what happens when democracy ignores you?

It happened in Blair’s time.  The Iraq War mobilised millions.  Maybe not a majority, not then.  Though you’d be hard put now, after everything that’s emerged, a bit in hindsight, a bit out of a prior obfuscation impossible to sustain forever, to find too many people too keen any more to associate themselves with its supposed blessings.

It then seems that the period between May 2010 and May 2015, here in the UK, became an extended example of this.  (Not in the nature of the conflict, of course: Iraq wasn’t a developed country deliberately imposing from within austerity economics on its own people.  Rather, it had been a pretty evil dictatorship – is there any other? – which an interventionist liberalism felt obliged to engage with.

Or at least, with respect to the Blair side of things, I think that’s how it started out.)

But, over a fairly long five years, Ed Miliband’s Labour always struggled to battle it out with the Tory/Lib Dem Coalition.  I don’t think it was a lack of knowing how to exactly: what to say, what to do, where to set up alliances.  More, I believe, it was because like any vicarly type – and I think Ed Miliband is definitely one such person – his leadership didn’t have the heart to kowtow to the violence the Coalition offered up.  To meet the Coalition on the playing-field they’d designed from the outset.  That of serious conflict.

Meantime, Miliband’s Labour believed in conversation.  It truly was born of social-media tropes.

Corbyn’s Labour won’t be, I can assure you.  They’ve already shown themselves capable of using it to their advantage, that is true.  But social media for them will be a tool to fight, not converse.  And that is what happens when democracy ignores you.  Five years of being ignored bodes an awful future for those – ie Cameron & Co – who did so much of the ignoring.  No wonder the latter are already indirectly painting Labour members and supporters as Fifth Columnists:

It’s a savage game they’re continuing to play – but no more nor less than their precursor, the Coalition, played for those five years we’ve discussed:

Jeremy Corbyn represents “a threat to our national security, our economic security and your family’s security” according to an aggressive attack message the Conservatives released hours after his election as Labour leader.

The image, sent by email to the party’s supporters, selectively highlights some of Corbyn’s comments about Osama Bin Laden’s death, Hezbollah and Hamas, nuclear weapons and tax. Showing a black and white photograph of Corbyn in front of a red background, the warnings are spelled out in capital letters.

And whilst Miliband (E) would’ve decently snuffled his disagreement, and in truth did, Corbyn’s Labour has had five years of referred supporter pain – of disabled deaths, of broken families, of the working-poor, of the mental and physical poverties of unemployment – to back up its desire to fight back rather more aggressively.

Factor in, as well, the successful shutting off of almost everything left-like within Labour under Blair, and the wilderness years for Labour’s left stretch out far behind the last five.

Miliband believed in assertion over aggression, because Miliband had the power of opposition over sixty – ultimately awful – months, as well as the honestly held delusion that government was in the offing.

Corbyn is unlikely to take the same decision or direction, for the reasons – fairly emotional too, though none the less real or comprehensible for that – which I’ve mentioned above, and with which many people will be all too familiar.

So what’s the next step?  After democracy ignored a very vocal, cogent and considerable minority at the time of Iraq, after democracy ignored a probably growing majority during the last five years, and after more people voted against Cameron than for him at the most recent general election, the Tories now in power – and maybe the governing institutions they work with – must surely be a tad worried that they can no longer operate democracy as they used to.

Imagine, in fact, we’ve reached a moment when a threshold of people now ignore what politicians trot out and newspapers dutifully publish.  That’s a whole layer of comms control – expensive comms control at that – which suddenly becomes irrelevant.

Two elements interest me as a result:

  1. people will begin very unpredictably, unleashed as they are, to form opinions of their own – or, at least, opinions they believe to be their own
  2. the newspaper commentators and political number-crunchers will begin to realise their wisdoms lay not so much in understanding voters as in having the luxury, no longer to be present, of being able to define – fairly predictably and regularly – what voters thought

Not seeing into the soul of the body politic in some remarkably prescient way – instead, just being able to control it, and tell it – quite shallowly – what to do.

Imagine, this time however, that the people which democracy ignores – no longer the Iraq marchers nor the dying disabled nor the voters who refused to vote for more of the same – are those who are used to sitting amidst its highest layers.

How would they react?  What would they do?  Would they accept a fate of impotent existence and acquiescence like everyone else has learnt how to?  Would they carry on with their lives, prepared to be ignored for their deepest opinions and beliefs?  Would they allow the national discourse to revert as vigorously as some would have it revert?

Would they meekly try, Miliband-like, to converse as assertively as possible with the enemy?

Or would they choose to aggressively fight back?

