Our interchangeable politicians

As deeply conservative Britain heads towards a one-party system, the choice between Tory and Labour no longer matters. So who's left to vote for? By Richard Gott
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The Independent Online
Given a choice, I prefer John Major to Tony Blair. The Tory is far more convincing, both as a politician and as a human being. I'm quite happy to see him chatting away on the screen. Blair's rhetoric, brittle and shallow by contrast, still leaves me cold. I would hate to tune in at a moment of national crisis and be forced to listen to his evangelical sermons. Yet I have to quickly add that I still prefer Labour to the Tories. New Labour, even when submerged by marketing and razzmatazz, still recognisably represents, or speaks up for, the less well-off sections of society.

People in my position, potential Labour voters, are regularly told to vote Labour to get the Tories out. For many years I was an editor at The Guardian, and when I resigned from the paper a couple of years ago, after a contretemps about an overly casual relationship with the Russians, The Guardian was, as it has remained, a paper with a keen desire to maximise the anti-Tory vote.

So I find the arguments to be very familiar. They centre on the dreadfulness of the Tories, the tragic legacy of the Thatcher era, the desperate need for a change. They are especially deployed by what remains of the old radical and would-be rebellious left. "Please let's just at least get into power, and then we'll see what happens," the old left seems to say.

I've heard the argument a hundred times, and I regard it as blackmail. If a Labour victory were to materialise, the blackmail would continue. A Labour win would be rapidly followed by a shake-out of the Tory party and the emergence on top of its extreme right wing. When that happens, the Labour radicals will whip themselves into line even more fiercely. "Don't rock the boat now," the argument will run, "or Michael Portillo will get in."

Given the continuing right-wing drift in world politics, it is perfectly possible that an inexperienced and perhaps inefficient New Labour government would pave the way for the Portillo era. I remember a Maoist friend in Chile in 1970 who refused to vote for Salvador Allende. He did so on the grounds that Allende's Popular Unity coalition was a ragbag of utopian incompetents that would lead the country to disaster. I thought then that he was wrong; three years later, as General Pinochet's tanks rolled, he was proved to be right.

Yet maybe, subversive thought, the choice no longer matters very much. By edging New Labour so close to the Tories, Blair has helped to clarify the situation that we are all in. In Britain, we now have something resembling a one-party state. The two largest parties dominate most discussions about politics, but there is hardly a significant policy difference between them. The true ideological divisions lie within them - and outside them altogether.

There is nothing new about a disguised one-party system in Western democracies. It has existed for quite some time, notably in the American hemisphere. The "ins" simply alternate with the "outs". In most of Latin America, they are called the Blancos and the Colorados; in the United States, they are the Democrats and the Republicans. The reasons for voting for one or the other are entirely historical and tribal.

In such a system, politicians soon begin to resemble each other and become interchangeable, with often comic results. In his efforts to make himself sound more like an archetypal Tory leader, Blair forgets that there is an existing prime minister who is by far the best leader that New Labour could ever have hoped to have.

John Major may have got a truly ghastly party - corrupt, divided, at the fag-end of its energy and enthusiasms (just like Labour in 1979). Yet he himself has turned out to be an excellent managerial politician of the kind that New Labour has long needed. At ease on the platform, matey on the doorstep, at home (via television) in your home, classless and without accent, Major even looks like one of those faceless and forgettable social democrat leaders from Sweden.

Blair, by contrast, often has the artificial smile of an unhappy Tory bank manager, whose job, after a merger, is on the line. If he were to lose the coming election, he would vanish even more completely than Neil Kinnock.

There is, of course, a significant downside to the system. An increasingly large minority of the population no longer believes in it. Over the years, it will become undermined by apathy, abstention and decay - leading to the eventual breakdown of the consensus that holds the country's entire political structure together.

Britain has not yet reached this stage, but the next election will take place against a background of profound popular malaise with the formal processes of politics. People are not just bored with the Tories, they are fed up with the whole political class, with Westminster, and with the endlessly self-satisfied television programmes that go with it.

Television, of course, is forced by legislation to "do" politics, while newspapers, though more susceptible to market pressures, feel ideologically obliged to defend and report on the workings of the system. But editors are only too aware that it is not at the top of their readers' interests.

Britain remains an intensely conservative place. The country has gone through such a major counter-revolutionary upheaval that few people would want to go through all that again. Blair and his friends certainly recognise this, and their quietist programme is the result.

But if there's no real change on the agenda, why not stick with what we've got? That thought will drive many back into the Tory fold at the last moment. Others may abstain. Like thousands on the left, I shall probably register a protest.

Depending on where you live, one might vote on the day for Paddy Ashdown's Liberal Democrats - the traditional eventual home of the disgruntled and the despairing - or even for Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour Party. The important thing is that there should be a growing number of independent- minded people who refuse to accept the blackmail that you have to vote for New Labour.

What turned the tide for me was the publication by The Observer of a little booklet containing statesmanlike portraits of Labour's government in waiting. It could have been put out by Conservative Central Office; and that old slogan "Yesterday's Men", used in a belittling election campaign years ago, immediately came to mind.

If New Labour takes power, we shall have few new policies and many all- too familiar faces. Would anyone really care much if Harriet Harman swapped places with Virginia Bottomley, Gordon Brown with Kenneth Clarke, Jack Straw with Michael Howard, Robin Cook with Malcolm Rifkind? Alas, it wouldn't make much difference.