John Harris

Journalist & Author

Archive for August, 2013


Len McCluskey: let battle begin

Saturday, August 31st, 2013

Are Labour and the unions headed for a historic split? Bring it on, says Len McCluskey. On the eve of the TUC conference, we find the Unite leader in fighting mood

It’s Friday lunchtime and I’m in the Bunker. A plush meeting room in the Liverpool office of Unite, the trade union, its walls are adorned with labour-movement memorabilia. A few feet from a portrait of Lenin sits general secretary Len McCluskey, the unfailingly polite, 63- year-old native of this city, who some think is among the most dangerous people in Britain.

We have been enthusing about the Beatles’ White Album, released in 1968 when McCluskey was a long-haired young dock worker – and, as he puts it, “there was revolution everywhere”. In a rather different way, he says, 2013 is turning out to be just as tumultuous. “These are quite extraordinary times, of a kind none of us have been through before,” he says. “I think that’s because nobody knows what’s round the corner. We have a government that doesn’t know what’s happening, we have people in our leading institutions who don’t know what’s happening. Mervyn King was at the TUC last year, and I asked him: could he tell us what might happen in six months’ time? He said, ‘I couldn’t even tell you what’s going to happen next week.’ And this was the governor of the Bank of England.”

I have spent a week watching McCluskey in action – in London, Eastbourne and his home city, where he lives with his second wife. For the most part, his is a careful, measured presence, though in Liverpool he starts to relax. This is the only place I hear him use the f-word, and see him having a drink: a lunchtime pint of Boddington’s, sunk slowly in the Casa, a bar in the shadow of the city’s Catholic cathedral. The Casa was set up by Liverpudlian dockers who refused to cross a picket line, got sacked, and began a famous campaign through the mid-1990s. If McCluskey has a political family, this is where you’ll find it: dockers, he tells me, are “the most funny and inventive and wonderful people I’ve ever met”.

One subject comes up time and again: the predicament of the Labour party and its bond with the trade unions, which brought it into being 113 years ago. After allegations in June that Unite stitched up the selection of a parliamentary candidate in Scotland, Ed Miliband wants to fundamentally alter that relationship. The essence of what Miliband wants is simple enough. Currently, around three million trade unionists are counted as affiliated to Labour, unless they opt out of donating to their unions’ political funds. Miliband and his people now want them to positively opt in. This, it’s safe to say, will drastically cut their numbers, as well as the money Labour receives in affiliation fees – quite a move for a party more than £10m in debt. Since Miliband became leader, fees and donations from Unite alone have totalled £8.4m.

Miliband claims that those members who decide to keep their links with Labour will at last be “properly part of all that we do”. Other Labour people see the shift as the final phase of a journey begun under Tony Blair, in which the unions’ influence on the party could be diluted to the point of meaninglessness – no bad thing, some would argue. Blair himself has hailed the changes as a “bold and strong” move that he should have pushed through when he was in charge: proof, he says, that Miliband wants to “govern for all the country and not simply for one section of it”.

McCluskey has surprised many by claiming to support the broad outline, but for very different reasons. He thinks the new system could force Labour to work much harder for his members’ support and money – and, as he sees it, force the party away from the heresies and sell-outs of the New Labour era. He would like Labour to be pushed towards ideas such as a 75% top tax rate and public ownership of the banks – the kind of stuff that plenty of Labour people might believe in, but even “Red” Ed would surely like to keep safely confined to the party’s fringes. You wonder how long their uneasy alliance can last.

McCluskey has big plans for Unite. Of late, he has been talking about the union becoming a “brand”, one that can help people “almost from cradle to grave”. “I would love to be in a position in 15 or 20 years where Unite is as common a brand name as Tesco and Asda,” he says. “If you ask young people what Tesco is, they’ll say, ‘Yeah, it’s a supermarket, and it sells food.’ I want to say, ‘Do you know what Unite is?’ ‘Oh yeah, they’re a trade union. They fight for working people. When you’ve got a problem, you can go and see them, whether you’re in work or out of work.’ That may be ambitious, but it’s important.”

You could grow a new political party out of something like that, I suggest. He laughs. “Yeah, of course you could.”

Any organisation with 1.5 million members is bound to be multifaceted, and Unite certainly is. Though trade unions seem to be a byword for dependency on the state, around 85% of Unite’s members work in the private sector, some for such high-end firms as BMW and Jaguar Land Rover. Unite is also a big presence in the NHS, the legal and financial industries, construction and farming. Its property portfolio includes not only 82 local offices and its central HQ in Holborn, but one of Henry VIII’s hunting estates in Esher – and a luxurious seafront hotel in Eastbourne.

In Liverpool, McCluskey takes stock with Unite’s community co-ordinator for the north-west, who is in charge of a drive to recruit people who aren’t in work, and get them to campaign on issues such as the bedroom tax and the privatisation of the NHS. He introduces me to a young Unite activist who works in a Lloyds Bank call centre, and has managed to recruit most of its workforce, as well as take issue with a measly pay offer. I also meet 24-year-old Alex Halligan from Salford, who is involved in Unite’s new work with credit unions. Halligan aims to amass the £15m-worth of capital needed to turn a local credit union into what he wants to call the Bank of Salford: a community-run setup that might nudge aside the high street banks and help local businesses, as well as marginalising payday lenders. McCluskey listens with obvious pride.

While his outward appearance might suggest an anonymous resident of Middle Britain (suits from TM Lewin, a black Toyota Avensis), the rightwing press is fond of the idea that McCluskey is some kind of throwback to Petrograd circa 1917. He is a very different creature from, say, Arthur Scargill or Bob Crowe, but he is often pictured with a megaphone, mid-speech, as if his life is spent rousing people to strikes and stoppages. He can make his enemies’ job too easy: last summer, he appeared to encourage the public to engage in civil disobedience during the Olympics, to protest against public-sector cuts (he says the booing of George Osborne at the Paralympics was the kind of thing he had in mind).

In June, the Daily Mail ran a splash on the supposed disclosure of a secret “love child” he had fathered in the early 90s, with Jennie Formby, now Unite’s political director (he was married to his first wife at the time). “You have to understand what that’s all about,” he says, wearily. “The Tory party and [election strategist] Lynton Crosby have decided that Len McCluskey is a good baseball bat to hit Ed Miliband with, so they’ve targeted me. And that story was incredibly lazy journalism, because they said it was a secret. The truth is, everybody knows about it within the union – and it’s a story that happened 20 years ago. It’s particularly galling for me because it impacted on my son. He’s just got his degree from King’s College in London, and he’s looking for a job, and he has a mild form of Asperger’s. So life is not going to be easy for him. I get angry when they include him.”

