British Politics in Turmoil: Interview with Miranda Green

Alex Manzoor 5 December 2019
Image Credits: Jesus College, University of Cambridge

If anyone is in a strong position to talk on the subject of ‘British Politics in Turmoil’, it is Miranda Green.

A current Financial Times journalist and former Press Secretary to the 1988-1999 leader of the Liberal Democrats Paddy Ashdown, Green has had years of experience on both sides of the lobby. She can be seen regularly providing her analysis of the current political climate on programmes like Politics Live and, the sadly now defunct, This Week.

Of course, journalists have often seen British Politics as being in turmoil and, as in recent years, tend to describe problems as existential. Green laments the consistent deploying of the existential prefix, describing it as ‘clearly a massively overused word’ and stating that if ‘we can all agree to rule it out, alongside other words like iconic, then that would be good’.

She praised the BBC five-part documentary on Thatcher for challenging the way in which ‘we currently spend our whole time thinking as if we are a uniquely febrile moment of British political history’. The series should make us ‘think about what was happening in the 1980s’ with real dangers like the Cold War which was truly ‘existential if anything is’. The fact that ‘we are still a stable democracy’ should counter the ‘over-excitement that can creep into the conversation about where we are at’.

The intense debates around Brexit have brought incredibly dramatic and hyperbolic terms into mainstream political discourse. Green ‘reacted quite badly earlier this year when people were talking about a coup’ because ‘these things should not be taken lightly’. She does recognise however that ‘this is a fantastic time to be a political journalist or to be someone who is interested in the political scene because there is so much at stake and up for grabs.’ Green’s discussion of the dangers and excitement inherent in any period of profound political change clearly shows an individual who, whilst heavily invested and fascinated in politics, understands the importance of level-headedness and has been witness to many periods of intense volatility.

Although the time we are in is not as critical as some are claiming it to be, the upcoming General Election does have the very real potential to shake things up because ‘the traditional voting patterns that we have known for most of the twentieth century… are really breaking down quite fast now’, something accelerated by the Brexit vote in 2016 and the Scottish Referendum vote of 2014. So, despite the important caveats about history, there is no doubt that we are in ‘a really exciting time generally’.

Recent nationwide votes from the 2016 Brexit Referendum to the 2017 General Election have seen even professional political pundits fail to correctly predict results or see certain trends.

Green argues, with a laugh, that this fairly recent phenomenon is partly because ‘almost every iron law of politics has been disproven or exploded over the last few years’. However, it is not just the pundits but also ‘the polling industry’, who have ‘made a lot of really wrong calls and have had to look very hard at their methodology’. This affects the current campaign because we have seen these companies ‘change what they do to try to be more up to date in their measurement of voter intention and voter temperament’. Green is proud that she ‘got 2015 [the General Election] right’, especially considering the fact that she is ‘not a data scientist’ but added that her belief ‘in gut instinct’ was able to allow her to predict the outcome of that vote. She modestly claimed that this was only because ‘enough conventional rules of politics were still applying’. She accepts that ‘we all got 2017 wrong’ and self-reflectively adds that ‘we have been overinfluenced…  by political punditry and political science from America which is very different to the UK’. The importation of ‘too many of their pre-conceived ideas’ like the idea that the campaign does not really matter to the outcome of the election led to this inability to predict 2017 where Labour ran a barnstorming campaign in comparison to the more lacklustre Conservative one. Green’s mastery of election strategy and clear knowledge of the science behind polling might help to explain why the Lib Dem share of the vote and seats in the House of Commons increased under Ashdown.

Most pundits, in both the US and UK, now point to the 2016 votes for Brexit and Trump as the moment when the previously accepted rules of elections broke down. Green believes that much of the tumult ‘or whatever you want to call it’ of recent years can be connected back to the ‘2008 Financial Crash and the after-effects of that’. This meant that too many people ‘felt shut out of the proceeds of the economy’ and ‘voted against that’; this is something that ‘is clearly common’ to both the Trump and Brexit vote. Therefore, political divisions in the UK certainly ‘existed before the Brexit vote’.

“Green believes that much of the tumult ‘or whatever you want to call it’ of recent years can be connected back to the ‘2008 Financial Crash and the after-effects of that’. This meant that too many people ‘felt shut out of the proceeds of the economy’ and ‘voted against that’; this is something that ‘is clearly common’ to both the Trump and Brexit vote.”

