What Mr Corbyn should do next

Jeremy Corbyn finds himself this weekend in a position he never expected…and how many times over the past two years have we said that? Nobody (including those at the head of the Labour party) expected to be in this position after the election.

With Labour’s massively increased share of the vote and (more importantly) a respectable increase in Parliamentary seats, Jeremy Corbyn now finds himself in a commanding position. It is truly his Labour party now.

A new consensus

Post-war Britain was governed under the Attlee consensus until that began to be broken apart by Thatcher, around whom formed a new political consensus which remained more-or-less steady through austerity Britain until last week.

There are early signs now that a new post-Thatcher consensus is beginning to emerge around a rejection of the austerity lie and ever-smaller-state politics. The current disarray in the Conservative party is a window into their struggle to come to terms with that shift.

Nevertheless there are some important truths which the Labour leadership would might do well to remember as they seek to move closer to power in the weeks and months ahead.

Weak and wobbly Theresa May

First, they are unlikely ever again to come up against a Conservative leader as weak and ineffective as Theresa May. The Conservatives are unlikely ever again to fight an election campaign as poor as this one has been. They grew fat on their own hubris and, for pragmatic reasons if nothing else, they will learn from how that meant they were perceived over the past eight weeks. Tories are nothing if not pragmatic.

The shortest suicide note in history

Second, and linked to that first point, everyone should remember that the turning point in this election occurred when the Conservative party launched the most disastrous manifesto since Labour’s suicide note of 1983. It was then that the polls turned, not in response to a positive Labour proposal. While it is to Labour’s enormous credit that they were in a position to capitalise on that, and then to maintain the momentum despite the terror attacks in Manchester and London, it’s important that we all learn the correct lessons from this election, not just the ones we want to learn.

Swinging both ways

Third, and most important, despite the glaring weaknesses of the Tories, Labour still fell more than 60 seats short of achieving their own majority. The British people felt unable to support an awful Conservative offer. Yet collectively we still did not feel able to endorse Labour despite the most generous offer made by a major political party in Britain for more than a generation.

What Labour achieved was remarkable. That is clear and should of course be celebrated. They’ve turned upside down many accepted wisdoms of politics and clawed back an unprecedented gap in the polls to achieve a result that was at the very top end of what was possible from their starting point.

But that starting point was woefully low and while Labour is now a small swing away from a majority at the next election, it is at the same time an even smaller swing away from being on the wrong end of a significant Tory majority next time. Remember that not only was Labour’s vote share massively increased, but the Conservatives also achieved their largest vote since 1992. There is in fact no definitive single direction of travel that can be discerned among an unprecedentedly volatile electorate.

Depending on how skilfully each of the main parties manages the coming weeks, anything is still possible when we next go to the polls. And when we do, there will be a whole new aspect at play: Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn is no longer an unlikely prospect, and that is something which could play both ways.

To assume that a single strand of Labour’s broad internal coalition has already won the argument, therefore, would be a monumental mistake.

Knockout blow

There are those within the Labour movement who even now, with the Tories flailing on the ropes, would prefer that Labour punches itself in the face rather than deliver the knockout blow. 

And what would that knockout blow be? It would be the incredibly powerful show of Labour unity and stability that would be demonstrated by unveiling a new Shadow Cabinet of all the talents. That does not mean wholesale tearing apart of the Shadow Cabinet which so positively fought the election just gone. But it does mean the re-introduction to the top team of some of those who have been won round by Corbyn’s campaign, ready to fight the next election.

People like Yvette Cooper, Hilary Benn, Clive Lewis, Caroline Flint and yes, even Chuka Umuna, who have been gracious and graceful in how they’ve managed their responses since Thursday night. There is a new landscape now, and Labour should beware of preparing to fight the last election again, as comfortable as that might feel right now.

Labour, like all political parties, is a grand coalition of views. It is right of course that the existing top team including the likes of John McDonnell, Angela Rayner, Barry Gardiner, Emily Thornberry, Nia Griffith, Keir Starmer and others should continue to make up the majority of the Shadow Cabinet. But room should be made for the undoubted and valuable talents of the sort of people mentioned above, whose absence from front-line politics is a loss to the entire country at a time like this, not just to the Labour party.

Power, not plaudits

It’s time to pull together, stand united in contrast to the incredible disarray of the Tories, and offer an altogether better alternative ready for when the inevitable next election takes place.

Because it is only by doing so that Labour can make the leap that’s still required to win power, not just plaudits.

Pollocks

After a slow start and a few missteps, Jeremy Corbyn has had a positive couple of days as Theresa May and the Tories stumbled over tax pledges and their policy on international aid, with the right wing press preposterously making a populist case against investing in development and British interest abroad.

