Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Last days of David Cameron

On Sunday, David Cameron had a day in the sun with his mum, sat on the edge of the royal box watching Andy Murray win Wimbledon. On Monday Andrea Leadsom decided against running for leadership of the Conservative party, after having been savaged by the right wing press, and David Cameron came out of the doors of No 10 to announce that Theresa May would become Prime Minister on Wednesday. A tiny detail circulating on twitter is that as he turned to go back inside he hummed a tune, “dee dum, dee dum – Right!” It is impossible not to wonder what was going through his mind.

On Tuesday we can presume that they are packing inside no 10. And on the radio the discussions are already beginning about the political legacy of David Cameron, how will he be remembered?

One of the points made in this discussion was that it was never necessary to have held the referendum, He did it to keep the peace with some of his own MPs, and he completely believed that this is something he could and would win. It was a misjudgement.

My own very personal perception of David Cameron was formed many years ago, back in 2009. Up until that point I had taken him pretty much at face value, accepting his own view of himself, since this one particular incident in 2009 it has never again been possible to do this.

2009 was a difficult year for David Cameron, he had just lost his son Ivan and was clearly suffering from that. One of the first visits after the death was to our town, following the publication of a Health care commission report on Stafford Hospital, where he came to announce his policy on the NHS to the media with a backdrop of a group of bereaved relatives.

Our town was then in a period of turmoil, partly as a result of some serious misinformation headlined by the press. What I had expected was a statesman like intervention, bringing us back to a balanced view of the facts, pouring oil on troubled waters, helping to settle things down.  Instead we got inflammatory headlines, and a commitment to a process that would put the town through years of Inquiries, administration & distress, leading to a reduction in services. at the cost of many millions of pounds. The seeds of the continuing conflict between the current government and the NHS were sown in the misunderstandings of that time.

What bothered me from then onwards is that David Cameron seemed willing to feed off public anger as a means to fight the elections of 2009 and 2010. As 2009 continued and the expenses scandal broke he again rode the tide of public anger, trashing the reputation of the government of the day and of the authority of MPs in general in the process.

Cameron’s relationship with the right wing press has been throughout most of his career very close, at times uncomfortably close, as Leveson showed us. He was always able to rely on them to some extent to tell the story his way, until it came to the referendum, when the papers had their own agendas. Maybe this was as much of a shock for him as it was for Andrea Leadsom.

Perhaps all politics since the banking crisis in 2008 has been conducted in the shadow of an increasingly discontented public, and there is perhaps a certain justice in that someone who fuelled anger, and benefited from it should have had his political career finished by the tide that Bill Cash, quoting John Gower reminds us of.

"There are three things of such a sort that they produce merciless destruction when they get the upper hand," he wrote.  

"One is a flood of water, another is a raging fire and the third is the lesser people, the common multitude; for they will not be stopped by either reason or by discipline."

David Cameron leaves his successors and all of us with the challenging question of how to satisfy the conflicting and strident demands of the people.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

When the political landscape changes, should parties do more canvassing?

Politically, at a local level, summer, and especially August tends to be the time when nothing much happens. There is a usually a break in meetings because people will be on holiday. This year things may be different.

The Conservative party leadership election is well under way. The Labour leadership election is just about to begin.

The entire political landscape has just changed as a result of the EU Referendum result. The effect of this is only yet being guessed at, and each region and town will feel it in different ways.

The Labour party has grown rapidly with a combination of people who have joined for opposite reasons. Some in support of the Corbyn project and some feel the need to rebalance the party. No one knows what the effect of this will look like in each constituency.

The Conservatives have pressures of their own with an odd coalition of people favouring the “change candidate”, and others with more conservative instincts feeling that the country needs a period of stability.

The centre ground of politics has probably shifted, and it is not clear that anyone currently occupies it.

The growing Liberal democrat party wonders if it can be the new centre, or if it needs to build a broader alliance with other centralists who may feel that their parties no longer work for them.

The discontent that brought us a vote for Brexit is still there, fermenting away, with people on both the far right and far left welcoming “disruption” as the means to finally let them create the particular new Jerusalem of their dreams. These forces are eating away at the old parties.

