Posts Tagged ‘uk politics’

Corbyn’s manifesto is great. Labour is still going to lose.

Corbyn Labour Coup

The UK’s Labour Party yesterday announced its manifesto for the upcoming general election. It’s a dramatically different vision to the path the Conservative party has laid out for the country, and unsurprisingly, it is the most left-wing manifesto the party has had since the rise of “New Labour” under Tony Blair in the late 1990s. Contrary to the scoffing of some on the right, however, it’s far from being a loony-leftie document that appeals only to the fringes. If anything, it’s an incredibly populist manifesto; the majority of its policies enjoy very broad support from the British electorate.

The right-wing press argues that the manifesto shows Labour, under Jeremy Corbyn, trying to return the UK to the “bad old days” of the 1970s (yes, that’s the same right-wing press that’s had a months-long priapism over notions like returning to Imperial weights and measures, or issuing blue-coloured passports; the existence of irony, it seems, is just another EU strategy to undermine Brexit). To some extent, they’re right; the manifesto does hark back to the pre-Thatcher years in parts, with policies aimed at undoing some of the more egregious mistakes of the neo-liberal policy regimes of the past 35 years. These include the ideologically motivated privatisation of a number of natural monopolies like public transport and energy, or the underhanded social engineering that saw council housing being sold off cheaply and never replaced, both of which date back to the early 1980s and are targeted in the manifesto.

Rather than arguing back and forth about the benefits of various different aspects of the manifesto, though, the point I want to make is that regardless of whether you consider these policies to be economically sensible or politically desirable, they’re undeniably popular. Opinion poll after opinion poll has shown – with margins that defy post-Brexit, post-Trump scepticism about polling – that the British public support the renationalisation of rail and other core services, want to see council housing stocks replenished, and favour the roll-back of the most extreme deregulations of the labour market, such as zero-hours contracts. If you go through the Labour manifesto line-by-line with British voters, you’ll find a strong majority in favour of pretty much every major policy in the document. The last manifesto to enjoy such a strong level of support was probably Blair’s in 1997 – a very different manifesto for a very different time.

Blair won 1997 in a historic landslide. Corbyn, for all that his policies resonate, is going to lose, and lose badly – likely handing Theresa May’s Conservatives a significantly boosted majority in the House of Commons, and perhaps losing key seats once seen as Labour strongholds. This is in spite of the fact that May’s Conservative policies are actually pretty unpopular; “Hard Brexit” is opposed by a plurality of the electorate, and some of her policies around things like education, the NHS and fox-hunting (yes, the fox-hunting debate is back) are opposed by a significant majority. It doesn’t matter; she’s going to win the most convincing Conservative electoral victory in a generation.

What this means, from a political science wonk perspective, is that a significant part of the British electorate is going to go out and vote for a party whose policies they disagree with. It flies in the face of certain fields of theory, which try to link the policy preferences of voters to their choices in elections, or to model the behaviour of candidates as principal-agent relationships – in which voters (principals) elect candidates as their “agents”, who go on to represent the policy interests of the voters in order to ensure future re-election. There’s more complexity to those models, but in essence they all assume the same fundamental thing – that voters have policy preferences, and that they evaluate the distance between their own preferences and those of electoral candidates, and assess the candidates according to that measure. If you have an election in which a large portion of voters who prefer nationalisation, labour market protections and investment in social housing knowingly go out and elect candidates who want to privatise the NHS, deregulate labour markets and leave housing entirely in the private sector; well, something is up.

Specifically, what’s up is valence issues. You can broadly divide the issues of concern to voters in elections into two categories. The first category is position issues – these are issues on which parties, and voters, have divided views. Things like immigration policy, Brexit, nationalisation, labour market reforms and so on are position issues, because different voters and parties have different positions on these issues. Even where a majority of voters lean a certain direction (for example, about 80% of UK voters oppose a repeal of the fox-hunting ban), the existence of a minority who believe otherwise turns this into a position issue. We pay a lot of attention to position issues, because they fit neatly with a lot of fundamental theories about policy preferences. Perhaps more importantly, they also fit comfortably with most peoples’ basic understanding of how democracy is meant to work, and provide points of disagreement and debate which are interesting to follow as they unfold in newspapers and other media.

