Sunday, April 20, 2008

Browned off

Gordon Brown is getting a bad press and so the papers are full of profiles of the man and 'analysis' about what has gone wrong. Most of it is staggeringly dreary. A lot is speculation or just the tittle-tattle of court politics rather than the real, meaty stuff of democracy. There was just one bit of this verbiage that grabbed my attention. OK it was by a former aide, Tom Clark, one of those rarefied beasts who promise us a glimpse of the real person we are not allowed to know too well, but some of it rang true. Reciting a familiar theme of the Brownites, Clark sees Brown, in contrast to Blair, as a genuine social democrat. However, he also sees him as sunk in pessimism about what could be done.

It was not that he could not articulate his vision - at a private Labour meeting in 2004 I heard him give as articulate an account of the party's purpose as any I have heard. Rather, he was profoundly pessimistic about what the voters would tolerate - and as a result said almost nothing in public that he thought might offend anyone. Not trusting others to share his instincts, his aides would talk about securing "rightwing cover" before signing up to any radical policy.

Clark then makes a highly pertinent point, central to New Labour's strategy:

"... a cautious reading of what the voters want is the inevitable price for power. The alternative stance - no compromise with the electorate! - is the shortest route to oblivion".

Cautious, yes. But cynical? Does the government really think that the electorate has no morality? Do they reckon that the voters who have delivered the worst results for the Tory Party since 1832 have really done so because they are Conservatives? Apparently so. But then we have to realise who the electorate really are.

Politicians are not thinking of everyone on the electoral roll, nor even the diminishing proportion of them who actually vote. The only voters who matter in our system are new and swing voters in marginal constituencies. The Electoral Reform Society has calculated that an election could be decided by as few as 8,000 people. The party that gets their views right wins.

Politics is about real things that happen to millions of real people living real lives. If all that matters is keeping a mere eight thousand of them sweet, we are looking at a major failure of representation, particularly of the poor. Remember the 1997 manifesto commitment to hold a referendum on electoral reform? It is easy to forget as the temptation of a vast majority led it to be brushed aside by a typical tactic, a report to be quietly shelved. After the shambles of the abolition of the 10p tax rate it doesn't seem such a bad idea after all. Perhaps then, when the votes of the poor actually matter, we might hear a voice speak for equality.


Nomenklatura said...

"The only voters who matter in our system are new and swing voters in marginal constituencies..." Perhaps this is the moment to recall Churchill's comment about democracy being "the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time".

I had wanted to mention this same quote in relation to some of your earlier posts about government-imposed cutbacks in adult education, but I was too busy.

You clearly have a vision of how lots of things could be done to realize the potential of adult education in the UK, and have spent much of your life working to realize them. At some point though, surely one has to recognize that society has a right to decline to fund either your favorite list of projects, or mine, or anyone else's. How else should such a decision be formulated and then expressed, if not via the duly elected ministers under a democratic system? Isn't that what's been happening?

I often don't like the results we get from our Western political systems, and I often don't like they way they look in operation, but I do feel an obligation to support their existence. If we do that, shouldn't we be moaning about the voters rather than the politicians who are merely dancing to their tune?

I realize that unless we make quite a sophisticated argument then moaning about the voters in our own society can make us look silly, but perhaps this is a risk we ought to be willing to take.

On the other hand your argument may be that under a different, still democratic, electoral system such as proportional representation, the results might be more to your liking and yet still be legitimate. Fair enough, but I believe meddling with the constitution, particularly under a highly centralized system such as the one the UK has, produces just more centralization as the people at the center end up getting to rewrite the rules to suit themselves. It seems to be naive to expect anything different.

Dr Hiding Pup said...

Hey, I don't agree with everything you say all the time but, if you stood for election, I'd vote for you. But, of course, you won't.

Perhaps the trouble with politics is that voters don't ever get the chance to vote for the people who'd make the best politicans. Something similar goes on with university senior management - those pesky rascals we love to hate: good people don't want the job, so bad people get the job...

Harry Barnes said...

Given Gordon's problems and self inflicted wounds, it was perhaps inevitable that his big speech in America has not been given much serious consideration. It is a pity for there are elements which need encouraging and others which need questioning and developing. (My own shot at this is on the back-burner due to a head-cold and need to recover from Newcastle's defeat of Sunderland yesterday)This is Gordon -

On the electoral system, a huge problem which needs facing is that there are 2 million or so who are entitled to vote who are missing off electoral registers. These tend to be more fully concentrated in areas of deprivation, amongst the rootless, and in concentrations of ethic minorities. This also distorts the drawing of parliamentary boundaries. Yet there are a whole host of provisions which could be put in place to enter the missing voters on registers - included in old and failed Private Members Bills of mine.

Paulie said...

Before completely agreeing with your post, Peter, I'd slightly recast it. When political parties are obliged to get into an intense and highly repsonsive dialogue with a tiny proportion of voters, our democracy becomes more 'direct' and less 'representative'.

The way that the improvement in the analytical ability of parties, combined with a more dealligned electorate (both in terms of class and partisanship) is one of the key causes of the increased political centralisation in this country. All else - the decline of cabinet government, the hyperactivity, the lack of granularity of response in policy-making, etc, flows from this.

ad said...

Do they reckon that the voters who have delivered the worst results for the Tory Party since 1832 have really done so because they are Conservatives?

The Tories are ahead in the polls right now. What conclusions should a democrat draw from this?

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