Coalitions and the power of ideas

Coalitions and the power of ideas

Britain’s nascent Green Parties took a bashing at the weekend, as the mainstream media rounded on them determined to show that they were hopelessly impractical, a bunch of hippyish dreamers.

The assault coincided with the election of Syriza in Greece, which may (or may not) prove to be a turning of the tide in Europe, a democratic challenge to the political programmes of austerity imposed through the argument that there is no economic choice. Curiously for us in Britain Syriza will be assuming power in coalition with a right wing nationalist party with whom it would seem to have nothing in common, other than a determination to renegotiate the “recovery” terms imposed by the EU’s bankers (terms which as others noted have catastrophically attended to immediate debt maintenance without considering economic recovery).

It’s too early to say much more about the Greek situation, but it sheds an interesting light on the politics of coalition as we rumble towards a very uncertain general election in the UK.

Here we have the worst of all democratic worlds, a first-past-the post electoral system, the main virtue of which is supposed to be that it delivers strong and decisive government. Even on this level it has failed, with nobody expecting any party to win an overall majority in the coming poll. There are a few obvious reasons why. The rise of the spin culture has left many people cynical about the political world. The main parties seem to offer only limited variations on the same themes, while appearing to have no real convictions of their own. With the LibDems becoming an apparently willing accessory to a conspicuously right wing government, people have had to look elsewhere for someone to carry their protest votes, and so we’ve seen a fracturing of traditional allegiances.

Which brings me back to the Green Party and its policies. Another curious aspect of the current situation, our worst of all worlds, is that while we seem to have entered a world of multi-party politics we have neither the political mechanisms nor the prevailing assumptions to cope with its reality. We are still stuck in some irrelevant ways of viewing what’s going on.

This was most glaring in Nick Clegg’s decision to join the Tories in coalition, claiming that he was honour-bound to support the single party that had won the most votes. This seems disingenuous from a man whose stated aim was to change the first past the post system (an ambition apparently foundering on the rocks of public indifference to the mechanics of an electoral system, though you could fairly put that indifference down to the pathetic campaign run by those who wanted change).

The Tories might have won the most number of votes compared to the other individual parties, but there was an apparent majority against their programme, a majority betrayed by Clegg’s decision: Clegg and his Orange Book pals might themselves have been inclined to follow the Tory view of the economy but this was not what they trumpeted before the election and it was not a view shared by most people who voted for the LibDems, whether through conviction or tactically (this betrayal thus looks likely to bring about the decimation of his party’s parliamentary presence in the coming election).

Strangely commentators are still talking about the largest party having a natural claim on government, but this isn’t the way coalition politics work. In coalitions parties are obliged to seek common ground on the issues where they can agree, and if that agreement reflects what those parties said when they stood for election then in theory that agreement should command majority support in the country.

Equally, when commentators look at the programmes presented by small parties like the Greens they should not be suggesting “this is their programme and if you vote for them you can expect all this to happen”. It’s nonsense. In our current system the Greens may win two or three seats at best, and probably not even that. In a proportional system they would do much better, but would still be a minority party.

With multi-party politics you have to start thinking about new dynamics of influence. The Greens, unlike Labour, are unafraid to think radically, and while most of that radicalism will get lost in the wash of government it does mean you have a source of fresh and potent ideas to inspire and push government beyond business as usual. So the question is not what the Green manifesto would look like if it was put into practice, but what influence might it have on a future coalition government?

You could say that the same applies to UKIP (and it might still indeed be a necessary question) though I think it would be to dignify the UKIP programme too much to suggest that it contains any ideas. Perhaps in a more sophisticated and functional political world there might be room for a more intelligent right wing party to work on the Conservatives, while marginalising the ragbag of demagogic claptrap pushed forward by Farage and his friends.

This shift to multi-party politics has already happened, and it does not sit well with our first-past-the post system. Whoever emerges in government after the next election is going to be under pressure to address the systematic problem, and we can only hope they address it more intelligently than in the terms of the last PR referendum debate.

We will have to wait and see whether Syriza’s victory has consequences outside Greece, but whatever happens it’s looking increasingly apparent that the dubious platitudes of the last five years or more are falling apart. It’s going to be an interesting few months.

Next time, why Tony Blair was the second worst thing that ever happened to modern British politics (neoliberalism just about pips him into first place.)

