Welcome to the 2010s: the era of reactive, populist, say-anything politics

by Rob Marchant

What has David Cameron done so far, which has marked him out as a prime minister? The answer is, surprisingly little, as John Rentoul observes in the Independent on Sunday: “…the Prime Minister seems unformed. He is adroit at reacting to events, but not so good at making them happen.”

But that does not mean he is unpopular (despite lots of potential reasons for this to be so), or that he will lose the next general election. It is just an example of an era, post-2010, which has seemingly been defined by a lack of seriousness of purpose on the part of the major parties.

Cameron has scored a few political successes. He has done what few would have predicted: he has put together, and held together, a coalition that has lasted nearly two years and will quite likely last five.

He has been successful, thus far, in winning public support for his eminently populist handbagging of his EU partners, although only time will tell whether he was wise to do so. He is generally felt to have had a “good war” in Libya.

But as regards defining a domestic policy direction for his government, he has relatively little to show: an austerity program, showing strength but courting unpopularity; and education reforms which are competent and probably modestly positive with the public, although mostly despised by Labour. The rest is largely either a blur, with no significant impact made, or a mess.

Now compare and contrast with his coalition partner. Clegg made a textbook populist pitch before the election, “an end to politics as usual”, before demonstrating eighteen days later, via the person of David Laws, that he represented just the opposite.

Being a junior coalition partner encourages populism, because of one’s limited impact on events and the inevitable going along with large numbers of things which you do not like. There’s not much else you can do: hence the rubbish about “alarm clock Britain”, Clegg’s desperate and probably doomed scrabbling around for a distinct identity for his party.

And lastly ­- in the order in which the media currently treat the three parties – we come to Labour. Miliband at times seems populist, but it is not in the sense that most people would recognise. And this is because his populism is mostly directed inwards, at his own party, and what they want to hear.

But it is not really populism at all: he rather appears to believe those things about “good” and “bad” businesses, or the elusive “progressive majority” in the British electorate, which align him with the more idealistic wing of his party. His high-risk denunciation of Murdoch, for example, was made out of genuine and admirable principle, it resonated publicly and it paid off.

But, although his recent banker-bashing has also clearly resonated with the public, it was not so much a risky course of action, as simply an unwise one. Why? Because he has mistaken people’s grumpiness about the overpaid with a real sea-change in public opinion, strong enough to force significant reforms of modern, international business practice. Whereas, as the Economist’s Bagehot points out:

“Although Britons are cross about high pay, few seek capitalism’s overthrow: they dislike corporate fat cats for being fat, not for being cats. As for voters’ stated desire to see bankers suffer just retribution, they need to explain their dislike of well-paid BBC or railway bosses who did not cause the credit crunch.”

Such views are understandable: people are currently being asked to suffer. But the lack of consistency which Bagehot identifies reveals them to be a fundamentally emotional, rather than a rational, response. For this reason, it is also difficult to see them being sustained once the cuts are over, the economy recovers and money is back in people’s pockets. And this in turn will, once the public is done with its uncharacteristic business-grumpiness, make Labour look anti-business. Which it increasingly does.

Meanwhile Cameron, recognises that Miliband will periodically stumble on something, like high salaries, which resonates outside his own party. And he is quick to shamelessly bandwagon-jump with some soothing, but ultimately vacuous, words of his own. Gesture politics, like getting Hester to waive his bonus. Cameron can get away with it, because people ultimately trust his party on business. But Miliband can’t get away with it: people mistrust Labour on business, in the same way that they mistrust the Tories on the NHS.

So, in the end, bankers’ salaries is just another example of yet another policy area where all parties are saying odd and rather futile things. In the case of bankers, it is either something they do not really mean, or something they mean but without specifics and with no long-term future. It is a low-rent politics, and one which it is difficult to see as serving the interests of the British people.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour Party manager who blogs at The Centre Left


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10 Responses to “Welcome to the 2010s: the era of reactive, populist, say-anything politics”

  1. Nick says:

    an austerity program

    =======

    Really? What have you been smoking. Spending is up for the first 2 years above the rate of inflation. See the red book for details.

    Meanwhile, what should the benefit cap be in Toxteth. I think you should come clean.

