leafy suburbs –  from places like Croydon and Bexley to Richmond and Bromley – but from election to election the Conservative party is becoming less and less competitive. Merton which changed hands to Labour this time around and Croydon and Havering are  all now very close.  Were Labour to gain one of these it would repeat in London the exact feat the SNP has achieved in Scotland. It must be remembered that again – as in Scotland and Wales and Northern Ireland – the electoral systems in each of these regions was designed to prevent single party dominance. Devolution was designed to be inclusive and multi-party. Indeed the unspoken ambition was to create a system where Labour and the LibDems might hope to divide the spoils of office on an ongoing basis.

 

Propaganda Fidei:

Since the local elections a firestorm of comment has spread across the Social Media much of it fuelled – on the many sides of the party debate –  by false statistics and very unrealistic comparisons with the past.

The following conclusions may be considered:

1. UKIP’s explosion into the political scene after 2013 makes proper comparison with earlier local elections almost impossible – but both the rise of UKIP in England and of the SNP in Scotland themselves reflect at least partly a long term failure of Labour – but it equally also reflects upon the failures of the LibDems in more recent times; and upon the continuing decline in the Conservative Party since 1992 in the UK’s largest conurbations.

2. Local elections are not a transferrable indicator of party performance in the a General Election.

3. There is no evidence of a Corbyn bounce for Labour. Beneath any churn in the composition of the Labour vote – the party has been broadly left in % terms where it was at the GE of 2015. The Parliamentary by elections showed no rise in the Labour vote.

4. No opposition party with 32% share of the national vote in local elections has gone on to win a General Election.

5. The situation of Labour in Scotland is worse than in comparable elections in 2012 but it may now have stabilised. However, Labour cannot win a UK election with only 1 Scottish seat – this would require a swing of 13% – that is 3 per cent more than it achieved in 1997 and previously in 1945. Landslides of this scale do not come around that often.

6. The reason Labour held on to so many seats in England was due to the sharp drop in the Conservative vote.

7. The London region – where Labour was also up on its good GE result last year – continues its steady move away from the Conservatives. It might well be that London will do for Labour what Scotland did for it in the long wilderness years of the 1980’s and early 1990’s – provide it with a source of new political talent.

7. UKIP has displaced the Conservatives in much of the Labour heartland in the northern conurbations.

8. There was a mild recovery in LibDem performance in its old heartlands of the South and South West of England; it took control of the three way marginal of Watford; but remains a toxic brand still in Scotland and the cities of the North of England – although there is a single LibDem in Manchester now.

9. There has been no substantial decline in the UKIP vote.

10. Labour’s vote in Wales dropped by around 7%.  It’s dominance in the Assembly was secured because the principal opponents in the constituencies were unable to take electoral advantage of this decline in Labour’s vote.

11. In Scotland, Wales and London Labour does less well in Party List vote shares than than in constituency votes. This is another problem for the party and is the reason the Conservative Party displaced them in Holyrood as the principal opposition.

These safe conclusions leave the Labour Party somewhere around the bottom of the mountain it has to climb. Corbyn has certainly not yet made things worse for Labour in terms of its electoral performance. All the by elections and now this much wider test show the party to be in much the same place as it was in the last 6 months of Ed Miliband’s leadership. whether is is possible to win an election from this position is a matter of conjecture.

If the Conservative Party were to fracture after the EU referendum – and its choice of new leader – were to further divide it – then it is perfectly possible to construct a scenario where a party with 33% of the vote could emerge as the governing party in a subsequent election. How much authority such a government could wield or how radical it could be is entirely another matter. however the problem with this scenario – akin to the LibDem votes coming over to Labour scenario of 2010-2015 Parliament – is it is no more than a scenario. It is perfectly possible for the Conservative Party also to win an election on a similar 33% or less if the Labour vote erodes to UKIP in the North and Midlands.At the end of the day scenarios are a parlour game for election buff and political junkies – strategies are what gives a party direction and persuades voters to elect them.

Here Sadiq Khan’s mayoral election offers a reasonable template for electoral success for Labour. Whether the leadership is minded to use it is entirely another matter. In the short term it seems more likely the template will be set aside and that Labour will pursue the broad aspirational political agenda of the left wing of the1980’s who have come into their own. At what point they decide there are too few votes in that strategy is unknown. It is quite possible that this season of political discontent will lead – as with Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in the USA – to a populist upheaval over-turning every aspect of the old order.

But revolutions like country busses do not come along that often…

 

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The US Election: & then there were two…..
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Clinton versus Trump:

U.S.A. Flag

Four years ago I wrote a weekly review of the progress of the US election. This year I have hesitated to put pen to paper. Perhaps I’m getting too old for all this – perhaps I’ve nothing to say that has not been said before and probably better said by others.

Still now we have reached this pass it is no longer possible to resist the itch to say something – even if it will not be that original.

Context:

U.S.A. FlagLooking back from this vantage point to 2012 it may seem that the re-election of President Obama was inevitable. It was not the case at the time. Although unopposed in his party – Obama was a President with baggage – he disappointed expectations where he once excited them –  and the iffy economy still pulled by the undertow of the great financial Crash of 2008 was not running strongly in his favour. His signature reform to Health Care was not that popular. Whilst he was a shoe-in for his party’s nomination President Obama’s national polling numbers were lukewarm  and therefore, he was not in a strongest position to win re-election. At times the ever articulate Obama struggled succinctly to make his economic case and in many ways it was to be Bill Clinton who made the defining speech of the 2012 election in defence of the President’s economic policy to an electrified Democratic convention.

These were also the days of the Tea Party insurgency which had followed hard upon the first Obama victory in 2008 and which had laid waste the Democrats in the Mid Term elections of 2010.  As much as there was a visceral (irrational) hatred of Obama amongst some of these Tea Partiers (much as the Conservatives had loathed the Clintons before him) there was also an awful lot of hostility towards the grand old guard of the Republican Party. The Tea Partiers disliked establishment Mitt Romney almost as much as they hated the President; the Evangelical wing of the GOP disbelieved a Mormon much as they disbelieved Obama was Christian. Neither of these malcontents believed Obama was really even an American. However, in the end – after a mutinous spasm – the party came to heel – or to it its collective sense – depending upon your viewpoint – and settled on Mitt Romney whom the GOP establishment and commentariat promised was by far the most viable Republican nominee. The first Mormon nominee for the Presidency, Romney promised the GOP and Tea Partiers a famous victory but went on to deliver them an infamous defeat.Unprepared, the GOP party establishment was hugely discredited. The Tea Party insurgents felt betrayed. Caught off-guard, Republican voters also felt genuinely angry – perhaps even betrayed.

The Obama victories have often been described as landslides – and by comparison with the elections after 1992 in some ways they were –  but in historical terms – convincing might be a better term to employ. Winning and losing in US elections is not at all as it used to be. For many years the term ‘landslide’ was used to describe a virtual clean sweep of a vast majority of the the states that compose the USA. In this more divided partisan age a landslide still leaves a lot of Red (or indeed Blue) states standing.

It is the states – in their incarnation as the Electoral College that actually elects the US President. Each state is allocated a tally of electors which equals in total the number of Representatives and Senators the state sends to the federal Congress in Washington DC. This means no state has fewer than 3 electoral votes and for this purpose the District of Columbia also has 3 votes these days.  It also means that smaller states own a greater say in the election than the number of voters in the state would arithmetically suggest. There are 538 Electoral votes in all and 270 are therefore required to elect a president.

The great landslide (and landmark) elections of the modern era remain: FDR in 1932 and 1936; Johnson in 1964; Nixon in 1972 and Reagan in 1984. In all of these elections the winner swept of nearly all the states. It also happened that this sweep was matched by a similar sweep in the popular vote – something in the region of 60% or more to 40% or less. Winning the popular vote however does not necessarily mean winning the presidency. Al Gore won the popular vote in 2000 election but – after engaging the Supreme Court in its business –  it was G.W. Bush who was elected president having finally secured the electoral votes of Florida – hanging chads and all and a state where his brother Jeb Bush was coincidentally Governor.

U.S.A. FlagIt was Jeb Bush appointee Katherine Harris as Florida’s Secretary of State who ensured the 2000 election in the state would run to the partisan advantage of the Republicans. She had authorised a systematic purge of the electoral register which removed swathes of mainly black (and therefore mainly Democrat) voters. Many did not know they could not vote until election day when they were turned away from the polling booths. In this there was nothing odd or even new – partisanship has been part and parcel of American politics since the election of Thomas Jefferson. It is in the politics of gay friendly Democratic Illinois as much as in homophobic Republican North Carolina or Mississippi.

However, the US presidency is won or lost not in terms of individual votes cast for an individual candidate but in terms of the number of states won by an individual candidate. Therefore, the election this November is best thought of less in terms of a single election but rather in terms of one of fifty odd separate but simultaneous elections in the individual states of the union and the District of Columbia (Washington DC).

635903589860169074-AP-DEM-2016-Debate-Clinton-SandersThe Primary Battle:

This year marks the first open ‘election’ since 2008 – that is to say one where the incumbent President cannot run again for office. Thus, both the Democrat and Republican parties start on a level playing field and historically it is rare for the party of the incumbent Continue reading

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Of monuments and men – or indeed women…

What should become of the statues of Cecil Rhodes?

Since the Greeks at least public statues have been one way in which we recognise greatness. As a corollary their destruction has been an established way in which we have made known our disapproval or  made public our disavowal.

Many Greek and Roman statues fell victim to mob rule. That pattern often repeated itself in later periods of history. The giant statue of Louis XV in what was then the Place de Louis XV but became successively Place de la Revolution before its incarnation as the Place de la Concorde – was pulled down in the early stages of the Revolution and broken up and pieces then thrown into the Seine. The great public space that sits at the east end of the Champs-Élysée then provided a perfect public location for what by accident rather than intention became the most enduing symbol of French Revolution – the guillotine. The killing machine was erected in the place where Louis XV’s statue had lorded it over Paris. Here the Terror played out its public history and it is here therefore both Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette met their end. Nothing better illustrates the fickleness of fate when it comes to heroic statuary and like the Colossus of Rhodes the braggadocio of the super-human most often turns out to own feet of clay. Recently in cape town the giant figure of another colossus  – Cecil Rhodes –

A crane prepares to remove the statue of British colonialist Cecil John Rhodes at the Cape Town University in Cape Town, South Africa, Thursday, April 9, 2015. The University of Cape Town will today remove the statue of British colonialist Cecil John Rhodes after weeks of protest by South African students, who said the statue had become a symbol of the slow racial transformation on campus. (AP Photo/Schalk van Zuydam)

A crane prepares to remove the statue of British colonialist Cecil John Rhodes at the Cape Town University in Cape Town, South Africa, Thursday, April 9, 2015. The University of Cape Town will today remove the statue of British colonialist Cecil John Rhodes after weeks of protest by South African students, who said the statue had become a symbol of the slow racial transformation on campus. (AP Photo/Schalk van Zuydam)

was moved-on and moved out of public view.

There was a times when all the soviets of Russia and all the cities of her satellites in the East of Europe owned at least a couple of heroic statues of Lenin – and more than a few Stalin too. They stared into some distant future which seemed to be theirs  but now they’re consigned to empty fields where they stand mute monuments to what is seen to have been a fleeting moment in world history. Still the wheel of fortune forever turns and Stalin is back in favour in Vladimir Putin’s Russia and who knows perhaps one or other of Stalin’s giant bronze incarnations will command Red Square as once he did in another time.

rhodesoriel87a8c768-a9b4-11e5_1033871bThere has been for sometime brouhaha amongst from amongst the students at Oriel College over a statue of Cecil Rhodes. The Oriel Students are following students in South Africa where the Rhodes Must Fall movement wishes to remove the larger than life bronze of Cecil Rhodes seated,  by Marion Walgate,  from its place in front of the University of Cape Town. Given the history of apartheid the sensitivity of the South African students to the presence of this looming figure from the age of Tycoons might be easily understood.

Let it be known I hold no torch for Rhodes – as a political buccaneer or robber industrialist or as maker of Imperial states by Royal Appointment (South Africa, Northern and Southern Rhodesia). I have been to the Rhodes museum near Bishop’s Stortford because Richard’s mum managed it for some years. It was not inspired collection of memorabilia but then I hold no particular torch for the armaments making magnate Alfred Nobel either; nor Vanderbilt ; nor the Rockefeller; nor Carnegie nor Morgan nor Ford despite their vast endowments to the public weal. Rhodes certainly splashed his wealth about and It might be recalled that the Rhodes Scholarships have provided many of the poor a life chance they might not have otherwise obtained.

Quaintly it appears the students at Oriel who are in a froth over a physical representation of Rhodes over a building he endowed have not suggested the University and College ceases to use the endowment Rhodes made to fund the University, the college and student bursaries. In Princeton there is a similar furore over the buildings named for one of the the University’s most famous sons President Woodrow Wilson (of five freedoms fame) who for all he was a progressive in many ways also owned some seriously unsavoury – if then widely shared – ideas about white racial superiority and segregation of the races.

There is a famous nineteenth century statue of Richard I (Lionhearted) outside the Houses of Parliament which was erected in the Victorian Imperial heyday when the Crusades were seen in the West generally in a very different and generally positive light – as many of my generation will know well from the TV series from the early 1960’s with the king played by Dermot Walsh. Not so very far from that statue stands another statue – of Oliver Cromwell – who in addition to cutting off the head of Charles I (the Martyr) and abolishing Christmas, as near as dam it committed what today would be termed acts of genocide in Ireland in the fevered times of the English Civil War – a catastrophic conflict that – rather like the disaster at Verdun and the Somme whose centennial we mark this year – left an indelible scar on England’s political psyche.