I suppose my question here really is: in a democracy like ours, hidebound (perhaps constructively in some respects) by tradition, procedure, history and unwritten ways of doing, what really happens to the privileged few when fewer of the under-privileged continue to listen?

To that, I know no clear answer.  How can I?

But we may be on the point of finding out.

two stats – and a defence of ed miliband’s bathwater?

Two sets of stats to contextualise my thesis this evening.

In 2005 in England, Labour under Tony Blair – in Blair’s last election as leader, an election he and Labour won for the third time – the Party achieved 8,043,461 votes.

Meanwhile, in 2015 in England, Labour under Ed Miliband – in Miliband’s only election as leader, an election he and Labour proceeded to lose painfullythe Party achieved 8,087,684 votes.

Simultaneously, from 2005 to 2015 the Lib Dem vote collapsed from 5,201,286 to 2,098,404.  That’s over 3 million votes less.

And separately, only 901 votes needed to have changed for the Tories to have been deprived of an absolute majority.

I’ve seen people on the right-wing of the Party arguing over the past couple of days that Ed Miliband afforded himself the luxury of a massive political – read particularly wonkish – experiment on the progressive people of Britain.

Unlike, say, the experiments of austerity and trickle-down economics which have been committed over the past forty-odd years.

Yes.  I know.  You’ll be accusing me now of whataboutery.  What about this?  What about that?  But here, I do feel it’s relevant.

I’ve been speaking to people recently and watching what others say in public.  As I tweeted earlier in the day:

I’ve seen it beginning to happen, and it saddens me – it does.  As the grand Patrick Wintour piece in the Guardian quoted recently (the bold is mine):

“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. Even Tony Blair said Ed had been right to put inequality back on the agenda. Ed’s leadership struggled with the tension between building a new offer of change while also trying not to define ourselves entirely against the preceding three terms of Labour government, in which he played a considerable part. This was a tough puzzle and, despite all our efforts, one we never really solved.”

So you know exactly where I stand, I’m still generous enough to say New Labour’s political and intellectual curiosity about the world was sufficiently ingenious and productive to be worth revisiting – even today, even in hindsight.  The decisions its leaders took – Iraq being a prime case of whataboutery I’m sure you’ll be expecting me to mention – would not be; indeed, are not.

PFI was also a desperate, cack-handed measure to put the roofs back on the schools and the hospitals after Thatcherite idiocy – a measure I’m not sure Blair & Co would have been terribly unhappy about, even if they had known (or, actually, did they?) that they would be crippling future public-sector provision, as they delivered it long-term into the hands of private profit.

In the context of the above two examples … yes, it’s easy hindsight of course.  But even as we accept it’s very easy, the decisions New Labour took were by far the easiest ones to take as well.  It didn’t stand up to Bush’s dreadful regime; it didn’t stand up to the social needs of higher education; it didn’t stand up to Murdoch or any of the other big media empires; it didn’t stand up to the regulatory soft-touch the financial-services sector demanded; for God’s sake, it didn’t even stand up to the fundamental interests of utility companies and the services none of us can avoid using.

What it did do was lay the ground rules and carefully tend to the playing-fields Cameron & Co would enjoy five years on.

From 2010, Labour did make a mistake.  In a sense, no one cared to value any part of New Labour.  Yet Blair was Blair I, II and III.  And whilst no one cared for Blair III, as reality slowly emerged and seeped out from Iraq et al, Blair I surely still – even today – should serve to maintain its charm, fascination and interest for anyone wishing to win British voters back for Labour.

Equally, I’d argue, as a self-confessed adherent of Ed Miliband, that early on he appeared to want something different in modern politics: the language of conversation and dialogue, not warring parties and machines and political engineering.  There was wisdom too in the motto of One Nation Labour, before it was abandoned out of weariness, incapacity or simply a wider lack of vision.

But just as we shouldn’t have discarded Blair I, so the promise maybe some of us saw in early Miliband – even when blessed hindsight indicates now that it was never to be – should not be ignored nor forgotten either.  Apart from anything else, we live in a different world from New Labour: in fact New Labour didn’t start in 1997 but, rather, at least five years before – perhaps a decade, perhaps as early as 1987 – as its prime movers began to cogitate their political theories, positions and strategies … and how exactly to implement them.

The world we live in lends itself less and less to the language of machines and political engineering; more and more to the technology of connectedness.  And connectedness means hundreds and thousands of disparate networks that only come together when people, wanting to, push them in the same direction.

If the old New Labourites, as well as those who – without any real understanding of what it all really meant – simply love the idea of winning again, think all they need to do is transplant the Tory view of life – its button-pressing message-drilling mechanisation of humanity – to the heart of the Labour psyche again … well, I honestly think you’re all very foolish in your intentions – and ultimately in your beliefs.

