What good’s an election without alternatives?
In the hands of the UK’s non-political parties, the historic crisis of the system is in danger of becoming an historic missed opportunity.
The UK health authorities have been panned for issuing ridiculous (and quickly ‘clarified’) swine flu advice for pregnant women and children effectively to be kept away from other people. That might have been a more sensible warning had it been issued to the members of Britain’s political class, a ‘vulnerable group’ likely to attract more than a sniff of contempt if spotted out in public.
There is one sure way for politicians to keep away from crowds today, however. All they need do is to stand for election and ask people to listen to their policies and plans. There has been much excited media talk about the polls showing that the Conservatives are likely to win this week’s parliamentary by-election in the relatively safe Labour seat of Norwich North, after the sitting MP resigned over his expenses claims. There has been less mention of the apparent lack of public interest in this ‘vital’ election that points to a very low voter turn-out on Thursday.
Indeed, the most telling statistic about Norwich North I have seen was this, tucked away in the News of the World article that reported the Tory poll lead: ‘One debate among the candidates was cancelled on Tuesday night because only three people turned up.’
As parliament reaches its end of term and MPs scuttle away in relief to start their long summer break from media attention, we are facing a unique situation. New Labour is the unpopular and discredited ghost of a government that nobody is listening to as Gordon Brown and his ministers launch fantasy plans for ‘rebuilding Britain’, like deluded dictators in a bunker commanding imaginary armies. Yet at same time, the opposition is led by a Conservative Party that nobody likes or trusts either. Hence the opinion poll figures for Norwich North put New Labour down at 30 per cent, but have the Conservatives doing little better at 34 per cent. There is little solid support remaining for anybody in a situation I have previously characterised, not as two-party or multi-party politics, but as no-party politics.
In this sense it is not quite right to compare the dog days of the New Labour government with the last years of the previous Tory regime under Margaret Thatcher and John Major. They went down under a wave of genuine anti-Tory sentiment, a political rejection of what they stood for — albeit a political response limited by the false hopes many invested in Tony Blair’s New Labour. There was widespread public rejoicing when the hated old Tories finally bit the dust in 1997.
Today, by contrast, there is no real anti-New Labour political movement, no mass demonstrations of opponents chanting ‘Gordo, Gordo, Gordo — out, out, out!’. People tend to respond to the government’s policy antics less with a shout of anger than a shrug of indifference. There will be few public celebrations if David Cameron’s Conservatives get into government next year.
The mood this summer is not simply anti-government or anti- a particular party. There is a wider feeling of anti-politics and anti-parties. But the real problem, as we have suggested on spiked before, is that we have parties that are not political. They are simply electoral machines (and not very good ones at that) which offer little or nothing in the way of a political vision for the future of our society.
Look at the gap between the scale of some of the issues facing the UK in the real world today, and the petty debates that pass for politics in the world of Westminster.
In the midst of the most profound financial and economic crisis in living memory, what issues are the political class arguing over? Not how our society should produce and distribute its wealth in the future, but how much a few bankers should get in bonuses and which bankers or bureaucrats should sit on financial regulation committees.
After eight years of a grim and unwinnable war in Afghanistan, what are the big questions dominating public debate? The technical question of how many troops and helicopters should be there and the etiquette question of whether government ministers should attend dead British soldiers’ homecoming ceremonies. The question of what any British troops have been doing killing and dying in Afghanistan since 2001, the political case for and against such interventions, hardly gets a look in.
Then there is the issue of constitutional reform, much in the news this week with a flurry of reports and measures before parliament breaks up. Although the mere mention of the ‘C’ word puts many to sleep, there are important changes that could be made to help create a more democratic system, such as abolishing the monarchy and the crown prerogative that allows governments to act like absolute monarchs. Yet in the wake of the expenses scandal, the sort of cosmetic constitutional reforms being proposed seem less about changing the way society is run than trying to alter the way that society sees the political elite.
Meanwhile, alongside the dull de-politicised and technical discussions of recession, war and power, the elite is engaged in a heated debate about an issue that should never have been politicised in the first place — a so-far-unspectacular outbreak of influenza.
All in all what we are faced with in Britain today looks less like a political confrontation between the rulers and the ruled than an anti-political reaction against non-political parties. That represents a big problem for the political class. But it also poses a bigger one for the rest of us.
The crisis facing our society is in danger of becoming an historic missed opportunity. It is worth reminding ourselves that the word ‘crisis’ does not simply mean disaster or danger. It means a turning point, a moment of decisive change, at which the shape of future events can be determined. It comes from the Greek krisis, meaning ‘decision’. This crisis of the existing economic order is a moment for our society to decide which path it wishes to take into the twenty-first century. To make a decision, however, you first have to be presented with — or come up with — alternatives. Maggie may long since have been out, out, out of power, but Mrs Thatcher’s friend TINA — There Is No Alternative — continues to rule the Westminster roost.
Without serious alternatives — and that does not mean merely parties for protest voters — we will remain stuck in the current rut. The political class and the public will go on like an embittered old couple — or perhaps as the elite would see it, like parents and children — still sharing the same home while living in separate worlds. The result will be that whoever wins the General Election (and in a situation of such shallow loyalties, any result seems possible apart from a New Labour triumph), they will not represent anything much, and certainly not any movement for real change.
The run-up to the General Election has already begun; every policy initiative announced from now on is really an election manifesto in disguise. But they cannot disguise the absence of alternative visions of how to make the best of the crisis. There may not be much scope for those of us outside the elite to influence the next government. But so what? Before it is too late, we can try to start a debate in the wider public arena about what sort of society we want to live in and how to further the big causes of economic development, social liberty and political democracy for all.
Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.
Previously on spiked
Brendan O’Neill called Gordon Brown the hangdog dictator in Downing Street. He also looked at the psycho-politics of the collapsing elite. Mick Hume wondered if the MPs’ expenses scandal revealed the price of democracy today? Elsewhere he felt that the crisis of New Labour went far deeper than Gordon Brown, and asked where have all the history-makers gone? And to mark the beginning of Gordon Brown’s reign, Josie Appleton asked why New Labour stands for nothing. Or read more at spiked issue British politics.
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