By Majeed Neky
Having stood in the recent local elections and still catching up on sleep, I’ve spent more of my last few weeks than I’d have liked defending the coalition (a colleague even suggested that I allocate ten minutes for general abuse about the actions of ‘my’ government at the start of each day, just to get it out of the way). My arguments have been pretty similar to those already aired here. ‘New politics’ it is not, certainly not from my perspective. Having defended the government to people on the left, the right and the centre with equally little success, it doesn’t feel like Punch and Judy politics has ended – just that the Lib Dems have been inserted into the middle like the traditional string of sausages.
My petty troubles aside, the inevitable cracks in policy and, it seems, equally inevitable scandals shouldn’t distract us from a deeper point about the way that politics is conducted. This is something that I’ve been thinking about for a while, as some of my previous posts at http://whorunskingston.wordpress.com will evidence, but it came back to me sharply after last week’s Thirsk and Malton parliamentary election. With the Conservative win there a fairly foregone conclusion, press interest centred on the adversarial campaigning of the coalition partners, with Radio 4’s Evan Davis asking ‘How can they be knocking seven bells out of each other one day and then go back and be loving each other again in Cabinet?’
Why is this more than just a tricky operational problem that will interest electoral anoraks of the future? Because the answer is quite simple: the people doing the seven-bells-knocking aren’t the same people who are in the Cabinet. Granted, this is pretty obvious – but the coalition arrangement has thrown the disconnect between the professionalised political classes and the interested amateurs into sharp relief, and it’s not a problem that’s going to go away under a majority government.
In the adversarial atmosphere of a local campaign team – and never more so than at election time – the national picture sometimes felt to me like a crunch England match being viewed by someone who isn’t a massive football fan. You can feel the tension, but are somehow insulated from it: it’s all happening to other people, not you. The national politicians are talismans or mascots, representing your team and – if all goes well – allowing you some reflected glory. Particularly if you’re one of the unfeasibly Aryan Tory Boys and Girls surrounding a high-profile, photogenic Tory candidate and gloating as the national results roll in via iPhone. (See – I’m still a good left-winger at heart.)
The mascots then go off and carve up the power – in this case between two parties, making the lack of connection with the ‘grassroots’ even more obvious than usual. Meanwhile, the activists lick their wounds, devise strategies for next time, try to influence policy through mechanisms such as the party conferences, or – crucially – simply fade away until the next one comes around and they get their arms twisted to get involved again.
Admittedly this is a cynical view – there are ways for the most committed, brightest and luckiest to influence what goes on. But what about the people who aren’t party hacks by nature, who get involved at elections but not much in between? Is this periodic charade really the best use of time for people who have the rare and prized attribute of actually being bothered about politics?
Anyone who has ever been bored by me on any tenuously political subject needs only one guess at my proposed solution. A more localised system, with at least half the responsibilities currently residing in Whitehall or unaccountable quangos devolved to local level, and clear responsibilities for each tier of government – you know, like they have in pretty much every other European country – would severely restrict the appeal of being part of a Tory boy fan club. And a more participatory system – where communities came together to make the key budgetary decisions to fit their priorities – could mean that people who care actually spend less time knocking the proverbial seven bells out of each other and more time actually making things happen in the areas that they love.
I don’t know every detail of the mechanisms that would be needed to make this work in practice but the bigger question at the moment is whether there’s the political will to work those mechanisms out and implement them. The prospect of a referendum on the voting method and of House of Lords reform has potentially made it even easier for the national mascots to hide behind the ‘new politics’ rhetoric and obscure the fact that we are still the most centralised country in Europe.
Silver lining? The reason that I’m still a Lib Dem is that they have – albeit vaguely and to varying degrees across the party – been advocating decentralisation for longer and more coherently than the other main parties. If, and it is a big if, their participation in government leads to the ‘Big Society’ actually becoming a meaningful term, it will have been worth it.
Plus, the more that politics becomes about ordinary people making decisions, the less time I’ll spend rising to the bait of amusing partisan banter. Maybe I could even use that time to do something useful!
Was the above too long to read? Concise version, courtesy of my wife: ‘Nick Clegg should do more leafleting.’
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