John Harris

Journalist & Author

Archive for July, 2012

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Politics must respond to this pile-up of corporate disgrace | John Harris

Monday, July 23rd, 2012

As global corporations continue to usurp democracy, the left must make more noise and force our leaders to take risks

Imagine a watershed turn of events: a couple of the big unions discovered ballot-rigging, a respected left-leaning pressure group charged with embezzlement, one or two Labour councils found guilty of corruption. Picture the scandals arriving one after the other, and being matched by similar news from abroad. The right would have a field day, making its usual claims about the mendacity and corruption that always infect the left’s delusions: it would be time, they would say, to finally drive out the last of the Red Menace.

Now, consider the headlines of the last few weeks, and what they say about some of the pillars of the order ushered in during the Thatcher-Reagan years, and left largely untroubled by every government since. The Libor scandal has enmeshed Barclays, and more than a dozen banks are also being investigated, including Citigroup, Deutsche Bank, JP Morgan Chase, and UBS – all suspected of actions that may look like the stuff of financial arcana, but which have had disastrous consequences for millions of homeowners, small businesses and public institutions across the planet. Some financial insiders are talking about nothing less than “the banking industry’s tobacco moment”, referencing the litigation in the late 1990s that cost cigarette manufacturers over $200bn.

HSBC is among the accused, and also freshly discovered laundering money for – and again, the hugeness of these stories hits home – the largest criminal syndicate in the world, among other nefarious interests. Now, questions are being asked of the Tory trade minister Lord Green, the bank’s former chairman and CEO – another candidate, perhaps, for that daily parade of people (Masters of the Universe, we used to call them) whose variety of power and omniscience rarely seems to have extended to what some of their key employees were up to.

As with the equally totemic scandals that have so burned News Corp and G4S, symbolism abounds, and each story comes with a sharp sense of right and wrong. It’s safe to say there will be many more. And the political fallout is endless, both here and in the US.As the scandals pile up, it becomes clear that Mitt Romney, who owes his millions to the unseemly world of private equity, is a man completely out of time. Over here, though, the travails of the coalition are traced to the personalities of David Cameron and George Osborne, or the balance of power within the Conservative party, there is a much more fundamental explanation: that as the summer’s biggest stories prove, their attachment to the post-Thatcher settlement is plainly running out of road.

But what exactly is going on in the Labour party? Inevitably, the Blair and Brown governments’ complicity in what is unfolding is painful, though at least one person seems to have a sense of what’s required: Ed Miliband understands the essentials of the moment, and some of the thinking it demands. But when it comes to far too many Labour people, to talk about a watershed economic moment is still to invite blank looks, and requests to move the conversation on to something less challenging (crime, or even immigration). Crises of capitalism are for academics and residents of the lunatic fringe. The Labour way is the politics of increment; better to talk about hot meals for the elderly than the fate of neoliberalism.

Some of that may be down to a timorousness that often seems to be part of Labour’s DNA: the same ingrained trait, perhaps, that led Ramsay MacDonald and Philip Snowden to so disastrously chain themselves to a doomed way of economic thinking at the end of the 1920s. But they were comparative greenhorns, in charge of a young party and dazzled by the establishment. This generation of Labour politicians, by contrast, are meant to be urbane, well-schooled in power, and capable of not just being ideologically flexible but thinking big.

So why is Ed Balls still warning about the dangers of “excessive” City regulation? While such renowned radicals as Mervyn King, Nigel Lawson and Norman Lamont advocate breaking up the banks into their retail and investment divisions, is it right that Labour’s stated policy should fall so far short? And how come so many senior Labour people seem far more comfortable talking about the supposed strictures of austerity than any convincing alternative to an economic model that seems to be falling into such disrepute?

Three or four years ago, I read a brilliant short text by the academic Colin Crouch, then chairman of the department of social and political sciences at the European University Institute in Florence. Published in 2004, it was titled Post-democracy, and was among the most penetrating analyses of the modern condition I have read, not least when it came to the failings of politics.

