Ravilious & Co


The painter and engraver Eric Ravilious (1903-1942) was raised in Eastbourne on the Sussex coast, and has lately been adopted as a central instance of Sussex art. His watercolour paintings of the 1930s depict the scenery of Southern England – the South Downs, ploughed fields, cottages, farm machinery, local industry and coastal vistas – in his distinctive style. Scenes are vividly clarified in a kind of simplification, though the density of technique is visible in Ravilious’s rendition of blades of grass or the grain of wood. Ravilious was equally skilled at woodcuts, engraving hundreds of designs in a career that was curtailed by his early death while working as a war artist in Iceland.

The Towner Gallery in Eastbourne holds a permanent archive of Ravilious’s work, but in this major new exhibition (27th May-17th September 2017) it situates him amid a host of contemporaries. These artists include the brothers Paul Nash (a war artist in World War One, as Ravilious was for its successor) and John Nash; the designer Enid Marx (distantly related to Karl, and one of the first designers of seat fabric for London Underground); Barnett Freedman (eventual designer of Jubilee postage stamps and Ealing Studios’ logo) and several more. The mere number of artists included makes this an extensive exhibition, but that fact is redoubled by the density of coverage each of them receives, working in various media. Landscapes and seascapes by Edward Bawden and John Nash are hung next to Ravilious’s renditions of comparable scenes. The same goes for engravings, which are typically much smaller but assembled in great numbers that take time to scrutinize. It needs the best part of three hours to experience the whole exhibition properly; it’s the only time at the Towner Gallery that I’ve heard staff say on the way in that you can leave for a tea break halfway through.

For anyone who hasn’t previously seen Ravilious’s major paintings in person, they will likely be high points of this exhibition. Any number of these masterpieces of composition keep turning up as the visitor turns a corner: the Sussex scenes of Two Women in a Garden and Caravans, the late war paintings like HMS Ark Royal in Action where what might have seemed a primarily pastoral artist suddenly fills every canvas with state-of-the-art military technology. I happened to have seen many of these before, in Dulwich Picture Gallery’s 2015 retrospective, so on this occasion I was equally interested in other items. Several of the artistic colleagues covered by the exhibition met at the Royal College of Art, and pieces of material evidence of those years are preserved here: college registration cards, letters and the playfully arrogant editorials of student magazines (one of which hopes for the dissolution of its magazine so that a new one can start with the energy that such ventures typically possess). Peggy Angus and Helen Binyon produced books of sketches made around London, with captions recording the dialogue from these fleeting social scenes in parks and streets. The amount of correspondence to and from artists on show here makes it something of a museum as well as a gallery.

Several of the featured artists did extensive commercial work, as designers of book covers, frontispiece emblems, wallpaper and so on. Perhaps the exhibition title Ravilious & Co hints at the businesslike workshop from which one would expect such prolific industry. Ravilious himself seems to have carved an unceasing production line of emblems and illustrations for books and calendars, yet every one of these often tiny designs is composed and rendered with perfect precision and grace. Dozens of book covers and plates are displayed from a range of artists, making a miniature gallery of interwar English publishing and culture. It is striking how far the various artists featured remained in contact and continued to produce parallel and comparable work: the sense is of a relatively unheralded, but unusually coherent, artistic school.

The artists whose work was at once newest and most impressive to me were Tirzah Garwood (Ravilious’s wife) and Helen Binyon. Garwood had been Ravilious’s pupil, and worked in similar media, but does not seem to have been awed into adopting his tones. Her engravings of urban types (including philistine visitors to a former incarnation of the Towner Gallery itself) bring a note of defiant satire to the show. Binyon excelled both in delicate painting and in engravings: one of the first pieces on show as one enters is her woodcut The Wire Fence, showing a girl crawling through the barrier, and her illustrations of Pride & Prejudice are displayed in a later room. Binyon seems one of the finest artists on show here, but even doesn’t have a Wikipedia page. I hope this exhibition inspires someone to address that.


Fast-Talking Damsels


In April 2017 I happened to see Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress (2011) and Terence Davies’ new film A Quiet Passion (2016) in quick succession, and thought about them together.

Stillman became cherished in the 1990s for a trio of films that articulated a well-educated, preppie American sensibility to gentle comic effect. He then made no pictures for over a decade, doubtless for industrial and commercial reasons but perhaps also due to a disarming lack of urgency on his own part. Damsels in Distress was his long-awaited return, and has been followed by what by Stillman’s standards is an energetic revival: a few episodes of a TV series for Amazon, and a new feature film, Love & Friendship (2016), adapted from Jane Austen’s Lady Susan. The British director Davies offers a slight parallel: immense acclaim for his films in the early 1990s, then a period of greater obscurity and a recent return to literary material via what sources of financial support happened to be available (the new film’s credits make plain how it benefited from filming in Belgium). Both directors are ranked among the distinctive auteurs of recent decades, but with fragile, stop-start careers.

Damsels in Distress follows a group of women undergraduates at a US university, led by Violet (one of Greta Gerwig’s first prominent roles) in an evangelizing mission to help others. They run a Suicide Prevention Centre, noting that with suicide, unusually among ailments, prevention is not nine tenths but ten tenths of the cure. Slapstick scenes show despairing members of the college community throwing themselves off roofs. Succumbing to her own romantic disappointment, Violet leaves campus and discovers a new brand of soap whose scent she believes can inspire people to a sunnier outlook. She also aspires, in an echo of the early Bryan Ferry, to start a dance craze, on the grounds that dance crazes are among the great achievements and movements in history, and the film closes with the characters demonstrating The Sambola. (In fact this is preceded by an unabashed dance routine that makes the film seem the unheralded precursor of La La Land.) Most of the film is driven by such daffy episodes. Though it ostensibly centres on suicide prevention, it can never be taken too seriously. Much of Stillman’s effect comes from characters making earnest statements, often in full sentences and with verbal features more typical of written prose than speech, which are also daft or ludicrous. When Violet elaborately thanks her new friend Lily for ‘chastising’ her for arrogance, the act is unlike anything often seen in contemporary film or life: in fact it’s more like something that could be said in a Jane Austen adaptation. Some of the quirky force of the film thus resides in anachronism: this seems supposed to be the present day, yet the characters have hardly altered since those of Stillman’s first feature Metropolitan (1990), and might even be more at home at Bryn Mawr in the 1950s – or Bath in the 1800s.

