Is it really so difficult to debate things that matter?

'Why are we already being told that in politics, appearance is everything? It's easier, that's why'
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The Independent Online

My heart sank. Sank like lead in a grey ocean. When interviewers say - not once but twice in the same week - that "in politics, appearances are everything", you know that you're in for a bad time.

My heart sank. Sank like lead in a grey ocean. When interviewers say - not once but twice in the same week - that "in politics, appearances are everything", you know that you're in for a bad time.

If appearances are everything, then facts, arguments, analyses, propositions, dilemmas and philosophies are - between them - nothing. All that is left are the contentions of spin-doctors and propagandists as assessed by the experts on spin - who are, on the whole, none other than the very clique of journalists who are spun. The clash of ideas, ideologies and policies is turned inexorably into a maddeningly tedious and shrill exchange of slogans, reproductions of billboard images and irrelevant studio encounters.

Four months of it!

Even as the onset of the election campaign was being jokingly lamented, the mikes were picking up the sounds of hands being rubbed in glee. At least I think they were hands. Four long months of the great game, with strict Queensberry Rules only being applied to the last three or four weeks. Four months of a suspension of any sensible discussion and its replacement at all times with the merry-go-round of who's up and who's down and whether this was embarrassing for X and whether Y had scored a direct hit. Four months of false polarisations and bogus statistics. Soon, even a politics anorak such as I will feel a sense of relief when a minor royal's unimportant medical condition leads the bulletins ahead of the latest fabricated political row.

"And now over to Laura McElhose at the House of Commons," our host will say, turning to the screen behind him. "Who won those exchanges, Laura?" And Laura will award points for poise, shirt colour and the ability to conjure up a storm of yarrooing, hee-hawing and nose-thumbing. Or, somewhere in Whitehall, "this report/leak/minor scandal, though not in itself significant could not have come at a more sensitive moment for Mr Blair/Hague/Kennedy".

At press conference after press conference rabbits will be pulled from hats and examined solemnly by those present, not for their contribution to the health and happiness of the land, but for the pyrotechnic brilliance with which they were brought forth.

On Wednesday, at the real Prime Minister's Question Time, Mr Hague was especially keen to get in the words "The Great Pretender", because they fitted in with the launch of his poster campaign (a campaign asserting that Labour charges high taxes and then delivers no services, preferring - presumably - to spend all the money on clothes or CDs).

Mr Blair countered with the indiscreet (though honest) words of a Conservative parliamentary candidate concerning the party's electoral chances. Neither blast nor counter-blast had anything to do with the real contingent problems of running public services and paying for them.

Yesterday it was reported that, at the next election, Labour is unlikely to repeat its 1997 coup-de-main, where it published pledge cards giving five key, specific commitments. Of the five promises, three have been kept, one is close to being attained, and one - fast-tracking juvenile offenders - is nowhere close. But the real problem, apparently, has been the distortion in policy caused by having to achieve class sizes of under 30 in primary schools and a fall in hospital waiting lists of 100,000. Ministers, who have paid the price of having to do what they pledged and not what was best, don't want to be boxed in like this again. What looks good on a mug in May can be a nightmare in a ministry in December.

Four years ago, it was asserted that the pledge cards were an exercise in accountability, when they were, of course, mostly a gimmick (though one I quite liked at the time). A Downing Street spokesman was quoted as saying this week - by way of mitigation - that "if you are doing any take on the performance of the Government, you have to look across a whole range of issues".

And so you do. The Government, for instance, did not issue a pledge card promising to bring the rail system to its knees or another undertaking to fight a successful war on behalf of a small people on the other side of Europe. Ideas, strategies, objectives, policies, proposals and - to an extent - personal qualities are the factors that ought to be taken into account by an electorate trying to choose a government, not slogans.

Labour's replacement for the five key pledges will be a series of key "challenges". The number is unknown as yet, but there will surely be one attached: in 1997 there were a whole series of Blair speeches in which the Eight Core Values or the Ten Great Modernisations (I forget exactly how many) gave a Twelve Days of Christmas feel to the whole campaign, stopping just short of 400 Lords A Leaping. The most significant of these new challenges is predicted to be that of "delivering world-class public services."

In other words, Labour's main priority will be to move us towards public services that rank with the best around the world: cancer outcomes like those of France, railways like those of Japan, an education service to rival Sweden's. We will measure the Government's second term in office by its progress in this direction.

Fine. The Lib Dems will sign up to this too. Perhaps even the Conservatives as well, though that's not clear at the moment. But the question is: how? Labour entered government to discover that the biggest problem in the national health service was not the internal market, botched though it was. It has taken years of action from governments of both hues to overcome some of the mistakes made in teacher training back in the Seventies. For all the bandying around of shortage figures, the question of what happens to public service recruitment when there's an upturn in the economy and a fall in unemployment needed to be dealt with half a decade ago for us to see any effects now. There are, on the whole, only long-term solutions for long-term problems.

I think voters know this and that the notion of a transformation of politics on 7 May 1997 was more a feature of media response to the parliamentary scale of the victory than it was a reflection of real revolutionary expectations on the part of the electorate. The subtext of the Labour approach is that the next election will be about the balance between private wealth creation and the social use of wealth in the context of a healthy economy. The calculation now is that few will vote according to their views on Romano Prodi or gypsy beggar-women.

So why is it that we won't have that debate over the next interminable four months? Why is it that we will be the observers at a boring courtroom drama, where well-paid lawyers will be judged by the slickness of their speeches and not on whether their clients are guilty as charged? Why is it that we are already being told that, in politics, appearance is everything?

Because it's easier, that's why. I was struck this week, however, by a particularly good edition of The Wrong Side of the Bed (the new, rebranded, name for the Today programme) with John Humphrys, in which the Ministry of Defence's chief scientific advisor answered a series of questions about depleted uranium. And there we were talking almost entirely about the facts of the case, not about this document or that statement. No government minister, apparently, was available. Bliss.

David.Aaronovitch@btinternet.com

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