Wednesday, March 03, 2010

What's the big idea?

The Blair decade was supposed to see the end of ideology in British politics. Socialism was dead, and what mattered was what works: managerialism pure and simple. The electorate was invited to choose the party that looked like the most credible management for the country. After all, the cold war - and even the economic cycle of boom and bust- was over and therefore it was simply a question of administration.

As we approach the 2010 election, the Conservatives too seem to be approaching the electorate with the same message: "after the disaster of Brown, you need to change to better managers of the country". However, the Tories beyond articulating a nebulous message for "change", have deliberately avoided putting a coherent set of ideas- an ideology- before the British people. David Cameron bitterly resists any labelling of "Cameron-ism". In that sense he truly has been the heir to Blair, who also resisted such labelling, and indeed in office governed with pure pragmatism.

Yet Cameron's approach has provoked cold fury amongst the right wing of the Conservatives: some, like Simon Heffer have essentially left the party and pour contemptuous scorn on the young politicians who comprise the bulk of the Tory leadership. To be fair, some Conservative front benchers, like Michael Gove, have not been afraid of ideas, and are presenting well worked out ideas. However the bulk of the Tory message is disconnected and often internally contradictory. If the leadership can not articulate clear principles to itself, how can it hope to persuade the electorate to vote for it, or the civil servants to enact the policies, should the Conservatives be elected.

Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats have been refining their policy platform into a more clearly ideological manifesto. The expenses scandal has created a renewed focus on the perennial Liberal Democrat battleground of constitutional reform. Our political opponents have usually derided the Liberal obsession with electoral reform as being purely self interested, but in fact it is not. The fact is that the system does not give equal votes: concentrating power onto the minority of voters who live in marginal seats and ignoring the rest. It is certainly very noticeable that the most egregious expenses cheats represented "safe seats": these are MPs who in the last analysis are accountable to no one except the small number of local activists who select them as their candidate. Lack of accountability fosters corruption in MPs as in Quangos or indeed the rest of administration in the UK. The problem is that each MP is elected as a representative of their constituency and also as a delegate of their party. If one is against any given individual as a candidate, but supports their party, then as an elector one must either vote against the party or vote for a candidate that one does not support. Furthermore, the repeated redrawing of boundaries becomes an exercise in gerrymandering. Far better to have fixed constituencies- Sussex, for example- but variable numbers of MPs. This is why the Liberal Democrats ideologically support single transferable votes in multi-member constituencies. It is a system that allows independents to be elected, that maintains local links and, most importantly that reflects more accurately how people vote. It also solves the safe seat conundrum and therefore makes MPs more accountable.

Now is electoral reform the be-all and end-all of constitutional reform. Parliament is weak in the face of the executive. The Liberal Democrats believe in strengthening the democratic elements of the British constitution -Parliament, including reform of the House of Lords- at the expense of the non-democratic ones, namely the crown prerogative deputed to the Prime Minister. Although we do not share the rabid anti-Europeanism of the right, we do recognise that the European Parliament should be strengthened against the Commission too.

The big idea of Liberalism is accountability, and when one takes this as the guiding principle, it is soon clear which policies the party is likely to adopt.

The adoption of Blairite managerialism has smothered the Conservatives big idea- and that is a recipe for mixed messages and confusion. That this is happening in opposition, never mind government, should be worrying the country, never mind the Conservative Party.


Newmania said...

Yet Cameron's approach has provoked cold fury amongst the right wing of the Conservatives:

This is an invention presumably based on reading Simon Heffer ? Ridiculous .The liking of a second choice middle Party for any system that gives power to the second choice middle Party is deeply uninteresting and drawing a straight line between that and the corruption of MPs takes a wonderfully wonky pair of specs .
The big idea of Liberalism is not accountability. It is characterised by the wish to distance the MP from the voter , the decision from the electorate and enlarge the State so as to distance consequences from their authors . As my old chum Norm Baker ,whose seat you want to dismantle was telling me , you are to the left of New Labour.
If you read Liberal Conspiracy today it shows how the Liberal vote is in fact a sub set of the Labour vote . As for clarity if you understand the Liberal proposals on tax you are ahead of the rest of the species .

neil craig said...

The LibDems may be eschewing competent managerialsim for an idealogical stance. Pity the ideaology isn't in any way whatsoever liberal.