At the party’s end
Peter Oborne reflects on the defeat, and future, of the political class.
‘David Cameron’s decision to quit parliament was classic, copybook political-class conduct’, explains journalist and author Peter Oborne on a humid September afternoon – ‘he placed his private interests above public duty’.
And Oborne should know. As a journalist at the Daily Mail, chief political commentator for the Daily Telegraph (until an acrimonious divorce), and associate editor at the Spectator, Oborne has borne critical witness to what he called, as the title of his much-praised 2007 book put it, ‘The Triumph of the Political Class’. He has seen the rise of the professional politician close-up and impersonal, first during the New Labour years, where the likes of Peter Mandelson and Tony Blair turned a deracinated party into a vehicle for their personal ambition, and then, as farce, when David Cameron and George Osborne did the same to the Conservative Party. ‘They perceived themselves as capturing the Tory Party’, Oborne says. ‘Remember that amazing remark by Osborne – “I hadn’t realised how easy it would be to take over the party”?’
And with the triumph of the political class, came the disenfranchisement of the electorate. Or as Oborne put it in 2007: ‘The real gulf in British politics is no longer between Tory and Labour. It is between a hegemonic political class and a population at large which is mainly disenfranchised and increasingly betrayed by what amounts to a conspiracy between the mainstream parties.’ (1)
But what of his analysis now? After the UK vote to leave the EU, despite the political class desperately urging people to vote Remain, are we now seeing the fall of the political class? Was Cameron’s valedictory speech in parliament also a wave goodbye from that little-loved cohort of ‘modernisers’ and professional politicos who dominated politics for the past couple of decades?
The rise of the cartel party
Oborne is typically honest about the debt The Triumph of the Political Class owes to a 1995 essay by Richard Katz and Peter Mair – Changing Models of Party Organisation and Party Democracy: The Emergence of the Cartel Party. ‘I partly took my analysis from the Katz and Mair essay about the emergence of cartel parties. It brilliantly captured this phenomenon of a political elite that was increasingly answering only to itself. And I wanted to follow their lead, and apply the analysis to European politics as a whole, but I ran out of time – hence it’s limited to British politics. Nevertheless, what Katz and Mair absolutely showed was that the European political elite no longer represented voters.’
The Katz and Mair essay is indeed profoundly perspicacious, not least because it grasps the party form itself, not as a static entity with a fixed meaning, but as a dialectically developing form. They chart its development from the early 19th century, when, with suffrage limited, the party was little more than an elitist clique, before looking in detail at the emergence of ‘the mass party’ during the latter half of the 19th century. This was a party form that emerged out of civil society in order to oppose, and make demands on, the state; it expressed the interests of a well-defined social constituency; and its leaders and programmes derived their legitimacy from the active support and contributions of an expansive membership, organised and engaged through branches, cells and so on.
But the mass party itself was no fixed entity. It was always morphing, according to the exigencies of the moment, and the influence of the past. And from the 1940s onwards it changed qualitatively into what Katz and Mair call the ‘catch-all party’. This party form reflected the shift away, aided by the expansion of a welfare state, from a conflicting-interest-dominated politics towards the social-democratic, postwar consensus. Parties no longer represented a definite social constituency. Instead, they began to target themselves at an indefinite constituency – in other words, potentially everyone. Voters were increasingly seen as uncommitted, floating, and the party programme started to become something drawn up by a party leadership acting in isolation, its legitimacy dependent not on the support of a party membership, but on electoral success. Crucially, the party’s relationship with the state changed, too. It was now less an antagonist on behalf of civil society towards the state, than a broker between civil society and the state.
And with the emergence of the catch-all party form, the seeds of the cartel party – and with it, the triumph of the political class itself – were already being sown. And that’s because, as a broker between civil society and the state, the party started to acquire interests separate from those of its supporters, both because it could extract commission for its services and because of its ability to manipulate the state in its own interests. Moving away from civil society, the party is also moving towards the state, even becoming part of it.
This shift had huge consequences. Party members, now seen as little more than cheerleaders rather than active participants in the formulation of party programmes, turn away from the parties that cease to represent their interests or desires. And in turn, the parties, consciously and unconsciously recognising their own shared interests, turn towards the state itself for resources, authority and even legitimacy. This is the moment the cartel-party form emerges, ‘a new model of party’, as Katz and Mair wrote in 1995, ‘in which colluding parties become agents of the state and employ the resources of the state (the party state) to ensure their own collective survival’. Or as Oborne himself says of the political class, ‘it is self-interested, self-aware, and dependent for its economic and moral status on the resources of the state’.
The parties still sport the branding of their mass-party predecessors. And they are often even talked about as if they still represent competing civil-society visions of how society ought to be. But the nostalgia obscures the parties’ transformation into intra-state bodies, committed principally to their own survival in power or out, and the furthering of their professional inhabitants’ career prospects.
