We’re halfway through the political party conference season in Britain. Those of the UK Independence Party and the UK Coalition Party (aka the Liberal Democrats) have been and gone. The Labour party is now in the middle of its get-together, and the Conservatives will gather next week.
The Conservatives are at an all-time low in the political polls, as are the Lib Dems. There’s talk of UKIP becoming more popular than the LibDems, which in theory could make them coalition partners for either Labour or the Tories in the next Parliament – an interesting prospect.
One of the interesting issues around at the moment concerns our current generation of full-time professional politicians – people who are often in their forties and have gone straight from university into careers in think tanks and ‘advising’ MPs, eventually metamorphosising into beautiful and not so beautiful MP butterflies themselves, and then becoming government ministers and shadow ministers almost overnight.
These are people who, if they weren’t involved in politics, would have to think very hard about who they are and what they want to achieve in life. Of course it used to be the other way round, and people were expected in the past to do some sort of life-defining work and become substantial people in their own right before standing for election as a representative of we, the people.
Before the party conference season began Polly Toynbee wrote an interesting piece in the Guardian, which ended with these paragraphs:
We need great speeches in this time of national drama
Amid the government’s injustice and class bias, people want to see their deep anger reflected by opposition politicians
Great speeches spring from times of heightened national drama. In democracies we make ambivalent demands on our leaders, rightly suspicious of any overreaching rhetoric yet demanding to be moved and impressed nonetheless.
Compared with the relatively calm postwar era of British history, these times may rank as a moment that calls for a heightening of political language. My postwar generation has never known such a long and deep recession, never seen a government impose such austerity, never watched a chancellor deliberately depress growth through unshakeable, evidence-denying dogma. We have never watched the incomes of the bottom half of society assaulted while the upper echelons stay unscathed. We have never witnessed the effrontery of a chancellor claiming “We’re all in this together”, then piling the sacrifice on to the most hard-pressed while cutting tax for rich.
The challenge for Ed Miliband is how to capture the right tone of indignation at this injustice and class bias, how witheringly to crush the wilful ignorance of Tory backbenchers calling the British “the worst idlers” when so many desperately seek more work.
Travelling around Britain this summer I found wells of anger in people who don’t see it reflected in overcautious Labour at Westminster. Worse is to come, with 80% of cuts not yet implemented, housing benefit evictions and disability scooter repossessions not publicly visible. Good rhetoric catches the spirit of the times, not extreme but forensic, resonant with what’s happening – the million young people without jobs, the rising debt wasted on unemployment instead of constructive investment. This peacetime crisis needs a lick of warlike fire.
On the radio this morning there was talk about the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, making a speech today regarding the 50% of young people that do NOT go to university, and what sort of education they need to have access to. We’ll report on that and share a few comments tomorrow.