Monday, 8 June 2009

Are we done yet?

For the past month or so, we've all colluded in making politics about palace intrigue rather than governing. In part, that was necessary - there was no way expenses scandals could simply be ignored - but in part it's been indulgent and narrow-minded. The Telegraph's glee in squeezing every last drop out of their windfall is one thing, but in general government, opposition and media have found it too easy to get caught up in the gossip of resignations and reshuffles rather than, for example, the nitty-gritty of industrial policy.

As a more or less direct result of politicians' and journalists' obsession with palace intrigue, the BNP now represent Britain at the European Parliament.

In some ways, Labour deserve the least blame for this. IF there is one group that has an excuse for devoting time and energy to question of whether Brown should lead the Labour party, it's the Labour party. But they do have to actually make a decision, and then stick by it. Either Brown stays and the rebels get back in line, or he goes and the new leader is given a mandate to change direction. Anything in between would be wallowing in their own effluent.

The media have been only to happy to keep talking about Westminster popularity contests. Partly because that's what their nameless briefers are talking about, and partly because, again, it's a lot easier to understand gossip about who's in and who's out or deconstruct the subtext of clothing accessories than it is to brief your viewers on the implications of economic policy. Besides, we the public lap up gossip while being easily bored by niche, technical issues like whether we'll be able to afford to bathe next year, so what's a poor editor to do?

The people who've suffered most needlessly through their relentless focus on Labour's internal strife are the Tories. Labour were portraying themselves as a shambles just fine on their own. This was the opportunity for the shadow front bench to make themselves look like a Cabinet in waiting. If they could only have wrested themselves from the spectacle of their opponents' slow-motion implosion, this was their chance to look like a serious, organised and prepared party of government. All they had to do was rise above the shoddy internal backbiting and demonstrate that not only did they know there were more serious problems facing the country, but that they had solutions to hand.

But they didn't. They settled for pointing and jeering and making sure everyone knew just how terrible Labour were. Understandable enough. But the end result was that, facing a never more unpopular government, they could barely shift their vote-share up from where it was five years ago. Mainstream voters stayed at home, having been given no alternative worth the name. And the BNP picked up two European seats - with fewer votes than they had last time.

There is, improbably, a glimmer of hope for Labour here. If they can get their act together and start talking about what they actually intend to do in government, they might start to look like people worth voting for. And if they can get people to focus on Tory policy rather than rhetoric, they might find it's a better basis for comparison than who looks good on YouTube.


Mike said...

I think this blog is pretty fair. Personally, I think that Labour loses the argument on substance as well as style - for me the key issue is the economy and the forecast growth in national debt is irresponsible.

But the Tory's are avoiding that fight. Perhaps with good political reasons - many people baulk at the idea of public spending cuts (no matter how patently necessary they are). It is a shame we cannot have a public debate but I expect it would amount to little more than gripes and scare tactics much like yesterday's PMQs.

Andrew R said...

Come the election, many people will vote on the economy, either to punish Labour for screwing it up, or on the basis that they've demonstrated incompetence. And frankly, they're going to struggle to defend that ground.

Where the debate lies, however, is in what happens next. There are going, as you say, to be cuts. And probably changes in taxation. But there is a huge (and probably quite important) debate to be had about which services get cut, and who gets taxed. This is a lot less abstract than voter reform or constitutional jiggery-pokery. People's lives will be turned upside down, or not, depending on the job market, health provision, whether the local school stays open, the amount of lending to small businesses...

It's a chance not only for debate, but for the parties to show what it is they stand for, and what they care about. But the Tories can probably win without having that debate.

Mike said...