That’s a link to A Quiet Passion, which narrates the life of the poet Emily Dickinson from her early expulsion from a religious school to her death in 1886. A striking digital dissolve is used to send the teenage Dickinson’s family through time, and on the other side the demanding role is played by Cynthia Nixon (I trust that someone has used the headline Sestinas and the City). Dickinson wrote several decades later than Austen, but for many viewers an Austen biopic would be the closest cinematic cognate to Davies’ film: the woman writer, producing her work in private (and eventually, here, in perpetual seclusion), oppressed by patriarchal attitudes to the capacities of her sex, remaining unmarried and immersed in the life of her respected family. I had not known that Dickinson was considered such a sharp wit, but here she unleashes dozens of barbed observations and ripostes that make Austen’s look mild. For half the film she is accompanied in this by her friend Vryling Buffam, whose even more determined campaign of cheerfully cynical one-liners makes her less a new Austen than a prototype for Dorothy Parker. Like Damsels in Distress, then, the film is driven through its episodes mainly by clever dialogue – yet here that elaborate speech is not cherishably innocent and foolish, but archly deployed as entertainment or as a weapon in the micropolitics of the household and (very) local society.

Much critical attention is nowadays given to women on film, who gets represented and who gets to speak. In that regard at least, these two films directed by men have something to offer a feminist viewer. Both slightly marginalize male characters, centring instead on women’s interactions and conversations. Dickinson even has an excited conversation with her new sister-in-law in which it is made clear that the main gain of marriage is the chance to talk about the Brontës and George Eliot with one’s new female relatives. Damsels in Distress is not Stillman’s greatest work, almost too light for its own good, while A Quiet Passion ends amid bitterness, illness and death. But they’re analogous in being fuelled by verbal wit, the carefully crafted spoken word.



Exit Polls

Observer front page peril 11.6.2017

The evening was still sweetly light at 9 o’clock when we stopped knocking on doors. I had gone too far down the hill and lost the team; I ran back up and at last found them, grouped for the last time before departure. A car back to HQ. I considered it, but decided it was time to go it alone. Farewell and thanks. Back down the hill, past a leisure centre polling station still open but doing little business. Feet battered by 6 hours of pavements went round Tesco. I broke my recent dietary restrictions and bought a meat feast pizza and a bottle of wine. At the checkout I was served by a familiar old cashier, seasoned, possibly not born here but in the West Indies. He saw my sticker, still blazoned as we prepared to go down in a blaze, and asked about the election. He turned out to know a lot about it, the whole narrative of manifestos and turning points. It reminded me of the depth and diversity (as well as sometimes the shallowness) of ordinary knowledge in the people you pass every day round here. Moved by the whole day, by his friendly interest, by the imminence of defeat, I shook his hand. It meant a lot at the time. I haven’t seen him since.

I turned on the TV and BBC were already on, sweeping around their studio. Dimbleby, like Kenneth Clarke I think, coming back for one more election when he’d thought he’d quit. (I will miss him; I have come to respect greatly his urbane and cogent drift across a scene of discussion. I don’t think for a moment that Huw Edwards is a replacement; his sense of stature is merely literal, from filling out; in fact I’m not sure what his distinction is supposed to be at all.) Kuenssberg, beavering at a computer, somehow inoffensive now she wasn’t dedicating herself to loaded partisan narratives. Robinson with his own tendency to fatuous tales. Curtice mysteriously up on his perpetual balcony, jibing or squabbling politely about polls with Kellner on the ground floor with the indirectness of an MP talking through the speaker. Emily Maitlis in bright red standing and hitting her screen. Other characters round the country: Andrew Marr always one whose presence I like, somehow detached from all this (he writes big bestseller books on poetry now) but actually very much part of it (he interviews leading politicians every week and once had the job held by Robinson and now Kuenssberg). And I turn over to ITV at times also, where George Osborne is continuing his campaign to seem like a sensible centrist rather than someone who set out to trash our country, and Ed Balls is content to seem a pea in a pod beside him rather than someone whose job used to be to oppose him. It makes their supposed differences seem nugatory, which might make a different view of the Labour Party seem more necessary.

The exit poll astounded me. (Dimbleby knows its outcome, doesn’t he, before going on air? They have the graphics ready so it’s not as though it’s genuinely secret till he opens an envelope.) Conservatives largest party rather than Conservative government. Conservatives at 314 rather than 380 or above. Labour at 266 rather than (my own prediction here) 190. The meaning of the crept in, in terms of how well the parties had done. The astonishment was accompanied by caution, a sense it couldn’t be true. The parties were reported to be saying this result didn’t fit their expectations or experience on the ground. The Con party specifically was quoted as saying this doesn’t sound right. Perhaps this amazing poll would be all wrong. But even if it was very wrong, say 30 seats out, that would still be a better result than I’d hoped for. I said to myself: this is the greatest night of my political life.

Politicians said ‘It’s very early yet, let’s wait for some results’. Results came in which might or might not corroborate it. Curtice and Kellner jousted. More and more interesting results arrived. Interviews were cut off to go to counts and announcements. People in municipal halls after midnight cheered. The SNP lost MPs, including very prominent ones: Alex Salmond, Angus Robertson, John Nicolson. Labour didn’t seem to be losing MPs. That was one curious thing – for this election was meant to mow them down like sheaves of wheat. They stood up and endured. They increased their votes and their leads over their opponents, by large margins. And Labour was gaining MPs also. As Reading East and Canterbury came to Labour it felt like a Tony Blair achievement. These Southern English constituencies, ruled out of contention for us since Blair. But won by the party of Jeremy Corbyn. It was unprecedented. The sky grew light: I could see it on TV pictures before I realized it was the same here if I opened the curtains. It’s June. Dawn breaking. I stayed up till after 6. At 5:52 a Hung Parliament was official, and the Prime Minister’s whole venture of calling an election was a ruin. At 6:08 Caroline Lucas, perhaps the British politician I respect the most, was reelected.

