You only Ming when you’re losing
The rise and fall without trace of another Liberal Democrat leader is symptomatic of our dried-up husk of a political system.
Ming who? The sudden removal of Sir Menzies Campbell as leader of the Liberal Democrats, the UK’s third-largest political party, sparked much excitement in the world of Westminster but barely a ripple in the real world outside, demonstrating again the extent of political/media class isolation from much of society.
However, if we can look past all the lifeless commentary about the faceless candidates to replace him and stay awake long enough to put the drama-free crisis of the Lib Dems in some wider context, we might learn something about the overall state of politics today and the prospects for real change.
Ming’s fall from grace was apparently due to the vagaries of the opinion polls, where the level of Lib Dem support has recently slumped to 11 per cent. This says less about their party than about the unstable and arbitrary political system we live under.
How could it be that the polls have been swinging about so wildly of late – one minute showing a solid Labour lead of approaching 10 percentage points, and the next claiming the Conservatives have gone seven points clear? After all, it is not as if anything earth-moving has been happening in terms of political debate or struggle.
These swings between the Labour and Tory parties, and the squeezing of the Lib Dems caught between them, are symptoms of a feeble body politic where no party can rely any longer upon core constituencies or loyal support. The end of the old politics of left and right has disengaged the parties from their traditional roots and left them flailing about without principles or solid programmes, making up policies as they go along and stealing one another’s latest wheezes at will.
The corollary of this loss of anchorage is that public support for political parties has become increasingly shallow, fickle and fleeting, rarely based on any deeply held belief or commitment. Thus the opinion polls can leap about in response to the latest headline or cock-up, signifying little about the underlying reality and leaving snapshots that are unreliable even by the standards of the past.
As Rob Lyons examined on spiked at the time of their party conference, the Liberal Democrats are the least stable of the main parties (see Same ‘old’ story, by Rob Lyons). They exist today largely as the repository of public disaffection with the two bigger parties, and of a broader anti-political feeling. The Lib Dems have periodically enjoyed striking successes in recent years, when the capital of either Labour or the Conservatives has sunk lower. But by the same token, they can suffer in the polls when either experiences a temporary boost – as David Cameron’s Conservatives have of late.
Given the tendency to self-destruct, this slump in Lib Dem fortunes might well prove long-term. But given the arbitrary character of political life today, the Lib Dems could almost as easily swing back, through no fault of their own. We might recall that the last time they were deep in crisis and being written off, the Lib Dems somehow managed to win a shock parliamentary by-election victory in the Scottish constituency where Gordon Brown lives, purely as a protest against the New Labour government.
Contrary to what many commentators are suggesting, the woes of the Liberal Democrats do not signal a return to classic two-party politics. They confirm the drift towards an unstable and fragile system of ‘no-party politics’, as I have previously argued on spiked, where the absence of core principles or constituencies means that almost anything can happen – except a serious change in the public mood of political cynicism.
Another feature of no-party politics is the focus on the personal characteristics of party leaders. These matters are deemed more important than ever before. Yet when leaders are judged by personal rather than political factors, it also means that they can rise and fall almost without trace. This is well illustrated by the fall of Ming.
How could Campbell go from a standing ovation at conference just a few weeks ago, to suddenly being deposed, without losing any elections and apparently without a struggle, by some of the most pathetic ‘assassins’ ever to wield a rubber knife? Because leaders who stand for nothing clear in political terms, and have no firm constituency or strong movement behind them, can be invented and disposed of again overnight. They are as vulnerable to the sack as a football club manager, only as good as their last result, even if it was in a newspaper poll.
This tendency can be seen in even more glaring fashion in relation to Tony Blair. Look at how speedily and remarkably the man who was UK prime minister for the past decade, the most successful Labour leader in history, has been effectively erased from the political map. There was really never any such thing as the politics of ‘Blairism’, and no loyal political constituency behind him beyond a few cabinet courtiers. So he left little solid behind him except the Cheshire cat smile. The same, by the way, will be true of Brown (except without the smile).
