+I spent a very pleasant day in York today. The omens it has to be said weren’t good. When I picked my paper up on the way to the station, the red topped rags were talking up panic hitting schools because of the Coronavirus—PANIC!! - and it seems the Daily Express was telling its readers not to start stockpiling. Don’t panic! Corporal Jones of Dad’s Army couldn't have been prouder. Then, on the train a woman a bit older than me (i.e. elderly) got on in the same compartment and was sniffing profusely. That’s bad enough at the best of times. And I heard one or two people coughing. Naturally, one just sits there trying hard not to breathe, but that’s hard for 50 minutes.
+One upside of this hysteria is that we can all start wearing face masks, and so foil all the new face recognition technologies being introduced very gratuitously by the forces of law and order.
+And now that we’re in the hands of experts telling us how best to beat the virus where is Michael Gove telling us not to pay attention to experts?
+As far as I’m concerned I’ll carry on calling this virus by its original name, Coronovirus. I know it now has a new official name. So has Wind ‘it was only a small accident’ scale.
+York not only had (it was reported and then somehow forgotten) two positive reports of virus stricken people, but has much more visibly been stricken by flooding. Now the only crowds to be seen are on Lendal Bridge taking photographs of the swollen River Ouse. My own picture (above) was taken in a more discreet location. If only I’d brought a selfie stick—me and the floods! The city did seem a lot quieter than normal—tourists from China were notably absent—so there’ll be a double whammy local economy-wise.
+The pubs were quieter too. One of my favourites, the tiny Blue Bell, consistently one of York’s deservedly top ranked watering holes, was a bit like God’s waiting room with each corner of the front room occupied by a single old geezer nursing his last pint before whatever fate might beckon. At least I found a seat, and was able to pick up the pub’s Yorkshire Post. The front page headline was ‘Peer quits as report into abuse condemns inaction.’ You don’t get tabloid headlines in the Yorkshire Post—this one's practically a full sentence. The story related the resignation of David Steel from the LibDems and from the House of Lords after he was severely criticised by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse for not doing anything to bring the child abuser ’Sir’ Cyril Smith to book. The story went further: “The report also identified how former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and ex-Conservative Party Chairman Norman Tebbit were aware of rumours that MP Peter Morrison [Thatcher’s Private Parliamentary Secretary] [had] a penchant for small boys but did nothing about it.”
So—will we hear more about this from Norman Tebbit? Or will he be left alone? There is another who might have been party to this omerta, one Bernard Ingham, Thatcher’s press secretary. By pure coincidence he had a column in today’s Yorkshire Post (yes, he’s still alive, although I harbour the possibility that his columns are now the product of some sort of algorithmic process). Ingham was writing about the alleged bullying antics of Home Secretary Pritti Patel. Bernard was well versed in the ways of his masters, and even once had to tell Thatcher to her face that she was being ’bossy.’ He then wrote “Peter Morrison (her PPS) told me I had upset her. He said he had told her it was only because I loved her. Steady on Peter, I said.”
All very chummy. Very chummy indeed.
Decision time approaches. Who to vote for to be the next Labour Leader? It remains the probability that I will vote for Rebecca Long-Bailey, despite some serious reservations. For example, of the three candidates for leadership, hers is the campaign I have not heard from. Emails came from the other two, and a leaflet from Keir Starmer. But despite receiving perhaps upwards of £400,000 worth of donations of money and in kind, I have received nothing directly from Long-Bailey. As a former party organiser, this suggests to me a not very well organised campaign. Perhaps with Jon Lansman of Momentum organising it and me not being in ‘Momentum’ perhaps I am not deserving of a communication?
Of course the big question hanging over this contest is who members might think is the most electable? In which case, they would choose Starmer, a) because ‘he’s a man and looks the part’ and b) because he is a centrist establishment type (with membership of the Trilateral Commission to boot). I reject this proposition. Who exactly today knows what will be the winning characteristics in five years’ time? Who knows what the issues will be? Who will be best placed to address those issues—one of which is climate change, steadily creeping up the agenda? I guess some members are worried that Long-Bailey is the Corbyn continuity candidate, and his is a project closely associated with failure. But I don’t think that argument holds. To my knowledge the intense level of smears thrown at Corbyn will not stick on Long-Bailey. Nor will the next election be a surrogate referendum on Brexit. And Long-Bailey will have plenty of time to carve out her own agenda. There is also the strong possibility Johnson will fail on several fronts, one of the most testing of which will be meeting the expectations of voters in the so-called ‘red wall’ seats. How many times have many of these former mining and industrial areas been promised the earth, only to find that politicians do not work miracles (at least in the lifetime of a single parliament)? It’s not inevitable that these voters will flock back to Labour. I think it’s even less inevitable that they would flock back to a centrist, post-Blairite Labour. I suspect many of them voted for Johnson because they thought he was sufficiently radical to ‘make Britain great again’ with presumed knock-on effects for their run-down estates.
