All posts by Matthew

One school’s journey 2 of 3 – what should governors do? Examine effectiveness not policies

Telferscot 1Earlier this week I posted about the school where I am Chair of Governors, Telferscot Primary School in Balham. We are celebrating our recent acquisition of Outstanding status from Ofsted. That achievement mainly reflects on the school leadership, and in particular the Head Teacher, Jenny Martin. But what of the school’s governors? I suspect hat quite a few of my readers are, or have been school governors. Our journey may be of particular interest.

What is a school’s Governing Body supposed to do? Unfortunately you will not much practical help from officialdom, local or national, well-intentioned though they might be. For them the Governing Body conforms to a bureaucrat’s dream: responsibility without power. They see the Governing Body as the corporate embodiment of the school itself. They even address Council Tax bills to it. All the power rests with the Governing Body, which then delegates it based on a many-paged document, mainly to school management.

And yet governors do not feel that they are in such a position of power. They find themselves constrained by conventions and regulations that leave them with almost no practical responsibility. The Governors can’t pay those Council Tax bills; they can politely forward them to the school Bursar for due consideration. The Governing Body is not a day to day presence at a school, and deals with decisions referred to it, rather than being some kind of controlling presence. Many involved in education, especially teaching unions, just regard them as interfering amateurs that could easily be dispensed with altogether.

The bureaucrats (and legal advisers, come to that) try to reconcile the gap between responsibility and power through the idea of management by policy, and its cousin, procedure. They think of a well-run school having bulging files of policies and procedures that tell its management and staff what to do in any situation. These policies and procedures can be reviewed at regular intervals by governors, and they can politely suggest changes here and there, and therefore assert themselves to a degree, and be saddled with responsibility if anything goes wrong. But anybody that has run an effective organisation knows that management by policy is not a very good way of doing things. At best it is a waste of effort, as policies are ignored; at worst it leads to an over-cautious, defensive style of management that undervalues the role of leadership. Policies have their place in the best run organisations, but the more there are of them, the less value they have. Managers and staff should take decisions based on context and with a strong measure of common sense, things that are almost impossible to justice to in a detailed policy.

So what should a Governing Body do? This starts with the one area where they have undoubted power: the appointment of the Head Teacher. I was a governor when Telferscot appointed Ms Martin in 2001, but not on the recruitment panel – so I can’t claim any credit for that decision. But my colleagues’ approach was interesting. They did not pick the safest, best-qualified candidate. They picked a candidate that had little experience of headship, and showed every sign of causing trouble (as one of the members of the panel told me). They were inspired by Ms Martin’s vision, and felt that the school could do with a shake-up.  It was an inspired decision, and a case of governors making a real difference. It also shows that governors must embrace risk.

But once your Head is in place, then what? The relationship between the Head and governors goes to the absolute heart of the governors’ role. In a good relationship the governors provide a first level of accountability for the Head, and a sounding-board and support. This requires some imagination on both sides. The Head needs to appreciate that opening up to governors, bad news as well as good, is the only way to build a strong, supportive relationship. Ms Martin grasped this very early, and has welcomed governors into aspects of the school that other Heads would frown on. This includes having governors on staff recruitment panels, for example. It also means pushing the boundaries of confidentiality, especially with senior governors.

But governors have to earn this sort of confidence. That, of course, means being absolutely safe with confidential details. It also means being constructive and helpful – and not getting into oppositional role-plays for form’s sake. Good humour is essential. Governors and Head (and, indeed, other senior school managers) should enjoy being together and talking about the school. Headship can be a lonely job, and the educational bureaucracy is not usually very interested in what individual schools are up to, so long as they stay of trouble. A good governing body can provide an appreciative audience. Through this openness and interaction, governors build up a picture of what is happening at the school and of its strengths and weaknesses. So when it comes to the big things, they are ready.

This softer side is at the heart of effective governance. But it needs to work within a disciplined framework. Public bodies like schools are subject to external scrutiny. Scrutinisers need to see evidence.  That means getting basic frameworks of documentation right and up to date, decisions properly documented, and for it to be clear that the governing body is informed about all relevant aspects of the school. It also means documenting challenge – something our inspectors like to see. When meetings are good-humoured and when management is open about weaknesses, then challenge can be a little difficult to document – even though the process itself is challenging. But that is a matter of learning how to frame minutes.

But the governing body does need direction and focus. Here we have been following advice from the Department of Education (DfE) to get away from some of the details that governors have in the past been interested in – when I first became governor we talked endlessly about school swimming. Instead we need to get to basics of pupil progress and quality of teaching. This means looking at and discussing data, and getting away from mountains of policy approvals.

It has been a learning curve. But this is what Ofsted reported:

Governors have a thorough understanding of the work of the school, of pupils’ performance and of the school’s finances. They bring a range of expertise, knowledge and commitment which they have shared to good effect. Since the time of the last inspection they have used these to build on the school’s strengths and success. They seek and undertake training to make sure they are clear about their roles, standards and keeping children safe. The governing body plays a rigorous role in managing the performance of their headteacher and receive information about the performance of teachers and how they are rewarded and helped to improve. This is demonstrated through the improvements in pupils’

This  gives us the confidence to move forward. We are in the process of reconstituting the governing body and changing its formal lines of operation. We will continue our move away from policy documents to understanding what the school is doing and how effective it is. We plan to reduce the  number of committees and structure governor visits differently. We do not have a vision of a small, tightly run executive board, as DfE advice suggests, but of a larger body of interested people who collectively can examine many areas of the school’s activities, and provide school management with support as well as scrutiny. By and large these interested people will be parents. And meanwhile I am in the process of an orderly transfer of the role of Chair to putative successor (I’m in my eighth year – the recommended maximum).

As the school completes its move to two form entry, and takes on a second site, the future promises to be interesting. It has been a privilege to be involved in the school’s success.

Share

One school’s journey 1of 3 – characteristics of one outstanding school

Over a month ago now I, and four other Telferscot 2governors at Telferscot Primary School in Balham, were interviewed by the Ofsted inspector. As Chair I managed to show a good grip of our performance statistics and the general overview. But all the governors contributed knowledgeable answers . The highlight was when the inspector asked us about the curriculum – the parent governors burst into an enthusiastic description of what the school was doing – showing not just enthusiasm, but knowledge and understanding .

