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2 January 2011updated 09 Feb 2015 4:03pm

Laurie Penny on Simon Hughes and the cartel of British politics

The illusion of choice.

By Laurie Penny

It’s January and the sales are on but austerity isn’t selling as well as the coalition had hoped — so a new, conciliatory marketing drive has been launched to win fickle customers back to neo-Thatcherism.

As David Cameron, head of PR for UK PLC, released a decidedly defensive new year’s press statement assuring consumers that the coming cuts to public services are “not ideological”, it was announced that the deputy Liberal Democrat leader Simon Hughes MP is to be the new face of privatised higher education, in much the same way that Natalie Portman is the new face of Dior.

Hughes, who abstained from the vote on the higher education bill and spoke out against measures to triple university fees and slash teaching and research funding, has now been recruited literally to sell these same measures to the betrayed young people of Britain.

“The problem with the system is the perception rather than the reality,” said Hughes, whose new role as “advocate for access to higher education” will see him trying to persuade poorer teenagers that lifelong debt is no reason not to go to university and join the bargain-bucket scramble for the educational opportunities that their mothers, fathers and political representatives enjoyed for free.

Hughes will be taking his higher education roadshow to deprived schools and under-funded sixth-form colleges over the next six months, a glorified door-to-door salesperson for unpopular Tory policies, an Avon Lady for Thatcherite university reform. The dogged, defeated hypocrisy of this former rebel Lib Dem’s decision to accept the appointment is far from the most compelling thing about this story.

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The truly fascinating aspect of this brazen attempt to win over wavering liberals is what it reveals about the way in which the new right understands its role in office. This is not just government run in the interests of business — this is government run as a business. This is a government perceiving its proper purpose as the sale and promotion of privately run services and small-state moral evangelism to the consumers it once called citizens.

The Conservative Party seems quite seriously to believe that there is nothing untoward about deciding on a policy, keeping it quiet until after election day, forcing it through the Commons in the face of overwhelming public opposition and then recruiting friendly faces to sell it back to the nation in a shiny yellow package. Right-wing ideology has become a simple sales drive and all that is solid, as Mark Fisher observed in Capitalist Realism, melts into PR.

During a recent radio debate, I found myself arguing about NHS privatisation with the Cabinet Office minister Oliver Letwin, who simply could not understand why I would not want my health-care providers to consider me “a valued customer”. When I responded that I did not want to be treated as a customer but rather as a citizen who deserves the best possible chance at health, he seemed genuinely confused. Unfortunately, treating citizens like customers doesn’t always mean that they are more valued — companies, after all, are not ultimately answerable to their customers, especially when those customers happen to have no money.

Telling voters that the only problem with a government decision is our “perception” of it, rather than the fact that it might be dangerous, reactionary bullshit, is an intricately patronising political long-game. By setting political “perception” as the province of the people against political “reality” as the province of those in power, this government has made it quite clear what it thinks of the hoary old notion of parliamentary mandate. If you’re unhappy with the products and services provided by UK PLC, then one of our helpful advisers will be able to assist you in changing your mind.

When governments are run like companies, democratic choice is subsumed within consumer choice, which is increasingly no choice at all. Instead of real democracy, we now enjoy a limited selection of extremely similar neoliberal schemata sold by two or, at most, three companies. Instead of ideology, we now have “aspiration” and “lifestyle choices”. If we shop elsewhere for social justice, we are informed that browsing for politics outside of the big established brands will deliver an inferior product and quite possibly social meltdown. There is a word for this sort of monopoly. The word is cartel.

British politics has become a brutal cartel, offering only the illusion of choice, branding and rebranding itself to reflect rather than represent public feeling. The government is running scared, however, and the decision to change its core message to a defensive one, a message of damage control, offers hope — not empty aspiration but real hope.

It offers the hope that, one day soon, we might be able to take this shoddy coalition back to the dodgy counter where it was sold to us under false pretences.


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