The biggest point about last month’s general election was not really that New Labour won, but that democracy lost. The low turnout, debased calibre of debate and half-hearted result amounted as much to a repudiation of politicians as an endorsement of Tony Blair. Government ministers and opposition spokesmen despairingly agree that they have forgotten how to communicate with the voters. There are some faint signs within the Tory party that this sense of alienation from the electorate is beginning to feed into the internal debate that has followed Michael Howard’s decision to quit. But the really serious thinking is going on inside New Labour, whose public intellectuals have embarked on an agonised argument about how to reclaim British democracy. One central theme has already emerged.
New Labour politicians are conscious that politicians have been forced out of the public space that they once had to themselves. It has been stolen from them by the media, by public relations men, by charities and lobbyists and by the arrival of celebrity culture. All of these seem to enjoy a mystical connection with public opinion that politicians can only dream of.
Craig Brown captured this point quite brilliantly in his Telegraph column last Saturday when he wrote, ‘Watching Bob Geldof being interviewed by Kirsty Wark about the G8 summit on Newsnight the other day, I was struck by how closely it resembled one of those quaintly deferential political interviews from the 1950s, in which the interviewer kicks off by asking Mr Macmillan whether he minds awfully answering a question or two.’
Only celebrities — pop stars, footballers, television personalities, novelists once they have reached a certain status — can now rely on the respectful attention that used to be the exclusive lot of the politician. As Tom Bentley of the think-tank Demos notes in his new pamphlet Everyday Democracy, ‘Politics is fighting a losing battle against forms of theatre and spectacle that are more entertaining, and forms of conversation and social exchange that are more meaningful to citizens.’*
Tony Blair has understood this point right from the first. Liam and Noel Gallagher of the pop group Oasis were among the earliest visitors to Downing Street after the 1997 election landslide. It is only necessary to cast one’s eyes down the Chequers guest list to see how assiduously the Prime Minister cultivates even B-list celebrities. This month he has taken this tactic one stage further, and allowed a celebrity to set the policy agenda. He and Gordon Brown have made Bob Geldof’s Make Poverty History campaign their own.
The broader political significance of this poverty agenda has not yet been noticed. It has its roots in the terror all mainstream politicians feel at the collapse of mass party politics. The Labour party and the Tory party, which both enjoyed memberships of over one million voters barely a generation ago, today cannot count on more than 500,000 between them. By contrast, the four largest aid agencies — Oxfam, Christian Aid, Action Aid and Save the Children — have the best part of three million members.
This stark contrast explains almost everything. Just before the general election the ace Labour strategist Douglas Alexander, now minister for Europe, delineated the problem in a pamphlet, Telling It Like It Could Be.