Revolutions and Revolutionaries often angrily sweep away the public statuary of their oppression though seldom in human history do such gestures end the oppression of ideas and ideologies; or simply mitigate the oppression of men and women exploiting their fellows which, like larceny, appear in history both on a grand and petty scale though the tyranny for those so oppressed is very much the same.

nelosn569_001Notoriously in the 1960’s the IRA blew up the column & statue to Nelson erected in Dublin. The pillar as it was know was in fact built in 1808 and long before the iconic column that now stands in Trafalgar Square. It was the work of the Irish architect Francis Johnston who was also responsible for the General Post Office. Out of fashion in the Nationalist Revolution post 1916 the work of Irish artists and architects under ‘British rule’ is now regarded as a central part of Irish history – to be treasured; to be conserved and to be admired.

Some years back a controversy broke out over the erection of a statue to Air Marshal Dowding the man who master-minded the bombing campaign that led to the gratuitous burning of Dresden in the last months of World War II. The statue stands in the Aldwych outside the Air Force Church (St Clement Danes). It also stands for all the ambivalence that comes from war – and in my view his statue rather reminds us even a war we can feel comfortable about in principle in practice has its disturbingly dark side.

Our public art is all part of who we are and from whence we came but it is surely false to claim that because something was put in place to glorify the memory of a person or idea of which we no longer approve it should be removed from the public space. Were that to be a worthy intellectual verity then what might stand for very long – let’s pull down Achilles in Hyde Park erected to the glory of Wellington – who owned some awful ideas as well as supporting some terrible things in the aftermath of the Peterloo Massacre – or perhaps we might as well bulldoze Versailles or the Winter Palace or San Souci or even dare I say St Peter’s in Rome. It is rather by accident James II still rides high in a small way outside the National Gallery – dressed emphatically as a Caesar – and his Stuart and Catholic presence does not seem to evoke any emotional response from passing londoners  – though it might still do so were it to be moved to Belfast or Derry…

Public art certainly commemorates and fixes in bronze and stone ideas we own about our past or at least how we saw that past at a given time. These days none of those anonymous generals who fill the plinths around Whitehall would earn a statue though a David Bowie or a Lennon and McCartney might. Poor Oscar Wilde had to wait for changed times to earn a place in bronze – but nothing is forever and times might again change and in a future Wilde may seem less heroic…who knows?

Our ideas about ourselves and what is praiseworthy or simply artistically worthy changes with time and continues to evolve. It will not remain the same and its evolution does not end until humanity ends. The public art that is left behind is a commentary on changing values and changing ideas about what is valuable. The physical presence of that past is not a threat to our contemporary values rather it is a commentary upon the process of how we reached them. I wonder what those angry students think about the Terracotta Warriors of the murderous Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China; or the surviving statues of some of the bloody men who ruled Pharaonic Egypt or Rome; or the even the remnants of Palmyra recently turned to rubble by ISIS….

Grand gestures most often betoken the human predilection for making public statements which substitute for looking into our hearts and getting the measure of the selfish demons – pride; greed, avarice, anger and covetousness and on – to which we all seem heirs but about which we’d rather not be reminded….

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To be or not to be – in the EU – that is the question

Brexit = Party Interest – National Interest (or brexitEUUN0001the EU and UK Politics)

We have a Referendum on our membership of the European Union (EU) on 23rd June 2016. Solemnly we are told this will be the most important decision of our lifetimes. The Media often colludes with the political establishment to elevate hyperbole to an exaggerated art form.

Mr Cameron announced the referendum yesterday – having first  – with with a magician’s flourish – pulled many marvels from the fantastical hat of his Renegotiation. Oddly having pulled the dazed rabbits and shaken them before our disbelieving eyes he dropped them unceremoniously into thin air where alike the smile of the Cheshire cat they disappeared from view. It was quite a trick. Then, without pause, he started talking about security and terrorism and war and how we’d all be better off staying together in an uncertain world. I was no longer sure whether he was defending the UN, NATO or the EU or everybody in general as they all seemed to merge seamlessly into one Big Society. He then frothed about how the UK was not going to be part of a EU Defence Policy or EU army and foamed about how the UK would never be party to the Schengen Agreement (the open borders arrangement between EU states) and finally stamping his rhetorical foot and saying the UK would never, never, ever join the Euro – as if any or all of these things had been any part of his negotiations with his EU – which of course they hadn’t.

brexitBritish_Prime_Mini_3579133cThen the people’s Dave, with all the chupatza of Hughie Green in is pomp, looked square into the lens of camera and spoke from the heart – most sincerely – straight to the British people –  assuring them – rather like a dotty maiden aunt over the Christmas dinner – that he hates Brussels but loves Britain. Then with a faint tremor for sincerity’s sake he then said though he loved Britain as PM he had a duty to tell us he knew it was in the nation’s interest that we all vote to stay in Europe. Finally, almost choking on the emotion of the moment he said it was up to the British people – they had the final say – they had the vote and no matter how the voted – he would announce the winner and take the prize. With that he turned and strode purposefully back into 10 Downing St.

The only thing that seemed to be missing from this performance were the phone numbers to call for Yes or No – now not even Brucie in his rambling dotage on Strictly would have forgotten them…

I, alas, do not form part of the great audience to whom his comments were addressed – the great British people. Therefore I must admit I paid little heed to much else Mr Cameron said. I am of course a voter and I will cast my ballot in this plebiscite  – but as I am by birth Irish –   and although I have lived here in the UK since 1957 –  as I’m still an Irish citizen I was not part of the body politic to whom Dave was talking. Ergo, as dear Dave was not addressing himself to me  I felt I could safely ignore not only what has been said but also all the rest of what’s to be said – back and forth – over the next gruelling 4 months. By the time we stagger over the line and start to vote the poor British people will have to be assailed from dusk to dawn and back on all sides by some very, very, very boring arguments.

It is in fact the second time in my lifetime that I have had a vote in a referendum on the subject of EU membership. I am of that aged minority who voted in the last referendum in June 1975 – when the then Prime Minister –  (James) Harold Wilson –  after a very similar renegotiation of the terms of our membership – suggested very alike the current PM that all things considered – and with all the safeguards  now safely in place –  that it was on balance in the long term interests of the UK to remain in Europe. The margin of  YES victory was substantial  – 67% to 33%  although the margin in Scotland was  8% narrower and Shetland and the Western Isles actually voted to leave.

1st May 1975:  Three documents, for and against, published for the referendum on the Common Market.  The document 'Britain's New Deal in Europe' (centre) contains a recommendation by the government signed by prime minister Harold Wilson for Britain to stay in the Community.  (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

1st May 1975: Three documents, for and against, published for the referendum on the Common Market. The document ‘Britain’s New Deal in Europe’ (centre) contains a recommendation by the government signed by prime minister Harold Wilson for Britain to stay in the Community. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Foolishly, a great admirer of the political skills of Harold Wilson, I thought the question was settled then once and for all.  But the European geni has a most destructive way of popping out of the bottle.  Since that referendum of June 1975 one or other of the two main political parties in the UK has at one time or other proposed more or less that the UK leave the EU. In the case of the Labour Party it was during its last dervish dance with “true socialism” when it discovered that the widespread nationalisations and contra-cyclical public spending it proposed to eliminate unemployment would not be possibly in the straightjacket of EEC regulations. It proposed to exit the EEC in its famously losing election manifesto in 1983.

After electoral disaster the party turned to Neil Kinnock – a unilateralist and also a staunch anti-EEC figure who was prominent on what them was called the soft left of the party and Michael Foot’s chosen heir. Kinnock tempered the worst of the ‘socialist’ excesses of the party and hoped for the best but discovered too late that not even the best ‘socialism’ was good enough for voters intoxicated with the magic of markets; the privatisations with their cheap share quick profit bonanzas and the casino capitalism of the banks.

The Labour Party fell in love with the European Union late – towards the end of the 1980’s  – when the EU of Francois Mitterrand and Jacques Delors had embraced an agenda of employee rights, union rights and worker benefits as part of the ever deepening union and partly as the consequence of the decision to create a single market within the EU – an economic end championed by none other than Mrs Thatcher. The UK unions realised that whilst their political goose was being well and truly basted in the UK, in the EU, unions, instead of getting truly stuffed, were in fact thriving and garnering greater rights

brexit73239237The Social Chapter of the Maastricht Treaty turned this promise into a governing reality and the Conservative Major government took fright and carefully negotiated a derogation for the UK from the Social Chapter of the treaty which with amongst other things included the infamous Working Time Directive. That derogation was not enough for the right wing of the Conservative Parliamentary Party – who rightly saw that what Major had negotiated did not in any way bind successor governments from embracing the notion of ever closer union which was at the heart of the Maastricht process and which was given fullest expression in the project for the Single Currency. However, whilst the ERM debacle destroyed the political viability of the UK joining the Single Currency it was this ‘social’ Europe and its juridical consequences that became the bete noir of the Conservative mainstream and increasingly of its rather more right wing and elderly grassroot membership.

After its stunning electoral defeat in 1997 the Conservative party aped Labour and went off to play by itself under the fateful leadership of William Hague. It is the nature of the Conservative Party to be pretty closed minded about most things it chooses to think about –  that to some extent is the necessary corollary of being conservative in the first place – but it is also a party created for and wedded to power and all principles are therefore mutable – so as a party it can easily change its mind for reasons of electoral expedience – this is after all the Party which gave us Butskellism in the 1950’s; incomes policies in the 1960’s and early 1970’s; and both Clause 28 and Gay Marriage in the space of twenty years. However, on the subject of Europe in general an the EU in particular – it’s mind had been made-up – closed as a clam – ever since the defenestration of Margaret Thatcher of blessed memory from Downing St in 1990. If anything since then the Tory grassroots has tended to become more hostile to the EU  – although its pragmatic leadership has long sought to temper – by guile or by delay – the worst excesses of the party members.

Enter – stage right – very staged right – the incredible Houdini –  David Cameron. Mr Cameron sought to get his party off the hook of Europe by offering the right an in/out Referendum.  Mr Cameron (and his amanuensis Mr Osborn) were children of Thatcher but were also mesmerised by Tony Blair. For much of his leadership Cameron has made much of taking leaves from the Tony Blair book of politics and government. Blair however, like Thatcher, was a conviction politician and, like her, whilst his convictions held he was pure gold for his party but when their gilt rubbed off – in Thatcher’s case over the Poll Tax and in Blair’s case over Iraq –  their glister was quickly lost.

brexittonyblair_lastpmqs_ovation_27june07twiceDavid Cameron, however, has never really been heir to Blair. His convictions are few and his beliefs correspondingly shallow – he is a marketing genius but without any serious political convictions or true principles. Publically, for example,  he calls himself a believing Anglican Christian –  but airily dispenses with the necessary props of his Christian belief  – Church attendance and prayer. As with his religious affiliations so with his political beliefs. Mr Cameron said all manner of things about how the Big Society would look after the poor – compassionate conservatism – all things he promised would be bright and beautiful – speaking as a decent, caring, family man who could be trusted  – but once he had shaken hands he went off down the drive –  back to the hunt ball – without so much as looking back over his shoulder to the poor man as yet still left at his gate. It is this that provides the true context of the renegotiations that have just taken place.

Since his accession to power in 2010 if anything Mr Cameron has shown himself to be even more calculating as an office holder than ever he first appeared to be as the ever greener than thou bicycling green that was the huskie-hugging, hoodie-loving Leader of the Opposition. His shallow fluency owns the mercurial flash of the very clever very apt first Class PPE student he was at Oxford. Quicksilver theatricality is the oil that runs Mr Cameron’s political machinery. He drives this engine smoothly along tracks of inclusive rhetoric with aplomb and to a general applause that belies the fact that his train is for first class ticket holders only. Schooled in privilege  – he is Walpole rather than a Disraeli – a man for whom party interest is the national interest because he has never seen any practical distinction between them. He combines the vanities of the shallow cynic with the word-weary rhetoric of the thoughtful statesman. He means not one word of what he has to say.

Yesterday, all of these gifts for plausibility were  once more on display in Downing Street. Cameron, however, now has to negotiate the Media wolves he has long fed on juicy half promises. The skills Mr Cameron owns – and they are very considerable – do not make for greatness but they do make for longevity in office. It could be however, no matter what the outcome of this referendum that they have carried him just about as far as he can go. Those in his own party are ceasing to trust him. Interestingly Tim Montgomerie has just resigned from the Conservative Party.  Boris Johnson – that bell-weather of political ambition – has decided to campaign for Brexit. The reason is simple enough –  his competitors for the leadership have lined up behind Mr Cameron but Boris knows the Conservative Parliamentary Party will not decide who the next Conservative Leader will be – it will be the deeply anti European grassroots members – the same lot that elected Ian Duncan Smith in 2001.  Johnson is now perfectly positioned to win – and if there is Brexit Mr Cameron will most likely have to go – and if the answer is Yes – as it was in 1975 – then Dave will probably alike his true political mentor – Harold Wilson – bow out gracefully before he gets chucked out bloodily.

