Basically, these June elections are only about one thing: a massive vote of no confidence in the political class. It looks likely that the European election results, not to be announced until Sunday night, will throw up an astonishing statistic: half the voters have now abandoned the two mainstream parties.
This figure is pregnant with meaning. Go back 60 years to the second world war and its long, benign aftermath. There was then a profound connection between rulers and ruled. Both Labour and Tory parties had memberships of well over one million. Politicians formed part of civic society, and shared the same values and notions as the British people. Study the language and structure of political debate of the time. It was serious, measured, alive and — above all — grown-up. Politicians negotiated face to face with the voters on the doorstep, on the stump, at well-attended public meetings, through scrupulously reported speeches, recorded at length even in popular newspapers. It was barely meaningful then to talk, as we usefully can today, of a special ‘political class’. Politicians were organically linked into society: Parliament included farmers, businessmen, miners, labourers, craftsmen, soldiers moulded by the recent experience of war. The postwar generation of politicians had more in common with their constituents than they did with each other.
Now the reverse is the case. Politicians at Westminster have become a narrow, sectional interest group, like tobacco manufacturers, the disabled or the ‘farming lobby’. They speak a special private language of their own. Even the choice of words, grammar and construction of sentences in modern political discourse have parted company dramatically with ordinary written or spoken speech.
Politics has ceased to be a craft or spare-time activity, and instead acquired the characteristics of a profession. It is something ambitious young men and women choose to do after leaving university, with ever more generous salaries, perquisites and unbeatable pension arrangements. Think of David Miliband, tipped for promotion to the Cabinet this summer, Peter Mandelson or Labour’s latest whizz kid, the Cabinet office minister Douglas Alexander. None of these creatures has enjoyed any life apart from highly tuned politics, which they treat as an exclusive, secret activity, with its own freemasonry and private expertise.
For them, communication with voters is no longer direct. They bring to bear complex new technologies, far more inaccessible than computer science or biochemistry. Many of these — viral advertising, focus groups, soundbites — have been stolen from corporate marketing. Political debate has lost its old freedom, passion and spontaneity. It has become a tightly controlled spectacle, managed by rival groups of professional experts, all schooled in the most elaborate modern techniques of persuasion. These experts, in alliance with the associated media class, determine the issues, as well as the narrow parameters within which they can be discussed. The voting public has been reduced to the role of a passive, manipulated non-participant. Indeed, modern politicians are actively hostile to public engagement in the political process, because the new elite fears the unpredictable consequences.
Take Britain’s engagement with the European Union. Opinion polls consistently show that some 50 per cent of British people actually favour withdrawal from the EU. For years no mainstream political party has articulated their views. Quite the contrary — any public figure advocating withdrawal from Europe has been treated with complete contempt, as if he or she was a lunatic or a paedophile. Even fairly mild criticism of Europe has evoked the same response. Think back to William Hague’s campaign during the 2001 general election. Hague’s position was actually far more moderate than the substantial majority of the British people, and yet he was successfully portrayed within the new media/political class as a swivel-eyed extremist.
Immigration is another case in point. For years now it has been impossible for a politician to voice public alarm and question conventional pieties without being denounced as racist and frozen out of mainstream political debate. New Labour is much more at home with this state of affairs than the Conservative party. Indeed New Labour’s special understanding of the modern political predicament explains Tony Blair’s prodigious electoral success. His inspired solution has been the invention of what Open Democracy’s Anthony Barnett — whose pamphlet ‘Unlocking Democracy’, published at the time of the last European election, remains the most acute analysis of the modern chasm between rulers and ruled — has christened ‘manipulative populism’.
This inspired phrase recognises that New Labour is in essence a serious and determined exercise in the revival of a self-conscious ruling class. One of its defining characteristics is distrust of the voters, bordering on contempt. Again and again New Labour refuses to deal in adult terms with the British people. Instead, taking full advantage of modern political technologies, it has set out to manipulate and deceive us.
It is no secret in the political class that New Labour wants to put Britain at the heart of a federal Europe. But it has never been open with the voters at large. Quite the reverse. The Prime Minister has consistently failed to make the case for this kind of integration, and has now chosen to present himself as an embattled figure fighting for the narrow British interest in Brussels. Immigration is a near identical, in some ways even more reprehensible, case. New Labour pursued a secret policy of allowing unfettered immigration, while in public ministers like David Blunkett used inflammatory language to stoke up public alarm about asylum seekers. This kind of manipulative populism has been hugely successful in the short term for New Labour. In the long term it is catastrophic, since the glaring contradiction between public statements and private policy are systematically destroying trust in the political process, and steadily widening the chasm between rulers and ruled.
The BNP has started to fill the vacuum left by the mainstream politicians over race, and now the United Kingdom Independence Party has emerged to do the same on Europe. There is nothing much to be said for Ukip, a rackety collection of conmen, perjurers, convicted criminals and semi-racists. There is a hint of Oswald Mosley about Kilroy-Silk, with his big talk about the ‘old’ political parties making way for the new politics.
At present, in a time of prosperity and full employment, Kilroy-Silk can safely be regarded as a poor-taste joke and a safe-protest vote. Though he himself will soon be safely forgotten, he has his terrible importance. He is a warning, a prototype for something altogether nastier and more horrible, and when it emerges it will be a direct consequence of the dishonesty of the modern political class. It is time that our mainstream, respectable politicians dealt candidly with the British people, before someone else does it for them.