It was an impressive performance. And so went the rest of the inspection. Children, parents, teachers and staff, and above all the Head and management team, each delivered an impressive display. Ofsted’s report rated the school at its top grade, Outstanding, in all categories: leadership and management; behaviour and safety of pupils; quality of teaching; achievement of pupils; and early years provision. The school had always been a good one, but at last we had caught up with the ever-rising bar to be considered Outstanding. This was thoroughly deserved. The school’s journey was very much an individual one – but it still throws light on wider issues of public policy.

Back to the beginning. Ofsted, for the benefit of my non-English readers, is England’s chief regulator and inspector of schools. Its rating system has become the benchmark by which schools, especially state schools, are judged. School managers and staff live in dread of its inspections. Telferscot is a state primary school, covering ages 4-11 (Reception to Year 6), and a pre-school nursery. It is in transition from being single form entry (with a standard class size of 30) to two form, which now goes up to Year 3. A further two forms of entry, and a second school site, are in prospect. This makes it a relatively small school (currently) by London standards, though still above the average for the country as a whole. Its children are from mixed social and ethnic backgrounds, with a solid core of middle class families, but plenty of families in more challenging circumstances. It is a bit of an “average school” in its mix of pupils, and a sort of microcosm of the challenges facing the country’s school system as a whole – which ironically makes it rather unusual – most schools are more homogenous. I have been a governor since 1999, and Chair of Governors since 2007; the previous inspections by Ofsted that I experienced were in 2001 and 2009.

The school’s operations are based on three key areas: a broad curriculum; inclusion; and hard management. These three things are driven by the Head Teacher, Jenny Martin, who took over in 2001 – but the first two, at least, had foundations that go back before that. I would like to say a little about each of these three.

The idea of a broad curriculum contrasts with the alternative of a curriculum that focuses on the basics of literacy and numeracy.  The tension between these ideas shapes much of the debate on education, which, of course, does not stop lots of people trying to advocate both sides at once. The idea of a broad curriculum in turn rests on two ideas. First is that a broad curriculum is required to prepare children for later life; children need much more than basic literacy and numeracy – they need to know how to be socially responsible individuals , how to work with other people  and to enjoy the process of learning itself. The second is that a broad curriculum provides the best context in which the “basics” can be taught. It provides the opportunity to make such learning both more memorable and enjoyable. Children shouldn’t just know how to read; they should enjoy reading and be eager use their literacy to expand their horizons. At Telferscot the broad curriculum is focused on the idea of the “Creative Curriculum” – one that incorporates the arts. This means working with a number of arts groups, including London’s South Bank.

Inclusion means drawing in children from all backgrounds and working to ensure that they all share the same experience of school and know how to be together. One aspect is the multi-ethnic, multi-national and multi-cultural side of the school, which celebrates its diversity. This is wonderful – but pretty routine for London. Much more challenging is bringing along those from difficult social backgrounds, where the children tend to lack support at home, and those with special learning needs or disabilities. The school has, in my memory, made no permanent exclusion of a pupil,  and only one temporary one. Inclusion is about knowing, and working with, the wider family, and about arranging for additional educational resources for those with additional needs. It also involves keeping the school open and active outside school hours, from 8am to 6pm. This aspect of the school’s work is one its most challenging, but clearly motivates school leaders – and it is inspiring.

Broad curriculum and inclusion are lovely, liberal ideas that lots of people will agree are a good thing. But making them happen and delivering excellent results across the whole school is another matter. This requires what I have called hard management. There are no easy rides; all people who work at the school feel accountable and pushed to achieve more. The primary instigator of this is, of course, the Head Teacher, Ms Martin (or rather, Miss Martin, as she is known at the school). The Head has to be both hard on everybody (not least herself), and to provide help and support -as well as fostering a spirit of teamwork and good humour that means that people enjoy working together. There are two important things I want to add about this aspect of running the school.

The first is that the school’s success really took off after it adopted a top-heavy approach to school management, with at first three and then four senior staff completely out of the classroom (not counting the non-teaching side), save for providing temporary cover for class teachers when absent. This gives the school’s management to strength and depth to deal with all the extra things the school must do to sustain a broad curriculum, inclusion and deep accountability. It need hardly be added that these managers need to operate as a real team, so that the Head can feel completely confident of the Deputy holding the fort, and so that each member of the team can feel they are making a real contribution to the school’s progress. Head teachers need to be strong personalities; not all find the transition to being team leaders easy.

The second thing is the use of data. The data here means test results and teacher assessments which show the progress each pupil is making in the core curriculum subjects of reading, writing and mathematics. This starts with publicised results for the “Key Stages” at the end of Years 2 and 6, including the Year 6 SATS tests. But while a lot of public attention is focused on these, school managers need something much more frequent to identify potential problems before it is too late to do something about them. Ofsted increasingly uses such data to understand progress, and the school management almost obsesses with it.

Many liberal minded observers of education worry about this emphasis on data. They worry that it undermines the idea of a broad curriculum and the real needs of children, and that it sucks the living soul out of education. But such criticism neglects two things. The first is that such a focus on data really is the only way of making sure that no child gets left behind, and true inclusion. In a class of 30 it is quite easy for teachers to focus on averages and miss the needs of a small number of quiet but underperforming children. Britain has a bad record on this – of leaving a neglected “tail”. The second thing is that one of the outputs of a broad curriculum should be achievement in the basics. It really does hold the whole process to account. If the data shows weaknesses in literacy or numeracy, then this really isn’t something to be glossed over. Telferscot’s emphasis on creative curriculum has a bias towards literacy, which is easy to integrate with the arts, rather than numeracy. The focus on data exposed this vulnerability and the the development of its maths teaching has been one of the main areas of focus for the school’s management, something that has heavily influenced recruitment, for example.

I could go on. I want to write two more articles. The next will cover the field of school governance – which is the bit where I personally can be said to have made a small contribution to the school’s success, and claim a slither of actual professional expertise. And finally I want to draw out some wider issues for the development of public services.

 

 

Share

Polly Toynbee is right – we need more honest debate on tax and spend

I don’t approve of Polly Toynbee. She’s so deep in the Guardian bunker that she rarely has anything useful to say. She writes polemic that will entertain the left, but not persuade anybody else . So I wasn’t expecting much from her article last week Economic dishonesty is the deadliest deficit of all. I was expecting her to repeat the Labour myth that the economic crisis was somebody else’s fault, and that austerity policies have strangled the British economy. But she was making a point of value. It was that the Conservatives and Labour have very different views of the future government finance – but they were both concealing their differences.  The Conservatives do not want to spell out the implications on services and benefits; Labour do not want to look irresponsible, or to be painted as the party of high taxes.

