Could the ingenuity of the people be the answer to the infirmities of the geriatric octopus of government?

In the last couple of days Nick Clegg and David Cameron have both published ghost-written articles in the national press of the why-I’m-good-and-everyone-else-is-bad variety. We’ve also had the same article written in the third person from Cameron’s puppyish auxiliary, Ed Vaizey, in a fastest-finger-first response to a brutish and deeply un-Finkelsteinian Times leader which told the Tories off for being nebulous protest-vote anglers.

I like these articles. They are remarkably revealing because they tend to distil everything which the leaders of the major parties want you to believe about the political universe before they wave you off to the polling booth. In these pieces they try to embed an account of their own party’s beliefs in an analysis of the broad features of the political environment which demonstrates the necessity of their victory and the ineffectuality or irrelevance of their components. Unfortunately Brown hasn’t obliged us with an 800-word Prime Ministerial précis of all of the indispensable facts of the political world. Perhaps he has writers’ block; or perhaps those over-fastidious Comment editors (bastards, every last one of them) have been rebuffing him.

What I find so striking about these articles is how much they share, if you ignore the (in any case fungible) sneers and calumnies they direct at their opponents. Clegg, Cameron and Vaizey all talk about giving families or service users the power to control their own lives, spreading power, empowering people. A great discovery has been made at Westminster: the people are ingenious, capable and practical. Everything government wishes that it was. Government is a great lumbering titan, with concrete legs, an anachronistic leviathan, a geriatric octopus which never learn to say no; the people are lithe, elfin and alacritous. We will all be better off if we entrust their future to them. Bottom-up is the new top-down. Just listen to Clegg:

‘The Liberal Democrats’ belief in personal empowerment, in localising our public services and in community control is grounded in our belief that it is by giving individuals real control over their lives that we can create opportunities for all.’

Or Vaizey:

‘the solutions to many of society’s problems come from the bottom up, not the top down; … people, not governments, are best placed to make the best choices for their own and their families’ future.’

Yes, Cameron too:

‘If you give people more opportunity and power over their lives, they will behave more responsibly. This is the driving force behind all our reforms.’

I can’t resist throwing Brown in there as well. This from a speech he gave the other day on a special someone’s 60th birthday:

‘And because we know that first class quality of care cannot be mandated from the centre but requires us instead to give NHS staff the opportunity to lead change themselves, Ara Darzi has also made recommendations for how we can empower and set free NHS staff.’

This is coincidence isn’t aberrant; it is just the best example of a wider phenomenon. I could do the same thing with social mobility, environmentalism, ethical foreign policy and (perhaps even) tax policy. The point here is not that the parties are all the same. They aren’t. Cowering underneath these rhetorical gambits with their sibling quality is the detail; and here the parties do differ – importantly. The thing to notice is the novel way in which the parties are carrying on the political war in the public domain.

In the traditional Gladstonian-Disraelian politics the parties were divided clearly on Ireland, Empire, Civil Service Reform and whatever else they argued about in those days of portrait-painting and hackney carriages. They took up fixed positions vis-à-vis each other and the electorate, fighting a sort of attritional trench warfare, all resolution and stoicism. There was no doubt about what the Liberals stood for and what their implacable antagonists the Conservatives stood for: the Liberals were of one belief, the Conservatives -they believed the opposite. Tyro MPs entered the House and retired from it florid and stout, their faces overgrown with whiskers, without this changing.

This politics of clear distinctions and static positions has been marginalized (it lingers on over Europe and civil liberties). Its place has been usurped by a dynamic political war of movement in which remarkably footloose, flexible parties jostle with each other to occupy the same territory. That privileged territory – ever-expanding, contracting and elusive – is the Archimedean point of politics, the space disclosed by the aggregate views of the lusted-for swing voters. Opinion-polling and focus-groups mean that politics is now more sensitive to the beliefs of this vanguard of the mainstream than it has ever been before. In a system of this sort politics ceases to be about the strident, forceful articulation of a stance on the issues arising organically from the prejudices of the party. It becomes instead a fight to convince the key portions of the electorate that your party is the most authentic representative of certain favoured positions and values. Every party wants to be the party of empowerment (so that they might be the party in power), the battle will be won by the side that can appear as its most plausible advocate.

Instead of a politics in which voters are expected to look at the parties and appraise the right- or wrong-headedness of their positions, we have a new politics in which the parties are energetically pursuing an ideal-typical voter. The key to winning is not to disclose yourself in your full distinctiveness, but to convince the voters that your party represents the most effective embodiment of the mainstream views of the country. Essentially politics becomes about identity, authenticity and empathy. Political success is vouchsafed to whichever politicians can convince the strategically crucial voters that they are like them, that they genuinely share their concerns and feel a vital emotional affinity with them. In some sense the party leaders have to convince the voters that they are the most authentic representatives of the wisdom and values of the nation.

This can’t be achieved by articulating policy detail; that comes largely as an unscrutinised appendage. Success in appealing to these voters depends upon the subtle arts of self-presentation. But this is a new species of presentation, one that recognizes that what voters really want is to look at their politicians and see an alienated representation of themselves, one which appears authentic enough to disarm their scepticism. The politicians have started to realize this and it is a dark art that Cameron and Clegg are both experimenting with.

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