Notably, Tony Blair hasn’t publicly backed either of the centrist leadership candidates, but he has backed Ian Murray, Scotland’s only Labour MP for deputy leader. As for my vote for the Deputy, that will go to the person who is most likely to give unstinting support to the leader—we don’t need another Tom Watson type.
Hijacking a significant anniversary for political ends—that apparently is the master plan. Having failed to get the bongs of Big Ben to sound on the 31st January, ‘Brexit day’ Johnson has now decreed that Churchill’s VE Victory speech must be broadcast in public places on the 8th May, the 75th anniversary of victory in Europe. This date has been declared a bank holiday, being shifted from the previous Monday’s usual slot. I don’t suppose there’ll be much opposition to this particular date shifting, but it craftily achieves another long-held Tory ambition—to end the association of a public holiday with International Workers Day. They have wanted to shift this bank holiday since 2011, to ‘Trafalgar Day’ in October. This year’s change is going to be a deft little move to make that happen. I don’t suppose the public will react very much to such a change, indeed they may welcome a bank holiday in the long holiday-free autumn period. But it will be one of those little tell-tale signs of contempt for workers which ‘ex-red wall’ voters in the north may wish to mark. Johnson cares little for them, and any concern he had will evaporate as fast as has his demonstration of concern for flood victims, who now that the election is out of the way have experienced neither sight nor sound of him.
For my money I would have an extra public holiday in autumn—it would be on the Monday after Remembrance Sunday– but given Johnson’s lamentable performance at last year’s Cenotaph ceremony, he probably doesn’t want to go there.
A rather rude and perhaps typically ignorant petrolhead made it on to the BBC Today programme this morning to talk about possible rises in fuel duty. The lad wanted a reduction of 3p, and naturally felt that motorists get the blame for too much these days. In support of his argument he cited the factoid that the UK is only responsible for 1% of global carbon dioxide emissions. This kind of factoid is used in all sorts of debates, not least by the aviation sector, which claims to be ‘only’ responsible for 2% of CO2 emissions. But the stupidity of this style of defence is plain for all to see—or at least those who want to see. For a start, we’re only 0.8% of the world’s population, so we’re already using more than our fair share; but the factoid almost certainly won’t take account of imported, embedded CO2 emissions (e.g. on goods from China or the US) which would double our tally. Then, if those countries which could say ‘we’re only responsible for 1%’ were tallied up, we would soon overtake the country emissions of China and the US. I wonder if 66 million Chinese are responsible for the same level of emissions as we 66 million Brits? I very much doubt it. And the Chinese have a point when they ask on whose tally should embedded emissions be counted? It’s been a sticking point.
It would be nice to think that that royal petrolhead, Prince Charles could put his fellow numpties straight—he has some environmental cred hasn’t he? But perhaps not. In today’s Guardian he is photographed admiring the new Aston Martin DBX, the firm’s first SUV, priced at £158,000 and which the company hopes ‘will widen the brand’s appeal to women.’ The car looks typically and unnecessarily massive, but if you have £158,000 to waste and your parking skills are up to scratch, who cares?
I have to sympathise with the three remaining contenders in the Labour leadership race. At a time when members must be well in the dumps, the hopefuls have to light a fire which will inspire and regenerate, and unite, and, and, and. But I’ve not yet heard the call or the triumphant blast of new-found hope. Perhaps if one of our contenders was a self made billionaire there’d be something to talk about (only joking—Labour has not yet become the Democrat Party, despite what some may say). As things stand, my vote remains with Rebecca Long Bailey, but she needs to seriously up her game, and one thing that would be a plus in my book would be if she chucked her campaign manager Jon Lansman overboard. That man clearly has an over-inflated sense of political self-importance so great I suspect he could easily spend a long night discussing politics with his own arse, or the next best thing, Dominic Cummings. At their level there must be a mutual loathing come respectful common understanding enabling some communication with each other.
But we don’t need Svengalis. We don’t need gurus. We don’t even need ‘blue sky thinkers’ (how old fashioned). Does anybody remember John Birt by the way? Can you name five of the lasting achievements of that particular brain-fest, employed if a I remember by T. Blair to shake things up?
Anyway, my vote for the next Labour leader is still a bit up for grabs, so all I can do now is wait. That is, given this age where algorithmic technology reigns supreme, I assume that what I have just written will be somehow read and digitally understood and a tailormade message will soon be winging its way to my inbox. Like Billy Bunter, I will gorge on aunty’s cheques, if they arrive.
