Labour, under a misapprehension

corbyn-quinoa

Does anyone remember that old Panorama episode about Scientology?

I’m thinking particularly of the clip in which, having spent the past few months following these guys around, BBC hack John Sweeney finally loses his shit and starts screaming in the face of Scientology spokesdrone Tommy Davis.

Sweeney later remarked that it was the eerie composure of the man – the way he’d calmly reel off bare-faced, demonstrable falsehoods as though they were gospel – that finally made him snap.

Most deranged cult apparatchiks, it seems, have the good grace to run around, wild-eyed and tangle-haired, machine-gunning spittle and raving about lizard people or how much god hates fags (lots). In short, to look deranged.

But this one, rather unsportingly, concealed his crazy beneath a veneer of halcyon serenity. An unwavering, lobotomised smile and an oiled, modulated voice. The metronomic nodding of a head tilted in ersatz empathy as if to say: ‘Gosh, you are getting into a frightful state about all this aren’t you? That’s ok though, I forgive you. God forgives you.’

Confronted with the unruffled and unassailable certainty of the man, invulnerable to reason and deaf to all the entreaties of logic, Sweeney started to wonder if he was the unhinged one. If he was the lunatic.

Then, suddenly, he was.

Whenever I see Jeremy Corbyn give an interview, I’m reminded of that encounter – that calm, measured delivery of delusion. The reasonableness of unreason. And I wonder how close to Sweeney-grade apoplexy any watching Labour MPs must be getting.

You’ve only got to look at Ed Balls who, as the Jurassic dents in the Strictly dance floor and the oversized, sweat-sodden garments in wardrobe will doubtless attest, has clearly been prised apart from what questionable sanity he once had.

And it’s the calm of Corbyn wot done it. As political biographer John Campbell wrote of Hugh Gaitskell: ‘by his very reasonableness [he] had a knack for rubbing people up the wrong way.’

I mean leaving aside the policy vacuums and terminal party disunity, the worrying and recurrent anti-Semitism, and the barely perfunctory referendum remain ‘campaign’. Leaving aside only the third mid-term local election since 1974 in which the opposition has failed to gain seats from the government* and the hard left, social media trolling personality cult, Momentum, whose idea of ‘reaching out’ is writing ‘unity’ on a bit of paper, wrapping it around a brick and lobbing it through Angela Eagles’ constituency office window.

Leaving aside poll ratings that make Ed Miliband look like a bona fide bacon sandwich-eating, “touch enough”-pronouncing, election-winning machine, and leaving aside, finally, the fact that all this is being played out in opposition to what is arguably one of the weakest governments in recent memory. One which – to its own surprise as much as anyone’s – staggered into office in 2015 with a majority smaller than the number of ministers Theresa May has now sacked from the front bench. One whose leading lights have, in the time since, divided their efforts fairly evenly between missing economic targets and dredging the party’s septic tank of four decades’ worth of festering Eurosceptical ordure. An exercise which resulted in the mid-term resignation of their prime minister and precipitated a leadership election where not a single member cast a single vote, but characterised by the largest number of back-stabbings since Edward Scissorhands slashed his way to victory at the All-American Conga Championships in the early 90s.

Yes, for heaven’s sake, leaving aside all that, reckon what must really razz off the Parliamentary Labour Party is Jeremy’s confounded reasonableness.

The way that, while the party teeters on the verge of an existential abyss, its leader shuffles beatifically from bake sale to Bolshevik knitwear symposium looking like an exceptionally zen rescue dog and intoning pointless, pacific platitudes about ‘reaching out’, ‘coming together’ and ‘a new style of politics.’

“But, but… that means even less than the gibberish arse-whiffle I used to come out with!” one can almost hear Ed Balls bawl.

And he’s right. It means absolutely nothing. But to the only voters Jezza seems keen to court (namely the ones who already agree with him), that doesn’t matter. They see his potting shed chic and soggy owl grooming and think such a deliberate lack of style must bespeak some sort of substance.

It’s an understandable (if idiotic) conflation. And it’s accompanied by another, more important one. One which I believe goes some way towards explaining why Corbyn is so calm and why the Labour Party is so fucked.

Corbynistas, you understand, don’t look at powerlessness and see inadequacy or incompetence. They see integrity.

It’s not just that they don’t care about winning elections; they don’t want to. To them, ‘power’ – like ‘Zionism’, ‘Blairite’ or ‘compromise’ – is a dirty word. Their movement – their very identity – is predicated on protest, vivified by victimhood and built on a moral high ground whose residents have never been burdened by even the slimmest prospect of influence or responsibility. To them, power doesn’t just corrupt; it is corruption. And trying to gain it entails an abandonment of principle; the unthinkable dilution of ideological purity.

