Politicians aren’t your friends

I listened to Ed Miliband's speech to the Labour party conference while at stool the other day. This was purely serendipitous: a function of the dispensation of my digestion, the location of the lavatory and my wife's bizarre interest in such things (conference speeches, that is, not my digestion). Not to gross you out or anything, but had I not been so engaged, I doubt I would have managed to concentrate for more than a few seconds - for whatever else Miliband Jr may be, he's a worthy successor to Tony Blair, that air-guitarist of political rhetoric.

I kept hearing the "new generation" trope come floating up the staircase and I managed to gather that what the heir to Keir Hardie was saying was that he and whoever joined him would be in the vanguard of this new generation - a bizarre flying picket of progressivism, seizing the centre ground
of British politics.

Good luck to them, I say, for capturing this contested territory makes advancing across the no-man's-land of the Somme in 1916 look like a cakewalk. The sheer press of suited bodies! The murderous enfilades of blandness! If Babyface Ed manages to survive, he'll be the last man standing on a heap of corpses - the rest of the combatants having bored one another to death. Not, I hasten to add, that you could have guessed any of this, had you stood at the lectern in Manchester and looked out over the assembled delegates. True, not all of their faces were transfigured with joy but, by golly, they were rapt.

Generation Ed

How can one account for the madness of this particular crowd? In Swift's Laputa, persons of quality were attended at all times by "flappers", whose task it was to provide "external taction upon the organs of speech and hearing" using bladders tied to sticks. Unless the Laputans were so flailed, they were constantly in danger of slipping into reveries about cosmic matters. But delegates to the party conferences seem to manage to speak and listen with no such external aid.

It struck me, listening to the conference delegates "debating" on Newsnight, that at least one explanation for their ability to withstand the sort of Largactil verbiage dished out by Big Nurse Miliband, Dr Cameron and Clegg, the anaesthetist, is that the younger among them have known no other discourse than this bollocks about "service providers" and "stakeholders". And when it comes to the fatuities of "choice", these poor lambkins have had no choice. Such youngsters no longer know whether they believe in anything before being afforded the opportunity to ask a selected sample of people like themselves what they believe in. There are no politically engaged young people any more - just focus groups of one.

Going, going . . .

Which is why, I suppose, the party conferences are an even more attractive gig than ever before: hemmed in on all sides by the zombies of apathy, the ever-diminishing numbers of activists fight a rearguard action as they back towards the electric doors of this or that conference centre. If the condition of modern man and woman is to find oneself hopelessly atomised, then the only safety remains in the crowd.

The crowd in Manchester seemed to have spent a lot of the week looking at a stage set with a curious simulacrum of a television studio - or even a bourgeois living room. This, then, was the condition of democratic socialism: staring at a brightly lit L-plan of leatherette sofas, upon which were poised increasingly exiguous ministers - fading . . . fading . . . fading away into the long shadows of the political wilderness. Because, for many conference delegates, strangers to the factory floor, or the wakes week, or any other form of group endeavour, this was the closest they'd ever been to collectivism. And what a fine madness it was to look upon the Eds and Davids and Frodos (sorry, I meant "Andy Burnham") while imagining that, as they were so clearly sitting in a living room, you must be sitting there with them.

For that is the final and inescapable madness of the conference: that these people are your friends, your family, even. Ah, well. I suppose the Labour Party can at least comfort itself with this narcissism of small differences - that no matter how bored, bamboozled and benighted it may be, the Tories are always worse.

Now, back to the toilet.

Will Self's latest novel, "Walking to Hollywood", is published by Bloomsbury (£17.99)

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 11 October 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Melvyn Bragg guest edit

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The Tories' aim is to put Labour out of business for good

Rather than merely winning again, the Conservatives are seeking to inflict permanent damage on the opposition. 

The Conservatives are numerically weak but politically strong – that is the peculiarity of their position. Their majority is the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974. Yet, to MPs at the Tory conference in Manchester, it felt like “2001 in reverse”: the year of Tony Blair’s second election victory. Then, as now, the opposition responded to defeat by selecting a leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was immediately derided as unelectable. Just as Labour knew then that it would win in 2005, so the Conservatives believe that they have been gifted victory in 2020. David Cameron has predicted that the party’s vote share could rise from 37 per cent to a Thatcherite 43 per cent.

