This is a high level review of the British political landscape, a description of current political system as it is; parties compete for votes in order to gain power through a parliamentary majority which will enable them to enact laws based on the policies that were put to the electorate. I’ll look at deeper questions such what is politics for and how democratic it is when I turn to the alternative vision.
If we set out to develop a better politics from our current politics the scale of change can look enormous. But the existing system contains within it rules and conventions that would allow it to evolve into something better. What is missing is both the political will and the necessary political capital – neither the vision nor the support currently exists.
The following diagram shows politics as a human activity system. I take each of the boxes in turn. (Note: Adapted from Porter)
The Political Process
The political parties compete using an agreed set of rules and conventions (the unwritten constitution, based on precedent and evolving, in our case) for the right to control the state i.e. to form a government.
The competition between the parties is carried out in ways that creates disaffection, it is a turn off to many. Disengagement with politics is a perennial concern.
Parties that work within a first past the post election system have to adopt processes that limit independent thought and resort to various forms of coercion using the whip. This reinforces the wrong behaviours. When it is not the mutual slanging match of Prime Ministers Questions there is widespread use coercion (denial of promotion, de-selection) as well as dirty tactics like briefing against people, character assassination, ridicule. Perversely this can even be justified as necessary; the exercise of an updated Machiavellian realism. Any nuance in the debate is lost. The media feeds and reinforces this behaviour. The BBC (one of our few independent sources) seems to think balance means equal airtime regardless of the veracity of the points being made. Its political commentators seem to think it is their job to challenge (when it is that of parliament) rather than explore. (Note: The BBC - Auntie knows best)
If you stay within the bounds of the current political system, its possible to conclude that some things are bad and other still improving. Over the period 2001-11 Andrew Blick lists a number of ways in which parliament has improved. (Democratic Audit). if you accept the basic premise that things are roughly speaking structurally OK these are fair observations. If you take the view that our current politics is structural flawed, and has to be reimagined such tweaks looks beside the point.
A flavour of these structural issues, which the diagram above does not highlight;
- Parts of what used to be the political process that are now outsourced or given to agencies thereby reducing ministerial control but also making scrutiny and accountability more difficult
- The ebbing away from the state of power into the hands of large, often multi-national corporations who organise themselves to minimise tax in any jurisdiction and avoid regulation
- The continual centralisation of power away from local government, some agencies now carry out activities which in the past would have had council nominees on their boards e.g. in the NHS these are either appointed by the NHS Improvement, or by the Secretary of State. Lay members have to submit CVs and be appointed so the groups that should be scrutinised get to interview and appoint those they see as being qualified. That's how jobs work, it shouldn't be the default way that public oversight works.
There is a major problem with first past the post voting which I deal with in Timeline - Present - Limited Participation and Disengagement
The Parties, lobbyists and think tanks
The parties and politicians are the suppliers of policies, these will be influenced by their success in rivalry with other parties (through elections), but also their own internal policy development, as well as contributions from lobbyists and think tanks.
The suppliers of political solutions; politicians, parties and think tanks are failing. They are failing for a number of interrelated reasons. Political power has leeched away from the politicians (to international institutions and trans national corporations). The party’s memberships have declined and their prescriptions command less respect. In the last 30 years we have been in the grip of the notion that “there is no alternative” and now when there is some movement because of the banking failure in 2008 and in 2016 the Brexit, there is no thought out alternative ready to pick up. This leaves a potentially dangerous space for demagogy to enter. (Note: There Is No Alternative)
New parties being formed
New parties can be formed to bring new ideas onto the agenda, the first past the post system in the UK means that new parties face a significant barrier to entry to be able to compete in the political process. The Lib-Dems formed out of the union of Liberals and Social Democrats have failed to break through, and in 2015 UKIP got the third largest vote and yet secured only one MP.
The Citizens and all organisations
Citizens are the ultimate customer of government although the way the results of government are “consumed” is also through organisations ranging from the organs of state through employers to any organisations touched by government.
