Monday, 1 September 2008

What is gesture politics?

Somewhere, in a house full of computer keyboards on which he types 24 hours a day, lives a man called Mr Anonymous. He leaves comments on blogs from Land's End to John O'Wherever. His comments produce reactions over the whole range, from "how did this person ever learn to type a word" to "I think I might end my blog now, he's too good for me." Yesterday I received a comment from Mr Anonymous which required me to think of the difference between gesture politics and power politics.

It is an interesting point. Like all interesting points it is a matter of how one approaches it. To an extent we are all like Humpty Dumpty when we choose to use a phrase without a clearly defined meaning, for Mr Dumpty words mean what he wants them to mean and when we use an ambiguous term or phrase we act in the same way. "Gesture politics" has no fixed meaning.

I opined yesterday on equality and inequality, and suggested that those engaged in the equality rights business by complaining about financial inequality and suggesting tax-based solutions were engaged in gesture politics. Mr Anonymous questioned whether they are in fact engaged in power politics rather than gesture politics. His question made me think of what I meant when I used the term "gesture politics".

To some extent we all have power. Parents have power over their children, teachers have power over their pupils, a landlord has power over his tenants, a team captain has power over the other players and the list goes on. These aspects of power are non-political because they are confined within a narrow scope and only involve the poweror(s) and the poweree(s) (I think I might have invented two new words, for which I apologise). No one is affected other than the powerors and thw powerees in the particular personal relationship. When parents exercise power over their children or teachers exercise power over their pupils no third parties are affected directly, no third party becomes obliged to do or desist from doing anything.

Political power is different, political power affects third parties who have no direct contact with those who exercise power over them. When I use the term "gesture politics" I mean acts of politicians which have no substantive benefit but which they believe will make the electorate view them more favourably; in other words, gestures which they hope will lead to future political power. The politicians in question might already have political power, but power today is only part of the equation because they also want power tomorrow. Today's policies might turn to dust but those who are convinced by their promises for tomorrow will vote for them anyway.

If you promote a policy which persuades people to be on your side you build up a reserve of goodwill. Whether in government or in opposition politicians need goodwill in the bank. They do not want to fight an election where every vote is up for grabs, they want a good chunk to be banked already so only the floating depositors need to be persuaded. Gesture politics is all about putting money in the bank.

There is an inevitable risk in trying to gain votes by empty gestures. Those who see empty gestures as empty gestures might be inclined to vote against those who promote them, that is likely to be no risk at all because those people would probably have voted against them anyway. Equally those who think the gesture to be a matter of huge substance are likely to be committed to the cause already. Gestures are not about making long-term converts of those on the other side of the political fence. They are about solidifying existing support by cementing the views of the converted and enticing some marginals into your camp. By definition a gesture has no substance, so those tipped into supporting one party because of a gesture cannot be expected to remain loyal through that gesture alone.

Gesture politics is not about doing anything substantive it is all about atmosphere, setting the tone, tilting the mood, changing attitudes. It is political musak. Of itself it might be nothing, but it adds to what has gone before and it adds to the background of what comes after. Is it about power? Of course it is, but not in a direct way. The real question with every act of gesture politics is whether it does substantive harm while enticing votes by pretending to do good.


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