I’m free to be whatever I, whatever I choose and I’ll sing the blues if I want…
I’m free to say whatever I, whatever I like, if it’s wrong or right, it’s alright…

The week after an election is a strange time. We political junkies start to shiver and shake, craving our next fix of electoral stimulus. We long to test the theories and ideologies of policy against public perception, in the forlorn hope of finding acceptance. It also throws our blog-writing mojo out of whack, it being a particularly dull week in comparison to the months of campaigning that are now over.

Having said that, a few interesting snippets of information and strange moments of candid reflection have cropped up, and of such things, lengthy blog opuses are made. Take my hand, dear reader, and follow me down into the rabbit hole of British politics. It’s a funny old place, where words mean exactly what politicians want them to mean, nothing more, nothing less, and there’s a strange toothy grin with not a Cheshire cat in sight.

I’ve written before about lying in politics, and in particular the weird form of electioneering that Peter Oborne noted in his documentary for Channel 4 during the election campaign, but what I want to write about today isn’t quite lying. It’s more cynicism, a disrespect for the intellect of the electorate, and while most parties are guilty to some extent, New Labour are really breaking some extraordinary ground with it.

As a political addict, my weekly methadone fix involves watching Question Time on BBC1, which for our non-UK readers, is a moderated panel question and answer show which usually involves 1 reasonably prominent politician from each of the three main parties, and 2 other jokers (journalists, comedians, single-issue fanatics, etc.). It lasts for an hour, and it involves the audience posing topical questions to the panel, and trying to generate some form of debate around the issues of the day. I allude to methadone because if you like politics, it just about gets you through the week, but it sure as hell doesn’t give you the same rush that a genuine argument about issues does – an argument where people speak their minds freely, disagree, persuade each other, and generally shed light rather than give off heat. Question Time has become, like many other pieces of political theatre, essentially information free. It’s about presentation, minimising damage rather than maximising understanding. The ultimate Blairite endeavour, it is almost pure style over substance of late. The interest, for me, now comes in watching exactly how a spineless, supine, Blairite, loyalist minister will wriggle their way out of a tight spot.

Political debate in Britain, outside of the blogosphere of course, seems to have become more and more Orwellian in the use of doublespeak and doublethink. Case in point: Harriet Harman on last night’s programme was asked about the furore surrounding the terrible outbreak of hoodies (next week’s Doctor Who episode title, that…) amongst the nation’s youth. A casual listener could easily have been fooled into thinking that the government was going to do something about it, so carefully did she reply. A stupid casual listener could even have gone away thinking that the government intended to ban hoodies and baseball caps completely. In fact, the government’s position is to essentially do nothing about related kinds of, and I hate this phrase but what the hell, ‘anti-social behaviour’. Firstly, it isn’t really a huge problem, being more an issue of perception than actual danger (with a few notable exceptions – the craze for happy slapping being one…). Secondly, the government have probably reached the limits of their ability to dabble in our day to day lives (although I wouldn’t like to put money on that – governments have a habit of becoming more creatively authoritarian as time passes – and this one is quite the expert). Thirdly, there’s no real money to throw at the problem – there are more uniformed pseudo-police on the streets, and they have the power to ASBO at will, but that’s about it. Fourthly, it’s partly their fault that the problem has arisen/worsened anyway, as they’ve steadily cut the funding for youth centres and suchlike.

The other slightly odd way in which this Orwellian nature of political debate has cropped up this week has been in the analyses of the Conservative campaign by the government, and also in some of the victory speeches that were made at the time our Glorious Leader knew his fate. Particularly interesting was the centre-left and the media’s insistence that campaigning on immigration was a terrible evil, pandering to racists and worst (this is partly true, but it’s not the point I’m discussing) before the election, but privately admitting after the election that the Tories were right to focus on the system and that it cost Labour seats. Compare and contrast this:

‘I have listened, and I have… learnt. And I think I have a very clear idea of what the British people now expect from this government. Life is still a real struggle for many people in this country… tomorrow’s pensioners are deeply concerned… I know that Iraq has been a deeply divisive issue in this country; that has been very, very clear.’

with what the Prime Minister and the rest of the Labour campaign team had been saying just 24 hours earlier. Sure, some of it is bravado, campaigning, electioneering and all that, but some of it is deeply disturbing – this ability to quite brazenly say one thing and mean something entirely different.

For our PR fans at The Sharpener, Harriet let loose another example last night. When questioned about the fact that England voted Tory and got Labour, and about the 97 manifesto commitment to look at electoral reform and have a referendum, she batted it away by claiming that PR had already been introduced. In Scotland, London, and for the European elections. If the Westminster voting system were to change, there would be a referendum, but as no change was being proposed, no referendum was needed. A lovely lawyer’s answer for you. This statement:

‘We are committed to a referendum on the voting system for the House of Commons. An independent commission on voting systems will be appointed early to recommend a proportional alternative to the first-past-the-post system’

in the 1997 Labour manifesto clearly didn’t mean what, on the face of it, you would expect it to mean.

