Is politics broken? After all, any political system is a messy compromise. There is no perfect way to ensure a 100% turnout on a voluntary basis for political parties that exactly reflect the spectrum of ideological inclinations and whom then meet in a parliament wholly reflective of the social composition of the country. Can’t be done.
So what constitutes a functional political system, and what a dysfunctional one? On many objective indicators, our system works. A good test of that is turnout which, though down on the heady days of the 1950s and 60s remains relatively high at 65%. Our elected representatives, reviled as they are, are mostly honest and hard-working. Most things that government is meant to do get done.
During the recent election campaign I came to the conclusion that I had to return to supporting the Labour Party. I’d seen that attempts at creating alternatives, such as the Democracy 2015 movement started by Andreas Whittam Smith, or the revitalised Green Party with its charismatic MP Caroline Lucas, all lacked the boots on the ground and the political experience and sheer savvy, as well as the brand identity, necessary to mobilise millions of votes for progressive causes. Moreover, I’d read things said by Miliband and people close to him, by Andy Burnham, and by others suggesting that these were people who had learned from their mistakes. So although I found many Labour policies timid, or naive, or simply repellent I was sufficiently convinced that it was a vehicle that might limp home with a driver who was heading in roughly the right direction. Sometimes you just have to be pragmatic.
In some senses I still think all that. If you ask the question, how do we get from where we are, with a government of hard-right short-termists who are both wrong on policies and inept at implementation (NHS? Schools? Prisons?), the answer probably has to include the Labour Party forming some kind of government at the next possible opportunity.
But that’s a part of the strategy for changing the direction of travel in this island. It cannot be the whole story.
I’ve lived in some of the parts of Britain where Labour used to weigh their votes rather than count them, and where now they have UKIP breathing down their necks. Those ex-Labour or weakly Labour voters come from areas, and probably from families who in the past were card carrying members of the labour movement. Socialised by chapel and union into the ways of the movement and the party, they were a genuine part of the coalition between workers by hand and workers by brain, as the old phrase has it. But those jobs and industries have in many cases gone. The experience of work is different. There has been a withdrawal from a wider involvement in community with a loss of social solidarity. Racial divisions are also often pretty raw in those areas, mainly exacerbated by ‘white flight’ from inner urban areas and educational segregation.
Similar economic and social forces have applied in the post-industrial parts of Scotland, but the ex-Labour voters there seem to have embraced the SNP. Why was the SNP able to speak to those people in ways Labour never came near to matching?
Nationalism mobilises latent identities in ways which have emotional resonance. The antics of the new SNP MPs taking selfies at the despatch box and applauding when told not to, look an awful lot like the Labour MPs who sang The Red Flag on the floor of the Commons in 1945. But the bonds of class solidarity are not merely cultural, they spring from an analysis of politics and economics which is inherently progressive. The bonds of nationalism, on the contrary, are by their nature exclusive and divisive, and opportunistically they can steal their clothes from the left, but also from the right. Which is also the appeal of UKIP to some Labour voters in England.
Labour was strongest in big, diverse cities, even though Labour is beginning to lose affluent sections of the BAME vote. Younger people with higher education plus migrants (you won’t find anyone more aspirational than a migrant) in the cities were a block for the left. It is quite hard to see what, culturally, they have in common with the mill towns and foundry towns and former coalfields that used to be Labour. They probably have a lot in common with many in Glasgow and Edinburgh who flocked to the SNP, but that cultural affinity can’t also be political affinity beyond small tactical deals, because nationalism by its nature is about setting a limit defined by geography. The people of Birmingham, or Manchester might admire the charisma and oratory of Nicola Sturgeon, but they can’t vote for her. By definition, as a nationalist she has no interest whatsoever in them. It’s a one way street. That’s not much of a basis upon which to build a progressive coalition.
An analogous argument might be constructed about the political right. The Tory party is not at ease with itself. Social liberals, economic liberals, social authoritarians, nationalists and little Englanders, globalisers, followers of Burke and followers of Hayek, it’s got to fall apart.
All that binds the two main parties, unstably and probably not for long, is the electoral system. The people, the parties, and the voting system are out of synch, and so is the entire constitutional settlement upon which the system rests. Broken.
A constitutional convention to sort out the mess is only one, (huge) necessary step. We also need to recognise that the old party divisions based upon class don’t work any more, either. Social class is a real force, and trades unions are important to aggregate the latent power of workers against over-mighty companies, but politically perhaps more and more diverse parties and movements are needed? As the ‘flat pack politics’ movement shows, progressive politics can take root in seemingly unlikely areas when it takes a form which is culturally attuned to its environment.