Lobbyists in the spin crowd, the folly of “the third umpire” and opting out of the royal birth

Peter Wilby's "First Thoughts" column.

The case of Lynton Crosby, an Australian who has been appointed the Tories’ chief election strategist, suggests that public relations (or spin doctoring), private-sector lobbying and government policymaking have merged into a seamless whole. Crosby’s company has advised private health-care providers, hustling to get their hands on the NHS, and tobacco manufacturers, desperate to see off plain cigarette packaging. This allegedly creates conflicts of interest.
 
David Cameron claims that Crosby “does not advise on government policy”. If so, he is an odd sort of strategist. PRs are no longer just technical assistants who, once policy is agreed by ministers, explain how to present it. They help to create the policy and sometimes have the decisive voice. George W Bush’s spin doctor Karl Rove became the White House deputy chief of staff, with specific responsibility for policy development. Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s spin doctor, was described by many (unofficially) as “the real deputy prime minister”. But neither carried Crosby’s baggage. Though Rove briefly advised the tobacco company Philip Morris, he gave up the role precisely because he envisaged conflicts of interest. Campbell, for all his faults, was a passionate socialist who acquired the cynicism necessary for spin doctoring from a career in journalism.
 
Policy and presentation have become two sides of the same coin, so that planning “election strategy” inevitably entails forming policy. Private-sector lobbying, however, remains the most important influence. By employing Crosby, Cameron has brought it further into the heart of government.
 

The son and heir

 
Kate Windsor – like her husband’s late mother, Diana, and his grandmother Elizabeth – managed to produce a live, male heir at the first time of asking, even though this child was not required to be in possession of a Y chromosome. Think of how much Henry VIII’s first two wives, Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, suffered for their difficulties in achieving that goal. In the premodern era, the birth of a healthy royal male in direct line of succession promised peace and stability. These were regarded as God’s most precious and elusive favours, making the birth a true cause for celebration.
 
Now, thanks to scientific and medical advances – but not, I think, the grandfather Charles’s homoeopathic remedies –birth and the child’s survival beyond infancy are almost routine. The anxious wait and subsequent celebrations are public rituals like Christmas and Bonfire Night. Nobody spares a thought for our ancestors, just as nobody thinks that, on Bonfire Night, they are burning a member of a persecuted minority driven to terrorism.
 

Push the button

 
As soon as the young Mrs Windsor went into labour, the Guardian website kindly allowed me to screen out its “live coverage” of her progress. But why was I required to “opt out” (using a not-very-prominent button labelled “Republican?”) rather than, as Cameron proposes for internet pornography, “opt in”? And why do the Guardian’s masterminds think anyone who wants regular updates on royalty would visit their website instead of, say, the Mail’s or the Telegraph’s?
 

Unfair play

 
Players and coaches in all sports make an enormous fuss about marginal decisions: whether or not a football crossed the goal line, a rugby ball was grounded behind the try line or a bat touched a cricket ball before it was caught. If the umpire or referee gets it wrong, they imply, a cosmic injustice is done. Sports governing bodies hope to settle matters by using technology as a court of appeal.
 
However, technology – and the interpretation of it – turns out to be as fallible as a human being. Several times during the current England-Australia Ashes series, the “third umpire” was accused of getting a decision wrong even after he had examined slowmotion replays, listened to audio feeds and scrutinised a device called the “Hot Spot”.
 
The cry “We wuz robbed!” is integral to sport and always will be. Cricket should abandon its pompously named “Decision Review System” – which involves tedious delays, compared by one sports writer to a mobile phone ringing repeatedly during Hamlet’s closing soliloquy – and get on with the game. Injustice cannot be eliminated. A batsman who narrowly fails to hit the ball, rather than edging it for a catch, didn’t skilfully contrive to miss it. He was beaten by the bowler. If he misses completely, he is less competent than the batsman who manages a thin contact. In that sense, an incorrect “not out” decision carries more justice than the correct one.
 

Only connect

 
My Apple iMac computer (of a 2005 vintage) recently gave up the ghost – it was “obsolete”, the repair people ruled. So I bought a new one. It came with a battery-powered wireless keyboard.
 
Can anyone explain how this is an improvement? The computer continually tells me the batteries are running out, though they clearly are not, and the keyboard connection is lost if I hit the keys hard, as I am apt to do when writing about Tories.
 
When the batteries do run low, I shall have the trouble and expense of buying new ones. I am reminded of Hutber’s law, named after the late Patrick Hutber, an economics journalist: “Improvement means deterioration.” 
The arrival of the future ruler, as imagined by Legoland. Photograph: Getty Images.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

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

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How the mantra of centrism gave populism its big break

A Labour insider reflects on the forces behind the march of populism. 

For just under a quarter of a century, British politics has been dominated by what might be called, paradoxically, a “theology of centrism” - the belief that most people were more concerned with what works than ideology, and that politics should principally be the art of improving the delivery of public goods. It was a theology that, for all their policy differences, united Tony Blair and David Cameron. Anyone who thought electoral success could be won anywhere but from the centre was either naïve or fanatical, or both... but definitely wrong.

Now, populism is on the march across the West. In Britain, as elsewhere, the political class is unnerved and baffled.

