Forget 'big tent' politics - we need space for a progressive camp site of parties and movements

To win back a fractious public currently feeling betrayed by broken promises of 'control', politicians must admit that power has to be shared - including through a better electoral system.

Neal Lawson
25 July 2018
corbyn glasto.jpg

Image: Jeremy Corbyn - who has not yet committed to PR - addressing a crowd at the 2017 Glastonbury Festival. Credit: PA Images/Ben Birchall, all rights reserved.

The so-called return to two party politics at the last election, when the Tories and Labour scooped up over 80% of the votes between them, was always a retro-blip not the return of the old binary order. Brexit and much more are driving fissures throughout our very tired party political system. We know that Brexit voters, disillusioned with the Chequers Deal, have started to ebb back to UKIP. At the weekend we learned from the Sunday Times YouGov poll that 38% would vote for a new right wing party committed to Brexit, while 24% are willing to back an anti-immigration, anti Islam Party. Meanwhile Vince Cable does or doesn’t hold talks on a new centrist party that looks like its coming down the track with or without him. Labour is split asunder by huge political and cultural divisions. In Scotland the SNP start to ride a new wave of popularity over Brexit fears. Whatever this is, it ain’t old two-party politics.

But a myriad actual and possible parties, that reflect the complex reality of the world we live in, are rendered impotent or are left still born by a political and democratic system built not for these many parties but just for two. The pressure for change will grow inexorably but so too will the politicians grip on their waning hold on power. Something will have to give!

To be clear, its not just that elections don’t deliver decisive outcomes anymore – they haven’t for almost a decade and show no signs of doing so in the future. But even if they did, the ability to command the levers of power has long gone. Power and politics were separated when economic and financial might went global and then, to cap it all, everything went digital. Neither the nation state, nor any government can now take back control. The old promise of strong government is for the birds.

In this maelstrom, Brexit was the demand for a democratic revolution but the only narrative the nation was offered was to go back to an era before power from politics were separated – as if globalisation could be wished away. Against the feeble offer of the neo-liberal dominated Euro-technocrats, this homage to a long-gone moment, to offer the undeliverable promise take back power, spectacularly triumphed – not least because the EU was only ever a partially formed democracy. There was no counter-narrative around a 21st century democratic transformation that could feasibly reconnect power and politics– the first step of which would be proportional representation (PR) but then would shift up a gear to all sorts of direct and deliberative forms of local, national and regional democratic reform – not just to politics but to daily life – at work, in public service and civil society.

This crisis of democracy is easier to feel than observe and is better defined in Colin Crouch’s term as a ‘post-democracy’, given that while we still practice the rituals of voting, our democratic institutions are so hollowed out and power now so dispersed that its almost meaningless. That is why Brexit sent an electric shock through the system – because for once every vote counted and real change, whatever you like it or not, was an option.

The crisis though has been a long time coming. Back in the 1950s, the British cyberneticist W Ross Ashby conceived the Law of Requisite Variety – which states that any governing body must be as or more complex than the entity it is governing. Put simply, complexity must meet complexity. In the ensuing half a century the relatively simple linear society of back then has exploded with power being dispersed in every direction, with little or no accountability.

Over this period two systems of governance have been tried and have been found wanting. First the bureaucratic state eventually toppled over, in the East most spectacularly but eventually in the West too and with it the idea that a technocratic and a managerial elite could usher in benign progress from above. Its successor ‘organising principle’, the free market, at first glance seemed set to solve the complexity issue given is invisible hand guiding myriad buyers and sellers. But time has exposed the fact that instead of variety the free market tends only to a monopoly of culture, corporate dominance and crisis. Complexity cannot be met if there is only one alternative.

Since 2008, its been time for a new organising principle for society, one based on the complexity of our age and guided by the concept of a future that must be negotiated by all us – not imposed by anyone of us.

The block, of course, is the many politicians who would rather some semblance of control some of the time, than admit real power must now be shared and given away. While they stumble on, pretending to be in charge, when palpably they aren’t, everyone else knows a broken system can’t fix a broken system.

But by accident, rather than design, we might get the democratic breakthrough we urgently need. Tory divisions over Brexit and Labour divisions over almost everything are unleashing centripetal forces – pulling the parties within parties apart – maybe for good. More and more Westminster players have an interest in a variety of parties and PR instead of being locked in the doom cycle of first past the post. Of course PR isn’t a panacea. It just means the negotiations shift from within the two blocks to across the many parties. But then the differences become obvious and open and people will get to vote both for parties they really believe in and know that their votes will count. From that point the rest of the bigger transformation of our democracy can take place.

The refusal to recognize and honour the democratic moment will result in one thing and one thing only – the further rise of the populist authoritarian right as our so-called democracy proves itself, again and again, unable to deliver the conditions in which we can be fully human. That will require not just one big tent under which we fight like cats or pretended to agree to fool the electorate at least at election time – but a camp site of progressive parties and movements.

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