Westminster’s short-sighted obsessions will not be what decides the next election

The Tories are starting to notice Labour’s higher levels of local organisation.

The day after winning the men’s singles title at Wimbledon, Andy Murray was the guest of honour at a hastily arranged reception on the Downing Street lawn. Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg were there alongside David Cameron and, at one point, the tennis star found himself in polite chatter with the three leaders. “It’s so nice to see you all getting along so well,” Murray observed drily. “Shame you can’t be like this all the time.” There was an awkward pause. The emotionless delivery made it impossible to tell if he was being deadpan or deadly earnest.
Something is wrong with our politics when party leaders behaving like civilised human beings is noteworthy and the suggestion they do it more often is potentially laughable. People who spend a lot of time in Westminster come to judge politicians on their own rarefied terms and forget what the rest of the country sees: robotic interviews, synthetic smiles and smug put-downs bellowed across the House of Commons. It is weird and unattractive. The theatrical combat is presumed to be phoney – politicians hamming up their differences when really they are all the same. The rebuke is partly fair, given the generous representation of white, fortysomething, Oxbridge-educated men on parliament’s front benches. The ranks of political journalism are no more diverse.
The party leaders are aware of how distant they are from the electorate. They have all tried doses of unfiltered public exposure as a remedy. The Conservative leader took his “Cameron Direct” show on the road long before the last election and occasionally revives the format. Labour’s local election campaign this spring involved Miliband addressing crowds from a box in market squares. Since January, Clegg has performed in a weekly radio phone-in show.
These devices are designed to allow candidates to get their message across unmediated by the press. They also allow aides to brief the media that the candidates are taking their message directly to the public. The leaders always think they have gone down well, because British audiences are mostly deferential to people they have seen on television. Vanity translates politeness as approval.
Parading social confidence and calling it the common touch does nothing to resolve the crisis in political representation. The historical party allegiances are fraying; membership is in long-term decline. To join a party is an eccentric act these days and, as some MPs privately concede, a rip-off. You buy the opportunity to surrender your time in the service of a remote machine. During elections, you get begging emails asking for more. The firmer you are in your ideals, the likelier it is that you will be rejected as naive and obtuse when your party forms a government.
Of the big three, Labour has the most developed strategy for dealing with this problem. Miliband has embraced the US model of “community organising” – training activists to mobilise neighbours and friends towards modest local goals such as getting derelict parks cleaned up and potholes filled. The idea is that when people see tangible results, they feel empowered and start thinking of politics as something they do, rather than something done to them. Miliband’s team doesn’t claim that this is a substitute for conventional campaigning but it is keen to advertise it as a symbol of the leader’s ambition to change the way politics works.
The Tories are starting to notice Labour’s higher levels of local organisation. In marginal seats, they say their opponents are ahead in surveying the battleground and mapping potential supporters with a view to getting them out on polling day. In a close election, having boots on the ground is vital. As one Labour strategist puts it: “They can outspend us but we will out-organise them.”
Meanwhile, Tories hoping to unseat Lib Dems have taken as a warning the Eastleigh by-election in February. Conditions could hardly have been worse for Clegg’s party. Its national opinion poll ratings barely touched double figures; the outgoing MP was heading for jail; Lord Rennard, the mastermind of past by-election victories, had been accused of sexual harassment. The Lib Dems were marching into a force-ten tabloid gale and still the seat was held.
That result was down to local intelligence and tenacious activism. Miliband knows the value of those resources because it was their depletion in Bradford West that allowed George Galloway to nick what should have been a safe Labour seat for the Respect Party. Many Tories worry that their own local reserves are ineffective or running away to Ukip.
That deficiency doesn’t register in Westminster because the Conservatives are dominant in the “air war” – the campaign to set the tone of national news coverage and thereby control the terms of political debate. Tory MPs are cheery: they see the economy slowly recovering and they see Labour pinned down as the party of mass immigration, lavish benefits and sucking up to Brussels. At least, that is what the newspapers they read tell them and they notice enough glum expressions on the faces of Labour MPs for it to ring true.
But the Conservative momentum has limits. It is ethnically and geographically confined. Labour and Lib Dem private polling tells them that outside the south-east, there is still no shortage of people who just don’t like Tories and won’t vote for them. That cultural inoculation isn’t new, so it doesn’t get reported much. It also goes against the grain of most political commentary, which assumes direct transmission from the tone of stories in London-based newspapers to national voting intentions. That is a risky assumption. A common theme in by-elections and council polls during this parliament has been that voters are angry with politicians and express their rage in unpredictable ways. The Westminster view is that the Tories are on a roll but Westminster is short-sighted. It may also no longer be where politics is won. 
David Cameron and Ed Miliband walk through the Members' Lobby to listen to the Queen's Speech at the State Opening of Parliament on May 8, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

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

This article first appeared in the 29 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue

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“Rhodes must fall,” chants the crowd. But bringing down an imperialist’s statue won’t change the past

“Rhodes is a metaphor for the fact that the university is not a fully inclusive space,” says Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh.