I will attend a CLP meeting this week.  I expect it to be noisy. I do not know how easy it will be for people to make their voices heard, or to listen to the range of views that members will have.  I understand the anxieties of people who have been members for a long time, and feel that all of this is taking us back to the bad old times, when Labour was out of power for a generation.  I have met some of the new members who signed up for Corbyn, and understand their deep enthusiasm, and untested idealism.

When I joined the Labour party it was a simple choice, I was experiencing first hand some to the big problems that we have in the country, particularly in social care, and it was clear to me that these were problems that can only be solved by collective action and risk sharing. The Labour party seemed to me the best hope of trying to find a way forward on this, though the solutions also meant reaching across party boundaries and demonstrating to many in the centre right that collective action was also in their best interests.

Political change sometimes happens rapidly, in a sudden shift, more often it seems to be incremental, with many people contributing over time to a shift in opinion. Incremental change may be easier to test, and more enduring.

We have now been through six years of austerity, Services have been cut back, and people have been hurt. Perhaps there is a particular duty on political activists to understand this impact clearly and to be alert to the changes Brexit and the financial pressures that accompany it will bring.

Many of those attending the CLP meeting, here and in other areas will know all of this, though it may not necessarily be the main topic of discussion.

Splits within parties are deeply felt, and can leave scars that last for decades. There is a risk of sowing the seeds now for many years of disharmony. I wonder if this can be avoided?

If I were to be heard, which I do not expect to happen, I would be suggesting social events to help get to know the new members and understand what they, as individuals, are hoping for.  I would also be suggesting that this is the time when we need to do a lot of canvassing.

Canvassing can seem a bit strange. The door to door conversations, checking people’s voting intentions and finding out about the issues that concern them.  I have always been a bit of a heretic about canvassing. I do not accept that it is actually going to give a particularly reliable indication of how people will vote, as I have seen too many elections that have been swung by last minute media campaigns, or by television debates. Too many people now decide on their vote, or not to vote, at the last minute, so canvassing is no longer a magical tool to predict outcomes.

So why, if I don’t believe in canvassing as an election tool, do I say we should be doing more of it, the reason is that we really must not form ideologically pure policy in closed rooms.

If we are to take the normal view that winning elections is an important part of what political parties try to do, then it helps if we can ensure our policies fit the needs of the people we serve, and resonate with them.

We need to canvass for three main reasons,

Firstly because the political landscape has changed so radically that we cannot assume we know the voting intention of anyone in the constituency,

Secondly because if we have an influx of new members they need to be working as part of a team and this time consuming task is a good starting point.

Lastly, and most importantly, because the voters are the only ones who can tell us how the party is perceived. If policies we hold dear are rejected by voters what does this mean. Does it mean that we have to do a better job of explaining, or does it mean that perhaps we may have got it wrong?

The future is unknowable, but I think we will do better if we try to find what it is that we have in common with people joining our party, and with others that share some common ground with us, and if we also keep on testing that what we think is in tune with the world as it really is.

Othello in the rain

I went to the final night of Othello in the annual outdoor production at Stafford Castle.

It was set in 1950s, in Venice and in Cyprus.

It is probably 40 years since I last read Othello, so the play felt for me quite new. I knew the tragic conclusion but I had forgotten the tangled story that leads to it.

I came to the play after a hard day’s work, but it held my attention completely, right up to the end, in the pouring rain, just before midnight. One reason for this was the way in which it was prompting me to think about troubling issues in  our world now.

Coming so shortly after the EU referendum it was an uncomfortable reminder that the racism that fuelled Brexit has deep roots. The language Shakespeare uses to explore this is very direct, I doubt that anyone could or would say such things now, but the Brexit vote gives us a window into some dark places, the things people do not say.  Shakespeare's words challenge us.

I had gone to the play with a question, “what exactly is Iago’s problem?” I am not sure that I have a clear answer, (I am told his motivation is strongly disputed by academics).

What this production showed us was an Iago who was a disappointed man. Often patronised, often overlooked. possibly sexually conflicted. He is just a trusted aide, not expected to be the main player, but his controlled and controlling presence dominates the stage. He talks directly to the audience, selecting individuals, with a word or a look, making all of us complicit.

He has scores to settle, and he uses his undoubted powers of persuasion, his understanding of human weakness, to control all of the players in his play. He takes pleasure in all of this. We watch with horrified fascination.

