Only a matter of weeks ago, the traditional party conference season was predictably dominated by the “yes or no?” and “will he, won’t he?” shows. First, commentators tried to box leaders into making pledges they could readily deconstruct. Then, everybody speculated endlessly about whether Gordon Brown would top his first 100 days by going for an early electoral vindication bid.
We’re clearer about the election conundrum by now, obviously. The accusations of cowardice have been thrown at Mr Brown, and he has responded with pledges to mark out ‘new ground’ in advance of the Blair era. Meanwhile Menzies Campbell has gone and David Cameron appears to have recovered from a summer wobble.
But what we’re left with in the afterglow of such pantomime is those nagging questions about the fault-lines of mainstream politics – adversarial, partisan and media-driven – as theatre. And by theatre I mean not high drama so much as low-rent video soap.
Perhaps I’m getting too long in the tooth and suffer from viewing the process substantially from the outside. It’s over 16 years since I had any direct involvement with a political party, after all. But in an age where ‘repositioning’, story-boarding and triangulation seems to shape the quest for power well before the most basic ground rules for principled debate have surfaced, veteran parliamentarian Tony Benn’s wish for the restoration of “politics instead of personalities” seems an ever-receding dream.
Talk of “a new kind of politics” appears to be just part of the ritualised game, too. When the huffing and puffing is over, there’s not much of a genuine opportunity to do things differently. Remember Cameron and Blair agreeing not to mimic Punch and Judy? Fat chance.
So we remain unsurprised when Labour says the Tories have stolen their clothes. Or when the Conservatives say New Labour is Thatcher’s eavesdropping neighbour. Or when the Lib Dems complain that everyone ignores them and then cheekily nicks their policies.
Meanwhile the Green Party, which has had neither Westminster representation (due to the quirks of the electoral system) nor a straightforward leader (due to its admirable and reality-defying refusal to play by the rules) says that everyone else is really ‘grey’, whatever rosette they wear.
In any election campaign (real or ghosted) cynicism with party posturing is offset by an injection of adrenalin. But ironically, as actual politics decomposes into statistics and sound bites on our screens, more and more attention goes to the ‘image’ of our high profile party political figures.
Die-hards apart (and tribal loyalties run deep, despite the apparent de-ideologisation of the process) the show is effectively being run for wavering voters more than people with developed convictions. They used merely to float; now many openly swing. Government of the fickle, by the fickle for the fickle, you could almost say. You really can’t blame the managerial class of British politics alone. They are victims as well as perpetrators.
So this is what it seems to come down to. Is Gordon Brown weighty and serious, or dour and manipulative? Is David Cameron a breath of fresh air or devoid of abiding substance? Is whoever succeeds Menzies Campbell this, that or a bit of the other? Is Alex Salmond a conjurer or a trickster? The debate will run until the votes are cast and the die set at some point. Then it will start again inside the corridors of power.
Notwithstanding that sense of ‘more means the same’, however, there are still vital issues around. There are politicians of genuine passion. What’s more, there’s hope for Westminster. The problem for those who depend upon its machinations, as I’ve observed before, is that a good chunk of this hope involves allowing air in from outside to disturb and revive those hallowed portals.
It may be wrong to say that devolution in Scotland, Wales and through the Northern Ireland peace process has changed the face of UK governance. But it has undoubtedly alerted us to new possibilities, fresh faces, different configurations and unexpected arrangements. So has the challenge of an expanding Europe.
Local politics can be a similarly invigorating space, when it is not being squeezed by national interests so anxious about genuine autonomy that to be a councillor today risks feeling like a hemmed-in and thankless process. Resources and power are needed at the grassroots – not just in the institutions, even more in our civil fabric. Former Times editor and now Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins (no natural 'progressive') has some interesting things to say about this in Politicians are too terrified to devolve power to the people .
For when the TV beauty contests are over, the votes counted, and the political beasts return to their respective chambers, the hard toil of making a difference goes on in community halls, on the internet, through NGOs, in churches, in trade unions (they’re still alive), in campaigns, through global networks, via the media, and everywhere people argue or organise. Including the parties. Here’s where change takes shape and formal interests are subject to scrutiny.
In complex, modern societies this is the political contract: globalisation of concern from below, action through the intermediate, negotiation via systems. There are few shortcuts, but plenty of avenues for keeping the faith alongside balloting. Politics needs to be about people again. That means making it our business.
(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. His blog is at http://faithinsociety.blogspot.com
This article has been updated from one that appeared as the Westminster Column in Third Way magazine, October 2007.