The last few weeks have shown politics at its worst: tribal, divisive and ugly

by Peter Watt

Sometimes politics is a noble and even beautiful pursuit where words can capture a moment and inspire.  Just think of Martin Luther King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 or any one of a number of Churchill’s wartime orations.

Then there are political decisions that become once in a generation moments that end up uniting most of the country like the decision to go to war in 1939 or to create a National Health Service in its aftermath.

Other decisions remain more controversial but can still be seen as being decisive moments like the decision to join the EEC, the privatisation program of the 1980’s or the second Iraq war.  The point is that over the years politics has mattered because it involved inspiration and decisions being taken that mattered even if they were opposed.

But in the last few years it has felt that politics has mattered less and less.  Partly this is because the world has changed so that politics seems to have less influence than say global big business or the seemingly uncontrollable economic forces.

And partly it is the advent of the information age where the internet and social media has fragmented the sense of a shared experience.  The reality is that you can set your “virtual preferences” so that you can simply block that which is of little interest or irrelevant.

But politics itself also has to bear some responsibility.  In recent months, in addition to being seen as irrelevant, politics has also been ugly.  And that ugliness will have served to further drive a wedge between them-and-us; between the tiny band of political warriors and the majority more interested in fuel prices, the security of their family and Gangnam style on YouTube.

Just think about the way that the welfare debate has been played out by the Tories.  No more caring conservatism.  Instead we have classic divide and rule hysteria about scroungers and cheats.  George Osborne has set out to create an enemy that needs to be defeated – and they are all workshy, shell-suited and unwashed.  As he said in his Conference speech last year:

“Where is the fairness, we ask, for the shift-worker, leaving home in the dark hours of the early morning, who looks up at the closed blinds of their next door neighbour sleeping off a life on benefits? When we say we’re all in this together, we speak for that worker. We speak all those who want to work hard and get on.”

Martin Luther-King it certainly isn’t!  Instead it is a crude attempt to simplify a complex debate at the expense of some pretty weak members of our society.  And in doing so he belittles and undermines the strength of his argument about the very real need to actually reduce the size of the welfare state.  He assumes that it may be electorally successful, and he may be right, but he ultimately diminishes himself as well – few people like a bully.

But the left are as bad, in some ways worse because they (arrogantly) consider themselves to be basically nice people with good instincts. Yet the response of the left to the death of Mrs Thatcher has on the whole been appalling.

Ed Miliband in the House during the recall debate following her death was a very notable exception.  He showed that it is possible to oppose some of her policies and still respect the politician.  This excellent post over at Labour List from Dan Jarvis and Michael Dugher was also a respectful but balanced political piece on the terrible impact of closing coalfields in the 1980’s with no plan for what next.  It was devastating in its assessment of her record; but it was not ugly and personal.

But so many others on the left have resorted to personal attacks.  These “nice folk” of the left have resorted to their own version of ‘them-and-us’ by taking to the airwaves, the phone-ins, Twitter and blogs calling her ‘evil’, ‘wicked’ and worse.  They have sought to impugn the motives of her and her administrations in order to justify parties celebrating her death.  Class war has been re-declared by those comfortable in describing her as a tyrant or a despot with some even comparing her to Hitler for her approach to the trade unions.

God forbid that she might have been a politician who made decisions that we disagreed with and even made mistakes!  Oh no; she has to be evil as well.

It is an ugly and crude attempt to simplify a complex debate about the pros and cons of an often controversial eleven year premiership.  And in doing so it belittles and undermines the strength of argument against her approach.  Ultimately it diminishes those doing the insulting – few people like the abusive.

So many on both the left and on the right, seemingly unable to get noticed or get people’s interest, are both resorting to type as the game of politics is played by fewer and fewer.  Instead of appealing outwards they are instead retreating to their comfort zones and appealing to themselves and those who think in the small minded ways that they do.

