It’s been over a month since I last posted an entry in my journal. What can we deduce from that unseemly gap? That lockdown has become commonplace and not worthy of comment? That no-one I know has caught Covid 19 (or at least, not seriously), so it becomes harder to maintain an end-of-the-world style narrative? That far from having endless stretching hours of nothingness to kill, actually most people are extremely busy and can’t fit everything in?
No. none of the above. Or, more accurately, all of the above, in varying proportions, depending on the time of day, or day of the week. But above all, the overriding factor in distracting my attention away from recording History As It Happens has been this:
The opening of Garden centres up and down the land.
At this point I must sheepishly acknowledge my privilege. I know I’m extremely lucky to have a big house and a big garden. I know many people and families are struggling in cramped accommodation with no access to outdoor spaces, and I can’t imagine being cooped up for all of this time. (Eleven weeks and counting, as far as the Journal’s calculations go). But this is my journal, about me, so there. Lockdown has turned us all into extras in Lord of the Flies.
So, having felt guilty for a nano-second, I can put that to one side and get down to business. The glorious sunny weather, and the recent availability of plants and equipment, has meant that every waking hour I’ve been shopping, weeding, digging, planting, and designing. And my garden, a monstrous 200 footer that backs on to woods, has never looked more beautiful. And the bird song, morning noon and night has been spectacular as well.
I am still working, but because I only teach Key stage 3 classes, I am not condemned to the ghastly, intensive, untried trudge of Zoom lessons, so beloved of Lord Adonis, that famous and world -renowned Pedagogical expert. I have to set, check and mark a lot of work, and occasionally go into school for my part of the rota of staff dealing with children of key workers and the like. I don’t have a Year 10 or 12 class, so I’m not expecting to be called back before the Summer holidays, apart from the rota just mentioned. I’m also finishing off Teacher training courses, getting ready to assess Trainees remotely.
But the significant thing about today, June 1st, is that it marks what is supposed to be the beginning of the Great Return to Normality. All kinds of things are happening: schools re-opening, shielded people allowed out and about, meeting in groups of six, shops etc opening up again. What it actually means, and remember this when you look back in anger, is that today marks the day when a Second Spike in infection became unavoidable. Yes, the actions of our government, who care for nothing but their own power, have made it inevitable that many more people will die. And they know this. I can’t think of a more shocking indictment of this ghastly shower of shit we have that passes for a Government. Johnson and Cummings et al know that thousands more will die and they think it a price worth paying.
Another milestone, that will gather ever more significance as times passes, was the Cummings Barnard Castle debacle. That was the moment when the Tories lost the next election, and the allegation of lying finally began to cut through. The ridiculous assertion that Johnson and the Tories was a Man of the People and could represent the interests of the “ordinary” voter in the north, was holed below the water line. Of course, there is plenty of time for other events to take place and Johnson can row it back, particularly when he is prepared to throw money at anything and everything.
And the lying thing is important. More and more people cannot now believe a word Johnson says. So the assurances about a “World Class Test and Trace system”, about taking “Baby steps” and “following the Science” are meaningless. As are the ludicrous “Five tests”. It seems that Johnson’s view is that each test is passed when he says it has been passed. Don’t trouble him with evidence or data. More and more “Scientists” are willing to speak publicly about it being far too early to relax things. All of this is being done to create a feel good narrative that removes Cummings from the front pages. I’m just not sure what their own longer-term forecast is. They must know that disaster is on the way. I wonder whether Johnson is so used to blagging it and getting away with it that he doesn’t think it will matter, because he will just continue to refuse to be accountable, not answering questions and pushing on, head down, until the end of the next press conference. At present he and evil genius Dom are still going along with the Trump playbook, where you just assert the opposite, ignore stats (so they no longer present the figures in comparative death totals) and spin awkward questions or appalling revelations (the clear plan for people in Care homes to die) as coming from “Campaigning newspapers”. But we don’t need to worry. Evil genius Dom has sorted a few teething problems with the new Red Wall seats. You know, the great unwashed from up North, who can’t speak properly and have an appalling diet. Using Johnson’s unparalleled Classical Education, he has taken a leaf from the Ancient Romans book and gone for the old bread and circuses trick. Football is back, along with horse racing (double whammy that one because it also keeps her Maj happy) and getting pissed in big groups outside. Brilliant. Cogito Ergo Dum, as it were.