Jeremy the Patriot

Jeremy Corbyn Reading to ChildrenLabour have enjoyed some relatively positive reviews since Friday, particularly in the broadcast media if not in the majority of the printed variety. They have benefitted from a conveyor-belt of positive policy announcements and an impressive collection on positively received campaign events. Even if many of these announcements are retreads of previously signalled policies, they have nevertheless done a good job of drawing attention to their platform and even setting the agenda based on Labour messages:

  • A £10 minimum wage, crucially with support for businesses to implement such a major change
  • Free school meals for primary school children
  • Four new bank holidays every year

These are clear, populist policies which would appear to have cut through to an unusually high level for Labour under Corbyn. The policy for additional bank holidays in particular is cleverly populist in that it allows Corbyn to reclaim some much needed patriotic territory (celebrating our great nations) while also promoting the Union (each part of the Union celebrates the national day of each constituent nation). It’s a good policy to get out early in terms of tone, so has longer-term benefit, while also in the short-term managing to lead the news across the networks. That’s a win-win by any standards.

The nuclear option

The underlying difficulties that Corbyn faces in this election were clear, however, in his appearance on Marr this morning as he was relentlessly questioned on Trident. The nuclear deterrent is an issue to which many on the left are blind, because they fail to realise the extent to which it is a very popular policy in Labour heartlands.

An inconvenient truth for the left is that the leadership and activists are often very much at odds with the position of the masses on this. Arguing the unquestionable ethics of disarmament is not going to be a tactic which will bring the votes rushing to Labour on June 8th, Particularly at a time when Theresa May can and will play on the dangerous state of the world in the light of the coming stand-off between Trump’s America and Kim’s North Korea.

What was abundantly clear from this morning’s Marr interview was that Corbyn needs a simple line to cut through on Trident. It could be that he needs to lead a party into this election on a stated nuclear policy with which he disagrees – and that he will continue to argue beyond June the 8th – if he has any hope at all of neutralising this damaging line and maximising the number of seats Labour gain. It’s not ideal but ideal scenarios aren’t a luxury available to Labour at the moment. There is no overstating how much mischief-making the press and the Tories can make with his current position. In light of that, is he really prepared to let his entire platform fall at the altar of something which he is unlikely to have any control over in any case? They mustn’t allow tactics, or even stubborn ideology, to get in the way of strategy if they are to have a hope of victory (of any sort) this June.

Pollocks

Today we see contrasting polls in The Mirror and The Mail which show either:

  • that the Tories have shot ahead since the election was called, achieving a mind-boggling 50% in The Mirror’s poll; or
  • that the government’s lead has fallen by half over the week, as a result (according to The Mail) of their flip-flopping over tax pledges and commitment to maintaining foreign aid budgets.

The Mail is obviously reluctant to suggest that any of the plunge in Tory numbers could be down to Corbyn’s improved showing. That the poll showing a tighter gap coincides with Tory messaging this weekend that this race is tighter than the polls suggest should make us suspicious.

For the Tories, this election campaign will be based on a Project Fear of their own: that a vote for anyone other than them will result in a “coalition of chaos” led by the Jeremy Corbyn and propped by Greens and nationalists. If the polls give the conservatives an impossible lead, then they find themselves with a more difficult task in really making people afraid when they go to cast their votes come June.

It’s going to be interesting to see how they strike the balance between a lead which looks so large that many may not vote, and a narrowing gap which gives a sense of momentum to the Labour ranks. As I say, the occasional poll which puts doubt in the mind would serve their purposes well in this scenario.

Anyway it’s always a good rule, where polls are concerned, to treat with caution any exceptional poll in the absence of supporting data. Were we to see more polls in the coming days which suggest a tightening of the gap, that would be interesting. But for now, we would do best to treat this as an anomaly…and a suspicious one at that.

A points win for Labour

So as week one draws to a close, I’d give Labour a win on points which is positive and certainly didn’t seem possible as the election got underway. It gives them a foundation, nothing more, for the weeks ahead when they have seemingly impossible ground to make up.

But the Tories have been eerily reserved so far. I expect we’ll see their message honed this coming week as they focus their guns.

And that focus will largely be upon the Leader of the Opposition himself.

 

Foot in Mouth Disease

The typical refrain from many left-leaning groups is that the media don’t give Labour under Jeremy Corbyn a fair hearing. That if only the media would fairly report his message, then the scales would surely fall from the eyes of the general public and a peaceful revolution would occur.

For anyone paying attention, today was a perfect example of exactly why that view is massively over-simplistic, and why a huge part of the blame for their perilous relationship with the media lies squarely at their own door.

Risk aversion

In looking at this, let’s begin toward the end of the day when Theresa May carried out another tightly-choreographed campaign appearance where many political journalists – even Tory-leaning ones – were kept away. This seems likely to be the Conservative approach to the weeks ahead, avoiding real public interaction for the Prime Minister and therefore minimising risk (all of which of course seriously undermines her stated reasoning for avoiding the TV debates, but that’s another matter). There’ll be no War of Jennifer’s Ear and no Gillian Duffies if the Tory team have their way.

This presents an opportunity (however small) for Labour. As mentioned in an earlier post, political journos on the campaign trail can quickly get testy if they’re not regularly fed (literally or metaphorically). Labour needs the media more than the media needs them, and an open arms approach during this campaign is the only sensible option. With the Tories shunning journos as part of the risk-averse tactics this campaign, there’s a route to improved relations with at least some members of the fifth estate.

