A new party could save politics from the extremes
Published by UnHerd (6th June, 2018)
Everyone wants a political party that reflects their own outlook. And since we tend to live and move in silos of like-minded people from similar class and educational backgrounds, it is easy to become convinced ‘everyone’ thinks the same way and shares our ‘common sense’ solutions. We see this starkly in the echo chambers of social media, which shore up confirmation biases and serve to fuel rage against the machinery of modern democracies.
But politicians have to make their way in a world that is highly-complex and buffeted by constant change. They must make messy compromises and build uncomfortable coalitions to achieve a few of their aims. They have to invest limited political capital wisely, carefully picking which battles to fight and when to duck confrontation. As a result of these tough choices, they can look shifty and unprincipled, angering their own activists and taking fire from all sides. This is one reason for the deep mistrust of leaders and traditional parties in this age of simplistic populism.
While they search for winning electoral positions, there seems to be a gaping hole at the heart of British politics. On one side are the tormented Tories, driven into a nationalist cul-de-sac as they struggle to turn an absurdist concept of Brexit into some kind of reality. On the other lies the Labour party, which has retreated into the past with the situationism and rehashed Seventies socialism of Jeremy Corbyn. I know I am not alone in finding this a dismal choice – yet nor do I desire reheated Blairism, given the destruction inflicted on the world by the original neo-con version.
So what sort of political party would I like? One that reflects my views, of course. It would draw elements from all existing parties and none. It would be economically and socially liberal, believing in the transformative power of capitalism and faith in individuals, while infused with compassion towards those less fortunate in society. It would appreciate the crucial role of the state, care deeply about the environment, embrace technological change and accept we live in a diverse, globalised world. It would most definitely not bang on about Europe, nor blame immigrants for political failure, nor believe in imposing democracy abroad through bombs and guns.
It would look to the future not the past for solutions, fuelled by profound optimism in the power of people and local communities to improve their world. It would avoid the curse of tribalism that scars Westminster, eschewing ‘Punch and Judy’ politics that alienates so many voters and seeking to make policy based on evidence rather than blinkered ideology. So it would attempt to reach across boundaries and range into enemy terrain to find progressive solutions for our more intractable issues from securing the future of the national health service and solving social care through to dealing with difficult dilemmas such as drug use, inequality, prison reform and tax dodging.
This party would reflect the country that it sought to govern, taking steps to recruit its leaders from all sections of society. It might even select a central list of suitable candidates, for all its talk of liberty and localism – underlining the complexity of choices that must be made to achieve anything in politics. This stance would not be cosmetic but at the core of the party, highlighting how it seeks to shape the real world rather than hark back to any mythologised past. It would view political correctness as a form of politeness towards other people, not a curse.
It would point out elements of society are broken, as evidenced by urban gangs and rising knife crime. The party might look for traditional solutions based on strength of families and good schooling, but dismiss silly ideas of reviving grammars and show sympathy towards those stuck in self-destructive lives. It would know we all rely at times on the state, whether rich or poor, so it is vital to have strong public services staffed by motivated, empowered professionals. Yet the party would still argue the state can be a sclerotic, suffocating force – and is definitely not the same as society.
This party would challenge the mindset that clings to an artificial division of interest between public and private sectors – or indeed, argues one or the other is inherently good or bad. It would back business, understanding that a thriving private sector means more jobs and a higher tax take – but not be scared to call out bad practice, from smaller issues such as placing sweets at shop counters through to promoting structural change in stymied markets. It would be passionate about the need to protect our planet, not just from plastic straws but from climate change and animal cruelty. And believe firmly in the power of art to progress society and unite people.
This party would not be centrist, merely modern and offering hope in tough times. It could reach across the political spectrum, filling the gulf that has emerged between regressive forces that have drifted away from many voters’ concerns. Indeed, it is not far removed from the party promoted by David Cameron in his early days of opposition, when his popularity surged to more than 50% approval before financial meltdown blew that flickering project off course. The tragedy is how his legacy is our current post-Brexit mess. Yet there is an irony this has created the disruptive climate in a divided nation in which a new force could finally remould our dislocated system.