by Bryan Gould
Tue 29th Jul 2014
Steve Richards is right to say (and Ed Miliband obviously agrees with him) that next year’s election will not, and should not, be decided by personality politics. So what is it that will determine the voters’ preferences?
It would be nice to think, as Richards argues, that the election will be about ideas. But policy ideas, until and unless they are successfully proved in practice, make little impact on voters increasingly cynical about promises.
What might matter, however, is something even less tangible. The evidence suggests that every now and again, for no apparent reason, the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times, can change. It may be that we are at just such a juncture - and not before time.
We have now given an extended trial to the values espoused by the proponents of the “free” market and the aggressive pursuit of individual self-interest. It is becoming increasingly clear that those values are not those of our great humane and liberal tradition; they are instead those of “dog eat dog”, “devil take the hindmost”, “look after number one”, “winner takes all” and any other of those phrases that have been traditionally used to describe with contempt and distaste the sentiments of selfishness and greed.
It is, as Thomas Piketty demonstrates, always the case that powerful people, given the chance (and nothing is better guaranteed to offer that chance than the unrestrained market), to grab what they can, and then to entrench and protect their advantage, so that they can extend it still further.
We may now have reached the point, however, when the question is increasingly being asked - why do the rest of us allow that to happen? Wasn’t that supposed to be the role of democracy, to ensure that the political power of elected governments would ensure that the virtues of inclusivity, social cohesion, and equal rights, would offset the otherwise overwhelming power of those who would dominate the marketplace?
It may be that, just as in 1945 (another crucial turning-point), the forthcoming election will be about values, rather than personalities, or even policies. And the good news is that the values that we have been in danger of losing have not disappeared; they are still present in the hearts and minds of most citizens. Most people in Britain will affirm, if asked, their continued support for fairness, compassion, tolerance, concern for others. Those values have become submerged under the tidal wave of free-market propaganda, but the 2015 election may see them again rise to the surface.
Most voters do not think about politics or economics in any systematic way. It is only a small minority, whatever their position on the spectrum of political views, that has developed a fully coherent set of beliefs and principles. The majority are perfectly capable of holding in their minds quite contradictory notions and allegiances. What matters, what determines the way they will vote, is which of those contradictory values is closest to the surface, or in other words has the greatest salience, at any particular time.
Over more than three decades, those who have hijacked our democracy have discovered the means by which they can raise the salience in the popular mind of values that suit their interests. They have become expert at “tweaking” particular issues - outrage at social security “scroungers”, perhaps, or concern about the supposed threat to jobs or housing posed by immigrants, or fear of an allegedly threatened tax increase. They have learned to practise what the Australians have called “dog whistle” politics - the appeal to sentiments which they dare not encourage openly and which voters would be ashamed to admit to but which will nevertheless decide voting intentions.
The control exercised by the powerful through their ownership of most media outlets gives them a great advantage in such efforts. But they are also able to exploit a natural human predilection which means that the values of self-interest and self-preservation, at least in the heat of any particular moment, will often take precedence over more socially aware and responsible attitudes. The default position for most people - especially in hard times - will quite naturally give a high priority to looking after the interests of their own nearest and dearest.
But experience is a great teacher. When decline and social disjunction are seared over decades into the national consciousness, when hope and confidence are at a low ebb, and when the outlook is more of the same, it is not surprising that the guiding principles of the last three decades might be called into question. It is then that hearts rather than minds help to frame the compelling argument that we would all be better and stronger if we could all rely on the same degree of help and support as we are ready to offer to our own closest family and friends.
In 1945, the British people rejected a great war hero in favour of one of the least charismatic leaders in our history. Clement Attlee won a landslide victory and went on to head the most successful and effective reforming government of modern times. Ed Miliband may know - and intuitively feel - more than we think.