Eggs, Ed, and the Decline of the Political Party

By Oliver Ford

Ed Miliband’s rare entrance into the headlines last week may have been viewed as an achievement by the Labour leader (in what otherwise has seemed to have been a self-imposed media blackout over the summer) were it not for the fact that this feat was achieved as a result of being pelted with an egg by a disgruntled member of the public. The pictures of the incident, which inspired intermingling feelings of amusement, pity, and scorn, were only minutes after the event to be found on Twitter, posted and viewed by the politically detached and cynical British Generation Y. As well as providing amusement, however, Ed’s ‘egging’ also seems to be the perfect example of the huge and increasing divide between the major political parties and the public that has characterised British politics of the 21st century so far, a divide which threatens a terminal decline of the traditional party model in the UK.

On one level, the assault demonstrates the sheer contempt that much of the public now holds for the perceived ‘elitist’ and remote political class that dominates the leadership of both major political parties. This is particularly true of Ed Miliband, (being pelted whilst on a visit to a ‘typical’ London market, seemingly on a desperate mission to exhibit his affinity with the ‘average’ person) who, being born into an academic and political family, was sped through Oxbridge and into a job as a ‘researcher’ before rising to the top of the party that perversely claims to have the interests of the average working man at its heart. Of course, the same is also true of both David Cameron and Nick Clegg (as well as a multitude of other Cabinet members), both of whom have followed an unsurprisingly similar career path to that of Ed Miliband. This wholesale detachment of political parties and their leaders from the very public they claim to represent has resulted in a de-humanization of Britain’s political life – from Miliband’s elitist and careerist view, voters become ‘target demographics’ and people’s worries and fears become ‘issue trends’, Miliband himself never having experienced a life comparable to that of most of the electorate. This dehumanization then serves to alienate the political class more, with politicians retreating into their own worlds of spin doctors and polls – fuelling the public’s hostility to mainstream politics even further. The effects of this elitism and resultant disillusionment are easy to see, particularly with the electoral decline of the two major parties – the Labour and the Conservatives Party’s combined vote falling from 86% in 1945 to 65% in 2011. UKIP’s recent rise in this context can also be explained – with leader Nigel Farage’s personable and grounded persona, as well as more ordinary background (never having attended university) being a key factor in the party’s rise. The divide between an increasingly irate and detached public (demonstrated by Ed Miliband’s egging) and an increasingly isolated political class is therefore both a symptom and a cause of the decline of political parties in Britain; with the ‘distance’ between politicians and the public turning so many away from mainstream politics, a ‘distance’ which only increases as fewer and fewer ‘normal’ people have an input in the running of the major parties.

The perpetrator of the egging himself offers reasons for the decline of the political party. In stating that Labour ‘does nothing’ for the poor, Dean Porter is expressing an opinion that many in the country of different political views now hold – that the major parties have become too ideologically similar, and in many aspects are the same. In Dean Porter’s case, this probably means Miliband has not done enough reverse Labour’s right-ward lurch towards the political centre under Blair (Miliband’s early characterisation as a dangerous radical – ‘Red Ed’ – now seems cruelly ironic); similarly, the Conservative’s base of support has been left feeling alienated by many of Cameron’s liberal centrist policies such as the legalisation of gay marriage and maintenance of the international aid budget amidst widespread cuts. This convergence of policy and ideology at the centre of the political spectrum is a consequence of the elitism and detachment described before, with the secession of the country’s political leadership from the rest of society meaning that parties have drifted from their traditional bases of support, attempting to find a near mythical vote winning ‘centre ground’. This search for a neutral centre ground, seems, however to be self defeating, because in looking for this centre ground, parties become more and more alike, antagonising the public even more, losing votes, and so contributing to their own decline.

However, the merging of Britain’s political parties into an indistinguishable centrist mass (demonstrated well by Miliband’s directionless leadership of the Labour Party) is more than another symptom of elitism – it is in itself an example of and reason for the decline of the political party, for if the major parties are no longer to take clear and consistent positions on a range of economic and social issues, what is the point in them at all? The recent successes of groups that take a more definite position on the political spectrum display the dangers that major parties face in failing to define and clarify their ideological standpoints – with George Galloway’s left wing Respect Party winning the 2012 Bradford West by election and the decidedly right wing UKIP now regularly polling over 10%. In fighting over the same narrow stretch of centre ground, and in doing so acknowledging that winning elections is now more important that maintaining ideological integrity, the UK’s main political parties seem to be committing collective suicide.

