THE BLOG

The Age of Panderism

26/11/2014 11:46 GMT | Updated 25/01/2015 10:59 GMT

Britain's politics is in a sorry state. I'm not talking about political issues, no. It's the mediocre level of the political conversation, amongst both politicians and journalists, which saps the spirit. This matters, for if you don't have a standard of discourse that facilitates honesty, nuance and fair-mindedness, then all areas of politics suffer.

The mediocrity that pervades British politics was exposed once more by the hysterical reaction to Emily Thornberry's tweet, which compelled the Shadow Attorney general's eventual resignation. This is the age of Panderism. Pandering to populism. Pandering to moralisers. Pandering to what's easy, rather than what's right.

When the History books of this period are written, they will note that this was the first time that a Shadow Minister resigned from a single Tweet. As a result of saying three words, 'image from Rochester', accompanied by a single picture. Ms Thornberry's Tweet was unequivocally ill-advised and, without any accompanying clarification or explanation, insensitive. It was by itself patronising, reinforcing the mantra that politicians are 'out of touch'. She didn't stop and think through what would have been an impulsive reaction, nor how it would be received and the consequences. Hence why she conceded in a statement that she "made a mistake" and apologised "if she had upset or insulted anybody". However, causing offense isn't inherently wrong in itself, so long as it aims at truth and contributes to political debate. But this episode is indicative of the culture of offence and victimisation that debases political debate, where honesty is banned and insincerity accepted.

Thornberry was starting a conversation that unfortunately never took place. In recent years and before the rise of UKIP, the cry persisted how unfair it is that to express the belief that immigration should be curbed led to condemnation for being a racist. This was most emblematically seen with Gordon Brown's dismissal of Gillian Duffy as a "bigoted woman". The idea that concerns about immigration equates to racism is ridiculous. But as ridiculous is claiming that one can't feel unnerved by a certain brand of nationalism, specifically a narrowly English one.

And how couldn't it unnerve some? It's shamefully insincere of Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband to claim that hanging numerous English flags outside your home outside of the World Cup summer is totally normal, and that some wouldn't deem it a bit odd. Given that the English flag has been hijacked by such empathetic and compassionate organisations as the English Defence League. UKIP also laud 'Englishness' and the English flag, rather than the British flag, and we are well aware the UKIP phenomenon unnerves far more than it enthrals. Dan Ware, whose house was in Thornberry's tweet, exposed why some aren't as enamoured of the English flag as Miliband and Clegg claim to be when he said "I will continue to fly the flags - I don't care who it pisses off. I know there is a lot of ethnic minorities that don't like it," or when he travelled to Thornberry's front door-step to demand an apology, whilst waving the England flag.

It's hypocritical to defend the right to express concerns about immigration, but not extend the right of expression to those who have worries about anti-immigration rhetoric. Or how proposed immigration curbs would cause harm. As the ever-reasonable commentator Hopi Sen Tweeted in response to the incident: "Seriously it is crazy Emily Thornberry is in more political trouble for saying nothing than Mark Reckless is for wanting to deport people."

Social Media had the potential to start a conversation, not shut it down. Unfortunately for politicians at least, the level of discussion is maddeningly banal and replete with political correctness, bland statements churned out so un-penetrating they couldn't possibly provoke dissent. So touch the 'Tweet' button at your peril, politicians. If you get it wrong, you're seconds away from the end of your ten-year career. We yearn for better politicians in this country, but how can we expect a higher calibre of politician if we perpetuate a censorious environment, in which politicians are afraid of expressing themselves honestly? In which any mistake, any gaffe, immediately subjects the accused to utter vilification?

Emily Thornberry is a good person who made a mistake. She didn't deserve the hounding she got from the press; the braying hyenas of photographers shoving their tools into her face; journalists hounding her outside her home with simplistic questions as she tries to cycle to work. Thornberry is an uncommon case of social mobility amongst politicians, proud of coming from a council estate in Guildford then becoming a barrister. LabourList's editor Mark Ferguson, who has campaigned with Thornberry, describes her as "down to earth" rather than snobbish, and a "passionate campaigner for the people of her constituency - which, contrary to popular opinion, contains areas of real, sustained poverty." Not that the narrative perpetuated by most journalists or politicians has engaged with such nuance or clarification.

Andrew Mitchell was subject to a similar onslaught after the 'Pleb-Gate' scandal, when he was presumed guilty since it made a good story, rather than because it had any relation to the truth (it has emerged since that the police officers who initially accused Mitchell might have distorted the truth and misled the public). There's a sort of perverse schadenfreude displayed by the press when a politician is in a rut. When there's almost no one left to back them up, to provide a helping hand. In the age of Panderism, when a politician makes a misstep of morality, it's a case of Shakespeare's "Cry 'Havoc!' and let slip the dogs of war."

Nor did Thornberry deserve the smears of politicians. But the pandering politicians duly stepped forth to pour their vitriol upon her. Especially her colleagues, who threw her to the pit, rather than contribute any balance to the debate. Ed Miliband purred the facile claim that "respect is the basic rule of politics" and Shadow Cabinet member Chris Bryant similarly proclaimed that "the first rule of politics is surely you respect the voters". There are some other pretty important "rules" out there, if there is indeed a rule book. Integrity? Empathy? How about loyalty? Where was your sense of loyalty Mr Miliband or Mr Bryant? You can't just cynically cherry-pick a single "golden rule" when it suits, and dismiss all others.

I usually admire Nick Clegg for his willingness to be honest, as shown by him boldly taking on the demagogue Nigel Farage in the two debates on Europe. But it would seem any chance to gain a bit of approval was too much for Clegg to resist. So he pandered, saying Thornberry's Tweet was a "drippingly patronising thing to do - maybe it is what happens when you become MP for Islington", thus totally disregarding Thornberry's background or the diversity of Islington. For Clegg it was "jaw-droppingly condescending." Miliband similarly said he was "furious" with the Tweet. Both of you, please spare us your sanctimony. There are bigger, more important things that warrant your jaw dropping, Mr Clegg. Or make you furious, Mr Miliband.

Thornberry's resignation constituted a strategic missed opportunity from Labour. She resigned, she claims, on the basis that the conversation detracted from bigger issues: "I will not let anything distract from Labour's chance to win the coming general election." Andrew Mitchell resigned on similar grounds after 'Pleb-Gate'. Yet keeping her in place would have stimulated a debate that needs to be had and that Labour could come out of on top. Yet Miliband thought, why talk when I can pander and shut the conversation down?

If shoddy political discourse saps the spirit, then so does relentless negativity, so I want to end more positively. Yes, people are disillusioned with the current state of politics, and 'out of touch' politicians: cue the rise of Brand and Farage populism. But things don't always need to be so low. Politics can improve. I plagiarise with pride the view of my father, who is both a leader and biographer of Prime Ministers, that "to lead is to affront." We desperately need politicians who affront the easy interpretation or the easy answer. Who are bold enough to take on populism or vacuous moralising, rather than pander to it. That aren't stymied by the short-term or petty electoral concerns. Who bring to the pursuit of politics a wealth of experiences and perspective, rather than from an early age seeking power for power's sake. Some politicians might become this ideal-politician. Other potential candidates won't currently be in politics, but are waiting in the wings. So when a politician of calibre emerges, for those of us who yearn for better, we must grab them, support them and hold them to the highest standard.