There are many good arguments for staying in the EU. There are other arguments for leaving it.  A balanced analysis of the cons and pros of membership of the EU, however, would only do a disservice to the politics of Europe in the recent history of the UK.  Unlike any other member of the EU by the end of June 2016 we will have had two referenda in 40 years on the principle of membership.On both occasions the plebiscite has been conceded not from lofty constitutional need; nor from the highest political principle; but rather by the dictates lowest party cunning. I say this not to disparage political parties for they have long been the means of making respectable the marriage of the base motives of sectional interest to the governing interests of the state. It is not new. However, since the motives for this Referendum are nakedly political it is a cruel fact that it will not settle the matter once and for all – any more than the referendum of 1975 settled business. Therefore, as before, the political establishment – less the newspaper Media – will bank upon the voters voting yes – not out of conviction but out of fear of making their unsettled and uncertain lives less certain and less settled. Of course they may vote no; but those of you who know anything about the history of the EU – will know that no may in time pupate into yes if only you keep asking cajolingly enough….

brexitEUUN0001I haven’t changed my mind about the EU since I voted Yes in 1975. I can see no sensible argument against pooling sovereignty in order to gain prosperity – it has been the history of the world since the time of the Chin and the Pharaoh. The institutions of the EU will evolve and probably those of the central core of Euro states will piecemeal arrive at more democratic structures over time. The nation states and their political elites will struggle against the inevitable but over another fifty or seventy five years things will have changed out of recognition as they indeed have already changed beyond what was imagined by the original Coal and Steel Union. Gradually as the power of the US wanes the UK will seek out it full political place in this European Union. That will be all to the good but in the interim we will just have to endure the knee-jerk referenda that will come our way from time to time to please one or other of our governing parties.

However, as I am being asked to trot off to the polling station once again to register my opinion on the matter I thought I should be forthright. The truth is no one is really that interested in my opinion – and that is most particularly true of Mr Cameron and the political bark that bears the oleaginous bulk that is the Conservative Party. My vote is however as settled now as it was before. I am not persuadable and do not need to ponder this in my heart over many hours for four months.

It is said we get the governments we deserve – which must imply that we’ve all been very, very, very naughty….

 

 

 

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Syria and Mr Corbyn: the case against inaction

Syria and why we must intervene….

I have been asked to offer an opinion on Syria by Jeremy Corbyn.

The case against further involvement has been made and I know many of my friends feel intervention is wrong. FaceBook and other Social Media are not the best place to review the noble history of the pacifist and isolationist political traditions but it is not the only noble tradition or indeed the only moral case that might be legitimately made….

Already Mr Corbyn’s office has triumphantly declared 75% of those responding back his policy. It is of course like all such endeavours for approbation a self selecting audience. This is no way to run a party; or to suggest one might run a country or most nakedly to suggest is a reasonable way to make policy in a serious political institution. It is a tactic borrowed from the lexicon of demagogues down the ages and that is should be the mantle of a leader of the Labour Party is a cause for embarrassment. I doubt  it will change much but it will if it continues change Labour into a an unrepresentative, unelectable rump of rabble rousing bully boys.

That I lament….as a party man since 1971 I am now forced to consider ending my membership because I believe the march the party is taking is essentially away from democratic socialism and its ally social democracy towards the closed minded demagoguery of Jacobinism that thrives in self-selecting cliques of activists. They will use members as a battering ram to impose their own ideas and ideological agenda on the party. It will exclude institutions which it wishes to exclude on writ and whim confirmed by plebiscite of members. It will turn the party into an adjunct of a Committee of Public Safety which it dominates that casts opponents as enemies of the revolution. Eventually it will drag the Labour Party to destruction.

Here is an extract of what I have sent in response ….it will be ignored as this is not an attempt to engage and persuade but a tactic to enforce whatever the leader happens to think is right…or others who tell us this is what the leader really wants….

Dear Mr Corbyn,

Thank you for this email. I do not feel it takes full account of the entire situation in Syria or more widely in the Middle East and as your email does not set out the criteria for a contrary case I feel it seeks endorsement rather than engagement. Nevertheless, I offer the following:

1.Syria can no longer be regarded as a functioning state in any legal sense. Not only is it in civil war but the various factions fighting are now also proxies for the interests of others including great powers like Russia and the USA and also other regional powers like Iran or Saudi Arabia. Wishful thinking will not alter that reality; rather it defines the terrain for future policy. It also inevitably means there are no easy options for policy-makers but only a series of difficult choices. Therefore greater and smaller powers have legitimate interests to defend.

2. In these circumstances, we as a sovereign nation have a legitimate interests. We are now also directly affected by the consequences of the collapse of ordered society in Syria – we are affected by the refugee crisis (as is the whole EU) and we are affected by the operations of a terrorist organisation ISIS that claims right to create a Caliphate by force of arms and the right to murder European citizens in order to achieve that end.
In fact as the strain of the refugee crisis alone undermines the stability of the EU the events in Syria consequently directly threaten our national interest. That provides sufficient legitimate grounds to intervene both politically and militarily. However, the ISIS element and the fact we are also a founder member of the UN and a Permanent Member of the Security Council adds special additional responsibilities which justify interventions by us in concert with our allies.

This is not disputed in so far as the case for non-participation in allied airstrikes rests largely upon the notion that we still own some moral entitlement to intervene politically and diplomatically. Whether there is raison d’etre for such assumption on our part without us having willingness to make a greater commitment of military resource is itself ethically questionable as we are fully aware such diplomatic interventions will in those circumstances be in fact devoid of meaning as they will have no practical chance of success. The grand gesture of taking the high ground morally without fighting for it militarily. It is the sort of victory Caligula declared he had won over Neptune – empty of meaning and full of rhetoric.

3. We previously took a decision not to directly intervene militarily in Syria. That decision has patently failed. That is grounds for us to reconsider the previous decision in the light of its failure either to limit the conflict or to resolve the insurgency of ISIS into Iraq and now into other states including Turkey and Jordan.

4. Russia is now directly involved and her determination to keep the Assad regime – a regime that should be brought before the Human Rights Court for violations of it signatory obligations regarding use of chemical weapons and indiscriminate use of cluster bombs in civilian areas – which together constitute crimes against humanity – is a matter of highest moral importance to the wider International Community.

Force of arms is now being employed to keep this criminal regime safe by a great power that recently has been permitted to annexe the Crimea in a manner highly reminiscent of the fascist states of Italy and germany and the Imperial state of Japan in the 1930’s. That amounts to appeasement in so far as it only serves to encourage other states with similar ambitions to take the view that the UN Conventions cannot be enforced.

As in Yugoslavia this cannot be left to stand.

5. The second question is militarily whether our intervention in Iraq makes any strategic sense without dealing with Syria. Again, patently the answer now is no; we have tried and we have failed and our other allies are already involved in Syria. France has invoked the EU mutuality interest clause – akin to the one for NATO allies. If we accept ISIS attempts to make itself a state and ISIS claims the right to make that state from Syria and parts of Iraq that alone enables us to act legally and militarily. ISIS organises and recruits via the Internet and inculcates suicide as a legitimate means of conducting its so called holy war or jihad. The determination of ISIS to foment war in these illegal terms under conventions of international law puts both nation states at risk and indiscriminately places their citizens at risk. We cannot deal with one aspect of ISIS in say Iraq or Paris without dealing also with the other in Syria or Libya.

There are serious inadequacies in the government response and these we should address: particularly the role of the UN; the participation of NATO allies; and the consideration of the airstrikes as part of a wider military strategy;and stabilisation of Libya and other African states. This is a struggle for the survival of pluralist democracy against any enemy willing to use the tolerance of multiculturalism in order to wholly destroy it and impose upon it its own closed ideology of intolerance. Make no mistake it uses violence and systematic physical abuse and moral degradations of those who fall into is control as means of sustaining itself. It owns no ethical or moral purpose beyond its capacity to murder, destroy and dehumanise. It is evil.

This means it is imperative to get the US to reactivate the Middle East Peace Process as part of a concerted effort to bring regional peace. These things however we can persuade the US government and others to do if we are part of the entire effort in Syria.

Your email also concerns me since it presupposes that the PLP and Shadow Cabinet you appointed are an unsuitable body to make these decisions on the party’s behalf and on behalf of Labour voters more widely and also of their constituents’ best interests.

This decision making by plebiscite dangerously reduces policy to simplicities as it also reduces Labour MPs to little more than glorified delegates of the “activists” within the party membership – who frankly are merely an interest group far far smaller than even the Labour Party as currently constituted including Unions affiliated to it and their members – let alone even the 9 million Labour voters at the last election. Policy is not made by motions and by twitterstorms. Moreover, this procedure disregards the other non-Labour voting constituents of whose interests Labour MPs are also constitutionally guardian. Representative democracy kept you in your position in Parliament even though you remained detached from party policy and discipline in your long career on the backbenches. Suddenly it seems you want to bully others by using the same tactics of bullying once you denounced. We in the party deserve rather better of you than this.

Finally, the analysis of the situation in Syria set out in your email so over-simplifies the complexities of the situation that it is in danger of posing a false choice to party members – new and old – which I am sure is not its intention. There is to be limited military action by the allies and this does not constitute a declaration of war. Our military exist to protect our interests in such circumstances. We cannot even commit them them to UN Peacekeeping without placing them at risk. It is why we honour them and respect them.

Your email also presupposes party members might be suitably informed on the basis of your statement to make the decision you ask of them. I suggest to you they cannot be and for the various reasons set out above this in essentially a matter for your leadership and that of the Shadow Cabinet.

For these reasons (and there are many more) I personally urge you to put the interests of the country over the party and also unite the party showing decisive leadership which coming from you would in fact make the success of intervention much more likely because of your well known and long held views about military inventions.

This is akin to the crisis in Yugoslavia rather than the intervention after 9/11 in Iraq and Afghanistan. We should join our allies in seeking to eliminate ISIS and Assad from Syria. Failing that the PLP must be given a free vote.

Yours sincerely,

John Murphy

John Murphy
www.john-murphy.co.uk

—–Original Message—–
From: Jeremy Corbyn <theteam@labour.org.uk>
To: John Murphy <john1555@aol.com>
Sent: Fri, 27 Nov 2015 20:17
Subject: Your views on Syria
John,

On Thursday David Cameron set out his case in the House of Commons for a UK bombing campaign in Syria.

We have all been horrified by the despicable attacks in Paris and are determined to see ISIS defeated.

The issue now is whether what the Prime Minister is proposing strengthens, or undermines, our national security.

I put a series of questions in response to the Prime Minister’s statement, raising concerns about his case that are on the minds of many in the country. You can read my response here.

There could not be a more important matter than whether British forces are sent to war.

As early as next week, MPs could be asked to vote on extending UK bombing to Syria.

I do not believe that the Prime Minister made a convincing case that British air strikes on Syria would strengthen our national security or reduce the threat from ISIS.

When I was elected I said I wanted Labour to become a more inclusive and democratic party.

So I am writing to consult you on what you think Britain should do. Should Parliament vote to authorise the bombing of Syria?

Let me know your views, if you are able to, by the start of next week: http://www.labour.org.uk/page/s/syria-consultation

Yours,

Jeremy Corbyn MP
Leader of the Labour Party

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The Kansas Twister – Kim Davis; the Pope & Same-sex Marriage
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 Why the truth is often stranger than fiction…

 

There is sometimes more to a story than meets the eye. In history context is always king and in that spirit I offer up this review of recent events.

....2C7EEC8300000578-3241331-Pope_Francis_arrives_in_Havana_to_begin_a_ten_day_tour_of_Cuba_a-a-3_1442697539664Pope Francis was amiably chatting to journalists on the way back to Rome after what had appeared to be a public relations triumph in the USA and Cuba. He was at that point – as were the journalists – blissfully unaware that he was about to be swept up by one of those infamous Kansas Twisters which was to drop him without due ceremony into a cauldron of controversy bestirred by an elected minor official of the state of Kansas.

The official in question is Ms Kim Davis.  The controversy was over same-sex marriage. Ms Kim Davis is the serving elected County Clerk of Rowan County and in her capacity as the County Clerk she issues marriage licenses on behalf of the state.

Last Summer the Supreme Court of USA ruled in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges, (576 US).  Briefly stated it ruled 5 to 4 that that the fundamental right to marry is guaranteed to same-sex couples by both the Due Process Clause and Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment of the US constitution. That ruling together with other rulings by Federal Circuit and Appeals Courts effectively legalised same-sex (civil) marriage throughout the USA.

There is no question that this decision was historic. It decisively settled the legal side of this argument. Inevitably such a decision was incapable of changing the minds of opponents to same-sex marriage. This is because this debate over the term ‘marriage’ is not simply a matter of law. It is a subject which concerns cultural, philosophical and religious belief.

Furthermore, in the USA the progress of this argument through the courts and through Congress had touched old wounds from that struggle between State and Federal that was largely fought out in the first century after the Declaration of Independence in 1776 but which still continues to own a resonance today. At the formation of the USA, civil marriage and its regulation remained a matter solely for the Governors and Legislatures of each state. Over time this led more socially conservative states to impose tighter regulations of marriage than others whilst out in the West for example some states permitted faster divorce on less onerous terms, notoriously in Nevada and in particular the jurisdiction of Reno.

