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Wake up! After these elections, Europe is again in danger | Timothy Garton Ash

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Don’t let anyone tell you the results are ‘not so bad’. The hard-right vote can pull the entire EU to the right, and imperil Ukraine

A Europe that just celebrated on the beaches of Normandy the 80-year-old D-day beginning of its liberation from war, nationalism and fascism now again faces fascism, nationalism and war.

Please don’t be reassured by European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen’s complacent statement that “the centre is holding” during what we might call E-day – 9 June 2024, when the results of 27 different national elections to the European parliament were announced. That’s true in the aggregate distribution of seats between the main party groups in the European parliament, with her own centre-right European People’s party group coming out comfortably on top. But the EU is run by national governments even more than by its directly elected parliament, and E-Day produced hard-right successes in core member states that range from the significant to the shocking.

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PaulPritchard
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What a historic Labour win will mean for Britain

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The political columnist is a slippery fish. Some weeks we try to surprise jaded readers with a quick, unexpected turn – to change our minds on what we said just a few days ago, but in an interestingly vigorous way. Other weeks, we push on hard through the current, same direction, doubling down on a previous thought.

This week, though generally a torpid trout, I’d like to try to do both – to turn tail, and yet keep going. I’ve said before that “what if Labour wins really big?” is the most important current question. After another pell-mell week of Tory disintegration, that seems truer than ever. But I also suggested that Labour in power would be cautious. Now, in a sudden reverse, I disagree with myself.

Today’s set text comes from Carla Denyer, co-leader of the Greens, who said during a BBC leaders’ debate: “Angela Rayner says Labour has changed. She’s right. They have changed into the Conservatives.” That was smart and funny because it plays to the fears of radical voters dithering between Labour and the Greens.

But the more the evidence piles up that Labour is going to do very well in this election, the more its leadership is quietly determined to prove her wrong. One senior figure believes that a three-figure majority would give Labour 18 to 24 months of “enormous political space”.

The background remains one of the most catastrophic election campaigns run by any British party in recent times. Previous embarrassments – whether it be the 1983 Labour manifesto under Michael Foot, dubbed “the longest suicide note in history”, or the “nothing has changed” U-turn on dementia tax by Theresa May in 2017 – have nothing on Rishi Sunak hot-footing it back from the D-Day commemorations in Normandy to record a party-political hit-job TV interview.

Having already offered the bracing prospect of military national service to Britain’s youth, and facing a lethal challenge from Nigel Farage’s brand of war-focused patriotic nostalgia, Sunak then compounded his grievous error by making robotic and unconvincing “sorry-not-sorry” apologies. It couldn’t have gone worse if Labour’s campaign director Morgan McSweeney had found a way of stealthily implanting a malign digital device behind the Prime Minister’s forehead.

Is it too early to write Rishi Sunak’s political obituary? No. Indeed, aghast ministers are now being forced to deny that their hapless leader will quit halfway through the campaign. That’s an idea so bonkers it’s hard to resist, but I don’t think it will happen. There is no mechanism for changing a party leader while parliament is not sitting – other than to let it fall to the deputy, which means that the Conservatives would be led, however briefly, by Oliver Dowden. Even this, I’m told, would be open to legal challenge: would Dowden be the prime minister as well, by default? With the greatest respect to him, I’m not sure that’s the route to sudden recovery.

One former cabinet minister tells me that for Sunak to lead them to an honourable defeat is one thing, but to go down in political history as the coward who deserts when the battle is fiercest would be intolerable. I think Sunak, if no natural politician, is not a coward; a “fighter not a quitter”.

He is also, however, the hapless human epilogue to a sprawling coalition of Conservative philosophies, from Cameron-era austerity to reckless Johnsonian populism and Trussite madness. None of these conservatisms even tried to grapple with Britain’s underlying weaknesses. They brought an unravelling of the public realm, the self-inflicted wound of Brexit and a new level of misbehaviour in public life. They left us weaker than ever, but that feels like history now. There’s no point gnashing our teeth about it – and given the state of NHS dentistry, gnashing would currently be an unwise experiment. Let us look forward.

The bigger the majority, the more space for political courage, and the greater the chance of success. Labour is likely to be facing a rudderless Tory opposition entangled in an existential debate about its own future. Moderate Tory MPs will feel intimidated by Faragist local parties, much as moderate Labour ones were by Corbynite activists eight or nine years ago. Leadership battles will be defined by whether or not the candidate would let in Farage. Yes, says Suella Braverman. No, says Kemi Badenoch. In his first year, maybe longer, Starmer will not face much of an opposition.

So, how does he use the space? First, economics. Once more, in his manifesto launch, Starmer has promised a so-called triple lock of no income tax, VAT or National Insurance rises. But, as her Mais lecture in March made clear, Rachel Reeves has been hard at work on other ways of finding the investment Britain needs. (It’s worth rereading the lecture, an entirely coherent response to Carla Denyer’s jibe – clear-eyed about the scale of the challenge Britain faces and amounting to a quiet revolution.)

