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Howie Reed © 2001

 

 
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The Reed Report on Institutional Lobotomy:

Welcome to the campaign for hardened dulloids only...

Week One

At 2100 hours, the view of the Berkshire countryside from the train from Paddington to Oxford suddenly is lost in the fog.

It is perhaps a mirror into the campaign brain: the general impression of Home Counties towns and villages sliding into primeval ooze and glancing half-light captures the level of debate in the election campaign so far. The Tories have been quick out of the starting blocks, and hungry to hog the media, given that they have a huge electoral chasm to cross even to keep Tony Blair's majority down to three figures. The economic research institute where I am analysing the Hague manifesto by day is ordering tabloid papers for the first time in four years. The content of anything smaller than the FT is predictably asinine, but I have found an interesting advert for Wimpy burgers on a page next to an analysis of the Hague manifesto in The Sun. The ad placement must have been a cruel sub-editor's joke: Tory MPs and Wimpy bars were both common enough in the 1970s and 1980s, and have been dying out ever since. Neither is likely to make a comeback.

I say Hague manifesto rather than Tory manifesto because it seems that the Mekon has put a lot of himself into the document and certainly his survival as a political force, and particularly as Tory leader, is intimately bound up with the number of votes which the three distinctive policies on offer -- £8 billion of inadequately costed tax cuts, a rabid anti-European stand-off, and an attack on asylum seekers even stronger than the worst Jack Straw has to offer -- can strangle out of the frothing working class oiks and Colonel Blimp awkward squad that make up today's "natural" Conservative electorate.

Politicians of every hue are trying desperately to make the electorate care enough about this election to get as far as the polling booth; but they have to contend with the fact that the next Conservative leadership battle seems far more exciting -- a genuine contest -- than the pre-packaged massacre that will run according to plan on June 7. My prediction is that Portillo has lost credibility with hardcore foam-at-the-jowls Tories for softening up his stance on the economy and social policy alike, in a bid to outflank Hague as the "sensible"' Tory candidate and fill the fat space vacated by the demise of Ken Clarke. But Michael X's bid will fail to wash with the party faithful for much the same reason that Clarke went down like a blubber balloon in '97; moderation and pragmatism are about as fashionable as mass nationalisation and the 83% top rate of income tax in the Tory party at the moment. The bigots want to win big, with no compromises; and their white knight might be Anne Widdecombe, someone who advocated a fixed £100 fine for smoking a joint. Under the new Tory leadership

But we are drifting off the point... I guess a one-and-three-quarter hour delay on a Saturday afternoon Virgin trains service, Oxford to Birmingham (rerouted via Solihull) will do that to a man. We're in Brum ostensibly to celebrate a friend's stag-night, in fact trying to enjoy our last curfew-free weekend before renewed fuel protests, a train derailment in Stowmarket, Suffolk or someplace and the GM development of a foot-and-mouth virus strain which only affects humans, released initially in the Home Counties area, force the abandonment of the election and the imposition of martial law. But reality harshly intrudes with a this hideous delay courtesy of Virgin Trains, and their friends in Railtrack, surely one of the best arguments against private enterprise to surface in the last fifty years. Later in the weekend, following eight pints of Elgoods Black Dog Mild, the finest balti that the midlands has to offer, bowling, Laser Quest and the demolition of the local pool sharks, I get into a row with another member of our stag party about rail privatisation. He is a member of New Labour and feels that it was the right policy. I start to foam at the mouth with "You turncoat" and "Why don’t you support party policy?" but then the spotlights above the formica table in the corner of the pub seem to find their focus, and I realise that I’m the one who’s out of step with the party line. Labour aren’t going to do a goddamn thing about the railways. Effectively, they have conceded that commuters should be forced to travel on trains at 20mph because Railtrack was too goddamn stupid to look after the track; agreed that multi-billion pound sums should be doled out to private industry in a weird echo of 1970s industrial policy. Sometimes it seems that we live in a "negative democracy", fashioned from psephological antimatter: the policy agenda moves inexorably away from what ordinary people actually want (70% majority for rail nationalisation in recent polls), and if a politician bumps into a voter, there is a blinding flash of mutual incomprehension, followed by a by-election.

