Tuesday, 20 November 2007

The politics of non-politics

In the early days of New Labour, the leadership's approach was in many ways to attach itself visibly to "taboo-breaking" rightwing policies, in an almost shock-jock fashion. A calculated "fuck you" to the left, aimed squarely at the centre-right gallery. Remember, for example, how pleased with himself Tony Blair sounded when, way back in 1994, he defended his much-publicised decision to send his son to an opted-out school - as a defiant refusal to bow to the forces of "political correctness". They did this sort of thing a lot back then - on crime, immigration, welfare and others.

In their deeds, of course, Blair-Brownites still do, but the words seem different now. Softer, more asinine, more meaningless. This is largely because so many of the actual policies on which they initially prided themselves have proven not to be popular - and not just among the left. There's no populist enthusiasm in the country for PFI or the foreign policy disasters of the past decade, or even ID cards, so it's best simply not to mention them (while silently acqueiescing in their implementation. Dog-whistling on immigration isn't worth much either (aside from its rank immorality) as the Tories do that sort of ugly stuff with so much more conviction. Always have.

So the tack's been different in the late Blair/early Brown era. If you want to get on politically now, the best tactic is simply not to mention politics at all. This 'politics of anti-politics' was a notable feature of the recent parliamentary candidate selection campaign in my local CLP where, with only the occasional exception, the (many) contenders tended to shy away from airing specific opinions on the government policies they might actually have to vote on if they got the job.

Instead the emphasis was very much on being nice to children and animals, motherhood and applie pie, jumble sales and tea stalls, on a waffly "working for the community". Which is all well and good - you catch more flies with honey and all that, and this "community activism" can indeed be an approachable, imaginative and pleasant way of engaging people in politics and civic life in general. But aspects of how this approach is used trouble me a bit.

For one, there sometimes appears to be an implicit positioning of "community activism" as something separate from "politics". This is a false distinction. The instincts that lead people to set up charities, support local libraries and run family fun days are or should be the same that cause us to protest about wars or go on strike. It's all politics, and the key is striking a balance between the micro and the macro - and making the links between the two.

And I can't help detecting a bit of a New Labour ruse in drawing implicit unfavourable comparisons between this sort of community stuff ("good, worthy, in touch with the community") and wider political - and sometimes, inevitably, oppositional - campaigning ("unrepresentative, nerdy ranters in draughty meeting rooms above pubs") as if they're completely different things. They're not. And we shouldn't fall for it, and let ourselves be portrayed in this light.

But the politics of non-politics reflects something else - an emotionally brittle, infantilised fear of honest discussion and disagreement, the idea that any difference of opinion constitutes "a damaging split", that no one - the electorate, political party members, the media - can cope with people getting things out in the open. And it serves to marginalise, confuse and make people feel powerless. Because the people who actually do hold power have an only too pronounced sense of the politics they want. And the issue-dodging that characterises non-political campaigning gives them a clearer run.

People can actually cope with political disagreement. I once had a furious drunken row about Blair with one of my best mates' dad at a New Year party, which culminated in him calling me a dickhead, and me giving almost as good as I got back. Some of the others present, unaccustomed to such robust exchanges of views on public matters, were somewhat taken aback - assuming a boundaries-breaching breakdown of cordial relations - but the next day there wasn't an ounce of recrimination or lost respect between us. We still got on fine, and still do. Funnily enough, while history has absolved me on the arguments I made about Blair that New Year more than a decade ago, only one of us is in the Labour party now - and it ain't him.

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