Election losers? Our clapped-out parties
Worst past the post
Opinion Here's an opinion you won't hear professional political experts utter today. The political parties came out worst from the election, they failed to inspire anyone, and don't really stand for anything any more.
If you think this is remotely controversial, hop over to our earlier article featuring 1965 predictions of the future. Back then the political classes tried to capture the optimism and boldness of the boffins. Now the politicians themselves have given up on politics, and compete on being the most competent bureaucrats. Is it any wonder, then, the voters have given up on them?
Given that a successful professional career of punditry at Westminster depends on cosy access to the main parties, this isn't surprising. The last thing they'll do is wake up one morning and announce the political class has been inept; have they just noticed?
The Tories did best, but increased their share of the vote by less than four per cent - when Labour are loathed and the economy is in the tank. The Lib Dems' brief bubble burst and they lost seats. The clapped-out governing party polled a share it last saw in the 'unelectable' 1980s.
What about the fringe parties? Enthusiasm would for them might indicate that the antipathy was directed to the Big Three, not to party politics in general. Well, they failed too - they also had rotten elections.
UKIP didn't build on its 2005 success; the Greens won an MP in the enclave of Brighton, but their share of the vote fell. I find this quite amazing, really. After five years of relentless environmental yakkery in the mass media, bombarding us on all channels at once, the Greens received a lower share of votes than the BNP. All that most Greens can now look forward to is to return to their yurts, and prepare for recycling.
As for the "political party of the digital age", as the Pirate Party UK describes itself, if it can't rally support in the wake of the Digital Economy Act, it never will. On average, in every constitutency in the UK, there were 289 spoiled ballot papers in the last General Election. The Pirates yesterday averaged about 140 votes per candidate in each constituency in which they stood.
Let's look at some unmentionables you won't hear on rolling news.
Labour probably has the biggest problems. The party always treated its core vote with contempt, housing them in rabbit hutches, expecting them to be grateful for it, and resenting them when they asked to paint the front door of the flat a different colour. A strain of puritanism in Labour's roots also resented the proles ever having any fun. But at least Labour once had an economic vision; Harold Wilson envisaged Labour as a dynamic producers' alliance. Why should we buy washing machines from Germany and Japan, Wilson wondered, when we have better engineers and designers than either? Not to mention great natural resources.
State intervention was attempted on a grand scale. It didn't work out, and when they next had a crack at power Blair abandoned this in favour of a nod towards markets. But now Labour isn't trusted to look after business, which it still treats suspiciously. Without the industrial ambition, the Puritan strain has come to the fore.
So apart from interfering, there's no there there any more. Labour isn't so likely to split as much as fizzle away.
The Tory Fail
For their part, Conservatives have always had a historical problem advocating bold, active government, since they quite like not changing things (the clue's in the name). This legacy was complicated after Public Choice Theory and Thatcher, which suggested that anyone running for office must be corrupt (or soon will be corrupted). So bright Tories have stayed away from politics. At least the base of the party knows what it wants. True Conservatives want to pare the state back, something that has a bit more resonance now in the recession.
"If the typical beneficiary of the 1945 Labour government was the common man, who returned from war to be rewarded with the welfare state, and the typical beneficiary of the 1979 Conservative government was the aspiring man, who was freed to buy his home and start his business, the classic beneficiary of the 1997 Labour government must be the form-filling man, who was rewarded with a lavish salary for monitoring and chivvying others," noted Labour loyalist Nick Cohen last year.
As small businesses shed their jobs, the public sector managers simply stuck their noses deeper into the trough. But Conservatives ran on the basis of being 'Blu Labour', endorsing Polly Toynbee nannying, backing eco-gimmicks like windfarm. No wonder True Blues are confused.
It's just as hard to know what they really stand for, and if they flunk it now, vengeance will be brutal. They're likely to fracture into two irreconcilable camps, one that sounds like the old SDP, and another the alliance of classic liberals with the hang 'em and flog 'ems, that was the backbone of the Thatcher era.
As for the LibDems, they've been in a process of forgetting their fine historical Whig tradition for a century now. They're now an improbable refugee camp for the other two, and as Simon Jenkins wrote here, taking a strong direction risks half the party wandering off. This could have been avoided by creating a strong identity of its own, but if failed to do so.
LibDems became as complacent getting the 'Other Vote' as the main two got playing Buggins Turn. Thanks to the Interwebs, you can make a protest gesture without leaving bed.
So it's hard to get enthusiastic about any of the main parties when they're all so unenthusiastic about where the tide of modern politics has left them. Most of the members hate where their own parties are today - why should we join them?
I'm not knocking the idea of political parties at all. You need a strong organisation on the ground to win - Twitter won't cut it. Nor do I think, as techno-utopians and web wallies have fantasised, that push-button single issue politics is necessarily a good thing.
But as vehicles for bold political thinking, something that gives we voters a real choice, our parties are completely clapped out. If you were a bright young thing, why on earth would you want to join one? ®