This sleazy obsession is a scandal
It was inevitable that once New Labour cloaked politicians in the pure robes of the priesthood, they would not remain unsullied.
So, who sent what letter or email to whom, and why? Who has been having secret meetings and telling lies? What’s been going on with the petty cash? And most importantly, who really cares?
As the Mittal/Enron/Jo Moore/other scandals continue to hog the headlines, political debate in the UK (and indeed in the USA) is sinking to the level of office politics – a seedy carnival of personal gossip, innuendo and backstabbing. The way that these allegations of ‘sleaze’ now dominate public discussion is a symptom of the death of politics.
The old political traditions of left and right have long since been made redundant, with the exhaustion of both programmes of welfare socialism and popular capitalism. Since nothing new has yet emerged to fill the political vacuum, we are left with a peculiar stalemate where there are few principles and little passion on any side.
There is no serious debate between competing visions on what ought to be major issues, ranging from the ‘war against terrorism’ to the health service. And things are getting worse rather than better. During New Labour’s timid first term in office, frustrated MPs would declare that, once Tony Blair won his historic second term, the radical agenda would really kick in. Now that the second term has begun with an even more pathetic whimper, they complain about a loss of direction and talk wistfully of the idealistic days of the first term.
Without principles or ideology, we are left with the empty politics of personality and ‘character’. Blair has personified this approach in recent years. He came to power after attacking the Tories as corrupt, promised that his government would be ‘whiter than white’, and insisted that he was ‘a pretty straight kind of guy’. It was inevitable that once New Labour cloaked politicians in the pure robes of the priesthood, they would not remain unsullied. It was New Labour and its media supporters who insisted that sleaze was the major issue, and the standard by which governments should be judged. Now that they have been dragged into the mire, it does Blair and co no good to complain that they want to focus on ‘the big issues’ instead.
Along with the demise of politics we have witnessed the collapsing legitimacy of the institutions of government. A climate of mistrust now surrounds government, so that almost anything can be turned into a scandal. Protestations that it is normal practice for prime ministers to sign letters promoting businesses fall on deaf ears. Any denial from government spokesmen is taken as confirmation that there must be something in the allegation – and the firmer the denial, the more the suspicion grows.
The crisis of the institutions has also undermined traditional loyalties, making officials more willing to leak, whistle-blow and generally whinge to the media. Some of the recent ‘major scandals’ – like the war of words in the transport department, over rival spindoctors Jo Moore and Martin Sixsmith – are little more than petty departmental infighting, involving civil servants infuriated at the way New Labour appointees now tread on their toes.
How does this degraded excuse for politics impact on the public? Every week now seems to be reported as ‘Blair’s worst week’. Yet the latest polls show New Labour extending its lead over the Tories still further, and Blair’s personal standing largely intact. There is little in the sleaze issue for the opposition parties; the recent Sunday Times poll which suggested that voters now see New Labour as more sleazy than the Tories simply reflected a situation where few see much point in trying to bribe or influence the hopeless Conservatives (1).
Yet beneath the surface (and not far down), the sleaze issue does take its toll on public attitudes – by making them more deeply cynical about all politics, any politics. These inflated scandals are not issues that people can act upon – they invite only a shrug of resignation and the tired observation, ‘that’s what politicians are like’.
In this way, the obsession with sleaze can only reinforce the public sense of powerlessness. And for those of us who want to see a new political agenda, that climate is a far bigger problem than the details of who sent what letter/email/cheque to whom.
Meanwhile, the only ‘solutions’ to public disengagement that are being proposed include making voting easier via the internet and text-messaging, and making it more consumer-friendly by replacing boring old party political broadcasts with 30-second adverts. The notion that you need to give people something worth voting for does not seem to occur. These ideas are all being put forward under the banner of ‘learning the lessons of Pop Idol’ – the interactive TV show that got millions to vote for their favourite boy bland.
An alternative lesson of Pop Idol for politics, however, might be that the technical exercise of voting will remain an empty, meaningless process, if all that’s on offer is two or three vapid candidates, created by PR companies, singing the same dull songs.
Mick Hume is editor of spiked, and is speaking at the spiked conference After 11 September: Fear and Loathing in the West, on Sunday 26 May at the Bishopsgate Institute in London. See here for full details.
(1) ‘Labour now sleazier than Tories, says new poll’, Sunday Times, 17 February 2002
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