Taking sides: the dividing lines of British politics

All parties love the easy, polarising rhetoric of “us” against “them” – but how distinct are their ideas? In a new weekly series, Rafael Behr finds out.

There is a reliable way to tell if David Cameron is rattled. When the Prime Minister is on shaky ground, he hurls the charge of being “left-wing” at Ed Miliband as if it were the foulest thing he could say within the bounds of parliamentary protocol. The “Red Ed” label has never been a plausible line of attack but it is a comforting fiction for senior Conservatives who deride the Labour leader’s agenda as a slide into unelectable socialism.

There is a matching obtuseness on the other side. Miliband accuses Cameron of Thatcherism and of “returning to the 1980s”, forgetting that this is not an insult in Tory circles. The idea that Cameron is picking up the ideological crusade where the last Conservative government left off is central to Labour’s image of the political landscape. Partly it is true, just as there is truth to the Tory view that Miliband hankers after more orthodox social-democratic politics.

The distinction between left and right in Britain looks starker now than at any time in the past 20 years. The polarisation inevitably follows the collapse of the economic consensus of the NewLabour years. Tony Blair embraced Britain’s role as a hub for ultra-liberal, globalised capitalism, which viewed intervention by the state in economic activity as reactionary in principle and ineffective in practice. Market forces and private business were deemed the likeliest mechanisms to improve public services. Labour’s historic impulse to direct social change had to be managed by quiet redistribution around the margins. The Blair and Brown administrations intervened all over the place but lacked the will in Blair’s case and the confidence in Gordon Brown’s to assert the government’s moral right to meddle. In opposition, the Tories argued against government policy but no Conservative leader substantially challenged the intellectual basis of the Blair-Brown model or offered a coherent alternative.

It is in the nature of a political consensus that those who are part of it define themselves as pragmatists and paint the dissenters as fanatics. Thus the New Labour position came to be defined as the “centre ground”, with its critics occupying the fringe. The financial crisis has disrupted that geometry. The clear bankruptcy of the existing way of doing things created a demand for more distinctly ideological prescriptions. By the 2010 general election, the left was sick of tagging along with Blairish compromise; the right was brimming with radical intent pent up from 13 years in opposition.

Both sides felt vindicated. The left focused on the role of banks and global markets in the crisis and saw a definitive refutation of rampant market capitalism. The right focused on the Budget deficit and national debt and saw in them proof that Britain had been ruined by the unchecked expansion of government. Everyone thought that the political pendulum was swinging back in their direction.

Within that intellectual rivalry, there is a cruder impulse to settle old scores. Trade union leaders depict the Chancellor’s austerity budgets as a cynical attack on the public sector with the strategic goal of dismantling the welfare state. Meanwhile, some ministers see resistance to the coalition’s reforms as a return to left-wing militancy and proof that the unions are enemies of progress. The muted echo of battle cries from the early 1980s rings around Westminster.

The Debt Collector by Ralph Steadman

The myth that politics can still be defined by competition between two mutually exclusive tribes, one red and one blue, suits Labour and the Tories. They want to cling to a parliamentary duopoly that, judging by voting patterns in the real world, has been in decline since the 1950s. Before 2010, it was the Liberal Democrats who were best placed to scoop up votes from those looking to register a protest with a “none-of-the-above” candidate. Nick Clegg forfeited that position when he went into coalition with the Tories – deliberately so, because he wanted the Lib Dems to graduate in the public’s imagination to the status of a serious party of government.

Clegg still hopes to carve out a niche for his party as the broker of compromise between what he presents as an unrepentant Labour Party and heartless Tories. Yet it is not obvious how his plan translates into distinctive policies. He is trapped as the salesman for technocratic machination at a time when the Westminster machine is mistrusted as the plaything of a self-serving elite.