After the end of Reconstruction some states imposed racial limits to marriage as part of the segregation Laws which to some extent continued slavery by another means. This led the Supreme Court in the 1950’s to suspend all the race laws as unconstitutional and forced those states to permit and to recognise legally contracted inter-racial marriage. The Civil Rights Movement seems now an historical inevitability – it was not the case as late as the end of the 1960’s. A recidivist minority has since continued to hold the action by the Federal branch was unconstitutional and that marriage is the sole business of the State alone. Ms Davis’s view of that the recent Supreme Court decision was unconstitutional is not without its supporters. Similarly, her parallel assertion that as ‘marriage’ can only be between a man and a woman that same-sex marriage was the equivalent of the homosexual serpent entering the heterosexual Eden that is Kansas – also has its adherents.

Therefore when eager same-sex couples came forward to obtain their licenses to marry and Ms Davis took it upon herself to spoil their gay gumbado, a tornado was bound to follow. She refused to issue marriage licenses to which her name was appended. What followed embroiled the state Governor; the state legislature; the state and federal courts; Ms Davis’s colleagues in the county office; her local church; and the justices of the US Supreme Court in the brouhaha. Ms Davis has taken such a hard line she has subsequently has fallen out with just about everyone who was sympathetic to her cause – bar Fox News and its stalwarts – some of  the political religious right who have made cause with her – and it would appear from subsequent events – the Papal Nuncio, Cardinal Carlo Maria Varga.

Ms Davis objection to same-sex Marriage –  whether principled or opportunist – resonates with a highly vocal and motivated minority in US society. These activists are the ground troops of a culture war that has been waged across the USA at least since the 1960’s and possibly arguably since the Prohibition movement. It has certainly defined the politics of parts of the USA for the last forty years. Nor can it be denied that the prejudices of this minority in some states almost constitutes majority opinion. More importantly, it also constitutes a powerful, organised and well-financed constituency in the Republican Party.

The states most resistant to same-sex marriage are often the most Republican. They are found in the heart of the Old Democrat Confederacy – the deep south that is now quixotically the Republican heartland – or it belongs to the land-locked, prairie and mountain states in the non-urban middle of the continent. In both cases – but for different reasons – alike perhaps perhaps the Unionists in Northern Ireland – the values of urban American ring hollow and are even despised in these small-town polities. In all these states today the GOP rules; in all these States Revivalist Evangelical Christianity dominates. The biblical literalism of this religion often injects a visceral anti-intellectualism into the culture.

In this inwardness the many virtues of being small-town are too often enmeshed with the vice of being small-minded. This reflects back the worst of its history as most often our many vices do.

1. The Kansas Component.......Reynolds's_Political_Map_of_the_United_States_1856

Kansas sits of the edge of the the Great Plains that once composed the beginning of the fabled American Wild West. At its inception as a territory Kansas was at the heart of another Titanic struggle – the one against institutional slavery that tore apart the USA in the early decades of the nineteenth century. The State gives its name to a piece of legislation that was one of the immediate causes of the American Civil War. The Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854) enabled settlers to new territories to determine for themselves whether or not to permit slavery.

Settlers of these Western territories were attracted there by cheap land and in the main were hostile to slavery. Although they saw it as immoral practically it was also an economic fact that slave-owning settlers from Southern States would have gained a natural advantage over other settlers drawn west who had to would have had pay for any additional labour needed to turn prairie into farmland. Morality may still be dressed in the shoddy of self-interest to striking effect.

The Act therefore broke the spirit (if not quite the letter) of Henry Clay’s ‘Missouri Compromise’ (1820) which had notionally permitted slavery in any new states south of the latitude of parallel 36.30 – with the singular exception of the Missouri where slavery was made legal despite being above the fateful parallel. The Kansas-Nebraska Act limited further westward expansion of the economic model of the Southern States which rested slavery. It was a losing cause but its loss left bitter resentments.

After the Civil War ended slavery and secession, the western territories expanded rapidly always drawing in new scrawny undernourished settlers in from the old world of Europe.  In this new time ‘Kansas’ gave its name anew -as a vulgarism for a flat-chested woman. In the later nineteenth century a ‘Kansas’ bride was the butt of the Music Hall comic for not being – to borrow Oscar Hammerstein II’s lyric from South Pacific – broad where a broad should be broad.

carrienationAbout the same time – the state also became home to the Temperance Movement that swept the plains and mountain states.This was a muscular movement led by women activists and one in particular – Carrie Nation – became famed in Kansas for her uncompromising leadership. Her followers became known a ‘smashers’. They put saloons out of business in well organised mobs that broke more than windows and glasses – they broke the law. They went unpunished. Taking the law into your own hands is therefore part of Kansas folklore in much the same way as the Western movies  later made the icon of the strong man with a gun into a folk-hero. Kansas was quickly in thrall to the Temperance movement in this intolerant incarnation and it was an early state to ban hard liquor (1881). Later, it was reluctant to be parted from its prohibitionist past and it was not until 1948 that the state finally got round to endorsing the 21st Amendment to the Constitution which had repealed Prohibition. Many counties were still dry in the late 1940’s. Even after 1948 Kansas owned a beer culture that was soberly and self-consciously male (and straight).

Since it got a little too inebriated on the cause of Prohibition Kansas has shunned ‘progressive’ causes. It has always belonged to the much more conservative social milieu dominant outside the great American cities – despite the easy-going reputation of Kansas City as immortalised in Oklahoma – and it this conservative culture that gave birth to the remarkable phenomenon of American Evangelical Christianity with its vivid revivalist meetings; its folk-music-style-hymn-singing; its born-again cult of adult Baptism; and above of the mesmerising high-jinx of its fiery preachers.  It is this branch of Christianity that flourished all across the USA in the second half of the twentieth century.  It has enjoyed a certain appeal in uncertain times. Indeed paradoxically, the more the scientific age has challenged the literal truth of parts of the bible the more the certainties of this old time religion have appealed….

This religion is as often as marked often by a particular antagonism to Evolutionary Theory and to Climate Change science. As a belief system it is as mistrustful of science as it is hostile to secular philosophies. It has not found resonance in the Old World. It has had a better reception in the rests of the Americas; in Asia and in Africa where its  stridency and fundamentalism competes with Radical Islam.

moderncomic1In 2005 that the Kansas State Board of Education famously declared Intelligent Design to be a branch of Science. The board’s decision muddied the clear water dividing science and scientific proofs from those commonly used a means to explore ideas in philosophical and religious argument. It also completely misunderstood the working distinction between scientific method – the notion of stating an hypothesis and then testing it by controlled experiment – and that of philosophical deductive argument where ideas are tested by means of question and answer in debate. Whilst the latter has given us a useful tool to test the soundness of abstract ideas it would not be possible by those same methods to deduce for example that it was the HIV virus which caused AIDS. Whatever the Kansas Board of Education thought – if there was indeed much thinking involved in this strangely emotive decision its decision set off an avalanche of ever greater stupidities which thundered about the educational system in the USA burying reason and reasoned argument in its mighty tumble. Ms Davis ideas therefore rest on a cultural prejudice which is often not susceptible susceptible to reason.

Again in Kansas – this unreasoned-ness has from time to time fuelled random acts of violence. For example in 2009 in Kansan Dr. George Tiller was murdered outside his church one Sunday. His crime was that for 36 years that he had performed (legal) abortions at his Wichita clinic. Tiller had long been the focal point of the abortion debate in the State but that Sunday violent argument transcended into violence and Tiller was shot in cold blood. His death once more drew attention to the fact that violent fundamentalism is not the exclusive preserve of Islam or in fact the singular vice of any religion or any secular philosophy.

Human history is littered with the corpses sacrificed on the altar of ideas – good and bad and indifferent. We humans do not need to imbibe too much of any idea before we go crazy and kill people. This is not the exclusive vice of Kansas nor of Evangelical Christians. It is part of the abnormal that is sadly a part of the normal human condition.

If these realities have been hard on Kansas and her brides since those early days the state’s reputation has prospered rather better in fiction. Kansas is of course the home to Smallville – the small town where Superman grew-up. It is also home to the Lineman from Wichita made famous by Glenn Campbell. However, outranking these fictional Kansan luminaries by many degrees of Lux are Dorothy and to her little dog,Toto. They were the subject of a series of children’s books – carried far from their Kansas home on a Twister which landed them somewhere over the rainbow – in the the wonderful world of Oz; with its wizard; its witches; and its Munchkins – a world where the heroine Dorothy was destined to meet and make many new, strange and interesting friends…..

Subsequently – after the later post-war success of the Judy Garland Wizard of OZ movie – the film had initially been a bit of a flop-  the term ‘friend of Dorothy’s’ took on another meaning as it entered the lexicon of gay slang as one of the self-identifying phrases employed by gay men and women to describe themselves and to introduce themselves to one another.

Yet, despite this florid association with gay cliche, Kansas has never been particularly friendly towards the friends of Dorothy. As a state and a culture Kansas was never likely to be glad to be gay. So it on one level should come as no surprise that Ms Kim Davis has been organising her very own witch-hunt against some of the friends of Dorothy.

2. The Kim Davis Component:

...kimdavisMs Kim Davis as noted above is an elected official of the state of Kansas. Currently she is serving as the County Clerk of Rowan County where she had previously served in the unelected post of deputy clerk of the county from 1991 to 2011. She was actually on the Democratic Party ticket in Rowan County in 2014. Again as noted above one of the principal duties of the clerk of the county is to issue marriage licenses. On her election victory Davis told The Morehead News:

My words can never express the appreciation but I promise to each and every one that I will be the very best working clerk that I can be and will be a good steward of their tax dollars and follow the statutes of this office to the letter.” 

It is that last part of her statement which has come back to haunt her. Davis took the oath of office as the county clerk of Rowan County in January 2015; she is serving a four year term due to end in January 2019 and she has not offered to resign her office as she refuses to carry out all the duties involved for which she currently receives a salary of $80,000.

I make mention of her salary as Ms Davis was not exactly a stranger to controversy before her election.

Ms Davis salary as Deputy Clerk came to public notice in 2011 during the time her mother was the Elected County Clerk. In 2011 in addition to her salary of $52,000 Ms Davis earned a further $11,000 in respect of overtime. While Chief Deputy Clerk Davis  took home in excess of $60,000 the remaining deputies in the county – chief deputy sheriff and deputy Judge-Executive for example made do with salaries around $37,000. These other officers were also ineligible for overtime pay. Under pressure from the public the County Fiscal Court reviewed the compensation of clerks in the county and voted unanimously to cut the Deputy County Clerk’s salary by one-third in 2012. Behind this innocent seeming tussle over salaries lay unspoken accusations of corruption and nepotism.

After her mother announced she would not run for re-election in 2014, Davis filed as a Democratic candidate for county clerk. At a candidates’ forum, Davis stated she felt she was best qualified for the position because of her 26 years of experience in the clerk’s office. Davis won the Democratic primary advancing to the General Election against Republican John Cox. Cox made complaints of nepotism during the campaign but voters were unimpressed and Ms Davis won easily.

3. Same-sex marriage component:

If Ms Davis is no stranger to local controversy the same might be said of Ms Davis and marriage. She has herself been married four times. That is a small matter to the state as she has been legally divorced three times. However, she happens to be a member of a church that takes a particularly strong line in matters of sexual conduct. It espouses a biblical literalism and condemns not only homosexual acts and homosexuality; it also holds strictly to the literal teachings of Christ on the indissolubility of marriage. Not only is four-times married Ms Davis challenging her church’s norms it so happens her third marriage ended with her cited as party to an adulterous extra-marital affair with a married man – the man who was to become subsequently her husband number four. Sexual misconduct was very much a private matter until Ms Davis went public on her opposition to same-sex marriage on religious and moral grounds. It is a classic example of people in glasshouses not throwing stones.

As Ms Davis continued to defy the Supreme Court after it had had formally upheld it the civil right to same-sex marriage she said she was acting “under God’s authority”. It was large claim for a small town girl but given she had made it without any sense of irony it is a smaller wonder she should have then also sought out the support of the Infallible Papacy.

None of this has gone down too well with all her fellow churchgoers. Her conduct set off another storm – this time on Twitter and other social Media. Fellow churchgoers have called upon Ms Davis to resign from her public office for breaking her public oath (the one she swore to uphold the US Constitution on taking public office) and to repent her own adultery in public. Others have accused her of not only bad faith and hypocrisy but of public adultery – it has all become very personal  – as one Tweet succinctly puts it:  What if a clerk denied Kim Davis a license for her 2nd/3rd/4th marriage because Christ calls it adultery?

Ms Davis very public refusal to issue marriage licenses has duly garnered her much attention. Her claim to be exercising what she claimed to be a right of conscience also drew in other interested parties some with a very clear agenda of their own.

Ms Davis asked the Governor to permit her to exercise this right of conscience but under legal advice the Governor refused her plea. Ms Davis’s riposte to the Governor was a unilateral public and loud refusal to issue licenses to gay couples.

It must be noted that these events in Kansas are not happening in isolation. There have been a number of incidents of similar nature all across the USA. For example, a ‘Christian’ couple in Oregon has refused to make wedding cakes for gay couples and they too have become minor celebrities. They have been fined for refusing repeatedly to take orders for groom and groom or bride and bride cakes. Their fines have mounted and they are being paid by Evangelical Group. Their struggle is on-going and they’re said to be minded to close down their business.

(No one has quite explained to me why any gay couple would knowingly commission a cake from a homophobic baker but these quarrels are often baked to old family recipes whose special ingredients only fully make sense to those involved.)

In Tennessee there has been a furore over a state Judge refusing to grant a Divorce to a heterosexual couple as he claimed the Supreme Court has made Marriage into legal nonsense. In Mississippi and in Missouri there’s a movement in the State Legislatures to strike down all State Laws on marriage and withdraw state jurisdictions from further involvement in Civil Marriage. It has also rippled out as an issue in the Republican Presidential debates with Ben Carson making the issue very much his own crusade. Carson is some 12 percent clear of Donald Trump in some polls in Iowa.

