This is one of a pair of related posts, the other is called “Rotten from the bottom up“
I got into a political argument the other day. I don’t often do it these days, and looking back on it, I now know why – there is a poverty of ideas at the top when it comes to political debate.
I was talking to an assistant to a backbench Conservative MP who demanded to know that, as I held leftist and socialist principles, why I didn’t I always vote Labour. My answer, that I will stop voting for a party that abandons the principles I believe in, was met with accusations I was a floating voter. On hearing I used to live in Scotland, the demand changed to why I didn’t vote the ‘Scottish socialist alternative’ in the SNP; the fact I never would because I don’t believe in an independent Scotland, was met with further mocking of my flaky political worldview that was incapable of identifying with a political party and that I was incapable of influencing the process of political power.
Naïve though they were, it did betray an interesting example of how still the party political world works from an insider’s point of view. You’re poor or leftie, you must vote Labour. You’re rich or rectionary, you must vote Tory. You’re moderate on everything, vote Lib Dem. You live in Scotland, vote SNP. The prevalence of all of these stereotypes who how irredeemably tribal political parties are, and the discourse of modern politics bears this out – inevitably, come any political talking point on the television and radio, the discussion will soon become tainted with one side labelling it as “typical Labour” or “typical Tories”.
Take the recent bit of puerile and light-hearted fun, the mashups & spoofs of the new David Cameron poster on MyDavidCameron. Of course, it wasn’t long before it was picked up by left-wing bloggers and some of the spoofs were by Labour supporters, but for once the Labour party never attempted to own or control it officially. Inevitably, however, was the reframing by Conservative supporters as a Labour-backed smear, even though the site’s designer, Clifford Singer, has no political party affiliation; headlines such as “Who’s the nasty party now?” started appearing, and it provoke this hilarious, if it wasn’t be so tragic, riposte from an unnamed (as always) ‘senior Tory source‘:
“It’s typical that Labour felt they needed to airbrush our poster with this trickery. Clearly Labour spin is alive and well.”
It’s argument by numbers. It’s lazy, cynical and so typical of the day-to-day political discourse of British politics. Of course, this kind of tribalism in British politics isn’t a modern phenomenon; the adversarial nature of the House of Commons and a winner-takes-all approach to elections means it’s a practically inevitable feature, not a bug. But what has been a contemporary phenomenon is that increasingly, there is so little to split the parties, in terms of both their policies and the way they conduct themselves.
Take, for example, this gem from Shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling at the last Conservative party conference (sorry for the anti-Tory bias in this post, by the way, but fuck it, there’s no better time to kick someone than when they’re on the up). News has just broken that former defence chief General Richard Dannatt has been signed up by team Cameron and promised a future ministerial role; Grayling mishears the interviewer and thinks that he has been signed up to join Gordon Brown’s cabinet and, well see for yourself:
There are three things that make this execrably awful for any intelligent observer. The first is the monotonously-delivered mix & match soundbite at the start – several easily-identifiable components assembled without thought. It starts with a fawning tribute to the military, something which is compulsory whenever discussing Iraq or Afghanistan. It’s followed by the mealy-mouthed “I hope this isn’t a gimmick”, when the truth is he’d love it more than anything else in the world to be a gimmick. Then there’s putting the boot in properly at the opposition’s tactics – Gordon Brown and his PR and the government’s suspicious motives.
The second, and arguably worse, thing is his retracting in the second half of the clip. He knew he’d been made to look like an utter tit. He knew he’d been found out. And yet he still had the barefaced cheek to say he was ‘delighted’ rather than sceptical by the appointment and he regretted that he couldn’t have given a ‘more enthusiastic’ welcome – when he had been nothing but enthusiastic to put the boot in on first mishearing the news.
