Modern Sherman Statements


I am in a somewhat odd position for a political obsessive. I am simultaneously without any desire to be elected to office, admiring of those that are willing to endure that torment, and a loyal Labour supporter.

The latter is the kicker, because the obvious move for someone in my position is to relay the action from the ringside, but my commentary is partial and coloured. I am rather like a boxing commentator who only speaks when one fighter lands a punch, and sometimes goes on a tangent about the need to keep one’s guard up in case a future right jab makes it through an inadequate defence, apparently àpropos of nothing, but perhaps being meaningful (and irritating) if you are that fighter’s cornerman.

However, I do sometimes get asked if I want to run for things, because A) I used to want to, and not that long ago. B) It’s what everyone interested in politics is assumed to want to do.

What’s more, sometimes I forget how much I hate the poor politicians life. I forget that I like having weekends, for example, or drinking champagne in public, or not having to watch every damn thing I say to anyone. Usually this is rectified by meeting an MP, and sneaking a look at their diary. It’s a handy corrective to personal ambition.

Yet the temptation lurks. I think I have it under control, but one never quite knows. I would like to rule it out forever because other people could do it just as well and I know it would make me very unhappy. In this mistrustful, sceptical age, even such a categorical ‘Sherman Statement‘ is likely to be questioned, however. We have learned that a total disavowal of personal ambition can itself be a clever political move

So the only way to really rule out a political career is to make a Modern Sherman Statement. That is, to express a view that is so outrageous, so contrary to the public will, good taste or common sense, that you are disqualified from elective office forever.

This is harder than you might think, not simply because Nick Griffin exists, but because most outrageously provocative or controversial statements would make you a truly horrible human being (or expose your interior life in an unacceptably personal way), and that seems too high a price to pay for merely limiting a public career. While I’m happy to rule out ever being elected to anything, I don’t want to be a social pariah.

I’ve come up with a few options though, which I hope will be enough to stop me ever having an elected political career without preventing me being around politics and scratching my chin while telling other people they’re doing it all wrong.

All other suggestions gratefully accepted.

Modern Sherman Statements

1. Both Harry Potter and Game of Thrones are terrible, and anyone who likes either has incredibly poor taste.

2. Stephen Fry often seems a bit of a pompous annoying pillock, and not even that clever.

3. Innovative contemporary dance is better than football.

4. I have strong opinions on Cava versus Prosecco, and I share them at length given the opportunity.

5. I have paid £25 for a Cocktail, and regarded it as a wise decision.

6. I’d usually choose a nice lie in to holding a constituency advice surgery. Almost always, in fact. Oh, who am I kidding? Always.

7. If my job had paid my mortgage interest payments, I’d definitely have used it to enrich myself considerably.

8. If nominated, I will peremptorily denigrate all local schools and charities I visit. If unanimously elected, I shall describe local shops and businesses as being rubbish, and declare I prefer big chains for most purchases.

Polling and predictions: Pick your own narrative


The desire to anticipate events is a constant in human history. The world is a big, scary, weird place and it is reassuring to know what is around the corner. Fortunes have been made by apparently superior predictiveness, and fortunes have been lost on models that turned out not to anticipate risks as well as hoped.

The same is true of politics. We all want to know what will happen at the next election. Indeed, talking to politicians and advisers, I’m always astonished by how much mental energy goes into trying to ‘figure’ what will happen, rather than trying to shape what will happen. I’m sure there is a sociological reason for this (We want to position ourselves to take advantage of the most likely scenarios? We want to raise our status with others by appearing to have foresight? We are trying to repress our depressing powerlessness over future events by focusing on their inevitability?).

This leads to very irritable debates among people whose expectations and predictions vary. There’s a lot of status at stake in being ‘right’.

Not that I’m any different. I spend a ludicrous amount of time trying to work out what ‘will’ happen, and I always come up with the same answer.

The range of possible results at the next election is very wide. Even the totally unexpected shock isn’t that improbable. In the last eight elections I can think of three unexpected events that shifted the polls dramatically in the last year of a parliament – The winter of discontent, victory in the Falklands war and the fuel protests.  That’s three ‘black swans’ in eight elections. Two of those undoubtedly affected the result of the Election. In Politics, Black Swans are as common as ducks.

Faced by the huge amount of noise in the data, we can do two things to satisfy our urge to predict. The first is to average out previous polling to election outcomes, and use this to construct some sort of model for the next election. This is the smart, data based, thing to do. This is the basis for the increasingly sophisticated modelling produced by psephologists like Stephen Fisher, Rob Ford and Will Jennings.

Now the trend on which these prediction are built is that, in general,the past usually suggests that oppositions lose some support in the run up to an election, and Government’s usually recover some support. (There’s a lot more to the different models than that, but bear with me, psephologists). So it’s reasonable to assume that something similar will happen again. Reasonable, but far from certain. There are examples of this trend not happening at all: 1979 being the most obvious, but you can also make a case for 2001.

So the margin by which a perfectly sound prediction could be wrong is very large. Steve Fisher’s latest suggests that the Labour share of the vote next year will be within 26 and 38 with a 95% confidence. Tell that to an MP, and they will not be greatly impressed by your knowledge of the future and the human heart. “I predict that Labour will almost certainly get one of the election results we’ve had in the last 30 years….” does not tend to impress. This also means that even if the trend suggests one thing, there is no inevitability about that trend. There’s no de facto reason why the next election can’t be like 1979. Nor 1983.

