the purloined letter of british politics (or how the tories won the social argument)

Labour lost the last general election painfully.

This, from the Guardian‘s Patrick Wintour, indicates exactly by how much.  Brutally and perhaps unfairly sketched, the bubble that wonkish leaders of all parties acquire leads to a disconnect from reality.  Just because you have four million doorstep conversations with voters doesn’t mean the message you think you’re transmitting four million times is the one that’s being received.

Sadly, and despite all the social-media tech, Labour didn’t only continue politics’ age-old habit of broadcasting its positions (with some honourable exceptions – the trend-bucking constituency of Chester where I live being one interesting example worthy of further discussion and debate), it also stopped having conversations from scratch.

The script, the spiel, the positions were in fact set in #EdStone

In hindsight, quite despite my own equally filtered perception at the time, it was a revealing self-analysis of how monolithic Labour’s instincts really were.

So.  Where are we at today?  After the grieving of losing a generation-, maybe a quarter-of-a-century-, defining election, what must we do to be able to carry on?

Firstly, accept the Tories have won all of the arguments – even, in particular, most importantly perhaps for the gentler souls we progressives are, the social arguments.  Secondly, suspect they may only win them in practice if we decide to accept they have won them.

A little too oracle-like for your liking?

Let me try and explain.

Labour’s failure at the election has been primarily interpreted as one of leadership: Ed Miliband’s.  I think I agree.  That is to say, I think it was a matter of leadership – but not just Ed’s.  Ours, as supporters, members and voters as well.

In Chester, this was not the case.  Here we had a very strong candidate: personable, cross-political, decent, respectful, hard-working – above all, a man who shows he listens and actively acts on what he hears.  And such leadership as I describe from Chris Matheson helped both circumscribe and motivate & inspire – that is to say, open up – the leadership expressed by ordinary people at all levels during the campaigning.

Contrast the national experience with the local: whilst Chris’s success was due to a number of happy factors coinciding, where he did not sell us short was in his understanding of modern leadership: not declamatory, not 19th century kings-and-queens leadership; no, something else – he enabled our better instincts.

He encouraged us all to become leaders – in amongst our local and personal networks, in amongst our local and personal selves.

Ed, too, for me at least, was looking to be that enabling and facilitating 21st century politician.

The failure that took place, then, the dramatic disconnect, was his inability not to proclaim Blair-like his charismatic positions (Chris didn’t take that route either, interestingly) but, rather, to convince us it was worth our time and energy to follow him into the challenge of shared leadership.

Labour failed not only because of Ed’s leadership as traditionally understood but also because none of the rest of us found it in ourselves (for whatever reason) to show enough leadership alongside.

That’s how I see it anyhow.

That’s what I think went fundamentally wrong.

Now to the subject of today’s post: the Tories, and their winning of the social argument.

It’s analogous to the case of Labour and Ed.

As Wintour concludes (the bold is mine):

Miliband’s closest advisers are aware of how quickly, and dramatically, his own legacy will now be discarded. “Just as it would have been foolish to trash everything about New Labour, it would be similarly foolish to throw away what was good about Ed’s leadership,” Tom Baldwin said. “At its best, it faced up to the big challenge of progressive politics in the 21st century, which is how to achieve the goals of social justice in an era when we can’t spend. […]”

Yet, in reality, whilst seen as one undeniable plus of the Miliband era, whilst he framed the questions brilliantly, it was the Tories who were seen as providing the answers.

Take this story from today’s Independent:

Hailey Ford, a 9-year-old girl from Bremerton, Washington, is hard at work building 11 small homes for the homeless.

She has been putting in weeks of work on the shelters, drilling down bases, installing windows and cutting insulation.

“It just doesn’t seem right that there are homeless people,” Hailey told KING 5 News. “I think everyone should have a place to live.”

Yep.  It’s the blessed – or not so blessed – Big Society come to bite us in the bum again.

People who do, instead of just bewail.

People who act in the real world, instead of warn us – doomingly – of the evil consequences of this or that.

That’s what the Tories have been saying all along.

That’s been the subtext since 2010 – and maybe earlier.

It hasn’t changed.  Yet like Edgar Allan Poe’s purloined letter, it’s been sitting all this time on the mantelpiece of British politics – in complete full view of an unseeing, at least unbelieving, public.

And the reality we’ve refused to take onboard?

“There is no money available which those who own the world’s wealth are prepared to release for humanity: for community, for livelihoods, for ordinary men, women and children.”  This is the brutal, cruel, disgraceful reality.  And there’s little we can do about it.

Little realistically, anyhow.

Or is there?

I tweeted the following this morning:

And I wondered if:

To be honest, I think there’s something else.  I don’t really think I’ll ever be a small “c” conservative.  I think what’s happening here is that we’ve allowed “disruption” to become sexier than “collaborating”.  And I think it’s time we revised our opinions.

Just as much as Ed Miliband’s Labour needed our fairly non-existent leadership qualities in order to operate as it should’ve done, so Cameron’s future governance will heavily require our ability to work with him on his project of devolving local governance even further.

For that’s what his purloined letter is really all about: he’s not a Thatcherite in this either.

Thatcher didn’t believe in society, did believe in greed as a fundamental driver.

Cameron, meanwhile, whilst covering all his business-crony bases, nevertheless does see beyond the dirtiness of Thatcher’s rather more limited vision: in Cameron’s world, each of us, personally and individually, must take charge of our own duty to lead.

If we in Chester want to make a success of local governance, we cannot depend on anyone else to do it for us.

It will be the same across the country: cruelly so but truly so.

And the bitter pill we will have to swallow, barely into the jaws of a political defeat so hurtful, is that in order to be successful in our own radii of action, we have to accept that Cameron was right.

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