The Tories and the tyranny of anti-politics

Anyone interested in Big Politics and society-shaking debate should challenge the Conservative Party’s ‘clean politics’ agenda.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Last year, the Conservative Party leader David Cameron won plaudits from the right-wing press – and from some liberal commentators, too – when he said: ‘For the last decade or so… we have been living under a regime of government by management consultant and policy by Powerpoint.’

Last month, Cameron said of Chloe Smith, the newest Conservative MP who was elected in the by-election in Norwich North: ‘She is exactly the sort of member of parliament I want to see in the House of Commons.’ And what did Ms Smith, 27, do before she limped to victory in a by-election brought about by the MPs’ expenses scandal? She was a management consultant (1).

She ‘advised government and public services’. And true to form, she treated the electorate of Norwich North as if they were one of her clients whom she was advising about managerial issues. Rather than enthusing voters with a political message, far less a political vision, she made a ‘contract’ with them in which she promised: ‘I will publish the details of all my personal expenses, office expenses and donations on my website so the people who employ me – the public – can see them easily. Every year I’ll appoint a firm of local auditors to sign off my expenses.’ (2) Thrilling stuff.

Cameron’s leap from mouthing off about the management consultancy style of politics under New Labour to heaping praise on a former management consultant who apparently represents ‘the future of the Conservative Party’ is revealing. For all of the Tories’ attacks on New Labour’s spindoctoring and grey-faced managerial approach, it is becoming clear that the Tories, if victorious at the next General Election, would take over where New Labour left off in the promotion of anti-politics, taking us into an era in which the role of elected politicians will be merely to manage everyday public affairs, where the best MP will be the least political, least controversial and ‘cleanest’ MP, and where political parties will be finally emptied of both politics and anything that smells like party spirit.

If New Labour represented the institutionalisation of the death of British politics, creating new bodies and new forms of political language suited to the end of clashing ideologies, then the Tories look set to develop those institutions further, to make an actual virtue out of the end of political contestation. Anyone who’s still interested in asking awkward questions and having serious, free and society-shaking debates – in short, anyone still interested in the stuff and lifeblood of politics – would be well advised to start tackling the Tories and their promised tyranny of anti-politics.

Many people say, understandably, that it’s hard to know what the Tories stand for these days. Liberal commentators warn that the new Conservative Party is made up of a posh Bullingdon conspiracy that will bring back privilege and class snobbery – yet Cameron’s recent policies have included ‘hug a hoodie’ (young tearaways need love not punishment) and attacks on big business (the Tories are not the party of ‘unbridled capitalism’, he said) (3). Some claim that the Tories are still deeply blue; others sing the praises of those Tory think-tanks who have come up with the idea of ‘Red Conservatism’ (4). Driven more by a desire to hit the front pages than to formulate a thoroughgoing vision for Britain, the Tories’ choice of issue and slogan can change from one day to the next.

However, the events of the past two months, as New Labour has fallen utterly into disrepute and the Tories have been talked about seriously as the next party of government, have provided an insight into one overriding outlook in the new Tory machine: anti-politics. In government, Cameron’s Tories would further ossify the political process and increase the distance between the government and the public.

The election of Chloe Smith in Norwich North showed us what Cameron means when he talks about instituting a new ‘clean politics’ regime. In a by-election brought about by New Labour’s effective sacking of its sitting MP because of his expenses claims, Cameron’s Conservatives were keen to set the agenda for the next General Election and for the subsequent parliament. They promoted their candidate, Smith, on the basis that she is ‘not Westminster’ – in short, she’s a local Norwich girl who is not part of any political scene or possessed of any deep political convictions – and on the basis that she will undertake, contractually, to be always transparent to her voters (5).

Smith presented her election as ‘a victory for honest politics’ and a ‘rejection of the old politics of personal attacks, smears and scare stories’ (6). She held up her ‘contract’ with voters as a model for post-expenses scandal Britain. For Smith, and for the new Conservatives more broadly, ‘honest politics’ means little more than MPs being well-behaved and allowing voters to monitor their expenses, characters and personal peccadilloes, either via a website or in the local press. Here, politics is reduced to a local business initiative, and voters are turned from active political players, the determiners of public life and public policy, into the petty auditors of their elected officials’ behaviour. ‘Clean politics’ really means no politics: Smith is hailed as a brilliant new MP, not on the basis that she has ever said or done anything profound, but on the basis that she is a polite middle-class prefect with no skeletons in her closet. This is likely to be the new status snobbery of Cameron’s Conservatives: not brash Bullingdon boys bossing around the lower orders, but dull worthies inviting us to look through their keyholes.

The Norwich North by-election gave us a glimpse into how Cameron’s ‘clean politics’ looks set to weaken the power of people’s votes and effectively disenfranchise us in political terms. With both the Tory and New Labour candidates battling it out in Norwich North on the basis of their personal goodness and expenses honesty, voters were explicitly robbed of the opportunity to vote on political matters – to make a judgement call on New Labour’s attacks on civil liberties, for example, or its invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, or to vote for the Tories on the basis of some interesting policy or vision. Instead, in a modern, PC version of some ancient tribal council, voters were restricted to picking the person they considered to be most likeable. Such personality politics, vociferously promoted by Cameron in recent months, means that voters are only permitted to pass judgement on cosmetic matters; they are reduced to the political equivalent of those people who take the ‘Daz test’ to decide which detergent/MP will make things whiter than white.