There will be limited tax rises, around council tax bands, which desperately need reform, and would amount to a transfer of wealth from the English south to the rest of Britain; and on capital gains tax. This is important but will not amount to the big U-turn on tax for “working people” that Starmer and Reeves have ruled out.

In cash terms, organisational changes will be much bigger: the economist Will Hutton, whose recent book This Time, No Mistakes Starmer admires, has explained how the UK Infrastructure Bank’s £10bn sovereign guarantee to private companies investing in infrastructure can be extended without adding to public borrowing, in order to fund major Labour investment projects.

Then there’s changing the Bank of England’s rules to cut the interest it pays on the vast amount of money it created for quantitative easing over the past 15 years, down from the current 5.25 per cent.

This need not mean a loss of direction over interest rates; a similar shift is being used by other central banks. The change is opposed, apparently, by the current governor of the Bank, Andrew Bailey, so might require a change at the top. But Chris Giles of the Financial Times argues Reeves could free up around £23bn a year from this single change. Reeves as a campaigner has been caution personified, but she would be, I’m sure, a different kind of minister.

An even bigger question is over Europe. If – and I say, always, if – today’s polls are remotely like what happens in early July, there will be a period when a Labour government could reshape that debate. Given the turmoil across the Channel, particularly in France, we could be in a situation where both parties to the post-Brexit deal look and sound entirely different to how they did in 2016.

It would be extremely dangerous to break promises about returning to the EU. By the end of the first Labour government, it is perfectly possible that the opposition will be led by Nigel Farage, conservative England’s id in tweeded human form.

But does this rule out every possible form of new trading arrangement, or any acceptance of the European Court of Justice, however limited? Breaking promises is dangerous, but so is being over-timid and inattentive towards the anger and disappointment about Brexit, and missing a historic opportunity. I am picking up a lively conversation about a much more ambitious, generous and bolder approach to the EU than we have heard about so far.

This will be a process, not a moment. It will be important to a future government to be pushed by business into going further than the defence and security plans already made public. First, for “security” to embrace industrial defence resilience across Europe, and next, for it to spread to climate and environmental agreements.

And what then? I keep thinking about a conversation I had with Guy Verhofstadt, then the European parliamentary lead on Brexit, in February 2018. “What we want,” he told me, “is an association agreement. And in this association agreement there will be a free trade deal inside. Because we think that the future relationship with Britain needs to be broader than only trade and economics.”

Now, the European Court is already part of the Windsor framework. Labour people wonder whether, following a landslide victory, the country would be outraged by a further tack towards the EU? Boris Johnson has already sniffed the change in the air and, giving a good impersonation of an infuriated hedge, is warning of a sellout to come.

But the country has already changed its mind about his rotten Brexit deal, and there would be no opportunity like Labour’s first 18 months to improve relations with the giant market on our doorstep. As the EU grapples with the problem of enlargement to its east and populism at home, the notion of a more flexible, less monolithic EU of concentric or interlocking circles is growing in potency.

The challenge of a closer relationship between a Labour UK and the EU, freshly influenced by nationalist parties, remains enormous. But so is the opportunity for Britain to be part of a trading bloc, with the desperately needed growth that implies, but without having to engage in some of the increasingly toxic politics of Brussels.

I don’t know whether the language used will be similar to Verhofstadt’s “association agreement”, but I do know that a younger generation of European politicians sees things differently. They know that if relations with Britain are to improve, it has to happen quickly. They feel that the old federalist determination that Brexit must be shown to be difficult has already been accomplished. Both sides want to talk. Indeed, tentative conversations have already started.

So, when people say this campaign is changing nothing, it isn’t true. The deeper the collapse of the right and the bigger the Labour majority, the faster and more dramatic will be the impact of the coming government. There will be a change in culture and atmosphere that none of us can, yet, quite imagine.

This campaign is turning the fast-flowing river of British political life into full spate – an acceleration so fast and frothing it can be hard to follow. Keir Starmer has come a long way with a politics of cautious underpromising. But, as will soon become clear, that’s by no means the end of this story.

[See also: What if the polls are right?]

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PaulPritchard
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The lifecycle of a tech bubble

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“VCs are selling shares of hot AI companies like Anthropic and xAI to small investors in a wild SPV market | TechCrunch”

When I first posted this link on social media, quite a few people made a note of the disparity between what they’re hearing online – the bubble is popping" – and what they’re hearing from co-workers and others in their lives.

I responded to one of these posts with something along the following lines

It’s a little bit too early to say the bubble is bursting.

The “cash out” stage is not the “bubble bursting” stage. “Cashing out” happens once some investors start to think the bubble might be peaking.

Usually tech bubbles burst once investors have finished unloading and cashing out to “greater fools” who in turn tend to be the ones who end up panicking when something unexpected happens, popping the bubble.

Though, not all bubbles are usual.

Later on as I began to think more about this, I think it’s important to note that tech bubbles don’t behave exactly like your run-of-the-mill financial bubble.

