Sunday, 28 May 2017

The Enemy of the People

One of the conceits of pundits - journalists, broadcast commentators and bloggers such as me - is that what they say about Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn (or any other subject) makes a groat's worth of difference to public opinion.

In the course of the current General Election campaign the words and actions of the two main protagonists have probably made more difference than anything said about them by self-styled opinion formers.

Conservative Party strategists, who have made a dog's breakfast of things so far, probably won't reconsider attacking Jeremy Corbyn as the friend of anti-western terrorism after his speech on Friday night in which he urged a re-think of British foreign policy. I expect him to be portrayed as the devil incarnate, the enemy of the people, hell bent on selling out this country to those who want to destroy it (unlike Ted Heath and the European Communities Act in 1972, say)

The weakness of Mr Corbyn's otherwise reasonable argument is that British foreign policy in the Middle East and Afghanistan did not cause the 9/11 Al Qaeda attacks on the United States: they preceded George W Bush's War on Terror and the subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Moreover, the US aided and abetted the military retreat from Afghanistan by the Soviet Union's Red Army by supplying Islamic Mujahedeen fighters such as Osama Bin Laden with tank-busting rocket-bombs and ground-to-air missiles. Bin Laden showed his gratitude by directing his holy warriors against what the Islamic Republic of Iran used to call 'The Great Satan'. The bearded one's excuse was he didn't like American-led Coalition forces camping out in Saudi Arabia, location of Islam's holiest places, prior to Operation Desert Storm.

Probably the person least surprised by the outrage expressed in the media is Jeremy Corbyn. "Everybody knows my views about nuclear weapons," he said somewhat wearily to Andrew Neil during last Friday's TV badgering interrorgation. Indeed. The general public knows that while he doesn't condone acts of terrorism he doesn't go in for the demonisation of those designated as terrorists.

This aspect of Corbynism troubles some Labour MPs and undecided voters. Even though governments usually end up doing deals with those they have called terrorists - Nelson Mandela, Martin McGuiness, Archbishop Makarios, George Washington - do we want a prime minister who has shared public platforms with Hamas and the IRA?

Demonising Corbyn, much as the hapless Michael Foot was demonised and ridiculed during the 1983 General Election campaign, is not guaranteed to shore up Tory election fortunes in general and the crumbling public esteem of Theresa May in particular. Not in the age of social media where people talk to one another instead of being talked at by pundits and politicians. Short of accusing Corbyn of treason, what else can the opposition throw at him as he goes on meeting, greeting and disarming people round the country, much as he did when campaigning for the leadership of the Labour Party?

Were I a Tory strategist I would counsel a different course. Concentrate on putting more hope and faith in our own strategy, I would say; don't risk making our chances worse by smearing the opposition. But then I would also feel obliged to advise Wonder Woman to stop bigging herself up at the expense of the party and her colleagues. Andrew Rawnsley shrewdly observed that her 'I, me, myself' approach, based on pre-election poll ratings against Jeremy Corbyn, has back-fired and Mrs 'Strong and Stable' is now regarded as Mrs 'Weak and Wobbly'.  

In years gone by the media believed that it shaped public opinion and determined the outcome of general elections. After the 1992 General Election - lost by Labour rather than won by the Conservatives - The Sun published a front-page banner headline: 'It was the Sun Wot Won it'.

Actually that claim is disputable. My view at the time was that Labour's then-leader Neil Kinnock inadvertently lost the General Election by sounding prematurely triumphalist and presdidential at a pre-election rally in Sheffield. "We're all right! We're all right! We're all right!" he announced to whooping Labour Party members. There was something of Welsh chapel conviction in Mr Kinnock's delight; but I'm sure that to the public at large he sounded presumptuous, too full of himself. A little more self-deprecation was called for.

"Well, who'd have thought it?" a surprised John Major self-deprecatingly told Conservative colleagues after the result. Like Jeremy Corbyn, the self-effacing Major had gone around the country with a soapbox and a little megaphone to address ordinary people, a strategy that appeared to be pedestrian and out-of-date at the time. But Mr Major was right. He relied on Mr Kinnock being overly impressed by favourable opinion polls and putting his foot in it.  

What is said is usually less important than how it is heard. Intentions count for nothing.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Bombing Manchester...Revisited

If 22-year-old Salman Abedi had taken the trouble to look at the history of World War II he might have changed his mind about bombing Manchester's Arena.

From his point of view he succeeded in killing 22 and injuring at least 59 infidels - age makes no difference to Islamic suicide bombers. For him martyrdom meant killing others. For us, meaning non-Islamic believers or non-believers, self-sacrifice means saving the lives of others. He must have come to think of himself as a man with a mission and as such above the consequences of his actions.

But let this difference - cultural, religious or otherwise - pass. As I have pointed out before, post-1945 the British people have been subjected to bomb attacks here and all over the world by sundry groups of fanatics. Probably, Salman Abedi had heard of this. I suspect he knew less about what happened between 1940 and 1945 to his home town of Manchester and other British cities. He would have done, of course, if modern British history was still taught in schools or even university. The BBC say he attended Salford University, so he wasn't one of the wretched of the earth; more like one of those misguided educated people besotted by nihilism that you find in 19th century Russian novels by Turgenev and Dostoyevsky: wanting to sweep everything away, blow up everything, to clear the way for a puritanical future.