I wanted to buy the Guardian but I was asleep half the day. I missed it the next day too: I was at a BFI event all day with sunlight on the Thames at lunchtime. On Sunday I bought the Observer and read two dozen pages of commentary, end to end. I was awed by how much they had assembled, especially as so much had already been said. I was fascinated to look at the electoral map and study the changing vote figures; and the same with the wonderfully clean BBC web pages showing the data, UK-wide and locally. It’s now a week later and the effects of this election are still fresh, our politics still being remade. It brought shock and hope. Now I want to run through some elements of the result.

election map 11.6.2017

The disappointing result for the Con party suggests a collapse in their vote. But that’s not what happened at all: their vote and vote share grew to historically high levels, matching Thatcher and Blair landslides. In that sense it wasn’t a disaster for them at all. They were still popular and lots of people across Britain voted for them. Presumably most of the people who always vote for them, who read their newspapers and live in Con constituencies, voted for them as before. In lots of these places, much doesn’t change. And some new people voted for them: Tom Ewing sagely tried to divine who they were, thinking they were UKIP voters gone Con, people generally happy with Theresa May and oblivious to the supposed narrative of her failure (this is a great point from Ewing: many people don’t care or hear about these narratives, even if my cashier did), and Scottish Unionists tactically voting Con against the SNP. Ewing thought some of these voters could be won over in future. I hope so.

The Con victory was thus forestalled not by Con failure but Labour success. Where did all these Labour voters come from?

a) As UKIP collapsed, UKIP voters surprisingly went back to Labour as well as Con. In fact it was stated that where UKIP didn’t stand, more UKIP voters went back to Labour than where they did. This is a surprising defeat for the Regressive Coalition.
b) More young people voting, encouraged by student activists, student-friendly policies and so on.
c) More people in their 30s-40s voting also, the biggest swing to Labour I believe.
d) Pro-EU ‘Remain’ voters going for Labour. This pattern was announced by the BBC early on. But I find it hard to understand. The most pro-EU party was the Liberal Democrats. Labour had been fiercely attacked by its own side for voting for Article 50. The challenge to the Labour leader a year earlier was at least notionally triggered by his failure to campaign strongly enough to stay in the EU. He was still being criticized in similar when I attended the March for Europe this Spring. In policy, Labour is no longer a pro-Remain party. It is a Soft Brexit party. Odd that passionate EU people chose to vote for that rather than a party more like them.

Perhaps the larger reason is the one Paul Mason believes in: it’s an anti-austerity vote, a vote against cuts and for investment and public spending. This at least makes sense as ‘left populism’ in a volatile period.

Other factors: the popularity of local MPs, many of whom (like my MP) campaigned without reference to the Labour leadership (this was seen as the basis for us holding on to a rump of MPs) and still surged to new heights. People, maybe, voting Labour as a free protest as they were never going to win. (Maybe. But does this ring true as an action? Would you do it? Isn’t it simpler to say those people wanted to vote Labour because they had come to like the idea of what Labour said?) And a last factor that definitely can be credited to Mr Corbyn: the number of volunteers on the ground. Party membership at a level unprecedented in a long time; enough of those new members getting out and involved; more bodies to knock on doors and ring people; a victory for the campaigning grassroots politics that was perhaps Corbyn’s only strategic idea. A very old-fashioned idea, but thank goodness it still proved a good one. And credit one more time to Owen Jones: his one-man get-out-the-vote campaign can claim to have had more concrete influence on this campaign than any other individual in the media outside, presumably, the people still swaying people from right-wing papers whom I mostly get to avoid.

I’m puzzled that the Liberal Democrats didn’t do better – though this wasn’t really an election night surprise; it had been factored into polls all along. They went backwards in vote share, while going from 8 to 12 MPs: a non-‘proportional’ fact benefiting them for once though overall their vote of 2.5 million people merits more like 50 MPs. (The election leaves me more convinced than ever of the virtue of proportional representation.) When the campaign started, the LDs seemed set to take the pro-EU vote, which seemed substantial. They only managed this in a few places, and that can’t be the primary reason they came back a little in Scotland, as the SNP is equally pro-EU. The LDs were squeezed out by ‘the return of two-party politics’: the reverse of what Tim Farron rhetorically ventured in repeatedly saying ‘There’s a vacancy for an opposition in this country’. It’s odd now to recall that his whole pitch started from the assertion ‘Theresa May will be Prime Minister after this election’; I think he even said ‘If the opinion polls are correct, she will win by a landslide’. That forecast was wrong, but it looked right. Perhaps pitching from such a negative starting point wasn’t a winner – but I don’t feel able to blame Farron for starting from the same predictions as the rest of us.

I’ve said that Labour seems to have picked up the pro-EU vote, despite abandoning the EU. If I were a passionate pro-EU Liberal Democrat, I’d be very frustrated by that. As people have now been able to point out since the election, 80% voted for parties that accept Brexit. You could say that amounts to a new Brexit mandate, enlarging upon that of 2016 – if you believed things were this simple, or if you were keen to find new Brexit mandates. I don’t know if the people who chose Labour over LD were people looking for a practical way to challenge the PM’s search for a Brexit mandate (which succeeded terrifically), or people who had given up on resistance to Brexit and become resigned to it. In this supposed Brexit election, Brexit was rarely discussed in any explicit detail. Maybe the LD eclipse amounted to shelving of that concern and a turn to others – ‘austerity’, ‘public services’ and the like. Though even here, the LDs revived their Ashdown-era policy of a hyothecated penny on income tax, and that didn’t make an impact either!

A few days after the election, Tim Farron resigned. He said it was down to the conflict between his religious beliefs and the needs of leading a modern progressive liberal party. I find this odd, as he has held the beliefs all his life and has worked towards being the leader of a modern progressive liberal party for about 20 years. If the conflict is so stark, you’d think he would have noticed it sooner. Farron might simply have been talking about media perceptions and spin. But it seemed more than that. As often, he suggested an inner intensity which is rare in our politics, and which exposes a measure of hypocrisy in how politics and religion are discussed. It’s good for a politician to be ‘the vicar’s daughter’, ‘the son of the manse’, or indeed ‘guided by his Muslim faith’. But it’s not OK to say you have given yourself to Jesus Christ. You should sound religious … but not really.

