God I’m glad I’m not in Britain at the moment. If I woke tomorrow and found myself inexplicably in London I would get on the first Ryanair flight to Mogadishu.
Though the main political story is the final collapse of Labour — with Home Secretary Jacqui Smith now resigning, and all major papers except the Times calling on Gordon Brown to resign or be replaced — the country is consumed by the plangently sad story of the Putticks, the couple who committed suicide off Beachy Head two days ago, four days after their four year old paralysed son died of meningitis.
Whether it’s the sense of suffering on suffering, or the fact that with them they had their dead son in a rucksack, with a collection of toys in another, like they were going on a family trip, it is one of those stories that neatly kicks a hole in whatever sustained fiction you had planned on getting you through the day, the week, the year.
Compared to that the troubles of Labour are taking place at a distance from the gates to the underworld, but they are bad enough. On Thursday, elections for the European parliament will take place — voluntary, proportional multi-member electorates and with a turnout that falls to 10-15% in some areas, they are always a nightmare for embattled UK parties, who can usually rely on firstpasthepost to get the troops in line.
In the European system, the Greens and other groups have a chance to get members up in some reasonable proportion to their actual public support — and for Labour the danger is that their vote will fall as low 15%, putting them not merely third behind the Lib-Dems, but fourth or even fifth behind the aforementioned Les Verts, or the UK Independence Party, a right-wing, anti-immigration, anti-European Union (!) party, attracting many disaffected Tories.
Even though it’s only the European parliament — a group whose actual sway makes the ACT Assembly look like the Council of Trent — a bad result of this kidney would be further confirmation that we are seeing not merely a deep bad patch for Labour, but a crisis from which it may not emerge intact.
It doesn’t matter how much you point out the sort of selecting group Euro parliament voters are, fourth or fifth for a mighty party machine is exactly that.
In the wake of Thatcherism and the de-composition of the British working class through de-industrialisation, Labour sought to reinvent itself as the party of “modernity”, an abstract and unanchored notion of consensual progress.
As that notion became more and more anti-democratic — simply a new version of Thatcher’s TINA, There Is No Alternative — and Labour tied surveillance and repression of civil liberties to increased economic opportunity (to object to three million CCTVs was to be “middle class” and “selfish”) as one package, the Tories had an opportunity to outflank them.
It took three losses and a decade to persuade them to do it, but David Cameron’s sprightly mix of green Toryism, critique of unelected institutions, together with some old-fashioned socialist bashing, took Labour completely by surprise. Cameron’s audacity was to understand, and force on his party, the notion that what was keeping them from power was association with the figure that the party base revered most — Thatcher. More particularly her ghostly after-effect John Major.
A whole swathe of southern middle class voters were ready to return to the Tories once they believed that a genuine repudiation had taken place (Cameron did it by saying that the Tories should “listen to Polly Toynbee”, which is like Malcolm Turnbull standing up and shouting “Bob Brown is right about everything! Dang! Feels so good say it! I’m going to grow a womb and have his child!”).
Cameron has now astutely joined this to the expenses row that has convulsed the UK — even though early gains from revelations of Labour malfeasance have been succeeded by various mad Tory expenses for moat-cleaning, duck sanctuaries etc etc. Where Brown dithered on sacking anyone — even when Jacqui Smith offered to go following revelations that her husband had watched Raw Meat VI on the public dime — Cameron offed a couple of them with great force and speed, and turned it into a wider call for a new political relationship between politicians and people.
His final move has been to connect all of that stuff to a demand for a referendum on the Lisbon version of the EU Constitution, which every EU nation except Ireland is trying to get through by acts of parliaments, rather than actual public ratification.
The pitch that Cameron has made is possible only because he laid the ground for that with a two year process of transforming his party’s base political content (his model being Sweden’s “Moderate Party”, their version of a right-wing, who make the Australian Democrats look like the NSW Upper House Aussie Joe Kickboxing and Shooters Rights No Motorcycle helmets Coalition, and I’ll stop these comparisons now).
The question now is whether he’ll take the final step and make a change to FPP voting part of the Tory platform. Looks like he doesn’t need to, with a lead approaching 20%, and paradoxically, if Labour has any hope of survival it’s that temptation. Retaining an FPP system means Labour can come round the mountain again in a decade, after the ‘string em up sell it off’ wing of the Tories has regained power from within, and has to be removed again.
Cameron’s alternative calculus might be that a proportional, mixed-member or preferential system would shatter the left and centre — into Labour, Greens and Lib-Dems — far more effectively than it would the right, the UKIP being distinctly crankish and the National Party being thugs in suits.
Could Labour claw back a respectable losing margin by dumping Gordon Brown — who would then presumably end up in the room next to Susan Boyle in the Priory rehab centre, after the realisation of his utter and total political failure starts to hit home? They are now at the point at which any appearance of instability and cynicism could not possibly render a worse result than sticking with the incumbent. In that respect I think Gordon is over the hump and has days left. Since there has now been a rules challenge, allegedly slashing notice of a spill from 45 days to 22 — another example of a madly sclerotic unreformed institution — the temptation is all the greater.
Labour would then install either Alan Johnston — a smooth centrist with working class cred (ex-postie), or David Miliband for the youf angle, or Harriet Harman to grab a couple of per cent from a gender split.
Brown is master of his own demise — he identified himself so thoroughly with a global economy that when it all went kablooey he had no distance from which to give a critical account of it. If he’d kept to the Labour notion that the market was, at best, an efficient though untrustworthy servant, rather than the unbreakable engine of modernity, he’d be in much better shape.
But that doesn’t make it any easier to watch. A man who married late and lost his first child after a few days of life, who had the gumption to realise that Tony Blair could nail the ’97 election with the middle class in the way that an ex-semi-Trot Scot could not, who is by all accounts suspicious, scheming and now collapsed into full paranoia — the true horror of Brown’s life is contained in his PhD thesis which was a biography of James Maxton, the leader of the left Independent Labour Party in the 1930s.
Maxton is famous for many things but mostly for a remark he made when his old friend Ramsay MacDonald rose to speak for the last time in the House of Commons. As he rambled on to everyone’s embarrassment, Maxton could stand it no more and growled from he backbench — “sit down man, sit down, you’re a bloody tragedy”.
Thus over the decades the refrain comes back to him — he’s the bloody tragedy, the Millbank Macbeth full of sound and fury. And Susan Boyle, a Scots spinster who could sing a song or two, tempted to bear the weight of the world on her shoulders. And the Putticks who fell and kept falling for ever, the love they directed at their son, the website, and the special appeals, the refashioned house, etc etc. What finished them off? Guilt at the accident which left him paralysed at age nine months? Or love folding in like a black hole made to bear too much, and taking everything with it?
Whatever, you wouldn’t be British for quids. Which are falling too.
Now I am going to drink a VB and put on a Leonard Cohen record, and watch the slate grey clouds drift over Luna Park.