So what do we get during media questions after Corbyn’s speech this morning? We get predictable jeering from Labour supporters when invited political journalists set about asking perfectly reasonable (if uncomfortable) questions in the course of carrying out their job. This is self-indulgence of the highest regard because if you’re a Labour supporter attending a Corbyn rally this campaign, I guarantee you are not helping him whatsoever by expressing your righteous anger at the media scum should they dare to question him. You’re only making things worse (and yes, it can get worse).

We already know low opinion that Team Corbyn has of the media, and we know that many on the left lay huge amounts of blame at the door of the media for what is considered to be unfair coverage. But none of that matters. We’re in an election campaign and the media is what it is. It won’t change as a result of earnest argument or zealous shouting down. The sooner Team Corbyn and his supporters realise this (already two years too late, of course) the better chance they have of cutting through in any significant way with their message over the next seven weeks.

Foot in mouth disease

If the Labour campaign was slick and professional then there might be cause in lashing out at critics and the media. But it’s not and today was a perfect example of Labour’s shortcomings in communications (not to mention basic putting one foot in front of the other, rather than in one’s own mouth).

Today was Corbyn’s first set-piece campaign event after some more straightforward soapbox sessions on Tuesday and Wednesday. The speech was impressive, a reasonable delivery with undeniable passion. Even critics were heard to say that they were impressed that he had the bit between his teeth. Jeremy was being Jeremy, doing what he does best by railing against the machine.

In all honesty I was a little taken aback by his aggression and the extent to which he was prepared to go down the populist (almost Trumpesque, dare I say it) route. Nevertheless it was impressive in its own way, and it’s probably the best of very few options available to a Corbyn-led Labour at this election. I was buoyed by it as I listened in.

But any opportunity of cutting through was lost with spectacular own goals. The first we’ve already discussed above: the jeering of questions from invited journalists. Though this was bad enough, it could at leat be argued that is was nothing other than over-zealous supporters being overly-protective of their man. That sort of thing can be corrected for future events with some better stage-management.

The second own goal should be the bigger worry at Labour HQ however, as it’s both symptomatic of their ongoing problems with message discipline and (worse) indicative of the fact that even major policy positions haven’t in fact been thought through.

It went a little something like this…

We ran through a couple of hours where the Leader, the Shadow Chancellor and the Shadow Foreign Secretary were offered (literally) tens of opportunities to rule out a second referendum on Brexit. They failed to do so. A story began to gain momentum that perhaps Labour might try to outflank the LibDems with an offering to put the eventual Brexit deal to the people for their verdict. It would be a tricky sell in Labour heartlands but a defensible policy with some merit nevertheless. It would certainly be bold.

You began to suspect something was amiss as Corbyn struggled desperately to keep the focus during the morning on his intended “people vs the establishment” takeaway from the speech. Even an idiot would understand that you don’t leak details of a huge policy bombshell during a set-piece speech which is intended to define the overall arc of the campaign to come. And you certainly don’t do it during a speech in which the Leader is trying again to claim that this election is note all about Brexit (it is).

It was safe at this stage to conjecture with some confidence that one of two things was happening. Either this was an actual policy (a Brexit 2 referendum) and the presentation had gone massively (stupendously) wrong. Or else this was not in fact policy and a chancer in the press-pack was prodding for a weakness. I which case Labour should define their position right away my making it clear that it is not policy to have a second referendum and it will not be in the manifesto. In that scenario, the story isn’t even born.

But that’s not what happened.

Initially when asked, Corbyn rambled about the kind of relationship he would like to see with Europe. This gave the media their “no denial” angle on a story which would obviously shoot straight to the top of bulletins (because it’s newsworthy, not because of some grand conspiracy). If that weren’t bad enough he again failed to rule it out, made worse by Thornbury and McDonnell (in particular) failing on more than a dozen occasions to put the record straight. A denial then followed from the Labour press office which still fell short of categorically ruling out a second referendum before finally, hours after the speech which had now been largely overshadowed, the Leader’s office confirmed this was not and would not be Labour policy.

Blowing in the wind

The only realistic takeaway from the whole episode is that, prior to this afternoon, Labour had not actually decided whether or not they would be in favour of holding a second referendum. It could be argued that the option hadn’t even crossed their mind until the question had been put, though that’s (hopefully) a stretch. Whatever the case, it would certainly seem that such an important decision was actually reached over the course of a few hours under pressure from the media for clarification.

This should have been a simple answer on a key point of policy that was worked through in advance. Instead it overshadowed a good speech with genuinely interesting content.

General election campaigns are brutal and they shine spotlights on weaknesses. Already, Labour’s twin weaknesses of communications and agreed policy are on display for all to see.

Until Labour can get hold of their messaging (which in truth can’t happen while they don’t have hold of their policies) they will continue to suffer from foot in mouth disease. And that will play directly into the “captain chaos” trap that the Tories have laid from the outset.

Those are the innate weaknesses which explain why Labour are 24 points behind in the polls today. These are unpalatable truths but until such issues are addressed (and a General Election is hardly the time to address them) Labour will continually be pushing boulders uphill.

And that’s not easy when your feet are planted firmly in your mouth.

 

 

 

 

Brexit Sandwiches

So we’re faced with a second general election in two years, the bread wrapped around last year’s Brexit referendum making perhaps the least appetising sandwich in memory. And it looks like being the strangest general election in memory, too.