Like all such disputes as it has continued on more heat than light been generated . The losing side has been tempted to take-up what inevitably will become an unsustainable position. But as history repeatedly informs an old cause lost wins many new adherents.

Back to Ms Davis – as she has taken a public oath to uphold the US Constitution her position is legally and morally considerably different to that of the Oregon confectioners. Ms Davis refusal to issue licenses to gay couples broke her public oath as much as it defied the law. The Federal courts became involved very quickly and they fined Ms Davis as well as over-ruling her.

Given the above, it should not come as any surprise that with Media interest in her case, Ms Davis’s cause drew support from Conservatives like Rush Limbaugh and she quickly came to the attention of  a law firm – Liberty Counsel. This firm was founded in 1989 by attorneys Mathew Staver and Anita Staver. The husband and wife firm is non-profit and its goal is to provide legal services to causes “dedicated to advancing religious freedom, the sanctity of life, and the family.”  On the subject of marriage Matthew Staver has observed:

Make no mistake about our resolve. While there are many things we can endure, redefining marriage is so fundamental to the natural order and the common good that this is the line we must draw and one we cannot and will not cross.”

Mr Staver has organised an annual conference ‘The Awakening’ and has several years running been its keynote speaker. The conference is, in its own words,“an in-depth Prayer and Patriotism event where people are united by love for our country’s freedom and our faith in Christ.” It thereby elides its particular brand of Evangelical Christianity with direct political action. In 2012 for example – the topics covered by the Conference were: Israel, Islam; the LGBTQ Agenda; and Abortion.

The firm has a bit of a reputation for playing fast and loose with facts and only recently ran into trouble by passing off a photograph taken in 2014 at a rally in South America against legalising abortion as being of a demonstration in favour of Ms Davis. Liberty Counsel filed an emergency application to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. By way of response the Court filed a one-line order in which they refused to hear the appeal.

In response to the Supreme Court’s refusal to grant her stay Ms Davis stated: “I never imagined a day like this would come, where I would be asked to violate a central teaching of Scripture and of Jesus Himself regarding marriage. To issue a marriage license which conflicts with God’s definition of marriage, with my name affixed to the certificate, would violate my conscience.”

It was we are told at this stage that Kim Davis came to the attention of the papal nuncio.

4. The Papal Component. 

With the Pope in flight – Ms Davis appeared on US TV to proclaim both God and the Pope were of one mind and were both on-side in her struggle to preserve true marriage. God Fearing Ms Davis not only knows what the Bible teaches and she knows right from wrong and she claimed in this judgement she and Pope Francis were of one mind. 

When Ms Davis announced her meeting with the Pope she implied she had received his endorsement of her stand –  ‘he told me to stay strong’ – suggesting in these few words that the pope knew what she was doing in Kansas and had approved her defiance of the US law. By way corroboration Ms Davis produced two sets of rosary beads the Pope had given her at this ‘private meeting’.

The Vatican was caught off-guard and news of the meeting  between pontiff and Ms Davis. LGBT Media and others more broadly were quick to criticise the pope. Additionally this news over-lapped into the early stages of the Synod Part II which had been assembling in Rome to consider matter relating to the Family. A few days later the Vatican was rocked by a polish monsignor coming-out in a press conference with his partner in tow. and which last year had included some detailed discussion on the Catholic Church’s response to homosexuality.This in turn muddied the waters of two very distinctly matters – clerical sexual conduct and discipline and same sex marriage. We live in an age where celibacy is routinely treated as a synonym for chastity – the latter being a state to which all unmarried Christians are meant to be called and to espouse as a moral ideal, male or female, straight or gay…

In the event accusation was made of hypocrisy and worse. It appeared to some that Pope Francis said one thing in public but in private was taking a different line by supporting groups and individuals opposed to same-sex marriage and those who are defying civil law in various jurisdictions.

The Vatican had refused to comment beyond confirming that Ms Davis did meet the pope but formally pointing out she did not have and would not have been granted a private audience.

It has since emerged that Ms Davis met with the pope in passing with a number of others in series of brief meetings arranged for the papal visit. It has emerged the Pope did not speak with her for any length of time. The mechanism by which the pope’s brief meeting came to pass is straightforward enough. Just as with invitations issued to meet with a President or a Prime Minister; or to be a guest at a Garden Party at Buckingham Palace; or, indeed, to be invited to the US Ambassador’s annual shindig at Winfield House; names are put forward and sponsored by various interested parties. In any event popes princes and presidents have spoken meet with all manner of people with all manner of opinions without creating a moral fuss. It as they say goes with the office.

Be that as it amy,  Pope Francis also met with Yayo Grassi, whom Pope Francis had taught at a Catholic High School in Argentina in the 1960’s and with Grassi’s long-time male partner. The had a private meeting with the pontiff on 23rd September at the Papal Nunciature in Northwest Washington.

Grassi said later that Pope Francis had apologised for the “hurt” his reported comments against Argentina’s same-sex marriage law had caused him personally.  In an interview with the Blade ( a Gay publication) Grassi added “He” (the Pope) “said I have never said any of those things that the press is publishing about me” and specifically referring to criticisms he was supposed to have made over Argentina’s same-sex marriage law Grassi said the pope “said as a matter of fact he never expressed himself about this question. And he” (the Pope “ended up by saying something that to me is so important. He said believe me, in my pastoral work there is no place for homophobia.”

Therefore, whatever is to be made of the Pope meeting with Kim Davis it certainly is not to be seen as an endorsement of her or of her views. Indeed, unlike the gay couple (both of whom are Catholic) Ms Davis belongs to another church which has as strong and as hostile views about the papacy and Roman Catholicism as it claims to have about Homosexuality, Adultery and Abortion.

Subsequently as it has become known that Ms Davis and her lawyers planned in advance to exploit this meeting to further her own political campaign. Her lawyers have now gotten themselves into trouble for being less than honest about facts and have been reprimanded by the state Bar Association for a statement they issued after Ms Davis appeared on TV in which they gave a very false impression of what had happened in the ‘meeting’ between Ms Davis and the pope. When questioned over their assertions in the press release the Stavers conceded they has no idea how the meeting was arranged; who was present and if the pope had spoken to Ms Davis at any length.

In court Ms Davis had claimed her refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples was a matter of political conscience; a matter fundamental to her religious faith; and a matter of her Human Rights. These  of course were issues Pope Francis had chosen as themes for his pastoral visit. The Nunciature says Kim Davis had approached the Nuncio to ask to meet the pope; she claims the Nunciature approached her.

The US Nunciature is the diplomatic arm of the Holy See. It would have assembled lists of names of those to be included in various the classes of audiences with the Pope. Some of these would have been passed over to the Curia to be vetted; the Curia would itself have submitted its own list to the Nuncio and we now know Pope Francis let it be known he wanted some names he wanted to be included – like his gay former student and his partner. Some of these invitees would have been closely scrutinised – mainly those with whom longer audiences were arranged – but those in the largely hand-shaking exercises may not have been that closely scrutinised in Rome.

In these times of globe-trotting popes ensuring the Pope would not be placed in an embarrassing situation is a principal job of any Papal Nuncio.

The current nuncio in the USA is Cardinal Carlo Maria Vega. The cardinal ended in the USA only after he was involved in a turf war within the curia and had a falling out with Pope Benedict XVI’s then Secretary of State, Cardinal Bertello. It is fair to say Cardinal Vargo has a reputation for being hugely talented but also for voicing controversial opinions in a quite undiplomatic way. The strong line he has taken on Same-sex marriage is a case in point. In the Media he has also expressed opinions about homosexuality which are at variance with those of the Pope. His tendency to forcefully express his views has forestalled both his diplomatic and curial careers and he is now near retirement age. Often Vatican diplomats carry on well after 75 but in the case of Cardinal Vargo this is thought to be the final mark on his card. He has now upset two Popes in succession –  two men very different in character and temperament – and it seems unlikely he will be given a third chance.

If the Vatican is left with some egg on its face and some explaining to do……there is both more and less to all of this than meets the eye…

 

 

 

 

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The Impotence of Being Earnest
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Corbyn – the leading player or the laconic Fool?

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In Shakespearean tragedy the Fool is often the wise head who sees what the serious players cannot see. In Shakespearean comedy the Fool often owns a tragic edge that peeps from behind the comic mask. In both cases he can speak truth unto power in a way not permitted to “serious” characters.

The Labour Party has chosen for its leader a man who has spent a long political career earnestly speaking what he believes to be home truths to the powerfully privileged who actually run stuff. In the course of a few months his supporters have cast him as The Doctor; as a Merlin or a Dumbledore; or as the Will Smith ‘Legend’. Corbyn’s victory has given him a chance to script his own starring role. Jeremy Corbyn is now a leading player. Will it be History, Comedy or Tragedy – will it all end well or will he be Labour’s love lost?

.v218-Jeremy-Corbyn-Get-v2Jeremy Corbyn the classic political outsider has arrived at the centre of UK politics if he has not himself yet travelled to the political centre. He was elected Labour Leader by about 60% of the votes cast in the recent election – a total of around quarter of a million votes were cast directly for him. Earthquake; Tsunami – you choose – the similes of natural disaster abound. But catastrophes have rarely come in more prosaic disguise than the shambolic motley of the mildly spoken and earnest sounding Jeremy Corbyn. A vegetarian; a moralist; a humanitarian: the author of this event is as unlike the expected Messiah of the left as any might have imagined. Whilst many about him now holler and shout and whoop for joy – he stands aloof in sandals and shorts – as unfashionably out of step with the times as any sandalled Jeremiah might have been in his time. In the best Labour tradition Corbyn has more of more the whiff of Methodism than Marx in his political sermonising. He is serious; he can be puritanical and he can be tetchy. He is as unflashy as New Labour was glitz and glamour.

Corbyn has come upon the Labour Party leadership much as Senator George McGovern came upon the US Democratic Party presidential nomination in 1972 – from the far outside of the left field. Much like McGovern, Corbyn’s low-key manner has inspired an idealistic cadre of youthful adherents. Therein lies both his strength and his weakness. For those he has inspired are apt to believe in miracles – and his election goes some way to justify their belief. The problem is there is scant evidence that beyond those happy few true believers that Jeremy Corbyn will have a wider appeal. It is always too tempting not to make early easy judgements. Good sense says – wait and see – but for what it is worth Corbyn’s personal appeal and message resonate most with former Labour voters who have drifted from the party in steady numbers since the early 1990’s. The problem is how many of them are there out there and to put it crudely are they living in the right places to make a significant electoral difference?

We have no definitive answer to these questions but early statistical analysis is not altogether hopeful.

.vi-am-corbynCorbyn’s margin of victory was impressive by any scale. No party leader in the history of UK politics has been elected by more votes than Mr Corbyn. Almost 430,000 votes were cast in the Labour leadership election. This compares to the roughly 210,000 votes cast in 2005 in the Conservative Leadership election. It all sounds pretty decisive. It therefore needs some further context. At the next general Election Labour would need something in the order of another 12.5 million votes just to win a bare majority. That is approximately 33% more than the 9 million or so Labour won in 2010 or 2015. The bar is set so very high because Labour cannot rely on picking-up many of the 40 seats lost in Scotland in 2015. Therefore, in order to win at all the party will need to win very big in England – and not just in the bits of England where it did well last time; or where it came close. One of the oddities of the last election was that at its end Labour had many seats with bigger majorities and so did the Conservatives. There are therefore many,many fewer marginal seats that might change hands on swings of 5% or less.

There will be 650 new constituencies next time around. They will all roughly be the same size. The exact impact of that cannot be known until the Boundary Commission does its work but, for example, if in 2020 Labour were to halve the UKIP vote it would not add more than a handful of MPs to the 238 it currently holds. Labour needs a whopping swing of 9.6% to win the barest majority in 2020. Only twice in its history has the Labour Party secured anything like a swing of that scale – 1945 and 1997. In both those cases the enormous swing gave Labour a landslide victory. Yet if repeated in 2020 that almost unprecedented swing would give Labour only a bare overall majority. Therefore, 12-13 million votes is its minimum target. That same number also happens to be roughly double the number of Union members. By way of contrast there were almost 13 million union members in the early 1980’s when Jeremy Corbyn first became an MP. That neatly summarises the journey the UK has taken in those 33 years. The question both for Labour (and by implication for the Unions who now largely bankroll the party) is can a Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn turn back the tide of history in a single election? Corbyn’s age means he will certainly only get a single chance at best to make this dream a reality.

The answer Corbynites give is that it can be done –  there are lots of young voters and they are largely metropolitan voters. They are currently alienated from politics but could deliver many seats to Labour if they can be persuaded to register and vote in numbers. There are similarly swathes of working poor who have also tended over 25 years years not to register and therefore not to vote. The same argument applies to them as to young voters. It is said these two groups are disproportionately attracted to Corbyn and to his radical message. Finally, there are the lower paid blue and white collar voters (many in the public sector) who have done relatively badly from post 1980’s economic settlement and who have suffered most in financial terms in the aftermath of the financial crash of 2007-8.  Again these might be mobilised in numbers which might overturn the patterns of previous elections. This theory rests on no hard statistical evidence and hard evidence is often the only thing that really counts when votes are counted on election night.

