The new bullshit
David Cameron's 'new politics' are a degraded version of the old, argues James Turley
David Cameron has spent much of his tenure as Conservative Party leader being touted as the Tories’ answer to Tony Blair.
This has always been a bit of a rightwing fantasy. Cameron is not nearly as slick a populist as Blair - and, sure enough, faced with Gordon Brown’s exhausted Labour government, he did not manage to romp home with a landslide victory on May 6, instead scoring something of a technical knock-out by securing support from the Liberal Democrats.
One thing they do very much have in common, however, is a fondness for vacuous, feel-good jargon. Blair had his ‘stakeholder society’; Cameron has the ‘big society’. Blair had New Labour - and Cameron has New Politics. Behind Blair’s sound bites there lay the slow-motion self-immolation of the Labour right wing, at least as a trend with a distinctive political project; and behind Cameron’s there is something similar - a cosmetic rebranding effort, the PR spin on what is very likely to be a brutal, slash-and-burn administration.
That is not to say that this phraseology is itself ‘apolitical’ - just that its users are. In fact, this kind of opportunist gimmickry has a venerable history and a small but important role in surreptitiously framing political questions in public discourse.
The ‘new politics’
Jargon of this type is often pretty ephemeral - it has only been a couple of weeks since the election, and already public references to the ‘big society’ are dwindling. The ‘new politics’, however, is everywhere; it is the catchphrase of the administration, and Cameron and Clegg would like us to think that they really believe it.
So what is it? The first issue here is - what was the ‘old politics’? In this narrative, it is nothing less than the archetypal Westminster scene: the red team versus the blue team, castigating each other’s policies and voting records, casting aspersions on each other’s leading figures, with every sally met with brays of approval and protest. The old politics, whatever its overall merit, certainly is not for the faint-hearted. It is a bear-pit, and the fights are conducted according to archaic rituals and rules that seem to have more in common with Gormenghast than a 21st century legislative body.
The ‘new politics’ is a different beast altogether, we are told. A Guardian editorial, with the fingerprints of that rag’s odious ex-Eurocommunist assistant editor, Martin Kettle, all over it, was really quite taken with Cameron’s and Clegg’s joint press conference announcing their coalition: “For a country reared on confrontational them-or-us yah-boo politics, the sight of the two youthful leaders swapping jokes at their lecterns, as their two parties stopped pummelling and started to embrace one another, was astonishing. And, yes, uplifting too” (May 13). The ‘new politics’ will be collaborative rather than combative; politicians will put aside their ‘tribalism’ in favour of the ‘national interest’.
Not everyone is as doe-eyed as the sycophantic Guardian, of course - and there are ample sources of scepticism as regards this brave new dawn of British politics. For a start, it is difficult to shake the feeling of déjà vu. Cameron has been at this game before - when he was elected party leader, he loudly announced that the days of fruitless hostility in Commons debates were over. This charm offensive, needless to say, was short-lived - and soon the barbs were flying again. What is politically paralysing in one situation is useful in another, of course; and it is not difficult to see why this particular bit of Cameron rhetoric has been exhumed just when the Tories have entered a coalition with the Lib Dems. It is no more stable this time, since Cameron’s politics feed ultimately off the biliously reactionary Tory press, not a milieu given to taking prisoners.
As for the Liberal Democrats, this kind of bridge-building rhetoric is all but orthodoxy. Charles Kennedy was only one of many Lib Dem leaders to admonish politicians thus: “Stop the ‘yah-boo’ and when you agree with an opponent, say so”. Once again, it makes an awful lot of sense for an organisation whose entire electoral strategy involves poaching floating voters away from both Labour and the Tories - it has no interest in seeming to outflank either of the other parties. Equally, however, it has to preserve its distinctive political brand; it schizophrenically alternates between often radical-sounding (and, at the local level, normally utterly unscrupulous) attacks on the bigger parties in opposition on the one hand, and total pliancy in coalition government on the other. Overall, then, the ‘new politics’ is only likely to be good for one parliamentary term - especially given the fact that no Labour faction has an interest in playing nicely with the government.
The bigger question is whether this kind of cross-party consensus is actually as civilised as it is claimed. One would perhaps naively have thought that, however morally upright it is to cooperate, the key matter was what politicians were cooperating on. The Clegg-Cameron ‘consensus’ is not a pretty sight - brutal attacks on the public sector and working class at large, combined with ‘political reform’ that further entrenches the grip of the main parties. Even if, however, they were committed to the best programme in the world, there would be a minor issue - it is fundamentally anti-democratic.
The separate existence of political parties implies that they have something different to say - it is in this disguise that they go to the electorate. Now they have the ‘mandate’ they need, the Tories and Lib Dems get on with doing whatever the hell they want (or, more accurately, whatever the bourgeoisie wants). The ‘new politics’ does not mean that political differences are being put aside so much that they have outlived their usefulness. The jocular, matey style of that press conference in fact underlines this - when Cameron and Clegg laughed off the former’s description of the latter as his “favourite joke”, they basically laughed off their own election campaigns.
It should not be denied, of course, that the cut and thrust of political debate in the Commons is pretty meagre these days, as the political differences between the major parties have shrivelled. ‘Prime minister’s questions’ has long degenerated into gloating and counter-gloating over administrative blunders. To the casual observer, it looks and sounds like nothing more than a room full of antagonistic hooray Henries engaged in cheap point-scoring. There are, it is true, important contradictions played out, in part, in this parliamentary process - the battles between different sectional interests of capital, and the persistent chafing of those interests with those of the labour bureaucracy. These are not struggles than can be played out openly, however, and so they surface as idiotic semi-debates.
Talk of ‘new politics’, then, does at least reflect a dissatisfaction with the redundant squabbles at the despatch box. People genuinely are sick of this jostling for position, and there is a desire for more meaningful engagement with political ideas. Last year’s expenses scandal painted a vivid picture of a parliament which, behind allegedly principled disputes, was united in pursuing petty corruption, and therefore showed the differences between the parties in a very unflattering perspective.
However, if real political differences were visible in the legislature, its debates would be a lot less banal, but also a lot more hostile. The problem with pointless hostility is not that it is hostile, but that it is pointless. ‘New politics’ is not even a pseudo-solution to this problem - it is simply the continuation of phoney war by other means, this time with the underlying solidarity of the political class in abstraction from its supposed allegiances being sold as a plus point. It is not completely convincing.
In fact, behind a lot of this jargon there are the common aspirations of the masses, or at least their common frustration with the lumbering machinery of everyday life. The ‘big society’, with its veneration of the voluntary sector and ‘private’ organisations engaged in philanthropic work, stakes its appeal on the common hatred of petty state bureaucrats, and the aspiration to achieve some kind of control over one’s own existence.
That is a fine and noble urge - but, as with the ‘new politics’, Cameron and the Tories do not have a hope in hell of fulfilling it, nor any particular will to do so. To the extent that this programme pans out at all - and, like any other state initiative, it will be a little expensive for the current situation - it will reveal only that a charity or a church can have bureaucracies as unresponsive and soulless as the state’s; meanwhile, a whole new layer of state bureaucrats will be necessary to make sure it actually works out - as well as substantial subsidies to private organisations in order to induce them to deliver basically unprofitable social welfare provisions.
These obstacles are not creatures of Cameron’s mendacity, but capitalism’s long-term decline, which renders it increasingly unable to carry out the basic tasks of its own reproduction without the heavy-handed intervention of the bureaucratic state. Control over our destiny can only be consciously exercised collectively; democracy, meanwhile, is impossible in the absence of a clear conflict of political lines, inside and outside parliament. The ‘new politics’ is the old bullshit repackaged - we must fight for genuine democracy in all spheres of life.