Bankers and Tories: cashing in on anti-politics
As the MPs’ expenses storm broke in May, the Spectator’s Fraser Nelson leaked a memo that gave a revealing insight into how the Conservative right hoped to “ride the wave of anti-politics”. The memo, written for the powerful Portland PR agency by its Campaign Unit director, James Frayne, referred to Frayne’s earlier work with the successful North East Says No campaign against a regional assembly in 2004:
“If the Conservatives are bold enough, they now have a way of tapping into the anti-politician mood by making one simple argument: ‘if you don’t trust politicians, why do you trust them with so much of your money?’ While the Left will struggle, ideologically, to deal with this crisis of Government (which it is), the Right can define themselves by the controversy.
“It is perhaps strange the Tories have never really tried to tap in to this mood. One of the few victories of the Right in the last two decades was the victory in the North East Regional Assembly referendum in 2004. While the party centrally played practically no role in the campaign, the campaign was run by and fronted by small-c conservatives in the Government’s own backyard and ran a brutal anti-politician message to deliver those rarest of victories - an upset landslide.
“The campaign was completely defined by anti-politician sentiment, using the slogan ‘politicians talk, we pay’. Not unreasonably, some Tories argued that lessons from the North East were not transferable to party politics because politicians can’t do anti-politics campaigns and because it was a referendum on a single issue.
“But this ignores two things. Firstly, the precedent set by Reagan and the Republican Party over the 80s and 90s - where low-tax, small-state messages were explicitly linked to anti-politician messages (why is it British politicos only want to learn from left-leaning campaigns like Clinton and Obama?). Secondly, it ignores the fact that the Tories, along with other parties, simply cannot afford to duck the issue. Mistrust of politicians is one of the defining issues of the times - parties can either embrace it or be swallowed up by it.”
Tellingly, Frayne followed his role at North East Says No with a stint as campaign director of the TaxPayers’ Alliance - a group which certainly gets his message. But the timing of the MPs’ expenses revelations did much more than simply reinforce public cynicism about how politicians spend taxes. As Vince Cable wrote in the New Statesman, it let those who drove the economic crisis off the hook:
“…the bankers can’t believe their luck. A couple of days after the first revelations in the Daily Telegraph, the headline in the City’s free newspaper City AM was a shout of orgasmic release: ‘Now THEY can’t lecture US.’ It said it all. Collapse of moral authority and politicians’ will. Back to business as usual.”
The point was underlined by Guardian economics correspondent Ashley Seager in another lucid piece on the subject: “The bankers’ excesses are the real expense scandal”.
This is not an argument to ignore the MPs’ expenses scandal. But we do need some perspective: politicians’ expenses are a drop in the ocean compared to the costs to society of allowing City profits to be privatised while losses are nationalised. And if Frayne’s “simple argument” is true of politicians, it’s even truer of banks: “If you don’t trust bankers, why do you trust them with so much of your money?”
To some extent these two crises are part of the same malaise; and the cure in both cases involves more transparency, accountability and democracy. Far from anti-politics, that means a new politics.
Posted by Other TPA at 09:24pm on 3 July 2009
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