Newsnight’s Labour leadership hustings from Nuneaton was a depressing affair. The key moment wasn’t Liz Kendall’s cheap opportunist snipe at Burnham over “the country” coming first (straight out of the American political songbook of snake-oil patriotism). No, it was the woman in the audience who thought that Labour was the ‘welfare party’, with a bleeding heart for people who were milking the benefits system for all they could get. For this woman, incomprehension written across her face, crystallised Labour’s problem; indeed the problem for anyone who thinks that reason and truth might matter in politics.
The anti-benefits woman went on to explain that she found life difficult. She’d been overpaid on statutory maternity leave and was struggling to pay the money back. She understandably felt a sense of grievance over the state’s heartlessly bureaucratic response to a mistake which, presumably, was theirs in the first place.
By this time, the woman was looking daggers at the assembled Labourites. For these people, comfortable metropolitans all, cared only about lard-arsed layabouts idling all day in front of their giant flatscreen TVs. Who wouldn’t hate them?
My own response was to want to shake the woman, to shout and rant at her foolishness. I expect that Yvette, Andy, Jeremy and Liz felt much the same, but years of training mean that they can hide their feelings about the British public behind a mask of caring concern. You can just imagine what the tabloids would have done had any of them cracked and argued back with passion and maybe a little righteous anger.
Yet I can’t help feeling that treating the voters with saintly restraint is part of the problem. For the woman who’d had a hard time claiming benefits and therefore assumed that claiming benefits was an easy lifestyle choice sanctioned by the Labour Party is all too representative of our capacity to hold a firm belief in something wholly at odds with our own first-hand experience.
A situation in which most people, whether on their own doorsteps, in the pub, or in a Question Time audience, can spout any ill-informed nonsense and be treated as uniquely wise, whilst all politicians with hope of office must expect anything they say to be scrutinised and analysed in forensic detail and without mercy, is evidence of a political culture that is utterly dysfunctional. It demands that politicians NOT be like the people they serve, and it expects nothing at all from we the voters.
Shouting back at the woman in the audience who believed the opposite of her own experience would not have changed her mind. Most likely, it would have confirmed her opinions. But it might have made others who would otherwise complacently have agreed with her think again. Public debate may change minds, whereas ‘hustings’ which are run as a kind of trial-by-ordeal, ducking-stool experience will illuminate nothing.
The problem, of course, is that we are being groomed. Powerful vested interests and their mates in the media do very nicely by grooming us to believe things that serve their narrow cause. We are groomed to vent our spleen on people much like ourselves, and to feel rage at anyone who might want to do something about the social ills that affect us, too. Grooming is how people are made to accept, even love, that which harms them. It brings the groomed to the point at which reason has no purchase on their view of the world.