In terms of financial bubbles, we’ve been in one long consecutive tech financial bubble pretty much constantly since the US dropped its interest rates to effectively zero after the the 2008 crash, with all of the traditional characteristics of an economic bubble:

  • Overinflated asset prices. Tech stocks are priced much higher than their economic fundamentals or prospects warrant.
  • Irrational optimism. The belief that tech will fix everything and do everything is practically standard among those involved in tech investment.
  • Extrapolation. Tech executives and managers always believe they can extrapolate current trends infinitely into the future. Every exec in the industry believed the COVID boom would continue indefinitely. They really are this foolish.
  • Moral hazard. The people who invest in tech are completely insulated from the harms of tech. There are no financial consequences whatsoever. This is slightly different from the usual moral hazard in a financial bubble but since regulatory bodies will come knocking either way, the end result is the same.
  • Greater fools. There’s always somebody willing to buy tech stocks or acquire a startup no matter how dodgy it is. Cryptocoins made this even easier.

Within that longer financial tech bubbles we’ve had a series of tech bubbles keeping the “tech will grow forever” story alive and the bubble inflated:

  • App stores.
  • The gig economy.
  • Various “cloud” fads.
  • Cryptocoins.
  • And I’m sure there are a few I’m forgetting.

Then COVID added even more air into the bubble by letting the industry convince itself that the economy had permanently transitioned into remote working. Tech genuinely believed that the entire economy would be mediated by big tech companies forever and ever and that they’d be able to – effectively – enforce a private tax on the world economy.

This didn’t happen. Once the reality of their delusion hit, executives were lucky enough to have “AI” handed to them as a method to plausibly keep the bubble inflated.

Like I wrote in February 2023 (about 17 months ago) in an entry titled Generative AI is the tech industry’s Hail Mary pass:

The core problem the industry faces isn’t waste but the possibility that their growth and economic value will revert to the mean: that tech will be seen as a stable, mature industry whose days of endless growth are behind it.

Tech executives have known this was coming for a long while now. It’s the reason for a lot of the so-called waste. These costly experiments were supposed to be it—the innovation that would keep the industry growing for another decade.

And…

What is important for you, and anybody who works in tech, to know, is that this move is desperate, even if the tech ends up doing what it promises. Tech is all in on generative AI because nothing else looks even remotely convincing.

Because the larger tech bubble is fundamentally built on irrational optimism – the belief that exponential growth will continue forever – and not financial shenanigans (although there is that too) the dynamics that might cause it to pop are different.

True financial bubbles tend to cause intrinsic structural fragility where one unexpected event can cause cascading failures that reverberate throughout the economy – think Bear Stearns just before the 2008 collapse.

Tech is driven by faith. The game will continue as long as there are enough people with money who keep the faith.

That’s another reason why the religious overtones of the AI Bubble aren’t a coincidence.

What this means to the rest of us is that the bubble is unlikely to pop until the core investment demographic loses faith. That the general public thinks “AI” is synonymous with garbage won’t matter because, compared to the investment class, we’re poor as dirt and only growing poorer. The moneyed classes have faith in tech and that’s what drives the bubble.

Faith is hard to budge.

Thankfully, some of the executives running tech’s biggest companies are doing their damnedest to convince even the most dedicated believer that their companies might not be on the steadiest footing.

Microsoft compounded their existing trust problem by working on Recall – a surveillance product wrapped in a poorly thought out memory aid features – in secret, releasing a test version that was both opt-out by default and incredibly insecure as implemented, and then walking that plan back in such a way that it left many of their customers convinced Microsoft is going to betray them at the first available opportunity.

Google sacrificed what little trust people had in them with a botched attempt to replace search with bullshit chatbot replies.

OpenAI seems intent on convincing the world they have no plan and that Sam Altman does just whatever comes into his mind each morning.

Elon Musk is, well, Elon Musk.

Facebook is doing their own version of a botched chatbot rollout across their social network.

None of these are bubble-popping errors on their own but cumulatively they make it hard for true believers to keep their faith.

Investment types, themselves predators of sorts, have noticed the blood in the water and some of them are preparing to bet against tech.

As the investor Jeremy Grantham wrote the other day:

But a new bubble within a bubble like this, even one limited to a handful of stocks, is totally unprecedented, so looking at history books may have its limits. But even though, I admit, there is no clear historical analogy to this strange new beast, the best guess is still that this second investment bubble – in AI – will at least temporarily deflate and probably facilitate a more normal ending to the original bubble, which we paused in December 2022 to admire the AI stocks. It also seems likely that the after-effects of interest rate rises and the ridiculous speculation of 2020-2021 and now (November 2023 through today) will eventually end in a recession

Before the moneyed classes can bet against tech, they first need to cash out. I doubt we’ll see the bubble truly burst until we’ve seen more of the divestment of the kind I linked to at the top of the post.

None of them want to trigger the pop prematurely with a too aggressive sell-off and some of them still clearly believe the bubble hasn’t finished inflating. Those who are betting with other people’s money will continue to bet until the moment everything falls apart.