The public are of course totally inconsistent: polls appear to show that they're well to the left of the mainstream on economic policy -- public utiliities, taxation, etc. -- and well to the right on Europe and law and order, with an advert in the papers this week from maverick millionaire Paul Sykes suggesting 52% want to leave EU. A true populist and demagogue could make real headway here... That's what Hague thinks he is, of course, but sporting an SS haircut, a compliantly attractive blonde wife and telling Loaded you like fourteen pints a day is not enough. You have to be seen to be a human being as well; and whereas Blair can pass for one on a good day, the intelligent reptiles responsible for handcrafting most Tory politicians as extremely durable robots from Thatcher onwards were obviously suffering from boredom when Hague was stitched together out of the leftovers of Cecil Parkinson and Norman Tebbit. He just doesn't cut it -- even with his own natural constituency -- and the public seem to agree: in the last three days, William has been written off by Ted Heath, by his own father, and by "a clear majority of rich voters" according to The Observer.

Meanwhile, Labour attracts support in print from such children of the revolution as Alan Sugar, Terence Conran, Michael Winner and tedious ex-Spice Girl Geri Halliwell. Shouldn't most of these people have left the country already as they said they would in '97? It seems we can't count on any of the old certainties anymore. In the political language of the 1960s, the political menu on offer feels like a choice between Ted Heath's vision of the Tory Party (Blair) and Enoch Powell's (Hague) , with Charles Kennedy offering perhaps something akin to what his namesake offered in the US prior to a dark day in Dallas in November 1963. Kennedy and the Liberals are certainly the left-wing option now, and with tactical voting scoring far more sharply than it ever did in the 1980s, perhaps they will advance further on June 7. Claims by one of their spokesmen -- who had obviously snorted the celebratory coke three weeks early -- that they could replace the Tories as the official opposition are, though, wild, to put it kindly. Even on thirty per cent, the BBC Vote 2001 computer shows that they'd still be a long way short. But the electoral arithmetic of this crazy-paving voting system favours Labour at the moment: the computer projection from a three-way tie on 31% each -- with 7% left for the minor parties -- was for a Labour majority of eleven. The Tories would have to win by seven or eight per cent just to get an overall majority -- maybe even more if the tactical vote was really precise. Anybody in the Shadow Cabinet want a job in a remake of the seminal skinhead movie Romper Stomper? We’ve just signed David Beckham to play the Russell Crowe part.

Birmingham appears in its very best light when we finally trundle in, diverted via Solihull, which is a Labour target seat this time around. It's 26° C and there's something of the atmosphere of Amsterdam as boats glide down the canals although the smell of dope in the air remains surreptitious and illicit on this side of the channel. The architecture's not as good either although it's better than it's generally given credit for. But people are friendly in comparison with the zombified industrial farm that is London. (We later learn that a sixteen year-old girl was stabbed that lunchtime about a hundred yards away from the route we were walking to the hotel, a very sick and horrible metaphor for the gap between rhetoric and reality in this whole campaign). But how much actual politics is there in England's second city at this admittedly early stage in the campaign? It's hard to find anything except the posters. Labour veer between their usual anodyne platitudes ("The work goes on") and an inspired line in 1950s B-movie Ed Wood chic ("The Repossessed", depicting Hague and Portillo as zombies looking to skewer you with a mortgage rate rise). The Tory response is a non-sequitur - "You've paid the taxes, so where are the police"? Surely the law only gets involved if you evade your taxes.