McCluskey grew up in the inner-city Liverpool neighbourhood of Kirkdale, “in a two-up, two-down, Coronation Street-type house”. He left school with A-levels in economics, history and general studies, and intended to train as a teacher. But in 1968 he began working at Liverpool’s docks on the salaried staff. He was not from a political household, but in the heady atmosphere of the 60s he quickly became a trade union and Labour activist. In 1979, he began work as a full-time official of the Transport and General Workers’ Union.

In 2007, Unite was created as the UK’s biggest trade union, by the merger of the T&G and Amicus. Three years later, McCluskey stood for general secretary and won. Even then, he was talking about reasserting his union’s influence on Labour “right up from the roots” and making it “our party again”.

The tensions between Unite and the Labour leadership have been seen in some quarters as another instalment of a long-running story. But you could, in fact, argue that it represents a new mood which, along with the rise of Ukip, reflects an increasing disenchantment with the metropolitan political establishment, and a hunger for non-Westminster experience and authenticity. Nigel Farage comes from a different culture to the modern Tory leadership. Similarly, McCluskey offers an almost comical contrast to Miliband, Balls et al – not least in terms of the two decade age gap. At one point, I hear him claiming that the current Labour leadership “doesn’t understand collectivism”. He later acknowledges there is “a generational issue that I think is problematic… I look at politicians and I think the experience they have is limited. I mean in the world of work, but also in the world of politics.”

McCluskey’s office at Unite’s London HQ is all beige and brown. In one corner, there is a bust of the T&G leader turned Labour icon Ernie Bevin. On the wall is a Sun cartoon of McCluskey as the Grinch, published when Unite’s dispute with British Airways was threatening flights at Christmas, and a framed copy of the old Labi Siffre song (Something Inside) So Strong.

We walk through Bloomsbury to a meeting of Unite’s 200-strong national political committee at the TUC headquarters, called to discuss Miliband’s plans. I encounter both modern trade unionism’s strengths and its obvious weaknesses: people have been summoned at a few days’ notice, and are brimming with the kind of anger and passion lacking from mainstream politics, but a good 80% are white, middle-aged men. A few stand sentry outside, smoking and keeping their distance from a gaggle of people selling the Socialist Worker. When I ask them about McCluskey’s leadership qualities, they enthuse about his “thoughtful” nature, and ability to hold on to his principles and still cut deals.

Inside, the hall, there is talk of how much money Unite gives to Labour, and of “winning Labour back”. McCluskey delivers a speech in which he accuses some of seeing their control of Labour as “almost a feudal right”, and talks about “unelected millionaires” – specifically Lord Sainsbury, the chief funder of the internal Labour group Progress – “using their funds to stuff the parliamentary Labour party with Oxbridge Blairites”. He tells his audience that Miliband’s reforms will work only if his people see “a Labour party our members want to support… not a party that is a pinkish shadow of the present coalition”.

On paper, his rhetoric looks like the work of an old-school tub-thumper. But he delivers his lines hesitantly, coming to life only when taking questions from the floor. By and large, there is agreement with his support for Miliband’s reform plans, but also plenty of loud reiterations of a script that McCluskey and his people use a lot: too many of the “apparatchiks” who run the party machinery are still in thrall to the ideas of Blair.

All this is set out in Unite’s now-notorious Political Strategy, a document approved by the union in late 2011. Expressing “bitter disappointment” with Labour’s record in office, it set out a drive to “win 5,000 Unite members to join the Labour party by December 2012″. It also urged Unite activists “to consider becoming [Labour] candidates at all levels”. “We are deadly serious about transforming Labour,” it went on. “We are determined this strategy will produce results.”

It certainly did, but perhaps not the ones Unite had wanted. In the buildup to the selection of a Labour candidate in the Scottish seat of Falkirk, the union recruited around 100 new Labour members from its ranks, a lot of whom joined under the auspices of a scheme put into place under Blair, which allowed multiple members to be recruited with a single union cheque. There were claims that some people had been signed up without their knowledge, which McCluskey denies. In July, the Labour leadership called in the police (”utterly disgraceful,” McCluskey says), who found there was insufficient evidence for a criminal inquiry; there is an ongoing investigation by the Information Commissioner’s Office, and a parallel Labour inquiry. Both Unite’s favoured candidate for the seat, Karie Murphy, and the high-ranking Unite activist and local party chairman Stevie Deans remain suspended.

For McCluskey, the episode illustrates the hold the so-called Blairites still have on Labour. “I never envisaged that the other forces within the Labour party who had captured it would give it up lightly,” he says. “The real power in politics is in Westminster. All that happened in Falkirk was – and it was an extreme example, because we’d been so successful in getting 100-odd people to join – we challenged the power that has long belonged to the party apparatchiks.”

He is on a roll. “This idea that we’ve been accused of doing something wrong to get our candidate in – I have to laugh. Labour MPs have been placed in constituencies for the past 15 years by the apparatchiks. As soon as we challenged that and said, ‘Well, OK – we’ll play the same game if that’s what we have to do,’ we challenged power in Westminster. I think there were forces in the Labour party who said, ‘Hang on a second – we’re not having you muscling in. We don’t mind you giving us your money, but don’t come playing our game.’ That’s what blew up.”

Murphy is said to be a close friend of McCluskey, a senior aide to the Labour MP Tom Watson, who resigned as general election campaign co-ordinator after the Falkirk row. Watson was once McCluskey’s flatmate. Given this, isn’t there some truth in the accusation that Falkirk was a case of one tightly connected clique facing off against another?

“But then it’s back to language,” he protests. His speech quickens; the scouse vowels get more pronounced. “I don’t know whether one and a half million members counts as a clique. Unite is an open, democratic union. We are lay member-led. Our executive, which authorised the political strategy, is lay members. There are no full-time officials on it. I don’t have a vote on our executive. Am I influential? Of course I am, I’m the bleedin’ general secretary. But the structures we have couldn’t be described as a clique.”

At the Unite meeting in London, McCluskey tells his audience Miliband has to “get Lord Sainsbury’s millions out of Labour’s democracy”. If he does, Labour can somehow establish what kind of party it wants to be. “If there is a level playing field, I’m happy for the battle of ideas to take place. Whether Blairites become marginalised or people like me become marginalised is almost academic. What’s important is that a debate is allowed to take place.” He goes on. “You can then get to a stage where you become so marginalised that you no longer feel at home. Then you leave.”

He mentions the four senior Labour figures who quit Labour in 1981 and founded the Social Democratic Party. “There were things happening in the Labour party that they profoundly disagreed with, and they left and created their own party. Now, that’s politics for you…”

And does he think that might happen to the people he calls Blairites?

“Or it could be the outcome for those individuals on the left of the party who believe, ‘Well, we’re getting nowhere.’”

