Sometimes 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 example 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.