There’s always the possibility that sheer incompetence on part of either investors or the tech industry will pop the bubble prematurely, but it’s likelier, in my opinion, that the AI Bubble will be with us for a little while longer.

Your guess is as good as mine as to how much longer.

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The predicted governing party implosion in historical and constitutional context

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11th June 2024

From time to time the party now known as the Conservative and Unionist party has done badly – very badly.

*

In 1828-32, the old Tory collapsed as what some historians call the British “ancien regime” itself collapsed with Roman Catholic emancipation and the Reform Act of 1832.

Relatively moderate Tories, “Canningites” like Melbourne and Palmerston, went off to join with the Whigs.

But the Tories were back in government by 1834, and rebranded as by Peel as “Conservatives” they had an overall majority by 1841.

*

In 1845-46, the Conservatives collapsed as the Corn Laws were repealed (the “Brexit” of its day.

Relatively moderate Conservatives, “Peelites” like Gladstone, went off to ally themselves with the Whigs.

But the Conservatives were back in government by 1852, and after reinvention by Disraeli they had an overall majority by 1874.

*

In 1905-06, the Conservatives – now allied with the Liberal Unionists – collapsed, in good part because of splits on tariff reform and imperial preference (the “Brexit” of its day).

Relatively moderate Conservatives, “Free Traders” such as the young Winston Churchill, went off to join the Liberals.

But the Conservatives (who formally fused in 1912 with the Liberal Unionists to create the current Conservative and Unionist party) were back in government by 1916, and (posing as a national coalition) they had an overall majority by 1918.

*

And in 1997, the Conservatives lost badly, in good part to splits on the European issue following Maastricht and Black Wednesday (the “Brexit” of its day.

There were a number of defections of (now forgotten) Conservative politicians to the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties.

But the Conservatives were back in office by 2010, and they had an overall majority by 2015.

*

The four examples above have common themes – including the facts that the Tory-Unionist-Conservatives-National Coalition managed to get back into office again, before winning an overall majority at a later election.

There is also the example of 1945, where a heavy Conservative defeat was followed by taking office again by 1951.

*

But there is one theme which is different, and which may make what happens after the imminent general election in 2024 different.

After each of the defeats referred to above, the defeated rump of the party pretty much remained. It did not go off to create a new party to their right.

And so as the pendulum of politics in time moved away from those who had defeated that rump, they were able to take advantage.

Of course, they also often took the time and effort to rebrand or reinvent themselves. And they were able to take advantage of working with others, such as the Liberal Unionists after 1886 and the other parties in national coalitions from 1918 to 1935.

But they never had to deal with a party trying to take their place as the main party opposing the more left-wing party.

*

Here an analogy may be with the Liberals, who last won an overall majority in 1906 – and were then after 1906 outpaced by the rising Labour party.

All because the Tory-Unionist-Conservatives have come back each time before, it does not mean that they necessarily will do again.

*

The “first past the post” electoral system tends to favour established parties with their established brand names – and tribal loyalty and voters’ muscle memory will tend to do the rest.

As such, the Conservatives have an advantage over the Reform party now trying to outpace it to the right.

It may well be that the Reform party do no better than flash-in-the-pan(ic) parties like the “New Party” of 1931-32 and the SDP of 1981-88.

But when the electoral system finally shifts against a party, it shifts – as the Liberals found out after 1906.

And until and unless there is fundamental electoral reform, the Conservatives not only face heavy defeat (which they have survived many times before) but also a spirited attempt by Reform to be their replacement.

*

So, if as widely predicted there is a heavy defeat for the Conservatives on 4 July 2024, will they soon bounce back as they (and their previous incarnations) did after 1832, 1846, 1906, 1945 and 1997?

Or will this be their equivalent to what happened to the Liberals in 1906?

***

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All Over Bar the Shouting

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In Amusing Ourselves to Death, the late, great Neil Postman tells the story of the famous 1858 debates between Abraham Lincoln and Judge Stephen A. Douglas in Ottawa, Illinois, about slavery and the extension of slavery in the union. According to Postman, in the first of these debates, Douglas spoke for one hour, after which Lincoln was given an hour and a half to reply. Douglas was then given another half hour to respond.

In an 1854 debate between the two, Douglas spoke for three hours, before Lincoln was allowed to respond. When his time came, Lincoln pointed out to his audience that it was 5 pm, and suggested that the audience go home for supper, before returning for another four hours of debate.

That is what happened, and Postman described the political culture of mid-nineteenth century America and the tradition of the three-hour ‘stump speaker’ that made such debates possible. The Lincoln-Douglas debates were conducted ‘amid a carnival-like atmosphere. Bands played (although not during the debates), hawkers sold their wares, children romped, liquor was available’. Once the debates began, the atmosphere changed:

Although audiences were mostly respectful and attentive, they were not quiet or unemotional. Throughout the Lincoln-Douglas debates, for example, people shouted encouragement to the speakers (“You tell ‘em, Abe!”) or voiced terse expressions of scorn (“Answer that one, if you can”). Applause was frequent, usually reserved for a humorous or elegant phrase or a cogent point.

