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A Choice

The Comic Tragedy of British Politics 3: Real People

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
6 May 2015
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Two weeks ago I went to a husting in the ultra-marginal seat of West Oxford and Abingdon. It's a constituency of about 80,000 with a Conservative majority of 176 at the last election, when the 30-year-old Nicola Blackwood defeated Lib Dem Evan Harris in a surprise result. Close to 300 people crowded into the church of St Peter and St Paul in Botley, nearly twice the margin of votes that swung the seat.

Like thousands of hustings taking place across Britain in this general election, it was intensely particular, human and local, without a television camera, minister, or spin-doctor anywhere near. But the more I have thought and talked about the evening, the more significant it seems to become - a tiny fragment of the election catching the light of transformations unfolding across the country.

Welcome to Botley 

First a quick intro to the larger constituency. It combines country and town: from the wealthy north of Oxford and parts of the city centre, including nine colleges, it stretches westwards into Oxfordshire towards the Cotswolds, where it borders the Prime Minister’s seat, the safest Tory electorate in the country. The well-off settlement of Abingdon is in the south while to the north it includes the one-time council homes of Kidlington. Most of Oxford city, however, including the great factories of Cowley (now making the Mini thanks to BMW), forms the dense entirely urban constituency of Oxford East, an island of Labour red in a sea of blue. 

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The excellent Democratic Dashboard says West Oxford and Abingdon has a highly educated population, a large number employed in education, with a significant proportion of foreign-born voters - nearly 20 per cent - yet with relatively few blacks, Asians or ethnic minorities. Its population is healthy and there is almost no unemployment. The Tories are predicted to win it safely this time, unless there is a significant tactical shift by Labour voters to prevent this – something that seems unlikely as the more radical student vote cannot forgive the Lib Dem betrayal of their high-profile pledge against student fees.   

Botley is just a small part of the constituency, a suburban settlement with the four-lane elevated Oxford ring-road cutting through it, close to the historic 1930s shopping centre of Elms Parade (now itself surrounded by a crumbling 1960s development known as the ‘West Way’) and the Church. 

Botley has just been through the first, heroic stage of a community-creating struggle. The local council signed a development agreement that would have flattened the entire Elms Parade and its surroundings including the vicarage, to create a vast superstore with hundreds of units for students from the Far East on top and underground parking below. The complete deal is still subject to a freedom of information appeal by the council to prevent its full release… But when it was proposed the protest grew rapidly into a model of sustained community self-organisation. In the end, at a packed planning committee meeting (with a Tory majority), the councilors unanimously rejected the plan despite the approval of the planning officer and the efforts of their Chief Executive. “Democracy works!” was the astonished phrase on many lips.

Indeed democracy can work in a constituency with as paper-thin a margin as this one. The current Lib Dem candidate, Layla Moran, played an important part in initiating the protest and organising the opposition to the development. Nicola Blackwood MP then also opposed it strongly, coming to the planning meeting and speaking out directly against her own local party executive. You could argue that she had to, or she would have been drummed out of the seat for sure. But the sincerity of her conviction that the developers had to be stopped after she was initially neutral convinced the campaign leadership that Blackwood really had proved herself a good local MP on development issues. 

There are two important aspects to the Botley uprising against the local council, which culminated in 750 people taking a Saturday morning to demonstrate their attachment to Elms Parade, organised by West Way Community Concern. First, it was not Nimbyism – it was not Not in My Back Yard. This is a suburban community. Its ethos is improvement not preservation. The campaign was for a ‘Better Botley’, with appropriate development for an expanding residential community, with its gardens, children and aging parents. Instead, what was proposed would have created catastrophic traffic gridlock in an already bottlenecked road system, its woefully disproportionate towers, perfectly described in Owen Hatherley’s Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain as the pseudo-modernism of the Blair epoch’s “social Thatcherism” with its ‘bar-code’ façades.

What people in Botley want is effective development they can use and enjoy, that keeps money in the community and makes money for it. The ethos of the campaign is progressive not regressive, for better change not keeping things as they are. This pits the people of Botley against neo-liberal maximization - against using Botley as yet another platform to extract surplus from globalization and shovel it into the financial circuits of London. The bürgers of Botley, highly educated, able to draw on a whole range of expertise - and many not short of disposable income - are not indulging in an anti-capitalist hangover or a regressive rebellion. 