This is where, our second option arrives. We can look at the past, and apply our judgement, and with this, our prejudices.

It would be perfectly reasonable to make the argument that the past election 2015 most resembles is 1987. A first term opposition leader whose party suffered a significant defeat at the last election, facing a fairly established but divisive Prime Minister with the economy finally recovering from a deep, painful recession. A year before the election, the opposition leads by five points or so, but goes on to lose by a large margin.

Yet it would also be entirely reasonable to argue that 1970 is a better comparison. An opposition leader widely dismissed as inadequate, and with a poll lead that is large but not decisive, facing a Prime Minister who has strong personal ratings but who leads a divided government that has not delivered significant personal incomes growth. Result: Decent opposition majority, confounding pundits and expectations.

Does either of these narratives feel more ‘right’ to you? Do you see clear flaws in one example, but not the other?

If so, I expect that is a reflection of your past experiences, or your personal feelings about the current political situation, and the current parties and the strengths of their leaders. We’re imposing our own judgements on both the data and the few examples of the past that we have to hand.1

Personally, I find myself always returning to the averages, but I can’t deny that I find myself drawn to the more pessimistic of the available past models for the Labour party. This is likely because my first experience of politics was the 1992 General Election, which has predisposed me to a certain political caution. It’s also partly because I think it’s better to assume no election is won until it is.

However, that is my prejudice, not a data driven analysis. We can choose to live with the great uncertainty the data really gives us, while also highlighting the past examples that most fits our own analysis. What we can’t do is be certain of the future.

If we want to be constructive rather than mystic, however, perhaps the best thing we can do is understand why the more pessimistic examples turned out the way they did, and invest our efforts in avoiding those mistakes.

  1. An example: I was once asked to discuss AV with a group of senior progressively minded Labour people. There was much talk about the divide of the left in the Eighties handing Thatcher power. After a while, I could bear it no more and piped up to point out that in fact the data showed that AV would have given the Tories an even bigger majority in the 83 & 87 elections, as SDP/Alliance voters would have given Thatcher more of their second preferences. There was a brief pause, then the conversation continued as if I hadn’t spoken. It was really annoying. I always think of how much it irritated me when women tell me that they regularly get treated like this in rooms full of men. []

A polling diversion from internal Labour briefing


I could be talking a lot about Labour internal politics. My God, I could be talking about Labour internal politics.

I’m not sure what good it would do though, because people are doing what they’re doing to protect their positions, their status and to make sure someone else gets the blame for bombs both exploded and unexploded, real or only imagined. This won’t stop, no matter how many calls for loyalty are issued.1

If you don’t see the various briefings, scores being settled and the daggers sharpened as I do, then a) You won’t believe my interpretation of them and b), you probably believe that when someone calls for a bold agenda that fits with Labour’s values and narrative, they actually have a list of policies that add up, make sense and won’t blow up in somebody else’s face.

Gordon Brown rode that particular trick pony all the way to Ten Downing Street, and it hasn’t lost its appeal since.

Instead of worrying about this, which won’t change, because the people, position and the structure of our party all dictate we do this to each other, I decided to look at the polling numbers.

There have been two interesting shifts recently. The first was a post election increase in Labour’s polling lead. This seemed to be to do with a move from the Conservatives to UKIP after all the election coverage, and perhaps an increase in 2010 Labour voter enthusiasm. This seems to have abated in the last week’s polling.

The other shift is interesting, and perhaps a bit surprising. According to YouGov, the Tories have been increasing their share of 2010 LibDems.


In July last year, the Tories scored 11.4% of those 2010 LibDems who intended to vote.

In June 2014, the Tories got 13.7% of 2010 LibDems.

In the last ten YouGov polls, that has increased to 15.3%. In the last five polls, the Tories average 16.8%.

This doesn’t seem to have come at the expense of Labour, whose share of ex-LibDems seems fairly solid at c30%. However, if the Tories are doing better than they were among this group, it reduces the differential advantage that Labour has enjoyed.

If Labour is now only getting twice as many 2010 LibDems as the Tories, rather than three times as many, that’s a significant shift.

Now this is a very recent trend, and could be related to Cameron’s EU adventures (it’s noticeable that UKIP have lost out). There may also be a slight increase in the number of 2010 LibDems saying they won’t vote, thus increasing the value of those saying they’ll vote Tory.

However, that the Tories are doing noticeably better among former LibDems (even if fleetingly) should remind Labour people that simply relying on a Yellow Tide for victory is, at best, a strategy that is extremely reliant on nothing changing to our disadvantage among non-Labour supporting voters.

Since we are unlikely to be able to influence such voters, this makes it a rather unstable strategy.

  1. Let’s not kid ourselves either. A call for loyalty, hard work and all pulling together is a positioning statement too. I once watched one of the most regular anti-Blair briefers of the 1997-2007 era issue a stirring call for an end to ‘distracting noises off’ under Gordon. Of course, their own status as a Macro to both the current and a hopeful emperor in no way affected their sudden admiration for loyalty. They performed like a pro, which they were. I quite admired it that level of self serving hypocrisy parading as noble loyalty, and am not always sad to see it lives on today []

Can’t we shut up about our sense of mission, and just do the mission?


