The vision thing


3:00 pm - November 26th 2009

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Guest post by Matt Sellwood

“The very least you can do in this life is to figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance, but live right in it, under its roof. What I want is so simple I almost can’t say it: elementary kindness. Enough to eat, enough to go around. The possibility that kids might one day grow up to be neither the destroyed nor the destroyers.” – Barbara Kingsolver

British politics is in a mess. That much is obvious to anyone who has spent any time speaking to people about politics over the last year. The issue of expenses was simply an explosive symptom of a much deeper-rooted cause, rather than the cause itself.

The cause, simply, is that very few people are inspired by politics any longer – and even fewer believe that electoral politics has any transformatory potential to offer. This is not limited to the left or the right – politics as a whole is being damned by millions of people. The most common reaction that canvassers of all parties in my constituency receive is “not interested, mate”, followed closely by “what’s the point?”.

And who can blame them? British politics has, it seems entirely lost the understanding that politics is about vision. Its about improving people’s everyday lives, yes – but its also about being able to look to the horizon, and beyond, for a promise of something better. It’s about being able to identify with a party because that party embodies what you believe in – your ideals.

Vision never used to be something that we lacked. 150 years ago, George Lansbury was born. Mayor of Poplar, Cabinet Member, Labour leader and Christian socialist, he never suffered from a lack of inspiration. From the Poplar Rates Rebellion, to triggering a by-election on the issue of women’s suffrage, to his all-encompassing pacifism which extended even to the cusp of the Second World War – this was a politician who took stands – not because it was politically expedient, or polled well – but because he believed.

Lansbury wrote in his ‘My England’; “because of the toil and labour of people like you and me, the “new day” will dawn, and always there is the certainty that our new England…will be born, and that those on whose shoulders the future depends will indeed see life with a brighter, clearer vision, the outcome of a complete change of heart and mind, a change which will enable us to say, I am my brother’s keeper and he is mine…all our freedom is and must be bounded by the freedom of all. My well-being cannot be complete unless my neighbours share it with me.”

Whether you agree with the sentiment or not, can anyone really imagine Brown, Cameron or Clegg delivering such visionary rhetoric today – or, if they did, being seen as anything other than cynical clones, scrabbling for votes? The political class tends to caricature the ‘apathetic’ as uninformed or foolish – but I would contend that they are in fact often much more sensible than those ‘in politics’ give them credit for. Seeing a general acceptance of the status quo between the three main parties, and being utterly uninspired by managerialist politics, they stay at home. After all – “what’s the point?”

Confused by this increasing apathy, our existing politicians struggle to make politics more ‘relevant’ – to young people, with toe-curlingly embarassing pseudo-rap, or to families with Cameron doing the washing up in front of his webcam – all the while, missing the point. People *long* for politics to be relevant in the only way that actually matters – offering a coherent and inspiring vision for their future, and the future of their children.

Politics in Britain, at the moment, is failing this task in epic style. We cannot continue to do so, unless we are willing to watch the wholescale disintegration of democratic engagement. We need more of the vision thing – and we need it now.

Matt Sellwood is the Green Party’s Parliamentary candidate for Hackney North & Stoke Newington. He blogs here and here

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Reader comments


Yet another article on this topic that confuses lack of interest in mainstream politics for lack of interest in any politics whatsoever.

Does no-one read the research?

Hi Matt

Interesting article, and I’m going to refrain from suggesting as I have to other bloggers that apathy is generally a sign that society is ticking along just fine. After all, apartheid, mass unemployment, war, famine – these things tend to get people active. Decent healthcare and food on the table does the reverse.

However – I sympathise with the view that political leaders right now, and particularly David Cameron, lack vision. I’d even go so far as to say they lack real leadership.

For their many ills, Thatcher and Blair had visions. They had a concept that made coherant sense. And they both used inspirational language repeatedly to make their point and win support.

Cameron, who should by rights be now where Blair was in 1996, seems unwilling to try the same.

And that’s a shame for politics.

“For their many ills, Thatcher and Blair had visions”

As an antidote, I strongly recommend: Simon Jenkins: Thatcher and Sons (Penguin, 2006).