This kind of behaviour is becoming endemic to New Labour MPs, and if the Blue Labour tendency in the Tory party get their way, it will become endemic to most of politics. The problem, as Third Avenue expresses so eloquently below, is that all of our political parties are authoritarians of some stripe. They all believe that government has the answer to any particular problem you might have. Once you accept that point, it’s a short step to arguing that government has a moral duty to intervene, and that’s when you have to start locking up kids for wearing clothes that conceal their faces (which, as an aside, is a perfectly rational response to an increasingly surveillance-driven society, guilty or innocent of any crime – there is a good book by Stephen Baxter and Arthur C. Clarke called The Light of Other Days which explores the theme of privacy in a world with perfect surveillance).

It has been a tough month, all in all, for those of us who value genuine debate, who value the truth, and who place a premium on honesty. We’ve seen politicians of all three main flavours insisting that what was being discussed on the doorsteps was precisely what their campaign was focussing on, and that the other two parties were irrelevant. We’ve seen a barrage of lies and statistics, and a conflation of the two. We’ve seen accusations and insults fly across no-man’s land, and we’ve seen the crass opportunism on all sides as each claims to be above the dirty campaigning, the smears and the rough and tumble.

So what are we supposed to do about it? I’m not really sure, but like a Las Vegas hooker at the end of a long, tiring shift, I’m left with an unpleasant taste in my mouth.

Whatever you do,
Whatever you say,
Yeah I know it’s alright…
Whatever you do,
Whatever you say,
Yeah I know it’s alright.

  1. dearieme said:

    ” all of our political parties are authoritarians of some stripe”: I’m not convinced. My dear wife is a Tory and her chums are not simply, or simply not, “authoritarians”. Some are classical liberals; more often, they are individually or collectively weighing up the relative merits of liberty vs. authority, issue by issue. This often makes for intelligent and stimulating discussion, especially since (i) they all seem to believe in free speech, leading to frank and vigorous phrasing, and (ii) they seem to have had a wide variety of experience in life. As an outsider, I should guess that New Labour discussions must be ultra-dull: no tension there between freedom and the stamping boot, and all phrased, presumably, in a constipated PC jargon fitted to a party where most of them seem to be drawn from a very narrow part of society (not much experience, for instance, in the market economy). Are any of the Lib Dems liberals?

  2. Andrew said:

    Indeed, but it’s hard to deny that the parliamentary Conservative party are authoritarian in some sense.

  3. Brian B. said:

    Two small comments: ‘anti-social behaviour’ (and there’s no need to apologise for the term) may not be a “huge problem, being more an issue of perception than actual danger (with a few notable exceptions…” to many people: but to those whose lives are blighted by it, every day of every week, it’s quite huge, believe me. A woman of nearly 70 living on the 10th floor of a tower block where the two lifts are routinely disabled (sometimes burned out) by vandals and where there are drug pushers and their clients all over the building both inside and out, and where groups of young people (sorry, but they are mostly in hoods) in the surrounding streets so frequently mug passers-by for their money or mobile phones (or to proclaim their sense of alienation or whatever it is) that neither the local council nor the police nor the housing department nor social services can be bothered to take the slightest notice — such a person (and I haven’t invented her), despite being big, resilient, able to look after herself, confident, and sassy, can perhaps be forgiven for regarding it as a problem, whether huge or not. It looms at least as large in her scheme of things as fox-hunting or whether the LibDems are slightly to the left of Labour or slightly to the right of it.

    And the other comment: I agree very much with the point you almost made about those who denounced the Conservative election campaign for daring to raise the subject of immigration — and it was the small-L liberal media who cried ‘racism!’ every time the subject was raised, just as much as Labour ministers and other politicians. I have never voted Tory in my life, and don’t expect to, but I never heard the slightest hint of racism in the Tory discussion of immigration (nor any attempt to lump it together with asylum seekers, another accusation widely and recklessly made). It’s plainly a legitimate subject of political debate, and those who sought to stifle it ought to be ashamed of themselves.

    That’s my tuppence-worth, anyway.


  4. Andrew said:

    but to those whose lives are blighted by it, every day of every week, it’s quite huge, believe me.

    Indeed, so target that, and don’t use the issue to raise fear amongst the comfortably secure middle-classes who certainly aren’t blighted by it. That’s where my problem with ‘anti-social behaviour’ lies – it’s another bogeyman to frighten people who really have no right to be frightened, as they can, and have, bought their way out of trouble.

    On the Tory campaign, we’re all grown up here and we can discuss this without it getting ugly. Michael Howard obviously was extremely careful to speak in a measured tone, and not to say anything overtly or even implicitly racist. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t resonate with different people in different ways. Debating the issue is fine, but there are a lot of soft-left urbanites who hear something completely different when you call for controls on immigration. That has to be accounted for and dealt with appropriately, because it won’t change.