You’ve got to look quite hard to spot it: a statue four feet high, rather attractive and informal, way above street level, on the façade of Oriel College on the High Street in Oxford. The only way you would know that it was Cecil John Rhodes, apart from the Latin inscription beneath the figure, is that he is wearing a three-piece suit and holding his familiar slouch hat in his right hand. Around this manikin a row of surprising proportions has arisen.

It is a by-blow of the much greater and far more serious dispute in South Africa, in the course of which Rhodes’s statue at the university he helped found in Cape Town has been hustled out of sight after being smeared with paint and excrement and surrounded time and again by angry, chanting students. Now the slogan “Rhodes must fall” has been picked up in the quieter atmosphere of Oxford. Oriel, which Rhodes briefly attended, is the centre of the fuss because it commemorates him with the statue in question. All this has given rise to an air of nervousness among some elements of the university hierarchy. But is it justified?

In the street outside the college, as many as 300 people gathered in the intermittent rain one recent Friday to listen to speeches, be taught some of the old liberation chants from Southern Africa and watch a bit of toyi-toying – of the kind we used to see in the days of the anti-apartheid demonstrations. A second-year history student told the crowd, “There’s a violence to having to walk past the statue every day on the way to your lectures.” Although most of us need to have the statue pointed out to us, that was greeted by applause. People often rather like the idea that they’re the victims of violence when there are no other signs of it.

Rhodes was an extraordinary man: a country clergyman’s sickly fifth son from Bishop’s Stortford who by sheer drive became one of the richest people on Earth, the founder of De Beers, the prime minister of the Cape Colony and the carver-out of two territories that eventually became Zambia and Zimbabwe. He also created one of the most effective and beneficial educational exchanges in the modern world – the Rhodes scholarships – and all this before his death at the age of 48.

He wasn’t a nice man, even by the standards of the time. Outspokenly racist and imperialist, he could sometimes sound Hitlerian: “Just fancy those parts [of Africa] that are at present inhabited by the most despicable specimens of human beings – what an alteration there would be if they were brought under Anglo-Saxon influence!” One of his personal secretaries turned against him when he talked with apparent relish about slaughtering black people. Still, Rhodes was complex: almost certainly gay, a supporter of Irish home rule and a Liberal. Although he helped to provoke the Boer War, he was a friend to the Cape Afrikaners and supported their language and culture.

The leading figure behind the “Rhodes must fall” campaign in Oxford is Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh, a South African doctoral student of philosophy whose teachers regard him with affection and respect. There is nothing about him of the menace of some of the protesters in Cape Town, who have chanted “One settler, one bullet” and, it is alleged, “Kill the whites” at demonstrations.

Mpofu-Walsh’s father is the national chairman of Julius Malema’s fiery Economic Freedom Fighters in South Africa but Sizwe follows a more sophisticated brand of protest, better adapted to the atmosphere of Oxford. “Rhodes is a metaphor for the fact that the university is not a fully inclusive space,” he says. He maintains that the curriculum at Oxford concentrates on Europe and the US rather than on the wider world, though that may be news to all those Rhodes scholars from Africa who have studied at Oxford and returned home to enrich the medical, philosophical and political lives of their countries. But Mpofu-Walsh touches a genuinely sensitive point when he points out that the university accepted only 24 black British undergraduates last year. “We want Oxford to improve its representation of black voices.”

You might think that Nelson Mandela’s decision to allow his name to be associated with that of Rhodes in South Africa, in forming the Mandela Rhodes Foundation, would give some protection to the old white supremacist. Not so. One of the more melancholy things that have happened in South Africa in recent years has been that Mandela, by taking his stand for reconciliation, has increasingly been seen as an Uncle Tom by many black people there – and the link with Rhodes hasn’t helped.

The desire to cleanse history of its unattractive sides isn’t restricted to Southern Africa. But the past is the past; it can’t be changed. Charles Conn, Warden of Rhodes House, Oxford, who oversees the Rhodes scholarships, says: “We should interrogate history, of course, and learn its lessons. Nearly all historical figures held views at odds with our perspectives today. Rhodes, Jowett, Jefferson, even Gandhi, had beliefs that we find out of touch and even abhorrent. But we don’t serve the pursuit of knowledge if we agree to airbrush or bulldoze history.”

Will Rhodes’s statue in Oxford be taken down, like the one outside Cape Town University? Surely not, if only for the prosaic reason that the Oriel building it stands on is listed and it will take a lot more than the shouted slogans of a few hundred students to get rid of it. For many, attacking the symbols that some minority happens to dislike smacks a bit too much of Islamic State blasting away the incomparable reliefs of Nimrud. But the demonstrators have a point. Oxford University ought to try to be less white, less Eurocentric, less everything that Cecil Rhodes once wanted it to be.

John Simpson is the world affairs editor of BBC News

John Simpson is World Affairs Editor of BBC News, having worked for the corporation since the beginning of his career in 1970. He has reported from more than 120 countries, including 30 war zones, and interviewed many world leaders.

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror