Our leaders must abandon the cult of speed

Meaningful change takes time to get right. We need a strategy of slow politics.

It is, of course, reshuffle week. To be honest, I don’t care much about who is up and who is down. Not only is this government heading in the wrong direction on almost every count, it's even stopped being interesting. Compassionate conservatism, as a strain of one nation conservatism, could at best have been something to engage with, at worse something vaguely watchable.  But that moment has gone. What is interesting is the spectacle of the reshuffle and what it says about the culture of modern politics.

The point of a reshuffle is to publicly demonstrate the quickening pace of government, to promote the new and the fast and punish to the old and the slow. Yes, the government now dresses slightly further to the right, but the reshuffle says more about the aura of delivery than it does about ideology. In fairness, David Cameron has held out longer than his predecessors – fending off demands to change the pack right through to mid-term. The impatient ultra-modernisers of New Labour could never manage to sit still for so long. For them, it was the fast and furious politics of an endless, restless, twitching fidget.  

The average tenure of a New Labour minister was 1.3 years. It's one of those remarkable facts that reminds me of the 1980s Paul Hardcastle hit "19", which highlighted the average age at which US troops died in Vietnam. How can anyone possibly achieve anything in the complex world of politics in 1.3 years? Remember, that’s an average.  Many posts were held for less and having Gordon Brown in the Chancellor's job for 10 years must have skewed the figures. There have been eight transport secretaries in 10 years, a turnover now mirrored in the civil service as three departments have had three different permanent secretaries in the last two years. Surely only football managers are scalped faster?

Of course, everything in politics is speeding up as everything in life speeds up. Short-termism defines the economy. In 1966, institutions held shares in FTSE 100 firms for an average of eight years, today the average is less than one. Our culture is dominated by fast food, always on communications, omnipresent media and the ever-quickening pace of the consumer treadmill as obsoleteness becomes not just technically built in but psychologically embedded. Besides, China never sleeps and never slows down. We either run faster or we lose.   

Politics has found it impossible to avoid the same fast fate. As politicians give up managing the economy in the interests of society, or saving the planet – they have to justify their existence by meddling in ever more areas of our life, at a faster and faster pace. A dangerous bout of displacement activity sees political leaders justify their existence any way they can – other than dealing with the causes of the problems we face. So within the tight time cycles of our first-past-the-post electoral system they go for the quick fix; the big IT project, another piece of legislation or another round of re-organization to fill the 24/7 media channels, look busy and impress the people. Speed begets speed, as the knowledge of your almost certain shift in one to two years means acting fast now or facing the chop. And worry not, as you’ll be in another post long before anyone notices how many novice mistakes you made.

Today, the abiding philosophy is that change can only be imposed quickly from above. It’s a mish mash of Soviet-style centralisation and target imposition alongside the heroic CEO of the free market as the drivers of change. What neither model can do is trust the people to change things for themselves by themselves. It is raw elitism over pluralism, the politics of the blueprint over politics as a shared journey, it refuses to allow people to learn best by learning from their mistakes as power is used over rather than with the people. It’s the short-term over the long.

What we need instead of the cult of speed is a slow politics, which seeks fundamental and deeply embedded change. Such a slow politics is based on the recognition that meaningful, sustainable and popular change takes time to get right, that a consensus needs to be negotiated to build popular agreement on the way forward and that decisions need to be shared if people are to feel ownership of change, work for it and pay for it. It is the politics of the tortoise, not the hare.

Raymond Williams, the brilliant Welsh cultural theorist and socialist, understood all this better than most. His book The Long Revolution was written because Williams saw the sheer complexity of any kind of socialistic change towards self-government, rather than the easy paternalistic forms of nationalisation.  Which all reinforces one of the golden rules of the left, namely that democracy may take more time than the target or the market – but it comes up with better solutions.  And more than anything else it is the planet that needs us and our politicians to slow down.

The lesson of history, whether Bolshevik or Blairite, is that you cannot short cut history. If you try, then disaster looms. It's not just reforms that take time but truly hegemonic transformational change is a slow process too. It took ten years for the welfare state to emerge from the 1930s crash. The new right gestated for three decades before it took power.  My favourite example is the Swedish social democrats, who took power in the 1930s and steadily, surely, and slowly built a rather good society that didn’t reach its peak until over half a century later. 

We need a different theory of change, one that matches principle with patience, the purpose of which is to head in the right direction and find as many fellow travellers as possible to share the journey with. A switch to proportional representation would help, then a long-term progressive consensus could be secured. Ironically, the perpetual failure of one-party-fast-politics is delivering just such hung parliaments. Meanwhile, this week's reshuffle will change almost nothing. 

More film references to end with. Politics is not akin to Keanu Reeves on a bus that will explode if it slows down, it is more akin to Walkabout and a process of self-discovery through tough terrain with others.  And then there is the brilliant line in the otherwise rather average film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: "It will all be okay in the end, and if it's not okay it's not the end". With that I leave you for this week – sorry, I’ve got to rush.

Neal Lawson's column appears every Thursday on The Staggers.

Short-termism defines the economy and politics. Photograph: Getty Images.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones. 

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To beat the Trump hype, we need a return to old-fashioned political virtues

If we want to resist the Trumpification of politics, what we need is restraint, duty and incorruptibility.

After the 1992 US presidential election, Alistair Cooke’s celebrated BBC radio series Letter from America struck a poignant note. Cooke described Bill Clinton’s worn jeans and checked wool shirt, contrasting them with George H W Bush’s buttoned-up Wasp manners and buttoned-down Ivy League shirts. Clinton’s style, Cooke argued, was a rebuke to a tired social and political establishment. His casualness was the new America.

Cooke, then 83, was honest enough to admit unease about this departure from the old, patrician modes and manners. “Along with the passing of George Bush,” he said, “we shall see, I fear, the passing of the blue blazer.” Cooke seemed right at the time. But don’t write off the blue blazer just yet. As ruling elites change, so does the appropriate counterpoint. To topple Bush’s stuffy golf club elites, Clinton picked up his saxophone, took off his tie and felt everyone’s pain. And now? The subtext of these turbulent months (the inevitable second question, prompted by “How do you beat Donald Trump?”) is: “What should ­tomorrow’s leaders, the leaders we crave, look and sound like?”

My conjecture is that, to beat Trump and his type – bling, shiny suits, dodgy deals – we should push towards centre stage an underestimated set of political virtues: restraint, duty and incorruptibility. If it weren’t for the gender associations, I would be tempted to call this quality gentlemanliness. Aside from personal virtue – signally lacking in the Clinton camp – how might decency inform public debate as it comes under attack from maverick showmen trained in the media circus? How can the middle ground regain its confidence?

First, level with the public. Maybe liberalism hasn’t failed so much as its messaging has failed. Instead of smashing the electorate over the head with the idea that everything is just great, make the case that not everything can be for the best in all possible worlds. As populists reach for empty slogans, a new space has opened up. Accept and exploit those asymmetries: more people are ready to hear uncomfortable truths than politicians imagine.

Kingsley Amis once argued that a writer’s voice should stay close to his speaking voice: not the same, but close. Adapting that idea, if politicians stayed closer in public debate to the truths that they articulate in casual conversation – some things are impossible; almost every policy creates a losing as well as a winning side; there really isn’t any money – they would be surprised how many people are ready to hear that not all problems can be evaporated into thin air. Stray too far from awkward truths and elections become about simple lies v tricksy lies.

Second, centrists do more harm than good when they rush to categorise dissenting opinion as not only wrong, but unacceptable. “Any suggestion that liberal values are not humanly universal,” as John Gray wrote in a recent NS essay, “will provoke spasms of righteous indignation.” Instead, we need to be more tolerant in our tolerance.

Third, stop pretending that everything desirable can be shoehorned into the “progressive” agenda. “I really care passionately about persevering with the common-sense middle ground and doing it quite well” is a problematic political sales pitch, but not for the reasons that are usually given. The gravest difficulty may come at the beginning, with the faux passion, rather than with the substance – public service and competence – underneath.

It is revealing that those closest to David Cameron expended so much energy trying to persuade us that he was not an updated version of Harold Macmillan. That is why the gay marriage reforms, though admirable, were accorded too much significance. Ah, Cameron was a natural crusader! But he paid a price for dressing up as a “radical” when greater challenges arrived. It weakened some of his strongest cards – calmness, perspective, proportion – just as politics was coarsening. Aren’t Tories supposed to understand the virtues of yesterday? In other words, as an electoral strategy to beat Trump (or Nigel Farage), I’d put up a Macmillan type over a Clinton type every time.

Fourth, cut ties with “messaging experts”. It’s a fraud. They teach that everything must be asserted with powerful conviction. Yet ideas unworthy of powerful conviction are best left shorn of them. The electorate has endured a communications version of crying wolf. As a result of the messaging game, when something genuinely important crops up, it sounds simply like the same old shtick.

Fifth, ditch the bogus quantification. Few things signal untrustworthiness more reliably than fake precision. Something shifted in me when George Osborne argued that Brexit would leave households £4,300 worse off. What, no decimal point? Voters understand uncertainty better than politicians imagine. Precise quantification used to sound professional. Now it sounds suspicious.

Finally, think about tone. Conventional wisdom holds that the mainstream must fight the Trumpian revolution on its own terms: a simple solution, memorably expressed, a guiding vision for the country or the world. If anyone has a good one to hand, I’m all for it. But what if – after decades of ­sophisticated argument and counterargument, as politics has solved the easy problems while parking the difficult or insoluble ones – we have reached a state of such evolved equilibrium that no such easy answer can exist?

Pretending otherwise is no longer a point of difference. It takes you towards the lowest common denominator. As Trump has shown, that is well-occupied territory. Perhaps wooing the angry mob is not the solution. Instead, the admirable and successful politician of the future will have to win back the support of moderate, sensible but disillusioned voters. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage