Why today’s election really is momentous…

...not because it has offered us any big or inspiring ideas, but because it has confirmed the rise and rise of a new political oligarchy.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Topics Politics UK

This has been a very curious election campaign. In terms of content, it has been mindblowingly boring, with none of the parties or their leaders putting forward anything remotely resembling a radical, thrilling or challenging idea. But in terms of political authority in Britain – in terms of who rules and how they rule – it has been very interesting indeed.

In other words, from the point of view of what has been said – not very much of note by three samey leaders – there was nothing to get excited about. But from the point of view of what has remained unsaid but which is nonetheless taking place, from the point of view of some very important, almost tectonic shifts away from the old politics and towards a new kind of elite, this has been one of the most striking election campaigns of recent times.

What we have seen in this campaign is the emergence and the attempted consolidation of a new political oligarchy. The campaign has finally confirmed the disintegration of the social bases of the two main parties that dominated British politics for the past hundred years – Labour and the Conservatives – and their replacement by a new political elite whose roots in society are fragile and weak and which is therefore inherently unstable. Britain has moved, in a typically British fashion, towards something like the Italian model: a shaky political system made up of professionals and chancers whose policies and profiles are shaped by very arbitrary processes.

The election campaign has brought to a head a trend that has been gathering pace for at least 20 years: the separation of the parties from their social bases of support. This has been a long drawn-out process, and its reality and its consequences have tended to be denied by the parties, or disguised through the rebranding of the parties as something ‘New’.

For example, Labour’s support amongst the manual working classes – those whom the party was ostensibly set up to represent – fell from 62 per cent in 1959 to 38 per cent in 1983. But the party managed to offset, to a certain extent, the consequences of this rupture with its traditional social base, first by reorienting itself around the politics of identity in the 1980s (becoming a party concerned with persecuted minorities rather than the toiling masses), and then by launching the ‘New Labour’ project from the mid-1990s to today.

Anyone who cared to look would have noticed that, behind all the political and media headiness about the newness of New Labour, there lurked a powerful feeling of dislocation from the certainties of the past. As Tony Blair revealingly said in one of his speeches as PM, ‘The character of this changing world is indifferent to tradition. Unforgiving of frailty, no respecter of past traditions… it has no custom and practice’ (1). It was not a new vision for Britain which gave birth to New Labour, but a powerful feeling that the political and electoral structures of the past had collapsed. ‘New Labour’ was really a lick of paint added to the emptied-out, abandoned, gasping Labour Party, and therefore was never likely to inspire much loyalty or enthusiasm or to achieve longevity.

The Conservative Party, too, is now a party in name only. Once the dominant force in British politics and the party of the Church, the military, BBC and civil service, it is now an increasingly isolated PR machine, more likely to make alliances with celebrities and the press than with powerful institutions.

As the traditional institutions and values of British society have collapsed, so has the Conservative Party: since 1960 it has been losing an estimated 64,000 members every year, and even amongst those who remained there was, in the words of one important study, ‘a decline in the strength of attachment to the party’ (2). By 1993, a long-time Conservative Party member could write in a letter to The Times: ‘The party is a geriatric organisation, now in an advanced state of decline.’ (3)

Similar to Labour, the Conservative Party preferred to gloss over its slow separation from its social and institutional base rather than address the problem head-on. In the 1990s it went through a succession of ‘renewing’ leaders, each worse than the one before, until Cameron imagined that he could do with the party what Blair had done with Labour: disguise its death with a new paint job. Protesting way too much, he said in a speech earlier this year: ‘[My new party] is not just some sort of paint job.’ (4)

What we are really witnessing in this election campaign – in historic terms – is the exposure of the historical fact of the parties’ collapse. The short-termist, cynical, troubleshooting measures taken by the parties over the past 20 years are wearing thin, wearing off, exposing a Labour Party utterly disconnected from the working classes (as glimpsed in the Gillian Duffy affair) and a Conservative Party that looks as alien to older Conservative Party supporters as it does to the youth of Peckham or Moss Side.

In the absence of true public engagement in the election campaign, the dearth of posters in windows, the absence of ordinary people’s voices and the frenetic changeability of the polls, we can see – if we look – something like a final confirmation of the disintegration of both the Conservative Party’s and the Labour Party’s social source of authority. This election campaign is like a delayed exposition of the 20-year crisis of Britain’s two main parties, and more profoundly of the Left and Right.