Its essential point was simple enough: that after the brief postwar interlude of “maximal democracy”, the decline of the labour movement and the growth of global corporate power had led to developments that now define too many societies: rising inequality, the demise of redistributive taxation, weak trade unions, and politicians – from all sides – with one overriding focus: “the concerns of a handful of business leaders whose special interests are allowed to be translated into public policy”.

In his conclusion, he set out a sobering prospectus: “On many of the major issues which currently confront us, the claims made by global firms that they will not be able to operate profitably unless freed from regulation and subordination … will continue to trump all democratic debate.” In other words, the writ of Buckles, Green, Diamond, Murdoch and the rest would continue to run, Westminster politics would come down to issues of detail, and the supposed centre-left would be complicit.

Though bleak, the analysis seemed watertight – but in the midst of all this scandal (and in the wake of Crouch’s post-crash book, The Strange Non-Death Of Neolberalism), I contacted him to see if even his analysis allowed for the idea that something significant finally seems to be afoot. He agreed that “widespread criticism” of corporate power and its grip on politics seems to be snowballing. “All of these companies,” he said, “feel sufficiently able to control their environment that they can take these very high risks with their reputations.” And, he asked, “Is this hubris? Have they stepped too far? And what are we going to find in a couple of years’ time? Have they opened a Pandora’s box of criticism?” He made appreciative reference to Ed Miliband, but counselled against that stereotypical leftie hand-wringing whereby mainstream politics is expected to deliver without pressure from outside: the point, as proved by such groups as 38 Degrees and UK Uncut, is to make enough noise to convince politicians to take risks, or to push them out of tired orthodoxies.

“There’s no end to history,” he said, agreeing that the great pile-up of corporate disgrace may well be only the start. The question of whether politics can convincingly respond is something whose importance seems difficult to overstate: it’s the biggest issue of the age, to which we should soon be demanding an answer.

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Tony Blair’s unfinished business

Thursday, July 19th, 2012

What’s behind the former PM’s sudden return to the political stage? He’s only 59, the picture of perma-tanned vitality and keen to ‘make a difference’. Could a fourth stint in No 10 even be on the cards? We shouldn’t rule it out

The job is never finished,” said Tony Blair in an interview last month, and now we know what he means.

A few years ago, Blair seemed to have all but disappeared into a world of distant diplomacy, lucrative business consultancy and dealings with questionable regimes: a man forever sitting in some international departure lounge, with much more on his mind than the small change of British politics.

But now look. Over the past month or so, by way of marking the fifth anniversary of his exit from Downing Street, he has sat for three revealing interviews, and served notice that he wants to somehow be freshly involved in domestic affairs. He popped up at a Labour fundraising dinner at Arsenal’s Emirates stadium, where tickets were £500 a head. He was greeted by the obligatory crowd of protesters, still furious about his role in the Iraq war – but his presence lent the event enough pizzazz to raise what Labour insiders call “a substantial six-figure sum”, and some whispers claim was as much as £500,000.

The following day, it was announced that he had been recruited to Labour’s policy review, advising shadow ministers on the legacy of the London Olympics. On the face of it, this was a rum turn: a man once in charge of the most grave affairs of state, reduced to thinking about what to do with a cluster of expensive architecture in east London, and the immediate future of school sport. But as far as the press were concerned, the details were less important than the obvious symbolism: “Look who’s come back! Tony Blair’s new job with Labour as he shares stage with Ed Miliband” was the headline in the Daily Mail; “Meet the new Labour adviser: Tony Blair,” said the Guardian.

Taking soundings from Labour high-ups, one gets the sense of cold water being poured on the more excited accounts of the ex-leader’s return: Blair is not about to start attending shadow cabinet meetings, or preparing for a role as and when Ed Miliband makes it to Downing Street.

“There’s not more to this than meets the eye,” insists an insider close to the current leader, though the same source acknowledges the media oomph of Blair’s modest political comeback. Miliband’s mission, he says, is not just to restore Labour’s sense of purpose, but “put the family back together” – and bringing Blair in from the cold is all part of the script. There are also rumblings about Blair wanting to patch up his relationship with the party he can still offend to its core – as happened when he published his autobiography, whose infamous final chapter found him making supportive noises about the coalition, and appearing to endorse its stringent brand of austerity.