Including him?

“I’m the general secretary of Unite. In our rule book, we’re affiliated to the Labour party. And for that to change, our rules would have to change. We’re not there yet. But the Labour party has no God-given right to exist. Ed Miliband’s challenge is to demonstrate to ordinary working people – including trade unionists – that it’s their party.”

This is a big moment, in other words.

“It’s absolutely huge.”

And he doesn’t rule out Unite eventually taking its ball elsewhere?

“I wouldn’t rule anything out,” he says. “In extraordinary times, extraordinary things happen. In my view, students of politics in 50 years’ time may well look back on this period and realise just how incredibly important it was.”

Though he is working hard for a Labour victory in 2015, he thinks this will be possible only with “a radical alternative to austerity”. If the Tories win, he tells me, “I fear for the existence of the Labour party. None of us know what would happen after a defeat of that nature. And it won’t necessarily be the normal process of the leader stepping down, and a new leader taking over.” As he says, extraordinary times.

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Bob Dylan: facing the music

Saturday, August 24th, 2013

Bob Dylan once dismissed his 1970 album Self Portrait as a joke. But newly released recordings from that era suggest that something serious was going on in the singer’s mind

I don’t know if I should keep playing this. Nobody’s calling in and saying they want to hear it or anything … usually when something like this happens people say, ‘Hey, the new Dylan album,’ but not tonight.” The words are those of an unspecified radio DJ, quoted in a 1970 Rolling Stone review of the album Self Portrait, a collection of 24 pieces of music that completely confounded its audience. The writer was Greil Marcus, who would go on to write some of the best commentary and criticism about Bob Dylan and his art, and whose opening sentence on this occasion eventually made his piece the most famous record review ever written: “What is this shit?”

All musical oeuvres contain duds. Plenty of musicians fall into phases where such things are all they can produce. This was Dylan’s fate for much of the 1980s, as owners of such albums as Empire Burlesque and Down in the Groove will know. Self Portrait, though, is rather different: this was a deliberately bad record, apparently created to distance its creator from his public, and earn him some peace and quiet. “The reason that album was put out [was] so people would just at that time stop buying my records, and they did,” Dylan later reflected. That explanation came in 1981; three years later, he described Self Portrait as “a joke”.

It reached number one in the UK charts, and number four in America. Even now, millions own it – a strange package, fronted by a faux-naif Dylan painting, in keeping with its title. It comprises covers of songs made famous by the Everly Brothers, Simon and Garfunkel, the singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot, and more. Plenty of the tracks are smothered in syrupy arrangements, dubbed on to Nashville sessions at which Dylan was not even present. In three songs taken from his 1969 performance at the Isle of Wight festival with The Band, he sounds tired and detached: even the version of that biting countercultural anthem “Like a Rolling Stone” suggests something played by a half-cut cabaret performer.

The whole thing is stretched over 73 minutes, and the idea that it amounts to some kind of neo-Dadaist prank is there in its opening track. The music could soundtrack the opening titles of a spaghetti western, and a chorus of backing singers intones the same couplet 15 times: “All the tired horses in the sun / How’m I s’posed to get any riding done?” The approved version of the lyrics says “riding”; at times, though, it sounds distinctly like “writing”.

In the first volume of Chronicles, the memoir he published in 2004, Dylan explained the genesis of Self Portrait thus: “I just threw everything I could think of at the wall, and whatever stuck, released it.” He also put it firmly in the context of a time when he was a new father, trying desperately to keep his life simple, while running away from the droves of young Americans who still thought he was their king, and a purveyor of “message songs”.

Having recovered from the motorcycle accident he suffered in June 1966, Dylan had remained in the upstate New York settlement of Woodstock, where he was quickly joined by the musical soulmates who would soon call themselves The Band. To his horror, though, Woodstock also became a magnet for exactly the kind of people he was trying to avoid. Attempting to shake himself free, he wrote, he did “unexpected things like pouring a bottle of whiskey over my head and walking into a department store and act[ing] pie-eyed, knowing that everyone would be talking amongst themselves as I left”. His image, he resolved, “would have to be something a bit more confusing, a bit more humdrum”. Unintentionally, that serves as a pretty good description of Self Portrait, a record both far too ordinary and completely perplexing.

And then, 43 years after it was recorded, there came some unexpected news. In July this year, Dylan’s record company announced the 10th instalment of the so-called Bootleg Series, whose sporadic collections of unreleased archive material began in 1991. From those who follow Dylan closely, there were gasps of surprise at what was about to be released: an anthology, available in both standard and “deluxe” versions, titled Another Self Portrait. A four-minute YouTube film told the essential story: in 2012, a tape had been found containing material from the sessions that produced the original album, which had sparked the idea of returning to this period anew. On the face of it, this rediscovered music told the story of a project that Self Portrait travestied – whose working title, according to one of the musicians involved, might have been Folk Songs of America, pointing to two later albums on which Dylan re-explored the folk repertoire, Good as I Been to You (1992) and World Gone Wrong (1993).

Was this, perhaps, further proof of the modern music industry’s tendency to wring even its most lifeless assets dry? The opening sentence of the Marcus review still hangs heavy, and the fact that Self Portrait has long been understood as an act of self-sabotage suggested an obvious update: “What is this new shit?”

But Another Self Portrait is not like that at all. A lot of it is revelatory, confirming that Dylan did indeed begin the Self Portrait period with the intention of creating an anthology of songs that would simultaneously tap back into his roots in orthodox American folk music, while also pushing him somewhere new. There are songs written by the Pennsylvania-born singer-songwriter Eric Andersen and Tom Paxton and Bob Gibson, both folk singers whose age and musical style kept them clear of the counterculture that almost buried Dylan under the weight of its expectations.

Dylan returns to the old Scots ballad “The Daemon Lover” – given its American title “House Carpenter”, just as it had been when he first recorded it in 1961 – and the American folk standard “Railroad Bill”. As with material that eventually made it on to Self Portrait, where it was adorned with drums, bass and strings, all these songs are arranged simply: Dylan’s voice and guitar, additional guitar parts by the New York multi-instrumentalist David Bromberg, and his arranger and bandleader Al Kooper on occasional piano.

But most suprising is the quality of Dylan’s singing. As part of the build-up to Another Self Portrait, Sony Music put out a video to accompany a version of an 18th-century English folk song titled “Pretty Saro” – and on this recording, among others, his voice seems able to stretch single syllables into miniature melodies. Sight unseen, you would probably not think it was Dylan you were listening to. His approach develops the softened, country tones he used on Nashville Skyline, which can also be heard in exerpts from the Isle of Wight concert, spruced up and included in the “Deluxe” edition. Around eight years later, after he had reverted to the coarser vocal stylings he developed during the 1960s, Dylan’s voice began to slowly fade: it is on this material, much of which has never even made it on to illegal bootlegs, that one probably hears him peak as a singer.

