Tuesday, March 22, 2005

contradicting myself

Some thoughts on the election campaign as it begins; it was being heavily trailed last night on Newsnight as 'Top of the populists', the allegation being that both major parties are resorting to what Lynton Crosby calls 'dog whistle issues' in order to get their message - as opposed to their opponents' - over to the electorate as the 'top story' - hence Howard on abortion, travellers, GM crops and asylum and Labour on, erm, school dinners. And the budget, presumably (which the tories, shouting 'vote now, pay later' consider a piece of crude electioneering in itself).

Superficially, it's easy to equate the tory line on travellers with Ruth Kelly's announcement on school dinners, both announcements coming on the back of nationwide campaigns as they do. The Sun, that bastion of campaigning journalism, has had it's knives out for Britain's travelling folk, and Jamie Oliver, with his excellent Jamie's School Dinners programme, has both knife and fork pointed menacingly in the direction of Bernard Matthews, who makes Turkey Twizzlers and - by virtue of stuffing them full of scrumptious ground-up turkey bones, additives and crack cocaine - has sewn up the school dinner market in the process. Both campaigns, it appears, have provoked political gestures from Howard's Conservatives and Blair's government.

Both argue that there is nothing crude in their own actions and plenty in those of their opponents. Howard claims that he is responding to a genuine greivance on the behalf of many Britons, whereas Kelly is merely jumping on the bandwagon. The Labour line has it that Howard is exploiting and encouraging ill-informed racist sentiment that he would be better off challenging. And Kelly, apparently, knew all about Jamies' dinners long before we did - something which is probably true, given that Oliver has footage of himself talking to Charles Clarke about the subject last summer - and already has plans in place.

So, are we being exploited twice over by parties who only want to jockey us into voting for them? People peddling policies which they would never have meddled with had they not been in dire need of a pre-election boost? It's certainly a real blot on the Labour copybook that it has taken this long to do anything about school dinners. The French spend between £1.50 and £4 on school meals and we manage a mere 37p. Clearly not good enough. And Ruth Kelly's announcement is just not enough; more is needed than a cap on ingredients - this is about funding, equipment and training.

But I'm not so relentlessly cynical to think that simply because the government is responding to a campaign it's motives are entirely flawed. In truth, the idea of providing healthy food for children should not be a party-political issue in any sense, were it not for the spectre of contracting out services. It would be far more troubling if movements and campaigns such as those led by Jamie Oliver (and, I say through gritted teeth, The Sun) were ignored entirely. Which is not to say that just because someone starts campaigning about something, be it fair trade or the abolition of late-term pregnancies, the government should follow the tune.

But Oliver's campaign gives me hope that sensible, articulate campaigning can be one of the central ways we can get out of this cycle of being so desperately disappointed by our shoddy government and the political system in this country. If we can no longer trust parties to be bold and take the initiative then we do need to feel that we can influence them; Jamie's School Dinners did just that. Ruth Kelly may have just re-hashed a load of fairly unimpressive policy commitments but in doing so she sustains the debate - we can keep going, we can demand more. This and other campaigns (like Christian Aid's 'Make Poverty History') enable us to keep up the pressure on politicians to do more than just make token gestures.

Howard, too, has been influenced by single issue campaigning, and doubtless his supporters feel the same way I do - they want these issues aired. In party politics, especially near elections, we all have to be opportunists when it comes to furthering our ideas.

But whereas Kelly's commitments are 'not enough', merely a small step towards a destination that remains frustratingly far away, Howard's plans are too much and too dangerous. He looks to deprive people and ethnic groups of rights, he demonises communities and he exploits racial tension. I'm desperately disappointed by this government, but I will take any day a party which makes frustrating small steps in the right direction over a party which wants to turn us round and march us into isolation, division and neglect.


The only problem is that both those descriptions, seperately applied, describe the Labour government. I deplore the populist poison which has marked the tory campaign so far and yet I am faced with this current administration, which conjures up identity cards and illegal wars, which presides over the destruction of human rights and civil liberties, which "talks tough" on asylum without making the case for immigration. Polly Toynbee accurately described Blair as "not so much adrift as perversely rowing in the wrong direction."

For all Lynton Crosby's backwards agenda and the sheer nastiness of the tories, we retain a one step forward, three steps back government. It's not hard to understand why the start of this election campaign, with its depressing choice of Tory and New Labour, is filling so many us with dread.


Powerful Pierre said...

Yes, the election campaign is not exactly thrilling me either. One bit of good news today though, the ODPM has announced that affordable housing will receive close to 50% more resources in the South West, and 15% more for the South East. And it's all down to me!

jonathan said...

Good work, Pete. Take the rest of the day off!