She wrote her article before the Autumn Statement delivered by the Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne. Ms Toynbee should be pleasantly surprised at how things turned out, though I doubt that she is. The British government’s future policies on taxation and public expenditure have taken centre stage, and important differences have emerged between the political parties.

It started with some rather excitable coverage on the BBC Radio Today programme, which pointed out that Tory party plans for future spending would take it back to being the lowest proportion of national income since the 1930s. The bare statistics were factual (inasmuch as future projections can be described as factual) – but a comparison with the 1930s is farcical. National income is incomparably bigger than then – so a similar ratio of spending to income will not produce destitution that is in any way comparable. For similar reasons, the economic crash of 2008-09 is no way comparable to that of the 1930s, in spite of some of the ratios to national income being similar. Mr Osborne rather publicly objected to the coverage, drawing attention to the whole issue. Up to that point Ms Toynbee’s forecast seemed to be coming true.

In turns out that though Labour and the Conservatives are aiming at the same date to eliminate the structural deficit in British spending (i.e. cyclically adjusted spending less taxes), beyond that the difference between Labour’s spending plans and the Conservatives’ is as high as £27bn per annum. Differences on this scale are significant.

The next act in this drama was an attack by Mr Osborne on his Liberal Democrat coalition partners that they had lost the plot on economic policy because their plans were closer to Labour’s than the Conservatives. Danny Alexander, the Lib Dem Treasury minister, made a robust response about the impossibility of Conservative spending plans. Ms Toynbee, in typical Guardian bunker style, had painted the Lib Dems as indistinguishable from the Tories, so she would have been less than pleased about this – but not too upset since she no doubt thinks that the Lib Dems are a political irrelevance these days.

It is to be hoped that these spats are the beginning of a serious political debate. Up until now we have experienced manufactured political rows over the immigration, the European Union and the NHS. Admittedly the Tory preparedness to take big risks with Britain’s membership of the EU is a serious political issue – but the row is more about tactics and competence than strategy. On the other issues the politicians have very little of practical value to say. But the gap between left and right on state spending (I refuse to call it “economic policy” as most commentators do) foreshadows very different visions for how the British state should work.

The right has an economically liberal view of the state, with both state services and benefits being pared back, leaving more space for private enterprise and consumer choice. The left does not seem to have such a clear vision – much of its energy is being devoted to keeping public services and benefits as they are and avoiding serious questions about the future. That is a pity, because shifts in both demographics and the distribution of economic power point to a larger role for the state.

The problem with the debate, though, is that none of the political parties is being clear about what they want to do. It is good that we are talking about broad numbers on the size of the state – but this needs to be brought down to specifics. The Conservatives need to be clearer about what they plan to cut, and how they want to reshape benefits. Labour and the Liberal Democrats need to do this too – because their plans also involve big cuts. But they also need to talk about taxes. The Tories are quite right that the only tax raising idea that they will talk about, the Mansion Tax, is small beer.

Britain, along with most of the developed world, needs to rethink tax, state benefits and public services. I do not believe that they can be shrunk in the way the right suggests. But neither are they sustainable in their current form, as the left seems to think. That, not immigration, exactly who delivers health services, or even membership of the EU, is one of the critical issues of our time.

The more politicians debate these issues, the better. But if they obfuscate, then Polly Toynbee’s angry rhetoric will for once be justified.

 

Share

Labour should be taking credit for the coalition’s economic policy, not whingeing about it

“Too far, too fast.” Remember that criticism of the British coalition government’s economic policies? It was repeated incessantly by Labour politicians in the first years of the government. And, it appears, the government was listening. The actual trajectory of progress on the country’s massive fiscal deficit is close to what Labour were recommending. And economic growth has returned. So what are Labour saying now? They are vilifying the government for going not going far enough and doing it too slowly!

It is, in fact, quite hard to understand Labour’s political strategy on the economy right now. The party lacks credibility, according to opinion polls. It is natural for them to try and change the subject, to more comfortable topics like public services, but foolish to think that they can avoid talking about it. Following yesterday’s Autumn Statement by George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the biggest noise from the party was about the coalition’s broken promises. And indeed, back in 2010 the coalition’s plan was to eliminate the structural deficit by 2015; instead, it seems to be generally agreed, they will only be half way there. Progress is, in fact, more or less what was envisaged by Labour’s alternative plan. This sounds like criticising the government for following Labour policy.

It’s not a first. Labour were equally scathing about the government’s record on immigration, after its pledge to reduce net immigration to under 100,000 was spectacularly missed. And yet Labour was not advocating any policies that would have made this promise more achievable. Indeed it is not at all clear whether Labour would have done much different.

And there is a ready explanation for why both the government’s promises were not met. World events. Economic growth in the rest of the world, and especially elsewhere in Europe, has been below expectations. You can get only so far by rowing against the tide – and if you do on the economy, net migration goes against you. Of course neither promise should have been made (if indeed the deficit reduction plan can even be called a promise). They were dependent on matters outside the government’s control. This is obvious, and it is to grossly underestimate public intelligence to suggest that the anybody thought that the numbers were written in stone. What matters to the public is what the government should have been doing differently. And here there is no clear message coming from Labour benches.

What we get instead is a flood of expressions of discontent. Pay has not kept up with inflation (“the cost of living crisis”); the rich have been let off; we don’t like the public service and benefit cuts.  It’s all like the children’s complaint “it’s not fair!”. And the weary response of the public to this complaining is surely that of the child’s parent. It’s a difficult world. Could you manage any better?

What is the purpose of Labour’s relentless negativity? It is a poor way to attract votes to itself. Perhaps they just want to reduce turnout, or encourage Conservative voters to support Ukip? Perhaps they plan to flourish Labour’s vision of hope a bit closer to next year’s election? But the last time Labour won from opposition, in 1997, the message of optimism was clearly apparent by this stage. Labour seems to have an ambition to win a majority in Parliament with the smallest ever number of votes, by splitting opposition votes and persuading people to stay at home. What sort of a vision is that?

But I don’t Labour’s negative and confusing rhetoric is part of a cunning plan. It is a reflection of confusion that goes deep into Labour thinking, especially about the economy. The party has not admitted that it made major mistakes in handling the economy in the years up to 2007, at which point the economy collapsed. They mumble something about being a bit to easy on bankers. They also say that they should have been tougher on immigration, though exactly how, and whether this would have helped the British economy, is very unclear. Instead, in private, they complain that the criticism of their record is unfair, and that the public is wrong to blame them. It was the world banking crisis that did for them; and the government was not as profligate as it is made out.