So what happened? Partly, as with all revolutions in politics, the answer is: “events”. Unsuccessful wars, economic crashes and political scandals all played their part. But that isn’t enough of an explanation. In fact, the rise of populist politics has also been a direct result of the era of centrism. Here is what has taken place:

1. A hollow left and right

First, the theology of centrism was the culmination of a decades-long hollowing out of mainstream politics on the left and right.

In the mid-20th century, Conservatism was a rich tapestry of values – tradition, localism, social conservatism, paternalism and fiscal modesty, to name but a few. By 1979, this tapestry had been replaced by a single overriding principle - faith in free-market liberalism. One of Margaret Thatcher's great achievements was to turn a fundamentalist faith in free markets into the hallmark of moderate centrism for the next generation of leaders.

It is a similar story on the left. In the mid-20th century, the left was committed to the transformation of workplace relations, the collectivisation of economic power, strong civic life in communities, internationalism, and protection of family life. By the turn of the 21st century, the left’s offer had narrowed significantly – accepting economic liberalism and using the proceeds of growth to support public investment and redistribution. It was an approach committed to managing the existing economy, not transforming the structure of it or of society.

And it was an approach that relied on good economic times to work. So when those good times disappeared after the financial crash, the centrism of both parties was left high and dry. The political economic model of New Labour disappeared in the first days of October 2008. And when a return to Tory austerity merely compounded the problem of stagnant living standards, public faith in the economic liberalism of the centre-ground was mortally wounded.

2. Fatalism about globalisation

Second, Labour and Tory politics-as-usual contained a fatalism about globalisation. The right, obsessed with economic liberalism, welcomed globalisation readily. The left under Bill Clinton in the US and Blair in the UK made their parties’ peace with it. But globalisation was not a force to be managed or mitigated. It was to be accepted wholesale. In fact, in his 2005 Conference speech, PM Tony Blair chastised those who even wanted to discuss it. “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation," he said. “You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer. They're not debating it in China and India.” (I bet they were, and still are.) The signal to voters was that it was not legitimate to fret about the pace and consequences of change. No wonder, when the fretting began, people turned away from these same politicians.

3. A narrowing policy gap

Third, the modernising projects of Blair and Cameron ended up producing a politics that was, to use Peter Mair’s term, “cartelised”. The backgrounds, worldviews and character of party elites began to converge significantly. Both parties’ leaderships accepted the same external conditions under which British politics operated – globalisation, economic liberalism, sceptical acceptance of the EU, enthusiasm for closeness to the US on security issues. The policy space between both main parties narrowed like never before. As a result, economic and class divisions in the country were less and less reflected in political divisions in Westminster.

The impression arose, with good reason, of an intellectual, cultural and financial affinity between politicians across the main divide, and between the political class and big business. This affinity in turn gave rise to a perception of “groupthink” across the elite, on issues from expenses to Europe, and one that came with a tin ear to the concerns of struggling families. It may be misleading it is to depict all politicians as snug and smug members of a remote Establishment. Nevertheless, social and economic convergence inside Westminster party politics gave populists an opportunity to present themselves as the antidote not just to Labour or the Tories, but to conventional politics as a whole.

4. New political divides

Lastly, the populist moment was created by the way in which new electoral cleavages opened up, but were ignored by the main political parties. The last decade has seen a global financial crash that has restored economic insecurity to frontline politics. But at the same time, we are witnessing a terminal decline of normal party politics based fundamentally on the division between a centre-left and centre-right offering competing economic policies. 

Of course economics and class still matter to voting. But a new cleavage has emerged that rivals and threatens to eclipse it - globalism vs nationalism. Globalists are economically liberal, positive about trade, culturally cosmopolitan, socially progressive, with a benign view of globalisation and faith in international law and cooperation. Nationalists are hostile to both social and economic liberalism, want more regulation and protection, are sceptical of trade, see immigration as an economic and cultural threat, and have little time for the liberal international order.

The factors that drive this new electoral divide are not just about voters’ economic situation. Age, geography and education levels matter – a lot. Initially both main parties were tectonically slow to respond to this new world. But populism – whether Ukip, the SNP or Theresa May's Tories – has thrived on the erosion of the traditional class divide, and sown seeds of panic into the Labour party as it faces the prospect of sections of its traditional core vote peeling away.

Centrists thought their politics was moderate, pragmatic, not ideological. But signing up to free market liberalism, globalisation and an economistic view of politics turned out to be seen as a curious kind of fundamentalism, one which was derailed by the 2008 crisis. The exhaustion of the theology of centrism did not create populism – but it did allow it a chance to appeal and succeed.

Those on the left and right watching the march of populism with trepidation need to understand this if they are to respond to it successfully. The answer to the rise of populist politics is not to mimic it, but to challenge it with a politics that wears its values proudly, and develops a vision of Britain’s future (not just its economy) on the foundation of those values. Populists need to be challenged for having the wrong values, as well as for having anger instead of solutions.

But calling for a return to centrism simply won’t work. It plays precisely to what has become an unfair but embedded caricature of New Labour and Notting Hill conservatism – power-hungry, valueless, a professional political class. It suggests a faith in moderate managerialism at a time when that has been rejected by events and the public. And it tells voters to reconcile themselves to globalisation, when they want politicians to wrestle a better deal out of it.

Stewart Wood, Lord Wood of Anfield, was a special adviser to No. 10 Downing Street from 2007 to 2010 and an adviser to former Labour leader Ed Miliband.