Friday 6 May 2011

What's politics for

One of the responses to some of the things that I have been saying in recent months has been to ask ‘What are you in politics for?' (...if not to win elections)’.  Superficially, it sounds like a good question, but there are several things which worry me about it as a question.
The first and most obvious is that it assumes that ‘politics’ and ‘electoral politics’ are one and the same thing.  They are not.  When Tony Benn announced that he was leaving parliament to spend more time involved in politics, I thought he was making a very important point.  Politics isn’t something just for the ‘professional’ politicians, with the rest of us asked to do no more than listen to them and then give them our vote.  It is – or should be – about alternative futures, and that’s something we should all be part of.
But my real objection to the way the question is asked is that it legitimises an approach to politics which leads to a drab sameness amongst politicians – exactly what we have seen in this year’s Assembly elections.  Let me put it another way – it seems to me that there are essentially two very different ways of looking at the business of winning elections.
The first is to find out what people want to hear and then tell them that.  It’s a focus group approach to politics, and victory ultimately depends on which party can most effectively tell people what they want to hear.  In short the messages are all going to be very similar, but the presentation, and effectiveness of the presentation, will determine the outcome (to the extent that pre-existing prejudices about parties permit).
The second is to spell out a vision for the future and seek to persuade people to support that vision.  It’s a very different approach, and, to be honest, is much less likely to lead to electoral success in the short term.
The argument generally used for the first approach is that it’s better to be in power and make small changes than to be in opposition and fail to persuade people of the need for larger changes.  There are, though, two major problems with it as an approach.
The first is the danger that someone else will say the same thing better, or more credibly.  And the second, most importantly of all, is that electoral success on that basis gives a party a mandate to do only what they said they would do – which is, in essence, going to be little different from what would have happened had they not won.
My objection is not to winning elections per se – I didn’t stand in 20 elections as a candidate with the intention of losing any of them – but to winning elections with a mandate just to do the same as everyone else.  I want to persuade people that an alternative future is both possible and desirable, and I want them to embrace that alternative. 
But, as I’ve said before, if the argument for that alternative is not put, it will never be won.  And focus group electioneering means that the argument does not get put.


Anonymous said...

'1049 From Twitter: @LegalWeasel says: "Labour peer Lord Hattersley says the SNP have made gains because they are offering something "genuinely radical".'

Says it all really.

John Dixon said...


The difference in fortunes between the SNP and Plaid is obvious, as is the willingness of the SNP to be bold rather than simply claim to be bold. But Wales isn't Scotland, and whilst the comparison contains some clear lessons, we need to be careful about how far we take the comparison.

Anonymous said...

The electorate in Wales chose to turn to the Labour party, which in the UK brought the country to the brink of economic collapse only two years ago, and which has left Wales lagging behind on just about every conceivable measure after twelve years in government.

I can't see many excuses for Plaid not benefitting from that. I have my opinions as to why it has failed to make progress. Best wait until all the results are in first.

Anonymous said...

It's the Bland leading the Bland 24/7 - "Educate, Agitate, Organise" (IWW), for the "progressive"(sic) political service class has become "triangulate to the right and takeover over "their" ground, ever rightwards.

Turnout 41% THAT much? Amazing.

Anonymous said...

... good move to kick Sian Caiach's 17 year old daughter for criticising IWJ John.

Hmm - excellent. Sian wins 2000 votes, Plaid lose by 80.

Ieuan Wyn 'lead' Plaid Cymru creates double whammy for Plaid. Lack of leadership and create pointless rift which leads to Plaid losing one of her view capable AMs and losing an important seat.

John Dixon said...

Anon 12:14,

Wrong in so many ways. But no intention of going into detail.

Anonymous said...

If Plaid is not going to be different if it's not going to show us the way, whats the use of voting for it.

Mary Helen Jones made a massive mistake by talking about perhaps we go into coalition with the Tories, it's all the talk around me. A massive mistake for an area of old coal miners and steel workers. Did it affect her vote well she lost.

Mind you sadly Labour now have a chap who I'm not sure about, once a person talks about socialism these days my heart sinks.

Trystan said...

Hi John,

I have been a Plaid supporter for many years but in recent times I have also started to feel that they're starting to become too "managerial". I would never vote for the Lab/Lib/Con party and their neoliberal agenda, which sits somewhere in between 'tedious' and 'oppressive'. It is also quite interesting to observe how the Labour party are also guilty of what I like to call "Hitler Fantasy" politics, whereby a few votes are gained here and there by attempting to paint Plaid Cymru as raving lunatic nationalists who hate English people. "Nationalists" is quite a loaded term, so this is often quite an easy (and lazy) beating stick.

