Monday 26 September 2016

A crisis of competence

So then, it looks like we’ll be seeing a lot more of Mr Jeremy Corbyn! And how could it have been any other way when his opponent was so utterly ghastly? What were they thinking? The troubles though do not end here. It does seem that Labour is in a real mess.

Alarmingly the Labour party elected not to have a debate about Brexit at their conference and all we’re getting from them is mixed signals based on a shallow understanding of what Brexit entails. Nearly all of Labour’s key people cannot make the distinction between the single market and the customs union and none can specify whether they want access to the single market or membership of it. We can read a lot into that.

What that says is that the left as a whole don’t really care about Brexit as an issue and have no real intention of forming themselves into a coherent opposition. That’s a problem. I am all in favour of Brexit but there are many different paths to achieving it and I do not want the Tory right setting the agenda with their obsolete ideas. This is a shameful dereliction of duty.

Instead, Labour has spent the week bickering over Trident, the UKs nuclear deterrent. What this tells us is that Labour is engaged in an ideological retrenchment. The issue of Trident is not actually the subject of any rational analysis. It’s just a totem of the old left. Mr Corbyn wants to reshape the party in his own image and is willing to shed support in order to do it. It’s a bold, if flawed strategy.

David Wearing remarked in the Guardian this week that there are two competing approaches as to how Labour should address the question of electability: marketing, and movement-building. The marketing approach treats the electorate as consumers with fixed preferences, where the ideal politician is a polished salesperson armed with a perfectly calibrated retail policy offer. The movement-building approach treats public opinion as a changeable landscape, where elections are won not only by competent politicians but by social forces mobilised in support of a transformative agenda.

The marketing approach is the approached favoured by centrists and was successfully employed by Blair and Cameron. The pitfalls of such an approach are that politics becomes a hollowed out shell where politicians of principle are replaced with identikit anodyne clones. It spawned a substance free politics that we are all uniformly sick of. This in some way explains Mr Corbyn’s appeal. You may not like his politics but he is at the very least an authentic leftist who believes in all the things leftists are generally supposed to believe in.

It has been a long time since anybody can say that. It has been a long time since there has been any real choice but the status quo at the ballot box. That at the very least is a welcome development. The problem though is that Mr Corbyn’s transformative agenda is an old fashioned one. I could very well see a movement-building approach working but at the heart of any revolutionary movement there needs to be a tangible set of relevant demands and ruthless political competence. This cannot be said of Mr Corbyn.

From Mr Corbyn I’ve heard all the classic leftist mantras such as renationalising the railways, building social housing and dropping university tuition fees, but he suffers from that time honoured leftist ailment; an inability to specify how it will all be paid for. We are told that he intends to borrow the money - but what that tells us is that he is formulating a fantasy agenda without any reference to what is happening in the real world. Likewise the suggestion that we should reopen coal mines - at a time when we are closing down our coal fired power stations. It tells us the man has only a passing relationship with reality.

Had this suggestion come from anyone else I might think that it was a piece of devious populism but I genuinely believe he thinks it’s a viable idea. It is now inescapable that Mr Corbyn is caught in a timewarp and has little to say to modern Britain.

It also raises a lot of serious questions about his political competence. Brexit is the single most significant change in the balance of power since World War Two and he has vacated the field entirely, leaving it for the Tories to do as they please. In all my days I have never seen such criminal impotence. If the role of the Labour party is to stand up for the working class then it has abandoned that role in order to indulge in philosophical navel gazing.

As it happens Britain is quite safe from the fantasists on the Tory right in that they are so completely unhinged that Mrs May can safely ignore them and we will get a more moderate Brexit – but that will be no thanks to the Labour party. In that, though, Mr Corbyn will have missed a genuinely revolutionary opportunity.

The truth is that Mrs May does not want to leave the EU. Few in the establishment do. They know they won’t get away derailing Brexit or holding a second vote but they can engineer a Brexit so that things stay pretty much as they are. If Mr Corbyn wanted a window of opportunity and a genuine “democratic moment” then this is the time to engage fully in the process.

Brexit in the very first instance gives the UK control over trade, aid, fisheries and energy. These are the polices areas that could redefine everything. There are massive opportunities for increasing wealth and reducing the cost of living. This is where we could see a transformation of public administration. The referendum campaign was fought on the promise of “taking back control” and if that applies to Westminster then why should it not apply to our local authorities too? If Labour wanted to make themselves relevant then this is the golden ticket.

But then we are suffering a wider crisis of competence in government. Throughout we have lost any sense of political maturity. Public scrutiny is a dead art. MPs are no longer capable of focussing on grown up issues and applying their intellect. Everywhere you look adult areas of policy, Brexit especially, are dominated by show-boating imbeciles playing to the media for political advantage. This is not sustainable if we wish to remain a first rate power in the world.

It was said during the referendum that an issue like the EU was too complex for the public to be able to vote on and that it should instead be left to the deliberative process. What we have seen though is that our politicians on both sides of the divide have an embarrassingly limited notion of what the EU is and what it does - and that they are ill equipped for such a momentous task. It seems that political competence is a thing of the past – if it ever existed at all.

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