This is our truth, tell us yours
We wrote yesterday, and previously, about the suburban gothic horror that is the story of bullying within the Tory party. We have written at length about all the things the Labour Party isn’t talking about, and all the things it ought to be talking about. The two are probably connected.
Like Winston Churchill, we tend to think that parliamentary democracy is the worst possible way of governing a country, except for all the others, which are worse.
It’s hard to recognise, in the current agonies of the Labour Party, anything either worthy of praise or of use as an example to others. Broadly speaking, the dispute is between those who prize their conscience above all else, and those who prize their sense of correctness above all else. It’s an argument fought in code. Here’s an example. Someone I’ve never heard of called Nora Mulready, is being promoted across social media because of this blog article. It’s good in parts, and dreadful in others, not least when Mulready decides to conscript and misconstruct history in her cause. Apparently, all Labour governments have won by being moderate, which may surprise those who saw 1945 as being a radical departure from what had gone before. The coded message is emphasized by Mulready’s list of ‘titanic’ Labour social democrats – Healey, Bevin, Morrison, Blair. They were the real Left, according to Mulready, as if Cripps, Attlee, Bevan, Benn the elder, Castle, Lee and their ilk were part of an unreal Labour, the branch of the family it’s not polite to talk about. There’s another signifier of the breach in the Labour party in Mulready’s language; she believes that the problem of worklessness can be solved by ‘making people work’; the idea that there might be something wrong with a labour market that cannot provide fulfilling worthwhile work for everyone appears to have escaped her entirely.
To be fair, Mulready has a point; there are some, on the left, who seem to want to engineer a breach, to make of Labour two parties, not one, in the vain belief that a British Syriza will be more successful than the Greek version in turning back the tides of globalization. What Mulready won’t admit though is that some of her parliamentary heroes, on the right of Labour, have succumbed to the Jenkinsite delusion that their conscience, their analysis, allows them to set aside the manifesto on which they were elected, and to campaign on the basis that they know better than the rest of the party and the movement what will win a majority in 2020. They too are prone to the belief that, if only a serious enough breach could be engineered, a new party of the centre-left might emerge and escape the traitor’s trap that dogged the SDP in the 1980s.
You might wonder at this point how the Tory bullying scandal comes into this.
It’s this. Most MPs can quote, or explain the meaning of, Burke’s speech to the voters of Bristol. It’s much referred to as the basis on which MPs can ignore what their constituents might wish, and it sets the choices of the MP above all else.
It’s claptrap. It was claptrap then, and it’s claptrap now. It feeds a delusion, amongst both politicians and would-be politicians, that they know best. It also feeds the idea that the business of making decisions is one determined by the qualities of the people making the decision, not the quality of the decision itself. The whole political process becomes about the selection of MPs, the ladder of influence and the competition between candidates. Part of the selling point of the Tory party’s Road Trip 2015 was that participation was an opportunity to mvei the ladder, to get closer to the inner sanctums and to validation as one of the potential leaders. Just like any other competition, cheating became a part of the landscape, and the bullying culture that emerged was the logical result of believing that the end justifies the means.
Grant Shapps exemplifies that way of being, the view that morality and conscience are catchphrases, not practices, to be deployed in the process of scaling the ladder or attainment in pursuit of power. One of his much vaunted internet marketing scams, a modernized pyramid scheme, essentially amounted to ripping people off for worthless advice, then advising them to do the same to others. This, apparently, is twenty first century entrepeneurship, and entirely moral.
Where did it all go wrong? How did we end up in a place where the political process is so debased that we can only stare from afar and wonder how it came to this? We’ve written before about the collapse of belief in the state, about the power of whatever as increasing numbers of voters simply decline to get involved in voting. The collapse in trust in elected representatives can be located in time, to the period between the Crichel Down affair and the shameful behaviour of the Labour government over the Aberfan disaster funds. Suddenly, via Suez and Profumo, the message was clear. Politicians were not trustworthy. Add in the repeated collapse of major, ambitious, often foolhardy defence projects and the narrative was set; politicians, and the state, were more likely to fail than succeed.
That collapse in trust and belief was not neutral however. Part of it consisted of a concerted and conservative attack on the concept of activist government, on the idea that government could intervene and make a difference. Part of it was defensive; the conservative movement in the UK was concerned about its own weakness, and conceived of a concerted attack on progressives because of their human failings as a way of defending themselves. Both are nothing more than you would expect from conservatives, but there was an unintended consequence, which decent conservatives might have regretted if they had foreseen it.
We currently have the first generation where career politicians outnumber and squeeze out late entrants to politics. Liz Kendall, darling of Labour’s Blairites, epitomizes the kind of politician who has never worked outside the political process. The idea that politics might be a vocation you succeed to after a career elsewhere has been replaced by the idea that there is a skillset for politics which can be learned as a volunteer or intern or policy wonk before moving straight into a legislative role. In such a situation the process of political selection becomes internalized, becomes about the participants, not the purpose of elections. The whole point of democracy is that it is a process with an external locus of evaluation; it only works if the audience approve of it.
Labour is in a self destructive crisis because the majority of the Parliamentary LabourParty think that they are beyond criticism, recall or question. The Conservative Party is desperately trying to avoid a crisis that has its genesis in the internalization of their selection process, which has led to an introspective and unhealthy culture of bullying and unfairness.
It is tempting to say that the individuals involved are to blame; tempting, but wrong. We have allowed our democracy to become the playground of individuals who consider themselves professional politicians, acting out their narcissism and their needs at our expense. We deserve better.