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2737 words

A politics out of time

25 July 2013

The scale of Britain’s problems leaves its party and electoral systems struggling to catch up, says David Hayes


Deep structures: Westminster Bridge, the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. Dani Sardà i Lizaran/Flickr

Deep structures: Westminster Bridge, the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. Dani Sardà i Lizaran/Flickr

“THINGS fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” W.B. Yeats’s line retains its grace and gravity even after being used for decades as a convenient signifier of political melodrama. From the same haunting poem – “The Second Coming,” published in 1920 – generations of British statesmen have purloined a fleeting lustre that also suited their above-the-fray self-image. (“The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity” was a favourite during the thirty-year conflict in Northern Ireland.)

If the atmospherics are any guide, Britain has entered another “Yeats moment,” a time when perceptions of crisis in the architecture of the political system are coalescing. The inability of parties and governments to deliver on their promises, the subordination of parliament to private interests, the gap between a cloistered Westminster and a restless society, the sense of a privileged elite gorging on the illicit benefits of power while millions of playing-by-the-book citizens struggle – it’s a picture that leads many observers to the conclusion that, beneath the surface drama and noise, the deep structures of British politics are eroding.

If it is hard to get at the truth of such assessments, it is only partly because hyperbole is the default mode in Britain’s scandal-a-day media environment, which tends not to bother with fine distinctions between a custard pie and the end of civilisation. The dizzying effects of an intense summer heatwave, marked by various sporting, artistic and royal dramas, amplify the sense of politics’ irrelevance to people’s lives and make the notion of change seem unreal. Perhaps most important of all, the balance between these political concerns and others – not least the economy, jobs, everyday livelihoods and longer-term life-chances – has yet to work itself out, as the next election in May 2015 begins to come into view.

THE inseparable twins of British politics, the Conservatives and Labour, are at the heart of whatever is happening. Their problems overlap: declining and ageing membership, dependence on a few big donors (respectively, business and trade unions), a slow retreat to their electoral heartlands, increasing detachment from the wider society, a failure to attract or inspire young people. The current political dynamics supply another common factor: both are being harried by a sizeable contingent on their right and left flank that sees them as having abandoned or betrayed key tenets of their ideology, and wants to exact a price. A difference here, though, is that the newish threat to the Conservatives is electoral and united whereas the opposition to Labour comes from an activist cluster that is neither.

The Tories’ would-be nemesis is the United Kingdom Independence Party, or UKIP, whose consistent poll ratings (above 10 per cent since March this year) and strong performance in local and by-elections convince many that it will top the vote next May for Britain’s seats in the European parliament (where seats are allocated by proportional representation, in contrast to Westminster’s first-past-the-post). It’s a promising outlook for a group whose public profile is dominated by the clubbable Nigel Farage, a former stockbroker and cheerful tub-thumper skilled at portraying the party’s relentless negativism – on immigration and Europe, above all – as bluff “common sense.”

Farage’s hail-fellow-well-met persona can seem an awkward fit with the UKIP’s social base, whose biggest component is forty-plus white men in less prosperous English towns. For the chief characteristic of this nationalist party’s supporters is that they view their country with precipitous gloom, its modern story one of unrelieved decline and loss. In this, they inhabit a much broader emotional-psychological landscape by no means confined to the political right, the disadvantaged or the elderly, one with manifold sources of succour and replenishment nearer the heart of modern England’s sense of itself. In this light, the increasing Tory defections to the UKIP (boosting its membership to a reported 20,000) may represent as much an imagined return home – the original sense, after all, of “nostalgia” – as a political breakout. “Coming home,” indeed, is how many UKIP converts describe their move.

Where does the UKIP phenomenon leave the Conservatives? After the February 2013 by-election in Eastleigh, southwest of London – where an impressive UKIP candidate came a close runner-up to the Liberal Democrat winner – the answer was in effect, panicking. David Cameron’s dismissal of UKIP members in 2006 as “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists” was disinterred; amid vehement Tory (and UKIP) opposition to the government’s plans to allow same-sex marriage, an aide to the prime minister was alleged to have called grassroots Tories “mad, swivel-eyed loons”; and a third of Conservative MPs were found to favour an electoral pact with UKIP in 2015. The Tory chairman Grant Shapps, an industrious lightweight, has since made strenuous efforts to mollify backbench discontent, while the party message has visibly become sharper and more brutal. In the latter case, the strategist-lobbyist Lynton Crosby’s advice to “scrape the barnacles off the boat” and focus on what Paul Goodman of the influential Conservative Home website calls “conventional conservatism – of the immigration-restricting, welfare-capping, tax-cutting, patriotism-proclaiming variety” has received much of the credit and blame.