The second category of issue is valence issues. Valence issues are things on which the vast majority of people and parties actually agree. For example, “enhanced prosperity”, or “lower crime”, or “better education”, or “lower unemployment”; these are all things that just about every voter, and every political party, agrees to be positive. There’s lots of disagreement about how you achieve those things, of course, but fundamentally if you’re talking about issues of economic growth, human security and so on, you’re talking about a valence issue – something everyone wants to attain, regardless of where they fall on the political spectrum or how they feel about all the various position issues.

Jeremy Corbyn isn’t going to lose this election over position issues. On position issues, he’s good; the British electorate agrees with him, so much so that in an election where only the position issues mattered, he’d likely win the biggest majority Labour has ever held. You can imagine this in the form of a thought experiment; imagine a voting system where party and candidate names never appeared, and people simply selected their preferred policies, with their vote ultimately going to the party whose policies most closely match the voter’s. Assuming a kind of “veil of ignorance”, wherein voters could not guess which policies belonged to which party and thus couldn’t bias their selections according to party identification, Labour would win a huge majority this time out.

But Jeremy Corbyn is going to lose, because this election – like many in recent years – isn’t about position issues, it’s about valence issues. What valence issues boil down to is a simple question; given a core value that everyone agrees about, like “prosperity” or “security”, do you trust a given party or candidate to be able to deliver it? It’s not an assessment of policy, or a weighing of manifesto promises; it’s a simple, visceral and quite emotional choice of whether you think a person or a party has the competence to deliver the key social goods that a nation requires. Time and again in recent decades, we’ve seen electorates go to the polls, hold their noses, and vote for a party they fundamentally disagree with on many issues simply because they believe that that party is more competent and capable on the most fundamental issues of all, the valence issues.

Theresa May – for all that she has not been a particularly competent or capable leader, much as she was not particularly impressive as Home Secretary before – understands valence issues to a degree that Corbyn does not. While Corbyn has crafted policies on position issues which most of the UK electorate agrees with, May has focused entirely on projecting an image of strength and competence. She may be mocked for her constant and rather robotic delivery of her “strong and stable government” line, but it’s a good line; it speaks directly to the heart of the valence issues most people are basing their choices on. In fact, it’s rather hard to pin down the Conservatives’ exact policy positions on many things in this election, precisely because the whole party is running on valence. They’re avoiding talking about position issues, partially because they remain a party deeply divided on many of them, but mostly because their entire election pitch is that they’re a safe, competent pair of hands on the wheel, with little reference to where they’re actually planning on steering. Look also at how right-wing media and politicians alike respond to Labour’s policies. Rather than presenting an alternative or a competing worldview, their attacks are always based on claims that Labour is being unrealistic, or living in a fantasy land; that no matter how much you may like Labour’s policies (because the right wing knows that Labour’s positions are more popular), Labour in general and Corbyn specifically are too incompetent, too chaotic and too risky to put into power.

That’s why the Labour manifesto, for all that it’s a great document, isn’t going to mean much of anything in the long run. The problem isn’t that it’s too left-wing or too radical; it’s pretty apparent that the British public is quite receptive to some radical policy prescriptions on key areas right now. Rather, the problem is that Labour under Corbyn has done little to make people feel like the party has the competence to execute those policies. While those of us following the Brexit negotiations closely may be dumbfounded by the lack of competence and professionalism being demonstrated by the Conservative leadership in this area, that’s not the story that’s filtering through to the majority of UK voters. For them, the Conservatives are a competent party with some distasteful policies – and they’ll vote for that over a chaotic, incompetent party with lovely policies any day.

