Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Sleepwalking to political crisis

Is Britain sleepwalking towards a political crisis at the next General Election? As the heat is turned up on what promises to be a very dirty, personalised campaign, it certainly seems so given that none of the leaders of the three main parties seems interested in just how precarious is our political system.

Britain runs, has run for nearly two hundred years since roughly the Reform Act of 1832, on the simplicity of a two-party system and a first-past-the-post ballot. The idea, roughly, is this: that there are two political blocs, one representing modernisation and progress, the other representing maintenance of the existing system. Most of the time the latter are in power but every so often when the pressure for change becomes too great, the modernisers get their day. Then the conservatives get back in, tidy up the system, remove any changes that were too extreme and accustom the country to the new ways. And so on and so on in an endless round.

The heart of the system is that there are no issues too big to be encompassed by this process of step-change evolution; no religious, national or class divides so big that they cannot be found a place inside the broad churches of the two great parties. It was and is, of course, a fa├žade; something which conceals a system which ingrains conservatism and a lack of response to serious problems. It was also false. Ireland and how to cope with a growing working class and their own form of united organisation were the two main things which ultimately tore the Conservative/Liberal, In and Out system apart. The great trick of the twentieth century was the way in which the Labour Party was so neatly inserted into the role played by the Liberals to become a potentially modernising political bloc content to wait its turn rather than a force which might threaten the fabric of the system.

As Henry Drucker saw in his seminal study of the Labour party, the two-party system was breaking down in the 1970s when he was disquieted by a turnout of only 72% in 1979 and just 39 MPs from minority parties. (Only!! Just!!) It was, of course, Thatcher who put a stop to its disintegration by a revolutionary turn-round in which the party which for 150 years had accepted the changes of the modernising party with only modest amendments, and instead put the changes of the previous thirty years into full reverse despite never having any majority support in the polls for such changes. Labour’s sclerotic leadership of the time (and that, I’m afraid includes the sainted Michael Foot as well as almost sanctified Roy Jenkins and beatified Dennis Healey) were totally out of their depth when confronted with such a shift whilst Blair and Brown never had the vocabulary to even conceptualise it so, ultimately, New Labour’s thirteen years, rather being one of the modernising surges, instead became of period of wandering trying to find some purpose without ever having any clear political objective except to keep in power. Ironically, the big problem facing Cameron at the moment is that the historic role of the Conservatives has been reversed. They are now having to act like the modernising bloc in the two-party system and are, not surprisingly, proving hard to live up to the part.

Now the collapse which Drucker foretold is in full flood. General elections have ceased to be national and instead have become a set of quite different contests in the four nations of the Union. Northern Ireland has now drifted off to become, essentially a different country though one rather like Bangladesh in being dependent upon external aid to survive whilst Scotland and Wales are suspended in an indeterminate and uncomfortable intermediate position. In England, Labour has ceased to exist in much of the south and west apart from metropolitan London whilst in the north, although avoiding total wipe-out, the Conservatives have ceded the role of the second party to the LibDems. Meanwhile, the general public has lost all faith with the system and has come to regard it has a general slough of corruption.

I think I might be able to claim priority (albeit at the back of an obscure journal) in the suggestion two years ago that a proposal to reform the electoral system with a referendum might just be the policy that could win the next general election for Labour. (Renewal, 16(1), 2008 if you must know). Typically, Brown having, presumably, been handed this conclusion on a plate by his focus groups has fudged the entire issue by his pusillanimous proposal to consider an essentially non-proportional system like the Alternative Vote. The problem, essentially, is that, as Drucker observed, Labour is a creature of the two-party system; it has it in its bones with the assumption that, as he wrote “[its] leaders will not have to trade policies with the leaders of other parties in order to form coalition governments” There are some in the Labour leadership who will cope with a hung parliament very well. No surprises in the suggestion that one should keep one’s eye firmly on Lord Peter who didn’t give up a comfortable job with the EC to be becalmed as an opposition peer. But generally Labour MPs are going to react badly to hung parliament; too many have come to believe the party line that Cameron is a devil spawned in hell rather than just another hapless politician with much the same policies as there own. Still, it is going to be interesting.