Left-right, left-right: Parties and cliff edges

In the UK, Members of Parliament go back to work after the summer recess. All the talk is about Cameron’s reshuffle and leadership issues: Cameron is accused of acting like a “mouse”; Clegg’s leadership is under threat from his own party; the two Ed’s of Labour (Miliband and Balls) are said to be continuously arguing and that the phrase “two Eds are better than one” may not be true in this case.

More seriously, as the post-summer issues are traditionally short-term nonsense, last week’s Prospect Magazine has Peter Kellner (President of the pollsters, youGuv) writing an intriguing article on how the Liberal Democrats’ support has collapsed since the last General Election  http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/death-by-coalition/. As a result of entering into coalition with the Conservatives, their support has gone from 24% to 10% – which would result in a fall from 57 to around 10-12 seats if an election were to be held today.

While much of Kellner’s response to the polling made good sense, one aspect of the questions his pollsters asked concerns me greatly. This aspect focuses on how much to the left or right the party is.

The concern is this: surely, this form of questioning is out of date in the realpolitik of 21st Century thinking and 21st Century politics. Surely, in an age of individualism and the lobbying by NGO’s and many one-issue organisations of one issue arguments, the left / right analogy is no longer relevant?

Is politics really about left vs right anymore?

The left and right of politics were named after where the French parties sat in the National Assembly in 1789 at the time of the revolution. In 1791, the Legislative Assembly had the “innovators” on the left, moderates in the middle and the defenders of the Constitution on the right. This became the dominant march of politics in the 20th Century. Different and violently opposed political doctrines literally fought it out on the battlefield throughout the 20th Century. Fascism and Nazi-ism on the right, Communism on the left were the extremes in the battlefields of China, Spain, Cambodia, Europe (in WWII) or wherever the post-feudal wars (those that we fought up to the end of the first world war) were fought. Innovation became muddled with socialism and communism; defenders of the constitution became muddled with economic rigour and libertarianism capitalism (never the manner of the “ancient regime”).

Right and left became doctrinal and, with the fight for the rights of labour against the owner class, the 20th Century adopted the political norm.

Is economics an argument of right and left?

Now that the 21st Century is into its twelfth year, the left / right argument appears completely out of date. Sure, there are arguments about economics that will be with us forever: from libertarian, tea party protagonists all the way to Keynesian interventionists. But, because capitalism is now the standard economic and accepted model, the battle is not right vs left in economics but which form of economic model around the capitalist norm. Arguments are much less severe in developed nations and turn on moderate changes in taxation.

Much bigger issues, such as ending tax havens, transfer pricing, corporate power, corporate governance, the role of banks, corruption and many other crucial issues are stymied as politicians argue over the short-term vote catching issues – 1p or 1c on income tax, for instance.

Is the way we are governed right vs left?

Communism or socialism now only survives on the periphery. China is not a communist state – its economics are capitalist within a statist structure and the party ensures a legalist control (it is above the law). This is not communism. Russia is now a centrally controlled capitalist enterprise (run as a large corporate machine). The rest of the world operates in a democratic to quasi-democratic state. Hereditary monarchy is now mainly for the tourists and the press (celebrities within a celebrity culture).

There is little traditional right vs left in government.

Is the environment a subject for right vs left?

Here, confusion reigns. Traditional right-wingers in the UK (from a Tory mould) can be classed as conservative when it comes to the environment. They often oppose untrammelled modernity and defend the right to conserve (as “Conservatives”). Yet, they oppose green movements because they associate them with restrictions on economic growth. Roger Scruton in “how to Think Seriously About the Planet – the case for an environmental conservativism” http://www.amazon.co.uk/Think-Seriously-About-Planet-ebook/dp/B00829L62C/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1346585639&sr=8-1 puts the case for the right to take back control of the agenda.

The affects of CO2 are now disputed only at the periphery but the case for changing our ways is not agreed. This is now much more about individual nations wanting their own freedom and more about the problem of worldwide agreements – not a right vs left issue at all.

Does politics need right vs left?

Less and less people vote in general elections. Maybe the reason is that the left vs right arguments that drew people’s interest and motivation are no longer prevalent. The motivation to vote for broad platforms which mainly focus on short-term issues designed to entrap voters based on their short-term economic concerns is weak. Tradition still subjects most voters to choose their party and most political parties focus on swing votes – the 2% that Romney and Obama will work to win over in the USA, for example. The 2% that means that 98% are virtually disenfranchised!