Jon Cruddas’s interview with The New Statesman (complete with compulsory Gramsci reference)  has kicked off another in Labour’s ongoing series of debates about choosing between a passionate sense of mission and a bloodless technocracy.

As Mark Ferguson says over at Labourlist:

Cruddas himself explains the point well:

“there is always this tension at the heart of social democracy, of centre-left thinking, about the technical construction of policy and that emotional, romantic, visionary element that has to trump that in order to create traction.” 

(Emphasis mine:  Jon has decided who must win this debate)

I would like to propose a third way. It is quite possible to have a driving sense of mission, but not to bang on about how great you are for having this sense of mission the whole damn time.

The choice between bloodless technocracy and visionary passion is a divide that only makes sense if you believe that an effort to convince other people that your plans will work is somehow a sell out and a failure. It is possible to be a motivated technocrat instead.

Too often, the argument for ‘having values and vision’ actually boils down to little more than patting ourselves on the back for being wonderful. ‘We want a fairer society, a better economy, more ponies for all. This is our mission.’ we say, expecting admiring glances and applause from the inspired. Perhaps some are impressed, but what if the people we need to win over are those sitting at the back, sucking their teeth and saying “That’s all very well, but how, exactly?”

Yes, you need a national story of renewal and growth. But you also need to explain how you’re going to do it. In the struggle between romance and engineering, the winner should be whichever speaks more to the doubtful. I’m pretty sure people already know we’d like to do amazingly cool stuff, so I’d rather focus on the teeth-suckers, even if that means not telling them why I’m so motivated and passionate.

Ultimately, having a sense of mission is an internal quality. It is not something that needs to be talked about, but something that needs to be delivered.

So I favour a driving sense of mission that keeps its damn mouth shut, and gets on with the mission instead.

Very little is more irritating than someone who you hire to fix a problem who goes on and on about why they’re so great for wanting to fix the problem, and how important it is to fix the problem, and why they’re obsessed by the problem, but neglects to tell you how the bloody problem is going to be fixed.

Please, have all the sense of mission you like, but let’s not be that guy, ever.




A quiet burial: Labour’s ‘40% strategy’ a year on


Almost a year ago, my good friend Marcus Roberts wrote a pamphlet called ‘Labour’s next majority’.

In it, Marcus set out how Labour could win an election with 40% of the vote,  without appealing to a large swathe of 2010 Tory voters.  His analysis – that a coalition of existing Labour voters, former LibDems, former non-voters and young voters could get Labour to the victory line was rightly greeted by extremely favourable reviews, as a provocative and thoughtful piece of work that suggested a different path to victory for the British centre left. One review dubbed it ‘Labour’s Emerging majority’

Somewhat cruelly, the publication of the report occurred at almost the precise moment the Labour party fell beneath 40% in the polls for the first time for four years.  Yet the political argument that lay behind Marcus’s paper was as significant as the psephological one.

Because ‘Labour’s next majority’  importance was that it represented an electoral guide to a political idea. By setting out a path to power that did not rely on converting Tory voters, Labour strategists had freed themselves from the need to change minds about the Labour party. Instead, the voters were there, already fundamentally sympathetic to the Labour party position. The challenge  was to motivate them, to get them to the polls.

Underneath this thinking lay an older, more battle-scarred concept – the progressive consensus, which held that a fracturing on the left was truly responsible for the Thatcherite ascendency of the Eighties.  Many in the Labour party, witnessing the collapse of the LibDems, post coalition, saw an exciting chance to, finally make that progressive consensus real.

So it’s no coincidence that the policies Labour has announced over the last year, and which we focus on today, are ‘motivational’ policies, rather than ‘conversion’ policies. If you already feel fundamentally sympathetic to the Labour party, but are not sure what it will do for you, then policies like an energy freeze, action the cost of living, more home building, NHS protection are designed to encourage you to the polls. They are, if you like, a ‘strong retail offer’.

If however, you are sceptical to the party for other reasons, for example because you believe that we would risk the economy, or increase taxes, or not close the deficit, or simply because you think the party itself is ineffective compared to the others, these same policies will be unlikely to change your mind, even if you like them. Indeed, how could they?

Labour’s approach has been an attempt to motivate, rather than convert voters, in large part because of an analysis that held that such conversion was not needed. The Coalition, the progressive consensus reborn, already existed. What was needes was to drag it to the polls.

Unfortunately, the recent European and Local election suggest there is a problem with the theory in practice.

Despite all the attempts to motivate the vote, the community organising, the grassroots mobilisation, the policy agenda, and so on, the army of eager Labour voters the strategy relied on simply did not arrive at the voting booths in any great numbers. In the polls, Labour has not scored 40% or more for almost three months now.

Now it’s very tempting for me to say I told you so. Because I did.  A few times.

Indeed, I remember discussing alternative numbers with Marcus that are not unlike the 32% he projects in his latest article. The problem with the 40% strategy was threefold.

First, it relied on outstanding turnout from traditionally low turnout groups, which was always going to be a demanding target.

Consider this: If Labour’s margin of victory in the 40% strategy relies on non and young voters, what does it suggest that when given the chance to kick the government and signal their desire for change, Labour could not reach 35% of the vote? Does this make you feel confident there is likely to be a swell of motivated new voters next year?