The result is not a politics that inspires or that challenges.  It is not a politics that sets out to change the world.  It is a politics that justifies celebrating the death of a former prime minister and a politics that brands people as scroungers.  It is tribal, divisive and ugly.    And it will do nothing to reverse the decline in the perception of the relevance of politics to the lives of most people.

For Labour it also seriously undermines the welcome attempts by Ed Miliband to try and reverse this decline in the trust of politicians by creating a different sort of community based politics.  Instead, tragically, it will confirm to many that politics and those who play its silly games are simply irrelevant.

Peter Watt was general secretary of the Labour party


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12 Responses to “The last few weeks have shown politics at its worst: tribal, divisive and ugly”

  1. swatantra says:

    Usually there’s only just one word that encapsulates a PM’s total achievement, or lack of achievement, and the rest of their premiership doesn’t really amount to more than a hill of beans. In the case of Churchill it was WW2, Attlee Welfare State Eden Suez, Macmillan Winds of Change, Wilson Rhodesia and World Cup, Callaghan Winter of Discontent, Thatcher Free Market, Major Maastrict, Blair Equalities, and Brown QE 1 2 and 3. Each Pm has left their mark, and each has been transformational and passed oon a legacy which time cannot reverse. For example after Attlee the Tories couldn’t and wouldn’t dismantle the Welfare State, in much the same as Blair couldn’t and would dismantle the Free Market. Its a point which the Left have to take on board, if we are ever to make any progress.

  2. Nick says:

    The problem is that both you and you supporters have given a clear message.

    1. The racist on, that migrants are better than british.
    2. That you think that Abu Hamzah is a benefit to the UK. After all you haven’t said that some migrants aren’t, its that (all) migration is good.
    3. We have the rich are scum message. Well that screws me and lots of others because now they have moved their money where you can’t tax it. Invested into overseas companies etc. That’s resulted in a large tax loss.
    4. We have the continual looting of people’s pensions. For example, you haven’t got a clue how to pay the 5,300 bn pensions debt.
    5. The last one unfortunately is going to screw your clients and supporters. Since the country can’t pay, not won’t pay, they are screwed. Far from looking after them from cradle to grave, you’re making them destitute.

  3. e says:

    About the “very real need to actually reduce the size of the welfare state” would this be because when the Tories once again achieve their “roll back of the state” all the other stuff, like unemployment and homelessness, the nation’s balance of trade position and hitherto unknown levels of public debt, and of course the current stagflation will all be sorted?

  4. @ swatantra: I think you are a little unfair on that tricky git Wilson, after all, there was also The Open University and equal pay legislation, oh, and he also kept us out of Vietnam…

    As to Peter Watts article, in some ways I agree that in reliving the past for a week or so people on all sides of politics have done everybody a disservice. Yet it was bound to happen over this particular event, what was largely missing from any coverage was any real analysis of Thatchers astuteness as a politician in her first two terms. Up until 1987 she always knew that there were limits to what the public would put up with, and that opposition could be tackled piecemeal. Partially this was because The Conservative Party was huge its membership then was bigger than both Labour and Tory now, and although they were loyal, there were dissenting voices in the country that would “let it be known” when she overstepped the mark.

    Nowadays, the smaller memberships of both parties have a much more limited say in how our parties are run, although Ed has changed this a bit. For many members the feeling that we are not much more than a fan club rings true all too often. In such circumstances, who would join? Apart from those like me, who obviously see themselves as the next Leader but two 😉

  5. Well said Peter; I think that (generally speaking) the Labour movement has done itself a disservice in revelling in the death of an elderly woman. It hardly adds creedence to any proposition of living “together, freely, in a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect.” The hyperbolic opprobrium heaped on the caricature of Thatcher has not in any way forwarded the interests of the Labour movement.

    The landslide victory in the 1997 election was the time to celebrate the defeat of Thatcher and her acolytes. We should now be focusing on presenting a vision of an alternative to Thatcherite politics and enabling a future where all can prosper.