I thought about the persuaders in our time now, politicians, press barons, commentators, and the way in which they use words to sow the ideas that will take root in people’s hearts and grow there, out of sight; Poisoning people from within.

The play gives us a troubling insight into attitudes to women, and to domestic violence, all of which has a particular resonance today for people like myself who follow the archers. Iago, like today's villain Rob Titchener needs to control and weaves an ever more complex web that will finally trap him too.

The powerful physical presence of the actor playing Othello  (Oliver Wilson) is a shocking reminder of the menace of a strong man in the grip of  ill-conceived jealousy.

Like most of Shakespeare’s tragedies it ends in blood, with the killings directly or indirectly driven by Iago.

I did not fully grasp from the production that Desdemona was a mere child of 14 marrying a career soldier and diplomat some 20 years her senior. That too is obviously a pretty difficult matter, given one of the other preoccupations of today’s world.

I could not say it was an enjoyable evening, but I am glad that I went, and I am glad that somehow, against the odds the Gatehouse Theatre manages to keep on giving us a Shakespeare play. Here is hoping for many more.

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

There is probably a catch.

Many years ago I used to work in Oxgangs in Edinburgh. This is at the centre of the current scandal of faulty school buildings built under a PFI contract within the last 10 years.  The current popular narrative is that the PFI (public Finance initiative) contract is in some way the cause of the faulty construction.

It is a narrative that suits people on both sides of our political system. The Left despise PFI because they see it as a infection from the Right.  The Right use PFI as a whipping boy because it was widely used under New Labour.

The history of PFI is of course that it was designed and began to be used under John Major, probably as a response to the fact that many public sector buildings were in a state of disrepair after years of underfinancing, and that it was embraced by New Labour, in a major rebuilding spree to renew services.

The current narrative is that PFI is the problem. I cannot help thinking that this is simplistic. To me PFI looks more like a symptom.

The voting public want good services.  They do not want to pay more tax. Taxing intentions are a prominent part of any election campaign. The political parties are united in allowing the voting public to believe  that they can have the services they want without the pain of having to pay for them.

This fundamental dishonesty means that the government of the day – of whichever complexion, has to resort to magical thinking and magical accountancy. PFI is part of that.

Another interesting question raised by the current scandal in Edinburgh is “did faulty construction begin with PFI?” I think the answer to this is definitively “No!”

I spent some years working in another part of Edinburgh in the 70s and 80s.  As a welfare services officer in the housing department in Wester Hailes I was frequently called out after fires in the stairways of the densely packed modern flats of this estate.  These fires it was ultimately discovered were caused because the construction firm that built the flats had substituted a lower grade of plastic for the flame resistant grade specified by the architects. Kids who enjoyed a good fire discovered that the plastic to the drying greens could easily be ignited by a cigarette lighter. The fires were a major contributory factor to a modern estate quickly becoming an area where no one would choose to live.  The desire to light fires is probably down to cramming thousands of flats into an area where 100s would be a better fit.  We wanted a cheap solution, and that is what we got.  The fires are apparently still an issue today.

Down the road in Hailesland there used to be a group of multi storey flats, built in the 60s. These are no more, The problem was that the heavy concrete cladding that formed the exterior skin of the building started to fall off.  On investigation it was found that the steel clips which should connect the panels to the building structure did not always fit.  The builders improvised. The panels eventually fell off and all the residents had to be moved out and the flats were knocked down.

I happen to know about these events in Edinburgh, but I would be astonished if similar things have not been happening for a very long time in many parts of the country.

It is right to feel concern about the quality of buildings built with public money, but let us be realistic. If we want services that work well, and help people live good productive lives then it is necessary to pay for them. If we see options that promise to give us the services on the cheap then we should probably make the effort to read the small print. There is probably a catch.

Saturday, 26 March 2016

So what is Rob’s problem?


Reflections on the Rob and Helen storyline from the Archers.

Perhaps a daily soap opera is the only way to tell the Rob Titchenor story. It is hard to know what is more interesting, listening to the story itself, or watching the growing group of people who are actively sharing the listening experience and working through their powerful responses to it on #thearchers.

