I watched much of Boris Johnson’s speech yesterday. Thankfully, he recognised it was almost entirely content free and got it over quite quickly. But what is left to think about?
The over-riding impression of the Tories this week is that they are all about messaging. There is no delivery. There is no grand plan. There will likely be no change. That they don’t want any is implicit in their name. So, all they actually do now is create and deliver slogans. Their belief is that so long as those slogans continue to roll and are more memorable - however vacuous they are - than anything Labour has to say then they can and will win the next general election. There is nothing to market. The marketing is it. And nothing is sacred, former Tory governments included.
That leads to the second conclusion, which is that revisionism is very definitely in fashion. The Tories will now recast anything without any compunction. If it suits Johnson to blame all previous Tory prime ministers, he will. If he wishes to rewrite the history of Brexit now to claim it was all about a high wage / high productivity economy, which he has no idea how to deliver, then he will. There is no limit to what can be rewritten, and he thinks he will always get away with it.
Third, everyone else is to blame. From the feckless claimants of universal credit, to business that has lazily employed the best applicants for the jobs that they had to offer, it’s everyone else’s fault that the economy is not working for everyone’s apparent benefit. The slight problem with this thesis is it would seem as though those on universal credit are far from feckless and that business is behaving exactly as might be expected in the enterprising world that the Chancellor praises, but still they are to blame.
Fourth, there are no problems. Supply chain issues, energy price increases, the risk of inflation, the reality of joblessness, skill shortages and so much more can all be ignored. They are not the government’s job to solve, apparently. They are the fault of business and they can sort them. If they did not know or plan for the consequences of a Brexit deal agreed only hours before it was delivered and which has subsequently been renounced then that is their own fault, and nothing to do with Johnson.
Fifth, increasing wages without increasing productivity is apparently fine. However, paying universal credit, when every penny paid will recirculate into the productive economy and so create work apparently is not. The logical inconsistency is apparent, but not to those who will not see.
Sixth, climate change is just about a gig in Glasgow. It can otherwise be ignored. It was.
Seventh, and perhaps most apparent of all, Tories live in a world different to that where everyone else lives. It may be make believe, but they think that’s what they can sell. Their belief in the ability to con enough of the people much of the time is staggering. And that is what they will seek to continue to do as a result. That is what this government is all about. Well, that and continuing the chance for a few of their friends to make a great deal of money without having to earn it.
The question is, can that con trick really last? We know the lies, the revisionism, the insults and the slogans will keep rolling. The snake oil salesperson is always ingenious, and entirely without either conscience or a sense of responsibility for their consequences. But what is it that will bring this edifice built in sand crashing down?
Facts will help. Ultimately telling a story that chimes with people’s lived experience, as it is indelibly printed on their own personal narratives, will matter. At some point the truth will become apparent. In that case patiently benchmarking failure matters.
But there is something required that is more than that. The first thing to do is to not ape the Tories. That is essential. So, to adopt their fiscal rule is to say that despite all their stupidity and failure they are at their core right, and that is to concede everything to them. This is why those parties copying their economics cannot win by doing so.
Second, an alternative has to be offered. That cannot be ‘we will manage better’ because managing well is not what keeps the Tories in office, and is clearly not what people vote for. So, as a strategy that fails. Instead a new, and alternative narrative matters.
What is that narrative? Look to Gary Neville and Marcus Rashford for ideas. People matter. Dignity is key. Helping people solves problems: when they have the resources they can and will manage, but they can’t without them. Level playing fields work, and that we have is obscenely tilted. Law must not just exist but be enforced. Business must be appreciated when it adds value, and tackled when it abuses. And futures must be built, and they have to be green. And all this requires cooperation, not blame gaming. Those are the themes for a narrative.
That is not the narrative of our opposition and so Johnson thinks he can survive. He will because right now there is no credible party where we need one, in what is genuinely the centre left. That’s the great absence in UK politics.
Corbyn was nowhere near this because for whatever merits he had he and the factionalised left played a blame game too, and it did not work for them and never will because it always sounded bitter, and always will. The left has to get beyond that, but fails to do so far too often. And, on top of that, Corbyn bought into austerity with a fiscal rule utterly inconsistent with his narrative.
Starmer is failing because he’s aping the Tories, all too obviously.
What is required is left of centre politics that can embrace the reality of the mixed economy we are going to live in as a matter of fact, can deal with and manage that reality, and can deliver by embracing the idea that if this is what we have it can be moulded to the common good. I don’t think that too much to expect. But it isn’t what we are getting.
And so the Tories march on, still believing their own fantasy which for now they can still sell because so far there isn’t an alternative better vision on offer.