I have in recent years taken something of an interest in the Green Party, though I'm not completely sold on every aspect of their policies. I also feel that one major flaw is their rather tokenistic approach to the Welsh language, which is a very important issue in this global climate of cultural imperialism.

I read with interest your run-through of the manifestos of each major party in Wales, and was wondering what thoughts you have about the Green Party, and whether you believe they offer something that goes further than 'managerial' politics.

John Dixon said...


Yes, I did read the Green Party manifesto as well. To be honest, I was a little disappointed by it - I'd hoped for better. It wasn't that there was a lot with which I disagreed, it was more the case that there was a lack of detail on the 'how' certain things would be done.

I'm also disappointed with their stance on constitutional issues. The Scottish Green Party say this in their manifesto: "We’ll argue for a multi-option referendum with choices including the status quo, a stronger Scottish Parliament with powers defined through a participative process, and full independence based on a written constitution, and we will back this third option.".

A Wales Green Party which took a similar strong and clear line might well be an attractive home to some, but their position on Wales' constitutional position seems to be, at best, vague.

Spirit of BME said...

My first reflection as a Plaid Cymru member is to fall back on great statements of great men. The exit of certain of our AM`s is covered by a line made by Colour Sargent Williams (played by Winsor Davies) in the TV series –It Ain1t Half Hot Mum, when his troopers reported a calamity, his answer was “Oh dear, how sad – never mind.”

Anonymous said...

Your emphasis is in the wrong place, John. It's not to be bold, but to inspire. I think you are correct to identify the 'managerial' approach of the last few years, exactly what was required in coalition with the technicalities of ministerial work, even more so as a junior partner. It was however, necessary. No-one is inspired by an LCO and manifesto's do not win votes, no matter how right it is. Plaid needs inspiration, that does not necessarily come from leaders, it can also come from champions at more junior levels. Those champions for Plaid will not be found in party staffers in the Bae, it will be found in the countryside, the community campaigns, the workplaces and the businesses. True we need to be bold, but more importantly, we need to inspire those who are prepared to be bold. From inspiration comes belonging, then you don't have to work so hard to win votes at election times, it's automatic, has it's own momentum. The SNP is the Party FOR Scotland, Plaid is still the Party OF Wales. There's a difference. We need to inspire the nation, that is the challenge.

Anonymous said...

Rwyt ti'n llygad dy le John. Ond dwi'n dal i gredu y dylet fod tu mewn i'r babell yn hytrach na'r tu allan ...

Anonymous said...

From the BBC:

'The newly-elected Plaid Cymru AM Simon Thomas said his party were still open to a repeat of the One Wales coalition with Labour, but they needed to learn the lessons of their disappointing election performance.'

Still 'open' for another kicking. Macca's marrying for the third time. Seems repeating the same mistake is all too common.

This is one Plaid activist who won't be tramping the streets for IWJ again.

Anonymous said...

John Dixon 6 May 2011 12:30

It would be interesting to know on what basis the bare facts given by Anon 12:14 are 'wrong'. It appears that you played a pivotal role in the matter.

HMJ's defeat is a big setback for Plaid, and the circumstances which led to it are relevant for party's members and supporters.

I can understand that there may be confidential matters which cannot be openly aired, but to simply dismiss Anon's comment as 'wrong in so many ways' is unhelpful. It leaves us wondering if there has been incompetence or blunders by the party's leadership in alienating member(s) to the extent that they act so as to cause the party a devastating blow. Keeping it under wraps really isn't good enough.

John Dixon said...


"It would be interesting to know on what basis the bare facts given by Anon 12:14 are 'wrong'."

I'm sure that you and many others would indeed find it interesting, but this isn't the place to discuss that. In simple terms a fact is wrong when it isn't a fact; and the 'bare facts' quoted in the initial comment fit that category. If you are a member of Plaid, then there are channels through which you can seek further information - the comments of a public, even if not enormously well-read, blog are not the right channel.

"It appears that you played a pivotal role in the matter. "

I did indeed, and I did so on the basis of rather more information than I chose - or choose - to put into the public domain. That means that people will (and did) form their judgements about what did or did not happen on the basis of information which was put into the public domain from a hardly impartial source. I had the choice of responding publicly or living with that - I chose to live with it.