Though the Conservatives left parliament for the summer recess on 18 July in high spirits, thanks also to some barnstorming performances by Cameron, it’s too early to say that they have weathered the UKIP storm, far less guaranteed their re-election. Even if their improving poll numbers cancel Labour’s national lead, unreformed constituency demographics mean they require a six per cent voting advantage over Labour to guarantee them an edge in seats, and still more favourable arithmetic to escape the confinement of coalition with the Lib Dems.

But the Conservatives’ biggest problem is much more than cyclical. The party is depleting: it has fewer than 130,000 members, compared with three million in the early 1950s (admittedly a time when at local level it functioned as much as a social club and informal marriage agency), and their average age is sixty-eight. The self-reinforcing trend towards regional concentration of core support and “safe” seats means the party barely has a presence in many parts of urban Britain. In Scotland it has one MP out of fifty-nine, in Wales eight out of forty, and in northern England forty-two out of 167. The damaging effects of such withering tend to multiply: a smaller, more socially homogeneous body already sharing more partisan views than most of the electorate will become even more unrepresentative of voters as a whole, making elections harder to win.

The brightest Conservative minds are aware of the need for rejuvenation, and some initiatives in that direction are under way. (Just launched is Renewal, a group of Conservatives in search of that vanishing species, the working-class northern Tory.) But a half-century’s retreat and decay, masked during the Margaret Thatcher–John Major years of lop-sided election victories, will not easily be reversed.

BECAUSE they are a mirror image of Labour’s own woes, the Conservatives’ troubles bring only grim comfort to their adversaries. There is even a degree of linkage in the UKIP threat, if only because that party – combining a “plague-on-both-houses” message, hitherto more of a Liberal Democrat specialty, with ever-alluring anti-politics populism – is capable of scooping votes from disaffected Labour supporters as well as Tory ones. True, recent evidence can also sustain a positive Labour story: of a party that has recovered from its 2010 defeat to build a lasting poll lead, has preserved its unity under a self-confident young leader, and has exhibited a welcome readiness to think afresh about Britain’s flawed economic model.

Most of the party’s senior figures, however, know that the reality is less reassuring. By avoiding a vigorous debate about the Tony Blair–Gordon Brown legacy, Labour had left itself nervous and reactive: the post-defeat transition, for a traditionally fissile party, turns out to have been too smooth for its own good. The polls, against an unpopular mid-term government overseeing severe reductions in living standards, are unimpressive. Ed Miliband’s overall ratings are poor among the public, who don’t see him as a future prime minister. There’s a dysfunction between ideas, policy and campaigning that transmits itself to the public as a fatal lack of clarity (“what is Labour now for?”).

As with the Tories, deeper historical and structural problems lie behind these cyclical factors. Labour’s membership, too, is shrinking: it has 193,000 members, against over a million in the early 1950s. The contrast between its electoral weight in core redoubts (Scotland, urban northern England, south Wales, inner London) and its near invisibility elsewhere is equally striking, even if this geographical reach gives it a better claim to be a “British” party than the ostensibly arch-Unionist Tories. And again, a narrowing of the social and ideological base brings the danger of retreat into a clannishness that has ever less resonance with the wider electorate.

An additional longer-term problem, that of finance, weighs on both parties. Those represented at Westminster receive graduated state funds for their basic operating and electoral costs (“Short money,” named after the Labour figure who established the terms in the 1970s), but rising demands mean the never-ending struggle for corporate largesse is now a routine part of the internal agenda. The Conservatives, historically the party of business, are generally best placed to tap into this revenue source, though the years of New Labour hegemony saw a reversal. Reports advising reform and regulation of party finance, usually commissioned after lobbying scandals have tarnished all the main parties (the Conservatives most often), have sunk with little trace. For all their corporate credentials, the Tories, too, are vulnerable to the whims of missionary tycoons such as Stuart Wheeler, the spread-betting millionaire who abandoned them for the UKIP, of which he is now treasurer and paymaster.

The boss class’s parsimony to Labour has rarely been a worry to the self-styled people’s party, for it could always rely for cash on the trade unions that had founded it in 1900 as a means to secure working-class representatives in parliament. The relationship between the two wings of “the movement” could be fractious, but this large-scale funding stream – mainly from union members whose subscriptions contained a more or less automatic “political levy” – has for decades been a lifeline.

