Saturday, October 17, 2015

While Murdoch Media Focusses on Labour 'Problems', Can We Talk About The Tories?

Every morning I wake up to read the Murdoch press, only to be told that the Labour party are at the brink of collapse. I don't know. They may well be - after all, party politics often happen beyond the public eye. However, I rarely read anything about the post-election internal dynamics of the Conservatives (beyond fairly superficial pieces on the various politicians jockeying for party leadership). This may be - I concede - because there is an assumption that the party has won quite decisively, and need not consider voters (or potential ones) at all for a bit.

If so, it doesn't quite chime with the growing tetchiness and fumbling in the behaviour of many in its rank and file, both in real life and on social media. I recognise that many - especially on the left - would simply write this off as 'Tory arrogance' but I believe it is more complex. The party's higher ranks may well be clueless, as demonstrated for example by the poor optics of laughing just as Jeremy Corbyn was speaking at the last PMQs of poverty in Britain.  The behaviour on social media of accounts of more junior Tory party members seems just as dissonant with a clear combination of irritation, arrogance (or perhaps more accurately, bravado) and an odd reluctance to answer questions.

While I have been watching multiple socmed accounts and party members flounder, here are some examples (that I have directly experienced):

1. The rather ineptly branded @LGBToryUK account went on a blocking spree on twitter during the party conference. While blocking is indeed a useful function for individuals, an institutional account that blocks en masse - and not for abuse but simple questions - is demonstrating both lack of social media savvy and incredible ineptitude.

I was blocked for a single tweet responding to an all-white, all male panel on queer issues at the party conference (my response was a rather mild 'oh dear'). Interestingly, I didn't notice for days until multiple LGBTIQ activists and freelance journalists began complaining of being blocked. On checking, I found I too had been blocked. And then, on raising a fuss, I was quietly unblocked. The administrators then claimed that I hadn't been blocked at all, despite screenshots, and have since refused to either apologise or explain how this magical block-unblock happened.  To be quite precise, they are pretending they need not engage at all with me.

2. A stranger version of this is unfolding at councillor level in my area. Last year, after I experienced a racist hate crime, the local Tory councillors were fastest to mobilise and reach out. A year later, this has changed (the MP is again Labour so perhaps the councillors have decided there is little to be done until an election is closer?).

When questioned on issues ranging from immigration and the refugee crisis to tax credits and Brexit, the councillors are locked into a pattern. They predictably share the party line on their accounts but when asked for their own stances, are unable and unwilling to answer. When pushed, all they can offer is: 'we have no input into the party policy.'

Now this may well be true, but - for example - when the Home Secretary declares that 'immigration harms social cohesion,' a voter living in one of the areas of highest immigrant densities in the country can only be concerned. Surely it is then up to the councillors to soothe (or exacerbate) fears, and explain that the area is not (or is) facing a clear and present danger of social strife.

3. The local party office appears just as incapable of answering questions about how government policy - now decided entirely by the party as it is no longer in coalition - is impacting daily lives of residents, taxpayers and voters in the area. All queries are answered with a standard, 'please contact us if it is about council services.'

There may well be a party edict asking the rank and file to not comment on any policy matters. Given that most of the mainstream media appears invested in keeping all questions of politics at their most superfluous, this may even be a smart and reasonable tactic. However, in an age of social media, this is as poor a response as the optics of MPs 'laughing at poverty' during the PMQs.

However, I believe the reasons go beyond party edicts or arrogance. There is - I believe - a growing disconnect in whatever is decided at cabinet level and how it is communicated to the rank and file. Although party members fall in line with stating similarly worded, mechanical explanations, they are also left incapable of defending the government's policy decisions in any substantial way. They are also left floundering because the government policies are often increasingly indefensible - not only on moral grounds - but on logical, even small case conservative, pro-business grounds.

There is also - I have learned in the decade of living in Britain - an oddly feudal attitude to politics (and this cuts across party lines). As Indian politics practices a less subtle, more in-your-face version of this, I am quite familiar with it. Elected officials - from MPs to councillors in Britain - hold an implicit attitude of bestowing largess on their constituents. So an active and effective MP (or other elected official) will often respond instantly and immediately to small, personal grievances raised by individual voters. At MP surgeries, issues of council services or policing or individual difficulties can be raised and resolved. And there is a not so covert expectation that the voter thus being helped will then be grateful and suitably reward the party/officer with future voting loyalty.

This is really a modern version of a feudal lord handing out tit-bits to keep peasantry from revolting!

The principle that a democracy requires its elected officers to be held responsible not as feudal lords bestowing favours, but for service to voters appears non-existent.

In some ways, this is also why the Conservative party rank-and-file appears bewildered. Accustomed to abuse by opponents and assuaging individuals with supposed help is all they know. The very idea that a voter may question them on matters of policy or ideology appears almost entirely foreign. It is for this reason that @LGBToryUK blocked any who asked even the simplest of questions. They have nothing to 'bestow' on the voters. They have little explanation for why their tag erases the T in LGBT, or indeed why policy discussions on LGBT issues are being handled entirely by a very narrow set of people.

This is also why a local councillor - Hampstead's Oliver Cooper - can tetchily declare that politely albeit repeatedly questioning him about 'social cohesion' and anti-immigrant rhetoric from senior members of his party is 'insulting and harassing' him. It is also why he believes simply saying 'I do not accept the premise of your question. Fin.' is an adequate response to a voter.

However, social media and the changing demographics in Britain is demanding a new kind of politics (unlike many, I don't see Corbyn as a substantive harbinger of this). This form of politics will require more than a few elected officials 'resolving voter difficulties' by calling up a bureaucrat or contacting an office. As a voter, I am not interested in receiving 'gracious help' on an individual basis. I want to see efforts made for structural changes so the difficulties faced by me are not passed on to the next voter, and the next generation. (As an aside and this is material for another post, the Conservative party would do well to examine the Republican implosion across the pond. The final crumpling of the 'Southern strategy' holds lessons for the Tories who want to solely pander to an ever-shrinking and ageing 'base.')

Of course any kind of politics is hard to effect. At the same time, it is necessary that politicians in all parties began to learn this. If any politician or party believes they only need to deal with the voter to bestow favours, or can summarily dismiss their concerns, they are profoundly mistaken.  If members of any party - but Conservatives in particular - feel that they don't have to go back to the electorate any time soon, simply because the next national level elections are far away, they are again mistaken. There are multiple other elections coming up before 2020 where the MPs may not bear the brunt of voters' discontent, but that may be borne by other elected officials.

Before ending, and perhaps this is the compassionate side of me, this also may be a reason for the current fumbling behaviour of so many in the Conservative party. Unable to defend the ridiculous rhetoric emerging from the upper ranks, they are just battening down the hatches, hoping that the questions - and voters - will go away.

And that's where they are wrong.