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Why the election is not about fox-hunting

I wasn't going to talk about politics, but I met a man on the train the other night who finally explained to me what the election was all about, and I'd like to pass it on.

"What you have got to remember," he said, "is that this election is not about politics."

"Hold on a second," I said. "What is it about, then?"

"In this country," he said, "we confuse two quite different things: politics, and party politics. Politics is all about inequality, and oppression, and social purpose, and employment and privilege. Party politics is all about polls and votes of confidence and sleaze and marginal seats and Westminster whispers and Cabinet reshuffles, and all the things they love on Radio 4's Today programme. We are often told that the much-vaunted Today programme has too much politics on it. On the contrary, it has no politics at all. What it has is too much party politics, as when Michael Howard has to confront Jack Straw ..."

The man shuddered.

"So, the election is about party politics?"

"No. There is one other thing you have to remember. The election may appear to be about party politics, but we British always appear to be talking about one thing when really it is all about another."

"How do you mean?"

"Well, take a strike, for instance. A rail strike, which may ostensibly be about pay structure or rostering, is often really about fury with inefficient management. Or take fox-hunting. The battle over fox-hunting is not about cruelty to foxes - none of the people involved really gives a toss about that. It is another town vs country battle, or us vs them, or an outcrop of the class struggle.

"However, hunt saboteurs cannot turn up waving banners saying: 'We Hate These Fat Upper-Middle-Class Port-Faced Gents On Their Big Upper-Middle- Class Fat-Arsed Horses'. So they make out that it is all about cruelty to foxes. Of course, if they really cared about cruelty to animals they would be picketing a battery chicken farm, or an intensive pig farm, where far worse things happen than on fox hunts. In the same way, the election isn't about politics or party politics, even though we all pretend it is."

"So what is it all about?" I asked tensely, glancing at my watch. Another hour to go to my station. Would have he got to the point by then?

"It's about management style. Basically, what Blair is asking us for is a chance to move in and get paid to run the country for the next five years, and he wants to persuade us that he can do it efficiently, profitably and constructively, and more so than the last incumbent. The general election is just a job interview writ large. We, the electorate, are interviewing Blair and Major for the job of running us."

"That's not how it comes across."

"Of course not. It is not allowed to. The party leaders have to pretend it is really a debate about education, health and law and order ..."

"Which it is also."

"Possibly. As they largely agree on most of those things, the so-called debate rings a little false to me. No, what this is all about is a job interview to run the country, and it should be judged on merit and potential."

"In that case," I said, "Kenneth Clarke at least should be left in charge, even if the rest are chucked out. He seems to be doing a good job."

"Spot on," said the man. "And most of the Labour Party would agree. Unfortunately, if Blair gets the job, everyone has to go no matter how good or bad. Nobody will be sorry to see the end of Michael Howard. Everyone will regret the exit of Kenneth Clarke. But it is one of the vagaries of our political system that if the Premiership changes sides, every post has to be vacated and changed. It is almost as if, whenever a club football manager was sacked and a new manager appointed, all the old players were chucked out and a whole new team drafted in."

There was a depressed silence.

"What we need is a completely new system," he said. "The system we have at the moment was devised just to help select a local representative. We are using it to choose a national government. So of course it doesn't work. It is yet another example of us doing one thing while pretending to do another. What we need is a system which will give us the best national management team, and the only way to do that is ..."

I must have fallen asleep there. When I awoke, he had gone. So had my station, but that is another story.