IMO Blair’s vision was to do whatever was necessary to become PM. He was first elected to Parliament in September 1983 on a Labour manifesto which would have commtted a Labour government to negotiating withdrawal from the European Common Market, unilateral nuclear disarmament and to taking the commanding heights of the economy into public ownership.

So much for Blair’s enduring political principles.

Bob B

the flaw in your rather vapid argument there is of course “He was first elected to Parliament in September 1983 on a Labour manifesto”

It would have been a much easier climb for him to join and get elected for the Tories.

@4: “It would have been a much easier climb for [Blair] to join and get elected for the Tories.”

Blair did run as the Labour candidate for the byelection in the iconic Beaconsfield constituency in 1982 on virtually the same manifesto so it would been stretching his street cred a bit to switch sides the following year for the general election. Besides, at one time Blair had been an enthusiastic and active supporter of CND and that wouldn’t have looked too good on a CV when he came to apply to become a Prospective Conservative Parliamentary candidate.

Have you not read about Blair’s 22-page letter to Michael Foot?

“Tony Blair’s youthful enthusiasm for radical socialism and his admiration for socialist theorist Karl Marx are revealed in letter written in 1982.

“In the 22-page letter, the 29-year-old Mr Blair tells then Labour leader Michael Foot how reading Marx had ‘irreversibly altered’ his outlook.

“He also praises Tony Benn, agreeing with the left-winger’s analysis that Labour’s right-wing was bankrupt.”
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/5081798.stm

So much for the longevity of Blair’s enduring political principles.

Bob

I don’t see how you think that means his vision, as laid throughout his leadership of Labour, to win and keep power for a generation to change Britain to a more social democratic nature, was not a vision. Nor does that suggest he lacked a willingness to use visionary language. In fact his letter to Foot was full of it.

I fear perhaps you may be one of those people who thinks Machiavelli’s works were only interested in the pursuit of power for personal ends, and thus overlook that he advocates taking power at any price only to achieve glorious aims. In effect that’s what you are describing in Blair.

I’d not go so far as to say Blair achieved glorious aims, He clearly didn’t. But he had vision, he used visionary language to express it, and political leaders right now lack that.

7. Casper ter Kuile

Totally agree with this

Cameron, who should by rights be now where Blair was in 1996, seems unwilling to try the same.

What, you mean 13 points ahead in an ICM poll? Spook…

C L LD C lead
ICM/Guardian 02/11/96 34 47 15 -13
ICM/Guardian 15/11/09 42 29 19 13

Face it chaps, the fact that the Tories aren’t polling as high as Tony did is exactly matched by the fact that Gordo is polling much worse than John Major.

“I fear perhaps you may be one of those people who thinks Machiavelli’s works were only interested in the pursuit of power for personal ends, and thus overlook that he advocates taking power at any price only to achieve glorious aims. In effect that’s what you are describing in Blair.”

However Blair started off, IMO he certainly migrated to a position where he was primarily interested in office for the sake of power and only incidentally interested in what he might do with the power once installed as “strong leader”.

For my political tastes, Blair went through too many somersaults in his declared visions and political principles to retain any vestige of credibility and several observers – notably Roy Jenkins and Simon Jenkins – questioned whether he had quite the intellectual capacity for the job of PM. A thorough review of his time in office will show up huge gaps between the vision claims and implementation for any who care to look at what happened.

In that famous keynote speech Blair made in Chicago in April 1999, he said: “If we want a world ruled by law and by international co-operation then we have to support the UN as its central pillar.”

But then he made a deal with Bush in 2002 and British troops were committed to the Iraq invasion in March 2003 without UN sanction despite published warnings from eminent teachers of international law that an invasion would be illegal.

The growing problem of homelessness now is because Blair as PM failed to get his ministers to rein back the house-price bubble despite warnings in the press from Goodhart and Bottle as well as the IMF before the 2005 election.

I could go on with more. Between the 1997 and 2005 elections, Blair lost 4 million votes and half the membership of the Labour Party. More of the electorate didn’t vote in the 2005 election than the number who voted for Labour candidates.