Second, by focussing only constructing an electoral coalition needed to win, building block by building block, it neglected the possibility these ‘blocks’ would seep and fracture.

Labour was, and is, going to secure a large number of 2010 LibDems at the next election. But the difference between getting a third of them and a fifth of them is enormous. In assuming that all these voters were ‘in the bag’ and simply needed to be motivated, Labour may have neglected to observe that some of these voters had significant doubt about us, that could be exploited.

Finally, of course, by focussing on a relatively narrow political coalition, you leave yourself very vulnerable to the unexpected loss of a proportion of that support, and indeed Labour found that an opponent was both converting  voters. UKIP may not have made the progress it desired, but it certainly converted some former Labour supporters, in large part by focusing on two issues, immigration and Europe.

As a result, post the elections, a re-assessment  has been taking place. Both Marcus Roberts in ‘Without change, Labour is choosing to lose’ and Jeremy Cliffe with ‘The new Working Class‘ have written up their revised takes.  They are both  thoughtful articles, with interesting and insightful glimpses of the new demography of Britain.

However, they both represent another attempt to motivate a coalition electoral bloc by electoral bloc, rather than to change minds and perceptions voters by voter. Let me put it bluntly. Electorally, we should stop thinking of ‘the working class vote’. (Whether new, old or in between).

Instead, consider individual members of the working class, with different interests, views, barriers and motivations, many of which are similar to those of other voters. From 1979  until 1997, the Conservative party regularly scored 30% of voters in Social group DE. Those voters were not repelled by Thatcherism, and Labour’s then powerfully pro Working class message did not appeal to them.

Further, amongst voters in social group C2, the Tories scored 40% in every election from 1979 to 1992. The idea that the working class is uniform, or shifts in ways that can be easily separated from the electorate as a whole is for the birds.

Show me a party that has significantly increased their appeal to DE voters, and I’ll show you a party that has increased their appeal to ABC1 voters.

The problem for Labour is fundamentally not that we have insufficient electoral blocs to construct a majority from, and we need to add more to, but rather that there are too many people in all electoral blocs who see the party as ineffective, unlikely to make positive changes, incompetent, or irresponsible.

These perceptions are not true, naturally, but to try to construct a victory without changing minds on these topics, at best reliant on a perception of greater incompetence, irresponsibility and ineffectiveness elsewhere, and at worst doomed to failure.

If Labour’s bright strategists want to win next year, they should stop worrying about how to build coalitions block by block, and start thinking about changing minds voter by voter.

When a good strategy doesn’t seem to be working.


Labour’s ‘Cost of Living’ strategy deserves more attention than it’s getting. Ed Miliband renewed his focus on it today, in his speech at the GMB Congress, and we can see its political relevance in the new wages data and the continuing polling data that says that most people don’t feel the economic recovery is benefitting them.

What’s more, whatever your view on the underlying economics, Labour’s cost of living strategy is both politically coherent and easily ‘sellable’. It’s a clear argument that wages are too low, costs are too high, and the cause is an economy lacking regulation and protection for working families, so leaving most of us struggling while a few do very well.

Whether this is energy bills, wage enforcement, rights at work, or rents, the analysis is consistent and the policy diagnosis clear. Labour stands for higher wages for workers and greater market regulation and restraint of prices for consumers.

So why doesn’t it seem to be working?

Well, hold on, you might say. How do we know it isn’t working?

The first metric is Labour share of vote. That’s clearly declined over the last nine months, so Labour’s focus on this issue clearly hasn’t shifted party share upwards in the nine months since the energy price freeze was announced as a key Labour policy.

Of course, there can be many reasons for a shift in the vote share. So let’s look at some other trackers to try to see what difference the ‘Cost of Living’ strategy has made for Labour. First those saying that Labour is the best party on the ‘Economy in General’. since the start of 2013.

Clearly, there’s been a Tory strengthening over this period, but note that Labour’s share has declined. Again though, this could be explained as merely an artefact of recovery.

So let’s look at some proxies for what we might hope the Cost of Living has achieved.

First, if the cost of living is a concern for the ‘working family’ has a focus on the issue made Ed Miliband seem more in touch with the electorate? Here’s Ed Miliband’s ‘In touch with ordinary people’ rating.

As you can see, the initial energy price pledge did make a noticeable difference, pushing his rating up to the second highest level he has achieved as leader (highest was after the ‘One Nation’ speech). However that has since gradually declined, leaving the rating roughly where it was last summer.

What about whether the party is best at looking after interests of ‘people like you’. Ipsos-Mori ask this question very occasionally, and reports that it results in an effective tie between Labour and Conservative.

So we can more or less conclude that whatever else has happened, the Cost of Living Campaign has not increased Labour vote share, increased Labour’s economic ratings, increased Ed Miliband’s own ratings for being in touch, or delivered Labour a reputation for protecting voter interests significantly greater than we enjoyed in late 2009 (Not our greatest period).

So, given that all the polling data suggests Labour’s policies are popular, what gives?

Several explanations suggest themselves.

First, other issues may matter more. It’s clear there’s been a significant increase in economic optimism. In that case, talking about the cost of living may not feel as relevant as other issues. When ICM polled the issue in January, there seemed to have been a clear increase in voter confidence about keeping up with the cost of living, which suggests a decrease in the salience of the issue.

