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politics

Change UK: the Technocrats Who Suck at Their Jobs

The new party held an insurgent, anti-establishment rally at a cricket ground in Bath.

by Gavin Haynes
21 May 2019, 10:29am

Joan Ryan, Chuka Umunna and Sarah Wollaston (All photos by the author)

Bristol probably seems posh to you if you've never been to Bath.

How is Bath? Imagine if England had its own nationalised version of heaven. The souls arriving on the train from Paddington could just as well have crossed the River Styx for all relation it bears to, say, Luton. The average price of a house in Bath is £473,800. The supermarket that dominates the elegant sandstone arches of downtown is, yes, a Waitrose. Inside it, this week’s Bath Chronicle carries a front page warning of the city being "overrun" – because the university wants to build a 186-bed housing block.

Sometimes, the problem with journalism is that reality is more of a caricature than any caricature you could make of it. Right now, there is literally a 60-something with a pink knotted jumper draped over his shoulders yachtie-style, sat at the bar of today’s venue – the beautifully bucolic Bath Cricket Club – nursing a wine and sporting the kind of tan you either get from manual labour or wintering in the south of France. And he doesn’t look like he’d be handy with a rivet gun.

The Change UK press handler who is busy peeling a "Bollocks to Brexit" label off of a clay pot outside (it's the Lib Dem election slogan) seems to have missed this red rag to newspaper sketch writers, this glowing beacon to the assembled press yelling: "Please, crucify us!"

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Not that they need much prompting at this point. Once you’re trapped into your narrative, it becomes increasingly hard to break out. The press is a witch-ducking stand: every time you protest, it’s simply taken as further evidence of the original allegation’s truth.

So, by The Iron Law of Sod, they commence with a clanger. A video introducing the party’s candidates for the South West region, projected off a laptop, starts buffering after a few seconds. As the wheel of death revolves, the room winces. Surely not this quickly? Aren’t us press at least supposed to hunt about for these kinds of telling details?

Two months back, Change were meant to be the adults in the room. They turned out to be the sloppiest of the lot. The same sloppiness that makes you think "wifi will always be there for me" is the sloppiness that means you are blasé enough to let someone nick your Twitter handle, which, at heart, is the same sloppiness that makes you think "the public are hungry for a new party to combine Blairism with FBPE-ism", despite no clear demographic evidence.

Change are going nowhere because they have forgotten the one problem with arguing that the world should be run by Third Way technocrats: that the whole point of technocrats is that they are supposed to be good at their jobs.

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Chuka Umunna

Poor Chuka Umunna. Once, he was followed everywhere by the phrase "future Labour leader". Then he rolled the dice on a new party: it came up snake-eyes. Now, he’s fettered to a corpse, but to save face has to keep on plugging away until his constituents finally euthanise him at the next election.

The 30 or so "real people" who’ve come along today are all older, all glowing with the vitality of a final salary pension. Is it even 30? Many start pulling out dictaphones or notepads, or otherwise revealing that they are also members of the press. Our rubbernecking media wouldn’t miss this car crash for the world. There are eight TV cameras here – a ratio of 3.75 "real people" per national television channel.

"We’re a very new party," Change MP Sarah Wollaston apologises. So are The Brexit Party, who managed to pull 1,200 people to a conference centre an hour out of Peterborough on a Tuesday night. Change are about 1/40th as popular as their single-issue rivals.

Hours later, fellow Change MP Mike Gapes is holding another public meeting down in his Ilford constituency, for massed ranks of empty chairs and nine attendees.

Change’s poll numbers began the campaign fluctuating between 2 and 8 percent. They are ending the campaign firmly wedged towards the 2 percent end of the scale, helpless to watch as the Lib Dems took exactly the strategic opportunity Change had spied and fed it back into the machine, spurting to 17 percent and leapfrogging both Labour and the Tories in some polls. Turns out people didn’t want a New Politics – they just wanted an unambiguous version of Old Politics.

Like their delusion that they were technocrats, it was their delusion to think that they were placed to deliver change, when in fact they’re the sort of deluded middle-manager types who believe they are experts in blue-sky-thinking – a Team Excelsior in The Apprentice, stood there at a whiteboard shouting out: "Workers on boards!" "Executive pay caps!" "National citizen service at 16?"

It is precisely this gulf in self-awareness that leads Joan Ryan, MP for Enfield North, to perform the day's most sublime act of cringe theatre. "Can you just look at your hands please," she instructs her audience. Gingerly, the Reals reveal themselves by holding their palms together like they are taking communion. "That’s the answer to this," Joan beams like a toddler presenting a full nappy. “It’s in your hands."

Several people pass out from cringe. Spines snap. I develop the worst cringe nosebleed I've ever had. Within minutes, the clip has left Bath and is whizzing round the internet. A nation scorns.

The rest of Joan’s speech is Wikipedia regurgitated. She rattles off a grab-bag of statistics. The EU is responsible for "3.1 million jobs", it "has helped UK firms to plug the skills gap" and "brought the best players to the Premier League".

