When this administration began in May 1997, I interviewed the five youngest women MPs: Oona King, Yvette Cooper, Ruth Kelly, Claire Ward and Lorna Fitzsimons. I repeated the exercise six months later. In their first interviews they were enthusiastic and excited. "The Tories took politics far away from people's lives," as Yvette Cooper said. They talked of homelessness and poverty and why young women didn't care much about politics any more, and how everything was going to change.
But when I met them again, six months later, I was struck by how much their language had changed, how it had taken so little time for them to learn to speak like politicians. Their language - at least, the language that was for public consumption rather than off-the-record jokes - had mutated into the bland rhetoric of the professional New Labour politician. They spoke of "hard decisions" and "tough choices" to explain why nothing could really change in the corridors of power. Yvette Cooper, neat and dapper, told me shortly, "It's a question of priorities," when I tried to quiz her about the cut in lone-parent benefits. "I feel happy about the thrust of government policy," Ruth Kelly told me after we had sat through a meeting in which the social services department in her constituency had warned her of crippling cuts. Now, when I hear Yvette Cooper on the radio boasting about vast investment in the National Health Service, or Lorna Fitzsimons defending tuition fees, I don't hear the fire that sizzled in their voices in May 1997. I don't hear anything except the clonking cliches of the politician who has learnt never to diverge from the party line.
The way that politicians speak almost always communicates evasion to the public. Rory Bremner has made a career of little more than exaggerating the clipped, unnecessarily rhetorical sentences of Tony Blair, with the recurrent use of "you know" and the glottal stops that signal his desire to talk down to the public. When John Prescott speaks, his dysphasia seems to communicate a deep unease with the way that his policies keep doubling back on themselves. When a man has to stand up and defend the cars that once he pledged to sweep off the roads, is it surprising if his tongue will not always obey him? Successful politicians seem to slide easily from one lie or evasion to the next, with hardly a tremor. Shaun Woodward, just before his defection to Labour, said loud and clear: "I will continue to serve William Hague loyally from the back benches."
Given this culture of unconvincing and unfelt political speech, it was rather refreshing to hear Malcolm McLaren on the radio and to read his manifesto in the New Statesman last week, as he stepped into the race to be London's mayor. At least you knew that nobody else had scripted his sentences for him. "That was my mate coming round for breakfast," he told James Naughtie matter-of-factly after mooching off to answer the doorbell midway through a live interview on the Today programme. But Naughtie had the last word. "You say you're not going to be a politician," he told McLaren smartly at the end of the interview, "but you just said `at this moment in time'."
Yes, Malcolm McLaren putting himself forward as mayor of London is a joke: but it is a serious joke. When we read his manifesto we are reminded why we dislike politicians so much. "No politicians for mayor!" he says, and we know he is right. The knots that the political parties have tied themselves into while attempting to select a candidate for London have proved to people, over and over and over again in the last few months, that the answer doesn't lie with Westminster. The media are building up the selection of Ken or Frank or Steve into some glorious battle, but we know that whoever is selected will make no difference, since they will simply have to muzzle their own opinions in the service of the party manifesto.
McLaren is at least trying for a different kind of political speech, in which we don't necessarily already know what he is going to say. "The best ideas will come later, organically," he said last week, "when the people of this city have collaborated and decided what they want." Already, some of his ideas are out there. He argues that London is currently being taken over by a corporate culture that is bleeding the heart out of many of its most interesting places, and suggests a new rating structure so that Starbucks will have to pay more for their spaces than the local florist. He argues for cheap adult education, for electric trams, for no charges for museums and art galleries. All those arguments will resonate with people. Alongside his dreamy ideas of bars in libraries and brothels opposite the House of Commons, McLaren is trying to inject a new energy and vigour into the roundabout evasions of political language.
Can this attempt stick? Will it change anything? The main problem with it is McLaren himself. It would be good for London if the mayoral battle moved away from its current, stultifying obsession with Westminster. But why does the obsession with Westminster simply have to be replaced by the obsession with celebrity? McLaren is famous, so the newspapers will take notice of him. He has said that Damon Hill and Michael Caine want to join his campaign.
But is a new kind of politics going to come from these celebrities any more than it can come from Westminster? During the last year, I've talked to people at various protests in South-east England: house-building protests, GM-crop protests, protests against the Asylum Bill. There weren't any celebrities or politicians there, just a mixture of people who through their actions as well as their words were trying to find ways to bridge that gap between the disenfranchised and power.
If the struggle for a new mayor of London could build on some of that, then it would be a campaign worth watching. One organisation, the London Alliance, has been trying to harness the energies of community groups and activists in pushing for an independent mayor. The alliance has members in all areas of London; many women and younger voters, who are tired of mainstream political culture, and are getting involved with it, as well as organisations such as the Socialist Alliance and the Campaign Against Tube Privatisation.
Jane Hackworth-Young, who is one of the prime movers in the London Alliance, told me, "The feeling that's coming from McLaren is the same feeling that I'm getting from a lot of the individuals and groups who are involved with the alliance. The mayor of London shouldn't be tied to a political party. He or she should be able to represent the people's interests." As Hackworth-Young says, most people don't hear their interests reflected by politicians: "Why aren't they talking about the problem of drugs in London? Women are saying we have to do something for the sake of our children. Why aren't they talking about housing?" Its draft manifesto includes straightforward proposals very like McLaren's: halve all fares on public transport, give residential areas back to children with a speed limit for cars of 20mph, decriminalise drugs, etc.
As it is, the election for London's mayor is likely to see a poor turnout. But if the impatient, engaged speech that you hear every day on buses and tubes and streets could be heard in the corridors of power, then there would be a reason to go out and vote.Reuse content