Briefly, on British politics

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.

12 Replies to “Briefly, on British politics”

  1. I totally agree. It’s sort of a shame the Lib Dems don’t get it together this year of all years, when I think most of the electorate is bored of Labour but nonetheless sceptical of the Tories, or at least I am – for all the alleged young and exciting vigour of Dave Cameron I find him a pretty bland proposition. and the brand to me is still “right-of-center / Thatcher-is-bad (this is just received popculture wisdom rather than something I particularly hold to be true) / less explicitly evil version of the Republican party.”

    That said I can’t really say why I want the Lib Dems want to win – they’re just the most plausible, inoffensive “protest vote.” But that’s exactly the reason they should be kicking it all off now. If you asked me what they’d do that Labour wouldn’t (or the same question about any two sets of parties) I probably wouldn’t be able to give you a good answer, apart from I’d hope either of the other parties would lack Labour’s enthusiasm for methodically dismantling civil liberties.

    Oh, let me find this INSANELY BAD leader from The Times of all places:

    “The Prime Minister is, without question, a formidable politician and a man with admirable intentions. He has tackled some of the big issues of the day with extraordinary intelligence and courage. Mr Brown has led the world through a global financial crisis. Through weeks and months of complaints and criticism he has also shown an adamantine will to survive. He has had the support throughout of a thoughtful and impressive wife and together they have brought up a young family. There is no question that Mr Brown is a man of substance.

    But, unfortunately, even those qualities are not enough.”

    To me this is just the epitome of everything wrong with British politics vs the media at the moment – if with a straight face you can describe someone as intelligent, courageous, and formidable and yet still insist that they are Done For and indeed must be Done In, then something’s gone wrong. It’s all process process process.

  2. Also yes about the Cabinet, god forbid the Sec. State for DCSF should be a lifelong education practitioner/researcher/nerd rather than some politico not quite important enough to be Home Secretary but too important to be Culture Secretary.

  3. Yep, I think the vaunted appeal of David Cameron is something that’s been pushed by the media, and is only really true when put in comparison with other Conservative leaders (both past and potential). Much of the talk surrounding his ascendance was about ‘decontaminating the Conversative brand’, which – while true – is hardly the most inspiring message: “We’re not as nasty as we used to be.”

    And yes, agreed with the Lib Dems. I think the ‘problem’ in British politics is that there isn’t really that much difference in policy between the parties; you don’t have anything like the culture wars that exist in the US. That’s partly down to the fact that the UK is a much smaller country; I’ve heard it put that New York and Texas aren’t just different states – they’re practically different nations.

    That’s not to say that there isn’t any potential difference. Clearly the Lib Dems do have different ideas on constitutional reform, and they *could* have different ideas on local government, taxes, etc, not that we would know about them.

    Thinking back to the US election again, it occurs to me that Obama was able to mount a campaign that was oddly insurgent and rebellious, while still within the existing framework of party politics. The US is much more comfortable with leaders apparently coming out of nowhere through primaries, which allows some degree of natural self-renewal. If you wanted a real break from the past in the UK, you’d either need to set up a new party, or co-opt an existing one.

  4. “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?”

    I think I’m more worried by the seemingly constant reorganisation of departments. The old DTI has been, since 2005, the DPEI (admittedly, only for about a week), BERR and is now merged with DUIS (which was once in Education) to form DBIS. Is this really wise?

    I can almost understand this sort of nonsense in a company of 500 people that’s not been the same size for any of the ten years it’s been existence. For a Government department, though? Surely this is unwise.

  5. One can only imagine the tens of thousands of hours of meetings involved in setting up DIUS, the jockeying for position, hiring of staff, devising of protocols… now all lost, for a department that was in existence for 20 months.

  6. Another thing we should get rid of is this idea of “calling elections.” Just have one every four years on the same day and that’s that. Not only would you get rid of all the hollering to “call an election if you think you’re hard enough” every time the PM forgets to tie his shoelaces properly, it’s a prerequisite to any kind of primary-based system.

    Also I wonder how primaries could work in this country – after all, “party members” do get to vote here too, it’s just the parties have fewer members than a large charity, rather than substantial portions of the electorate. Of course in the U.S you can just sign up to “register” as part of the voting registration system, so maybe that’s one idea, although it’s always struck me as a bit weird. Another structural problem is that usually there’s a disincentive to misvote in your opponent’s primary because doing so prevents you from voting in your own primary, but if just one party had a primary, that disincentive would not exist. But perhaps I’m overestimating our national capacity for cheating and messing stuff up.

    Finally, it’s all got to be paid for somehow…

    Anyway as you can see I’m still musing on it all 🙂

  7. It seems like there’s a real head of steam building for fixed term elections; unsurprisingly, there’s website with a Facebook group and everything:

    David Cameron came out for fixed term elections a couple of weeks ago, and then apparently backtracked a little by saying he’d ‘seriously consider’ them. You can almost see the wheels turning in his head – “wait, if we win the next election, then we won’t get to call it on our own time…”

    It’d certainly be a good thing to have. One of the many problems of not having fixed terms is that it makes it very difficult for smaller parties to plan their campaigns, since they wouldn’t have a set calendar to raise funds and build an organisation by. It also reduces the pool of volunteers who help out with campaigns – you wouldn’t have had the army of Obama volunteers if Bush could’ve just called a snap election.

    Yeah, I never really got the whole registration thing for US primaries. Maybe it’s so they can count party affiliation. In any case I’m told that the Conversatives will let anyone vote in their primaries now (again, not entirely sure how those work either).

    None of this needs to cost a lot; it might even cost less, if you could plan it all in advance.

  8. Hello – I’m a Lib Dem.

    The only flaw in your proposition for what the Lib Dems should be doing is that there isn’t the time to change the Party’s election procedures before the next GE (whenever that is). Most of the candidates have already been selected.

    Other than that – I take on board your points and personally I will be going for broke in my constituency.

  9. Oh well, that’s too bad. Is there a reason why the candidates are selected so far in advance, by the way?

    Some interesting links:

    An Economist article about how ‘blanket primaries’ produce a sane and workable governments in Seattle –

    Times editorial advocating open primaries –

    (a comment on that editorial states: “Open Primaries mean the end of ministers who sit in the House of Commons. Why? Because the skills required to get elected are not the same as those required to administer. That’s why in the US “political administration” and “elected office” are two only slightly overlapping career tracks.” Oh, how egalitarian…)

    The Conservatives’ ‘open’ primaries –

    (apparently these only apply to constituencies where MPs are retiring or standing down – so that’d be a fraction of the total then…)

  10. In “target seats” candidates are selected very early on in the electoral cycle so that the candidate can enjoy some name recognition by the time the election is called. Bedding in early on means they their face and name on literature that is going out to constituents on a regular basis and they may also get some local press coverage.
    For the Lib Dems, unlike the other major parties in the UK, the selection process is very democratic. They don’t “give” candidates good seats. There’s no top down process for selecting candidates. Each local party chooses it’ s own candidate using a one member one vote system conducted under single transferable vote. Cameron for the Tories has been operating a ghastly undemocratic “A-list” and parachuting them in to target seats.
    But he’ll without doubt be the next PM of the UK.

  11. Thanks for the info Naomi! That makes sense, selecting the candidates early, and certainly I’m disgusted by the A-list that Cameron uses.

    However, I’d be interested to know if the Lib Dems are considering open primaries to select candidates; I’m sure there must have been discussion of this, at least.

  12. Not to my knowledge but that doesn’t mean it’s not been discussed.

    I’ll ask a few questions and get back to you.

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