The most depressing and exciting political debate ever? (Yes, the Labour leadership campaign)

This is the most exciting and depressing phase for debate within a modern British political party that I can recall. The argument about the leadership of the Labour Party encapsulates mostly what’s wrong with that organisation and left-wing politics, but it also tells us something about the good, bad and plain ugly about political discourse more generally at the moment.

It’s difficult to separate out one’s political position from this. So for transparency, here’s mine. I am what you might call a right-wing Labour social democrat. I stuck with the party as a young adult in the bitter, internecine wars of the mid-80s, celebrated the return to power in ’97 and would be as likely to buy a Spurs season-ticket as vote for Jeremy Corbyn.

So I am in line ideologically and historically with people like Alastair Campbell and Phil Collins of The Times when they pour scorn on what they describe as the self-indulgent, oppositionist drift to an unelectable policy programme and a political strategy that will bring years of division, confusion and conflict to the party and perhaps the wider Left.

But taking my usual media/political communications perspective I am even more depressed at the failure to have a healthy debate about this remarkable uprising led by a man who has always been pretty open and consistent about his programme.

At a time when this country needs a realistic alternative vision to the Conservatives — if only to sustain a vibrant democratic competition — we have staggered from the introverted end-days of Gordon Brown to the equally confusing fudge of Ed Miliband. While Liz Kendall has tried to give a clear version of a mixed-market approach it has lacked substance and whenever questioned she has failed to articulate a convincing political argument beyond some (to me) attractive slogans. Burnham and Cooper are more mature politicians but they are so burdened by their own complicity in the past failures that they seem unable to find a genuine personal voice, let alone a programme that isn’t some kind of re-mix of everyone else’s.

Meanwhile, the guy with the least concern for communications has attracted a self-propelling, burgeoning swarm of enthusiasts. They are probably more diverse than the metropolitan elite (I’d like to think I have a junior membership card) think encompassing a range of youthful activists and older Old Labourites. Politically, I think their project is doomed. It’s more of a Twitter/Town Hall surge than an army that will re-capture the electoral battlefield. But how sad is it that the dynamism they represent has not been included before? How wrong that their assertions have been met with put-downs instead of persuasion.

This might just be how it is. The wider political landscape is pocked with mini-eruptions, on the Right as well as the Left. This might be catalysed by the energy and tribalism of social media but it’s almost certainly symptomatic of deeper socio-economic forces and framed by a wider failure of mainstream politics to create the coalitions that Thatcher and Blair built in the past. Those last two were geniuses at creating the rhetoric that defined their positions while including those at the edges of their natural support. Corbyn most obviously but also the other leadership contenders just don’t seem to have the political language to do the same.

This might just be how it is. The non-Conservative world (apart from the SNP, obviously) is still staggering away from one electoral car-crash (at exactly the point — to mix metaphors — when an EU referendum could derail the Conservatives). Perhaps we are facing some kind of historic realignment. Well, I remember the Gang of Four and I can’t see it this time, under this system. But regardless of the political outcome what depresses me most is the failure to make the case (aside from honourable and too quiet exceptions such as Alan Johnson) for the Labour Party on the centre ground. And more widely I fear we are entering a vicious cycle where increasingly narrow, shallow, stage-managed mainstream politics will fail to offer leadership for progressive change in the context of the often blinkered, bitter and self-regarding bubbles that pass for ‘grass-roots’ media activism.

Yet, I am excited. We have not been here before exactly. Politics is a stream, not a repeating loop. It’s important to learn lessons from history, not to live in the past. And one key task will be to reinvent a language for journalists and citizens which fulfills the inclusive participatory promise of the new communications channels.

Journalist, LSE media professor, Polis think-tank director. Writes about journalism, UK & global politics

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