The UK election started with a week or so of phoney war, whimper, but has now kicked off with a bang. Labor landed the second of two simple effective blows, on zero-hours contracts and rich tax avoiders, and left the Tories reeling. They recovered and hit back with a high-risk personal attack on Ed Miliband, which dismayed some of their supporters, and some grab-bag giveaways, which dismayed the rest. The general consensus is that the Tory campaign is terrible, Labour’s much better than was expected, but that the Tories will still win. And therein hangs a tale. Ten days ago, Labour pitched that it would ban zero-hours contracts — in which you are expected to be available to work for a company, usually service/retail, at a half-hour’s notice, and with no guarantee of any hours at all. They’ve put a few caveats in there, but it was the first stark, principled policy of the campaign, and it appeared to play well. Many Tories and fellow-travellers’ commentary dismissed it as tokenism, since “only” 700,000 people are on them, some people want flexible hours, and a number of them are students, etc, etc.
But this simply revealed the political dangers of being genuinely out of touch, as a whole class (i.e. the haute bourgeoisie, not this “political class” nonsense). Many people supporting families are on the contracts, so that’s 2 million or 3 million dependent on that sort of work. The number of people who want that sort of contract is derisory — they’re not designed for people with the clout to get flexible hours, they’re designed for those with no choice — and the idea that it’s all kids at fast food joints is the caricature that allows many people to hide the everyday misery of such.
But above all, zero-hours contracts are an issue because no one believes that they will stop at 700,000 (if that’s not a lowball figure, as one suspects), and millions of low-skilled workers suspect they’ll be next. Had the Tories already had a “times have been tough, slowly on the mend, reduce zero-hours contracts as we go blah blah” they would have had a comeback. Their reply — “this was necessary to remaking the most vital economy in Europe” — had an air of the Flanders Fields about it. “I won’t be there with you men when you go over the top, but jolly good show.”
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The “zero-hours” thing was a motif policy, but since there’s been little policy at all, it set the agenda for days. Late last week, they followed it up with shadow Chancellor Ed Balls making an announcement on ending the tax-free status of “non-doms”, or “non-domiciled residents”. Balls is from the same political networks (scientist parents, Oxford PPE), but he has a flabby, careworn appearance, and a slight furriness of speech that hides his accent, so he can pass as a harried suburban accountant, which gives him purchase to attack the loophole.
And what a loophole it is. This bizarre legal category, created at the time of the Napoleonic wars, allows UK citizens living in the UK — but with substantial earnings abroad — to claim that they are not, in fact, domiciled in the UK, and pay no tax on foreign earnings. Even better, and very Britishly, you can hand this status down to your kids. So it is quite possible to never have left the country and have non-dom status. Belgravia and Knightsbridge are full of them, as are the Cotswolds and the Highlands. Various arguments have been made against ending this loophole: that non-doms pay UK tax on their UK-derived income, that many might simply pack up and go, and park their UK money elsewhere.
“The Tories needed to attack Labour on this flank and call to the public mind the 1980s, when the party adopted a policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament.”
A “non-dom” fee was introduced by former PM Gordon Brown at 30,000 pounds a year, upped to 90,000 pounds a year under Cameron after pressure by the Lib-Dems. This scored quite a lot of money — around 8 billion pounds — and led to the conclusion that abolishing the status might cost money; an argument put quite well by, arrggghhhhhh, Ed Balls, on breakfast TV only a few months ago, a recording of which was soon bouncing around everywhere. This was Balls the one-man omnishambles at it again. This, after all, is the only man to have a whole day named after him (April 28 — coming up), one on which people tweet the name “Ed Balls”, because that it is the first thing tweeted on that day in 2011 by Ed Balls when he joined Twitter.
Miliband dealt with that embarrassment by saying “ah, but we’ve found new ways of doing it now”, which was pretty lame — but it was enough to get away with. The general perception was that this policy had struck home — connected with some root public idea of fairness. Once again, this showed up the disjuncture between deep-seated values and abstract ideas. The Tory defence — reasonable enough — was that the UK gets a big whack of cash out of these people with the fee, and without having to chase it or go to tax court. But this is simply an example of how living inside an abstract system tilted towards your interests — non-zero-sum mutual benefit blah blah — will blind to you to moral feeling that remains unchanged.
