Marxism hits the small screen
One journalist who is genuinely grappling with the system from within is Peter Oborne, political editor of the right-wing Spectator.
His new book The Rise of Political Lying, published in time for the election campaign, is rather narrow and breathless in its approach, “The presence of a group of shameless, habitual liars at the centre of British power is an amazing state of affairs, without precedent in modern British history”, he writes (p. 244). But he was not talking about the British press. So it was with some trepidation that I watched his special one-hour Dispatches on Channel 4 this evening with its desperate title, Election Unspun: Why Politicians can’t tell the truth.
It was not the film of the book. TV executives hate concepts which are the gateway to thought. But Oborne’s programme deserved to be called ‘Democracy in Danger’.
The election looks, sounds and smells like democracy in action, Oborne argued, but it isn’t. There are no profound arguments and no ideas at stake. The parties are doing everything to narrow the differences. Their policies have been generated from focus group research into computer generated samples of opinion in the tiny numbers of swing voters in the marginals that will decide the outcome, thanks to the United Kingdom’s exceptionally unfair election system.
Professional machines sever political parties from their membership and belief systems. Policies are product lines, voters are sized up by the latest marketing methods, resulting in policies of “stupefying banality” in which even the most radical, the Liberal Democrats have declared that they are for “tough liberalism”!
The cost of the health service will have to rise as the population ages but no party will say so. All are against global warming but none will argue for abolishing the tax breaks that are making cheap air travel the greatest source of the UK’s global warming gasses. And so on.
What I liked about Oborne’s presentation was that all the parties were subjected to his scorn and contempt. This meant the onus was really on the Tories, who, as the main opposition party, should have been the ones exposing and opposing - rather than miming and imitating the government by importing the latest in American computerology.
Oborne brought to life in vivid vox pop the thesis developed by Colin Leys in his study Market Driven Politics, published by the good old Marxist imprint Verso Books back in 2001. Leys quotes Peter Mandelson, who was Labour’s campaign director in the 1997 election that brought it to power. He was speaking to the Institute of Directors a year later:
“It had been the job of New Labour’s architects to translate their understanding of the customer into offerings he or she was willing to pay for. And then, and only then, to convey to potential customers the attributes of that offering through all the different components that make up a successful brand – product positioning, packaging, advertising and communications” (p.68)
Leys comments dryly, “Absent from this model is the idea that a party represents ideals, or even interests, on the basis of which voters may be appealed to and against which policies will be judged.”
Now Oborne has put the consequences on film.
But in doing so, he too seemed to become a victim of the process he attacks. The heart of his criticism is that the politicians won’t even be honest about the obvious consequences of their own proclaimed values. ‘Where are the great ideas!’ Oborne cries. Where are his ideas? Why does not Peter Oborne follow the clear the logic of his own denunciation?
Politics in Britain is indeed the prisoner of swing voters (who, a fascinating section of his report discloses, are likely to be those voters who are heavily in debt and have recently moved house). Their philistine preoccupations and fears dictate the pledges of the country's leaders.
But this would not be the case if the electoral system was proportional, as in all modern democracies. Oborne should state this. He complained at the way British politics has become the prisoner of grey interests because the young don’t vote. Very well, make voting compulsory.
But could he speak the conclusions of his own concerns and keep his job at The Spectator?
When Oborne finally cornered the Prime Minister on the effects of aircraft pollution and the future of the planet, Blair shamelessly responded that the circle can be squared and ecological sustainability is not in contradiction with economic growth. Pressed, Blair added that it was not politically realitistic to make flying more expensive. Oborne despaired at this failure of honest leadership. So Tony knows that his vote depends on those who only find living in Britain bearable because they can fly out cheaply? At least he did not lie! Instead, he will not put his job at risk. Is Peter made of firmer metal?
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