In July 2013, however, the issue broke open in a dramatic way. Britain’s biggest trade union, Unite – with 1.4 million members, almost a quarter of the entire unionised workforce – was accused of trying to fix the selection of a Labour parliamentary candidate in Falkirk, a town in central Scotland, via mass recruitment of new party members who would then be eligible to vote in the candidacy process. Ed Miliband, under pressure from a gleeful Cameron and suddenly, it seems, aware of how a sordid “politics of the machine” was operating, responded by proposing that individual unionists should decide whether a portion of their subscription will go to Labour. His larger objective is both to reconfigure the union link and to create a more open, voluntaristic support-base for the party, thus infusing it with renewed energy. A swathe of sceptics, after praising his idealism, warns that the result will be a perilous plunge in Labour’s income and a wasteful detour into intra-party strife at the very time that an outward-looking strategy is essential.

THE Falkirk affair, still unresolved, sheds light on the infirmity of political parties in three ways. It reveals a moneyed group, in this case a trade union (though a lobbyist cabal could equally fit the bill), using its resources to pursue a sectional agenda by underhand methods. It involves forces – introversion, groupthink, malpractice, preferment by network rather than merit – that corrode civic life. And it emphasises the disconnection of an institutional pillar of democracy from the society it aspires to represent and improve. (A further indicator here, noted in a useful overview by Feargal McGuinness of the House of Commons library, is that just 1 per cent of the electorate is a member of one of the three main parties today, compared with an estimated 3.8 per cent as recently as 1983.)

Moreover, these failings of Britain’s party system can all be seen as emblematic of a wider crisis of democratic legitimacy. The notion draws on a host of think-tank reports, polling surveys and academic studies. The Hansard Society, Democratic Audit, the Power Inquiry, as well as longer-term opinion trends recorded by pollsters Ipsos-Mori and YouGov and by the British Social Attitudes surveys have mapped waning trust in democratic institutions across a range of indices.

Their findings are amplified by a wave of high-level scandals involving improper or illegal activity – MPs manipulating their official expense accounts or receiving payment for lobbying favours, parties accepting huge donations from dodgy businessmen and nominating donors for political appointments or honours – and by the perception that corporate interests are deeply influencing, if not shaping, public policy. Add the systemic negligence of financial institutions before the crash, shocking violations perpetrated by the police and newspapers, the BBC’s failures to address abusive behaviour by some of its star employees, and the distrust engendered by the Blair government’s dealings over Iraq, and the picture of a discredited establishment without a moral right to rule looks ever more plausible.

This indictment, in its very sweep and lack of discrimination, can look seductively easy, especially after it has been parleyed in a million newspaper columns and internet forums. It also draws some of its strength from its contrast with the near universal view of the integrity (and superiority) of British public life held in the 1950s, and still latent in the collective psyche, a contrast that rather too conveniently succours the liberal-left’s version of “golden age-ism.” Indeed, the fact that activists who seek a new socialist party, Ken Loach among them, often describe this project as an equivalent of UKIP on the left, similarly suggests the crossover political appeal of a better past.

These reservations aside, the indictment does also highlight the scale of the task facing the many who see Britain’s democratic renovation as a political priority. That task is made even harder by the limited electoral appeal of radical constitutional reform, which tends to be comprehensively eclipsed by economic concerns. (A referendum in 2011 on replacing first-past-the-post by the “alternative vote,” part of the coalition agreement following the 2010 election, saw 32 per cent voting in favour on a forty-two per cent turnout.) Between the need and the desire for change, between democracy as it is and as it could or should be, falls the shadow of indifference.

So it is the interplay of Britain’s economic prospects and voters’ perceptions that will be decisive in shaping the country’s political course. Even if growth and employment show very minor improvement, the horrendous deficit and debt problems will make higher taxes and bigger spending cuts inevitable to avoid the spectre of default by the mid 2020s. These financial constraints – and, increasingly, environmental ones – put a huge premium on the ability of major parties to offer realistic and convincing political choices. They, and the political system as a whole, need to become more serious, adroit, inclusive and accountable. The obstacles to any such moves are formidable.

In the interim, there are big decisions to be made. The Scots, in the independence referendum of September 2014, have a chance to “get out from under” the United Kingdom. Non-English MPs at Westminster may be prevented from voting on English-only legislation, which would create an English parliament by default. There will probably be a plebiscite on the UK’s membership of the European Union. Britain’s nuclear force, based in Scotland, could be scaled down or obliged to relocate. Each decision will impinge on the others and have unexpected consequences. If the deep structures of British politics really are eroding, its parties and institutions have little time to catch up. •

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An end to indifference: Pope Francis arrives on the island of Lampedusa, a key destination of tens of thousands of would-be immigrants from Africa, on 8 July 2013. Marcello Paternostro/AFP

An end to indifference: Pope Francis arrives on the island of Lampedusa, a key destination of tens of thousands of would-be immigrants from Africa, on 8 July 2013. Marcello Paternostro/AFP