Writing on a subject that I've been onto a lot here (the mutual contempt that appears to have grown up between politicians and the more vocal sections of the public), Wilby covers his arse by name-checking the usual explanations. Among them, he has:
"...it is not quite enough to say that our politicians turn out to be rotten leaders and bad people, always letting us down. Other explanations for our hatred make more sense. A fiercely competitive media, dedicated to cheap theatrical thrills rather than sustained policy analysis, has induced profound cynicism in the population, which grows further when leading politicians themselves play the media game.Being a journalist, of course, this explanation only has to be put on the table briefly before it can be mysteriously withdrawn. Once that's out of the way, he turns to the real explanation.
You could argue, too, that the constant scrutiny of 24-hour news makes us over-familiar with politicians. Just as no man can be a hero to his valet, so no leader can be a hero to a voter who, almost daily, sees him (or her) sweating under the TV lights."
In his view, 'nannying' - the way that politicians tell us how to conduct our lives while noticeably ignoring their own advice - explains most of it.
And there is something in this argument. I'd agree that the role of politicians should usually be to pull big levers rather than to micromanage. But there is a particularly influential group of them who believe that they know otherwise. And Wilby would need to come up with better arguments than he has done to contradict them.
When I was a lot more actively involved in the Labour Party in the mid-1990s, there were loads of MPs, candidates and part-builders who used to breeze in and out of the London HQ. There were the dilettantes, the careerists, the lobbyists, the Union hacks, the crypto-trots and hippies, the wonks, and many other subgroups thereof. There were quite a lot of plain nutters as well. Not that I want to generalise or anything.
But the one that everyone watched their backs around were the roundheads. The ones that took grassroots work seriously. Siobhan McDonagh MP was always thought of as one of the high priestesses here. From memory, Luke Akehurst (who blogs here) was another.
According to them, the local party needed to be built. Doors needed to be knocked on, databases updated, core-voters targeted and dragged out on election days. It was a big, painstaking job that involved doorstep work, and a willingness to be seen to take the known concerns of those voters seriously.
Prospective MPs needed an army of dedicated activists knocking on doors. Theirs was an inelegant and unfashionable voice that is almost unheard outside of HQ, but one that dominated and shaped the party at a local level. A voice that also had a significant say in the distribution of political patronage, and all that flows from it. 'Want a safe seat? Forget that Fabian Pamphlet and knock on some fucking doors then!'
A large section of the party were weary and wary of the roundheads. Theirs was a relentless logic. The policies that they advanced were – they claimed - shaped by talking to Labour's core voters (they didn't waste as much time canvassing areas that didn't have a high Labour turnout).
And – even more annoyingly for the Labour’s liberal-left, this realism was hard to dismiss. Because new Labour had another – less respectable – shaper of it’s message - the Focus Group.
Focus Groups were a more sophisticated and savvy way of finding what key voters really wanted - particularly the crucial ones who lived in areas where there was a lower concentration of prospective Labour voters. The ones that would decide the election. Focus Groups were needed because, as any fool knows, people don't tell you what really bothers them. They tell pollsters and canvassers one thing and the ballot box another.
And the received wisdom was that focus groups were evil. They were lazy, dishonest and unprincipled. Their use made Labour worse than a bunch of populists – a party with no principle other than simply gaining power and holding it. Not only that, but they were delivered by people who worked in advertising!
And the reason that the Roundheads were so awkward, was that they were the real viable alternative to focus group-led politics. The Roundheads went and talked to ‘real people’. The kind of people that Labour lefties always said that Labour should be listening to.
And those real people wanted something doing about the noisy threatening twat with the nasty dog who lived two flats down. Those people wanted things banned, and they wanted people locked up. They wanted something to be done, and they read newspapers that wanted action as well.
The Roundheads were happy to recruit them in a campaign against the liberal bourgeois sentimentalism of the more Fabian elements within the party. The ones that dragged out CLP meetings with tedious discussions about Nicaragua when they could be arranging leaflet-drops, ‘blitz’ canvassing and street-stalls.
The Roundheads were prolier-than-thou, and their moral clout grew with every strip of shoe-leather that they went though.
The Focus Group wonks and the Roundheads combined to quieten that large midriff in The Labour Party that thinks of itself as ‘value based’. The one that doesn’t really have a clearly-identified agency, a programme or any credible connection with the people that they claim to represent.
This is what new Labour is. Peter Wilby offers no evidence that his irritation for ‘nannying’ is shared by a wider section of the public than the people that he rubs shoulders with himself. He cites a Private Eye column’s perspective in his defence. He should bin The Eye and watch the more widely-read sections of his own lousy profession. If he did, he’d know that they – and their readers - don’t want politicians who just pull levers. They want someone to do something and quick.
Politicians do have a huge problem in this country. There is no valuable dialogue going on that they can tune into or participate in. They are stuck between what the more outspoken constituents tell them on the doorsteps, and what the alchemists of public opinion analysis will have them believe. Or they can watch the Newsnight Specials, Question Time or even start reading a few of the more popular political blogs!
But, in the meantime, don’t be surprised if they keep ‘nannying’ until that particular problem is fixed.