Thursday, 6 December 2018

SDP: another empty vessel


News reached us last week that Patrick O'Flynn has decamped from Ukip to join the long defunct SDP which coincides with their new party declaration. As party political tract goes I have certainly read worse but turning generic values into policy is a whole other ballgame.

My first question of any party hoping to fill the Ukip void is what their Brexit policy is. They tell me "We support a Brexit that results in an unambiguous exit from both the single market and the customs union - by negotiation if possible but WTO if necessary and we should be properly preparing for WTO. We oppose Theresa May's deal".

This is where I switch off. It's easy to denounce Mrs May's deal but if you;re going to do that then you need to have an alternative in mind. For sure leaving the single market and the customs union is an unambiguous break from the past arrangements but it tells us nothing about what they would do instead - and we can safely assume they conform to the Brexiter type of having just an FTA with no withdrawal agreement while skirting around how they intend to arrive at this problematic destination.

This tells me all I need or want to know. The resurrection of the SDP is just the reanimation of a relatively sterile political brand as a new home for those deserting the now toxic-beyond-repair UKIP. Beyond that there is no real thinking going on. 

They tell us in their declaration that "We hold that the old Labour/Conservative duopoly is harming our nation. The Conservative party has conserved very little and instead, has put everything up for sale. Labour has abandoned the nation’s working men and women. To preserve what is best in our nation Westminster must change. Our outdated voting system stifles political competition and denies new entrants a chance to contribute. As a result, people rightly feel powerless, with their voices ignored at Westminster. Reform of Britain’s broken political system is long overdue, and we will be at the forefront of reinvigorating democratic politics".

This is hardly the boldness that could enthuse me even though I broadly agree with their values. Whenever the idea of democratic reform is raised we get the same old tired ideas based on tinkering with the voting system. This is a misdiagnosis. 

Supposing we did change the voting system, what would that achieve? It's not like the set up as is particularly excludes ordinary people. Watching the Brexit debate this afternoon we can see that there is the full spectrum of opinion and also the full spectrum of ignorance. What was more interesting was that it wasn't even a debate. If you watch them you'll see it's a queue of MPs waiting their turn to add their ignorance to the mountain that already exists. What on earth is the point? Most of the time it’s a pre-written statement which often has a very obvious lack of awareness of what has just been said before it.

The old adage holds that it doesn't matter who you vote for, the government still gets in. I would expand that to say it doesn't matter what voting system you have, you still end up with an MP. You still end up sending an ambitious conformist to Westminster to take their place among six hundred or so similar animals who then spend their time courting media attention.

If Brexit has revealed one thing it is that the higher up you go inside the establishment the less likely you are to find an informed opinion. There are political gatekeepers throughout who ensure that ministers do not get to hear alternate ideas and strictly control the flow of information. The sickness in our politics is not solved by tinkering with voting systems. We must go far further to break up this sordid nest of squirming ambitions and distribute decision making and devolving powers wherever we can.

Central to the Brexit debate - and indeed the whole enterprise is a massive cultural gulf between London and the regions, which is especially amplified by London politics piped through a largely London media. If at this point you don't actively despise our politico-media nexus then you either live in a cave or you're part of the problem.

The basic problem with all of these new initiatives is that they play old politics by the old rules. This doesn't work. Ukip eventual scaled to the heights necessary to make a dent but in the end because every bit as incompetent and corrupt as the establishment it sought to depose. The system has a way of doing this to revolutionary movements. One wonders if it is part of the design.

Moreover, we have been here before. For a time Ukip was a single issue party but as it grew it realised the need for a comprehensive array of policies. Without having a coherent intellectual foundation and an idea of what it actually wanted its policies may as well have been plucked out of a tombola. I don't see the SDP playing out any differently.

Ultimately Britain has forgotten how to do policy. I suspect this is partly to do with the fact that serious policy is no longer devised in the UK. Good policy is multifunctional and recognises that objectives are met by way of a series of careful interventions rather than a "ban this and fund that" approach which has infected British politics in recent years. 

Take, for instance, immigration. Most people think it's a matter of posting more border guards but to stem the flow we need a whole series of reforms - not least since most illegal immigration is visa overstays and not detectable at the border. Here Theresa May was right when she said we need to create a hostile environment for those who abuse the system - though that was perhaps a poor choice of words.

What is needed is a series of local, national and international measures, and that requires a full package of integrated policies recognising that most policy areas are in some way connected. We have to look at the pull and push factors and the perverse incentives. We also need to look at housing and social policy which has influence on immigration and fair workforce competition. This is where you need studied integrated policies rather than ideas plucked out of the air. 

This is why a party's approach to Brexit is the ultimate test. It is a test of their intellectual vitality. Have they understood the constraints and the limitations of sovereignty? Have they realised the balance of power post-Brexit? Have they understood the intricacies of trade and regulation? Do they have a credible agenda for future trade?

Much of our future domestic reforms will be dictated by the shape Brexit takes, not least because our future relationship with the EU will have ramifications on the sort of things we can even afford to do. The SDP rejects Tory liberalism but when FTAs increasingly demand access to visas, what alternatives do they propose? I know the answers to these questions will be half-baked. 

Part of the problem here is that Britain has forgotten how to do politics. It starts with organising and movement building, but if the aim is simply to take power to have a crack at running things then we can expect roughly the same outcomes. These half-baked ideas never survive Sir Humphrey's red pen.

The ultimate truth of our times is that for as long as politics is mostly done in Westminster, and for as long as it's a congregation of party conformists we can never expect different results. The party system does not work, it's a wholly obsolete model and the parties that exist are little more than marketing brands, easily captured by extremists because there is little internally to stop them. Thus we become victims of politics rather than participants. 

What's wrong with British politics is not going to be solved by a new party and it won't be solved by more of the same top down meddling. We need to completely re-imagine how politics gets done, dismantling the Westminster hold over our lives. Ultimately if Brexit just means moving the decision making from London back to Brussels then we may as well not bother. If Brexit is to be truly revolutionary then we have to think bigger. Leaving the power in the hands of Westminster overlooks the fact that they did this to us in the first place.  

No comments:

Post a Comment