Into a world of unpopular government? (AKA We’re all doomed)
The week after the independence referendum, the BBC’s Question Time came from Kelso. http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b04jtx3h/question-time-25092014 Feelings were still pretty raw, and this showed in the audience reactions. One woman (on 24:35) had the distinction of being the first to tell the Yes recedivists “Nobody voted for extra powers. No means No.” But at least as telling was a man whose contribution (54:24) to an Ed Miliband discussion was “… that is why we voted Yes. To get away from all this Westmonster nonsense.”
It was clear by “this nonsense” that he meant the part political way of doing things, and it is notable that in this respect (at least) the Yes vote and its afterlife shares with UKIP south of the border a commonality. Their belief is that conventional party politics no longer serves them. And this has a wider resonance: the Observer showed on Sunday 16th November (http://gu.com/p/43bk8/tw via @guardian) how traditional politics and binary political systems are under attack across Europe.
The insurgent parties come from both extremes of the political spectrum: from the right it is UKIP in the UK, the Front Nationale (France); Golden Dawn (Greece); the Sweden Democrats and the Danish People’s Party; from the left Podemos (Spain) and Syriza (Greece); from the unaligned centre Beppe Grillo’s 5-Star movement in Italy; and nationalists like the SNP itself and Sinn Fein, currently polling at 24% in the Republic of Ireland.
The spread of these parties across the political spectrum suggest that there is not a common lurch to the left as a response to the excesses and failures of capitalism, nor a leap to the right in reaction to the stultifying hand of the left. These movements – like the man in Kelso – tend to represent a disenchantment with party politics itself. The voters, in other words, do not like what they vote for, and it seems, may be going off representative democracy itself.
The most striking example of this process is to be found in France. François Hollande was elected only two years ago in 2012, inflicting what was regarded at the time as a humiliating defeat on his conservative predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy. In taking the Elysées for the Socialists for the first time in 30 years, it was difficult to see that M. Hollande in his current position, standing at 13% in the opinion polls (the FN’s Marine Le Pen FN is at over twice that rating at 30%.)
Here in Britain, the insurgency parties are in the ascendancy as well. UKIP is easily the third biggest party in England. In Scotland, the very best that Labour can expect in May next year is to restrict the Nationalist to a similar result to 1974: it would be a triumph for our new leader to keep them down to under 20 seats. It is just as likely that they will break FPTP and take over 40, and reduce Scottish Labour to a rump. It looks likely that the “big” two main parties will take about 6 votes in ten between them in May next year; and in the still most likely event of a Labour Government, the evidence of France is that within a year or so, Labour could be somewhere in the region of 15-20%.
So what is the cause, and what can be done?
With regard to the cause, is possible that all of the governments of the party politics system are failing or have failed. And it is possible that all of their political systems are hopelessly corrupt. However, these would be coincidence and seem unlikely.
What they have in common, however, is the continuing effect of the world recession, and the inability of parties of either conventional left (or Social Democrats) or conventional right (Christian Democrats) to make an impact. What they – and we – also have in common is access to technologies which foster and support scepticism and in turn distrust.
In this regard, we can return again to home soil and to the Scottish independence referendum. One of the features of the campaign was the sudden appearance on social media of evidence which “proved” any point that someone wished to make. The result was that incredible fancies became commonly believed as fact, as political urban myths abounded. At one end of the spectrum these stretched to the mistaken – such as a belief that the McCrone report had been produced under the same condition of transparency as that which we enjoy in the post-Blair FoI age.
At the other end were the pure fantasists, like those who believed that massive oil deposits in the Firth of Clyde are being concealed as their exploitation would interfere with Trident deployments. When examined, it is clear that there is no evidence for these claims, only that you find out about them on the internet. The whole story can be found here (thoroughly debunked): http://noscotland2014.wordpress.com/2014/01/28/west-coast-oil-a-view-from-de-bunker/
We must therefore deal with a potent cocktail of (a) continuous economic stress plus (b) the apparent failure of conventional party politics plus (c) the proliferation of theories ranging from outlandish to bonkers on the internet. How do we go about it?
First, the world economic crisis is not going away anytime soon, and no sensible party (that is no party which values stability and low interest rates is going to break ranks with fiscal orthodoxy, so austerity is here to stay. And this may be a blessing in disguise, as a simple but superficial way to deal with the problems might be to throw money at it. The task becomes a whole lot more difficult and a lot more radical when the underlying political issues need to be addressed: how do we get the electorate to believe that politics is for them, and about them and their families and communities?
The first realisation which we must come to is that politics as a binary process was the result of conditions in the early and mid-20th century and is probably dead. It was the product of the ideology dictated by the relationship which markets created between labour and capital, reinforced by monopoly mass media and means of distribution. Its political identity is the First Past The Post electoral system: “vote either for capital or for labour.” These relationships have now been eroded in the western democracies: for a number of reasons. The first is the triumph of capitalism and the defeat of its socialist alternatives. Another is the growth of social and communications media, through which the population feel they live in the same space as the political representatives. And although this is of course an illusion, it may still give the impression that politicians could listen to them, but that are wilfully ignoring them.
Recently the BBC showed film of the 1964 General Election results coming through, which featured an interview with Clement Attlee (by then Earl Attlee.) One wag on Twitter asked what the media would have made of him today: “weird, remote, a bit geeky, not willing to take on the left wing, Red Clem?” But above all, few voters, especially Labour voters, would have expected the degree of approachability demanded of Ed Miliband. Likewise, no-one expected Churchill or Lloyd George to be as ‘ordinary’ as Cameron or Clegg.
So politics is going to always be out of touch as long as the main and most important contact which voters have with politicians is not real but an illusion created by the media…..(to be continued…)