Rotten from the top down

8 February 2010

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.


15 Responses

Wow. Excellent post. I couldn’t agree more.

If you haven’t already, I recommend giving Peter Obornes ‘The Triumph of the Political Class’ a read. He looks into a lot of these sorts of issues in a large amount of detail. He can be a little ranty, and I’d assume his actual political position is probably further to the right than I am, but it’s an excellent book.

Matt K

There’s an old gag, “whoever you vote for, the government always gets in.” It’s not very funny any more. There’s no discernible difference between the two main parties, but the sad thing is that not only do they perpetuate the myth of “are you one of us or one of them”, they believe it. You might as well choose a government based on whether you supported Arsenal or Chelsea as a kid. I took the decision about five years ago not to vote again unless I could vote for a candidate and a party whose views I could honestly endorse. I am no longer prepared to vote for “whoever is most likely to stop THEM being elected”. Needless to say, I no longer vote. We are not governed by people of vision, we are governed by the least unpopular party, as if this was a TV talent show.

I regret having voted as often as I have – twice in general elections in 31 years: Labour in 1979 and Green at the last general election. I met the Green guy in the pub and agreed with all his policies (in the end the 1,500 strong green vote in Bethnal Green let George Galloway in at the expense of the pro-war New Labourite Oona King. Talk about the devil and the deep blue sea). The people who amaze me are the ones who say that if you don’t vote, you’re not entitled to have a view about anything. Such people generally don’t have a political thought in their head, or at best have a very disengaged view of the politics of everyday life.

Clearly the assistant in question had never heard of class and partisan dealignment – recognised phenomena for several decades now.

Recognised except by anyone who already works in the political system, since they have a vested interest in maintaining the ladder that got them to their exhalted position in the first place.

Very interesting stuff there. It reminds me a bit of the documentary The Trap, from Adam Curtis. The gist of it seems to be that during the cold war, to counter the communist ideology the western leaders moved to having no ideology, with the only ideology being free market consumption. That seems to be why politicians are treating the voters like customers, and going for gimmicks to differentiate each other. It is interesting that they think most people have fixed voting habits, presumably it is just a few swing voters they are aiming at.

[...] Rotten from the top down [...]

[...] Chris Applegate on the state of politics And the fact our two political parties are nigh-on indistinguishable. He makes some excellent points. (tags: blog post chrisapplegate qwghlm politics conservative labour liberaldemocrats) [...]

Nuff Said

@scumboni – I absolutely believe that if you don’t vote, you are abrogating responsibility to others for the politics that follow. If you don’t like the choices, spoil your ballot paper. They are all counted.

Otherwise don’t get sanctimonious with those of us who believe in trying to do their best with the choices on offer. The alternative – as you say – is you end up with George Galloway!

[...] « Rotten from the top down [...]

Damian Kahya

Really good post.

I would disagree that the values of most of the two front benches are indistinguishable. Imagine politics didn’t exist and you invited your friends Gordon Brown, Ed Milliband, James Cameron and George Osborne to dinner at the same time. It would be social suicide.

The problem, as you point out, is that no matter how different their values they are all picking from a pitiful bunch of ideas, words and even thoughts with which to conduct politics. In the micro decisions there are strong differences which matter, but beyond that – nothing.

Thing is, ideas, philosophies and new sets of principles haven’t (IMO) historically come from politicians. I’m not sure we should attack them for resorting to technocratic managerialism in the face of the intellectual wasteland that surrounds them.

@Damian Kahya – I’m not sure I agree that James Cameron around to dinner with the others would be social suicide. I’m sure people from both parties enjoyed or at least appreciated Avatar.

…aren’t you all glad I contributed to this discussion?

[...] Rotten from the top down 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. [...]

Thanks everyone for your replies. Some responses to your points of view…

I don’t like it when people don’t vote, but it’s a mistake to consider it to be the cause of ills; it’s a symptom not a cause and to criticise people who don’t vote as having no right to talk about politics is missing the point spectacularly. As is forcing people to vote, the natural policy conclusion of such a state of mind.

I actually found Adam Curtis’ “The Trap” to be a little misfiring, certainly not as good as “The Power of Nightmares” – the final part unravelled a little as he became too polemical. I’d like to see him have a second go at it and keep it to storytelling.

Finally, while it’s true that politicians rarely contribute to new waves of thinking, they have had the capability to bring forward ideas and theories into the public conscience and humanise them, apply them (think the 1945 Attlee & Bevan implementing Beveridge, or Thatcher & Joseph channelling Friedman). Blair & Brown had Giddens, but I find Giddens’ thinking to be either banal or muddled and piecemeal.

[...] rather than details of the bill. It was pathetic. Exactly what I meant when I said “rotten from the top down“. Yet Vaizey and his ilk (on both sides of the House) will be happily returned to Parliament [...]