Harold Wilson: 'white heat of technology' speechThe last Labour leader to win the party crown from the left of the political centre – (and of the Labour party) –  who successfully went on win a General Election was Harold Wilson. In 1963 many thought Harold Wilson was principled and modern. Later after repeated electoral success Wilson came to be loathed by the left – above all for his unprincipled pragmatism. In 1963 the ideas dominating the centre ground of politics were much more interventionist and collectivist than today. As it happens,  many of Jeremy Corbyn’s economic policies might have been taken straight from the 1964 Let’s go with Labour manifesto. In this sense Corbyn and his shadow chancellor John McDonnell are not quite the Revolutionary hord at the proverbial gates of private property. Neither yet, however, are they quite the Rousseau or Voltaire of our age that some devotees have taken them to be.

Strikingly, it is rather Corbyn’s defence, foreign and social policies that are children of the cultural and sexual revolution that reached its apogee in his youthful flowering in the 1970’s. As it happens Corbyn’s era was also mine. In that time many on the further left of the Labour Party flirted with deeply unfashionable minority causes. The causes of those times were also more complex than often portrayed in happy retrospect. For example some gay campaign groups inadvertently sheltered some suspect organisations – like the Paedophile Information Exchange. The same dubious connections existed in groups ostensibly supporting a United Ireland or a Palestinian Homeland which often had crossover members from the terrorist IRA and PLO organisations. Oppression makes strange bedfellows and the post 1960’s left made cause with many unfashionable minorities but sometimes it was a less than critical friend. As the political importance of the left dwindled in the repeated electoral failures of the 1980’s – bad causes became a left wing cause in their own right – George Galloway’s career perhaps illustrating the maverick worst of this left-leaning political narcissism. Galloway made common cause with all and sundry – even tyrants like Saddam Hussein.

.vcorbyn-dumbledore_3383577bThroughout this time the politics of the left became more and more earnest.Overtly stern perhaps unintentionally dour – over often left wing politics sounded like an angry sermon from an evangelical pastor. If the language and style was a little archaic – shunning Media friendly soundbites beloved of contemporary politicians – it was also unfashionably and self-consciously high on “principles” and as often it inhaled deeply its own rhetoric and got even higher on “principles” as its influence waned within the Labour Party. Militant Tendency had spent its Revolutionary fervour in the barricades of endless party committees. The intellectual left had left them to it and instead pitched their tent in the Olympus of utopian socialism.The political air gets thin up in those dizzy heights and eventually it is hard to do anything more than dream idealsitic dreams.

Then over their high mountain and without any warning marched young General Tony Blair – a latter day Hannibal – leading the elephants of New Labour in a violent rampage over the low lying centre ground of politics. He had outflanked those to his left and to his right. The lofty dreams of the left overnight became a nightmare of political compromise and fiscal obfuscation. The Blair-Brown project was redistribution of wealth by stealth. Even they were surprised at its success. Their tactics of their campaigns were borrowed from the political game plan of Bill Clinton’s New Democrats. There was a genius to it but it always had its naysayers.

Like Thatcher, Blair’s bitterest enemies were always within his party. Today’s hatred of Blair is just as irrational as the adulation that once was his. Grave though his foreign policy failures may be taken to be Blair’s greatest crime in the eyes of those who hate him was his chumminess with George W. Bush. No one complained about his equally close and personal friendship with Bill Clinton or indeed the even apparently more illegal intervention of NATO in Kosovo. Indeed, after Kosovo, Blair’s speech in Chicago on the remit and reach of post Cold War foreign policy was rapturously received on all sides. The rationale for actions later to be taken in the case of Iraq was set out in that speech. Blair’s doctrine was a worthy successor to Truman’s. It was global. Moreover it was also in the tradition of Churchill’s ‘Iron Curtain’ speech in Fulton Missouri in 1946. In Chicago Blair made the case for an activist foreign policy that the leader of the senior partner in the NATO alliance – the USA –  was unable to make for political reasons. Monica Lewinsky and her infamous dress caused Bill Clinton’s impeachment. His domestic arrangements had international consequences and one of them was to make Tony Blair the US administration’s unofficial official spokesman on foreign affairs.

Former+UK+Prime+Minister+Tony+Blair+Gives+iGORWyVO3rVlThe principles of foreign policy enunciated by Blair later were effectively endorsed in the General Election landslide of 2001. Strange to recall now from this retrospect that then in 2001 the left wing of the Labour Party was curiously happiest with Blair’s interventionist internationalism. Claire Short’s Department of International Development was seen as one of the genuinely ‘left wing‘ things done by New Labour. The shambles of Iraq and the questions of weapons of mass destruction aroused strong anti-war sentiment and men like Jeremy Corbyn came into their own once more –  though initially the LibDems under the late Charles Kennedy were the electoral beneficiaries. New Labour began its inglorious retreat under relentlessly hostile fire from within and without the Labour Party. The poison of Iraq gradually seeped everywhere in the Labour movement and like acid it hollowed out the soft centre of Blairism. By the time of the financial crash New Labour was already pretty much a husk.

Hindsight foreseeing all –  in the end not even the scale of the Corbyn victory should have surprised. It was inevitable and even if it came more quickly than expected it had been a long time in the making. The social-democrat-ish flank of Labour – ascendant since 1994 – had not shown itself to own much political imagination and more surprisingly any political heft in the last decade. After the misplaced coronation of Gordon Brown as party leader in 2007 the dominant right in the PLP (Parliamentary Labour Party) repeatedly failed to deal with ‘leadership issues’. It was cowardly; and often as self-serving as it was timid.  From 2008 until 2015 it left leaders in place who were bound to take the party down to terrible defeat. From before 1994 their rationale had been to win power by all means and to do so by compromising pragmatically on principled ends. It turned out they were really not that good a winning by all or any means.Therefore, when the time came this May neither of the two insiders – Burnham and Cooper – seemed to have much fresh to offer that offered Labour any hope of electoral success. Liz Kendall spoke home truths but no one was listening. Corbyn by way of contrast was a veritable Pied Piper. He appeared unaffected and refreshingly direct and even ambitious. He cast his spell far and wide.

.vcobynas doctorTherefore, Jeremy Corbyn’s  time has come because his timing was perfect. He has also been lucky with his opponents. Most successful politicians always seem to enjoy the greatest (undeserved) luck. Ronald Reagan aptly demonstrated how charm may appear to transmute fool’s gold into the stuff from which dreams are made. Luck turned the bit actor on the B movie set into the lead on the world stage. Mrs Thatcher  – after her apotheosis as PM in 1979 –  was lucky in her unfortunate opponents. They always seemed doomed – first a voluble Michael Foot; then an even more voluble Neil Kinnock; both ever ready to talk themselves out of her job. Blair after his ascension to power in 1997 was also lucky in his opponents: first, hapless William Hague in his baseball cap; then coughing Ian Duncan Smith; then the sinister shades of Michael Howard. The election results of 1983 and 1987; and of 2001 and 2005 were almost preordained by Fate. And especially when in 1992 Major pulled of the fourth election win for the Conservatives in a row – and when in 2005, despite the Labour debacle over Iraq, voters were not quite able to abandon Blair.

Politicians by profession overestimate their own long term importance. In that they are always far,far too earnest for their times. For those on the right of Labour it was these foreign policy and social issues more than the economics of fairness agenda that left them unpersuaded by Jeremy Corbyn. The other question Labour has to answer is how many of these Labour supporters will now feel disinclined to vote Labour in the next election – even if they do not vote for some other party. In short for every new voter Corbyn wins for Labour the relevant question is also – how many voters will he lose for Labour?

His first PMQ’s was over-hyped by a Media mad for a news line to follow. His refusal to play the game left an impression that he had wrong-footed Cameron. However, take a careful look at the questions others asked the PM that day. From Northern Ireland and elsewhere there were lots of questions that were pointed to Corbyn’s past. He might not choose to respond to them in the House of Commons to his advantage but these questions will persist and his past connections will be used against him.

Still no one can deny Jeremy Corbyn has certainly got attention – and not all of it in the bad sense. There is however no clear sign of a bounce in Labour’s polling. This is neither a Wilson nor a Blair moment. However both of them were elected when Conservative governments had already become deeply discredited. This government still basks in ratings several percentage points higher than on 8th May. Nevertheless, for whatever reason the Labour party has a spring in its step. Whether it will duly fall flat on its face has to be seen.

One of the oddest things about choosing one’s tribes in one’s life is that the choices made so very young often last a lifetime. This is peculiarly true of politics.The reason the Media pays so much attention to politicians changing party is precisely because it is not that usual. I chose my tribe in my early teens in the early days of the first Wilson government. It caused the first memorable adult row with my dad over Sunday lunch. Later mum, with dad gone, herself came-out as a Labour supporter. It was I guess partly also Catholic thing – the idea of the Social Gospel was very fashionable in Catholic intellectual circles after World War II. Catholics of that generation were encouraged to be very engaged by the causes of poverty and the need to address it. That itself was partly a response to the philosophical challenge posed by the rise of socialism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

My Catholic grammar schoolmates and I also talked politics on the train to and from school in Reading. As we grew up they grew more Conservative but I stuck with Labour and Mr Wilson. As fashions changed in the Labour Party I remained pragmatically convinced that only Labour in government mattered. I was never even in my heady undergraduate days attracted to the left of Labour – soft or hard. I was never read the Tribune. I stuck with the Guardian and New Statesman By the time I got to Leeds, Student Union President Jack Straw had moved on to greater things but even then I regarded Jack Straw as too far to the woolly left.

So it can be seen I’ve been unimaginatively faithful to my early adolescent ideals and my political tribe. Now I am forced to consider it – I’ve also shown the same unimaginative fidelity to my other early tribal loyalties – Irish; Catholic; and Gay.

The same cannot be said of the electorate. Since the 1960’s voters – always apt to have their heads turned by any passing political fashion. They have indeed become serial political philanderers. There are many reasons for this heightened promiscuity and its fact gives hope to all politicians. For Jeremy Corbyn’s many supporters this is a moment of intoxicating hope.They earnestly believe Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell offer something different. Principled;authentic; honest – Corbyn and his ilk have earnestly preached this message all along. The problem with sermons is their sentiments often meet with approval but they rarely change behaviours or truly change hearts. In the longer run in political theatre is show business and speaks many parts. The voters want to be entertained more than improved. Therein lies the terrible truth about the impotence of being earnest. Meanwhile the best advice for old cynics like me perhaps is to keep our own counsel or perhaps even better….with apologies to Wilde..

 

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Matters of principle & matters of Judgment – my vote in Labour Leadership
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Matters of Principle & Defining Realities:

....labourimages (1)Yesterday, I completed my on-line voting in the Labour Leadership race. I did so knowing that it is highly likely if not quite certain that Jeremy Corbyn will be elected the next Leader of the Labour Party and next Leader of the Opposition. It seems as likely he will win on the first ballot. That is the defining reality. I therefore no longer need to calculate how best to cast my vote and I too can vote on the basis of principle. It therefore falls to me to set out why I cannot vote for Jeremy Corbyn and as previously promised, I will also declare how I voted.

The primary context for this election has been the aftershock of Labour’s huge defeat last May. This inevitably means the party has had to consider its future whist still in political anaphylactic shock from the scale of May’s defeat. But politics is a cruel trade and its terms of business most often are brutal.

The same electoral defeat has also triggered a crisis both of identity and of confidence within the Labour Party. Dazed it has struggled to rearticulate if fresh terms the competing values of Social Democracy and Democratic Socialism which have long been co-exited – not always happily – within the party’s big tent.

If the nostrums of New Labour perhaps sound passed their sell-by-date the pragmatic centre of the party has yet to reformulate them in terms that seem attractive to an audience now weary of being told – ‘x’  will not work or ‘y’ is just a failed old idea. Here Burnham, Cooper and to a lesser extent Kendall have struggled – or perhaps more fairly have been perceived to struggle – to say anything new. In fact Cooper in particular gave a good account of the politics of the post-crash decade in her speech in Manchester but by then the Media was following its agenda about Corbyn and the split in the party. Burnham has promised a National Care Service integrated with the NHS whilst suggesting in Wilsonian terms that “Jeremy” must play a big part in the next five years of opposition. Kendall – who has for some reason evoked a visceral misogyny – has argued the party needs to leave it comfort zone of being seen to speak only for sectional interests dependent upon the public sector and the welfare state.

Gordon Brown gave an even more compelling analysis last Sunday – 7500 words of it – and he the broad stakes in the election. Here Brown made the case Blair could not make because of the tainted nature of the Blair legacy on foreign policy. Brown pointed directly to the fact that the left of which Corbyn forms part, has long had a history getting into bed with some very dubious figures  – Hamas, Hezbollah, holocaust deniers, President Assad and not least Vladimir Putin. Jeremy cannot recall some of these close encounters but the camera has caught them and it will speak volumes in an election campaign. Moreover, those like George Galloway, who now is seeking to re-join Labour, supped with not such a long spoon with dictators like Saddam Hussein – a man who was guilty of quasi-genocide.

Still these hard facts have not impeded Jeremy Corbyn’s triumphal progress. Jeremy Corbyn has emerged as an unlikely hero of the hour and of this election. He has been in Parliament for 33 years. He is 66. He has long been a standard-bearer of unfashionable left wing causes as homespun and as unfashionable as his carefully untailored appearance that contrasts so sharply with the cut of New Labour’s suits. It is the contrast – some would say authenticity – that marks out the man and marks out the fresh ideas. The uncontrived exterior seems as freshly minted as a shiny new coin. I conjecture from my seat in the peanut gallery that it is alas as contrived as its novelties are counterfeit.