And there is more. Amid the Self Portrait material and Isle of Wight recordings are a smattering of pieces that were recorded during sessions for the albums that book-ended Self Portrait: Nashville Skyline and New Morning. (The latter, chiefly because of the reaction to Self Portrait, was acclaimed as a stunning return to form: “his best album in years”, wrote Marcus.) Two items stand out: a version of New Morning’s euphoric title track, with an added part for horns written by Al Kooper, and a take of “Sign on the Window” to which Kooper added strings, harp and piccolo.

In contrast to the schmaltzy Self Portrait, no Dylan recording has ever sounded so poised, not least when the music drops and he delivers four great lines: “Build me a cabin in Utah /Marry me a wife, catch rainbow trout / Have a bunch of kids who call me pa / That must be what it’s all about.”

If this period of Dylan’s career has one overriding meaning, these lyrics spell it out. Most of his audience surely did not want to hear such things – not when Vietnam was tearing the country apart and some people were still looking to him for a sign. Moreover, although on paper such lyrics might look so hokey as to suggest an ironic put-on, I think he meant every word: in Chronicles, after all, he writes of fantasising about “a nine-to-five existence, a house on a tree-lined block with a white picket fence, pink roses in the backyard”.

In the ultimate irony, Woodstock became not just the name of his adopted hometown, but the setting for the festival that traded on his association with the place, and led him to accept the offer to play the Isle of Wight as a means of escape. Again, Chronicles captures his horror at what was afoot: “The events of the day, all the cultural mumbo jumbo, were imprisoning my soul – nauseating me – civil rights and political leaders being gunned down, the mounting of the barricades, the government crackdowns, the student radicals and demonstrators versus the cops and the unions – the streets exploding, fire of anger boiling – the contra communes – the lying, nosy voices – the free love, the anti-money system movement – the whole shebang. I was determined to put myself beyond the reach of it all. I was a family man now, didn’t want to be in that group portrait.”

Self-evidently, all this was profoundly political. Dylan, after all, could easily be understood as someone now following small-c conservative impulses, founded on a disdain for the tie-dyed degeneracy into which the hippies had tumbled, and a horror at how divided America had become. On Music for Big Pink, the debut album The Band released in July 1968, the four Canadians and a southerner, who dressed like gold-rush prospectors – had made the same thoughts explicit. That album began with “Tears of Rage”, a song with Dylan lyrics that surveyed the USA’s generational war: “What dear daughter ‘neath the sun / Would treat a father so / To wait upon him hand and foot / And always tell him, No?” On the front of the record was another faux-naif Dylan painting; the gatefold featured a photograph in which the group posed with their families, parents in the foreground – a symbol, their leader Robbie Robertson later said, of ”rebelling against the rebellion”.

The Band had accompanied him on the homemade recordings that were eventually released as The Basement Tapes – evocations of a long-lost America, captured not just in such original pieces as “I Shall Be Released” and “This Wheel’s on Fire”, but scores of folk songs. In turn, that music was followed by John Wesley Harding, the pared-down Dylan album full of biblical allusions which led on to Nashville Skyline and the music Dylan recorded with Kooper and Bromberg.

Too many accounts of Dylan’s progress have characterised this period as a long, fallow spell in which he lost his way: in fact, aided by some of the most capable musicians he ever worked with, fascinating recordings were pouring out of him. This was not pop music. It remains for grown-ups, full of ambiguities and sadness, and a profound sense of American history. How great to hear it at last, removed from the games its author went on to play with it: a self-portrait so improved as to make the first almost irrelevant.

• Listen to an exclusive album stream from Another Self Portrait (1969-1971): The Bootleg Series Vol 10

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Osborne economics is not an invincible force of nature | John Harris

Saturday, August 17th, 2013

Although many appear resigned to life under this dysfunctional capitalism, there is a way to make the system less inhuman

Britain is on the move, says George Osborne, from “rescue to recovery”. But not if you’re young: this week’s unemployment figures showed joblessness among the 16-24s rising to 973,000. Not if you’re the north-east, the north-west or Wales, where the out-of-work numbers have also risen. And if you’ve been on the dole for more than two years, heaven help you: despite the millions blown on the work programme and Osborne’s alleged green shoots, the numbers of people suffering long-term unemployment jumped by 10,000 to 474,000, the highest figure in 16 years.

Some recovery, then. At the same time there are even more signs of the ongoing pinch affecting those people once thought to be safe, in the aspirational middle. In the Economist this week there is a very incisive graph plotting median real earnings and the retail price index. It shows the former keeping pace with the latter until 2005, when they began to split. From 2009, moreover, the earnings line began to drop, while prices carried on rising: the UK, we now know, has one of the worst recent records on real wages of any country in Europe (worse even than Spain, which is saying something).

“The plate tectonics of the labour market offer the best explanation for this,” said the accompanying text. “With a declining industrial base, the British economy needs fewer mid-level skilled workers. Most new posts are low- or high-paying ones … Many in the middle lack the skills to move up and are pushed towards the low-wage end of the economy. Machinists and tradesmen become cashiers and call-centre workers.” They do, and when that happens, they are ushered into that fragile part of the labour force we now know as the Precariat, where zero-hours contracts are becoming the norm, and a return visit to the jobcentre is never far away.

Meanwhile, the cost of living continues to soar, not least in the parts of the country held up to be the recovery’s heartlands. In the last year, food prices have risen four times as fast as average pay. There are now plans to make water meters compulsory for people served by nine of the UK’s water companies, which could lead to some family bills doubling. This week also brought news of more increases to train fares, some of which could go up by as much as 9%.

And who will that hit? Among others, commuters who have often fled from London’s impossible house prices – which, according to this week’s headlines, have lately risen by 8.1%, the biggest jump in two-and-a-half years. Entirely unsurprisingly, the share of Londoners renting on the private market is up from 18% in 2011 to 25% today. And an increase in demand colliding with flatlining supply means only one thing: the average share of income devoted to rental costs is now a jaw-dropping 27%, up from 21% a decade ago.

This is what a completely dysfunctional version of capitalism looks like. The crudest, most stupid, completely self-destructive formula for maximising profits – cutting wages while pushing up prices – is extended over the entire economy. An ever-increasing dependence on the service sector drives out skilled jobs in the middle, and offers no hope to those places which are still a byword for the end of heavy industry and manufacturing. The nation’s capital becomes the playground of the people at the very top, serviced by young people who can live cheaply(ish), and people from overseas who are just about able to cope, on the basis that they might eventually go home. Housing, surely any worker’s most basic need, is in permanent crisis. And for a lot of people trying to keep pace with forces that are out of anyone’s control, there is only one option: residence in what the economist Ann Pettifor this week called Wongaland, where people borrow unsustainably while saving absolutely nothing (see right).