In this extraordinarily depressing landscape, there is some comfort to be had in the thought that the pendulum has begun to swing back, and that this is the beginning of the end. It was fascinating to see Tories joining in the criticism last week, even those who have been the most ideologically bonkers. When that happens because of what their inbox tells them the public thinks, you know the tide is shifting. Just as in America with Trump and Republicans, at some point mainstream Tories will have to calculate exactly when they are going to cut Johnson loose to save themselves from complicity. They will have one eye on the inevitable future inquiry. All reasonable democrats just need to keep the faith. There will be a reckoning and the guilty will be exposed, but we will have to wade through a lot of bodies on the way. The Macbeth quote, so useful in dissing ruthless political operation in the past, comes into its own now.
“I am in blood
stepped in so far that, should I wade no more
Returning were as tedious as go o’er”
The real tragedy is that that was always a metaphor. These days, horribly, it has be taken literally.
The following text is part of the #FoldingPaperProject. The project, set up by Molly (www.mimmerr.co.uk) aims to spread productivity, creativity and fun amongst the world’s current bleak state.
It works like the folding paper game we played at school, where one person draws the head of a character, the next person the body and so on. Whereas, we’ll be continuing a story.
You don’t need to be an accomplished writer. You don’t even need to be any good! You just need to be able to continue the story in four- five hundred words and post it on your site. If you don’t have a site, I’ll put it on mine for you.
If you would like to get involved, contact Molly @mimmerr or at email@example.com If not, read on and share the story via the #FoldingPaperProject hashtag. Happy reading and writing!
Oliver slammed his fist down on the desk top, rattling the stained coffee cups, the fruit bowl and the corporate pastries.
“Look, how many times do you need to be told? The whole economy is in free fall. Everywhere. Now is not the time to be thinking of expansion. It’s probably the time to be thinking of cutting our losses and closing.”
There was a pause. Everyone around the table found something to do with their hands, somewhere to direct their gaze, shuffling papers, spreadsheets and projections, while the fan of the projector hummed in the back ground. Anything but look at Felix, his mouth open in disbelief, his brow furrowed.
“Close?” he finally managed to splutter. “You can’t be serious Oliver, we can’t close, not after everything we’ve done. We’re so close to making the breakthrough. If we can just get through this temporary cashflow problem, pay the suppliers and salaries, we can make this thing work. Trust me, I know we can.”
Oliver, smiled as if talking to a difficult but charming child, his tanned face crinkling around the eyes. When he spoke his tone was calmer, a singsong of patient explanation.
“And who is going to pay the suppliers and the salaries, Felix? It’s not going to be you is it?”
“Well, no, but..”
“Exactly. And there is no “but”. That is everything. The bottom line. And as usual, it’s me that has to be the adult in the room and deal with the reality of the situation. The money.”
“But Oliver, there’s always money to be made in a financial crisis. You just have to keep your nerve. If you make the case to the bank, they will lend us the money. The business plan is sound Oliver, you know that. This will be a top end, luxury destination for the A listers and it has the backing of some of the world’s leading conservationists. It’s a winner, Oliver.”
Oliver sighed and shook his head. He turned to the woman sitting on his left, a tall, elegant black woman with braids and a flawless complexion. “Connie, do you mind?”
She leaned forward in her chair, tapped the keyboard and the next slide in her presentation came up. It was a graph with all of the coloured lines heading south.
“We’ve been to the bank, Felix. Several banks, actually. Not to mention some rather more dubious sources of capital. They don’t want to know. I’m sorry” she said.
“But the business plan..”
Connie cut across him. “The business case was strong, before the world economy tanked. Now, cash is king. And we haven’t got any. Look at the graph.”
Felix had heard enough. It was his turn to bang his fist down on to the table.
“Fuck the graph. All you ever want to talk about is graphs. What about the animals? What about the bats?”
Oliver smiled a smooth, thin smile.
“You’re the clever zoologist, Felix. We’re just simple business people. I suggest we move to a vote.”
Fifteen minutes later, after the vote had been taken and lost, by five votes to one, Felix was left alone in the room, surveying the debris still in place across the table, his dreams in tatters. The expression on his face hardened and his knuckles whitened as he clenched and unclenched his fists repeatedly. Finally, he came to a decision. Reaching for his mobile, he jabbed in a number and waited.
“Gareth, it’s Felix. We need to talk about Dad. And money.”