How did Labour get here? The blame, ultimately, has to rest with Corbyn; he’s leader, and the buck stops there. Certainly, the failure of the party’s centrists to unite behind the leader (even after their coup attempt collapsed) is also a major factor, but if Corbyn had cultivated a personal popularity beyond core leftist support then even his ideological opponents would have fallen in line. The party is fractured not because Corbyn has a different ideology to many of the Blair-era MPs, but because Corbyn is an electoral liability to the party. His great failure, I think, is that he truly believes that politics is about putting out the right policies and creating a manifesto people agree with; he has neglected the actual role of a modern party leader, which involves building a personal image of competence and leadership, and being an electoral asset for your party members around the country.

You can blame the media’s coverage of Corbyn and Labour for that negative image, as many of the party faithful do, and there’s some merit to that; but in the age of SNS and new media, Corbyn has shown no aptitude for engaging with the public through alternative channels and effectively challenging the narratives of the right-wing press. Again, I think, the problem is that he wants to let his policies do the talking, not realising that most people will not cast their vote based on policies. That’s a miscalculation that’s likely going to cost Labour a great many seats next month – because the greatest manifesto in the world is meaningless if you don’t believe Jeremy Corbyn is capable of delivering on its promises.

A Brief Thought on Nigel Farage

Nigel Farage

Nigel Farage, by far the most extreme of the mainstream cheerleaders for Brexit and certainly the political leader most comfortable with brushing shoulders with actual racism and fascism in his utterances, has resigned from the leadership of UKIP, the United Kingdom Independence Party. In UKIP’s moment of triumph, pyrrhic though it may be, Farage has stepped down from the party with which he is synonymous. It’s the latest in a series of resignations and retreats which have claimed the man who called the referendum, David Cameron, the man who led the Conservatives campaigning to Leave, Boris Johnson, and now the man who led the only political party to campaign in its entirety for Leave.

Where will Farage go? With Farage having met with media baron Rupert Murdoch the day before his resignation, speculation has inevitably turned to the possibility that his incredibly high media profile over the past few years (far outstripping anything justified by UKIP’s actual political representation) will now translate into a media job. It would make sense in many ways. Farage is nothing if not intensely egotistical (he’s dramatically stepped down as UKIP leader in the past, only to return to the job within days) and it’s hard to imagine that at this, the moment of his triumph, he would disappear from public life. A media role would let him maintain his profile and do what he loves best – lobbing grenades from the sidelines as Britain’s political establishment tries to sort out the mess (whenever they stop making new messes and get around to actually sorting anything out).

Regardless of what Farage does next – and it is also possible (if a little out of character) that he’ll fade away for a little while to spend more time with his £80,000 MEP salary – he won’t be gone for long. His departure now is a calculated one. Unlike Boris Johnson, who never intended for a Leave victory and whose best-laid plans were thrown into disarray by it (and by Michael Gove stabbing him in the back), Farage likely believed that Leave could win the referendum all along. He’s got a plan, not for Brexit – nobody had a plan for Brexit – but for himself and his future career.

Farage is a rabble-rouser, and he knows that the rabble he has roused is going to stay roused. Brexit isn’t going to deliver what Leave voters want, not least because what many Leave voters actually want is impossible by any means short of a full embrace of fascist authoritarianism. Britain will muddle through somehow – economically and politically damaged, perhaps outside the EU, and perhaps with the UK no longer intact. Migrants will still be there, though. Businesses owned and staffed by non-white people will still be there. EU regulations will mostly still be there. The people who have been left behind by successive waves of neoliberal policymaking over the past 35 years will, if anything, be even worse off than before. Their vote to leave the EU won’t have changed their economic misery or removed the visible manifestations of the immigration which they blame for that misery. Their anger with politics, with governments, with elites and with all of the institutions which make up the British state will only intensify and curdle as they come around to the belief that the politicians have screwed them again. They voted to leave, and the politicians found a mealy-mouthed way to wriggle out of it. The people, the real people, the proper English people, spoke, and all those lying experts and self-serving intellectuals and greedy politicians just found a way to ignore it.

