Overblown Rhetoric is Political Own Goal

BEN WEISZ asks why sticking by your party regardless of mistakes or, say, horrendous policy reversals is seen as ‘loyalty’ rather than ‘stubbornness’ when it’s not a football team

CUSU debate football occupation politics protest

Judging by The Tab’s back catalogue of politically oriented articles in 2010, our collective political discourse is something of a confused mess. We dismiss our student politicians as ineffectual posers, but then throw a strop (and call on them to throw one on our behalf) when a college threatens to close its bar a wee bit early. The only thing we sneer at more than the shenanigans of our MPs are those who respond with any degree of passion. We don’t know whether to punch Gabriel Latner in the face or give him ‘lad points’.  Yet we all have opinions, so why can’t we engage with it more openly?

It became clearest around the May election, where the dominant tone was as irrationally bi-partisan as an episode of Soccer Saturday. Sticking by your party regardless of mistakes or, say, horrendous policy reversals was seen as ‘loyalty’ rather than ‘stubbornness’, making debate uncomfortable and unproductive.

For one thing football fans obviously want victory, not compromise. While a match is legitimately bi-partisan, politics is subtler. I’m not for one moment suggesting that ‘deep down, we would eventually all come to agree on a set of moderate policies if only we could debate nicely’, but I would suggest people’s opinions are based on individual issues not party lines, so most people will find themselves between the false dichotomy created by this type of politics. The reaction to the Coalition however – ‘that’s not how we do politics!’ – evinced the kind of polarity you might expect if Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger decided to pool resources.

This attitude is also reductive.  Labour supporters (come on you reds!) branded anyone threatening to vote Tory as poor-hating toffs with no sense of what life is like for ‘real people’. Meanwhile pre-match banter from the Blues decried the ‘loony left’ as wanting to rob hard-working families of money, to enable the “lifestyle choices” of unemployed crack whores to make the Jeremy Kyle show and a baby for each day of the week.

Agreeing with Nick was something nice to keep the children occupied while the grown-ups got on with the real business of bilateral politics. Both in Cambridge and around the country, character assassinations and caricatures took precedence over content – you know, stuff like which policies will have which effects, and whether such effects are to be desired – in most debates. When persuading people is as intractable as persuading a Liverpool fan their team is not the greatest of all time, it is rarely constructive and is off-putting to anyone who isn’t dyed-in-the-wool.

The extreme and unfair attitudes to political debate can be seen in the recent student protests. Did the occupiers want to start an anarchist revolution and terrorise the rest of us? Not really. Do people who support the Browne review actively want to restrict access to higher education, and deserve to have their tower blocks vandalised and secretarial staff terrorised? Probably not. It has to be possible to disagree with someone’s point of view without that justifying smashing things up and swinging on national monuments, or shouting at them until they agree with you.

Even if conversion is the aim of political discussion, the undecided are hardly going to be towed by those who’ve inherited a party line when they see them bickering like toddlers after the North London Derby. If this lot are just violent terrorists, and that lot are up-themselves toffs who will never listen to a word we say, then the desire to engage with each other sensibly evaporates.

So, in 2011, we need to blow the whistle on our Soccer Saturday approach to politics. We need to stop trying to pigeonhole each other as ‘anarchist’, ‘Tory scum’, ‘Labour’ and the rest. We need to be allowed to have views on particular issues without having to buy the kit. Only then can our post-match analysis be constructive and adult.