Sunday, 8 September 2013

The mystery of the Tory party's continuing (relative) lack of unpopularity.

It is a truism (but no less true for that) that the mainstream UK political parties are now so indistinguishable ideologically that all that sets them apart is a certain flavour, mostly derived from historical associations, and the perception of their level of (in)competence. This phenomenon of ideological convergence has been blamed on a lack of political nerve and/or commitment to any sort of vision but it could as easily (and more charitably) be considered as an outcome of the workings of democracy in the modern age. Politicians (one could argue) have evolved from patrician leaders of the common herd to representatives of the broadly-held views of the populace they serve. Which may or may not be a bad thing- given that any Prime Minister is highly unlikely to share precisely my (or your) set of beliefs and principles, is it better that he or she drives through their own firmly held vision, even in the face of public disquiet, or that they shift and turn with every new opinion poll or focus group, catering to the lowest common denominator of public opinion? In other words, which is worse: a Thatcher or a Cameron?

However, interesting as that question is, it is not the central point of this entry. Let us take as a given the truism with which I started this post. Surely then, the current coalition government (and in particular the Tory party) should be at the very rock bottom of public opinion and Labour should be riding high, electorally speaking, faute de mieux, if for no other reason. Because if what sets political parties apart is a perception of their level of competence then surely, SURELY, public perception of the current government should be as low as it is possible to get. Or lower.

Forget for a moment any opinions on the morality, fairness or consistency of their policies and just look at the degree of competence with which they have been and are being delivered. And look away, because it is not an edifying sight. Pick any area of government you want really:

  • The economy? Well, there's the omnishambles budget; the recession that was deeper and longer and the recovery slower and weaker than any in history; the constant downward revisions of projected growth; the utter failure to meet targets for reducing the deficit. Shall I go on?
  • Education? Don't get me started about the fiascos around curriculum and exams. Over breakfast Gove chucks out a mad policy idea, saying it'll be implemented by Christmas and by teatime he has withdrawn it. No, look instead at the core responsibility of a Secretary of State for Education: ensuring adequate numbers of school places. No need to look at the reason (the wrongheaded, ideological commitment to untried, disruptive and wasteful Free Schools), the fact is that Gove has failed massively in this core area of competence.
  • Health? Again, forget any opinions on the ideological rightness or otherwise of the government's 'reforms' and look at competence. Even getting rid of the shambolically incompetent and out-of-touch Lansley hasn't improved that: after the disaster of the 111 implementation Jeremy Hunt now seems happy to announce that A and E departments will be unable to cope this winter.
  • Welfare? Ian Duncan Smith. Universal Credit. Need I say more?
  • Foreign policy (e.g. Syria)? How could anyone describe as anything but mind-bogglingly incompetent David Cameron's actions over the Syria vote? Having allegedly needled Obama for weeks to put his foot down over Syria, Cameron then decides to 'make a stand' over chemical weapons just as weapons inspectors are about to start their inspection. He recalls parliament with no clear explanation as to why suddenly everything has to be done in such a rush, and duly loses a key vote that makes the UK a laughing-stock, then proceeds to lecture other countries on the need for them to take action.
  • Even immigration for God's sake! The area over which the Tories have obsessed for decades and, one would imagine, the area they care most about getting right. Except that, despite implementing a number of policies and tactics in the face of opposition from big business, education institutions and civil rights campaigners, they seem to have had little effect on rates of immigration, and don't even seem to have a clear idea of what those rates are.
So there you go. Surely no government in the history of bad governments could have cocked up so thoroughly and so consistently in such a diverse range of areas. So why do the Tories not appear to be facing electoral humiliation on a scale undreamt of in modern times (the Lib-Dems probably are, but that's another story)? The only possible answer I can come up with is to do with the nature of anger.

Anger is a powerful and paradoxical emotion. It is inextricably linked with its (apparent) near-opposite emotion, fear. The two have almost identical physical manifestations, caused by adrenaline, which is commonly known (in recognition of this fact) as the fight-or-flight hormone. Perhaps even more that fear though, anger can overwhelm the person experiencing it, suspending normal judgment and morality with its 'rush of blood to the head.' In fiction this phenomenon has often been explored, most neatly and simply perhaps in the Incredible Hulk, but we will all have seen it in real life too. Interestingly even the suspension of normal judgment seems to have a physical manifestation: as a head teacher I could always tell when anger had overwhelmed a student because their eyes seemed to glaze over. It was as if their normal perception had been suspended. Even the way they tended to described it showed that- the commonest of course being the sense of having 'lost it.'

So what has this got to do with the fact that the popularity of the Tories does not seem to have nosedived despite their serial incompetence? Well, for their vote to collapse the public would have to place their trust elsewhere and that is where the problem arises. Lib-Dems? Don't be silly. UKIP? Come on, we're talking serious candidates for government here. So why not Labour?

Well, that's the point. You see it seems that the public are still angry with Labour, even after all these years. They are angry with Labour over Iraq, immigration and the economy it seems. Whether they (the general public) believe that the Tories would have been less warmongering (or less keen to impress the Yanks) over Iraq, less willing to bow to pressure from businesses to allow cheap labour to flood into the country, or more willing to rein in the casino banks and the unsustainable credit bubble that led to the economic crash is neither here nor there. It was Labour in power when all these things happened, so it is Labour we are angry with, it seems.

But that was all years ago, wasn't it? Isn't it time to forgive and forget? Yes, Ed Milliband looks like something from Aardman animations and Labour periodically tries to outdo even the Tories in illiberal and populist policies, but surely they can't be any worse that the shower we've got at the moment, can they?

Well you see, to imagine that that is how the general public is thinking at present would be to misunderstand one of the strange quirks of the way anger works. You see, a person's anger is always at its bitterest, most self-righteous and longest lasting when they know, deep down, that they are in the wrong. We have all seen it in people we know, I am sure. The more honest of us will have recognised it in ourselves. And we certainly know that, as Jane Austen put it, "Angry people are not always wise."

So how is this relevant to public attitudes towards the Labour party? Well it seems to me that almost everything the public is angriest with Labour has its roots in the opinions, attitudes and desires of that same public. Iraq? Yes, there were some who spoke out against the war at the time, but there were plenty others who harked back to the 'glory' of that other recent bloody adventure, the Falklands. And then watched the 'shock and awe' of the missile strikes on their brand new flatscreen TVs as if this was a level in Call of Duty they hadn't reached yet. The economy? So, how many of the general public fulminated against the cheap and readily-available credit, the stratospheric rises in the value of their houses and the general perception that the UK was leading the world in financial wizardry? Even immigration- people may have grumbled and bitched about all the 'foreigners' but how many complained about the economic boom fuelled by the rock-bottom wages and high skill levels of those same 'foreigners.' And how many refused to employ highly qualified, careful and polite Polish builders for half the cost (cash in hand) of their surly UK equivalents?

So, we reaped the benefit of Labour policies and enjoyed the good times while they lasted. And it's not just the Tories who wouldn't have done it any differently. The general public wouldn't have WANTED it any different. The Bank of England and Government are supposed to take away the punch bowl just as the party gets going, but can you imagine what would have happened if the Labour government had tried?

So really, when the general public turned in anger on Labour that anger was fuelled by the fact of their own culpbability in everything that Labour got wrong. And, as a I said, that is the sort of anger that is the hardest to let go of and that leads to the most irrational behaviour.

Like failing to turn on the Tories and blame them for their own incompetence, for instance.

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