Sunday, June 04, 2006
Modern Media Enthrones the Leader and Demotes Party
I was one of the sceptics who predicted the shine would come off David Cameron's apparently unstoppable success after a month or two when he had to put some policy flesh on the bones of his waffly rhetoric. However, events, as so often, have proved me wrong. Even without credible and coherent policies his party has pulled ahead of Labour on a number of key Labour policy areas including education and, depressing for the founders of the NHS, health too. That doyen of political colummnists Simon Jenkins, sheds some shrewd analytical light on this phenomenon in today's Sunday Times.
Policies, it seems no longer matter this far from an election. 'If there is a Machiavellian moral that Blair taught his party in the mid-1990s', he writes, 'it was that policies are mere vapours without power.' Cameron knows, argues Jenkins, that the major impediment to beating Labour is the negative image most people, according to focus groups, still retain of his party. In the nineties Labour struggled with the the millstone that was the link with the unions with their negative connotations of Old Labour and industrial strife. Breaking this perceived link was New Labour's vital first mission and Blair managed it brilliantly. Philip Gould(pictured), Blair's favourite pollster and strategist, argued that the leader had to 'seem a lofty figure endowed with values, convictions and beliefs untainted by mere policies'. It followed that the party had to be 'demoted, rendered subsidiary and wholly dependent on the leader and his popularity for its return to power.' So it was that Blair 'rose above Labour' which became 'nothing more than a vote-catching machine.'
This is a high risk strategy though, in that everying is so focused on one person. If that person falters, then the enterprise will soon totter as did Thatcher's and, since the Iraq intervention was revealed as a disaster, Blair's too. This has all happened quite recently and is a product of the massively increased role of the media. Skilled and determined spin doctors can weave their required mystifying webs provided they have the right front man. Attlee's government boasted a formidable line up of heavyweights - Bevin, Morrison, Cripps, Bevan and Dalton- while Wilson's team was not dissimilar- Crosland, Crossman, Callaghan, Jenkins and Healey.
Yet if we look at Blair's front bench then apart from Brown, there are no comparable figures and none who realistically challenge him. New Labour was initially a joint creation but soon became predicated upon the ascendancy of one person. It is not so different if we look at Cameron's embryonic set-up. Apart from Dave there are no fellow heavy hitters; by comparison Davis, Maude and their ilk, are pygmies. This seems to me a little worrying. Being over-dependent on one person gives him/her too much power and, should anything happen to the leader, then a dangerous vacuum would ensue. But, unless the media changes radically- which seems unlikely- this is the template for the foreseeable future.
I would argue that policy substance or direction is, electorally, never really going to matter any more (barring any real economic slumps). Because the apolitical and apathetic public have very little knowledge of parties' policy platforms, their vote is based more on image than anything else - before the 2005 general election, many people agreed with Tory policies, until they heard that such policies were being espoused by the Tories.
Cameron's success is that he has altered the Tory party's image to that of an acceptable and credible alternative to what the public sees is a Labour government that is mired in incompetence, sleaze and disunity - the same as what Blair did for the Labour party when Major's government lost its reputation for economic competence (even though Ken Clarke steered it back to recovery), was mired in personal sleaze and disunited over the EU.
The old adage that oppositions don't win elections, but that governments lose them is what Cameron realises, hence his reluctance to commit to policies when he doesn't have to.
I think I'd agree with most or all of your comments. Thanks. PS do you have a blog? I could only locate a profile.
No, but I might start one in a month or two's time.
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