This is a general election that nobody – beyond Liberal Democrats, 24 hour news channels and freaks like me who have an unusually geeky interest in politics – even remotely wanted right now.

The general public didn’t want it now (the public rarely gets enthused over an election – 1997 being the only time I can remember even the faintest general anticipation). The Labour Party don’t want it now (whatever they protest to the contrary). The SNP don’t want it now (they are protecting a high watermark in votes). The Greens don’t want it now (they simply don’t have the funds to fight a second general election in two years, weeks after a local council election in which they’ve already invested heavily). Even many Conservatives would rather it didn’t happen now, though they will of course recognise that their party stands to gain more than any from the vote.

So what can we look forward to (or hide from, depending on your point of view) in the coming fifty days which will form the longest campaign in memory?

Conservatives

Theresa May and the Conservatives have almost everything to gain…except for unexpectedly large gains!

Whatever the contorted reasons Theresa May has given for calling this election in the first place, she has in reality done so for two perfectly clear (and in truth perfectly reasonable) reasons. First, because she recognises that her negotiating position on Brexit is weak. She talks strong but in calling the election she recognises the weakness of her position as Brexit negotiations proceed. Second, because she knows that the current political climate gives her an unprecedented open goal to significantly increase her majority which would boost her negotiating hand, boost her authority and boost her wiggle-room with Brussels all at the same time. She has a 21 point lead in the polls – she’d be mad not to, frankly!

But one thing they need to do – and doubtless will do under the brilliant-but-destructive direction of Lynton Crosby – is to manage expectations and play up the fear of a Corbyn-led “coalition of chaos” with the SNP, Greens and the like. Expect a Tory campaign which majors on the dangers of Corbyn and quotes Labour MP’s criticisms of their own leader right back at them. It should be child’s play to get a significant increase in their majority, though I would be surprised if that majority was bigger than Blair’s smallest in 2005.

Theresa May will be largely absent from anything beyond very carefully stage-managed events, which could make this fifty day campaign incredibly dull. But they should beware one thing at least: a chasing media pack that is not being fed stories and images can easily grow restless.

Labour

For Labour, I genuinely believe that things can only get better, though in a very different way to 1997. Jeremy Corbyn arrives at the beginning of an unexpected campaign with an unexpected opportunity precisely because expectations are low. Incredibly low, in fact! He has been talked down to such an extent in popular discourse over the past two years that the bar is set low. That could potentially pose a risk to the expectations of the Conservatives (and the Labour modernisers who must allow Corbyn to own the likely defeat).

The likelihood however is that while it will help him to some extent, he will remain hamstrung by his abilities, the ineffective team which surrounds him, and the difficulty he will face in getting a reasonable hearing from the print media in particular. The extent of that hostile media, by the way, is very much the fault of Corbyn and his team. Because while it was ever difficult for Labour to get a fair hearing, the approach of Team Corbyn has been kamikaze.

What is more, on the key issue of our times – Brexit, it goes without saying – Labour are strategically all over the place. It’s been hard to come to any conclusion other than that they’ve been making it up as they go along, trying to make sense of a leader historically antagonistic towards Europe, a parliamentary party very much in favour, and a traditional working class vote which was largely responsible for the Brexit result last year. They have not found an answer and it shows. Between the certainty of the Conservative position and the confident stance of the Lib Dems resolutely in favour of the EU, Labour find themselves as the uncomfortable gristle in an increasingly strained Brexit sandwich metaphor!

One thing to look out for is the extent to which labour candidates stand on their own manifesto and against that laid down by the party centrally. At best expect many to ignore central command and spend a lot of time talking about their local hospital and potholes. This is not to mention the hoops that will need to be jumped through in order to get a manifesto which is vanilla enough to be signed off by the NEC in the first place. These may just be the most dull manifestos in history (in a genre not particularly renowned for producing page-turners).

Where and how they go on the attack (beyond the obvious Tory-baiting which is of questionable effectiveness) is not easy to determine, to be fair. Polling shows that Theresa May is popular with large sections of the public, including sections which are traditionally Labour-leaning and difficult for the Tories to reach. She does however have a track-record of U-Turns (including on the calling of the election itself) and fence-sitting (including most tellingly on Brexit last year). Theresa May…Or May Not would be as good a jumping-off point for an attack strategy as any, particularly as the Tories go big again on their claim that voting Conservative equals stability (something which has to be challenged after Cameron took the same promise to the country last time out, only to lead us as close to a constitutional crisis as it’s comfortable to get).

Given the nature of the Labour Leader however, what we are likely to see is a campaign heavy on ethical arguments and attempts to win people over by the fairness and equitable nature of his platform. Which is hardly likely to cut through very strongly. That low bar may mean that in truth the losses labour suffer are far lower than the armageddon scenarios that have been predicted. But that’s probably the best they can hope far.

SNP

In all truth, this is an election even the SNP would have chosen not to fight. Their high-watermark return of 56 MP’s (from a possible 59) will take some beating. It’s a badge of honour they hold dear in their claim to be the voice of the people of Scotland, and they have rightly viewed this Parliament (which they would have hoped to last the full five years) as their prime opportunity to achieve the ultimate goal of independence. Any slippage from that magical number of 56 therefore, and indeed in their share of the vote (an incredible 50% last time out) will be jumped upon by opponents of independence as evidence that the time for that debate really has passed for a generation.