Nigel Farage will be right there to nod, to listen and to focus that outrage, fear and fury – just like he did prior to the referendum. He wants to be out of politics for now, because he doesn’t want to be seen to have anything to do with the stitch-up that’s inevitably coming. In his absence, UKIP will likely fall into a terminal decline. It’s never truly been more than the Nigel Farage Party, with other senior figures like Douglas Carswell and Neil Hamilton having none of his profile, his charisma, or his political nous. It doesn’t matter; UKIP was a vehicle and has served its purpose for now. Farage gets to play the tired, noble statesman who has achieved his purpose, slide out of politics (whether into the media or into temporary obscurity is a moot point) and ready himself to step back in down the line. He’ll be just as outraged as the Leave voters. He worked so hard for this result, to secure the UK’s independence, and those grasping, sleazy politicians in Westminster have undermined it all and ignored the voice of the real English people. He will be the perfect chalice to hold their anger, their frustration and their hate, and they will power him onwards to whatever his next political goal may be.

We’re not done with Nigel Farage. The people currently scorning him for running away from his responsibilities as the UK falls asunder aren’t the people who matter; they’ve never understood or been in thrall to the cult of Farage the Everyman, Farage the Proper Englishman, Farage Who Only Says What Everyone Is Thinking. Those who have believed in him this far won’t see his resignation now as any kind of cowardice or betrayal – hasn’t he earned a rest, after putting it to those smug Eurocrats and Westminster slimeballs for so long? – and will embrace him with open arms and ample spittle-flecked fury when he returns.

Needless to say, it’s not exactly reassuring that the politician who has most openly flirted with fascism is the only one who actually seems to have a game plan…

Neoliberalism’s triumph: claiming the word “realistic”

Get Real. That’s the message being sent in almost every piece of media coverage of Jeremy Corbyn’s one-month-old leadership of the Labour Party, a message which has intensified and become ever more shrill as his speech to the party conference approached. Hyperbolic attacks on Corbyn’s history and political stances (he’s a danger to Britain, he hangs out with people we don’t like, and if you take some of his words out of context, turn them upside down and squint at them through an alcoholic haze, it looks like he once said something tasty about Osama Bin Laden) have done their job, but are limited in their broad efficacy; the segment of the population who lap up this kind of material and internalise its messages are people who were already inclined that way in the first place, and delight in such stories simply because they confirm their pre-existing notions. For the majority of the rest of the UK electorate, who do not wake up in cold sweats at the thought of Reds under their Beds, or simmer with horrified outrage at the slightest departure from the government’s fairytale security narrative, such breathless tales of villainy have a short half-life; they would not survive prolonged contact with the reality of Corbyn’s personality and policies.

What’s much, much more damaging with that group of the electorate – the group Corbyn’s Labour actually needs to care about if it’s to have a hope of winning in 2020 – is the broader base of the Malthusian pyramid of anti-Corbyn media messaging. In the hierarchy of what you need to take down a populist left-wing leader, allegations of shocking Commie wrong-doing are merely the sharp tip of the pyramid; the broad base needs to be made up of a heady mixture of concern trolling and tooth-sucking that can be lumped together under a single headline; Get Real.

Corbyn isn’t realistic. Even if you accept that the ideals proposed by the veteran MP are lovely in theory – a Britain without weapons of mass destruction, with health, education and transport back in public hands, a more robust and caring system of welfare for the sick and the needy, and so on – you are exhorted to accept that they are not realistic in practice. This prong of attack is vital to undermining a return to the left by the Labour party, because survey after survey (with the caveat that I still think that British opinion polling methodology is broken and must be taken with a pinch of salt) shows that a fairly solid majority of the British public actually agrees with Corbyn’s policy prescriptions and stances. These people may be temporarily swayed against New-Again Old Labour (what are we to call the party now?) by personal attacks on Corbyn, but that’s not going to keep them off-side until 2020; there’s a real chance that a Labour party united behind its new leader and with four and a half years to reinforce and market its policy positions could turn enough of those preferences into votes to make a big difference on the political landscape. Heading off that possibility is a matter of convincing those voters to ignore their policy preferences, and thus convincing the Labour party to split and infight, convinced that it cannot win with Corbyn at the helm.