You can be fatalist about this, arguing that such a shift is inevitable as the economy recovers. You might also argue, that the party could have positioned itself differently for a recovery.

Next, there’s the issue of believability. While people agree that the cost of living crisis is real, They may not be convinced by those that offer them. As Survation polled for Labourlist last September, this has always been a problem for parties making promises in this area. The fundamental challenge with making promises is that people have to believe in both you, and in the effectiveness of the policy, fail at either barrier, and the promise is meaningless.

Back in September, when Labour first made a splash in this area, A Survation poll for Labourlist suggested that almost the only voters who would trust Labour to deal with a cost of Living crisis were already Labour voters.

Third, there’s effectiveness, a related issue to believability. The same Survation poll found that, although people strongly supported the idea of a price freeze, a majority thought that promoting switching deals would be a more effective way of reducing bills than a price freeze. When Labour first made this a core issue, in August last year, I expressed my scepticism by saying that ‘Just pointing at things and saying they’re expensive isn’t a strategy’. Since then, Labour has come up with a number of specific proposals. However, electors may not be convinced that they would be effective at reducing the cost of living.


Fourth, there’s the opportunity cost of talking about the issue.  This has been my longtime bugbear. When we first made this an issue, I discussed my worry about this with Labour pollster James Morris.

I still stand by this concern. If you’re talking about an issue where people already feel they know what you’d like to do (we’d like things to be cheaper), you’re missing the chance to address the concerns they have about you.

Further, they might worry that other policies (like NI increases, or higher interest rates) might cancel out any savings achieved.

If I were a Tory strategist, I’d be very interested to know if people thought a Labour government might mean higher taxes and interest rates, and what that signified for the cost of living.

Bluntly, though, while Labour is addressing a real social evil in the cost of living, before making many more speeches on the issue, we should probably have a better understanding of why the strategy has not worked as desired over the last nine months. Without that analysis, it is unlikely to work any more effectively over the next eleven months.





Immersing a cynic

1 comment

I have become captivated by a piece of theatre.  I’m rather surprised by my  enjoyment of visiting Temple Pictures, Hollywood or more prosaically, attending PunchDrunk’s production of ‘The Drowned Man’, playing in an old post office in Paddington.

This is because if I had make a list of what I’d pay to avoid in an evening’s entertainment, it would include the words interpretive dance, cast interaction, and masquerade. Ever been to one of those cinema screenings where people dressed up as the characters pootle about before the film mangling accents and molesting punters? I hate those. I really hate them.

I have only just noticed that the pillars are broken and the whole thing is about to…

Giving me a comfortable seat, leaving me alone, and telling me what the hell is going on seem simple enough demands to make of a theatre company, and I was not wildly enthusiastic about having none of these needs met on my first visit to Temple Studios.1

Why did I go? My partner had been, because a friend had loved it. She wanted us to go. I tried not to roll my eyes too much when I was told it would last three hours. I forbore generally. I was assured there was a bar that I could sit in and nurse a drink. I didn’t think much more about it than that. I knew it was about a love story gone wrong, I think, and set in sixties Hollywood, and had some absurdly pretentious link to some play I’d never heard of. Fine. Whatever.

This is the look of Autumn ’62

To ease my path, My girlfriend got some special ticket that meant we would get a free drink and an explanation of the plot. I remember thinking that a play that needed the plot explaining first was probably a really bad play.

It’s fair to say that my mood on my first visit was one of bemused disdain. Yeah. Sure. I’ll put on a Scream mask. I’ll putter about for a bit, check out the scenery. Then go for a drink and wait for it to be over.  The one thing I liked the sound of was examining the set. I didn’t want actors being all actory up in my face, but checking out the props might keep me reasonably entertained.

About ten of us gather in wood panelled room. There’s an unnerving introduction, which thankfully contains no interpretive dance.

Moments later I’m propelled into what seems to be a trailer park. I wander past this into a backyard, someone’s bedroom and then what looks like a rough part of town. The set is huge. There seems to be no-one around.  I wander into a shop, and look at various broken electrical devices. After a few minutes of randomly picking things up and putting them back, I amble out.

There’s a sound, I look right, and about fifty people in blank white masks are rushing directly at me. I dive back into the shop to avoid being the first recorded death by audience participation. Where the hell did they come from? What the fuck were they doing? Was that the play?

Not my mask. My mask remains inviolate. Sadly.

The whole of my first show was like that. After a bit I realised that various characters moved around, and so the scream-masked audience trampled after them like a herd of serial killing sheep on a rampage. I didn’t care about any of the characters, and following them looked like hard work and a little terrifying.

So I just pottered about. I found a little tunnel in a desert and found a room full of potions, and a basement room full of dead flowers. I found a glass of real whisky and had a surreptitious sip. A couple of times I was looking at files, or trying to read a letter when actors came in and acted to a group of white masks.

I stayed out of the way when that happened, but one time a woman who looked like a possessed Mary Poppins told me she needed the room I was pottering about in. She had another audience member with her, but after I left she locked the door with him inside. What was that about?

