The Strange Death of the Party System (A Siren Call)

In 1935, George Dangerfield published “The Strange Death of Liberal England”. This book has been much discussed recently as it analysed the combination of women’s votes, Ireland and rights for workers and showed how the traditional and paternalistic politics of the world in 1914 and before was radically changed by those events.

One hundred years’ later, and this country (and much of the Western world) has a different problem. Except where a sudden (and usually short-term) issue arises, political parties are progressively being shunned by voters.

As a report in The Spectator showed in September, 2013 (mainly using data from the House of Commons Library report from December, 2012), membership of the traditional political parties has collapsed in the last 50 years – true of all the three, main parties. Only about 1.5% of the electorate are now members of the three, main parties – less than ¼ of the rate that existed in 1964.

This trend seems inexorable and, while it does not portend the end of democracy, it shows that (in the absence of possibly short-lived parties like UKIP in the UK Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Party in Italy) the gap between the political parties and real people grows daily.

Single Issue Politics

Dangerfield’s three shifts in politics that were in place when the First World War struck – Ireland, emancipation for women and workers’ rights – have, progressively and with much work, been largely dealt with. After that, the Second World War saw the forces of fascism and nazi-ism smashed. The end of the Cold War saw the attempt at Communism dismantled (China not representing anything like communism after the death of Mao – or probably before).

The world has new problems but economic prosperity and the global economy have shifted focus. Sure, immigration is a hot topic in the UK and the Scots are understandably excited by the prospect of independence, but, with a seemingly stable revival in economic fortunes, the public is not engaging with politicians – outside of single issues.

The older parties in England especially seem to have no vision of the country they aspire to lead or at least no ability to convey one. This lack of vision has disenchanted those who should be engaged. For others, who are far more focused on short-term economic necessities, politicians long ago lost their interest.

The Sirens (Seirenes) of Civil Society

All this was brought into focus at the ACEVO (Association of Chief Executives in Voluntary Organisations) Leadership Conference on 7th May. With exactly one year to go to the next UK General Election, the conference began with a tour around the electorate from Ben Page, CEO of Ipsos MORI and there were also talks from Nick Hurd, Minister for Civil Society, Lisa Nandy MP, Shadow Minister and John Cruddas MP, Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office and Head of Labour’s Policy Review.

Understandably, there was indignation from the audience of charity leaders about the Lobbying (Gagging) Bill and Liz Hutchins of Friends of the Earth especially. She claimed that the political parties wanted the restrictions on charity lobbying because they were concerned at the effect that such campaigning has prior to elections. It appears that the pressure groups within Civil Society now have Siren-like qualities and the Gagging Bill was introduced as a sort of earplug with which to render their song silent.

This insight was, for me, a central theme of the day. Politicians tried to assuage such concerns but Sir Stephen Bubb, ACEVO’s CEO, was not so comforted. He was foremost in wanting charities and the sector as a whole to raise its voice.

Now, charities and NGO’s may not be single-issue bodies but they are singular in context to political parties. In a digital age, they also, in some ways, replicate the more focused requirements of the internet – for short stay issues. From discussions that I had with several of the attendees, they have no intention of being silenced as they give voice to people who are otherwise disenfranchised by a system of politics that is too remote and where the “political class” (as John Cruddas himself called it) has fostered that remoteness.

From this conference, a clear message is that political parties are too focused on short-termism and on presenting a wide range of policies that may have engaged fifty years ago but do not now. John Cruddas, who is working to re-energise the Labour programme, pointed to his party’s desire to rid itself of a top-down, centrist mindset that was no longer suited to the 21st Century. In itself, this is fine, but the positive ability to reach out to people with real needs is, perhaps, too great a reach.

Are Charities a sign of a new Politics?

The Lobbying Bill gained most of its publicity as a result of the attempt to gag charities – a ridiculous aspect of the Bill that the Labour Party has promised to revoke. It showed a worry amongst politicians that charities (especially vocal NGO’s like 38 Degrees) offer a voice to people that is being taken very seriously. Amongst the 166,000 registered charities, there are many established to challenge society. Many others see the need to campaign in order to enhance its aims for beneficiaries. The charity sector, despite its quantifiable size relative to the rest of the economy, has a clear voice on many issues but has to fight its way in a society dominated by corporate and public sectors.