The networks we now lay down and form a part of need to be enabled and facilitated – not gathered close to one, imposed upon nor taken for granted.  Just as early Miliband was moving towards this, just as Blair I managed charismatically to make us believe was the case (even when it really wasn’t; even when sofa politicking & policy-making would soon take charge), so leadership at all levels – a leadership where people learn to act out of productive unity but not in vacuous uniformity – can be an experiment truly worth pursuing.

Yes.  To propose this is to run the risk of exhibiting a wonkish nature, it is true perhaps.  But, equally, in the right hands, and I sincerely believe it’s possible for them to exist, it can be a very humane, much needed and essentially election-winning process.

A process where the destination would be more than satisfactory for us all.

As well as, possibly, self-renewing.

No.  Ed’s Labour didn’t get the most important thing right.

But it did get many important things spot-on.  And it’s even arguable that what it got precisely right led to its ultimate downfall.

So let’s build on this – not forget it.

OK?

we don’t need pyramids of privilege telling us where we belong, ben

I’ll take Ben Mitchell to task for the first few sentences of his post over at Speaker’s Chair today.  The ones where he says the following (the bold is mine):

2005. The last time I was this unsure about who to vote for. Iraq dominated everything. I was angry. A lot of us were.

Yet the man responsible for this disastrous course of action was also the man who persuaded me to vote for him.

Tony Blair had then what we’ve been lacking in British politics ever since: gravitas and oratory brilliance. An ability to bring you along with him, even if you weren’t always convinced. Sometimes when you weren’t convinced at all.

That’s some feat. It’s a feat we continually underestimate. A great leader can get away with a lot.

I recall watching his 2004 party conference speech, impressed as he reeled off his achievements as Prime Minister. I could trust a party led by him. I would be perfectly happy to see him as Prime Minister for a third term.

“A great leader can get away with a lot.”  “I could trust a party led by him.”  “Tony Blair had then what we’ve been lacking in British politics ever since […].”

The reasons Ben gives as positives about Blair, that, in particular, a leader can get away with a lot, are undeniable.  It’s also undeniable, however, that they are precisely the reasons we don’t need the kind of leaders he continues to hanker after.  I find it peculiar, in a post otherwise full of cogent and generally even-handed analysis, that the irony of the above affirmations are utterly lost on their author.

Hagiography was never so powerful an instinct as today, in a society where the body politic’s discourse more generally demands that the voters and their families be independent of the state – and yet, at the same time, reserves itself the right to create dependency-perpetuating hierarchies and relationships.

Vested interests, I suppose, which maybe Ben forms a part of.  Either that, or a political dedication to existing institutions, acquired from a heavy involvement in – and honest appreciation of – all those traditional ways of doing and seeing.  An involvement which perhaps makes it difficult for him to even sense the irony in question.

Ultimately, he concludes that (again, the bold is mine):

Whatever happens on May 8th (and most likely for several days after), the Lib Dems deserve another shot at power-sharing. Come 2020, that may well be power sharing with Labour. First, Labour will need to find a better leader, and a clearer, more positive vision for the country.

In this I might agree; Labour does need to find a better leader.  But not in the sense that Ben is suggesting.  If Ed Miliband wins the election, it will be because he’s not only a man of a party which knows and understands empathy, but also because he’s a man of a very 19th century body politic, attempting to drag it, by the scruff of its old-fashioned neck, screaming and shouting into a 21st century of devolved democracy and properly impatient citizens – tired, as they are, and rightly so, of the retrograde economics of an unfailingly unjust world order.

The leaders we’re missing in #GE2015 – if indeed we’re missing any – are you, me, our brothers, sisters, sons and daughters, grandparents and grandchildren all.

It’s we who should step up, not another charismatic “keep your hands off my politicking and let me do what I choose” clone.

No.

What we need is everyone, and anyone looking to participate in a better world, to pick up that almost techno-gauntlet that’s been thrown down by our evermore connected societies.

The leaders we really need aren’t more of those who through their gravitas and oratory “get away with a lot”, but rather those who with the little we have, “make a sincere lot sincerely happen”.

I’m voting Labour at #GE2015.

And that’s precisely because of its leader’s leadership qualities.

We don’t need pyramids of privilege telling us where we belong, Ben.

We need enablers and facilitators; leaders aiming to lead not the sheepish but, rather, the courageous, thinking people we would all like to be treated as: people, like you and me, who in turn are willing to lead each other – into that progressively kinder world which we all surely deserve.