Then again: if Farron had done better electorally, likely none of this would have mattered. Maybe the religious stuff was an excuse for quitting while he was slightly ahead. I regret his departure, because I liked him and his musical taste, and because he’s on the left of the LDs. His replacement will make any progressive coalition more difficult and less sustainable, and will make a future Con-Lib coalition more feasible.

That’s a good cue to add this observation on Con-Lib coalitions. For seven years it has been solemnly maintained that Nick Clegg + his LD party ‘did the right and necessary, though difficult thing’ and ‘put the country first at a time of crisis’ by going into coalition with a Con party that had not won a majority.

In 2017, with Brexit talks starting in a week, no one has said that Tim Farron and his (admittedly much smaller, so less politically useful) LD party is compelled to ‘do the right and necessary, though difficult thing’ and ‘put the country first at a time of crisis’ by going into coalition with a Con party that has not won a majority. (Notably, no one even says that the DUP must do this either! There is no pressure on them to join a formal coalition.)

On the contrary, it is accepted that this would be inappropriate because the LDs have different views from the Cons on central issues. It is accepted that it is better to leave the Con party staggering on rather than compromise on these views. (And again it’s notable that it’s suggested that, for policy reasons, it could be inappropriate for the Con party to associate with the DUP in order to produce stability.)

This suggests to me that the original talk of Clegg et al doing the difficult but right thing and putting the country first (which they are still solemnly maintaining to this day – which Clegg will still be saying when he is a grey grandee) was in fact false and self-serving, a high-toned non-sequitur which conceals the fact that the 2010 LDs in fact did not have sufficient policy differences with the damagingly pro-austerity Con party; especially as I think the crisis we face now (Brexit negotiation) is more serious and immediate and long-term in its consequences than the supposed crisis in 2010 (a financial situation which, as far as I know, the government has still not managed to rectify). The 2010 Osborne talk of ‘We’re hours from becoming another Greece’ seems even more utterly absurd now than it did then.

In short, the outcome of the 2017 election exposes how bogus the outcome of the 2010 election was.

Northern Ireland suddenly soars back to the centre of political talk. People sound newly expert on the Democratic Unionist Party. I share the doubts about a government propped up by them, but also suspect that some of the fear and anger about their influence are overblown; I doubt they can have much influence in making UK-wide social policy less liberal. I think they just want handouts for NI, which will make them more popular in their own country.

In fact: over the last few weeks of the election I have come to feel that Northern Ireland’s party politics are too distinct to be, logically, a part of Westminster politics. A concrete illustration of this: on TV debates, Plaid and the SNP show up and debate with the UK-wide parties with which they are competing in Wales and Scotland respectively, even though a majority of viewers will be unable to vote for Plaid and the SNP however much we admire what they say. Meanwhile, it is never proposed or expected that the NI parties should contribute to such debates, nor that British parties should go to NI and propose anything. It is always accepted without question that NI parties are, in effect, having ‘their own election’, in which it would be inappropriate to interfere in any way.

Even the prospect of, for instance, Tim Farron saying something substantial about NI politics during a campaign would probably be roundly disdained by all NI parties: it is not really viewed as appropriate for a British political leader to have a view on anything specific that goes on in NI, even though NI parties will join the same Parliament as Farron.

It’s fair to note that this state of affairs results from UK parties’ neglect to stand in NI. Given that UK parties haven’t made themselves an option to NI voters, how can NI voters choose anything but what they have locally? But that then raises the question of why UK parties have stood aside (I’m not sure – it’s a fact that almost no one in the UK ever discusses, too easily taken for granted, but I imagine it’s about not wanting to be caught up in a sectarian scenario which eventually turned to conflict), and whether they could do anything other now. If they can’t, if NI is destined to be contested just by NI parties – then given its pride in its distinct political traditions, it seems most logical that NI should gain some form of political independence, sustained by benign trade arrangements and friendly border agreements with its neighbours.

The SNP’s fall from utter hegemony is precipitous, but should it be so surprising? Isn’t it part of a natural cycle, in which what goes up comes down somewhat? That’s what SNP leaders implied in their own expectation management ahead of the vote. The return of Scottish Cons is incongruous, as the rejection of the Con party seems to have become part of Scotland’s political identity. But I always hazarded that an independent Scotland would see a shake-up with a renewed Con party reasserting its place against the supposed social-democratic norm, now that London was no longer the foe embodying Conservatism. That seems to have happened much sooner than I imagined, in a non-independent Scotland, and in large part as a means to avert independence. Finally, I never really understood why from 2015 people said ‘Labour is finished in Scotland’. I thought that political cycles should be able to bring Labour back to some kind of contention, if they could stick around; and they ought to be helped by having such deep roots in the country. They’ve now multiplied their MPs by seven, and I read that they are only slightly behind the SNP in numerous constituencies. Maybe Scotland is still one of the places should be going for the MPs it needs to gain next time.

HL Observer 11.6.2017

What else should Labour do? Yet another election could come sooner than in my political lifetime. I don’t know if boundary changes will come in first: maybe not if the election comes that soon, but as politics becomes tight again they’re a significant factor. A Radio 4 mathematics programme says that boundary changes will benefit Cons, but not as much as you’d think: it calculates that in a 600-seat Commons they’d be short of a majority by a similar number.

It seems unprecedented for Labour to do this well from where they were: not just the polls, not just the local election results during the general election campaign, not just the tabloid vilification and BBC marginalization, but rather the internal disarray, the fact that 80% of MPs had condemned the leader less than a year before the vote – after that, to rise by 3.45 million must be unprecedented. And it leaves you thinking, if they can do this well from that position, how much better could they do?