Weeks 5 and 6, April 23rd 2020. Cravings and Ravings
In these strange times, full of empty days and an uncertain future, one inevitably turns to musing all things philosophical. Why are we here? What is the meaning of life? Will there be any cricket this summer? Lately these thoughts have turned to man’s greatest achievements, in an attempt to decide whether or not we as a species deserve to survive. After much thought, I’ve got as far as these. In no particular order, I give you:
The Sistine Chapel ceiling
The Flushing Toilet
The Cruyff Turn
Abbey Road side 2
Much Ado about Nothing, Act 4, scene 1, lines 251 – 325
The Waitrose Chocolate Berliner Donut
Perhaps you could choose four more and then we could go to a vote. I’m sensing a Twitter poll coming on
It feels like the tide is beginning to turn in terms of our glorious government and the Blessed Boris. Having been surfing on a tide of brainless good will since he Rose Again, Johnson is, at last, being subjected to some proper scrutiny. And what do you know, when the spotlight of interrogation is on him, the mystery melts away, and just like the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain, a rather silly pathetic, ineffectual little man emerges. His canonisation reached its peak, hilariously, with Alison Pearson’s tear stained, masturbatory eulogy in The Telegraph about how the nation held its breath as he teetered on the edge of death. He was, Pearson declared, the incarnation of the spirit of Albion, the Johnson body (steady Alison, you’ll need to wash those sheets) being one and the same thing as the body politic of the realm. Transubstantiation or Consubstantiation? Thinking about it, with Johnson, it was almost certainly Con.
But even in the breathless, evidence free zone that is the Tory press, eventually reality must break through. Those damn bodies. In the same way that the relentless clips of young Americans being flown back to the US in body bags from Viet Nam did for LBJ in the Sixties, so the daily press briefings giving the inexorable rise in deaths from the disease, has gradually chipped away at the Johnson myth. The briefings have been led by a series of utterly hopeless Tory Ministers (Alok Sharma?!) and have been notable for several things. First, the absolute inadequacy of the journalists questioning. The questions are poor and repetitive, and no one is challenged for not directly answering. Then the “independent” scientific advisors. What a joke. The petrified Minister passes the difficult question to the advisor who plainly fails to answer it before passing it back with a rictus smile, pathetically grateful that a few more minutes have passed and the end of the whole charade of a briefing is a little bit closer. Finally, the latest in a series of desperate promises about the future is delivered, whether that’s the target or 100,000 tests by the end of April, a figure blatantly plucked out of thin air, a delivery of PPE from Turkey, or all homeless people will be given secure accommodation. It does not matter what the promise is, you can guarantee that it’s a lie to placate the simple minded and to take up a few more moments of the briefing.
And so to the Sunday Times story, delicious and horrifying in equal measure, confirming what most of us long suspected: Johnson is a lazy, lying charlatan, whose instinct is to wing it and hope for the best, confident that he will get an easy ride from the media. After all, why on earth change an approach that has got him into number 10, with a proven track record of moral turpitude, entirely ignored by Fleet Street’s finest?
The simulation of the pandemic scenario in 2016 nails it completely. The conclusions of this exercise were as stark as The Tory party’s blithely continuing to ignore them as they accelerated their run down of the basic structures and provisions of a modern state, motivated purely by ideology. The lack of intensive care beds and ventilators is truly shocking given what they knew. Then came the head in the sand approach to clear warnings from Wuhan and Europe. Johnson allows Cheltenham, goes to the rugby, tells everyone proudly, bloke of the people style, that he shakes hands with everyone and why shouldn’t we all go to the pub? Then he disappears for ten days, finishing his book apparently at Chequers, all loved up with Carrie Symonds and does not bother to attend never mind chair the first five meetings of Cobra. The veritable cherry on the icing is the news that the failure to participate in an EU wide supply of ventilators was, indeed, a policy decision not the laughable “we didn’t get the email” excuse ( surely this ranks alongside “the dog ate my homework” in the all time lamest excuses list.)
Yes, that’s right. Don’t just move on to the next paragraph. Government spokespeople repeatedly lied to us about this. Once more with feeling: Government spokespeople repeatedly lied to us about this. What on earth has happened to us and our expectations that this is, apparently, unremarkable? Time was, there would have been a media feeding frenzy, with news organisations scenting blood, nagging away at every opportunity until there was a resignation or two. Now, it’s no big deal. Move along please, nothing to see here.
Beyond this, what else has weeks 5 and 6 of Armageddon brought us?