The traditional view of politics is one where political parties are formed to organize themselves so that they can attract votes from the individuals who are not organized. This is changing.

Individuals have always formed into non-political party groupings – from trades unions to employer associations, from charities to NGO’s. Many of these groups are single-issue campaigning groups or lobbyists that work hard to influence political opinion and political parties directly and via the media. These range from economic groups to environmental, from governance to charitable, health to education – the spectrum is vast.

This third sector (usually a reference to charities, but comprising all citizen action groups, from sports clubs onwards) is not primarily left of right, but single focus – taking up an issue or cause around some issues. Their influence on government is substantial. Most Government Bills are developed as a result of significant lobbying from single-issue groups. For example, the Bribery Act came into being as a direct result of such lobbying and formal meetings between Government and a diverse range of lobby groups from CBI to NGO’s.

This means that the ancient Greek form of democracy – where every individual is supposed to have an equal say in Government – which was never the norm in most democracies as political parties formed – is now fractured into more layers. Government now relies on the lobbyists and reacts more to them than the community or study groups assembled from the general populace prior to elections.

This means that the left and right of politics (already under strain anyway) are meaningless. Single-issue groups lobby on single issues and political parties, no longer fighting on the issues of left vs right, sway as they are buffeted by those who are able to articulate the issues and now the means to communicate effectively. This means that the individual voter is now even more disenfranchised as it is only a small fraction of the population that is engaged in this process – and that, even at elections, the driving force behind vote-catching is bound to short-term or lobby focused.

A new politics?

In an era of globalization and instant communications, individual nations are less able to maintain an individualist position. Nevertheless, as the Olympics and Paralympics have shown in the UK, national pride remains important and is a reason why the Eurozone crisis will endure much longer than hoped.

However, within this national pride, it is likely to be an era when individualism is also crucial. The mass movements of left vs right are no longer relevant and single issues are much stronger in motivating and exciting.

If there is any truth in this then it is interesting to note the preamble to the Liberal Democrats Federal Constitution:

“The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity. We champion the freedom, dignity and well-being of individuals, we acknowledge and respect their right to freedom of conscience and their right to develop their talents to the full. We aim to disperse power, to foster diversity and to nurture creativity. We believe that the role of the state is to enable all citizens to attain these ideals, to contribute fully to their communities and to take part in the decisions which affect their lives.”

In the nonsense over cabinet reshuffles and personalities, it is probably the case that very few even know where to look for the above statement http://www.libdems.org.uk/who_we_are.aspx  – (which is found on the Liberal Democrat website after its coalition agreement – which is all short-term).

Yet, it could be the clarion call for our age – a liberal theme that is far more “of our age” than the 20th Century arguments of right or left.

If right vs left is truly out of date, then open society, balancing liberty, equality and community, individualism cherished, developing talents, creativity and the rest within a coherent community is a proper and enticing call that should be further developed. Apart from a better focus on the environment (our natural capital) which demands more from us, the preamble is not right or left – it is also not middle ground but moves the argument away from traditional left vs right.

Citizens of the 21st Century world maybe deserve something more from our governing elites that have not moved from their 19th Century models.  How we balance our competing single issues and how citizens get to have their say in the crucial issues that determine how we spend our lives is what 21st Century politics should be about. Maybe parties like the Liberal Democrats should think of the themes that will dominate thinking in the 21st Century. Maybe that is a way to get some common ground with citizens – the voters.

Politics – the battle lines between citizens and the state

 

Why the party system is breaking down

Communications leads to changes

 

Types of government have changed with changes in communications. When communications was by word of mouth, strong central government through despotic leaders was the norm.

 

With the advent of the printing press, information could be made more available and (certainly in the West) education could be obtained more widely, leading to different forms of government and wider emancipation.

 

Now, with the dramatic communication changes wrought through mobile telephony and the internet, information (of all types, good and bad, intelligent and unintelligent) is made available throughout the world and the strains in our current governing structures are made worse.

 

The Arab Spring erupted for a variety of reasons but spread through new communication devices and systems. The organization of mass campaigns becomes easier and the attempts to stifle protests by shutting down websites and demanding changes to other, online capabilities is progressively harder.

 

Is the Party over?