For Cameron and George Osborne, who entered parliament in 2001, this moment is revenge for New Labour’s electoral hegemony. They believe that by applying Blair’s lessons better than his internal successors, they can emulate his achievements. The former Labour prime minister once spoke of his party as “the political wing of the British people”. In Manchester, Cameron and Osborne displayed similarly imperial ambitions. They regard Jeremy Corbyn’s election as a chance to realign the political landscape permanently.

Seen from one perspective, the Tories underperformed on 7 May. They consistently led by roughly 20 points on the defining issues of the economy and leadership but defeated Labour by just 6.5 overall. It was their enduring reputation as the party of the plutocracy that produced this disparity. Those who voted for Labour in spite of their doubts about Ed Miliband and the party’s economic competence may not be similarly forgiving of Corbyn. To maximise their gains, however, the Tories need to minimise their weaknesses, rather than merely exploit Labour’s.

This process began at conference. At a dinner organised by the modernising group the Good Right, Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, affirmed their belief that, contrary to Thatcherite orthodoxy, inequality is a problem. Only the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, an admirer of the libertarian heroine Ayn Rand, insisted that equality of opportunity was the defining metric.

George Osborne’s assured speech was most notable for his sustained appeal to Labour voters. Several opposition MPs told me how unsettled they were by the Chancellor’s declaration that Labour’s new leadership calls “anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy and the country living within its means” a Tory. He added, “It’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right. Because we’re now the party of work, the only true party of labour.” The shadow minister Jonathan Reynolds told me: “We’ve got to be extremely clear that this is not business as usual. This is a real attempt by the Tories to put us out of business – possibly for ever.”

The Conservatives’ aim is to contaminate Labour to the point where, even if Jeremy Corbyn were deposed, the toxin would endure. For those opposition MPs who emphasise being a government-in-waiting, rather than a protest movement, the contrast between the high politics of the Tory conference and Corbyn’s rally appearance in Manchester was painfully sharp. They fear guilt by association with the demonstrators who spat at and abused journalists and Tory delegates. The declaration by a rally speaker, Terry Pullinger, the deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, that Corbyn’s election “almost makes you want to celebrate the fact that Labour lost” was regarded as confirmation that some on the left merely desire to run the party, not the country.

But few Tory MPs I spoke to greeted Corbyn’s victory with simple jubilation. “It’s a great shame, what’s happened to Labour,” one said. “We need a credible opposition.” In the absence of this, some fear the Conservatives’ self-destructive tendencies will reassert themselves. The forthcoming EU referendum and leadership contest are rich in cannibalistic potential. Tories spoke forebodingly of the inevitable schism between European Inners and Outers. As the Scottish experience demonstrated, referendums are almost never definitive. In the event of a close result, the party’s anti-EU wing will swiftly identify grounds for a second vote.

Several cabinet ministers, however, spoke of their confidence in Cameron’s ability to navigate the rapids of the referendum and his pre-announced departure. “More than ever, he’s the right man for these times,” one told me. By this December, Cameron will have led his party for ten years, a reign exceeded in recent history only by Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That the Conservatives have so far avoided cataclysm is an underappreciated achievement.

Yet there are landmines ahead. An increasing number of MPs fear that the planned cuts to tax credits could be a foul-up comparable to Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax rate. Despite the appeals of Boris Johnson and the Sun, Cameron and Osborne have signalled that there will be no backtracking. At such moments of reflection, the Tories console themselves with the belief that, although voters may use Corbyn as a receptacle for protest (as they did Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband), they will not elect him. They also acknowledge that the current Labour leader may not be their opponent in 2020. The former paratrooper Dan Jarvis is most often cited as the successor they fear. As with Cameron and Blair, his relative lack of ideological definition may prove to be a strength, one MP suggested.

William Hague is fond of joking that the Tories have only two modes: panic and complacency. If the danger before the general election was of the former, the danger now is of the latter. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.