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Brendan Larvor © 2001


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The current election contest in Britain is the most boring since 1987. 1992 was exciting because the outcome was unknown. 1997 was exciting even though everyone knew that Blair would win, because a change of government is always a seismic event in British politics, and Tony promised all sorts of radical changes. This election, like 1987, is a contest between two known quantities with a foreseeable outcome. The tedium is heightened by the parties' determination not to say anything new or interesting.  The Guardian has run a daily column under the title "The Debate that Nobody Wants". Each day it reminds us of yet another issue on which the parties are united in silence. Recreational drugs? The Home Secretary's son was caught offering to buy cannabis for a woman who turned out to be a journalist, senior police officers favour a change in the law and enough Conservative MPs to fill a VW camper van confessed to "trying it a university". Nevertheless, anything beyond "Just say no"' is still off the agenda. Son of Star Wars? It may threaten to destroy NATO, but apparently we're not talking about it. And so on. Let me re-iterate: there are enough of these deafening silences for The Guardian to highlight a different one on each day of the campaign.

So why is Labour coasting home? Public sector workers are furious that Labour has intensified the Tory programme of privatisation, intrusive auditing and crass managerialism and promises more of the same. Transport is becoming a headache for everyone. The rural economy is in tatters. The Stalinism of Labour's high command is universally acknowledged. Jack Straw's determination to replace civil liberties with extended police powers has liberal opinion hopping mad. Yet Labour's lead seems untouchable.

The answer lies in the state of the Conservative and Unionist Party. It was thrown out in 1997 because it was divided over Europe. Divided parties are unelectable. The sexual and financial sleaze that dominated the headlines during the Major administration only leaked out because the divided party suffered a breakdown of its once-invincible discipline. Since then, nothing has changed except that the noisier elements in the Tory Party have grown stronger. In short, the grounds for kicking them out in 1997 still hold good. They will not be re-elected until they re-invent themselves in public. This is obvious to everyone except the Conservatives -- excluding Michael Portillo, whose public contrition over his old, hard-faced self has something of Mr. Toad about it. (I like to think that, having spent all day saying how sorry he is for having been such an unfeeling brute when in office, he mumbles "Poop poop!" in his sleep).

The Conservatives have not been helped by their campaign strategy. They have failed to make headway on domestic issues because they are not saying anything significantly different from 1997. So they now concentrate on "Save the Pound". This is a disaster for them because (a) Blair's promise of a referendum on the Euro has shot their fox, (b) Europe is the issue that broke the Major government, and every reference to it reminds the electorate of that unhappy story, and (c) the campaign against the EU depends on a contrast between "Brussels" (an expensive, intrusive bureaucracy) and the UK Parliament and Civil Service (apparently none of those things). The Tories, with the selective hearing common to all politicians, fail to notice that people who despise the EU normally also hate the UK government (of whatever stripe), the local authority, the parish council and any other pen-pushing busybodies who expect John Bull to contribute to the common weal. This is obvious to everyone except the Conservatives. 

The national mood lightened briefly when the Deputy Prime Minister lashed out at a protester who had thrown an egg at him. Alas, the minders have closed in to ensure that nothing remotely entertaining will happen again. But there is hope. Polling data showed increased support for the DPM after he threw that (frankly rather weak) left jab. So perhaps the gyromancers will see the value of carefully-staged brawls. They could buy in experts from the WWF to ensure it is done properly. "The Tory Terror knocks Blair down with an illegal low blow using the wing-mirror of the battle-bus. Blair's hurt... Isn't the referee going to do something? But wait... Blair is up again, and takes out the Terror with his trademark Millbank Squeeze. Have you ever seen anything like it? It's mayhem here at the Devizes Community Centre"


Blair has a number of abstract enemies. One is "the forces of conservatism" (not to be confused with the Conservative and Unionist Party). Another is "cynicism". Yet the greatest cynics are his own communication experts. Neither of the major parties dares to appeal to the finer feelings of the electorate. Both concentrate on selfishness (we won't raise your taxes, and we'll make it possible for your child to win a place in a thoroughly middle-class school) and fear (Crime! Asylum seekers! Romano Prodi!). Many New Labour policies are motivated by decency and a sort of de-haut-en-bas solidarity with the very poor, but we hear little about them. Why? Because the campaign managers believe that Middle Britain will be turned off by the appalling prospect of human beings helping each other through state action. Everything they say suggests that they view us, the electorate, as a collection of I'm-alright-Jack lookers-after-number-one. In the quiet of the voting booth, at the moment of truth, greed and fear always win. That, at least, is the conventional wisdom among the professional communicators. Now, people who take that view of humanity normally turn out to be corrupt. Criminals justify themselves by projecting their own amoral greed onto others ("Everyone's on the take, it's just a question of who is good at it"). So the cynicism of politicians about our motives licences our cynicism about their probity. When the communications strategies of both major parties are based on a view of human nature shared by gangsters and thieves, it is little wonder that politicians rarely get the respect that many of them do in fact deserve.

Tony Blair would like us all to be proud of his New Britain. But almost all the political rhetoric assumes that the British are narrow-minded, timid, stingy, ignorant and selfish. If that is true it is nothing to be proud of.




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