Though Miliband won the leadership by defining himself against New Labour, senior party figures insist that there is at least some of the Blair manual that remains in place: the importance of unity, the fact that “different times always require different solutions”, and the self-evident importance of winning elections. Such, it seems, are the semiotics of the widely circulated photograph taken last week, in which Blair and Miliband posed with their wives for a picture that was meant to convey common cause, but could not quite disguise an inescapable sense of unease (not least on the face of Cherie Blair, who wore the kind of stick-on smile one would expect to see at a bad wedding reception).

As far as Blair is concerned, however, his new enthusiasm for British politics is intended to lead to more than a small policy sinecure and the odd photo opportunity. When he appeared on the Andrew Marr programme at the end of June, he said: “I’ve always said I’m a public service person first … I’d have been happy carrying on as prime minister, I’d have been happy taking the job as president of the EU. But if I’m not doing that, I’m going to make a difference in a different way. Where I can contribute, I will. If people want to listen, that’s fine. If they don’t, that’s also fine.”

Tony Blair is 59 years old. He ceased being prime minister on 27 June 2007 – and since then, he has put himself at the centre of a labyrinthine tangle of business, diplomatic and philanthropic interests. He remains the diplomatic representative of the so-called “Quartet” – the UK, Russia, the US and the EU – in the Middle East, and is close to his 90th visit to the region. His Faith Foundation is pledged to “promote respect and understanding about the world’s major religions and show how faith is a powerful force for good in the modern world”. He also heads the Africa Governance Initiative, which currently works with the rulers of Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Liberia, Guinea – and, as of last month, newly independent South Sudan. There is also a Blair-led initiative called Breaking The Climate Deadlock, intended to somehow encourage international progress on Climate Change, and the Tony Blair Sports Foundation, which works with socially excluded young people in north east England.

And then there is Tony Blair Associates, his business advisory service. Via this set-up, he is paid an annual fee put at around £2m by the investment bank JP Morgan. The Swiss insurance giant Zurich pays him an estimated £500,000 a year. A Blair speech to a corporate audience comes in at around £200,000.

Blair is also a paid adviser of the governments of Kuwait and Kazakhstan: the former is charitably described in diplomatic circles as a “limited democracy”, while in the latter, the government routinely uses torture against political dissidents, and security forces recently killed at least 13 striking oil workers.

On top of all this, there are his legendarily complicated business arrangements, which fall under the auspices of a “management company” called Windrush Ventures, the focus of controversy about his tax affairs (though Blair has recently insisted that he pays 50% tax on all his earnings).

Some reports put his takings since leaving Downing Street at around £80m, though his aides and associates are always at pains to claim that his business work subsidises his humanitarian and philanthropic efforts, on which he spends at least half his time. “This notion that I want to be a billionaire with a yacht – I don’t! I am never going to be part of the super-rich. I have no interest in that at all,” he recently told Lionel Barber, the editor of the Financial Times. Such, according to some observers, is at least part of his motivation for returning to the political fray: he wants to remind the British public that he has his mind on much higher subjects than his sizable property portfolio and where the next big consultancy contract might be coming from.

Behind his renewed interest in British politics, there may also be something more existential: the restlessness and frustration of a man who, five years ago, found himself in good health, and brimming with the insights amassed after 10 years in Downing Street – but with no high-profile outlet. As David Cameron may soon discover, such is one side effect of the modern fondness for electing leaders in their early 40s: even if they manage to win a third term, they may well be handed their metaphorical P45 long before they are minded to retire.

“The norm is that you do your period as prime minister and then you go,” says Blair’s biographer, Anthony Seldon. “And you don’t do anything memorable: you go off and write your memoirs and you tell people how everybody else is stupid and they never should have got rid of you, and then you die.”