The consequences of the collapse of the party’s social bases are profound, and they impact on everything. It means these are no longer political parties in any real sense, expressing the outlook of a certain section of society, but instead become something far more aloof and unwieldy. The loss of members means the parties face financial crises, too, making them more reliant on wealthy donors and more given to corrupt behaviour and behind-the-scenes deals.

The parties become more unpredictable: no longer beholden to a particular stratum of society with particular views, the parties can make and break policy on a whim. And they are increasingly led, not by political animals, but by professional politicians: the hollowing out of the parties, their transformation into glorified think-tanks, means they are now run by individuals who have never had to prove themselves to party members, far less to mass social expectation, but instead were ‘made’ in cut-off institutions such as banks, the EC, newspapers or in actual think-tanks. The new leaders are utterly interchangeable: David Miliband and Nick Clegg could swap positions and it would make no noticeable impact on their respective parties’ policies or profile.

But perhaps the most significant impact of the wrenching of the two parties from their social roots – and one which has been writ large in this campaign – has been the creation of a space for something new to emerge, a new elite, a new form of political authority. One reason why the ‘end of the two-party system’ or the ‘death of tribal politics’ have been discussed more openly in this election campaign than in previous ones is not only because that death is becoming more obvious, but also because other constituencies now instinctively recognise that there is an opportunity for them to move into the space left by the decline of the old social forces. The collapse of the social clout of the parties – effectively the final elbowing aside of the British masses from mainstream political life – is enticing new elite elements to consider assuming political authority.

This is best glimpsed in ‘Cleggmania’, the relentless promotion of the Liberal Democrats by influential opinion-formers as the saviours of British politics. Fundamentally, what Cleggmania represents is not the prowess and charm of Nick Clegg himself, far less any genuinely democratic-feeling movement such as that which attended the rise of Barack Obama in 2008 – rather it represents the instinctive grouping together of those influential sections of society that always felt alienated from both working-class politics and traditionalist politics and which now see an opening for extending their influence.

The concerns of this new political force are striking. It is motivated primarily by a desire to overhaul the electoral system itself. Its main election ticket is not to improve economic conditions, raise people’s living standards or reinstitute our civil liberties, but to introduce electoral reform, to make this ‘the election to change all elections’, as one particularly enthusiastic Lib Dem backer put it (5). Their myopic focus on electoral reform is very revealing. It demonstrates that the emerging elite is completely cut off from the concerns of the public, so that it can talk endlessly about constitutional technicalities at a time of deep recession, political disillusionment and illiberalism. It also demonstrates that there is an instinctive recognition amongst the emerging elite that the two-party system has gone, that ‘tribal politics’ is over, and therefore that something new must be erected in its place.

And it shows how self-serving the new political elite is. Some of them explicitly talk about rushing through electoral reform as quickly as possible if the Lib Dems get a role in government, in order to ensure that neither of the two big parties can ever dominate proceedings again (6). At times it sounds almost coup-like – a rush to institutionalise a new system so that the minority, middle section of society will never again find itself isolated by the political expectations of the masses or the actions of the traditionalists. Of course, this phenomenon, this ‘Cleggmania’, is only a more explicit expression of the oligarchical tendencies that are rife in British politics today and which are equally reflected in the cut-off machines that Labour and the Tories are turning into, too.

So how should a radical, progressive humanist vote today? spiked does not presume to tell our readers what to do with their ballots. The historic crisis of democracy will not be rectified by tactical voting. However, if a candidate in your area inspired you with something he or she said, why not give them your ‘X’ factor? That is what I did this morning. But spiked is already looking beyond the election. The well-deserved, not-to-be-mourned demise of Labour and the Conservatives opens things up for us too, for radical humanists, not just for the new Clegg-Miliband-Balls-Cameron breed of post-political oligarchs. The good news about this new oligarchy is that, precisely because of its alienation from society and its lack of binding vision, it is very weak. It can be challenged, and it must be challenged, preferably to a war of ideas. That is what spiked plans to do, starting tomorrow.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

(1) Full text of Blair’s speech, BBC News, 27 September 2005

(2) True Blues: The Politics of Conservative Party Membership, Whiteley, Seyd and Richardson, Oxford University Press, 2002

(3) Quoted in True Blues: The Politics of Conservative Party Membership, Whiteley, Seyd and Richardson, Oxford University Press, 2002

(4) David Cameron: Spring conference speech in full, Daily Telegraph, 28 February 2010

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Topics Politics UK

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