The figures started to sort of come down, accompanied by discussion amongst the experts and wide eyed news readers abut relaxing the lock down. The main focus of this relaxation is, of course, schools. Most teachers would have been horrified to read plans for schools to go back as early as May 11th, on the basis that statistically, kids are pretty poor at passing the virus on and that teachers, a lazy bunch at the best of times, are just sitting around at home doing the garden in anticipation of a scorching summer drinking G&T with the occasional bit of light weeding thrown in. This would be a great theory but for one strangely overlooked fact. Schools generally, in order to function well, tend to have adults in them as well. But as the ghastly Spectator journo Alison Williams opined sagely in The Telegraph, its time for teachers to show a bit of bravery and open up classrooms again. “What we need, Blackadder, is a supremely futile gesture of self-sacrifice, in the grand tradition of gullible foot soldiers through History.”
Bollocks to that, as Winston Churchill once said.
Even just the mention of it, though, with the suggestion that we are past the peak and the whole thing is going to dribble away, has had a strange effect on me. When I went for my latest visit to the supermarket there was no queue at all and I began to think that even the most basic of social distancing and handwashing was a little bit OTT and for wusses. It’s easy to see how relaxation could easily lead to non-compliance and a huge tsunami of new infections down the line. This feeling is compounded by the latest reports of people drifting back to work and normality and a friends reports of Croydon being packed once again, with little attempt at social distancing. Now, everyone wears some form of mask or bandana and just carries on as normal. In the same way that cycle helmets turn people into less sensible cyclists, face masks do the same for people in the public domain.
The Populist insanity in America has started to take centre stage with swivel eyed Libertarian crazies taking to the streets with banners and assault rifles (essential shopping in the US remember) swearing their inviolable right to do what the fuck they want in the name of Liberty. I predict, Nostradamus like, that there will be a mass shooting before all this is done. This is the latest in a series of events that make the dystopian world of The Handmaid’s Tale, less an enjoyable, thought provoking fantasy and more a foreseeable reality. The surprise is that there hasn’t been more resistance here from the far right Brexit crazies. The only consolation from the sight of them massing to demonstrate is that they will have infected each other. No, sorry, that’s a horrible thing to say. Lockdown is clearly getting to me. The job of socialists, liberals and other proper human beings is to protect the nasty red necks from themselves. Forgive them, they know not what they do.
I am beginning to fantasise about life before the lockdown. The other day we re-watched Fleabag and all of our conversation afterwards was about how wonderful it would be to be in a Restaurant, or in a black cab crossing the Thames late at night. Similarly, my son and I, having got through The Lord of the Rings films, now watch Youtube classic football reruns obsessively. Oh, for some top-class sport on the telly. I am really missing the way that progress from Spring into Summer is harder to keep hold of without the usual markers of the The Season: Boat Race, Grand National, Football season climax, Cricket, Wimbledon, International Football tournament etc. We have even, in a vain attempt to hold on to the joys of Summer, been watching Rick Stein’s journey through France, vicariously enjoying all of the scenes of Rick sitting at an outside table eating lovely food and sipping an expresso, a cold beer or a glass of fruity red. Having lost several holidays already, there is some pleasure to be had in planning future trips, whilst watching the appalling Rick ballsing up in the most boring delivery known to personkind in the most exquisite locations in Europe.
By the time we are released back into the community, if I have survived my perennial manflu, I will need a wheelchair, such is the extent of my muscle wastage. I know I could be more innovative with my exercise regime without going to the gym, but its just not the same. One of the great pleasures of semi-retirement was going to the gym for an hour of treadmill, exercise bike and rowing machine, followed up by a trip to Waitrose for a free coffee, a free newspaper and, joy of joys, a Waitrose Chocolate Berliner donut. Even writing it down is bringing tears to my eyes. You can keep Proust and his Madeleines. All I want is a Berliner. Just one.
Symptom alert: Still got headache, aching limbs, crippling tiredness. It’s clearly only a matter of time now. And then my wife reminds me that I have had these symptoms every week for the past thirty years
The Covid-19 Lockdown means that reading is now, more than ever, a life saver. And books that once seemed intimidating, mighty tomes such as this are now just appetisers. Just think what we’ll know by the end of all of this..
After about 1900 pages of Wolf Hall, Bringing up the Bodies and now The Mirror and the Light, I imagined that turning the last page of Mantell’s latest novel, was similar to breasting the finishing tape of a marathon. Pride, satisfaction, disbelief, and memories of pain, struggle and pleasure. I’m still not quite sure in what proportions those last three are mixed.
