“What is your policy on Eastenders?”
In The Thick of It, Malcolm Tucker famously lambasted Hugh Abbot for not being ‘with-it’ and not having a policy on Eastenders. I wonder what he would make of Ed Miliband’s policy on chocolate oranges? Personally, I think politicians should never try to appear ‘with-it’; it’s cringe-worthy and inevitably backfires. Politics is something of an extraordinary pastime/occupation and both politicians themselves and activists spend an inordinate – compared to the general populace – concerned, arguing about and working on it. However, politicians are caught in a double-bind by the somewhat contradictory expectations of the electorate who expect them both to be ‘one of them’ and at the same time something slightly different in the sense that they are fit to represent people. Indeed, if you look at the rage that accompanies a politician having an affair, for example, you see clearly that the electorate almost expect their representatives to be slighty ‘better’ than them. Ultimately, however, being as interested in politics, consequentially how the world works and is run, probably isn’t ‘normal’ as far as most people are concerned but we seem scared to acknowledge that; but then again I have yet to hear anybody provide a workable definition of what ‘normal’ is. This however is another examples of politicians trying to pretend to be something they are not, which the electorate tends not to like.
Ed’s policy on chocolate oranges actually exposes how attempts to pitch yourself as ‘one of the people’ inevitably backfire. On closer inspection, you find that WH Smith doesn’t sell fruit so all both Mr Miliband and Mr Cameron have done is expose the fact they never shop there. Incidentally, they are both wrong politically, because the state should not really be meddling with prices in order to bend people to the behaviour that it thinks is appropriate. Some people who buy the aforementioned oranges will be obese and should probably cut back but others won’t so all you are doing with a price rise is punishing those that are not for indulging themselves in the odd bit of chocolate now and then. Not particularly fair and it is a microcosm of why this kind of nanny-state approach shouldn’t be taken.
Miliband’s stance can best be characterised as crass popularism – something Newt Gingrich knows something about after his pledge to colonise the moon by the end of his second term (notice how America has to elect him not just once but twice to get this show on the road). Gingrich obviously fancies himself as something of a Dr No (or more likely Dr Evil from Austin Powers) in the making. He is trying to steal a march on his rivals with a big, maybe inspiring, but frankly bonkers idea and Mr Miliband is trying to appeal to use something he knows is popular as leverage to talk about a broader issue. I wouldn’t be surprised if he tries to work it into his responsibility riff.
Obviously, in a representative democracy, it’s better if politicians do listen to the people they represent. However, attempting to appeal too or feed their prejudices often ends-up producing downright ugly politics – look at the welfare debate for a good example of how this kind of thing turns very nasty, very quickly. Indeed, it is pretty much impossible to have a sensible debate on welfare because it is buried under a tonne of media and political class inspired ignorant prejudice about what it is like to live on welfare and how the welfare system actually functions.
It is therefore a truism that the best politicians are the ones who are prepared to be unpopular and prepared to take positions they know people won’t like. Representative democracy inhibits them from doing that because it enhances the importance of perception over fact. This is one of the many flaws of the system we have, something that probably won’t be changed anytime soon. Still, while we argue and discuss about the changes that need to happen it would indeed be a small mercy if we were spared our leaders thoughts on the price of fine chocolate confectionary – this would at least save us from an awful lot of cringing.