Saturday, 25 February 2017

British media write off Labour

British Rail, preferred to the private operators by the electorate

The number of journalists and political commentators writing off the Labour Party for a generation, if not forever, following the Copeland by-election result is a facile but typical groupthink. The electorate is totally fed up with all political parties at the national level as is evidenced by the low turnouts in Copeland 51%, and Stoke Central 38%. It is true that Labour under Jeremy Corbyn look unelectable in any general election but none of the parties looks to be capturing the mood of the electorate in these troubled and uncertain times. The Tory voters are more loyal than Labour voters at present but a dozen years ago the Tories had been written off forever following the barren years under the dreadful leadership of Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard.

What no one has reported is that the ten largest cities in the UK: London, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool, Sheffield, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Newcastle, and Bristol are all Labour-controlled apart from Edinburgh where Labour is the largest party under a proportional representation electoral system. They are for the most part running administrations that are valued by their citizens who discern the difference between local and national politics. Apart from Scotland, where there is an alternative left of centre party, the SNP, there does not seem to be a collapse of Labour at the local level that is assumed by the media.

This presumption reflects the fact the national press gave up reporting on local government at the turn of the millennium when they greatly reduced the number of seasoned reporters of local and regional government. Politics is ignored outside the bubble of Westminster and the devolved governments in Scotland and Wales. Yet as Simon Jenkins wrote last year "Labour has some outstanding leaders" but that "it is a shame that they are all in the regions." It reflects my experience working with politicians both councillors and MPs at the local level. Thirty years ago I was present when a rumbustious councillor, ambitious for an increase in his allowances, pleaded with the principled leader of the Council to be given the chair of a committee. He was told in no uncertain language that he would never be made a chair; local government services are far too important and that if he wanted more remuneration he should stand for parliament.

He did and was elected in a job lot of Jimmies and Tommies that were elected at the next general election. The moral of the story is that there is a sense of public duty that pervades local politicians (of all parties) who are drawn from a wider cross-section of society and have real responsibility for delivering services. Qualities that are often absent amongst national politicians, many of whom have limited working experience outside politics, and are over-represented by academics, educationalists, lawyers and journalists. The majority of MPs are not involved in decision making and are prone to focusing on politically correct or salient issues that exercise the media and chattering classes but are a lot less vital for the majority of the electorate.

It would appear that politics are being redefined, not on class lines but in accordance with the electorate's values and perspectives on wider issues. These include the role of the state in delivering education, health, housing, care and infrastructure. They embrace the protection of the environment, climate change, social justice, community control, the unregulated power of global capitalism, and international issues that include aid and migration as well as trade and defence. The way that political parties provide clear direction on these issues will determine their future survival. They will have to convince an increasingly savvy electorate who are far more fickle than previous generations when it comes to party loyalties.

Mrs May has adopted an approach that appears to be unambiguous on the wicked issues of nuclear power, defence, tax, schools, austerity and Brexit. This plays well with a certain demographic - the older, financially secure and more nationalistic. It contrasts with the Corbyn led Labour Party that embraces ambiguity on some of these national issues and leaves the younger. less financially secure and more globally aware, uncertain of what the Labour Party stands for apart from equality and human rights. If the Labour Party could become more committed to its traditional values that embrace state-owned railways and infrastructure, locally accountable public services, social housing, more progressive taxation, regulation of the financial sector and a real commitment to tackling climate change it could become a far more potent force than is currently assumed by the fickle media.

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