Wednesday 29 July 2015

An utterly depressing piece. (After a brighter start)

I've been really busy.

Andi and I were away for three weeks, initially with her folks in Hungary and then, a first even for me, in the Abruzzo. Can't recommend the latter too much as a holiday destination. The Adriatic remains as azure as ever and the sea food better than even my memory from further south recalled. And the hilltop towns inland, now restored, are the equal of much of Tuscany or Umbria. Two hours from Ciampino, straight across the peninsula on the A24, although not perhaps a road to be driven by anybody who suffers from vertigo.

And on our return we've bought a new wee house! Which needless to say, despite being in "move in condition", hasn't actually proved to be in move in condition to Andi's satisfaction. So, walls have had to have been scraped, perfectly good carpets dismissed from further use, and plans made for patio doors, decking and even canopies to be installed at some indeterminate future date.

And then there's my work. Trials held back for my return to be actually conducted. Ridiculously impatient clients demanding appointments to discuss their affairs with their lawyer who has, after all, only been unavailable for a mere three and a half weeks. None of this helped by my secretary of thirty years having decided she is going to retire. And to top it all, a coincidental Scottish Legal Aid Board "peer inspection" where even files in which the Crown unconditionally abandoned proceedings are sent off in fearful anticipation that some distant colleague might observe that this was an inadequate result.

So, I'd have had plenty of reasons for not doing much blogging.

But, to be honest, its not just that.

I'm really wondering what is the point to current Labour politics.

I've always kind of thought that the principal purpose of the Labour Party was to advance the cause of working people. Not just to complain about it but to actually do something about it. And for that, be in no doubt, you need to get elected.

Other than at a local government level, and then only within the constraints of a Council Tax freeze over which we have no control, Labour has not done any advancing of the interests of working people anywhere since 2010.

It is easy to blame/get annoyed with Jeremy Corbyn and those intent on voting for him for the way the leadership election has unfolded. "This man could never win a General Election" is an easy charge to make. And a true one.

But the real villains of this piece are not the Corbynites. Most of them readily concede that their man can't win anything other than an internal election. But it is not fair to say that (most of them) don't care.

It seems to me rather that much of the momentum for the Corbyn surge flows not from a desire to write off electoral success by choosing the man but rather from a rather fatalistic belief that none of the other candidates in the field would bring electoral success either. Given that starting point, there might even be some logic to deciding to go out with a bang rather than a whimper. Who would "remember the Alamo" if Davy Crockett had conceded Santa Anna had a reasonable claim to the fort and reached terms on a negotiated surrender?

Now, whose fault is that?

I started with little enthusiasm for any of the declared candidates and as the campaign has continued if anything my enthusiasm has waned.

It is all very well for her partisans to try and project Liz Kendall as the new Blair but she is not. Blair certainly had a successful political message but he also had other merits:

  • He was far from a political unknown before he was elected
  • He sought the leadership, thanks in part to the Granita deal, with the support of pretty much all of the Party's other front line representatives
  • He inherited, anyway, a pretty united and determined Party from John Smith so he himself did not have to strive to build that unity
  • He genuinely seemed something "New". It cannot be emphasised how much new Labour needed that. If Brown had stood and won we might still have claimed to have been "New" but we would never have done so as convincingly.
  • Sometimes you also have to be honest in politics, he also benefited from being an attractive man physically, with a clever wife and three young children. He struck you (and I was no great partisan of his, far from it) as somebody who would have been successful in life no matter what he chose to do.
  • He did not seem to be obsessed with personal ambition or even, particularly, politics.
  • He did seem to be somebody with a clear idea of where the Country (and not just the Labour Party) needed to go.
Now, Liz Kendall doesn't have any of these advantages. She was a pretty obscure figure before she declared and since then her usp seems simply to be "I've got the same politics as Tony Blair; Tony Blair won elections; vote for me". Possibly, I accept, as a result of the Corbyn factor, nobody could regard her as a unifying candidate. But in some way most importantly it is not really clear what she is for other than fiscal rectitude and a realistic assessment of the Country's toleration of Welfare. These might, I agree, be obstacles to us winning that have to be confronted, but people also want to know what you are actually seeking power for. People ultimately in the Country as a whole but initially at least people in the Labour Party contemplating voting for you. No-one is ever going to win an internal Labour election on a platform of fiscal rectitude alone. Even Tony Blair couldn't have done that. 

If that is a criticism of Liz Kendall however it is magnified in relation to Yvette. I wanted her to stand last time. I'll probably end up voting for her this time. But the Corbynite critique of New Labour is not without some merit particularly in relation to our latter period in office. We drifted into a sort of managerialism which did lead you wondering a bit about what we were achieving other than (I accept not unimportantly) keeping the Tories out of power.  The only excitement was of the wrong sort; the collapse of the Banks and the occasional terrorist outrage.