There is an element of truth to these complaints. Few criticised the government’s record at the time, after all. But the party has to confront some difficult facts. First is that the party was clearly guilty of hubris before 2007. There most memorable slogan was “no more boom and bust”, which they shouted out at the height of a boom, and just before one of the most spectacular busts in British economic history. Shrugging it off and saying it was somebody else’s fault does not pass muster. And second is that the level of government services and benefits that prevailed at 2007 was unsustainable. It may have looked OK according to the size of the economy at the time (though that is debatable), but a lot of that economy was built on air.

What Labour needed to say back on 2010 and 2011, after having chosen their new leader, Ed Miliband, was that Labour had messed things up badly. They were honest mistakes, made from the best of intentions, and following the best advice, perhaps. But they were mistakes and the party must learn from them. But instead Mr Miliband fudged the issue, preferring not to provoke a big argument in his own ranks. At the time he wished to ride a wave of anger at austerity, and it was necessary to leave unchallenged the fiction that public service cuts were unnecessary.

It is too late for that confession now. But it can be no wonder than the party’s credibility on the economy is so weak. As one columnist said in this morning’s FT, you can think that the coalition economic policy is disappointing, a mess even, and still think that Labour would be even worse.

Share

David Cameron pitches for the political centre on immigration and EU. How depressing

The Conservative leader and British Prime Minister David Cameron’s grasp of the dark political arts is not gone. Last Friday he gave a long-awaited speech setting out his proposals on managing immigration from other EU countries better. It received generally favourable coverage. And, before anybody had a chance to think through what he had said, the story was muscled out by a series of announcements about public spending commitments, in advance of tomorrow’s Autumn Statement by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. If this goes according to plan, Mr Cameron has redefined the political centre ground at a stroke. Will he succeed?

In the preceding weeks, not coincidentally while the Conservatives were trying to fight off a by-lection challenge from Ukip, various suggestions had been floated about what the speech might say. The most eye-catching was some sort of quota system for accepting intra-EU migrants. This drew much criticism from other EU leaders. In the event this idea was dropped. Instead Mr Cameron proposed to limit their access to benefits and tax credits, including those for both those in work, and those out of work. Migrants would not be entitled to these benefits unless they had been resident for a full four years.

In terms of pure politics this was astute. More moderate commentators were relieved that the quota idea, and its immediate confrontation with other EU leaders, was buried. Limiting access to benefits, on the other hand, sounds a bit like what the opposition Labour Party, and even the Liberal Democrat coalition partners, were suggesting. But the time limit and scope was much greater than anything these parties proposed – pleasing the more hawkish commentators, especially in the right-wing press, who are the main attack-dogs in British politics. Sensibly he left the matter of access to free health services under the NHS untouched. Many older Britons have retired to Spain, where they get access to that country’s health services for free; indeed Britain seems to be exporting oldsters almost as fast as it importing youngsters – something the government will not wish to discourage.

And so Mr Cameron will try to present himself as the voice of sweet reason and moderation as the General Election approaches. On the one hand we have the liberals and the left, who are ignoring the British public’s anxieties over immigration. On the other we have the swivel-eyed loons of the Ukip, who demand must more drastic measures, including departure from the EU, which would do severe harm to the country’s economic prospects. Mr Cameron does the faintly plaintive, sweet moderation act pretty well. He praised the contribution of immigrants in his speech, and simply suggested that the country had been having a little too much of a good thing.

And the bulk of the British public may well agree. Mr Cameron’s suggestion that we renegotiate our EU treaties and put the result to an in-out referendum sounded similarly sensible and centrist. That the political centre seems to be drifting so far towards muddled populism might alarm liberals like me, but this is reality.

But there are problems. The most immediate is whether his own fractious Conservative Party will buy it. Many party workers, and a lot of MPs, actually agree with Ukip about immigration and the EU. Mr Cameron’s policy may sound like a cop out to them. If they start to get  vocal, the Tories will look divided, and their credibility will fade. There were mutterings over the weekend, but we will have to wait and see on that. His party did allow Mr Cameron a free hand before the 2010 to define it as more moderate than it really was. If they have any sense they will do so this time. If the British public has any sense they won’t fall for it.

The political class are obsessed with the General Election due in May 2015. Any dates after this only matter in terms of manoeuvres designed to secure an advantage at that point. And in that light, divisions within the Tory party are Mr Cameron’s main threat on the issue. It is looking beyond that date that the real un-wisdom of Mr Cameron’s stance starts to emerge.

The first point is that it still leaves a problem with the EU renegotiation. While there is some scope to limit access to benefits under current EU treaties (by moving towards a contributory principle), changes of this nature will apparently need treaty changes. Mr Cameron had calculated that the EU would need treaty changes anyway to secure the struggling Eurozone – so adding in a few goodies for his benefit would not be too onerous. But the EU’s leaders are heading in a different direction. With anti-EU populists on the rise across the continent, leaders want to avoid any treaty change, since these are likely to be held hostage to referendum results. Unfortunately voting No to a treaty change has not proved fatal to any EU country so far – it has simply improved negotiating leverage. Going through this process just to save Mr Cameron’s bacon may well be too much. This takes the country a further step towards the EU exit, something that Mr Cameron seems to want to avoid.

The second point is that this plan does not actually address any major economic stress point. Access to Britain’s benefit system does not seem to be a major draw for intra-EU migrants – though it may be a stronger incentive for migrants from outside the EU. The British public will not notice a diminution of EU migrant numbers. The policy is designed to address tabloid exaggerations, not reality. The tabloids will simply move on to some other nonsense. All that pain for no real gain.

Still practical solutions to the country’s problems count for little in the current political debate. The populist right blame the EU and immigrants for the country’s problems. The left blames some combination of bankers, capitalists, greedy rich people or deluded neoliberals. We may suspect that our problems lie deeper – with demographics, globalisation and the development of technology. We may also suspect that the proffered solutions of left and right will make things worse not better. But no politician, campaign group or tabloid journalist seems to care. That is the real scandal of Britain’s political class.

Share

The slow suicide of Britain’s two party system. Only AV might have saved it

Two-party politics used to be the norm for developed democracies. Most countries’ politics were divided between tribal blocks based on the urban working class and on the aspirant middle classes. But the dominance of these two blocks has faded in most countries. There are two interesting exceptions: the USA and Australia. Here in Britain two-party politics looked as if it would triumph with the demise of the Liberal Democrat,s and the No vote in the referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) in 2011. But now the system is its death throes.

