Monday, 2 February 2015

The Mould Broken

Tony Wright

A long generation ago, in 1979, Roy Jenkins announced in his Dimbleby lecture that the time had come to break the mould of British politics. It has taken a long time, and some false starts along the way, to get there, but in this election year it is clear that the mould has finally broken. Politics in Britain can no longer be fitted into its traditional shape. Some will lament this, or pretend it is not happening, but it would be more sensible to see it as a moment of exceptional fluidity and opportunity on a range of fronts.

This is certainly so in the case of territorial politics. Scotland may have decided (just) to stay in the union, but it has opened up the whole question of what kind of union it will now become. This could, and should, be the moment when the routine denunciation of a top-heavy centralism becomes a real political project. Nowhere is this more urgent than in England, which properly demands a share of the devolutionary action and whose great cities outside London rightly look to reclaim a lost civic inheritance of power and energy. Whatever the future of the union holds, it will manifestly not be business as usual.

At the same time the fracturing of the old party system, and its electoral supports, opens up new electoral and governing possibilities. Far from being an aberration, coalition politics of one kind or another looks like the future. This brings with it unavoidable implications for the conduct of politics. Nowhere is this more obvious than in relation to the electoral system. The referendum rejection of the alternative vote promised to kill off electoral reform for years to come, but this already looks rather different now. The justification for the first-past-the-post system was that, whatever its representational deficiencies, it delivered majority governments with the ability both to govern and to be held clearly to account to the electorate for its actions. Once this ceases to be the case, either because a winning party commands such a diminished share of the popular vote that its legitimacy is eroded or because the lack of a majority winner requires a coalition, then this traditional justification falls away.

We are at that point now. We are left with all the disadvantages of the present electoral system in representational terms, not the least of which is the damaging geographical segregation of party which it now brings with it, without the core advantage traditionally claimed for it. It is for this reason that arguments about electoral reform are no longer abstract and theoretical but become pressing and practical. When Roy Jenkins was asked by Tony Blair to come up with an electoral reform proposal, Labour had just won a thumping majority and there was no political appetite to change a system that had delivered this result. The situation is now quite different. A changed political landscape requires an electoral system to match. A successor to the Jenkins commission should be put to work and, unlike the alternative vote referendum, used to promote a genuine civic conversation about the kind of electoral system we want.

The conversation might also extend to the wider constitutional terrain as we try to put assorted developments into a more coherent shape. Already there interesting questions being aired, more interesting than such familiar questions as whether a written constitution is to be desired. For example, might the House of Lords find a new role as the federal senate of a new union? Should England have its own parliament elected by proportional representation? These and other questions provide fertile material for the deliberations of a constitutional commission or convention if this is established after the election. As the Scottish referendum showed, there need be nothing boring about constitutional questions.

Yet in many ways these matters are not the most challenging of the new opportunities being opened up by the contemporary political fluidity. There is an intellectual and ideological opportunity that is even more significant. The current election debate in Britain can feel flat, predictable and visionless. Certainly it is a bad time to be a politician, when the choice on offer to voters can seem rather like the choice between having your leg amputated above or below the knee. Parties are always desperate to have a ‘narrative’ that will convince voters to believe what they are saying, but there is a difference between the kind of narrative that genuinely derives from a body of ideas and analysis and one that is merely confected for transient electoral consumption. The latter is currently more in evidence than the former.

However it is the former that is most needed, and where the opportunity is greatest. The collapse of old ideological positions, on both left and right, along with new entrants, opens up real intellectual possibilities. On the left, social democracy is still struggling to come to terms with its post-1970s exhaustion, the limitations of tax and spend when capitalism hits trouble and the money runs out, which is why there is new interest in what is sometimes called ‘supply-side socialism’. But this remains work in progress. On the right, market fundamentalism has had its foundations undermined by both the financial crash and the compelling evidence of the accelerating inequality that mocks its assertions about wealth trickling down and all boats being lifted by a rising tide. What this means is that both left and right are being required to think freshly about their ideas, and what this means for a political programme, while from other directions issues about sustainability and identity add new elements to the mixture.

In other words, it is the coincidence of a fractured political landscape and the need for new ideas on all sides that opens up the most promising possibilities. This may not be apparent in the dogfight that is an election campaign, but it is what lurks beneath the surface. Just as the electorate no longer sits in the old party bunkers, so it is with ideas. They flow from many directions and from different political traditions. Social democrats, one-nation conservatives, liberals and greens all have something to contribute to rethinking the terms of the relationship between capitalism and democracy that is the perennial challenge for modern politics.

This is difficult in a political system which institutionalises adversarialism. It is the fact that this system is now breaking down which opens up new possibilities. Sharing power makes it easier to share ideas. Political cooperation invites intellectual cooperation. Real arguments can replace bogus ones. The terms of a new progressive alliance begin to be glimpsed. None of this is certain, because it requires cultural as well as structural change, but nor is it now merely fanciful. There has been much talk over the years about the need for a new kind of politics in Britain, but never a better opportunity to bring it about. Current attention may focus on the mould that is broken; but the shape of its replacement is what matters.