Mine is one vote out of 610,000; of these some 410,000 have joined the Labour ranks in one form or another since last May. If the hustings are any guide two groups strongly represented within this new membership are the young and union members. Both groups have been at the sharp end of the economics of the past decade – since the financial crash – which has significantly disadvantaged them over other groups – save perhaps for the poorest and disabled. Many who have joined the party have been radicalised by this experience and they strongly reject what they perceive to be the failures of the old politics easily summarised in the term: ‘New Labour’.

The pragmatism of Labour’s conduct in office has, quite inaccurately, come to be described the as ‘neo-liberalism’ of New Labour or even more disparagingly as Tory Lite.

Neo-liberalism is the new ‘’c” word of the left in general. It’s a portmanteau term used in debate disparage free market economics and especially (if somewhat oddly) the policies of the last Labour government. The fact is the last Labour government spent very large amounts of public money in ways no neo-liberal would countenance – for example on very effectively on tax credits; maternity and paternity pay; and child benefit. In fact, however, in this debate facts no longer count.

Corbyn has told the party and his supporters that he offers Labour a fresh start and new thinking and – and that principles are to be their new watchword. Beware any man or woman who retails political principles – they not only come with the unspoken subtext that his or her opponents are possessed of none – they suggest principles alone are the measure of the public good. Inviolate principles are in fact the business of philosophy and religion and their Panglossian kings and turbulent priests but politics as best practised is the art of the possible; the science of the pragmatic; the ascendancy of the small differences adding up in time to something much bigger.

The Corbyn offer has included in addition to reopening mines; investing in ‘real industry’; renationalising the public utilities and the railways; not renewing Trident; reducing defence expenditure and spending the money on jobs; leaving the NATO alliance; putting LGBT at the heart of foreign policy whilst engaging with Putin and Russia; (perhaps) leaving the EU and generally “anti-austerity” painlessly financed by taxing the rich more and increasing public borrowing. He claims this ‘investing’ in the public weal can be done whilst also reducing simultaneously the public debt and increasing economic growth. This particular idea – not necessarily a bad idea – is not new idea – in fact it is the same idea as the one that has just crashed in flames on the doorsteps in last May’s election.

Good or bad, as ideas go not one of them can be called new. Many of the economic ideas have been tried before and failed in the mid 1970’s. Though there are many who shout: this is not the 1970’s or 1980’s. That is true. However, it hardly makes a case for trying them again. At least when they were last tried they possessed the virtue of being applicable to the economic circumstances of the world as it was. Time has moved on; the economics of the world has moved on; the financial markets have moved on: we might not like this different reality but it is the reality from where we are and from where we must go forward.

Being anti-austerity on the centre-left is alike Motherhood and apple-pie. Anti-austerity is a phrase which many agree about in principle but differ over what it means in practice. The version of anti-austerity Jeremy Corbyn articulates on the part of the unreconstructed Labour left is not at all the same anti-austerity as that of SYRIZA or Podemus. Theirs is based of membership both of the EU and the Euro Zone. Corbyn‘s offer is unilateralist in temper; pacifist in tone; it takes little or no account of treaties which bind the UK’s economic conduct – like the EU treaties; membership of IMF; the World Bank and GATT.

Amongst the rebranding of old ideas as new there was one idea that has sounded sound genuinely new – Corbyn’s suggestion that a Labour government could use QE (QE is Quantitive Easing; it’s the mechanism the Bank of England has used to increase the liquidity of banks’ assets by swapping government bonds held by them for cash) as a painless means of financing public investment in housing building and acquiring assets like the Utilities or the Railways from the private sector. It has played well to audiences up and down the county and has been repeated to great applause. It is widely known using any Central Bank for such purposes will break the terms of the UK’s membership of the EU, IMF, World Bank and GATT. It is the financial equivalent of making a single-entry in system of double-entry accounts. It does not add up.

The matters of principle which influenced how I used my vote are those which reflect this role of the UK in the wider world: its membership of the EU; NATO; the IMF & World Bank together with its role as a Permanent Member of the Security Council and signatory of the Convention on Human Rights and founder of the European Court of Human Rights. It may appear odd that these foreign matters matter so much to me but they matter precisely because they are the expression of values of solidarity and democracy are the foundation for the successful social progress since 1945.

That progress has transformed the lives of many to which I am as a 60 year old gay man in the UK a most particular witness. I’ve seen and lived the accumulation of argument and persuasion and small incremental changes have added up to something very big indeed. I think that is the path of consistent reform to which the Labour Party must continue to be committed; and to which in my view the party must continue along. If it takes the shortcut of the big gesture politics it will ultimately lead only to another catastrophic defeat.

To put it is a nutshell voters are sceptics not true believers. Like all sceptics they need to be persuaded. Voters are little interested in policy and principles; they’re interested in their lives. If we can persuade them we will make their lives better they will vote for us in large numbers. Thus far, Jeremy Corbyn has preached to enthusiast believers. Indeed he has fired many of them to re-join a Labour Party they felt had left them. He has re-connected with a large group of young voters who sees nothing inspiring in the New Labour since many of them were themselves children when New Labour was born in 1994. It was part of their life; inevitably they see it as part of the problems they live with day to day.

........tapeimages (1)Politics turns in cycles and sometimes you cannot persuade by recourse to the example of history and its wisdom. Each generation has to be permitted to choose for itself and to learn for itself from its choices. The priorities of democratic socialism will counter-intuitively be achieved by gradualism rather than revolution. I believe Liz Kendall or Yvette Cooper can best deliver that and therefore I’ve voted for them in that order. Others will choose differently and I do not doubt I will be on the losing side. It is however, the better side of this argument and I believe the majority of the party will in its own time come to share that view.

Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn’s mission statement is marked – “open carefully this contains the new kind of politics”. I suspect it will self-destruct in the manner beloved of those mission tapes in the opening sequence of that 1970’s classic – Mission Impossible. Retro is the fashion of the times and Jeremy’ like his hero Tony Benn, is of the vintage of the tape-recorder.

However, we now live in the Digital Age; there is no going back; no rewind; only faster and faster forward. Labour needs someone who thinks in those terms to take us forward……

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Twilight at Gwern ddu
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                                       Twilight at Gwern ddu

It’s Wales – the rolling marcher lands that border England – the lands where waltzing time stands still and everything is still the same.

There are no trains, no cars, no planes in their fancy flights; no rumbling underground; no sirens screaming; no throbbing disco sounds; no blue neon flash to disturb dreaming. There’s no jingling ringing tone; no callers calling home; no bad reception here; or there no satellite; nothing to trouble twilight.

This tranquil country looks as if freshly brushed to life by Constable or, as if exhaled in elegiac couplets from some poet’s secret hide. There’s a hush unrushed: angelic whispers soft spoken by the landscape.

How is it, our city-sky-scapes scintillate with unnatural light but words simply can’t illuminate the bright-cut of the fading day? Why, with data streaming speeding faster, ever faster, do beams of such serenity so surely slip us by? Spellbound by the miraculous glare of tiny hand-held screens must we earthbound bypass twilight’s magic touching every blade of grass?

It’s July – the third week of the month – it’s not been a hot day – not like some hot summer school day warmly remembered – nor like the humid daze of London’s dog-days – that sultry heat in which sweating, sticky, sickly, city-slickers swelter sleeplessly.

The day has been as cool as crisp cotton sheets. It has left behind an apprising dusk that’s chillier still – colder than cold cucumber soup – but in its late loitering there’s all in all of summer’s highest peak – its lightness lightly caressing the grassy fields and softly stroking the troubled brow of the timeless hills.

As light fades strange shadows wrap the undulations of the land. The cattle’s bass echoes over the wide pasture; the sheep’s bleating chases it into an echoing sky. No Shropshire lad’s new wedded bliss could ever better this or landed wealth endow richer reward.

The orange glory of the sun is gone – its blazing disc has tipped behind the highest ridge – as if the balance of some law has been upset and fine light judges the present day lost. Daytime hangs-on by the very last threads of daylight’s rope – guilty light – drawing on the last breath of a dead day done.

The sheep move towards rest – white dots in clusters by the hedgerows – or dotted in the woodland shades – or under the canopy of a solitary tree that holds them in its gentle sway. The cattle too slowly chew their languorous way towards the hedged edges of the pasturelands as the shadows creep across hilly grassland; its ever green deepening shade by shade as patchwork-fields yield one by one to night’s advances.

The hills’ crests soften in this shadow-time leaving the trees etched along their outline like finger puppets in a shadow play – maybe there’s a cockerel proud – or maybe a fox’s snout pokes from the blacker woods into lighter shades.

The sun has left the heavens but midnight’s starry children are yet unborn to night; the bewitching moon’s rakish wraith hasn’t risen; only day’s late lustre lights the sky.

There fluffy puffs of streaking clouds flirt nakedly with a flighty breeze whose surusso plays airy music with the rustling leaves.

Like morning breaks the sweetness of a dream the patient gloaming brakes the fading day and extends its hour beyond the point of light even as day’s umbrage wrestles to restrain the arm of amorous night.

And of all of this I keep watch as many more before me have watched such days close and seen the final ripples of daylight enfold the sheep in sleep.

I watch – lonely shepherd to this time – the one who alone keeps the watch this single night – not a great man who shepherds many sheep – but a solitary sentinel shepherding my own life’s passing keep for my time too runs further down at each sun’s decline.

In this gloaming, I see shadows of my young-self roaming in the lightless fields of youth; I hear my shrill laughter ringing back as if chiming with the baaing sheep; my lowing thoughts amble by the cattle’s evening creep; my lost life as indistinct as the contours of the distant hills.

Why do I return to the past here – here, in the moving quiet of this waning day – why here do I recall the trivial shadows of a trivial past that’s merely moairn on the slopes of history?

My rap repeats not for wasted chance; or for life’s cruel dice cast on the wrong side of romance; or for those, by accident of birth, life mirthlessly leaves outside the gay insiders’ girth.

My elegy is not that these hills will outlast me as they have outstared so many curious eyes; or so out-breathed so many breathless sighs; or so ignored so many dead replies.

Wistful tears are life’s eternal due; their lonely fall comes by Fate’s unfeelingness, like GPS, seeking out each of us and putting us precisely in our place.

My life has danced fleetingly over the purlieu of the earth leaving no mark- no more than any twilight reverie imprints itself in memory – once gone it will be as if I was never here – as if tonight I never stood upon this nethermost point – near life’s ending spit half-lit in distant horizons – at that very end that like the passing day will finally give way to the solitude of – of – of some pointless night.

It is not fearful; nor a matter of regret; it is not to be avoided. I do not wish to forget its pretty inevitability. It is shatteringly beautiful owning only this momentary. It makes all seem bright; alive; quite unlike my dull life.

Here in this wilderness I’m important if only because like sin I darkly reflect upon these things; and, in the moment I still time; then I am still.

And if I dare to feel with whom would I dare to share my altered state?

If I am alone then like the baaing sheep no one can equally equate my singular view no matter the inky flood of sage words drowned upon this page.

Or, is there God alone with whom I can alone engage? Am I – am I truly in His image or is He merely the image of my vanity?

The hills in fading light are so fragile; they are reshaped by losing light; like me, the trees become mere shadows of all they once were. The hillside sheep too are lost, only lonely voices from the charcoal fields; the cattle too seem to be all gone.

There’s little left to see – maybe the sheep and cattle are there no more – maybe I’ll not wake at dawn to see them all appear unchanged as doubtless all will be. Will they be forever gone if I’m forever gone and no longer conscious of their reality?

And then is there nothing: or, is there God? Is He out there in the fading light of day? Is it He as quiet and as purposeful as ever in the teaming smallness’s of our tiny lives? Out there in His light might we still stand out – remembered – not because we’re important or because we deserve not to be forgot – but because – like the shaded landscape – while lost to sight – we are never lost entirely for we are ever loved – and being greatly loved by Him perhaps some of His greatness still resides within.

Looking up into the sky I watch as the first shaft of stars prick the dark with points of light; now I also see the moon has risen to rule the night in her white majesty.

I will go quietly to bed – mindful mine aren’t great thoughts – still, as twilight gleans meaningful light to dead day’s dying content so, surely, from my inevitable end may my mean thoughts also steal slight enlightenment?

 

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Part II: The Labour Leadership – the apple of discord
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labourimages (1)Picking the right apple from the left branch…..

Apples and humankind have a long association. From Eden to Snow White it seems the apples turns up to make difficulties where there ought to be none. Most famously the golden apple of discord was made by Hephaestus for the goddess Eris. It was inscribed: for the most beautiful. She rolled it into the midst of a party hosted by Zeus to which Eris had not been invited. Eris was the don’t bring Lulu of the eternal Olympians.  Hera, Athena and Aphrodite each insisted the apple was meant for her alone. They asked Zeus to decide and like men are apt to do when asked to make a difficult choice Zeus delegated the task to Paris –  one of the sons of King Priam of Troy renowned for his good judgement.

...the-judgment-of-parisThe story goes the goddesses duly disported themselves naked before the lucky Paris – a scene immortalised again and again in European art –  but – none of them quite playing fair –  each offered the Prince a ‘gift’ if he chose her. Paris fatally chose Aphrodite’s gift: the love of the most beautiful woman in the world. The woman in question was Helen of Sparta who was already married to Menelaus of Greece. Aphrodite got her golden apple; Paris got his Helen; the Greeks got to launch a thousand ships; and Troy got its infamous war. The Judgment of Paris therefore turned out to decide much more than who got to take home the golden apple.