The analogy breaks down almost immediately however, because, after a sticky opening hundred pages or so, I raced through the bulk of it, savouring every page. And, more to the point, the Marathon is all about the runner’s experience, the course itself just exists. But the reader’s experience, regardless of their personal response to it, is of a magnificent, towering achievement. There are passages of sublime beauty and power, and it drags you along, careering towards the inevitable end. It is a mighty work and will almost certainly pick up the Booker hattrick. The Booker, though, like all cultural awards, has never been an indicator of quality. Other factors cloud that judgement: The Zeitgeist. Timing. Events. Political correctness. Length. Subject matter. And on all of those counts, Mantell is a shoo in, not least because she has become the literary equivalent of Dame Maggie Smith or Judy Dench, a National Treasure.
Just to be clear about this, I loved Wolf Hall and thought Bringing up the Bodies was even better. I’m just not sure whether, in the end, all of those words were necessary. The main schtick of the trilogy seems to be, from Mantell’s many interviews, the idea that Thomas Cromwell was a working-class arriviste who needed to be rescued from the heavy hand of mainstream establishment condemnation. This was to be achieved by drilling directly into his imagined psyche and portraying him as a three dimensional, living breathing man of his time. This is achieved, but frankly that had been achieved by the end of Book 2 and I’m really not sure what this new one has added. Or at least, what it has added that could not have been accomplished in 500 pages. So example after example is piled on, accreting more and more detail. It’s almost Knaufsgaardian in its use of domestic detail. Many incidents seemed to be included simply so that Cromwell’s half of the conversations can be repeated later as evidence against him.
To this end, Mantell takes no prisoners in terms of the expectations she has of the reader. Hundreds of characters, many of whom have multiple names, come and go in scenes and conversations with little explanation. It is particularly tiresome when the previous book was published several years before. The list of characters at the beginning of the book is a warning of what’s in store. They will be, in most readers’ copies, the most well-thumbed pages in the book as the reader goes back and forth desperately trying to ascertain who exactly is Southampton, or Surrey or Wyatt.
To put Cromwell firmly centre-stage, he is always referred to as “He”, ostentatiously at times when he is sharing the stage with Henry VIII. Sometimes Mantell ties herself in knots maintaining this stylistic tic, while realising that she has to make it clear who “He” actually is. Hilary, love, its OK, we get it. We know you think that Cromwell is more important, more interesting than that King geezer. You really don’t have to keep going on about it.
The other stylistic quirk is the by now ubiquitous, terribly modern use of the present tense to make things more immediate, more dramatic. Generally, in the hands of lesser writers who have been advised by Boutique literary consultants, it’s terribly cliched, boring, inflexible and predictable. Mantell, in contrast, does it brilliantly. It does add immediacy and it does create tension when really none should exist because, let’s face it readers, we all know he’s going to die and how.
In the end, I just don’t think it’s worth it. More than a study of the man, it becomes a study of the religion and politics of the time. It’s a brutal, cruel, savage, amoral world, fuelled by ridiculous primitive disagreements over religion. Of course Cromwell is going to have his head chopped off because he is serving a childish psychopath who wanted to live the fairy story of Kingship and was going to scream and scream until he got what he wanted. And what he wanted was plentiful sex with a young sex nymph who idolised him and didn’t make him feel inadequate. He wanted to feel forever young and to show the world he was a thrusting macho proper man who could get a woman pregnant with a boy (because they were the only pregnancies that counted). This was a world where Cromwell, in his many internal musings, could think that cutting off someone’s head with an axe was proof of the gentle mercy of Henry and the superior civilization of England. The more gruesome details of the vile tortures and methods of execution of Spain, France and The Holy Roman Emperor almost convince one to agree with him. Until you catch yourself, shamefacedly, in the thought. In the end, I was left thinking that too much time has been spent fetishising this dreadful period of English history, agonising over the political and personal nuances and rivalries at play. Brutal dictators deserve less of our attention
The real interest is how things are still exactly the same, give or take the rack, being hung, drawn and quartered, or being burned alive. Boris Johnson is similarly childlike, petulant and wanting to be loved and for the true religion versus heretics, just substitute Brexiteers and Remainers. Dominic Cummings as Thomas Cromwell anyone?
This is a book that is definitely worth reading. It’s beautifully written by a writer at the height of her powers. There is much to enjoy and admire. It’s just not as good as the critics will tell you it is (probably without reading it, some of them), and the subject is not as important as Mantell has convinced herself it is. Why not read it and disagree with me? Let’s face it, you’ve got plenty of time in lockdown to do that. If things go badly, you’ve probably got enough time to read all three, starting at the beginning. Good luck
1) Did the people of Albion hold ceremonies to reverence the opening of buds?