Moreover, these are people to whom merely being relevant – just having their tweedy arses in the driving seat of the clown car – is a giddying novelty. So even if they have to drive that car off an electoral cliff to retain the wheel (by which I mean that Labour is slashed back to fewer than, say, 100 seats at the next election), that’ll still be a vast improvement on what they’re used to. Namely, being gagged and bound in the boot.

I mean it’ll effectively disenfranchise millions of people who, for generations, have depended on Labour to stop the Tories extending slavery to anyone without a knighthood, but give a shit, right? They don’t live in Islington and wouldn’t know ethically-sourced quinoa if they were choking on it.

But until then, St Jeremy – the movement and the man, the movement in the man, more feminist than any mere woman, more sensitive to anti-Semitism than any mere Jew – can continue to waft about the place intoxicated by his own self-possession, muttering about miners and marmalade to ineffably jolly but utterly humourless rallies of his own personality cult.

Another epithet of Gaitskell – this time by Roy Jenkins – described him as a man on a mission ‘to lead his party towards rational, responsible and philosophically coherent socialism.’ It seems Jez has decided to lead his party towards rational, responsible and philosophically coherent extinction.

I just hope Ed Balls can get the care he so desperately needs.

*The first two were presided over by Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock respectively, neither of whom has ever been seen anywhere near Downing Street without a tour guide.

Also posted on the Huffington Post.

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Ed Balls – on the campaign trail

Ed Balls

REPORTER: I’m delighted to say we’ve got the Shadow Chancellor in the studio. Mr Balls, good morning and thanks for joining us.

ED BALLS: Pleasure to be here, Mr….Journalist.

R: It’s David actually, that’s just my pass.

EB: No it’s not. Mr Journalist. Change it. Mr Journalist. Jonathan Oliver…Urnalist.

R: Err, yes. You’ll have caught George Osborne’s performance on the Andrew Marr show on Sunday–

EB: Caught it? Yes, I expect the whole nation will have ‘caught it’ like a rampantly infectious vomiting bug. 18 times the Chancellor was asked how he’d fund his party’s £8bn NHS proposals and 18 times the British public saw him flail and flounder in a morass of his own putrefying promises.

R: I’m sorry?

EB: He didn’t answer the question.

R: Uh huh. So what’s your proposal?

EB: To save the NHS. Simple.

R: Would you care to expand on that at all?

EB: Well I’m not about to mimic the truffle-fed arrogance and towering irresponsibility of George Osborne by sitting here and making unfunded promises. Let’s just say I’m going to save the NHS and then say it a few more times and leave it there, right?

R: Well…I mean, if you don’t mind, let’s see if we can’t just unpack that a tiny bit. The um…the funding, for instance: where’s that coming from?

EB: Oh nonononononono, your clever questions aren’t going to work on me, Journalist. You know, I know and the honest, simple, honest, hardworking and honest viewers of this programme know that I have absolutely no idea where the £5bn shortfall in our NHS investment is going to come from. So for me to sit here and pretend otherwise by attempting to answer your question would be a monumental dereliction of my duty as a public servant. Look. Look. Look. Ok? Look. I’m going to save the NHS. That’s just a fact. I’ll do what it takes. But surely you see how recklessly irresponsible it would be for me to outline how I’m going to do that when I haven’t given it even the most fleeting moment’s cursory thought? Frankly I find the very question offensive.

R: I see. So when Ed Miliband said he wanted to be the first Prime Minister to underpromise and overdeliver, he actually meant…

EB: Precisely. You know what a deep thinker Ed is. Well about a month ago, after a solid week of particularly thoughtful thinking, he unveiled what we all quickly realised would become our most significant policy breakthrough since Gordon Brown announced an end to boom and bust. Basically, Ed’s come up with a way to abolish broken promises. How? Simple. Stop promising things. If hopes don’t rise, they can’t fall – no expectation, no deflation. In fact, I lobbied for that to be our campaign slogan but Harman wouldn’t have it on the side of her frigging bus. Anyway, Ed has taken a body politic which for years has been haemorrhaging goodwill and he’s performed what Axelrod’s calling a ‘trustfusion’ on it. This is the dawning of a new age, Journalist.  An age of clean consciences, blank manifesto pages and vacant expressions.

