The decline of representative democracy in the UK couldn’t be more clearly illustrated than it was in the Chancellor’s statement to Parliament yesterday.
Coming hot on the heels of a farcical week in which the Tories were able to forestall an early election with a well-timed flourish of popular tax pledges, Alistair Darling ‘shot Cameron’s foxes’ (so sez Nick Robinson, natch...).
So Labour’s response to Tory pledges to reduce Inheritance Tax is a strategic move by Labour to neutralise the the issue. Similarly, Labour is sticking its tongue out meekly at non-domicile tax-dodgers to match Osborne’s gesture against them last week.
This is where politics meets battleships. A careful game in which specific demographics in key seats are triangulated - not even on values - but on specific policies. It is a game of mandates, not ideology, principle, character or values.
Now I know that this is generally nothing new. In 1997, the key-seat strategy that Labour applied dictated that a comfortable working majority was our sole focus.
On election night, we fielded calls from non-key seats saying that their canvass returns were better than expected. Activists pleaded for resources to be shifted away from the must-win seats that were clearly already in the bag. In many cases, those calls were ignored (though in East London, where I was working, Labour took all of the seats in question anyway).
In 1997, there was no pretence that the election was about ensuring that people got Labour representation wherever possible. We were campaigning only for Tony Blair only, and we were only interested in ensuring that enough people + 1 chose that particular brand over the alternatives. Tacky? Maybe. But there is much worse to look forward to in future.
Next time, it seems that we will bid for every vote in the carefully selected seats that we care about - this time with very specific numbers. Vote for us and you will be £1 better off than with the other lot. We will have to fight on carefully calibrated pledges designed to buy the most capricious voters in smallish geographical areas. The election will be decided by thousands - not hundreds of thousands - of votes. Never before has the nightmare that Edmund Burke envisaged in his Speech to the Electors of Bristol** come closer to being a reality.
These promises will be honed using the increasingly sophisticated forms of market-feedback. The large bureaucracies of political parties can scientifically target the 'instrumental voter'. Experience shows that the issues in question will be the pet-projects of newspaper editors, and proprietors will quietly gloat about their kingmaker role for years to come. And if those proprietors have any regulatory headaches in other businesses that they manage, you can expect them to just go away.
Never before has de Tocqueville’s aside that “an election is nothing more than an advance auction of stolen goods” been so subtly true.
So, next time that you notice that politics doesn’t appear to be about principles - a clash of ideals, the character and competence of representatives, it is worth reflecting that there is no alternative under our current settlement. Politicians are not bad unprincipled people. They are behaving rationally in response to the stupid situation that we have collectively put them in.
The logical trajectory that the past seven days has set us on will lead to the situation that routinely arises in US Presidential elections - where the vote splits almost - but not quite - 50-50 each time.
This is the legacy of highly centralised politics. It is the legacy of an over-powerful press and well-resourced pressure groups that can push single issues up the agenda. It is the symptom of a system where individual elected representatives are almost powerless and where political parties enjoy significant resources and organisational capacity. It is not a problem that will be cured by electoral reform as this will simply vary the rules by which the defining handful of votes are bartered for.
Outside of the outright abolition of democracy, there is only one solution to this problem: Anyone who wants to win an election in future (as opposed to campaigning on manifestos that are almost identical to those of their rivals, effectively sharing power) can surely have no alternative but to focus all of their energy upon demands for a radical decentralisation. Strong regional assemblies, strong local government, powerful representatives with resources to match their rivals (particularly their own parties in some cases). And weak bicameral central government.
It is a programme that demands a change in public attitudes to public participation in politics and government.
When so many people declare themselves betrayed and disillusioned by politicians, why is it that these demands are never heard? Is it because we have a political culture where self-righteous sulking is now the highest form of expression?
** I know, I know. Its about the twentieth time I've linked to it from this blog. So what?