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We need to talk about democracy

11 October 2012

10:31 AM

11 October 2012

10:31 AM

I’ve been away from party politics for a few weeks and have watched the conferences as an interested reader rather than an active participant, so it is interesting (for me at least) to consider their aftermath this morning. It seems undeniable that, from the perspective of having gone about one’s normal working life for three weeks, the conference halls seemed very distant, almost as if they existed in a different sphere of reality. This is not to say that they are unimportant or even that the politicians found in them are out of touch, necessarily; but it is to say that there is more to our national political life than these salons for the tribal.

I was interested to read Fraser’s view that the fringe was more vibrant than the conference hall, because this was exactly my experience at last year’s Labour conference. The debates were fresher, the ideas keener.  And, most important and surprising of all, there was a constructive atmosphere between opposing views, a sense that the object was to reach an equitable solution rather than strike a pose. I recall one event particularly: a discussion about energy policy and its effects on heavy industry. The panel comprised a trade unionist, a representative of chemical businesses, an environmental campaigner and two Labour backbenchers. There was no name-calling and neither was there group-think, just reasoned argument which led to the conclusion that protecting the environment (and Britain’s environmental heritage) was as important as protecting skilled jobs, and that the present policy, at a national and international level, does neither. I have seen few panel events that better expressed Britain’s interest and belief in politics, and partisanship was conspicuous by its absence.

Parties exist to create dividing lines, as our adversarial system demands. This is as much a question of personality and presentation as it is of policy. Take this year’s conferences: Ed Miliband chose to present himself as the champion of the comprehensive school, to which David Cameron responded with the neat line that he wants to ‘spread’ privilege. The capacity for empathy is important in any human being, but as that fringe event at last year’s Labour conference proved there is more in heaven and earth than this comic strip approach to politics.

The problem of division is, of course, historical. In a major study to be published next year, Sir David Cannadine will argue that history has been written to dramatize differences, often with a view to changing readers’ opinions rather than setting out facts or emphasising the blander points of agreement. This historical legacy, Cannadine apparently says, has often had disastrous effects on the way that we analyse policy. There was, to my mind, a perfect example of this a few weeks back during the advent of the coalition’s latest industrial policy, which proposes government support for emerging industries and a programme of deregulation in the employment market. This was met with consternation, both within and without parliament. Newsnight, for example, confronted the issue from the perspective that one simply cannot be in favour of limited government intervention and deregulation. Somewhat oddly, most of the ministers voicing the proposals agreed with Newsnight’s premise and gave a less than convicing account of themselves. But the analysis is illogical: there is no reason why you cannot be in favour of both intervention and deregulation, or recognise that both might be beneficial if properly managed. The dividing line dates perhaps from the tumultuous 1970s, when failed state interventions were all too many. The world has moved on since then, even if our political system has not.

The public has, unquestionably, lost faith in the parties; decades of low turnout and falling membership prove it. Parties have tried to renew themselves by creating more elected posts and tinkering with system: the recent failed attempts to create elected mayors in English cities and reform the voting system are cases in point; and the Tories, at least, will be hoping that elected police commissioners fare better. I have to admit pessimism on that score because I get the impression that parties and the multitude of elections they fight contribute to the general disaffection with politics. Indeed, many talented people are being put off electoral politics for this reason. I recently interviewed Patrick Hennessey – someone who has ‘done it’, as the saying goes, in the army and is doing it again, this time at the commercial bar. He is articulate, confident and blessed both with intellect and the common touch. Would he ever consider standing for office?

‘I love politics; I think that anyone who doesn’t is weirdly lacking in engagement because it’s something that impacts on their lives. But, especially in the current climate, it bemuses me as to why anyone would like to be a politician.’

It’s a good example of the malaise that has beset our system in that even the interested are opting out. The parties are aware of the problem, but so far their solutions have been rejected. Tomorrow, the Spectator will publish an interview with Professor Mark Mazower, who has written a book charting the history of international government from the Concert of Vienna in 1814 to the present day United Nations. His conclusion is stark: our confidence in government is low and our representative institutions have been hollowed out by economic and political forces. In short, ordinary people are dispossessed and this is a moment of political danger. He told me that ‘we are having great difficulty in explaining what we mean by democracy.’ It is hard to dissent from that view, which leads to a loss of faith in democracy and voting. Are elections in which turnout barely breaks 35 per cent a worthwhile exercise? Is there any value investing time, money and political capital in institutions and movements that are so obviously held in contempt? Do we cheapen democracy by doing so?

Elections are, of course, vital and it is important to remember that a lot of blood was shed securing them. The Palace of Westminster bears this history on its walls: from the scars of Blitz bomb damage to the empty suits of armour in the House of Lords, which represent the barons who forced King John to sign Magna Carta. This history is a reminder that democracy, and the institutions and principles tied to it, are flexible, changing with fashions in thought and association over the course of centuries. The modern world seems to spin ever faster, but our political system grows ever more sluggish and remote. Perhaps we’re entering a period where the political nation might force the political class to reconsider how representative and administrative institutions might be renewed and made more relevant, democratic and accountable.

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