An oasis of politics in a sea of turmoil

May 18, 2010 by
Filed under: Politics, The RSA 

I have been a more than usually useless blogger recently. I have been completely sidetracked by my lecture on 21st century enlightenment, which is quite literally causing me sleepless nights as I veer from euphoric mania to teeth grinding despair. The plan now is to update the wiki with a full first draft by the end of next Monday. Someone innocently asked me the other day why exactly I perform an annual lecture. Being entirely unable to answer I had to go and sit in a darkened room for several hours to recover.

In as much as I have been noticing the world around me a few thoughts have glided past my fevered brow….

Yesterday we had a fascinating presentation here at the RSA by Stan Greenberg, a pollster not just to Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, but to a wide variety of parties across the world, including ones on the right. He had conducted a comprehensive poll of voters in the days immediately after the election.

His presentation left me with three thoughts: given that public opinion currently favours left of centre over right of centre attitudes on key issues (tax increases rather than service cuts, protect the state don’t shrink it) and given that there doesn’t seem to be much awareness of, or enthusiasm for, the Tory ‘big society not big state’ agenda:

a) Does this mean that David Cameron, far from underperforming, did incredibly well to win despite the general mood?

b) What will happen to the LibDems? On the one hand, public preferences and the tendencies of its supporters suggest that being a coalition partner with a right of centre party will prove very damaging. On the other hand, Stan argued that the LibDems could ‘own’ the political reform part of the coalition agenda while the Conservatives own the fiscal discipline side. Stan also argued that across most of Europe the party that establishes itself as ‘new politics’ and attracts younger voters (mainly the LibDems here but often the Greens abroad) usually maintains its strength despite cyclical shifts.

c) Given that Labour would almost certainly now be leading a centre left coalition Government if it had had another leader (Stan explicitly confirmed this) will it prove hard for Labour members to be enthusiastic about anyone implicated either in supporting Gordon Brown or failing to take the opportunity to oust him (OK this does rule out the whole former cabinet but maybe it’s time to skip two generations!)?

Being an enthusiast for collaboration I am, along with most other people, fascinated to see how the coalition does and we will be sending out invitations in the next few days to hear new ministers lay out their plans in the areas most relevant to the Society’s work.



  • James Horn

    Re: c – I think no-one will hold it against Miliband-Balls-Miliband (if that is how it ends up) for their silence in the months leading up to the election. I suspect their advisors will have pointed out that the election was almost unwinnable and they would be better off waiting till Gordon left of his own accord, rather than forcing a split in the party before a vote.

    I’m more interested to see whether their backgrounds get dragged up in the same way that Cameron and Cleggs did – Private School Balls vs State School Milibands. I don’t really get where this fascination with schools comes from (since they all ended up at Oxford anyway).

    Looking forward to the first draft of 21ce – just don’t drink too much coffee…

  • Stanley Parker

    You give an annual lecture, Matthew, because you can give us an indication of the current health and direction of the Society, even if sometimes indirectly

  • James Bartholomew

    I think it is quite true that there is – or at least has been – a centre-left majority in Britain. It was remarkable that we got Lady Thatcher in power at all since she led a minority part of a party that had minority support.

    Having said that, what would happen if Britain’s two Left wing parties got together? We have a precedent for this in France. To begin with, the centre-left would hold power, as Mitterand did for quite a while. But then discontent with it would finally emerge and a centre-right party would obtain power again. However you could argue that the notion of ‘the centre’ there has moved to the left. I would suggest that this has also happened in Britain. The Conservative Party as it now exists is the party of what Lady Thatcher would call ‘the wets’. The wets have taken over. It is extraordinary that the current Conservatives should even consider a top rate of capital gains tax of 50%. Gordon Brown had it at 18%. The top rate in China, where the notes still boast the image of Chairman Mao, is 25%. Only a very curious kind of right wing government would consider a top rate of 50%.

  • Jun Kaminishikawara

    Dear Mr. Taylor,

    I am Jun Kaminishikawara with Kyodo News, Japan’s news agency. I am writing here to get contact with you, and I apologise in advance if it is not appropriate to write here. I hope you understand me.

    I am writing to see if it would be possible to do a face-to-face interview with you regarding the party manifestos, given your experience with the Labour Party and involvement in drawing up the party manifesto for the general election in 1997. This is part of a long feature I am writing which will also include interviews with academics in the UK on the evolution of the manifesto. Basically, I would like to find out the processes involved in drawing up this important document.

    At the last general election in Japan, political parties formulated manifestos for the first time, and I understand they modelled themselves on the British way.