Then it was the end and the final scene. My main reaction was the same as the first: Where the hell did all these people come from? There were dozens of actors, and the scene was in a huge place I’d not even registered. Maybe it was the fact I didn’t recognise more than three of the cast2

I have not seen this scene

Alright, I thought. I have to go back, just to work out what the hell was going on. I’m not going to tell you how many times I’ve been since. It’s too many and not enough at the same time. I got it wrong sometimes: After I learned that the characters sometimes take off an audience member for a little private acting, I faced my hatred of such intimacy and tried to see if they’d pick me3.

Of course, they didn’t choose me, and I was disappointed, because I wasn’t finding out the secrets to what the hell was going on. Until a woman dragged me into a darkened room and.. well, let’s just say I’ve never had a member of a paying audience take to facebook to compliment me on my interpretive dance before.

Plus, I’m a bit clumsy at the best of times. I’ve trod on feet, walked into walls, and in every other way imaginable been an accidental audience berk. I have perfected a ‘Sorry I just de-immersed you by beaking you in the shoulder‘ eye-shrug.4

Last night was a bit of a revelation though, which is why I’m writing this today. I managed to actually pay attention to some characters stories properly.5 Not through snatches, or random encounters alone, but by doing what that crowd was doing the very first time. Following a character, listening and watching.

I have not seen this scene either

Because it turns out the characters were trying, desperately, to tell me what the hell was going on, as best they knew.  So was the set. So were the props and the music and even the bar staff. But I hadn’t been interested in the characters, or in the people. At least, not enough to really take in what was going on. I’d been too distracted by the show, by the scale and the detail. I had been interested in the drink, though.6

Now I’m finally listening, and realising that the story is as detailed as the set, that the characters can be as twisted and confused as the mazes. I’m almost irritated at myself. For not paying attention properly. For missing so much. For getting there so late, and in the wrong frame of mind. For all the stories I haven’t bothered to listen to.

Of course, I have to go back. Trouble is, there’s only four more weeks.

So don’t go, eh? You might take my ticket.

Trust me, you wouldn’t get it.

  1. A parenthetical detour: There may be someone reading this who is a hardened veteran of Punchdrunk productions, who has been going to The Drowned Man and its predecessor and parallel shows for years before I stumbled across them. For you, my naively ignorant delight might be annoying and amusing in equal measure. I’m rather like someone who arrives late to a sixties music convention saying “Have you heard this amazing new band? They’re called the Beat-els, and they’ve just made this album “Corporal Pepper”. You should totally check it out!” I understand, honestly. Just remember how jealous I am of you. I didn’t get to see Badlands Jack, never mind Red Death. I’m like that Beatles guy, EXCEPT I”M NEVER GOING TO GET TO HEAR REVOLVER. You lucky, smart, early adopting sods []
  2. The possessed Mary Poppins, a crazed doctor and a little bantamweight of movie-star. []
  3. No, imaginary regular attendee, I wasn’t pushy, or at least I hope not. I just was too focussed on getting the experience to have the experience, if you know what I mean []
  4. One moment for you, Imaginary mask person. I am wandering around the basement. Alice comes down, in a rush and alone. She enters a room. Oh-ho, think I, a SECRET THING, and follow her in. She’s getting changed out of her dress. I stand there, her only audience, really not sure if I’m supposed to be there or not. It seems rather unseemly, just the two of us. I affect a deep interest in drapery. She seems to catch my eye in the mirror. I scuttle out, a shamefaced voyeur, and wait outside. A while later, she emerges, in her new outfit, and gives me a look that says ‘You waited outside? What kind of freak are you, anyway?‘ []
  5. Faye and Romola, Imaginary fellow maskwearer. And yes, I stayed in the car []
  6. Regular imaginary mask wearer: OK, I like getting free whisky. It’s a weakness. But I’m not the only one who has that weakness, right, Harry? []

No plans… and the higher ground

1 comment

We have absolutely no plans to raise VAT” said David Cameron.  He then raised VAT.

Having just raised National Insurance, Tony Blair told Jeremy Paxman that “At the time of the election we didn’t have plans to increase national insurance or any other tax“.

I was reminded of the past absence of plans when Tory Backbencher after Tory backbencher popped up during the Queen’s speech debate to ask Ed Miliband if he would rule out raising National Insurance after various news reports said Labour was considering the idea.

The Labour leader dismissed these planted questions. Did he have plans? He wouldn’t be tricked into saying – because this was the sort of politics that people hate.

He’s right, I think, in more ways than one.

He’s right because the questions were an attempt to distract him from a genuine attempt to lift the political debate to slightly higher ground.

Miliband had opened his speech by talking about the mistrust in politics revealed by the European elections, the rise of UKIP and the large numbers of abstentions. He argued that these were major challenges that required a serious, considered response, and the tragedy of the Queen’s speech was not that the measures were bad, but that they were insufficient to the times.

While he attempted such a big argument, whipped efforts to skewer him on his plans for National Insurance must have seemed particularly petty.

There’s no good answer to such a question – rule it out and you’ve tied your hands. Rule it in, and you’ve handed your opponents a great big scary poster for the election campaign. So you dodge the question, as Cameron did, and Blair did, and yes, as Miliband did.

That’s politics, annoyingly. If Miliband dodged, he dodged because dodging is what you do when someone tries to chuck a custard pie at you. What else was he supposed to do?