There is not a single politics to the Botley ‘Community Concern’ campaign, as many different interests and perspectives came together to oppose the imposition of a ‘New Ruin’ in place of the local shops. But the spirit of the campaign, especially after its spectacular success in stopping the development (at least for now), is one of joint self-determination: of taking intelligent command over one’s life in so far as one can. This is the second important aspect of the Botley rising. It was not only in favour of development, of wanting change, it was and is in the process of creating local self-confidence, how the community might shape change, in place of simply expecting it to be delivered by the council and grumbling when this happens badly. 

First, the community had the experience, expertise and persistence to impose its negative judgment on a very bad scheme, despite all the efforts of the local pseudo-planning apparatus to force it through; second, the community is learning how to develop a capacity for positive judgment about what it best wants and how to achieve this. This self-confidence, quiet, measured and sceptical, filled the Church. It was a community whose votes would count. Every candidate turned up in person. 

Except for UKIP’s, which was a relief as much to the candidate, no doubt - one Alan Harris - as to the participants. Botley is a welcoming, practical and UKIP free zone.

Under the firm chairmanship of the Revd Graham Sykes the candidates faced the hustings audience. On our left, Nicola Blackwood herself. Next to her, Labour’s Sally Copley. Beside her the Socialist Party candidate Mike Foster. Between him and the Chairman, Layla Moran for the Lib Dems, and on the other side of the Rev Sykes, Dr. Helen Salisbury for the National Health Action Party, and finally, to her right, Larry Sanders for the Greens. 

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After the opening statements, the format consisted of a question asked (with the questioner’s name drawn from a hat) and all the candidates replying for equal amounts of time. There was no debate between them, let alone angry words. Often they applauded each other’s replies. No heckling was allowed. They had two hours. I’ll go along the line with my reflections starting with the Green. Of course these are very partial: passing judgment on the basis of a few minutes at the end of the day, such is the risk of running for office. You can be judged and your future decided because of how you seem to smell (you can take your own look at the candidates thanks to this 5 minute video about the meeting from the Oxford Mail). 

The Green: Larry Sanders was deeply honourable but disappointing. The first thing that everyone says about him is that his brother Bernie is running for President of the USA, not that Larry was chairman of the Green group on Oxfordshire City Council for eight years. Born in New York, settled in Oxford since 1969, he offered by far the most thoughtful comments on the state of the economy. He did not, however, personify the ‘Green Surge’ which lifted his party from a little over 10,000 to more than 60,000 in the last year. Arguably the Greens are the most far-sighted of the parties and Sanders certainly the most analytic of the candidates. But he was tired. One of the questions was about the hustings themselves. Apparently there have been more than 20 held across the constituency, considerably up on the 2010 election, and Sanders admitted he is exhausted. 

Larry Sanders, Green Party

Larry Sanders, Green Party

The NHS candidate: No one seemed to understand why Dr Helen Salisbury was standing to save the NHS. She too was honourable. When she said “the NHS is on its knees”, she got loud applause. But her National Health Action Party seems to have modeled itself on the brilliantly successful campaign of Dr. Richard Taylor who took Wyre Forest with an astounding majority of 18,000 as an independent on the single issue of saving Kidderminster Hospital in 2001. He lost the seat in 2010 to the Tories who had a majority of 11,000. He is standing again, but it is evident that his splitting the vote probably lost Labour the seat.  This, surely, is the point. Without a burning local issue of over-riding importance to a majority in the constituency, a single-issue campaign baffles voters.

Doctors should be forensic and clinical. They should use their expertise to influence the parties and then lever their influence on the public to get the approach they think is needed. What we wanted to hear was a clear analysis of what has happened to the NHS, what should happen to the NHS to get it off its knees, and which of the main parties to vote for to get close to achieving this. If the Tories are the greatest threat but win Oxford West and Abingdon by fewer votes than the NHS Action Party gains, how healthy will they feel! There is an argument for radical parties such as the Greens or UKIP destroying the hopes of the centrist party they are closest to, as this is the only route to their gaining their objectives - indeed this is UKIP's strategy vis a vis the Tories. But this logic cannot possibly apply to the National Health Action Party. 

It was refreshing, however, to have Salisbury’s voice, pointing out how relatively little the UK spends on health and talking about the issues like a human. On the question of renewing Trident, for example, she simply said, “Imagine what we could do with £100 billion!”. But she did not have anything like the grasp of local planning issues as the main candidates yet she spent most of her time talking about issues other than the NHS.

Helen Salisbury, NHS candidate

Helen Salisbury, NHS candidate

The Liberal Democrat: Layla Moran was the most strategic of the candidates. She uses the word “driver” a lot. Sitting tall, clear and precise in her answers, combining local issues with the national policy of the Lib Dems, she clearly knew her stuff about the local plan and development as well as her party’s line. In her official literature she is described as having a Christian Arab mother. At the hustings she told us that she had a Palestinian mother while her father was a British diplomat. While doing her graduate training in education she learnt how unfair the British system is in discriminating against the less well off, and she decided to join a party to do something about it. 

