Normally I am a great believer in the cock up theory of government. Which may say more about my own experience of sitting in tedious planning meetings than I might like to admit! Yet at the moment the evidence for an element of conspiracy is strong.
Imagine for a second that you were a Russian secret service agent in the early 21st century. Let’s say you sat down with a limited budget at your disposal and tried to work out how you could weaken the nations that have traditionally been perceived as Russia’s major rivals. Someone in the meeting says how about using social media to see whether we can disrupt the efficient workings of Western democracy? Someone else says, “Great idea”, and goes on to suggest everyone looks for the easiest way to divide the UK and weaken it. A secret social media campaign in favour of Brexit quickly emerges as an effective choice. Then the meeting moves on to discuss how to weaken the US. Another of the Kremlin’s best and brightest says “How about trying to get a maverick unreliable TV star to become US President?” The meeting initially falls about laughing but eventually decides to give it a go. After all it doesn’t cost a lot and it might just work.
Over the last couple of years the evidence has grown that something very like this happened with shadowy companies like Cambridge Analytica providing the expertise and the Kremlin supplying the cash. So it is tempting to blame much of the mess we are currently in on conspiracies. Particularly as the evidence for their existence gets stronger by the day. Despite Trump’s furious denials we now know for certain that his campaign team met regularly with the Russians and money changed hands. The evidence that Aaron Banks and thus Farage might have got his pro-Brexit finance from Russia is also building up. He certainly doesn’t wish to reveal which offshore bank account it came from and who paid money into that account.
Yet I don’t think it is particularly helpful to get obsessed with these conspiracies. The real question that we still have to address is why were the deliberate destabilisation efforts so successful. It is one thing for Russia to decide to disrupt UK and US politics. It is another thing altogether for millions of ordinary people to vote for people and policies that do serious harm to their own country.
It persuades no one to write off Brexit supporters as deluded fools who didn’t understand the consequences of their actions. Instead we need to learn from the approach Caroline Lucas has recently been taking. She is not trying to tell people they were fools to be angry about the status quo and to use the referendum to express that anger. She is trying to own that anger and direct it in a more constructive and helpful directions.
People were right to feel disempowered by remote decision making processes that they felt little control over. We really do need to bring back greater local control. People were right to feel that run-down communities in the former industrial regions of the country had been forgotten and neglected. Those communities need protectors and champions not sneering criticism. They need to see signs of positive improvement and some reason for genuine hope in the future of their towns. There is little point in telling people who have invested their hopes in Brexit that they were fooled by Russian secret agents. There is real value in asking exactly what positive policies Rees Mogg has for regional renewal and what the evidence is that Boris Johnson will set about rebalancing the British economy. Both are more at home in the London financial bubble than the back streets of Stoke on Trent.
Our focus needs to be on exposing the extent of the incompetence of our current government and the cynical self-interest of pro-Brexit politicians not on uncovering more and better evidence of conspiracy. There is certainly plenty of that incompetence to go at.
Two and a half years ago the government knew the date of Brexit. How could any competent government not have started planning then for the possibility of No Deal? How is it possible for the country to be weeks away from Brexit and a government Minister to be issuing in panic a multi-million pound government contract to one single supplier of sea transport that doesn’t even possess a ferry and whose last business venture went bankrupt owing suppliers? It is illegal to issue government contracts without a competitive tender unless there is an urgent necessity because of unforeseen circumstances. This circumstance was foreseen and in any normal circumstance the Minister, Chris Grayling, would have been sacked and prosecuted. Instead he is still in charge of the railways despite cocking up a simple timetable change and still going into TV studios to tell us it is all going very well. In the same week that Jaguar Land Rover car workers got laid off and car workers in Sunderland who voted for Brexit are facing the same fate.
Then there is the utterly shambolic Brexit compromise. After two years of negotiations the government has managed to agree with the EU that we will leave that organisation without any clear idea of the future arrangements. We don’t know what the eventual trade deal will look like. We don’t have a single new trade deal arranged or any idea of how those trade deals will be policed without sacrificing our sovereignty. We don’t know what will replace EU policies to support deprived regions of the UK or even whether there will be any money for that. We do know we are committed to following all the EU rules without any say in making them. We do know that we have two more years ahead of us of furious rows over what kind of Brexit we will have and that the nation is already utterly fed up of hearing politicians discuss its intricacies.
Very few people voted Brexit because they wanted a squalid compromise deal that leaves us worse off than when we started. Most did so because they wanted to see rapid and serious change and for their politicians to start addressing their real needs. No matter what happens next week in the House of Parliament many of those people are still going to feel cross and betrayed. Instead of blowing the doors off and getting more a more honest politics they have been spent two years watching horrible squabbles and bitter division without one single radical new policy being implanted that actually helps their lives.
In these circumstances I can understand why anyone might hope that it will all be so different if we can just get a Labour government and we can free ourselves from horrible policies like Universal Credit. Indeed, just at the moment I also believe that it would be hard for a Labour government to be worse than the divided shambolic mess that the Conservatives have become.
I do, however, have some serious reservations. I am old enough to remember being told before that we must all vote Labour to get the Conservatives out and then being bitterly disappointed with the outcome. Last time round we got the Iraq war and the cheering on an out of control financial bubble that led to ten years of austerity. We also got academy schools, public finance initiative hospital contracts and the start of the zero hours contract culture.
This time round I keep being told all that will be different because we have a left-wing Labour Party. It is, however, a left leaning party that supports Brexit and is committed to delivering it. There is therefore no way that Labour can avoid being caught wriggling on the end of the same pin that has skewered the Conservatives so completely. Either you follow all the EU rules and are powerless to guide them or you lose access to our biggest export market. Labour simply cannot avoid that horrible choice and the consequences of that make an effective Labour government really difficult to deliver.
The most valuable electoral asset Corbyn had at the last election was that he came across as a genuinely committed politician who believed in a cause rather than his own career. Yet we keep being told by Labour that they cannot oppose Brexit in case they lose a bit of support. Increasingly that means that Corbyn is starting to come over as someone who just wants to get himself into power via a fresh election and large numbers of young people are becoming disillusioned with him as they discover that they were wrong to think that he was the man to keep us inside the EU.
Because of this the opinion polls are consistently showing the Labour isn’t actually ahead of the Conservatives but is neck and neck. The last poll I saw had Greens on 5%, Lib Dems on 10% and Labour on 38%. On their own Labour were equal with the Conservatives. With a Progressive Alliance the Conservatives would get wiped out because 53% of the nation wants something more positive.
Yet the Labour leadership utterly refuses to countenance a Progressive Alliance because it believes it can win and rule as a single party. It also rules out single transferrable vote for the same reason. Time will tell whether that approach will deliver an election victory and an effective government. Personally, I think it is a very serious cock up that we may all pay a high price for.