Of course, the death knell of the traditional political party has not been sounded just yet – traditional ‘bread and butter’ economic issues that have arisen with the financial crisis and ensuing squeeze on living standards may yet invigorate Labour and the Conservatives. The party structure has also not yet fully been discredited; with parties such as UKIP thriving with burgeoning memberships, the current malaise may only be affecting the tired and lethargic Conservative and Labour parties. There will also be those who will rejoice at the decline of traditional parties, viewing them as cumbersome anachronisms unable to serve Britain’s fluid modern society. On many occasions, traditional party politics on both sides of the political spectrum have failed the country – one only need only look to the dysfunctional 1970s to see the dangers of dogmatic machine politics.

However, despite this, ever since the work of political philosopher Edmund Burke in the 18th century, it has been accepted that in order to hold the executive to account and form functional governments, well organised and disciplined political parties are required; if this need can be combined with a more open, receptive and flexible but simultaneously principled and meaningful party system, perhaps Ed Miliband and the rest won’t remain such inviting targets for egg throwers.

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The Coalition: the imperfect solution to times of great uncertainty

By Sebastian Whale

Okay, they have been a mixed bag. Hastily formed at a time of great political uncertainty, contravening all natural barriers between the right and left, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats formed an allegiance that seemed as unnatural as it did unlikely. Despite manifesto pledges being overturned and public humiliation orchestrated through tuition fee increases, EU referendum pledges, perversions of the course of justice and exposed penchants for expensive burger chains, this most unattractive of arranged marriages has put two fingers to the face of cynics who stated they could never peacefully co-exist. ‘Peacefully’, admittedly, may be a redundant term, given last minute vetoing of a “snooper’s” charter, the split positions on the AV and the conspicuous handling of news internationals bid for BSkyB. “It will never last”, the cynics contentedly stated, but for the good or detriment of the country, depending what side of the coalition fence one finds themselves, the coalition seem set on completing their pledge of serving a full term of office.

And I for one applaud this. Not because they have been a benchmark for excellent government policy, absent of controversy and bent political ambition, altruistic in their intentions and perfect in their execution. No, they have been far from it. From the initial years of withdrawing any policy that faced public scrutiny like an over-sensitive teenager, to blatant stubbornness at the thought of changing course on an “excel-error” based economic policy, the coalition’s inconsistency has been the only constant during their tenure. Sure, some positive signs have appeared recently, following the meaty bone being thrown to them by the ONS overturning the double-dip to the single, extensively deep recession only experienced under Labour. Finally realising the need for capital spending, the inherent opportunity of the development and production of shale gas and the renewal of investment needed in North Sea oil have been essential to this mini revival.

However, it would be too narrow minded to judge the coalition and their governmental output solely on the controversies and inter party struggles. The fact is, whilst there are seismic shifts in the composition of the global political landscape, illustrated by the Arab spring uprising, the emergence of extreme parties across European elections, anti-government protests seen from Turkey to Brazil, the need for compromise and calm has never been greater. During times of oppression, depression or even a convoluted state of affairs, the extremes can emerge and danger arises. Germany in the 1920s experienced hyperinflation and an extreme period of economic hardship, leading to the formation and election of the NSDAP – the Nazi party.

All across Europe, from France to Greece, far right and far left parties are gaining traction, as electorates seek to absolve the status quo associated with the plight they are currently facing. Rebels fighting against tyrannical governments such as in Syria, Libya and Egypt have been armed by allies in decisions that assuage some of the abhorrence the public hold with the actions by the Governments of these countries. However these actions echo an all too familiar tale of western governments arming rebels, leading to the inherent concern of “who are we arming?” such as with Afghanistan and the Russian invaders during the 1980s, which ultimately led to weapons and capabilities being handed over to what would eventually become the enemy of the Western world and the antithesis to freedom and democracy, the Taliban.

These are uncertain and perplexing times, not just confined to other continents. Nigel Farage and his merry UKIP men have seemingly put their mark on British politics as a right wing party that have become the voice of discontented middle England during times of economic deluge and high levels of income inequality, with no hint of irony or acknowledgement of this anomaly. The right have become more vocal, exacerbated by Boris Johnson worshipping and EU membership postulating. The left, through the appointment of Ed Milliband, have taken a diversion from the centre-ground hugging days of Blair and Brown back to its more core left leaning roots, as the unions may or may not be calling the shots and having influence over potential candidates. The centre ground would have dissipated, but for a coalition formed of polar opposite parties, naturally balancing the highly sprung seesaw of modern politics.

The fact remains, two polar opposite political parties by ideology, are attempting to naturally hug the centre ground and keep parliamentary procedure in check by forming an alliance I’m sure not anyone within would call a win-win situation. But while others all around are losing their heads, the coalition are achieving something many have forgotten the importance of during times of great upheaval, the skill of compromise. It’s miles from perfect; frankly it often isn’t pretty, but by demonstrating that parties on opposing ends of the political spectrum during periods of hardship can co-exist, however fraught and discombobulating, is an important signal going forward.

