Bullies who never grew up

George Osborne, autumn statement 2012

Is there anything in the world uglier than the government frontbench when it’s attempting to take down an opponent? That’s a question I shall return to later.

The Guardian rightly highlighted, on its Thursday front page, the trio of Cameron, Osborne and Alexander laughing their heads off as they announced plans to hammer the poorest and most vulnerable citizens in the autumn statement. Like Patrick Bateman, the Treasury bench was divorced from the consequences of their actions, immune to the horrors they were perpetrating on the innocent. That they could laugh at such a moment proved that they are sociopathic in the strict psychological sense.

It got me thinking. We hear a great deal about the convergence of political identities and ideologies. The argument ‘they’re all the same’ is a constant doorstep refrain, and a perpetual worry to politicians themselves. The political need for distinction, difference, and clear water of the red, blue or yellow variety jostles with the psephological need to stay camped on the centre-ground. Politicians know they need to be different from their enemies, but not too different.

The public are not stupid: they understand that professional politicians are not the same as them. They understand that people at the top of politics probably started at the bottom of politics – advising, bag-carrying, or photocopying. We shouldn’t be too surprised that both David Cameron and Ed Miliband did the same job – Treasury special adviser – within a few years of one another.

Nor should we be too shocked that so many of the senior ranks of politics did the same degree course at the same university. Alumni of Oxford University’s politics, philosophy and economics course include: Chris Huhne, Danny Alexander, David Cameron, David Miliband, Ed Miliband, Ed Balls, Ed Davey, Jeremy Hunt, Stephen Twigg, Yvette Cooper and William Hague. That particular course also spawned Barbara Castle, Michael Foot, Tony Benn, Shirley Williams, Roy Jenkins, Hugh Gaitskell, Harold Wilson, Edward Heath and Tony Crosland.

Yet there are differences between Conservative and Labour politicians, despite the similar backgrounds of so many of them. Watching the autumn statement, the main one dawned on me. It is this: Conservative politicians are interested in power: winning it, keeping it and exercising it. Labour politicians learn along the way how to do all of those things (they have to), but for the greater purpose of helping the people.

I can’t think of a single Labour politician, and I’ve known between 150 and 200 over the years, who does what they do for the power. It’s not just that most never have any power, especially the ministers; it’s more that the power is not what flicks their switch. It’s not the money either: the talented ones could be earning far more outside of politics as writers, lawyers or trade union general secretaries. Power is not what motivates Labour politicians. It is what you can do with power once you have it.

The Tories, by contrast, are only about power. Take George Osborne. He is like a political shark, never sleeping, always moving in search of prey. Every move he makes is calculated. It’s all a giant game of chess. The same can be said of previous Tory chancellors from Reginald Maudling, who removed the tax on home-brew, to Nigel Lawson who cut the top rate of tax from 60 per cent to 40 per cent. Now, I know Labour’s most famous chancellor Gordon Brown was hardly an ingénu in the dark arts of politics. But he was motivated by a desire to tackle poverty and inequality, rather than the exercise of power for the sake of it.

Which brings me back to Wednesday’s statement. Those with better economic brains than mine (perhaps those who studied PPE?) have dissected what the statement means for the economy. It is clear it represents a massive redistribution from the poorest third of the population to the richest tenth. It will ruin the lives of countless numbers of our fellow citizens for decades to come. This is well understood and discussed endlessly this week.

But the politics is what fascinates me. The Conservatives were faced with a simple problem: their policy isn’t working. The numbers don’t match the rhetoric. The self-defined reason for this government to exist is to do something which they are patently failing to do. So what do they do? The honourable thing would be to apologise, resign and call a general election. Instead they opted for a more brutal tactic of self-preservation. They decided to take down Ed Balls. The whips orchestrated it. The backbenches revelled in it. The cheerleaders in the press and blogs colluded in it. A giant, concerted attempt was made, from the chancellor’s own speech, to every wannabe tweeter and blogger, to make Wednesday about Ed Balls.

When Balls tripped over his words, they howled and bayed and hollered to drown out his argument. It was playground bullying of the worst kind. As he told Radio 4 the following day, sometimes his stutter gets the better of him for a moment or two, especially when ‘I have the prime minister, and the chancellor and 300 Conservative MPs yelling at me at the tops of their voices.’ This isn’t an attempt to solicit sympathy for Balls. He’s a big enough political beast to look after himself. It’s more about what it says about the Tories: bullies who never grew up, using an opponent’s weakness to their own advantage, while enacting policies which destroy people’s lives.

Is there anything uglier than that?

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Paul Richards writes a weekly column for Progress, Paul’s week in politics. He tweets @LabourPaul

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  • Jeremy Killingray

    We play the same game by accentuating how a mild speech impediment deflected attention from the real issues contained within the Autumn statement. I think Ed Balls was wrong footed by a Chancellor who has adopted a Plan B containing some elements that Labour finds difficult to object to. For example additional capital investment redirected from Whitehall efficiency savings and putting off some of the austerity to later years trumping Labour’s too far too fast argument. Ed might have been better if he had congratulated the Chancellor on adopting a ‘Plan B’. He could have then gone on to identify some areas where our priorities might be different. Challenging the reduction in income tax allowances that effectively gives a tax break to all no matter what their circumstances – this can be described as reckless and likely to facilitate a loss of the triple A lending rate. He could also have usefully attacked the mortgaging or speculating of the 4G windfall on the grounds that we don’t know precisely how much it will raise that adds fuel to the ‘rating agencies’ uncertainty about Britain’s ability to manage its deficit and borrowing. Instead it might have been better to ring fence this potential windfall to improve the governments work programme and get more young people into proper training and employment or spend on a housing development initiative. Effectively showing how we can live within our means and make a clear case for costed investment. We need to demonstrate to the electorate that we understand that uncomfortable cuts will have to be made, welfare will be meaner even under a Labour government, but unlike our opponents we do have a strategy for getting people into work and helping them build more dignified and secure if less materially opulent lives.

  • Roy Boffy

    No, they are quite the nastiest, most incompetent bunch of parasites I’ve seen in politics. They make Thatcher look compassionate. They make me sick. What Labour needs is to get just as nasty on behalf of the vast majority in this country who are suffering under this odious mob. They need sharper teeth and claws.

  • Jeremy Killingray

    They make me sick too. However, we still have to demonstrate that we are reasonable, competent and decent people, not consumed by revenge or tribal hatred. Most people out their think all politicians are on the make no matter what party they come from and unfortunately we’ve had our fair share of characters imprisoned or forced to step down from their roles in politics because they got used to the perks of office.

  • Kentish

    Labour, especially New Labour are all about power. The evidence is clear. Blair changed everything about the Labour Party simply to gain and hold onto power…..and in doing so caused the most unpleasant and odious political movement ever seen in the UK. The Tories are arrogant but Labour is about power……..any real working class heroes on the Labour front bench, who send their children to state schools? No. Thought not