It is an understandable situation where politics is dominated by the sectors that seem to dominate our lives economically. We mainly work for the two dominant sectors and receive most of our quantitative benefits from them. Between them, they dominate. The battle between them, as J K Galbraith showed in “The Affluent Society” is between the quantity of life and the quality of life – both required to some limit but where a social balance is needed.

Unfortunately, we all appear to see the debate between public and private sectors as a battle – not as a need for social balance. Libertarians believe that the market economy will meet all requirements – there are others that believe in the ownership of all economic producers by Government. In between, the battle lines persist: private vs public.

However, there is another battle line where charities and NGO’s exist. It is not all about economics – although it is linked. This battle line is about serving those who are not covered by the armies of private or public sector or where the issue is more quality vs quantity. The debate about the future of our habitat – where the eco-warriors exist – is mainly an NGO battle (in the UK at least as Greens have, to date, low votes cast on their behalf despite them being perceived as single issue). Elsewhere, charities run the whole gamut of causes – medical, social, humanitarian, ecological.

It is into this wide range of causes that people may be engaging. In a world where politics is remote and bland, where politicians are not trusted, charities and NGO’s are seen as trustworthy recipients of funding but also as voices. Unlike the sirens, political earplugs will not cause the charities to give up. The word at the ACEVO Conference was the opposite – a louder voice was needed.

It may be that organized groups such as charities and NGO’s (aided by the digital facilities now available – which suit individual issues) will lead to a different type of political environment. Allied to the extraordinary power of economic (quantitative) sectors such as public and private sectors, the sector that represents the quality of life will likely be seen more and more as a real player in the life of politicians. Maybe the so-called Third Sector will get a Minister in the Cabinet; maybe there will be an annual budget for this area – linking the quantity of our lives (measured through GDP – life by numbers) to the quality of all our lives.

 

 

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Going Soft on Power

We are all looking back on 2012 as the year when the UK has been said to lead the way in a number of areas – the Olympics, Sir Bradley Wiggins and the Tour de France, Murray and the US Open, James Bond and the Queen, with Danny Boyle wrapping it all up to show the UK on the side of good.

But, like every nation, we are not just the nice guys. The UK has also become better known internationally for bribery and bank irregularities (LIBOR fixing, money laundering for terrorists), the Leveson inquiry into the press and phone hacking, the indictment of our police over Hillsborough, alleged police wrongdoing that led to a cabinet minister resigning (Andrew Mitchell) and Jimmy Savile reminding us all of what this country was like just recently.

So, 2012 has been a very strange year for the UK – a “curate’s egg” of a year. Monocle Magazine (itself named after an eyepiece that was popular in the 19th Century) rated the UK the world’s top “Soft Power” in 2012 as a result of the Olympics, Murray’s tennis feats and James Bond (among other things). Yet, at the same time, our banks are being shown up for massive failures on LIBOR, HSBC’s lack of control and willingness to allow money laundering on an exceptional scale and the recent Rolls Royce bribery allegations.

The UK is home to amazing ideals and potential: from sports stars and a tremendous passion for sport, home of democratic freedoms, a country based on welcoming the world to its shores and an internationalism based on a long-lost Empire and a need to be important but be seen to be doing the right thing; an independent spirit that makes us not want to be subsumed in Europe or the USA but to straddle the middle and be all things to all.

The UK is also home to the World Wildlife Fund and to a host of NGO’s and charities that see the UK as the centre of the struggle for the world to be a better place. Our aid programme (directed by DfID) is well-meaning even if sometimes misguided (recent nonsense in Rwanda being a good example).

Yet, business and financial irregularity brings our self-righteousness back to earth with a bump.  While we may be able to export a high degree of soft power through our great sporting and artistic talents, a nation like the UK has to be wary that its reputation is not completely destroyed by letting our ancient mercantile and trading instincts come first. Sometimes we don’t know if we are on the side of James Bond or SMERSH.

