Sunday Times 3 July 2016
A prayer attributed to a medieval cleric goes: “Lord, things are serious. This time please come yourself, this is no job for a boy”.
A people’s revolution lays waste to all previous European certainties. The sound of the tumbrils echoes round Westminster. One of the two Party leaders-of-state has been beheaded and the other is being led to the gallows by his mutinous Captains. Les Misérables march on Westminster behind a bunch of squabbling would-be leaders, who, beyond Brexit, agree on nothing and hate each other with a passion.. This is one of those revolutions which will end up devouring its children – as well as many innocent others along the way.
What on earth that is good, can be dragged out of this unholy mess?
Actually there is something, if we on the modern progressive wing of politics, now play our cards cannily.
First a bit of analysis, then a short proposition.
Many of the great changes in British politics did not come through political Parties, but through people’s movements which re-shaped political Parties. Think the huge public meetings which led to the Great Reform Act; think the Trades Union Movement which gave birth to Labour; think of the Suffragets, think the Gay Rights movement; think potentially last Thursday which looks as though it will now break both the Tories and Labour.
The new phenomenon of our time is the populist reverse take-over of political Parties. Trump did it to the Republicans, the hard left did it to Corbin’s Labour Party and the Brexiteers are about to do it to the Tories.
At one level all this is healthy and natural. Given the retreat of our political classes from the battleground of principle to the politics of managerialism; given the disconnect that has grown up between politics and people, some kind of convulsion was inevitable. But why does it always have to be a convulsion for something more ugly, more divisive, more xenophobic and more dangerous. Why is there never a convulsion for something better, instead?
One big recent event points to the possibility of a movement for better things, rather than worse ones. The huge public outcry which which erupted after the killing of Jo Cox seemed to hint that what people felt was murdered that day was not just a remarkable person, but also their own cherished ideas and values.
The present 3.5 million strong petition for another referendum may not succeed. But it is a powerful expression of public hunger, beyond political Parties, to find a way to fix the mess they think (me too) we have created for ourselves.
And so we have arrived at a most intriguing situation. The two great Parties-of-state who have dominated our politics for a hundred years, are no longer able to contain the opinions within them. With both spinning away to the extremes, what happens to the homeless millions – in politics and outside – who now have nowhere to go with their views and their votes? There is my wonderful Lib Dems of course. But we were set back hugely at the last election and it will take time to get back where we were, and the next General Election may only be months away
One of the barriers standing in the way of something more sensible is the political party itself. Look at a business model which does not take into account the new technologies and you see a model that is on its way to failure. Though all our Parties enthusiastically use the new technologies to communicate with the electorate, none use them either in their internal structures or propose them in the external practices of our politics.
And so engagement in Political Parties remains the preserve of the fanatic, in the case of the Tories, supplemented by the geriatric. The Lib Dems don’t do fanatic – more’s the pity.
The political Party and the political movement have become separated. We need to bring them back together again by widening access and lowering the cost of engagement. One model is the Five Star movement in Italy (but not its politics). Internet based, low membership fee, much more direct democracy. There are dangers here, not least of entryism and take overs. But are they really less than the dangers of the organisational collapse of political Parties which have become little more than clubs for the few, instead of voices for the many?
And while we are on the subject of the new technologies, is there anything more ridiculous than modern men and women doing their tax returns on line, manage their bank accounts on line and see their Doctor on line, but having to struggle through the wind and rain to a damp Church Hall to cast their vote with a stubby pencil scratching a cross on a scrap of paper?
I am not suggesting that all political parties follow the Five Star model. They won’t either easily, or soon enough.
And I am not suggesting forming one either. We’ll have to make do with what we have for the moment. But what about creating a space – a kind of virtual town hall meetings like those which led to the Great Reform Act – where those from any Party and none who hold modern progressive views – those epitomised by Jo Cox – can gather to find the means to defend what is decent and call for something better than the politics of extremism and xenophobia. It would only be a start. But with a General Election perhaps soon, who knows where a start could lead.
We would have to put aside the instinct in troubled times to seek refuge in the bosom of our own tribes.
But is that such a price to pay when, in the words of Jo Cox, there is so much more that unites us, than divides us?