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Conceptions of politics

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Summary:
There is a great and overlooked political division today – between those who think policy matters, and those who think it doesn’t. Here are some examples of what I mean. First, Ed Miliband’s speech on the Internal Market Bill was that of a man who thinks a consistent policy would be a good thing. He is exercised by the fact that a man who greeted the signing of the Withdrawal Agreement as a “fantastic moment” now regards it as “contradictory”. Johnson, however, seems to attach no importance to the need for a consistent policy. Secondly, Rishi Sunak has the highest approval rating of all cabinet ministers among Tory members, even though employment is slumping: the ONS reported today that payrolls have dropped by 629,000 in the last 12 months, a trend economists expect to continue. A

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There is a great and overlooked political division today – between those who think policy matters, and those who think it doesn’t.

Here are some examples of what I mean.

First, Ed Miliband’s speech on the Internal Market Bill was that of a man who thinks a consistent policy would be a good thing. He is exercised by the fact that a man who greeted the signing of the Withdrawal Agreement as a “fantastic moment” now regards it as “contradictory”. Johnson, however, seems to attach no importance to the need for a consistent policy.

Secondly, Rishi Sunak has the highest approval rating of all cabinet ministers among Tory members, even though employment is slumping: the ONS reported today that payrolls have dropped by 629,000 in the last 12 months, a trend economists expect to continue. A massive policy failure is no handicap to popularity. Father-time-storm

 Not that indifference to the need for coherent policy is confined to Tories. Bridget Phillipson said recently that Labour must listen to voters, whilst telling us little about her own policies or philosophy other than the need for “disciplined” spending promises. To use Tony Benn’s distinction, she is a weathervane, blowing in the wind, rather than a signpost.

Which raises the question: if politics isn’t about policy, what is it about?

One conception – which Ms Phillipson is using – sees it as a form of marketing. It consists in giving voters what they want, even if their preferences are ill-informed, contradictory and endogenous.

A second conception regards it as a debased form of theatre, a form of play-acting in which appearance and presentation are everything: Sunak’s popularity owes much more to his plausibility at a podium than it does to his material achievements.

Closely related to this is the tendency to see it as a game. I don’t have to tell you that, too often, this is the media’s conception. There’s jockeying for position, gossip and backbiting in which confidence, fluency and “credibility” are prized more than actual mastery of policy or managerial skill. Although its players, and the media, like to see this as a vicious sport, it is in fact often a matey process among jolly good chaps in which the worst that can happen is to conduct a “car crash interview” and where the losers retire to overpriced sheds or sinecures with investment banks. As for the fact that politics actually costs thousands of people their lives, well who cares? They are only the little people. 

But there’s another conception, which has grown in recent years. This regards politics not as a matter of solving (or at least ameliorating) social problems with coherent policy, but rather as unifying your tribe – for example by inventing culture wars. This serves the Tory party well. Labour has always been an awkward alliance between metropolitan liberals and the working class (a point clear in, for example, Orwell’s writing), and a culture war can drive a wedge between the two.

This, I think, explains Johnson’s otherwise incoherent attitude to his own Withdrawal Agreement. He hopes that voters will see this not as a breach of international law nor as an admission that his own negotiation and commendation of that Agreement were faulty, but rather as him “standing up” to the EU.

And given that we have a media which devalues intellect, coherence and prosperity and instead celebrates posturing, he might get away with this.

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