How do you convince voters to ignore their policy preferences when making their political choices? You suck at your teeth, shake your head sadly, and tell them that their preferences would be lovely in an ideal world, but that they are not realistic. The electorate responds strongly to this notion of realism; if you want a dramatic example of that in progress today, look to Japan, where the support rating of the cabinet of prime minister Shinzo Abe has consistently been far above the (vanishingly low) support rating for any of its headline policies. The electorate don’t like the policies, but they have been sold on the notion that they are realistic, or rather, that the alternatives (supporting opposition parties or otherwise demanding change) are unrealistic. Poll after poll confirms that a very significant portion of the Japanese electorate supports Abe’s government despite disliking everything it does. This is much to do with the fragmented and disorganised nature of opposition parties in Japan, but that’s the point, in a sense; the electorate prefers the “realistic” option of the organised, successful, tough-talking LDP, despite disliking its policies, over the “unrealistic” option of the fragmented, bickering opposition parties whose policies they actually like.

That’s what the Get Real message aims to do to Corbyn – to push the electorate into seeing him as a dreamer and a fantasist, someone with ideas that are nice but unrealistic and unsuited to government. This isn’t a new idea, nor is it unique to the UK’s situation; such rhetorical spin is a standard ingredient of neoliberalism everywhere in the world. The great triumph of neoliberalism since the 1980s has been to position its stances as being realistic, essentially coining or laying claim to a whole swathe of phrases which have become commonplace in political discourse. Aside from “realistic”, consider phrases like “taking tough decisions” or “fit for government” – neoliberal spin points baked into our conventional political rhetoric, whose seemingly innocent neutrality disguises the power to put anyone expressing a non-neoliberal point onto the back foot. Discussing a left-wing policy idea almost immediately invites a demand to prove that it is “realistic”, putting the discussant on the defensive; the same demand is almost never made of neoliberal policy ideas, and can be laughed off with ease when it is made – rhetorical weapons, once established, are not easily turned against their creators. Why should proponents of neoliberal policy have to prove that their ideas are “realistic”, when we all know that neoliberalism is realistic?

This is the unspoken assumption at the core of every article telling Jeremy Corbyn (or Bernie Sanders, or Pablo Iglesias, or Alex Tsipras, etc. etc.) to Get Real – an assumption that our current system, the neoliberal economy and society which have been built since the early 1980s, is realistic. Moreover, it is an assumption that the neoliberal institutions and structures of today define the limits of what can “realistically” work. Every idea outside that sphere must justify itself and demonstrate its “realistic” credentials; but the game is rigged, because “realism” is defined in terms of the very neoliberal institutions that the New Left seeks to challenge. If you’re not neo-liberal, you have to prove that you’re realistic, but if you’re realistic, you’re neo-liberal; Catch-22. Thus, “realistic” becomes twisted in its very meaning; it is imbued with innate ideology, becoming a herder’s whip used to drive political thought back towards the present status quo, all the while claiming in wide-eyed innocence that it is free of ideology and merely talking about cold hard facts regarding what is and is not possible.