Fairness is a category that develops in infancy, quite literally. Miliband sailed pretty close to saying he didn’t care if this cost less or more, it was just a matter of principle. He certainly gave that impression, without leaving any deadly soundbites for later Tory use, and he may well have cut through with it. On Saturday evening, taking the Tube back in from losing Crikey’s expense budget on snooker at Romford in Essex, I heard four kids talking about it. Dressed to the elevens, heading for Soho or “Sarf Lun”, and eight hours off their heads, dehydration, a kebab and a two-hour night bus back, ‘burban as all get out, one was explaining it to the other three, and why it mattered. He fumbled through it in a manner that suggested he knew little politics or indeed anything except product, but he got the gist right. He’d clearly been struck by it in some way or other — in a way that NHS funding etc wouldn’t have. Unscientific, you say? This is a 10-party lower house first-past-the-post election, everyone’s making it up.
The Tories certainly thought it had bit in, and for obvious reasons. Both the zero-hours and non-doms policy wedge them between the public and their backers — big retail corps and private wealth, which will scream blue murder if their privately owned party doesn’t hold the line. So on Friday, they changed the conversation magnificently, with an article by Defence Secretary Michael Fallon saying that Ed Miliband had “stabbed his brother David in the back” to get the Labour leadership, and would “stab the country in the back” by doing a deal on the Trident nuclear deterrent, to get the support of the Scottish National Party in forming a minority government.
Trident is a system of submarine-based nuclear missiles designed in the Cold War to deter a massive first strike on an island that could be devastated with half-a-dozen missiles, laying waste to five cities, and improving Birmingham. The three subs, carrying about 100 warhead and sub-warheads, need replacing if the program is to continue. SNP policy is to let it die. So too is Lib-Dem policy (hahaha) but the SNP mean it — even though it would cost Scottish defence and shipyard jobs. Labour, wary of getting wedged on national security, has dismayed many of its members by committing to renewing and extending the technology of mass death — to four submarines.
The Tories needed to attack Labour on this flank and call to the public mind the 1980s, when the party adopted a policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament. But they also needed to stop people talking about non-doms, tax and fairness. The “stab in the back” thing was, to vary the metaphor, the “dead cat on the table” strategy straight out of the John Howard era. Indeed, Boris Johnson somewhat let the dead cat out of the bag, telling someone that “as my Australian friend says, ‘you put a dead cat on the table, mate, and everyone talks about that’.” Talk about it they did.The “stab in the back” has everything the Tories needed — it reminded voters of that other Miliband, the reliable Blairite type who could keep Labour in line, not the leftie younger brother who looks and sounds like Beaker from the Muppets; it called to mind Labour privilege and inwardness; suggested they did not share human emotions; and only after all that would the Trident-fratricide connection get any play. Luckily so, because it is of course ludicrous — the Labour leadership competition was a fair one, and Ed had as much right to it as David did, unless you believe in primogeniture, which about 40% of Tories do. But as intended, talk about it quickly went meta , and then meta-meta, airwaves buzzing with discussion of fairness and propriety, limits of, etc, and then whether it was good strategy.
So it was all over the airwaves. Trouble is, so was the non-doms stuff as well (ain’t it a bitch when one well-disposed man doesn’t run 70% of newsprint, and commercial TV news is something better than a bucket of pig anuses?). People could think about two things at once. And what a lot of people thought was: the “stab in the back” thing was too much. Just too much. You couldn’t fault the Tories’ instinct for creating chatter: hours after the talking-point landed, there was an idiotic strand from my exasperating comrades on the Left as to whether the phrase “stab in the back” was anti-Semitic or not. Taken from the well-known play Jew-lius Caesar presumably. This was asinine in exactly the way the Tories wanted — not only spurious, but sectional, cultural politics, diverting from the arseholish nature of the accusation. Anyone who’s ever been a … anyone who’s ever been has used the phrase “stabbed in the back”. It’s a stock phrase about a universal human experience. Most people don’t accuse other people of doing it to their own brother, precisely because of that universal understanding.
By the weekend, it was being generally taken that the “stab in the back” remark was a mistake, not least because so few other Tories were willing to defend it. In Australia, Planet Janet, the Bolter, and Piers Powdernose would show up Ed Balls to say not only had he stabbed his brother in the back, but might well have shot David’s kids’ dog as well (“well, where is the dog? Have we seen it? Suspicious, isn’t it?”). In the UK, other Tories wouldn’t go there. Last week’s episode of This Week — a late-night Dada parody of a politics show run by a comedian playing a character called Andrew Neil, a sort of sweaty-bronze heaving mass, cross of William McGonagall and the Gruffalo — featured Louise Mensch (nee Bagshawe), the eerie Punchinello-faced former chick-lit novelist who was Tory MP for Corby for 15 minutes. A Murdoch partisan during the hacking inquiry and now — ha! — Murdoch columnist, even she wouldn’t defend the attack.
Some theories say that doesn’t matter. The remark does its work at an unconscious level, and the conscious disapproval covers for it. Well maybe. But the move became a focus for increasing disquiet about the campaign. No one believes for a second that Michael Fallon did this unbidden, and most saw the hand of Lynton Crosby in the melee. And were not approving. In The Guardian Andrew Rawnsley reports Tories telling him that “David is completely in the grip of Lynton”. Squirrel, presumably, if he can find them. “There is a growing volume of discontent from Tories about the ‘Crosbyisation’ of their party … their robotically repetitive and narrowly negative messages are … it is not working even in its own terms.”
Well, Rawnsley’s Labourish but even so. And elsewhere in The Guardian, Ian Birrell, David Cameron’s speechwriter in 2010, makes the point your correspondent essayed a few weeks ago. Calling the Tory campaign “narrow, repressed and uninspiring”, Birrell argues that this is all Crosby’s work and that “his ideas were forged in another country, Australia, and another century”. Ouch. The brutal and negative approach cannot work fully if a) the political caste are so utterly separated from the masses, and so closely fused with each other that they can’t even fake brutality, as is the case in the UK, and b) hits the wrong note in a place where national unity across class persists due to history and material symbolism, which is just about all the UK is. Crosby has reportedly reassured the Tories that this will work, and that the polls will turn, but he has revised when that will be several times — and now says it will happen in the final week. For good measure, the Tories added a bit of shameless retail politics by promising a rail price freeze, a pitch to the commuter belts that they had hitherto criticised as market distortion, etc. Their rail company donors don’t care, knowing the taxpayers will foot the bill.
Well, maybe. But 48 hours after Stabbygate, the polls seemed to bear out widespread Tory disquiet concerning the campaign. Three polls had Labour opening a lead, the largest of them 37% to 31%, a six-point gap. The Guardian splashed it all over the front page, in a deep social democratic maroon. The next day, there was some push back with a poll showing a Tory lead 36% to 34%. Good for propaganda, but it won’t fool anyone. The Tories have a three-point handicap due to traditional seat boundaries (the largest constituency, the Isle of Wight (Tory), has 110,000 people; the smallest, the Scottish Western Isles, has 21,000; Labour has about six rock-solid seats in Wales of about 45,000 each, and other such elsewhere). The polling is now strongly weighted towards Labour, and the increased visibility of Ed Miliband has made him seem more, not less, everyday, the reverse of what the Tories were hoping. Yet there is still a widespread belief that they will not prevail. It’s near universal, assured on the Tory side — with the wobbles only starting in the last 72 hours — mordant on the Labour side. It has many reasons: the belief that enough of the UKIP vote, currently at 13%, will come back in to the Tories, whereas renegades in the Greens (down from 8% to 4%) have already come back to Labour; that a conservative caution will overwhelm any radical fancies; and, above all, a simple fund of British miserabilism on the Left and self-assurance on the Right.
By Sunday, the promises were coming thick and fast. Labour said it would plug the deficit by collecting 8 billion quid from a crackdown on tax avoidance and evasion, while the Tories played to their base and abolished inheritance tax (yes, they still have an inheritance tax) over a million quid, or any bedsit within five kilometres of the centre of London.
Thus, this election is in no way a contest over differing programs, but it is one over differing values. It is a contest about what sort of politics works, and not least about whether polling still works at all. Over the next 48 hours, the Labour and Conservative manifestos will drop, insofar as anyone cares about these archaic rituals. And on Thursday, Miliband will appear in the “challengers’ debate”, one from which David Cameron and Nick Clegg will be absent — but the small parties will be present. Three angry women and Nigel Farage going Miliband will look, at worst, like a Mormon sitcom. But at best, it will give Miliband a chance to look like the centrist alternative, give him presence and news cycle time that Cameron will scramble for, and further establish him in the eyes of the nation. For Ed, it’s either a whim or a banker. And on we go.