Recently, I was asked by a local newspaper to explain why people are generally so fed up with politics. Thinking on it, I realised that a good way to explain what is going on in modern politics is the following series of graphs.
Yes it’s simplistic, but it’s true.
The political spectrum
If you were to make a graph of the political opinions of the people of Britain, it would look something like this:
There are a range of political opinions, stretching from the fascist BNP on the right, back through the euro-sceptic Tory MPs and across to the borrow-and-spend Marxists and anarchists on the left … but (as the bump in the centre shows) by far the majority of us are, more-or-less, in the middle.
The Political Parties
Now, if you were to map onto this graph the people who are Labour Party members and supporters, you would find something as follows:
None of them are very extreme, but they sit visibly left-of-centre. Generally, they believe in the Welfare State and citizen-rights, and state-provided services, and they want the state to re-kickstart the economy.
Meanwhile, Tory Party members and supporters would occupy this part of the graph:
None of them are very extreme, but they sit visibly right-of-centre. Generally, they believe in authority and the-way-we-used-to-do-things, and they advocate individualism – entrepreneurship and pulling yourself up by your own shoelaces.
What is worth noticing is that there is a clear gap between the parties. Labour supporters and Tories are NOT 'all the same' and they DO believe different things.
The problem with both these party memberships is that they are not big enough. The coloured area below the black line is an indication of how many people each party attracts. The key thing you need to notice is that neither party, on its own, has enough supporters to win a majority in an election.
And the Party leaderships know this.
The Party Leaderships
The Party leaderships, therefore, realise that they need to attract voters beyond their party – that was how Thatcher and Blair won elections. Ed Miliband and David Cameron, therefore, know that – to win the next election – they need to win over that huge body of people who occupy the centre-ground.
How to do this? They know what those people want and believe – the opinion polls tell them that. So they say what those people want to hear. Sod the principles – we just want to get elected, and to get elected this is what we have to say.
The result is that – although there is a clear distinction between what the different party activists want – you can hardly slide a piece of paper between the messages coming out of the party leaderships:
This explains everything
Yes they try to spin their policies ‘left’ or ‘right’ to make them seem different, but generally they are ploughing a middle furrow. Party analysts no longer even define politics in terms of ‘left’ and ‘right’ – they analyse you in terms of whether you are visionary or pragmatist, aspirational or threatened. Every statement, every move is analysed as to how it will play to that huge centre-ground of voters.
And it is when you realise this that everything drops into place.
It explains why politicians never answer questions. They have been told the exact form of words which plays to the mass, and they just repeat it, whatever the question. (It also explains why politicians are often so wooden – they are so busy trying to say the required thing, and get the required facial expression, and move their hands in the way their spin doctors have told them, that they are totally NOT themselves.)
It explains why politicians spend so much time attacking each other. When you are all chasing the middle ground, how do you persuade people to accept your brand of middle-of-the-roadism, rather than the opposition’s? You can’t appeal on the grounds of differences in policies, because they are so damn similar … so you’ve got to wreck the reputation of the other lot.
And this explains the scorn and apathy of the electorate. They are continually told (by other politicians) that politicians are incompetent liars. They can see that the politicians are not conscience-driven, but are just spinning a line. They can see that the politicians are just spinning them a line to get elected, and suspect that they will do what they please when they get into power.
Funnily enough, party activists feel this as much, if not more, than the general public.
EVERYBODY is disillusioned with politicians.
NOBODY feels that the system-as-is is representing their views.
So this also explains the tensions that are increasingly opening up between the Party leaders and their members.
The newspapers today are full of the Tory leadership desperately denying that they think their activists are ‘swivel-eyed loons’.
They are lying, of course.
This becomes clear if you superimpose the graph of the electors whom Cameron wishes to attract, onto the graph of the people who are members and supporters of the Tory Party:
You can see that many of the Tory Party are WAY to the right of Cameron’s target voters. He needs them to fill the Party coffers and to do the foot-slogging at election times, but generally they are an embarrassment – indeed, if he lets them say too much they will turn off his target voters.
Gay marriage is the perfect example. Rank-and-file Tories hate the idea of gay marriage, and are castigating Cameron for supporting it – but he knows that by far the majority of people in the country support it and he cannot (dare not) indulge his members.
And what is true for the Tory Party is just as true for the Labour Party:
Tony Blair always used to be utterly candid about it. The Labour Party does not need to appeal to its rank-and-file – they are going to vote Labour whatever. Rather, the Labour Party needs to appeal to the vast numbers of voters in the centre-ground, and Labour’s declared policies need to reflect this.
The Labour Party has been much cleverer than the Tory Party in placating its membership by instituting a regime of consultation and policy forums, and party discipline remains intact. But the Party leadership are still way to the right of their membership, and follow ‘Purple Labour’ policies; occasionally a union leader explodes in frustration.
The rise of UKIP
All this also helps us understand the rise of UKIP, too.
Generally, UKIP is a fairly nasty, right-wing party:
It is not as nasty and right-wing as the BNP, of course, but therein lies its danger for the Tories. Because UKIP principles – whilst way to the right of Cameron’s ‘modernising’ centrist-appealing conservatism – actually overlap significantly with what real Tory members and supporters want:
Hence the haemorrhaging of votes to UKIP in the recent elections.
There is not yet any similar danger for Labour. Left-wing alternatives to Labour (such as the Socialist Workers Party and TUSC) tend to be more to the left of the Labour membership, and do not exercise the same attraction:
And, ultimately, the probable truth is that, for both Tories and Labour, any defections will come back at the next general election. Tories flirting with UKIP know well that, if they vote UKIP in 2015, they will not get a UKIP-Tory government, they will get a Labour one.
Are there any solutions?
It is hard to know if there are any feasible alternatives to this very unsatisfactory state of affairs of lying leaders and dissatisfied supporters.
The problem is that – lacking a leader of massive personal charisma – if either Party begins to take a political stance, vast numbers of people will stop voting for them, so I can’t see things changing in the near future.
Proportional representation would allow politicians and parties to be more honest about their personal beliefs. But the problem with PR is that it generally leads to coalition governments, and we have seen how unsatisfactory that is – as far as voters are concerned, a coalition still ends up pursuing policies far different from those in their manifestos.
In this digital age, you wonder whether we might move towards a more direct form of government – that we might, for example, have more referendums. But, until the general populace becomes more politically educated, that carries huge dangers of its own.
Ultimately, the only answer lies in the voters, not the politicians. If popular interest in politics grew, and active membership of the parties expanded, Party leaders could begin to move away from the centre towards their membership, because their membership would command enough votes to make a difference at the ballot box.
And the beginning of that process is political education.