Comment: New politics, old journalism

Trying to drive a wedge through the new politics is a dangerous game. After all, the government has an impressive electoral mandate.

By Stephen Barber

There was a moment in 1994 when Britain experienced what we are today calling 'new politics'. Labour leader John Smith died unexpectedly and there was a genuine coming together of politicians and parties which extended beyond polite eulogising. It represented a brief period of consensual politics which came to a rapid end as the Labour leadership contest opened.
The new consensual politics today comes at a time when Labour is again choosing a new leader. And its choice could have ramifications for the new atmosphere and potentially for the economic management of the country. One of the great criticisms of British politics is its tribalism.

It is the idea that the great party machines exercise such power that we have a winner takes all battle of rosette-wearing teams rather than a debate of ideas and compromise. And with a new coalition, comprising of not necessarily natural bedfellows, there is a glimmer that the confrontational politics of old has been laid to one side at a time of national economic crisis. It is something which a disgruntled press has tried desperately to drive a wedge between - and the Labour leadership contest could determine whether they succeed.


The press did not have their most successful of elections since the television debates, attracting some 10 million viewers, became the primary medium through which the electorate formed their views on the campaign. Newspapers retreated into tribal positions complaining, rather ironically, that the campaign was not talking about policy. The TV debates were indeed about the leadership personalities of the three men who presented themselves for election on behalf of their parties but they were also about policy. For 90 minutes, over three successive weeks, this is what the party leaders argued about. And they did so directly to the public, unfiltered by the most self-important of interviewers.

It is here that the shift from old to new politics is so stark. Once the votes were cast and no-one had won outright, we went from a public, presidential focus on party leaders' personalities to a private, detailed negotiation about policy; new politics meant a shift from seeking differences in manifestos to identifying common objectives.

For the first time in comparable history, we have today a British government formed with what it can legitimately claim to be a majority of votes cast at the general election. And while some might be uneasy at the coalition negotiations, this government can lay claim to a greater popular mandate than any formed by Thatcher or Blair.

Whoever had formed the government after polls closed on May 6th would have to face the reality of tax rises and spending cuts. This recovery, after all, looks likely to be as tough as the recession itself. It is early days, but there are signs that the consensual nature of the formation of this administration means that the wilder excesses of potential policy have been tempered with tax rises seemingly fairer than they might have been, cuts smaller and more distanced from the front line, and plans for economic recovery seemingly credible.

Will it last? There are many determinants which have been discussed at length, not least on these pages. But one is the outcome of the Labour leadership, a contest more about personality than policy since the three or four leading contenders who once sat around a Cabinet table together cannot be said to be ideological foes and all describe themselves as 'progressives'.

In Ed Balls, though, there stands an uncompromising tribalist who would be an unlikely supporter of the new consensual style. The Milibands (especially David) appear more amenable to what Tony Blair once called his 'big tent' approach to politics; a consensual style which might fit the new politics. And all contenders must realise that if they re-instate the old tribal approach, they might only heckle from the sidelines as the coalition introduces progressive policies such as constitutional reform. While they might reap the electoral benefits of painful economic conditions they will do so only because of a return to politics as usual, which was so dejected in the last discredited parliament.

Dr Stephen Barber is an academic at London South Bank University and resident economics commentator at politics.co.uk.

The views expressed on politics.co.uk's comment pages are not necessarily those of the website or its owners.

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