New politics for old?

Jill Segger
By Jill Segger
30 May 2011

The “new politics” of which so much was made back in May 2010, was the marketing ploy of newly elected politicians, over-excited by the novelty of office and desperate to sell the notion of coalition.

The idea had previously been touted as an alternative to “Punch and Judy” politics at times of heightened emotion – after the death of John Smith for example and as a slightly self-congratulatory response to the civilised and genuinely compassionate exchanges on the floor of the House when the families of Gordon Brown and David Cameron suffered the death of a young child. Which is not to say that a less instinctively tribal and more consensual approach to the managing of our common life should be dismissed as impossible or naively unrealistic.

Nothing has shown more clearly - or depressingly - how far we still are from a more honest and nuanced view of the complexities of politics than the artificial fuss which was created around the Justice Secretary's recent thoughtless and foolish comments on rape.

No one should really have been surprised at Ken Clarke's insensitivity. His standard interview manner over many years has shown a tendency to bluster or towards the taking a of cavalier attitude to facts and this was by no means the first time that he had inserted one of the famous Hush Puppies into his open mouth.

What Clarke said, though not surprising, was offensive and deserved censure. But for Ed Miliband to call for his dismissal from the Front Bench was opportunist, ridiculous and frankly stupid. Miliband knew perfectly well that no Prime Minister could afford to be seen jumping to the demand of the Leader of the Opposition for the sacking of a senior cabinet minister.

But the chance to maximise the government's embarrassment and command the headlines by portraying Clarke as a social and political dinosaur was just too tempting to forgo, despite the fact that the Justice Minister is the nearest thing to a liberal reformer on the Government benches. His humane and sensible views on sentencing and penal reform may not go far enough for many on the left, but they are far nearer to decency than those of the majority of the Conservative Party. Playing to the gallery in this manner is deeply damaging to the cohesion of progressive politics.

This eagerness to score points and to kick lumps out of political opponents, whatever the cost may be, is dispiriting. It takes no account of the lessons learned from the necessary compromises, working out of consensus, and crossing of borders which voters experience in the conduct of their personal and working lives. The honesty to admit error and to own when an opponent is correct or may have a better idea is essential if we are to live together in peace and with integrity.

But politicians appear to inhabit a binary world in which the standard response is to seek advantage before truth or reason. It is this childish, and self-serving partisanship which does so much to alienate an electorate which knows that white is not black and water does not flow uphill.

Polarisation to the point of idiocy represents the decay of the oppositional method of politics. There is nothing wrong with that method, indeed, the battle of ideas is the tool of progress but when the argument becomes so attritional that the rowdiness of insult and the absurdities of reflex defence drown the voices of reason, reasonable people withdraw in despair.

I admit to having, over the years, played a part in this fruitless confrontationalism. As a long-standing member of the Labour Party, a candidate and a former local councillor, I have been caught up in the undeniably exciting and competitive atmosphere of campaigning. To be entirely indifferent to these conditions would probably make political activism impossible. But when conviction and blind loyalty start to impede moral sense or to obscure the possibility of change, evolution or co-operation, you, your party and the whole democratic process are in deep trouble.

Political difference is no longer as clear cut across all areas as it was in the days of two- and occasionally three-party contests. Although I believe that the state should have the pre-eminent role as enabler and adjudicator and that the unfettered market will never rectify the injustices done to those who are neither wealthy nor powerful, I have to accept that there is space for debate as to how state and market may best work together in the pursuit of justice and equality.

Smaller parties, such as the Greens and the nationalist groupings of the devolved administrations, have altered the political landscape. They do not fit seamlessly into the agendas of the larger groupings and are the grit in the oyster, the catalyst for more creative thinking on the part of the older blocs.

If political discourse is to escape the current state of mutually reflexive denigration which has brought it so low in the public perception, it must move away from tribalism and towards the discernment of a more consensual and co-operative ethos. How this is to be achieved while retaining vigorous debate and developing clearly defined views of society to lay before the electorate is the big challenge for our changing times.

If we cannot meet that challenge by recognising that creative flexibility is not necessarily a betrayal of principle, democracy will decay further. And when that happens, the damage is greatest for those who have the fewest resources with which to resist.

Political allegiance runs deep. Its loyalties can inform the school in which a coherent view of society is learned and policy is hammered out. But left unexamined, it is equally likely to be the path into a dead end. GK Chesterton wrote that “my country, right or wrong” was on the same moral level as “my mother, drunk or sober”. Politicians would do well to consider the effect of substituting 'party' for 'country'.

The rest of us - and that includes the media - need to advocate for a politics which has less to do with the football terrace and more with developing the capacity to work for a common good which increasingly lies across and beyond party lines. That really would be a “new politics”.

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© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpen

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