The endless nonsense talked about the 66-year-old Campbell’s age is also revealing in this respect. Age has been of little consequence to great political leaders of the past; prime ministers such as Gladstone and Churchill ruled when considerably older than Campbell. But these leaders stood for something more than themselves – for great social movements and empires that made history. By contrast, when politics is devoid of such substance and personal image becomes so important, then something like age – or at least the appearance of being past-it – can become decisive.
As some of the smarter commentators have pointed out, it was not so much that Ming was old, but that he looked old-fashioned with his sock-garters (the subject of a ridiculous lengthy report on BBC TV’s Newsnight the day he resigned) and old-world manners. He was not a Charles Kennedy, the previous Lib Dem leader noted for appearing on comedy and chat shows and drinking whisky. And he was not a dashing TV/PR man like ‘young’ David Cameron. So it was deemed he had to go. The leading candidates to replace him appear to be Cameron-lite figures, if such a thing can be imagined.
Campbell’s sudden ignominious end confirms that, with the emptying out of politics, appearing to be ‘new’ has become an end in itself, regardless of whether you have anything fresh of importance to say for yourself. With a ‘new’ New Labour government, and a new Conservative opposition, the Liberal Democrats panicked at the prospect of being seen as the ‘old’ party.
This general preoccupation with sticking ‘New and Improved’ on the label is sometimes described, with justification, as the political equivalent of selling soap powder. But it is also more than that. Lacking any clear principles rooted in contemporary society, every major party now seeks to define itself at least by distancing itself from its own past – including its recent past. So Cameron is the Not-Norman-Tebbit face of Conservatism, Brown is the Not-Tony-Blair face of Labour. The Liberal Democrats’ latest attempt to reinvent themselves as the Not-Ming-Who? party seems unlikely to set the world alight.
All of which goes to confirm the passivity of media-dominated politics today, and the consequent tyranny of the opinion polls. No politician seriously believes that they have a vision with which they can inspire the British nation or win an argument with the public. So they act almost as spectators, studying poll data and opinion columns before deciding what to do. There is little idea that they might actively intervene to alter opinions or change the course of events – beyond lobbying the media and staging PR stunts of course.
What did Campbell do wrong, besides, it seems, wearing garters? But then what did he do right, besides, we are told, nobly selling his fuel-guzzling classic Jaguar car (a gesture he no doubt regrets now)? The Lib Dems got rid of Campbell because the polls told them to, just as Brown cancelled plans for an early General Election on orders from the pollsters. There is a shared sense of fatalism, of studying the minutiae of the polls for guidance rather as the ancients studied animal entrails. No doubt these politicians are right to sense that they have little with which to alter the course of events. But what does that say about the state of the political system under which we all live today?
Meanwhile, having pledged to put the fiasco of the election-that-never-was behind it and focus on outlining its political vision for the UK, the Brown government returns inevitably to the politics of personal behaviour, launching yet more attacks on what we feed our children and what we drink in our own homes. Perhaps that is the only sort of ‘vision’ of the future we should expect from politicians obsessed with their own personal image.
Both New Labour and the new Conservatives are now constantly talking about the need for change. But until somebody puts the belief in our capacity as political subjects to act and alter the course of history back on the agenda, the most change we can expect is to swap a Blair for a Brown, or perhaps a Campbell for a mini-Ming.
Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large. He is speaking at the session The new heresies at the Battle of Ideas festival in London on 27-28 October.
Rob Lyons argued that the Liberal Democrats only succeed where the big parties fail and said Ming’s age was not to blame for the decrepit state of English politics. Mick Hume argued that Charles Kennedy and George Galloway could tell us a lot about the state of British politics and the anti-war movement. Josie Appleton showed the limitations of ‘independent’ politics. Or read more at spiked issue British politics.
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