The hand-wringing authors of articles demanding realism from Corbyn and his shadow cabinet would no doubt bristle at the accusation that they are doing little more than writing in support of a neoliberal status quo – to their minds, they’re just talking about what’s realistic, which is surely, surely, a fixed term whose meaning cannot be subverted or altered through political will? Yet truly it has been subverted, in a way that is most dramatic if viewed across the span of decades. Little by little, neoliberals on both sides of the Atlantic, and elsewhere besides, have pushed further and further to the right – digging in and establishing the boundaries of the “realistic” around their current positions before advancing a little further rightwards, dismantling a little more of the state, introducing a little more of the market, or a distortion of the market, then digging in for long enough for this to become the new “realistic” status quo before moving again. Compare 2015 to 2010 and the movement is apparent (look at how the debate over the NHS has shifted from “no privatisation” to “which bits is it okay to privatise”) but minor. Compare 2015 to 1995 or earlier, though, and it is hugely dramatic; the complete destruction of social housing, the dramatic attacks on support for the sick and disabled, the sweeping privatisation of health, education and even some parts of the nation’s security forces, the extraordinary subsidising of for-profit industries through in-work benefits for underpaid workers; these are all policies which would have been extreme, radical and unrealistic in earlier decades. Today they are government policy, and nobody challenges their realism. The centre has moved; what is realistic has kept pace with where the neoliberal movement has brought us. Today’s neoliberalism is an extreme version of the doctrine of Thatcher or Reagan, yet its grand triumph is in managing to align the political meaning of “realistic” with its own extremism.

Language is important. Hijacking a word like “realism” is an incredibly tricky thing to do (it helps when the owners of most of a nation’s media are on board with your ideology, though), but it affords a huge advantage, one presently being brought to bear on crushing Jeremy Corbyn. Coining your own terms is also a powerful tool; think of terms like “trickle-down”, “personal responsibility”, “wealth creators”, “hard-working families” or on the negative side of the equation, “scroungers”, “benefit cheats” and “something-for-nothing culture”. Once established in the public imagination through constant media repetition, such phrases encapsulate neo-liberal ideologies in bite-sized pieces of daily vocabulary, which are powerful rhetorical tools that are extremely hard to challenge in the popular imagination. Language is how we define the world around us, so creating widely adopted language which defines it according to your ideology is a huge success for any political movement. (It doesn’t always work, of course; look no further than “Big Society” for an example of a neo-liberal catchphrase which never managed to effectively penetrate the popular consciousness and vocabulary, but swam around, unloved and unwanted, in Conservative talking points and speeches for several years before finally being taken out to the back of the woodshed and put out of its misery.)

Is Jeremy Corbyn’s policy platform “realistic”, then? The answer depends largely on how you define “realism” and to what ideological mast you are pinning your colours. Ian Dunt wrote an excellent piece for Politics.co.uk this week about how the Labour conference’s decision to back a like-for-like replacement of Britain’s Trident nuclear weapons system (which Corbyn had opposed) was taken on the grounds of being “realistic”, yet is, taken on its own merits, a crazy stance which actually risks putting Britain in contravention of its supposedly firmly-held support for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Here, “realism” has been taken both within and without the Labour Party to mean something ideological, not something actually “real” in a sense that anyone with an empirical view of the world would recognise. The same can be seen in responses to economic, social and geopolitical policies proposed by left-wing leaders the world over. The only thing “realistic” is what we’ve got now – yet what a depressing and bleak world-view that must be to inhabit, since what we’ve got now is failing so many of the country’s inhabitants (and indeed the world’s inhabitants) in such dramatic and harmful ways. Neoliberalism, like its twin deity Globalisation, has had its upsides and its good points, some of them dramatic; but to pretend that it is the only “realistic” game in town is an intellectual dishonesty, one which those genuinely concerned with the future of the left (as distinct from those merely concern-trolling) would do well to abandon.

The PM, the Pig and musings on Power

I’m going to try to do something perhaps unwise, perhaps impossible; I’m going to try to write something serious about David Cameron and “pig-gate”. I’m even going to abstain from porcine puns – because for all that this story is gleeful tabloid filth, I think that at its beating heart there is an important story about control, about authority and about the nature of power in modern Britain.

(If you’re in the dark regarding “pig-gate”, the details are relatively simple; billionaire tax exile and former Conservative party deputy chairman Lord Michael Ashcroft has co-written, with journalist Isabel Oakeshott, an unauthorised biography of David Cameron. It is not flattering, and includes allegations of drug-taking among other things, but the attention-grabbing assertion is that during an initiation ceremony for an Oxford student society, Cameron “put a private part of his anatomy” in the mouth of a dead pig – and that photographic proof of this deed exists.)