    I am very much interested in learning how Labour drew up its manifesto in 1997.

    In case you are not able to do the interview, I was wondering if there is any other politician/ official you could suggest who has drawn up manifestos at the elections.

    Kyodo is Japan’s largest news agency and the interview will be distributed to all our subscriber newspapers in Japan as well as through foreign media via our English language service.

    I look forward to hearing from you in due course.

    Kind regards,
    Mr. Jun Kaminishikawara

  • Pingback: Tony Blair less popular than Gordon Brown, says Greenberg | Westminster Blog |

  • Ian Leslie

    I’m afraid I am sceptical about this “centre-left majority” stuff. It conjures up a marvellous vision of a country dominated by Guardian-readers but it’s hardly accurate. Generally, the British are anti-immigration, anti-Europe, pro-capital punishment and anti-benefit scrounging. Generally I think trying to pin the population down to one place on the political spectrum is quite hard.

    On another topic, Matthew I have a question for you. No, not an interview request. Do you know of any way we can access a recording or find a transcript of the second episode of God On My Mind? I heard the excellent first episode and was too late to the second: it has disappeared into the Beeb’s black hole.

  • Angus Bearn

    Matthew, loved the thing on religion, by the way, well done and have just passed an enjoyable half-hour bickering on the theme with a Jehovah’s Witness on the doorstep. So… my man Gordon won all the debates, but for the bags on their heads, and now people have alredy started bleating about capital gains tax and so forth. We were warned. What I really wanted to say, and I’m sure this is the wrong place, but nevermind, is that the libs have tried their devolution & neighbourhood model in Tower Hamlets. It was cosy, but unaffordable, so it got trashed in the end. Please let’s have no more grand experiments. I’m almost embarassed to say this, but I am saving my organisation shed-loads each year simply by negotiating hard on all the contracts and being sensible about what is necessary and what is just plain habit. You get the impression that civil servants couldn’t negotiate their way out of a wet paper bag. Am I being unfair (again)? Do we really need to wallow around with grandiose models, or just sharpen up a bit?

  • Livy

    a) Depends what you mean by “do well”. Whether you believe Cameron was actually playing to win or just content to crawl across the finish line through the path of least resistance. There’s a difference between losing and being beaten, which is why the Tories didn’t have the humility or confidence for the right kind of introspection until 9 years after their huge defeat. Even Michael Portillo regularly concedes that since 1990 they have not had an answer to the simple question: “If you vote Conservative your life will be better because…” Whoever the new Labour leader is, he will have a far easier job of articulating a morally appealing case for why he believes what he believes (something Cameron never had the courage to do) but it won’t matter. We’ve gone from ‘post-ideological’ to ‘values’ to cold and clinical abstractions, and if the coalition becomes a new hegemonic force that camps out on the centre ground it will deny anybody else space.

    b) The Lib Dems… Well 90% of government spending will be in Conservative hands, Lib Dem ministers with departments will have shrinking budgets and David Laws will be cast in the ‘Slasher’ role so the heat’s off Osbrone. Many would have hoped responsibility too, given that he’s on record as saying he only spends 40% of his energy focusing on the economy. (Institute of Government’s chart of cabinet spending) If you ask most people what the Lib Dems are known for they’ll say proportional representation, tuition fees and trident. But sacred cows are handy when you work on the assumption of never having to deliver anything.

    c) Spilt milk. (I change my mind on this every day but…) it’s equally plausible that were the country facing a second unelected PM imposed on them in the dying days of a disheartened government the media would have cried foul and shown him or her no quarter; the electorate would have punished Labour even harder, the Tories would have got an outright majority without the Liberals to reign them in and Labour would be in opposition longer. Besides, even though Tories and the conservative press were galvanised by a personal disdain for Brown, his numbers didn’t really suffer after calling the old lady a bigot or Andy Marr accusing him of being a drug addict. In fact Labour won Rochdale and ‘bullygate’ made people relieved at the knowledge he wasn’t the same man in private that he was in public.

    James: Good question about background. Why is it that every time the British press run stories about an axe murderer they all begin their sentences with the guy’s name, followed by his age and then how much his house is worth, before moving on to describing the crime he committed?

  • Matthew Stiles

    “Given that Labour would almost certainly now be leading a centre left coalition Government if it had had another leader (Stan explicitly confirmed this)”

    This has been picked up by the press but in the presentation (v interesting by the way) I didn’t see anything to back this up. I did go through the presentation rather quickly as there are 59 pages there but if anyone can lead to me the relevant page I would be grateful.