Whether these sledgehammers wil actually break through the ice with the electorate is a tough call. The rolling "poll-of-polls" on the BBC website shows that although the Liberal vote seems to fluctuate anywhere between ten and nineteen per cent, the gap between New labour and the Tories is constant at between sixteen and eighteen points in three-quarters of available surveys. It's a bit like the Somme -- huge expenditure, pain and struggle for minute gains which certainly will not affect the Labour landslide one iota. The most interesting question seems to be whether Labour can actually make more gains; certainly the Evening Standard had detailed coverage of that possibility both Monday and Tuesday. At an early press conference I bumped into an old friend who normally works for BBC's Newsnight, but has been moved onto designing the election night coverage. "We’re facing some real problems this time round", he said. "I mean, the polls look the same as last time... what happens if virtually no seats chage hands? How do we make no movement look interesting?" I guess one way would be to deconstruct the whole shebang: rather than saying seat by seat "Labour gain from Tory", "Labour hold", etc., make no reference to previous seats at all -- a kind of Year Zero effect, building up the parliament from scratch. This could be achieved by changing all the boundaries of the constituencies, thus meaning that the constituencies had no history. I suggested this to my friend, but he seemed to feel that the BBC did not wield enough power to make it happen. In that view, he is at variance with Norman Tebbit.

The Sunday of the stag night featured a very bleary trip to the Bass brewing museum at Burton on Trent. The place had a plastic corporate vibe written all over it, but there were one or two memorable moments -- not least finding out where William Hague got his image from. In the basement there was a mock-up 1960s bar with formica tables, lemon slices on cocktail sticks and the like; a memory of the era before English Heritage and the Campaign for Real Ale, where the objective was to eradicate the staid and ossifying British public house and replace it with something where James Bond could shake his martini. There was an old TV set in the corner of the bar running continuous adverts for odious products such as Whitbread bitter and Carling Black Label, and there he was - the 1960s sophisticate, standing out from the long-hair crowd by sporting a very drastic skinhead tonsure, necking the lagers and running round with the chicks -- Ffion and wait... was that Cherie Blair? No, it may have been her dad Anthony Booth, veteran of such arthouse cinema as Confessions Of a Driving Instructor. The Ugly Rumours of painfully-stilted sex comedies are never far below the Cooling Britannium veneer of New Labour sideboards, no matter how deep Blair tries to bury them. In a way this can almost be seen as a saving grace of New Labour: it does have links to the past, however much it won’t care to admit them. Perhaps though, it is those elements of past - the naffness of it all -- that we’d just like to forget. Although compared to Hague’s evocation of 1970s cheap alcohol binges with the boys from the NF, it is still very much preferable.

Week Two

Black holes, that most dangerous astrophysical phenomenon, are experiencing something of a surge in demand at the moment. At the start of the campaign, Labour were accused of harbouring a £10 billion black hole in their spending plans by the Tories, who claimed that if spending continued to rise after 2004 at the rate planned between 2000 and 2004, taxes would have to rise by £5 billion a year to make up the balance. That is probably correct on current assumptions about the rate of economic growth, but given that no party has given spending plans that far in advance, it seems to be jumping the gun a little. But as usual, it is now open season on any wild claim regarding the opposing party’s spending plans -- or indeed one’s own: Labour have now costed the Tory manifesto -- as pessimistically as possible -- and claim a £25 billion black hole in the Tory plans. How large than these holes grow before they consume the entire Gross Domestic Product? The net effect of the slanging match is presumably to turn millions of voters off the concept of politics as a useful way of exercising their time altogether -- with the effect that they return to Britney Spears, Survivor or whatever else they were using as temporary lobotomy inducement.