Talking to her afterwards she warmed to her Palestinian roots perhaps sensing my sympathies with their cause. Her family house has been confiscated, presumably in West Jerusalem. It is time, she says, to make peace and put the conflict behind with a two state solution. Both Palestinians and Israelis, she claims, are keen to see her enter Parliament and she will be the first Palestinian to do so.

 Layla Moran, Liberal Democrats

Layla Moran, Liberal Democrats

Will this be enough to persuade Labour voters to put their loathing of Nick Clegg to one side? She was quite relaxed about saying that she preferred a coalition with Labour while making it clear that she would support the party line depending on the outcome. When she answered the good question from the audience as to which party candidates she would not go into alliance or coalition with she repeated the official Lib Dem view. Her background made her feel especially British, said the daughter of a diplomat, and she would have no truck with the SNP, a party that wanted to destroy the Union. The SNP have been the elephant in the room for most of the election, in Scotland the room itself of course, but they barely figured in Botley's concerns, Moran's was much the sharpest note about the Scottish nationalists.

The Socialist: The contrast between the clarity, tactical calculation, local passion and pure politics of Moran and Mike Foster the Socialist candidate was almost painful. Even before he spoke Foster had created an amusing moment. The chairman announced that he had been asked to make it clear that Foster was not the candidate of the Socialist Workers Party, as he had mistakenly announced, but of the Socialist Party. The audience chuckled quietly and I'm quite sure that hundreds immediately recalled as I did the Life of Brian and his introduction to the difference between the People’s Judean Front and the People’s Front of Judea

Mike Foster, Socialist Party

Mike Foster, Socialist

Foster seemed to be a good guy but he was quite out of it and had nothing to say to the actual circumstances of Botley. Only the common ownership of everything would make things better, meanwhile everyone including MPs are powerless. “What would you be able to offer Oxford West and Abingdon that other candidates can’t?” he was asked by The Oxford Student (I am quoting from a printed source so that you do not think I am making it up): “I’m not standing in this election to make promises about what I would do if I was elected…. The state, and the very way that our society is put together, can’t be made to work in the interests of the vast majority of people…  If you vote for the Socialist Party, you wouldn’t be voting to put me in that position, thankfully. Instead, you’d be making the point that the whole system which we live under has to be replaced.”

It is not utopian to have a great vision - provided you also have an argument about how we get from here to there. But the Socialist party had nothing practical to offer. Foster works to help homeless people but he was not campaigning to help the people of Botley in any concrete way. This brought him the funniest point of the evening. When it was his turn to answer the question, with whom would he not go in to coalition?, he shrugged his shoulders with a smile as the audience laughed. He wouldn't go into coalition with anyone nor, he admitted, would any other party want to go into coalition with his.

The great financial crash that started in August 2007 has thrown millions of people out of work and set back the standard of living of countless more while the super-rich get even richer. Yet this is the first time such a crisis of capitalism has not been met by even the spectre of socialism. The Occupy movement is broadly anarchist, the indignados do not define their populism in terms of left and right, the green movement has appropriated the politics of the totality from Marxism. I'm quite confident that a politics which challenges the neoliberal order will emerge. Its name will not be socialism. The futility of the Socialist Party, not to speak of the complete absence of the "world socialist movement" it proclaims, signals the historic end of this form of anti-capitalism. It was noted with a benign tolerance by the people of Botley, a further indication of its irrelevance. 

Labour: The Labour candidate, sitting next to Foster, was Sally Copley, who presented herself as a “working mum” of teenage children. “I'm very much in the real world", she told us, as she advocated the living wage. She promised to listen to and help local people. What struck me listening to her was the absence of any sense of politics, of a strategy for change, of the nature of the financial crisis or the causes of austerity. She had none of Moran’s grasp of party strategy, none of Sanders' thoughtfulness when he came to the larger picture. It was not a matter of her being impractical or disengaged like Foster the socialist, on the contrary, she was all there when it came to matters of life. I thought about her a lot after the meeting, what kind of Labour Party does she represent? Certainly not Blairism, nor any of the hunger for power I associate with Brown.

Sally Copley, Labour Party

Sally Copley, Labour Party

Copley works for Oxfam and has spent her life in the world of NGOs. Twenty years ago this would have given her an oppositional, even marginal position. Today, Oxfam is a billion dollar operation working with governments across the world. We are witnessing the rise of a more feminine order of which she is a representative, and it is most noticeable in the feminisation of Labour’s support. Here is a graph of women’s voting intentions by age that dramatically illustrates the swing of women voters away from the Conservatives.