Which, in a nutshell, is how Joan found herself on the losing side of Britain’s greatest exercise in mass democracy. There’s no story here – no appeal to a common destiny – just a lot of wonkish social surplus algebra. Eat your EU – don’t you know it’s good for you.

Rounding out her total bellyflop, Joan brings things back to The Bus – that foul diesel-powered lie-machine. You get the sense that if Change’s leaders could go back in time to 2016, the one thing they’d do wouldn’t be to develop a positive argument for pan-Europeanism – it’d be to blow up The Bus. It’s their Killing Baby Hitler.

This is what happens when you’re polling around 2 percent – you end up captured by your base. Drooping, fumbling about for a constituency, Change have naturally been seduced by the talking points that FBPEs repeat to each other on Twitter. But the question they need to ask themselves is whether they are a party or a support group.

Not one but two of the South West candidates talk about how they woke up the morning after the Referendum in shock. “I went to bed a complacent European, and woke up a passionate one,” says plummy charity worker Liz Sewell. Liz would rant at the telly. She couldn’t leave it alone. “Even when I’d go on holiday, my kids would tell me off for talking about Brexit!”

In the golden age of mental health awareness, perhaps we shouldn’t be talking about Change in the acid language of Westminster, but in the emollient terms we reserve for complex-PTSD? Everyone here seems to want to keep on raking over the day that reality itself bubbled and fizzed, when those hateful words spilled out of that nice Mr Dimbleby. The trauma of the 24th of June, 2016 has kept them locked into a cycle of anger, denial and bargaining-with-God.

So rather than fight for Britain’s future relationship, they harp on a referendum long-past. Why it was actually rigged by Russian agents. How the real problem was that 16-year-olds weren’t included, or about That Bloomin’ Bus, or how the voters weren't given enough information – honestly, they just didn’t have enough statistics about regional grants for arts organisations…

Their idea of change is clock-rewinding. The notion that you have to hustle for change – that change is ugly, imperfect, bloodyminded stuff, normally only delivered by right bastards and the truly desperate, doesn’t seem to have occurred to them. They don’t feel as though they need to work to reach out, yet still reserve the right to bridle at their categorisation as the party of rich liberals.

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Rachel Johnson

The Brexit Party carefully balanced their industrialist candidates by pulling in with fish market workers, ex-soldiers and recent migrants. Rachel Johnson, a Johnson standing for Change UK, begins wittering about how she was lambasted on Twitter for tweeting a picture of some scones she’d baked with jam on top of cream, instead of the Cornish cream-on-jam formula. "You’d think I’d started World War Two!" Everyone titters. This’ll get Oldham talking.

“Yes, I have an Aga,” she trills. “I have two Agas! Not quite as many as James Brokenshire’s four ovens…”

Fellow candidate Jim Godfrey is introduced as tinkling the ivories "every Thursday night at the Barton Street Wine Bar if you want to go along".

Yet Chuka still feels he has the personal CV to take on the Waitrose mythology. “I’m from Streatham,” he says. “With one in four children living in absolute poverty…”

"Let’s not mess around here," he continues. "When they’re talking about 'metropolitans', what they mean is brown faces." The unanimously white faces in this blindingly white town nod sagely back. Yes, diversity is definitely someone’s strength…

He talks about how he is a quarter Irish, how he has an aunt in Denmark, other relatives Spain, more in France: that Europe was always personal to him.

It’s instantly the most convincing pitch of the day. Chuka might have developed that theme. He could have taken that personal story and used it to tell the story of how Europe is always related – that a common inheritance spans from the southernmost Gothic cathedral at Kosice to the northernmost at Trondheim, drawn together over centuries by the blood of Tours or Liepzig or Flanders. How the EU are the present custodians of an ancient European Enlightenment tradition that means the son of a Nigerian migrant can join hands with Dante and Bach in that eternal golden braid.

At this point, Chuka would lean in and announce that it is our generation’s historic mission to bring Europe’s family ever-closer to better multiply that common genius. And Britain’s destiny to once again be on the right side of history.

But no – poor guy has too much career debris drifting through his head to even notice when he’s winning. He soon drifts off into the old ditty: "The Under-18s Didn’t Get A Vote". “There are 1.3 million of them now… How dare you deny them that right, Nigel!” Europhiles Anonymous bursts into easy-meat applause. My name is Chuka, and I’ve been re-fighting a long-gone battle for three years.

It would be funny if it weren’t so hilarious. While Farage spends these vital weeks telling the British public a deep archetypal story about how democracy itself is in peril and they must rally to save it, Change are yelling "who funds u?" into his rear-view mirror as he speeds off into the distance.

The meeting breaks up. Somehow, there is no time for questions. Not from the real people. Nor from the press. Well that’s a kind of new politics.

Immediately after, the Change UK lectern is re-packed in bubble wrap by the only two visibly working class people in the room.

Smart move. It may be a collector’s item soon.

@gavhaynes