He goes on: “Prime ministers have tended to be crushed by the job: so exhausted that they don’t have an appetite for anything big afterwards.” But Blair, he says, presents a very different picture: whereas such premiers as Harold Wilson and Margaret Thatcher left office with a clear sense of their health in sharp decline, Blair is the very picture of perma-tanned vitality. “He’s got the energy. He sets great store by his physical fitness regime. He’s 59, but he has the health of a 49-year-old.”

Mere “micro-jobs”, says Seldon, will inevitably frustrate him. “And also, he has huge unfinished business.”

If all political careers end in failure, then the mind of any departing prime minister will inevitably be filled with regrets – and Blair has plenty. Thanks partly to Gordon Brown, the Labour party never really bought into his vision of so-called public sector reform, and though the coalition has outsourced and marketised with a zeal copied over from New Labour, Blair still seems pained that his own side was never nearly as enthusiastic.

There is also a source of disquiet that’s altogether more straightforward: as Seldon bluntly puts it: “He wants to be remembered for things other than Iraq.” He mentions the grim fate of Anthony Eden, who died 20 years after the debacle of Suez, “and was never able to clear his name”; somehow, he says, Blair is set on ensuring he is remembered for more than his most disastrous foreign policy, partly by reminding us of the insights he can bring to everyday politics.

But here, there may be a problem. Many of Blair’s prescriptions for Britain are very vague: the kind of platitudinous, aphoristic stuff that David Miliband learned at his knee, and which arguably cost the latter the Labour leadership. The song remains largely the same: as Blair sees it, the world is divided between “the open-minded and the closed minded”. A key modern debate is between “the politics of the anger and the politics of the answer”. Labour has to have “strong modern policy” and “be very much in the centre ground”. He wants, he says, “to emphasise how fast the world around us in changing and how incredibly dangerous it is to stand still.”

It is all rather forgettable – and underneath it, one suspects, is the kind of centrist, essentially free-market politics that was rather killed by the crash of 2008. What, you wonder, does Blair have to say about the regulation of the banks, Britain’s toxic levels of inequality, or the fate of the so-called squeezed middle? “I am an unashamed third wayer,” he recently told one interviewer. But what, 15 years after the glory days of 1997, does that mean?

Patrick Diamond worked for Blair in the Downing Street policy unit, between 2001 and 2004, when Blair was at the peak of his prime ministerial powers; his chief focus was his boss’s beloved reform of public services. “The Third Way was associated with a set of positions which the financial crisis has rendered less relevant, if not irrelevant,” he says. He mentions New Labour’s “overly relaxed” approach to the City, the lowly importance it attached to housing, and “a lack of concern for the diminishing of manufacturing”. Diamond was a central player in the New Labour project, but he acknowledges that if the people with whom he worked are going to remain in tune with the times, their politics has to be revised, just as they themselves revised Labour’s pre-Blair positions. “I don’t know whether Tony Blair is doing that, or whether there’s a prospect of him doing that,” he says. “But that’s the interesting question.”

It certainly is, and so is this: if Blair were to come back into British politics, what would he do?

“I think it’s very unlikely that he’ll come back in any formal capacity. There’s a whole world of difference between him making a contribution to the Labour party policy review and actually taking any position. I suspect that if he were going to come back into public life, it would be as a key figure in one of the big international institutions. That’s the sort of role I could see him playing.”

When Blair appeared on the Andrew Marr show, there was one stretch of the interview in which his mastery of the political game looked as brilliant as ever: when he was asked about the fate of the European Union. He delivered a summary of its deep problems, a plan for its recovery, and the case for Britain’s membership, up to and including the joining of a reformed euro – and everything came with the kind of confidence and razor-sharp logic that most modern leaders get nowhere near. Even ardent Blair-haters would have had to agree: here was proof that for all his mistakes, transgressions and howling misjudgments, there remains something magnetic about his talents.

As Seldon sees it, Blair’s renewed enthusiasm for the EU may shine light on a possible next career move, something backed up by a recent expression of regret that when the European presidency came up in 2009, he did not get the job.

“The EU would provide the platform for him,” says Seldon. “So would the UN or the IMF. Nato would be too small for him. He’d also love to be American president, but there are some nationality issues around that.”