Britain’s “export” trade

The UK was a mercantile nation well before becoming the first into the Industrial Age and its Empire was established on the back of pioneering instincts and a trading mentality – heavily mixed with politics and ownership. Our wealth was built on the back of exploration and an eye for what sold well – whether it was gold or slaves.

Whereas the Chinese and its tributary system did not seek to rule the countries with which it traded, the UK sought vertical integration through Empire. It exported its laws, its systems, its language and its instincts throughout the world – the good and the bad. Writers like Niall Ferguson have debated whether, on balance, the British Empire has done good or bad overall, but, like the apology being demanded currently for Turing, this is history. As AN Wilson so majestically says in “The Elizabethans”, it is hard for us to look back on that age with the eyes and experience of the 21st Century.

What matters today are the after-effects of the actions taken and also in the actions being taken today along with the belief systems that are current. While Monocle may be right that we export some good and reap some soft power, the UK also exports some bad that may well negate the soft power that we so want to aspire to at a time when the West’s economic power is diminishing fast. Joseph Nye calls the mix of soft and hard powers,  our overall “smart power” and we are in danger of losing the “smarts”

When Transparency International – UK was setting up its “Defence against Corruption” project and I was an adviser to them, a great deal of discussion took place about how corruption has three legs  –  the corrupted (the government and individuals who were bribed), the corruptor (usually a company that did the corrupting) and the nation where the corruptor was based.

Much of the discussion around TI’s Corruption Perception Index is about the first, but the latter two are as much party to the corruption as the corrupted.

When Jack Straw originally produced his white paper which ended with the introduction of the Bribery Act (a very late addition to the codifying of our laws and the subject of many years fighting between NGO’s and companies as well as between the UK government and OECD – where we had signed up to the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention many years before), he pointed out that the UK was a relatively bribery-free nation.

It is true that since the times of Samuel Pepys (when anything could be bought through bribery) the UK has cleaned up its act at home. As we became wealthier, we became less corrupt (although there remain many instances of bribery and corruption still).

However, in some ways we became more Confucian – we were most obsessed with doing right at home and exported our worst sins overseas. Companies from the UK in many industries such as energy, construction and aerospace and defence bribed for business. As the recent ITV programme “Exposure” aired on 10th October, 2012 showed, bribery by British firms overseas remains too common despite the Bribery Act. Rolls Royce is accused of two major acts of corruption in Indonesia and China dating back several years. It will have to show that its systems and policies are now consistent with the Bribery Act requirements or staff could be held culpable.

National reputation – national character

In the defence industry, the cry was always “If we don’t bribe, the French will”. The Chinese and Russians may be the chief bribing competitors these days but we have now enacted the Bribery Act – so, by law the exporting of bribery by companies from the UK should be at an end – including any company that does any business in the UK.

Maybe the issues that have been uncovered at Rolls Royce are old news but many concerns persist and suggest that the short-term gain mentality remains. In a posting from October I reported on a Financial Times article (from a survey by FTI Consulting) that showed a third of board members in the UK would bribe if they felt it was needed to win business. This worrying statistic shows clearly that the UK’s soft power base is in danger.

Our 2012 national reputation was portrayed in Danny Boyle’s Olympics opening ceremony as quirky but unselfconscious; a nation of tremendous artistic, scientific, engineering and business success, caring and cultured. Ai Weiwei summed it up well in an article in the Guardian (it is well worth reading the whole article:

“Brilliant. It was very, very well done. This was about Great Britain; it didn’t pretend it was trying to have global appeal. Because Great Britain has self-confidence, it doesn’t need a monumental Olympics.”

This was a characteristic portrayed throughout 2012 – a year when our sporting achievements have been at their highest in athletics, in golf (along with the rest of Europe), in tennis, in cycling and in cricket (we even beat New Zealand at rugby). Only in football (our national sport) has a less than successful and a less than wholesome image been portrayed.

But, maybe this is where the link may be. Football has become a huge business and business has no ethics of its own – we are continuously told that companies have no souls (as tax avoiders such as Google, Starbucks, Amazon and the rest show clearly). Football was a working class sport but is now a multi-billion pound successful business. Its sporting soul has disappeared as our exports grow – its “self-confidence” becoming mere hubris.