2) Did they honour the written word or tell stories when darkness fell?
3) Did they shake hands and kiss in greeting?
4) Were they inclined to quiet welcome and fellowship?
5) Were their temples made of stone?
6) Did they cherish all, equally, or did rank hold sway?
7) Did they use paper to carry their dreams?
8) Did they have the use of the wheel?
9) Were they people of the land, with dirt on boot or hand?
1) Long ago they exchanged sweetmeats and feasted to excess. Now they cultivate
their gardens and remember and are healed.
2) In darkened rooms, illuminated by blue tinged light, they drifted in stories
of pictures and words. The stories helped them to forget, help them to remember.
3) Once, yes. Now, they do not touch, except in vibration carried on the wind. They
kiss only the mask they wear.
4) They were an exuberant race, of bluster and boastfulness, long ago. Now they take
refuge in quiet connectivity and contemplation.
5) The temples were of brick and glass and plastic to pacify powerful gods. Worship
was done two metres apart. Chevrons pointed to the altars. Why? We no longer know.
6) Madam, it is not known. A fragment discovered suggests they were lost in a dream of
trust. Their Leaders fell prey to greed and vanity. Many died alone, of all ranks.
7) Paper was venerated and coveted in equal measure. Even those without it survived.
Frantic accumulation could not save all.
8) When the fall came, they travelled but once a day and returned to walking, as a
memorial. Who can say? The car parks are empty now.
The Old Grey Owl
(with apologies to Denise Levertov)
And so we come to the most protracted, forgotten, now almost irrelevant election in the history of democracy, The Labour Party leadership election. What, you mean that still hasn’t happened yet? Even when it started, in an entirely different epoch a couple of months ago, it was dull and infuriating in equal measure. Now it doesn’t even have the traction in popular consciousness to make it to dull. It epitomises many things that are wrong about the Labour Party. An impeccable exercise in Democracy, it engages and excites only die-hard activists and passes by everyone else. Yes, The People. Us. The ones the whole thing is meant to serve.
In reality, as the bodies are beginning to pile up, it has become more important, not less. Because the Tory response to Coronovirus has been lethally poor. It has had, at the very least, the beneficial aspect of exposing what happens when you systematically run down every area of public provision. You leave a husk of a State, that can be blown over by a gentle breeze, never mind the raging hurricane that is COVID 19. Some extraordinary facts have been exposed by this whole terrible tragic affair, but none more shocking than the fact that at the beginning of the crisis Italy had twice the number of intensive care beds and provision than did the UK. TWICE. A shameful dereliction of duty by the governments of the Coalition and the Tories, which has caused barely a ripple of comment in the media.
Anyway, I thought it would be interesting to go back to the piece I wrote about the labour leadership, way back at the beginning of January. Much of it still holds now, even after the field has narrowed. This was my view back in January, the days when one could go to the pub, the cinema, restaurants and theatre, meet friends and family, go to work. When will those days return?
The horror of the General Election is fading. This is partly because of self-preservation on my part. A life time of news addiction should be fairly hard to break you would have thought, but not in this case. I have been physically unable to watch the news, in any form. Obviously, I no longer watch the main BBC news after their disgracefully partial performance in the election, but even Channel 4 news and Newsnight have not tempted me. The prospect of having one’s nose dragged through the crowing and smug self-congratulation of the victors is only marginally more distasteful than the recriminations of the vanquished. Either way, there has been no real incentive to plunge back in as an observer of politics.
But that state of childlike innocence cannot last for ever, at least not for sentient adults, and so I have begun, cautiously to dip a toe in the water again.
Firstly, one has to endure the patently ridiculous analyses of why The Conservatives won. And no, I’m sorry, but no matter how pompously you opine this, it’s just not true that this was a reward for the party that was going to protect the “Will of the People” and that somehow Democracy with a capital D is the real victor. It’s quite the reverse, actually. This was a victory for lies. And I still believe, no matter how naively, that eventually there will be a reckoning. More of that later. For now, it’s time to turn our attention to the next Labour leader.
The stakes are very high. That is because there is one inescapable fact about the Labour Party and it’s this: despite the febrile fantasies of the MSM about a new centrist grouping emerging from this debacle, sweeping to power and destroying the Labour party, it is the Labour Party that is the only force that can challenge the Tory/Brexit party. And what follows from that is that the choice of the new leader becomes the most important decision facing the UK, one that will dictate events in the future: short, medium and long term.