The vacancy for a candidate who stands for rejection of the conventional parties is being filled by Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party, whose opinion-poll ratings routinely rival those of the Lib Dems. Though Ukip’s ultra-conservative, populist ideas overlap with the views of more reviled farright organisations, the party is elevated to respectability by the implicit endorsement of a few Conservative MPs who wish Cameron would strike more Faragist poses.

Policymaking in the coalition is caught in a three-way haggle. The Lib Dems try to assert their identity by foiling Tory radicalism; backbench Conservative MPs view Cameron’s accommodations with Clegg as proof that his conservative impulses are inadequate and the Prime Minister, lacking a recognisable creed, seems driven mostly by tactical improvisations – witness the current contortions over a referendum on membership of the EU – and the patrician self-belief of a man groomed for power by high birth and an expensive education.

Cameron once defined his governing purpose as creating the “big society”. When the inadequacy of that idea for wooing sceptical voters (including Tories) became clear, he changed tack. He now says his premiership is about readying Britain for the “global race”, a rubric just as vague but more amenable to the deregulating, pro-commerce sentiment that animates his party. There is no sign yet that it resonates with the public.

The Labour Party is not much further advanced. Miliband does not have anything resembling an agenda for government. His allies contend that this is a natural state of affairs for the opposition a mere two years after a crushing defeat and a full two years away from polling day. Instead, Miliband has a theme – one nation. It is an offer to reweave the social fabric that, in the Labour analysis, is being unpicked by the government’s Budget savagery. It is also supposed to be the answer to the question of what comes after New Labour if it is not, as the Tories imagine, a drift back to Old Labour. What that means in manifesto terms is unclear.

Miliband’s dilemma is that his core vote is galvanised by attacking austerity, while a realistic appraisal of what he might achieve as prime minister requires admitting that a Labour government would also inflict Budget pain. An honest account of how state largesse would be rationed risks igniting the civil war in Labour that many predicted would be a necessary feature of its time in opposition. Party opinion is divided as to whether Mili - band’s avoidance of internecine strife reflects strategic nous or deferral of mature choices.

Politics, therefore, looks ill-equipped to respond to a crisis that is much more profound than a mere imbalance in the public finances. Many of the problems were in gestation long before the financial bubble burst in 2007- 2008. Wages for most workers have been stagnant since 2003, raising the cost of living in real terms for most households. An ageing population promises a relentless increase in the burden on the NHS and social care services. It is questionable whether British schools are equipping young people with the skills that will guarantee them work in a globalised labour market. There is a huge housing shortage. Rising inequality, stalled social mobility and resentment of mass migration are increasing a sense of dislocation and eroding our sense of communal purpose, making it hard for any party to assemble a coalition of voters capable of delivering a parliamentary majority, let alone a confident mandate for change.

The good news is that, behind the childish frenzy of daily political combat, there are people in all parties striving to come to terms with these challenges. Sometimes they work within predetermined ideological parameters; sometimes they follow the evidence regardless of where that may lead. There are think tanks and non-governmental organisations looking at policy solutions beyond the myopic perspective of the electoral cycle. There are MPs who listen.

Over coming weeks, I will look at some of the problems facing Britain and try to decode what the different sides might have to offer by the next election. Sometimes the divergence is stark; often there is more agreement than anyone likes to admit.

Westminster is obsessed with the delineation of dividing lines – the tactical approach to an issue that seeks to define it in crude, binary terms, with the enemy caricatured as holding a view inimical to mainstream opinion. “They” destroy public services; “we” invest. “They” want to spend your money on feckless scroungers; “we” reward hard-working strivers. It is the very substance of modern politics, and the rhetorical dishonesty, that make politics dangerously insubstantial. It makes Westminster look like a game between teams that differ only in the colour of the strip they wear. The evidence from rising levels of voter abstention and defection to fringe parties suggests it does not make a great spectator sport, still less invite participation.

The most corrosive force in democracy is the assumption that none of the mainstream candidates deserves endorsement because “they are all the same”. In the weeks to come, we will consider whether that lament is justified in Britain today. Given the scale of the challenge, we must hope it is not.