And so to an interesting question: what are the politics of all this? On my office shelves, there are two books whose titles – both of which include the word “great”– neatly encapsulate the most important developments of the last 30 years. One, titled The Great Divestiture, is by Italian economist Massimo Florio. It chronicles the revolution that took industries and services once delivered by the state into the private sector, and thereby relieved politicians of accountability for their machinations, not least when the monopoly capitalists in charge started to endlessly push up prices. The other is The Great Risk Shift, by US academic Jacob S Hacker, a very prescient look at how employers, with the complicity of governments, have spent the past few decades shoveling responsibilities on to the narrow shoulders of their workers.

From the perspective of the individual the consequences look bleak. The government cannot much help people; and the companies and corporations that depend on their employees’ labour offer increasingly little in return. As the followers of Thatcher and Reagan intended, everything has become individualised, to the point that even the pump-priming of a dormant economy is now a matter of debt-driven consumption, as the summer’s unexpected surge in spending suggests. Political discourse has inevitably shrunk: we mostly hear politicians talking about “welfare” and immigration not just because of the political dividends they are said to produce, but because they represent some of the only things related to economic wellbeing that they think they can actually affect (and in the case of immigration, that’s a fantasy anyway). Talk to the young people who are at the sharp end of the modern economy, and where we might be headed becomes clear: to a lot of them, the most basic features of the economy are like the weather: thoroughly depoliticised, and to be fatalistically accepted.

Yet perhaps something is stirring. This week’s big thing has been the carpeting – and egging – of Ed Miliband. Certainly, Labour should be doing much better. But its people have been talking for quite a while about a cost of living crisis. Their proposed solutions still look flimsy, but that is perhaps down to the fact that when faced with a hegemonic economic model – one, moreover, in which they have long acquiesced – most Labour people understandably do not even know where to start. Not that long ago, it looked like their leader might: he was at least talking about the squeezed middle, responsible capitalism and Hacker’s ideas about “pre-distribution”. If it’s not too late, they are themes worth reprising – though whether people might be perplexed by the spectacle of a politician taking issue with things they see as invincible forces of nature is a very interesting question.

As we move into the succession of zombie jamborees that is conference season, one other thought occurs. Humankind long ago invented things that could at least retilt the balance between capital and labour, and ease some of modern life’s most inhuman aspects. We called them trade unions. Most Tories would rather they did not exist: now, even people in the Labour party want to push them even further to the margins. If they do, they will be adding to the problem, when the increasingly poor, huddled masses they represent could really do with some solutions. To turn Osborne on his head, recovery alone is not the issue: rescue is what people need.

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Where is Labour going wrong? | John Harris

Monday, August 12th, 2013

The average Briton can’t imagine Ed Miliband in Downing Street, according to the polls. With only 21 months until the next general election, what can the left do to change public opinion?

A month or so ago, I was discussing the increasingly uncertain outcome of the 2015 general election with a friend whose involvement with the Labour party stretches back more than three decades. “I’m scared of what will happen if we lose,” he said. “And I’m scared of what will happen if we win.”

In case you hadn’t noticed, there are now less than two years to go. For sure, the odds remain somewhat stacked against a Conservative win: thanks to the failure of the party’s bid to redraw constituency boundaries, it will have to be ahead of Labour by around six percentage points even to draw level on seats, the UK Independence party remains a threat to its chances and, in any case, it is now more than 20 years since the Conservative party had a parliamentary majority.

But thanks chiefly to the increasing signs of an economic recovery, it will go into this year’s conference season with that rather unbearable sense of born-to-rule arrogance restored. Who knows, in the wake of another uncertain election result, it may well renew its vows with the Lib Dems, and carry on as normal. Whatever, among its messages on so-called “welfare”, immigration and the rest, it looks likely to have a simple enough pitch to voters, fine-honed by such advisers as Lynton Crosby and its new guy Jim Messina, a former aide to Barack Obama: if the economy is growing again, do you want to hand it back to the people who busted it?

That may not be fair, but this is politics, not badminton. In the three years that have passed since the last election, Labour has never convincingly rebutted the accusation that the last government, as against a global financial crash, caused most of Britain’s problems. And now, the consequences of that political failure may be revealing themselves: in four months, Labour’s average poll lead has more than halved, coming down from 11 percentage points to five.

At the time of writing, Ladbrokes put Labour’s chances of a parliamentary majority at 5/4, with the Tories on 3/1. But even if Labour wins, it seems much more likely to tumble meekly over the finishing line than win in a triumphant blaze of glory. Whatever Labour does, the public seems to have fallen out of love with politicians so comprehensively that the idea of some 1997-esque new dawn seems laughable. Besides, the party leadership is putting a lid on any high-flown expectations. In the event that it wins, austerity, we know, will remain; ask any Labour insider what they might do about such totems of Tory misrule as the bedroom tax, and you will be met with furrowed brows, and an insistence that no commitments can be made.

The truth is, politics – and particularly centre-left politics – feels contorted and messed-up for a lot of deep-seated reasons. Chief among them is the strange turnabout since the financial crash of 2007-8. No mainstream politician has yet summed up what has happened, but the late novelist Iain Banks did a sterling job: “Your society’s broken, so who should we blame? Should we blame the rich, powerful people who caused it? No, let’s blame the people with no power and no money and these immigrants who don’t even have the vote – yeah, it must be their fucking fault.”

Note also last week’s flurry of headlines about zero-hours contracts: more proof that, to use old-school terms, capital is now lording it over labour to a quite amazing extent.

This is surely the defining feature of the early 21st century. The Labour party occasionally tries to put things the right way up, but too often, it seems to accept the toxic settlement the coalition have embedded. Witness, for example, the party’s work and pensions spokesman Liam Byrne taking issue with the new benefits cap because: “It won’t affect Britain’s 4,000 largest families and it does nothing to stop people living a life on welfare.”

Yet from time to time, you hear much better stuff. After a summer during which far too many of its front-benchers seem to have taken a vow of silence before setting off on holiday, Labour is belatedly trying to make the running on the crisis in people’s living standards. Policy-wise, there has been talk of building new houses, putting young unemployed people back to work, coming down hard on profiteering energy firms, and more.

The problem is that all this has not yet cohered into a consistent and primary-coloured message that can cut through such clunky Labour promises as “a recovery made by the many” (whatever that is). In the last week, a couple of backbenchers have bemoaned this ongoing fuzziness: the Scottish MP George Mudie says he has “difficulty knowing what we stand for” and reckons his party is “not setting any agenda”; Geraint Davies thinks that “the problem is that the electorate doesn’t yet see a clear choice between the parties”; the dependably grumpy Manchester MP Graham Stringer thinks the shadow cabinet is “slumbering”. None of these people are big hitters, but that isn’t the point: they are giving voice to very real unease about Labour’s predicament.

