Change UK were always doomed to failure, and Joan Ryan just showed why | Owen JonesMay 17, 2019
Fawlty Towers, Alan Partridge, The Office: finally the great British tradition of it’s-so-awkward-you-want-to-look-away-but-you-can’t comedy has a new addition, and it’s called Change UK. The critics may argue that this iteration lays the cringe factor on a little too thick, however. When Change UK’s Joan Ryan asked her audience in Bath to “look at your hands, please”, followed by “that’s it, it’s there, that’s the answer to this, it’s in your hands” – in what can only be described as panicked primary school teacher meets David Brent’s infamous motivational speech – the horror was compounded by the fact she’d clearly done this before, and that the audience clapped. Is this a political party, or is it performance art?
The tragicomedy of Change UK is principally one of hubris. You can see, to be fair, why they thought success might beckon. There is a rich seam of sympathy for their brand of politics within the British media, and there’s no doubt that many remain voters feel disillusioned, angry even, about Labour’s Brexit triangulation. But the principal flaw in their plan was this: former Labour MPs Chuka Umunna and Chris Leslie believe that being a Blairite means automatically inheriting a political elixir from 1990s Tony Blair, of electoral success, and generally being very good at politics.
The fact that Blairism was a product of its time aside – the 90s may as well be a different political universe – you can, obviously, be a Blairite and extremely bad at politics, as this faction has indeed spent the last decade demonstrating with some aplomb. Their self-perception is of being slick West Wing operators – the reality is more akin to a Benny Hill sketch.
If you’re going to leave a political party over racism, then it is probably best to vet your candidates properly to avoid being embroiled in multiple scandals over racism and other bigotry. If you’re going to claim that the leadership of your old party are bungling incompetents, then if you don’t offer a slick alternative, you’re going to look a little bit daft, particularly if your political offer is effectively style over substance. The bizarre name change, the utterly weird logo which looks like a printer test page, the even more surreal Twitter handle (@ForChange_Now), a campaign bus whose design looks like someone typed something absent-mindedly into Microsoft Word: if this was a sixth-form project to “set up a new political party”, it would be lucky to scrape a C.
Their leaked strategy document – saying they would cannibalise the Liberal Democrats before moving on the devour the other political parties – reveals an almost pitiful delusion. In a rare display of political insight from Change UK, acting leader Heidi Allen declared that Tony Blair would never be allowed to join the party because “as I have discovered getting into politics, is once you are tarnished, you are tarnished”. How cruel that Allen and her colleagues are about to learn this instructive lesson first-hand.
Their cowardly refusal to call byelections when they left to form a new grouping was spun like this: the ex-Labour MPs enjoyed dramatic surges in majorities in 2017 because of a personal vote. We have been entreated to believe that Mike Gapes, who has been Ilford South’s MP since 1992, enjoyed a sudden 10,000 increase in his vote between 2015 and 2017 not because of Jeremy Corbyn, or Labour’s policies, but presumably because Gapes’s personal charisma and charm suddenly exploded in those two years. It is somewhat puzzling, then, that a public meeting by Gapes in his own constituency mostly consisted of empty chairs. In Birmingham it was a similar story.
The raison d’être of Change UK was that the country was crying out for their brand of vapid centrism. If that were true, where are the crowds? We see them for the Brexit party – tragically, we know this brand of politics does have an enthusiastic constituency. If there was an equal appetite for socially liberal neoliberal economics, then Change UK would be pushing at an open door, not shoving forcefully with no results.
But some words in defence in Change UK’s defence. If you had Leslie and Umunna’s level of self-regard and knew you had no political future in the Labour party, what would you do? You’ve not been foreign secretary like David Miliband, so no lucrative international job is on offer; you don’t have a hinterland like the historian Tristram Hunt, so no prestigious museum is going to offer you a directorship. You’ve been buttered up by sympathetic media types who crooned at you – and continue to tell would-be Labour splitters – that you’re really popular, that you’ll thrive Macron-style outside of your old political home.
Yet my main point of sympathy is this. When they are ridiculed for having no policies or ideas – that’s so old politics, you see – it’s not actually their fault. The truth is their brand of politics ran out of road a very long time ago. It might, in other less shambolic forms, receive a temporary boost outside of a general election because of a single issue, Brexit. But in a country that has been in social turmoil for years, this political creed has no answers, nothing to say, leaving just platitudes and embarrassing management speak to fill the void. As Change UK’s leaders wake up to a political hell that only gets worse with every passing day, perhaps that can comfort them: it’s really not all their fault.
• Owen Jones is a Guardian columnist
Source of this (above) article: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/may/17/change-uk-joan-ryan-look-at-your-hands