Saturday, May 09, 2009

The changing face of politics

Did Margaret Thatcher save Britain? Can Hazel Blears really become Britain's second woman PM? And could the MPs' expenses revelations ultimtately rebound to Gordon Brown's advantage? Just some of the questions addressed in today's Journal column.

All general elections bring change, but some general elections bring more change than others, and there is a pretty universal consensus that the one that brought the most change in recent times was the one that took place 30 years ago this week.

For better or worse, Margaret Thatcher's victory over Jim Callaghan in that 1979 contest has cast its shadow over moreorless everything that has happened in British politics in the ensuing decades.

There is still, to my mind at least, a debate to be had about the Thatcher legacy. The widely-held view is that she “saved” Britain, which is the fundamental reason why the Labour Party subsequently found it necessary to take on most of her ideas.

But in many ways we were a more contented society back then, and while the “opportunity economy” which she ushered in may have made some people considerably better-off, it has not necessarily made people happier or more secure.

Anyway, for those lucky enough - or should that be sad enough? - to have access to the Parliamentary Channel via Freeview, there was the chance to relive it all again last Monday, as the channel replayed all 17 hours of the BBC's election coverage.

I flitted in and out of it between DIY jobs and the snooker, the main points of fascination for me being the impossible youth of David Dimbleby and other BBC presenters, and hearing Labour politicians speaking with genuine working-class accents.

Superficially, there would seem to be obvious parallels between that time and this - a failing Labour government, a faltering economy, an experienced but somewhat shop-soiled Prime Minister, an untried Tory leader whose time nevertheless looked like it had come.

But that's way too easy. In truth, Mr Brown would probably kill for the kind of personal ratings enjoyed by Big Jim, and Labour's predicament then - popular leader but unpopular policies - is moreorless the reverse of the position the party finds itself in now.

Either way, one politician who clearly had Margaret Thatcher very much in mind this week was the Communities Secretary, Hazel Blears, who enlivened the Bank Holiday weekend by launching an astonishing attack on Mr Brown.

She told the Observer that the government had shown a "lamentable" failure to get its message across, and that the public no longer believed any government policy announcements.

Ms Blears has since denied her comment should be seen in any way as a criticism of Mr Brown's leadership, but this is hogwash.

The giveaway was her use of the words "You Tube if you want to," a phrase which anyone over 40 will immediately recognise as an echo of the Iron Lady's famous soundbite: "You turn if you want to, the Lady’s not for turning."

Ostensibly, Ms Blears was of course referring to Mr Brown’s laughable performance on YouTube when he grinned his way through an announcement of a clampdown on MPs expenses.

But the subtext was clear: Ms Blears was suggesting that she is the new Margaret Thatcher, a plain-speaking, down-to-earth woman impatient with silly fads such as using internet video channels to make policy statements.

So can Hazel Blears really become Britain’s second woman Prime Minister? Well, I thinks she thinks so, although her last place in the 2007 deputy leadership election is hardly an ideal base from which to launch a successful leadership bid two years on.

That said, Mrs Thatcher herself is the supreme example of a rank outsider who propelled herself into the leadership ahead of more experienced and more highly-thought-of rivals.

In any case, to give Mr Brown his due, he promptly ignored Ms Blears’ protestations by going straight back onto YouTube to do a campaign broadcast for the European elections on 4 June.

But any hopes the Prime Minister may have had of regaining the political initiative in the run-up to those elections were hit by yesterday’s revelations about the Cabinet’s expense claims.

Although no rules appear to have been broken, stories about Mr Brown paying his brother £6,577 to cover the cost of cleaning services, Jack Straw overclaiming for his council tax, and Ms Blears juggling claims between three homes are hardly helpful at this juncture.

Whatever explanations ministers may offer, many voters are now conditioned to believe all politicians are guilty until proven innocent. – a sad state of affairs no doubt, but one which the political elite has largely brought on itself.

The wider political impact of these revelations may well depend on what is uncovered when the Daily Telegraph gets round to publishing the expense claims of the Tory frontbench, as no doubt it will do in the next few days.

Who knows, if it turns out that some of them have broken the rules while Mr Brown’s team stayed largely within them, it may even rebound to the Prime Minister’s advantage.

Indeed, at least one conspiracy theorist has already suggested that Brown Central could have orchestrated the whole thing as a way of staving off the anticipated Labour meltdown on 4 June.

If a real spin genius like Alastair Campbell was still at No 10, I’d be tempted to believe that, but it’s way too clever for the blundering bunch of incompetents that currently surround the Prime Minister.

The expenses issue is, at bottom, more an illustration of the changing relationship between politicians and the public than an indictment of any particular individual or party.

Old parliamentary stagers like Middlesbrough MP Sir Stuart Bell may look back fondly to the “age of deference” when MPs were implicitly trusted and the public left them alone to do their work.

But thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, and more generally the public’s desire for greater transparency in our political system, those days are gone for good.

It’s just another of the many ways in which politics has been transformed since the day Margaret Thatcher walked into 10 Downing Street all those years ago.

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Barnacle Bill said...

Paul your observation regarding the replay of the 1979 General Election -
"and hearing Labour politicians speaking with genuine working-class accents"
- hits many nails on their heads with how I feel about nuLabor.
I always felt that Tony Wots His Name & his Merry Men were like the Young Conservatives taking over the Labour Party, hence my dis-satisfaction with the direction it then took.
I only hope this transformation in politics will lead to a party emerging from the ashes of Old Labour/nuLabor that I can once again support.

Bath plugs for the many, not the few said...

I'm not sure there's much of a parallel between Thatcher and Blears.

Blears doesn't have any new ideas; she's in a party which looks like it's going down in a record defeat; she's just been fingered as having made one of the most conspicuous of the dodgy expense claims. I can't see her being remembered in thirty years' time.

Stephen said...

Hazel Blears "YouTube if you want to..." was a surprising piece of genuine wit from one of the most useless politicians to have sat round the cabinet table in recent years. But she's an irrelevance, no more lik3ely to end up as PM than Jack Straw (ie zilch prospect).

If every single MP in the house ended up losing their seat as a direct result of their morally indefensible expense claims, it would be no bad thing for politics in this country. A plague on both their houses.

rwendland said...

Anyone thinking of Hazel Blears as PM material should watch her own recent new media performance, an internet video interview with George Monbiot, where she comes across rather lightweight. A PM need to be able to handle Monbiot-type interviewers well.

Straightforward in one way though; I've never heard a minister before volunteer that "hundreds of thousands of people had died" in the Iraq war, apparently unprompted.

skipper said...

I think Hazel will be lucky to survive the chop after next month's reshuffle. Smith will go too I reckon.