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How to fight the populists

Unless we fight the political liars and the lies they tell, our political future is lost

Photo: Carl Court/Getty Images

Pretty much anyone with a passing interest in politics, including people who weren’t around at the time, are aware of Tony Blair’s “Education, Education, Education” mantra. It was designed to indicate the extent to which the issue was a policy priority for his government. And unlike the slogans of the current lot who have done so much damage to the country, he meant it, the government meant it and we went on to deliver improved schools and improved standards.

If you want a reminder of those times, and of the man who was so central to the delivery of better education, I cannot recommend strongly enough the interview Rory Stewart and I have done recently with David Blunkett, New Labour’s first Education Secretary back in 1997. It is moving, inspiring and instructive about the power for good in politics, in equal measure. He is a friend, so I am biased. But what a man! Rory was deeply impressed too, as you can hear.

However, this article is very much about today, and the need for a fresh focus to get education back higher up the agenda (it hasn’t featured much in the election so far) and for the longer term the need to improve political education too.

Whether we blame politicians, or the media, or ourselves as members of the public all too easily driven to cynicism and apathy, or a mix of all three, it is hard to make the case that we have a very healthy democratic debate right now. That has been underlined by two events in particular this week. 

First, Nigel Farage yet again playing the media like a fiddle, another day, another bandwagon, without ever being asked about his role in the previous bandwagons he has helped drive over the cliffs of Dover. Like it or not, he is a consequential figure and nothing has been more consequential than his role in Brexit. Yet unless I missed it, I didn’t see him challenged once on his role in that, as he announced himself leader of a party he basically owns and parachuted himself into Clacton, media circus in tow.

Second, the leaders’ debate on ITV. I like Julie Etchingham. She is an excellent broadcaster. But the format was dire. Forty-five seconds (that’s roughly one hundred words) to answer sometimes detailed and difficult questions on issues of enormous importance to the country, from the economy to foreign policy, health to education. It is just not serious. And what right do the media have to complain about politicians talking in soundbites if that is all they are given time for?  

A lack of seriousness is what has bedevilled our politics. Boris Johnson and Liz Truss in Downing Street were the ultimate consequences. Johnson who built his entire media and political career on a lack of seriousness; Truss whose rise to the top was born of her party’s lack of seriousness about itself and its role in the country’s politics and governance.

And then Rishi Sunak, who said the right words when he took over from Truss, promising professionalism, integrity and accountability, yet who told at least two bare-faced lies in his first PMQs, and has been telling them more subtly than Johnson ever since. The tax lie row that he provoked on the back of the debate, for all that his right wing cheerleaders try to pretend it is clever politics, on a par with the Brexit red bus and the NHS lie no less, was an accident waiting to happen.

The truth is that unless we re-establish the expectation that politicians who do not tell the truth get hounded out of public life our political future is in some peril. I am aware there will be those who at this point will be snarling “Tony Bliar” and “what about Iraq?” I am equally aware there will be those who will never accept that we did not lie. But I know we didn’t, and several inquiries have endorsed that. And even with any proof of lying, because the decision Tony Blair took was so consequential and controversial, we have without doubt paid a political price, in its own way a form of accountability.

Has Farage paid a price for his role in Brexit, and the lies told for that? Not really, or else he wouldn’t be treated by the media and the Tories the way he has been in recent days. Has Johnson? He didn’t lose his job over all that, or even over Partygate lies, but over a sexual predator colleague he continued to defend, and the growing view among his colleagues that he wouldn’t win an election. 

So they brought in Truss. She was so bad at the job it is hard to know how she doesn’t just hide away forever. Instead, in this era of thick-skinned narcissistic impunity, she parades around the world as a would-be saviour and is standing again at the election, launching her campaign with a local paper interview in which she insists she is not the worst Prime Minister ever … Tony Blair is, because he brought in the Human Rights Act and the Equalities Act. Crazy stuff

These are the two people the Tories gave us as prime minister; for that alone they deserve to be punished and punished hard; and though Sunak may have a better understanding of numbers than her, and may at least know when he is lying, unlike Johnson, he is showing himself to be not that much better than either of them.

It will take a lot more than a change of PM and a change of government to undo the damage they have done. It will take a generational shift in our attitudes to politics, media, and the damage between them that has been done to the body politic. 

And while yes, it may be true that young people are far likelier to get their news from TikTok than the Today programme, and see newspapers only when their parents are using them to light a fire, I nonetheless feel on the many school visits I do that they have a better handle on the scale of change needed in our politics than we give them credit for. I hear lots of them saying they don’t feel politicians speak to or for them and their interests, but it doesn’t mean they don’t have them, or understand how they could be better served.

But we have to get them interested, and engaged, and involved. And the key to that is education. Unless you do politics A-level, the chances are you learn next to nothing about politics in school. But politics is fundamental to virtually every aspect of our lives, and getting more young people wanting to be politicians is vital to the future health of our democracy.

In his typical populist way, given the timing of his announcement, Farage made a big thing about the lack of knowledge about D-Day among the young. But take a look at any major media outlet today, he is talking nonsense. There are not many events from 80 years ago that get remembered in this way. But then to move from that to claim that schools and teachers are “poisoning the minds of our children ..” Disgusting. 

Teachers and schools are trying harder than anyone to give often disadvantaged children a decent start in life. I doubt he has ever been to a Clacton school. If he does, I suggest he tries Clacton Coastal Academy, in one of the poorest areas of the country. Here is a clip from the time I did, gauging the views of young people on Brexit. He might find he is not as popular as he thinks.

Yesterday I had a message from a young man called Alex asking me to do a video for his citizenship teacher, Miss Renfrew, as a way of thanking her for her inspiration in getting him and his classmates interested in politics and political issues. Sunak, Farage and the anti-wokerati would no doubt see that as mind-poisoning unless the curriculum was basically maths for hedge-funders and a bit of “two world wars and one World Cup, and what was wrong with the Empire anyway?”

So, undeterred by the apathy and the cynicism, and the sheer terribleness of what we have had to endure in recent years, I will keep going with my faith in politics and my faith in the young to deliver something better than we have right now. Hence the two books that are about to come out. It was a bit of a rush in the end, because we brought publication forward from August to now, to coincide with the election.

On June 20, Alastair Campbell Talks Politics, an explainer about politics for teenagers and young adults; and on election day itself, July 4, Why Politics Matters, for primary school children. You may remember that my last book was called But What Can I Do? why politics has gone so wrong and how you can help fix it. The answer is that you do what you can, and for me, right now, that means continuing to speak up for a better party of government and a better politics than the ones we currently have, and it means trying to educate the next generation in what politics actually is, and why they are part of the solution, not the problem.

This election, so much more is at stake than who governs us. Especially with the prospect of a re-elected Trump on the horizon, and with the far right doing far better than they deserve to in many parts of the world, Europe included, also at stake right now is the very meaning and even the very future of democracy. 

You only address problems by admitting the scale of them. I do not pretend for one second that a couple of kids’ books can meet that challenge. But I do remain convinced that until we become a better educated and better informed country about politics, our democracy will just stagger on in its current unhealthy state, to a very dark and dangerous place.

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