Soft power and hard exports

It could be said that football has not suffered yet along with its financial success (it still has its fan base). It took someone like Lord Coe to defeat the doomsayers that forecast the Olympics in London, with its huge corporate branding, would go the same way but it was a success with real people. Football remains hugely popular but the corruption in FIFA allied to racism at football grounds in Eastern Europe and the huge pay gap between the performers (being paid £20,000 and upward per week) and the fans means that its brand is continuously being corrupted.

If, in the age of smart power, if it is to be a continuing success, brand UK has to be clear and focused, not tainted by bad business ethics. It means not just abiding by the rules of international business but setting the standards – to take advantage of the good will that has been gained in 2012.

This means swapping the short-term (unreal) benefits of poor, 19th trading standards (where bribery and corruption was rife) to set real standards that are enshrined in the 2011 Bribery Act but where the UK has not put in the resources to implement the Act, where the US has shown a willingness to prosecute its own malfeasants in a way that shames successive UK governments.

Soft Power has to become (to use Nye’s term) smart power. Smart power is the ability to take advantage of the benefits that come from our leadership in key areas and to trade on them. Danny Boyle (through the Olympics opening ceremony and his refusal of a knighthood) shows the way away from the 19th Century mercantilistic British norms to a UK that has the ability to lead the world with its soft power allied to economic and political capabilities. This means waking up to what the 21st Century could mean – a global economy where improved communications can kill a business in progressively much shorter times as well as upsetting the benefits that the likes of Tolkein (The Hobbit is a classic British tale) and Fleming and the rest have provided to the country as a whole.

It means being self-confident enough to be seen to espouse good business not business at any price or any cost. There was no government reaction to the FT report cited above. There should have been. Doing good business is becoming the next stage of capitalism – we should be at its forefront as the challenge of the Chinese and others (who aspire less to this cause than the vocalized western consensus since WWII) grow: good business rather than bad business.

This is a hard ask in the depths of recession – but, if the UK is to capitalize on its soft power base, then a UK for the 21st Century has to be built on a smart power base – rather than simply going soft.

Institutionalized!

Will Self’s excellent new book “Umbrella” (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Umbrella-Will-Self/dp/1408820145/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1348396331&sr=8-1) brilliantly describes the torture of individuals put into “mental institutions” and how (until very recently in the UK) they were appallingly treated.

 

Old people in Care Homes have similarly been shown (one example had a miniature camera secured in the room of a care home) to have been malnourished, beaten and generally abused.

 

Maybe it is improper to use these examples of Institutions that have become uncaring and out of control to symbolize the problems faced regularly by all of us, but it is no coincidence. We have all become “Institutionalized” by the edifices that society has created to carry out the basic functions of society. This is not new. Ossification of institutions is a regular occurrence in society. The reason that monarchs are overthrown, for example, is because the institution of monarchy – the rule of society by one person or clique – becomes, eventually, intolerable to society in general.

 

Cracks in the Institutional Wall

 

We are all confronted by Institutions throughout our lives. From hospitals to school, from government departments to businesses, individuals live their lives working in and being confronted by Institutions.

 

Institutions have been defined as: “An institution is a system of rules, beliefs, norms and organizations that together generate a regularity of (social) behavior” (Greif, Institutions and the Path to the Modern Economy: Lessons from Medieval Trade).

 

They provide “equilibria” to society as a method or ordering our behavior. Greif also developed notions of dynamic institutions to show how institutions change through time.

 

Common Threads’ focus is that the institutions developed in the 19th Century for politics, economics, education and other key areas of society don’t work well in the 21st Century. The aim has been to generate some discussion of where the problems may be and look at some potential solutions rather than try to develop a theoretical analysis (when this is being done elsewhere – for example, in the area of economics at ESNIE (European School on New Institutional Economics – http://esnie.org/).

 

Major economic dislocations as we have seen since 2007 in the West – the banking disasters leading to huge debt problems leading to depression in Greece and the potential for this throughout Europe – could presage major changes in the way institutions develop. Often, the cracks in the wall have to be very large before we either build a new wall or try to fill in the cracks – which is what is being done now.