Such applause was not sought. As Postman tells it:

At the first debate in Ottawa, Douglas responded to lengthy applause with a remarkable and revealing statement. “ My friends,” he said, “silence will be more acceptable to me in the discussion of these questions than applause. I desire to address myself to your judgment, your understanding, and your consciences, and not to your passions or your enthusiasms.”

Postman argued that such debates had become impossible in the late twentieth century, in part, because the visual medium of television encouraged a form of knowledge acquisition and public discussion that was based on ‘amusement’, brevity and constant distraction. Nineteenth century American audiences, he suggested, had a longer attention span; they were capable of following ‘lengthy and complex sentences aurally,’ and they lived in a ‘typographical’ age in which ‘the use of language as a means of complex argument was an important, pleasurable and common form of discourse in almost every public arena.’

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There is no space here to do justice to Postman’s compelling reflections on typographical culture versus visual culture, or his prescient analysis of the degradation of ‘public discourse in an age of show business’. But bear in mind that his book was written in 1985, long before Smartphones, the Internet, Twitter, Tiktok, and a range of other distractions, and yet it really does speak to the degraded public discourse of our own era.

Take the excruciating encounter between Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak last week. Personally, I loathe these ‘debates’ at the best of times, as some men hate hell. I detest the pugnacious ‘debate me’ gladiatorial format; the tedious slogans and soundbites; the shallow search for bursts of applause and ‘gotcha’ moments; the ludicrous game show format, in which the contenders - or should I say ‘contestants’ stand in a glitzy studio like guests on Pointless.

I dislike the ‘Strictly’ voting criteria through which these confrontations are judged, which too often seems to be based on whether your guy ‘crushed’ the other guy, or got the most applause, or talked over his or her opponent.

I rarely, if ever, learn anything from these debates. If I manage to stick them out to the end, I invariably regret it, and go to bed feeling a vague sense of existential horror, wondering how it is that a country filled with intelligent, thoughtful people can produce such excruciating interactions at supposedly critical moments in their histories such as a national election.

Even by these dismal standards, last week’s not-so-great debate between Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer was one of the worst I’ve ever seen. Some of my frustration - and I don’t think I was the only one to feel this - concerned the ‘showbiz’ format itself, which as always closed down any space for discussion, reflection, exposition, or serious analysis. You’re not going to get much Lincoln-Douglas oratory, when policy discussions are reduced to one or two minute interactions - if that.

But the real problem was the quality of the participants, who had so little difference between them and so little to say of any substance. Inevitably the subject of taxation came up, and we were immediately back in the same tedious ‘Labour will put up your taxes versus Tories have put them up even more than we would’ pointscoring territory.

What about an argument that properly-funded public services require higher - calibrated - taxation? Forget it Jake, this is UKtown. And then there was immigration, which as always revolved round acrimonious accusations about who had/would let more immigrants in.

Political debate in the context of an election should give voters the opportunity to consider and reflect upon the wider ramifications of whatever is being discussed, and make informed choices on the basis of issues that are honestly explained and presented to them.

This almost never happens in the UK. What we get instead are carefully-rehearsed comms exercises and choreographed ‘clashes’ aimed at producing the desired social media soundbites and - from the point of view of the broadcaster - a few moments of ‘good tv.’ We get politicians who often have no interest in nuance or complexity, and every interest in avoiding both, in order to present themselves as the solution to the problems they’ve described, even if it isn’t clear whether they can actually solve them.

This is how we ‘amuse ourselves to death’, but there was nothing amusing about last week’s angry, shouty, badly-chaired confrontation between two equally uninspiring and unconvincing politicians.

Sunak was the worst offender. He’s obviously under instructions to push back against his empty hologram persona and demonstrate that, contrary to the perceptions of many, he is, in fact, a human being. He did this primarily by shouting - and also by lying.

No wonder Starmer was visibly wincing. Someone must have told Sunak to sound ‘passionate’, but he mostly sounded angry, manic, petulant and disrespectful, not only to his fellow-contestant, but to the hapless interlocutor, and to the studio audience and the millions unfortunate enough to watch this profoundly depressing spectacle.

Because really, if your child behaved like Sunak, you would have a quiet word and perhaps suggest the naughty stair. But Etchingham did nothing to interrupt his performance - great television! And the next day, the right-wing press hailed the arrival of ‘fiery Rishi’ - seemingly oblivious to the fact that behaving like an angry road-rage driver or a late-night drunk does not make you fiery - it makes you rude and a bit of a jerk.

Leonardo da Vinci once wrote, ‘where there is shouting, there is no true knowledge’, but knowledge was not the aim of Sunak’s hyperactive inbetweener-on-crack play-acting. He is the despised prime minister of a political party heading for a defeat unlike anything it has ever known, almost entirely because of its own moral depravity, fanaticism, corruption, incompetence and stupid political decisions.

In these circumstances, Sunak - elected by no one outside his own party and unloved by most people in and outside it - can only seek to obfuscate and distract from that outcome, by telling lies, drowning out his opponent, and braying scurrilous soundbites ‘£2000 taxes!’, ‘No plan!’’, ‘Won’t press the nuclear button!’