All of this will doubtless have been part of Theresa May’s calculations, but it’s by no means certain that the SNP vote will fall significantly. Nicola Sturgeon is a first-rate politician and she will use facts such as those presented above to make sure that even wavering Scots are alert to the narrative they risk should the SNP vote fall.

Of course the Tories are the perfect enemy for the SNP. They will take the bull by the horns and fight an effective guerilla campaign fronted by the brilliant Sturgeon. I would expect them to hold onto most, if not all, of their existing seats. The wild card being Ruth Davidson (another effective communicator in a rich period of leaders north of the border) and her Tories after their relative success in last year’s Scottish Parliament elections.

Liberal Democrats

Tim Farron is in some way fortunate in that the only way is up (surely) for the traditional “other party” of British politics. With only nine MP’s and small swings required to reclaim some of their many losses from two years ago we can expect to see the Lib Dems, with their effective campaigning machinery boosted by an ever-increasing membership, climb back towards being more of a force in national politics after the 8th of June.

Their presentation is slick, and they were quick out of the blocks when the election was announced yesterday with ready-prepped graphics. Unlike Labour, they looked prepared and they looked hungry.

Though they should make gains, their way ahead is not entirely plain-sailing. Early focus on Tim Farron’s faith and its impact on his views on homosexuality in particular has made for a few awkward moments. They shouldn’t overthink this and need to get hold of the story fast before other parties are able to make a narrative of it. [UPDATE: Farron has done exactly that]

What could prove more disabling for their prospects of major gains is the failure to rule out another coalition with the Tories, while seeming (in the rejuvenated Sir Vince Cable) to absolutely rule out a coalition with Labour. While this is a difficult position for progressives to stomach, however, it might in fact be a shrewd move strategically given that a lot of their likely gains would be in close marginals with…you guessed it: Tories.

The Lib Dems have been performing well in local by-elections for months now, not to mention their epic win in Richmond recently. Their membership is buoyant and they present their anti-Brexit message confidently and without apology. It could add up to some significant gains come June the 8th.

Greens

This is a difficult election for the Greens. With minimal budget available their first act yesterday was to announce a funding effort to help them fight the election more effectively.

In 2015 they made big increases on their membership with the Green Surge as the last election approached and quadrupled their national vote to over one million. Despite this, they returned a single MP thanks to the peculiarities of our First Past The Post voting system for Westminster elections (which was even more harsh on UKIP who gained only one MP from almost four million votes). Much of that increase was thanks to funds from the Green Surge which enabled them to field more candidates than ever (573, almost twice as many as in 2010). Many of these were effectively paper candidates, helping to reveal a background “noise” of around 3% vote share nationally wherever Greens were on the ballot.

It’s unlikely that funds will allow so many candidates this time around, as Greens have already invested their limited funds on the upcoming local council election on May 4th. As a result, vote share may very well fall, though that’s not necessarily a bad thing so long as the party can target their efforts effectively.

Priority for the party has to be first geared to retaining their single seat in Brighton, where Caroline Lucas holds a large but not impenetrable majority on the south coast. Second is a handful of seats where they are a primary challenger, most important of which is Bristol West where they came second two years ago and require just over a 4% swing to claim the seat from a Labour party in trouble. Expect the Lib Dems to also be stronger there too, however. Crucially this is a seat where the Tories are 4th, so the gloves can come off in a fight between Labour, the Greens and the Lib Dems in a very important contest.

Success for the Greens would be a second MP at Westminster. Maintaining Caroline Lucas as their single MP is their most important baseline however.

UKIP

What to say of UKIP? They’re in a true mess, divided and unable to determine their reason for existence in a post-referendum world.

Paul Nuttall’s by-election campaign in Stoke-on-Trent Central back in February was a mess, but despite that UKIP did increase their share of the vote and Nuttall’s actual vote fell by far less than the massively reduced turnout would have suggested.

My feeling is that the UKIP vote may well hold up a little better than expected, though expect the Tory squeeze to be a tight one. They will say that only the Conservatives are in a position to deliver Brexit, and a vote for any other party puts Brexit at risk, and that will be a strong appeal to many.

The joker in the pack, as always, will be Nigel Farage. Should he choose to stand again then it would most likely be in South Thanet, where he ran the Tories a close second in 2015. Only a 4% swing would be needed to take the seat this time around, but would he really be in a position to increase his vote now that the entire raison d’être of UKIP (Brexit) is being managed by the sitting Tories anyway?

What is certain is that should he run, then with a constituency platform he will be the de facto leader of UKIP in much of their media coverage…simply because he’s a natural political animal who creates sellable stories by the boatload. As a result, love him or hate him, he would likely have a positive impact on the national UKIP vote should he stand in South Thanet.

Without him (though he will be a nosy presence regardess) UKIP look rudderless and aimless.

Turnout

Perhaps one of the most important questions will revolve around turnout. There is bound to be significant voter fatigue after a Scottish referendum on 2014, a general election in 2015, European referendum and Scottish Parliament elections in 2016 and then local elections across much of the country only weeks before the coming general election. Most people really prefer life without politicians and politics getting in their way, and politics has been anything but out of the way for a long time now (spoiler alert: that’s not going to get better any time soon).

