Postmodernism is dead. But Nick Clegg isn’t quite

by Jonathan Todd

Edward Docx declared postmodernism dead in Prospect during the summer. Many hierarchies were shattered by postmodernism’s insistence that no perspective is more legitimate than another. This revolutionary insight has wrought all kinds of change over the past 40 years or so, but also contains the seeds of its own exhaustion. If all perspectives are valid, do any of them mean anything?

Our contemporary longing for authenticity suggests that postmodernism has left us with a deficit of meaning that we are seeking to fill. Docx sees this all around us.

“We can see it in the specificity of the local food movement or the repeated use of the word “proper” on gastropub menus … We can recognise it in advertising campaigns such as for Jack Daniel’s, which ache to portray not rebellion but authenticity. We can identify it in the way brands are trying to hold on to, or take up, an interest in ethics, or in a particular ethos”.

There is more politics in this observation than there might seem. And the political insight has much commonality with that contained in this tweet from Chris Dillow: “Politicians obsess about public opinion and are despised. Steve Jobs doesn’t do market research and is admired. There’s a lesson here.”

Jobs is thought authentic and politicians are not. He seems propelled by mission and genius, while politicians appear calculating and superficial. As postmodernism has encouraged the decline of deference, the political class has been lampooned. Politicians seek redemption by desperately scrutinising opinion polls. But they are looking in the wrong direction.

The calculation needs to stop for the authenticity to begin. If we want our food to be “proper” and our brands to have ethos, as Apple has as much as any, we exist in an age striving for authenticity, which places premiums on the abilities of politicians to mean what they say and say what they mean. It’s not surprising, therefore, that Andrew Lansley, who has done things in government quite different from what he promised in opposition, has had even more struggles as a minister than Michael Gove, who has implemented largely what he said he would.

Most politicians struggle for authenticity, but only Nick Clegg struggles more than Lansley. He spoke of a new politics and went into government with the Conservatives. He pledged to oppose an increase in tuition fees and legislated to treble them. He warned against cuts last year, then helped force them through.

After the first leaders debate last year, Clegg seemed a breath of fresh air. But his actions since mean that it is very difficult, if not impossible, for him to fully recover. He couldn’t even go for a walk around in Birmingham after the riots. It may be that he either doesn’t have the stomach for another general election fight or the Liberal Democrats, calculating that they’ll do better with a leader with a fless trashed brand, won’t let him. Both the Liberal Democrat (AV referendum) and the Conservative (boundary review) parts of the deal done by Clegg have been disasters for him.

It remains to be seen whether the boundary review motivates any change in Liberal Democrat strategy. Most dramatically, this would mean engineering a collapse of the government to avoid fighting an election on much tougher boundaries. The AV result saw a significant shift from Clegg. Up until then no real effort was made to assert Liberal Democrat identity within the government. There were simply government positions that were defended by both Liberal Democrat and Conservative minsters.

Since then distinctive Liberal Democrat positions on such issues as the NHS Bill, banking reform and the environment have been pushed. The Liberal Democrats have tried to present issues in terms of their moderation of Conservative extremes. This is summed up in their slogan for this week’s conference: “in government on your side”. When debate plays out within the frame craved by Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives, as Stephen Dorrell understands, risk coming over as dogmatic and right-wing, while Labour is threatened with irrelevance as debate focuses on the governing parties.

Nick Clegg’s long-term prospects as a politician are bleak, but his new willingness to empathise Liberal Democrat identity in government poses Labour a challenge. We should rise to this by embodying the virtue that Clegg betrayed: authenticity.

Our core values of fairness and opportunity resonate with the electorate. We should be unabashed in our championing of them. For this to be effectively done, policy substance is needed. We should also always be straightforward about the compromises and trade-offs contained in this substance.

Authenticity demands values (fairness and opportunity) that can be understood (through policy substance) and which can be credibly offered (by being up-front about the costs attached to this substance). Let’s hope our conference brings more of this.

Jonathan Todd is Labour Uncut’s economic columnist.

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3 Responses to “Postmodernism is dead. But Nick Clegg isn’t quite”

  1. Bingo says:

    `Policy substance’ is not something that can happen overnight, or even through a period of reflection, such as Labour is putting itself through at the moment. What you end up with is pseudo-authenticity, rather than actual authenticity; that is, an attempt to appear authentic as a means of appealing to the electorate by suddenly giving the electorate what it wants.

    Substance and authenticity take years to build (see Tony Benn, Ken Clarke) and cannot be suddenly associated with a political party. Attempting to associate authenticity with policy (in time for, say, the next general election) is nothing more than an appeal to opinion polls and will clearly be perceived as yet more spin (because it is).

    Building a message/ideology and actually sticking with it because you believe in it is the source of authenticity and substance, rather than trying to win another election by appeasing the electorate.

    I’d bet Labour just go for the election, based on recent history and current performance.

  2. swatantra says:

    You have to hand it to Nick. He certainly broke the mould and introduced real Coalition Politics into a rather complacent political world. But he won’t get any thanks fo it. Instead he’ll be crucified. Perhaps in 50 years time, he may get a brief mention in a footnote about revolutionary ideas. The Party machines can be pretty cruel at times and hey don’t like to admit to failure.

  3. swatantra says:

    But what has Art got to do with Politics? Not much according to Jeremy Hunt.

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