Not that Oborne thinks the cartel-party form is, or was, inevitable. ‘I think Blair and Mandelson did huge damage to the Labour Party’, he says. ‘Look at the high number of politicians who they simply parachuted into local constituencies, the way in which their whole political methodology disenfranchised working-class voters. I accept that the political parties were in long-term decline. But I think it was given a huge shove by Blair and Mandelson. That was why so many working-class voters switched to Farage and UKIP.’
The defeat of the political class
In a 2009 re-assessment – and, as it turned out, re-affirmation – of their cartel-party thesis, Katz and Mair observed: ‘Accompanying the transformation of parties, there has also been a transformation in the character of democracy. If one approaches this transformation from the perspective of the classic model of party government, then it is easy to conclude that modern democracy has somehow been hollowed out. The parties do not act as agents of the voters. But then the voters appear to have little interest in acting as principals of the parties.’
So, in Brexit, in the assorted revolts against the political class in almost every developed democracy, are we seeing voters reacting against cartelisation, and rejecting the political class tout court? ‘Yes, I think we are’, says Oborne. ‘Farage was the biggest voice of that constituency of people who just felt that both Labour and the Tories were manipulative and didn’t speak for them.
‘Going back to Katz and Mair’, he continues, ‘they thought that a new politics would emerge, that the cartel politics would generate its own antithesis in due course, a new form of politics. So the cartel politics emerged as an antithesis to the mass-party-turned-catch-all-party politics of the postwar social-democratic parties. And the cartel politics will, in turn, have its own antithesis. And you can see the antithesis emerging now, across Europe, and in the states with Trump. Sometimes it’s a very ugly thing – with Le Pen and Front National in France, for example. These parties – some populist, some neo-fascist – are emerging as a result of the profound disenfranchisement over the past two decades, and economic powerlessness.’
But, as Oborne intimates, the cartel party, the political class and their institutional forms – the European Union, the European Central Bank, the International Monetary Fund and so on – are not simply going to disappear or give in. They will persist, manoeuvre, fight. All that’s solid will want to remain so.
‘I think the problem is worse across much of the European Union’, Oborne says. ‘You can see this in the way that you’re now getting effective coups d’état arranged by central bankers and the European Commission in places like Greece and Italy. That’s why I would have predicted something like Brexit, this popular revolt against a political elite, would happen in Europe first.’
Which, as Oborne points out, it nearly did, when in 2005, both France and the Netherlands voted to reject a new EU constitution, and in 2008, when Ireland also voted No to the EU’s latest iteration of the constitution. The civil-society rejection of the political class seems to have been a long time coming.
‘Yes, that was what was going on in those big referendum votes’, says Oborne. ‘A huge portion of the populations of France and the Netherlands were disenfranchised by the European Union, which is an anti-democratic phenomenon.’ Oborne adds: ‘I never really understood why the left doesn’t get that. The left hasn’t understood the anti-democratic nature of the European Union. It’s one of the mysteries of the British left, although Jeremy Corbyn has intuitions about it.’
How does Oborne think the political class will respond to the Brexit vote?
‘I think it’s entirely possible that the political class will try to put what the Brexit vote represented back in its box, and I expect that they will try to. They will form alliances with business, with major interest groups and so on. It is quite frightening. You’ve got the City of London, which is a huge employer, you’ve got big business – all of them want the UK to maintain some semblance of an existence within the European settlement. You can see why it is quite frightening – that’s a lot of power and influence.’
Oborne’s mood seems to darken. ‘I sense a movement away from democracy’, he says. ‘I think that elites have never liked democracy, but it worked for them during the age of postwar deference. And the collapse of deference means that they are now going to look for new models that enable them to continue to rule without too much reference to democracy. And I think this could mean going back to older models.
‘Remember that parliament itself was partly designed to moderate populism’, he continues. ‘I think that we are moving towards a situation where people will be restricted in the influence that they can have. I think, in the long term, elites are going to get more powerful. We’re seeing a series of revolts, but in the long term, I fear we will be moving even more in an anti-democratic direction.’
I wonder if Oborne’s pessimism is of the intellect, not the will. Hasn’t Brexit not only antagonised the cosy cartelised world of the political class, but also opened up a window of political possibility?
‘It has’, he says affirmatively. ‘It could be truly amazing. One person who writes very well on this is Anthony Barnett, the civil-liberties campaigner. He shows that you can grasp it as something that can become a great democratic moment in British history. Because it breaks down so many structures.
‘So I do think Brexit could be the greatest democratic moment for more than a hundred years.’ He adds: ‘But we need to be more courageous.’
Peter Oborne is a journalist, author and associate editor at the Spectator. The Triumph of the Political Class, is published by Simon & Schuster. (Order this book from Amazon(UK))
Tim Black is editor of the spiked review.
Picture by: Getty
(1) The Triumph of the Political Class, by Peter Oborne, Simon & Schuster, 2007, p92