When ‘good politics’ is a bad idea

The Mambo’s vision of hell: a focus group. Yuk.

The ‘social democratic’ media can be very, very disappointing at times. A couple of articles that have recently appeared in the New Statesman provide a vivid illustration of why I get very frustrated at the way that some commentators, supposedly of ‘the left’, view politics.

First up, Peter Kelner with his analysis of how Labour can win the next election. They need to win the “valence war”. No, I didn’t know what it meant either but basically it means that in order to win Labour has to appear competent, not principled as such, and that the target should be to garner the support of the infamous ‘floating voters’ who just can’t seem to make up their minds about what kind of world they want, the indecisive dickheads.

It’s the old Blairite dictum of “what matters is what works” dusted down but given a makeover for 2012. The analysis and language are slightly different but it’s the same old story. Stay away from left-wing politics. Avoid it like the plague.

Now of course, competence is lovely. We’d all like to be competent and we all like competent people. But how does one measure that when it comes to the political sphere? What is success and failure? Is it numbers of seats or changing people’s lives for the better? Is it favourable headlines or being willing to try and change the terms of the debate on an issue dominated by ill-informed prejudice? For ‘centre-left’ commentators of a certain vintage, it means repeating what Blair did from 1994 for about another decade. Winning power becomes the over-riding objective and what one says and does to achieve that is a secondary consideration. So to sum up, shift to the right and stay there.

I’m sure Kelner thinks he’s regaling us with some sort of original viewpoint, when truthfully people like him have been saying the same thing for years and years.

It’s also interesting to note that Ed Miliband’s political successes have been when he has stuck his neck out and taken a stand against the consensus and not just accepted the dominant discourse (admittedly, it’s a lesson that he hasn’t taken on board very well either though…….)

It also, quite deliberately, forgets the elephant in the room: turnout. The political parties are fighting over an ever-decreasing share of the vote, where one can win with only a small fraction of the electorate voting for you. The half of the population (and it’s getting to that point) that don’t bother are written out of the discussion. All the sophisticated polling tactics, focus groups and media strategies can hardly be described as ‘successful’ when fewer and fewer people are choosing to vote and express a preference. Contrast this to turnout and membership levels during previous eras, when politics (and the Labour Party) was supposedly far less ‘professional’ and there was some clear blue water between the parties. As one of the commenters below the piece points out (I’ve corrected a few of the spelling mistakes):

“We have had 30+ years of right wing propaganda from the media and no political party with the balls to expound an alternative.

Tell the British people the truth about inequality and just how rich we are in this country but (that wealth-RTM) is held by 5% of the population.

Why don’t you pollsters instead of talking to and polling an ever decreasing number of voters ask why 60% of the population don’t vote? Just maybe your chart would look a little different. Apathy and no representation is the problem! Not valence!!!”

A fair point, I think you’ll agree.

The other piece that I wasn’t very happy with was Rafael Behr on the third runway at Heathrow, an idea kicked into the long grass by this government, but one that is being re-considered now that George Osborne has tried austerity, seen it fail miserably and is now flailing around hopelessly for an anything to kick-start the economy. Just like HS2, the third runway wheeze is the kind of enormous, shiny infrastructure project of extremely dubious merit that so many politicians, of whatever creed (even supposedly small-state free-marketeers) are addicted to.

Behr thinks it would be ‘good politics’ for Ed Miliband to jump on the bandwagon before the Tories try and claim credit for it:

“Rightly or wrongly, the green agenda has now been well and truly trumped by craving for economic growth (and it was never that prominent among voters’ concerns). In political terms, the case against Heathrow expansion is getting harder to make…….There is a political opportunity being missed here……It would also sow a bit of discord in the government ranks, which is what the opposition likes to do. The point about the need for more airport capacity has effectively been conceded, so the environmental argument is much diminished. Ultimately reducing the UK’s carbon footprint will be as much a question of cleaner planes as fewer flights. Eventually, the government will U-turn on the third runway. Miliband would be smart to get in there first.”

So to sum up: fuck the environment, there are votes in this so Labour should run with it. Tell me I’m wrong Rafael…….

Of course one could use this argument to justify all sorts of political positions; restoration of the death penalty, withdrawal from the EU, horsewhipping of single parents etc. etc.

But those of us on the left don’t argue like that because such crude, amoral judgements are repugnant, ultimately self-defeating (exhibit A: the Blair years) and simply aren’t why people on the left are politically active.

The environment matters even if lots of people don’t think it does. At some point we will have to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and if Behr can’t see that, or any further than the next set of polling data, then he shouldn’t be writing for a publication that considers itself part of the left.

Of course it would be nice if Labour won the next election, but the programme it wins on and then carries out is probably more important. Kelner and Behr would do well to bear that in mind.

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. robert
    Jul 20, 2012 @ 09:41:07

    Well it depends on which labour party we get, I’ve a feeling before the next election Tony Blair will be brought out to let us know he’s back and he’s ready, that could mean the Yanks are paying him to get ready to invade Iran.

    Tony a few more Million mate get labour ready for a short war they do have WMD this time and rockets which can hit Parliament.

    Floating voters will float and sadly vote for the party which offers them what they want, after 40 odd years of voting labour I have joined the group who cannot be bothered.

    Voting for the last 40 odd years did sod all for me


  2. kaputblog
    Jul 20, 2012 @ 19:38:29

    “the environmental argument is much diminished”

    Quite possibly the stupidest thing i’ve heard from someone you’ve criticised, and that takes some doing.


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