Death by wealth

Death by wealth

This isn’t the blog I planned to write next. I’ve been working on an extended piece about education, as well as some reflections on media and advertising, but I was in London earlier today behind King’s Cross station, an area I’ve watched go through a complete transformation in the last few years, and found myself interestingly depressed by what surrounded me.

London has made me in many ways. My love of cinema started on the London Underground, where as a child in the 1960s I was captivated by posters of films I thought I would never see, particularly Hammer horrors (I’ve seen them now). It’s funny the details you remember: escalators with wooden treads, or the ginger reek that transferred with the dirt to your fingers if you ran them along the wooden window sills of the red-liveried tube trains.

I’m not a complete fool for nostalgia. I started writing this on the high speed train that can hurl you from St. Pancras to Folkestone in less than an hour. It’s all plastic and metal in the carriages, no place for the traditional smells of wood, but this seems fair enough given the transformation of distance that the service represents (even if it is depressingly overpriced). We need to attend to the loss and gain. There’s something undoubtedly thrilling about seeing a departure board that places “Sevenoaks” alongside “Paris” as possible destinations. All the same there is a grim symbolism in the transformation of St. Pancras station: if the grandeur of the larger Victorian stations made them the cathedrals of the industrial age, it seems depressingly appropriate that the regeneration of St. Pancras’ public space should have been built around the imperative to encourage shopping (and bourgeois shopping at that), a cathedral to consumerism.

If all this seems predictable enough in the changing light of England’s capital in the last ten or fifteen years then on reflection I suppose it is surprising that the derelict industrial wasteland behind King’s Cross should have survived so long as undeveloped space. But when I lived full time in the capital, through the 80s and early 90s, it didn’t seem so unusual. London was more affordable then, and one of the things that defined its character was the cheek by jowl presence of the scruffy, dirty old places alongside the tidier realms of the better off, the persisting, engrossing sores of old London pressing through the manicured flesh.

What’s happening behind King’s Cross now manages to be both breathtaking and disheartening. I imagine there will be some good buildings among the new, with names like David Chipperfield all present and correct, but it’s becoming hopelessly corporate, and yuppie corporate at that. You can stand on the Marylebone Road as I did earlier, the growing presence of this gleaming stuff all around you, watching the set faces of the ordinary folk going home on the buses sweeping past, and it’s hard not to feel that they are participating in all this as serfs tilling the soil around the castle. I have always loved London, and still feel more at home here than anywhere, but the incursions of City wealth and the non-dom super rich are changing it for the worse, everything cleaned up and decked out in deathly tastefulness to gratify those investors‘ sense of what is due to them, and in the process it’s feeling increasingly detached from life in the rest of the country. I don’t think it was like this when I lived there, and it’s a dangerous thing for the political centre to be this way.

But I guess in all this it’s a kind of symbol, because the wealth that’s generated here primarily through financial institutions is itself largely detached from reality, money feeding on money.

These are unreal times. Today I stumbled on a piece written a year ago by a Conservative economist in the Huffington Post about the big lie at the heart of the coalition government – the lie that Labour was responsible for our economic mess, and that only the coalition partners could sort it out. I guess it’s not so surprising that these political minnows should cling to their enforced narrative. What’s depressing is the nakedness of the technique – so every minister or junior minister will parrot a phrase about having to contend with the “Labour deficit” at every opportunity. Have people believed this lie? Strangely the people who have most seemed swamped by it are in Her Majesty’s Opposition. There are communication consultants (aka PR people) who believe that if you repeat a lie often enough it will be accepted as true. I don’t accept this cynicism, but if the coalition lie has had some success, that’s because the Labour Party seems to have been paralysed by the fact that they play by the same rules, and so have let this travesty of the recent past go unchallenged. This is the most bizarre political feature of our times, and looks to make the next election as unreal as anything else going on.

In the meantime, it seems I have to watch my beloved London go to the self-pampering dogs, intent on ripping out its old soul for their gated, unchallenging enclosures. Many of them are the people who actually caused the “Labour recession”, and they sit untouched in their towers while the rest of the country groans under the burdens of ideologically imposed austerity. George Romero’s Land of the Dead nailed the quiet monstrousness of this behaviour. I’d probably have liked the Underground poster for that film too.