R: I suppose that’s one way of looking at it. So, turning to immigration then, and your targetless pledge to bring the number of migrants under control – same deal there?

EB: There you go again, you see, peddling tired, outmoded notions like ‘pledge,’ ‘target,’ ‘accountability’ and so on. The Tories set themselves a net migration target and missed it so spectacularly I was able to gloat about it for a full week before anyone even bothered asking me what I’d have done differently. We prefer not to insult people’s intelligence by confusing them with statistics and policies. Instead, we’ve got a bold and refreshing offer for Britain – to simply do as well as we can as quickly as we can under the circumstances prevailing at the time. And who could say fairer than that? I mean anyone can just set a target can’t they? I could set myself a target right now not to elbow a single journalist in the face at a charity football match during the next parliament. I think we can all agree that’s pretty pie in the sky stuff right? But I just pledged it. So…QED.

R: Uh, well after a fashion. But of course, it’s then for the public to weigh up the plausibility of said target based on the record and character of the person in quest–

EB: –Exactly, waste of time.

R: So…on housebuilding, no commitment there either then?

EB: Now just stop it, Journalist. You know as well as I do that commitments are the gallows of credibility. Predictions prelimit progress. In this fast-paced, ever-changing world, it’d be pretty idiotic of us to tether the things we do to anything as arbitrary as the things we say. I mean how can we be expected to leap on the next political bandwagon if we’re burdened with the weight of past pronouncements?

R: Ahem, non-doms.

EB: What’s that?

R: Oh nothing, I just sneezed.

EB: Oh…bless you, Journalist. Bless you.

If we turn, turn, turn…

I’ll bet the Prime Minister would give his butler’s left leg right about now for a moratorium on the expression “U-turn”. Well actually given the choice, he’d probably rather expunge the term “omnishambles” from our shared lexicon but one fire-fight at a time.

Before we try to defend the government, let’s briefly plumb the depths of its incompetence. As Ed Balls, puce with poorly concealed glee, reminded us last week, the list of high profile government U-turns currently counts among its illustrious members: churches, pasties, caravans, charities, skips, petrol and as recently as yesterday Dave backtracked on the expansion of Heathrow.

Now a U-turn, in and of itself, is not an inherently negative thing if you accept (and I admit this proposition may entail a radical departure from popular opinion) that politicians are fallible creatures. I think that we can all just about entertain that notion, if only for the sake of argument. So, it follows that if they are fallible, they will make mistakes. Another novel concept, to be sure, but bear with me as we negotiate this labyrinth of abstraction.

If a politician has dropped a proverbial bollock in the noodles (to borrow Armando Iannucci’s joyous turn of phrase), the course of action implied by a U-turn would require the ability to recognise his error, hoik the offending organ from the bowl and give the contents a courtesy rinse. Now surely, this is a more commendable course of action for a statesman than someone who, to pursue what I now realise was an ill-chosen analogy, simply grits his teeth, liberally applies the Dolmio and pretends he is serving you up an extra meatball with your repast. Not exactly cutting off his nose to spite his face but…well, you get the idea.

If we accept that a U-turn is not an intrinsically bad thing, then it just comes down to an all-out dog fight between principle and pragmatism for the right to govern the conduct of our fearless leaders. Do we want someone who will stick steadfastly to their chosen path even when it leads them through the bramble patch of backbench revolt, the minefield of contrary public opinion and into the quicksand of political oblivion? Or would we rather elect someone who will kowtow to the baying media mob and toss principle to the pollsters at the merest whiff of antipathy? As ever, of course, the happy medium lies somewhere in the middle.

The Tories’ problem (Ed Miliband’s adenoidal hysteria notwithstanding) isn’t the relative merits of each individual volte-face but the sheer volume of them in aggregate. The solution, though, is a simple one (and by “solution” I mean something which definitely wouldn’t work but would be bloody hilarious). In fact, if you’re quiet enough, you can probably hear Steve Hilton bellowing it at his TV in California: change the terms of the debate. You idiot.

The expression “U-turn” drips with the disdain of leaders past and whimpers cowardice, venality and indecision. What Dave needs is a term which conjures to mind the image of an intrepid rally car driver slaloming along a succession of increasingly perilous hair-pin bends at break-neck speed as he navigates the treacherous topography of an economic landscape hand-sculpted by his incompetent predecessors.

So when the government executes its next courageous climb-down, don’t be surprised to read about a “stalwart swerve”, a “plucky pirouette” or a …… “gallant gyration”. Yeah I didn’t think this through.

Also posted on Huffington Post.