Meanwhile, Labour leader Ed Miliband has begun an uncertain tussle with the trade unions that may find him caught up in internal battles, and people who spend their lives picking through polling data still insist the average Briton cannot imagine him moving into Downing Street. Labour, then, is in a very uncertain place – and the reasons why run deep:

By nature, Labour is not radical

Commentary about the party’s predicament usually falls one of two ways. People on the right tend to pin all Labour’s problems on Miliband, and mock him as a toxic mixture of caution, confusion and woolly-minded north London socialism; on the left, there are regular calls for him to slough off the New Labour inheritance, be “bold”, and lead us all into some new social-democratic nirvana. But this is the Labour party, remember, not the Petrograd Soviet. It has arguably been successfully “bold” only once: in 1945, when in any case, a great deal of what it did went with the grain of Britain’s reshaping during the second world war. For most of its history, it has believed in incremental change at most – and, even at watershed moments in history, deferred to conventional wisdom: before splitting the party in the wake of the crash of 1929, let us not forget, Labour’s then leadership stuck with the supposed wisdom of balanced budgets and spending cuts. Some of that may sound familiar.

As may this: “The Labour party is hesitant in action, because [it is] divided in mind. It does not achieve what it could, because it does not know what it wants. It frets out of office and fumbles in it, because it lacks the assurance either to wait or to strike … If it neither acts with decision nor inspires others so to act, the principal reason is that it is itself undecided.” The Labour-aligned historian and thinker RH Tawney wrote those words, in 1932.

Ed Miliband is a lonely figure

At the end of May, a YouGov poll brought bad news for the Labour leader: 57% of people agreed that he dithered. More than half concurred with the suggestion that he is out of touch, weak or unclear about what he stands for. For what such things are worth, the  last Opinium/Observer poll put his approval rating at -22%: 22% of people surveyed thought he was doing a good job, as against 44% who didn’t (David Cameron’s respective ratings were 33% and 50%, meaning an approval rating of -17%). Obviously, none of this is good. There again, nobody seems to much respect any modern politician – and besides, Miliband’s supporters are fond of pointing out that in the run-up to the 1979 election, Mrs Thatcher was always rated lower than Jim Callaghan, and look what happened there.

A lot of the more positive cliches about Miliband are true: in person, he is warm, endearingly modest, and possessed of enviable people skills. When he does Q&A events, even with hostile people, he is frequently brilliant. But he still faces an onerous challenge, about which he often seems to be well aware: thinking his way out of his Westminster background, and trying to somehow embody a new approach to politics. Moreover, three years after he won the leadership, he remains a strangely lonely figure within his own party, short of shadow cabinet allies, and usually lacking what Westminsterspeak calls “outriders”: people who can float ideas and stake out territory on his behalf.

One thing is now surely clear: that for all its current problems, the party picked the best of 2010’s leadership candidates, something underlined by David Miliband’s last round of media appearances before he left for New York. His turn on BBC’s Andrew Marr show, said the Spectator editor Fraser Nelson, “reminded me of why the Blair project crashed: it found, in Miliband, an automaton when it needed a champion.

“Personally,” he said, “I find Ed Miliband far easier to listen to … Listening to David Miliband, gibbering on about Iraq and his self-help soundbites, seemed as if we’d been plunged back into 2006.” Quite so. But being much better than your elder brother may not be quite enough.

It’s only three years since the last election

Aside from his acting prowess and ability to believe in several contradictory things at once, Tony Blair had one massive advantage as a prospective prime minister: 18 years separated his first administration from the Labour government that fell in 1979, and for a few years at least, his top team could therefore give the impression of being box-fresh. Soon after winning in 1997, he nailed all this in a ludicrous soundbite dispensed to a meeting of European socialist leaders: “New, new, everything is new.” Cheers, Tony.

By contrast, if Labour’s more optimistic predictions prove correct and we are back in an era of one-term governments, that brings obvious problems – because as well as attacking the record of the current government, Labour is still answerable for its time in office, and straitjacketed by Blair and Gordon Brown’s record. Which, of course, is inevitable: most of the current Labour frontbench were directly involved. When Ed Balls is interviewed on TV, you can set your watch by the moment, usually around four minutes in, when he is questioned about what he and Brown got up to in the Treasury, and he turns loudly defensive. It is never pretty.

The reason Labour can’t savage George Osborne’s apparent attempt to base his “recovery” on a house-price bubble is because Brown’s boom years were much the same. Self-evidently, it is hard for Labour to coherently oppose what Michael Gove is doing to the education system, when he himself claims he is simply finishing off what the Blair governments started. And yes, the model of public-service “delivery” whereby government hands everything over to Serco and G4S is evidently rotting, but what can Labour say about that, since its people were the ones to give such companies their decisive breakthroughs?

The left and right have squeezed the middle

Many of the loudest voices in the Labour debate come from the remains of the Blairite right, or the trade union-backed left. Indeed, the recent dustup about supposedly fixed parliamentary elections was essentially a slanging-match between the Blairite pressure group Progress (largely funded by Lord Sainsbury, and founded by people close to such über-New Labour types as Peter Mandelson), and the trade union Unite, whose leader Len McCluskey has recently been heard bemoaning the power held by “Oxbridge Blairites”.

This runs way beyond the issue of how Labour chooses its candidates. The party’s debate on austerity – if there is still one – is always in danger of collapsing into a futile exchange of fire between people who think Labour should be as gung-ho about cuts as Osborne, and those who think there should be no cuts at all. It is much the same on so-called “welfare”: you hear Labour voices who want to kick people on benefits as hard as the Tories do, or others who think there is nothing wrong with the status quo.

Miliband, of course, comes from neither camp. If he has roots in an ideological tendency, it is what used to be called the “soft left”. But where is it? In some Labour circles, this position is known as the squeezed middle.

Brownism lingers on

Labour’s caution and timidity may be tangled up in its collective DNA, but it is also often traceable to dried-up electoral politics. No one in the party will fess up to it, but it often gives the appearance of following what Australian politicians call a “small target strategy”, giving away precious little about what it may or may not have planned, so as to give the Tories as little to attack as possible.

Indeed, the fact that the electoral system is geared in Labour’s favour encourages this approach: it has been furiously denied by party insiders, but earlier this year, there was speculation about a “35% strategy”, apparently aimed at winning power on the lowest possible share of the vote, and with the minimum of effort.