Everybody still interested in the election and aged above fourteen or so will know that the spending numbers are utterly irrelevant to anything that might happen to spending or taxation after June 7; the parties only make the vaguest commitments on tax in particular, and Labour’s promise not to raise the basic or higher rates of income tax is meaningless. There are hundreds of ways to raise tax without touching income tax -- or indeed National Insurance contributions. Council Tax anyone? Stamp Duty? The public is asked to monitor dozens of tax regimes at once, and it is not surprising that the issues become completely obfuscated. The term "stealth tax", much beloved of illiterate Daily Telegraph journalists, is inaccurate, as all changes to tax have been properly costed and listed in Treasury press releases and the government’s red-and-white book Budget 2001. This publication, whilst a boring read, is not normally deliberately misleading. What is actually happening is "confusion tax"; a sheer onslaught of new measures, overwhelming the public’s ability to take in what is going on. However, in aggregate the tax changes boil down to one number -- the burden of tax as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product, which rose from 37.6% to 39.2% from 1997 to 2001. Not, of course, that this should be seen as a problem: debt repayment has increased hugely in the last few years, and spending is growing quickly now after Labour’s bizarre decision to stick to the very tight Tory spending limits until 1999. But all the same, Labour seem desperate to deny that taxes have gone up, resorting to outright denial of a simple statistical fact in a desperation that is completely paranoid and groundless given the prevailing political climate. If I were the Tory campaign manager I would be appalled at Hague and Portillo’s failure to nail Labour on this simple point. But the 2001 model of the Labour spin machine seems simply too slick for the Tories to throw a toothpick in the works, let alone a spanner.

Which leaves it to members of the public to try to take the show off the road. The most memorable attempt to sabotage a Labour bigwig we’ve had was 29-year old farm worker Craig Evans, who threw an egg at John Prescott from point blank range. Prescott responded with a reasonable left hook (imprinted from his early days as a boxer in the merchant navy) and a scuffle ensued. Apart from giving a bit of life to a stultifyingly dull campaign, this incident showed the large potential for basic campaigning on the issues rather than wretched spin and empty rhetoric; Labour poll ratings, as far as anyone can tell, actually went up after the punch, which seemed to be out of some kind of relief that somebody in the campaign had crashed off the script and done something from the heart instead. Although it’s perverse that Evans was arrested and Prescott apparently not, I certainly won’t be shedding any tears for an obvious reactionary who was probably planted in the crowd by MI5 or the right wing press -- presumably during a break from their acitivities in "sabotaging"the UK Independence Party, if Norman Tebbit is to be believed, perhaps for the first time!

Week Three

More on the polls at the start of the third week, as my shape-shifting reptilian friends at Railtrack are giving me an exceptionally long time to study them this morning by laying on an extra slow service into Liverpool Street due to "a broken down train at Shenfield". At the halfway stage in the campaign, both Prescott’s and New Labour’s poll ratings seem to be down slightly -- a fact which puts Labour back to round about where it was at the start of the campaign -- albeit with several million pounds more in the pockets of the ad agencies. Historically, election campaigns have rarely shifted opinion more than a couple of percentage points either way; of recent elections, only the 1992 result produced a real surprise when compared with the average of polls in the campaign. By now Tories on the screen appear desperate, corpse-like, in the throes of cocaine addiction or foaming at the mouth. Some (Anne Widdecombe) manage all four at once. A meeting this week with an old friend of mine who works for the FT revealed that Tory private polling indicates that the situation in the marginal constituencies is even worse than their national share of the vote would indicate. The other thing my FT friend told me is that the Tories planned an all-out blitz on Europe for the final two weeks of the campaign -- effectively trying to turn the election into a referendum on the pound. This seemed rather far-fetched at the time I was talking to him, but of course it has now turned out to be absolutely true.

Week Four

This whole thing has become such a waste of time that I’m off to Bulgaria, where I’m told a reasonable political debate once took place, until June 18. Even risking three hours in a Balkan airlines Tupelev is preferable to this shambles. Reassuringly the polls are bearing up -- a couple of points down for Labour, a couple of points up for the Lib Dems. Hague resorting to cheap stunts to get himself laughed off the stage -- holding up a pound coin and saying "We’ve got 10 days to save this" -- just don’t buy 1/28th of your drinking consumption mate, you’d save it and more. Hague decides to "track back to the centre"according to The Times headline -- thus confusing the public still more. Thatcher off the leash and dictating policy without reference to Hague, the manifesto, Tebbit, anybody. Echoes of Foot and 1983 here... Where are the farmyard animals this time? (Remember the ’97 Tory chicken!) Actually they are down the fuel depots again... Respect going out to David Handley, of Farmers for Action. Did anybody see that documentary? Let me out of here!!!

   
   
   

 

 
   
         

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