Sunday, 16 July 2000

From "Our New Constitution"

By Vernon Bogdanor.

There is been a lot of breast-beating about this point in Britain but it is not peculiar to Britain. It is true of most, if not all, democracies, that people are much less willing to join political parties than they were in the past. This is true whatever the constitutional set-up of the country. Some people say that if we had proportional representation then this would all change - people would then join parties and suddenly come out to vote. Some people say that if we had a federal system of government with more decentralisation then that would all change and people would be more enthused and so on. But countries with those systems have exactly the same problems as Britain. It is not a problem of a particular constitutional structure - it is somehow an endemic problem of modern democracies. I think that the constitutional reform agenda has not dealt with it, because it has not tackled the basis of the problem, which is that people no longer feel that political parties are agents of change as they once were. This was said, interestingly enough, by Gordon Brown, a long time ago when he was in opposition in 1992. He said, 'In the past, people used to join the Labour Party because they saw the Labour Party as an agent of change.' He said, 'Now, people want to be agents of change themselves' - in other words, they do not look to political parties, they believe that they themselves might be agents of change.

One of the reasons for this is that the era of what you might call tribal politics has gone. By tribal politics, I mean that when people used to say 'We have always voted Labour' or 'My father is a Conservative and so I am a Conservative,' I think fifty years ago, one would have heard a lot of that, but one does not hear it now. People do not now say, 'We have always been Conservative or all Labour here.' This is, again, one reason why the support for the two major parties has gone down.

The political agenda has shifted from what political scientists call position politics to what they call valence politics. Position politics is where the parties disagree about fundamentals. For instance, fifty years ago, people disagreed about whether basic industries should be nationalised, whether we should have nuclear weapons or not, whether we should keep the colonies or not etc. - all fundamental disagreements. Now the disagreement is about what political scientists call valence issues. A valence issue is an issue where we all agree about the ends but we disagree about the means. For example, we all agree that there should be a National Health Service. What we disagree about is which party is most efficient at managing and running it. We all broadly agree, within broad limits, that there should be a comprehensive system - David Cameron made that clear last week, at some cost to himself perhaps - but that they need to be supplemented by other sorts of schools but we disagree, perhaps, about which party is best able to secure better schools.

Part of Tony Blair's skill as a politician is to convert position issues into valence issues. Most of the position issues on which the Labour Party was hooked were rather unpopular with the public - more taxation, more public expenditure, more nationalisation etc. People did not like those sorts of things. So what Blair says is: 'We all agree that there ought to be a mix of public and private in the public services, and the question is really about who does it most efficiently, and I think the Labour Party does.' The only way to argue with him is to take an extreme position, on the extreme left, and say, 'Well, it should be only public,' or on the extreme right, to say 'It should be just the market.' If you take those positions, you are probably going to lose elections. So this is why Blair is so difficult to beat. It is called the technique of triangulation - you take two extreme positions and you put yourself in the middle, so you can only be attacked from an extreme and unpopular position. It is a great political skill on his part I think, which he got that from Clinton, and Cameron is trying to adopt also.

So politics is less based on ideology and less tribal, but therefore also in a sense duller. You cannot go to the barricades on behalf of foundation hospitals or city academies. These are issues you can argue about, but you are not going to carry a flag about them. So the difference between the parties are less about ends than about means, and you do not anymore hear the slogans 'Socialism now' or 'Set the people free'. The grip of the parties is less because of this, and it is for this reason that people tend to be disillusioned with political parties. It is not wholly the fault of the parties I think.

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