Previous revelations about Cameron’s behaviour as a student at Oxford – such as his participation in the restaurant-trashing Bullingdon Club, whose initiation rituals include burning a £50 note in front of a homeless person – have not harmed Cameron’s career much. Such antics are undoubtedly odious but are largely the kind of thing lapped up by those already ideologically opposed to him rather than the sort of story which hurts his base of support. How this latest revelation will play out, though, is tough to predict; it should not need to be said that cases of bestial necrophilia among leaders of major nations are uncharted territory.

The danger to Cameron’s career is that this makes him a laughing-stock, his public seriousness as a political leader forever deflated by the cat-calls and innuendos which will, undoubtedly, follow him for the rest of his life. A leader who becomes a political liability to their party is not long for their job; up until now, the security of Cameron’s position has been based on being the most likeable and statesmanlike of the Conservative front bench. For how long can a leader be followed around every public engagement by snorting noises, pig-related heckling and constant mockery before his party decides that he’s no longer suited to being its public face? This calculation is no doubt being pored over and debated at length by the Conservatives today. There will be those who point to sexual scandals of the past and point out that they blow over eventually, but I don’t know that those models can be applied to something so utterly visceral, so profoundly embarrassing and so downright grotesque. I don’t know if this kind of story, once attached to the person of a politician, ever goes away.

I suspect that David Cameron will limp on in 10 Downing Street, not least because he will understand the historic shame of being the Prime Minister who resigned over the thing with the pig, but his authority will be weakened to the point where a leadership challenge over a rather less intimate issue in the relatively near future will give him an opportunity to bow out with some grace. Whether this scandal is ultimately his undoing or not, it is clearly a calculated attack. Lord Ashcroft feels snubbed and sidelined by Cameron, who seemingly declined to offer him the cabinet position to which he felt entitled; the billionaire’s revenge is to dig up this singularly humiliating moment from the prime minister’s past and ensure that it is splashed on the front page of the Daily Mail, the preferred scurrilous tabloid rag of the very heartland of Conservative voters.

Lord Ashcroft, pollster and political guru in his own right, knows as well as anyone else what this will do. This is not a playful aside in a fun little unauthorised biography that he’s putting together as a hobby with his journalist pal, Oakeshott; this is a carefully targeted, focused attack designed to wreak career havoc upon, and cause huge personal embarrassment for, a man whom Ashcroft sees as disloyal, or as having stepped out of line. And here, I think, is something much bigger and more interesting than the scurrilous details of Cameron’s vivid indiscretion; here is a rare public example of how power is wielded by Britain’s elite, of how control is exerted over those they wish to manipulate, and of how those groomed for success from a young age can be destroyed should they be seen to diverge from the steps they’re told to dance.

Initiation ceremonies or “hazing” rituals, often of a painful, humiliating, transgressive or sexual nature, are a well-documented part of the culture of many organisations run by and for young men, especially those from positions of privilege or in elite institutions. Hazing is a fixture, albeit usually in less extreme form than many might imagine, of “greek life” at US colleges; initiation rituals of some description are relatively common in elite societies at top educational institutions elsewhere. Such rituals seem to be an especially important part of extremely disciplined groups such as certain military units. The primary social function served by these rituals is to accelerate and deepen the bonds shared by members of the group, and the sense of loyalty to the group each person holds. By committing transgressive acts together, members develop a sense of sharing in a mutual secret, thus instantly creating trust; by overcoming some humiliation or pain, new members deepen their commitment to the group, as their internal logic reasons that if they are willing to endure such an ordeal, it must mean that the group is important and deserving of loyalty (otherwise, they would have made a terrible mistake and gone through all of that suffering for nothing). Through these acts bonds are forged, networks established; the “old school tie”, used as a metaphor for Britain’s elite networks, is also a metaphor for the actions and rituals, transgressive or otherwise, which created those networks during the formative years of their members.