Yes, the good old nuclear button - can’t have an election without knowing who is tough enough to incinerate a few million people without qualms somewhere, can

Meanwhile, Sunak’s opponent is a man who has nothing to do except not be Tory, and is so terrified of saying anything that might be construed as being even the teeny-weeniest bit radical, leftist, or controversial, that he ended up sounding like a Tory from another era.

How dispiriting is it to hear the next Labour prime minister attacking Sunak for having too liberal an immigration policy? Particularly coming from the man who once said, in 2017, that ‘Any approach that prioritises immigration control above all else must be resisted because it will mean a weaker economy, an impoverished society and a self-defeating isolation mentality.’

Don’t like those principles? Starmer has others. And so last week, he was criticizing Sunak’s Rwanda policy not for any moral or ethical reasons, but purely on the grounds that it’s too costly, and because Labour can somehow keep people out more effectively - even by enlisting another third country in the UK’s ‘offshore’ asylum-processing.

Asked about his position on Gaza, Starmer couldn’t even bring himself to use the word ‘Palestinian’ to describe what he called the ‘catastrophic’ situation in Gaza, referring only to ‘people’ being killed there. Who are these ‘people? Who is killing them? Don’t expect Starmer or Sunak to tell you. Only at one point, did Starmer say anything you might describe as principled. Asked by Etchingham whether he would seek private treatment for a loved one on an NHS waiting list, he replied that he wouldn’t.

Starmer was clearly trying to stand up for the notion of a publicly-funded national service in principle, and make the point that not everyone has the ability to pay for private healthcare, but this position was inevitably translated into right-wing speak as ‘hypocrite millionaire won’t pay for private health care.’

As for Brexit, well the entire political class have clearly decided to keep their lips sealed on this debacle, and last week’s shouters would not even whisper the accursed name, for fear that the Evil One might appear. If Sunak was to mention it, he would have to admit that Brexit has been another Tory failure. If Starmer mentioned it, he would be accused of wanting to ‘undo Brexit’- an accusation that is already being dredged up by the atrocious Johnson.

And so Sunak shouted and Starmer played safe, offering nothing much to as many people as possible, while tiptoeing across the shiny floor of the debating studio, carrying the ming vase of a Labour victory. And between the shouty head boy and the ming vase carrier, there was no true science, and absolutely nothing to move the heart, or make you dare to dream.

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Vote Starmer and get the certainty of uncertainty in uncertain times. Vote Sunak and you get the certainty of division and chaos in uncertain times - probably true, to be fair. And the essential hollowness and evasiveness of these utterances was only confirmed by the usual ‘papa was a humble toolmaker’, ‘my humble parents used the NHS’ personalisation to remind viewers - and voters - that these are people with a personal story that is also your story.

And the end of it all, the footie. What was their position on the footie?

The least that can be said about this deadly ritual is that it was a very weak response to 14 years of political failure - and a failure of politics - from two politicians with questionable ideas about what to do about it. In his 1858 Ottawa debate, Lincoln spoke in the following manner to his audience:

I ask you to consider whether, so long as the moral constitution of men’s minds shall continue to be the same, after this generation and assemblage shall sink into the grave, and another race shall arise with the same moral and intellectual development we have - whether, if that institution is standing in the same irritating position in which it now is, it will not continue an element of division? I so, then I have a right to say that, in regard to this question, the Union is house divided against itself…

That sentence goes on longer, quite a bit longer in fact, but Lincoln clearly expected his audience to follow his train of thought. He posed questions, instead of simply unrolling shiny policies or reassuring slogans like a door-to-door encyclopaedia salesman, or seeking to ‘crush’ his opponent. Like Douglas, he recognized the importance of what they were discussing and wanted his audience to grasp what was at stake.

None of that was even attempted last week. I don’t want to idealise Lincoln, and especially Douglas, or their times. These were men whose views on slavery and racial inequality deserve to be critiqued and condemned. And whatever attention span their audiences may have had, and however appreciative they may have been of their fine phrase-making, within three years of that debate, Americans were slaughtering each other on the battlefield.

Nevertheless, a fraying, fagged-out democracy like ours needs more than the demeaning spectacle we witnessed last week, if democratic politics is to become meaningful again. If this country is to have even the slightest chance of a better, and more hopeful future, it will need more politicians who appeal to our judgement, our understanding and our consciences, and fewer shouters and pub bores.

If we are to avoid this calamitous race to the political bottom that we have seen in Europe in the last two days, we will need politicians of the left and centre-left with courage, humility and vision, who recognize the deadly threat posed by the far-right populist surge, and the social decay on which these movements thrive, and don’t simply discard the ideas and principles they once had simply in order to please the latest focus group.

But to get politicians like that, we need voters who demand them. We need informed, knowledgeable ethical citizens, who won’t accept pseudo-gladiatorial political contests that are full of sound and fury, and signify nothing much at all, except another notch in our headlong descent to the bottom of the barrel.

