Put three stale, dry biscuits in a room and the chances are that one of them will be the least unappetising. And so it was that Nick Clegg emerged victorious from the leaders' debates as the universally acclaimed winner. While many column inches have been squeezed out over whether Clegg's racism was less unappealing than David Cameron's or whether Gordon Brown's smile was less horrifying than Clegg's manic stare into the camera, precious little thought has been given to how the debates themselves help to distort our idea of politics. I'm not talking about the fact that other voices were excluded, although that's clearly very important. The absence of the SNP, Plaid or the Greens gives a false impression of this nation's political diversity. Anything that gives even more weight to the establishment parties acts to reinforce the parliamentary glass ceiling, despite the fact that the three parliamentary parties represent a very narrow band of political opinion. I'm actually referring to the fact that, while it is bad for politics to be reduced to the three biggest parties, it is even worse for those parties to find themselves boiled down to their leaders. I'm not sure that's how politics ought to work - where supporters, activists and voters all get boiled down to a stage army behind one of three white guys with expensive suits that still don't seem to quite fit properly.
Even if one of these people to were argue for a different kind of politics, it would still be one man speaking on behalf of everyone else - ultimately disempowering millions of supporters. I'm pretty sure politics was not always like that. Back in the day there were mass parties and they actually existed not just in every constituency but pretty much in every ward. Party leaders were still important - of course they were - but they were a structural necessity not some pope-like being able to change party policy with a quick soundbite and a well-timed media interview. No wonder people are turned off politics if all that's on offer is a low-rent version of a fan club for people who can neither sing, dance nor do decent tricks. In a trade union the shop stewards aren't there to be flag wavers for the general secretary. They have real work to do on a day-to-day basis. Those grass-roots activists are the union in a real, practical sense that grass-roots political campaigners can only dream of. However, more and more within our political system we're being encouraged to think of the parties as simply vehicles for the leaders to get into No 10. Perhaps that's the consequence of stripping politics of its ideological differences.
If the three largest parties all agree on the kind of economic model we use, the kind of military alliances we're involved with and the kind of society we live in then, in many ways, the parties simply become ways for people to achieve high position rather than achieve their high ideals. It's not that leadership shouldn't be inspiring and enabling, lovely though this is. Rather, it's that to have any real meaning, leadership has to be part of a democratic collective. Our solidarity should be with each other, not with our chosen leader, like a crowd cheering on a football team. That democratic aspect of the parties has been almost entirely stripped away. When the Labour Party conference votes against, say, foundation hospitals, Labour's leaders simply say they have a responsibility to the nation not the party and crack on with what they were doing. There has to be more to accountability than simply "back them or sack them." Just as there are alternative visions outside of these three parties, there are alternative visions inside them too. By allowing the parties to boil down to their official lines we rob them of their diversity and passion and therefore we gut them of their real substance. For me, that means bringing the centre of politics back into the communities, back to the ground level.
I don't care how out of touch the PM is as long as ordinary people have real, meaningful power over their own lives. That has to go beyond the power to turn off the TV if you don't like Cameron's tie. If you heard that a party leader had praised Margaret Thatcher or come out for fairness or called for longer sentences for minor offenders, there would be no way of knowing which one had said it because they are all as likely as each other to come out with this sort of empty froth. It feels like the old joke that goes that politics is about sincerity - if you can fake that you've got it made. It seems to me that the left needs to advocate a very different kind of leadership than this celebrity model we're being spoon-fed in this election. It has to be a leadership with content not bland soundbites. And it has to be a leadership in the community not off in some faraway studio somewhere. If we look towards the trade union model for inspiration, we can see that while a union's top brass are important, the real substance is at the coalface - literally in the NUM, but only metaphorically for all the others. The work of defending your local school, improving your local park or creating a neighbourhood credit union is the kind of practical leadership that we're crying out for. And it doesn't take any orders from on high to start making it happen today. The idea of leadership where people take initiative for themselves is wholly squashed by these debates where we see three tired men vying with each other over who can administer the same policies most efficiently. That's about as interesting as watching a shirt-wearing competition which, in many ways, I suppose it was.
A blog for the socially and politically conscious, written by a young, gay activist who strongly believes in equality and justice.