Blair has also said, let’s not forget, that if he was offered another term as British prime minister, he’d take it.

“Definitely,” says Seldon. “He’d love it. He’d look upon himself as an older, wiser, more measured figure. It would be an absolute ecstasy beyond his imagination to be invited back as prime minister. He could then lay the ghost of Iraq to rest, advance Labour’s cause, complete the agenda that Gordon buggered up – and it would give him something to do.”

And should we completely rule that out?

The answer comes back in a flash, conjuring up a mind-boggling scenario indeed. “No. Absolutely not.”

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Without festival dads we’d have no festivals | John Harris

Monday, July 16th, 2012

So over-30s are too old to rock? Tell Springsteen, the Stone Roses and an industry that relies on their support

A confession: despite my 42 years, I occasionally listen to Radio 1. Usually, it’s a matter of being pushed rather than pulled: a flat in-car iPod battery or an episode of Moral Maze, and I’ll be there. But usually only briefly: some of its evening output aside, the station seems to have long since reverted to the template minted in the days of Dave Lee Travis and the rest, whereby “personality” DJs recite poor anecdotes in between today’s hits, and anyone with A-levels is quickly forced elsewhere. At its worst, I’d rather listen to Heart, which is saying something.

Now, to my relief, I find out that the station doesn’t want me anyway. Just listen to Ben Cooper, Radio 1’s controller – also 42, but set on pursuing some kind of generational warfare by proxy: “We have what I call ‘festival dad’ who refuses to grow up and will now take his family to hear new music at festivals,” he says. Cooper wants rid of such people, which may push the age of Radio 1’s average listener below the current 32, and get the BBC Trust off his case. His big weapon in this crusade is one Nick “Grimmy” Grimshaw, who is replacing Chris Moyles as host of Radio 1’s breakfast show, and must apparently purge the programme’s public of up to a million people who are over 45. Imagine that: a DJ job description that involves the obligation to shed listeners! Then again, I think I saw “Grimmy” on TV once, and from what I can recall, he’ll be fine.

Now, the origin of the term “festival dad” may lie in reports from last year of David Cameron’s attendance at the pedestrian, decidedly non-new music Cornbury festival. But never mind that: I think I know what Cooper is driving at, and it deserves a response. First, festival dad has not refused to grow up: he has kids, which usually entails at least some embrace of responsibility. Second, if his children are much under 10, he does not take them to a festival to see “new music”, but to enjoy what’s going on in the kids’ field – face painting, Mr Tumble, Dick and Dom, the usual – in the hope that he may later snatch 20 minutes of me-time to see something he likes: increasingly, nothing resembling “new music”, but something of a more dependable vintage (more of which in a moment).

Moreover, to assume that festival dad is any kind of pejorative concept is to fall for the great delusion on which Radio 1 is still built, and to which Cooper has to subscribe: that true popular culture remains the preserve of the under-30s, and anyone still interested beyond the age of 35 is an embarrassment. But that idea breathed its last around 30 years ago – and just as adolescents now swoon over acts old enough to be their grandparents (there would have been teenagers watching Bruce Springsteen and Paul McCartney at Hyde Park on Saturday, and booing when the plug was pulled), so parents can maintain a consuming interest in the rock whirl, even with the proverbial pram in the hall.

My generation has grown up: we have the offspring, jaded worldview and bloodshot eyes to prove it. We do indeed take the family to festivals: my own favourites are the Green Man, and the brilliant Camp Bestival, an event seemingly tailor-made for festival dads. Via our dutiful spend on CDs, it is us who keep what remains of the music industry in business; and, moreover, it is musicians of our age – and above! – who now pull in much the biggest crowds.

The Stone Roses are the season’s most celebrated attraction, and they’re all knocking 50. The Reading and Leeds festivals – supposedly the last redoubt of “the kids” – will be headlined by the Cure (whose leader, Robert Smith, is 53) and the Foo Fighters, with an average age of 43.6. Axiomatically, fortysomething Radiohead are much better than the twentysomething Vaccines. In other words, if you don’t like festival dads, ask yourself this: how come dads now top the bills at festivals?

