He has conviction, but voters never did

September 1, 2006

To argue that Tony Blair has turned people off politics implies that they were turned on in the first place, but the evidence tells us they were not. Voting levels have fallen - as has membership of political parties - to be replaced by single-issue campaigning. This rests on relatively thin levels of engagement through professionally organised campaign and protest groups that make tactical use of their supporters to give publicity and prominence to a particular issue. For most of us, most of the time, politics is something we watch through the media.

Blair at first seemed the ideal politician for this apolitical age. When he became party leader in 1994, he was relatively young, very articulate, generally competent and master of the soundbite. More than that, he offered a "big tent" vision of politics and aimed to build a wider coalition of supporters disillusioned by the bitter struggles of the Margaret Thatcher years and the perceived sleaze-ridden incompetence of the John Major premiership. He appealed to audiences and issues not traditionally associated with Labour - captured, of course, by the very idea of new Labour. When elected in 1997, Blair spent the first term in a public opinion comfort zone. Students were not being turned on but, as spectators, they and we thought he was doing a reasonable job.

Yet as Blair's premiership has rolled on, it has become clear that he is more a conviction politician than a populist. Blair is not playing to the Daily Mail agenda when he talks about antisocial behaviour; it is an issue he thinks is important. He is not kowtowing to business when he talks about the need for a flexible response to the pressures of globalisation; it is something he regards as vital. He is not being the US's poodle when supporting the Iraq War or aggressive responses to challenging terrorism and promoting democracy; it is something he regards as essential. Whether it is promoting the reform of public services, the possibility of greater use of nuclear energy or reform of the criminal justice system, Blair is a man on a mission.

So, Blair has given students and other citizens plenty to respond to and engage with, but we have not taken up the challenge. There are a host of explanations as to why that might be, but one concern I have is that we have lost the capacity to respond in depth to political issues. We have a naive understanding of politics and are swamped by a consumerist and individualistic culture that makes the collective debate and action of politics seem anachronistic. Blair has well and truly lost his Mr Nice Guy image, but instead of engaging with his politics, what we are looking for, encouraged greatly by the media, is a new apolitical voice and vision. Whether it's from a pop star, film actor or Tory leader David Cameron, I can hardly be bothered to wait and see. I might have to start a Campaign for Real Politics.

Gerry Stoker is professor of political science at Manchester University and author of Why Politics Matters , Palgrave Macmillan.

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