So far in current politics we have seen that it is difficult for cooperation to gain traction in a political system that is competitive, tribal and in thrall to the idea of competition, in poor governance that various forms of agencies, are remote from scrutiny. There is, in addition, an acknowledgement that there is a lack of participation and engagement which is a cause of concern, because there is little idea of how this can be combatted.
A House of Commons Briefing paper on disengagement says “Political engagement is assumed to help make governments responsive to the needs of citizens and give citizens the opportunity to shape the laws, policies and institutions that govern them…Across Western democracies, voter turnout and trust in politics has decreased since the 1950s.” (HoC Briefing CBP7051)
Another Hour of Commons briefing provides a detailed analysis, free from editorial comment, looking at political party membership (HoC Briefing SN05125). It shows, amongst other things that membership:
- has declined massively since peaking I the 1950’s
- represents a small fraction of the electorate
- is primarily to support for the party but that active opposition to others is the second reason for joining
- requiring very strong part allegiance is limited to less than 10% of the population
- of the Labour Party from a “hinterland” in the wider Labour movement, has also has suffered a decline
Politics, is seems, is a minority pursuit. The membership of political parties is small, even with its astonishing growth to 500k members under Jeremy Corbyn the Labour Party has half of its peak membership in the 1950’s. It is estimated that the Conservative Party may have as few as 124k members. Even if we include activists and the wider labour movement in the “political class” (a term usually used with reference to the so-called Westminster bubble) the number of politically engaged people in relation to the population at large is very small.
First past the post politics allows minorities to rule. By this I mean simply that with much less than 50% electoral support a parliamentary majority can be delivered that allows a government to act with a so called mandate. This is often defended as delivering strong government and may have worked when there was a consensus and support for the two main parties as was the case in the 1940’s and 50’s. Since then it has been called an elected dictatorship (Note: Elected Dictatorship). With the decline in party affiliation and its split across multiple parties there seems to be chronic, structural democratic deficit, one that also undermines legitimacy (Democratic Dashboard)
It is widely acknowledged that there is a growing gap between the very well off and the mass of people, see (Pickett & Wilkinson) and (Wilkinson Ch3). It seems highly likely that this fact is related to the decline in participation and engagement.
- When all politicians agree that the economic system has to be fixed in the same way, as for instance in the 2015 election when it was just the degree of austerity (because there is no alternative) voting is just a matter of selecting one set of managers over another
- The technicalities of managing the economy only appeals to so called "policy geeks" and become more and more opaque to the majority of people.
When the system delivers turnouts are low, but when the system fails to deliver, as it has signally failed to do since 2008 it should not be a surprise that there is a rise in anger, frustration and bloody mindedness that gives space to populism. The pictures below illustrate a way of thinking about the barriers to wider participation.
This structural problem is multi-factorial and includes multiple detailed problems such as the decline in power of local government, the growth of agencies and outsourcing with inadequate supervision, the failure of the legislature to hold the executive to account and cronyism. I want to illustrate how these are all part of a structural, systemic problem. For ease let’s just assume the population splits into 10% who are thriving, with another 30% who are doing very well from the status quo, 30% of people are treading water and 30% of people are actually losing out.
There will be people in the thriving and doing ok 40% who oppose the inequalities of the status quo, but so long as enough of those who are treading water and even some of the loosing out can be persuaded that social mobility is possible then a ruling majority in parliament can be put together from minority support in the country as a whole. The bottom line is that you just don’t need a consensus to rule, you can rule in the interests of 10% if you incentive enough of the 30% who are doing OK and bring in a few of the 30% looters with some promises of a jam tomorrow. Our system allows you to impose policies without consensus or majority support (the elected dictatorship) whilst maintaining the pretence of democratic legitimacy.
We could say this characterised the period from the end of the post war consensus up to the crash 1979-2008
This is what I envisage John Kenneth Galbraith meant when he wrote, in the Culture of Contentment.
“In the United Kingdom a contented majority ensured the rule of Margaret Thatcher for eleven years even though in the midlands and to the north unemployment and exclusion were a continuing source of social discontent” (Galbraith)
There are echoes of the statement by the c19th MP William Cobbett “I defy you to agitate a man with a full stomach” (Cobbett) , and these ideas overlap with Marx's idea of false consciousness and Gramsci’s of hegemony which are covered in Part 3, On Power, What is Power and Where does it come from - Ideas and Beliefs.
But push too far and it breaks down. Your rule in the interests of 10% will make some of the 30% who do well enough queasy with doubt, shake some out of their ambivalence and make the ignored angry and resentful. This can fuel right wing populism as well as calls for left wing or progressive change.
This applies post 2008 crash to the present
Now consider the next picture – according to the House of Commons report cited above less than 2% of the population are party members. The problem with this is that political power appeals to a certain type of person and so the politically engaged are not (by definition and self-selection) representative. Become a parliamentary candidate and you will have people you thought you knew and trusted say to your face – you are all the same, only in it for what you can get. This happened to me in 1983, how much more likely is it after the expenses scandal?
Let me be very clear none of this is about class and none of it is fixed: people can move around the within structure. One argument that can be used to defend our current form of representative democracy is that people are free to become engaged or not so – not many participate but participation is possible. I just don’t think this is good enough. There are many honourable people in politics, they can only act as the structure allows (politics is after all the art of the possible) but there also many who succumb to what David Owen describes as hubris syndrome (Owen) and some who share the psychological traits of psychopaths (Note: Psychopaths at the Top).
Or we could say;
“Government is necessary to preserve our freedom, it is an instrument through which we can exercise our freedom; yet by concentrating power in political hands, it is also a threat to freedom. Even though the men who wield this power initially be of good will and even though they be not corrupted by the power they exercise, the power will both attract and form men of a different stamp” (Friedman, Intro)
30 years of “there is no alternative” which was so successful it created New Labour, combined with the destruction of over 6 million (TUC, Union Membership), much of the language of collective and collaborative action is has been lost. A left wing parliamentary majority is possible, but it is also almost certain that it will not command 50% support in the country. The danger is that its policies are not grounded in a rigorous alternative narrative and will not be well enough understood to command sufficient support and legitimacy when things get difficult.
The winning alliance will come predominantly from the temporarily less ambivalent and those of the ignored who have the labour habit, but the opposition will be drawn from the 40% who back the status quo – this will include vast power and wealth.
The very nature of political life (confrontation, dirty tricks, whipping) which will become more and more necessary, as a future left labour government comes under fire, will continue to makes hypocrites of those who profess cooperation but behave differently.
The crash of 2008 showed that deregulation and letting the markets rip has failed to deliver, trickledown never happened. For the unthinkable to become thinkable – which can happen in a crisis, the ideas lying around are used.
“There is enormous inertia—a tyranny of the status quo—in private and especially governmental arrangements. Only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.” (Friedman, Preface) (Note: Big Power and Other Peoples Money)
Just at the time when alternative ideas about how to organise society are needed the left that has no coherent set of alternative policies or vision of how things could be, nothing lying around or kept alive to be used – sure it has pieces, but the total does not add up to more than the sum of its parts. See Section 1 Review, Human Activity System; The weight of Culture, Class & Hierarchy and Caste, and Behaviour as an emergent property.
In developing a realistic approach to change things for the better, limited participation and disengagement is a major issue that needs to combated and reversed. I do not think this can be achieved using our current form of representative democracy and party politics. See Part 3, What Can be Done.
My conclusion is that the case for collective action and collaboration has to be made afresh, from scratch, grounded in science and free from (ideological, left/right) baggage.