A detail from "The Debt Collector" by Ralph Steadman. (Full size below)

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

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After Chavez

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The TV stars MPs would love to be

Labour MPs dream of being Jed Bartlet.

In my latest book, A State of Play, I looked at the changing ways in which Britain’s representative democracy has been fictionalized since the later Victorian period. With the support of the University of Nottingham, we decided to turn the tables and ask MPs about their favourite fictional political characters. The results are intriguing.

All MPs were contacted, but with only 49 responding – that’s a 7.5 per cent return rate – I can’t claim the results are fully representative. At 22 per cent, women figured slightly less than they actually do in the Commons. But the big difference is in party terms: 71 per cent of respondents were Labour MPs – double their share in the Commons – while just 20 per cent were Conservatives, less than half their proportion in the Lower House. Maybe Conservative MPs are busier and have better things to do than answer surveys? Or perhaps they just don’t take political fiction – and possibly culture more generally - as seriously as those on the Opposition benches.

What is not subject to speculation, however, is that Labour MPs have very different tastes to their Conservatives rivals, suggesting they are more optimistic about what politics might achieve. At 22 per cent, the most favourite character chosen by MPs overall was Jed Bartlet, heroic US President in Aaron Sorkin’s romantic TV series The West Wing. Of those MPs who nominated Bartlett, every one was Labour. Of course Barlet is a Democrat and the series - dismissed by critics as The Left Wing – looked favourably on progressive causes. But it seems Labour MPs regard Bartlet as an archetype for more than his politics. As one put it, he is, "the ideal leader: smart, principled and pragmatic" For some, Bartlet stands in stark contrast with their current leader. One respondent wistfully characterised the fictional President as having, "Integrity, learning, wit, electability... If only...".

As MPs mentioned other characters from The West Wing, the series accounted for 29 per cent of all choices. Its nearest rival was the deeply cynical House of Cards, originally a novel written by Conservative peer Michael Dobbs and subsequently adapted for TV in the UK and US. Taken together, Britain’s Francis Urquhart and America’s Frank Underwood account for 18 per cent of choices, and are cross-party favourites. One Labour MP dryly claimed Urquhart – who murders his way to Number 10 due to his obsession with the possession of power - "mirrors most closely my experience of politics".

Unsurprisingly, MPs nominated few women characters - politics remains a largely male world, as does political fiction. Only 14 per cent named a female character, the most popular being Birgitte Nyborg from Denmark’s TV series Borgen. Like The West Wing, the show presents politics as a place of possibility. Not all of those nominating Nyborg were female, although one female MP who did appeared to directly identify with the character, saying: "She rides a bike, has a dysfunctional life and isn't afraid of the bastards."

Perhaps the survey’s greatest surprise was which characters and series turned out to be unpopular. Jim Hacker of Yes Minister only just made it into the Top Five, despite one Conservative MP claiming the series gives a "realistic assessment of how politics really works". Harry Perkins, who led a left-wing Labour government in A Very British Coup received just one nomination – and not from an MP who might be described as a Corbynite. Only two MPs suggested characters from Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which in the past claimed the likes of Harold MacMillan, Douglas Hurd and John Major as fans. And only one character from The Thick of It was nominated - Nicola Murray the struggling minister. 

The results suggest that MPs turn to political fiction for different reasons. Some claimed they liked their characters for – as one said of House of Cards's Frank Underwood – "the entertainment value". But others clearly identified with their favourites. There is clearly a preference for characters in series like The West Wing and Borgen, where politicians are depicted as ordinary people doing a hard job in trying circumstances. This suggests they are largely out of step with the more cynical presentations of politics now served up to the British public.

Top 5 political characters

Jed Bartlett - 22 per cent

Frank Underwood - 12 per cent

Francis Urquhart - 6 per cent

Jim Hacker - 6 per cent

Birgitte Nyborg - 6 per cent

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Follow him @polprofsteve.