thenextwave

The failure of the political class

Posted in articles, civil liberties, emerging issues, politics by thenextwavefutures on 21 June, 2008

Two unrelated events this month – David Davis’ resignation to fight a by-election on the issue of 42-day internment of suspects without trial, and the ‘no’ vote in the Irish referendum – seem to me to be connected. The connection is the conservative journalist Peter Oborne’s theory of the ‘political class’.

In an article in the Spectator (linked above) published at the same time at his book, Oborne describes the political class as having the following characteristics:

This new class now stands at the pinnacle of the British social and economic structure. It sets social conventions, and demarcates the boundaries against which both public and private behaviour are defined. Unlike the old Establishment, the Political Class depends directly or indirectly on the state for its special privileges, career structure and increasingly for its financial support. This visceral connection distinguishes it from all previous British governing elites, which were connected much more closely to civil society and were frequently hostile or indifferent to central government… Its members make government their exclusive study. This means they tend not to have significant knowledge of industry, commerce, or civil society, meaning their outlook is often metropolitan and London-based.

I’m not a huge fan of Oborne’s writing generally, and his book appears to have been written with New Labour in its sights (although I’m not fan there either). But the argument seems to be a useful way to understand the gap between politicians and the electorate, which is one of the reasons why the bloggers at Our Kingdom have adopted it as a useful model.

As Our Kingdom’s Stuart Weir pointed out, the journalistic and political responses to David Davis’ resignation were completely consonant with the theory – as they queued up to talk about it in Westminster terms, not in terms of its menaing for the rest of us. The BBC’s political editor Nick Robinson deservedly got his share of the flak for his smearing elision of “courageous” and “bonkers”. {Update: Guy Aitchison has a further review of the gap in views of the Davis campaign between Westminster and those outside of it].

Similarly, although the Irish ‘no’ voote had something to do with the country’s economic state, an article in Open Democracy by the Irish researchers Joseph Curtin and Johnny Ryan suggested that similar reasons, about the distance of the political class, were to blame:

for Ireland, the supposed European “democratic deficit” is alive and well – but that its main source is the Dáil Éireann (the national parliament) rather than European Union institutions or decisions.

Likewise, the Guardian’s John Harris, the source of some of the most interesting writing on British politics since his transfer from the Films and Music section, found in a visit to Blaenau Gwent, once represented by Labour radicals such as Nye Bevan and Michael Foot that one of the reasons that Labour is losing its historic control in south Wales is because of the long-distance control exercised by a national party which also seems completely dominated by the Executive branch of government.

But [Pam Price] regularly comes back to a storyline reprised time and again during my day in Blaenau Gwent: that though Labour’s long dominance of these valleys bred an unbecoming arrogance on the part of local politicians, the Blair years marked a new chapter, in which South Wales was suddenly subject to the diktats of party machines in Westminster and Cardiff. “When they became New Labour,” she says, “they changed the way they treated people. And eventually, people started to think for themselves. It was, ‘These people are in power, but they’re misusing it.'”

In context, though, this is only the latest stage in a long-term decline in political engagement which is not unique to the Uk and ireland. Pundits usually look at voting turnout figures, but party membership is falling right across Europe. A 2006 article by Peter Mair in New Left Review (subscription required) documented the decline between 1980 and 2000.

From Peter Mair, \

In that time, party membership fell by a half in the UK (not the worst in Europe) and by a quarter in Ireland. The only countries in which party membership increased, in Portugal, Spain and Greece, were fascist dictatorships until the mid-70s.

Mair describes this decline in political engagement as a “hollowing out” of democracy. in which parties increasingly become appendages of the state.

[P]arties may be able to fill public office, but having abandoned their representative role, they may no longer be able to justify doing so. In other words, if parties as governors are to be trusted, and if party government more generally is to be legitimate, it is likely that the parties must also be seen to be representative. … In fact, what we see here is a largely self-reinforcing process. As political and party competition are hollowed out even further, they offer even more encouragement to the politics of the spectacle and the horse-race.

Is this going to change? At one level, as I have blogged before, the surveillance culture seems deeply embedded, even if the House of Lords votes down the 42-day provision or future British governments bring UK law on the time permitted to interrogate without charging into line with other democracies (about seven days). The CCTV cameras and the DNA database seem unlikely to go.

But the issues around local accountability, on the other hand, seem to have momentum. Ten years after Blair created the devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales, the political effects are continuing to amplify. Blair was a disinterested constitutional reformer (they were manifesto commitments which he got out of the way quickly), and Cameron seems to be no more enthusiastic. But the genie is out of the bottle. As the Welsh writer Normal Mouth argued in a column for the weekly Golwg, he may have to become a constitutional reformer whether her wants to or not.

By 2010, both Scottish and Welsh referenda are likely to be looming, but neither will have been held. The government’s response will likely to be to ‘make nice’ by making further self-government concessions, in hoping of staving off something worse. This however, is likely to increase dissension in both Britain and the north of Ireland. And on top of this, the talks on the reform of the House of Lords will be brewing nicely by then. As Normal Mouth argues, “one begins to wonder not whether Prime Minister David Cameron will devote any attention to constitutional reform but whether he will have time for much else.”

There’s another version of this, of course: a big majority and a Cameron executive can manipulate or ignore issues of representation as much as the Blair governments did. But only at the cost of continuing ‘hollowing’ of representation and ostensibly democratic politics. One of the recurring themes in the debate on party funding is that the state needs to fund parties to make political competition fairer and reduce the influence of corporate and other donations. On its own this is likely to reinforce the sense that parties are appendages of the state, unless rules and governance are utterly transparent. There are some suggestions that voters could vote separately for funding at the same time as they vote for representation – although this could merely increase the sense of party politics as an empty spectacle of manipulative populism. State funding probably is essential to reduce the influence of privileged interests on politics – but it needs to incentivise the parties to do the hard work of rebuilding their memberships.

7 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. […] years ago in New Left Review (subscription required), the decline in party membership has occurred across Europe (even if the UK now manages to achieve some of the lowest numbers), regardless of voting […]

  2. Out of the shadows | thenextwave said, on 23 June, 2013 at 2:02 pm

    […] political class. Now that politicians have more or less detached themselves from their political parties, they have little connection with ordinary people. Instead they live […]

  3. Looting the public | thenextwave said, on 25 August, 2014 at 9:48 am

    […] fail to articulate this emerging public view, and instead simply maintain the distance between the political class and the rest of us, draining the legitimacy of the political system as they go. But as Peter […]

  4. […] #6. The ‘Yes’ campaign became a test of Westminster and our ‘political class‘. […]

  5. […] incidentally, one of the reasons why having politicians who have never had work outside of politics is so corrosive.)  They are ‘new’ politicians who are foolish enough to believe that the purpose of […]

  6. […] incidentally, one of the reasons why having politicians who have never had work outside of politics is so corrosive.) They are ‘new’ politicians who are foolish enough to believe that the purpose of being in […]

  7. […] SNP in Scotland; the long run trend of decline in voting participation; the gap between the “political class” and their views and many of the electorate; the difficulty in winning an electoral majority […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: