Why the Lib Dems shouldn't enjoy Tory retoxification too much

Lib Dem ministers are in danger of looking like helpless passengers in a right-wing government.

Political strategists are obsessed with messages that "cut through". They mean the bits that somehow penetrate the consciousness of those people who don’t spend all their time thinking about politics, which is pretty much everyone.

Inconveniently, politicians are often surrounded by other politicians and journalists. They (we) are often as bad as each other at remembering an axiomatic truth about whatever it is they (we) have just said or written: most of the time, no-one cares.

So I do not mean to belittle the Liberal Democrats at their annual conference when I say that most of what passes as "news" – and what animates the chatter in the hotel bars of an evening – will skim off the surface of voters’ minds without leaving a mark.

I’d guess that two things have "cut through" in politics in the last week. First, that Nick Clegg is sorry. It might not be entirely clear what he is sorry for. We know he regrets making a pledge not to raise university tuition fees when he wasn’t remotely sure he could keep it. We know also that he stands by the policy on tuition fees currently in place. He is frustrated because the episode haunts his party, casting him as the emblematic face of broken promises and making it impossible to get any other messages heard. So, after much deliberation, Clegg decided to lob a contrition grenade – hardly a precise weapon, but sufficient, he hopes, to enable him to change the subject.

The Deputy Prime Minister’s aides insist his video apology is not meant to solve an image problem overnight (and plainly it hasn’t). The test of its effectiveness, they say, will only come towards the end of the parliament, when campaigning for a general election starts up. The hope is that, by then, it will seem tired and petty for Clegg’s rivals to attack him as the king of paltry pledges. He’s said he’s sorry – not a lot of politicians do that – what more do you want? It’s a pretty optimistic line, but probably fractionally better than the alternative, which was not apologising.

There are voters who will never forgive Clegg, whatever he says or does. They are lost to the party for the foreseeable future. As for the rest, given that one of the few things everyone knew about the Lib Dem leader is that he broke a promise, it is probably a small net positive that one of the other few things people now know is that he is also sorry. The details don’t matter so much. That’s cut through.

The second thing that has probably registered on most people’s political radars is that a senior Conservative member of the cabinet might or might not have called a police officer "a fucking pleb". Quite how toxic that is for the Cameron project hardly needs spelling out – it underlines the image of the Prime Minister as surrounded by a haughty, wealthy clique that is out of touch with the lives of ordinary people. Worse, it gives the impression that they despise public servants. Whether or not Andrew Mitchell actually said the words attributed to him – and he denies it – is hardly relevant. What counts is that it resonates as the sort of thing a millionaire, ex-banker Tory might be expected to say. Unfair, maybe. But that’s how cut through works.

The strong impression I get from speaking to senior Lib Dems here in Brighton is that they think Cameron ought to have jumped on the whole episode harder and faster. He should, they suggest, have seized it as an opportunity to trumpet his abhorrence at the attitudes attributed to his chief whip, declaring that there is no place for such language in a modern Conservative party. It is probably too late now. Whether Mitchell survives or not, the damage is done.

The Lib Dems aren’t too upset about that. It suits them to be seen as the reasonable, down-to-earth, humble face of the coalition as distinct from the moneyed arrogance of their partners. Predictably, Vince Cable exploited the opportunity to salt the Tory wound in precisely that way by proudly declaring himself to be a "pleb" in his conference speech. One senior Lib Dem, wearing a broad grin, yesterday described the whole Mitchell episode to me as  "dynamite!" A conference stall selling Lib Dem memorabilia sold out of badges announcing "I’m sorry" in the first days of the conference; "pleb" badges quickly replaced them as the must-have accessory.

But the relish with which Lib Dems are enjoying watching the Conservatives re-contaminate their brand does not sit entirely comfortably with the hope that Clegg’s apology will win the party a new audience.

In theory, it should be possible for the two episodes to cut through simultaneously in a way that helps the junior coalition partner. "Behold," the Lib Dems cry, "what we have to put up with! Yes, we made some mistakes, but aren't you glad we're here to rein these beastly Tories in. Imagine what they’d be like without us. The horror! We may not have won every battle - we handled that tuition fees thing all wrong - and yet we are winning some battles too." Then they hope their message of fairer taxes - making the wealthy carry more of the burden of austerity - will be heard and earn them some political credit.

But Tory toxicity is not specific to any policy. It is also contagious. It is a cultural apparatus that surrounds great tranches of the population, especially in the north and Scotland, as well as many younger voters and minority communities (as some glum Tories regretfully concede in private). It is a kind of political inoculation against putting a cross in a certain box come polling day. It is the force that stopped David Cameron from winning a majority. In that sense it is obvious that the Lib Dems should want to nurture the most vicious caricature of their governing allies – and hazardous.

There is ample evidence that the junior coalition party struggles to assert its identity in partnership with a much mightier political beast. Attempts at "differentiation" to overcome that problem have focused largely on policy. But individual policy rarely cuts through – especially when the question of credit and blame for good government in this parliament is largely dependent on the performance of the economy.

There is always the prospect that the Lib Dems are seen to be gathering up only crumbs of policy compensation in exchange for complicity in a largely Conservative project. And in that case, reveling in Tory toxicity is not risk-free.

While there is some disappointment in Brighton that Mitchell’s story has blown the conference out of the headlines, there are still a large number of people of in the party who see the  "pleb" episode as anything other than an open goal – and they’ll keep banging the ball in. It is hard to begrudge them that opportunity at their annual conference, since the occasion is all about celebrating the party’s distinctiveness and independence. But then the business of government must resume and the Tories will not have ignored the pleasure that was taken in their discomfort nor will they forget it. The task of managing coalition effectively, demonstrating that it can be a functional system of government, is as important a prize for the third party as differentiation from the Tories.

The lesson of the past two years is that, when the Conservative party feels wounded and insulted by the Lib Dems, it retaliates by demanding that Cameron ignore Clegg and crush his policy ambitions. The Prime Minister always acquiesces.

So the risk is that gleeful – and from the Tory point of view, gratuitous – punching of a bruised brand accelerates a process that ends up with the Lib Dems getting less out of coalition and looking more like helpless passengers. It is one thing for voters to know that Nick Clegg feels bad about handling one policy wrong. But if the two things they know are that he is sorry and that he doesn’t get his way, what cuts through is the sense that the Lib Dems are apologising for the basic fact of having propped up a Conservative government but not sorry enough to do anything about it.

Vince Cable joked that he was a "mere pleb" in his speech to the Liberal Democrat conference. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Just face it, being a parent will never be cool

Traditional parenting terms are being rejected in favour of trendier versions, but it doesn't change the grunt-like nature of the work.

My children call me various things. Mummy. Mum. Poo-Head. One thing they have never called me is mama. This is only to be expected, for I am not cool.

Last year Elisa Strauss reported on the rise of white, middle-class mothers in the US using the term “mama” as “an identity marker, a phrase of distinction, and a way to label the self and designate the group.” Mamas aren’t like mummies or mums (or indeed poo-heads). They’re hip. They’re modern. They’re out there “widen[ing] the horizons of ‘mother,’ without giving up on a mother identity altogether.” And now it’s the turn of the dads.

According to the Daily Beast, the hipster fathers of Brooklyn are asking their children to refer to them as papa. According to one of those interviewed, Justin Underwood, the word “dad” is simply too “bland and drab”:

“There’s no excitement to it, and I feel like the word papa nowadays has so many meanings. We live in an age when fathers are more in touch with their feminine sides and are all right with playing dress-up and putting on makeup with their daughters.”

Underwood describes “dad” as antiquated, whereas “papa” is an “open-minded, liberal term, like dad with a twist” (but evidently not a twist so far that one might consider putting on makeup with one’s sons).

Each to their own, I suppose. Personally I always associate the word “papa” with “Smurf” or “Lazarou.” It does not sound particularly hip to me. Similarly “mama” is a word I cannot hear without thinking of “Bohemian Rhapsody”, hence never without a follow-up “ooo-oo-oo-ooh!” Then again, as a mummy I probably have no idea what I am talking about. If other people think these words are trendy, no doubt they are.

Nonetheless, I am dubious about the potential of such words to transform parenting relationships and identities. In 1975’s Of Woman Born, Adrienne Rich describes how she used to look at her own mother and think “I too shall marry, have children – but not like her. I shall find a way of doing it all differently.” It is, I think, a common sentiment. Rejecting mummy or daddy as an identity, if not as an individual, can feel much the same as rejecting the politics that surrounds gender and parenting. The papas interviewed by The Daily Beast are self-styled feminists, whose hands-on parenting style they wish to differentiate from that of their own fathers. But does a change of title really do that? And even if it does, isn’t this a rather individualistic approach to social change?

There is a part of me that can’t help wondering whether the growing popularity of mama and papa amongst privileged social groups reflects a current preference for changing titles rather than social realities, especially as far as gendered labour is concerned. When I’m changing a nappy, it doesn’t matter at all whether I’m known as Mummy, Mama or God Almighty. I’m still up to my elbows in shit (yes, my baby son is that prolific).

The desire to be known as Papa or Mama lays bare the delusions of new parents. It doesn’t even matter if these titles are cool now. They won’t be soon enough because they’ll be associated with people who do parenting. Because like it or not, parenting is not an identity. It is not something you are, but a position you occupy and a job you do.

I once considered not being called mummy. My partner and I did, briefly, look at the “just get your children to call you by your actual name” approach. On paper it seemed to make sense. If to my sons I am Victoria rather than mummy, then surely they’ll see me as an individual, right? Ha. In practice it felt cold, as though I was trying to set some kind of arbitrary distance between us. And perhaps, as far as my sons are concerned, I shouldn’t be just another person. It is my fault they came into this vale of tears. I owe them, if not anyone else, some degree of non-personhood, a willingness to do things for them that I would not do for others. What I am to them – mummy, mum, mama, whatever one calls it – is not a thing that can be rebranded. It will never be cool because the grunt work of caring never is.

It is not that I do not think we need to change the way in which we parent, but this cannot be achieved by hipster trendsetting alone. Changing how we parent involves changing our most fundamental assumptions about what care work is and how we value the people who do it. And this is change that needs to include all people, even those who go by the old-fashioned titles of mum and dad.

Ultimately, any attempt to remarket parenting as a cool identity smacks of that desperate craving for reinvention that having children instils in a person. The moment you have children you have bumped yourself up the generational ladder. You are no longer the end of your family line. You are – god forbid – at risk of turning into your own parents, the ones who fuck you up, no matter what they do. But you, too, will fuck them up, regardless of whether you do it under the name of daddy, dad or papa. Accept it. Move on (also, you are mortal. Get over it).

Parenting will never be cool. Indeed, humanity will never be cool. We’re all going to get older, more decrepit, closer to death. This is true regardless of whether you do or don’t have kids – but if you do you will always have younger people on hand to remind you of this miserable fact.

Your children might, if you are lucky, grow to respect you, but as far as they are concerned you are the past.  No amount of rebranding is going to solve that. This doesn’t mean we can’t change the way we parent. But as with so much else where gender is concerned, it’s a matter for boring old deeds, not fashionable words.

 

 

 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.