Wednesday 3 April 2013

Wonks who don’t get out much

Coalition government is likely to become the norm in Britain because of the long-term decline in the combined vote of the Conservative and Labour parties (it peaked at 97% in 1951 and slowly fell to a postwar low of 65% in 2010).

But coalitions, now routine in local government, are still regarded as a novelty in national government. John Kampfner argues today on the Guardian’s Comment is free blog that, because coalition government is more likely, we need to learn to do coalitions better. He also suggests, paradoxically, that coalition could enable the parties to abandon “the Blairite straitjacket of triangulation that so stifles choice and debate”.

Kampfner acknowledges that the mistakes of the present coalition are partly due to the rushed procedure for coming to an agreement. But there is something else:
...there is a far bigger lesson, and it goes to the heart of the disconnect between the Westminster village and the rest of the country. The demographics of British politics are bad enough, but what happens when all the parties cleave towards similar policies and a small voting pool? On immigration, the three leaders find themselves dancing to Ukip’s tune. On criminal justice, drugs policy, Europe and elsewhere the recipes on offer, for all the rhetorical positioning that goes on, sometimes vary only at the margins.
Even on the burning issues of the moment – welfare, NHS reform and economic cuts – when it comes to the general election, how different will they sound when they are probed on the specifics of their commitments, and what these would commitments?
None of this should come as a surprise. Our rarefied political class is uniformly obsessed with the legacy of Tony Blair. The former prime minister bequeathed the art of triangulation – find out where your opponents are on any issue, and plonk yourself right in the middle. This is usually called “being on the side of the hard-working family”. It should be called the politics of caution. The hard worker/non-shirker/squeezed middle is a construct of wonks who don’t get out much. Voters have more variety, and are best served when given a choice.
Coalitions, far from limiting that choice, could – if done properly next time around – increase the options available. Parties could be required to set out before the election, as during any negotiations that take place afterwards, what they would be prepared to trade and what they would stick to: their “red lines”.
The risk-averse politics of triangulation does not offend voters but nor does it galvanise their support. It is why the Liberal Democrats remain stuck at 10% in the polls. Kampfner continues:
The Lib Dems, the beneficiary of coalitions, should rediscover some of their old radicalism, both for their own prospects and to reintroduce greater political choice. Clegg is correct when he juxtaposes the responsibilities of office against what he calls the empty wish lists of opposition.
Like any party, Clegg’s cannot and should not get all it wants. But the triangulation of the Blair era was little more than managerialism and safety first. It was the politics of a small minority of floating voters, and it was based in closing down areas of controversy. Paradoxically it was the Lib Dems who offered something different. Within Labour, the signals are mixed. Does the party think electoral success resides in an electorally self-selecting straitjacket, or does it have the courage to present something more galvanising?
Now, tragically, the only party that is refusing to play the game of cautious consensus is Ukip. Meanwhile, regarding the biggest issues of the moment – such as the failings of the financial system that led to the crash, the global shifts to the east and the rise of a new authoritarian model – mainstream politics is largely silent.
The reason Clegg repeatedly offends his party on issues such as secret courts and immigration is that he is being repeatedly advised to triangulate. To get out of this rut, he needs to set about his advisers and sack the “wonks who don’t get out much” – the merchants of triangulation, the believers in the “hard worker/non-shirker/squeezed middle”, the risk-averse advocates of converging on a mythical ‘centre ground’, the calculating cynics who believe you should construct policy on the basis of this week’s focus group data. If he doesn’t get rid of them but continues to triangulate, eventually the party will get rid of him.

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