Charlotte Leslie is a member of the Health Select Committee and MP for Bristol North West.
Last week, I did something that the followers of the “Book of Blair” (that manual for “how to be a politician” which serves as a bible for far too many in positions of authority) would have blanched at. I did a “Why did you lose?” radio interview the morning after the Rochester and Strood by-election. My opponent down the phone was a very jovial, blunt-talking UKIP candidate .
I hadn’t debated anyone from UKIP before in public, and wanted to see what it would be like. I was also not too fussed about the Rochester and Strood by-election result. We did very much better than I thought we might do, and I was rather heartened by how much the UKIP vote seemed to have taken from Labour. Besides, it made all the sense in the world that people might want to take the opportunity to protest against the Establishment without risking their protest propelling Ed Milliband into Number Ten.
We are in an age of protest against the Establishment – and often with good reason. Ever more transparency, and the liberation of information through the internet, has revealed that what we would have liked to have thought of as bastions of integrity and authority have been severely found wanting.
And it is also the case that, for better or worse, politics really hasn’t kept pace with the changing times – the deference that the political establishment often implicitly assumes is its right is now an anachronism. We have an electorate that feels sufficiently empowered to wish to know what bang they get for their voting buck. They want to see how politics is serving them. The political Establishment has not demonstrated this sufficiently – otherwise UKIP would not exist.
In many ways, Blair prepared the stage for the public’s disenchantment with politics and politicians. He was the politician who instigated and rode the emerging culture that I have written about before; the shift to “Sentio ergo sum” – “I feel therefore I am”. He wooed the public with pseudo-stutters that made him sound as though he had no script and was “a genuine kinda bloke”. He developed a weird way of not pronouncing his ‘t’s to show he was “a regular kinda guy’. (This is a trait that many a Labour politician still mimics, especially poor Ed Milliband.) But just as the nice girl in the plot of the play sees through the charms of the cad – who was a bad lot all along – the public eventually saw through Blair’s false charm, and now, as with most relationships in which you realise you’ve been had, can’t stand him…and feel a bit sick with the whole thing.
This is why I have always felt uncomfortable when any Conservative politician has made a virtue of being anything like Blair. Blair was a con-artist politician; a disastrous statesman. He blew smoke-screens of blue centre-right policies while, in the background, Gordon Brown steamrollered on with deeply old Labour policies: unrestrained public spending, the determined expansion of the public sector – the legacies if which we are still tackling.
That some of our politicians are still taken in by this magician’s act, and seem to think that this is what politics is about, is deeply depressing. Moreover, it is against that idea of politics as a smooth spin game that many people want to protest, which is why they flock to the rough-and-ready, apparently unmanufactured, apparent authenticity of UKIP.
But here is the great irony. While the high echelons of the political class are still anxiously studying the “Book of Blair” and trying to replicate his flirting techniques (to which the public long ago became wise, and which now simply engender nausea and anger), the true Heir to Blair has emerged in the form of the public’s latest darling – yes, Nigel Farage and UKIP.
The chat-up lines may be different, because the times are different, but basics are the same. Mark Reckless’s victory speech – with its repeated pattern of ‘if you believe… if you believe… ‘etc. etc – reminded me exactly of vacuous stuff that Blair gave us – which that sounded good, but “signified nothing”. He played to our hormones, our emotions. Peel back the image, and underneath lay a reality that was very different.
And so with UKIP. They are touching the same sensitive spot that makes the public go gooey as Blair touched, in the same way, but with different lines; Their chat-up line is: “we are mavericks”. It plays to what a disenfranchised public wants to hear, but it is only a chat-up line.
If you ask anyone from UKIP how exactly any of their ideas are going to work, or why their policies keep changing, they either fire back seductive sound-bites of anti-establishment anger – or change the subject. We all know someone who has made a bad choice of partner, gone for a charmer who screws them over and leaves them broken. We have all heard them swear they’ll never make that mistake again – and then seen them stuck in a cycle of believing similar charmers, and watched helplessly as they do so again and again.
The last thing this country needs is an heir to Blair, such as Farage. What we really need is a party that has looked to the horizon, spotted the problems, and has a plan to deal with them – a plan with details, not sound-bites. A by-election is one thing – the public can afford to go on a date with another sound-bite charmer-party, but if the public get into bed with them in May, the hangover the next morning will be indescribable.