It is worth considering the architecture of two party politics for a moment. Electoral politics is dominated by two political parties, each of which may govern on its own, without the need for support from smaller parties in coalitions or pacts. Each of these parties has a tribal character, defining themselves as much in opposition to the other as by their own core values. But there is an undeniable class base two. This divides the country into heartlands, where one or other of the parties dominates to the exclusion of all others, and marginal territory, contested by both parties, where elections are won and loss. Many, if not most, politicians build their own careers in the heartlands, where advancement depends on internal party politics, rather than winning over marginal voters. This leads to the system’s major flaw – the political classes are more worried about their own backyard and internal politics than in appealing to the electorate at large. Or they worry about marginal voters to the exclusion of the heartlands. Distance between voters and politicians grows.

The breakdown of this system follows the weakening of class loyalties from the 1960s onwards. New parties have emerged, from the liberal centre, from populist anti-political movements, from environmentalists, and from parties based on regional identity. In much of Europe coalitions became commonplace. Electoral systems played an important role. Those with proportional representation (PR) were the first to find that one party could not govern on its own. But in countries with single member constituencies one party could still aspire to win on its own. France’s two-round system promoted pacts and alliances between parties, and the major blocks split into separate parties – before the whole system started to be challenged by the populist Front National. Countries with First Past the Post (FPTP) systems have placed a greater role on party solidarity. But in New Zealand disillusion with two-party politics led to the introduction of PR; in Canada each of the two party blocks suffered existential crises that allowed more modern alternatives to replace them, at least in part. Australia’s AV system seems to have entrenched the two party system there, however. I will come back to that.

In the biggest and oldest developed-world democracy of them all, however, the two party system remains completely dominant. In the USA there is no alternative to the Republicans or Democrats, although the occasional challenge comes and goes – even as more and more voters self-describe as Independent. But the US system of democracy is unique. Apart from the widespread use of FPTP (some states use a two round system – which is why the Louisiana Senate race is not yet over after this month’s nationwide election), I think there are three, inter-related factors: primary elections, decentralised  power, and direct executive elections. Each party’s candidates are selected using primary elections which include much more than official party members. Such elections are part of the formal, state electoral process. Voters may register as Democrat or Republican. This allows them to take part in publicly-run primaries; in some states primaries are open – any voter can take part. That makes heartland elections competitive – and not a matter of manipulating small groups of insiders to secure your party’s nomination. It helps that each party’s national leadership is weak – so wheeler-dealing in Washington will not help a political career by much. This is a function of a system where much of the power is wielded at state level. One of the factors that keeps party functionaries weak is the prominence of direct executive elections, notably for President and state governors. In these cases personality often matters more than tribal allegiance.

It is an interesting paradox – for the two party system to be robust, the party leaderships must not be too strong. This allows the primary system to flourish, and gives outsiders a chance to break into politics. But party solidarity is important enough for those in power to rig the system to provide incumbent politicians with electorally safe seats through the gerrymandering of boundaries. A diminishing proportion of seats in the House of Representatives are competitive between the two blocks. A large proportion of the important politics is now in the tribal heartlands, and not in marginal territory. As a result of this, it would not be right to describe the state of politics in the USA as healthy. There is increasing polarisation, which is causing deadlock and the prospect of extremist policies. Most Americans seem fed up with the state of politics in their country, though not necessarily with the system itself.

Another case study in the survival of two-party politics is Australia. Politics is divided between two long-standing political blocks: Labor and the Liberal party, though the latter is a coalition of state parties (some of which refer to themselves as National or Country). There have been challenges to this duopoly over the years, but these have not made headway. No doubt there a number of factors that have contributed to this – but I think one factor is critical. And this is the AV electoral system. The legislature comprises single-member constituencies, and there is a single election day. Voters are asked to rank candidates in order of preference. If one candidate does not achieve more than 50% of the votes casts, the lower ranking candidates are eliminated and their votes redistributed. This is a bit like the French two round run-off system, except that with a single election day there is little scope for political deal making over second preferences. It is so important for candidates to maximise first preferences that it best not to talk too much about second preferences.

This makes it very hard for challengers to win seats. First their first preferences have to overhaul one or other of the two main parties. But to do so they cannot say “vote for me to keep the other guy out”, because that is an argument for second preference votes, not first. Second preference votes are useless without sufficient first preferences. And then, of course, you must have sufficient first and second preference votes to get a majority. In marginal seats challengers will be beaten by the lack of first preferences; in heartland seats there will be lack of second preference votes. As a result almost all seats go to one or other of the blocks. In 2013 in order to turn out a lacklustre Labor government, voters opted for a Liberal one that is now pushing forward a series of extremist policies on the environment and immigration.

So what of Britain? For a long time the main challenge to the two party system came from the Liberal Democrats, based in the liberal centre. It was skilful in winning seats under FPTP by establishing a local base, and then winning tactical votes from the weaker of the two blocks. This allowed it to win a substantial block of parliamentary seats in 1997, but not the balance of power until 2010. It then entered coalition with the Conservatives. And then disaster struck – the transition from a protest party to one of government was too much for the voters, and its poll ratings collapsed. Labour and Tory politicians breathed a sigh of relief – normal two-party politics could be resumed.

Ironically, in view of the Australian experience, the Lib Dems placed some hope by proposing to change Britain’s FPTP system to AV. This would have helped the party in the short term, where it had built up a sufficient local base to win second place in first preference votes. Both major parties agreed with the Lib Dem analysis, and for that reason opposed the change (Labour through faint praise rather than explicit opposition). In a referendum on the change in 2011 an overwhelming majority opposed AV. This seemed to secure the future of two-party politics.

But unlike the US, Britain’s politics is highly centralised. Party managers in Westminster like to keep a tight grip on their parties. And, again unlike the US, executives are elected indirectly, and candidates must master the internal politics of their own party in order to progress to high office. The idea of primary elections has not been allowed to gain traction. The Tories have moved small steps towards it, but without being able to harness state resources. The public has no way to channel its disillusion with politics than to vote for insurgent parties – since they are denied a role in the main party elections. And this they have been doing by supporting the populist Ukip in England and the SNP in Scotland.

Unlike the Lib Dem challenge, these insurgencies have affected the main parties’ heartland voters. They are creating unbearable pressures with both party blocks. The Conservative and Labour leaders try both to fend off the insurgent challenge, and to retain the political centre – and as a result both appear weak, driven by events rather than leading them. This is creating unbearable strains and it seems likely both will fracture, especially if they have to endure the pressures of being in government. Labour face calamity in Scotland, as the SNP overturn their heartlands. In England Labour are a fragile coalition of public sector unions, liberal centrists and heartland machine politicians; each’s expectations of the party seems completely incompatible. The Tories look likely to fracture over Europe.