GB voters are not particularly ideological. Parties have a hard core vote that is unshiftable apart from tactical voting episodes, and it is based on tradition as well as philosophy. The hard core numbers come out something like this (guesstimate):
Labour 20%
Conservative 25%
Lib Dem 8%

I’m suggesting proportions of those who actually vote, not the total electorate. Adjust the figures to accommodate Nationalists in Scotland and Wales. Just assume that half of all votes are unlikely to change, and they are most likely to change as a tactical decision or for reasons that a remote academic observer will find difficult to detect.

GB voters are idealistic when an appealing table is spread before them. New Labour promised a revitalised social support network alongside liberal social policies (pah!). The 1997 election demonstrates this.

The only certainty about the next General Election is that the three main manifestoes will be very pragmatic wrt government spending and taxation (ie boring, possibly scary, to voters). Economic promises will be semi-negative — we won’t cut spending there, not more spending.

Ironically, that is good for liberals. It provides the space to debate the intrusion of the state into private life. Economic concerns will trim state nosiness whoever wins, but I suspect that UK voters want more than expedience when determining future law.

When historians come to pick their way through the debris of the New Labour government, Blair personally is going to come out of it badly IMO and the whole, sorry episode as a missed opportunity.

None of that implies that what went before was wonderful.

Mrs T’s vision initially amounted to little more than a commitment to undo the damage inflicted by socialism and promote small business – hence the Small Firms Loan Guarantee Scheme, where the losses on loan defaults cost taxpayers hundreds of millions.

Keith Joseph as her first industry minister, who had long campaigned for ending government support for lame ducks, found himself nodding through successive dollops of hundreds of millions to prop up British Leyland. By the time it was privatised in 1988 with the name of the Rover Group, it had cost taxpayers £3.4 billion.

She didn’t jump into privatization quickly but haltingly – Nicholas Ridley was the inspiration and driver.

As for all the stuff about cutting taxes, the fact is that by the 1992 election, tax revenues as a percentage of national GDP were much the same as when the Conservatives were elected to government in May 1979.

One big change, of course, was the industrial relations legislation to curb trade union power and most of that has survived unscathed by New Labour.

By the final quarter of 1995, Britain’s standardised unemployment rate was lower than that of France, Germany or Italy and the employment rate of working age people higher. It had taken a long time to get there.

Btw a typo – “Bottle” in my previous post should have been “Bootle”.

I don’t see why you are ranting about Blair Bob.

The article was about the lack of vision to isnpire people now. The fact that Blair and Thatcher used a vision of change to inspire strong support is a handy contrast to the lack of vision being expressed by anyone now.

Tim

Doesn’t your point support the article quite strongly? The intensely unpopular government has not seen its opposition grow intensely popular as a result.

Perhaps that reflects the lack of vision to imspire people that Matt was highlighting.

Can we be sure that Lansbury really meant it, or is it possible that his rhetoric was about getting people to vote for him? We look back on it fondly now, as a relic of a bygone age, but did people at the time regard it as a sign of an eloquent new politics? In particular, for all of the fine words, the politicians of the past still left the modern world as their bequest to us. Doesn’t this suggest that they failed to live up to their rhetoric as much as Blair failed to live up to his?

“British politics has, it seems entirely lost the understanding that politics is about vision. Its about improving people’s everyday lives, yes – but its also about being able to look to the horizon, and beyond, for a promise of something better.”

That sounds more like religion than politics: politics being, after all, simply the way that we decide who organises society’s scut work. Getting the bins emptied, jugging the crooks and so on.

By embracing the vision thing you’re already insisting on a specific version of politics, not politics itself.

Rob

Depends on how you define failure. After all, even those with visions rarely claim they can deliver utopia. Just a better world than the one they stand in. Lansbury did not create a workers paradise, but his efforts and inspiraction led to a Britain in 2009 that has a welfare state, an NHS, free education for all, and a minimum wage.

He’d probably have taken that if he’d been offered it.

@12: “The article was about the lack of vision to isnpire people now. The fact that Blair and Thatcher used a vision of change to inspire strong support is a handy contrast to the lack of vision being expressed by anyone now.”

I can’t understand why you keep ranting on about the need for political visions and ideologies as though visions and ideologies are necessarily “good things” to have.

For heaven’s sake think a little. Stalin and Hitler had plenty of visions and millions died because of that – and btw there’s much evidence that, sadly, millions of others were inspired by the visions of Stalin and Hitler. The Nazis won huge majorities in national plebiscites in November 1933 and August 1934. After the war, Stalin was reelected with a majority of more than 100%.
http://www.hawaii.edu/powerkills/20TH.HTM

IMO there’s much to be said on behalf of honest, efficient, elected governments and tolerance of diversity, including coalition governments if need be, of the kind they regularly have in Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands.

There’s an inspiring vision in this morning’s news:

“But in a speech to the Policy Exchange think tank, Mr Hammond said the Conservatives aimed to make big savings through greater productivity.

“He said the private services sector had achieved a 20% growth in productivity in the decade after 1997 but the public sector had seen a 3.4% decline over the same period.”
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/8382271.stm

Obviously, financial services in the private sector are to be a model for all of us.

Bob

I quite agree about ideology.

http://www.liberalconspiracy.org/2009/11/11/did-the-fall-of-the-berlin-wall-kill-ideology/

Also – on the Hammond speech today, my friend was at the event and is likely to blog about it on her (our) site this weekend. Needless to say we both agree that complaining about productivity gains in the public sector is ludicrous when part of the period covered involved a deliberate policy of raising wages to attract sufficient numbers of staff.

That said.

Vision is not ideology. Giving a strong outlook of what you want to achieve and why need not be ideological, or more acurately need not break the ideological status quo of liberty and democracy that has dominated the UK for over a century now.

No one is doing that right now. After all – even Hammond in his speech (in which he largely admitted he would be the Chancellor in all but name under George Osborne) did not declare his aim to be to shrink the state and get the state of peoples’ backs (as thatcher once did)

Doesn’t the death of ideology mean that, in the short term at least, (small-c) conservatism has won? The idea that all we need to do is basically stay where we are, dealing with any problems as and when they come up?

If so, this would suggest that it would be logical to focus primarily on the competence of the contenders for Government. And I suppose, given the state of the incumbants, it is not surprising people are reaching out to the alternative…

Pejar

Surely politicians can still have a vision for the changes they want to make? There was nothing conservative or managerial about creating a minimum wage for example, or nationalising railways.

So conservatism might not be the innevitable consequence of a lack of ideology.

@19 Margin4Error: “There was nothing conservative or managerial about creating a minimum wage for example, or nationalising railways.”

Both were very pragmatic interventions and I’d argue that the minimum wage was, indeed, managerial.

There’s no need to go into detailed history of the Railtrack intervention or the cancellation of some operator franchises. The private companies got the boot because they provided a lousy service. Had they done a good job, New Labour would have left them in control. The only element of ideology is that New Labour had to be seen to be administering good services (whether publicly or privately owned) and thus had to get involved. The fact that intervention was popular within Labour was a bonus.

Minimum wage is/was an important policy, not just on the grounds of fairness and equality, but because it validates “back to work” schemes. Tax credits for families would have been enough of a financial incentive for some with children; for single non-working people, minimum wage was required to make back to work realistic. Hence, minimum wage is a managerial measure to convince people that low paid work gives a return. Then Brown cocked it all up with the 10% tax rate and inadequate non-tax allowances.

“Politics in Britain, at the moment, is failing this task in epic style.”

Good God. I’d always assumed that most Greenies were educated, if nothing else.

charlieman

On that basis you can write off absolutely anything as managerial. For example, killing the jews in German in the 40s was a pragmatic and managerial rather than ideological or linked to a vision as it served the aim of ensuring a pure and superior race was not sulleyed.

Or would you agree that actually creating a fairer and more equal society through improved employment prospects is something of a vision?


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  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    :: The vision thing http://bit.ly/5Pgyhu

  2. Suffolk C Republic

    RT @libcon: The vision thing http://bit.ly/5Pgyhu > Politicians may lack vision but we don't

  3. Suffolk C Republic

    RT @libcon: The vision thing http://bit.ly/5Pgyhu > Politicians may lack vision but we don't

  4. richut

    RT @libcon: :: The vision thing http://bit.ly/5Pgyhu < What he said.

  5. Jenni Jackson

    "My well-being cannot be complete unless my neighbours share it with me.” #quote George Lansbury from http://twurl.nl/h0qoy4

  6. Matt Sellwood

    RT @libcon: :: The vision thing http://bit.ly/5Pgyhu

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