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Women’s voting intentions by age (YouGov, thanks to Financial Times)

There are a number of factors behind this shift: the increasing number of women in work; their recruitment into the social and care services (such as the NHS); through that into the trade unions, which are no longer bastions of the male proletariat; and their need for family support. What underlies the way Labour’s core support has not budged from the 30 per cent plus it has held since 2010? Surely a large part if the answer is the judgment made by millions of women, unconvinced by Cameron’s entreaties or Osborne’s appeal to money-making aspiration. 

When I came into politics in the 1960s we had a word for the conservatism of the traditional (male) working class and its reformism. It had a “corporate” consciousness. The best image for this, I argued much later, is Henry Moore’s great reclining figures. They have the strength but not the will or wit to rise and symbolise the power and passivity of Labourism. They accept their subordination without in any way losing their pride or belief that they represent humanity. Is there now a female equivalent of similarly limited self-confidence? The shift from production to family life is a huge step forward, Copley’s internationalism is also more grounded in the realities of the world, but her “real world” remains a form of stubborn act of defiance rather than a claim on the future. 

I don’t mean this to be patronising, as if I know better and she is being stupid. On the contrary, she is living the limitations of her party and its strategic failures.  One of the embarrassing things about judging candidates lined up in front of you is that you speculate on how else you might rank them apart from which will get your vote. I asked myself which of these people would I be willing to leave my child with, or in my case my grandchild, if I had to. There was only one answer: Copley the Labour candidate. The green would try and force them to love nature, the doctor would say they shouldn't fuss if they broke an arm, the Lib Dem would feel driven to get them to do something, the socialist would shrug and say nothing could be done, and the Tory MP would have to rush off to a division.

But is this attractive quality of being a “real person” what we want in a politician? The effect of television in particular has created a culture in which we expect politicians to be ‘normal’ or more like us, in order for them to be authentic and for us to trust them. But would you really want your actual neighbor to be Prime Minister? Surely the more normal someone is the more this should disqualify them from exercising high office. I feel safe for the children in Copley's care, but the country? 

The Conservative: Which brings us to the final candidate, the current MP Nicola Blackwood. There are three ways of being Tory. The first is very familiar, the patrician, public school chap (or chapess), wealthy, shrewd and paternalist who is born to lead. The second is a striving, tough-minded, self-made figure who demands self-reliance above all other virtues. The first is broadly a pro-European Whig Conservative, the second more of a Tory nationalist, to use David Marquand’s categories. The third kind of Tory is more oddball: the chancer who loves power and the game for their own sake. All three share the characteristic of knowing what is best for us: for our own good, and the good of our country however painful this is for the poor. To be a conservative in all cases is to seek to rule and preserve the social order in which they rule.

These personality traits are in no way limited to the Conservative party itself. We can all share them, if not with the same style. The left certainly includes people who ‘know better’, Liberal Democrats can be bossy and Greens paternalistic! Looked at simply from the point of view of personality and character Blackwood appared to be, ironically, the least 'Tory' person amongst all the candidates. She seemed to be the one most likely to ask you a question, to listen carefully, to try and establish not prejudge your perspective, and then engage with it with a sense of equality. (She even opened a big piece of her campaign literature saying, "I've worked hard to give a voice to the voiceless", what kind of Toryism is that!) If another measure of discriminating between the candidates is, ‘Who would you most like to have to dinner with?’ she’d be my choice as on many issues I can't predict what she would think.

Nicola Blackwood, Conservative

Nicola Blackwood, ConservativeThis is not to say that Blackwood is not right-wing. She is a party loyalist as mySociety’s ‘They Work For You’ website makes clear. But when she answered the question of who would you not go into coalition with she said she “would not touch UKIP with a bargepole”, which is not the official line. I think she even said that were there to be a deal with them she would go independent. Most controversially, however, she voted against the Gay Marriage bill, infuriating many of the resident students. Later she told the New Statesman  “I supported gay marriage in principle, I didn’t like the way the government was doing it. It’s gone through now and I’m happy that it is possible for gay couples to get married…. I personally think that we should’ve separated civil and religious marriage and I really believe that we should have been reforming civil partnerships and doing other things. It was a very difficult process.”  

