Two major and inter-related defects of our politics have been on display over the past week. One is the trivialising and distorting of the real impact of policy decisions by image-obsessed personality politics; the other is the readiness to put party advantage ahead of public good.
The imposition of VAT on hot food served in bakers and convenience stores has come under considerable criticism for its illogic and unfairness – if your Cornish pasty has gone cold (or dropped below the ill-defined 'ambient' temperature) by the time you get to the checkout, you will pay 20 per cent less than if it has just been taken piping hot from the oven. It is also easy to poke fun at this state of affairs as there is something inherently ridiculous about a 'pasty tax'.
However, this is to ignore the damage which is likely to be done to businesses which produce and sell foods subject to the new levy as customers decline to have their already tight budgets squeezed still further. The knock-on effect to local economies is likely to be considerable as small businesses have no more financial padding than the struggling customers who will need to change their buying habits.
The trivialisation of this ill-thought out policy began during a session of the Treasury Select Committee last week when John Mann, the Labour MP for Bassetlaw, asked George Osborne: “When was the last time you bought a pasty from Greggs?”. The answer was, of course, as expected. The Chancellor could not recall ever having done such a thing. Mr Mann was presented with an open goal and did not scuff his shot. “Well that sums it up” he responded, before going on to explain that variation in ambient temperature could mean that a Greggs pasty would be liable to VAT on a cold day but free of the tax in warmer weather.
The subtext of this little set-piece was that Old Etonian policy makers know nothing of the dietary habits of working people and are completely out of touch with the electorate. Both these conclusions are probably true but would have been reached by faulty reasoning. (For the record, I am a state-educated, working-class woman and I have never bought a pasty from Greggs. That is because I do not like pasties.)
Nonetheless, our image-conscious Prime Minister immediately felt the need to switch into PR mode. To prove his man-of-the-people credentials, he served up an anecdote about buying a pasty somewhere in a triangle between Cornwall, Leeds station and Liverpool. The location, the time and even the nature of the comestible (at one point it became a sausage roll) were subject to ongoing revision as each claim was pursued and shown to be fallacious. There is something very wrong indeed when the Number 10 machine finds it necessary to issue updated statements on a Prime Minister's take-away choices.
Even as David Cameron and his Chancellor were being made subject to ridicule, senior Labour politicians got in on the act. The Leader of the Opposition and the Shadow Chancellor made sure the media covered their visit to Greggs in Redditch. Both men looked somewhat self-conscious as they acted out their part in a charade which advisers had doubtless told them would establish them as 'real people' in the eyes of voters. The absurd behaviour of men and women who should have better things to do, continued as the Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Rachel Reeves, tweeted: “Tucked into delicious sausage roll in Greggs with Ed Miliband and Ed Balls.” Conditioned to think of their image in relation to the media agenda rather than exercising independent judgement as to their behaviour, none of these politicians seemed aware that the electorate has no interest in their hot snack preferences. It is, however, far more attuned to the demeaning qualities of ludicrous stunts than its elected representatives appear to realise.
The panic buying of fuel instigated by Francis Maude's 'jerry-can' advice in response to a strike which had not been called, was exacerbated by Charles Hendry. In a radio interview, the energy minister advised motorists to “keep their tanks topped up” while at the same time urging them to “avoid queuing”. Initially resembling something scripted by Bird and Fortune, this farce quickly took on a more serious tone. As the police intervened to manage forecourt queues, filling station proprietors feared for their livelihoods and reports began to circulate of ambulances unable to re-fuel, the Conservative-supporting Daily Telegraph revealed the contents of a leaked message which had been distributed to Constituency Associations by MPs. It read as follows: “This is our Thatcher moment. In order to defeat the coming miners’ strike, she stockpiled coal. When the strike came, she weathered it, and the Labour Party, tarred by the strike, was humiliated. In order to defeat the coming fuel drivers’ strike, we want supplies of petrol stockpiled. Then, if the strike comes, we will weather it, and Labour, in hock to the Unite union, will be blamed.”
The self-interest is breathtaking. Businesses may be driven into ruin, civil order pushed to breaking point, emergency and medical services put in jeopardy and ordinary citizens used as pawns to be burdened with entirely avoidable anxiety – all in the cause of discrediting the opposition and smearing a union which has observed all the legal requirements in pursuing its case.
Our politics has become false and self-serving. The public is reacting with a mixture of cynicism, despair, apathy and anger. Politicians are seen as opportunists for whom no photo opportunity or piece of self-promotion is too ridiculous. Government has been exposed as deceitful and careless of the consequences of its actions. It is time to consider what part our culture has played in reaching this nadir in democratic governance.
A sterile and destructive feedback loop has been permitted to develop between the mass media, politicians and the public. The fatuous 'prolier than thou' actions which have so diminished their practitioners during the last few days can only happen because we, the public, do not challenge the mindset which makes it possible. If everyone angered by incidents of trivialisation and unnecessary attention to irrelevant personal attitudes were to write to the producers and editors who preside over their coverage, change could be effected. Newspapers care about their circulation; broadcasters pay close attention to viewing figures. They will continue to produce what the public are willing to buy.
Politicians need to hear from their constituents and party members. If we are appalled at ovine acquiescence in image spinning and by calculated mendacity from government, we should contact MPs to say so. If we decide to change how we vote, we should make sure the political parties concerned know the reasons for those decisions.
The emphasis on point-scoring and the pursuit of short term advantage is inevitable in a tribal and adversarial political system. There are far too many people who would prefer to see George Osborne made to look foolish than to advocate for revision and change of his divisive policies. It is more than time that some realism was introduced to the management of necessary political difference. Sometimes the party you support gets things wrong; sometimes the one you oppose makes a good decision. To deny this is to collude in the absurd sound-bite culture and opportunistic falsity which has become the norm in the management of our common life.
Differing political views are essential to the functioning of a democracy. But that does not mean that co-operation and compromise are either impossible or irrelevant. Where citizens can no longer trust their elected representatives to make well judged decisions and to put the widest possible good of society before party advantage, public life becomes ever more toxic, democracy withers and the loudest and least scrupulous make the running for the rest of us.
The old binary division of politics is breaking down. In the immediate post war years, more than 90 per cent of the vote was shared between Labour and Conservatives. In 2010, that figure was just over 65 per cent.
Nationalists, Greens and Independents are changing the power balance and many party loyalists and politicians do not yet appear to be alive to the implications of this. The greater diversity of realistic alternatives offers opportunities for a more creative and cooperative politics and it is clear that a younger generation is no longer prepared to follow the historic patterns of tribal allegiance. Bradford West should be a wake-up call to the mainstream parties.
This gives more weight the idea that we “get the politicians we deserve.” Where we permit party loyalty to blind us to truth, decency and the moral analysis of both tone and policy, we play the very game which is increasingly making our political culture contemptible. Remember the Conservative election poster “we can't go on like this”? Indeed we can't. “Be the change you want to see in the world” seems a better slogan.
© 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, Reform 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