If turnout falls significantly on 2015 (when one in every three already didn’t vote) then the people who choose not to vote may be the most important factor of all. Conservatives and the elderly (often with a lot of overlap) can most reliably be expected to vote, so low turnout can generally be expected to favour the incumbent Tories. Fostering greater disenchantment with politics therefore will be no bad thing so far as they are concerned…again increasing the profitability of the very negative campaign they are certain to wage.

Though many will deny it, this election (like everything in politics right now) will be played out not only in the shadow of Brexit, but on an entire Brexit playing field. Brexit will be the context for everything that happens, and my general expectation is that the parties who best recognise that (i.e. the Tories, Lib Dems and SNP) will benefit most from a position of strategic strength.

Of course in a campaign anything can happen, not least things that we haven’t even thought of yet. It’ll be an interesting fifty days ahead.

Pass me the sandwiches…

We were young together

Tracey died on Thursday.

There. I said it. But it makes no more sense written down than it does being repeated a hundred times in my head.

Tracey was a school friend. We were in the same class and we were young together. She was tall and smart and funny and pretty. For a long time we were together almost every day; two people in a large and incredible group of friends who laughed and played and shared endless happy hours in the sun and the rain, never quite feeling the cold. A group of friends who took each other for granted in the best possible way, because there were no horizons.

It was the best of times. We were young together and we could be astronauts, footballers, pop stars and prime ministers. Everything was possible and our little classroom at Burnside School was a cauldron of hopes and dreams. It overflowed with an exhilarating potion made from blissful ignorance in our own mortality, a limitless supply of potential and that special kind of optimism which comes from beautiful childish naivety.

I cried on my last day at that school. If you know me at all then you’ll know me as an emotional sort. And on that last sunny day in July 1990, sitting on the grassy bank at lunch time, I cried. I knew that everything was about to change and I feared that the change was for something less; something worse. We’d still be astronauts, footballers, pop stars and prime ministers, but we’d do it apart. There was still potential, but the optimism was dimmed and there was a shadow on the horizon. We wouldn’t be young together again.

I must have blinked because now I’m 34 and the last thing I expect working late in the office on a Friday evening is to get this message: “Hi Andrew don’t know if you know but our Tracey died yesterday…”.

Nonsense. What? Those words couldn’t mean what they seemed to mean. I could jumble them up into a different order, a better order. Then they’d make sense. I’d read the message again, then I’d understand. We’ll have another go. Because this doesn’t happen. Not yet.

But Tracey died on Thursday. We don’t get another go.

Crushed.

Yes, Tracey was a school friend. Of course she was. We were in the same class and we were young together. She was tall and smart and funny and pretty. All of those things.

But she was that girl.

It was primary school and we went from eight to eleven years old, so a word like “girlfriend” needs to be read in that context. But what I know for certain is that she was my first and I remember the day she joined our school like it was yesterday. Her eyes mesmerised me. I know because she was the first girl who made me feel like that in my stomach; the first one who made me excited at the thought of seeing her, and nervous every time I did. That girl.

But she died on Thursday. And though it’s such a long time since I actually knew Tracey in any meaningful way, I am devastated. I know that might make me sound something between pathetic and a fraud, and the family she leaves behind will be suffering in ways I can’t begin to imagine. That’s where the story is really at, mine is a sideshow. But we were young together and she was that girl. That was our moment.

We were young together but now we are less, because now there is death. One of us – that girl – is dead. The potential is faded. We wouldn’t be astronauts or footballers or pop stars or prime ministers. Instead we’d worry about money, cry about loss and now we do feel the cold. Life intervened and, well, now that girl is dead.

Life does that. It’s real and gritty and it hurts and gets in the way of dreams; a series of compromises and decisions that they don’t tell you about at the beginning. We get some of those decisions wrong and we get some of them right. Tracey and I went on to each have families of our own. I have the most perfect wife and two children who are gorgeous and happy and full of wonder at life. It’s their turn to be young now. Their turn to be astronauts. Some things are better than you dream.

In fact, that’s not just what life does. That’s what life is and somehow that’s what I need to take away from this. Because life’s not about astronauts or pop stars after all. Life is about living the details. Life is about people like me clearing up after dinner. People like you falling asleep on the sofa. People like Tracey raising a family and being that special person to so many people. It’s not the stuff of dreams, though maybe it’s more than that.

But whatever you do, just don’t blink.

“Life isn’t waiting at the altar or the moment your child is born… These are fragments. Ten or twelve grains of sand spread throughout your entire existence. Life is brushing your teeth or making a sandwich or watching the news or waiting for a bus. Or walking. Every day, thousands of tiny events happen and if you’re not watching, if you’re not careful, if you don’t capture them and make them count, you could miss it. You could miss your whole life.” – Toni Jordan.

I don’t know much of what Tracey leaves behind. I barely knew her at all anymore. But if she became anything like that girl I knew then so many will have been blessed. And whatever potential Tracey had when we were young together and full of dreams, her short life has left behind a legacy that will last for generations. And footsteps which are still felt in so many people’s hearts – not least mine – more than she probably ever knew. I’m not sure what more any of us could have wished for.