That much is somewhat understandable; in truth, few of us are not part of a “network” based in some way on the same psychology, even if our networks are perhaps less likely to involve prime ministers and billionaires. Bearing witness to one another doing embarrassing things, usually if not always under the influence of alcohol, is a fairly standard part of the socialisation process, especially for young men; it may not be quite as ritualised or organised as ceremonial events which require very specific orders from local butchers, but moments of embarrassment or transgression shared with close friends are a basic building block of many of our relationships.

The ritualised, sexually grotesque nature of Cameron’s initiation sets it apart somewhat, of course; but what’s also different about this kind of ritual in elite circles is the calculation behind it, the power and control it affords, and the self-perpetuating network of influence it creates. Consider this scenario; at elite institutions, those earmarked – by wealth, by title, by connections – for future leadership roles are forced, as impressionable young people, to carry out humiliating acts in order to gain acceptance by an in-group. That same in-group will, over the course of their lives, help advance their career massively in ways both overt and covert; membership of that group essentially secures their success in life. The cost of entry, paid by all members of the group, is participation in humiliating acts; acts which will forever wed them to the group, because should they later act in a way contrary to the group’s interests or desires, their “indiscretions” can be brought back to destroy their careers or personal lives.

Precisely this kind of model of control is sometimes operated by groups with a clear hierarchy – one could argue that Catholic confession is a variation on the model, and Scientology’s “auditing” is a very clear case of a system designed to ensure compliance by extracting humiliating personal information from its subjects and then holding that information over them in case of disobedience. Political and business elite networks are different; there’s no evidence of a shadowy cabal or secret Illuminati who run this kind of scheme among the elite of Britain (or the USA for that matter). There is no need for such conspiracy theories; this system is self-sustaining and decentralised. It’s in the interest of people in the group to promote the careers of their fellow group members, precisely because they have control through their knowledge of that person’s transgressive acts; similarly, it’s in the interest of that person to promote the careers of the other members for the same reason. It’s a community of mutual self-interest and reliance, bonded together by a Mexican stand-off of embarrassing private information. The structure survives and is passed down to successive generations of elite young men precisely because it is self-policing, self-sustaining and remarkably effective.

How serious are the acts we’re talking about here? Who knows, honestly; the punishment unleashed on Cameron for his “betrayal” of Ashcroft includes allegations of drug-taking, along with the lurid story about the pig, but nothing of terrible legal gravity; for all that conservative commentators like Louise Mensch look terrible for trying to defend Cameron today, there is some extent to which this behaviour is “youthful indiscretion”. Certainly it’s far less reprehensible than the “rituals” of other groups of elite young men which have included, among other vile things, the drugging and gang-rape of young women. Is this the most humiliating or illegal thing Cameron has done? I have no idea; I hope so, but regardless of his personal behaviour, it’s clear from other accounts of hazing, ritual intituation and in-group behaviour that the limits to the behaviour of young men desperate to cement their inclusion in a desirable social group are often shockingly low, and lowered even further by alcohol and drugs. The more transgressive, horrifying and illegal the act committed, the more the network “owns” its members. There’s a vast difference between distasteful student hijinks and truly horrible acts like rape, but the underlying logic of the network of control would only be strengthened, not undermined, by the increasing severity of the acts involved.

“Follow the money” is one of the most important exhortations to bear in mind for those investigating political power and influence, but not all control is financial. The control exerted by elite networks is based on long-standing trust and loyalty, but also, in some cases at least, by a black and rotten heart of what is, in effect, life-long blackmail. Britain’s establishment, at least in part, can be visualised (for those of strong stomach) as a group of powerful men standing close together, each with the balls of the man next to him held in a powerful grip. Michael Ashcroft just squeezed, very publicly indeed; yet his relevations, though tremendously damaging, may be tame indeed compared to what the friends and compatriots of some of our other political, media and business leaders just so happen to know about one another.