Last year my former colleague Sophie McBain (now resident in Cairo, and much missed) published a mischievous item in our Observations columns about Labour’s so-called Red Princes, the well-connected sons of former Labour MPs who wished to stand or were seeking to stand for parliament. Shortly afterwards I met one of them at a party and he was not pleased. “You should put your pistols away until after the election,” he urged indignantly. Not the best advice to offer a journalist, one would have thought. This got me thinking about what kind of media our politicians want. Labour MPs are eager to complain about the rabidly partisan election coverage of the right-wing press while being all too willing to sulk and curse if they do not receive the requisite support from those they consider to be on their own side. But what is preferable surely to simple-minded cheerleading – as if a political party were a football team – is scepticism and a willingness to satirise those who seek to be our elected representatives.
In a recent speech Michael Gove urged his fellow Conservatives to demonstrate that they were “warriors for the dispossessed”. Gove is the adopted son of an Aberdonian fishmonger and he understands as well as any politician how education can act as an engine of social mobility and transform lives. In a speech delivered at Brighton College in 2012 he said:
“More than almost any [other] developed nation, ours is a country in which your parentage dictates your progress. In England, more than in any comparable country, those who are born poor are more likely to stay poor and those who inherit privilege are more likely to pass on privilege. For those of us who believe in social justice this stratification and segregation are morally indefensible.”
I know many of my friends in education dislike Mr Gove but if more Conservatives spoke as he does – or indeed, as does Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow and advocate of “white van conservatism” – the party would not be so widely loathed.
However, as things stand, the Tories remain too easily caricatured as the party of the rich – or, to put it another way, as the political wing of the City of London. As Peter Mandelson said, “It is not what they do but who they are. They’re like members of some elite private club.”
This perception has hardened into received wisdom. It’s one of the reasons why the Conservatives have struggled so desperately to win an absolute majority. Indeed, they have not won a majority since 1992, when more than 14 million people voted for the party under John Major (compared to 10.7 million for David Cameron in 2010).
For all his struggles to control a fractious party and his humiliating final defeat to Tony Blair in 1997, Major was liked by the public because he spoke plain good sense and did not seem aloof from their interests. During this campaign he gave a speech in which he reminded voters of his inspiring personal story: the son of a trapeze artist from Brixton who never went to university but who rose to occupy the highest office in the land. The Conservatives, he said, offered a “hand up when my family had nothing”. But he joined the party of Macmillan, not today’s weird coalition of ideological Eurosceptics and Randians. As one Tory grandee, a hereditary peer, put it to me: “What kind of party have we become if Chris Grayling is Lord Chancellor?”
One does not need to be a working-class hero such as John Major to capture the nation’s imagination, of course. But the Prime Minister’s apparent languor and insouciance conspire against him. “He [Cameron] worked his way up from the inside, floor by floor,” his friend and fellow MP Nicholas Boles has said. Cameron has little of the originality of Margaret Thatcher, who had a compelling story to tell the electorate about where she’d come from and, even if you disapproved of them, what values had sustained her on her journey from the grocer’s shop in Grantham. You were never in any doubt about what she believed in or wanted. But the Prime Minister too often sends mixed messages, claiming that “we are the party of working people”, while hosting black-and-white balls for the super-rich.
In their different ways, Cameron and Ed Miliband are both ultimate party insiders: representatives of different tribes, yes – one a member of the Etonian governing class, the other a Hampstead socialist – but both the product of privileged networks, family contacts and covert associations. Because of this neither can break free from the pack, taking the people with them on the way to winning a resounding mandate. As a consequence, at the end of this uninspiring campaign, we face one hell of a muddle.
A few days ago I did something very strange, at least for me. I joined Twitter, under pressure from the NS team and some seven years later than most journalists I know. Before this, as befits one who relishes anonymity and lives quietly in what J G Ballard called the “television suburbs” (though perhaps not as quietly and unfashionably as my old friend Peter Wilby), I had no social media presence and had never used Facebook (something I’m determined never to do). My arrival was welcomed by a few friends of the NS. “Twitter is a terrible place, you’ll love it,” said Laurie Penny. “The waters are warm and not too sharky,” tweeted Andrew Marr, who has also only just joined the micoblogging site. “Ha! Will wonders never cease? You finally caved,” said Mehdi Hasan. I’ll try to keep it up. You can follow me @JasonCowleyNS.