  2. Nick says:

    What Cameron should do is come clean on government debt.

    1. Publish the true figure including the off the book secret debts.

    2. Implement a tax to pay it. Give it a snazzy name. labour tax or brown tax.

    Stand back.

  3. @Nick: oh, come on, do the maths. Austerity doesn’t mean you have to cut all spending – the objective here is paying down the debt, which is not the same thing. Don’t understand your benefit cap comment, but personally I’m in favour of it.

    And what are these mysterious “off-the-book debts”? Evidence please.

  4. Mike Homfray says:

    So Ed is now being criticised for espousig mainstream Labour views – its you who is out of step, Rob. If we can’t convince enough people to vote for Labour ideas , then they will vote Tory instead. But shifting to Tory ideas just to be popular – forget it. Did that one, wasted 13 years

  5. Mike, we don’t convince people to vote Labour by staying in the Labour comfort zone. And yes – although it is not necessary to shift to Tory ideas to do it – God forbid that we should be popular! That would never do. Much better to be gloriously unsuccessful, eh? Did that one, wasted 18 years.

    So, a choice between 13 years in government and 18 in opposition? Let me think, now…

  6. Mike Homfray says:

    If we can’t convince people to vote Labour by espousing Labour ideas, then just maybe the electorate don’t want Labour. That’s not something I welcome, but the only point of being in power is to do things, and the abject failure of the last Labour government was that nearly all the changes we made have been all too temporary – we reformed within the Thatcherite settlement, rather than looked towards the restructures needed to ensure a genuine change of direction

    So, no, I don’t want another repeat of 13 years in power if that’s all it will mean. We need to be a lot more ambitious – and if it does convince, then we shall have a Lab our government worthy of the name. If the electorate still choose the Tories, then the conclusion must be they are ideologically closer to the Tories and prefer them in government. Don’t you have any more faith in the appeal of Labour viewpoints?

  7. swatantra says:

    80% of the electorate are not ideological. They don’t give a damn which Party is in power, as long as the have a decent job and lifestyle. So, there is a great deal to be said for ‘popularism’ becaue that is what wins a Party elections. And that the Prty is not under the influence of powerful groups and interests. The elctorate doesn’t like to see a Party in the opocket of outside interests.
    Incidently, the Lib Dems have come out of it quite well. Wh would have thought that the Lib Dems could ever handle Govt portfolios and give as the got. What Clegg as brilliantly done is show that lib Dems are quite as capable of Labour or Tories at rnning the Country. That is quite an achievement. Of course the Lib Dems will suffer for unpopular policies because of the recession. And the Lib Dems have shown that Coalition govts can work, quite well in fact.Unfortunately Labour still cannot get its message across; and its not the fault of the Party but because the Country is not in a listening mood.

  8. Henrik says:

    Swatantra says “Labour unfortunately cannot get its message across” – could someone please enlighten me as to what the Labour message actually is?

    If it’s just “the Tories and the Lib Dems are a shower of bastards”, or “it’s not our fault, the bankers took all that lovely tax revenue and ran away”, or “it’s definitely not our fault and it’s all people’s own fault for not being Leftist”, it’s a long way from being a message which will encourage folk to vote for you.

    The dilemma is neatly summarised upthread – if your ideas are generally unattractive and a move towards your core vote is a move away from the majority, what to do? Labour demonstrated fairly neatly in their 13 years that a contemporary Western government finds radical change difficult and tiresome to implement – and that, specifically for Labour, the policies which get you elected tend to encourage mutiny and dissent in the comrades’ grass roots.

    If you want to be in government, you have to get elected. If you have been elected, it is likely to be on a platform which is generally centrist. Deal with it, or stay in the shadows, cuddling your ideological purity but remaining a long, long way from the levers of power.

    Just saying. No offence, like.

  9. Mike Homfray says:

    What’s the point in being in power to do broadly the same things as the ConDems? I suppose those who are personally ambitious can answer that…..

  10. @Swatantra: it’s true the country is “not in a listening mood”. But I don’t believe we can absolve ourselves entirely of responsibility for us not getting heard. We also need to say something that chimes a little with what most people want to hear. That’s not populism, it’s common sense.

    @Henrik: I might have put it a little differently, but yes, not far off.

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