People analysing the political problems of the UK and US have often tried to extrapolate the problems in their own country to a worldwide phenomenon. Green argues that ‘there are things that are common to all the disturbances of western democracies’ and ‘not just the Anglosphere’ but places like France with the Gilets Jaunes and Germany with the AfD. However, although ‘there are always commonalities that you can pick out, you obviously have to remember the whole time that each democracy has its unique characteristics’. This can even be applied to the different nations of the United Kingdom where some of Green’s colleagues who have been in Wales for the current General Election campaign have ‘said there is a real energy to the Plaid Cymru campaign this time’, whereas previously, ‘Welsh nationalism’ had not really sparked up. Her conclusion is that the breadth of national and regional differences means that ‘it would be mad to read across too much from country to country’.

When it comes to the Conservative Party’s current position, Green believes that Johnson as a political figure is ‘sui generis’ and ‘it is very much a moot point whether they think they can pull off what they think they can’. This is because although we have been told that he is ‘a sort of one-nation Disraelite Tory who will govern Britain the way he did London…, they are doing Brexit and potentially a no-deal even’, which might happen by the end of 2020. There is a difficulty in squaring ‘the idea of being a very traditional and moderate conservative with doing something very extreme and radical which puts the economy in danger’. It seems that within Downing Street there is a belief that ‘the electorate will buy those two things together but there is a big question of whether they will or not’.

“When it comes to the Conservative Party’s current position, Green believes that Johnson as a political figure is ‘sui generis’ and ‘it is very much a moot point whether they think they can pull off what they think they can’.”

When it comes to Corbyn, she sees him as being part of a ‘different generation of Labour Politics’, specifically the Bennite Left although he does have a genuinely large amount of youth support. Green criticises the ‘snotty’ and ‘patronising’ way in which some commentators believe ‘you can sell a national left economic agenda to a younger generation because they don’t remember what it was like in the 1970s’. Her analysis of the political situation, whilst being able to draw upon a range of historical examples, is always situated firmly in the present. Despite her criticism of some lazy anti-Corbyn critiques, she does think ‘there is something slightly odd about the Corbyn worldview for it to not have changed at all between the 1970s and the 1980s’. Although we often laugh at politicians who attempt to get out of trouble by claiming to be on a journey, Green insists that we all ‘should be on a journey because the world changes as the evidence in front of you changes’. Her powerful but measured critiques of the two main parties is a refreshing contrast to the robotic, excessive and ubiquitous attacks rehashed by MPs and party officials during election campaigns.

“Despite her criticism of some lazy anti-Corbyn critiques, she does think ‘there is something slightly odd about the Corbyn worldview for it to not have changed at all between the 1970s and the 1980s’.”

Both Johnson and Corbyn have strong followings within their parties who argue that they represent a strong divergence from the formality, and arguably insincerity, of a generation of previous politicians. Green recognises the almost ‘shambolic appeal’ of Boris Johnson’s supposed lack of spin and Corbyn’s apparent dearth of ‘terrible, evil spin doctor types’ as a factor in their appeal but believes that ‘you can be authentic and wrong’ or ‘authentic and really unsuited for the job of Prime Minister’ so ‘perhaps it is not the most important consideration’. These descriptions could pithily summarise not merely Green’s own views but the beliefs of wide swathes of the electorate with regard to both Corbyn and Johnson.

‘Politics in the 1990s and early 2000s did degenerate a bit into a conversation about marketing and clearly there has been a backlash against that which in the long term is probably quite healthy’.

However, Green is completely unwilling to accept the simple idea that the ‘New Labour revolution’, as she terms it, was purely an exercise in brand management. ‘As somebody who lived through the 1997 campaign in the bowels of the Lib Dem HQ’ she saw the ‘radical’ New Labour policies that were developed, like a windfall tax on privatised utilities be accepted by the electorate because they were able to convince voters that they were not going to ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’. The problem for the contemporary Labour Party, in her view, is that ‘they don’t seem remotely interested in the overall reassuring message within which you can present radical policies with the people’s consent’. Marketing is not a distraction from the business of policy generation, rather it is an important part of the process by which policies can be implemented. Green elucidates why ‘politics is so complicated and hard to do’ because although Labour’s policies ‘poll really well individually’, parties ‘are not selling individual items from a stall’ and you only have one package you have to sell to people who only have one vote on the day. So, you ‘have to be selling the idea that you are competent and the idea that your leader is trustworthy and credible and that is really tricky to pull off’. The ‘discipline’ and ‘hard work’ necessary to pull off such a feat seems lacking in modern politics due to ‘a dearth of very good people in all of the parties and I would argue that the hard work hasn’t been done on the policies as well’. It seems like the current problems in British politics, to Green’s immense disappointment, were getting in the way of the more basic, but critical functions, of the political parties.

