After Eastleigh, the crisis of party politics

Neal Lawson

Friday, 01 March 2013

The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.

Antonio Gramsci: Selections from the Prison Notebooks (1971)

The old party political system of Britain is creaking to a standstill. Last night’s result in Eastleigh, after Bradford West, sends yet another shock wave through its ageing bones. It is the latest manifestation of an emerging multi-party politics squeezed into an electoral system designed for a two horse race. But this shock will be more enduring. UKIP could present a sustainable and repeatable challenge to the three big parties in a way that Respect never could. If UKIP can do so remarkably well in Eastleigh then they can do it anywhere – at the next by-election and even a general election

The lessons and implications are there for all to see – not just for the individual parties themselves but for the whole party system. So we can use Eastleigh not just to better understand who’s up and who’s down in the Westminster stakes but to discern the seismic shifts that are happening in the UK, just as they are in Italy (revealed earlier in the week) and will inevitably re-occur in other countries.

So let’s start with the party round up. A big winner was UKIP. They are now the nation’s fourth party and are challenging the Liberal Democrats for the third place spot. They have a populist wind in their sales and are making really reactionary weather. Immigration concerns, real or imagined, are a factor in many peoples lives and progressives need to deal with the causes of concern; the palpable lack of jobs, houses and decent public services more effectively. (For more on this see Lisa Nandy’s brilliant essay in our Elephants Left in the Room publication).

The Tories look like the biggest losers. Eastleigh was 55th on their target list and a must win seat. But governments don’t win by-elections, especially the week after a credit rating downgrade. Cameron faces a terrible squeeze, knowing he must attract the middle ground swing voters who want compassion, while keeping at bay the UKIP hordes. For him and his party everything hinges on perceptions of economic recovery.

Despite Huhne, Rennard and their woeful place in the national polls, the Liberal Democrats won. The relief will be palpable. Surely it shows they can’t be written off? Maybe. What’s more likely is that it shows, increasingly, that all politics is local.  Impressively the Lib Dems can turn out an army of activists from across the country for a by-election but won’t be able to repeat the trick across the whole country at the next general election.  Meanwhile the stoicism of the party faithful remains touching, if misplaced. “We only had nine MPs in 1964 – we rebuilt once, we can do so again” – they say but the planet and the poor can’t wait that long. And just when we need a politics of social liberalism – their leadership has swung them towards neo-liberalism. The radical social liberal wing in the party has yet to find its full voice and good members continue to bleed away, some to Labour but most drop out of party politics altogether. It’s essential that, in whatever form and place, the politics of radical social liberalism is kept alive and flourishes (which among other things recognises the role of the state in achieving a more equal society). All progressives must work as hard as possible with the remaining social liberal wing – whether they take back their party or break away – it is essential that a centre-right coalition doesn’t become the default option in British politics.

It’s also clear that Labour were not the party of anti-coalition protest in Eastleigh, a seat in which they came second in 1994 and started the campaign with three times the support of UKIP. The One Nation party couldn’t strike a chord in this bit of the country. In truth they never knew if they wanted to. They vacillated and lost badly. A decent and potentially interesting candidate, John O’Farrell was buttoned up and took the safe respectable route – echoing the wider party strategy; to show glimpses of radicalism in speeches while the overall approach remains cautious and risk averse. For example the mansion tax is a good beltway tactic but it’s not the game changer a country stuck in economic, social and environmental recession needs.

Ed Miliband has shored up his weak leadership position and has made a real breakthrough on some key issues. But the legacy of New Labour has not yet been cast aside, too many are overly cautious – for them, it’s all about waiting for the Tories to lose so that the party can go back largely to where it was before it was rudely interrupted.  The party is doing better but isn’t doing anywhere near well enough to develop the ideas, policies and alliances to mean that we could be confident that the return of a Labour government in 2015 could make a real and lasting difference. What is the party’s position on the hugely significant issue of Europe, the existential challenge of environmental degradation or even public service reform?

