Sunday, 3 May 2015

Getting the politicians we don't deserve

In casting one's mind back eighteen years, you reach 1997.  A further eighteen takes you back to 1979.  Both were seismic elections that delivered upsets to a period of hegemony, and that redefined a period of political discourse.  Blair and Thatcher were flawed, dictatorial and hypocritical and have ultimately done favours for neither their reputations nor their parties.  Yet on both occasions there was a palpable feeling of change and a shift in direction.

The current General Election campaign is lurching to its close; the results will be more interesting than the process leading to them.  Looking at the political class, it is feeling resentful that the voters will not be convinced and will not flock to the traditional standards.  This is seen by the party apparatchiks as a failing, not on their part, but by the forelock-tugging masses, who have become in turns apathetic, cynical and hostile.  Comprehension of why politics is a distrusted and disconnected activity seems to be lacking from much of the London political elite.

It is not necessary to be starry-eyed to reject this explanation.  The "professionalisation" of politics does not in itself require its practitioners to follow the hallowed route through student activism, internships and party-fodder on local councils before being unleashed on the Commons electorate, or for the only acceptable external vocations to be journalism and marketing - the refuges of the glib and shallow.  Yet the "one of us" mentality attaches itself to all the parties.

The media has also become lazier and more consolidated.  Local newspapers are dying on their feet, and their ability to scrutinise and challenge is restricted by meagre resources and proprietorial interests.  The influence of national newspapers and radio and television is attenuated, both as a result of unappealing product and the secular shift to online media.  This also reflects a desire not to promote discourse and challenge to an orthodoxy that requires fealty to be paid to Murdoch and other media barons.

To watch the right-wing press ridicule Miliband is instructive.  Given that no politician should be expected to a complete paragon requiring immediate canonisation, the constant negativity and mocking for not speaking and coming across like a clone of Cameron and Clegg is both symptomatic and disgusting.  He has been complicit in this, although trying to break out of the straitjacket of the inane and the mainstream might have played better if he had not left it until such a late stage of the campaign.  However, he has threatened the cosy relationship that both Tories and Labour have built up with the neo-conservative narrative, and its apologists and beneficiaries.

Instead of a definition of the choices and challenges ahead, all the parties are trying to appeal to their core support without having a clear vision or the courage to articulate the impact that policy changes might have.  This is partly a function of fear that anybody losing out might be hostile and antipathetic to them, which is hardly surprising, and also a deliberate misdirection.  After five years of preaching austerity to groups outside their core support, the Tories, particularly Osborne, look particularly risible given the bribes and unfunded promises that have been thrown around during the campaign, less than a month after a Budget that implied cutting the state back to levels last seen when workhouses were a principal means of providing welfare.

This is in part a reflection of the lack of reality and connection between the politically engaged and those who have long since given up on any change.  Parties that stand up and suggest that in order to achieve a political aim may require changes to the distribution of wealth and the obligations of the citizen are mocked and marginalised.  The illusion that the status quo has to be protected at all costs has impoverished and narrowed debate into sterile managerialism and minor interventions at the margins.  The 2015 election feels like the culmination of this.

Yet there are stirrings.  The SNP has not bought into the conventional narrative, and is likely to reap great rewards from both its own positioning and the ineptitude and arrogance of the GB-wide parties. In connecting with an agenda that is as much emotional as about presenting fully-costed policy options, they have started the process of redefining the relationship between voters and people.  The SNP will succeed despite the vitriol of the press and politicians - the response to Nicola Sturgeon borders on the hysterical and is risible when compared to the conservative and relatively unimaginative policies that the SNP presides over in Scotland.

As the failure of any of the campaigns to break out of the core support base becomes apparent, there is now focus on the machinations of building a Commons majority.  Clegg is at least trying to produce "red-lining" issues which might articulate what the next Parliament can deliver, although as a discredited messenger he will be not be given appropriate shrift.  Honesty and humility on the part of Labour and Tories over the next few days would make it clear what they would be prepared to trade in return for parliamentary support, and create a framework where a stable arrangement of MPs could be envisaged.  

Yet there is no sense of humility, though, coming through - which will, as in 2010, result in post-electoral disillusion.  A failure to command either a majority of votes or seats is not necessarily a reflection on individual policies, but on the perverse combination of an antiquated electoral system and the diversity of views in the general population.  Accepting that the verdict of the country will be geographically- and economically-divided, and demonstrating willingness to look to a future of pluralism, compromise and nuanced debate, is something that will require a different psychology.  The tragedy is that we go into another cycle with triumphalism, arrogance and delusion being the main qualifications for the narcissistic peacocks who pretend to be political leaders.

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