During the shouting match over the meaning of a few cancelled operations towards the end of last week, Tony Blair, in a speech defending himself at the Scottish Labour Party Conference, said something that sounded strange to my ears. I heard it on the news, and what I thought I heard, sounded so strange to me, I felt I ought to check it first before drawing any conclusions.
It took me, however several days to track down the actual quote, which failed to appear in nearly all reports of what had been a very well and very widely reported speech. As if I had imagined it, or had imagined its significance, or nobody else had actually heard it but me. After a while I started feeling like Gene Hackman in The Conversation and wondering about my sanity.
The same weekend I saw a South Bank Show about madness in which people were asked to say what they thought madness was. Having had, in my life, occasion more than once to wonder whether I were losing my grip on sanity, I had an answer of my own. Madness is the suffering of false perceptions which are not artificially induced. Well, perhaps the false perception of Mr Blair on a news report would not constitute cause enough to have myself checked in to the Maudsley Hospital, but it was relief of a kind when somebody else located the correct quote in the Mirror. He had said what I thought he had said, but it seemed to have stirred nobody else's attention but mine.
"Shortly you will make a choice. Rightly the NHS and its future will be at the heart of it. If you believe the NHS today is worse than when Mr Howard at the Conservatives ran it, don't vote for me. Vote for him."Odd. Odd, because, in the unwritten constitution under which the General Election will take place – a so-far-unannounced election, by the way, which also makes the shortly you will make a choice sound odd as well – nobody is in a position to make an electoral choice between Mr Blair, who is standing for the constituency of Sedgefield, and Mr Howard, who seeks to represent the town of Folkestone. These two places are about three hundred miles apart.
Choose between them? Hardly anybody will have the choice to vote for either. Scarcely more than one voter in a thousand will have the opportunity to vote for Mr Blair. A similar and entirely separate number may choose to vote (or not) for Mr Howard. No single individual in the entire world will have the opportunity to choose one of these in preference to the other. Their names will not appear on the same ballot paper. The choice that Mr Blair bids us make does not in fact exist. Which is, at first sight, odd enough. Odd enough to attract some comment. Yet, oddly enough, it appears to have attracted neither comment or attention of any kind.
What escapes comment, should only do so if it doesn't matter. But it does matter. The political and electoral system in this country is not a presidential one. It is parliamentary and based on organised political parties. We are not electing a head of state (although, of course, we should). We are not even electing an executive. We are electing the representatives of political parties – or independents, should they stand and should the electorate give their approval – to represent the voters of given constituencies. We are not voting for the policies of individual persons in the way that, say, the Americans do. But it is being made to seem that way.
It matters. It matters because the election is not a presidential election, and it matters because the Labour Party is not, or should not be, a presidential party. Its policies are not, or should not be, presidential policies. They should not be policies determined by an individual who wishes to run for election and by them (and their advisers) alone. It matters that they should not. It matters because a party like that is not a democratic party. It is no more than an electoral support organisation. You cannot be a real member of such a party, no matter what they put on the card they give you when you pay your fee. You can only be a supporter.
It's a commonplace, of course, to recall the great battles over policy formulation that used to take place in the Labour Party, and to recall how interesting, how thrilling even, the party conference used to be when that body actually mattered. It is also commonplace to shrug one's shoulders, to sigh, sadly, in the manner of Will Hutton, and say how much better it is that we no longer have such debates and such controversies. It is modernisation. And so it may be, provided that term is shorn of its positive associations.
Because it is not so commonplace, although of course it ought to be, to say that in a democratic society, the atrophy of democracy cannot be a good thing. It breeds cynicism. It also breeds cynics. And it breeds both, at the centre of what used to be the Labour Party - before it ceased to be a real party at all. It used to be a party with an active membership, a social role and a purpose. It is now a party with a passive membership with no role or purpose other than to sustain itself. It used to be a party with a mass base. It is become a party based on nothing.
What Mr Blair said, therefore, was therefore of real importance, even though it was almost completely unreported and went entirely unremarked. It went unremarked because it is supposed to be like that now. It is the way we live now – since the alternatives were ruled out of order - and it is supposed to be an improvement on what went before. Otherwise, why the silence, why the acquiescence which that silence signifies?
It is supposed to be an improvement because we are not tied tribally to our one party in the way we were before. We have consumer choice. We select our political leaders on the same basis that we buy hats, or houses. We choose. Yet we do not participate.
Consumers choose. They do not participate. People in movements do not choose. But they participate. They are involved, they discuss, they canvass, they debate, they formulate policy and decide on it. These are the things on which democracy depends – they are the things in which democracy consists. In a democracy, people engage with the world about them. Consumers do not. They engage only with the product. The world of the consumer is a world of narrow horizons and absence of vision.
Without vision, there are no alternatives. People read the Greeks because Plato and Aristotle had vision. They were obliged to, because they lived in societies where alternatives were real and were fought over. There was a choice of outcomes and it was therefore necessary to debate their desirability. But curiously, democracy in the era of consumer choice offers so little choice. The fact itself is often commented on - the paradox is not. We live in a democracy to which the free market is supposed to be fundamental. Yet the principle - better, the mechanism - of individual consumer choice by which that market works serves democracy so poorly that the choice is largely unreal and the democracy largely atrophied.
Yet this process goes without either criticism or comment. Perhaps it seems all right to the commentators, given that they tend to be well-off, metropolitan, close to the political establishment which wields all the power when there are no real political parties to stand in their way. It is rule by people like them, rule for people like them, and that is a state of affairs that would seem natural and normal to anybody.
But it does not seem natural and normal to me. It seems to me to be an empty process in which nothing is expected of us other than our votes - least of all a knowledge of the world in which we live or an interest in people other than ourselves. A democracy reduced to consumer selection at the point of sale, and where that selection is between two parties reduced to the persons of two individual men. And that way, for democracy at least, some kind of madness lies.