Even Abraham Lincoln saw red

Andrew Rawnsley's book has reduced what should be a debate about great issues into a gossip column.

If the published extracts are any guide, far too much fuss is being made about Andrew Rawnsley's book The End of the Party. Rawnsley himself - in an explanation that was difficult to distinguish from an apology - has tried to elevate its importance by asserting that the public has "a right to be acquainted" with what he claims are Gordon Brown's tantrums. That is exactly how tabloid newspapers justify exposing the irregular love lives of professional footballers. If Rawnsley was motivated by a sense of duty, it was to his bank balance and his ego, not to the nation.

But the book has one, no doubt unintentional significance. It illustrates the state to which politics in general, and political commentary in particular, has descended. Policies have become less important than personalities. Image has taken the place of ideas. Rawnsley is a paradigm figure from the age in which parliamentary reporting has been replaced by "sketch-writing" - an attempt to amuse rather than to inform. The End of the Party debases politics not because it diminishes the Prime Minister, but because it reduces what should be a debate about great issues into a gossip column.

All-flash Gordon

It is a full decade since I knew Brown well, and I have no idea whether or not, during the intervening years, he developed the bad habit of shouting at secretaries. If he did, it is a matter for regret, but not a reason to declare a national emergency. Abraham Lincoln was so prone to bouts of uncontrollable anger that some of his staff feared that he was dying of mercury poisoning. He won the civil war, emancipated the slaves and saved the Union.

There is no correlation between equitable temperament and statesmanship. Nor is the ability to run the country related to any of the other superficial virtues that are now regarded as essential to political success. That claim is not made in defence of the Prime Minister. It is a declaration of support for a higher view of politics than the fashionable notion that what matters in a party leader is a winning smile, the ability to counterfeit interest in pop music and a willingness to weep in public. Judged against those criteria, neither William Gladstone nor Clement Attlee would have risen above the rank of parliamentary secretary.

The two greatest prime ministers in our history would have been disasters on talk shows. Their manner was hardly "voter-friendly" - they saw no reason for it to be. They assumed that they would be judged by their policies and their performance, not by their personalities. They practised the politics of ideals and ideas.

The British public could still be roused by the call to support great causes today. But that would require the parties to offer a clear choice between rival ideologies. And the pursuit of the elusive middle ground has blunted the sharp edge of controversy. The result is low turnouts in elections and MPs held in ever lower esteem. The refusal to say "here I stand - I can do no other" has done more to damage to the reputation of politics and politicians than all the fraudulent and risible House of Commons expenses added together. Yet newspapers attribute the crisis of confidence in parliament to duck houses and bell-tower repairs, not the supine endorsement of the Iraq invasion.

Each Wednesday at noon, parliament puts on a display of how debased politics has become. It is laughingly called "Prime Minister's Questions". It was once used to press the government to reveal or justify its policies. Now it begins with the leader of the opposition mouthing carefully prepared insults about the Prime Minister's character and continues with backbenchers reading out party-political slogans written for them by the whips.

It may be naive to believe that, in the age of reality television, politics should still provide something more noble than the parliamentary equivalent of mud-wrestling. But unless politicians return to the conflict of ideas, democracy itself will be devalued, and the Andrew Rawnsleys of this world will make their money by suggesting that elections should be decided by which party leader the voters would most like to see evicted from a Westminster edition of I'm a Celebrity . . . Get Me Out of Here!.

Higher ground

Politicians themselves must take most of the blame for reducing politics from a conflict of ideas to a clash of skin-deep personalities. The parliamentary press corps, however, have accepted this debasement with the enthusiasm of men and women who find lobby journalism preferable to working. Retailing tittle-tattle about what one secretary of state said to another is far easier than mastering the intricacies of the Laffer curve and deciding whether or not higher marginal taxation rates increase or diminish revenue. Editors will argue that it is also more popular with the British public. That is because the Gresham's law of news coverage has made voters see politics as a talent show. During the next three months, the Labour Party must plant its electoral flag on higher ground.

Let us hope that the government has recognised at last the loss of identity that lies at the root of Labour's recent unpopularity. That is, in part, the result of putting opinion polls above principles. But it is also the consequence of the years when the superficialities of personality and presentation were thought to be enough to secure a parliamentary majority. Those days are over. Gordon Brown's conversation with Piers Morgan, surprisingly successful though that was, does not point the way to victory. A return to the politics of ideas does. That is also the foundation on which to build a new respect for politics and politicians. And - inconvenient though it may be for Rawnsley - it is necessary for the successful future of democracy.

Roy Hattersley was deputy leader of the Labour Party from 1983-92

This article first appeared in the 01 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The Dave Ultimatum

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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.