I know what Ed Miliband meant when he tweeted last week that:
‘I think Nigel Farage’s comments today are wrong, divisive and dangerous. The laws we have on equality represent our values as a country’
I also know what Polly Toynbee meant when she wrote:
‘Would like to follow politicians I like – but too bored by pics of them at local events. Why don’t they tweet political thoughts, ideas, hopes?’
But the two statements have something important in common: an instinct to do politics in the abstract. Political language is laden with talk of ‘values’ but this often makes it feel less, rather than more, meaningful. The reason to defend equality laws is not that they stand for something, but that they do something. Likewise, the reason that MPs tweet about local events is that they represent particular places, not just abstract thoughts and ideas.
This is not to argue against equality laws, or the suggestion that we need to know what politicians think, not just what they are doing. But the retreat to abstract values, detached from real things, places and people, is not just a symptom of disenchantment with politics, it is a real cause of it. Politics feels disconnected from people’s everyday lives because that is often not the starting point for debate.
It is this problem that Jon Cruddas is addressing when he quotes Dylan Thomas, arguing that the Labour movement at its best is both ‘magical and parochial’. His point is that politics should be grounded in tangible places and institutions. This is not simply a matter of finding political language that cuts through, it is about politics taking its lead from what really matters to people in their lives. Maurice Glasman puts it this way: Marvin Gaye’s question of ‘what’s going on’ is prior to Lenin’s question ‘what is to be done’.
Ideas help us understand and explain the world; different values are implicit in almost every political dilemma. But neither are valuable in their own right and neither become meaningful until they collide with the things that really matter to people. It is when politicians stop posting pictures of local events that we should really be worried.