  6. james keegans says:

    There speaks the voice of New Labour. I’m amazed that any member of the present day Labour Party can, without recognizing the irony, bemoan the fact that the majority of the electorate have become disenchanted with politics and, in the same breath, condemn those who expressed their antipathy towards Thatcher. Only a New Labour careerist could do such a thing.

    To take the last point first: Only someone who did not have to bear the brunt of Thatcher’s vicious attacks on the British working class could utter expressions shock horror at the expression of the genuine odium that the majority of workers felt towards the vile old harridan. Why should we respect her? A Woman who described trades unionists as the “enemy within”, who admired murderers such as Pinochet and De Klerk and who was an open racist. warmonger and homophobe. Oh, but I forgot. As Blair said, “She had principles.” Well, so did Hitler but no one would expect us sto respect him.

    and this leads us nicely into the second point, why so many people are so disenchanted with politics. The answer to this is as plain as the nose on your face even if it does lie 25 years in the past. You can thank Neil Kinnock, Mandelson, Blair and the rest of the Labour right who undermined and ultimately destroyed a once principled party solely to achieve office. The adoption of neo liberal economics and policies and the driving out of genuine socialists, myself included, from the party has fulfilled the Thatcherite dream of there being no alternative to these policies and people are not so stupid as not to see this. And you and your kind have the gall to pose the question as to why people do not engage in politics. These are the real reasons, not some perceived notion of outraged decorum.

    Politics is a class struggle that impinges of the lives of real people and not some nice debating excercise nor a career opportunity for nice middle class boys and girls and if the LP ever recovers it’s class consciousness it might regain the trust of the electorate and back its natural supporters.

  7. @james – whilst I agree with some of your opinions I must point out that the notion of class-consciousness (or lack of it) has been a sticking point for much longer then the last 20 years. In 1978 Eric Hobsbawm wrote a lengthy article on this subject for Marxism Today, Cecil Wright Mills wrote about in his book in 1962 and Dewey was concerned with it in the early part of the 20th century. As for the claim that Labour as a political force has been spoilt by the recent encroachment of middle class MPs – Clem Attlee was the son of a solcitor, was privately educated and went to Oxford University; Harold Wilson was the son of a chemist and a schoolteacher and went on to Oxford via a grammar school; Hugh Gaitskell was the son of a civil servant and again privately educated. This is not a new phenemenon. Blair et al recognised that in order to enable change you first had to be elected to office.

  8. John Reid says:

    James keegan, this myth tht keeps getting repeated that laur sold out to gain office, whatever Labur did change to gin office we did it as we kept losing as we wa nod power for without it we couldn’t change anything,and the things we got rid of ,were only ones tht we’d have for 20 years like flying pickets, in a party that was already 75 years old and hadn’t wanted, the closed shop for all that time,it reminds me of the hard left saying we kept quiet during the z83 and 87 elections and the leadership still lost ,yet they blame us for us ( the hard left) losing it for thm, without spending a second to think the infighting the hard left had caused in 81-82 , or 84-86 respectively might have not installed in the ublics mind we were. Dangerous extremist organisation

  9. Henrik says:

    It seems to me that if Labour wants to move Left, well, good luck to it. I don’t think there’s much danger of the electorate following it in that direction, though, particularly if the Party chooses not to put any effort at all into persuading the electorate that Left is a sensible direction to take.

    Blair and New Labour may not have been ideologically pure, but by God they could win elections. I think there’s a debate you chaps need to have on whether you want to be in power, where there’s at least an outside chance of being able to change things towards something you’d prefer, or to revert to being a tribal, odd faction, howling, gesticulating and flinging garbage from the sidelines at the grown-ups trying to sort out the mess you left behind after the Brown fiasco.

    If you do want power, the unpalatable necessity is that you convince a bunch of people whom you don’t particularly like – the whole middle ground, the ones who couldn’t give much of a toss about stuff which is really important to you, but who are generally concerned with making ends meet, keeping a roof over their heads, being confident they’ll be OK if they fall ill and trying to ensure their children get a decent education and a good start in life. They’re not anti the Welfare State, particularly, they’re not violently prejudiced against the poor and disadvantaged, but I don’t think benefits claimants are particularly high up on their priority scale.