We don’t know what the story writer has in mind, or just how dangerous this clearly damaged man will become, or how and when the tower of lies will come crashing down.

We worry about the impact of his behaviour on all those around him, the wife just beginning to fight back, the child living in the shadow of it all, and the unborn baby.

For many of the listeners the priority is that this character (who we constantly have to remind ourselves is just fictional), should be found out, stopped, shamed and punished.

Because this is a soap opera it has to have a daily cliff hanger, and maybe at times this risks tipping Rob into being a pantomime villain, a monster that we can hiss at and hate.  For me the worry is that if you strip away the demands of the drama we may not be looking at a unique monster at all.

The story coming to us now is perhaps in the tradition of public service broadcasting, It is telling us about a change in legislation. It is aimed at changing behaviour.  Rob is of course an extreme figure, but many of the elements of “coercive control” may be far more common than we could like to think.

I wonder about the circumstances that created Rob, and about the right way of dealing with men who may tend to behave in these ways that we have now legislated against.

We are getting clues about the back story of what made Rob Rob. There was trouble, as yet unspecified in childhood, He was bundled off to prep school far too young. He learning how to act tough, learning how to bully in the process, and  he found a way to shine through competitive sport.

We guess at the level of expectation which fed into his notions of what a man should be. We guess at his employment history , leaving one job after another in difficult circumstances, a trail of failures, and maybe also of criminal behaviour waiting to find him out. We see a confused, inadequate man acting tough.

We know that this is someone to whom deceit comes quite naturally. Whenever there is an error, or a flash of temper, there comes the automatic cover up, so rapid he may not even know he is doing it,  adding to the tower of lies that looks ever more precarious.

He must be desperate to keep control, and the anxiety makes him more prone to mistakes, which means more cover ups, more vulnerability.

We live in a culture that puts a premium on being tough, manly, in control, being a winner. There is no shortage of people who will play act this part, to do this they must first deceive themselves. Building a narrative of the person they choose to be. 

There are moments when the clash between this self-image and the reality can become intolerable.  When Rob hits Helen he cries. He knows this is not the way it is meant to be. Men should not hit their pregnant wives,  but within seconds he has persuaded himself that it is not his fault, he is the victim of the impossible situation created by her supposed illness.

Having shared in the collective experience of seeing Rob, I find myself seeing flashes of Rob in people around us. There are the manipulative charmers, the over-persuasive salesmen, the CEOs, trying to hold together shaky organisations, the managers who blagged their way into jobs they are not up to, the politicians who have to persuade both themselves and us that they have it all under control, the aggressive interviewers or presenters trying to frame arguments.

We glimpse also the homophobia, and the distrust of women and the discomfort at the growing presence of women in positions of power. We sense their fear that these women, given half a chance can prevent a man from being a “real man”.

Someone like Rob does not come out of nowhere; they are part of the fabric of our world.

For Rob, the chances are that this will all end pretty badly, but should we be satisfied with that? Men will only end up in prison for domestic abuse if their behaviour becomes pretty extreme, and they will then probably only be locked away for a short time. They will emerge still young, still able to do it all over again, and probably more damaged and dangerous than when they went in.

So my questions are “What is Rob’s problem?” and “What is the way to prevent people becoming like Rob, or helping them to escape from the dangerous and destructive behaviour?”

Rob’s problem may be that his idea of being a real man might have seemed “almost normal” in past times, but is now a very bad fit with our idea of what a man should be.

Rob is not without courage or skill. His qualities or recklessness and aggression would have been valued at a time when our ancestors needed to band together for the task of hunting and killing a wild boar. He would have had the esteem that clearly matters to him freely given, but now we do not have a use for him, and that is a problem.

Here we are looking at an expensively educated young man, who is not able to find a way, and is stumbling from job to job, becoming a dependant parasite, but there are so many other young men, so much less equipped to look after themselves or families in the way that they think they should.  The frustration this brings is corrosive. This can be a tragedy for them, and dangerous for those around them.  Many of the people who will be caught up in coercive control cases will not have had the supposed advantages of the fictional Rob.

I do not know where the Archers story will take us, I hope we will find out how Helen can gradually heal from the damage done to her, but I also hope that we will understand more of what created this character, and how men like Rob can be helped to find a positive role for themselves in our challenging and changing world.