Owen Jones and others are loudly calling for Theresa May to leave office. I think I understand the value of the atmosphere this creates: untenability, instability, illegitimacy, things that make the government seem fragile and prone to political attack when it would like to be shoring itself up and restoring respectability. I think I also see how having sought a mandate and lost the mandate she had, she could reasonably be expected to quit – indeed the BBC were wondering about it on election night. Nonetheless I’m not sure her departure would be good political news. She would be replaced by another Con who could only be more popular, and might bring the polling scenario back to their favour. I suppose the only question is how long May stays, and when it best suits us (rather than them) for her to leave office.

Labour is now on some kind of ‘permanent election footing’. But note the mundane aspects: given another election in, say, 3 or 9 months, can they reuse the same slogan (itself unabashedly reused from Tony Blair 20 years before)? Will they need another one? Is someone drafting and testing them? I hope so. Will they use the same manifesto? I think so, as it was called the star of the campaign. Can they have the same underdog, insurgent status? Can we still get those supposed votes of people who voted Labour because we couldn’t win? Will we have lost some of what turned out to be our strategic advantages?

I think the loss of these advantages should be offset by gains. For one thing, the press threw everything they had at Corbyn, to surprisingly little effect. To have neutralized that is an incredible power, like a Terminator (a Corbynator) emerging out of a blast zone unvanquished. We have spent two years waiting for the full onslaught on him under election conditions; now it is hard to see what else they can say about him.

For another, success breeds success. New electoral strength places us in a better position. We’re no longer clinging desperately to longstanding MPs as we thought. We’re clinging to new MPs – needing to hold on to these prizes of Reading and Canterbury, a big strategic job itself – and striking out for new territory. Membership has grown since the election, to 800,000. Those people will likely be more keen to get out and fight next time than last time – which is saying something. We have 70 more MPs to fight the cause and support each others’ campaigns than I expected; and 30 of those have come in on a Corbyn surge.

Labour should make life difficult for the government. But I think it should also take a new confident tone: essentially ‘government in waiting’. It should sound calm, composed, competent. I’m afraid I don’t think Labour should be talking about ‘socialist alternative’ or ‘the chance of a left-wing government in our country’ – which almost no one does, except that John McDonnell is wayward enough to do it. I think Labour should mostly talk the same middling way it has for over 20 years: ‘a fair deal’, ‘a better way for Britain’, ‘standing up for you’, et al. Jeremy Corbyn, so often seen as dogmatic and unimaginative, seems intuitively to get this. I think it was on election night itself that he said something about ‘the new mainstream in our politics’. That’s where I think we need to be, rhetorically: claiming our own social democratic view as the centre ground, not positing it as marginal. ‘Progressive alliance’ talk, which I thoroughly support, should help not hinder that.

I’m not sure how far former doubters and rebels should be brought into key posts, when they’ve been held by people who were willing to serve. I don’t share the view that Chuka Umunna should be made Shadow Chancellor – though I look forward to Rebecca Long-Bailey as Chancellor one day. But I do think the grandees whose indifference I lambasted in a previous post here should follow John Prescott and join in. Alan Johnson can appeal to people in England; Gordon Brown can do his barnstorming job in Scotland; either or more could sway things fractionally our way.

Politics often seems to be about ‘narrative’, in a way that can be banal and dismaying. When ‘the narrative’ is about the uselessness of terrorist sympathizer Corbyn and the stability of sensible Theresa May, you want to get away from narrative to talking sense and facts. That is still a good aspiration. But it just happens that miraculously the narrative has moved. It’s going against hard Brexit, against austerity, and something even more ambitious – against the system, the way things have been, whether you call it neoliberalism or neo-Thatcherism.

Less than a week after the election, Grenfell Tower was ruined by fire, killing over 50 people. Such an awful event shouldn’t be political, you might think. But others, including many residents, say: it is political, in reflecting political choices, issues of social housing and cost-cutting. And the producers of the ongoing ‘narrative’ are happy for it to be political too. One week after the election the images circulated of May gazing up at the towers, surrounded by police; Corbyn hugging and praising a survivor, a little like Bill Clinton after 9/11. Maybe it only looks this way inside my own bubble (which I share with a few million people); maybe the worst of the press are still refusing to show Corbyn in this light, though they probably can’t bring themselves to praise May’s behaviour either. But it seems to me as though the narrative has temporarily gone our way, and we may as well as make the most of this despite knowing that it’s a vacuous way for politics to be understood. One thing does seem to have happened: Jeremy Corbyn is taken seriously. He’s the Leader of the Opposition and he is finally treated as such. When he talks, people pay attention. What he says seems to matter. That’s new.

JC mug 10.6.2017


Close of Polls

VOTE GO ON 8.6.2017.jpg

21:45, Thursday 8th June 2017

Seven hours trying to gather voters. Wind down the high road, drizzle down the back roads of post-war estates. Sun emerging around the blocks around the edge of the heath. On the last surge, a belated magic hour of gold across the grass as I walk closer to the grand houses than I have ever dared. Going back to where I used to live; to various places I nearly moved to but didn’t quite; to places I’ve always found interesting and places I’ve never looked at closely enough. Types of doorbells, pinging, buzzing, chiming. In their absence, different volume levels of knockers and letterboxes. People answering the door much more often today than on previous expeditions: sometimes refusing to say anything, sometimes wanting to talk and giving motives, enthusiastic or grudging. Black and white, younger and older. Tall old houses so stunning I could stand and gaze at them a long time, if we had time, split into flats with red and white Labour posters in their windows. Three outings with three teams, one of which picked up an extra activist who’d just returned from the battle for Croydon. At Labour HQ, 25 to 30 people mingling like it’s a party – not just a Labour Party – though all they’re doing is reporting to base and turning around to go out again. All these volunteers, too many to get to know them all, unpaid, intelligent, good-humoured, dedicated, tireless, uninterested in any of the sectarianism or squabbles the media would want to believe, just working harmoniously for a common goal, the common good.

One thing this experience suggests to me: when faced with disaster, a good thing to do is not to fragment and fret alone, but band together with others and find happy ways to fight together for something better, even if the prospect of real success is too far off to contemplate; for the process of coming together and working for something is worthwhile in itself.

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Lions In My Own Garden


When the election was called it was thought to be 1983 all over again. To be mildly contrarian I started thinking: maybe it could be more like 1987. I think I’d hang on to that thought. It turns out to be a relevant comparison because Labour were judged then, as now, to have had the better campaign, despite losing.