It seems even the tabloid press are wondering ‘where is Boris (sic)’ in the current flooding crisis. This is a tough call for the yellow press, wondering which is the most important ‘Boris’ story today—the flooding or his divorce settlement announced with his former wife. As ever we can rely on them to get the priorities sorted. One explanation provided by the as usual unnamed No. 10 sources as to why Johnson has failed to show up anywhere near a flood is that he sees himself as a the delegator in chief, chairman of the board, etc., etc. As I have remarked before this is not so much down to liberating his minions, but acting in the interests of his inherent laziness. He doesn’t really want to do the graft. But there sits his Achilles heel, since his Cabinet of Nonentities can’t really do anything without his (or Cummings’) say-so, a la Sajid David. Johnson is thus constructing a barricade of disposable nappies, absorbent idiots charged to remove the shit before it hits his fan (to mix metaphors a little).
It’s a little ironic that this flooding is so dominating Johnson’s honeymoon period just as the same subject did when Gordon Brown was newly anointed PM. Then in 2007 Brown was seen to be actively in charge and the afterglow almost lit his election hopes (only to be dashed by the Big Man’s knowledge that it was bit of a risk when he could still have three years to burnish his reputation even more). Perhaps Johnson’s strategy will work—can there be a more supposedly decisive sight then a PM sacking ministers? It’s very much like reacting to events with new legislation—without then following up with the necessary resources to make the legislation meaningful. Anybody in local government will know what I mean. How much councils must relish their ‘new powers’ when at the same time their budgets are being stripped. Anyway, a few ministerial sackings always gives the commentariat a gift, whilst nothing changes.
It will come as a great relief to many people, particularly those whose homes have been devastated by flooding, to learn that these latest floods are merely ‘freak events.’ That is at least the assessment of George Eustace MP, a former public relations executive who now holds in Johnson’s Cabinet the position of Environment Secretary. He described the flooding as such when interviewed on the BBC Ten O’clock news last night. What were once described as once in a hundred year events now seem capable of happening twice a week. Nothing to do with changing weather patterns brought on by climate change. Just ’freak’ events. I wonder if the insurance industry shares the same view? What a shame Eustace wasn’t tasked with presiding over this year’s climate change talks, he could have reassured everybody not to worry too much. Never mind that what climate scientists predicted 10 or 20 years ago is now coming to pass. Winters they said would see less snow and more rain. Never mind ’red walls’ we’ll need flood walls.
+Back from a pleasant trip to Ghent, where I paid my respects to the great Jan van Eyck, a major exhibition of whose work is on show. More on that will appear under ‘Perambulations’ shortly. Back home and it’s the same old same old. Here’s a headline I saw today, provided by Sky News but lifted from the Sunday Telegraph ‘Millions of people could be told to self-isolate in UK - report’ which purports to reveal some government suggestion that if cases of Coronavirus in the UK exceed 100 then the whole country faces virtual lockdown. The only problem is that the headline is not supported by any evidence, direct quotes or anything which suggests that ‘millions’ face staying at home, isolated like so many Howard Hughes in their living rooms. Perhaps even cats and dogs should be placed in quarantine too for good measure.
But doesn’t this hyperbolic treatment of a story with the attention grabbing headline sound familiar? Doesn’t it remind one of that other horrendous virus which swept the entire Labour Party prior to the election?
+Speaking of the Labour Party, the leadership contest is now pretty much a done deal (and there’s only another six weeks to go). With only three candidates left, and only one who is labelled as being on the left, it is the case that if she, Rebecca Long-Bailey doesn’t win outright on the first round, she will lose as the second preferences of either Lisa Nandy or Kier Starmer will mainly go to either of them. The longer this race has dragged on, the less impressed I have been. It doesn’t seem to be energising anything, and my support for Long-Bailey, predicated purely on her commitment to a Green New Deal is being undermined by her readiness to sign up to the anti-Semitic accusations and their supposed remedies, as well as having the support of Momentum, which increasingly looks like the plaything of one individual whose reputation as a bit of a dictator seems to be growing daily. It all looks a bit depressing. Even the departure of the detestable Sajid David hasn’t compensated.
I was in Leeds yesterday for an excellent conference organised by the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom North on the theme of ‘Post Election Policies for Media Reform.’ In the current climate never was the subject more relevant yet the concept of reform less achievable. The word ‘reform’ was itself questioned, since it could loosely be interpreted as leading to improvement, but when the government for example talks of BBC reform, that’s not what thy have in mind. More Murdochisation and commercialisation is the driving force there. Not that the BBC could do without reform, for example by trying harder to understand its duty to deliver balance. That’s hard to achieve when it takes its cue from the right wing media, which so far as print is concerned is almost wholly dominant. Nicholas Jones, the BBC’s former industrial and labour correspondent gave an insider’s view of the forces at work within the Beeb. Little things that shift the narrative—for example, how the business and finance agenda has overwhelmed the old industrial and labour agenda with a concomitant shift in staff resources. I don’t think he was lamenting the demise of some golden age, but there seems little doubt that what the BBC presents us with, at least in its news bulletins and some current affairs coverage is gripped by the ubiquitous force of capital. And whilst there are many ways of getting the ‘news’ these days, apparently 78% of us still trust the BBC to deliver it to us. Jones also presented a slide show illustrating the vile election content of the tabloids—I saw their headlines every time I went to the newsagent, but clearly their inside pages amounted to a form of pornography—setting the tone and providing legitimacy for the even worse stuff on social media. Yes, we now have election porn, or perhaps it should be called propaganda porn, since it is not confined to election periods.