One nation played well as a party conference rallying call.  But it feels more like a mantra of party management than of national renewal – the void in which everyone inside the party can claim their place and their policy. But, unlike a good society, it is not a visionary organising concept that could mobile a broad and deep coalition. And if anyone in Labour thinks the rise of UKIP is a good thing because it will take votes from the Tories – then it shows just how bankrupt the party has become. ‘Who cares how far the mood swings to the right as long as we sit on the governing benches!’ Any scent in the nostrils of the electorate that growth is coming back will allow the Tories the devastating election mantra of ‘we are sorry it’s been so tough and taken so long, but the economic mess Labour left and we had to clear up was worse than we could have imaged. Don’t let Labour ruin it again’.

As for the Green Party, they have just celebrated their 40th anniversary and this will no doubt be a time of soul searching and reflection for many members. They have recently changed their leader and it’s too soon to say what that will mean but while many of their policies remain strong there is little sign yet of any electoral breakthrough or even a strategy for influence.

Out here in the real world austerity bites, insecurity rules and no one is offering a feasible alternative. In the middle of a horse meat and a gas price/profit scandal no leading politician is saying that affordable heating and healthy eating might be incompatible with the profit motive and that the rip-off culture must come to an abrupt and absolute end. When it comes to the essentials of life; of food, heating and homes we should be looking at new forms of accountable and responsive public ownership – beyond either the free market or the remote state.

So, after Eastleigh the trends are clear. The fighting between the parties will become more intense but less meaningful. Each party will micro-target seats and votes using new technology. Messages will be precision bombed. But no real alternatives for the growing number of UK food banks or our burning planet are being conjured up.

All indications suggest that 2015 will produce the lowest turnout ever – below even the miserable 59% in 2005. So the biggest winner to come out of Eastleigh isn’t UKIP but the stay at home, be rational and don’t vote party – because if you do vote, nothing changes by anywhere near enough.

But outside of these almost Victorian party structures, politics for millions continue to flourish both intellectually and organisationally. Just think of the way tax justice has become a mainstream issue, now picked up by MPs such as Margaret Hodge, because of the likes of UK Uncut and the Tax Justice Network. Meanwhile 38 degrees, Transition Towns, Citizens UK, the ripples from Occupy, some trade unions and NGOs continue to take the lead alongside books like the Spirit Level, Prosperity Without Growth and Cancel the Apocalypse.

And yet political parties still matter. No one has yet devised a feasible alternative way to aggregate demands and put coherent competing proposals to the electorate. Indeed, it is impossible to imagine building a good society without something that resembles the Labour Party playing a big and leading role with other parties. There can be no party-less politics. It feels like a case of ‘we cant live with them and we cant live with out them’.

So we have to save party politics – not in their old form – but by reinventing them. This means parties being far stronger in terms of the values of greater equality, sustainability and democracy but much softer in terms of culture, strengthening their own internal democracy and practicing a politics of pluralism with other parties and forces in civil society. Not least because of the likelihood of another coalition.

Eastleigh is just another reminder that formal representative democracy is going through a systemic crisis. It is not a crisis solely of the UK or progressives but it particularly affects those that want to see fundamental change. The crisis has at least three layers. There is the separation of power from politics and politics from power, as capital has gone up to the level of global flows of finance and investment but democracy has failed to follow. Second, capitalism has mined deep into our emotions and psyche as the consumerisation of life and society has taken an overwhelming grip on popular culture. In essence, the good life is just another purchase away – not a vote. And third the very tribal and hierarchical nature of political parties is increasingly out of step with the modern mood in which people have multiple identities and want a voice and a say in how things are done.

It means there are limits to what parties can do, just as there are limits to what civil society can achieve. What we need is a new political ecology in which all progressive politicians work together to do more and build alliances with extra-parliamentary forces so that we can face the crisis of capitalism and the fast emerging environmental crisis with confidence that a good society is not just desirable but feasible. Eastleigh is another wake up call. Who out there is listening?

Neal Lawson is the Chair of Compass

Topics discussed:

DemocracyThe State

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