Thursday, 5 April 2012

Respect for Politics

In the wake of the Bradford by-election fiasco there has been no shortage of analysis, examination and justification. You understand of course that I have to begin by saying that, just as surely as you know that I do so only as a prelude to adding my own editorialising to the dreary mixture on offer. After all, there is a reason we're all so obsessed with it.

The struggle to explain the Galloway emergence has with grim inevitability become an attempt to crystalise the reasons for and manifestations of public disaffection with mainstream politics, and not without cause. On one level this is a single result centred on a single individual; it represents no signal threat to the dominance of the parties. In fact the numbers show a steady decline in voter affiliation and membership of the main parties going back decades, with only--as noted on newsnight-- the Liberal Democrats as a tactical-voting friendly pressure valve.

If there has been a threat to the parties, it lies with the parties themselves. If this result means anything, it is as a symptom of the problem, admittedly focused through the rather singular prism of Galloway's undoubted demogogic talents. Mr Galloway himself has been unusually sidelined in fact, deplored certainly, but mostly seen for what he represents; an opportunity to attempt to distill the pervasive public mood of disillusionment, and even cynicism with politics. And it is cynicism. British politics is far from corrupt and opaque by international standards and British politicians are frequently hard working and public spirited.

Issues like parliamentary expenses, far from being out-and-out signs of corruption instead illustrate perfectly the difficult balance at the heart of politics. A parade of politicians have come out in recent days to argue that the case for public money going to pay for party politics is an unpopular and difficult one to make, but it’s not dissimilar to that of MP’s pay. MPs should not be paid excessively, both for presentational, bankers’ bonuses style reasons, and to avoid the worry that this might become a motive for seeking office. Yet equally, the reason MPs are paid at all, and paid a reasonable sum, is to avoid a situation where only the wealthy can be elected-- or those who divide their time between multiple jobs.

In practice many have highlighted the culture of patronage and connections which facilitates selection of party candidates and leadership positions, a culture which has always existed in some form, but which has become increasingly narrow again in recent years. Politics is both inaccessable, and remote. It is not merely the cabinet of millionaires, nor is it the oxbridge, southern aftertaste that lingers wherever the leadership of the mainstream parties have recently been, trying to find their pasties. It is the sense, felt by just about everyone, that they live in a different world, and that they are not even aware of how alien the language they use is to everyone else.

I didn’t say ‘ordinary people’ there for a reason. Two reasons, actually. First, I’m not especially ordinary. I’ve had way more opportunities and experiences than my behaviour or character has often merited, and far more than most people will have the luxury of. Secondly, and more importantly, I’m not convinced there’s any such thing. The divides in this country, be they ethnic, class, geographic, religious, political, sexual or otherwise, do not neatly delineate us into a few distinct groupings.

The problem is that actually virtually anyone can feel the frustration with Labour’s diffident vagueness. It would be wrong to say that it has mastered the art of saying nothing, because all too often they manage to sound as though they think they are saying something. They speak the same language as the rest of us, but when you see them speak, the disconnect between what they seem to think they are saying, and the resultant words leaves you feeling as if you occupy separate realities.

I’m not one of those who thinks the fault for the coalition’s economic leechcraft can be laid at the doorstep of the last Labour government. And macroeconomics, growth and jobs do matter enormously and must be a key political focus. But it isn’t how people see the world. Labour alternates between talking about having the right policies for helping people who are hurting, and defending its record on things that largely have little to do the problems on the ground. Words alone are not enough to soothe doubts that have grown over generations of disappointment.

The income divide, the wealth ownership divide, the north-south divide, the concentration of market power in industries, the division of the economy between different industries, the welfare state. Under Labour a lot of things got worse for a lot of people. They can rightly say that began with Thatcher, or at least with trends which began before the last Labour government, but those are still just words.

Equally, the Tories can talk about the big society, or us all being “in it together”, but the way society operates does not spring newborn like a grateful sigh from the liberated masses the moment government gets out of the way. It is a never-ending, always changing, self-organising patchwork of interactions and compromises on a grand scale, as legal structures, corporate behaviour, market systems, ideas, information, culture and moral norms all come together in a million million places and never quite form a coherent whole. But being human, we still generalise our individual experiences and think we know who we are as a society.

Politics likes to hang on those phrases, those talking points. “The squeezed middle”, is one that Labour seems quite proud of. “The Big Society” is one that flopped, and currently has its head in the sand, waiting for column writers to forget about it. In reality the promises of the mainstream parties are beholden to Downsian centre-ground grabbing. The Conservatives and the Labour Party are wrestling at the top of a bell curve of presumed vote-distributions, and trying to hold on while hoping the other one falls.

So Labour is “in the pockets of the unions”, and the conservatives are just in it to help their rich friends. There may be some truth to these assertions, but mainly they are attempts to characterise the other side so that they’re in an extreme position which makes the majority of voters uncomfortable. The one thing voters can agree on, is that politicians seem remarkably alike, and are, in their minds, often seen as equally corrupt. And that isn’t fair. They aren’t that corrupt, they’re just engaged in mutually assured destruction of moral character.

And it isn’t just negative politics, it’s the absence of positive politics. If a party stakes out a position boldly, it opens itself to enormous criticism, either if that position begins to look bad (even if it isn’t), or if the media classes mobilize against it. Politics is often dominated by these non-stories, which like the vacuum chambers they resemble, have a remarkable capacity to suck in nearby hot air. Pasties being the current one. At best these stories are symbolic of something larger, at worst . . they just aren’t. Either way, they successfully communicate how out of touch Westminster is, and nothing meaningful ever comes out of it.

Labour, which has justifiably made a great deal out of the 50% marginal tax rate cut, can never say whether it would keep it. Usually they seem to stutter out something about “well if there was an election tomorrow”, but they fail to engage with what they actually believe. The pattern repeats endlessly in relation to cuts, specific programmes, police numbers and on. Cameron’s charge of bandwagon-jumping has stuck not because of him, but because Labour go out of their way to complain about things, and then refuse to state their position on them. Of course it is difficult in opposition, years out from an election, but when parties are unable to engage with their own beliefs about important issues, that becomes corruption in the eyes of the public. It renders everything political, and nothing sincere.

The average person, according to polling, may disagree with cutting the 50% rate of tax, or any number of other things, but that doesn’t mean they’ll support Labour for reflecting their opposition. They want a commitment on where the party stands, and what it believes. That is something they simply are not getting, not in principle, not in practice.

The great secret about Bradford and disillusionment isn’t about scandals, it’s about people who feel that a change of government is a purely superficial change, at best a shift to the lesser of two evils. People who don’t expect to be helped no matter what happens. People exerting their power the only way they can, and protesting the only way they know how, now that the party of protest has become the standard bearer for betrayal of principle. It isn’t a call for a specific policy, it’s a gesture of impotent rage and desperation, made in the knowledge that it will likely change nothing at all. They want someone they can believe in, who speaks to how they feel, and if Galloway is the best they’ve got, we’ve all got to answer for that.