 

Political parties are now finding it tougher to piece together coherent and wide-ranging policies that appeal to more than a small percentage of a nation’s population. In a word of communication possibilities, single-issue lobbying is becoming the norm. Politicians in the west continuously argue for choice but the choice that is now on offer, between major political parties without a cause (such as labour rights in the early 20th Century) is not welcomed.

 

As wealth increases (as we develop into the Affluent Society of Galbraith – see:   https://jeffkaye.wordpress.com/2012/05/06/the-affluent-society-and-social-balance/

 

so do the opportunities to connect with a wide range of issues – be they environmental, health, sport, education, self-help, business, charitable or whatever. The numbers of people that engage with politics becomes less because people are engaging with single issues. Parties rarely have a key message that intoxicates any more and are driven to compromise on a wide range of issues that appeal to no-one in particular. This means that voting may be on single issues or they are watered down to choose a party that is less bad than the others.

 

 

 

 

Greece – democracy’s floundering founder

 

In Greece, so dismally rent by bad government and economic disaster, the situation is playing out. Here, the people cannot elect a majority party to power and are being forced to vote again until they do. The party system is broken in Greece and single-issue politics dominates to the extent that the people have made their choice but the politicians don’t like it and tell them to do it again.

 

This makes a mockery of democracy in the home of democracy – an irony that is surely not lost on anyone but a potential disaster. The problem is that even if the Greek people are forced to make a different decision in a few weeks’ time, there is no guarantee that the result will be accepted by them and the demonstrations will begin again. The parties need to adapt to the will of the people by ensuring that the single-issues are wrapped into an acceptable set of policies that the majority are willing to accept – they should have done this first time around and it speaks volumes about the paucity of leadership in Greece that this has not happened.

 

Centralisation no longer works

 

A problem with the European Community which has been exacerbated by the Euro is that political judgements made after the end of the Second World War are not relevant to the 21st Century. While trading blocks are an economic decision, a political block (aimed at tying Germany into a framework which would prevent it from the belligerence of two world wars and providing Europe with a seat at any political table for many years to come) becomes a heavy weight to bear in a world that is likely to eschew centralization.

 

Vastly improved communications (including air travel) means that real globalization is the norm. Opportunities are now in place for a dramatic de-centralisation of political power in many countries and between them. Even if we need the UN, the WTO and other world-wide organisations, they are based on a 19th Century division based on the nation-state. We witness daily the huge challenges that this brings in places like Sudan or Iraq – nation states drawn by the pencils and rulers of 19th Century European civil servants, where older affiliations strike at the heart of the state philosophy.

 

In developed nations, the struggle is less severe but the economic stresses that are beginning to tear at countries like Greece, Spain (where half of the young people are unemployed), Ireland (the scene of a mass exodus after so many years of its reversal) are leading to a disenfranchisement. Italy, with an unelected government of “technocrats”, is surely not the model for the future – where votes are wasted and bankers rule from the centre.

 

A New Model needed?

 

New Model politics has to take into account the needs of a better-educated and often single-issue motivated people who need politicians that are there for them.

 

The political parties have to show themselves to be free from corruption and independent of being in politics for what they can get out of it.

 

The parties have to work together where needed and confront the problems of the past that means that each party opposes each other.

 

In the UK, this has been shown very clearly when, after a hundred years of parties being set up to oppose others, the Coalition of Tories and Liberal Democrats is set upon by many (especially a quixotic press) because they are trying to work together!

 

This is likely to be the norm. It means that coalitions will be the norm. This will be the political “new normal” to go with the new normal posited for our economic future.

 

Single-issues dominate our thinking and generate enthusiasm more than any political party in the developed world. It is only where democracy is new that parties with major and wide-ranging programmes gain real enthusiasm – which is usually dissipated quickly. Elsewhere, massive disenfranchisement is continuous and leads to a dissatisfaction with politics and politicians.

 

Parties are now the vested interests that need to change. We should see a situation where each party’s manifesto shows clearly what they would do together if that is the way it turns out – not be scared of the prospect because it may lose some votes early on. This is a big change but essential as voters’ (citizens’) needs over single issues dominate and they have no way to select a range of issues from those on offer – only a range of parties with massive ranges of policies.

 

In a world of perceived “choice”, the parties need to change to excite and enthuse or we will suffer the continued estrangement of citizens and political parties that will not result well.