It is my sense of things that this Leadership in the Labour Party is similarly to be a fateful decision.

There are four chasing Labour’s golden apple – Andy Burnham; Yvette Cooper; Liz Kendall and Jeremy Corbyn. Like the goddesses before each feels he or she should win the golden prize. The PLP (Parliamentary Labour Party), having nominated the choice, like Zeus has stepped aside leaving the membership to play the judge. Like in the myth these modern gods of politics disport themselves before the naked eye of the ever watchful Media and like their forbears they also beguile us with flattering promises.

The question for us is whom to choose and why.

The Leadership –  an offer of hard choices and soft options:

..........labour.....images (1)The man who went into this race as favourite is Andy Burnham – former Health Secretary and Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham is a family man; a Catholic; born in Aintree he is a Liverpudlian and importantly he speaks with that accent – which contrasts with the metropolitan tones of all the other candidates. Burnham has gained a lot of credit personally for his support and work for the survivors of Hillsborough disaster. Like Wilson before him he holds out the promise of the authentic Englishness of the north. His most distinctive policy – the creation of an integrated NHS & Social Care Service is bold. It also has strong echoes from the proud past of Attlee. It has twice been aired as a manifesto item and twice – under Brown and then Milliband it has failed to make the final cut into the manifesto.

The other experienced candidate is Yvette Cooper, briefly Shadow Foreign Secretary and then Shadow Home Secretary for most of the last Parliament, Cooper served in the Brown government as Secretary of the Treasury and Secretary of State for Work  & Pensions. She too is married – to Ed Balls who lost his Leeds seat in the debacle last May.  She and Ed Balls were the first married couple to serve in the same cabinet. Cooper’s campaign pitch has been about equality and she has been scathing about the way both the women candidates in the election have been treated by the Media. She suffers alike Hillary Clinton from the Media preoccupations about her husband.

Both these candidates seemed to have chosen a safety first style of campaign that was both relatively cautious and frankly deliberately dull. This turned out not to be what the party was in the mood for and consequently it has had the effect of pushing the two outsiders into the frame.

From the ‘right’ Liz Kendall has taken up what others have chosen to characterise as the Blairite torch. Kendall is a newish MP – elected in 2010 – and representing Leicester West  – she was born in Hertfordshire where she grew up. In that she aptly personified the problem for Labour since the world she knows best is the one that does not know nor love the Labour Party.  In the current mood for some in the party and some outside the word Blair ignites a visceral response.  Kendall’s challenge to the party is  that it needs to leave its comfort zone.

She suggests the party has been successfully tarred with being only concerned with appealing to a narrow band of public service workers and the working poor and has thereby permitted itself to be portrayed as supportive of a dependency state caricatured as ‘welfarism’. She argues Labour must rather look to the concerns of the middling sort who prosper in places like Herfordshire and the old Home Counties.  Labour needs to win them over in order to win an election. The rhetoric has been bold but Kendall, like Cooper, has lacked a single illustrative policy specific to help her make her case – or perhaps Kendal has such specifics in mind but feels they cannot be aired until after she has the apple of leadership in her hand. Either way it has hampered her campaign and she seems to be the fourth placed at present.

Last night she did win a constituency nomination in Vauxhall. Despite the Media narrative this election may be somewhat more fluid than first impressions give.

By contrast it is the fourth and, at the outset least favoured candidate, Jeremy Corbyn, who has, if the Media are to be believed,  set this election on its head. Corbyn has been MP for Islington since 1983. He entered Parliament in the same year as Tony Blair. He has been there since – a part of the old left that once looked to Tony Benn. He is a socialist is that mould and not a social democrat. He is courteous, persuasive and rather alike some aged sage of King Arthur or Tolkien’s Middle Earth he utters his inscrutable wisdom to star struck applause. Corbyn is only on the ballot by the kindness of strangers in the PLP since he could not muster the necessary 35 votes on his own account. His meetings are now packed with the relatively young and a number of those true believers long lost to Labour. He plays the old revivalist tunes with aplomb. He is rather more ambitious that the polite manner and studied eccentricity of dress and demeanour might first imply.

During one interview on Channel 4 Corbyn quite lost his temper when probed about speaking of Hamas and Hezbollah as his friends. In the main he has kept to his script of nationalisation; of attacking poverty by radical redistribution; of investing in public services (code for higher wages in the public sector); abolishing fees in Higher education; a strong line on gender and sexual equality; an equally strong empathy with immigrant community issues; a non-nuclear  defence policy – with at times a slightly pacifist tinge. Though there is little new per se in any or all of these causes, Corbyn’s clarion has turned out to have a wider resonance than many wise saws saw. He has appealed to disillusioned voters who have left Labour ever since the early 1990’s and also to the younger better educated metropolitans who feel Labour has been unambitious in its recent past. The response of these groups has been genuine and genuinely unexpected. In a political world where the diet of soundbites has left voters feeling well and truly stuffed – there is something almost Franciscan in this would-be Savonarola demanding we embrace the poorer in our communities – cast off the gods of mammon and its creed of trickle down economics – and make a bonfire of vanities of consumerism. Tempting as it is to sneer – Corbyn has hit upon something genuine. Only a fool would not reflect upon that and upon what is means.

The problem here is it may mean any number of things – and none of them together may mean there’s enough to win an election on this diet of worms. Equally, it may be the public has a real appetite for something radically different.

Labour in opposition 2010-2015

..................labour millibandimages (1)Though it has hardly been mentioned –  the context for all of this soul searching is the corpse of Ed Miliband’s leadership. Ed’s leadership has not yet received its decent burial and therefore no one feels quite comfortable talking about it whilst its corpse is still in the committee room.

There is a proxy for this discussion in the familiar form of an older, greyer leitmotif: Tony Blair. This leadership election is alive off-stage and on; in front of camera and off-camera; everywhere in Social Media with Tony Blair. There are: Blair haters; Blair baiters; Blair fêteers. Blair – Labour’s most electorally successful leader by some considerable distance – is a divisive figure these days.  He is a cult hate figure for some and an occult charm for election winning for others. His current position in Labour history is the the very same as the one suffered by other successful election winning Labour leaders –  Attlee and Wilson.  Important though New Labour was and important though Blair was neither of them are precisely germane to this election. For the context is only the very recent past. The electoral failure of the Milliband leadership provides both the direct context how it was we have the four candidates we have; and the wider the context about whither the party should go. Had Labour won or come close to winning Ed Milliband would still be in his place.

The cruel fact is that once Labour lost the 2011 Scottish elections by an even greater margin than it had lost them in the pit of unpopularity of 2008, Ed Miliband’s leadership was holed beneath the waterline. The party – PLP and centrally did nothing – the Unions grumbled – everyone hoped for the best – hoped the Scots would not turn to the SNP in the Westminster elections. Wishful reasons were offered time and again to suggest there was a path to victory which frankly did not challenge the party to do more than cut and paste bits and pieces of past policy on to a fresh page. The polls provided Delphic encouragement. The mayoral elections in 2012 were another warning – a London that was voting Labour in ever greater numbers re-elected Conservative Boris Johnson as its mayor. The Labour candidate Ken Livingstone was almost a throw-back to the politics of the 1980’s  – the politics which also brought Jeremy Corbyn to Parliament and which corbyn still articulates. Livingstone was a talented mayor and an original thinker but by 2011 he had no new ideas – they were re-treads of very old tunes. He lost by a whisker but the fact is Labour ought to have won the mayoralty by a mile. It was another warning about the need to have the right candidate at the top if it wanted to win – and not the just the candidate of the right or the left or the centre.

This was all in sharp contrast to what Ed Milliband himself had offered in 2010. Recognising the scale of the 2010 defeat Ed suggested the terms of electoral politics had been decisively altered by the crash in 2008 and the public was ready to try something new and radical. It was time to challenge the orthodoxy of free markets and culture of free lunches for bankers that had held sway since the late 1970’s. It was time to replace Thatcherism – the capitalism of unfettered markets and trickle down economics with a new model. Many thought that this was a compelling analysis – the problem was did Miliband’s leadership ever really test the idea in more than rhetorical allusion? The answer to that question might well determine how to cast a vote – for if it is yes, then Corbyn is surely only a repetition of a failed idea; if it is no, then Corbyn may be the answer for which the party is looking.

There is, however, a further context to all this – young Ed got the top job by a squeak  – his victory in the Trades Union section of the party outweighed by a fraction that of his brother in the PLP and amongst party members. Ed had squeaked out his own brother. As a result Labour lost a man of unquestionable talent and one who had the range to communicate complicated ideas in simple language without simplifying issues themselves. Labour’s losses of communicators over time has been punishing: John Smith; Donald Dewar; Mo Mowlam; and Robin Cook were taken by death but lost to party rivalries were David Miliband; James Purnell; Alasdair Darling; Gordon Brown; Jim Murphy; Douglas Alexander. Ed Balls fell in the election and now Ed Milliband is himself lost to frontline politics. The loss of forty Scottish MP’s has decapitated the Party North of the border. Labour has wasted a generation of talent.

There were plenty of chances for Labour and particularly for the PLP to seize the day and deal with the leadership problem that had existed certainly by 2012. As in the dolour days of PM Brown the PLP and the party chose to stick its collective head in the sand and hope for the best. There was talk by insiders of disaster ahead though possibly the scale of defeat came as a nasty surprise.

Those of us who has sat through the elections of 1987 and 1992 knew all too well what was in store when the LibDem constituencies fell to the Conservatives one by one last May. The scale of what was in the offing probably only really came into clear view during and after the Scots referendum campaign. The Scots referendum exposed soft underbelly of Unionist Labour loyalties in Scotland. Westminster had permitted Gordon Brown and the Scottish Labour Party their last hurrah but before they could savour saving the Union Mr Cameron on the steps of Downing St calmly cut the ground from under Labour both in Scotland and in southern England by declaring there now must be English votes for English Laws.

The Conservative party’s message was not subtle. It was carefully calibrated to be effective in those seats traditionally ‘conservative’ seats in the South and South West of England where the LibDems had been elected and re-elected since 1997. These were the very seats that had provided Thatcher with her majority in the 1979;1983;1987; and even Major in 1992. The Conservatives  successfully concentrated in 2015 on regaining these seats. They were helped by the fact the LibDem brand had been destroyed by the coalition and Labour’s collapse in Scotland to an SNP to its left made an even narrow overall Conservative majority as good as a landslide.

The last Judgment?

Labour-rose-199x2203So by the long circuit I return to my original supposition. This choice is less about me and more about the future I would like for my great nieces and great nephew(s). It is a false choice I pose in these terms since because as a family we have prospered in our lives all of our kin will also be blest with advantages that accrue with education and a financial inheritance that can offer opportunity. I am less clear and more concerned for those born today like me or my sister or brother at somewhat of a disadvantage.

One of the deepest impression of my school days was made on me by Thomas Gray: Elegy written in a country churchyard which mourns the waste of talent lost by accident of birth.

Full many a gem of purest ray serene, the dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear: Full many a flow’r is born to blush unseen,  And waste its sweetness on  the desert air.

The churchyard in question was Stoke Poges not far from Wexham Park hospital which in many ways epitomises the good and the troubled bad that is within the NHS. Our Public Services are part of the fabric of our civilisation – they play a part not unlike the monasteries and guilds in the Middle Ages. They stand as an inter-generational guarantee to some sort of coherent opportunity for all. The far right and far left both preach a dissolution of this old order of civic decency and to replace it with something radically different. Neither to be honest can truly describe the consequences of what they suggest. Socialism that actually changes lives accepts as part of its effective creed the inevitability of gradualism. It does so in part because it accepts the costs of revolution are usually too high and too wasteful to those who live in the injustice of the here and now. The creed of Democracy is of continuing reform because the wheel of progress is as yet too much a wheel of fortune. Despite the blandishments offered to me by Jeremy Corbyn of true change – whatever that might amount to in time – I do not think Labour can risk not winning the next election. Equally I do not think the party cannot but sit up and consider the reaction to his candidature.

Unlike Paris in his judgement I get a number of bites at my final Judgement. For the present I am honestly and totally uncertain as what to do for the best. I think we now need to hear the how candidates respond to those whom Jeremy Corbyn has engaged and even enthused. I will honestly say personally I’d like a woman to lead the party. I just think it’s time. But in the end I must try and choose the best candidate I can. I promise to make this public once I have completed my ballot in two weeks from now. It is not for me to tell others how to vote but to rather persuade them what to consider when casting their ballot. Thomas Gray casting his eyes about the graveyard put into words what is a stake in that telling phrase – their lot forbade.  It must be part of our endeavour neither to shut the gates of mercy nor close the doors of opportunity on those not born to opportunity of right. It is our job to give them that chance. That is their golden apple and they deserve to get it as of right.

Some village-Hampden, that with dauntless breast
The little tyrant of his fields withstood;
Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
Some Cromwell guiltless of his country’s blood.
Th’ applause of list’ning senates to command,
The threats of pain and ruin to despise,
To scatter plenty o’er a smiling land,
And read their hist’ry in a nation’s eyes,
Their lot forbade: nor circumscrib’d alone
Their growing virtues, but their crimes confin’d;
Forbade to wade through slaughter to a throne,
And shut the gates of mercy on mankind.
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