Thirdly, and finally, and this is worse in a different way, is that the context behind the gaffe. It doesn’t matter which party is which. Both Brown and Cameron have made it clear they like appointing of unelected experts to their cabinets; both party machines know the value of a publicity stunt, and both parties have stock phrases for attacking each other for doing so. So no wonder Grayling thought it might have been a Labour stunt rather than a Tory one; and the same could equally happen in reverse – substitute ‘David Cameron’ in for ‘Gordon Brown’ and ‘opposition’ for ‘government’ and you have a Labour frontbencher attacking the Tories. It’s almost too easy to picture.
This comes at an odd time in politics, as the economy begins to recover from the most destructive bubble and bust of modern times. Often, one of the the legacies of economic and political crises is that new political lines and ideologies form; yet in the uneasy atmosphere after the crash, there has been no hardening of political divisions or clear water put between parties. If anything they have become closer; the coming election will be fought largely by politicians all promising the same thing – Cameron’s original pre-mockery poster promise has little difference to what the other parties are offering – public services good, public debt bad. During the MP’s expenses scandal, politicians of all colours were the subject of public scorn and rage – “they are all the same” was the common refrain.
The post-Thatcher economic model that has dominated the 1990s and 2000s relied on creating growth from ever-increasing levels of debt – either borrowings to be spent on consumer goods, or heavily leveraging that debt to buy businesses and homes – often to be paid for not by the future income from those investments, but on the capital gains from their putative rise in value. It didn’t just keep the banks in gravy and swell the Treasury’s coffers with tax receipts in the 1990s and 2000s, it was also what millions of Britons did to get rich as well; often the same middle-income swing voter Britons that political parties need to appeal to, and it is exactly this tame and materialistic worldview was what David Cameron was aiming for when he gave this speech a fortnight ago:
A fair society is one where everyone who works hard and plays by the rules has a chance to fulfil their dreams whether that’s owning a bigger house, taking a holiday abroad, buying a new car or starting a small business.
Actually, I lied. He didn’t say that. Gordon Brown said it. But it doesn’t really matter who did – that’s the point. With no ideological or visionary differences within mainstream British politics, and with traditional political grassroots seemingly abandoned for millionaire’s favours, what we’re left with is politicians competing for the right to manage the country and at best tinker with an economic model that almost destroyed itself. The differences are tokenistic at best (viz. the Lib Dems’ laughably populist and unworkable mansion tax) and leave a vacuum where other questions are unanswered. Is this really the best we can do? Are the ideals of the politicians’ middle-class managerialist culture all that we have left to aspire to?
Of course the politicians we elect should be reasonably competent at running things (although the onus should really be much more on the civil servants that execute their policy on a day-to-day basis, and the politicians’ skills in delegating). The problem is when management becomes not just one quality in a government, but championed as the sole quality for our politicians. We end up confusing good management with good governance, which in turns lead to a political class over-managing, convinced that their desired outcome is possible; if you could just get the system right, everybody will fall in line just right (vis. George Osborne’s love affair with behavioural economics). Those that get forgotten in all this are the actual people who you’re elected to serve – they will end being nothing more than datapoints, catalogued, indexed, surveilled and treated as statistics and targets to be logged in league tables, often at great cost and with little success (take the ongoing ID card and NHS IT system debacles).
The systems that the post-Thatcher consensus created have broken badly. So far in Britain there is little political will to reform them, or many of the other aspects of our society that need fixing or preparation for change ahead – I’ve talked about the economy but it could equally be global warming, energy security, an ageing population, the digital revolution, the rise of rival developing economies. Qualities such as creativity, bluntness, open-mindedness, humility and independence have largely become absent from politicians (of course, there are of course honourable exceptions, but none of them sit on the front benches) and they are essential for the challenges that lie ahead.
But let’s not blame it on them. We get the politicians we deserve, we elected the ones who conformed to the post-Thatcher consensus that was good while it lasted and we ignored the hidden pitfalls. Now those pitfalls are apparent, it’s time to start reconsidering the whole deal.