Whatever, this approach to politics seems to be reflected in the fact that some of Miliband’s more interesting rhetoric – his self-proclaimed belief in “responsible capitalism” is the best example – is singularly undeveloped. Whispers around Westminster suggest that this is the way Balls likes it: he is no fan of making things uncomfortable for the business world, and is perfectly happy that Miliband’s rhetoric on such issues is often vague and inconclusive.

There are echoes here of the man who gave both Eds their big break. When he was making mischief and trying to present himself as a cheated heir apparent who would topple Blair and revive the Labour party’s soul, much was made of Brown grandly claiming that “the public square is more than a marketplace, [and] we are bound together by more than contracts markets and exchange” – which some people took as being a sign of visionary centre-left genius, rather than a dull statement of fact. No flesh was ever put on these rhetorical bones – and when he took power, it rapidly became clear that Brown had no plan whatsoever. As the comedian Rory Bremner pointed out: “It’s like having an uncle who’s been building something in the shed at the bottom of the garden for the past 10 years. You look through the window and there’s nothing there.” This is a screamingly cautionary tale for the current leadership, but they do not seem to paying it nearly enough heed.

The Tories have framed the debate

Every summer, MPs go off on their holidays and take the latest fashionable American book about the art of politics, which they tend to devour enthusiastically, and then promptly forget. A perennial example of this seasonal political amnesia is 2004’s Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, by the American linguist George Lakoff, a short but brilliant read about how to break through the ongoing dominance of the right wing. Its essential message is that even if you are attacking them, there is no point using the exact same language as your opponents – their “frame” – and thinking you can win the debate, which is exactly what Labour too often does on so-called “welfare”, sure to be one of the biggest issues in 2015. Its acceptance of the Tory frame on austerity and the deficit is as bad. Lakoff’s book is a mere 124 pages long, so there is still time. Maybe.

Labour has missed the digital revolution

Exploitative “work experience” schemes. Corporate tax avoidance. The campaign to outlaw Page 3. These issues have all flared into life in the past 18 months, and proved that left politics in the UK is alive and well. The Labour leadership has had almost nothing to do with them: instead, far away from Westminster, they have been put on the agenda by people and organisations who understand where civilisation is headed: towards more “horizontal” organisation via social media and activity that can amass huge momentum in a matter of hours. Labour feels as if it is light years behind, playing the political equivalent of progressive rock, while the world turns punk: Miliband’s favoured method of getting his message out still centres on set-piece speeches and coverage in the print press, and even such bog-standard things as viral videos seem to be beyond his party’s grasp.

At the time of writing, Balls’ second-to-last tweet was a week old and read thus: “Lots of media today – and meetings in Washington DC with Sir Alan Greenspan & Christine Lagarde, David Lipton & team at the IMF.” Miliband’s tweeting seemed to have stopped on 22 July, with this: “Many congratulations to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. I wish them and their son all happiness and good health.”

On the positive side …

The last time anyone looked, Labour was pledged to somehow repeal the coalition’s changes to the NHS, or rather, the parts of them that open the way to the full-blown marketisation and competition (to which, of course, the last government opened the door). Of late, Balls has been bigging up the idea of building 400,000 new homes – though, as ever, it is something he would hypothetically do “now”, and what the policy may be in 2015 is unclear. Miliband talks about things no Tory or Lib Dem tends to go near: the need to push for a living wage, the rise of casual work, new regional banks, some kind of crackdown on profiteering energy firms and train companies.

At the moment, too many of Labour’s ideas in these areas seem either trifling, or vague and underdeveloped, but who knows? Its ongoing policy review could yet harden them up, and propose more. And, yes, if Labour actually makes it into government, we will at least be governed by a lot of people with different instincts from the current lot – and, one hopes, a reasonably distinct set of priorities, albeit within an unbelievably tight spending framework.

Here though, are some questions. As ever, they are about the economy, stupid. Is Labour’s project to return belatedly to Miliband’s ideas about responsible capitalism and “pre-distribution” – or, as some people call it, what to do about inequality – and aim at starting to reshape Britain in a fairer and more sustainable way than the coalition have managed? If so, it will need a lot more than 35% of the vote to even begin to do it: between now and the election it will not only have to lay out its vision, but begin to amass momentum and support. In the US, they call this being “insurgent” – and there are currently few signs.

By contrast, if the plan is to avert its eyes from Britain’s underlying problems, tinker here and there and somehow get back to the kind of fragile stability that prevailed until 2007, the whole thing will surely tank, at speed – and, moreover, compound the sense that British politics offers no real choices at all. So, which is it? Twenty-one months to go …


Salma Yaqoob, former leader of Respect

“The first and most important thing is the need for a very strong and simple narrative. The Tory party has one: it’s all lies, but it’s been very effective. They say Labour created the mess, it is worse than anyone thought, and the Conservatives are clearing it up. Whenever you hear that, Labour seems to be silent. But they should be on the frontfoot, saying: ‘This crisis wasn’t created by public spending.’ That’s the corner they have to get out of.

“There should be a Labour mea culpa about the failure to regulate, and having too much faith in the financial sector. They should then talk clearly about how they would regulate things to make sure the kind of crash we have had never happens again. The argument should be about the long-term stability of the country. Another strong theme should be the extent to which the welfare state subsidises employers and landlords. The whole thing about shirkers and strivers needs to be turned around: where does the benefits bill actually go?

“Labour should support a financial transactions tax and propose a big house-building programme. How optimistic do I feel about them embracing any of that? Not very. They seem to be conceding everything and tying their own hands. But the facts and moral argument are strongly on the progressive side.”

Maurice Glasman, ‘Blue Labour’ thinker and Labour peer

“Justin Welby said the other week that he was going to open every church as an alternative to Where is Labour, partnering that? We’ve got to work on our relationships with the people, in their lives. And what do they care about? They care about their families, their parents, their children, the place they live. And they care about work. And we are not seen as being on their side on any of those things. We’ve got to partner them up, and offer an alternative to the dominance of finance capital, and the state.

“A living wage, and interest rate caps – they should be put at the front, not as additions to other things. Another thing relates to public-sector institutions, such as hospitals: there must be representation of the patients, and the workers. The same thing in the private sector: the importance of work has to come to the fore, and workforces have to be represented in the governance of private companies. It’s straightforward: there’s got to be a politics of the common good, and we’ve got to be its leader.

“We’ve got to clarify our story, about what was wrong with New Labour, and how this will be different and better. The way it stands at the moment is, we’ve said lots of things – but the important thing is not to say lots of things: it’s to say a few things, and say them often.”

Neal Lawson, chair of leftwing pressure group Compass

“The fundamental problem is that party politics is linear, analogue and top-down, and the world is increasingly complex, horizontal and plural. Labour has a 20th-century culture and organisation in a world that’s being transformed, culturally and technologically. Can the old adapt and transform itself, or does it have to die before something new and relevant takes shape?