In his post-expenses scandal role as the cleaner-up of British politics, Cameron has also revealed his innate hostility to political parties themselves, to the idea of having a coherent organisation that represents certain interests and ideas and tries to win support on that basis. Last month the Conservatives organised Britain’s first-ever open primary to determine who would be the Conservative candidate for Totnes in Devon in the next General Election. Yet another political event brought about by the expenses scandal – the Totnes Tory MP Anthony Sheen was forced to step down over his expenses claims – the primary was hailed as a revolution in democracy by Tory supporters; one said we need more in order to ‘open up our system of politics and wrest control back from the SW1 people’ (7). Labour’s foreign secretary and wannabe leader David Miliband has said that he backs the introduction of more open primaries, too. The Totnes primary was won last week, on a 24 per cent turnout of the electorate, by a local GP called Sarah Wollaston.

Some people assume that if, like spiked, you are passionately in favour of democracy, then you will always want more and more elections; so open primaries can only be a good thing, right? Wrong. Democracy is based on people choosing their leaders and their system of government, of course, but it is also based on a clash of visions, on debate and clarification and meaningful political choice. Under the Tories, the open primary is a crutch for the lack of those things, rather than a facilitator of them.

To hold an open primary in which the whole electorate can pick your party candidate is really to admit that your party is meaningless. You are effectively saying that even people who have no attachment to your party or shared political beliefs can determine who will represent your interests. In the US, such open primaries have resulted in a party’s opponents trying to get the weakest candidate selected in order to lessen that party’s chances of winning in the subsequent election; so it was in Totnes, too, where Liberal Democrats reportedly skewed the postal vote in order to get the unimpressive Wollaston selected (8). When an open primary implicitly invites people to support weak candidates and isolate impressive candidates, to exploit political failures rather than choose between political futures, it hardly represents the height of debate.

Political parties – as in organisations that cohere supporters around certain ideas and ideals – are crucial in democracies; Cameron’s plan for more open primaries is a way of saying that political parties don’t matter, that instead of providing leadership and direction to society, parties and their candidates may as well simply be shaped by everyone and anyone, including non-members and even political opponents. This will give rise to parties that reflect a general and unformed outlook, rather than parties that try to shape an outlook and convince people to move in a different direction or to embrace new ideas. This is not a way of extending democracy; under the cynical guise of ‘wresting control from SW1 people’, this is about outsourcing the Tory Party’s own internal confusion about what it stands for on to the population at large, which is unlikely to inspire serious debate or engagement, but their opposite.

Cameron seems determined to find newer and better ways to reduce politics to inane technicalities and put people off engaging with big questions or voting in elections. That the Tories are taking up, and pushing further, the ‘management consultant’ approach developed over the past 12 years by New Labour reveals that Labour’s managerialism was not the simplistic invention of its cynical spindoctors, as Cameron suggested in his attack last year; rather the rise and rise of this style of politics reflects, and is built upon, the demise of Politics with a capital P, the end of the left-right divide, and the emerging chasm between the electorate and the elected.

New Labour is, fundamentally, the institutional expression of the death of politics in Britain. In its elevation of the politics of personality over serious debate, it expressed the crisis of substance and of ideological vision in contemporary politics. In its penchant for spindoctoring and maintaining cosy relationships with the media, it expressed the political elite’s increasing distance from the electorate and its search for a new public platform from which to promote policy and make a connection. And in its creation of endless new committees to monitor MPs’ behaviour and extracurricular activities, it expressed the elite’s own loss of faith in politics as a useful, good or transformative thing. Now the Conservatives, a party also bereft of vision and a clear base of support, look set to continue, and deepen, New Labour’s bad works.

We are all familiar with political tyrannies. Well, under the Conservatives we can likely look forward to an anti-political tyranny, in which parties become meaningless machines and voters’ choices, our very ability to exercise our subjectivity and express our political aspirations, become further curtailed.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill said that anti-politics was the victor in July’s Norwich North by-election. He also described Gordon Brown as the hangdog dictator in Downing Street, and after the Tories’ victory at the Crewe by-election last year, he called for positive politics. Mick Hume asked what’s the point of an election without alternatives? and pointed out that the demise of New Labour did not amount to a Tory revival. Or read more at spiked issue British Politics.

(1) As reported in Private Eye, 7 August 2009

(2) The Big Interview: Chloe Smith, 6 July 2009

(3) Networked from birth, Guardian, 9 May 2008

(4) The maverick ideas of red Toryism could give Cameron a potent edge, Guardian, 9 February 2009

(5) The Big Interview: Chloe Smith, 6 July 2009

(6) The Big Interview: Chloe Smith, 6 July 2009

(7) The first ever open primary, Douglas Carswell MP’s blog, 10 July 2009

(8) GP wins Tory open primary vote, Herald, 5 August 2009

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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