Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Half full glasses

The bad managers that I have worked under have generally fallen into two broad types. The first surprised you by their rise until you saw them in interview, where they were smooth, warm, and pleasant. Doubts first arose when you probed beneath the surface and found the deceits, illusions and ignorance. Then they tried to do something and everything fell apart round them, leaving a trail of exasperated staff.

The second rose effortlessly, often by default. They were suggested for posts. People thought them safe choices, solid performers; they seemed to embody stability. They had carefully hidden their lack of capacity behind all the right language and tended to be control freaks, claiming the credit for the work of others and letting little or no light fall on what they really did. They too were destructive.

Both types tend to be disloyal to their colleagues, are ambitious narcissists, and completely lack a sense of humour.

This might sound familiar. Corbyn v May. The election from hell.

Corbyn has shown his impressive qualities as a campaigner. Though he is still only really comfortable in front of large, adoring crowds, he has taken to appearing as a kindly, righteous man in front of the TV cameras. People have warmed to him. He has controlled himself when challenged; his tendency to lose his temper has been curtailed. But then interviewers rarely ask the really difficult questions. He got away with defending his dodgy past alliances with lines about being prepared to deal with people or read articles that he 'profoundly disagreed with.' Nobody followed up by asking precisely who or what he disagreed with. Imprecision permits elision.

(His real ability as a campaigner raises huge questions as to why he was so inept during the EU referendum, making me think that Alan Johnson's charge of sabotage has a great deal of merit.)

As for May, can anyone remember a worse Conservative campaign? The ruthless party of power is doing everything it can to show that it has completely lost the plot. The manifesto offered nothing. May ran on leadership and presented none. The party tried to build a cult of personality around someone bland and inarticulate who offered no human warmth. I used to think that she spoke in platitudes only because she had been trained to. Now I tend to believe that it's all she's able to do. Her stilted delivery shows her to be incapable of spontaneity.

The Conservatives will win of course. They were always going to, despite how hard they have tried to lose it. The polls are contradictory because we are seeing a huge experiment in methodology, mainly over turnout of young voters, giving disparate results. One group of polls shows a narrow Tory lead, and projections that suggest the possibility of a hung parliament. The other group shows a comfortable Conservative lead and a large majority of seats. Not one has shown a Labour lead. Every one has shown a stable Tory vote around the mid 40s, the same share of the vote that gave Thatcher and Blair landslides because of the distorting effect of the electoral system. And even if there is an unprecedentedly high turnout amongst young voters, there aren't enough of them and they are in the wrong place. The highest concentration of young voters is in constituencies that Labour already holds.

Especially early in the campaign, there were comparisons with the election of 1983, but they are false. The differences are profound. The calibre of the two leaders is a given. Foot was a man of considerably more intellectual and political accomplishments than Corbyn, while the comparison between May and Thatcher is risible. Corbyn was the wrong leader with the worst ratings, so May had a head start before she proceeded to show her own failings. But these are superficial disparities. There are three main structural differences. First, Scotland has been lost to Labour. Secondly, the third party vote has collapsed. In 1983 Labour had a three-way fight with the SDP/Liberal Alliance. Finally, it was the split in Labour that gave Thatcher the landslide. 54% of the vote went to the two centre-left parties in 1983. In 2015 something different happened. For the first time in decades more than 50% voted for the right. There is no "progressive majority." I could be wrong, but all the data points to a Tory win.

I am, and remain, Labour of course, just as I am in favour of Britain remaining in the European Union. Obviously, I am in despair about British politics at the moment. I weep at the general lack of ability of the political class. But there are things that cheer me. First, let's all celebrate the demise of UKIP. The threat of a British version of the parties of Wilders and Le Pen was real. Now, it seems to have returned to the fringes where it belongs.

Secondly, the impending death of the Labour Party has been exaggerated. It isn't healthy obviously, but there are signs of life. It has been intellectually moribund for a long while and has polarised around two nostalgias. Both are anachronistic and fictitious views of the past. The one looks back to Attlee, the other pines for the king over the water, Blair. Neither engages critically with the real history of their heroes' conflicts and failures, as well as their concrete and impressive achievements. Both are viewed selectively. Both are the past. However, this is an interregnum. Something is stirring in the parliamentary party. It's predominantly female too. This isn't down to anything specifically about gender.  It's a feature of the decline of the Trade Unions and the rise of the voluntary sector as the source of candidates with a grip on reality, ready to challenge the teachers and lawyers that still dominate.

This is a real social movement. It's doing more than filling in gaps where the welfare state has eroded. It's providing advocacy and employment. There are credit unions fighting off the loan sharks, tenants' associations struggling for housing rights, community development groups, LETS schemes, social entrepreneurship, child care schemes, disability rights groups, women's refuges, the list goes on and on. They are small-scale, participatory, and hugely practical. And they are mainly staffed by women. The politically ambitious amongst them are moving into Labour politics. Their real, grass roots activism contrasts with those that think that being an activist means going to meetings and demonstrations. They are a voice for democratic decentralisation and for participatory democracy. They have roots in the real lives of working class people. I think that this is the basis of a left renewal.

Finally, the hope lies with the young. The generational divide in British politics has never been so stark. The young are overwhelmingly Labour. They are also overwhelmingly pro-EU. There is a contradiction in that Labour has implicitly committed itself to support a hard Brexit and ending free movement. But closing a door can mean different things to different people, it can lock out, but for those looking for something more, it can shut in. This has been an election about Brexit that has never mentioned it. But the realities have not yet hit. Reality tends to change the minds of all but the most ideologically committed. Brexit is an issue that Labour has dodged so far from cowardice. If it is to hold the young, then it must face it.

It's almost like finding optimism in my own demise, but I can see a new "progressive majority" emerging from a different generation. It won't look the same as the old one, but just as Labour faces an excruciating defeat, it promises relief from a bleak future. 

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