“The solutions lie beyond the Blairite right and the old statist left. If it wants to even start to move in the right direction, Labour needs to immerse itself in the new organisations where there’s energy and vitality. It ought to allow its members to decide what its next campaign priority ought to be, like 38 Degrees does: a windfall tax on the utilities? Public ownership of the railways? Banning advertising to children? For at least one day, it also ought to open up its conference to anyone who wants to attend: no barriers or security guards, or £500 passes. And the leadership ought to sit there, and listen to people telling them what they think of their form of politics.

“Labour’s mission ought to be to unleash the energy and potential of the British people, to transform their workplaces, communities and lives. How far is it from grasping that? A century.”

Deborah Mattinson, founder-director of “strategic advice” agency Britain Thinks, and former pollster for Gordon Brown

“What Labour is lacking is real clarity about what they care about and, very specifically, what they would do – how it would be different from the lot that are in now, and how it would be different from Labour before. Because there isn’t that clear definition, when they think of Labour, people now tend to refer backwards. They have no sense of what’s going to happen, so they go back to New Labour days, or even further.

“We’ve reached a point where something quite dramatic has to happen to get the public to look again and take notice. I don’t know what it is, but I can tell you the kind of boxes it needs to tick. It sounds like a statement of the bleeding obvious, but you have to focus on things the public really cares about. A lot of the so-called triumphs that Ed and Labour have had recently haven’t been like that: tackling News International, talking about the media – and, actually, going big on the unions and party funding. People’s finances are in a bad way, they’re worried – and they need to know that Labour cares about the same things they care about.

“Use language that people understand – again, that sounds obvious, but recently, when Labour has talked about the economy, they’ve tended to use language the public doesn’t understand, like ‘predistribution’ and so on. As far as Ed is concerned, we still don’t really have a sense of what his mission is. The focus all the time needs to be not on the machinery of what you do, and the process – but what you can deliver for the voters. We used to talk a lot about about symbolic policies. You don’t need many, but you have to have two or three. Mrs Thatcher selling council houses is the classic example. Another one would be [Labour's] creation of the Open University. Has Labour got anything like that? I’m not aware of anything.”

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Once, the Tories understood rural Britain. Not any more | John Harris

Thursday, August 1st, 2013

The anti-fracking protest in Balcombe is just the tip of the iceberg. All over Britain, a new countryside rebellion is brewing

Sight unseen, you would hardly have expected an explosion of rage in the West Sussex village of Balcombe. It sits just to the north of that well-known hotbed Hayward’s Heath, and suggests a mixture of chocolate-box cutesiness and commuter-belt quiet – hardly the most obvious setting for a carnival of dissent that has been supported by droves of local people, and such visitors as Bianca Jagger. There again, neither does Balcombe look like the kind of place that prospectors might identify as a potentially rich source of oil: even though we have long had a small-scale inland industry, oil is a resource that most British people have always understood as coming exclusively from under the North Sea.

Now, though, with George Osborne in a state of high excitement, freshly announced tax breaks and planning exceptions, and the word “fracking” all over the media, a new reality is upon us. For the moment, the Balcombe stand-off is its most obvious manifestation – though the big story is less about oil than natural gas, and the supposedly plentiful supplies that lie in shale rock deep beneath whole swaths of the country. The British Geological Survey reckons that Lancashire’s Bowland basin could supply the UK’s gas needs for 40 years. Meanwhile, prospecting licences for shale gas, coalbed methane and new oil supplies cover such diverse locations as Dorset, the Mendip Hills, the New Forest, and the East Riding of Yorkshire.

All over the country, an old story is back with a vengeance: the power of corporations and government colliding with much more human imperatives, and sparking trouble. It’s there in an increasingly widespread juxtaposition of hi-vis jackets, drilling kit and security guards, and serene British countryside. It was also evident in this week’s claims by the Tory grandee Lord Howell – George Osborne’s father-in-law – that though some parts of the country might have justified fears about fracking, in such “desolate” places as the rural north-east we should just get on with it.

In a country as deindustrialised as the UK, ministers will always go weak-kneed about grand projects and new technologies. But the lingering effects of the crash have pushed their thinking into the realms of the neurotic, as government has been seized by a mixture of fear, profiteering zeal and metropolitan arrogance. All of these extend beyond energy policy into such issues as road-building, the dazzlingly stupid plan for high-speed rail, the current mania for airport expansion – and such delicate issues for the liberal-left as house-building on green-belt rather than brownfield land, and wind farms.

“”Infrastructure” is this year’s most ubiquitous word, even though it probably leaves most people feeling either indifferent or slightly nervous. This year’s Tory conference, I would imagine, will hear rhetoric more suggestive of a Soviet party congress than a gathering of British Tories: lots of talk about energy security, salutes to the wonders of pipelines and power stations, and exhortations to further boost our growth figures and keep up with the Indians and Chinese.

By way of answering back, the people rattled by what’s happening to their communities may cite such functional concerns as traffic congestion and noise pollution, but their take on things runs a bit deeper than that, into the profound stuff of place, history and collective identity. Once upon a time, the Conservative party would have understood them: somewhere in its soul, after all, was an innate understanding of the more transcendental aspects of life outside big cities, and the elements of national life best kept away from the brutal ways of the market.

“The beauty of our landscapes, the particular cultures and traditions that rural life sustains – these are national treasures, to be cherished and protected for everyone’s benefit. It is not enough for politicians just to say that. We need leaders who really understand it, and feel it in their bones. I do.” David Cameron said that, five years ago. Now, by contrast, his party’s view of things is summed up by a pledge in Osborne’s 2011 budget, to “introduce a new presumption in favour of sustainable development, so that the default answer to development is ‘yes’”. The word “sustainable”, of course, was for the birds – here was a crude invitation to tarmac the planet.

Make no mistake: just as New Labour’s London-centric prejudices fed the revolt led by the Countryside Alliance, so another rebellion is brewing, stoked by the Mail and Telegraph – and spread much wider than the hoo-hah over foxhunting, from the UK’s rural wilds to the outer edges of the suburbs.

Given that the left is even more metropolitan than the right, as it grows louder, supposed progressives will doubtless come out with their standard sneers, bemoaning nimbyism and condemning anyone with small “c” conservative instincts as a hopeless throwback.

To that, there are two answers. First, it’s probably worth bearing in mind that the worship of concrete, smokestacks and growth for its own sake has tended to be a much more congruent fit with dictatorship than democracy. Second, as events in Balcombe prove, plenty of people are now standing in the way of an economic system that has never been more rapacious and corrupt, and demanding something surprisingly radical: peace and quiet.

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