Dead Men Left

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Gladstone and the spectacle

Blair's been ingratiating himself into various contrived TV appearances in which members of the public are invited to hurl abuse and ask supposedly awkward questions:

Happily interrupting and contradicting the Prime Minister, the Dundee panel appeared utterly unawed: as one aide says afterwards, this is the 'Kilroy generation', raised on confrontational daytime television and too blasé about Blair being beamed daily into their living-rooms to stand on ceremony.'It's the modern equivalent of Gladstone doing his public meetings - it's what people are used to now. There is no real sense of deference any more.'

Gladstone, in the Liberal's campaign to reform electoral law, trooped up and down the country, appearing - with other Cabinet ministers - at large public meetings to win support for a wider franchise and cleaner electoral practices. A hundred years later, Gladstone's would-be successor - watery liberalism at home, imperialist adventures abroad - attempts a synthetic reproduction of the same technique.

Having long abandoned itself to modern managerial politics, preferring the central and exclusive steer of the mass media on political life to the broad, inclusive mass party, New Labour, its political levers no longer quite functioning properly, is left with these tawdry stunts. With around 200,000 Labour Party members leaving since Blair was elected, and presiding over some of the lowest election turnouts in British history, it is obvious New Labour simply does not regard the old practices of liberal democracy - still less social democracy - as important: a mass party, and a politically engaged membership are unnecessary; whilst elections can be left to a dedicated few.

For anyone who's ever organised a public meeting, the distance between the political engagement such an event necessarily uses and the stage-managed simulacra Blair aims for will seem laughably large. There is a neat irony, of sorts, in this: one of the principal - perhaps the principal - corrosive factor on New Labour's media levers has been the anti-war movement.

This has been built, of necessity, in stark opposition to the New Labour managerial model. Mass meetings and public engagement are its lifeblood. For months prior to February 15, 2003, when somewhere between 1 and 2 million people marched against the invasion of Iraq, a regular newspaper reader, otherwise well-informed, would have assumed nothing was stirring. It was only on the inside, in the rounds of local, public activities, on the street stalls or the minor demonstrations that any awareness would have been found.

This movement erupted into the conventional media some time before February 15, and settled itself in there, through further protests - not least the school student strikes - until the invasion started on March 19. Between times, it had shattered large parts of New Labour's exceptional political control over British public life.

What strikes me now is that something rather similar, though less pronounced, is taking place: you won't see it in the newspapers or on television, but something peculiar is taking place. Anti-war meetings are packed, regularly, to over-flowing (700 in Bristol, 600 in Lewisham) and stalls are inundated with passers-by wanting to take leaflets or sign petitions. I'm starting to think the March 19 demonstration will be something quite spectacular: not on the same scale as that two years ago, but impressively large nontheless. And these things matter; the belligerent noises from Washington over Iran and Syria, and the continuing occupation of Iraq, should be enough to stirr anyone opposed to the war into action. Having broken New Labour's resolve two years ago, we need to do the same again.

(Final point: I'm becoming increasingly convinced that turnout will be up somewhat at the general election this year, in part because the professional and centralised methods New Labour was so adept at are no longer functioning so well.)