"All things are wearisome, more than one can say." - Ecclesiastes 1:8

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Politics and personalities

Chris Dillow suggests that Mandelson's reheated gossip about Blair and Brown is like celebrity gossip - only more malign:
"The difference is that readers of this guff can sanctimoniously deceive themselves that they are taking an interest in affairs of state whilst looking down on readers of Heat magazine or viewers of Big Brother.

But the reality is that the two have much in common - they're pressing their face against a window, hoping for a glimpse into more glamorous lives.

Except for one thing. It could be that Mandelson-style gossip has nastier consequences. It displaces substantive discussion of politics - about policy - from the media. And it turns people away from politics, thinking it is mere tittle-tattle about dullards."
He's right to say that taking an interest in political gossip is not the same thing as taking an interest in politics - but I don't think it is right to suggest that it always serves as an alternative. It isn't always, or even usually, a zero-sum game. Generally people listen to gossip when it concerns things they are interested in. People will tell you stories about footballers because they're interested in football. I couldn't tell you any. I could, on the other hand, tell you something about the lives of musicians I like - even though I take the view that their personalities have very little bearing on how they perform as artists.

Anyway, while Chris rightly points out that no-one has actually identified a policy area that suffered as a result of this particular poisonous pairing of Blair and Brown, it does seem to have a bearing on the conduct of the election, which brings me to this piece by Andrew Rawnsley:
"It is time for Labour to talk about Gordon. He was not the sole reason for their defeat, but he was an absolutely fundamental one. Until they face up to that, and to the collective misjudgment that made him their leader and then kept him there, they will still be telling themselves the same lies that landed them where they are now."
To this I have one big and a couple of small observations. I've written before about the problem of Brown's Scottishness, which was a way of getting at the idea that the culture of the Labour party is simply not democratic enough. Brown was not elected but received a coronation - partly, it seems, because of some pact that him and Blair are supposed to have made in a pasta restaurant? Some have commented in the past that Blair was under no obligation to stick to this but it is surely an outrageous way to conduct the affairs of a political party in the first place?

One would hope Labour are unlikely to repeat this mistake again but they could do with dealing with the more deep-seated ambivalence to democracy that lurks around in the shadows of the Labour movement. I would suggest this is, for example, behind their resistance to things like reform of the House of Lords and electoral reform. I'm skeptical about the latter but I don't think there would be many realists who would disagree that Labour's resistance to this has quite a lot to do with the calculation of electoral advantage. In general there has always been a strand in the Labour party that has been resistant to democratic and liberal limits to the power of the state because they fear their programme of social reform will be stymied by these constitutional restraints.

The other more minor points are something of a repetition too. Labour picked Brown because they confused being grumpy and Scottish for being a social democrat. It was a peculiar misunderstanding of the Scottish background in this case; a Church of Scotland minister isn't the social equivalent of a miner. But even if Brown had been the son of a miner, so what? It would not have followed from this that he was therefore either a good leader or that he would have adopted policies that would have benefited the working class. To argue otherwise is to mistake culture and background for class and competence. Labour does this quite a lot - probably because it has lost touch with its origins and thus mistakes sentimentality for class interests. Not sure exactly how they should go about sorting this out but acknowledging it's a problem might be a start.

Finally, it should be recognised that the problem didn't start with Brown. Everyone used to go on about how Blair and Brown didn't really disagree about the major issues. They did. They disagreed about who should be Prime Minister - and Brown's behaviour over this was a disgrace. Blair should have sacked him - but he was afraid to because he feared his own position within the party wasn't strong enough. Any autopsy, then, also has to address this question too: was Blair simply weak or did he correctly perceive that large swathes of the parliamentary party didn't like him very much? Which is back to the whole question of internal democracy and how the party picks its leaders...
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