Labour have benefited from the fact that this is a campaign, rather than the usual quiet attrition in which infighting goes on. Maybe various MPs who don’t like the leadership have had to stop focusing on attacking it while they defend their own seats. Jeremy Corbyn has come out fighting and surpassed everyone’s expectations – partly because campaigning seems to be what he likes best. So maybe he needs to be permanently campaigning. If politics was nothing but an election campaign, he would always seem good at it.

It strikes me that though Labour has lost numerous elections since 1983, Jeremy Corbyn has never personally lost one – including his two leadership campaigns. I wonder if that contributes to his confidence. Despite being apparently on the side of politics most condemned to failure, he has not really experienced failure, till today (when Labour will fail to win the election). I have to wonder, now, how he will take defeat, in the early hours of this morning.

The crowds that Corbyn has attracted have been tremendous – as for instance to Gateshead at the start of this final week. John Prescott tweeted: ‘We never pulled crowds like this in 1997’. This is a good time to remark: Prescott’s support of the Labour cause has been moving and inspiring – this from the man who served Tony Blair as loyal deputy for over a decade. But where, even as Labour climbed in polls, were the rest of the Labour Party? The MPs? Defending their own seats: a good excuse, maybe a good reason. But MPs have always done that while also campaigning nationally. A lot of well-known MPs – Jess Phillips, Heidi Alexander, Chuka Umunna et al – have not stood up with the Labour cause as a whole, but acted as though they were fighting purely local campaigns. In some cases this might be necessary for their electoral survival. But I don’t think that excuse is good enough for them all. I think they had a chance to come out for the Labour Party when it mattered, and they didn’t. And the same goes double for those who no longer have constituencies to defend. Neil Kinnock, Gordon Brown, Tessa Jowell, Margaret Hodge. Where were you when the party needed you?

This increases my appreciation of the all-too-small team that has stood with, and indeed comprised, the national campaign. People on the left of the party as I understand it: Rebecca Long-Bailey, Angela Rayner. (Clive Lewis seems no longer to be part of such a gang. I make do with pictures of him campaigning at my old university.) But also: Emily Thornberry, Sir Keir Starmer, Barry Gardiner: people who rallied to the cause and worked for the party when it was needed. Barry Gardiner: a man who was never a Blairite, is not now a Corbynite, is simply a Labour MP who works for a Labour victory. So many Labour supporters have found a new hero in this soft-spoken pugilist.

The last night before polling day, Jeremy Corbyn addressed a rally in the Union Chapel, from the same stage where I once saw Harriet Wheeler sing. He said: You should never be ashamed to admit that you like poetry, and recited:

Rise, like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number!
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you:
Ye are many—they are few.


The Con party will win the most MPs. It seems to me that they will take between 20 and 50 from Labour (so, down to 180-210 for Labour). Yet it is still not quite clear what would count as satisfactory victory for them. If they ended up with just a handful more MPs than they started with – then that would be a kind of failure, after going through all this with a landslide in mind. There could yet be, amid the postmortem Andrew Neil interviews, questions asked about whether May has won enough to justify the whole process.

The election debate that Corbyn attended was enjoyable because only two of the politicians were right-wing, against five progressive parties. But at the same time it was unrepresentative, as the Con party will win over half the seats on its own. The number of progressive voices at an event like that is oddly, and unfortunately, out of whack to the number of progressive votes (or the number of progressive MPs, which is of course a different issue again).

Is the total of nationalist MPs elected in Northern Ireland going to be the highest proportion ever? The very fact that NI is so distinct from the UK, constantly said to have almost no relation to the election most of us have been talking about, contributes afresh to a feeling, for me, that NI doesn’t belong in the UK. It is an anomaly; its democratic processes are only tenuously connected to those in Britain. I know this has long been the case but the impression feels stronger now.

Interlude: Farron, Young

On the 2nd May, early in the campaign, with my father I meet Tim Farron at Lewes Station. On a sunny morning he stands at the far end of the platform, towards the chalk cliffs, with just three other people: local MP, grey-haired woman; TF’s very young aide; maybe some kind of journo – but I’m not sure it’s an interview, I think the local party is just seeing TF off after his support. We approach. I wish I could get a good picture. (TF would probably let me get a picture with him if I asked.) He in bright deep blue suit, open-necked white shirt; must reckon this colour scheme best with his quite red skin, blonde hair. They come by, seeking to get further up the platform, passing maybe a party veteran who encourages them. My father greets Farron as a public figure, saying he’s a Labour voter who’ll vote LD here. He stops and talks to us: his associate and aide nearby. The conversation includes:

  • How is this campaign going? 1,000 majority to overturn. I’d guess she can do it then. TF says if Labour and Green vote for us that’s 15%.
  • Is it Lewes pro-LD and countryside not? Yes, to some extent … the woman says Lewes supports the revolutionary tradition of Tom Paine. Farron talks of Seaford as pro-Brexit and elderly. I didn’t know there was a UKIP vote in Sussex: yes says TF, adding that people weren’t necessarily voting UKIP for Brexit, Europe wasn’t an issue at last election, they’ve made it one – it was a plague on both your houses.
  • TF asks where I am: SE London. Where? Lewisham East. He can’t remember the MP Heidi Alexander. Oh, yes, I know her, he says politely.
  • So you’re confident? TF cautiously: … I’m not sure confident is the word … Optimistic? Yes.
  • Talk of the PM’s boring soundbite persona; TF seems to echo that it’s boring, talks of being 2 weeks in to election, 5 weeks to go. He is about to talk of the implications of people thinking it’s a foregone conclusion – getting into second-guessing and speculation from a partisan stance – when he’s told that some other people on the platform want to meet him. I say wish you all the best here.

TF is fit, quite tall and solid, open, personable, not hiding from the public as TM is. Able to speak volubly, fluently at a moment’s notice; able to be polite and reasonable and give no offence. I’m impressed. On the train he takes a discreet backward-facing seat with his young aide beside, and quietly reads from a yellow ring binder to Victoria; answering his phone once briskly and giving nothing away; talking just a little about things coming up. He walks into Victoria, undisturbed by the dozens of travellers around him.