And you can’t choose an effective leader unless you’re clear on what went wrong under Corbyn. Part of the horror story since December 13th has been the profoundly depressing spectacle of Labour party members, supporters and commentators determinedly getting it wrong. There appears to be an uncanny ability to grasp the wrong end of any stick proffered in their general direction. So here goes. This is my attempt to grasp the other end of said stick.
Why did we lose?
Corbyn. Jeremy Corbyn as leader was far and away the main element in our lack of popular appeal. You can squeal all you like about the mainstream media (and obviously it is grotesque) but I think that it’s reasonable to expect professional politicians and media analysts in the party to anticipate that and to counteract it. That is why they are there. And they failed miserably. But Corbyn’s failure went further and deeper than this. He seemed incapable of clearly making the case for the socialist alternative, both in general terms of principle and specific terms of policy. He and his advisors didn’t seem to have “gamed” any potentially tricky questions that might come up in interviews or debates and actually prepared an answer for them. This reached its most embarrassing zenith when he first unveiled the form of words “Neutral” on any campaign in a second Brexit referendum, weeks after it was blindingly obvious that the party’s position on the crucial issue of the election was the object of ridicule.
Their position on Brexit and the second referendum made perfect sense logically, but only for people who can listen to an argument for more than one sentence. Those people don’t vote labour. If that is the position you decide on, you have to take time to explain and make that case, over and over and over again, weeks before the campaign starts.
The other great failure of Corbyn was intimately tied up with one of his unique selling points, a quality that generated a lot of his appeal in 2017 and which gave him a refreshing sense of authenticity. His refusal to play dirty. His stubborn clinging on to the moral high ground might have enabled him to sleep soundly at night, but there was too much at stake for that. And against an opponent like Boris Johnson, what juicy material he had to work with. There should have been an incessant daily barrage of attack. Johnson the Liar was such a fertile source of material to work with, it truly was an open goal. And Corbyn missed it.
In a straight fight between the blunt simplicity of Get Brexit Done and a nod towards reality that Labour tried to embrace, there was only going to be one winner. I remain baffled why nobody from the Labour Party effectively made the case for a second referendum. This was not a case of defying the will of the people, quite the reverse in fact. Nobody in any TV studio, on any Vox Pop, in any poll or husting knew how many of the fabled seventeen million voted for a hard Brexit. Holding a second referendum was a way of finding out and genuinely healing the country. If you have a specific deal on the table and a majority had voted for it, then that would have been it done, and there could have been no arguments, no matter how stupid leaving is. How can a second referendum be portrayed as antidemocratic? It’s not as if the seventeen million were going to be barred from voting in the second one, but that’s what it appeared at times in the debate. The Right and the Leave alliance were petrified of a second referendum because they knew it was quite likely that a majority existed to remain. Just as in the case of Scotland, the Right wrap themselves in the Democracy argument, except when they don’t like the probable result. Self-determination is the inalienable right of oppressed peoples everywhere in the world against brutal dictatorships (apart from the ones we sell arms to, obviously), except when we are the dictators and the oppressed are the Scots.
In this sense, the whole business of the New Deal (worse than the Old Deal, a fact that seemed to escape the Daily Mail) that Johnson fell into was simply an elaborate set-up with the election in mind. Everything was calibrated so that Johnson could fight a People versus the Crooked Politicians campaign, with Johnson, bizarrely, being a “Person” and not a “Politician”
The success of painting The Labour Party, the most overtly anti-racist party in the history of political groupings was breathtakingly brilliant. The voices against Corbyn and Antisemitism from within the party were clearly opposed to his socialist programme. John Mann, Ian Austen, John Woodcock were the worst kind of chancers, without a principled bone in their body. There was clearly a problem that was more than just presentational. A certain breed of naïve Trot lets their belief in global capitalist conspiracy spill over into ludicrous antisemitic views. A tiny minority from what I can see. The Party will be better off without them. But it’s done now and it won’t go away, so any leadership contender will have to talk tough on this and take immediate action on anyone who falls short. At least it might lead to a situation where the spotlight can be turned back on the appalling racism and homophobia in the Tory Party (much more widespread, running much deeper and with more impact). The next leader, whoever it is, must also be brave enough to be absolutely unequivocal in their condemnation of the current government of Israel, which is racist and corrupt, while getting rid of the last traces of antisemitism within their own organisation.