The users of the political and economic system have little power. They have been told there is no alternative that managing the economy is just a technical job and are switched off as a result. As a group they are both are disenchanted and deeply divided. It is difficult to see any side commanding enough support to gather 51% of votes and thereby have the legitimacy needed to make radical changes. The last time there was a landslide victory in seats there was still only 35% support in the electorate. Not recognising this the nascent Lib-Lab pact was ditched and the majority party imposed its programme – in the process sowing the seeds of its own destruction (Sure Start diluted out of existence, competition in the health service, the collapse of comprehensive education).
Subversion may be seen as a threat to substitute the political system for something else. It can take many forms such as dictatorship or oligarchy. It can occur through force as in a coup, or the process can be used to abolish itself (e.g. Louis Napoleon’s use of plebiscites to become Emperor after 1848, the Nazi Constitutional Revolution 1933-6).
The term subversion is only valid if one is setting out to replace competition for control of the state with rule by one person or faction at the expense of everyone else. When people talk about the political class and say they are all the same they are making a criticism that politics is a self selecting oligarchy where the wannabes bet on which party to pursue their careers through as exemplified by this letter to the Guardian (Note: Wannabe Example).
My vision for a holistic political economy is a form of substitution, it substitutes total reliance on parties and power seekers with mechanisms that allow citizens to participate in policy making and executive oversight as a right irrespective of party. See Part 2 Assess - Vision.
Feedback, Discontent and Dissatisfaction
One adaption I have made to Porter’s model of competitive forces to show feedback, discontent and dissatisfaction.
Feedback here is simply the process by which experience leads to change. Many people are not swayed by experience because party loyalty runs deep – there are many studies of this and some evidence that this is weakening.
Parties concentrate on the “floating voter” and craft their messages to appeal to those most likely to switch and in first past the post this has to be in marginal constituencies. Large numbers of constituencies are safe in the sense that they have in built majorities for a particular party. There is nothing exceptional here but in terms of what holistic political economy is about the following observations are relevant;
- Party allegiance increases tribalism and reduces goodwill. The destructive rough trade of politics (which makes hypocrites of those who advocate cooperation in the eyes of the public) is legitimised for use against other parties and their supporters
- People living in safe seats who disagree with the majority have no representation and the politicians representing safe seats have little incentive to engage with the politics of their opponents
- Concentrating on swing voters in marginal seats does not make for the development of a wide appeal or consensus building
Besides elections there are other forms of feedback. One was noted in the discussion of knowledge and systems thinking (Note: Commissions of Enquiry). Others are the mechanisms that inform public opinion and which in turn influence the debate on policy within parties, lobbyists and think tanks (above). The Cambridge Analytica case shows how we have lost control over spending and transparency in the new areas which supply feedback (Note: Cambridge Analytica), (Note: Election Abuses)
For simplicity I have shown dissatisfaction leading to new party formation and discontent to substitution. Clearly both are present within feedback as it occurs and may alter the way they behave – new activists, joining or leaving a party, influencing or creating a lobby group, writing to one’s MP.
At some point dissatisfaction does lead to new party formation (Women’s Equality Party - March 2015, Green Party 1990, UKIP 1993, SDP 1981).
Even more extreme discontent it can feed groups who would seek to subvert the political process altogether, for example (Combat 18)
Towards something better
If we set out to develop a better politics from this starting point the change looks enormous. But the existing system contains within it rules and conventions that would allow it to evolve into something better. What is missing is both the political will and the necessary political capital – neither the vision nor the support currently exists.
When the Labour Party was formed in 1906 the working-class movement and culture it represented was a rich and self-confident. (Note: Formation of The Labour Party) Today it has has been broken and fragmented by individualism, there is a long way to come back. Only when there is a living and breathing cultural reality of an alternative will it make any progress.
The following chapters outline a vision and provide many examples of what good looks like. They are included precisely to help build and strengthen a collaborative, cooperative culture. When people can see the living, breathing reality of an alternative then, perhaps progress can be made. See Part 3 What Can Be Done.