And as broken-hearted as I feel right now, I’ll never forget that girl.

Bliss Revealed

“So I’m thinking that bliss is ever present inside all of us. It is neither caused by a sunset or by a song or by a god. The sunset and the song and the god merely reveal the bliss that was there all along. Nothing external produces bliss inside…nothing. They only reveal, temporarily, what is there all along. We just have to see it, then stop occupying our minds with ways to escape it. And that’s the first tricky part.

The second tricky part is realising that everything is fleeting, including these thoughts. Something may not seem true tomorrow because I believe it to be true today. And that’s okay.”

Me. Today. After The Art of Dying.

Two Arrows

“When afflicted with a feeling of pain those who lack inner awareness sorrow, grieve and lament, beating their breasts and becoming distraught. So they feel two pains, physical and mental. It is just like being shot with an arrow, and right afterwards being shot with a second one, so that they feel two arrows.”

Siddhārtha Gautama

Ten things you (probably) don’t know about me

Establishing a new blog can be a very strange thing. Obviously I’m tickled by the fact you’re reading what I’m writing, and in particularly giddy moments I imagine two, three or more readers, nodding and shaking in all the right places.

So, dear reader, as you have been kind enough to drop by, I feel I should at least go to the trouble of introducing myself with ten things that you (probably) don’t know about me. I’ll begin almost an entire century ago…

1. I met my wife in 1913

Really! I worked as a tram conductor while my wife Rebecca split her time as a nursery maid, dentist and general girl about town. Somehow she still found time to squeeze me in and here we are, in 2011, happily married. It’s a miracle.

Well, almost. The slight technicality is that we met whilst working at the wonderful Beamish Museum which is set in…1913.

Nevertheless in eighteen months we will mark our 100th Anniversary and I’ll certainly be expecting a telegram (or at least a Tweet) from the Queen.

2. I saved a man’s life with an igloo

Snowmen are for wimps, and in the whiter winters of my childhood I liked nothing more than to occuy myself building igloos. Sometimes i’d pile up the snow, other times i’d mould together individual bricks…it all depends on the type of snow, you see.

Anyway, One winter I built a lean-to igloo, against the porch of my childhood home. You may laugh, but our window-cleaner was glad of it when he fell from his ladder (a foot of snow never kept a window cleaner from his ladder where I come from) and landed directly on the igloo. An ambulance was called and he was carried away on a stretcher with back injuries, the igloo having broken his fall and possibly (according to the nice paramedic man who lavished me with praise) saved his life.

I felt like the bess-knees…until the reality of my ruined igloo hit home.

3. I created a school magazine

In fact, I created two school magazines. The first was a personal project when I was eleven and I used my typewriter (one hundred percent my pride and joy back then) to layout the pages and hand-drew the graphics. The magazine was called The Burnside Gazette, had a circulation of one and was limited to a single edition.

I was hooked nevertheless and, when beginning secondary school the following autumn, I convinced a trendy young teacher to allow a group of pupils to begin an actual school magazine. We gathered a team of six and set about creating and selling Thru The Pupil’s Eyes which ran for a good number of issues and had a decent regular readership. My job was the layout (for which I got to spend extra time on the school’s Acorn computers – ace) as well as the logo and comic strip (called The Adventures of Dave & Friends).

That I don’t own a single copy of either magazine is a tragedy.

4. I was involved in an aeroplane accident

A real one, too. My first flight was in 1987 to Alicante from Newcastle. It was a great holiday, memorable for so many good things and one quite spectacularly bad thing – the return flight home. I have vivid memories of the flight (well, you would, wouldn’t you) and somewhere my parents still have the newspaper clipping from the following day.

Alarm bells should have rang when the plane was repeatedly delayed on take-off in Alicante while repairs were made. It was my first flight, how was I to that the guy with the toolbox was anything but routine? We managed to get airborne and, according to plan, less than three hours later we saw the familiar landmarks of home from the windows as we neared touch-down. Then we saw them again. And again. Repeatedly. The entire crew were Spanish (on the now defunct Hispania Airlines) so nobody had any idea what was going on when finally we descended abruptly toward the runway and the somewhat alarming sight (I’m not going to lie) of multiple fire engines and ambulances.

The touch-down was hardly comfortable, but we had no idea of the drama which had been unfolding in the cockpit until leaving the plane and finding out (variously from airport staff, the following day’s press and the evidence before our own eyes) that the cockpit wheels had failed to emerge for landing. The pilot sustained injuries performing a heroic landing and I had a great story to recount for years ahead.

5. I have produced, written and directed pantomimes

AladdinFive pantomimes, to be precise, and a summer Revue. Variously each show was written, produced or directed by yours truly, and in some cases all three, raising in excess of £15,000 for charities in the process. They began small and ended up being quite significant; I’m talking hired rigging, pyrotechnics and multiple performances, people!

To begin with they were great fun, by the end they were torture, but almost always there was a huge sense of achievement in bringing a show from concept to performance for audiences in the hundreds. They’re huge projects with a million things to go wrong and barely anyone notices the bits that go to plan, but many things did and it’s something I’m (mostly) delighted to have done.