But it was a cop-out. Her problem, it seems, stems from her Christian convictions. But the mood of the people in Botley’s church of St Peter and St Paul was unequivocal on this issue if no other. The question about the gay marriage went early to Dr. Salisbury, who simply said that if people wanted “the joy of marriage” it should be theirs. The audience more than applauded - they rocked! Gay marriage is about allowing people to express and exercise their freedom, to make an authentic commitment, and improve their lives without measuring this in terms of money. It wasn’t just a reluctant ‘why not’, or Botley being tolerant, it was over-the-top support, the expression of a great social change.

Britain’s unofficial public culture

So there it was. The constituency is effectively a safe one for the Tories as polling seems to suggest. Certainly in their strategy of going local in their final ground war, Conservative central office has not identified it as being at risk. If they are right, then those who oppose Cameron and Osborne’s hegemony in Oxford West and Abingdon can take their pick from the others as they wish. A young hard-working, musically gifted MP, challenged by illness, who has brought improvements in traffic and infrastructure to the area and is acutely aware that the local hospital is suffering staff shortages because people who work for it cannot afford to live in the area, will be returned, and will vote for yet more cuts to the vital services she clearly appreciates. 

But if it is a marginal then putting a Palestinian into Parliament may be just enough to persuade the Labour and Green protest vote to switch tactically to Moran to lower the number of Tories in the Commons, even if the Lib Dems then go into Coalition with them as they have not been lessened sufficiently. Such is the excruciating torture of the UK’s winner-takes-all system. 

I came away feeling positive, though not optimistic about what will happen in the short run. The philistine opportunism of Westminster professionals is selling us short, if not out, as I’ve argued in my previous election columns. What impressed me is the sense that regular people are indeed now wiser than our governing class - including the media that play such a venal role in shaping government. The Botley husting would have driven a Newsnight or Daily Mail journalist spare. ‘What's the story?’ he or she would have demanded. The answer is that the story was a large number of people, some standing, listening attentively for two hours, seeking to make up their own minds and confident that they could do so.

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This public culture is very British yet it has quite ceased to be official. One of the striking things about the meeting looking back on it was the absence of any sense of the importance of Parliament. 'Who would be Prime Minister, and form the government?' Yes: that mattered. But when one of the candidates, I think it was Nicola Blackwood, compared the event to a “job interview” no one demurred. Long gone are the days when a famous writer could say (I am quoting Trollope) "I have always thought that sitting in the British Parliament should be the highest object of ambition of every educated Englishman… That to serve one's country without pay is the grandest work the man can do… that of all lives, public political lives are capable of the highest efforts”. I don't think anyone said, we are deciding who to send to Parliament, or thought for a moment that the debating chamber of the Commons is an independent legislature capable of shaping policy through its debates and collective wisdom.

There are many ways in which the traditional British constitution, unwritten but with one of the strongest moral codes, lies in ruins too numerous to excavate here. One of them is the evisceration of the constitutional culture itself. Nicola Blackwood told the husting that "the constitution of the country belongs to the people”, as if the UK was a country like any other. After the meeting when I talked with Layla Moran she had no idea what a constitutional convention is, even though she's a bright representative of what was only recently the party with the most interest in reforming the system. None of the candidates, for example, raised the issue of surveillance as principal threat to our liberty, and that deserved more than a phrase.

Another change relates to the wider world. Not ‘Britain's place within it’ or the sophistry of the Foreign Office, but the replacement of an imperial culture with a different kind of international awareness. Blackwood was born in South Africa and does a great deal of work across the African continent on issues of sexual violence; Sanders was born in America; Moran is half Palestinian; Copley has spent all her working life in international development. The particularism of Botley is hardly parochial. A question about the panel’s view of the importance of aid brought out the candidates’ direct experience of working and living abroad and its impact on their thinking. Only the socialist dismissed the question saying, “Aid can't work”, although this drew quite a lot of applause. The question got one of the best answers from Larry Sanders, perhaps less because he is a Green than because his American upbringing made him impatient with the paternalism of European benevolence. The most important aid we can give the developing world, he suggested, would be to close down the tax havens we protect in the Cayman Islands and elsewhere, to end the fraud and robbery that weakens governments everywhere. 

None of the other candidates seemed to disagree. This would not have happened fifteen years ago at the start of the century. The UK political parties have often thrown up unusual candidates with strong distinctive personalities. Otherwise they are all too predictable types. Yet here we had been in a very marginal seat in one of the wealthiest parts of the country, adjoining the Prime Minister’s own constituency itself, and none of the candidates of the main parties are rooted in their once strong traditions. All are women: the Tory is modest and humane, the Lib Dem is proud to be a Palestinian, Labour is a working mum. It may be the calm before the storm, but it has to be progress.

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