The end of politics as usual

Written by: Marc Stears on 11 April, 2012
Filed under Democracy

We all know that there is something wrong with the way we do politics in Britain.

The election of George Galloway in Bradford West is only the latest in a long line of shocks to the political system. We’ve been through the expenses scandal, the Chilcot Inquiry, the resignation of Damian McBride, Nick Clegg’s manifesto-breaking deal with the Conservatives on tuition fees and much else besides, not to mention a continual fall in participation in mainstream politics, especially among young people.

There is no shortage of real discontent in our society at the moment, but those eager for change are more likely to channel their enthusiasm to direct action than to the hard graft of traditional party politics.

This has to change. Those who aspire to a better Britain gain no benefit from seeing the country’s political energies dispersed in such a way. Those who wish to serve the working people of this country must be better. But what can the parties actually do in order to attract passionate commitment once again?

The answer does not lie in simply capitulating to the demands of the extremes. There was no national outpouring of support for Trenton Oldfield. And neither is there any prospect of a national political recovery by adopting the strategies of Occupy. However much sympathy we might have for the demand that global capitalism must be held to account, party politics is not the same as the politics of direct action. The latter draws attention to overlooked causes and heightens social tensions so as to create new incentives for politicians. The former must always direct itself towards our common political life. It must aim to heal our divisions not exacerbate them further.

But as the revival of party politics does not lie in an aping of the extremes, neither is it to be found by slavishly following the manual of a hyper-professionalised politics. As John Harris recently reminded us on this site, the days when elections were won by a combination of narrowly-targeted media messages and low cunning are gone. Finding a popular media outlet in which to promise that Labour will repeal the pasty and granny taxes might win useful short-term poll points, but by itself it will not restore faith in our politics.

The British people need more than a temporary fix. They have rightly grown suspicious of a politics that is comprised almost entirely of rapid response and rebuttal.

So if neither extremism nor short-termism can do the work, what is required to restore faith in party politics? What can convince people that a mainstream political party could bring necessary and far-reaching change to our country?

The answer lies in two age-old political staples that we have bizarrely lost sight of in recent years. They are vision and organisation.

Political vision is more than the vague promise of a better tomorrow, more than an aspiration to a shining city on the hill. Real political vision grabs our attention by providing us with a clear and precise picture of what that tomorrow could look like. It helps us to see what exactly is wrong with the ‘world as it is’ and describes in rich detail the ‘world as it should be’. It also conveys the feel and spirit of that new world, while all the time celebrating the elements of our current order that we all think should survive.

There are some who like to claim that the age of vision is over. They insist that voters are too cynical to accept their stories now and that the biggest danger in politics is of ‘over promising’. It is partly for these reasons that some commentators felt uneasy at the boldness of Ed Miliband’s speech at this year’s Labour party conference.

But, in fact, it is only those incapable of visionary imagination who are served by such misconceptions. The vast majority of us have experienced visionary moments in our own lives and we know their power. We know we follow those who have an enthusiastic sense of their direction of travel. We know that it is hard, almost impossible, to make a real commitment to those who do not dream.

Nor is this just empty sentiment. The best business leaders possess a vision for their companies. The best sports coaches provide visions for their teams. So it should be no surprise that the greatest of all politicians are those who share visions with their fellow citizens. Vision is what helps us all see where we need to go and believe that we can get there.

But however crucial it is, a politics that is all vision is not complete. As the old saying goes, politics needs its moments of prose as well as of poetry. It is not the machine politics of old which will provide the prose, though. It is real organisation.

If our parties are to be revived then our politics must be built up solidly from below. New members must be met warmly and with enthusiasm by the old. New forms of activity must entice people in. Members must feel empowered to discuss their own priorities, to establish their own local campaigns.

People cannot be expected to join a party that they feel can never be theirs. But without people in our parties they cannot be revived. Membership, which can feel such an old-fashioned notion, provides the party with its connection with our national communities. ‘Refounding Labour’ was the start of this process within the Labour party. But as the Labour leadership no doubt knows, there remains huge work to be done. We do not yet have a revitalised membership in any of our major parties. But only such a membership can return our parties to their place in our national story.

Telling the country where we believe it should be headed and inviting people to join our cause. Vision and organisation: that’s what politics should be about.

Reviving Britain’s political parties will not be easy. Who can say that either of the major parties offered what they needed to in the last election? Who can say that the kind of leadership required was demonstrated by either David Cameron or Gordon Brown?

Perhaps our politicians have found it all too difficult. But unless our political leadership seizes this opportunity, Britain will continue to drift.

Britain’s problems require effective party politics. And effective party politics requires real vision and real organisation. In Ed Miliband, Labour has the first leader in a generation who understands this. That is why he has focused on the craft a new vision of political economy, suitable for a post-crash world, and that is why he has tried to rebuild the organising capacity in the party at large.

It is important for people to understand this effort. But it is only a beginning. The arguments of the leader must be echoed much more loudly. If party politics is to fulfil its role and bring change to Britain, we must all work together to secure the revival it needs.

Marc Stears is a professor of political theory at the University of Oxford.