Aiming for best-in-class product at all times

I’ve decided that Layla Moran, the Lib Dem candidate for Battersea, is going to get my vote next Thursday. I’m a Lib Dem voter and party member of fairly long standing, so admittedly this is nothing out of the ordinary for me. Battersea (Lab: Martin Linton) is something like number three on the Conservative target list, so I don’t expect any miracles. For a long time I was going to try to help resist the conversion to the blue team, but I no longer think a tactical vote will work and I’d rather be counted as adding to the Lib Dem vote share nationally. Also, Layla seems to be doing a decent job of campaigning, and could use the encouragement. I’ve wondered if my cognitive task here could have been eased if only I’d known just a little bit more about the intentions of the other Battersea voters: just one tiny local opinion poll, no? (Update: wish granted, sort of.) Perhaps someone who knows about game theory knows whether or not information like this would have helped, because I don’t. What I will say is that I’m very happy to have made my mind up because now – thank christ – I can stop following the election.

Further, and whether I’m justified in this or not, I’m going to conjecture that lots of other people, having similarly invested in their own decisions, are also tired of the election; and that for this reason we won’t see much movement in the opinion polls before next Thursday. Additional evidence: the percentages in the ‘who won the debate’ polls seem uncannily close to the voting intention polls. So, depending on how exactly these percentages translate to seats, we’ll see around three hundred Tory representatives in parliament come Friday: this is my belief. Even if there’s not a Tory majority, there’ll be a Tory political mass which is bound to have some effect on something. It’s not that the nation is now more Conservative – the Tory vote share won’t have increased by anything much – the problem is that only a coalition will be able to shut the Tories out. The Labour vote is collapsing and the Lib Dems can’t win enough seats to take over the job that Labour was supposed to do.

I don’t look forward to it: the Tory policy platform is plain, bare and monotonous. You’ve got a general presumption that the state sector should be reduced, and quickly, without regard for any macroeconomic or social effect; you’ve got a few tax slogans to be followed through on (‘kill the jobs tax’, ‘kill the death tax’); you’ve got a presumption against immigration which relates unhappily to the UK’s treaty position with respect to the EU; and finally you’ve got a handful of ‘traditional Tory’ gestures such as the £3 a week make-your-wife-into-a-homemaker token bribe. And I’m sure there’d also be a bit of repeal this and repeal that: we don’t know what ‘British business leaders’ would ask for but I’d anticipate that the Tories would happily give it to them. This is what I can remember from reading their web site and listening to the debates, at any rate: call it drunk politics if you want.

But why is the Conservative offering so much like a thin and lumpy porridge? You might put it down to the ‘professionalisation’ of politics. David Cameron (Con) did a PPE at Oxford, and so did David Miliband (Lab) and Ed Balls (Lab); both potential Brown successors. But has there really been any recent change here? Heath (Con) and Wilson (Lab) also did Oxford PPE degrees. I’d say that what’s going on is better described as cross-generational entrenchment of risk-aversion. Quite a lot has to go right in your life for you to get to Oxford in the first place: once you’re there – or even long before you’re there – you’re well established in the habit of not fucking up. New ideas may come along from time to time, but you’re not going to be tempted by them; you need that first (you’re going to be Prime Minister, remember) and getting a first requires a conspicuous demonstration of virtue – as your academic supervisors construe virtue – and constant appropriate signalling. And so on, all the way through the internship at central office, the think tank, the practice job and onto the stumps with your shiny, hard bound manifesto. What’s more, if there is such an entrenchment, I can only see that an increase in social inequality is going to deepen it, since the penalties for fucking up are that much harsher. We do have increased inequality (and decreased social mobility), and I think we’ll see more cautious, more over-weeded, respect-the-base policy offerings for as long as that continues.

With David Cameron there’s an aggravating factor: he went to Eton. For that matter, I think there are a bunch of prospective Tory candidates standing at this election who also went to Eton. May I just say: guys, that’s pathetic. It’s obvious that you’re all thinking ‘this is the right moment to get into politics’. And forget the ‘Etonians are destined to be national leaders’ mythos: it’s not healthy. They are all guys, of course: Eton doesn’t admit girls. I know this from experience: I had a scholarship and a bursary from Eton in the 1980s. It’s a good school, or I should say, it’s an exclusive school where ambitious sons generally take after ambitious parents – and which has many good and committed teachers doing their best to impose a wholesome shape on the situation. (My attendance probably didn’t help.) But why is an Eton education aggravating in the case of Cameron? Count me in with those who see it like this: if the attainment of an Oxford PPE sets a barrier for entry to political high office at the age of twenty or so, then something like Eton pushes that barrier backwards in time: you now have to have jumped the barrier at thirteen or so. This is on the basis that you won’t get to Oxford or Cambridge unless you went to a public school, but that’s at least half true, isn’t it? And the not fucking up can start even earlier than that. Orwell describes his prep school experience:

Indeed, it was universally taken for granted at St Cyprian’s that unless you went to a ‘good’ public school (and only about fifteen schools came under this heading) you were ruined for life. It is not easy to convey to a grown-up person the sense of strain, of nerving oneself for some terrible, all-deciding combat, as the date of the examination crept nearer — eleven years old, twelve years old, then thirteen, the fatal year itself! Over a period of about two years, I do not think there was ever a day when ‘the exam’, as I called it, was quite out of my waking thoughts.

Likewise – judging by the almost-spitting terseness that shows through at decreasing intervals – David Cameron is going about these last few weeks of his campaign in fear of having to do what Orwell calls a forty pounds a year job if he doesn’t win. At the same time, the ‘rolling our sleeves up’ talk makes me suspect that he also thinks that we all need a lesson or two. Someone who has followed a clearly laid out path with great care, his entire life, isn’t going to suddenly turn around and alter the arrangements. There’s nothing wrong there – he’ll be thinking – we just need to be shown what discipline really means.

PS: chin up, Marina.

3 thoughts on “Aiming for best-in-class product at all times

  1. One of the most depressing things about Oxford PPEs is that half of them appear to be really badly educated about statistics. Of course another depressing thing is how many of them are utterly conventional in their economics views. It’s almost as if all the propaganda about PPE (“learn critical thinking”, “combine rhetoric and analysis”) was all just… propaganda…

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