Let’s reclaim the C-word
Labour and the Tories talk non-stop about ‘change’, but only because they would rather be in a state of perpetual flux than face up to political realities.
Those of us who instinctively like the word ‘change’, and who have argued long and hard for the transformation of politics and society, could be forgiven for thinking that the forthcoming UK General Election will be a feast for the intellectual senses. The C-word is everywhere. Conservative Party leader David Cameron used it 32 times in his spring conference speech at the end of last week, and even New Labour – in power for 13 years and in a state of confusion and exhaustion for at least 12-and-a-half of them – still claims to be ‘the party of change’. After the General Election, will anything be the same again?
Don’t get excited. When our political leaders talk about change, they don’t mean moving on and improving things. They don’t mean radically overhauling the way society is organised and politics is conducted. Rather, ‘change’ has become a banner behind which politicians who don’t want to discuss the past, and who are uncertain about the future, can duck and hide. Our leaders are spouting the C-word cynically, as a way of distancing themselves from their own past actions and papering over the fact that they have no concrete visions for the future. It’s time for those of us who really do believe it is possible (and desirable) to rethink and remake society to reclaim the C-word from the gobs of our vision-lite leaders.
The C-word is being used in a completely abstract way, as a kind of cultish positivist chant rather than a specific promise actually to change things. In his spring conference speech, Cameron – protesting way too much – said ‘this change that we talk about, it’s not some airy fairy concept, it’s not undefined’, before he went on to talk about ‘change’ another 31 times in a completely airy fairy, undefined way. The word change is used in this way because this is really an attempt by the parties to define themselves by what they are not – ‘we’re not the old Tories’ or ‘we’re not old New Labour’ – rather than to give any coherent clue as to what they are. The parties obsessively focus on ‘change’ as a way of advertising their distance from their own past structures and ideas, and from the last 13 years of increasingly unpopular government, rather than as a means of offering any sparkling vision of how things might be done.
Indeed, in the mouths of our cynical leaders the word ‘change’ can have quite undemocratic connotations, since what they’re really saying is: ‘Don’t hold us to account for all the things we’ve done because we are constantly changing!’ That is why even New Labour, that flailing albatross around the neck of British politics, still claims, without blushing, to be the ‘party of change’. In his Labour Party conference speech last year, Gordon Brown used the C-word 50 times; his deputy Peter Mandelson used it 38 times. Mandelson said New Labour is ‘restless for change’ and would become ‘the real change-makers in British politics’. We are entering a ‘new period’ for New Labour’, he said, which is extraordinary when you consider that after the 2001 General Election he hailed the beginning of the era of ‘new New Labour’ – so what do we have now: new new New Labour?
For New Labour, ‘change’ is really about avoidance, about dodging discussion of what it has done while in power in favour of promising, once again, to renew itself. Mandelson said at the Labour Party conference: ‘You win elections on the future, not the past.’ In other words, we voters should forget all that silly stuff about Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo, the relentless chipping away at everyday freedoms, and the stuttering inability of New Labour to think seriously or act decisively on the recession, and instead look to the glorious future which will… well, be a little bit different. Here, those who talk about ‘the future’ are presented as cultured and visionary, while those who want to get to grips with the recent past are implicitly written off as backward-looking grunts. But elections are about the future and the past and lots of people will want to register their fury or their disdain for the New Labour oligarchy and the things it did. Serious change, rather than New Labour’s change-as-a-form-of-escape, is about analysing the past and the present as well as thinking about the future – indeed, the former informs and inspires the latter.
In the Conservative camp, too, ‘change’ has been embraced as a positive-sounding, debate-avoiding way for Cameron’s clique to say: ‘We don’t really know what we are, but we know that we are not the old Tories.’ In his speech last week Cameron was strikingly defensive about his continual use of the C-word. This is not ‘some vague change’, he said (twice) – no, these are ‘big changes, really big changes’, and then later on, ‘big changes, some really big changes’. He argued that his promotion of change, both within the Conservative Party itself and for society more broadly, is not ‘just some sort of paint job’.
Cameron’s strange and struggling relationship with the C-word is striking, firstly because it does reveal (he constantly brings attention to it himself) that he is proposing ‘vague changes’, based not on any specific or radical policy programme but on a desire to distance himself and his clique from their own party’s past and from the past 13 years. But at the same time, he has a point when he says his interest in ‘change’ is not just a ‘paint job’ for the Conservative Party. Too many of the Tories’ critics believe the party is simply adding a change-o-philic gloss to the old Thatcherite, Bullingdon-braised machine that is the Evil Tory Party and if/when it gets into power it will whip off the Blairite mask to reveal the helmet-haired Iron Ladies and Iron Gents beneath. In fact, it is the profound hollowing out of the Conservative Party, its historic crisis of purpose, which leads Cameron to utter the C-word so feverishly. He is not consciously disguising the ‘true Tory Party’ so much as instinctively seeking a political lingo with which he can try to explain, justify and even put a positive spin on the political and structural collapse of Toryism and its replacement by a Cameron-led PR operation that stands aloof both from Tory Party members and society. It’s not collapse, you see – it’s ‘change’.
Both Labour and the Tories seem to be thinking: ‘Barack Obama said “change” a lot and won loads of votes, so maybe we can do the same here…’ But for them, ‘change’ has become a sexed-up word for confusion. Uncomfortable with their pasts, uncertain about the future, and with no real anchor in society, the parties feel increasingly at sea. They are effectively trying to make a virtue out of these crises by presenting their rudderlessness and disconnection from tradition, political vision and the public as something positive, where uncertainty about what they stand for becomes ‘restlessness for change’ and the demise of the party structures becomes ‘some really big changes’. It is striking that the more they talk about ‘change’, the less real social transformation there is. spiked has long argued for real transformation. In the words of Marx, we reckon it is possible to ‘find the new world through criticism of the old one… through ruthless criticism of all that exists’. And today, that includes ruthlessly criticising the shallow cult of continuous ‘change’.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.
Previously on spiked
Mick Hume argued that the Tories are full of New Labourite nonsense, and that they have changed, but not for the better. He also pointed out that the demise of New Labour did not amount to a Tory revival. Brendan O’Neill attacked the Tories’ ‘clean politics’ agenda and called for a fight to re-enfranchise the electorate. And after the Tories’ victory at the Crewe by-election last year, he called for positive politics. Elsewhere, Frank Furedi criticsed the fetishisation of change in education. Or read more at spiked issue British Politics.