    Now, this convincing isn’t going to happen just by repeating, ad nauseam, what a shower of bastards and EVIL CAPITALIST OPPRESSORS the Tories and Lib Dems are. Cameron et al are manifestly decent, patriotic people trying their hardest – and to be fair, so is Ed Milliband, despite his appalling lack of grasp of PR – and folk, apart from crazed political junkies, won’t believe otherwise. The challenge for Labour is to produce a coherent vision of how life might be better for the majority under their leadership, how that is to be achieved and how it’s to be paid for. The closer we get to the election, the more you will come under scrutiny and the more compelling and closely-reasoned your proposal will have to be.

    Personally, I’d be delighted if you kept Balls, the unions and all the other scary baggge in place and continued your internecine spats, it’s not just hugely entertaining to watch, but also more or less guarantees, at worst another Coalition, at best a Tory majority in 2015 – but if that’s not what Labour wants, perhaps it might be worth considering my suggestions above.

  10. BenM says:

    “Personally, I’d be delighted if you kept Balls, the unions and all the other scary baggge in place”

    Scary to you, as a Tory who seems to have bought into the rightwing myth machine, but not necessarily to all of the wider electorate.

    Tories need to recognise their credibility on the economy is shot to bits. They are dangling in the wind about to be buffeted by two more years of poor growth, non moving deficit, ratigns downgrades and rising unemployment.

    If Tories thnk pledging more of the same on top of that little lot is going to win them a majority – especially after failing to nail one in 2010 despite the best of conditions – then good luck to you.

    I think you’ll find 2015 to be a bit of a shock.

  11. What Henrik is basically true; Cameron, Clegg et al are not in politics to make people poorer. They may only be doing it because they thought it would be a jolly good wheeze and “dash it all, I think I might be rather good at running the country, what what?”. But they are not inherently evil.
    People in general wish to live a secure, comfortable existence and to have access to (preferably free) healthcare and education. They want well-maintained civil infrastructure and they want their bins collected. They also want cash in their pockets to spend on whatever they like.

    The Tories think the best way to do this is through self-determination with minimal state interference. They believe that money is the best motivator and that therefore permitting private enterprise to make money is the best way way to create jobs for people (jobs being the only way for ordinary people to buy a life for themselves).

    Labour think that the best way to do this is through co-operation with a supportive state. We believe that by working together we achieve more then we do alone. This means that everybody gets a fair chance at making a success of life.

    I think that the trickle-down theory is now discredited; it only makes the rich, richer. Only bold statements will really convince the electorate that Labour can change things for the better. Rather than just “we will curb irresponsible capitalism” how about:
    “we will increase corporation tax; we will use this money to invest in education to provide for the future of UK industry”
    “we will replace council tax with a land value tax to give local authorities the money to mend your roads and care for the elderly”
    “we will legislate to incentivise pension funds to build houses for long-term renting”

  12. Henrik says:

    @BenM – and the best of luck to you, as well, although I rather think that hoping “we probably won’t be as crap as the Tories at sorting out our mess” is perhaps not the compelling strap line you think it is. I have a feeling that the dominant narrative come 2015 is going to be that the Coalition has had an incredibly difficult task in dealing with the massively toxic fiscal legacy of the last Labour government and that there isn’t a viable alternative, in that what Labour is suggesting is another dose of what got us into this mess in the first place.

    I understand the Balls narrative that it’s all the fault of wicked American bankers, but ordinary folk, who don’t have degrees in economics and don’t aspire to political office see what they see – which is essentially that Labour maxed out our national credit card in order to bribe the public sector, the undeserving and the workshy into voting for them. That’s the toxic narrative Labour needs to overcome – convincingly and compellingly – right there.

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