Tony Blair should watch it: he was up late on Tuesday night sending out a “personalised” email to the 1.8 million car drivers who added their signatures to the petition against road pricing on No 10’s website. I can’t help feeling that the PM will leave us with one, peculiarly “Blairite” legacy: namely, a political process in which protesting is either ineffectual or electronic, which amounts to the same thing.
Decoupled from the engine of trade-union power, and no longer relying on personalised bonds forged in the workplace or the committee room, never before have so many protested against so much to such little effect. On the one hand we have mass demonstrations, such as those mounted by the Countryside Alliance or the Stop the War movement. Neither the ban on foxhunting nor the invasion of Iraq was seriously affected for a second. Both lobbies were full of people who, were they not marching in roughly the same direction, would have happily trampled all over each other.
On the other hand we have the anti-road-pricing petition, the campaign against “Tescoisation”, and the latest consumer-driven mass protest – this time against excessive charging by the Big Four high-street banks. These are also “single issues”, but the only principles involved are individual rights to drive, shop locally and extract cash from holes in walls. Moreover, the very medium by which these campaigns are pursued – the internet – undermines the very possibility of their succeeding.
For, the internet, while it may spread a dissenting view with viral alacrity, completely fails to marry it to any sustained or consistent position. Tapping on a keyboard is an isolated affair, and no matter how colourful a VDU may be, it’s no substitute for the infinite nuance provided by face-to-face communication. If the anti-road-pricing lobby really want to get Tony Blair worried, rather than sending him emails, they’ll have to get in their precious cars, drive somewhere and hold one of those quaint anachronistic things called a meeting.
At the back of all this lies the tremendous success of this old New Labour government in promoting a society in which individual choice – whether for consumer goods, public services or political commitments – is seen as far more valuable than any concept of collective welfare.
It’s a paradox that it should have been a nominally “social-democratic” government that hardened these ethical arteries, just as it’s a paradox that a more individualist society should prove so inimical to genuine contact between real people. Still, I don’t think you’d better spend too much time contemplating these conundrums, send someone an email instead: it’s what your leaders would want you to do.