Ironically, if both parties had embraced AV, they would have been in a stronger position to fend off the insurgents and maintain party solidarity. And yet this is just another face of a bigger problem that both party’s face. their obsession with winning the next election has meant a loss of strategic focus. The demise of the two party system looks alarming, as fringe parties gain prominence. But in the long term it is to be welcomed. As the USA and Australia shows, a two-party system is too easily captured by political extremes.

 

Share

The Emily Thornberry resignation is political correctness gone mad

Last night the Labour MP Emily Thornberry was forced to resign Strood 2from her role as a front-bench spokesman for her party. It is difficult to have any sympathy for her as a person – leading Labour politicians are utterly ruthless with their political rivals. But I still find the episode shocking.

Her offence was to send out the tweet illustrated here. It was a picture from the streets of Rochester and Strood (Strood, in fact), where there was a by-election yesterday – won for Ukip by Conservative defector Mark Reckless. There was no comment – but because it combined two icons of white working class chauvinism – the St George Cross flag and a white van – it was judged to be snobbish – a chuckle at the expense of Britain’s white working class voters. Britain’s “raucous”  (as its sinister political motivation is euphemised) press was certainly taking that view, as it suits their agenda to make trouble for the Labour party. Rather than contest this, Ms Thornberry  resigned, apparently at the instigation of the Labour Leader Ed Miliband who was supposed to be “angry”.  Sadly, this was almost certainly a wise decision. It was the quickest way of killing a story that could have gone on for weeks with the same end result and much more damage to the party. And this meek surrender can even be portrayed as firm leadership by Mr Miliband – as one Labour MP was claiming on the radio this morning. A more abject demonstration of his weakness cannot be imagined.

There’s an irony here. One of the main complaints of tabloid commentators and  the Ukip insurgency is that “political correctness” has crimped freedom of expression. By this they mean the expression of views that might be construed as racist, misogynist or offensive to people with disabilities. But what is this episode if it is is an acute outbreak of political correctness? Pity Labour campaigners! The old norms of political correctness remain as firm as ever, but the list of people they are not supposed to offend, even tangentially, grows ever longer.

This presents a dark picture of our society indeed. People are quick to claim offence, and we are not supposed to have a quiet chuckle at any of our fellow citizens, unless they are rich, aristocratic, a politician or a “celebrity” – in which case we can be as offensive as we like, regardless of any sense of fairness. A society at ease with itself can laugh at itself. What we have is a society of victims and wonton verbal cruelty.

It also shows how Britain’s tabloid press remain in control of the news agenda. Readership may be falling, and people may rely on other media for information, but they still set the tone. Television and radio, including the BBC, meekly follow where they lead. Social media simply promote instant outrage rather than any sense of proportion or justice. A depressing picture indeed.

 

Share

Why liberals should not vote Labour

Labour’s Ed Miliband is under fire. This is not surprising, given his miserabilist message and the incompetence with which the party has handled Scottish politics. But not all criticism of Mr Miliband is fair. He has held firm on core liberal policy areas, such as Europe, immigration and human rights. Given that the Conservatives are abandoning liberal values in their pursuit of Ukip voters, shouldn’t liberals reward this grit under pressure, and vote for the party that Mr Miliband leads? But that would be as grave a mistake as liberals and greens would have made if they had voted for David Cameron’s party in 2010.

Ed Miliband’s Labour party has not lurched to the left, contrary to many claims in the press. It is in firm grasp of the political centre. His criticism of capitalism is aimed at is directed at rigged markets, as in energy. He does not plan to be reckless with the state’s finances – though he is guilty of not explaining this very clearly to more left-wing supporters. Many of his more radical policies, like devolution within England, look very similar to policies promoted by the Liberal Democrats. This liberalism and centrism has brought rewards. In a recent survey commissioned by the Fabian Society, pollsters showed that voters who had switched to the party from the Liberal Democrats remain loyal to Labour, even as it leaks support from people who had voted for it in 2010, a supposed rock bottom. The Liberal Democrats are not being offered any chink of light to aim at, with only six months to go before the election – except in a few geographically limited strongholds. The signs are that Labour intends to maintain this grip. Even as Ukip nibbles away at its traditional supporters, the Labour leadership shows no sign of panicking.

And most liberals seem to be sick of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition. The Conservatives are back to banging on about Europe, and Mr Cameron is happy to gamble the country’s future membership of the European Union in order to deliver some sound-bites to voters worried about excessive immigration. The Tory commitment on environmental issues, especially the reduction of carbon emissions, has been shown to be skin deep. In education they have set ideology ahead of effectiveness. Their promise of future tax cuts will have devastating implications for public services. The future of the NHS is of particular worry to voters – though it is far from clear that any other party has a better answer to the challenges it faces. The Lib Dems have limited the damage the Tories would otherwise have inflicted. They can claim more tax on the rich, and less on those with lower incomes, advances on renewable energy, forestalling the reintroduction of grammar schools, among many other achievements – but for each liberal win there seems to be more than one in the opposite direction. The tone of the government is Tory and liberals are fed up with it.

But does Labour deserve to win the liberal vote? We might remember David Cameron’s efforts to de-toxify the Conservatives before the 2010 election – which culminated in the slogan: “Vote Blue, Get Green”. But it was quickly clear that his party hadn’t changed for the better; even if Mr Cameron was a moderate liberal himself, he was not carrying his party with him. I think the same is true of Mr Miliband’s liberalism.

The Labour and Conservative parties are very similar in many ways. They are founded on the idea that they are monopolistic parties of government. In many ways they resemble old east European Communist parties (or the modern Chinese one, come to that). They concede grudgingly that the other party has to exist, and that government between the two will alternate – but on the other hand they see each other as tribal enemies. All other political parties, and people without a party allegiance, just don’t count in their world view. This is best seen in local government. There is nothing these parties like better than a Council in which only their own party is represented – which can happen with our current electoral system (except in Scotland and Northern Ireland). They run these fiefdoms through their own, opaque party machinery, so that they can display unity in public, and suppress awkward debate. Conservative Wandsworth (where I live) works in much the same way as Labour Grimsby (which I visited last week). Corruption, especially around property development, is hard to prove. But it is sort of governance where corruption can thrive – and the public suspects it, be it high-rise developments in north Wandsworth, or wind farms in Grimsby’s rural hinterland.