It was a powerful opening, a plea for a politics better than the codes and artfully constructed pledges that can characterise modern politics and which drive distrust and even disgust. The trouble is, it’s hard to stress the need for plain speaking when you’re ducking and diving.

When his inquisitors were asking, in that sly back office way about the cost of his own plans, Miliband found himself forced to speak in the language he disdained moments before.

Miliband did not want to answer such a question. To soon. Too much of a trap, too easily misrepresented. Too… risky.

Yet if you seek the higher ground, if you wish for trust, perhaps such questions must be confronted. Their implications made clear.

The list of issues we need to change in Britain is long.

Yet sometimes politicians appear to give the impression that all it would require to fix them is the election of their party, while declining to explain what negatives might accompany their choices, what difficulties they might face in implementing their plans, what costs there might be to their hopes, and why despite those costs, it is still worthwhile, and needed, and valuable.

Perhaps what has left mainstream politics adrift. We all have challenges we prefer to discuss, and consequences we find harder to confront.

For the Tories, the acceptable challenges are about the deficit, the need for growth, the need for more jobs and expanding businesses. For Labour, the good challenges are about fairness, about those left behind, about the need to reduce insecurity and inequality.

The Labour party is right to argue that insecurity and inequality are defining issues of our age. I am proud to support a party that believe this.

But ultimately these challenges are not separate. To speak of inequality and insecurity while avoiding choices you must make on taxation and deficits and spending to remedy these leads you to a politics of smoke and mirrors, of no plans and silences and taunting backbenchers.

To boast of growth and expansion without action for those who do not benefit is horrific.

Of course there is far more to achieving equality and security than tax and spend, more to delivering growth than deficits and prudence. There are rights and responsibilities, powers and privileges too. But there is a hollowness to a debate without a clear boundary on these issues. Always the questions: But how far will you go? How much will it cost? Who will bear the burden? Who will get the rewards?

At their best, Miliband and Cameron rise above these limiting agendas. Cameron talks of the need for the minimum wage to rise. Miliband speaks of business growth and local banks. But even these welcome steps rarely involve a critical look at their own agenda

Too often, the impression is given that a list of bills a Labour government would pass, or the mere maintenance in office of the coalition is a sufficient programme for a better Britain.

These would present no problems, no costs, no need to raise VAT, no increase in NI, no need to trade off business freedom with worker security. There are no plans for any pain. At least none that can be admitted. Yet when we talk among ourselves, we know the costs are real, the limitations great, that the bill for our hopes will be presented.

I think Ed Miliband is right that the higher ground is there to be claimed, and voters are hungry for a leader to embrace it.

To do so, I think, will require a politician prepared to speak as frankly about the challenges their own dreams face as of the flaws in their opponents plans.

In other words, perhaps voters in order to trust us, perhaps voters want to hear the detailed plans, whatever they might cost.

The era of no plans is dead.




How we talk; Politics and people

no comments

Reading Buzzfeed’s excellent and revealing interview with Ed Miliband, the first thing to strike me was a realisation of how politicians and journalist and hangers-on can talk about one thing, and inadvertently communicate something completely different.

At the beginning of the article Miliband is recounting a story about the real cost of government cuts:

“A man approached him to say that his part-time job at a petrol station wasn’t paying enough to take care of two children. This is an anecdote of the sort Miliband is always telling in his campaign to lower Britain’s cost of living, but what the man said next was “chilling.”

“He was really, really desperate because he felt couldn’t properly provide for his family,” Miliband recalls. “He was thinking of ending it all because he just couldn’t make ends meet.”

“Suddenly bacon sandwiches look slightly beside the point,” Miliband says.”

It’s not quite clear at what point in the interview this story is recounted. Presumably, it’s in a discussion about the media, and the real purpose of politics. Back up a bit, though, and think about what happens in this story. A man approaches a politician. He tells him that he has a job, but it doesn’t pay enough. He goes on to say that he is thinking of killing himself, leaving his two children fatherless.

At which point, he disappears from the story.

What happened to him? Maybe Miliband didn’t say, or did say, and the journalist didn’t recount because he thought we wouldn’t be interested in it. In a sense, it doesn’t matter, I’m not trying to slag off either Ed or Jim, just observe what we talk about and how we talk about it.

Either way, the point Miliband was trying to make: -that people are more important than political point scoring and media kerfuffle- is undermined by the way this very human story is treated. This man is left paused, his story half told, its conclusion unaddressed. He says he is going to kill himself, he is so miserable, and we -speaker, interviewer, reader- move on.

To us at least, whether politician, or writer or audience, this man is less important than a point about media priorities.

My reaction to this was to wonder what Miliband said to the guy, what advice he gave him, what help he offered. I’m sure, because Ed is a decent man, that he did this, and offered comfort or aid, and help.

Yet in this anecdote, this disappears, as does the man himself, and we move back to bacon sandwiches, twitter and Baseball apps, all of which is fascinating. That’s not snark. It’s genuinely good, fair writing and as a result I think it’s a very enlightening interview, especially on Ed Miliband’s attitude to globalisation, personally and for others.

I’m glad it was done, and I learned a lot.

I’m just also left wondering what happened to the man who wanted to kill himself.

Once more, with feeling?


Emma Burnell has demonstrated that Buffy references are the way to open a discussion of Labour strategy. Who am I to argue?