Farron made a good impression on me. Why hasn’t that happened with the rest of the public? Why haven’t the Liberal Democrats surged, for instance among liberal people who think Labour is too far left or among pro-EU people? I can’t tell. I don’t blame Farron: in truth I think he’s been terrific every time I’ve heard him, never mind his admiration for Prefab Sprout.

The Last Battle

I am struck daily by the courage and dedication of people who have campaigned online and in the media for Labour. Eight hours from the close of the polls, I pay a last tribute to a familiar pair.

I was always irritated by Owen Jones. I still see how he’s irritating. But I also think that he is correct about 95% of things politically, and is politically pragmatic and media-savvy without compromising on principles. That must be an achievement. I admire his relentless campaigning, chivvying, nudging people young and old to vote and to get involved. I also his relentless harrying and chipping away at the enemy, however opportunistic – like the day he retweeted Donald Trump’s attack on Sadiq Khan repeatedly and demanded a response from Theresa May, so he could then complain about the lack of a response. That may have been the same day he called May a threat to national security. He has given his time day after day to the cause. However irritating he can sometimes be, we are fortunate to have him.

I have never found someone so simultaneously preposterous and heroic as Paul Mason. His public expressions of optimism sound delusional. He treats a local council election like landing on Sword Beach. Yet he is a gallant sanguine (as in surgingly full-blooded) voice of labour history, radicalism, boldness, nobility, bringing all these things into our present, in a way that inspires me more than just about any public voice in the world today.


Election Campaign 2017

Corbyn manifesto Guardian.jpg


The next UK general election will take place on June 8th. The Prime Minister announced on the 18th of April that she would seek the election. This required Parliament to vote for it, which happened the next day, 19th April. Some people pointed out that the Fixed Term Parliaments Act had been revealed as meaningless. Others said that it was folly for the Labour opposition to vote to dissolve Parliament and hold the election. But it was not very clear how they could do otherwise, as the opposition in principle should always want the chance to challenge the government. The way things have turned out, the people who criticized Labour for going along with the election look unwise. But as often, commentators can get things wrong and get away with it: no one will remember their mistakes.

They said it because Labour was at a historic low in polling, with its leadership especially unpopular in polls. The Labour leader had been rejected by 4/5 of his own MPs less than a year earlier. A Labour wipeout was predicted, perhaps taking the number of Labour MPs below 200, to 180 or fewer. That could still (as of June 6th) happen. But it is no longer what people are talking about. How people have talked has gone:

  • Labour are doomed: they will fall to 150 or 180 MPs, and may never recover: this is tragic and embarrassing; it is partly the fault of the people who obstinately stood by Jeremy Corbyn.
  • Labour will do a bit better than expected. They have strong local MPs who are dug in and can defend their records. Local campaigns can avoid mentioning the leadership, and win via local loyalty and an enduring attachment to the ‘Labour brand’. Labour will lose, but not as badly as some people might think. In addition, the Liberal Democrats will make a recovery from their low base, partly because of their pro-EU, anti-Brexit stance, and this may help in fighting the Conservative Party. (This was pretty much my own view, except that I would not want to use the phrase ‘Labour brand’.)
  • Labour are doing a bit better than expected: the polls are carrying them to 30% or above, which is what Ed Miliband got last time. Maybe Labour could even hold on to most of the MPs they have. Mind you, an OK popular vote result would not necessarily mean hanging on to the same number of MPs, as the number of MPs is not proportional to the total number of votes. Labour could gain votes but still lose.
  • Hang on – Labour are still climbing in the polls. They are getting up to the mid-30s – the Cons’ poll lead of 22 has been cut to about 10! It’s a surge! – What explains this? I think the short answer is: the equal exposure given to parties by broadcast media under election conditions, combined with an absence of Labour infighting as the party has focused on electoral survival. Labour no longer comes across as a shambolic scenario group of people opposed to each other and irrelevant to government, so much as an energetic alternative government which harries the Cons every day and performs on equal terms with them, more or less, every day. This still has not closed the gap – we are still looking at a Con lead of, say, 11 points – but it has made it more of a contest and made Labour seem a more real contender.
  • Meanwhile, a great many people said: the Conservatives are campaigning disastrously! Much of this seemed to hinge on the two parties’ manifesto launches. Labour’s was acclaimed as containing popular policies. The Cons’ was attacked particularly for its policy on charging people for social care. I don’t have a good understanding of this policy, or what’s wrong with it. But other people seem to! For days, it was the biggest reason that the Con party was flailing. Looking back, that moment of failure was important. It has gone on; it has somewhat defined the campaign, flowing into other campaign failures. These include: Theresa May’s generally bad interview persona, sometimes excruciating; her refusal to turn up at a TV debate, which Corbyn on the day (Wednesday 31st May) decided to turn up at, allowing lots of people to make May’s absence the main takeaway of the whole debate; Corbyn’s continued reference to the same trope, for instance ahead of a TV programme featuring them both two days later (Friday 2nd May); May’s apparently panicky failure to go on Woman’s Hour, on which Corbyn has struggled (even I found that painful listening), and her refusal to talk to local newspapers (despite her party having bought the front page of dozens of them: its targeted campaigning will probably still prove effective); renewed policy interest in a Con MP over expenses at the previous election (an issue that some had said was the reason this election was called in the first place).
  • Meanwhile, two terrorist attacks took place: after a pop concert in Manchester on Monday 22nd May, and at London Bridge and Borough Market on Saturday 3rd June. The narrative of response to these events starts to grow worn (and this will increase as such events recur). Shock, rolling news, solemn voices, mourning, floral tributes, minutes’ silences, multiple silences at football matches and other public events, debates over security as public dialogue resumes, news of police activities and arrests (but the actual perpetrators always die on the spot these days), sometimes saccharine tributes that drown the essence of whatever the original tragedy was and make it impossible to see or feel it anymore (I thought the Manchester tribute concert of Sunday 4th June went this way) – and another attack, and off it goes again. This is growing all too familiar, but it seems new to have it, twice (so far), in an election campaign.
  • You would think the political result would either be: 1) security and anti-terrorism are right-wing themes: this is good for the Con party, or 2) we’re in danger, we’d better stick to the status quo (in fact we probably shouldn’t have an election at all) – also good for the Con party. Oddly, that doesn’t seem to have happened yet. In fact after the second attack the PM’s alleged attempt to politicize what was supposed to be an apolitical break in campaigning has brought a strong political response: on the evening of Sunday 4th June Jeremy Corbyn made a resolute, statesmanlike speech on terrorism that Owen Jones said was the best he had ever made. Police cuts as a form of austerity making us unsafe became a Labour line of attack. Mayor Sadiq Khan stated that the Met police had lost too many officers. Owen Jones spent the next day on TV and online going so far as to say ‘Theresa May is a threat to the security of this country’. Perhaps all this is too much in a bubble to count. Perhaps the Con advantage on security will still win. But this pro-Labour pushback on police and security has been a heartening political response to a situation, dire in itself, which could otherwise have further very bad political consequences.
  • One more stage in the story: by the end of last week (say Friday June 2nd), polls showing Labour up to within 3 points of the Con party, at 42/39; other polls even saying 41/40. The result, in leftist mood: we have gone from the virtual resignation to disaster described above to people talking of winning the election, of a hung Parliament, or of the Con majority being cut – which would make the PM’s rationale for calling the election in the first place look untenable. I fear that all this talk is very over-optimistic. I share in the desire for optimism and crumbs of hope, and indeed this polling shift has made the last two weeks the most exciting political time I can remember in years. But I don’t find it plausible that we have advanced so far in these few weeks. We can assume a Labour defeat; the only question is its scale. One figure I’ve heard, amid the vast amount of radio, TV and written news I’ve consumed, is: after all this, May needs a majority of 40 or above for credibility. I suppose whatever she gets, she’ll call it credible. I think we can assume it will be higher than 40. Sensible seasoned estimates say 60, 70 or more. I find it hard to see how this all works in terms of actual numbers of MPs, but let’s see: if they’re going to gain, say, 60 seats, then perhaps 15 could be from the SNP, one from the Liberal Democrats, 44 from Labour – leaving Labour at about 190. OK: let that be my prediction.

