Like a refugee dinghy in the Channel with a broken engine and the wind getting up, we are in a perilous political situation. The destabilising Conservative by-election loss of Tiverton to the Liberal Democrats signals a move towards tactical voting and is an indicator of Tory supporters’ disenchantment with Boris Johnson and his government. Trust in the Conservative Party is evaporating to a point where it is not unreasonable for voters to discount the flurries of government announcements. So often what is announced does not happen or, when it does, provides no solution to our current multiple crises, or chips away at national values and institutions.
After twelve years of Conservative government, how many people know elderly relatives stuck in hospital while a social care package is put together? How many are waiting in pain for routine surgery, or can’t find a dentist to take them as an NHS patient, or live with the stress of waiting for a criminal case to come to trial, or have to face the indignity of foodbanks, or have lost hope of owning their own house?
All of these are features of pre-pandemic Britain and some were made worse by the pandemic. “I warn you not to be ordinary, I warn you not to be young, I warn you not to fall ill, and I warn you not to grow old”. Neil Kinnock’s words, warning against voting for Margaret Thatcher in the June 1983 election, echo down the years. He might have added “and don’t be leader of the Opposition”.
Effective opposition, setting the agenda, getting policy across to a public that has lost hope in positive political change, is an obstacle race. Opposition Parties struggle to get a fair hearing for their policies and know the cost of lacking caution in their presentations. Social Democracy, even genuine One Nation Toryism, gets scant coverage, drowned out by Johnson’s empty promises and posturing. On cue comes the vox pop response “we don’t know what he stands for” commenting not on Boris Johnson but on Keir Starmer. And the Wakefield result on a turnout of only 39%, although a Labour win, tends to bear this out.
Labour proposals for practical measures to deal with Britain’s growing inequality and acute economic problems qualify for cries of fiscal irresponsibility and profligacy. These get repeated in the Mail and Sun, often the Daily Telegraph, ventriloquized by a government that has wasted billions during the pandemic and during a labour shortage is prepared to spend more than £120 million on sending asylum seekers and migrants to Rwanda. Alternatively, when strong popular support emerges for a Labour idea (Blair’s ‘windfall levy’ from 1997), the Chancellor adopts it and a windfall tax becomes “a temporary, targeted, energy profits levy”.
In Britain we have a distinctive government-media complex characterised by leaking, briefing, instant rebuttals, spinning, gas-lighting and lobbying. But the major problem is a 24-hour news cycle that reduces and fragments political discussion to the latest – transient - single issue whether real, confected or trivial. If the downright lies and routine manipulation of statistics – thank heavens for Radio 4’s More or Less – are effectively countered, the fall-back is interestingly, and often, a technique used by perpetrators of domestic abuse. DARVO is an acronym for Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender based on research by Jennifer Freyd a psychologist at the University of Oregon. The dramatic finger pointing and shouting by Boris Johnson at the dispatch box during Parliamentary Question Time demonstrates how DARVO works. It distorts reality and forces the intended audience, us in this instance, to question our judgement and intuition.
When a form of gas-lighting becomes a dominant mode of political discourse, a number of things follow. Firstly a sense of helplessness. Nothing can be done. Once you have been labelled as the problem, the ‘leftie’ lawyer’, the ‘remoaner’, the ‘scrounger’, the metropolitan elite and ‘woke brigade’, you are on the back foot trying to defend yourself rather than discussing the issue. Secondly the big picture, in which the particular problem needs to be situated, disappears. Under these conditions lessons cannot be learned and incoherent policy initiatives flourish.
Climate change has immense implications for economic social and foreign policy. But, whilst contemporary problems are complex and overlap, climate change is not one in a list of problems. It is self-evidently a pending catastrophe, ‘the big picture’ itself, a picture in which large parts of planet become uninhabitable. Unlike Rishi Sunak, Rachel Reeves, Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, has presented - in September 2021 - the outline of a coherent plan for Britain’s essential transition to a Green Economy. When the media noticed, the headlines focussed on cost, £28 billion.
Government response to Putin’s war, pandemics and the economic damage of BREXIT should all be fitted into, and made compatible with, the urgent demands of countering climate change. But the immediate invariably trumps the longer term and the electoral cycle doesn’t help. Any political Party wishing to rebuild public trust has to find some way of taking voters into their confidence and telling the truth about the magnitude of change needed if we are to transition to a Green Economy and a Green Society. If mishandled, a step dangerously close to electoral suicide, well done, an defining act of respect for the public that should be reciprocated.
We need the best scientific brains internationally working together to crack energy storage, carbon capture, how to make transport and agriculture climate friendly. We need at the very least the level of co-operation of the existing scientific network in Horizon Europe from which we may have excluded ourselves by BREXIT. And we need to collaborate at the political level with other States. Disregard for international law, treaties and conventions is an effective way to make our exclusion widespread and permanent.
Andrew Rawnsley wrote last Sunday in the Observer that for Sir Keir Starmer to make a cut through would require more than integrity and competence, he would need an inspiring plan. It was a variation on the need to communicate ‘the vision thing’ and it carried weight. There can be no more important plan or vision than countering climate change and charting the economic road map to transform our economy to do so. That would get the ship of State moving again. But whether Starmer can forge a new consensus, and find a new political settlement, depends on whether a significant number of voters rate good governance and leadership above politics as entertainment.