Politicians: if you want us to listen, keep it Short

Team players who stick to the script get switched off. It's the rebels we really want to hear
Click to follow
The Independent Online
There is no Clare Short problem. But there is a newspaper problem; and a propaganda problem; and a juvenile political culture problem. When Labour frontbenchers say anything that isn't in the script about tax or drugs, or when Cabinet ministers say anything interesting about Europe, political Britain goes into a violent collective spasm.

But Real Britain, that country which isn't composed of MPs, spin doctors, political pundits, radio news editors, doesn't. It is becoming increasingly turned off politics, partly because of the predictable and often thoughtless nature of political argument. So a whole class of people whose lives are dedicated to communication are failing. They are not being listened to.

Indeed, the more they squash themselves into radio cars, or lounge across daytime television sofas, the less they seem to be part of a real national conversation. Something very odd is happening to politicians in Britain: they are not being listened to because of how loudly they are speaking.

The conventional image of political communication, both in Conservative Central Office and on the Labour side, is a verbal version of the alleged "trickle-down effect". But instead of a little wealth cascading down the social scale, a few simple ideas are meant to descend from the metropolitan cleverdicks to the urban peasants below them.

Thus if Labour politicians say again and again, "we are different, we have changed, we don't want to tax you too much", then - however much a few listeners may be bored by the repetition - eventually voters will start toddling around, mumbling, "Labour's different, it's changed, it doesn't want to tax us too much."

There is clearly some truth here, at least historically. The simple, vivid message of the 1978-79 Winter of Discontent kept on working for the Conservatives long after Labour had conceded most of the Thatcher trade-union reforms. Repeated Labour claims that the Conservatives were intent on privatisation of the NHS hit home by repetition. To adapt a notorious phrase about American journalism, perhaps no party ever got elected by over-estimating the intelligence of the British voter.

Intellectual justification for this derives partly from the idea that in the garish, blaring chaos of modern communications, only very simple and endlessly repeated messages get through. "Guinness is good for you" - "It's good to talk" - "Dogs bark, cats miaow, Labour puts up taxes". But the political argument used against Short and other speakers-out-of- script is, of course, the importance of collective Cabinet (and Shadow Cabinet) responsibility. Everyone signs up to the same things; everyone pretends to believe the same things; everyone says the same things. Politics is a team game.

What too many politicians have failed to see is that both justifications are slightly out of date. First, we are much more discriminating and cynical consumers of information than we used to be. Advertisers are increasingly using irony, absurdity, pastiche and flights of surreal wildness in order to break through the noise barrier. Think of the car ads that make much of the product having four wheels and being painted all over with paint, except for the windows.

In this world, cynicism about political messages and politicians' media evasion is very high; however outraged ministers may be by their occasional rough treatment on, for instance, Radio 4's Today programme, polls of listeners tend to side heavily with the frustrated, in-their-faces interviewers. Whenever someone does say something unscripted, whether it be Kenneth Clarke's admission last year that the Tories were "in a hole" or Ron Davies' robust views on the Prince of Wales, you can hear half the nation suddenly stop and pay attention.

This suggests that for unknown numbers of voters, mantra politics must be repulsive, and doing those politicians who practice it no good at all. Eventually, there must come a moment when the "good" done to a party by the endless repetition of phrases is outweighed by popular boredom and cynicism. Nobody will be able to measure this subtle balance of interests or quite spot the moment of turn. (Maybe, at 9.23pm on 13 September 1996, on BBC News, Michael Heseltine says "old-style socialists" just once too often.)

But it matters for how we think about collective cabinet responsibility, too. This is a constitutional doctrine intended to convey the mystical unity of "the administration" as something that is much more than a collection of individual politicians. But these days, collective responsibility is more about discipline and handling the media.

All senior politicians have become terrified of that journalistic cliche, the "split" story. They know that badly divided parties are seen as ineffective and that well-resourced rival parties will quickly spot any deviation in line between one frontbencher and another. Tony Blair was irritated by Clare Short saying something personal and sensible enough about taxation because he could visualise how the Conservatives and the Daily Mail would use it.

It is hard not to sympathise. The trouble is, we all know that politicians in the same party disagree. These parties are, after all, great sprawling coalitions of opinion and interest. In the age of post-ideological politics, their internal disagreements, whether on moral issues, or Europe, or education, are bound to feature more. Often, they will become the stuff of national politics.

Pity the poor spin doctor: the ubiquity of media outlets means that the task of hiding every different shade of opinion is anyway a hopeless one. Trying to impose order on a lawnful of preening parliamentarians would drive the most determined party whip mad within hours. And even if every instinct of every Europhobic Conservative or libertarian Labourite was stifled - if, in the fantasy of some political policeman, the only Labour voice was Blair's and the only Tory one was Major's - who really thinks that British politics would benefit?

There is, in Short, a battle between the requirement of a mature democracy to hear honest views and genuine debate, and the passing needs of the party-political competition, carried out in an atmosphere of hostile scrutiny, foam-flecked tabloids and journalistic narrow-mindedness.

In that battle for the soul of politics, neither requirement will ever fully triumph. When parties abandon their instinct for discipline and for repetitious, single-minded political messages, then the party system itself will have crumbled. Yet if politicians fail to realise that there is a hunger in the country for a more serious and unpredictable political conversation, then they will continue to see their old leadership role slip into history. They just will not be heard.

So how should the modern party leader behave when, through the thunder and crunch of masticated cornflakes, he hears the Chancellor of the Exchequer being uncomfortably blunt, or when a radiopager's bleep carries the news that bloody Clare Short has been honest again?

The most important thing is to remember that absolute control over anything is an illusion; and that politics without diverse personalities and views would be a grim and soulless affair. Characters whose thoughts and personalities are unwelcome to the writers of party scripts are the essential cast-list of a living democracy. The problem for our democracy isn't the outspokenness of politicians. (Would that it was!) The problem is the people who think there's a problem.

Comments