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Thursday, October 15, 2015 

Us and them.

Being away last week I missed the fun of the Conservative party conference.  Opening with the grand spectacle of the hoi polloi daring to invade the personal space of Tories and journalists, and closing with David Cameron's 5th reuse of the speech he first gave to the conference in 2010 as prime minister, it went almost exactly as expected.  Theresa May set about trying to banish memories of the days when she thought her party could use some lessons in detoxification by out nastying those she once lectured, Boris Johnson once again enthralled his audience by doing everything other than whipping his cock out and stroking it right in front of them, and George Osborne was, well, George Osborne.

It was all in all very comforting for both the delegates and media.  Getting eggs thrown at them, being spat at and denounced as "Tory scum" means they're doing something right, at least in their eyes.  The usual suspects immediately demanded that Jeremy Corbyn condemn anyone who so much as gave evils in the general direction of right-wing sixth formers in their first suits, because obviously the left, and these protesters were demonstrably of the left, are all one and the same.  It was rather strange then that the hacks couldn't seem to get their heads round why it was they were subject to the same treatment as the people they were covering; perhaps their disgust influenced their subsequent reports of the speeches, which were almost entirely positive, some even adulatory.  Perhaps they genuinely thought that Osborne and Cameron meant what they said about becoming the true party of working people, Cameron claiming that he would be spending the rest of his time as prime minister trying to force social reform.

Alternatively, they might have seen right through it, as anyone with the slightest knowledge of what the Tories have spent the last five years doing, what their manifesto promised to and what their policies currently going through parliament will do did, and just barely bothered to point it out anyway.  Cameron's address was all but a carbon copy of his past conference speeches, and yet no one felt it polite to say so.  It was all there: the faux-furious denunciation of Labour for daring to consider itself the protectors of the poor, the terrible jokes, the claims to being the true believers in equality and drivers of social mobility, just slightly updated and with the added attack on Corbyn hating his own country.

The myriad contradictions in the speech, from how in one breath Cameron lambasted continuing discrimination, especially against Muslims, then in practically the next went on about madrasas and FGM, as though the latter is in some way a religious rather than a cultural problem, were deemed unimportant.  The BBC didn't so much as bother to point out Cameron's quote of Corbyn's statement on the death of bin Laden was only part of what he said; that was left to Have I Got News for You.  Also few and far between was any reference to how Cameron didn't so much as mention tax credits, despite Boris Johnson having alluded to the controversy over the cuts the previous day.  Anyone expecting a repeat of the deservedly sniffy reaction to Corbyn's speech was to be disappointed, with any criticism mainly focusing on Theresa May's claims about immigration.

You could call it the Ian Hislop deficiency: there he was on HIGNFY, outraged that Lord Ashcroft's smear on David Cameron had been the subject of such mirth and frivolity, rather than treated as a despicable piece of score settling.  He didn't seem to understand that it was as much a reaction to how there had been months of smears and personal attacks on first Ed Miliband and then Corbyn; hypocrisy mattered less to the boot finally being on the other foot.  That it was the hated Mail that had serialised Ashcroft's book only made it all the sweeter, rather than making it less believable.

The fact is that as Ian Dunt recognises, the relationship between the media and the consumer has fundamentally shifted.  No longer are many prepared to remain passive when it's so easy to let journalists know precisely how they feel; that they tend to target not the "enemy", as it were, but hacks ostensibly on the same side, or those who are required to be impartial, is down to how they feel they aren't playing the role they should be.

This is not by any means an entirely positive development.  Demagogues can quicker than ever whip up the sort of atmosphere that leads to marches like the one seen against BBC Scotland, orchestrated by Alex Salmond.  Intimidation is still intimidation regardless of whether it's a self-styled anti-Westminster movement doing it or the government.  The effect is the same.  The rise in the number of those who are wilfully blind to "their" side's deficiencies, or alternatively spend much time rebutting that there is anything remiss at all is as worrying as it is discombobulating.  The response it invites is not one of reconsideration on the part of the target, but of doubling down.  Unless of course it's a broadcaster like the BBC, which is damned if it is and damned if it doesn't.

Nonetheless, it's easy to understand why this is happening now, particularly to members of the commentariat, when you read articles like yesterday's by Rafael Behr in the Graun.  Superciliousness, complacency and snobbery drip from every paragraph.  Behr sneers at amateurs, specifically Nigel Farage, who in Behr's view was seen off by Cameron in the same way as Miliband.  Farage failed as "enough people recognised that the limit of his capabilities was channelling anger not crafting solutions".  And it's true, in terms of actually winning his own parliamentary seat or UKIP making the same breakthrough as it did at the European elections a year earlier, Farage did fail.

Except on practically every other measure, far from being a failure Farage has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.  Behr is so set on making the point that it's professionals who play by the approved rules who win in the end that he refuses to see how Farage pulled the Tories and the political centre ground to the right.  Without Farage, the wider UKIP threat and the constant need to appease his backbenchers as a result Cameron would not have been forced into promising a referendum on our membership of the EU, a referendum it is by no means certain the remain campaign can win.  The debate on immigration has been made all the more toxic by UKIP's unanswerable point that we simply cannot control the numbers that come here from the EU, exacerbated further by the Tories' ridiculous decision not to drop their unachievable tens of thousands target.  Moreover, as though it needs stating again, UKIP won 4 million votes at the general election, a remarkable performance that only didn't result in substantial representation in parliament because of the bankruptcy of our electoral system.  Farage lost, and yet was victorious.

Rather than look at the two biggest shocks of this year, the Tories winning a majority and Jeremy Corbyn becoming Labour leader, neither of which almost any commentator predicted, and seeing if there isn't something they've missed, the response on the whole has been to carry on regardless.  We're not wrong, it's politics at the moment that it is in flux, and very shortly the equilibrium will be restored.  Perhaps it will.  Alternatively, the changes that have been threatened since the crash coupled with the retreat into personal echo chambers on social media might have altered the landscape if not permanently, then for years to come.  The best, like John Harris, at the same as noting that something new is happening are asking whether it can be sustained or if the approach taken by Corbyn and his supporters can truly work.  As for the rest, if nothing else there will always be a need for someone to cheer on our current overlords.

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Great piece. And your notes about Farage remind me why (despite Nick Barlow's correct point that it has little academic substance behind it) the Overton Window is useful as a concept.

If your goal was to get the idea of a referendum on the EU into the mainstream, to the point where we have a referendum, then you can "win" without becoming PM...

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