I have just read today’s obituary of the journalist and author Ann Barr, amongst whose achievements (contributor to Homes & Gardens, Harpers & Queen, woman’s editor on the Observer) was to spot, some time in the 1980s, that the British class system had become tribal.
The oddest grouping of all was a dim, but definable lot, which she and her co-author, Peter York, identified as ‘Sloane Rangers’ in 1982. They proceeded to describe this tribe in detail in The Sloane Ranger Handbook.
Two years later, Ann Barr targeted a new group, ‘Foodies’, who lived to eat – and did so obsessively.
Both terms became a familiar shorthand for tribes of people, but they were also deeply symbolic of a time and a place – Thatcher’s Britain with all its positive and negative associations.
Now, as people are about to go to the polls, perhaps this is what we need from our politics: Some new language that people can get hold of, that binds them to the political process and clearly marks one tribe out from another.
Because we haven’t had it in this campaign of 7 political parties, where the main protagonists have all freely shared phrases about ‘hardworking families’, ‘protecting the NHS’ and ‘bringing down the deficit.’ The job of the campaign, it seems, has been to position the parties as broadly as possible to the electorate, whilst preparing for an even less defined reality. And this has inevitably led to almost no clarity at all and deep frustration.
Here are the likely scenarios that will be played out in the next few days and no wonder everyone is confused – the language is hardly motivating – and the possibilities are all pretty hard to grasp.
1) Conservative minority government
Where David Cameron relies on Lib Dem and DUP MPs, as well as any UKIP MPs, for daily survival.
2) Conservative “confidence and supply” government
Where David Cameron asks for support from the Lib Dems, the eight or nine DUP MPs and any UKIP MPs in confidence and budget votes
3) A Conservative-led coalition
Where David Cameron offers the Lib Dems seats at the Cabinet and a new Coalition agreement. If numbers are tight, he could try to bring in the DUP.
4) Labour “confidence and supply” government
Where Ed Miliband gets agreement from the SNP or Lib Dems (or both) to support Labour in votes of confidence and the budget.
5) Labour-led coalition
Where Ed Miliband does a formal deal with the Lib Dems, including ministerial posts and a joint government programme.
6) Labour minority government
Where Ed Miliband depends on the support of SNP, Lib Dems and others on a vote-by-vote basis.
I was always taught that things that don’t look neat on paper can still work. But engaging the electorate lies at the very heart of democracy: How are voters supposed to navigate these numbing nuances? What we need is a language that engages and motivates people, even when politicians are trying very hard not to narrowcast themselves to the electorate. Remembering Ann Barr, we need new ways to describe our politics or we won’t have any politics at all.