On Saturday, there was a #labourdoorstep tweet which said that there had been a ‘mixed reaction’ in the canvassing that morning. This was so refreshing that it caught my eye. The tweeter had clearly done something very important that morning – listened.
The coals of Bradford West have been raked over quite extensively already – and Sean Dolat’s excellent blog informed by his experience on the actual campaign sums it all up really. Labour did campaigning, George Galloway did politics. More voter-id is not the answer. The swarm easily beats that. Labour must also relearn the art of politics: an open and two-way process. That #labourdoorstep tweet on Saturday demonstrated someone actually doing politics.
Since Friday we’ve had a Westminster frame applied to Bradford West. The worst example came from the new pro-Ed Miliband blog Shifting Grounds in a Pravda-esque attack on the ‘voices of desperation‘. These voices are the vanquished ‘Blairites’. Like Keyser Soze, these would-be political assassins are hell-bent on revenge and Ed Miliband is their target. It’s amazing what some people in and around the Westminster bubble spend their time thinking and worrying about.
The bigger concern is what Bradford West hints at about party politics more deeply. On Friday, it was dismissed as ‘local concerns’ (for which, read, ‘those pesky Muslims’). If anything, that makes it even more significant. We are increasingly seeing a politics that is a series of ‘local’ concerns. It is less and less about big national movements, classes and ideologies. Into the space once occupied by these, we are seeing the politics of identity, locality, issue-concern, and personality pour in.
Esteem for our political classes has been decaying for decades. MPs expenses may have been the moment when the deferential politics of party democracy finally became unsustainable. The main parties just haven’t realised it yet.
And then along came Peter Cruddas and his attempts to open up Conservative party policy – by selling access to it. The response of Labour? Some feigned revulsion but then silence. Both parties know that the current system suits them. They know state funding for political parties is an absolute non-starter. They will support changes to the extent they harm the other side but otherwise the status quo will do.
Contempt for the political classes has been compounded by their failure to grapple with the very real economic problems that we as a nation face. This is not a parochial concern – it is happening across Europe. In the UK, the Coalition has already failed. Its entire economic argument – that austerity would lead to growth – has been shot to pieces. There is little faith in Labour either. So we have a paradox where people have lost faith in the Coalition’s economics but have even less faith in Labour.
The political future is one of disgust with politics, new parties sustained by anger, populism and the disruptive energy of social networks, hung parliaments, and street protest, occupation and violence. It is of untrusted leaders, the leading two parties polling in the mid-30s at best in low turnout elections and sudden spikes and collapses in support.
There will be the George Galloways, whoever follows Nick Griffin on the extreme right and populist right figures. Nick Clegg’s popularity at the last election was actually a feature of this believe it or not. Take a look at the French election to see the future. Neither Sarkozy nor Hollande are polling above 30% in first round voting.
Labour’s response to this threat is to centralise power and control to an even greater extent – hunker down in other words. Refounding Labour was nothing. The political class sustains itself and protects its interests. Selections are rigged. Organisation is still in the 1990s mode despite the fact that world is now gone. Messages are pushed out, voters are surveyed, candidates are moulded and silenced. We don’t do politics.
In the rush to look for a convenient target all of this is missed. Europe’s leaders on the left and right are gripped by collective failure. Major political parties across the continent are rather like the Rolling Stones – some great tunes decades ago but who other than their devoted fans buy their new music? Those devotees do love them though; they’ve got the t-shirts to prove it.
There’s little that can be done to ensure that the Rolling Stones write great tunes again but we can change politics. Rather, we can start doing politics again. There is a difference between politics and political management. Politics is about open engagement and dialogue. It is organic. Political management is about closing down dissent, establishing Pravda-like blogs, rabid rebuttal of dissenting voices on Twitter and fixing outcomes.
The problem for the politically managed party is that our national culture has been cracked open. We are no longer tied to traditional and convention, class and habit. We can pick and choose, buy or walk away, we want to be producers and participants as well as consumers. If the main political parties don’t respond to the reality of the pluralistic nation we have become then someone else will do. We may not like who that person is.
Everything has to be in the mix: party funding, policy-making, selection and organisation. Leading a party in a pluralistic nation is very different to leading one in a deferential nation – as David Cameron, Ed Miliband and their counterparts across Europe are discovering.
The alternative is to just play the old CDs, wear the fading t-shirts, and loyally buy the tracks on the day of release. You can talk about it all on the Rolling Stones Facebook page. You won’t find many of your friends or neighbours there: your interest is sectional. Or instead, we could move like Jagger.
Great reaction on the #labourdoorstep.