Ed Miliband’s office should write Lord Oakeshott a thank-you card. Oakeshott yesterday resigned from the Lib Dems in an almighty huff. In doing so, he sucked the air from Labour’s internal debate. A flurry of Labour writers and former names have offered their opinions, but among current politicians, there has been little more than ‘talk about immigration‘ and ‘put me on Telly more‘.

This has given the leadership a clear hand to define Labour’s response to the election results. The purest distillation of this comes from the New Statesman’s George Eaton, who is in receipt of regular communication from a source who, one suspects, can always see the wood for the trees.

This source leads Eaton to state ‘That Miliband does not feel the need to lurch or to U-turn stems from the extent to which he believe the rise of Ukip confirms his existing intellectual and psephological analysis‘.

This analysis, according to the source, is: “We’re reaping what we sowed back in ’97 through to 2005, when we gave the impression to our working-class heartlands that they were communities that we took for granted. We kept on talking to them about globalisation, but that was passing people by”.

This decade long political lag is remarkable.

A year and a half ago, Labour were in the mid forties in the opinion polls. Less than a year ago, friendly columnists, like George, were being told by their sources that Labour would win because the Labour brand was the least toxic and UKIP would divide the right.

Perhaps the undoing of this is because we have spent that time talking about the benefits of globalisation, and the voters have spurned us?

It seems not. I go back to January 2013 to find Polly Toynbee approving of Labour’s change of stance on immigration.

“So Miliband was right in his Fabian speech to say that worried voters are not “bigots”, as Gordon Brown called them: Labour “got things wrong” and should “listen”. Acknowledging legitimate fears that immigration takes jobs and depresses low wages is an important step, but damage limitation is all Labour can hope for, with no chance of out-toughing the Tories.”

Back then, the analysis was that  success had vindicated Labour’s new approach. Now the analysis is that decisions taken a decade ago have undone those successes, and that Labour’s new approach is more essential than ever.

So the Fabian speech last year is no different in analysis, or in prescription, to the Thurrock speech yesterday. This is the intellectual self confidence Eaton refers to, which sees the core problem of modern society being inequality, libertarian predation and low incomes, which drive social insecurity, exploitation and division, and the correct response as always intervention to offer stability, security and protection for the fearful and weak.

There is a pleasing consistency to this. Further, it has hardly been hidden from the voters, who strongly approve. Proposals like energy market intervention, higher levels of the minimum wage, regulation of tenancies, strengthening of communities, limitations on capital and labour movement, all have been frequently expressed and highly rated.

Yet Labour’s support has gradually declined.

Perhaps, as George’s source suggests, this is because Labour’s embrace of the liberal modern in the late nineties poisoned the well. Yet if Labour was successful two years ago, and has followed the agenda above with announcement after announcement since, then why are we less popular now than we were then?1

The answer from the top seems to be that the voters have not yet heard us clearly enough. We will spell it out  ‘once more with feeling‘ in order to channel the electors rejection of modernism and liberalism into a more progressive path.

To do this, we will use the left-right-left shuffle to explain to voters that if they’re concerned about immigration, Europe, welfare and a weak economy, they truly desire tenancy regulation, low pay and recruitment agency regulation, market intervention and a tax on bankers bonuses.

I dissent from this.

I think that the doubts voters have of us do not relate to our desire for a fairer, more equal society. I think they already know that Ed Miliband desires this, and that we who stand behind him seek the same.

I think they worry that our solutions for delivering it will not work.

Why might they worry? Perhaps because as we address our agenda, we will also have to fight battles over debt, and the need to raise taxes, and  what to do about public pay and mortgage rates and cuts and other such workaday things, and it sometimes appears that we don’t find these dull necessities of governance worthy of our grand vision of community.

Perhaps too, while we talk about the issues that concern voters and offer our consistent panaceas, the solutions we offer can’t match those of the idiot populists in the cure-alls-that-ails-you stakes. If you want lower immigration, what sounds like a better way to achieve it, closing the borders by leaving the EU, or a higher minimum wage?

Me, I’d go for this. Abandon the left-right-left shuffle and talk about the issues head on.

On immigration, the issue isn’t really agency workers, it’s free movement of Labour in Europe. So explain up front why ending this would be bad for Britain, if we think it is, and if we think it isn’t, have the courage of our convictions, even if it means a fight. If we think it’s a good thing, but raises demands for resources, like schools or housing, explain why it’s good, and how we’ll get better at meeting those local demands. Don’t patronise people by trying to sell them our fairness agenda in immigration packaging.

I’d focus on the practical. On budgets, and taxes, and housing I’d focus less on the why, more on the how. I’d talk not about the power of government, but about its limitations, the challenges to any positive change.

I’d actively reject promises, and use that as a platform to attack those who glibly lie about the consequences of their ill thought through policies.

I’d venerate competence over vision, reliability over intellect, practicality over ideology. Since I know politics is distrusted, and provisional, and awkward I’d deal with the world as it is, not try to sell them the world as I’d like it to be.

Would it work? I hope so, but in truth, who knows.

What I do know is that once more with feeling won’t.

It didn’t go down that well the first time.



  1. Let’s ignore the fact that the voters seemed happy enough with the embrace of the modern at the time, as things do change []