Tuesday, 5 May 2015

VOTING FOR RADICAL CHANGE IN A STALEMATE ELECTION

Polling station 6 may 2010 Writing about politics from the perspective of radical change is a dead loss during an election. Everybody heads for the centre ground for fear of frightening the horses, and even the Greens have been criticised for not pushing strongly enough their defining environmental agenda. The key to a successful campaign, as the parties know, is to keep things simple. Many of the basic assumptions about jobs, growth and the nature of wealth upon which the election debate is founded may be just plain wrong, but at times like this the truth is merely a complicating factor.

How, then, should people respond for whom that complication really matters? Through the prism of the election, what is the route to fundamental economic and political change? In a system in which so many votes will end up unrepresented, is there any point in voting at all? And should that vote be principled, committed, tactical, loyal or vengeful?

Before tackling that question it is worth scanning the horizon to see where the election is taking us. There is one piece of good news: if nothing else, the outcome is set to be disruptive, and disruption can be a useful precursor to fundamental change. No one-party outcome is anticipated: the Conservatives may end up with the most seats, but with too few friends to help them do their business, while a Labour programme will be dependent upon the support of the Scottish Nationalists. Meanwhile, so many red lines have been drawn in the sand concerning what the parties say they will and won't do that it already begins to look like a desert battlefield before the real negotiations have got going.

Also on the horizon is mounting evidence that the UK's so-called economic recovery is running out of steam. GDP growth is down, wages and job security remain depressed and household borrowing is on the rise. The outlook for manufacturing is poor. Recent growth has been derived not from useful production but from credit-fuelled consumption and a government-sponsored housing boom. The chickens are coming home to roost and a further recession in the next two years is entirely plausible.

The most likely outcome of the election is a minority government, so a further election in a year or so is quite possible. A headline decline in the economy is just the sort of event that could trigger it, as parties manoeuvre to shift the blame. The governing party could expect to suffer, in which case a marginal lead on 7 May could become a Pyrrhic victory. The danger is particularly acute for Labour, whose record on economic competence already provokes scepticism in the electorate.

For those of us who are interested in fundamental, systemic change, the question of how much worse things have to get before it is accepted that the system is broken is a real one. As a thought experiment, however, it poses an ethical dilemma: is it OK to wish things to get worse (with all the suffering that will bring) in order to create the conditions for transformational change? Or is there a better way?

One thing seems certain: the conditions for change are more likely to be created within a political system of greater diversity. In this election the first-past-the-post system (FPTP) will favour the two big parties less that usual. The anticipated Labour wipe-out in Scotland is a direct result of FPTP, which consequently will not deliver the “strong government” which is supposed to be so much in its favour. At the same time, a larger than ever number of UKIP and Green voters will find themselves almost completely disenfranchised, as many Liberal Democrats have found in the past.

Irrespective of whether Mr Cameron limps on, or Mr Miliband ends up seizing the prime ministerial crown, constitutional change will be high on the agenda. Scotland is the driver, of course, but the package of autonomy required to keep Scotland in the union is also relevant to the English regions. Post-recession Britain has already fragmented, and policies that may work in London are increasingly of little use elsewhere.

The decentralisation of government in Britain advances the cause of radical change because it connects political decision-making much more closely with social outcome. Government ministers in the Department for Work and Pensions probably have no experience of the human consequences of the Bedroom Tax, whereas political leaders in Birmingham and on Tyneside probably do. Localism only works when the entire chain of political responsibility is local, so that a decision and its consequences can truly interact.

Political diversity within a decentralised system has the further advantage of creating the conditions for experimentation. Ideas that would never get traction at a national level may be tried out locally or regionally where conditions are more suitable. In principle, the smaller the political unit, the greater the possibility of addressing specific issues in ways most likely to be effective. When a wide range of solutions are being tried, an effective politics may evolve more rapidly, and its methods be more rapidly shared.

It considering how to vote on Thursday, therefore, advocates for fundamental political and economic change should bear in mind the value of disruption to the status quo, as well as the relative merits of the two parties that the status quo is designed to support. At present, Labour offers a better bet than the Conservatives mostly because the Conservative grasp of social and economic reality is so poor, but anybody expecting a radical approach from a Labour government should remember how quickly the euphoria evaporated in 1997.

If the system is to change, however, it is important that the election result registers as strongly as possible how thoroughly it is broken. So the share of the vote matters more than usual in illustrating how much of the electorate is essentially disenfranchised, and supporters of the smaller parties should stick to their guns and not drift back towards the big two by way of tactical voting.

Voting Conservative against conviction merely to keep out UKIP flatters the Conservatives and increases the chances of business as usual. UKIP is not the BNP: however unattractive and incoherent their policies, there is no moral imperative to exclude them from a political process in which their mere presence advances the dynamic of change. Similarly, people attracted to Green Party policies should not consider this a wasted vote and plump for Labour in its place. Labour does not challenge the fundamentals of the market system, but the Greens do. If things are really to change, “the system” needs to hear from everybody who agrees with them.

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