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The Clown and the Politician
By Anthony Leahy
Growing up in the 1980’s it was difficult to escape the seemingly daily spats between Margaret Thatcher and various figures of hate on the Left. The turmoil and turbulence of the era of Militant and Scargill ensured that the 80’s were dominated by big political personalities famed for the extremity of their views and potential for vilification in an emergent Murdoch dominated-press.
The Thatcher era of politics offered opportunities for pockets of resistance, primarily at a local level and most notably in the major cities of Liverpool and London.
We all remember Hatton’s campaign to ‘cede’ from the United Kingdom in the hope of forming a utopian Marxist state in the Northwest. Not convinced by the ‘permanency of revolution’, Hatton seemed focussed on achieving ‘socialism in one city’ - at variance with the more bookish purveyors of Trotskyite theory.
Many within the Labour party took a particular pride in seeing Kinnock lose his rag at party conference before castrating the Militant tendency and telling its devotees to leave the party. It was a defining moment for Labour, and perhaps one of the few moments when Kinnock didn’t come across as an exuberant figure of ridicule with ‘destined to fail’ liberally stamped all over his forehead.
Liverpool wasn’t alone in yielding a brand of politics that served to irritate and excite everyone from Sir Keith Joseph through to the loveable, yet infinitely sinister, Norris McWhirter and his Freedom Association.
Like Hatton, Ken Livingstone fashioned out a similar role for himself in London, albeit it with a little less ideological zeal and a lot more pragmatism.
As a resident of London you were always conscious of the perpetual tension between Labour run councils and the rate-capping central government. At the apex of this ‘dialectical exchange’ was the Greater London Council, a top-tier local government administrative body for Greater London that existed between 1965 to 1986.
In a number of high profile campaigns Livingstone assumed a role of agitator and irritant. The decision to maintain a running total of London's rising unemployment figures on the roof of County Hall, the GLC headquarters, directly across the Thames from the Palace of Westminster, served as a reminder to the Conservative government that London, in part, was ‘Red’.
Under Livingstone, the GLC pursued a variety of controversial actions: anti-racism campaigns; providing grants for obscure and idealistic groups; and declaring London a 'nuclear-free zone'.
Promoting a winning message/agenda became an almost secondary consideration as the Left resigned itself to sporadic attacks against a seemingly unbeatable Conservative Party.
This brand of guerrilla politics cared less about a one-nation ideology and more about eroding Conservatism’s grip on pockets of British society.
Time, and perhaps a degree of political fatigue, saw the traditional tensions between the parties diminish over the years.
Politics in the current epoch has arrived at a realisation that winning is about diluting ideology and delivering a media friendly, easily digestible manifesto.
Not content with being perpetual losers, the Labour party spent the 90’s and beyond divesting itself of the rigidity of ideology and the hue of red tradition; the Conservatives iterated through a series of inept leaders before arriving at the Blair-esque David Cameron. The banality of modern politics has been spectacularly evident in the campaign for London Mayor.
Recalling a time when politicians had some kind of conviction and ideological basis, you begin to wonder how Boris Johnson managed to find himself as a leading candidate to run a body responsible for 6 million people and a £9 billion budget. Historically, Johnson has proven himself particularly adept at attracting controversy and scandal.
Not content with indulging his passion for women (something he has had to explain to his wife on more than one occasion) he has also carved out a niche for himself as a perpetual embarrassment to his party.
Johnson has delivered the kind of indiscreet and insensitive interventions that would normally see a politician disappear into an Enoch Powell-like retreat into marginal nutty politics in some fractious part of the United Kingdom.
Johnson’s selection as the official Conservative candidate appeared to be an effort to free the national party from the taint of his idiocy; it was also indicative of the kind of politics-lite effort that appeals to the vacuous instincts of a jaded electorate.
In contrast to other major political parties, there is a natural inclination to despise the political ground the Conservatives occupy.
Their reliance on a selfish, unforgiving, morally dubious message has merely served to offend Britain. Perhaps in the figure of Johnson the Conservatives have experienced some kind of epiphany?
Johnson is a diversionary figure; the loveable face of modern Conservatism and the kind of Tory we could all vote for without feeling cheap and dirty. His media antics portray a man with an obvious intellect and certain erudite quality.
As a politician, his inability to stick to the party line situated him firmly in the camp of those politicians (such as Dennis Skinner) who pursued an agenda unlikely to lead to the upper rungs of the political ladder.
The fickle and transitory nature of modern politics has shown itself less forgiving of conviction politicians. The electability of Johnson essentially resides in the fact he has no a desire to tax anything that isn’t nailed down, nor has he surrounded himself with cronies and fanatics (ala Red Ken).
Johnson’s contribution to the mayoral campaign has been benign and palatable. He has talked about restoring the iconic Routemaster bus at the expense of the cyclist killing ‘bendy buses’, and berated Livingstone for his lack of prudence and care.
The real vitriol has come from the London Evening Standard, which has waged a bitter war against Ken Livingstone.
In what mirrors the comic aspect of Johnson’s nature, top tier politics seems to have dispensed with antagonistic, ideological led politics in favour of something that gently caresses the beaten brows of commuters and engages the devotees of chick-lite literature.
This campaign has seen the candidates extol the virtues of tepid thinking at the expense of the vulgar swagger of brazen conviction.
We can only hope that the aftermath of this mayoral election doesn’t lead to a greater belief that banality of politics isn’t such a bad thing after all.
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