In summary: More than 48,000 people were killed by Nazi bombs dropped from aircraft and V1 and V2 ballistic missiles launched from sites in Northern Europe. The maimed and wounded numbered many thousands. London alone had a million houses smashed or badly damaged. Coventry, Liverpool, Plymouth, Glasgow, Swansea and many other towns and cities all suffered loss of life and refuge.

Salman Abedi would have learned that more than 1,400 Manchester people were killed by Nazi bombs, in Collyhurst, Salford, Stretford, all over. The Old Trafford football ground was so badly damaged that after the war Manchester United was obliged to share Manchester City's Maine Road stadium.

But beyond these facts and figures Abedi would also have learned that the Nazis lost the war in spite of all the civilians they killed and injured; their bombers made no difference to their ultimate fate: they were crushed. Murdering and shredding children at a pop concert is not only disgusting, it's a waste of life and time. In this respect US President Donald Trump was right to categorise suicide bombers as life-hating 'losers'. They love death the way most people love life.

Far from frightening ordinary people and cowing national leaders the bombing of Britain during World War II resulted in black humour and a desire to hit back even harder. People adapted and carried on. And, such is the national habit of self-deprecation, carrying on gave rise to a series of comedy films after the war, the Carry-on series. All that Salman Abedi achieved was to bring together hundreds of people, probably thousands, who had little to do with one another before he detonated his nail bomb.

Taxi-firms offered free rides to people who escaped from Manchester Arena. Hotels offered rooms and food. Countless individuals reportedly did the same on social media. Off-duty NHS staff went into work. People queued at blood-banks. I am told that a couple of homeless men offered their help as well.  Everybody in old Mad-chester, as it used to be known in the 1980s, wanted to help. This touched me more deeply than the official voices expressing the usual post-outrage platitudes.

With armed policemen and armed soldiers patrolling busy public places, Salman Abedi has succeeded in making an impact beyond the families of the killed and injured.The understable emotion this has generated is only now starting to clear a little from news reporting so that more questioning voices can be heard.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

May Watch...Revisited

In the 2015 General Election I voted for the Conservatives because they were the only political party with a realistic chance of power to promise a referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union empire.

Now that Theresa May shows every sign of buggering up the opportunity to re-define Britain's relationship with the EU that the Referendum result provided - and saddling us with complicated and extremely expensive arrangements as well - I shall be voting for another party on June 8. Which one? Probably Labour. Why? Because they don't want to rip Britain out of the European Single Market as precipitously as the Prime Minister. I'm not sure how Jeremy Corbyn's party would honestly negotiate Britain's escape from the political Laocoon of the EU; but you could say exactly the same and much more about the Conservative Party's mystery Brexit strategy as well. 

The Conservative election manifesto is another reason. As a State pensioner, why should I vote for a party that promises to attack the security of my main source of income? As a citizen, why should I support a party that intends to go after the elderly and infirm at one end and the welfare of school children at the other? I don't believe Conservatives are natural-born bastards - an interesting mixed metaphor there. I just don't feel remotely sympathetic to what's behind Mrs May's creepy quest for a Parliamentary majority big enough to crush all valid political opposition. Why should I be interested in supporting that kind of one-party dictatorship? New Labour under Tony Blair got a landslide majority twice in 1997 and 2001 and what good did that do, ultimately, either for the party or the country? 

The more I see of Theresa May on television - those spindly arms, legs and fingers - I am reminded of the blood-sucking creature played by Max Schreck in Robert Maunau's 1922 silent film Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror. She excels at not answering questions - one of Sir Humphrey Appleby's essential qualities for cabinet ministers and prime ministers. When button-holed by a woman troubled about reduced help for people with learning difficulties and other disabilities, Mrs May tried to give this unfortunate woman a run-down on relevant proposals in the Conservative manifesto. Even a bear of staggeringly little brain such as myself could see that what was required was a bit of genuine empathy for this woman's plight. Listen to the poor old dear, don't lecture her. My memory of Theresa May as David Cameron's Home Secretary is of her being booed by members of the Police Federation. Why would they, why should we, cheer her now? She was a bit of a disaster during her six years as Home Secretary, when immigration was at its highest (it fell by 80,000 last year, when she was no longer in charge of it). What difference will she make from June 9 if the Conservatives get the majority that the polls a week ago were suggesting?

The idea that Labour's Corbynistas might close the gap at all - let alone by five points - was as unlikely as the idea of Mike Tyson sitting at home at night in Nevada watching British television series about the Tudors. I daresay even among Conservatives die-hards there are voters put off by the way Theresa May's team have superimposed themselves on the General Election campaign where the emphasis is on Mrs M and the team rather than the party. Dial M for what? Not Murder, as in the Hitchcock movie; but Mayhem. Besides, my bullshit detector does not respond well to collectives, be they 'communi-ies', 'team GB' or 'team May'. 

