Tom Watson has inspired me – to quote Bob Dylan. In his 1965 album track “Ballad of a Thin Man” Dylan’s challenging refrain runs: “Something is happening here/But you don’t know what it is/Do you, Mister Jones?”
So many political and economic commentators and analysts have been transformed into modern day Mr Joneses by the events of the past few months. It is probably unfair to criticise those whose job it is to track and report day-to-day developments for overlooking the bigger, tectonic plate shifts. But overlook them I think they have. Long-held certainties and beliefs are crumbling in our fingertips. It takes courage to say so out loud.
Since the non-election of autumn 2007, and lasting right up until the Budget of a few weeks ago, a certain account of British politics was held to be true. David Cameron was an inevitability, while Labour had had it, doomed to be out of power for a long time. Mr Cameron had cleverly detoxified the Conservative party brand, and the electorate had warmed to him.
Even after the Tories’ failure to win more than 36% of the vote at the last election, the inevitability tag still hung around Mr Cameron’s neck. He enjoyed an extended, 22 month honeymoon. Most Westminster observers declared that Mr Cameron was a natural as Prime Minister, a breath of fresh air, a pleasing change from the fraught New Labour regime. The speeches were all delivered well and sounded, at first hearing, quite good. Labour, meanwhile, was an irrelevance at best.
Suddenly, these same Westminster observers say, all this has changed. The Budget was a political disaster. The government’s economic policy – feted for nearly two years – isn’t working, we are told by a growing number of commentators. That supposedly effortless Cameronian grip has become an omnishambles administration, apparently in a matter of days. And that no-hoper, Ed Miliband, is suddenly being talked about as a potential prime minister.
Those of us who never bought into the myth of Mr Cameron’s superior abilities and inevitability have lived through a frustrating few years. It was, until recently, a minority view in the media to argue that perhaps the government was not quite as able or inspired as all that. The rhetoric was taken at face value. Now the majority seem happy to pile in with criticism. The consensus has shifted, fast.
Something is happening here, but we don’t know what it is, do we, Mr Jones? A bland, unelectable socialist has just become President of France. A once all-powerful media mogul has lost his former intimidating dominance (not that some Conservative members of the Culture committee appear to have noticed). The Greeks are in revolt against the politics of austerity. And similar policies seem to be failing in Ireland, Spain, and Portugal too. The British economy is more or less flat, technically in recession, with too few hopeful signs of life. But many of those in power in Europe persist with 1930s-style economics that the FT’s Martin Wolf – no leftist firebrand, he – regards as utterly misguided. Flexibility, Mr Wolf tells us, is vital at a time like this. Some of the old orthodoxies about deficit reduction have to be put on hold. We need growth, demand, jobs.
Recognising that things have changed, are changing, and calling for something different, is one of the toughest political tricks to pull off. Go too soon with a declaration that a new mood is emerging and you risk ridicule – ask Ed Miliband. But fortune will favour those who take a clear stand now. It seems to be favouring the Labour leader, for the time being.