Too much of Britain has changed unrecognizably
By Swapan Dasgupta
Of all the politicians thrown up by the New Labour dispensation in Britain, few can match Lord Mandelson’s reputation for cleverness. Blessed with an impeccable political pedigree (he is the grandson of Herbert Morrison, a cabinet colleague of Clement Atlee and the first head of the London County Council), natural erudition and a mastery of committee politics, Mandelson has often been regarded as the brain behind the reinvention of the Labour Party by Tony Blair in the mid-1990s. Despite two resignations from the cabinet for dodgy personal conduct, the former member of parliament for Hartlepool has been such an adroit political manager that neither Blair nor his dour successor could afford to keep him away from the cabinet room for long. This time, as Labour faces its most difficult election since 1983, Lord Mandelson is back as the party’s principal strategist, fielding hostile questions from the media and putting his spin on the campaign.
Yet, so awesome is Mandelson’s reputation for cleverness that not even the noble act of waging a rearguard battle for Labour is free from speculation over his hidden agenda. It is whispered, in the rarefied circle of hacks with expense accounts, that ‘Mandy’ knows that Gordon Brown is a lost cause and that he is in the game to manage the post-defeat wave of recriminations: ensure a relatively hassle-free leadership transition from Brown to either one of the two baby-faced Miliband brothers, sons of the redoubtable Ralph Miliband of the London School of Economics and Socialist Register fame, or to someone less cerebral but more charismatic.
Curiously, the belief that Mandelson is in the game to ensure another orderly management of decline isn’t shared by his opponents. The perception of Mandelson as a reincarnation of John le Carré’s Karla is so strong that even the possibility of a hung parliament is being attributed to him. The spin doctor, it is said, couldn’t ensure a Labour victory, but at least he will prevent an outright Conservative victory by boosting the prospects of Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democratic Party.
Here’s what the London mayor, Boris Johnson, had to say about Mandelson’s ‘devilish’ plot to induce Britons to vote for another election: “I have it on good authority…, that the puffing of Clegg — all that ostentatious ‘I agree with Nick’ stuff from Gordon Brown in the first debate — was entirely deliberate. In agreeing to the debates, Labour thought it had spotted what the Tory high command had missed: that if you put Clegg and (David) Cameron simultaneously before the nation, and the electorate saw two vaguely similar products — telegenic 43-year-old public schoolboys with an air of deep reasonableness — then all at once the Tories would lose their Unique Selling Point.” Even the diabolical Karla couldn’t have done it better.
If British elections have truly been reduced to an elaborate chess game involving Grandmaster Mandelson and two spirited amateurs, it would have signalled a remarkable counter-revolution. If the voters are indeed so gullible and so easily prone to clever manipulation, politics would have become a simple extension of advertising, leaving no role for ideas, policies and social organization.
The remarkable Liberal Democratic surge — some pollsters suggest, particularly after the prime minister’s ‘bigoted woman’ gaffe, that Labour could slip to third place in vote share — may be unappetizing to the Conservatives, and the resulting political impasse may leave Britain more vulnerable to an impending economic crisis of Greek and Icelandic proportions. But the reason for Clegg’s rise in popularity has little to do with the fact that he mirrors Cameron, as Johnson has suggested. A more persuasive clue to the rise of the third party may be located in the social changes that have scarred Britain.
In the past, British voting behaviour was governed by social certitudes: the working class, immigrants and public sector employees voted Labour, the middle classes and the countryside were Conservative bastions and Liberals picked up seats in the Celtic fringe and on the strength of individual candidates. The outcome of an election was settled on the votes of some five per cent floating voters. Occasionally there were major shifts: Margaret Thatcher picked up a large chunk of working-class votes and Tony Blair’s New Labour ate into the Tory share of the middle-class vote.
The most remarkable feature of the 2010 election is the erosion of the core strength of both Labour and Conservative. The cloth-cap socialism of Labour centred on the manufacturing centres has become an anachronism, but so has the robust patriotism and culture of deference that defined the Conservatism of Winston Churchill and Harold Macmillan. The epicentre of New Labour wasn’t the East End of London; it was better reflected in the partly gentrified Islington and Ealing. Likewise, Cameron consciously took the heart of the Conservative Party out of the ’Shires and tried to transplant it into London’s gentrified Notting Hill. It’s not that Cameron necessarily believed that this shift was desirable. Like many Conservatives frustrated at being in opposition since 1997, the shift was electorally expedient.
Unfortunately, both parties cannot afford to abandon their old constituencies entirely. Brown can talk about his ‘middle-class values’, a departure from the language of the Red Flag, but he cannot jettison the party’s faith in high taxes to pay for an expensive, expansive and unaffordable public sector.
Cameron, on his part, has forced constituency parties to select more women, blacks and individuals with ‘alternative’ sexual proclivities. He has shied away from addressing the widespread concern over unchecked immigration and he has tried his utmost to reassure voters that the Tories aren’t pathologically hostile to the elaborate social sector. In particular, he has tried to remove the stigma of the Conservatives as a ‘nasty’ party. In a bid to underplay accusations of personifying privilege, he has frequently appeared without a tie, tried to live down his membership of the Bullingdon Club in Oxford, and made the silly decision to send his children to state schools.
Sadly, these gestures have often been seen as too contrived by an emerging class that is more European than British in its social outlook. In the second television debate, an earnest member of the audience actually asked the leaders what they had ‘personally’ contributed to lowering carbon emission. It resulted in Brown having to say that he is using trains rather than taking flights; and it compelled Cameron to proclaim the virtues of some solar panelling in his Notting Hill house. I can’t recall what Clegg waffled but the question was precisely the type of concern that defines the Liberal Democrats — irreverently described as the ‘yellow peril’ on account of their party colour.
The Liberal Democrats are the proverbial ‘nice’ guys who believe in community action, recycled garbage, unilateral nuclear disarmament, human rights, amnesty for illegal immigrants and the euro. Not too many people know what they stand for but they like Clegg for his polished preachiness. In the past, those who felt both the main parties were useless either stayed at home or experimented with the loony far-Right or even the Green Party. Today, the growing ranks of the exasperated who neither like the incumbent nor care much for the decisive belt-tightening that will invariably accompany Tory rule, have an appealing alternative: the unsullied piousness of Clegg.
If the Liberal Democratic bubble doesn’t burst before May 6 and Britain is landed with political uncertainty, it will be a reflection of the fact that too much of Britain has changed unrecognizably, and not necessarily for the better. It is beyond even Mandelson to manage this awkward reality.