In case you aren’t in the UK or haven’t been following the news lately, there is something of a crisis in British politics. Partly caused by an expense scandal in which some MPs have been making rather dubious claims, the Labour government is now seeing cabinet ministers resigning more or less every single day. Forget about Obama’s speech in Cairo, or a plane crashing in the Atlantic – the one thing that’s on our TV screens every hour of every day is the political crisis. To be fair, we also had the local and European elections yesterday, but in this country, if it’s not a general election, it’s not a real election.
On confusing party and government
The response by Labour party MPs and activists to the resignation of cabinet ministers and/or rebel MPs is typically, “How dare they harm our party’s chances in the elections!” Take this quote from the Guardian:
The Labour MP for Chorley, Lindsay Hoyle, said grassroots members were angry at the “treacherous behaviour” of senior figures such as former communities secretary Hazel Blears.
“People are also bitterly disappointed with James Purnell [former work and pensions secretary]. More consideration should have been given to the damage this is causing the party.”
What Lindsay Hoyle doesn’t seem to realise here is that most people don’t care about the damage that James Purnell has caused to the party, because no-one actually cares about the Labour party any more. This is not an idle claim; it looks like Labour attracted a mere 23% of the local election vote today. Granted, people often use local elections as a protest vote, but 23% is disastrous any way you look at it. Less than 1 in 4 voters ticked the box for Labour today. No-one cares about damage to the Labour party.
The astonishing thing is that MPs are using this language in public at all. If this were America, you’d have people saying ‘James Purnell is damaging this country by walking out now’, etc, rather than being so tone deaf about what voters care about.
On cabinet reshuffles
It seems like there’s a cabinet reshuffle every year or so. I find the nature of these reshuffles to be mystifying. How on earth is any minister supposed to do a proper job if they keep on moving around so often? What makes a Health Secretary a good Home Secretary? Why does an Agriculture Secretary make a good Foreign Secretary? Why is it so difficult to keep these guys in a job longer than two years? Everyone knows how much inertia the civil service has, surely the longer someone is in a job, the more chance they have of effecting coherent and working policy. I note that the US seems to get along perfectly well by appointing Secretaries for four year stretches at a time, with much less drama.
On poor government and apathy
Stuart Ian Burns wrote today:
Basically, we’re screwed. When Gordon Brown eventually goes (and under normal circumstances he should), there’s no one to take his place, at least no one better (better than that?). The Tories will win the next election either way and they’re going to be just as rubbish, and all along, those of us who are desperate for something to believe in are going to continue to be sidelined in favour of greed and make-do and mend and the usual lies and spin.
If the Tories will the next election – and they probably will – it’s because, for most people, there is no viable alternative.
Why is there no viable alternative? It’s not because there is no ‘British Obama’. Of course there is the potential for a intelligent, charismatic and inspirational leader in the UK – there are 60 million people in this country, I find it hard to believe there isn’t someone out there who could do the job. No, I think there are two problems.
The first is that the British electorate are cynical and apathetic. It’s true. Exactly why this is the case is down to a combination of factors, including the political system, our country’s history and age, the media, and the current political climate. But I don’t think that we always have to be cynical and apathetic. There’s a reason people were obsessed with the US election last year – it’s because we wanted it. We wanted to be excited. I want to be so inspired that I’ll go out every weekend knocking on doors and calling people up and posting leaflets about a candidate I care about, a candidate who I think can really make a powerful, historical difference.
People will do that. It wouldn’t even take that much convincing – we already have a perfect model to follow. What I find laughable are the craven attempts of both the Conservatives and Labour party to imitate Obama’s grassroots and online strategy. They just don’t get it. You can’t just whack up a Facebook page and Daily Kos-like site, and expect people to take part; there needs to be substance and hope behind the structure. It’s like people who expect ‘social media’ to suddenly make their products successful – you’ve got to have a good product first.
The second problem is the structure of British party politics. As I am repeatedly told, we have a Parliamentary system here, not a Presidential system, and that’s why we don’t have public primaries to elect party leaders (and thus Prime Ministers). But that’s not a good reason – it’s just an explanation of a poor system. In any case, it is largely the MPs of the political parties who determine who their leader will be. What’s more, the existence of party lists means that prospective MPs are often parachuted into safe seats, for which they have to do pretty minimal campaigning and don’t have to face a primary challenger.
I gather that this may be changing with the Conservatives (I need to check the details) but the point is that the closed nature of party politics is such that a putative British Obama would have a hard time at becoming an MP, let alone party leader.
What’s the solution? My crazy idea is that the Liberal Democrats should decide to go for broke this election – they’re not going to win anyway, so they might as well try anything. First, they should cede power to the entire public (not just party members) in electing both MPs and the party leader. Then, they start a massively local and grassroots campaign to find out what people actually care about – and do this not simply by holding town hall meetings that no-one actually goes to, but doing a simultaneous door-stop/leaflet/online campaign. Next, harness the energy of young people (who are hopefully inspired by this) to ‘do an Obama’. It may not work, but at least they’ll have given it a real try. Of course, this all relies on having an inspiring leader, and while I don’t have a real beef against Nick Clegg, he’s no Obama.
Still, it’s an idea.