Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

It's Not Apathy, It's Protest

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

It's Not Apathy, It's Protest

Article excerpt

The biggest issue of this election campaign is not the delivery of public services, as Labour would wish, nor Europe, as the Tories would wish. It is an issue that has troubled the more acute political commentators for a decade or so, and it now looms larger than ever before. It is often called apathy; but that seems an inadequate word, implying lazy voters slumped in arm chairs with cans of lager, in urgent need of a new Labour initiative, called "apathy to activity" or something of that sort, to prod them into life. It is not the voters who are on trial; it is the political class. And consumer resistance, or silent protest, or deliberate disengagement, would all be better descriptions of what is happening than apathy. In this election, that mood may not be expressed exclusively by people staying at home; we may well see more success for candidates standing entirely outside conventional party groupings, as Ken Livingstone did in London last year, and as a retired doctor proposes to do in Wyre Forest (west Mi dlands) this year, in opposition to the treatment of local health services.

What the electorate senses is that politicians have abdicated responsibility. We are entering a world in which, as Noreena Hertz puts it in her new book, The Silent Takeover, "corporations are taking over from the state, the businessman becoming more powerful than the politician, and commercial interests are paramount". She adds: "Political answers have become as illusory as the rows and rows of homogenised clothes, standard T-shirts and cardigans, folded in your local Benetton store. High street conservatism and conformity par excellence Politicians continue to offer only one solution: a system based on laissez-faire economics, the culture of consumerism, the power of finance and free trade. They try and sell it in varying shades of blue, red or yellow, but it is still a system in which the corporation is king, the state its subjects, its citizens consumers."

Politicians behave as though they were insecure lovers; they live in fear that their corporate bedfellows will pack their suitcases and leave. The result, they believe, would be economic ruin. Once, invasion by a foreign power was the worst fear of the state and its leaders; now, it is withdrawal by a corporate power. Frustrated by their inability to control the economic giants, governments turn their regulatory energies elsewhere, oppressing the public sector with targets and demanding disproportionate paperwork from small businesses. This explains the simultaneous public demands for less government interference and less onerous taxation, on the one hand, and for more effective government action and higher public spending on the other. …

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