Monday, February 22, 2010

The "profoundly depressing" Times

There was a good example of the open contempt which the media have for ordinary people and for democracy in the Times recently. Mourning the "profoundly depressing", "colossal loss" of James Purnell standing down from Parliament, their leader included a spoof recruitment advert:

"Wanted: a highly intelligent, experienced person to kick his heels for at least five years. Travelling to and fro from some of the most inconvenient places in the country, you will have the opportunity to work seven days a week. On Sundays you will be able to enjoy attending civic events. We promise to select your immediate boss from among your worst enemies. In return we will pay you less than half of what you might earn elsewhere. You will have to shoulder your own expenses. We are seeking a candidate willing to endure repeated insults from customers."

Representing 80,000 people is "kicking your heels", anywhere outside of London is just one of those "inconvenient places", civic events are something to be mocked, earning three times the national average salary is something to complain about, and constituents are "customers". This is a window into the minds of a sneering, out of touch, hard to reach elite.

Thanks to journalists and Tories for the fake concern about what a devastating blow Purnell's departure from parliament is for the centre left, but somehow I think we will cope. What Purnell realised, even though his fans haven't, is that their approach doesn't work.

Labour has tested absolutely to destruction the idea of oligarchic politics, that all that matters is winning over the media and other opinion-formers in London, pandering to what newspaper editors think is the "political centre", and drawing ideas from a few thousand politically engaged people in think tanks, pressure groups and suchlike, all from very similar social backgrounds, while making sure to use marketing techniques to win over more customers than the next leading brand.

Purnell has spent all his working life in or about Westminster and mastered this approach, which was why the media love him. However, his limited life experience helps to explain why he was an extremely ineffective government minister, who came up with ideas such as charging interest of up to 27% on crisis loans for the very poorest people.

This week, he is learning about a whole new approach to doing politics, called broad-based community organising. Rather than trying to win over the approval of a few well-connected insiders, he will learn that social change comes from organising ordinary people, and that the best policies are those that are developed by people meeting together in all those "inconvenient places", and, indeed, at civic events, and talking about what the main problems that they, their friends and their families are facing and what needs to be done.

It's just a shame that Purnell sees this as an alternative to being an MP. I think that the principles behind broad-based community organising are ones which every Labour MP should know about, and building these relationships is the number one task for the centre left over the next few years.

The Times argues that "in politics, individuals matter. Time and again, political parties have been changed for the better by clear-sighted individuals who seize the helm. Mr Purnell represented one of the best hopes that this might happen on the Centre Left."

But the future of centre left politics is not going to come from a "clear-sighted" great leader, anointed by the media, who can lead us to the promised centre ground and market his political brand successfully to the customers. It is going to come from a new generation of leaders, from all those inconvenient parts of the country, whose power comes from the support and active involvement of all those millions of people who our lords and masters sneer at and despise.