 

The changes in our institutions that are being made – small changes in banking (mainly in terms of individuals) are akin to deck chairs being moved around on the Titanic. Whether in our political institutions or our economic ones (or wherever large organizations have been set up to provide societal equilibrium) the danger is that they do not change enough to enable society to prosper – rather, built on the foundations of the 19th Century, they fail to deal with the issues that face them (and us) today.

 

Building Order out of Chaos – Challenging Entropy?

 

Just like the walls of Jericho were built to keep out intruders (subject to the odd trumpet) and we build firewalls in our computer systems to keep our systems secure, society builds our Institutions also to have effective walls against change and to build ourselves a cover against the outside world. Maybe we are genetically primed – our cells work within walls that allow us to withstand the chaos that would otherwise ensue. The Second Law of Thermodynamics essentially describes entropy – the natural tendency for good energy to dissipate into bad (useless) energy. Our life on this planet is a constant grind against the power of entropy and, maybe, our desire to build this equilibrium is a natural and instinctive drive for order within chaos.

 

This natural tendency to build order exists throughout civilization and can produce stability and contentment. But, as Darwin wrote: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” (Origin of Species).

 

The key is that Institutions cannot be left to ossify but have to change to meet the changes in environment that exist externally. New order has to be developed constantly.

 

In business, in relatively free markets, businesses come and go on a regular basis. The FTSE 100 started in 1984 and today only three companies from those 100 remain in the FTSE 100 – GKN, Rolls Royce and Imperial Tobacco. This is because the FTSE 100 reconstitutes itself every three months. The Dow Jones started in 1896 – who remembers American Cotton Oil or National Lead or United States Rubber? That is not to belittle business – there is a tough economic law that works hard to reward success and punish failure. Companies that don’t work hard to change to meet the needs of the external environment simply fail. Apple is a great example of a company that was close to collapse in the 1980’s but (under Jobs) completely redirected itself so that it is now the highest valued company in the world. But, for how long? Most companies fail (70% in the first three years).

 

Taking Down the Walls

 

Within the rest of society, change is harder. In our fight against the ravages of chaos, we allow pressure to build up, often learning the wrong lessons. This so often leads to an explosion as pressure gets too much. Society is not very good at understanding where the pressure is building. We defend the status quo for too long and then find ourselves unable to contain the whirlwind that attacks us.

 

In the UK, we have prided ourselves on our ability to change gradually so as to release the pressure before it gets too much. Not since the middle of the 17th Century has England fought a Civil War. This is held up to be the result of the changing democratic scene – from Magna Carta through rule by nobles to rule by the Commons (elected nobles); constant enlargement of the vote from 1832 onwards to women in 1918 (as long as they were over 30 and lived in a decent house) to 18 year-olds in 1969.

 

The walls have been dismantled brick by brick and most democracies follow a similar path.

 

The challenge now is that, in an age where developed societies have reached a decent level of economic wealth, politicians are losing any connection with those they are supposed to represent. Only around 50% of the voting population bothers to vote in general elections. More are now linking up with one-issue groups who they believe will push agendas on their behalf rather than hope that a political party will (by the mere casting of a vote every five years) carry out a manifesto that cannot meet most aspirations.

 

This means that the one issue lobbyists are getting greater powers to influence. Their techniques and ability to make change happen is developing constantly. Originally, such groups were primarily labour organizations (Trades Unions) and, in the UK, this developed into the Labour Party. Now, there are groups within the Third Sector that campaign on any range of issues from the environment to health, from taxation to education, from peace campaigners and human rights to fox-hunting (both sides). Organized campaign groups now operate as a key part of society so that individuals are now useful only at elections.

 

This means that more Institutions have been developed to challenge the political parties (it happens throughout the world). This is not a challenge to the political process – it may even solidify it by shoring up the political process within a wall of campaigning institutions.

 

What role for Society?

