After email-gate, a last chance to get real?


I ought to have lots to say about ‘email-gate’ as it is being called. After all I write a blog, I used to work in Number Ten and I was once the subject of a nasty smear allegedly circulated by Damian McBride (that I had leaked a letter from Adair Turner to Downing Street). But what is there to say? In a prescient article some weeks ago the Guardian’s Martin Kettle developed the ‘good Gordon - bad Gordon’ thesis that is now being picked up by every other commentator. I’m not sure whether GB’s bad side is that much worse than anyone else’s but it feels so because of his carefully cultivated image as a man of unblemished high mindedness.

The game of politics is like any other sport. In a perfect world we would win playing beautifully, but if it takes a last minute dive in the opponents’ area - ‘well, after all, we did deserve to win really’. Who knows whether Red Rag really had been abandoned but if it was it would have been for tactical rather than ethical reasons. The contents of the McBride e-mails were nasty and puerile but the political classes are no less prone to inappropriate and childish humour than any other in-group. But it’s best not to get caught.

The problem for the country is not the damage to Brown’s reputation or to Labour’s (more senior ministers will no doubt now be wondering how they might decouple the latter from the former) but to politics as a whole. Friday sees the release of the apparently hilarious ‘In the Loop’, the film based on the characters from ‘In the Thick of It’. This will confirm the impression that politics is a game played by unprincipled, talentless, weirdos.

To say our country (which means us) faces big issues is an understatement. From the economic crisis to climate change, from civil liberties to pensions, there are huge choices to be made. There is a documented tendency in political journalism over the last two decades to focus ever more on the political game at the expense of exploring the issues behind the contest for power. Away from the froth there are important debates emerging between the centre left and right, not just on economic policy but on the role of the state, family policy and Britain’s relationship with Europe. Many other issues – most obviously climate change - are being suppressed as neither of the main parties wants to confront us with the full implications of an adequate response.

Somehow, all of us who want the next election to be a chance to open up rather than close down the issues, who want the choice we focus on to be about policy options not brand propositions, need to find ways of making this happen. Maybe we had to get to the absolute nadir before we could demand a different frame for our political choices.

This is Labour’s scandal. The answer lies not in handwritten letters or ministers scuttling round studios with the latest ‘line to take’ but in an authentic attempt by the Government to make the next twelve months of politics about policy choices. To do this would involve taking risks, sticking to them even when it meant telling difficult truths. It would mean sending a completely different kind of message through the political system – one that people would initially assume was just a tactic.

It isn’t likely, especially in an administration whose political motto should be ‘all tactics, no strategy’, but in as much as it often takes desperation to inspire genuine change, who knows, we could end up being grateful for email-gate.

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