Plus ca change
Two themes occurring separately and together in weekend media commentary were the state of politics and the state of Ed Miliband. In relation to the former, commentators have quoted the Hansard Society’s annual survey of political engagement showing the lowest recorded figure for the percentage of the public saying they are interested in politics (42%). In relation to the latter the so called ‘summer of silence’ and the resulting sniping from various Party figures is being worked up into a silly seasons leadership crisis.
For what it’s worth, my own take on the electoral picture is that very little of significance has changed. The predominant public feeling remains ‘none of the above’ and there is little or no sign of either of the two parties making any significant incursions into the territory of the other.
True, when confirmation came of economic growth, Labour looked wrong footed (itself a bizarre message failure) but Miliband’s focus on living standards is wise given that most families will be worse off in 2015 than 2010. And while the Labour leader’s personal ratings are grisly, in the face of UKIP pressures and the unrepresentative nature of their own activist base, the Conservatives are running the risk of seeming to abandon the middle ground.
For two years I have been telling anyone willing to listen to ‘buy Cleggs’. Whatever the Lib Dem poll ratings indicate, their incumbency skills mean they are unlikely to lose many seats in 2015. Given that ruling parties rarely if ever increase their share of the vote at subsequent elections (sorry Dave) and that leaders rarely if ever fully recover once the electorate judge them not up to the job (sorry Ed) the likelihood is that the voters will plump for a centre right Coalition or a centre left Coalition rather than choose a clear winner.
All of which leaves me saying this year exactly as I did last. There is a crying need for one of the party leaders to use the new political season and their conference speech to disrupt the miserable stasis that is English politics. Without such boldness it is difficult to see any of the parties making much headroom in the next election. Yet, all the signs are that none of them has the capacity or motiation to find either a message or a way of communicating it which lifts them above the fray and makes a connection with the 58% and rising who think politics is less important than the price of fish.
Given that nothing has changed and that nothing seems likely to change, it is reasonable to ask why I bother writing about it. The spur was a clever piece in the Observer yesterday by Catherine Bennett. Bennett identifies a syndrome which she terms ‘I only had the prawn cocktail’, referring to those people who refuse to share the bill after a meal out on the grounds that they ate less than other people.
She quotes arguments that only graduates should shoulder the bill for higher education, only train users should be expected to stump up for subsidising railways and only parents should pay for childcare subsidies. The details of the argument can be contested – in each of these three cases it is still the case that the taxpayer at large contributes substantially – but the deeper point concerns the apparent inability of politicians to summon up a case for the common good.
Yet without some account of the common good and, what is more, an account which sees that good extending into our responsibilities to the future, democracy is nothing more than exactly what its critics have always warned of: an ugly and unequal fight of self-interested causes to rig the game, articulate grievances and mobilise populist indignation. Indeed, it is interesting that the policy which has the greatest credibility among voters (even if they don’t always like the consequences) – austerity - is the one which is most often couched in terms of social responsibility as well as voter self-interest.
The tragedy in Egypt is an extreme case but it shows the frailty of democracy in the absence of some notion of shared national interest and common good. We aren’t on the road to Cairo, nowhere near it, but unless our leading politicians try to aim higher not only will the greatest ambition of the parties be partial victory in a game of ‘who’s least worst’ but we will soon be recalling that 42% figure with fond nostalgia.