So when Labour talks of devolving power, it is to these opaque structures. If you want a say in how the extra powers and money are used, join the local Labour Party. And if you join the local Labour Party keep your dissent private. Most Labourites, like Chinese Communists, are so inured to this way of doing things that they can’t see a problem. To them, this is what democracy looks like.

But it is has left a rotten mess in far too many places. In Rotherham local council officials preferred to leave their opaque dealings with local ethnic community leaders intact, rather than confront allegations of sexual grooming by Kashmiri men on vulnerable young girls. Doncaster’s social services department collapsed.  And these are the tip of an iceberg. Labour hangs on to power by promoting social and ethnic tribalism. The Lib Dems had been their only challengers in their northern English heartlands – but they have now been crushed following their coalition with the hated Tories. The Lib Dems have passed the mantle to Ukip – who, for all their many faults, stand for much more open and transparent ways of government – or anyway that’s what their grassroots think their party stands for.

If this sounds a little like paranoia, just listen to how Labour activists refer to those Lib Dems. They aren’t regarded as a valid political party who are mistaken – they are traitors and vermin who must be despised and extinguished. Many Labour activists were prepared tolerate the Lib Dems where they looked better able to unseat Tories than Labour. But any such tolerance is now long gone. Some Labour activists are telling the others: “told you so” – any party that is not part of the Labour movement is not to be trusted. Consider this article by Luke Akehurst in Labour List: We must not make the same mistake with the Greens that we did with the Lib Dems.

Such tribal, monopolistic political parties are inimical to modern democracy. Not all Labour party members and activists support such attitudes – but they predominate the closer they get to political power. They are increasingly at odds with they way people want to exercise political power. Such parties are not interested in democratic engagement: they want their tribal loyalists to turn up to vote, and would rather everybody else stayed at home.

Labour and the Tories do not threaten each other in their respective heartlands – but they are subject to insurgent challenges. I have already mentioned challenges formerly from the Lib Dems and now Ukip, which apply to Tories as well as Labour.  But the immediate threat to Labour is in Scotland and from the SNP. Labour, as by far the largest unionist party north of the border, naturally  led the campaign for a No vote in the independence referendum. They did so with staggering ineptitude. They had no idea how run a political campaign based on persuasion rather than crude intimidation. They lost their critical stronghold of Glasgow to the Yes campaign. And following the referendum they rapidly tried to change the subject as if nothing had happened. Now recent polling has shown their vote to be in a state of collapse. They could lose more than 20 seats to the SNP in the General Election, dishing their chances of an overall majority in the UK as a whole.

It is too much to hope that the party will reform itself without suffering electoral disaster first. Voting for them will mean perpetuating a duopolistic system of government that will not make the country a more liberal, better governed place. For liberals it would be better to hold your nose if you have to, and to vote for the Lib Dems.

 

 

Share

Can the Republican tide in the US be reversed? Maybe not.

I hate to comment on the politics of other countries. I know more than most British about the US political scene, but I’m no expert. Still, wider lessons about the process of politics can be seen from the US. And they are rather worrying.

As a liberal I root for the Democrats in the US elections – though their record on some issues, such as business regulation and education is not good. So the scale of their defeat in this year’s mid-terms was a shock: not just in the Senate, but in state gubernatorial contests too. I had subscribed to a rather optimistic theory: that where California goes, so the rest of the US follows. In California the Republicans did very well, until, one day they didn’t. And then it was all over. They were overwhelmed by demographic trends – especially the rise of the Hispanic population. They had so misused their period in power that they had damaged their brand beyond repair to those outside their diminishing band of natural supporters.

So perhaps 2014 is their high water mark, as was the Pete Wilson governorship in California , which ended in 1999? Alas I fear not: Republican strategy and tactics seem far to solid for that. These elections were revealing. Republican success was largely driven by low turnout. Younger voters, and those from minority groups, failed to turn up to vote. That seems to be the cornerstone of the Republican strategy. This is achieved through relentless negative campaigning that has poisoned the political process. Their opponents go in for negative campaigns too, but they lose more from the diminishing reputation of politicians as a whole. Republican politicians are not well regarded by the US public. They just keep winning.

The insidious thing is that the Republicans are using their short-term successes to rig the democratic process in their favour. This is conspicuous in three ways. First, Republican governors have gerrymandered Congressional districts so that they can win comfortably in the House of Representatives even if they lose the popular vote – as happened in 2012. Second, Republican sympathising justices in the Supreme Court have destroyed attempts to regulate campaign finance – in the guise of supporting free speech. This includes the ludicrous proposition that corporations have the same free speech rights as individuals. This unlocks the door to vast quantities of money from billionaires, like the Koch brothers, who want to impose their rather bizarre world view on voters, and to fund all that negative campaigning. There is already well-funded right wing news media. Third, they are trying to make it more difficult for people to vote, in the guise of limiting electoral fraud. This is aimed especially at blacks. These ratchet up a series of advantages for the right. There is no sign that they might be reversed.

Of course, the success of the right is not just because of the malign influence of shadowy billionaires corrupting the political process. They have a well-motivated core group of supporters, who hold to a strong series of myths about the American way. This core, with strong conservative religious attitudes, a hatred of central government and taxes, and a belief in American exceptionalism, make American politics a very strange place to Europeans, including us British. This core support can’t be taken for granted by political leaders, as the “Tea Party” rebellion has shown – but there is no equivalent on the left or liberal wing of US politics.

So it does not take a huge amount of paranoia to picture a Republican strategy. The rising anti-Republican demographic groups find it more difficult to vote, or find that their vote affects the outcome little. They grow frustrated, but generalise their frustration to the entire political process and political class, and this leads to political apathy. Meanwhile the right consolidates its control over the whole process.

What can go wrong? Over-reach by the right can lead to a backlash, which in turn leads to electoral upsets in areas that are less easy to rig – such as the Presidency and the Senate. This happened under the Presidency of George Bush Junior – when many Republicans thought that they had won for good, and the feeding frenzy of their corporate friends became so conspicuous that the public were motivated to vote against it. Republicans may lack the discipline to avoid that mistake again. In due course the left might reform itself into a more coherent and robust political movement that will overcome the increasingly rigged electoral system and media.

Does it matter? The irony is that the conventional wisdom on the political economy is shifting steadily leftwards. The ideology of laissez-faire and small government that took off in the 1980s has run its course. Increasingly it seems that a healthy economy needs more taxes and a bigger role for government. Republicans want to take their country in the opposite direction. This will simply feed the crisis of capitalism, not resolve it. The American economy will start to fall apart. Also the tendency of Americans to use world politics as an extension of domestic politics will only get worse. American bullying plays well at home, but is counterproductive in its actual effects. A properly engaged, constructive role for the world’s only superpower is less likely. And climate-change denial seems to be one of the core beliefs of the right – this will make global progress harder – though a failing US economy will offset this somewhat. Ultimately, this attempt by the right to reverse the tide of history is the most likely cause of its failure in the long term – but it could take a decade or more.