“…although Labour’s policies ‘poll really well individually’, parties ‘are not selling individual items from a stall’ and you only have one package you have to sell to people who only have one vote on the day”

‘2014 was the moment where everything started to go crazy’ with the Scottish Referendum and the European Parliament elections which Nigel Farage’s UKIP won. This set off near-constant campaigns for major national elections held from 2015-2019 something Green describes frankly as ‘really, really bad for policy-making’. This reduces the ‘quality of what voters are offered’ because they seem to ‘lurch’ from one campaign to the next.

This Week, the light-hearted but incredibly informative BBC1 show hosted by veteran interviewer Andrew Neil, had Green on as a regular guest where she would frequently round up the political events of the week or provide her analysis on the topic of the day. Its informality, and biting commentary such as referring to successive BBC Director-Generals as Our Dear Leader, led to high ratings but it was cancelled earlier this year. Green concurs that part of its undoubted popularity was due to the fact its guests and contributors, like Green herself, were not active on the frontbenches or in head office and could say their views with humour and frankness. The ‘frank assessment’ that This Week could provide is becoming less common with the constant campaigning mode of the nation where politicians only focus on the upsides of their policies. ‘You might as well just have a speaking rosette’ she laments because ‘it doesn’t really add to an understanding of the complexities of the decisions people are trying to make’. Green praises Nicola Sturgeon who in interviews can admit the complexities and problems of a decision but then clearly explain why a said decision was made, this is a practice other politicians, even those on the frontlines, should try to emulate because although ‘the media would be tough on them, it might change the culture a bit’.

The dearth of talent on the frontbench of the two parties which Green sees as a major problem is due primarily to the fact that ‘both parties have been captured by their ideological wing’.

The Labour MPs who do not agree with the ‘Corbynite worldview’ are ‘relegated to the backbenches and now potentially no longer in parliament’. On the Tory side, since the Brexit Referendum ‘both Theresa May and now Johnson have had to have people in the cabinet not for competence reasons’ and instead having ‘a balance of Leavers and Remainers’ because ‘you can’t have people outside the tent pissing in, you have to have them pissing out’. For Johnson, ‘he’s bought off the ERG by bringing in people like Rees-Mogg’ who ‘he has successfully neutralised as an opponent, don’t forget’. However, she warns that ‘there is a cost of bringing those people into government not just of competence but of winning an election’.

‘My favourite thing of the whole campaign so far is the Ashcroft poll of what have you so far noticed about the general election… forty-something percent of people said they had noticed nothing, nothing at all’.

On her own party’s strong pro-Remain position, Green believes that it ‘was a bit of a risk to go for such a hard-line position’ on revoking Article 50. Her warning is based in the strictly tactical belief that ‘soft Tory moderate remain voters are a little bit put off by it’. The gamble, therefore, is that the Brexit rupture is so great that gain can only be had by being clear on one side of the divide. Although she says that she personally ‘issues with that’, the Lib Dem voter base does ‘map exactly on to remain’ so the party is genuinely speaking for that point of view. Whether the electorate will reward such gamesmanship awaits to be seen.

The phenomena of smaller parties and independents, which Green has looked at for the FT, is ‘quite healthy’ and not something to be dismissed. This is clearly not a widely shared view in certain circles because ‘most of my journalistic colleagues take zero interest in any of this sort of phenomena but I find them quite fascinating not least because how can it be a bad thing for people to want to become politically active and involved?’ Although the presence of new parties can encourage a ‘competition of ideas’, she is ‘not sure there is a lot different offered by these sorts of parties when they pop up’ and their future will depend on the First Past the Post voting system which is so infamously tough on smaller parties.

Overall, Green believes that the level of ‘hostility and vitriol’ in British politics is ‘very bad’ and it is a problem ‘because we want more people getting involved in politics and standing as MPs rather than less, and we certainly don’t want MPs resigning in scores from Parliament’. British politics has seen a retreat of different voters into ‘mental silos’ and a ‘values competition’ which is represented negatively as ‘competing dystopias.’ If, as in 2017, the two major parties receive a large share of the vote, it should not be interpreted as ‘positive choices’, ‘I would interpret that as people being scared into the arms of the party that they fear least’. For all her trepidations about the current state of British politics, Green is clearly the kind of political participant and observer who enjoys both the strategic element of politics but also its critical importance in ensuring healthy, but robust, debate.