Brendan O’Neil – Spiked Online October 6, 2011
You couldn’t have asked for a better snapshot of the unbridgeable chasm that now separates politicians from the public than the Tory Party conference. This weird, media-oriented, stage-managed display of pragmatism and bluster confirmed that politics has become completely disassociated from ordinary people’s lives and concerns. The conference showed that the political class and the only other section of society that has any interest in what it thinks and says – the media – are now so insulated from the madding crowd that they not only think in a different way and have different outlooks on life, but seem to speak in a different language entirely. The rarefication of British politics is complete.
The most striking thing about the Conservative Party conference was the extent to which its agenda was determined by what is not happening in the real world rather than what is. Surreally, this was a supposedly political gathering at which the big issues of the day – from the economy to the future of Europe – were either skirted around or given the deeply unconvincing Cameron-as-plucky-bulldog treatment, while issues that have no traction whatsoever amongst the public – from sexist language to gay marriage – were put centre stage by both Tory spokespeople and political reporters. (See Rob Lyons on Cameron’s economics here.) The conference revealed that political issues are very rarely generated from below these days, but rather are the creations of tiny cliques of think-tankers and professional advisers who are paid to come up with eye-grabbing ‘talking points’.
The power of small numbers of professionals to set the political agenda has reached an extraordinary level. So as the conference kicked off, and as the world economy continued to shake and the Euro continued to go down the pan, the key issue was Tory leader David Cameron’s use of sexist language. Cameron made a grovelling apology for having said ‘calm down, dear’ to a female Labour MP in parliament earlier this year and for having referred to his fellow Tory Nadine Dorries as ‘extremely frustrated’. In effect, he was bowing to pressure from minuscule numbers of influential women – primarily highly paid newspaper columnists and expert pollsters – who have been warning him to speak in a way they consider to be ‘appropriate’. That such a dinner-party spat can take centre stage at a party conference in an era of recession is a searing indictment of the hermetically sealed nature of modern British politics. This unedifying clash between professionals over how the fairer sex should be addressed brings to mind the old court system, in which mannerisms of speech and the depth of one’s curtseying were also treated as the be-all and end-all, elbowing aside burning political issues. The return of speech ritualism is further evidence of the isolation of the political class.
Two other issues that got the media class excited – as those who are paid by the Tories to fabricate Big Political Issues no doubt knew they would – were gay marriage and the possibility of introducing a fat tax to wean people off their alleged addiction to junk food. Again, neither of these issues is a grassroots one; neither exercises the hearts and minds of everyday people. Rather they’re artificially created problems, the products of either elite agitation or think-tankers’ brainstorming, which are then latched on to by politicians in the hope that talking about them will help to garner some positive coverage from the media class at least. Cameron’s comments about a fat tax – which would target those great scourges of our age: ‘milk, cheese, pizza, meat, oil and processed food’ – were particularly striking, because they gave an insight into what this oligarchical political class thinks of those who live outside its bubble. We are not political subjects to be engaged with, apparently, but rather bovine objects to be physically tampered with, punished for our gluttony, pressured to ditch those gastro-pleasures which the political and media elites, as they discuss the horrors of sexist language over wine and vol-au-vents, have decreed to be ‘fattening’.
The Conservative conference brought to a head a trend that has been evident at all the mainstream party conferences over the past five to 10 years: a sense that these people are only talking to and amongst themselves; a powerful feeling that the political scene consists of tiny clubs of people perfectly insulated from the masses. Indeed, it’s wrong even to refer to the various things discussed at the Tory conference as ‘political issues’, since most of them were not really political at all, but rather were shallow moralistic obsessions foisted on to the agenda by inside agitators, and most of them were not issues either, in the sense that if you stopped the average man or woman in the street and asked them what they thought about the scourge of sexist language they would wonder if you were mad. These are entirely fake issues, designed to give the cut-off political and media classes something to tussle over.
The otherworldly nature of party conferences is a consequence of some huge political shifts in recent years. It is the hollowing-out of the mainstream parties, their speedy and profound jettisoning of members and grassroots supporters and their subsequent disconnection from the public, which creates today’s strange and alien political culture. The absence of pressure-from-below on the political parties leads to a situation where small groups of influential people can set the party political agendas, from academics obsessed with inequality to the illiberal theoreticians of the nudge industry to newspaper hacks who felt personally offended when Cameron used the word ‘dear’. It is the slow-motion withdrawal of everyday people from a political scene that no longer has anything to say to them that nurtures today’s courtly atmosphere, the rise of speech codes and apologetics and issues that matter little to the masses.
Even Tory-bashers play the same game as the party they claim to loathe. One criticism that has been made again and again of Cameron and Co. is that they are ‘re-toxifying the Tory brand’. Apparently Cameron has failed to ‘decontaminate’ his brand – what Theresa May once referred to as a general view that the Tories are ‘the nasty party’ – as evidenced in the fact that at this week’s conference some of his people dared to criticise the Human Rights Act and talk about immigration. Not only do these kinds of criticisms contain a powerfully censorious component, where all discussion of human rights or immigrants is instantly judged to be ‘toxic’ and ‘contaminated’ – they are also firmly rooted in the same narrow brand-obsession and image-obsession that passes for Tory politics these days and for politics in general.
So where a Tory party desperately trying to discover some purpose rebrands itself as ‘nice’ rather than ‘nasty’, its critics simply shout back ‘Your brand is being recontaminated!’, like executives at an advertising firm. The myopic concern with party branding is also a product of the disassociation of politics from the public: parties that have no real connection with a significant section of the masses also have no real raison d’être, and thus must try to magic one up courtesy of an army of brand-minded experts. Politics has been colonised by experts, hacks and snobs who are utterly cut off from normal people.
The Tories’ conference, like Labour’s and the Lib Dems’ before it, was a weirdly stultified affair. There was no real debate, no attempt at policy formation, not even any real policy proposals. It all rather confirmed that parties with no base of support, with no roots in society, quickly become ideas-free zones, since there is no pressure on them to embody certain ideals and to argue the toss for those ideals on a public platform. It’s not even accurate to refer to the public as mere spectators to politics these days, since most of us didn’t spectate – we had far better things to do than watch these self-serving PR exercises disguised as party conferences. Rather, today there is simply the oligarchy and its friends on one side of the metaphorical canyon, having noisy but substanceless discussions about matters of etiquette and branding, and the masses on the other side, who are looked upon as a bovine blob whose temperature must occasionally be taken through opinion polls or stage-managed focus groups. By ignoring the party conferences, we committed a small but important act of rebellion against the oligarchy. More and better acts of rebellion will be required.