Every time I try to discuss Theresa May's perceived short-comings the riposte invariably comes back: 'So you think Jeremy Corbyn is better do you?' What I think about Mr Corbyn, such as it is, can be found in the blog previous to this one. He might be in his own way another political arse who says one thing, does another and makes pledges and promises impossible to keep. However, I feel less edgy about giving him a chance to prove his worth than I do Mrs May. You may say this is because Mr Corbyn's Labour Party has as much chance of winning on June 8 as I do of scratching a £1 lottery card and winning £100,000. There may be truth in that. But so far Labour, as represented by Mr Corbyn, feels less of a threat to my future well-being than the Conservatives, as represented by their leader.

The latest Youguv opinion poll, according to Newsnight, puts the Conservatives only five points ahead of Labour - 43 to 38. I await the all-out media onslaught. Nasty piece of work though Mrs May was as Home Secretary, she was reportedly good at making sure that others took the blame when things went wrong, as they usually did. Strong and stable? I don't think so.

Friday, 12 May 2017

The Fifth General Election in Sixteen Years

Since the year of my birth, 1949, sixteen British general elections have resulted in nine Conservative governments and seven Labour.

Two or three took place every ten years throughout the Fifties, Sixties, Seventies, Eighties and Nineties. Since the Millenium we’ve had four and by June 8 those will be joined by a fifth: five general elections between 2001 and 2017; three since 2010 when the Conservative-Liberal-Democrat Coalition brought in fixed five-year parliaments. Didn’t last long, did it?

When you feel stumped to say anything remotely interesting or amusing about what should be an important political event in the life of the nation, you can always resort to nostalgia (fings ain’t what they used to be) and facts (16 elections since 1949).

Evidently I would like to say something about the current campaign; but what? Were I a betting man I’d be inclined to take a punt on Labour coming up on the blind side of the other parties and winning by a head on June 8. It’s only the polls that say the Tories can’t lose because they are 16 points ahead and the polls, as we know from the 2015 General Election, Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour’s Leader, and last June’s EU Referendum, are rarely wrong.

No, no, not fourth time around, according to media reports. Voters love Labour’s manifesto proposals to nationalise the railways, put more money into education and the NHS, scrap university tuition fees, guarantee the triple lock on state pensions and take more tax from people earning more than £80,000 a year. What voters don’t like or don’t trust is Jeremy Corbyn, they add.

I’ve heard stalwart Labour voters in various parts of the country say as much on television  news vox pops. None of them said Mr Corbyn was unlikable as a human being or untrustworthy as an MP: most of them just didn’t think the former backbench Left-winger had the right stuff to be prime minister.

Americans vote for a president, but we vote for prospective party political candidates. Only constitutional levellers such as those who adhere to the six Chartist-style principles of the Harrogate Agenda maintain that a prime minister should be voted in by the public during a general election, not chosen by party members afterwards. The British Constitution does not permit that, but that’s the way we think and feel about political leaders: they represent more than themselves. Personalities, by a process of metonymy, come to stand for, or even stand in for, party policies. Therefore, Jeremy Corbyn, whom people don’t like as a potential leader, represents policies that they do like. 

With Theresa May the other way round appears to apply: the public doesn’t care for Tory principles of privatisation, public spending austerity, tuition fees, the level of overseas aid, immigration, and much else; but they feel that Mrs May is strong and dependable. I have heard female Labour voters in the North East say so on television. 

What grounds they have for saying that I have no idea, because reporters never ask them to explain what they mean or give a couple of examples of strength and independence from a Prime Minister whose actions don’t always live up to her words.

The nature of the job inevitably means that is going to happen because politicians, not even prime ministers and presidents, control events. For example, a few months ago Mrs May maintained that she had no interest in calling an early general election; then on April 18 she called one. Surprise, surprise. Oh Laura Kuenssberg. Oh Robert Peston. Oh Andrew Neil. Did any of these oracles see it coming? 

The Prime Minister does her best to sound decisive and look leader-like in front of television cameras; but that’s precisely what I think she is: an impression, style without substance, though I’m not sure about the style either.

Her preference for appearing in public in those bum-freezer jackets, high-belted trousers and flat shoes has drawn much comment and amusement already. But when I bother to think about this, I ask myself if this slightly stooping, grey-haired vicar’s daughter really does have the political moxie to ensure that Brexit means Brexit when she comes up against the true enemies of Brexit – the hard Right of the Tory Party.

She’s better at giving impressions whereas Jeremy Corbyn struggles with sounding or appearing like anything other than he is. So the public apparently likes the manifesto policies he represents but doesn’t like him. With Theresa May the reverse applies, as though they believe she is able to and capable of adjusting reality to live up to their hopes and expectations.

Tony Blair was exceptionally good at that kind of political legerdemain. David Cameron also but to a lesser degree. Jeremy Corbyn, I would say, does not. He has four weeks to convince voters, at least the ones he meets at rallies, that far from being a charlatan or opportunist he really is as good as his word.

As I said, if I was a betting man I’d be inclined to wager against the polls. Just in case. And in the hope that the outcome of this election isn't as predictable as Masterchef.