The 2015 UK general election is set to be the closest election in memory, and while I'll avoid the whole Scottish Nationalists debate, there's something which I find increasingly frustrating regarding modern political parties: they're all contending the middle ground; there is no ideology in politics anymore. So how do they convince us that they can do a job better than the other parties?
There was a time when British politics was all about left vs. right, socialism and a large state offering welfare benefits against the Conservative ideal of a small state with an unfettered economy. And since sometime in the `80s the Liberal Democrats sat in the centre.
Then, for reasons I won't spend any time discussing here, in the early-to-mid `90s the left-leaning Labour party moved to the centre, re-branded themselves as 'New Labour' (modelled on Bill Clinton's strategies) and won a landslide election in 1997.
Which they followed by another near-landslide election 5 years later.
And then they won again in 2005.
The Conservatives were on the back foot, they struggled to compete with this re-branded, centre, 'third way' opposition, so they did the only thing they could do in such a political climate: they appointed a new, youthful leader - the party's youngest in almost 200 years. And his policies aligned the Conservatives towards the centre ground already occupied by Labour and the Liberal Democrats.
They reasoned that if that's where the electorate were voting then that's where they needed to compete.
The government and the opposition sit on opposite sides, both trying to score points off each other. Why not form a party from across the house, a party with a small clutch of specific goals instead of asking all MPs within a party to adhere to all policies - particularly when the ideology has been removed from modern British politics? [Image from Flickr]
So what the UK now has is a multi-party system in which the three largest parties all fight over the same middle ground, each of them citing ideals like "a fairer society" or "a meritocracy" rather than any ideology.
After all, telling the electorate that you want a Keynesian, managed economy will lose you some voters, as will telling the electorate that you want to remove all shackles from the financial markets. So why lose any voters? Why not tread a thin line while delicately wording your policies, presenting different aspects of the same policies to different audiences, implement some Realpolitik, try to be all things to all people who happen to be paying attention at that time, and whitewashing any other opinions with some carefully-crafted PR?
I feel that the situation with UK politics in 2015 is that we're trying to decide which of these pumped-up, egotistical middle-managers we wish to appoint to a more important job. I don't see them as politicians so much as middle-ranking civil service Napoleons with too many staff members in their team.
When asked how they propose to increase staff morale one responds with "I'll get chocolate biscuits for tea breaks instead of Digestives" while the other says "I'll look into buying Rich Tea biscuits, but I'll also look into ordering better coffee".
Where's the guiding ideology? What really separates them? They're both offering the same things with minor implementation differences.
Furthermore, there's a shift in popularity to UKIP from not only the Conservatives (the traditional home of the UKIP renegades) but from across the board. And in Scotland the left-leaning SNP's surge in popularity has also come from across the electorate spectrum. As recently as 10 years ago Labour could rely on huge support from Scotland; according to recent polls they'll do well to win any seats in Scotland in the 2015 general election.
So while the major parties have been moving into the centre, the electorate has started moving outwards. If the polls are correct then former-left-leaning Labour will need the Scottish Nationalists to form a government, or perhaps the Conservatives can form a government with support from UKIP.
Crossing the Floor
Now consider something else: over recent years more MPs have crossed the floor than ever before (crossing the floor refers to MPs voting against party policies).
So let's look at a couple of facts:
- the major parties are closer in policy than ever before
- the centrist parties will likely need the seats won by those away from the centre
- more MPs than ever before are voting against party lines.
So this begs the question: what is the point of these modern political parties?
What does each party really represent?
The Single Term Party
Why not have a political party which only exists for the duration of a single governmental term (typically 5 years)? Why don't a small group of like-minded people form a party with the proviso that it will exist only until campaigning starts for the subsequent election, and come up with, say, 5 policies which they will stand behind and dedicate themselves to?
This group of people might decide, for example, that the most important decisions involve housing and education. They can then devote themselves and most of their resources to coming up with the best possible plans for those two areas rather than, like the major parties, simply promising more money. Surely a party with greater focus and a handful of high-profile policies would have more chance of achieving their aim than a party trying to be all things to all people?
What I'm suggesting is that these parties would be formed from across the current political parties. I think this is a very modern idea: web technologies often take such an aggregating approach: weather apps, for example, frequently aggregate several services to provide a more accurate forecast; log into Facebook or LinkedIn and you'll be presented with an aggregated feed from all contacts. Many people use news readers (or RSS readers) to provide them with an aggregated news feed which pulls out only the stories that the user is interested in - Flipboard is a good example of this, and Pinterest is one which we populate ourselves.
Or open a new mail account and the mail service will offer to pull in your contacts from social media. These services are willing to take data from other, often competing services in order to provide more valuable data from their own service. Or take Twitter, a service which offers a channel of feeds which is entirely customised by the consumer.
So why not a political party which itself is an aggregation of candidate MPs who club together into a channel for dedicated policies.
And it's actually not that new an idea: each election has a nationwide smattering of candidates who have formed with the expressed intention of saving a local hospital or school. Also, what do UKIP stand for if nothing more than taking the UK out of the European Union? So why not have a party whose primary intention is to strengthen and increase the UK's ties with Europe, and who say that they'll devote the next governmental term to doing this before going their separate ways and uniting with others over ideas which consequently need dealt with?
Making a Difference
This would not only help to distinguish one party from another, it might actually achieve more and cut down on political horse-trading. It might also eliminate those detestable voters who say things like "my father voted Labour all his days, and I'll vote Labour all my days", completely ignoring the major shift that party undertook in the `90s; the Labour party of 2015 is not the same party that was formed in 1900 from a conglomeration of mining and trades unions. I really detest those voters who give their vote to a party regardless of the policies.
A political party's MPs are expected to vote with the party on all matters. But now that the ideology has been removed in the move-to-the-centre, can all MPs really be expected to politically agree on all of the party's policies? Of course not, which is why an increasing number are crossing the floor. In modern technology - which arguably matters to us more than modern politics - a service which adheres to its own rules and tells its users "you must use only what we offer" simply wouldn't last. (Having said that, Apple gets away with exactly this.)
So why are we expected to vote in civil service managers to run the country with carte blanche for the next 5 years, whipping their MPs into whatever decisions they subsequently dream up? If there's no longer any ideology then how do we know that the next 5 years will stay on the course we expected when we cast our vote?
It strikes me that British politics has become all about maintaining power and not losing any voters rather than improving society, and any system which would reform this gets my vote.