 

It is in this context that several have questioned the future in which we grow Institutions to work with other Institutions to govern (or run other aspects of our lives). This response to the walls around politics and government may be a natural one but is questionable as the new Institutions (of the campaigners and lobbyers) are run by a small number of people and funded in many ways. They are not accountable in the same way as political parties are supposed to be (and continue as long as they are funded). Their funds come from a variety of sources and confusion exists amongst society in separating out charitable work from campaigning and lobbying. In the UK, there is no register of lobbying so there is no transparency that is at least attempted in the US (which has its own problems owing to funding regulations that allow companies to fund to whatever level).

 

There is a real danger that the way we are evolving the democratic process is anti-democratic. Democracy is supposed to be government by the people. We have a three-tier system now whereby professional politicians are influenced by a small number (relative to the population) of professionally-run organizations throughout a term of office – remembering the individual citizens only when elections loom.

 

Is this the best we can do?

 

Building the Walls from the Bottom Up

 

In Australia (as I have mentioned in an earlier post), The Centre for Civil Society (under Vern Hughes) – http://www.civilsociety.org.au/ – has developed some new insights and a challenge to the norm in http://www.civilsociety.org.au/CivilSocietyPolitics.htm.

 

This is worthy of investigation as one means of providing greater involvement in our own future.

 

Also critical is the use of technology. Changes in the means of communication have always brought with them the means to radically change society. The printing press, the telegraph, the telephone, the TV, the computer and the internet, the mobile phone, wireless comms – all lead to more and faster information and an enabling of the individual.

 

This is a critical cause of concern for leaders of legalist states such as in China but also offers challenges (and opportunities) to so-called democracies.

 

Individuals are now empowered by technology by dis-empowered by institutions. This means that empowerment is taken up by online shopping or social networking rather much more than for social change or betterment. It means that civil society will continue to be badly served by national and international institutions that meet lobbyists in the corridors of power but are insufficiently grappling with society itself (rather the funneling through funded organizations).

 

Yet, power exists. Libya is a exciting example. Just recently, armed militia groups (a powerful central non-government organization) were ousted by people – civil society coming together to say, “thanks for toppling Gaddafi, your work is done!” In Egypt, Tahrir Square was the centre of civil society’s success to overthrow a dictator. Here, the Military Institutions delayed the correct response and we will have to wait to see if the elected President, Morsi, will serve his citizens or other Institutions (including religious).

 

Civil society (we, the people) should see the 21st Century as one where we are allowed to deliver. The forces for 19th Century equilibria often stand in the way of progress – and are standing in the way of serious climate change policies on an international scale. Institutions set up to effect change may be set up for the right reasons but we are now institutionalized and should seriously re-evaluate our reaction to the new Institutions just as we challenge the old ones. If we need a wall, then we should be blowing that trumpet to unsettle the existing ones.

 

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.

Locked out of Power and Making a Noise

How do we contribute to society and how do we influence the future?

 

There is a dangerous gap opening up between people and institutions that current forms of democratic parties and other organisations set up to channel views to those instruments of power are not able to bridge. The problem is manifold:

Political parties which dominate most democratic societies are filled with professional politicians who have little (or at best moderate) understanding of the real world outside of politics;

Civil service bodies and public sector institutions are (as they have always been) full of careerists who are no longer “tempered” by the social reality that broadly based political parties would provide;

Campaign organisations are also full of careerists who work their way up the system internally and may have little real association with society outside their own silo of interest.

Corporations (especially large, multinationals) have a tremendous power in a world dominated by numbers – growth objectives – and can fund large campaigning groups of their own.

Ever-Changing society

There is no equilibrium in society although it feels like stasis has been reached. Different bodies are continually evolving as the environment changes politically and socially and economically. The problem is that entrenched interest groups (drawn from those sectors above) continuously work to make their positions more secure.

In the past, four, main sources of change were developed to open up society to change:

Political parties

Campaign groups

The media

Communications

But, mainstream sectors have succeeded, in the main, in wrapping the first three groups into that mainstream. There is a dependency on each other and a difficulty in breaking through with new ideas and attempting to force through decisions on even the most important issues.

The global economy has exacerbated this problem – as international needs lead to massive international organisations that succeed always in taking decision-making away from the individual.

