The display in the Bull Ring was much like any promotional stand advertising cosmetics, or smartphones, or exotic holidays. There were banners, pennants, balloons, and a clutch of iPads. Only the promotional staff caught my eye; they were a bit less glamorous than the usual PR babes. But then, this was the British Medical Association lobbying in advance of the election.
I paused to look at the display, and was immediately approached by a doctor. She told me that they were fed up of re-organisations, targets, and general political gimmickry which got in the way of doing the job. As an example, she cited frustration with promises of more nurses, or doctors, or set waiting times for appointments as the sort of things that politicians offered voters during election campaigns, without the first thought of whether those things were either the best use of resources, or likely to deliver results quickly.
These things – specific promises to voters – are what’s known as ‘retail politics’. The idea is that you offer something specific, just as a supermarket might offer ‘buy one, get on free’. Three thousand nurses, right-to-buy social housing, discount Lloyds Bank shares, these are ‘retail offers’. And I don’t think it’s just doctors who are unimpressed by them,
Voters don’t believe the promises. Yet the politicians who make them, in the main, really mean to deliver. To the politician, a ‘retail offer’ is a tangible thing which ought to make voters warm to them, to make voters believe in their utter sincerity. A ‘retail offer’ should be something solid, unlike soaring rhetoric or idealistic, but abstract beliefs. A referendum next year on EU membership ought to trump an appeal for liberty, equality and fraternity. So why won’t voters buy it?
Partly it’s a matter of once bitten, twice shy. Things like that clever retail offer made by the Lib Dems before the last election on student tuition fees have soured the public’s appetite for such ‘promises’. Politicians. They’ll say anything to get in, and then they do the opposite. It’s a point of view, and not one without foundation.
But mainly, I think, it is a reflection of the poverty of ambition in our political parties today. Voters are cynical about politicians, and so politicians are cynical about voters in return. Offer something simple that the morons can understand. It’s a vicious cycle of diminishing esteem.
Scotland’s different. Because in the independence referendum debate, nobody much believed in the numbers. What mattered was the vision. That sense of a vision, that things can be different, better, is much more motivating than a paltry retail offer. I happen to think that the Scottish referendum campaign was dishonest, as the real choice was about nationalism, not about social democracy, but it did show very clearly how apathy can be turned into activism given the right words.
I can anticipate some of the objections to this argument. There are big, competing visions on offer in the election. The Tories and Lib Dems are Neo-Liberals offering a small-state, freewheeling, globalised turbo-capitalism in which widening social inequality is an acceptable price to pay for a ‘strong economy’. I don’t find that argument persuasive, even on its own terms, but I can’t deny that it’s a big vision.
Labour offers a competing vision. It is actually a pretty inchoate vision at present. It’s a rejection of the narrow focus and economic conservatism of New Labour, but it isn’t a fully realised social democratic vision, either. Labour’s rediscovering its heart, even if it hasn’t yet wholly engaged its brain.
For me, this election campaign has been, as they say on reality TV programmes, a journey. I began as someone who stopped voting Labour ten years ago, and who’d been deeply suspicious of New Labour even in the early, optimistic years of the 1990s. I really didn’t know how I’d vote, or even whether I’d vote. But this coalition government, in effect a fully blue-blooded right-wing Conservative government barely impeded by a few ineffectual Lib Dems who in any case shared most of their economic vision, repelled me. I knew that I had to engage with the election campaign.
Along the way I’ve met good people. And I’ve detected in Ed Miliband and some of the people around him a sense that the direction of travel has changed. Andy Burnham has learned from Labour mistakes in office. His vision for the NHS is closer to the founding principles than any Health Secretary since Frank Dobson. Miliband himself shows a wariness about ‘liberal interventionism’ that even the Attlee government didn’t have when they sent gunboats to Iran. There are others in the party who do not offer a new vision, including Yvette Cooper and Ed Balls, but they don’t have the air of people who will decide the party’s direction.
So it comes down to this. I don’t much care about manifestos, retail offers, slick presentation, and the like. I care about the direction of travel. For whom will a party govern? What interests will it champion, and whose interests will it challenge? Will it be brave in the face of determined forces and huge difficulties? Will it give us hope?
I can’t say that Labour will offer those things – if I could, I might join – but there’s just a sliver of hope there, and that’s the best I’ve been offered for a couple of decades now.
So I’ll vote Labour tomorrow.