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Local democracy: the future looks bleak for political activism | Analysis

Friday, July 6th, 2012

Party faithful soak up gripes about bins – but is anyone at the top listening to their woes? John Harris reports

Ron Hogben steps out from his groundfloor flat and lets rip: problems with his bins, the lack of parking, bus lanes, the cost of replacing his windows, why Britain should get out of what he insists on calling “the EEC”, and the crazy excesses of the 2012 Olympics. I then ask him about his view of party politics. “Let’s be truthful: you get a local MP that promises you this, that and the other, but he’s only going to toe the line,” says Hogben, 59. “My idea of a politician is a thief, a liar and a cheat.”

It’s a drizzly weekday night on the Doddington estate in Battersea. Armed with a petition decrying the ”shocking state of disrepair” of a nearby children’s playground, seven Labour party activists, all under 35, are trying to bridge the gap between politics and ordinary life. It is not easy. Moreover, the party has long been on the wane.

One of the clearest plotlines of the Democratic Audit report – a study into the state of democracy in Britain over the last decade – is bound up with the huge decline in party membership, and in traditional political activism. Despite minor growth spurts, the last 50 years have seen the Conservatives come down from about 2 million members to 177,000, and Labour from almost 1 million to 194,000. In 1964, the then Liberal party claimed 280,000 members; the current figure for the Lib Dems is near 65,000.

The share of the British electorate who carry a party card was 10% in the 1960s, but is now a mere 1.1%, among the lowest figures in Europe. Even among those who are still members, rates of activism have come down. And other grim statistics abound: Labour mislaid over half its membership while it was in power, and since David Cameron became Tory leader the Conservatives have lost 81,000 members. Meanwhile, campaign machines have been centralised – and, as the report puts it, “The three main parties have become increasingly reliant on forms of corporate support as membership dues wither away.”

Battersea’s constituency Labour party claims that in the past two years, it has managed to increase its numbers by 50%, which reflects Labour claims of surges that followed the last general election and Ed Miliband’s election as leader – but on a national level, Labour membership remains 4,000 lower than it was at the time of the Iraq war, and under a fifth of the size it was in the glory days of the first Wilson government. Here, though, they think they may have some kind of answer: the local party has led the charge away from the old model of Labour party meetings, at which the procedural equivalent of cabaret was provided by the obligatory monthly resolution (for the details, read John O’Farrell’s Labour party memoir Things Can Only Get Better, set in the Battersea constituency). Each month, there’s a discussion-based event often addressed by a member of the shadow cabinet, and party business seems informal, open, and prevailingly social, a bit like the Tories do it.

Which makes me wonder: For all that such a way of working might appeal to new members, how do tonight’s canvassers exert any meaningful influence on the people at the top?

A few of the activists visibly bristle. “I find it so interesting that you’re talking about, like, resolutions and policy,” says 22-year-old Hannah Cusworth, who joined the party three years ago, and has just started work as an English teacher. “That’s not how I see being part of the Labour party. For me, I guess the way I spend most of my time is going out on the doorstep and talking to people, and then trying to have discussions … like, when shadow cabinet ministers come down here, I can talk about the issues. It’s much more about face-to-face stuff than resolutions.”

She says the last word in the same way that some people reluctantly swear.

For some people, this will not do at all. As the Labour party became hollowed out, a smattering of veteran activists tried to reverse the decline, and stop the squashing of Labour’s last traces of internal democracy. But it’s telling that their fate seems to be a microcosm of the wider decline of the party’s membership. Six years ago, I can remember writing about a group called Save the Labour Party; but aptly enough, they could apparently not even save themselves: one of their founders, Peter Kenyon, describes their campaign as “languishing”, and now dedicates his efforts to something called the Labour Democratic Network.

With no little defiance, h e puts Labour’s membership decline down not to unstoppable sociological forces, but the fact that party leaders has been hostile or indifferent to the idea of recruiting new members, and giving the party a renewed voice. “Ask yourself: when did you last hear an authentic appeal to be active in political parties?” he says. “Who was the last great champion of party member? The last voice was John Prescott, who took up the cause of getting one million Labour members. But the Blairites simply shut that down.” In addition, he claims, New Labour’s increasing antipathy to local government had a negative effect on local parties, and the umbrage taken by members at everything from the Iraq war to the privatisation of public services also did its work.

