What we want and what we do


Tom Lehrer said that political satire became obsolete the day Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel peace prize.

Ten days ago the Conservatives published a comprehensive, radical and progressive environmental policy while Gordon Brown entertained Margaret Thatcher at Downing Street.

Was this the day Party ideology became obsolete?

In discussing his book 'The triumph of the political class' at last week's RSA Thursday Peter Oborne deplored the convergence of Labour and Conservative values and programmes. Oborne sees this as an aspect of the sinister rise of a self serving political elite.

But convergence is not new. It was there in the Butskellite politics of the late 1950s.

The role of ideology in party politics and policy development is complex and changeable. Politicians and commentators from the right tend to emphasise the importance of freedom and be sceptical of the state. The left agonises over definitions of equality and sees a strong state as vital to its pursuit.

But these accounts of the good society are rarely prominent in day to day politics. More often ideological disputes, especially within parties, are about policy means not political ends.

Party conference season will see Labour delegates criticising private sector involvement in public services while Tories will bemoan the retreat from grammar schools.

The interplay of social context and political tactics create the shifting foundations of political discourse.

In the nineties the widespread view that the welfare state and public services were failing meant Labour had to combine a commitment to renew those services with a strong message of reform. Labour's modernising zeal and the disillusionment of public service workers in the face of waves of market-oriented reform have led the Conservatives to champion producer interests. Their argument that power should be devolved and the professionals trusted marks a sharp reversal of the new right nostrums of Thatcherism.

Through a similar process, the widespread public and establishment unease at high levels of inequality combined with the need for a Party re-brand provide the context for Cameron's commitment to social justice. The result is a politics in which both visions and policy instruments have become detached from any recognisable ideological well-spring.

The rise and rise of opinion polling and the increasingly technocratic nature of policy making mean the major Parties camp on the same ground and offer similar programmes. One attempt to encapsulate modern politics suggested that the right had won the economic argument, the left the social argument and the centre the electoral argument.

With David Cameron now saying 'it's society stupid' this formula may be breaking down, but this too is a pragmatic response to public concerns and opponents' vulnerabilities. If politics right now is not a contest about ideology or policy differences what is it about? Or rather, what should it be about?

One key requirement in this pragmatic age is that our leaders convince us they will do the right thing. We vote for them less on the policies they espouse and more as a judgement on whether we trust them to do the right thing.

On the one hand, this is about proving ability and strength - which is where Brown is currently outdoing Cameron. On the other hand it means dealing with any sense that some other factor may obstruct you for acting pragmatically in the nation's interests.

This is why all politicians must aggressively prove that they only listen to their Party activists when they happen to agree with public opinion. It is why allegations of corruption (even when the misdemeanours are obscure or irrelevant to policy making) can be so damaging; they imply that our leaders have their own, not our, motives at heart.

No leader can be elected if perceived to be weak or beholden to interests other than those of the electorate. But what of the positive side of politics as a force for good?

Regular readers may recall me describing a 'social aspiration gap' between the future most people aspire to and the future we are likely to create if we persist with current modes of thought and behaviour. From this perspective a vital quality of political leadership is the ability to reframe issues by giving us difficult messages about the choices we face.

Here I take as my text a remarkable speech made by President Kennedy in 1963. In the speech, weeks after the Cuban missile crisis Kennedy laid the ground for the test ban treaty by boldly reframing the cold war. Instead of a Manichean battle between Western good and communist evil that could only end in the ultimate confrontation, Kennedy portrayed the arms race as a process of mutual fear and suspicion that could be stopped and reversed if only people chose to:

"Some say that it is useless to speak of world peace or world law or world disarmament  - and that it will be useless until the leaders of the Soviet Union adopt a more enlightened attitude. I hope they do. I believe we can help them to do it. But I also believe that we must re-examine our own attitude - as individuals and as a Nation - for our attitude is as essential as theirs. And every graduate of this school, every thoughtful citizen who despairs of war and wishes to bring peace, should begin by looking inward - by examining his own attitude toward the possibilities of peace, towards the Soviet union, towards the course of the Cold War and towards freedom and peace here at home."

Jeffrey Sachs repeatedly quoted this speech in his recent Reith lectures. Sachs argues passionately that we know how to end extreme poverty in Africa and that it is easily affordable to the rich world.

The problem now, just as Kennedy saw it in 1963, is that the pubic see as inevitable something that we have the power to stop if only our leaders would lead.

Politicians as a whole are ahead of the general public in understanding the realities of climate change, the impacts of globalisation, the need for people to take more responsibility for our own health, education and lifetime financial well-being.

The current turmoil in the financial sector can in part be traced to politicians' unwillingness to share with us their growing misgivings about the flow of easy credit to sate the rapacious appetite of US and UK consumers.

Even when politicians do try to confront us they too often lack the authority, imagination or courage to achieve a fundamental shift in public attitudes. Political reframing has become a hot topic in the US with bestselling books like Drew Weston's 'The Political Brain' and George Lakoff's 'Don't think of an Elephant'. These books explore the emotional basis of political messaging.

The US debate focuses on why the Republicans are so much better at communication than the Democrats, but the work of Weston, Lakoff and their colleagues also helps us think about the broader challenge of political leadership.

Politics has its own cycles. With the evidence growing that globalisation is bad news for the less privileged in the richer world, we may see a return to political polarisation driven by conflicting economic interests.

But when the important gap is not between the parties but between what we want and what we do, is it the time to support the political leaders most able to tell us the truths we need to hear?

Thank you all for your comments. I read them all but don't always manage to reply unfortunately.

Fenton, good idea and volunteering like this is very useful but we need our Fellows to decide what their own priorities will be.

Tessy, the Design 21 Social Design Network sounds great. I will ask our design team here if they have links.

Stephen, you are right that this issue is not just about the state-private divide but about middle class parents monopolising good school places.

Christine, your project sounds really interesting. Do you think there might be a role for our Fellows as you think about rolling out?

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