So here’s to the coalition. The frustrating, infuriating, imperfect solution, to what Britain needs to have now. History is not likely to capture their tenure as one of the great, policy rich governments but should, in my opinion, encapsulate it as an important statement of continuity and compromise, when all those around are seeking radical change that, as the annals of history has proven, can do more harm than good.

No to referenda

By Alex Bryan

First the Conservatives, then Labour, now finally, it seems, the Liberal Democrats. Nick Clegg’s statement in PMQ’s on Wednesday that it is a matter of ‘when not if’ a referendum is held on Britain’s membership of the European Union signals the beginning of a three-party consensus that a referendum on Europe is necessary. Considering the age-old Europhilic tendencies of the party, this demonstrates how much support and influence UKIP now wield.

As well as the rise of UKIP, it also signals the rise of something else which the Lib Dems have been altogether more keen on; referenda. Since the ascension of New Labour in 1997, Britain has changed from being a country which had only had one referendum in its entire history to being one in which referenda are becoming an almost common phenomena. Though we have only had one national referendum since 1997 (on the Alternative Vote), the calls for a referendum on the EU and Scottish independence show that they are becoming a part of the national political fabric.

The attractions of calling for a referendum are, from the politicians perspective, clear. ‘Giving the people a vote’ will never be seen as an unpopular stance, and will almost certainly be lauded as ‘democratic’, whilst simultaneously casting anyone who dares to disagree as ‘undemocratic’ or elitist. This should be a worry for those concerned with the health of British politics. The fact that referenda are now seen as a plausible possibility on controversial issues means that politicians can manipulate political opinion in order to suit their political agenda hugely.

Take Europe for example; it is no coincidence that it is the Conservatives and UKIP who are most vocal in their support for a referendum, as it is they who have public opinion on their side. As Labour found out with the ill-fated North Yorkshire devolution referendums in 2004, a referendum lost is an embarrassment. Therefore politicians will only pressure for a referendum on an issue they know that they are winning on.

This is not a good thing. For one thing, issues such as EU membership are hugely complex and shadowed by conjecture and falsehoods. They are immensely important for the future of our nation. They are, essentially, exactly the kind of issues which we elect with politicians to deal with. We devolve some of our democratic powers to parliament and the government in the hope that they, as qualified, full-time politicians, will be able to conduct hearings and make policy on important issues better than we would.

Again, take the EU. This is a subject as controversial as it is possible to be. Proponents of referendums say that, come election day, the public education programme and campaigning preceding it will ensure that the public is informed enough to cast a ballot. But when it comes to the EU, very few people know the figures. Nigel Farage might bang on about membership fees but in reality the economic benefits or costs of EU membership are impossible to calculate. By the time election day comes round, the campaigning will simply have affirmed existing prejudices. On an issue as complex as EU membership, most people will not have the time or the information to do any research into the issue, and will cast their vote based on the statistics and opinions they read in the newspapers, the vast majority of which are anti-EU. It is not elitist to say that in the modern world, where democracy is seen as the state getting out of your way rather than direct participation in the political system, it is not elitist to say this: it is simply realistic.

More important than any individual bad decision however are the long-term implications of referendums on the public’s views on politicians. If politicians begin regularly abdicating the biggest decisions, then it will no longer be seen as important whether they can handle the big decisions, as they will be making fewer of them. A public which already views politicians with contempt will begin to see them as dispensable.

There is a case to be made for the claim that the public does not have enough say on governance, that one vote every five years is nowhere near sufficient. But a functioning democratic system must be constitutionally consistent. If the appetite for referendums is the appetite for increased public involvement, then there are other more effective avenues which lead to that. To attempt to invoke ‘the will of the people’ on an ad hoc basis is dangerous, and has little to do with what the public actually wants. It’s not about public involvement. It is a political power play, designed to render the opponent impotent, and it is a device of which we should be increasingly wary.   L

The Liberal Democrats – unpopular but not incompetent

By Tom Dymond-Andrews

In case you’d forgotten, the Liberal Democrats are still in Westminster. Nick Clegg is still the Deputy Prime Minister and Britain still has a Coalition government.

With all eyes on Europe, and attention soon to be turning across the pond, even in government it can be easy to overlook Britain’s third party. In terms of how the public view them, this has undeniably been a torrid 18 months. As a party they have a mere 15% rating in opinion polls compared to the Tory 37%, and Clegg has a net score of -19% whilst his counterpart David Cameron boasts an impressive 48% approval rating. Read more of this post