Monday, August 04, 2008

More on political parties

Further to the previous post about political parties, one of the reasons that these are interesting times for psephologists, is because the accelerating processes of political dealignment that have taken place over the past forty years.

It's a long time since I studied this now with footnotes, but my recollection of it is headings such as 'class dealignment' and 'partisan dealignment'. Ford workers in the late 1960s starting to say "We'll still vote Labour because we think they will stick up for us better than the others - but we're open to offers."

Previously, the link to class and other caste-esque issues was incredibly strong (some deferential Tory voting from churchgoing working class voters, Orange Scousers and Weegies, no third party to speak of, etc). I've shown some of this evidence to younger friends of mine and they almost refused to believe it, so much has voting patterns and loyalty changed in the intervening years.

Political parties could survive easily as long as there were a large number of people using those reflexive big-party decisions. Politicians knew that they could have a fair crack at running the country for a bit and they would be judged on whether or not they completely ballsed up.

The Tories in the 1950s got the formula just right. They managed to remain in government on a relative shoestring, and they only fell down in 1964 because it finally became in inescapable conclusion that Conservatism was naturally unfit to manage a modern state for any length of time. After over a decade of wrecking British industry and squandering privatisation revenues and North Sea Oil money on dole payments, we reached the same conclusion in the mid-1990s and will do so again if the current lot ever get a look-in.

It was always the case - as Stephen Tall remarks in the post that I commented on recently - that getting involved in a political party was a bit geeky. But now the geeks have to work harder, look more desperate, try to get involved in persuasive processes that are way way beyond their competence. They are not capable of swinging voters (they probably never were) but voters are more and more inclined to swing themselves - all over the place.

Getting involved in politics is - more than ever before - a way of being made to feel stupid an ineffectual. And - if you read the newspapers, tune in to TV and radio debates, or the blogosphere, you are also in a unique position, in that all of the evidence that you are being urged to take seriously is entirely misleading - and for the most part - irrelevant. Things are more unpredictable than ever before.

Things are different - but the logic remains the same. The least-worst form of government is the one in which representatives exercise all power, and those representatives are aggregated into parties so that people know what they're voting for. This is the only electoral settlement that delivers a tolerant and liberal society. It is the only one that even gives a toss for the question of equality - however you define it. It is the least corrupable, and most effectively rational form of government known to man. In the history of the world. Ever. The more we move away from this model, the worse government and society will get.

But, for all of this, political parties and politicians in general haven't really fought back at all. In the same way that a large slice of new Labour is losing patience with Gordon Brown for not coming up with a narrative, personally, I'm losing patience with politicians and their unwillingness to stand up for parliament. To acknowledge that they have undeserving and malignant rivals that want their powers.

The question is not that *only* 177,000 people still hold Labour Party membership cards. It is that you could fill Wembley Stadium twice over with Labour Party members and still have Bolton Wanderers average home crowd locked out - despite all of the near-universal anti-politics propaganda that we have to put up with.

It's not that *only* about 61% of the population voted in the last general elections - it is that over 27 million *did* vote, even though so much positive reinforcement was being offered to abstainers. So take you million-odd petition about road-pricing and fuck yourself with it, please?

And the lesson of this surprisingly good book is that the public mimic the people that they are described as. If you take the book's thesis, you could say that - in a country in which public debate has told us that....
  • there's no real difference between the parties
  • they're all in it for themselves
  • they're all greedy / dodgy
  • voting is a waste of time
  • we're more interested in Big Brother, innit?
... and so on, the fact that *anyone* voted at all is something of a miracle.

The processes of dealignment that really started in the late 1960s have accelerated rapidly over recent years - I'd give it close-to-top-billing in the explanation of why Labour can build up a 20-point deficit in the polls without there being that much evidence of them being a poor government (and none whatsoever that the Tories wouldn't bugger things up as they always have done).

But my main point is this: The fact that 61% turned out shows what is possible if politicians in general were to put up a bit of a fight on behalf of representative government.

I don't think that it is overstating the case to say that absolutely nobody is doing so at the moment, and this - not a decline of political parties, or an allegedly apathetic public is our problem.


