Against power-mongering - moving on from the politics of 'winner-takes-all'

The longing for 'macho' style 'strong' politics is exposed by the UK's post-election arguments
Rosemary Bechler
11 May 2010

The political commentariat are running around in ever-decreasing circles, trying to get back to business-as-usual politics.  They are finding it extremely difficult to read the message that was delivered to them in the last elections, and whenever they get anywhere near it (as with the latest concessions on so-called ‘electoral reform’) – they don’t at all like what they see (for example, an outright rejection of winner-take-all, presidential politics). 

Nick Clegg isn’t the kingmaker despite all the rhetoric (we have just made him our negotiator this week – and you never know, that might turn him into a good party leader for the new politics): we are the kingmakers. And for these few days, but maybe not thereafter, it is our many different but many shared wishes which these negotiations between the political parties are currently having to address. We the electorate should hold onto our nerve at this moment in time and resist the baying for “strong and stable government” from politicians and markets who also, as it happens, want to see a ‘strong and stable’ round of draconian cuts in spending which may have a negative effect on all our lives, without our being in any way included in the decisions taken.
In particular, we should make them pause until the penny drops about their need to reconsider what is a “strong and stable government”. In modern, diverse Britain where for the time being at least we all rub along shoulder to shoulder, we have seen “strong and stable” governance for what it is. When you clear away most of the macho obfuscation, it means that politicians and markets get to do what they want, without let or hindrance, or accountability or second thoughts or comeback – no holes barred.  That is winner-take-all, dog-eat-dog, (fill in the clichés), first-past-the-post politics. We have seen what happens when politicians, particularly the Executive, and markets, get the chance to do what they want, without let or hindrance.  And it is a disaster.  Since it is we who have to pay the high price for their mistakes, including dying in their wars - a high price which includes not only the destruction of our living standards, but of our ethical standards too - they should listen carefully to us when we tell them that we want a new kind of politics.
Of course they’ll have to interpret what we want, and we want very different things. In some areas, we haven’t a clue – (how many people could put their hands on their hearts and say that they understand why Roy Jenkins recommended AV+, not AV, as the best electoral system for the UK?) In some areas – such as national security and the imminent historic decision over Trident replacement - we probably haven’t been paying sufficient attention. And on immigration, despite any appearance of surface consensus, we are more than ever at the mercy of disinformation, conflicted and confused. On Europe – let’s not even go there.
The point is, every one of us will have their own list of these complications in the message that we sent out last Thursday. But the difference between us and them, is that on the whole, having had a taste with the TV debates of what it is to discuss political issues in the open, we have drawn the conclusion that open, civilised political exchanges are a good thing.  If this negotiation over different interests is democracy – real democracy – we like it. Consciously or unconsciously, but very sensibly I think, we have rejected the idea that one can ‘win’ a political discussion (or indeed meaningfully ‘win’ an election under the current system) rather than be a participant in what turns out to be a good, in the sense of clarifying, debate.  But we were grateful for the chance to ask a few well-cropped questions (perhaps pathetically grateful). And we have felt ourselves better informed. We prefer democracy to “strong and stable government” and we’d like more of it. We are fairly sure we don’t want to go back to the humiliation, disregard and infantilism of business-as-usual.
So I hope we won’t let ourselves be thoroughly confused by the political commentariat who now find themselves in some extremity on the subject of ‘Strong and stable’.  I think we should block our ears when they tell us we need a strong leader who has at least gone through a TV coronation, ignoring our peculiar kind of parliamentary sovereignty. Or, if we can’t block our ears, I think we should hone ourselves to noticing when we are being given the “strong and stable” signal – what it means for them and why it won’t do for us.  For example, take this gem from last week-end’s thoroughly confusing CiF contribution by Nick Cohen, entitled Don't walk away, Nick: If the Lib Dems are brave enough to go into coalition with the Tories, they will earn the public's respect.

“I hope they don't, because politics ought to be about taking responsibility, particularly in moments of national danger. Lib Dems should want to move into office whatever the risks. At the moment, they can be accused of trying to pretend that they are all things to all men. Power and responsibility would compel them to define themselves, to make new enemies certainly, but also to win new friends and the respect that goes to men and women who make hard choices.

It is all very well for journalists and satirists to sit on the sidelines criticising everyone. But good politicians should not want to be like us. They should want to shape their country's future and take the consequences. There is no point in being in politics if they do not.”

First of all, note the scare tactics and its oh-so-familiar link to a vocabulary of hard men (‘and women’ – a concession here!)who can take tough decisions even if that makes them enemies. Why should our leaders be strong like this? Because of course we are in a moment of ‘national danger’. And because there is nothing worse in a moment of national danger than being wimps, liked by everybody. And because these hard men will be unlike us – powerful (a nice little element of useful self-hatred there!) And after all it will be their country to shape – so definitely not wimps.  Well – what has happened to our country in this formulation? What has happened to power-sharing with people who think differently, in order to represent the diversity of modern British opinion more fairly? What has happened to an open, clean, fair, proportional democracy where we, the hitherto powerless subjects, get to have some say – or at least some understanding about – our own political destinies?
In short, what should “strong and stable” mean to us? We need a different model of power-sharing if we are to make a final, decisive break with the power-mongerers of the past.  Perhaps we need to be clearer that it doesn’t mean ‘winner-take-all’. Hopefully all the tribes will lose some of their most inveterate first-past-the posters. We don’t want more kings, kingmakers, presidents or celebrities.  We want politicians (and bankers) willing to work with people who have different interests from themselves, and who get the point that they ought to be accountable to others.  We don’t want ‘something of the night’-type wheeler-dealing behind closed doors, spin and whips – we want open discussion and robust decision-making that takes in a range of options we can keep our eyes and ears on.  We want people who answer to our criticisms face to face (as opposed to Jeremy Paxman’s). We want people who ask us what we think much more often.  And we want a democratic, fair, adult, proportional electoral system.
Not business-as-usual.

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