New Labour's challenge in the 1990s was to find a way of harnessing the socio-economic forces of private accumulation and business dynamism, in order to achieve greater public prosperity as a side effect. There is an analogous challenge arising in contemporay politics: to find a way of harnessing the socio-technological forces of voyeurism and surveillance, in order to achieve greater public transparency as a side effect.
In each case, the realistic politician must look at a disappointing sociological landscape, and ask how they can exploit its latent forces to achieve a higher set of political goals. Britain under John Major was a disappointing place. Class conflict was more or less over, but the Thatcherite enterprise society had arrived in the form of financial speculation and asset price inflation. The Blair-Brown strategy was to harness the alleged potency of the free market and the acquisitive, profit-maximising mind-set that was seeping into British culture, so as to cream off extra tax revenues and import business-like practices into the public sector.
The Faustian pact was to take economy, society and governance mechanisms as they were, on the basis that they had the potential to serve a set of extraneous political ends. It's worked inasmuch as there are schools and hospitals that will still be around in forty years (the doctor's Porsches may have been traded in by then). This is a state-led variation of the principle of trickle down economics. The implicit acceptance is that sociological forces can be harnessed, but not transformed, by politics.
(As a thought experiment, I've been wondering what would have happened had this all ended at the time of the Asia crisis, rather than a decade later. You wouldn't have had NHS spending doubling, but there would instead have been an opportunity to rethink the organisational and governance forms at work within state and economy, rather as Will Hutton demanded in 1995. Question: at what point would you trade off wealth for organisational and procedural justice? New Labour's addiction to the win-win option was sustained because the wealth just kept on trickling in.)
There is a mantra, initially associated with David Milliband, that the next phase of politics will be about power. Fine, but anyone who recites this without also doing political economy cannot be serious: start by addressing the total autonomy of mobile capital, then consider the correlation between economic and cultural capital for those at the bottom (i.e. that powerlessness and poverty are inextricably linked). I think it is safer to say that the current phase of politics is about politics. Participation, follower v followed, representation, mediation, reputation, publicity, privacy, watcher v watched, accountability, auditting.... these are the categories that preoccupy us at present.
Digital and social media are heavily implicated here. The crisis of newspapers and the MPs expenses scandal are both partly associated with new forms of media, which are then seized by the more quick-footed to achieve new forms of self-representation, via twitter etc. The reason this isn't necessarily about power is that much of the fuel behind this 'revolution' is the psychological impulse of voyeurism, from which action doesn't necessarily follow. The endless tittle tattle of watching others, snooping around, poking, shining a torch into a dark room - this is the engine of this new politics. The outrage of the MPs expenses scandal was a cocktail of sincere moral disapproval and the Hello magazine frisson of peering inside celebrities' homes. If enough crap is captured on a picture phone then, a la monkeys and typewriters or CCTVs and Jamie Bulger, eventually you'll record a policeman punching a protester.
If you'll excuse auto-quoting, the great thing about the moral high-ground is that, from such a vantage point, you get to see into other people's bedrooms. The Lives of Others captures this perfectly. And nor is it a fantasy. East Germany was swept by a wave of divorces following 1989, as a third of the population gained access to their Stasi files, and thousands of marital lies and affairs came to light.
Returning to my analogy at the outset, the question for David Cameron (or whoever else might want to address it) is this: do you accept the sociological drift towards voyeurism and surveillance, but seek to tack some principles of democracy, accountability and transparency on to this runaway train? Or do you take steps to limit it, propping up conventional forms of publicity such as the BBC and newspapers, defending traditional forms of privacy via law, and trying to halt the flood of digital auditting that is now pouring through our society and politics?
Having already had 'trickle down economics', I'm guessing the Tories will aim for 'trickle down politics'. For every increase in reality television, twittering and pro-am surveillance, there will be periodic political spillovers which lead to greater accountability and accessibility of power. Small but nevertheless real ones. Real but nevertheless small ones.