Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

On the radar

Great minds think alike

Those of our readers who do not regularly scan the pages of the Daily Telegraph will no doubt have missed the five-star treatment given to Direct Democracy: An Agenda for a New Model Party, which the newspaper rather grandly declared to be the ‘manifesto’ of some of the Tory party’s ‘brightest young minds’.

Three years in the making, the book features the collected thoughts of newly elected MPs such as former Times columnist Michael Gove, the ex-director of the Reform thinktank Nick Herbert, and Greg Clark, former head of policy at the Tory party; Tory members of the Scottish and European parliaments; and an assortment of past parliamentary candidates, policy advisers and rightwing journalists.

The book is brutally frank about the Tories’ recent election performance (at their current rate of improvement,it warns, ‘it will be the year 2037 before the Tories can even hope to form a parliamentary majority’) and it offers an intellectually coherent case for a radical programme of devolution ‘directly to the citizens’. The political inspiration for the ‘faces of the future’ is, however, rather more interesting – and disturbing – than their policy prescriptions. The young Tories argue that the general election, along with the French and Dutch referendum results, demonstrated a strong ‘anti-government mood’ but lament the inability of their party thus far to capitalise on it – a result, in part, of the fact that the Conservatives are still seen as ‘the Establishment party’, they suggest.

As in all things, the solution is to be found across the Atlantic rather than the English Channel. Over the past thirty years, Direct Democracy notes, the US Republican party has ‘transformed itself from an East Coast, preppy country club party that kept losing into a Sun Belt, demotic, anti-Washington party that keeps winning.’ The key factor in this turnaround has been the Republicans’ determination – ‘which the British right could mimic’ – to ‘articulate the electorate’s disdain for politicians and functionaries’. This itself resulted from the party’s willingness to ‘stand unequivocally for localism and devolution’ – the Tories note that it was the Republicans’ ‘espousal of states’ rights causes that began their revival’ – as well as decision to adopt a series of ‘anti-politics’ policies, including term limits for legislators and limitations on budgets.

The Tories thus need to adopt a self-denying ordinance. They must dispel the notion that they are interested simply in office and convince the country that, rather than grasping at the levers of control, they would push power outwards and downwards’. It’s a nice sentiment, but one that sits rather uneasily with the true record of their political heroes in Washington. In reality, the ‘espousal of states’ rights causes’, as the Tories rather delicately put it, boiled down to aligning the Republican party with those white southerners who initially rejected, and subsequently sought to dilute, the demands of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Much of the ‘East Coast, preppy country club’ wing of the Republican party (as the Tories rather derisively label it) has, over time, bolted from the party in disgust at this kind of politics, which now manifests itself as a rather ugly, culturally conservative populism.

In office, moreover, the Republicans have been somewhat inconsistent in their desire to ‘push power outwards and downwards’. The Bush administration, for instance, has shown a growing tendency to challenge state laws – from California’s attempt to curb carbon dioxide emissions or allow the medical use of marijuana, to Oregon’s assisted suicide legislation – with which it disagrees, while also seeking to impose federal control of other areas – like the regulation of marriage – which were previously the preserve solely of the states.Ten years after taking control of the US Congress, the Republicans have become rather tired of ‘anti-politics’ except as an electoral tactic. Ethics rules have been abandoned when they appear to endanger members of the party’s leadership, the rights of the minority party threatened when they attempt to utilise them. We can’t say we haven’t been warned.

Nice guys always finish last

We can’t say we haven’t been warned either about David Willetts, currently jockeying with other Tory ‘modernisers’ for the honour of being defeated by David Davis when the party comes to elect a new leader later in the year. Willetts has made much of the Tories’ need to return to the centre ground and, in a sympathetic interview with the Guardian, he moaned about the Tories’ need to be ‘a bunch of cultural conservatives trying to get back to the 50s’. Instead, Willetts suggested, the party should adopt a socially liberal agenda (‘Conservatism with a smile’) that favoured personal freedom, individualism and choice.

All very nice, but just how credible is Willetts as the purveyor of such an agenda? Thankfully, the Christian Institute keeps a useful check on MPs’ voting records on ‘moral issues’. Here we find Willetts voting for section 28, against reducing the homosexual age of consent from 18 to 16, against no-fault divorce, against removing the ban on gays serving in the armed forces, and against allowing unmarried or gay couples to adopt children. Willetts also failed (by abstention or absence) to back recent, socially liberal measures like the civil partnership bill. Indeed, with his votes in favour of that bill and no fault divorce, perhaps Michael Howard better represents ‘Conservatism with a smile’ than David Willetts.

Partial to distortion

The ability of what used to be termed the ‘Tory press’ to shape the political debate is  hardly new and is offset, to a degree, by the regulatory duty placed on the broadcast media to engage in fair and accurate reporting. Imagine life for progressives without that. In fact, we do not have to try that hard. It’s now nearly twenty years since Ronald Reagan eliminated America’s ‘Fairness Doctrine’ – the Federal Communications Commission rule that compelled broadcasters  to give equal time to both sides of controversial questions. The decision gave the green light – the cash was already readily available – to the massive growth of an unapologetically conservative broadcast media in the US: from Fox News to rightwing radio talkshow hosts like Rush Limbaugh.

David Brock, a former rightwing media poacher turned liberal gamekeeper, argues: ‘If you look at history, you will find that the conservative movement has in many ways purchased the debate.’ Referring to the divide between ‘red’ Republican states and ‘blue’ Democrat states, he says: ‘We’re in a situation where you have “red facts” and “blue facts”. And I think the conservatives have deliberately done that to try and confuse accurate information.’

The effect of this disinformation campaign is startling. Just before the presidential election last autumn, a survey by the Programme on International Policy Attitudes found sharply different levels of knowledge among supporters of President Bush and Senator John Kerry about basic facts regarding the Iraq war. For example, 72 per cent of Bush’s supporters believed Iraq had had weapons of mass destruction (against only 26 per cent of those supporting Senator John Kerry); 75 per cent of Bush supporters thought Iraq was providing assistance to al-Qaeda (versus 30 per cent of Kerry voters); and 82 per cent of Bush supporters believed the world felt better about America (or was evenly divided) because of its invasion of Iraq (86 per cent of Kerry supporters accurately identified that this was not so). Most Bush supporters, furthermore, supported the Kyoto Protocol, the ban on land mines, and strong labour and environmental standards in trade agreements – but inaccurately believed that their candidate shared these positions.

Reviewing these findings, Robert F Kennedy Jnr concludes in his new book, Crimes Against Nature: ‘The Democrats lost the presidential contest not because of a philosophical chasm between red and blue states but due to an information deficit caused by a breakdown in our national media.’

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