The hard part of any debate about media reform for the left is to envisage what reforms could realistically be achieved. The merest hint of wanting a responsible press leads to hysteria in editors’ offices, with all the usual guff about attacks on press freedom (in reality press baron freedom). In the meantime the Labour Party and particularly its new leadership must not be cowed by the Tory press, and should not be defensive and apologetic when falsehoods are splattered around. They deserve robust rebuttal rather than silent contempt. The British press will only be on our side when it can stand on our grave.
As one who supported John Bercow to become Speaker of the House of Commons in 2009 I have taken an interest in how his career has developed. It looks like he has acquired quite a few enemies (what a surprise). Back in 2009 it was understood, following the as usual unwritten convention of choosing alternating party nominees that a Tory should get the job of Speaker. But Labour MPs, suspecting their pending annihilation, at least wanted to bequeath a Speaker who had the gumption (I almost said the balls) to hold the next (assumed Tory) administration to account. All this we know, and so it turned out. Funnily enough I might have lent my support to Sir George Younger, but he was too aloof to garner support. I bumped into him once in the members’ cloakroom during the period of the contest and he didn’t think it worthwhile to simply say ‘hello would you support me?’ I am quite sure he would have made a reasonable Speaker of the old school. Perhaps he felt entitled. Anyway, in one of those curious twists of fate, a former member of the Monday Club got my vote. And he won. And, in my opinion, so did parliament. Bercow shook up the establishment and now he is paying the price.
What is this establishment? When I was there, there was no doubting the condescension of the higher up employees of the people’s elected servants towards their temporary ‘bosses.’ MPs were to be kept in check generally speaking, and the reek of convention oozed out of every pore of the beloved old palace. I am not in anyway impugning the integrity or professionalism of these public servants, but there is no doubt that particularly for backbenchers, your minor role was patronised to the hilt - to be subservient, like galley slaves in the great battle fleet of state. Naturally, such an existence could not have persisted without the connivance of senior party apparatchiks, that is those whose personal ambition bled them of any questioning spirit. Such is reality.
So along comes Bercow, who simply seemed intent on casting aside so many of the palace’s conventions. That in itself would not only be hurtful but also offensive to the custodians of the old order. Now they, the ghosts of the old order want to thrust their rusty knives into the one who sought to be that order’s nemesis. This is a rare occasion when I am fully aligned with Diane Abbott. She has wondered how a Lt. General of the British Army, who became Black Rod (the House of Lords senior official) could imagine he was ‘bullied’ by Bercow. Black Rod managed, Queens’ speech after Queen’s speech to bang on the door of the Commons and then march to the Clerk’s table and request that Her Majesty’s Honourable Commons attend the House of Lords for the big speech, and each time he was barracked in lively form by the Beast of Bolsover, Dennis Skinner—wasn’t that a form of bullying? There were no complaints. That this Black Rod now complains (loudly in the press against the possibility of Bercow’s ennoblement) merely tells me that he expects obedience, nay, discipline in the ranks, that motley crew of ungrateful, potentially mutinous disrupters who believe (depending on who has a majority) that things have to change. I would love to know what the substance of this ‘bullying’ was. What was in contention? I feel it will have been somehow related to the sheer effrontery of a diminutive pleb upstart saying no to something or other the tights-wearing Black Rod deemed of supreme, overarching importance.
The treatment of Bercow reminds me of the treatment of Julian Assange, only in respect of the malignant abuse of character appraisal (playing the man not the ball). These days, your heroes are meant to be likeable, indeed it would be preferable if they were saints albeit with some lovable humanising flaws. But they are flawed, so regardless of what they do they can be condemned for being ‘bad characters.’ I am reminded that George W. Bush was somebody who was lauded for being regarded as a person you could get on with in a bar. Look what he did.
The new Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle I doubt will have any rows with Black Rod, nor the Sergeant At Arms (the Commons equivalent with his NCO’s rank). I was very impressed by Lindsay’s smile as he played the part of ‘resisting’ his election—it put the rings of Saturn to shame. I doubt there’ll be many—or any—reforms emanating from his office. Things will be allowed to quietly settle down again whilst the government sets about ripping up parliamentary protections.
Bercow deserves his peerage (whether or not the upper chamber should continue in its current form, which it obviously will for the foreseeable future).