Are their further political lessons? The American political system is unique. Two party politics is deeply entrenched, and the electoral system promotes it. But it can lead to what amounts to minority government, and it can be captured by extremes. In Australia we have seen this too: disappointment with a lacklustre left of centre administration has led to the capture of the government by the wayward right.

Britain may escape this fate. The wayward right is progressively taking over the Conservative Party. But many of the wayward millionaires that are behind this trend have lost patience, and are supporting the Ukip insurgency instead. This is ruining the chances of a takeover of the right – though a weak Labour leadership means that we can’t rule this out. Ironically the rejection by the right of electoral reform in the shape of the Alternative Vote (the system in Australia) is probably a shot in the foot. This naturally tends to push politics into a duopoly, as the Australian experience shows. Now electoral chaos is likely to discredit First Past the Post, and any reform is likely to towards proportional representation.

The multi-party, proportional model of politics has its faults. But increasingly it seems to be a better direction to take – it is less open to capture by the extremes. I hope that Britain will follow that path.

 

 

Share

Sliced bread, beer and politics. We must embrace pluralism

mothers prideSometimes I still hear the expression “the best thing since sliced bread”. This refers to the 1960s revolution in bread production, whose leading brand was Mothers Pride (missing apostrophes were another aspect of 1960s modernity). This was not just a matter of slicing the bread, but the invention of new baking processes that made the bread last longer. What was not to like about the new, modern stuff? It lasted longer and you did not have the hassle of cutting it. Sandwiches and toast became a doddle; the daily trip to the baker was no longer needed. And it was much cheaper, being mass produced in big factories. The new bread swept all before it, and traditional high street bakers disappeared.

But my mother hated the stuff, which she referred to as “cotton wool”. Mothers Pride was banned from the Green household. Eventually we resorted to baking our own bread. But in this, as in so many other things, hers was a lonely voice, to be sniggered at behind her back. But she was right. Bread consumption started to fall, and then to collapse. The new invention had solved many problems, but it had compromised its core values – taste and texture. Bread became pointless. Eventually craft bakeries sprang up as the middle classes, at least, were prepared to pay extra for something like the old product.

This is a pattern that repeats in the modern world. Another exampleHeineken is beer. Traditional beer is tricky to produce. But our industrial behemoths succeeded in creating bland, gassy and cheaper products. And then they set their marketers and advertisers onto the task of selling the stuff (a process that also happened to bread). There was more resistance at first. But the advertisers won through with lager. Clever, funny advertisements, like those for Heineken (“refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach”) hit the zeitgeist, and traditionally made beers fell into rapid decline. Advertisers loved lager. They regarded it is a pure marketing product. It sold only through the strength of marketing, which had nothing to do with how it tasted. Indeed, researchers found that the blander it tasted, the faster, and more, people drank. The brewers adjusted their products accordingly.

And now the brewers are in crisis, in developed markets anyway. Beer drinking is in decline. All the momentum is with craft brewers, who produce small quantities of the stuff using more traditional methods – and which taste of something.

And so to politics. Politics used to be a labour intensive business. Political party membership would run to millions, and it was an essential part of social fabric. You won elections by knocking on doors, putting on public meetings and other events. Election literature was mainly a local affair. But the professionals got hold of this. They wanted something much more productive, with a wider impact. They pulled apart campaign messages and reconstructed something better crafted to the process of winning elections, using mass media to promote it (mainly a politically aligned press in Britain). This strategy, in essence, was to demonise the opposition with negative campaigning, while toning down your own offer to cause minimum offence. And persuasive effort was focused on a minority of swing voters. The message to more reliable supporters was was simply: I know you aren’t keen on a lot of what we are saying, but please come out and vote to stop the other lot. This required lots of money, but fewer people. These modern techniques worked. No modern mainstream political party would be without its professional advisers, armed with polling, focus groups, target voter analysis, and an array of modern marketing techniques.

And sure enough, public engagement in politics has declined. Voter turnout has steadily fallen. This bothered the professionals little, apart from some token public handwringing. What mattered was winning elections, after all. But now the political equivalent of craft breweries are on the rise. Smaller, tightly focused but distinctly unprofessional political parties. In Britain the winning political party would usually get over 40% of the votes cast (and in the 1950s about 50%). Now polling shows both main parties bobbing along at about 30%, even as the third mainstream party, the Liberal Democrats, languishes at about 7% when it used to reach two to three times that level at this point in the cycle. At the European elections earlier this year, the only national elections held under proportional representation, voters were confronted with a bewildering array of political parties, many brand-new. Few of these make much headway, but three “craft brewer” parties are making seeing success: Ukip, who won that election,  the Greens, who won more seats than the Lib Dems, and the SNP are sweeping all before them in Scotland (and who I would not accuse of being “distinctly unprofessional”).

This phenomenon is not unique to Britain. In America there are few in the way of craft parties – but there are distinct craft elements within the main parties, especially the Republican Tea Party groups. In Europe an array of fringe parties are doing well, as establishment parties take a diminishing share of the vote.

Can this decline of mainstream parties be reversed? Occasionally a charismatic leader can reverse the fortunes of mainstream parties. Junichiro Koizumi and Shinzo Abe in Japan; Tony Blair in Britain; Matteo Renzi, perhaps, in Italy. There is an interesting common feature in with all these politicians. They set themselves up as taking on their own party’s establishment, and picked fights with the conservatives on their own side. But the instincts of Britain’s current main party leaders, David Cameron and Ed Miliband, are to paper over the cracks in their parties and not to pick fights. Perhaps, unlike Japan and Italy, there is not enough wrong in the British establishment to make such a battle credible. Tony Blair’s fight with the Labour left was spectacular, but his electoral platform reached new heights in blandness.

What to do? Personally I think that the fragmentation of British politics is a good thing, and that our electoral systems should be changed to facilitate it. This would turn politics into a squabble between smaller parties. In due course something more coherent would emerge. The idea that a single political party can encompass enough of a national consensus to have a mandate to govern belongs to the past. The choice of bread and beer in Britain is steadily improving now that the big businesses have been pushed back. It is perhaps the best it has ever been. Pluralism is not failure.

Share