Language and message discipline
The Tories have always been better at talking a language that approximates to that used by human beings. Their professionals have added to that by coming up with series of slogans that are easy to understand and which tap into an emotional message about country, belonging and empowerment, just as UKIP did. The Labour party must find a good communicator and hone down their ideas into some pithy slogans, that connect with people. The appeal to rationalism just isn’t enough any more. People do not want to be persuaded, they want to feel that their instincts are right. It takes a long time and a lot of hard work for that to happen. Blair’s greatest strength was his oratory, in big set piece speeches, in interviews, in talking to the public. In all of these settings he was convincing as a human being and someone who was trying to answer the question directly.
This applies particularly to the manifesto, which has become the target of most Right wing Labour commentators. Let’s be quite clear about this- the manifesto was very popular. The policies make sense. They are moderate rather than extreme. The level of spending they entailed, for example would have taken the UK to the average spend of OECD countries and behind France and Germany. People should have been constantly banging on about that way before the election and all the way through it. This is moderate mainstream European social democracy.
The problem was that there was too much and the impression was created that new things were being added as they went along in desperation. Hence credibility was lost. Streamline the offer, create a coherent narrative, make the case and repeat constantly.
The drive to disown Corbyn and Corbynism has its dangers. His greatest achievement has been to drag the party to the left in terms of policy, so now all candidates have to espouse some version of greater public spending and renationalisation. It would be a catastrophic error, in my view, to junk all of that and go back to Blairism.
Except in one respect. And this is where I go a little controversial, Labour Party chums.
I don’t think the political instincts of the next leader are at all important. I’d love another Tony Blair figure, as long as the manifesto remains broadly the same. The Leader must be someone who can connect, who has already connected, with the public. And the public are important here. It’s irrelevant if the membership don’t like them. In many ways the mass membership, which is often cited as Corbyn’s greatest achievement, is actually a mill stone around our neck. It’s not a private club. The membership are clearly out of step with the attitudes and ideas and aspirations of the general public (yes, alright, there’s no such thing as the general public, I know, but you get what I mean) so we have to step outside of our own values and ideas about policy sacred cows, and think laterally about what is most important, what will make a difference that people will embrace in ordinary people’s lives.
There is one final element to raise before I pin my colours to specific candidates. Yes, it’s our old friend, Electoral Reform.
Proportional Representation was Blair’s biggest mistake, bigger even than the Iraq war. Our FPTP system condemns us to years of Tory governments. And even worse, Tory governments that are getting more and more extreme. The current lot make Thatcher look like Beatrice Webb. There has been a majority in this country for my entire life for left of centre government, yet the existence of the SDP, the Liberals and the Lib Dems, plus FPTP produces massive Tory majorities. It is completely undemocratic and unrepresentative. Just imagine what sort of country we would be now with forty years of soft left social democracy and coalition governments behind us. I could weep with frustration. The new leader must embrace PR and cross party alliances enthusiastically and formally.
Normally, the scale of the Tory victory would guarantee at least ten years of opposition, but these are very specific, strange circumstances. I can absolutely imagine Johnson completely bolloxing this up and, when he does, vengeance will be swift. The Labour party needs to be ready. And so, my vote is going to Keir Starmer, who has intellectual gravity and supports the manifesto. Trouble is, he’s a little dull. That might be enough, but it might not. So, (brace yourselves) I’d support Jess Phillips as Deputy. Yes, I know she’s right wing. Yes, I know she’s said some terrible things. But she is somebody the public warm to instinctively. And that is a much-underestimated quality amongst labour activists and supporters. (With that in mind , I just have to add that, at the end of this contest, I have actually been very impressed with Lisa Nandy, even though I disagree strongly with her about The North, Brexit and Democracy. She is a communicator and could have a very bright future.)
This brings me to the final achilles heel of the party. It’s the tribalism and visceral hatred of members of the same party who are further to the right than some others. The scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian is still the best representation of this – the spat between the Popular Front of Judea (splitters!) and The Judean Popular Front. We’re on the same side, guys. Accept the broad church, work with other progressive forces, form a government that can make a difference to people whose lives have been diminished by Tory Governments. You know it makes sense.
To me now, it reads like an uncovered manuscript from an ancient civilization, rather than a run of the mill blog. Jess Phillips has come and gone. I’d probably go for Angela Rayner instead. Starmer and Rayner. Not exactly Morecambe and Wise (ask your parents), but better than The Chuckle Brothers. It’s a return to John Smith as leader of the Labour Party. A little dull, perhaps, but now more than ever, it’s time for the adults to be in charge.