Soon, I’m going out to a Labour rally. If I have time, I will write a few more memories of this unexpectedly exciting campaign before polling day.


The Last Canvass


I stood on a street corner waiting for the local Labour Party to arrive. No sign. I wondered if I was in the wrong place. Then within two minutes a dozen of them, from all directions, introducing themselves and taking red and yellow stickers to wear. We walked up the hill on a very targeted run of the houses, only knocking on doors left over from a previous survey. Rain started to fall.

In a housing estate the team spread out. I found one woman, a continental European perhaps, to say she’d vote for us. Up the hill again I stood with a colleague in the porch of a grand house split into 6 flats. He dealt with the first half, including a shambling spacey character with a string belt who seemed perhaps on drugs, perhaps something more permanent. He was like a figure from Withnail & I. He told us he wasn’t interested in voting. Then he asked, apropos of not voting: Will I be subject to a fine of one thousand pounds?

Alone, I pressed the 6th buzzer. He wouldn’t tell me his voting intention. I walked away uphill. The rest of the party was nowhere to be seen. Under dripping trees I climbed past beautiful, elegant houses of brown brick and white stone. I walked all the way round to the heath. No sign of my comrades. I thought I would wind up having to go back home. Then I found them again in another housing estate. One canvasser at a time was going into each building, then emerging as another went in to knock on another door – a curiously inefficient approach. On the first floor I was answered by a 30-something male who said yes, they vote for our local MP. He wanted to get back to his wife feeding their child. Almost everyone who answered the door to me was busy like this.

I had lost the team again. The rain fell. I thought, perhaps if the rain falls hard enough, some householder will take pity on me and offer me their vote.

I wandered back into the estate one more time in hope of finding them. A local Labour activist of decades’ standing, an elderly lady in a bright red mackintosh coat, was coming back. As she and I walked back to find our colleagues on these roads of extraordinary houses, she told me she knew every door around here. She pointed to an old post office, an old stables. She asked me what kind of literature I specialized in.

I knocked on the door of a house with a foyer so grand it was like looking into a stately home. The lady of the house told me they wouldn’t be voting Labour. Every house on the road was grand, but every one seemed different. Round a corner I was sent down a long path, which the veteran lady said was a place to buy drugs. She didn’t really mean it as a recommendation. It was like a backroad, between two rows of houses, but so long and deep it was almost like going into the woods. The other canvasser with me did his job and turned back. The path went on. The rain hung in the thick trees overhead. It was like going into a scene from The Wind in the Willows or Black Swan Green or Penda’s Fen. At last I reached the first ‘cottage’ I was supposed to canvass. It was a buzzer at the back, or maybe the front, of someone’s long garden. I gave it my friendly opening spiel. A low muttering came back. I waited silently. I wasn’t quite sure he’d spoken. He spoke again: Did you catch what I just said?. I brightly replied: Oh, no, actually, I didn’t! He spoke again: I’m not going to tell you how I’m going to vote.

I walked on looking for the other ‘cottage’. I couldn’t find it. At the far end of this mysterious side road I turned around. It took so long to walk back I thought, given that I’ve already lost this team twice tonight, it was daft for me to go all the way down here alone. But down another hill I found them. Back in the first housing estate to knock on the doors that hadn’t answered earlier, I watched my colleagues spread out again. A woman answered a door, said she’d just come back home, wasn’t ready to think who she’d vote for. I thanked her for her time. On the corner we were told that our local teams had now covered the entire ward in five weeks. This was the last piece of the picture. Our organizer handed out Mr Kipling angel slices as a reward and told us about polling day.

A British Asian man from Stockport drove me the short distance home. He told me about local history and said Glenda Jackson lived in a house we were passing. He said he had campaigned in the 1983 election, had seen Harold Wilson beside Michael Foot, had torn up his card after the Iraq War, had come back to campaigning two weeks ago. He told me of how Yvette Cooper was being sent out to speak for the party now. It was all very interesting. I said I’d see him again soon.