Improved communications have through history succeeded in transforming the ability of individuals to learn more and have a greater say. The printing press was followed by the telephone, which was followed by the fax machine and the mobile telephone and the internet. Mass communication is now available that provides the ability for all of us to understand more of what is being done in our name. Social systems such as Twitter enable communication in an instant; mobile telephony and digital technology allows information in microseconds. This has had repercussions in events like the Arab Spring but the rigidity of social norms fights back most often.

Society’s complex underpinning will see some new emergence develop from this – but, what is it likely to be and how can the individual become involved rather than be part of a sector that more clearly matches that of Orwell or Huxley’s nightmares?

The drift to Centralised control

Maybe it’s a natural occurrence – that as organisations develop, they coalesce and form groups and associations that begin to meld into international committees that appear completely remote from most of us.

This is certainly true of political parties, true of sports associations (like FIFA or the International Olympic Committee), true of international organisations (like the UN, WTO), major NGO’s and charities, political groupings such as the EU, international corporates (such as the banks). Most people don’t know most of these organisations and many (like FATF – the Financial Action Task Force) have for years seemingly gloried in their anonymity.

With the rise of the internet, we were meant to discover more but that same rise has meant that less spending goes into traditional media organisations like campaigning newspapers. This has meant a reduction in in-depth investigations and analysis and much-reduced investment by newspapers and other media outlets in providing the type of information we need as individuals in society to keep the massive organisations on their toes.

In a major sense, the rise of the internet has had consequences that were not envisaged and has led to a major centralization of power structures – more immune from investigation than before.

We must not be misled by the closure of the News of the World in the UK after the hacking enquiry – the NotW was a scandal rag that was part of the new world of celebrity. Its loss is not great.

The loss of whole departments where the main task was to investigate and analyse how society works (and where it does not) and the rise of the internet as a news medium (and comment in 140 characters) shows that, so far, what has emerged is leading to centralization not the reverse.

Does Centralised control matter?

Democratic society is supposed to provide individuals with the ability to influence the way our society is run. So, centralized control does affect us all. While the drive to consumerism may suggest that we would not mind if we were ruled like in China (more goods supplied to keep the population quite), I suspect that this tendency does not appeal to all of us. Centralised control does not stop at Tiananmen Square – it has no controls. “”Unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds of those who possess it” (William Pitt the Elder) is borne out through history and the idea that we can allow others complete freedom to guide us through life is obnoxious to most of us I suspect.

What are the options for decentralising?

The centralization of sectors of society needs to be continuously prodded. That can be done both internally (i.e. within those instruments of power) but mainly externally (from other organisations and / or individuals).

Working within is tough – the structures bind staff to their culture and it is very difficult to break out. A feature of British politics has been how the Liberal Party (a party for the individual within a coherent society and always opposed to centralization and totalitarianism) has become (especially since it became the Liberal Democrats) so bound up with the EU project – a centralizing force that is now seen to be breaking up.

External pressure may now be the only way to elicit change and to change the environment so that something less centralized can emerge.

The Centre for Civil Society in Australia is a good example of an organization that has been set up to prod society. www.civilsociety.org.au

The Centre for Investigative Journalism in London is another. http://www.tcij.org/

NGO’s like Global Witness are important contributors. www.globalwitness.org

All such organisations are set up to prod (some quite heavily) the existing structures – they are all dependent on external funding.

We need some creative destructionism – in the same way that Apple created new products that tore at our desire for more than pure functionality (although Apple is now part of that central structure); in the same way that Google tore into the online world and is now a core of that central structure – within the non-economic sphere, the way we live outside of numbers and products.

There are some options that remain that can assist in developing society so that we learn the lessons of the 20th Century – where communism and fascism drove the world to and then away from totalitarianism. Those lessons are now in danger of being unlearned – where the danger of unbridled centralism of society is occurring without (thankfully) war, but just the same potential results. We could wake up and find the world run from the centre. Maybe it is already and the drift to unequal wealth distribution a symptom.

That suggests more of an effort is needed to point a finger at our structures and the best way to do this is through our participation – and through some independent organisations, especially in investigative journalism, which can expose, fight for freedom of speech, help to analyse the impact of centralised decisions on society and expose fraud and corruption: many groups, many individuals wanting to open up the closed doors.

Does a tree that falls in a forest make a noise?