Within the Conservative party, Kenyon’s closest equivalent is probably John Strafford, an activist of some 48 years’ standing who is in charge of a group called the Campaign for Conservative Democracy. Since 1995, it has been pushing the case for a new party constitution, a revived party conference that might actually debate things again, and national officials who would be elected rather than appointed. Strafford, who lives in the Conservative stronghold of Beaconsfield, reckons he gets 25 to 30 people at the group’s meetings, and has 650 friends on Facebook. Like Kenyon, he goes straight to an aspect of the debate about the decline of parties that has now become a cliche: the fact that though party membership has fallen, the numbers of people signed up to such organisations as the National Trust and the RSPB have exploded. Whatever that denotes, he says, it is not across-the-board civic disengagement.

“People want to participate and have influence,” he says. “And when they don’t find those things, they leave. We seem to be losing 30,000 members a year,” he says. “20,000 of those are people who join, find they can’t really participate or have influence, and leave. The other 10,000 are deaths. The result is that the average age of party members has been increasing. And fairly soon, we’ll be dropping off the end of the log.”

Two days after my evening in Battersea, I arrive in Ipswich, a constituency snatched by the Tories from Labour in 2010 – and where, until recently, the borough council was run by a trailblazing Conservative-Lib Dem coalition, who gave a flavour of the world to come by pursuing a controversial programme of cuts. While the Olympic torch arrives elsewhere in the town centre and brings out vast crowds, I have a quiet couple of drinks with three local activists: 62-year-old Bob Hall, who works as a lorry driver; a 55-year-old émigré from the East End and “confidence coach” called Nadia Cenci; and 37-year-old Lee Reynolds, a telecoms specialist. All three acknowledge that over the past 10 years or so, local membership levels have dwindled and that outside election time, it is often hard getting people out to canvass. It may also be a token of how much activists must now do that all three have either stood for or served on the borough council – a job that Cenci still does, and in which she takes no little pride.

When I ask them why they think parties have so shrunk, they mention the MPs’ expenses crisis, and the modern deluge of information, from which people seem simply to switch off. Reynolds also talks about the sharp contrast between the past two decades of effective consensus, and times when much more was at issue. “When you had something to fight for, you would have had mass membership, because people were fearful of something else. When you see documentaries about the 1980s, it was like warfare. People had a real clarity of choice between Labour and Conservative. But if there’s less to fight for, why would anyone want to belong to a political party?”

We talk about something that the people at the top of the main parties might do well to bear in mind. Cenci, who has a winning, in-touch quality that presumably accounts for her local political success (”I can predict who’s going to win the X Factor before they get to the final,” she tells me), last went to the Conservative party conference in 2010. It was in Birmingham, where wealthier delegates, as well as the usual hangers-on and lobbyists – and, let’s not be coy, journalists – made the most of high-end hotels and restaurants. But not her: “I think it cost me about £400altogether,” she says. “And that is too much money. How can people afford that?

“The conference, for me, is not a place where we go to be listened to,” she goes on. “”We go to hear other people: we’re spoken to. There’s some debate and discussion, but that’s not the same as influence. What would make me go again is if I had someone’s ear, rather than them having mine.”

Reynolds agrees. “If someone said, ‘Look – you have to spend £400, but you can challenge the elites, and engage with members’ … of course people are going to want to go.”

Cenci takes a sip of her half of cider and then says something that may chime with Britain’s remaining party faithful, dutifully knocking on doors and soaking up people’s complaints about bins and bus lanes, while their leaders pay them far too little attention: “I wouldn’t call them elites,” she says. “I’d just call them … elusive.”

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On the beat with Labour canvassers – video

Friday, July 6th, 2012

John Harris hits the streets with Labour party members on the Doddington estate in Battersea, as they campaign to save a playground

John Harris
Laurence Topham

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