From immigration to Iraq, they are a political class apart
The gap between the public and politics is yawning - in every sense.
What are our politicians talking about? It is not just that we might disagree with their arguments. Many of us find it increasingly difficult to understand them at all, to penetrate the opaque language that they use. The harder they try to explain themselves in new ways, to give ‘meaning’ to the forthcoming General Election, the less of any meaning they seem to say.
Listen to Alan Milburn, New Labour’s election campaign coordinator, trying to inspire us by declaring that ‘the priority must be to fashion an active citizenship’. Or David Miliband, the cabinet office minister now writing New Labour’s manifesto, attempting to kickstart the election campaign this week by promising us a new era of ‘individual empowerment’ in Tony Blair’s third term. It is like listening to the members of some exclusive club, using a code that is intended to keep their plans a secret. Yet this gobbledegook is actually intended to do the opposite, and make a connection with the rest of us.
The focus on the gap in the polls between New Labour and the opposition parties rather misses the point about this election. The gap that matters far more is the one separating the entire political class from the public. In every sense, that gap is yawning. It has become a defining characteristic of political life today. The major political parties and institutions are increasingly aware of it, yet apparently incapable of doing anything about it. The New Labour government looks more like an old-fashioned ruling clique at Court, a world apart from its sullen subjects, rather than a political movement with roots in society outside Westminster. And it’s not just New Labour – the major political parties in Britain and the wider West all appear to be atrophying.
Scratch the surface of just about any debate today and you will find that, whatever it appears to be about, the underlying issue is the isolation of the political class from what they call ‘ordinary people’. The latest rows over immigration and asylum are a powerful case in point.
As Josie Appleton examines elsewhere on spiked, in contrast to previous immigration panics this one has not been accompanied by a rise in public racism (see ‘You feel alienated in your own backyard’). Instead, concern about immigration has been rising at a time when, by any objective measure, British society is more tolerant and less racist than in memory. This is not a classic backlash against immigrants and asylum-seekers. The immigration/asylum issue has become a way of expressing something else, a symptom of a much deeper malaise. Those protesting that the government has ‘lost control’ of immigration are expressing a wider sense of alienation from the authorities and mistrust of whatever they are up to, a general feeling that they are being disenfranchised, that ‘this is not our country anymore’.
The same sense of living in a strange world, run along lines that do not touch your life, is evident in public responses on many other issues today. For example, it is what’s behind much popular disquiet over plans for European integration, but it also helps to explain the outcry over the possibility of people being prosecuted for killing burglars. It is clear in the way that people will frequently use the catch-all insult ‘political correctness’ to describe what is happening today. The rhetoric might often sound conservative, but these reactions cannot really be understood as right wing.
The big marches against the 2003 Iraq war, with their ubiquitous slogan ‘Not In My Name’, expressed a similar sense of individual disengagement and alienation from politics. The most common complaint of the marchers was not about Iraq as such, but about their powerful perception that ‘Blair is not listening to us’.
Of course, modern politicians will claim that they are trying to listen to people all the time, with their public consultations, ‘big conversations’ and other PR exercises. The real problem is more that they have nothing meaningful to say to people. The gap between them and their electorate is made unbridgeable by their own political exhaustion. The political class seems entirely unable to come up with a vision that could connect with people or inspire loyalty. The old politics of left and right have gone, and little has emerged to fill the gap. The politicians’ technocratic language of managerialism, taken to new depths of banality under New Labour, is unlikely to move anybody with a pulse.
The political elite is aware of this problem, which is why it is always searching for what the previous President Bush called ‘the vision thing’. But any attempt politicians make to invent a vision thing out of thin air ends up as a disaster that only serves to illustrate their isolation. These are the people, remember, who brought us the Millennium Dome as a supposed symbol of what Britain stands for (an empty space in a wasteland?), and promised that referenda on regional assemblies would empower the people – until the people of north-east England told them where to put their empowerment.
The yawning gap is a major concern for the political class, because it deprives them of any real authority in society. But so long as public alienation remains at the level of passive disengagement and electoral apathy, it also allows the elite to carry on running things without serious opposition. Silent resentment and shoulder-shrugging cynicism is serious, but not critical. It means that the worst our political rulers can expect is a sudden outburst of anti-war sentiment, or the odd fuel protest, that will probably fade away almost as soon as they appear. In the USA, remember, the political class has happily carried on for more than a century in circumstances where millions don’t vote or take any notice of what they are doing.
In order to shake things up, it will first be necessary to put the idea of active engagement back on the agenda, among people for whom politics is an alien phenomenon. The message needs to be that what people do (or don’t do) can matter and make a difference. The only way to make that message mean something will be by raising the horizons of debate to talk about what sort of society we want, and how we can change it.
Sure, there is no political party worth backing in the general election, and nobody can conjure up a new programme for social progress between now and then. But perhaps it would be a start in altering the climate if we thought about supporting anybody, from whichever party, who is prepared to talk about real politics ‘with a capital P’ for a change. Preferably in a language that we can understand.
Mick Hume is editor of spiked.
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