Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Tube strikes, Miliband and prevailing despair

Pavlovian reactions do not come more strongly than when the Mayor of London makes one of his self-loving media appearances.  As the first in what is likely to be a long series of strikes on the Underground gets under way, the dispute is clearly being fanned by Johnson and his cronies.  A classic display tonight on Channel Four News where the charlatan blatantly lied about constant meetings with the RMT, when in fact he has not met any of the four trade unions involved with London Underground since the capital had the misfortune to elect him back in 2008.  Still, what is a little bit of truth when it would prove inconvenient to demonstrate his complete lack of interest in the daily lives of the little people.

As critical parts of London's infrastructure are paralysed, there is the inevitable jockeying for position by Tories hoping for soundbites.  Cameron is clearly auditioning for the part of Uriah Heep - his creepy, clearly-faked oiliness is a rebarbative reminder of why the bad old days of patrician Conservatism have come back.  His motive is not hard to discern - setting up Johnson for a fall will do his rickety position within the party no harm - and if the amoral buffoon were to prevail he will be able to spin his way into the reflected glory.  If another Tory bangs on about an undemocratic strike, were there a just God He would smite them for rank hypocrisy on top of the innumerable mortal sins they have already committed - after all, neither Cameron nor Johnson have anything approaching either the mandate that Bob Crow has within the RMT or indeed Manuel Cortes within the TSSA - and both unions have complied fully with restrictive legislation introduced by the Conservatives in the 1980s designed to preclude random strikes.

To watch the Tories twist is also to be reminded of the success with which they have captured sections of the media.  In the last week, we have seen their echo chambers reverberate with indignation that Labour might consider implementing a 50p tax rate once more - claiming that this is an undue restraint on trade and that there will be a brain drain of the self-styled wealth creators.  This does not stand up to even the most basic scrutiny, yet it is peddled as fact and certainty by commentators trying to whip up anti-Labour sentiment.  The Tory theory of entitlement is used to play off opposition groups against one another - so that people who have managed to maintain their own benefits through decent pensions, solidarity with others and a desire to better themselves are portrayed as the enemy of people who have been deprived of even basic security.

The Tory machine's approach is predictable and ongoing.  Knowing that there is a declining propensity to vote amongst younger people they feed the cynicism by continuing measures that do not merely support older people but transfer wealth towards them.  Funding their promises on welfare payments will mean that working-age people suffer much greater cuts - truly the evidence of the kind of social solidarity that Cameron, Osborne and Johnson picked up through their education, and which Gove will probably promote through compulsory workhouse experiences within GCSE history to ram home the point that to their cronies we are all the undeserving poor.

So where, in all this, is the Leader of the Opposition?  He seems to have been seduced, much as many of the self-styled modernisers, by the idea that all that he needs to do to appeal to the middle classes is to change the way in which his party operates.  Reforming leadership elections is all very well, but he needs to be out there attempting to build the kind of consensus that swept Major out of office in 1997 - but this time with a social democratic boldness that makes it clear that no kind of special pleading is going to immunise the rich, the self-styled business community and their cheerleaders from being obligated to contribute for the wider good of society.  Instead, he has been goaded into giving the appearance of condemning the Tube strikers rather than shaming Johnson and his acolytes.

Missing the opportunity to protest about a bubble economy, the constant erosion of social cohesion and the flagrant hypocrisy of an austerity programme that rewards the fraudsters, failures and freeloaders is a mistake.  When housing costs are spiralling, personal debt rising and even pursuing education has a massive price tag, Labour should be providing a narrative that raises hope of progress if not a cure.  Gradualism is necessary, but having some kind of vision where redistribution and equality of opportunity play a central role would differentiate the left from the right with a degree of clarity.

With the Liberal Democrats imploded and impotently awaiting their fate, largely determined by Cameron, Miliband should be taking this opportunity to reclaim the protest vote.  Instead it either expresses itself in apathy or in the continuing support for UKIP and its increasingly-unsavoury cast of lunatics.  Perhaps Farage should do a deal with Johnson - they are both dangerous bores with messianic delusions - but in the meantime the left should be much clearer that xenophobic rightism will never address any of the fundamental issues about economic and social justice.  Just hoping that UKIP and the Tories argue themselves into a standstill is not enough.

However, given the general mood of sullen storminess, this may be too optimistic.  One way forward is for the protagonists in the Tube strike to settle their differences by some alternative dispute resolution method.  The thought of Crow and Johnson mud-wrestling has almost encouraged me to start a petition - and it would certainly improve on much of what passes for television entertainment.  As the Tories debase the political agenda to that of a cat-calling pantomime, such an approach would at the least enliven the democratic process - and my money would be on Bob.

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