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Tuesday, January 04, 2011 

The misery of politics.

Like with most everyday things in life, it's a must on occasion to get away from politics for a while. Even at its best, the age old description of the profession as showbiz for ugly people still has a certain truth to it which raises it above mere cliché. At its worst, and boy, have we had it bad recently, it starts to resemble not so much anything approaching noble and responsible as the equivalent of two dogs a couple of gardens apart repeatedly setting each other off through the occasional bark; they get nothing out of it and everyone in hearing distance either tunes out or eventually, starts screaming themselves.

Take today's pitiful skirmish over the rise in VAT. One of the very lowest forms of modern politics as well as journalism is the demanding of apologies. In a matter of years we've moved from asking politicians to apologise when they get things either seriously or disastrously wrong to other politicians asking them to essentially say sorry simply for forcing through a policy which the opposite side disagrees with, or at least professes to oppose. Labour's plan was to raise national insurance rather than VAT, which was Alistair Darling's preference, although whether if they had won the election or ended up in coalition with the Lib Dems they would have carried through with that is another matter. Darling himself has said today in response to the pointing out of his position that he wouldn't have raised both, yet in any case the argument has once again revolved around whether or not the move is "progressive". Progressive, if it ever had an easily identifiable political meaning has long since become denuded of one, making such a debate all but meaningless to the vast majority of those likely to take a view, let alone anyone just listening in on the sidelines. Just to make things even more murky, both sides have a case for it being either progressive or regressive (regressive, conversely, is something that everyone can agree is a bad thing); the Institute for Fiscal Studies no less has deemed it progressive, albeit over a lifetime, which isn't going to mean much to those hit in the pocket now at a time when they can't afford to save.

For Ed Miliband to then urge George Osborne to apologise for misleading the public, something he clearly hasn't in this instance done, is cheap and lazy politics. As such it also grabs the attention of similarly lazy journalists, who get to either screen or play off in words two talking heads disagreeing with each other over something which means incredibly little when most have long been resigned to the rise. Labour's Chris Leslie has just on Newsnight summed up his party's position without the tacked on nonsense in response to the Tories' Justine Greening: "[W]e just wouldn't be as unfair as you".

Modern politics however has to be more than just simple statements of position backed by age-old ideology. Such homilies don't appeal to the increasingly cohesive society Britain has become, as no less than that well-known political sage Tessa Jowell has so appositely theorised. Jowell, dispensing with such antiquated and passé distinctions of class notes that in a world where we all shop at Ikea, fly Ryanair and watch The X Factor it's clearly nonsense to view people according either to their job or how much they earn rather than how they live their lives. This 21st century version of the progressive centre seems to involve not so much action at Westminster to further help create the old vision of a classless society as instead Labour locally helping people plant flowerbeds, set up homework clubs and engage young people, perhaps by asking them whether they know what the work vacuous means and how they would apply it in a political context.

In one article Jowell inadvertently captures Labour's failings while in government, yet somehow comes to the conclusion that to succeed next time the party has to do nothing more than simply come to terms with the scale of their loss while changing the way in which they convey their message to potential voters. It was exactly through the triangulation Jowell and the other Blairites in the party permanently espoused that no one knew any longer what the party truly stood for, with the party's enemies and even one time friends in the media stepping into the breach to provide the labels for them. As Sunder Katwala sets out, everyone over-estimated David Cameron last year. One of the reasons Cameron failed to win an outright majority was down to his similar tendencies, being not right-wing enough for some while not having moved the party forward enough for others. Now with both the Conservatives and Labour moving back towards their traditional positions, it just so happens that the Liberal Democrats, having stolen ground from both parties are now flatlining in the polls. It isn't just down to their performance in the coalition; it's that they can no longer present themselves either as above the fray or through their carefully chosen policies as a realistic, viable alternative.

The real danger of the spouting of this nonsense, especially the patronising variety as delivered by Jowell, or Miliband deciding for the public whether they're being treated like idiots when they'll do that themselves is that this is the year when the party has to start deciding whether it's going to continue with the politics of the dead centre or really begin organising opposition to the Tory-led coalition as they've decided to christen it. Treating the voters as if they're stupid when in power is bad enough, but when you do it in opposition it's actively suicidal. Nothing is more likely to breed such contempt than active hypocrisy, such as calling for a no vote in the alternative vote referendum when the system is used to elect their own leader. While few will have read or see Jowell's discovery that we're all middle class now thanks to our supposed shopping, flying and television watching habits, they will note a large section of the party thinks the hoi polloi shouldn't be allowed to have something they do. Everyone's going to miserable enough without opposition politicians adding to the general mood of depression.

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