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Week-in-Review: The Conservative doomsday clock strikes midnight

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The below content first appeared in Politics.co.uk’s Week-in-Review newsletter, sign-up for free here and never miss this article.

Political failure, anticipated or actualised, is typically understood by some manner of metaphor. Think “landslide” — a word that literally describes the rapid downward trajectory of a great amount of soil and rock; unless you are analysing the dynamics of an election campaign, in which case it signifies a drastic victory and/or defeat. Parties who thwart likely landslides are deemed to have “defied gravity” — their unfortunate opponents might have “imploded” or suffered some “meltdown”. Ultimately, the ousted party can be regarded as having been the victim of a “routing”, (a term I like because of the visceral agency it affords the voter). 

In the context of the 2024 general election, however, the metaphors commentators are employing have taken on a more ominous quality. To put it simply: suggesting that the Conservative Party will succumb to a landslide defeat on 4th July, no longer does justice to the scale of the expected reckoning. Commentators refer instead to a “Tory apocalypse” or an “extinction-level event”; in this contest, the tenor of recent columns would suggest, there is no such thing as hyperbole. 

Back in 1997, during the BBC’s election night coverage, guest expert Professor Anthony King faced this very same dilemma: how do we narrate the development of an unprecedented result using our common stock of language shaped, necessarily, by past experience? As host David Dimbleby reflected on the result of the exit poll, therefore, King pushed back: “Landslide is much too weak a word”, he declared. 

King’s assessment, delivered at 10.35 pm on election night, would have shaken even the most assured Tory: “I offer you the following metaphor — this is an asteroid hitting the planet and destroying practically all life on Earth.” 

The 1997 general election reduced the Conservative Party in parliament from 343 to 165 MPs; and King’s analysis was informed by an exit poll that placed John Major’s party on 180 seats. Today, poll after poll predicts that Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives will return to parliament later this year with less than 100 MPs. In short, the meteor set to strike Sunak could put Major’s to shame: we’re gonna need a bigger metaphor.

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Robert Ford, professor of political science at the University of Manchester, evoked King this week when he told PoliticsHome that the Conservatives could face an “apocalypse” this election. “We can say this right now four weeks out: the meteor can hit, this can be the dinosaurs getting wiped out”, Ford said. “That’s what’s on the map, it’s there in all the data.”

It is, indeed, all in the data. One of the main characters of this election — political parties and spokespeople aside — is the MRP “mega” poll. An MRP (Multilevel Regression and Post-stratification) is a statistical modelling technique that allows pollsters to use a national sample to work out accurate estimates of support for parties or candidates in small geographic areas. Technicalities aside, MRPs occupy such an elevated position in popular discourse this election because of the striking results they consistently produce. The first MRP of the election, conducted by Electoral Calculus, left the Conservatives with 66 seats. Subsequently, Survation’s MRP landed the Conservatives on 71 seats. YouGov’s inaugural election MRP, meanwhile, placed Rishi Sunak’s party on a relatively stronger footing of 140 seats. 

There are other possible measures: The New Statesman’s Britain Predicts model, for instance, has the Conservatives on 86 seats. But whatever your preferred yardstick, all the data suggests that the 2024-2029 parliament will be one relatively desolate of Conservatives.

In the end, the destruction of the Conservative Party, because of its historical lineage, is the sort of thing that should remain unthinkable until the moment it happens. But the structural protections afforded to Toryism in Britain have slowly eroded over the course of the 2019-2024 parliament; as Ford noted this week: “There’s no safe seats left”. As a consequence, the Conservatives’ political annihilation — once an eccentric pipe dream of professional contrarians — is a potential election outcome worth taking seriously indeed.

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In the 1997 election, Michael Portillo’s brutal ejection in Enfield Southgate provided a defining moment — one which has lasted long in Britain’s collective memory. But on 4th July, “Portillo moment(s)” are set to arrive thick and fast. The spectacle of collapsing cabinet ministers will seem relatively customary by sunrise: the law of diminishing Conservatives would suggest there comes a point when an additional cabinet routing results in a lessening of the overall shock factor. 

In total, seven serving cabinet ministers lost their seats at the 1997 election (namely, Michael Forsyth, Roger Freeman, Ian Lang, Tony Newton, Malcolm Rifkind, William Waldegrave and, of course, Portillo). The recent YouGov MRP — a relatively rosy reading for the Conservatives compared to, say, Survation’s finding — predicts that 12 cabinet ministers are set to lose their seats, including leader of the House of Commons Penny Mordaunt, defence secretary Grant Shapps and chancellor Jeremy Hunt.

A “Portillo moment” is necessarily less potent when it is repeated, perhaps many times over, in a single night. In this regard, far more instructive in terms of the Conservative Party’s fate and near future, I contend, will be the “Charest moments” (pronounced sha-ray). Jean Charest was one of just two Progressive Conservative MPs who retained their seats in the 1993 Canadian general election — as the party collapsed from 43 per cent vote share in the previous election to 16 per cent. Returning 2 MPs may well be below the UK Conservatives’ floor of support this election — but the Canada ’93 allegory is a reminder that all political parties, even the most long-lasting, have their lifespan. Repeated political failure takes a toll; and a wrathful electorate knows no mercy.