Our loss of power should have been an opportunity to reflect on that, to look at how we might create a new offer to the electorate in a digital age where the divide between the relative comfort of educated white collar workers in the private or public sector increasingly drifts apart from the life experience of those, largely uneducated, sectors of the workforce in marginal employment or no employment at all. An offer based on the realisation however that political power cannot be secured based on the support of the latter group alone.

That just never really happened. We went along with Ed's 35% strategy and kind of sleep walked through our five years in opposition until rudely awoken, one would have hoped, on the morning of May 8th.

Except Yvette still doesn't seem to have woken up. You don't need to subscribe to Liz's shock therapy to believe that the Party needs a pretty major rethink, yet I simply haven't seen or heard from Yvette, never mind what that rethink needs to be, even a recognition that a rethink is needed at all.

She's just there, competent and, insofar as I understand her distinctive pitch, a woman. 

And then, finally, we have Andy Burnham. Of those standing, I was inclined initially to give him my support. But his campaign has been all over the place. Everything from "more Blairite than Liz" (consistent with his time as a Minister, at least) to "Shoulder to shoulder with Jeremy Corbyn, just more electable". He just comes across as a complete chancer prepared to say anything to get elected. The problem with that is that such a reputation sticks.

My favourite Labour leader in my lifetime was Neil Kinnock. He inherited a Party in tatters and rebuilt it to the point where, had there been any justice, we would have won in 1992. I could see where Kinnock wanted to go but the pace at which he could proceed was hampered, particularly originally, by internal Party considerations. So, what I and others internally saw as a consistent direction of travel, others, in the wider electorate, saw as inconsistency. And that stuck. Fatally.

Andy Burnham is in danger of acquiring a reputation in three months that it took Kinnock years to achieve. Ask him if he thought Ed was too left wing or too cautious you get the distinct impression that he'd want to know a bit about the questioner before giving his answer. Big politics doesn't work like that.

But I kind of come back to where I started. Whoever wins will get my vote in the general election. As Tony Benn famously observed after the debacle of  1983, "Eight and a half million people voted for Socialism". So, even if it is Jeremy, I won't be entirely alone. But do I think, if they come from the present field, any of these candidates is capable of winning a General Election? I'm afraid I very much doubt it. 

That's why I'm so fed up. Ten years is a long time in politics.

Sunday 19 July 2015

Just (another) book review

I love  Iain M. Banks' Culture Novels. Read every one, often twice. Consider Phlebas at least three times. And I still cry at the end.

But, if you were being hyper (favourite Banks word) critical there is a certain repetitiveness about the plot(s) as the novels continue. Mere (very future) pieces of flesh and blood living out the narrative at the indulgence of more immortal artificial intelligences.

Nonetheless you keep reading, certainly because the storytelling is so good but also because of the added extras of worlds so different, so fantastically different, from our own that you revel in their description.

To that degree Banks was a true descendent of Sir Walter Scott, who described a historical time and place as precisely as Banks described a future time and place, Great plots but with an added bonus.

Well, now we have Andrew Nicoll. I have to confess he is a pal of mine. And we now have his fourth novel  The secret life and  mysterious death of Miss Jean Milne.                                         .

It is an odd synthesis of Banks and Scott. A historical novel, or more properly novella, set in an almost recognisable Scotland of our, almost, living memory but then describing that "almost recognisable" place as if it was one of Banks ring worlds on the edge of the known universe.

Broughty Ferry, the posh suburb of Dundee, where, in 1912, Police Sergeant Fraser of the Broughty Ferry Constabulary (total compliment 16) suddenly finds himself a key investigator, or at least key witness to the investigation, of the murder, in her own home, of the local spinster Miss Jean Milne.

As a police procedural, of time and place, the book more than holds its own. The same again as a (mere) whodunit. But this is not the book's real achievement. That is not so much to conjure up as to recreate a lost Scotland. A Scotland where professional men were invariably "Mister", unless they were "Doctor", even among themselves. Where Policemen always told the truth, no matter how inconvenient. Where the "cars" (trams) were the height of transport sophistication and the electric telephone as wondrous a thing as the modern internet.   Where local rivalry and distinction, in this case between Broughty Ferry and Dundee, but just as easily as between Glasgow and Rutherglen or Edinburgh and Leith, was a matter of almost vital importance to the junior partner involved.

I won't even really start to summarise the plot, for the book itself moves forward quickly in that regard. There's a murder, no obvious perpetrator, then too obvious a perpetrator and then.........

But the plot is not the star of this production. That lies as I say in its evocation of different but vaguely familiar world. I paid 49p for it on the Kindle. Or 9/11d in the old money. Worth every penny.