6. I once changed my name to Andrew Yellow

I have fundraised for many charities in my time, both voluntarily and professionally. When working as Fundraiser for the awesome Butterwick Hospice I needed something to make a splash in the local press as we tried to convince the local population to do something “yellow” to raise funds during Hospice Awareness Week (the official colour of which is…yellow).

My ingenious idea therefore was to change my name from Andrew Brown to Andrew Yellow for the duration of the week. I signed some official-seeming papers and donned an all-yellow suit and hat (oh I like to do things properly.) to be photographed for the local papers. I looked worryingly camp). I made the front page of the local rag (headline: “Mr Brown now a Yellow Fellow”) and we had a successful fundraising week.

7. I believed I was adopted

I can laugh about this one now, but for many years I was under a strong suspicion that I was adopted. It all began when I saw my birth certificate for the first time and, to my horror, noticed that scrawled across the bottom in big letters was a code. It said “APDOT”.

The evidence of my APDOTion

My imagination has always been an active one and I immediately raced to the seemingly inevitable conclusion – this was clearly a secret code for those people who had been ADOPTed. Granted it wasn’t a very clever code, and it was one that a seven year old was able to crack with Bletchley Park-like ease. But crack it I had, and I wished I hadn’t.

For a number of years I wondered, at the back of my mind, whether it was really true until finally I mentioned it to my Mam and all was put straight. Oh the relief!

8. I set up & sold tickets to football matches

When I was eight or nine year old my Auntie worked in a factory producing football kits for a number of the top English clubs and the England team itself. As a result (and through entirely proper circumstances, I’m sure) I randomly found myself the owner of six Tottenham Hotspur shirts. I managed with my friends to pull together a five-a-side team (actually that was easy, it was choosing who not to include which caused the problems) and we played on a bitter rivalry with kids from Elephant Park up the road (don’t even ask) who also put together a team. A two-legged tie was arranged and it was the talk of the town (well, it was the talk of Burnside Junior School anyway) which gave me an idea: why not sell tickets?

An entire Sunday was spent drawing posters and tickets individually by hand (this was the age before the Inkjet), cutting them out and scoring the stubs. 20p for adults and 10p for children. I packaged them up in a very nice looking attaché-style folding clipboard and began to sell, keeping the money in a neat little bag in my coat pocket.

Pretty soon however I was rumbled in the school playground by the dinner-nannies, who confiscated the tickets, clipboard and money. Oh yeah, they took the lot. There was no messing about in those days and I still have no idea what happened to the money

The tie went ahead anyway of course. I have no memory of who won but I do remember looking around and noting the countless people who were there to watch despite never having bought a ticket.

9. I Scored a goal with a broken ankle

My wife sees only stupidity in this tale, but I see heroism. I see the spirit of Butcher in Stockholm ’89 and Ince in Turin ’97. For me it was the Louisa Sports & Leisure Centre ’95. It was barely six minutes into our weekly five-a-side match when I fell heavily on the turn under a heavy challenge. The pain – nay, the agony – was insufferable. But like a brave soldier I picked my battle-weary body off the ground.

Thinking only of my team I sacrificed myself for the greater good and continued for the entire remaining 54 minutes. I even got onto the scoresheet, poking in a cross from the left-hand side – with my good foot – on the edge of the area. Oh how the footballing gods smiled on England’s Young Lion that night!

My Mam was less understanding (it’s clearly a woman thing) and seemed to consider me not heroic but a fool beyond compare. Especially when the following morning she accompanied me and my balloon-like foot to A&E where x-rays revealed a broken ankle.

As a footnote (pardon the pun) to all of this, six months later I did the same thing again playing football in the park at College. This time I failed to score, although there was a silver-lining in that I got to be at home for the entire Euro ’96 tournament. Result!

10. Jim never fixed it for me

Although my football career was cruelly cut short by recurring ankle injuries (not to mention not being especially good or particularly fit, but let’s go with the injury version) my true love had always been Snooker. At this I had some reasonable talent when I was very young, and I dared entertain dreams of The Crucible and accepting the Championship Trophy from John Spencer before doing that interview with David Vine.

My hero of course was (is!) Jimmy White and I spent untold hours of my pre-teen years emulating him, his style and his mannerisms around the table. My dream was to meet him so my parents and I wrote a letter to Jim’ll Fix It in the hope that he would arrange for me to play Jimmy in one frame at the Crucible, in fact anywhere would do.

Week after week I tuned in (somehow oblivious to the fact that if I was about to feature on the show, I’d have known about it before the show was actually broadcast, but let’s overlook that) and week after week I was let down by Jimmy (Saville – I don’t hold Jimmy White responsible for this at all). Even years later, when I had given up all youthful promise and hope of Snooker stardom, I imagined that someone would discover my letter tucked away in the lining of Jimmy’s bulging mail bag. It never happened.


So that’s my ten things. I’d love to read yours so if you’re feeling inspired to do a similar exercise on your own blog, please drop a link in the comments below.

I was inspired to write this post by my lovely wife, who has very greedily done the very same exercise twice on her own blog here and here.

Thanks for reading.