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The concern is this: surely, this form of questioning is out of date in the realpolitik of 21st Century thinking and 21st Century politics.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.