That we are even considering the impermanence of the Conservative Party is a product, in recent times at least, of Rishi Sunak’s repeat failures. Sunak, some long nineteen months ago, was shunted into 10 Downing Street to stop the Conservatives’ political rot; by virtue of not being Liz Truss, he succeeded — initially — by default. But in recent months the rot has begun to worsen; today, it expands with Truss-like severity. 

It is no secret that the Conservative election campaign has been strewn with errors — each seemingly more graven than the last. And matters culminated this week with the debacle over the prime minister’s attendance, and then shock non-attendance, at the commemorations marking the 80th anniversary of D-Day. 

The prime minister saw no issue in curtailing his participation in the ceremonies, sending defence secretary Shapps and foreign secretary Lord Cameron in his stead — nor, of course, did any of his infamously insular inner circle of advisers and political aides. But the fallout has been nothing short of brutal: Penny Mordaunt’s first contribution to the BBC election debate last night (Sunak again sent a surrogate) was to brand the prime minister “completely wrong” for his premature D-Day departure. Veterans, Mordaunt said, should be “treasured” as she highlighted her own credentials as a former defence secretary.

As political miscalculations go, it is grimly perfect. On the doorstep, activists of all parties already attest that Sunak’s absenteeism has cut through; the episode looks set to entirely depress the Conservative base — whose morale has been the central focus of Sunak’s ill-fated campaign; it casts further doubt over the prime minister’s judgement and values; and, worse still perhaps, Sunak’s decision to leave Normandy on Thursday saw Keir Starmer look more prime ministerial than ever. 

Above all, however, Sunak’s D-Day disaster is a gift to Nigel Farage. The Reform leader’s central mission this election is to exploit the manifold grievances of traditionalist, nationalistic voters; Farage, that arch-political schemer, couldn’t have devised a more politically propitious development. 

That the debacle will have some form of effect on the polls, therefore, is beyond doubt; the Tory parliamentary totals listed above — 66 seats (Electoral Calculus), 71 seats (Survation), 140 seats (YouGov) — look set to substantially lessen over the coming days. But here’s the real stinger: not only will Sunak’s D-Day disaster undoubtedly depress his poll ratings — the fieldwork for these polls was conducted prior to Farage’s sensational return to frontline politics this week. Together, the D-Day and Farage factors will collaborate to make a Conservative electoral cataclysm — Canada ’93-style — a genuine possibility on 4th July. 

Accordingly, no longer do Tories fear an ephemeral polling “crossover”, whereby Reform merely leapfrogs the Conservatives in a few polls between now and the election. Rather, the Conservative Party’s very status as the foremost institutional expression of British right politics is at stake. 

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Every standard poll conducted since Farage’s return (no MRP yet) has exhibited a significant boost in Reform’s standing. Redfield and Wilton has Reform rising by 3 points to 17 per cent; while Survation, which has hitherto been more sceptical of Reform’s prospects, has Farage’s party up 7 points to 15 per cent. (It’s worth stating that these polls were conducted prior to Sunak’s D-Day debacle).

The most striking poll this week, however, came from YouGov. Like Redfield and Wilton, the pollster has Reform climbing to 17 per cent in the polls — a mere 2 points behind the Tories. But crucially, YouGov recently switched up its methodology to make its standard poll results more in line with their famed MRP surveys. Had YouGov not made these changes — i.e. had the pollster stuck to its old methods — Reform and Conservatives would have been tied on 18 points. 

At this juncture, as Reform rockets, it is worth remembering that its forebear, the Brexit Party, did not stand in Conservative-held seats at the 2019 general election. It meant that 298 Conservative MPs (the number of incumbents then standing) did not have to face an insurgent Faragist force. As such, while the Brexit Party depressed the Conservatives’ vote in a series of opposition-held constituencies, it did not do so in an election-defining way — not nearly. It is a difficult fact to come to terms with, but it means that Reform’s vote will jump from 0 to around 18-20 per cent in around 300 constituencies this election, (assuming the party outperforms its polling, even slightly, in Tory heartland areas). It is a fact that makes the Liberal Democrats’ task in the Blue Wall, in particular, far easier — and cabinet routings even more likely. 

The bottom line is this: ahead of polling day, due to a multitude of factors, the Conservative Party’s doomsday clock may have already struck midnight.

The return of Farage and the PM’s D-Day debacle are likely to define an arduous month of campaigning for the Conservatives. After two weeks of campaigning and two TV debates, any kind of comeback has never looked less likely

The meteor, in short, has hit. On 4th July, we are left to judge what remains of this cratered party. 

Josh Self is Editor of Politics.co.uk, follow him on X/Twitter here.

Politics.co.uk is the UK’s leading digital-only political website. Subscribe to our daily newsletter for all the latest election news and analysis.

The post Week-in-Review: The Conservative doomsday clock strikes midnight appeared first on Politics.co.uk.

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