Paul said...

A useful post, and thanks for the book recommendation. In turn, I'd recommend Colin Hay's Why We Hate Politics (2007: Polity Press). To quote from the blurb "By demonstrating how our expectations of politics and the political realities we witness are shaped decisively by the assumptions about human nature that we project onto political actors, Hay provides a powerful and highty distinctive account of contemporary political disenchantment."

Essentially, Hay contends that the rise and rise of neoliberal orthdoxy brings with it a now overriding assumption of the inherent 'badness' of governments, and with that politicians and all things 'political' in the narrow sense of the word.

He puts this case convincingly. While he as an academuic limits himself to a recommendation that political scientists should be aware of these roots of disenchantment, as a politician I'd go further. The job for us, and especially for the left, is as you suggest (I think), to challenge this new orthodoxy by:

a) being good (local or national) politicians who keep on providing information to constituents about what's really going on 'politically' and 'how it all works'
b) seeking unashamedly (even this term reflects the dominance of the 'bad politics' orthodoxy) to re-engender notions of solidarity as strength.

Paulie said...

Your two points:

a) being good (local or national) politicians who keep on providing information to constituents about what's really going on 'politically' and 'how it all works'

b) seeking unashamedly (even this term reflects the dominance of the 'bad politics' orthodoxy) to re-engender notions of solidarity as strength.

IN the case of a) I really don't think this is the job of politicians. That's the job of civil society.

And b) I agree with that - but it's not the point I'm making here (i.e. you could agree with this post, without necessarily agreeing with your b).

Hope that's not too obtuse Paul ;-)

Tom P said...

Funnily enough I was having exactly the same thought today - that the relentless anti-politics and anti-politicians message just must have an impact on political views and activity.

Back on the behavioural stuff again there seems to be quite a bit of evidence that how you set up a scenario affects how people behave (ie if you set it up as a business/commercial 'game' people will behave more selfishly). So if you set up politics as an environment where everyone is in it for ulterior motives as you say you can't be surprised if people don't think it's a game worth playing.

The book sounds good. I've read Cialdini's otherbook Influence which wasn't bad.

Paul said...

Thanks for those thoughts, and an opportunity to explain myself a bit more.

On my points:

a) What I was getting at, however unsuccessfully, is that the 'civil society' you speak of (I'll leave aside definitional stuff)
has been so submerged by neo-liberal thought that it no doesn't have the capacity/consciousness to recalim the validity of any form of 'body politic'. That's up to those in politics who are suitably 'concientised'. Im short, the political body of the left is the only group now up to the job of repoliticising society.

b) Here this is was really my shorthand to suggest that as political beings we need to challenge the neoliberal (and now hegemonic) assumption that we are all 'homo economicus', because what flows from that is disaffection with politics. The way to make that challenge is by setting up te 'otherness' of solidarity.

Paulie said...


Interesting, you say that...

"...the neoliberal (and now hegemonic) assumption that we are all 'homo economicus'"

... maybe this will change sooner than we think? One day hope *will* triumph over expectation! ;-)

Hungry Horace said...

The only settlement that delivers a tolerent and liberal society... I suppose that depends on your definition of tolerent and liberal - I've got a horrible feeling that representive democracy only serves to feed the egos of representatives. Besides which in this push button age there really is no reason to send representatives to London unless we must be protected from ourselves. Or unless you consider the representitives to be alot more intelligent or knowledgable which would be a miracle given the way in which they are selected by the party machine.

Paulie said...

Oh gawd. This is what you get when the Telegraph links to your post....

Hungry Horace said...

Really - if you're talking about liberty in a political sense then surely direct democracy would be better. If you're talking about it in any other sense, then representative democracy has plenty of failings.
Our freedoms are infringed in all manner of ways - no smoking crack in the privacy of my own home, no becoming a prostitute, the bbc, the fact that 40 odd percent of the countries productivity is taken out of the hands of the indivdual and put to collective use ...
Whether these are good or bad things is another question, (its pretty bad), but the assertion that representative democracy is the only way to achieve a tolerent or liberal society is somewhat dubious.

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